The Popular Challenge

September 25, 2007

There is some evidence that in the current era of globalization, which is being organized more and more according to free trade policies, there is rising inequality in the distribution of income both within and between countries. Unfortunately, available data do not allow us to draw any firm general conclusions about the distribution of income on a world scale. What does seem clear, however, is that in spite of the claims that are made by the promoters of free trade, there is no general improvement in the grossly unequal distribution of income in the world; the "development gap" is at least as great as ever. (Evidence does suggest that income inequality is rising in Latin America, already the world’s most unequal region.) Also, free trade has increasingly generated new patterns of international trade and investment that have disrupted people’s lives, pushed people out of their traditional lines of work, shifted the location of economic activity, despoiled the environment, and forced people to adopt new patterns of consumption. All of this has made many people’s lives very unpleasant.

In response, a new political movement has emerged. While all periods of disruptions and change generate political reactions, the opposition to free trade globalization that has emerged at the beginning of the 21st century has some significant distinguishing characteristics.

Most important, parts of the response to globalization are themselves global. The coming out "party" for the anti-globalization movement in Seattle in the fall of 1999 involved people and organizations from all over the world. As a coordinated effort by groups from many countries, both rich and poor, the action in Seattle—and the ones that have followed in Washington, Quebec, Prague, Porto Alegre, Genoa and elsewhere—suggests something is different about the nature of political action. In the past, opposition movements based in national identities have, at least implicitly, been in conflict with one another. At other times, organizations in rich countries have opted to "support" groups in poor countries, but not as a joint and coordinated effort. While progressive movements have always talked about their internationalism, this time the talk may translate more effectively into practice.

Also, the globalization of political opposition to globalization has included steps by labor unions, which have long adhered to highly nationalist positions. So far, more of the new internationalism of the U.S. labor movement has been in the realm of rhetoric rather than practice, but U.S. unions have made some important efforts at cross border organizing—in the form, for example, of supporting efforts of Mexican workers to organize firms in their country that supply the U.S. market. (NAFTA, while allowing corporations, the organizations of capital, to operate in the United States, Mexico and Canada, makes no parallel provision for unions, the organizations of labor.) The rhetoric of internationalism, too, is important, especially because it marks such a departure from the past practices of the U.S. labor movement. Some critics complain that the new-found interest of U.S. labor movement in conditions abroad arises from its own immediate concerns, the competition from low-cost imports, instead of from a concern for workers elsewhere in the world. But that is just the point. If globalization forces U.S. unions to secure the interests of their own members by pursuing a new internationalism, then that is certainly a change of significance.

The organized opposition to globalization goes far beyond the labor movement, however, involving a wide spectrum of social movements. Environmental and women’s organizations, peasant and community groupings, student-based committees and others have all been a part of the actions. In addition, well established nongovernmental organizations such as Oxfam, while not engaged in the protest actions in Seattle and elsewhere, have been a part of the general opposition to globalization based on free trade. Not only is this opposition based on a wide range of social movements, but these different movements have at least begun to work in alliance with one another. Some aspects of this alliance, particularly that between environmental groups and labor unions, suggest a major shift from past conflicts.

Opposition actions have taken place in a wide spectrum of countries. On the one hand, there have been the much publicized actions led by young, often middle-class activists in the United States, focused on meetings of the principal international economic agencies such as the IMF, World Bank, and WTO. On the other hand, there have been actions in India, where peasant organizations have demonstrated against the international pharmaceutical and seed companies that are trying to use the internationalization of patent regulations to secure their control of world markets. While these geographically disparate actions are not coordinated through any well-established international organization, they are part of a interconnected movement.

The opposition that has developed to free trade globalization is not a cohesive movement, and it is not so well developed that we can have confidence in its lasting impact. Furthermore, it has many problems. Opposition to globalization sometimes is expressed as an opposition to connections with other peoples rather than as an opposition to the way those connections are exacerbating inequalities of power and income. Thus xenophobic protectionism is sometimes just below the surface of protest actions. By and large, however, the opposition to globalization appears to be based on an internationalism that may provide a basis for a progressive, and perhaps lasting, movement.

This movement, whatever else it has done, has altered the debate over free trade and globalization. The Bush administration has so far responded with minimal rhetorical adjustments. Whether or not these rhetorical adjustments will have their intended impact is not yet clear. What is clear, however, is that the policies of free trade have generated a political opposition, and that this opposition has taken on a character that suggests it may have significant impact on the course of events.

Arthur MacEwan teaches economics at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. His most recent book is Neo-Liberalism or Democracy? Economic Strategy, Markets, and Alternatives of the 21st Century (Zed Books, 1999).

Tags: US foreign policy, neoliberalism, globalization, popular protest

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