Antiglobalization Movement Essay

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Antiglobalization movement is the most recognized term used to describe individuals and a wide variety of social movements that oppose different types of social, economic, and ecological injustice that are believed to be the consequence of globalization. As the ideas within the movement diverge on what globalization is about, who or what caused it, and what the alternatives to it would be, the validity of the term antiglobalization movement has been questioned. Alternative names are the global justice movement, the movement of movements, the alter-globalization movement, and the anticorporate-globalization movement. The last expression shows that despite the internal heterogeneity of the movement, a common theme among its members is that corporate-driven global business is part of the problem, not part of any solution.

A “Movement of Movements”

It is often stated that the antiglobalization movement is a child of globalization. First of all the movement brings together different voices that in one way or another speak against the idea and reality of globalization. Second, these voices found each other and promoted their views by the very improvements in transportation and communication that are believed to carry the globalization process. Before dealing with the antiglobalization critiques, it is illuminating to see how the movement grew out of globalization and to review the variety of groups worldwide that are part of the antiglobalization movement.

The antiglobalization movement is a label that was first used by nonparticipants of the movement. During the 1990s, journalists and other observers around the world started to identify different local pockets of resistance in which people spoke out against the social, economic, and ecological injustices in the world. What made these protests remarkable was that many of them were not aimed against the old foes of the Left such as capitalism or the “yuppies” of the 1980s, but against corporate-driven globalization. Although the composition of the agenda and the protesters varied locally, the protests seemed to share the refusal to accept that the economy, before all else, defines the well-being of human society.

An important start for the movement was taken in 1994 when Mexican Zapatistas began their fight against the NAFTA trade agreements. The founding of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995 (as a successor to GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and the Asian financial crisis in 1997 further fueled the belief that human societies no longer controlled their own fate but were somehow left at the mercy of commercial and financial interests.

The antiglobalization movement as such was perhaps born in 1999, when large protests tried to stop another round of global trade liberalization during the WTO meeting in Seattle. The “Battle of Seattle,” as the protests were called, received international media attention and triggered a series of carefully chosen protests against meetings by the WTO, the European Union, the G8, or other associations that were believed to be the leading institutions behind globalization.

The protests brought together politicians, union members, individuals, and activists from a wide variety of social movements, united by slogans such as “the world is not for sale” or “people before profit.”

The protests were not organized by any central committee. The movement was very much carried from below and grew on the internet, where Web sites such as Indymedia provided the necessary platform for discussion and informed the public about the critiques against globalization.

The next important steps for the movement were taken in 2001. First of all, the attacks of 9/11 by Al Qaeda against the United States turned the intellectual mainstream away from globalization to global terror, making it harder for the movement to get its message across and be heard by the media. Next to this, the movement faced a public relations problem as the media paid attention to the movement, not so much because of its message, but because of the violent conflicts between protesters and law enforcers that characterized many of the anti-globalist rallies. The attacks of 9/11 made it clear that the movement had to renounce violence as a legitimate means of resistance, alienating perhaps its more militant members while becoming less interesting for the media.

The World Social Forum

Also in 2001, the heyday of the rallies was over. The antiglobalization movements somewhat “settled down” when the first World Social Forum (WSF) took place in Porto Allegre, Brazil, on January 25–30. These dates were not chosen at random, as the WSF wanted to serve as an alternative to the World Economic Forum (WEF) held in Davos, Switzerland, around the same time. The WEF is seen by anti-globalists as an important platform where leading businesspeople and politicians, since 1971, set the agenda for further corporate-driven globalization. The WSF, which does not have a guest list or admission fees, is presented as its democratic substitute.

During the first WSF, some 15,000 participants, among them more than 400 political representatives, searched for alternatives to corporate-driven globalization under the slogan “another world is possible.” The second edition in Porto Allegre welcomed more than 50,000 participants. To underline the global outreach of the WSF, the fourth edition was organized in Bombay, India (over 70,000 participants). The sixth edition was polycentric and held in Caracas (Venezuela), Bamako (Mali), and Karachi (Pakistan). The seventh edition in 2007 was held in Nairobi, Kenya, and saw over 1,400 participating organizations from 110 countries, making it the most globally representative WSF so far.

The WSF’s International Council organizes the WSF and the yearly event. It is constituted by several organizations working on issues including economic justice, human rights, environmental issues, labor, youth, and women’s rights. Important social movements that carry the WSF are, for example, “Via Campesina” from Latin America, the Thailand-based NGO “Focus on the Global South,” or France-based “ATTAC.” The WSF underscores that it is but a platform for discussion and setting up joint actions. For this end, a “Charter of Principles” was drawn up after the first edition that would guide future ones. A very important principle that characterizes the WSF and the antiglobalization movement is that the WSF is a plural, diversified, nonconfessional, nongovernmental, and nonparty context that, in a decentralized fashion, interrelates organizations and movements engaged in concrete action at levels from the local to the international.

Since 2001 the movement has cherished the idea to “think global but act local.” This means that while the antiglobalization movement unites people and protesters by sharing a common critique against the process of globalization, this critique is translated and adapted to the different local settings in which anti-globalists are campaigning around particular issues. To underline this call for “glocalised” action, the 2008 WSF was not organized at a particular place, but took place all over the world through thousands of autonomous local organizations that responded to the “Global Call for Action.” Meanwhile the WSF has been complemented by the organizing of many regional social forums, such as the European, United States, and Asian Social Forums, and even Italian, Flemish, and Liverpool Social Forums.

The Antiglobalization Critique

Antiglobalization is of course a reaction to globalization, a concept that gradually came to the front of economic and political analysis after it was first used in The Economist in 1959. It took the oil crises of the 1970s, the growth of foreign direct investments during the 1980s, and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 before the idea of globalization broke through.

Most definitions of globalization revolve around a common theme of “time and space compression,” revitalizing Marshall McLuhan’s 1960 idea of a “global village.” With regard to the economic sphere, globalization in its broadest sense is generally understood to point to the closer integration of countries and peoples that has been brought about by the enormous reduction in costs of transportation and communication, and the breaking down of artificial barriers to the flows of goods, services, capital, knowledge, and people.

However, the antiglobalization movement believes that this conceptualization is a deceitful one as many people do not have equal access to markets or infrastructure (both in terms of transportation and communication), while probably even more artificial barriers against the movement of people are being put up than broken down. Hence, the idea of globalization rests on the false premise of a closer integration of the peoples of the world. Of course, one could deduce from this that actually more globalization is needed, further bringing down international trade barriers and closing, for example, “the digital divide.” The movement in general is, however, skeptical that this will be achieved in a significant and fair way as long as political and economic forces command the globalizing process. A much-referred to person in this respect is Nobel Prize–winning economist Robert Stiglitz, who criticized the way in which the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank mismanage global development and the financial infrastructure because they primarily serve American and European political, commercial, and financial interests. According to the movement, the globalization process does not lead to a globalized, “flat” world for all, but only to a global level playing field for capital.

The targets for the antiglobalization movement are the major private and public institutions that dominate the global economy. Protests are generally organized around international political meetings by associations such as the WTO or the European Union. Global business is also attacked for hijacking the development of human societies. Building on this critique, the antiglobalization movement believes that beneath the globalization rhetoric is an assumption that globalization is an anonymous and unstoppable force of nature. This implies that peoples and countries have little choice but to accommodate to the new globalizing condition. This has been illustrated by Thomas Friedman, who believes that globalization forces states to follow a particular set of economic policies that he has called “the golden straitjacket.”

In a globalizing world in which it is primarily capital that is becoming mobile, countries are forced into competition to attract this capital. To succeed, countries must implement so-called neoliberal policies of privatization, trade liberalization, and business deregulation, while maintaining a low rate of inflation, balanced state budgets, and a small-sized government. According to the antiglobalization movement this view forces states to tailor their economic policies to the wish of mobile capital for total “commodification,” meaning the right to do business in every sphere of society (education, health service, public transport, etc.), anywhere, at any time, and at the lowest cost. Meanwhile the state is giving up on the wishes of its citizens for full employment, respectable wages, and decent ecological and other living standards. Seen from this perspective, states have entered in a negative “race to the bottom.”

The idea that in the longer run, the policies of the golden straitjacket will indeed benefit the whole of society because attracted capital will create jobs, jobs will create rising incomes, rising incomes create additional demand and this will lead to a diversification of the economy and the development of environmental friendly production processes, is discarded as wishful thinking. According to the movement, this “trickle-down effect,” as it has been called, is not an automatic process but one that is forced upon capital by political action through taxation and regulation. These are exactly the types of welfare policies that have become difficult to implement under the idea of globalization’s unstoppable progress.

Contrary to this, the antiglobalization movement believes that globalization is a process that is instigated, driven, and determined by political decisions. Common opinion is that the golden straightjacket was first put on during the 1980s by Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain. By stressing the political agency behind globalization, the movement holds political power accountable for the social, economic, and ecological deficits that the politicians themselves ascribe to globalization. Antiglobalists do not accept this excuse and at the same time they remind politicians that the process itself can be altered or reversed.


Whereas it is fairly easy to point to a general critique within the movement against the ideological idée fixe of globalization and who benefits from it, opinions diverge when it comes to fixing the problem and drafting plans for a better world. If anti-globalists are about global justice, much debate concentrates on how to achieve this. The movement is hesitant to come up with a blueprint for development. It refuses to promote its own straitjacket in opposition to the golden neoliberal one, believing that it is exactly this type of doctrinarian thinking that created the problems in the first place. Given the wide variety of individuals and movements that shelter under the umbrella of the movement, no common solution can be presented for all the issues that are discussed. Following this, a lot of the individuals and social movements that are campaigning around particular economic, ecological, and social issues do not feel the need to connect their different agendas or search for the bigger theory. In these cases anti-globalism serves as a metaphor for anti-consumerism, anti-discrimination, anti-war, anti-poverty, or anti-terrorism. The link with the problem of globalization as described above is not always clear, making the antiglobalization movement sometimes look more like an assembly of moral outcries than a movement with a message of its own.

Nevertheless, as the neoliberal and globalization rhetoric is exactly based on the famous TINA doctrine, short for “there is no alternative,” the antiglobalization movement had to challenge this idea if it wanted to discredit neoliberalism. As said, the alternative depends on the manner in which the process of globalization needs to be altered or reversed. The belief in the ability to change the commercial and financial interests that drive the present globalization process determines to a large degree the extent to which members of the movement embrace the prefix antior alter-. Building on the metaphor of the golden straitjacket, opinions diverge whether the straitjacket should be made to fit more comfortably or should be taken off altogether.

In the anti-option, the exposure of globalization as a profit-driven process that serves the interests of capital implies that globalization itself should be stopped. The economy needs to be tailored to the wishes of the people, and they do not live in a borderless world but in particular societies, sharing particular value systems and cultures. Thought through, this type of reasoning calls for what Walden Bello has called de-globalization, putting up or reinstalling artificial barriers to the economic flows of goods, services, and capital, while reversing the neoliberal agenda by localizing or nationalizing production and regulating business. In practice, complete isolationism or full-fledged protectionism is rarely advocated. Despite its popular label, the movement contains more alterglobalizing than antiglobalizing opinions, especially because in a number of issues, such as migration, it generally favors open over closed borders.

In the alter option, the general aim is to bring globalization back under democratic control. By and large two options to do so are often discussed. The first option believes that globalization can only be steered in the right direction by global, or at least international, multilateral organizations. The choice can be to reform leading institutions such as the IMF, World Bank, and the WTO, or to give more power to other institutions such as the International Labour Organization (ILO) or the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). With equal and fair participation of all countries in these organizations, globalization could be reshaped by implementing global labor and environmental standards. This way global business would be embedded in a more ethical framework of sustainable development. Global business also has a role to play in this by applying a decent code of conduct, a sign of “good governance.” This led to several fair trade agreements and certification programs that indicate that products are labor-friendly and/or respect environmental standards.

The Tobin Tax

A more specific measure that is advocated in this context is the Tobin Tax, a small tax on all international trade in currency. The initiative is named after the Nobel Prize–winning economist James Tobin, who in 1978 suggested such a tax in order to discourage short-term speculation in currencies. This should have a stabilizing effect on the exchange rates by releasing them from the pressures of shortterm expectations. Meanwhile the tax would be low enough (between 1 percent and 0.1 percent) to allow for the further financing of international trade and foreign direct investments.

Little attention was paid to Tobin’s idea until it was picked up by the antiglobalization movement in the context of the 1997 Asian currency crisis. The crisis was seen as the proof of the destabilizing effects that free capital markets and speculation can bring along. Ignatio Ramonet, chief editor of the French-based Le Monde Diplomatique, suggested that the financial market needed to be “disarmed” and he called for a movement that would promote the Tobin Tax in the name of universal solidarity. After this call, ATTAC [“Action pour une taxe Tobin d’aide aux citoyens”] was founded in 1998, one of the driving forces behind the antiglobalization movement. The movement extended the ethical agenda of the Tobin Tax by suggesting that the money that the tax produced could be collected by a global or international organization and be put to use for international development. Of course this was not an end in itself as the tax would actually produce a small amount of money if it had its desired discouraging effect.

To some members of the antiglobalization movement, the fact that the Tobin Tax has not yet been implemented shows the limits of the idea of a “global regulation” of globalization. This option does not

work because the building blocks of all these organizations are states and because it depends on the willingness and ability of the different governments to implement the necessary laws that would adjust globalization. Once the Tobin Tax could no longer be discarded as interventionist wishful thinking or as a technical impossibility, it still met with international distrust among national states. As long as one country does not implement the tax, so the argument went, the tax would be futile and that particular country would gain a substantial bonus for its economy. As some countries such as the United States and Great Britain are very much against the tax, other governments refused to operate as an international “avant-garde.” By setting an example and implementing the tax, politicians sometimes feared this would hurt the national economy and in the process their own reelection.


The second option to bring globalization under democratic control is therefore much more “anti-hierarchical.” In this option, the basic problem with the present globalization is not so much a lack of global economic and ecological enforceable laws but the very top-down forms of decision making that globalization implies. The problem is not just the “commodification” of everything but the “alienation” of the individual, stripping away sovereignty. Seen from this perspective, the critiques that are raised against global business and capital for being nontransparent and nondemocratic also apply to the state.

Contrary to the actions of large NGOs such as Oxfam or the trade unions, this option leaves less room to use the state as an appropriate channel for change. This option is much more utopian as its fundamental solution is to replace hierarchical institutions such as global business and the state with new politics that again allow for a form of governance that is self-determining. Instead of regulating government in order to regulate capital, the “anti-hierarchical” option wants to come up with a self-organized alternative. This alternative is sometimes sought after in the “civil society,” a difficult sociological concept that in its simplest form refers to an organizational sphere between the state and capital. According to some members of the movements, more power should be attributed to this civil society in order to get the economy and politics under democratic control.

Critics have noted that this idea is not only utopian as it aims for long-term change by neglecting the short-term reality of political and economic institutions, but that it is not much of an alternative in itself as the “civil society” is made up of all kinds of self-governing organizations, some with extreme right, other with extreme leftist political ideas. The “anti-hierarchical” option therefore needs to be more specific about its short-term strategy and long-term ideals.


Given the heterogenic composition of the antiglobalization movement and its refusal to draft a general program, it is not only hard to define the movement and its message but also to evaluate its success. It is clear that some of the issues that the movement rallied against, such as environmental degradation, climate change, or global poverty, have become political priorities. It is another question if the answers that both political and economic institutions come up with would please all anti-globalists. The trade in carbon gas emission rights, or the international promotion of micro-credits, shows that the leading institutions are far from seeing market forces as a problem, not a solution.

Some members of the antiglobalization movement would support these measures, also believing that the market as such is not a problem, but an unregulated market is. Other anti-globalists would certainly disagree, arguing that none of these measures touches the profit motive behind corporate-driven globalization. The dispute shows that the antiglobalization movement had some strong critiques to offer and for some time it was able to capture the public eye. But now that attention has generally turned away and alternatives need to follow up criticism, the future of the antiglobalization movement seems uncertain.


  1. ATTAC, (cited March 2009);
  2. Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke, Global Showdown: How the New Activists Are Fighting Global Corporate Rule (Stoddart, 2001);
  3. Walden Bello, Deglobalization: Ideas for a New World Economy (Zed Books, 2005);
  4. Lance Bennett et al., “Managing the Public Sphere: Journalistic Construction of the Great Globalization Debate,” Journal of Communication (v.54/3, 2004);
  5. William F. Fisher and Thomas Ponniah, Another World Is Possible: Popular Alternatives to Globalization at the World Social Forum (Zed Books, 2003);
  6. Focus on the Global South, www.focusweb .org (cited March 2009);
  7. Thomas Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999);
  8. Global Justice Movement, (cited March 2009);
  9. International Forum on Globalization, (cited March 2009);
  10. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005);
  11. Martin Khor, Rethinking Globalization: Critical Issues and Policy Choices (Zed Books, 2001);
  12. Hans-Peter Martin and Harold Schumann, The Global Trap: Globalization and the Assault on Prosperity and Democracy (St. Martin’s Press, 1997);
  13. Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (University of Toronto Press, 1962);
  14. Heikki Patomäki, Democratising Globalisation. The Leverage of the Tobin Tax (St. Martin’s Press, 2001);
  15. Ignacio Ramonet, The Geopolitics of Chaos (Algora Publishing, 1998);
  16. John Ralston Saul, The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World (Atlantic Books, 2005);
  17. Joseph Stiglitz, Globalization and Its Discontents (W.W. Norton, 2003);
  18. Via Campesina, (cited March 2009);
  19. World Social Forum, (cited March 2009).

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