Why did anti-globalisation fail and anti-globalism succeed?

Centre-right parties showed themselves more willing to hook up with anti-globalism – no threat to the international economic order –  than the centre-left parties had with anti-globalisation.

Jacob Stringer
26 March 2017

Alter-globalization slogans during the protests in Le Havre against the 37th G8 summit in Deauville, France.Wikicommons/Guillaume Paumier. Some rights reserved.Across the world the political centre ground is disappearing, and the new enemy of the people is globalism. Watching the rise of the nationalist right is particularly frustrating if, like me, you took part in protests in the late 1990s and early 2000s against globalisation. These protests for a few years united the radical left with the less radical NGO world. All were in agreement that there was something rotten about free market overdrive globalisation, that it was creating more losers than winners. Millions of people turned out across the world to say ‘No’.

But the centre left parties – the Democrats, Labour, and their equivalents across Europe – were not among them. There were multiple reasons why they gave in to the siren call of globalisation: many of them were or would one day be handsomely paid by global corporations benefiting from their policies. Most of them were taken in too by the tinpot version of economics – neo-liberal and poorly evidenced – that had taken hold in academia, with the help of rich donors. Politicians also have a tendency to think not much beyond the next election, and the effects of free trade agreements often took longer than that, though not very long, to hit home. But there was another reason why the centre left parties couldn’t get on board with the anti-globalisation movement. From the ‘non-political’ NGOs to the radical left, they were offered no alternative ways of organising economies.

Fifteen years later everything the anti-globalisations campaigners said has turned out to be true, and the UK provides a prime example of the fall-out. The manufacturing jobs and farming jobs are not adequately replaced by service jobs. Around a million people in the UK work in call-centres; few of them love it or take pride in it. Millions more are precariously or insufficiently paid or employed. Vast areas of the UK outside of London have non-functioning economies, with no hope in sight. It seems nobody had ever asked: what if South Wales, or Flint, Michigan, has no comparative advantage on the world stage? Now even the EU funding for impoverished areas is on the way out. Meanwhile the government has no economic strategy except to further inflate the housing market and cut taxes for the rich to ‘compete in the global market’.

But the left did not win support as a result of this catastrophic outcome of corporate globalisation, for ‘The Left’ in most people’s eyes was synonymous with the centre left parties that had bought fully into globalisation. Instead the political beneficiaries were nationalist, nativist right wingers who talk not of globalisation but of globalism – a term now creeping from the US into European debate. The difference in terminology is significant. Globalisation refers to certain processes in the interests of corporate trade. Globalism refers to a global outlook, borders too open, a feared mingling of cultures, implied dangerous liaisons with aliens. Being ‘anti’ each implies very different points of view.

The centre-right parties showed themselves more willing to hook up with anti-globalism than the centre-left parties had with anti-globalisation. In part this was because it offered a partially cultural solution to economic problems, and thus could be neutralised as a threat to the international economic order. But it was also because the anti-globalisers had solutions. Make America Great Again by slowing migration and withdrawing from international obligations, make Britain great again by withdrawing from the EU. They weren’t good solutions, but they were comprehensible, easily stated solutions. Thus anti-globalism succeeded where anti-globalisation had failed: it captured the popular imagination as a response to the economic impact of globalisation.

Perhaps, some might suggest, the right won simply because they had more money behind them. It is a problem the left often encounters: they are out-resourced on every side, and their enemies buy success. But that is to let the anti-globalisation movement off the hook too easily. ‘What is your alternative?’ they were constantly asked, and responded either with silence, and carefully constructed theories about why silence was adequate, or with a clamour of competing voices.

I see now that the response was not good enough. I understand why protestors were resentful when those in power demanded alternatives, for it was not our job to be their problem-solvers. I understand why initially it is sometimes necessary to simply resist, without having to offer solutions. But over the long term if a movement is to succeed it needs to offer tangible alternatives, not primarily to those in power, but to our peers, to our equals, our friends and families who, for example, rely on Tesco for their food. To say that you would dismantle Tesco and its iniquitous supply chains, while offering no alternative, is to offer a future of poverty, even starvation.

Most of the solutions that have been offered were small-scale, in denial about the scale of societies we live in, and the scale of solutions we need. Exemplifying this was the Transition Towns movement in the UK, which spent years trying to convince people that we could grow all we needed around us in cities. Even if we could, the hours of peasant labour it would require would rob us of the ability to develop the luxuries that capitalism has offered us. And yes, some of those luxuries are unsustainable, but not all, and a peasant economy with few luxuries is not the proposal of anyone who genuinely wants a mass movement.

Other more radical voices on the libertarian left seemed to suggest, or at least imply, that we should simply destroy Tesco and let new food production forms emerge organically. Mao would have been proud of the level of sacrifice demanded of other people by such a great leap forward. The truth about this line of thought is that those who indulged in it never believed for a moment that they could win. The human cost was immaterial, because it would never actually happen. Are we surprised this never developed into a mass movement? The radical left would often claim they wanted a different type of globalisation, an open but localised and democratic world, but there were precious few practical examples of how it would work.

None of this is an argument for letting centre-left parties off the hook. They were the ones in power, so their failure was the greatest. Their hitching to the band-wagon of corporate globalisation was a failure of principle, a failure of imagination, a failure of comprehension, a failure of empathy, a political failure in every possible way. That is why they are now losing. Most of those in power in those parties have still not comprehended their failure, and that is why they will continue to lose for years to come. The left must learn to offer something better, and in theory the radical left can push the centrist parties towards their version of ‘better’. But what is that?

I continue to pose the question I have posed for years, the ‘Tesco test’, as I call it. What would you do with Tesco? How should people feed themselves? Where should people work? If you have no answer, you cannot expect to be taken seriously – and I don’t mean by those in power, I mean by your neighbours, your co-workers, your fellow sufferers under the neoliberal order. The anti-globalisers have an answer to the Tesco economy: close the borders and kick out the foreigners so that we will all have jobs and decent services. It is one of the most dishonest packages ever offered, it is the wrong answer, a terrible answer, but it is an answer.

I am not arguing that the radical left has to be perfectly united, but until enough people on the left offer enough of one solution, a convincing one that will scale to our current urban societies, we cannot expect to see a left-wing mass movement. To say it plainly, most people will not campaign for the loss of their own food sources. The convergence on an alternative shouldn’t require one organisation or party shepherding everyone into their solution. It needs to be a broad conversation between hundreds, thousands of organisations, and it needs to move beyond conversation into an offering to our peers. It’s difficult to make this sexy. Meetings will be needed. Forms must be filled out. We have a culture of individualistic rebellion from the 50s through to the 80s that created the blind spot for organisational leg-work that we now inhabit: to talk about restructuring of economic institutions isn’t very beat, it isn’t very punk. But it is rebellion, and it is what we need.

The seeds of the new ideas are floating already in the radical left: slowly a broad swathe of opinion has coalesced around a rejection of both total market solutions and total state solutions. Instead there is more talk of creating self-managed commons, of a re-invigoration of co-operatives, of community-owned housing, of peer production, of new forms of local and global democracy. They are great and exciting ideas, and draw on the long history of the left that is more than social democracy or state communism. What they aren’t yet is an alternative to Tesco and the Tesco economy, to a rigged and divided world of ‘free trade’. They do not constitute a coherent plan for us to live differently and better. Only when we have that, can we build a movement that goes beyond small radical left circles. Only then will anti-globalisation be able to defeat anti-globalism.

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