Skip to Content

A Movement for Real Change?

The anti-globalisation movement is probably the most widely-supported grassroots campaign in the world today. It is not just a matter of thousands attending demonstrations in cities such as Seattle and Genoa, to protest against increased commercialisation and capitalist clubs like the World Trade Organisation, only to be met with the vicious attacks of riot police. Nor is it just the meetings of the World Social Forum, held for instance in Porto Alegre and Mumbai, where people have come together to discuss what is wrong with the world and how to change it. Rather is it an amorphous grouping which includes movements for land reform in Latin America, independence for West Papua, opposition to the spread of McDonalds and Starbucks, and much more. It includes many who reject the concentration of wealth and power which currently exists, some who want fairly mild reforms of the present world system, and others who see themselves as advocating root and branch change.
As the above suggests, it is a movement that is hard to pin down and impossible to characterise in a few words pin down and impossible to characterise in a few words. A common criticism that is made, however, is that it is clearer what it opposes than what it stands for. Expressions such as ‘anti-globalisation’ and ‘anti-capitalist’ are all very well, but they clearly prompt the question: pro-what? A recent attempt to confront this issue head-on is Paul Kingsnorth’s book One No, Many Yeses (published by the Free Press). Kingsnorth spent nine months travelling (to South Africa, Mexico, Brazil, West Papua, United States, Italy), participating in protests and talking to others involved in them, trying to find out the reality of the anti-globalisation movement.
His report on his visit to South Africa will be a revelation to any who thought that the end of apartheid would automatically mean a much better deal for black South Africans. Instead, under the African National Congress government, electricity cut-offs, rent hikes and evictions have all increased, and the poor have been getting poorer. Since 1996, the ANC has adopted a ‘neo-liberal’ economic policy, involving large-scale privatisation and opening of the doors to the effects of globalisation.  Kingsnorth’s conclusion is that ‘political freedom without economic freedom is meaningless’. It is certainly true that just having the vote and an end to racist laws do not make people free, even if ‘meaningless’ is an overstatement.
The book’s title refers to the idea that there is no single answer to the problems confronting people: ‘no one system can integrate the needs of all the different people in the world, who all want different kinds of things.’ So a landless person in Brazil wants land, an opponent of corporate power in the US may want to stop the building of yet another Wal-Mart superstore, a West Papuan wants rid of the Indonesian occupation, a Zapatista in Mexico wants power to be devolved as far as possible to ground level. These demands are not incompatible as long as they apply in different places.
As for the view that the anti-globalisation movement is essentially negative, Kingsnorth relates the contribution of Lori Wallach at the 2002 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre. Wallach, who has been active in exposing the WTO, claims that they are not an ‘anti’-movement, unlike their opponents:

“We’re for democracy, for diversity, for equity, for environmental health. They’re holding on to a failed status quo; they’re the antis. They are anti-democracy and anti-people. We must go forward as a movement for global justice.”

Yet even this is extraordinarily vague as to what being for democracy and equity and so on really involves, what the concrete aims are and how anyone might organise to achieve them.
The Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico are often viewed as a model of what can be achieved. While they are definitely a departure from the corruption and toadying of establishment Mexican politics, they do not offer a solution that people throughout the world should look to since their aims remain set within a framework of wage labour and government. The forces of globalisation will undermine any efforts to improve things at a national rather than a world level.
In his final chapter, Kingsnorth reflects on the movement he has been investigating, ‘a movement of people who feel cut off’. It is a revolution that is already taking place, he says, one that stands for redistribution and autonomy, one that rejects any model consisting of leaders and followers. Essentially, it is a revolution about power, concerned to wrest it from elites and decentralise it, not hand it over to new rulers. One aspect of this is a very encouraging opposition to leadership, a welcome scepticism towards the ‘old left’ in general and the SWP in particular.
The principles that Kingsnorth puts forward include: genuine democracy, as opposed to the dictatorship of markets or governments; cultural etc. diversity, as opposed to the bland forced universality of capitalism; decentralisation of decision-making, rather than its concentration; self-determination and autonomy, not passive consumption; access to common land and resources, not private control. This is promising as an initial list; but then come his proposals (not ‘half-measures’, he claims) for how to bring all this about. Abolish the WTO and IMF; constrain the global financial system; restrict the behaviour of corporations; democratise the United Nations; stop the private monopolisation of public resources such as land and water; start a global conversation about where we want the world to go. It is a time, he says, to be bold, to call for everything we want rather than gather crumbs from the table.
Unfortunately, like the movement he chronicles, he is nowhere near bold or imaginative enough. His thinking is stuck very much within the blinkers of capitalism, since plainly in his vision there will still be companies (which means private ownership of the means of production, and production for profit), banks, shares, countries and all the other paraphernalia of property society. Applying some of Kingsnorth’s ideas more consistently, however, would lead to more radical conclusions. Re-think the commons, he says: ‘Everything which provides a common good for people as a whole, should be bound in by strict rules guaranteeing public access and preventing private incursion.’
Let’s apply this to all the means of production: let them all be owned in common and used for the good of people by means of production for use. There will be no need for rules to guarantee this in a socialist society based on cooperation and democracy, where decisions are made at the most appropriate level. This is not the kind of ‘one size fits all’ solution that the anti-globalisation movement objects to, since socialism need not be exactly the same everywhere and at all times, though plainly its basic principles will not vary. And when it comes to it, all the various demands made by the movement that Kingsnorth discusses result from a single cause – the existence and spread of global capitalism – so a single solution is to be expected. That solution is socialism, the single ‘yes’ that counts.