A Maturing Movement

But activists still disagree on the best course to ‘another world’

David Moberg

Thousands gather in the "happy port."
—If the mood of nearly 100,000 global justice advocates who gathered for the third World Social Forum is a good indicator, the prospects for their campaign against the way the world’s economy is now run are as sunny as this summery “happy port.”

Even as the threat of war in Iraq preoccupied delegates from 126 countries, and created a new focus on the United States as the single dominating power in the world, this optimism was a striking contrast to the doom and gloom reported from Davos, Switzerland, where business and political elites met in the opposing camp of the World Economic Forum.

In Porto Alegre, there was a prevailing sense that the “Washington consensus”—deregulated markets, free capital flows, privatization of public services, privileges for multinational corporations, and economic austerity—had little popular legitimacy and declining official support. Even the international financial institutions have been forced to give the appearance of putting social issues, like reducing poverty and debt, at the center of their agendas. “The Washington consensus and neoliberalism have been defeated,” proclaimed Jose Dirceu, chief of staff for Brazil’s new president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

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But the global justice movement is still divided on the policies for “another world” and the strategies to get there. The divisions are between North and South—that is, countries at different levels of income and economic development. But they are also found among movements within countries at each level.

The most fundamental conflict is between totally rejecting “globalization” or trying to make global economic relations more just. Calls to abolish the IMF still motivate street protests. But many are now more interested in defining a new model of globalization. A recent survey of 15 countries conducted by Environics, a Canadian firm, found that despite positive general sentiments about growing global linkages, clear majorities in most countries say that globalization is driven by the interests of big corporations, that globalization concentrates wealth rather than extending opportunities to all, and that “global society” should concentrate on social issues before economic growth.

At one debate in Porto Alegre, Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, and Yashpal Tandon of Socrine, a Ugandan NGO, both argued for withdrawing from the international economy to either nationally or regionally based economic development strategies. On the other side, Eveline Herfkens of the U.N. Campaign for the Millennium Development Goals argued that protests and criticism are changing international institutions. Still, she acknowledged global “deficits” in the areas of adequate economic regulation, democracy and coherence among international institutions. (The World Trade Organization and World Health Organization pursue conflicting policies on AIDS treatment, for example).

Brazil’s Dirceu outlined a strategy that was both national and global, reflecting his role as a chief strategist in a new government which must balance the demands of its populist base with the need to avoid provoking retaliation from international financial markets and the U.S. government. “I can see no way that we can ignore the fact that we must take on national development” and use national industrial policy to create jobs, he said. “But I do not think you can delink from the world economic project. It is dangerous.”

While social movements in Latin America denounce the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, as Lula himself once did, his government now expresses willingness to negotiate an FTAA. But Lula’s version would be much different from the one the Bush administration is pushing, and would require Latin America to agree first on its own priorities before negotiating with the United States.

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While groups from both North and South worry about the disruptive forces of corporate globalization, their perspectives often diverge. Looking at China, for example, Martin Khor of the Malaysian-based Third World Network is concerned that China’s entry into the WTO will force 100 million Chinese peasants from the land as cheap, subsidized grains flood the market.

On the other hand, Bill Brett of the International Labor Organization worries that all the jobs will go to China when global garment quotas expire under WTO rules next year. “The danger is that everything moves to China,” he says, “where no trade union standards are honored and the right to strike is trampled. How do you make it fair when American capitalism and Chinese communism form an irresistible combination for commandeered labor?”

Trade issues often risk pitting potential global justice allies against each other. Brazilian metal workers were unhappy when Bush imposed, union-backed tariffs on steel imports last year. But Brazilian and U.S. steel union leaders met in Porto Alegre to talk about common campaigns on issues like debt relief and fighting anti-union multinational corporations. “We made the decision to look beyond these problems and try to find things we could work on in common,” said United Steelworkers global representative Doug Niehouse.

Fernando Lopes, soon to be president of the 900,000-member Brazilian metalworkers union, explained that after visiting the United States, “We know more about what happened in the United States, more about the real problems in the United States and the real position of steelworkers in America. Also, we now have more power with our own boss,” who had tried to blame unrelated job cuts on the tariffs.

Many parts of the global justice movement want to restrict global rule-making, especially NAFTA provisions permitting corporations to sue governments to change domestic laws, or WTO expansion of marketplace domination to public services. The latter would turn water into a commodity and undermine everything from prisons to education. The global labor movement continues to campaign for labor rights and environmental protection in the WTO. And groups including the French-originated international organization ATTAC want to increase international regulation of tax havens and financial speculation, including imposition of a tiny “Tobin” tax on global currency trading.

Yet “The World Is Not For Sale” coalition is not building its campaign to “shrink or sink” the WTO at next September’s Cancun, Mexico, ministerial meeting by mounting massive protests that risk brutal repression. Instead, the coalition plans to ratchet up political pressure domestically on individual governments.

There is a growing recognition, partly inspired by Lula’s victory, that the movement must move beyond protest to politics. Whatever the long-term goal, eventually the question comes down to who’s in power in national states. Global markets and corporations may be overwhelming many governments, but governments also have unnecessarily given away their powers. “We can’t change or abolish the WTO, IMF or World Bank except through governments,” argued Susan George, vice president of ATTAC. “Protests at meetings don’t stop institutions. We need binding laws, and we can only get them through governments.”

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Lula provides a model for other countries. Brought to the presidency by the Workers Party, itself formed through decades of rigorously grassroots, politically inclusive and democratic organizing, Lula now faces great expectations at home. His allies expect him to reform labor laws to strengthen an already vibrant union movement. Much as they support him, union leaders and other social activists intend to keep mobilizing their supporters and pressuring Lula to deliver on his promises to end hunger and expand the domestic market by redistributing income.

At the same time, the new president is burdened with a high-interest, rapidly growing, ultimately unsustainable foreign debt that more than doubled under his predecessor. Lula is trying to tackle global pressures on Brazil and assert more control over the national economy with other measures, such as reform of the tax system.

The New York Times recently reported that the Workers Party lost the governor’s race last fall in the state of Rio Grande do Sul partly because it refused to give $37 million in public subsidies to Ford to build a new plant in the state. Ford instead built the plant with subsidies in lower-wage Bahia. Now Lula intends to reform tax laws to eliminate such competition between states for multinational investment. Like nearly every new government initiative in Brazil, this will be developed through wide-ranging discussions involving business, labor, NGOs and politicians, with the new governor of Rio Grande do Sul, ironically enough, as head of the commission.

No unified strategy emerged from Porto Alegre. But along with a shared sense of hope, the faint outline appeared of a maturing movement that strives to expand protest to encompass politics more broadly, to define alternatives for both nations and regions to assert more autonomy, and to create new global institutions that would regulate the world economy with greater justice.

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David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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