Launched with a bang amidst the tear gas and rubber bullets of Seattle, the anti-globalization protest movement has now been reduced to an eminently ignorable whimper. The anti-globalistas’ big attempt at a post-9/11 comeback flopped miserably in New York over the weekend, as only a few thousand hard-core usual suspects turned out to mouth their brain-dead radical bromides and scuffle occasionally with police. The world responded with a resounding yawn.
From its inception, the protest movement was less than met the eye. Some 30,000 demonstrators gathered in Seattle in November 1999 on the occasion of the World Trade Organization’s ministerial conference. Meetings were disrupted, the city was trashed, and ultimately the WTO ministers failed to agree on a new round of trade talks. But most of the numbers in Seattle were peaceful marchers supplied by organized labor - a good, old-fashioned parochial interest group that had little in common, ideologically or culturally, with the radical activists and “anarchist” goons that grabbed all the media attention. And the failure of the WTO meeting had little to do with the commotion outside. Rather, the Clinton administration’s insistence on negotiating WTO labor standards, and European and Japanese foot-dragging on agricultural liberalization, were the real culprits.
Over the next couple of years, the traveling road show of vandalism and street theater made stops in Washington, D.C., Quebec, London, Davos, Gothenburg, Prague, Genoa, and elsewhere. But despite these occasional, disruptive spectacles, the protest movement never developed a coherent agenda; it proclaimed the radical rejection of the emerging global market economy, but never came up with a plausible radical alternative. Instead it offered an ever-thickening tangle of half-baked and fringe causes: debt relief, the Tobin tax, suspension of patent rights for pharmaceuticals, vegetarianism, animal rights, paganism, freeing Mumia, and so forth.
The protesters imagine that they are the vanguard of some great new social movement, but in truth they represent the last, pathetic gasp of something old and exhausted: the century-long infatuation with spiritual redemption through political action. In the past that utopian yearning powered the rise of the great collectivist ideologies, but the protesters were born too late: those ideologies have already been put into practice, and found to be morally horrific and economically disastrous. A small, disaffected group of true believers with nothing left to believe in soldiers on - still hoping for eventual utopian release from a messy and manifestly imperfect world, but finding solace for now in the simple joys of marching and chanting and renouncing.
The recently increased prominence of this straggling, radical rearguard was to some extent a byproduct of the fat and happy ’90s boom. It is natural in times when material wants are being well tended to for people to seek something higher than mere materialism; the counterculture of the 1960s, after all, flowered against the backdrop of a rollicking economy. And so many who never shared their extremist views indulged the anti-globalistas as well-meaning idealists.
But that indulgence ended - in the United States at least - with the horror of September 11. Suddenly both the message and the methods of the protesters seemed grotesquely inappropriate, if not worse. Radical rejection of democratic capitalism could no longer be passed off as youthful idealism, now that another breed of radical extremism had murdered thousands. Vandalism of downtown storefronts could no longer be tolerated: American cities, now under the threat of devastation, were to be cherished and protected and defended, not trashed. And who, after the heroism of September 11, could view planned provocation of and violence against police as anything other than obscene?
The protest movement only compounded its woes with its rapid embrace of the anti-war - or in other words, the anti-anti-terrorist - cause. Proclamations of moral equivalence between the United States and her enemies, and denunciations of the “racist war” in Afghanistan, were hardly the ticket for broadening the movement’s base of support.
In particular, the war against terror opened a gaping rift between the anti-globalistas and their marriage-of-convenience partners in organized labor. Labor had been planning to join with radical groups in a large demonstration in Washington at the end of September. The unions scrapped their plans almost immediately after the attacks and were quick to offer their enthusiastic backing of the Bush administration’s war effort; meanwhile, a number of anti-globalization groups simply switched hats and went ahead with what became a weekend of anti-war protests. It is difficult to imagine that self-respecting, patriotic hardhats will ever again share the street with the spiritual cousins of Jihad Johnnie Walker.
While the protest movement may now be terminally marginalized, supporters of open markets have no cause for complacency. Opposition to globalization remains endemic and tenacious: look no further than the U.S. steel industry’s latest campaign for additional layers of protectionism for evidence of that fact. Around the world, the beneficiaries of closed markets can be expected to cling to their privileged positions. Those beneficiaries form a much larger rearguard than that of the radical protesters: they are the reactionary defenders of the failed collectivist legacy. We will still be rooting them out long after their feckless utopian fellow travelers have chanted their last.