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

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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