Alter-globalization movement

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A banner drop in dowtown Seattle a day before the 1999 shutdown of the World Trade Organization. SourceL

The alter-globalization movement, also known as the anti-globalization movement and global justice movement, opposed the destruction of communities, lives and livelihoods by corporate-friendly globalization. Arising from "the Zapatistas in Mexico, autonomists and anarchists in Europe, farmers and workers in Korea, and popular rebellions against financial institutions like the IMF, occurring across the world from South Africa to India,"[1] the worldwide movement used direct action and horizontal organizing to win considerable victories. In "The Shock of Victory," the anthropologist David Graeber argued that the movement destroyed global policymakers' right-wing "Washington Consensus" and dealt capitalism "a bigger blow in just two years than anyone since, say, the Russian Revolution"[2]:

Obviously we failed to spark a social revolution. But one reason we never got to the point of inspiring hundreds of thousands of people to rise up was, again, that we achieved our other goals so quickly. Take the question of organization. While the anti-war coalitions still operate, as anti-war coalitions always do, as top-down popular front groups, almost every small-scale radical group that isn’t dominated by Marxist sectarians of some sort or another—and this includes anything from organizations of Syrian immigrants in Montreal or community gardens in Detroit—now operate on largely anarchist principles. They might not know it. But contaminationism worked. Alternately, take the domain of ideas. The Washington consensus lies in ruins. So much so it’s hard no to remember what public discourse in this country was even like before Seattle. Rarely have the media and political classes been so completely unanimous about anything. That “free trade”, “free markets”, and no-holds-barred supercharged capitalism was the only possible direction for human history, the only possible solution for any problem was so completely assumed that anyone who cast doubt on the proposition was treated as literally insane. Global justice activists, when they first forced themselves into the attention of CNN or Newsweek, were immediately written off as reactionary lunatics. A year or two later, CNN and Newsweek were saying we’d won the argument.

Usually when I make this point in front of anarchist crowds someone immediately objects: “well, sure, the rhetoric has changed, but the policies remain the same.”

This is true in a manner of speaking. That is to say, it’s true that we didn’t destroy capitalism. But we (taking the “we” here as the horizontalist, direct-action oriented wing of the planetary movement against neoliberalism) did arguably deal it a bigger blow in just two years than anyone since, say, the Russian Revolution.

Let me take this point by point

·FREE TRADE AGREEMENTS. All the ambitious free trade treaties planned since 1998 have failed, The MAI was routed; the FTAA, focus of the actions in Quebec City and Miami, stopped dead in its tracks. Most of us remember the 2003 FTAA summit mainly for introducing the “Miami model” of extreme police repression even against obviously non-violent civil resistance. It was that. But we forget this was more than anything the enraged flailings of a pack of extremely sore losers—Miami was the meeting where the FTAA was definitively killed. Now no one is even talking about broad, ambitious treaties on that scale. The US is reduced to pushing for minor country-to-country trade pacts with traditional allies like South Korea and Peru, or at best deals like CAFTA, uniting its remaining client states in Central America, and it’s not even clear it will manage to pull off that.

·THE WORLD TRADE ORGANIZATION. After the catastrophe (for them) in Seattle, organizers moved the next meeting to the Persian Gulf island of Doha, apparently deciding they would rather run the risk of being blown up by Osama bin Laden than having to face another DAN blockade. For six years they hammered away at the “Doha round”. The problem was that, emboldened by the protest movement Southern governments began insisting they would no longer agree open their borders to agricultural imports from rich countries unless those rich countries at least stopped pouring billions of dollars of subsidies at their own farmers, thus ensuring Southern farmers couldn’t possibly compete. Since the US in particular had no intention of itself making any of the sort of sacrifices it demanded of the rest of the world, all deals were off. In July 2006, Pierre Lamy, head of the WTO, declared the Doha round dead and at this point no one is even talking about another WTO negotiation for at least two years—at which point the organization might very possibly not exist.

·THE INTERNATIONAL MONETARY FUND AND WORLD BANK. This is the most amazing story of all. The IMF is rapidly approaching bankruptcy, and it is a direct result of the worldwide mobilization against them. To put the matter bluntly: we destroyed it. The World Bank is not doing all that much better. But by the time the full effects were felt, we weren’t even paying attention.

This last story is worth telling in some detail, so let me leave the indented section here for a moment and continue in the main text:

The IMF was always the arch-villain of the struggle. It is the most powerful, most arrogant, most pitiless instrument through which neoliberal policies have, for the last 25 years been imposed on the poorer countries of the global South, basically, by manipulating debt. In exchange for emergency refinancing, the IMF would demand “structural adjustment programs” that forced massive cuts in health, education, price supports on food, and endless privatization schemes that allowed foreign capitalists to buy up local resources at firesale prices. Structural adjustment never somehow worked to get countries back on their feet economically, but that just meant they remained in crisis, and the solution was always to insist on yet another round of structural adjustment.

The IMF had another, less celebrated, role: of global enforcer. It was their job to ensure that no country (no matter how poor) could ever be allowed to default on loans to Western bankers (no matter how foolish). Even if a banker were to offer a corrupt dictator a billion dollar loan, and that dictator placed it directly in his Swiss bank account and fled the country, the IMF would ensure billion dollars (plus generous interest) would have to be extracted from his former victims. If a country did default, for any reason, the IMF could impose a credit boycott whose economic effects were roughly comparable to that of a nuclear bomb. (All this flies in the face of even elementary economic theory, whereby those lending money are supposed to be accepting a certain degree of risk, but in the world of international politics, economic laws are only held to be binding on the poor.) This role was their downfall.

What happened was that Argentina defaulted and got away with it. In the ‘90s, Argentina had been the IMF’s star pupil in Latin America—they had literally privatized every public facility except the customs bureau. Then in 2002, the economy crashed. The immediate results we all know: battles in the streets, popular assemblies, the overthrow of three governments in one month, road blockades, occupied factories… “Horizontalism”—broadly anarchist principles—were at the core of popular resistance. The political class was so completely discredited that politicians were obliged to put on wigs and phony mustaches to be able to eat in restaurants without being physically attacked. When Nestor Kirchner, a moderate social democrat, took power in 2003, he knew he had to do something dramatic in order to get most of the population even to accept even the idea of having a government, let alone his own. So he did. He did, in fact, the one thing no one in that position is ever supposed to do. He defaulted on Argentina’s foreign debt.

Actually Kirchner was quite clever about it. He did not default on his IMF loans. He defaulted on Argentina’s private debt, announcing that for all outstanding loans, he would only pay 25 cents on the dollar. Citibank and Chase of course went to the IMF, their accustomed enforcer, to demand punishment. But for the first time in its history, the IMF balked. First of all, with Argentina’s economy already in ruins, even the economic equivalent of a nuclear bomb would do little more than make the rubble bounce. Second of all, just about everyone was aware it was the IMF’s disastrous advice that set the stage for Argentina’s crash in the first place. Third and most decisively, this was at the very height of the impact of the global justice movement: the IMF was already the most hated institution on the planet, and willfully destroying what little remained of the Argentine middle class would have been pushing things just a little bit too far.

So Argentina was allowed to get away with it. After that, everything changed. Brazil and Argentina together arranged to pay back their outstanding debt to the IMF itself. With a little help from Chavez, so did the rest of the continent. In 2003, Latin American IMF debt stood at $49 billion. Now it’s $694 million. To put that in perspective: that’s a decline of 98.6%. For every thousand dollars owed four years ago, Latin America now owes fourteen bucks. Asia followed. China and India now both have no outstanding debt to the IMF and refuse to take out new loans. The boycott now includes Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and pretty much every other significant regional economy. Also Russia. The Fund is reduced to lording it over the economies of Africa, and maybe some parts of the Middle East and former Soviet sphere (basically those without oil). As a result its revenues have plummeted by 80% in four years. In the irony of all possible ironies, it’s increasingly looking like the IMF will go bankrupt if they can’t find someone willing to bail them out. Neither is it clear there’s anyone particularly wants to. With its reputation as fiscal enforcer in tatters, the IMF no longer serves any obvious purpose even for capitalists. There’s been a number of proposals at recent G8 meetings to make up a new mission for the organization—a kind of international bankruptcy court, perhaps—but all ended up getting torpedoed for one reason or another. Even if the IMF does survive, it has already been reduced to a cardboard cut-out of its former self.

The World Bank, which early on took on the role of good cop, is in somewhat better shape. But emphasis here must be placed on the word “somewhat”—as in, its revenue has only fallen by 60%, not 80%, and there are few actual boycotts. On the other hand the Bank is currently being kept alive largely by the facerocritical posturing on the part of the Bonos and rich countries of the world, is still locked in debt, and now also facing a new colonization by China. The US, its economic power retreating in most of the world, is frantically trying to redouble its grip over Mexico and Central America. We’re not living in utopia. But we already knew that. The question is why we never noticed our victories.[3]

  1. Peter Gelderloos, Anarchy Works
  2. David Graeber, "The Shock of Victory," Infoshop, 2007