Out of the ashes

The terror attacks have put globalization's critics on the defensive -- but have also given new momentum to their struggle.



Mark Schapiro
November 17, 2001 1:23AM (UTC)

Nine days after the World Trade Center attacks in New York, a little-noticed story in the New York Times reported on the Italian Parliament's vote to absolve the police of responsibility for brutality against anti-globalization protesters, one of whom was killed, at the G-8 meeting in July in Genoa, Italy. The seven-paragraph Times dispatch, buried on the inside pages, seemed to float disconnected from the new world we entered after the horrific events of Sept. 11.

The news from Italy, however, in a week saturated with images of the destruction of the world's premier icon of globalization, provided a jolt of recognition of how deeply those events have demarcated our recent history into two parallel realities. On the one side, pre 9-11: a time when abuses from that process of financial, cultural and political integration that has come to be commonly referred to as "globalization" had ignited a worldwide citizens movement. Over the past two years, millions of people have hit the streets in more than a dozen major cities around the world -- including Genoa; Prague, Czech Republic; Ottawa, Ontario; and Seattle -- to protest a global trading system they claim is skewed in favor of the rich. To avoid such demonstrations of public sentiment, the World Trade Organization -- for many, the villainous face of globalization -- opted long before Sept. 11 to hold its annual meeting this weekend as far off the dissident trading routes as possible: in the Persian Gulf principality of Qatar.

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On the other side of the divide, post 9-11: the extraordinary global response to the deranged concoction of primeval theology and 21st century technology that led to the destruction in New York. In this parallel universe, the one we now inhabit, George W. Bush -- for the moment -- appears on his way to giving his presidency triumphal definition, while fears of Republican isolationism and the concerns of the movement that had sprung up to combat the inequities of the global trading system appear to be fading in the face-off against global terrorism.

But as the war unfolds, television viewers will find a most surprising bridge between these two parallel realities. On CNN and other news outlets flickers the banner of Al-Jazeera TV, the source of hard-to-get video footage of Afghanistan -- including Osama bin Laden's now infamous videotape that aired after the start of the U.S. bombing campaign -- broadcasting from none other than the Persian Gulf principality of Qatar.

Thus do our two parallel realities converge. The WTO holds its meeting in a quarantine of sand -- the Qataran government denied thousands of visas to anti-globalization activists, who have been isolated from the proceedings in a fenced-in zone of Doha, the capital -- while the country's state-subsidized Al-Jazeera television beams us images of the war next door. The Jihad meets McWorld.

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As of Sept. 10, the loose alliance of citizens groups that constitutes the anti-globalization (anti-McWorld) movement -- really a loose constellation of labor, environmental, human rights and development activists, along with avant-garde economists, punks and anarchists -- had become a potent force on the world scene. Every meeting of multilateral financial institutions -- the G-8, the World Bank and IMF, the WTO -- had been greeted by mass public protests, while some of the movement's central principles were beginning to wind their way into the upper echelons of the global political structure.

The just-concluded WTO meetings themselves could be seen as offering an example, however qualified, of how deeply concerns from developing countries are now being felt. Trade ministers from more than 140 countries agreed to remove tariffs on textiles, farm trade and steel and to waive patent restrictions to make cheap generic drugs available to poorer nations. The United States, in particular, showed greater flexibility than some observers expected in its response to what have long been hot-button issues dividing developed from developing nations -- a stance likely due to its desire to reduce global tensions while waging the war against terrorism.

Other developments also demonstrated new thinking on global inequities. The European Union's Finance Committee began this fall to consider implementing a tax on speculative currency transactions -- known as the Tobin tax, after the Nobel Prize-winning economist who first proposed the measure almost 20 years ago -- as a means of financing sustainable development initiatives in Africa, Asia, the Mideast and Latin America. The G-8 countries agreed earlier this year (at least on paper) to "halve" the rates of poverty by the year 2015, a commitment that at a minimum sets a guidepost for measuring progress in dealing with the some 7 billion people that the United Nations estimates live in conditions of abysmal poverty.

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Meanwhile, the Bush administration's unilateral withdrawal from a spate of international treaties was beginning to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its European allies, who were also feeling increasing pressure from their home constituencies not to dance to the United States' free-trade tune. Even the crusty president of France, Jacques Chirac, was moved to comment after the demonstrations in Genoa that he "understood" the demonstrators' call for reduced globalization of trade.

Last spring, a Canadian polling firm, Environics International, released the results of a survey it conducted of citizens in the world's 20 largest economies, which suggested potential trouble ahead for free trade's most ardent advocates. The survey revealed that more than a quarter of the respondents -- including the United States, France, Great Britain, Indonesia, Brazil and China -- held a deeply negative view of the globalization process. Only 10 percent viewed it as having an unambiguously positive impact on their lives. Most striking was that 65 percent expressed greater trust in the ability of NGOs and faith-based organizations to better reflect the "best interests of society" than governments and private corporations. (Notably, Saudi Arabia, among the world's largest economies and home to many of the hijackers, was excluded from the survey since Environics was unable to find a suitable polling firm with which to partner in that country -- an indication, perhaps, of how little interest the United States' major economic ally in the region, ruled by a corrupt monarchy, has expressed in the views of its own people.)

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Rob Kerr, a senior consultant for Environics who supervised the survey from the company's headquarters in Toronto, comments: "We were surprised to see that the [globalization] agenda was being pushed so hard by organizations who were so little trusted by the government. Behind the fences and under police protection were government leaders and paying business leaders who were pushing forward this agenda. Outside the fence were those [citizen groups] who were the most trusted; inside the fence were those who were the least trusted. This fit right in with our data."

The Sept. 11 attack stopped the movement, at least temporarily, in its tracks. "At the time of the attack last month, the global movement ignited by Seattle through Genoa was at the apogee of its effectiveness," comments Jim Garrison. "The globalization movement had achieved an unprecedented level of organization, with the ability to organize people on a global scale. It was beginning to force governments and international organizations to respond ... Now the framework has changed completely. Now NGOs are being identified as potential terrorists. In one move, governments have regained the upper hand: They are controlling the debate, controlling the priorities of the news media, and in the process, pushing civil society to the margins."

Most immediately, the Sept. 11 attack divided more mainstream from radical, pacifist-inclined factions of the movement on the question of a military response in Afghanistan. A coordinating body of anti-globalization groups -- including the AFL-CIO, Friends of the Earth, the Feminist Majority and Oxfam -- that had hoped to rally a hundred thousand protesters to Washington to protest the World Bank and IMF annual meetings last September called off their action even before the banks did, out of fear of being misinterpreted as anti-American in the newly patriotic political climate. Echoes of the sentiments expressed by a New York Post editorial asserting that "the distance between breaking the windows of McDonald's ... and blowing up the World Trade Center is pretty damned narrow" -- an outrageous claim that suddenly, to some, seemed vaguely palatable in the initial, frenzied search for culprits -- could be discerned in later comments by President Bush, who attempted to equate the terrorists' attack with an attack on free trade during the Association of South East Asian Nations summit in Singapore last month.

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However, the underlying conditions that helped fuel the global movement have not changed since Sept. 11. The fact is that there has likely never been a better time to drive home the essential message of the anti-globalization movement than now. As we have learned, the mix of grinding poverty, political repression and religious fundamentalism on the margins of a global economy (whose fruits can be viewed daily in the form of mass culture and the lavish consumption of Western consumer goods) is a combustible concoction.

"There are two things we are wrestling with now," says Garrison. "Over the short term, you have a preoccupation with retribution. In the mid- or long-term, we will have a return, with heightened awareness, that if we don't get at the roots of terror, we don't win ... Terrorism will only wane when people feel a stake in the system in which they operate and by which they are governed." In this light, the image of the world's governments arrayed behind riot troops making decisions affecting billions of people does not bode well.

"There has been a lot of fantasizing from our political enemies saying that the attacks have made the movement against corporate globalization disappear," comments Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, giving defiant voice to a sentiment that has largely been muted over the past two months. "The same fantasizers say that the issue of terrorism is now the only issue. But more and more Americans have been left asking, why do so many people in so many countries dislike the U.S. so much? People are not buying that line that they hate our freedom. People are thinking, 'Aha, could it be the same corporations who are tossing me out of a job, jacking up the price of medicine, and ripping me off in so many ways?'"

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Elsewhere around the world, the attack, and America and Britain's subsequent military response, has energized not only rising opposition to the war -- notably in Europe and in Latin America -- but has unleashed ever more urgent calls to address the social and political conditions that helped create a population of potential terrorists. The concerns that made many U.S. activists hesitant to reprise their dramatic and at times confrontational tactics -- fear of being seen as anti-government at a time the government appears to be our only line of defense against terrorists -- hold little sway outside the United States. The number of mobilizations and protests in Europe and Asia during the WTO meeting far exceeded the few scattered, and sparsely attended, mobilizations in the United States, according to the French-based Web site attac.org.

"People are thinking: 'Why is this war happening'?" commented Oded Grajew during a recent telephone interview from Sao Paulo. Grajew is on the board of the World Social Forum, the world's largest association of citizen organizations, and is now the national coordinator of CIVIS, the Brazilian Association of Businesspeople for Democracy. "The movement is getting stronger now because people are looking at the problems of poverty and of terrorism. They are saying, and more intensely than ever, We must care about poverty, social injustice -- those are the things that feed the terrorists." Last week, Grajew traveled to Dakar, Senegal, where representatives of some 50 NGOs met to plan the next World Social Forum, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, which will be held as a citizens' counterconference to the World Economic Forum at the end of January.

Benjamin Barber, author of the book "Jihad vs. McWorld," argues that what is most at risk from both the globalization process -- "McWorld" -- and the rise of fundamentalism --"Jihad" -- is democracy. Six years after being published, "Jihad vs. McWorld" is once again hitting the New York Times bestseller list. In a new introduction written after the Sept. 11 attack, Barber asserts that the insistence of globalization's current architects on the omniscient power of the marketplace works to, in effect, displace political sovereignty with the far more abstruse sovereignty of capital.

"The war against Jihad," he writes, "will not, in other words, succeed unless McWorld is also addressed." He asserts that a military campaign against the source of the Sept. 11 attacks is essential. But a second-track offensive by citizens and governments should be launched simultaneously: not to stop the globalization process -- it's already here, driven primarily by the chaos of the market -- but to democratize it.

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Barber points out too that the very name that has come to be attached to the anti-globalization movement is a misnomer. For the most part, critics are calling not for an end to globalization per se, but, in many instances, for a broadening of its effects. While opposing global trade rules and the globalization of capital -- which has to a great extent already been accomplished -- they also advocate "globalizing" the principles of environmental protection, human rights and economic justice as a means of countering inequities built into the current system: one-way trade that benefits rich over poor countries, and policies that facilitate the exploitation of resources by Western multinationals and that subject the entire world to the U.S. cultural juggernaut.

Barber, a political science professor, comments from his office at the Democracy Collaborative in New York: "Sept. 11 sent a clear message to the U.S.: you can have an interdependence fashioned in the perverse image of terrorists, or you can have an interdependence of democratically fashioned multilateral structures. The globalization movement has had a similar lesson. In some ways, the movement has created a myth between stopping globalization and doing globalization. But stopping globalization is not an option. The question is: For whom? Is it for bankers and financiers, or is it for the majority of people? Will it be a form of anarchic capitalism that buys into the anarchy used so effectively by terrorists? The question is: Who will fashion this globalization?"

Even the U.S. foreign policy establishment is coming to acknowledge the long-term boomerang effect -- globalization's own "blowback" -- in language that resonates with some of the anti-globalization movement's most cogent critiques. At a meeting of former U.S. diplomats in Washington, barely two weeks after the attack, H. Allen Holmes, a former assistant secretary at both the Defense and State departments, and a former ambassador to Japan and South Korea, asserted that we should not be surprised to discover that in Middle Eastern countries, with rampant unemployment, high illiteracy and a low GNP, "The mosques are turning out terrorists." At a hearing of the House Intelligence Subcommittee in September, former Republican Congressman Lee Hamilton, who served on a National Commission on Terrorism formed during the Clinton administration, testified that after having visited some 28 countries, the commission encountered "a deep resentment about what the United States stood for," and that "managing that resentment will be one of the major foreign policy challenges" for the United States.

Such sentiments suggest that the current climate presents an unprecedented opportunity for the anti-globalization movement to continue pushing an agenda that has serendipitously merged with American self-interest. The barbarity of the World Trade Center masked only briefly the very real tensions that have been boiling over in the Middle East for decades: not only over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but over issues of power and resource distribution throughout the region. Garrison comments: "Osama bin Laden is a hero in the Middle East, he speaks to a deep groundswell of sentiment that is imbedded in the Arab world ... This resonates with some of the deepest levels of the globalization movement, which expresses the fear that globalization can flatten out the rich complexities of the world into a flat table that multinational corporations and the entertainment industry can harvest at will."

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Writing in the Oct. 17 issue of Newsweek, Fareed Zakaria, the former editor of Foreign Affairs, described the average Arab's experience of the global economy as "the critic's caricature of globalization -- a slew of Western products and billboards with little else." The jarring sight, reported shortly after the start of the Afghan bombing campaign, of pictures of Bert the Muppet appearing on posters alongside that of Osama bin Laden at anti-American demonstrations in Bangladesh -- an image downloaded by a fundamentalist Muslim group from a Canadian Web site -- provides a particularly surreal example of the juxtaposition of unattainable globalism and fervent tribalism that is a common reality in parts of the developing world that have borne the brunt of globalization's excesses.

In fact, globalization's critics need look no further than bin Laden's al-Qaida to see a warped image of globalization. Al-Qaida troops, representing a significant part of the muscle behind the Taliban, have "globalized" Afghanistan with foreign Islamic radicals, leaving the majority of the country's citizens with no say over whether they care to be ruled by a group that bans music, makeup and just about every other human endeavor. Afghanistan is in many ways a twisted example of globalization, theological-style, run amok. There was not one Afghan on the airplanes that struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, nor is there a single Afghan on the FBI'S al-Qaida Wanted List. Bin Laden's radical band have hijacked Afghanistan, and as a result a significant proportion of Afghans are being forced to pay for Jihad's sins.

Most of us, fortunately, do not live in the shadows of fundamentalist Islam or, indeed, in the obscure misery of a marginalized economy. But the attack on the World Trade Center provided a vivid illustration of how intertwined our lives have become with those that do. The question now is whether that sense of shared vulnerability lasts beyond the current crisis and evolves into a sense of shared responsibility. It certainly may be difficult for the unilateralists who reigned in the first nine months of the Bush administration to regain their perch -- suggesting a new and expanded arena for action among those who have been pressing forward with the globalization critique.

As the WTO, exercising the authority of McWorld, concluded its meeting in Qatar, the protesters will return to their homes and Al-Jazeera's video footage of the Jihad next door will continue to unspool across our television sets. Here in the heart of McWorld, the landscape has changed, but the economic and social conditions that brought millions of people onto the streets in Genoa and Prague, Ottawa and Seattle, and numerous other cities, have not been altered. What has changed, in the words of Oded Grajew, "is that the stakes are getting higher than they were six weeks ago."


Mark Schapiro

Mark Schapiro is a freelance writer based in New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Harper's, Harper's Bazaar and the Utne Reader.

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