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The global justice movement is a transnational social movement rooted in the confluence of the human rights, labor, environmental, indigenous, peasant, and feminist movements’ shared opposition to neoliberal globalization and vision of a more democratic, equitable, ecologically sustainable world. Neoliberal globalization refers to those structural changes in the global economy carried out by elites under a discourse of free markets that weaken or eliminate policies that protect the environment and vulnerable populations, such as workers and indigenous people, while creating a regulatory apparatus that favors transnational corporations (TNCs); accompanying cultural changes, such as the promotion of consumerism and an ideology emphasizing market-oriented solutions, including micro-credit and privatizing basic services, to social ills also comprise such globalization. The global justice movement is truly global in scope, with its membership ranging from non-profits and small volunteer collectives in the global north (first world), to large, grassroots labor, peasant and indigenous organizations in the global south (third world).
Often referred to, rather inaccurately, as the anti-globalization movement, global justice activists oppose only the current form of economic globalization — neoliberalism — and favor what they call globalization from below. They critique neoliberalism for taking critical economic decisions out of the democratic, public sphere and placing them in the hands of either TNCs or multilateral organizations with little democratic accountability, particularly the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and World Trade Organization (WTO). Critics charge that, under neoliberalism, decisions are made primarily on the basis of short-term profit-maximization, resulting in growing poverty and ecological degradation. In response, global justice activists stress the importance of strengthening democracy. Their vision of democracy also goes beyond limited, mainstream understandings that focus on elections and lobbying, instead embracing a more grassroots, participatory model. They also advocate increased economic democracy, which might include stronger environmental and labor protection laws, guaranteeing basic needs such as food and healthcare as human rights, worker cooperatives, nationalization of key industries, and supporting indigenous traditions of collective property.
The global justice movement emerged in response to the rise of global neoliberalism in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1980s, environmental and indigenous activists began to target the World Bank, charging that many of the development projects it funded, such as large dams and oil pipelines, were environmentally destructive and displaced indigenous people. As TNCs increasingly moved production (and therefore jobs) between countries in an effort to cut labor costs, labor unions began to create transnational organizing campaigns in response. As the movement grew, activists began holding regular international conferences focusing on confronting neoliberalism and envisioning a better world; most importantly, these included the encuentros (encounters) organized by the Zapatistas (an indigenous rebel group in Chiapas, Mexico), starting in 1996, and the World Social Forum, starting in 2001. The 1990s also saw the creation of several transnational coalitions, including Fifty Years is Enough, dedicated to either fundamentally reforming or eliminating the IMF and World Bank; Jubilee 2000, a network founded to abolish third-world debt; and Via Campesina, an international peasants’ alliance. Reflecting the values of the movement, these networks have striven to maintain democratic relations internally, though this has not always been easy.
As a consequence of these networks, the late 1990s and early twenty-first century saw a dramatic expansion of global justice activism. In the north, this originally took the form of protests, such as those against the WTO in Seattle, in which activists attempted to shut down or disrupt high-level meetings of international political and business leaders. Increasingly, these protests have become less important, and there is more of an emphasis on grassroots organizing against local manifestations of neoliberalism, such as cutbacks in welfare programs, the gentrification of cities, and the privatization of local water supplies. There has also been a wave of successful activism in the south, particularly Latin America, where mass protests, road blockades and other such actions have forced governments to reverse neoliberal initiatives. In a number of Latin American countries, activists have also helped left-of-center governments get elected, although their willingness and ability to successfully implement significant reforms has varied. Parts of Africa and Asia have also seen waves of militant global justice activism.
This activism has born significant fruit. In 2005, after years of advocacy work by activists, the leading countries of the north agreed to require the IMF and World Bank to cancel the unpayable debts of many of the poorest countries of the south, dramatically reducing the power of these two organizations to pressure these countries into adopting neoliberal policies. As of 2010, talks to expand the scope of the WTO appear to have completely broken down, a result of both widespread grassroots protest and the frustration of many southern governments, who feel that northern governments are not dealing fairly with them. Nonetheless, neoliberal policies remain firmly in place in most countries, and other problems, such as environmental degradation, the scarcity of affordable food for much of the world’s poor, and increasing economic instability, have grown worse.
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