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IR & Politics programme
University of Sussex

Martin Shaw

the dead-end of anti-globalization protest?

After Seattle, London? The 2000 May Day demonstrations against capitalism and globalization in the centre of the British capital have hardly confirmed the significance of the new protest movement. On the contrary, they underlined question-marks against the new activism that claimed worldwide attention after the World Trade Organization events. Two main problems of the new movement, incoherence of ideas and weakness of organization and tactics, were in evidence in London on May 1st.

Opposition to capitalism and its present, increasingly globalized form are leitmotifs of the protests. World inequalities and environmental degradation are held to be the results of these systematic factors, so that demonstrators seek to symbolically and physically disrupt the latter. The problems with a movement constituted on this basis are threefold:

  • neither inequalities nor degradation are simply products of either capitalism and/or globalization
  • no viable political strategy is proposed for overthrowing, rather than reforming, capitalism
  • globalization cannot be simply opposed: there is no plausible (still less desirable) way in which economy and society can be returned to a purely national or local basis, so the answers to world inequality and environmental lie in global policies.

In order for 'resistance' to be viable people have to have a clear idea of a powerful, oppressive enemy and of how it may be overcome. Capitalists and governments are surely powerful (intergovernmental organizations such as the WTO, less obviously so) but they do not constitute one coherent, oppressive enemy, inflicting globalization on society .

Workers (like those at Rover and for that matter the American workers who marched in Seattle) compete for capital to invest. Governments both facilitate capital and, at best, seek to protect workers' jobs and conditions - and the wider environment - from capital's excesses. Capital, labour and society at large all need global, intergovernmental regulation, although they often have conflicting ideas about what regulation should consist of. In this sense, a reformed WTO is part of the solution, not the problem.

In this sense too there is a fundamental divide in the politics of the new movements. Campaigners for cancelling Third World debt, for workers' rights, for environmental control, all need stronger global governmental organizations, and have no interest in an incoherent rejection of globalization or a demand for the overthrow of capitalism. Protests like those of Jubilee 2000 have shown how focussed, peaceful direct action can play a part in pressing these causes, and they have won some limited gains.

Those for whom capitalism and globalization are enemies, in contrast, have no real interest in progressive reforms. Lacking any coherent revolutionary ideas, they can only resort to 'expressive' protest, with symbolic gestures. Clearly the vast majority of symbolic protestors are peaceful. It is not really clear what ripping up turf, still less insensitive graffitti, contribute to our awareness of environmental ills, but they are not violent.

Smashing in shops and throwing missiles at police are another matter. The argument that 'structural violence' justifies physical violence against people and property is phoney. It is evident that the 'riot' has only played into the hands of an increasingly extreme Tory party.

The antics of violent minorities is an old problem that has plagued all peaceful protest movements. However the 'expressive' approach of this movement as a whole, with no politically coherent strategy, has encouraged an excessive concentration on physical 'symbols' of capitalism. Thus the semi-political nature of the movement appears to give a licence to destructive tendencies. Moreover, the 'anti-capitalist/anti-globalization' movement lacks the ideology, organizational structure and authoritative spokespeople to separate the mass of peaceful protestors from the violent, and its anti-state rhetoric has inhibited sensible cooperation with the police.

In this sense, the violence of May Day cannot be separated from the nature of the new movement. Unlike Seattle, this violence cannot be blamed to any serious extent on police provocation. The police gave the 'anti-capitalists' enough rope to hang themselves, and this is what, in a political sense, they have done. Those who are concerned to achieve real social and environmental gains would do well to note this reverse and look to different kinds of demonstrative - and other - political action.

2 May 2000

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