Trump and the Legacy of the Anti-Globalization Movement

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Really, Mr. Trump, it’s been surprising to hear some of the language you’ve been using in your Presidential campaign: globalization is a bad thing, you want fair trade rather than free trade, the global elites are out to get us. The last time I heard such rhetoric, I was inside a besieged convergence center preparing for a police raid.

I’m curious if you’re aware that there was already an anti-globalization movement? Like, twenty years ago?

Take NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. When it was passed, your argument against it was simply that “The Mexicans want it.” Perhaps you didn’t know about the EZLN, who timed their uprising of January 1, 1994 to coincide with the agreement going into effect because they knew NAFTA would spread poverty and anguish in Mexico as well? Instead of demonizing an entire country, if you really were concerned about the effects of globalization, you might have looked for allies on the other side of the border. (By your logic, you’d think that today Mexico should be a paradise of middle class security, not a hell of precarity and cartel violence.)

But perhaps it’s too much to ask that you keep up with foreign affairs. America First, right?

So where were you on November 30, 1999, when opponents of capitalist globalization shut down the summit of the World Trade Organization in Seattle? The third in a series of Global Days of Action, it was the watershed event that propelled what came to be known as the anti-globalization movement into the public eye. That was the pivotal moment to take on the Clinton family and their funders—why did you leave it up to a bunch of hooded anarchists?

Perhaps you had a business meeting that weekend and you couldn’t make it. But I don’t recall seeing you in Quebec City at the protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas ministerial in 2001, either. The police shot so much tear gas at us that it entered the ventilation system of the building in which the meetings were taking place. In those days, standing up to the global elite earned you a volley of chemical weapons, concussion grenades, and rubber bullets—not a presidential bid.

Sometimes the bullets were real: rest in peace Carlo Giuliani, murdered by police during the protests against the G8 summit in Genoa that summer.

But you were at another business meeting, I’m guessing. What about the FTAA ministerial in Miami in November 2003—one of the most brutal militarized police operations against protest activity in the United States up to that point? Thousands of people were gassed and beaten, hundreds arrested and tortured. That was one of the summits at which police departments engaged in tens of millions of dollars worth of illegal activity to suppress opposition to capitalist globalization at any cost.

I understand you’ve gone to some lengths to bring the issue of globalization to the attention of the Republican Party. You are not the first to try this, either. During the Republican National Convention in 2000, three protesters from our ranks were charged with nine felonies and twenty-seven misdemeanors apiece, with bail set at hundreds of thousands of dollars, for the dubious privilege of being beaten up by the Police Commissioner of Philadelphia. At their trial in 2004, police officers described in lurid detail how the defendants had threatened their lives and knocked them unconscious—all of which was then contradicted by video footage of the same police officers, fully conscious and uninjured, astride the handcuffed arrestees, ruthlessly pummeling them. Although the judge’s allegiances clearly lay with the police, he was forced to declare the defendants innocent, as there was no evidence they had engaged in any kind of illegal activity.

That was just one case out of thousands like it. If that isn’t corruption, if that isn’t the odds being stacked against the little guy, I don’t know what is.

Here’s the point. It took a lot of fighting to render the critique of capitalist globalization thinkable. When protesters started taking on the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank, they weren’t topics of household conversation; most people had no idea what they were or did. Millions around the world had to work together across borders, oceans, and lines of riot police to develop and popularize a language with which to diagnose the problems specific to globalized capitalism. To politicians and economists, this movement was incomprehensible: their response boiled down to shut up and let us handle this.

The alternative we were promoting in this movement was a vision of liberation: in refusing the capitalist vision of a unified global market, we wanted to link humanity together in a worldwide network of mutual aid, collective defense, and shared access to resources. We wanted to make the experts irrelevant, replacing their centralized bureaucracy with local self-determination.

How could this narrative become something that could be useful to Donald Trump? This is the really important question.

When state carries out repression against social movements, you could describe this as a form of armed criticism. Such attacks show where the movements are strong, where they are weak, where they are overextended, where they lack the capacity to defend themselves. If we are attentive to the victories that the state wins by means of repression, we can learn how to make our movements stronger and more effective.

The same goes for cooptation. When our opponents are able to appropriate our discourse to advance reactionary goals, it shows what was reactionary in the discourse in the first place. We can reevaluate the anti-globalization era in this light.

The first red flag is the rhetoric of “anti-globalization” itself. From the anarchist perspective, the problem was never that capitalism was global, but that it was capitalism; anarchist participants in the anti-globalization movement didn’t want more democratic control of the economy on a state-by-state basis, but to abolish all national and transnational institutions of top-down governance. The “anti-globalization” label was originally imposed on us against our will by media outlets determined to represent us as backwards and isolationist and to avoid using the word “capitalism” negatively in print—a threshold that wasn’t really crossed until the Occupy movement. At first, many participants resisted: in some settings, the expression “alter-globalization” gained currency as an alternative, as did “movement of movements” and the like. But “anti-globalization” remained the best-known label, and it opened the way for the whole movement to be subsumed under a banner that could one day lead a march in the opposite direction.

Today, after the economic crisis, Occupy, and the various other uprisings, it’s strange to think people were so hesitant to push an explicitly anti-capitalist agenda. But a similar process played out in the movement against white supremacy and policing that came to be known after the uprising in Ferguson by the comparatively tame label Black Lives Matter.

Once the legacy of the anti-globalization movement was reduced to reformism, the way was open for a Trump to appropriate its rhetoric. Calls for fair trade rather than free trade can be made from the right as well as the left: so long as trade remains the center of gravity, it’s a matter for politicians and economists to settle, not grassroots movements. Likewise, it’s a very short step from “buy local” to “buy American.” Most insidiously, the rhetoric of democracy can serve multiple masters. One of the chief arguments against neoliberal globalization has been that it is undemocratic, and now it is the nationalists—the partisans of #Brexit and the like—who are appropriating the rhetoric of direct democracy to legitimize their agenda of bona fide backwards isolationism, heralding the referendum about whether Britain should leave the European Union as a triumph of direct democracy.

It is ironic indeed that one of the biggest power players in the global economy could pose as a rebel determined to protect ordinary workers. Talk about opportunism! If the anarchist solution for globalized capitalism remains utopian, chiefly on account of the small number of people prepared to implement it, the nationalist solution is not even based on an understanding of how capitalism works. As long as resources are distributed according to the imperatives of the market, manufacturing jobs will only be offered to those who are cheaper than machines, the poor are going to go on getting poorer, and the progressive exclusion of more and more sectors of the population from the social safety net will be inevitable. The poor and desperate who vote for Trump are only digging their own graves.

The anti-globalization movement is not the only target of right-wing appropriation. We are seeing this across the spectrum now. Xenophobes are using atheist and feminist rhetoric to promote Islamophobia; the same thing will likely take place with LGBTQ narratives shortly. (Already, President Obama has commemorated the Stonewall Riots with a national monument.) We need to be able to think on our feet if we are to avoid ending up in the wrong march.

All this is a reminder of how influential radical social movements can be, no matter how marginal they appear. We radicals are risk tolerant, as they say in the business world. We often pave the way for new ideas; but we have to stick to our guns lest our innovations be used against us. Those who were liberal reformists in the anti-globalization movement should see now what comes of their pragmatism.

In “The Shock of Victory,” David Graeber argued that the anti-globalization movement achieved practically all of its mid-range goals, but lacked a second stage of goals to propel it towards the long-term objectives of anarchist participants. Graeber has a penchant for declaring victory, but there’s something to this. In every conflict, in every campaign, we have to aim beyond the target. Otherwise, by the time our initial demands are granted, it will be our enemies fulfilling them, to advance their agenda.

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