Saturday, April 24, 2010

Will the Last Anti-Globalizationist Turn Off the Lights?

. Saturday, April 24, 2010

Drezner points to this WaPo item, noting that IMF protests ain't what they used to be:

Opponents of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are protesting in the nation's capital.

About 20 activists gathered early Friday afternoon ahead of IMF and World Bank meetings this weekend in Washington. They say the international institutions favor banks and corporations and drive struggling economies into debt and poverty.

20 whole activists? Well blow me down. The G-20 protests in Pittsburgh last year weren't much more impressive. (The protest was at its largest when unaware Pitt students joined protestors and started chanting "Let's Go Pitt!") But this doesn't actually surprise me too much. In teaching over the past few semesters I've noticed that my students generally have no idea that the IMF, World Bank, and WTO are controversial organizations. Even fewer of them know why they're controversial. This is in stark contrast to my undergrad days, which coincided with the Battle in Seattle and other large protests. Then the anti-globalizationists were loud, proud, numerous, and armed to the teeth with a brainful of "Did you know?" statistics and the good humor of Adbusters (where the image above originated). Now nobody on campus seems to care too much.

I wonder why? I can think of a few possibilities. First, the protests were loudest in the 1990s because of NAFTA (1994), the establishment of the WTO to supplant the GATT (1995), the fairly brutal "Big Bang" liberalization of the post-Soviet economies throughout the 1990s, the harsh austerity measures that came with IMF aid following the East Asian financial crises (1997-8), and the accession of China to the WTO (2001). It was a pretty active decade for neoliberals, which means it was a fairly active decade for anti-capitalists and anti-globalizationists despite the collapse of the Soviet system a few years prior.

Since 2001? Not much has happened on the globalization front. Doha is stuck in limbo, even modest FTAs with small countries have been slow in progressing through Congress, and the IMF had basically nothing to do for nearly a decade. Now that the IMF has been pressed into action again it's largely taken a more accommodating line toward recipient states, and it's pretty difficult to argue that Greece, e.g., is a victim of Western economic imperialists. The globalization of the Naughties was a kindler, gentler, calmer globalization compared to the Brave New World Is Flat globalization of the 1990s.

But I think that's only part of it. I think a better explanation is that people in general, and college students in particular, only have attention for one cause at a time, and environmentalism has definitely become the sexy issue over the past 8-10 years. When I hear people complain about China's trade practices these days, the arguments are less about the use of sweatshop labor and more about environmental degradation. To me it seems that the one has simply supplanted the other as the most pressing issue for the socially conscious.

I don't have a good explanation for why the shift has occurred, and maybe my experience isn't representative. I'd love to hear views from others that either confirm or deny my impression. Then again, if only 20 bother to show up for an IMF protest in D.C., maybe there's something to it.

(UPDATE: Drezner responds, and I fire back here.)


Stephanie Carvin said...

Thing still seem to be relatively alive and well here in Europe protest wise - but that probably isn't a surprise. We have 1 May coming up which is always fun.

However, I wonder if the anti-globalization movement got eaten up a bit by the anti-war movement? I mean, on 1 May, you'll probably see more "Troops Out!" posters than anti-capitalist ones in Trafalgar Square.

Anonymous said...

maybe it's just because these western financial institutions have become less active and less neoliberal in recent years, except for the last few months when the IMF has become involved with Greece. or, since countries have been embracing neoliberal policies less (i'm mainly thinking of Latin America here) over the last decade or so, people are less upset with the western financial institutions. so, they are less of a target for public scorn when people from such institutions meet or when crises occur. contrary to your account, this largely assumes that public majorities are well informed.

Kindred Winecoff said...

Stephanie -

It's not surprising that the protest spirit is alive and well in Europe. What else to do with all that subsidized vacation time? ; )

But are the protests at all about globalization, about how these hegemonic imperial undemocratic institutions are eroding individual sovereignty and destroying cultural diversity? That's not a rhetorical question... I don't have my thumb on the pulse of European protest culture, and I'm genuinely interested to know.

I agree that some of that spirit got sucked up by the anti-war movement. But those protests have basically dried up in the U.S. as well. Perhaps it's different in Europe.

Anon -

What you said is basically the same thing I wrote in my post. And I never claimed that public majorities aren't well-informed.

Will the Last Anti-Globalizationist Turn Off the Lights?
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