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Organizations vs. Institutions: The Perils and Strife of the Anti-globalization Movement

Organizations vs. Institutions: The Perils and Strife of the Anti-globalization Movement

    In his book Globalization and Its Discontents, Joseph Stiglitz poetically illustrated a disquieting symptom of globalization when he wrote, “From one’s luxury hotel, one can callously impose policies about which one would think twice if one knew the people whose lives one was destroying”*. This allusion is referring to a great economic and social divide that exists in today’s globalized world. The quote calls to mind Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Friedman’s theory of the “Golden Straightjacket,” which addresses this divide by explaining the process of domestic economic decline and loss of political autonomy many developing countries have experienced upon working toward globalization. Developing countries who put on the “Golden Straitjacket” are forced to relinquish some of their sovereignty to international financial institutions in exchange for monetary aid, or face severe economic hardship, social unrest, loss of political legitimacy, and isolation from the international community. It is disconcerting to think that the people running international institutions actually sit in offices or hotels and make policy prescriptions that may drastically and devastatingly change the lives of thousands of people in a country thousands of miles away. In this way, Stiglitz’s sentiment encapsulates the raison d étre of the social justice campaign known as the anti-globalization movement. 

    There is disagreement among activists and scholars about when the anti-globalization movement originated. One argument is that the movement was born at the time of the 1994 Zapatista protests in Chiapas, Mexico and later the Seattle protest in 1999. Another argument is that the movement has a much longer history, stretching back to times of resistance to European colonization and mobilizations against U.S. imperialism, uprisings against the Vietnam war in the 1960s, and protests against the use of structural adjustment programs in developing countries during the 1980’s and 1990’s.         

    Regardless of the precise moment of origin, it was the 1999 protest at the WTO’s Third Ministerial Meeting in Seattle that effectively brought the anti-globalization movement to the attention of the mass media and wider public. Thousands of activists gathered at the location of the meeting, where they proceeded to use a non-violent tactic of building a barricade of bodies to prevent the WTO’s members from attending the meeting. Police responded with tear-gas and rubber bullets. Afterword, a group of anarchists referred to as the “Black Bloc” vandalized the store fronts of corporate stores and major banks in the area. One estimate posits that by the end of the event, more than 500 people had been arrested for civil disobedience.

    Supporters of this movement believe that the trade and financial policies of economic neoliberalism—better known as corporate globalization—have exacerbated global poverty and inequalities. They stand against capitalism and the recommendations of the Washington Consensus and are of the opinion that international institutions, governments, and capitalist elites work to benefit corporate interests instead of the well-being of people and communities. The movement is known to adhere to the principles of participatory democracy, which is demonstrated through its horizontal organizational structure. This approach has kept the movement deliberately decentralized, despite the ensuing challenges. 

    The Seattle protest, also known as the “Battle of Seattle,” clearly illustrates the unique nature of the anti-globalization movement and some of the challenges it encounters as a result of its structure. The structure of this movement stands out from other social justice movements because it is composed of alliances between individual organizations that are based in a variety of social justice movements, as opposed to a collaboration between individual people who form a single organization. The diversity of interests and difference of preferred approaches to activism between organizations with different roots tends to cause fractures within the movement. This is especially true between those who prefer to use nonviolent direct action tactics and those who believe in using violent direct action tactics, as was demonstrated in Seattle. The barricade group took a non-violent approach, while the anarchist group took an approach using violence. Even though the two may have not been part of the same organizations, both were participants in a protest in which they were acting in support of anti-globalization. Therefore, the actions of the anarchist group that were perceived as detrimental reflected negatively not only on their own organization, but the rest of the groups and organizations associated with aiding the anti-globalization movement at that event as well. 

    This disjuncture within the anti-globalization movement actively impedes its progress in several ways. For example, main stream media has had a tendency to highlight the use of violent tactics by select groups and overlook other strategies. Due to the movement’s adherence to participatory democracy and egalitarianism, the movement will not exclude organizations based on their views, goals or tactics, regardless of whether they undermine the legitimacy of the movement as a whole. Consequently, the actions of a fraction of the movement’s participants may cast a shadow upon everyone supporting the movement in the eyes of the public that uses main stream media as an information source. The movement cannot therefore use the media as a tool to convey their own messages or defend their position to the public. Word of mouth and technological communication become the most effective means by which to reach out to the anti-globalization movement’s a large and wide-spread base of supporters, which is a hindrance to the movement’s ability to organize, plan, and strategize.

    Another problem that results from the divide over protest tactics comes from the reaction of the government in which the protest is being held. In some cases, violence from protestors begets a violent response from the government. In others, even a nonviolent response provokes a disproportionate use of force from the government. After a series of uprisings in which activists gathered at the site of WTO, IMF, World Bank and G8 summit meetings to protest, governments of host countries and international institutions began working together to prepare for demonstrations. The decision was made to change the location of the WTO’s 2001 Ministerial Meeting to Doha, Quatar, with the intent of making it difficult for the public to access. This tactic was effective in disrupting the movement’s progress.

    The anti-globalization movement’s structure has required new solutions for how to effectively strategize, network, and overcome the dilemma of communication between groups of allied organizations. In response to these needs, the World Social Forum (WSF) was started in Brazil, in 2001. The WSF is an annual gathering of members of 1,525 different groups and organizations that support the ideas that motivate the anti-globalization movement. Over the course of six days, participants attend workshops, conferences, debates, performances, and activities that focus on various themes and issues caused by globalization and economic neoliberalism. The Forum has no formal leader and doesn’t engage in voting on issues or actions. As stated by the fifth principle of the Charter of Principles, “The World Social Forum brings together and interlinks only organizations and movements of civil society from all the countries in the world, but it does not intend to be a body representing world civil society.”

    I found it difficult to find coverage of the WSF in U.S. mainstream news media. There was no coverage by MSNBC or CBS News. Fox News was the only large American news station that had published an article about the WSF that was accessible from their website, which refers to the forum as an “Anti-U.S. Social Forum.” In contrast, the forum has received substantial coverage by news media outlets outside of the U.S., particularly in Canada and France.    

    There are many unique challenges that face the anti-globalization movement, but it has won some victories as well. The protests of the early 2000 had noticeable impact on trade and financial negotiations and debates, and it has facilitated the start and spread of social forums like the WSF, on nearly every continent. Most importantly, it has taken steps in fostering the creation of common goals among groups of people with many diverse interests on an international scale. 


TL;DR The anti-globalization movement is a social justice movement unlike any other. Due to its one-of-a-kind structure the movement faces many challenges, but has been able to create a common goal to unite many diverse interests, on an international scale.  

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of other Arbitror contributors or Arbitror as a whole.

Photo: “WTO protest sign”  originally posted to Flickr by geraldford, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Use of this photo does not indicate an endorsement from its creator.

*Source: Stiglitz, Joseph E. "Chapter 2: Broken Promises." Globalization and Its Discontents. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002. 24. Print.      

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