Perspectives on the Global Justice Movement

By Sara Burke and Claudio Puty

NEW YORK, SUMMER 2004—No concept in current economic and political life is as ambiguous, as coveted, and as contested as "globalization." The term sounds internationalist—a political ideal and economic reality traditionally associated with the socialist Left. These days though, "globalization" means the internationalization of capital and capitalism, not socialism.

The globalization of capitalist production has made it possible to buy a car in the United States made of German steel—steel forged from South African or Brazilian iron ore—and incorporating plastics produced in South Korea and China and tires made from Indonesian rubber, all of which are shipped via container ships to Mexico for assembly and then trucked over the US–Mexican border to American car dealers. But the issues around which the global justice movement coalesced don’t concern the globalization of capitalist production, per se, but the neoliberal economic policies driving globalization and the social devastation neoliberalism has left in its wake.

Neoliberal doctrine demands that developing countries privatize their national industries, liberalize their financial and capital markets, and allow unrestricted foreign investment. The neoliberal policies of the Washington Concensus ensure a "race to the bottom" for developing nations, as the International Monetary Fund [IMF] and World Bank scrap domestic regulatory powers, tweak democratically approved constitutions and re-tool domestic markets for export rather than survival.

This re-tooling creates the pockets of cheap labor and high unemployment that global capitalism needs in order to keep itself going. The language of "free trade" argues that this process will ultimately generate wealth and lift up the pockets of poverty, but a quarter century of neoliberal-driven globalization has so far produced a worldwide increase in poverty and inequality unprecedented in the history of capitalism.

The unspoken mantra of liberalization is "capital mobility, labor immobility." This helps to ensure that the neoliberal vision of global unity is only for markets, not for people. Global justice activists around the world—no longer willing to be branded as "antiglobalization"—have become keenly aware of that fact.

While the term "antiglobalization movement" is still used habitually by political opponents and the mainstream news media—particularly in the US, whereas movement insiders have long-since affirmed their internationalist outlook by consciously replacing the term "antiglobalization movement" with "global justice movement."

For the vast majority of individuals and groups in the movement, the perspective has never been fundamentally antiglobalization, but rather, against corporate globalization. And while a handful of right-wing nationalists in the U.S. and Europe have occasionally associated themselves with the movement—Pat Buchanan, with his denunciations of the WTO, the UN and other organs of "world government," Ross Perot with his "giant sucking sound," and anti-European Union neo-fascists come to mind—their role in it has been overstated by a corporate media hungry for headlines. With bastions of reportage like the New York Times and CNN, distortion of the movement is the rule rather than the exception.

Typically, their coverage has taken one of three forms. It has either focused on high-profile movement leaders—like French farmer-activist José Bové and his actions against MacDonalds—to the exclusion of the groups they represent or the context of their protests. Or, like New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's 2001 "Senseless in Seattle," column, which referred to "These anti-W.T.O. protesters—who are a Noah's ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix," it ridicules the entire movement as disorganized and confused. Or, as happens most often, it simply fails to report on the activities of the movement altogether.

During the second World Social Forum, in 2002, the wire services produced what media critic Norman Soloman referred to as a "steady stream of informative news reports." But when he searched the Nexis database after the gathering, "...it was clear that the event didn't make the U.S. media cut." Corporate journalism—particularly in the US—marginalizes the movement by omitting the obvious source of its unity: a common political focus on worldwide social justice and an opposition to the economic policies of neoliberalism—and now—the militarist policies of neoconservatism.

Anti-globalization or anti-imperialist? If any uncertainty remained in the minds of most of the world’s people after the World Social Forums in 2002 and 2003 as to the perspective of the global justice movement on this question, then surely the worldwide, coordinated demonstrations against the American war on Iraq last Feburary and April erased all doubt.

But other questions concerning the direction, composition, history, and future of the movement remain to be answered.

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In the Belly of the Beast
Sara Burke & Claudio Puty This 4-part feature explores the roots and emergence of the global justice movement in the United States.

A Brazilian Perspective
Emir Sader—Brazilian socialist militant and sociologist on the World Social Forum, neoliberalism, imperialism, NGOs and the Lula government. [read also in Portuguese]

Social Amnesia in the Movement
Giovanni Mazzetti is one of the most influential thinkers of the Italian Left: we discuss his views on the polemics taking place in Italy between Marxists and anarchists. We also publish [for the first time in English]:

Mazzetti's Where do the Antiglobal Movements Come From?

The Global Justice Movement: A New Left
Barbara Epstein studies social movements and their history. In late August 2003, she spoke with Gloves Off about the potential for meaningful convergence between the global justice movement, the antiwar movement, and traditional labor organizations in the US.