History of the Movement

I’m John Cavanagh, and I’m the director of the Institute for Policy Studies. And it’s great to be here with Alejandro, Thea, John, and Kristin, who between them have about a half a century of working on these issues. We at IPS have had a program on the global economy since 1975, founded by Orlando Letelier, and we’re certainly not planning to close it down any time soon.

Let me say a few words about the moment of this movement and try to put forward a bit of a score-card to give to ourselves, to judge how it’s doing since September 11.

Roots of the Movement

The first thing I want to say about the moment is that many people think this movement is just two years old, and many people think that it came into their minds and their living rooms with protests in Seattle in November of 1999. In many ways this movement has roots that go back 500 years, ever since Christopher Columbus with his people came to plunder Alejandro’s part of the world. There is a remarkable but little-known history of resistance for 500 years. One of the movements that I find most interesting and in some ways most similar to what has been built around the world in this past decade or so was the remarkable transnational movement, which was rooted here in the U.S. and England and in different parts of the world and Africa, to fight the Atlantic slave trade between about the 1780s and the early 1800s. They used a lot of the same tactics we’ve been using here, and I think as this movement has grown we’ve begun to become more aware of our roots and our history.

I do think also, we need just a word on where we stand, vis-à-vis the past few decades. I think we are entering a new age for this movement, and if I could, just for a minute, look back. Globalization issues and movements, I think, have gone through four periods, since post-World War II.

The 1960s and 1970s were the age of debate. There was a terrific upsurge of debate around development. There were lots of different experiments. There were new UN organizations that were created to help developing countries try different paths. Different paths were celebrated. There was an upsurge of citizen activism around corporate power and corporate abuse–the Nestle and baby food companies, the role of IT&T in the overthrow of the government in Chile. It was a very vibrant period and an age of debate.

The 1980s-1997 was a second period–I sometimes refer to it as the Dark Ages. It was a very bad period for those of us concerned with the excesses of globalization. It was a period that was marked in the early ’80s (which is worth a lot more thought than it will be given today, as to why this happened) by an ideological shift with Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Helmut Kohl coming into power at the same time, pushing a very strong pro-free market analysis, giving far greater powers to the World Bank and the IMF. And, of course, in this period we have the creation of new global bodies that gave more power to corporations and less to people, like to the World Trade Organization and NAFTA.

The third period was from 1997 until September 11th, 2001. These were our glory days. Now I don’t want to suggest that the movement came out of nowhere in 1997. I think it had roots all through those periods, and I think many of the older leaders of this movement really had their start in the 1970s in that very vibrant period. But, starting in 1997, was when we started winning things. We beat fast track here in ’97. We beat it again ’98. We beat this terrible proposal called a Multilateral Agreement on Investments–a kind of corporate bill of rights that was proposed. We began to win some debt reduction. We began to get the pharmaceutical companies on the defensive. The Asian financial crisis in ’97 exposed a lot of the deep problems of the economic globalization system. We started to mobilize massive numbers of people–those were the glory days.

The New Conjuncture: Sources of Our Power

Now, post-September 11, where are we? I think we’re in a kind of stalemate Let me try to give a little bit of a score-card on the movement by looking at what were its sources of power pre-9-11 and just comment on each of these sources of power in terms of what 9-11 means. First, we were powerful because we were able to influence events (the victories I just mentioned). Now, can we still do that? I think I won’t say anymore than what Thea laid out very articulately. I do think the two big fights since September 11–the World Trade Organization in Doha and fast track–I think we would’ve won them had it not been for September 11. I don’t think they would’ve won. Yet, the enormous effort and power that was put together to create roadblocks to the corporate globalization agenda is significant. As I’ve been with corporate people and government people in debates on the radio and other things since September 11, they don’t refer to fast track as a victory for their side. They say, regarding the fast track vote, that this country is deeply divided about trade and globalization. So I think we are still strong in our ability to influence real events, but not quite as strong as before September 11.

Second piece of the score card; our ability to get visibility, to get on the front pages. A lot of the mainstream media is, of course, about entertainment. And certainly the giant protest in Seattle, which included a bit of property destruction, provided some great entertainment; and I will not question the fact that it helped greatly raise the visibility of this movement. And, clearly, September 11, for at least the short term in North America, not the rest of the world but in North America, there is no question that the ability to have large-scale demonstrations has decreased for the moment. I don’t think that weakens the movement. It does weaken the visibility of the movement.

The third source of our power was basically summed up in two words: Seattle Coalition. We were powerful because we had a remarkable coalition of many different sectors: labor, environment, students, religious, women, health activists, indigenous activists. That’s quite a movement. As Thea alluded, some are suggesting that this has been shattered since 9-11, partly because in this country different parts of that movement came down differently on the war. Student groups and religious groups joined peace movements. The labor movement did not. I think that, again, that argument has been greatly overstated. Thea helped convene, on a weekly basis after September 11, meetings that brought that entire Seattle Coalition together again to fight fast track. People who perhaps disagreed on specifics of how they felt about the war in Afghanistan came together as strongly as ever to fight against a common enemy. And I do think that this coalition remains strong, but a lot of it is battered more by recession than by September 11. The labor movement is hurt by recession and job loss. So I would say we’re a bit weaker, but not because of September 11.

The fourth indicator of our power in this country, and in many other countries, was also rooted in the fact that the public, on most of the issues, was with us. Public opinion polls in the U.S. have shown overwhelmingly for several years that the vast majority of the public–three-quarters–believes that large corporations have too much economic and political power. And then, if you single out segments of corporate power–Big Oil, Big Tobacco, Big Polluters, Big Insurance companies, as Al Gore singled out in his brief rise to popularity after his convention speech–then 90% of the American public is with you. And polls show that the public is still with us on those key issues; we haven’t lost that. And that is, again, when you are sitting down with corporate people and government people, this facet of our power makes them more nervous than ever. They’re happy that September 11 changed the topic of conversation for awhile, but they are still aware that on those key issues they don’t have the public with them.

Fifth, I think a huge part of our power came from our moral authority. And here I would really pin a lot of kudos on the movement that Alejandro is central to, the Jubilee movement, which raised the moral issue of debts as being killers of millions of poor people around the world. And I think we won that moral argument, even to the point where Jim Wolfenson, the head of the World Bank, Bill Clinton, the Pope, and many others sided with us rhetorically. We haven’t (I agree with Alejandro) won nearly as much as we need to on the specifics of it. But I think around HIV/AIDS and the pharmaceutical issue we have tremendous moral authority on our side. I do worry that wrong tactical moves–if, for example, there is property destruction in New York next week–that moral authority can be eroded. But I think it is still strong.

Sixth, I think our power is also rooted in our intellectual power. I think there are a lot of strong leaders around the world who have made very convincing arguments about the weakness of corporate-led globalization and the compelling nature of alternatives. I think our strength in this area is very much rooted in one of Alejandro’s comments, which is, in our ability to articulate clear alternatives. We’re going from IPS to Porto Allegre next week and are involved in the launching of a couple of documents that lay out clear alternatives to the current system. One that is in alliance with civil society up and down the hemisphere is a document called “Alternatives for the Americas” that lays out a clear alternative to the Free Trade Area of the Americas. And another, a global group called the International Forum on Globalization, has put together a very good document called “Alternatives to Economic Globalization.” I think these movements are coming together around common principles, common visions, common proposals.

Just a couple of final things here, I do think the strength of the movement is still something that you will never see on camera, because it doesn’t happen at the big protests. But the strength of this movement is rooted in the strength of its components and of the campaigns of its components. So there are farm movements around the world; there are environmental movements around the world; labor movements around the world involved in daily struggles around living wages, around protecting the rights of farmers to their seeds, and so on. Those struggles continue on a daily basis; they have not gone away.

And finally, eighth, our power is strength when things go badly for the other side. And I need say no more than what Alejandro said about Argentina and what Kristin said about Enron to suggest that this is a period of deep crisis for the other side. Both of those expose such great flaws–Argentina, in terms of the whole approach of the IMF and the World Bank; Enron, in terms of the whole notion of deregulated liberalized markets, which has been at the centerpiece of the alternative model. Both have deep, deep implications for the ability of the other side to gain momentum.

So, in sum, I do think that September 11 has created some setbacks for us. And I think you could even say, perhaps, that this movement that had so much momentum has been set back perhaps a year. But social movements are killed, or they die away, or they fall to the side either when they win (civil rights movement, anti-Vietnam War movement–they tended to shift away as they won things; they certainly didn’t win everything in terms of the civil rights movement, but they won significant victories) or when they are brutally suppressed. In this case you have a movement which is simply suffering a bit from the national discussion and global discussion being shifted for a period to another topic. But the very conditions that persuade millions of farmers and workers and environmentalists and students and others to join movements around the world and come together, are there and in some ways are stronger than ever. And in that sense, the movement remains as strong as ever.