Globaloney Dying

This article appeared in TCS Daily on February 5, 2002 .
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Launched with a bang amidst the tear gas and rubber bullets ofSeattle, the anti-globalization protest movement has now beenreduced to an eminently ignorable whimper. The anti-globalistas'big attempt at a post-9/11 comeback flopped miserably in New Yorkover the weekend, as only a few thousand hard-core usual suspectsturned out to mouth their brain-dead radical bromides and scuffleoccasionally with police. The world responded with a resoundingyawn.

From its inception, the protest movement was less than met theeye. Some 30,000 demonstrators gathered in Seattle in November 1999on the occasion of the World Trade Organization's ministerialconference. Meetings were disrupted, the city was trashed, andultimately the WTO ministers failed to agree on a new round oftrade talks. But most of the numbers in Seattle were peacefulmarchers supplied by organized labor - a good, old-fashionedparochial interest group that had little in common, ideologicallyor culturally, with the radical activists and "anarchist" goonsthat grabbed all the media attention. And the failure of the WTOmeeting had little to do with the commotion outside. Rather, theClinton administration's insistence on negotiating WTO laborstandards, and European and Japanese foot-dragging on agriculturalliberalization, were the real culprits.

Over the next couple of years, the traveling road show ofvandalism and street theater made stops in Washington, D.C.,Quebec, London, Davos, Gothenburg, Prague, Genoa, and elsewhere.But despite these occasional, disruptive spectacles, the protestmovement never developed a coherent agenda; it proclaimed theradical rejection of the emerging global market economy, but nevercame up with a plausible radical alternative. Instead it offered anever-thickening tangle of half-baked and fringe causes: debtrelief, the Tobin tax, suspension of patent rights forpharmaceuticals, vegetarianism, animal rights, paganism, freeingMumia, and so forth.

The protesters imagine that they are the vanguard of some greatnew social movement, but in truth they represent the last, patheticgasp of something old and exhausted: the century-long infatuationwith spiritual redemption through political action. In the pastthat utopian yearning powered the rise of the great collectivistideologies, but the protesters were born too late: those ideologieshave already been put into practice, and found to be morallyhorrific and economically disastrous. A small, disaffected group oftrue believers with nothing left to believe in soldiers on - stillhoping for eventual utopian release from a messy and manifestlyimperfect world, but finding solace for now in the simple joys ofmarching and chanting and renouncing.

The recently increased prominence of this straggling, radicalrearguard was to some extent a byproduct of the fat and happy '90sboom. It is natural in times when material wants are being welltended to for people to seek something higher than merematerialism; the counterculture of the 1960s, after all, floweredagainst the backdrop of a rollicking economy. And so many who nevershared their extremist views indulged the anti-globalistas aswell-meaning idealists.

But that indulgence ended - in the United States at least - withthe horror of September 11. Suddenly both the message and themethods of the protesters seemed grotesquely inappropriate, if notworse. Radical rejection of democratic capitalism could no longerbe passed off as youthful idealism, now that another breed ofradical extremism had murdered thousands. Vandalism of downtownstorefronts could no longer be tolerated: American cities, nowunder the threat of devastation, were to be cherished and protectedand defended, not trashed. And who, after the heroism of September11, could view planned provocation of and violence against policeas anything other than obscene?

The protest movement only compounded its woes with its rapidembrace of the anti-war - or in other words, theanti-anti-terrorist - cause. Proclamations of moral equivalencebetween the United States and her enemies, and denunciations of the"racist war" in Afghanistan, were hardly the ticket for broadeningthe movement's base of support.

In particular, the war against terror opened a gaping riftbetween the anti-globalistas and their marriage-of-conveniencepartners in organized labor. Labor had been planning to join withradical groups in a large demonstration in Washington at the end ofSeptember. The unions scrapped their plans almost immediately afterthe attacks and were quick to offer their enthusiastic backing ofthe Bush administration's war effort; meanwhile, a number ofanti-globalization groups simply switched hats and went ahead withwhat became a weekend of anti-war protests. It is difficult toimagine that self-respecting, patriotic hardhats will ever againshare the street with the spiritual cousins of Jihad JohnnieWalker.

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 nofurther than the U.S. steel industry's latest campaign foradditional layers of protectionism for evidence of that fact.Around the world, the beneficiaries of closed markets can beexpected to cling to their privileged positions. Thosebeneficiaries form a much larger rearguard than that of the radicalprotesters: they are the reactionary defenders of the failedcollectivist legacy. We will still be rooting them out long aftertheir feckless utopian fellow travelers have chanted theirlast.