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Where Did the Anti-Globalization Movement Go?

Once the anti-globalization movement nearly shut down a city. Not anymore


They’d expected big numbers—but not so big as what came. Union organizers, environmentalists, Wiccans—45,000 people in all. Over the course of four days what had begun as a nonviolent protest at the World Trade Organization Headquarters in 1999 became the Battle in Seattle. Starbucks windows were smashed, Niketown looted. Seattle Mayor Paul Schell declared a state of emergency. Reinforcements arrived: the National Guard, tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets. So fervid were the riots that Seattle’s police chief called the protesters “successful.” A week later, he handed in his resignation.

When the World Bank and IMF held their annual meetings in DC earlier this October, though, things were different. Their proceedings hardly interested the press. For the most part, the event passed unnoticed. The same went for the protests outside it—they were requisite, expected, and subdued.

International Rivers, a Berkeley-based nonprofit, held a small protest in a park near the meetings. Across the street, people in business suits flashed badges and walked by barricades. Thirty or so activists milled around signs that read STOP DIRTY ENERGY to protest the Bank’s involvement in environmentally dubious development projects. A lone drummer with a mountain bike kept time to the call-and-response: “No more coal plants, that’s for sure! / Clean local energy for the poor!” People took turns with the bullhorn and raised their fists in solidarity; the group crowded into a frame for a final shot with the World Bank in the background. Nobody was particularly angry.

International Rivers

After a few minutes, Andrew Miller, Advocacy Director of Amazon Watch, turned to the photographer and asked, “Do you have your photos?” The photographer nodded. “Okay then,” Miller said. “Let’s just wrap it up, I guess.” And that was that: Everyone dispersed.

The same goes for other recent anti-corporate globalization action in the United States: Attendance is sparse these days. Easily the loudest people marching around the Bank on Saturday were the Susan G. Komen 3-Day walkers for breast cancer. Clad in pink and cheering as they passed, they cast a long shadow on the protest.

The scene couldn’t have differed more from the anti-globalization protests of decades past. The Battle in Seattle was no anomaly: A16, a 2000 anti-Bank and IMF protest in DC, resulted in more than 600 arrests. A Blue Scholars song about the Battle sums up the grievances of the anti-globalization youth—they saw organizations like the WTO, IMF, and World Bank as making “trade get free and not fair,” as deepening, rather than solving, poverty, and so they mobilized.

Today, images from the Battle look like gen-X Pacific Northwest ephemera. They have a charming save-the-rainforest sensibility to them—young people marched wearing cardboard tortoise shells. Their movement is a thing of the past. But how did it get left there?

Nadine Bloch, who organized A16, thinks 9/11 was the turning point. “It really did change the dynamic of how these mobilizations came to pass,” she said. “Some of the NGOs and nonprofits were really worried about seeming un-American.” She had helped plan a rally for October of 2001 that was, by her estimates, set to break arrest records for the nation. But after the attacks the appetite for protest disappeared—and the activists who kept at it faced unprecedented hostility from police. The next comparably massive stateside movements came in 2003, when people rallied across the country and globe to protest U.S. involvement in Iraq. The country’s mind was elsewhere.

Yet the anti-globalization movement never made a comeback. Even a decade after the attacks, it has failed to recapture the attentions of the masses. For instance: When Bruce Rich published Mortgaging the Earth, a seminal 1994 book on the environmental wrongs of the World Bank, it got two writeups in the New York Times, plus mentions in The Economist, National Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. He released a follow-up, Foreclosing the Future, earlier this month with minimal fanfare. It’s just as deeply-researched and filled with heretofore publicly unavailable Bank documents as its predecessor, yet it’s received fairly little attention.

Some argue that the reason protests have cooled is that the World Bank and other globalizing institutions have rectified their policies. In the past year the Bank has created and implemented accountability programs and its president Jim Kim has called for new “high-risk/high-reward” approaches to alleviating poverty. Maybe things have changed enough to shake the heat.

Rich doesn’t think so. His book argues thoroughly and methodically that the Bank’s permissive attitude towards environmental destruction has continued, if not worsened, in the past decade, through a combination of project corruption and “institutional amnesia.” In the case of a climate change treaty in 2011, for example, the Bank cut funding for coal plants—except in the world’s poorest countries, which, by its logic, needed the cheapest sources of energy available. But “since the Bank, along with many other agencies, had reiterated that the poorest countries would suffer the most from climate change,” Rich writes, these groups must know that policies like this help underdeveloped nations “contribute to their own future climatic calamities, whether from drought or inundation.” Such internal contradictions are the same ones that led to anti-globalization ire in the first place. And besides, even if policies have changed, they haven’t improved so drastically as to account for the near-total disappearance of the movement.

A more likely explanation is that the American domestic situation has hit the fan. Many of the World Bank scholars, critics, and activists I spoke to highlighted the decline of the global and domestic economy as reasons for the decline of anti-globalization activism. Compared to the late '90s, the economy is in shambles, and it can be difficult to think of trade policy before one's own employment. In that light, globalization becomes something of an abstraction. Young people both in the United States and abroad have largely focused their protest efforts on internal problems: Thus far, the strongest uprising of this American generation is Occupy Wall Street, which mobilized youth to an unprecedented degree and which immediately drew comparisons to the anti-globalization protests of years past.

Occupy never had clearly-articulated objectives, but still managed for months to unify activists with variegated goals. The globalization protesters, by contrast, split into factions, as did many other causes that gained traction in the 90s. Instead of one umbrella group protesting globalization at large, activists took on smaller causes. International Rivers, the group that organized the recent protest, focused on the World Bank and IMF’s environmental impacts on developing nations, for example. Its demands are to stop pipelines and fracking, and with diminished demands comes diminished fervor, at least in volume. In other words, you won't see these guys alongside James P. Hoffa's Teamsters again soon.

Even within the annual meetings, other issues overshadowed the Bank and IMF’s policies. As one Times piece put it: “The fiscal problems of the United States overshadowed the official agendas for the meetings, with representatives from dozens of countries… publicly expressing worries about what was happening on Capitol Hill and in the White House.” At a convention dedicated to the state of these groups, the domestic woes of the United States and the imminent risk of debt default stole the show.

What’s certain is that the profiles of these international institutions have declined in the past 15 years. “In the second decade of the twenty-first century, the World Bank is no longer as financially influential as it once was,” Rich writes in his new book. Richard Behar called it an “out-of-control bureaucracy” last summer in Forbes; a June Times op-ed said that the “decline in the World Bank’s importance as a tool for development can be seen in its own figures.” It pointed to the staggering degree to which foreign investment has overtaken the Bank as a source of development capital: World Bank grants and private investment were relatively equal in 1990. Now, the private sphere spends nearly 20 times more than the Bank.

These days, there’s no easily-pinpointed perpetrator of wrong, no overarching institution to demonize, no one place through which most funds are delivered. The Bank and IMF are simply less financially relevant than they were in the past. Decisions like Citizens United have granted private money unprecedented influence over politics and, in turn, the economy. “If you analyze this,” said Nadine Bloch, the A16 organizer, “You might think it’s much more important to do anti-corporate work before you actually target a policy of the World Bank.”

“You need to look at where the money’s coming from,” she said, “And it’s coming from an oil company, and they’re sponsoring projects and they’re also funding a senator.” From this perspective, one Bloch has come to after decades of anti-corporate globalization work, it might make more sense to address the money than the institution to get at the root causes of contemporary inequality. But following the money makes for slippery targets, and it’s difficult to escape complicity with them, an anxiety felt even by the anti-globalization protesters. (From the Blue Scholars: marchers were mocked for “stompin' down Niketown wearing their shoes.”) Private sources of funding hold no annual conferences while their reach pervades everything from development projects to domestic politics. Their power is, in other words, global—and impossible to tie to one source alone.