Street protests that disrupted the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference of 1999 in Seattle are widely credited with sparking the anti-globalization movement.
While the movement began taking shape years before the “Battle in Seattle,” media coverage that accompanied the protests thrust the issue of global justice into the spotlight, according to Heather Gautney, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology.
Gautney’s research focuses on contemporary social movements and globalization. Much of what she studies is how the broad-based global justice movement has grown and changed, and whether it has a future. She said she thinks it does, although it will move away from the anti-war platform it espoused earlier this decade and return to some of its anti-globalization roots.
“Now that we’re dealing with the economic crisis, the war is starting to fade and the economy is becoming the primary issue,” she said. “Positions the movement had in the late 1990s—being against deregulation, for example—are now popular. Even mainstream politicians are saying, ‘We didn’t regulate corporations and look what happened.’”
Gautney first took an interest in the topic while accompanying fellow graduate students to meetings and protests. When global justice activists created the World Social Forum (WSF) in 2001 as a platform to discuss economic, political and social alternatives to globalization, Gautney found a focus for her dissertation and much of her post-doctoral research.
“I thought the World Social Forum should be studied and tracked,” she said. “I was involved in going to meetings for about eight years. I was able to learn things you wouldn’t find out otherwise.”
The WSF, which was held to coincide with the World Economic Forum that occurs annually in the posh city of Davos, Switzerland, drew 20,000 participants to Porto Alegre, Brazil, in its inaugural year.
It received global press coverage and was the primary organizing body for worldwide anti-war demonstrations. At its peak in 2005, the conference boasted 160,000 participants from more than 120 countries.
Since 2006, however, WSF participation has steadily declined. The reason, Gautney said, is that it has lost its radical edge.
“In an effort to avoid politics and be as inclusive as possible, the World Social Forum started to attract groups that were not really opposed to neoliberalism and institutions like the World Bank,” said Gautney, who has attended WSFs in Brazil, Venezuela and Kenya. “A movement can be political and still remain independent and open. The trick is in redefining politics itself.”
She researched three major groups that participated in the WSF—anarchists, political parties and non-governmental organizations—and found that differences between the groups provided some insights as to why the WSF was losing ground.
Similarities between the groups operated as a strong basis for action. They all critiqued large-scale institutions that promoted neo-liberal globalization. And they all wanted to see a more grassroots form of democracy become the norm.
“Very easily summed up, these institutions put profits before people and [the three activist groups]want to reverse that,” Gautney said. “But when forced to articulate a vision of social change, then things would get hairy.”
The vision for social change espoused by members of these groups sometimes conflicted with their actions, which led to criticism, Gautney said.
“I might desire to be free of party influence or corporate influence, but in the real world how do I realize that goal? It’s a huge conflict,” she explained. “The anarchist groups that were the protagonists in Seattle began to contend that the WSF was trying to dilute them or depoliticize them.”
Others criticized WSF organizers for inviting big-name intellectuals and state actors, such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, to speak.
There was even debate as to how much protest was too much after someone was killed at an anti-globalization rally in 2001 in Genoa, Italy.
“So there were big fights within the movement about dangers associated with waging these kind of protests,” Gautney said. “Shortly after that, you have the attacks of Sept. 11, which added to their concerns.
“Is it offensive to disagree with government at a time when everyone is so vulnerable? It became very divisive between these groups. Some of them thought the United States had a right to retaliate against the terrorists and others didn’t. These are fundamental differences.”
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan saw the movement adopt an anti-war focus.
“But with Iraq, almost the entire left was on the same page,” Gautney said. “With the anti-globalization movement, you can say that 250,000 people were on the same page. For the anti-war movement, world records were broken. At an anti-war protest in Italy, there were more than a million people. So it wasmuch more of a social movement.”
Gautney defines a social movement as something that arises organically from some kind of fracture in, or dissatisfaction with, the realm of social relations.
“The anti-war movement was very organic and had a very simple goal—we need to stop the war,” she said. “Now the anti-war movement has become a popular position, so there’s no need for a movement anymore. The economy, especially housing and employment, will be the next field of contestation.”