Activism has never been so misunderstood.
From Muggles to Wombles, to the A-17,
M-1 and S-26 protests. The fall of the
Berlin Wall. The creation of the Quebec
Wall. White Overalls. Black Bloc. Fast
track. Free trade. Structural adjustments.
Life improvement. Death economy.
To the uninitiated, the frenetic images of
the costumed protesters are equally
baffling: Some are dressed as endangered
sea turtles or genetically modified
tomatoes. There are mad cows and sad
hawks, Zapatistas and Sandinistas, giant
Uncle Sams and stylized Grim Reapers.
This is the anti-globalization movement.
Sprawling, disparate, powerful. A political
force unto itself that, given its international
scope and staggering number of
participants, is unprecedented in history.
And, it would appear, at a significant
"We are at a very important juncture,"
says Antonia Juhasz, project director for
the San Francisco-based International Forum on Globalization. "We are
simultaneously feeling out our strengths and weaknesses. As such, we are in a
place of tremendous responsibility."
A responsibility that only grows as world leaders stop to take wide-eyed
"There is a much more significant phenomenon behind all this and that's the
rise of a civil society, of non-governmental organizations and activist groups
as players in the game of world politics," explains Ronald Deibert, a political
science professor at the University of Toronto.
"And this raises some profound questions about the nature of world politics;
first-order questions of political theory that we used to talk about on a
domestic scale. But now it's global."
Like previous social movements - anti-nuclear, civil rights, anti-Vietnam War,
women's rights, the environment, identity politics - anti-globalization has
reached a fork in the proverbial road where internal considerations are
overtaking external strategies.
"There are definitely some serious issues that the movement is now grappling
with," says David Robbins, trade campaigner with the Council of Canadians,
the country's largest citizens' watchdog organization.
"Violence is clearly one of them, but I would add to that issues around race,
inclusion and exclusion. And also issues of gender, in terms of who holds
power within these groups."
In the last two years, anti-globalization messages have been distorted through
a haze of pepper spray and rock throwing, rubber bullets and Molotov
cocktails, hurled insults and blasts from water cannons.
"The public is in a sense of confusion right now," says Robin Wagner-Pacifici,
a sociology professor at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. "I don't sense
that the public is writing off the protesters as a bunch of troublemakers. But,
on the other hand, I don't think they are completely sympathetic, and that has
to do with the segment of protesters that use violence."
Tracing the genesis of the anti-globalization movement is at best a subjective
exercise. Some say it started in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
Some say it was the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, a couple of years
later. Maybe it was the fall of the Berlin Wall.
But many believe the movement gained flashbulb momentum in 1996, when it
was revealed that a line of clothing from talk-show host Kathie Lee Gifford
was manufactured in Honduran sweatshops by young women who toiled in
abysmal conditions for below-subsistence wages.
At that moment, a confluence of factors crystallized: distrust of
much-publicized (but nebulous) trade agreements, growing antipathy toward
laissez-faire principles and a gnawing sense that multinational corporations
were dictating the international political agenda.
"There are a lot of people suspicious and angry about the ascendancy of
corporate power and how much influence big business has in the U.S. and
around the world in shaping policy," says Han Shan, program director for the
California-based Ruckus Society.
In December, the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington think-tank,
released a study titled Top 200: The Rise Of Corporate Global Power.
The report found that 51 of the 100 largest economies in the world were
Meaning, as a measure of gross domestic product or annual sales, General
Motors is bigger than Denmark. General Electric is bigger than Portugal.
IBM is bigger than Singapore. Hitachi is bigger than Chile. Sony is bigger
than Pakistan. Nissan is bigger than New Zealand.
The study also found that combined sales from the world's biggest 200
companies is 18 times larger than the combined annual income of the 24 per
cent of the world's population who live in severe poverty.
Between 1983 and 1999, profits from the top 200 companies grew by 362
per cent, while the number of people they employed grew by only 14 per
"If you were to land on Earth today, you would see a world of tremendous
inequality," says Joshua Karliner, executive director of CorpWatch. "The vast
majority of people on this planet are living in poverty and without access to
the wonderful technological, medical, informational and scientific advances
that humanity has achieved.
"And that is what this is all about."
As Juliette Beck, economic rights co-ordinator for Global Exchange, puts it:
"We are fighting for economic justice to stop the growing divide between rich
and poor. How can you not be concerned that every major ecosystem on the
planet is in decline? Our fisheries, our topsoil, our air, our water are all in
decline and being devastated by unsustainable economic policies."
This concern reached a watershed in Seattle, where approximately 60,000
protesters from all political, social and environmental persuasions managed to
shut down a meeting of the World Trade Organization.
Once perceived as staid centres of international bureaucracy, the WTO, as
well as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), are now
targets of anti-globalization activists, who regard these institutions as murky
cabals - unaccountable, undemocratic and unwitting facilitators of the
So, instead of just targeting companies such as Nike, Starbucks, McDonald's
and The Gap for exploiting workers and promoting "global monoculture,"
protesters have new power structures to burn in effigy.
"We do not have a voice when these rules are being developed. This is not
democracy and that's really apparent," says Anna Dashtgard, an
anti-globalization activist and organizer for Common Front On The WTO, a
coalition of more than 60 Canadian organizations, including those
championing labour, the environment and social and human rights.
"For perspective on how big this is in Canada, the anti-globalization
movement, at this point, is way more powerful than the NDP. There is no
question about it."
With size comes publicity, power and influence. And, in turn, opposition.
It's not surprising then, activists say, that politicians and corporate executives
denounce the movement as misguided and hopelessly misinformed.
Critics like Thomas L. Friedman, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and author
of The Lexus And The Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization, argue
that globalization is why the living standards for one-quarter of humanity
quadrupled within a generation.
George W. Bush says free trade is the only way developing nations can
adjust and thrive in the new, information- and services-based economy.
Others lambaste anti-globalism activists and raise the spectre of First World
protectionism, calling the protesters parochial, radical, obtuse and purveyors
of "chic activism." Many critics observe, with great cynicism, that most of the
protesters are white, middle-class citizens "with really cushy lives."
As the WTO's Mike Moore said recently: "The people that stand outside and
say they work in the interests of the poorest people...they make me want to
vomit. Because the poorest people on our planet, they are the ones that need
us the most."
Juhasz, of the International Forum on Globalization, is quick to take
exception. "I would encourage people to look at the millions upon millions
who have protested in the developing world against globalization policies.
And then ask, `By what standard do you judge that the developing world
"More people have been protesting and dying - dying! - in the developing
world against these policies than have ever lifted a finger in the north."
She says mass protests, such as those in Bolivia, Argentina, India, Haiti,
Brazil and Indonesia, get almost no attention from mainstream Western
media. To attract the cameras, it seems, flag-waving protests need to be
unfurled against an industrialized backdrop.
This becomes most pronounced when a protest turns nasty and confrontation
becomes the central focus of satellite-fed coverage.
And since Seattle, the protests are more violent.
Last month, in Goteborg, Sweden, 25,000 demonstrators clashed with police
at a European Union summit. There were dozens of arrests and injuries,
including three people who were shot by police. Similar protests unfolded in
Quebec city, Barcelona, Salzburg, Davos, Melbourne and Washington.
Last September's IMF-World Bank summit in Prague was particularly fierce,
with more than 130 people injured, including nearly two dozen police
The mayhem reached a new, frightening level two weeks ago, when an Italian
protester was killed by police during demonstrations in Genoa that attracted
more than 100,000 people.
It is perhaps not surprising that the movement's first Western death was
recorded in Italy, a nation with a long history of anarchist groups and
extravagant politics. The country is home to sects like Ya Basta! and Tutte
Bianche. At Genoa, these groups were joined by bands like Wombles (White
Overalls Movement Building Libertarian Effective Struggles) and Black Bloc.
The Bloc was instrumental in N30 - a reference to Nov. 30, the first day of
the Seattle protests. The month/date pairing has become a shorthand form to
communicate protest dates on the Internet. Notes Deibert: "It's phenomenal
the way the Internet plays a part in all of this."
It was the Internet that also helped spread the word from Genoa that an
activist had been shot by police. The killing and the consequent bedlam
stunned many organizations.
"If you look at some of the talk within the organizations and groups involved
in orchestrating these protests, this is now the hot talk," says John Delicath, a
professor of communications at the University of Cincinnati.
"There seems to be an overwhelming consensus that there needs to be moves
and public gestures to condemn the violence."
Which may be why, at a grassroots level, some of the world's
anti-globalization groups are rethinking the "Summit Formula." When the
WTO assembles for its post-Seattle meeting, in Doha, Qatar, in November,
there may be a change in strategy.
"It will be the first time since Seattle that instead of having one big mass
action, the emphasis will be on community-based actions at the local level,"
Adds Shan: "What a lot of people are trying to figure out is how to stop
focusing on these giant, international summits...and get back to the business of
local, community organizing."
It's a conscious attempt to jump away from the cops-versus-protesters
scenario. ("Because that obscures the fundamental cultural conflict," Shan
says, "which is a system that worships money versus a system that worships
Amory Starr is an activist, sociology professor at Colorado State University
and author of last year's Naming The Enemy: Anti-Corporate Movements
Confront Globalization. She disagrees with the decision to return to local
"It's clear that we are doing really well, because they are scared of us," she
"There's tons of scholarship on our side documenting how free trade does not
benefit the poor. That argument is a neo-liberal economic argument that has
not changed in 50 years."
And that's another challenge anti-globalization protesters face: Many
members of the public can't grasp the abstract, socio-economic principles
upon which the movement is based. So critics start dismissing groups as
"militant radicals," "Yuppie freaks," "Hippie wannabes," "flat-Earth
advocates," "neo-Marxists," "neo-Luddites" and "anti-capitalist pipe
Even the term "anti-globalization movement" is misleading. There is no formal
structure, no hierarchy. No one leader. No one platform. For some, there
isn't even an "anti" - they believe it's not a question of "if we globalize," but
There are, instead, widely different groups, with widely different agendas.
And these groups will only get bigger and more effective, professor Deibert
says. It's a trend.
"Citizens are side-stepping traditional structures of political participation and
becoming active participants, as opposed to spectators in the game of world