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Where Do We Go From Here?

Pondering the Future of Our Movement
by Joshua KarlinerCorpWatch
October 11th, 2001

After September 11th: Where Do We Go From Here?
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The closer you get to lower Manhattan's Ground Zero, the more powerful the immediate reality of what has happened. I went there last week. And despite the bombardment of TV images I had experienced before, I was not prepared. The enormity of the still smoldering ruins and the toxic stench that hung over the area overwhelmed me; I stared vacantly at a mass grave of 5,000 human beings, murdered in a matter of minutes.

And now there comes another wave of nausea, accompanying the announcement that we are bombing the hell out of Afghanistan. Thousands more innocents will most probably die. A country already on the brink of mass starvation will in all likelihood be pushed over into the abyss. And most probably, the cycle of violence will only escalate, breeding more war, terrorism, death and destruction. Another tragic play is being acted out on the world stage and, and most of us can only sit and helplessly watch the horror, mass media voyeurs.

On top of all this, the events of September 11th and their aftermath have put activists addressing the ills of globalization in a terribly difficult position. What was an increasingly dynamic and effective international movement to place human, labor and environmental rights above unfettered trade and corporate profit, finds itself struggling to make its way out from under the metaphorical rubble of the World Trade Center.

The kamikaze terrorists chose their two targets in Washington DC and New York for their symbolic impact. Therein lies part of the problem for those of us challenging the injustices of the global economic system. The World Trade Center, the scene of this devastating crime against humanity, was also emblematic of a global economic system that has evoked massive protests by trade unionists, environmentalists, farmers, consumers, students and just plain folks from Seattle to Chiang Mai, Cochabamba, Prague, Quebec and Genoa.

So it is critical for our movement -- one of the most significant international social movements to emerge in recent decades -- to strongly differentiate itself from the homicidal religious fundamentalists who struck at and paralyzed the nerve center of global capitalism. At the same time we must somehow continue to build (and to rebuild and reconfigure) our initiatives for local and global justice.

Yet we find ourselves challenged to do so at a moment, for many of us in the US, when we find our moral, political and emotional compass spinning. The attacks are still fresh in everyone's consciousness.

So it's in this context, that I am trying to untangle the situation that -- at least from a US perspective -- we as activists and citizens find ourselves in. I hope it will contribute to a productive, forward -- looking discussion about where we go from here.

I think the movement for a different kind of globalization faces at least three fundamental challenges in the post-9-11 world:

  1. To assert the relevance of our issues in a sophisticated and nuanced way that does not alienate the hard-won public support gained since Seattle, and express solidarity with the growing list of victims, be they commodity traders, firemen, Sikh gas station attendants, or Afghan civilians.

  2. To defend ourselves and others from a new trend which might be called "terrorist-baiting."

  3. To regain the initiative in this global debate by building a platform for peace, justice and grassroots globalization.

If we can adequately respond to these challenges, the increasingly broad-based, decentralized, international coalitions that have emerged in the last several years may, in fact, become an important force in the creation of a more just, peaceful and secure world. If we cannot, we risk becoming marginalized -- a mere footnote to an ongoing narrative of injustice and war.


Challenge 1: Finding a New Relevance

The immediate cause of the terrorist attacks on the United States appears to be the evil genius of Osama bin Laden and his Al Queda organization. Indeed, dismantling this terror network has been the focus of much of the world in the aftermath of the horrific events in New York and Washington.

The shock and horror of these attacks took the wind out of the sails of the anti-corporate globalization movement. Organizers of the World Bank/IMF protests wisely cancelled the late September street demonstrations -- for which police were predicting a turnout of 100,000. Activist plans around the November WTO meeting in Qatar were put on hold and then revamped. Like most everyone else, the movement was in a collective state of shock and uncertainty -- not knowing what would come next. In many respects -- even as bombs begin to fall over Afghanistan -- we are still in this same place a month after the attacks. Outrage and grief still haunt us.

Yet we cannot afford to be paralyzed. For the Bush administration is placing globalization at center stage. Calling for a campaign to "fight terror with trade," US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick has spearheaded an all out effort to take advantage of the post September 11th political moment and push fast track authority through Congress. The US is also lobbying hard to open a new round of trade negotiations at the upcoming WTO ministerial in Qatar.

Zoellick argues that free trade will lead to greater economic and political security and stability in the world. It is the same argument that pro-free traders have always made. But the stakes are suddenly raised as Zoellick re-frames the fight for "free trade" as part of an anti-terrorism campaign. Of course, we should respond with the same argument we have always made: that free trade and corporate-driven globalization are actually leading to greater economic and political instability.

Globalization, we have always said, is actually creating greater poverty and dislocation, exacerbating environmental destruction, undermining democracy as it caters to global corporate interests. The globalization of corporate media also flaunts our affluence while broadcasting a narrow, distorted picture of Western culture to nearly every corner on earth. The economic model Zoellick touts may be sowing the seeds of terrorism in the long-run.

It is overly simplistic to pin the blame for terrorism on any one element such as globalization. Certainly, there are other big issues that also have bearing on the current crisis. Many of these have surfaced as people have begun to ask what would compel any group of people to such a horrendous undertaking as September 11th? Analysts on the left have recounted numerous instances where the US government has supported or engaged in the bombing or terrorizing of civilian populations -- from Hiroshima to South East Asia to Central America. Other more focused explanations range from the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza; to the ongoing embargo and bombing of Iraq -- which has resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1 million civilians there; to the racist history of colonialism in the Middle East; to the oil-driven US foreign and military policy in the region which have propped up repressive regimes that have so restricted civil society that many dissenters have had little alternative but to turn toward religious fundamentalism.

When taken together these various strands make up the fabric from which Islamic fundamentalism, Al Queda and other terrorist groups have emerged as powerfully destructive forces on the world stage.

It is our movement's responsibility, while maintaining solidarity with the victims of 9-11, to examine and articulate the specific globalization-related components of this crisis as part of a bigger picture. Indeed, in this respect, globalization is now more relevant than ever.


Challenge 2: Terrorist-Baiting

Prior to September 11th, global organizing and well articulated political-intellectual critiques had combined with primarily non-violent street protests to form a burgeoning social movement. The general public and even some government officials, such as French President Jacques Chirac, were increasingly recognizing the validity of the issues raised by the protestors.

Suddenly, after September 11th, the tables have turned. Our movement's credibility is coming under question. The anti-corporate globalization movement -- the movement for a more democratic "grassroots globalization" -- is being either explicitly or implicitly, but certainly falsely, linked to the terrorist attacks.

Irresponsible slings and arrows began to fly on September 11th when US Congressman Don Young of Alaska suggested that instead of Islamist extremists who were responsible for the acts of terror, there was a "strong possibility" that it was the work of anti-globalization protestors.

Young quickly shut up, but Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi followed suit about two weeks later, asserting that Islam is attacking the West from outside and anti-globalization protestors are attacking it from within. Then, declaring that "on September 11th, America, its open society and its ideas came under attack by a malevolence that craves our panic, retreat and abdication of global leadership," United States Trade Representative Robert Zoellick dangerously began to paint critics of free-trade as un-patriotic. "We will not be intimidated by those who have taken to the streets to blame trade -- and America -- for the world's ills."

And, suggesting that by forcing the cancellation of the World Bank and IMF meetings in Washington DC in late September "the terrorists have, in fact, achieved some of the anti-globalization protestors' dearest objectives," corporate-globalization booster Reginald Dale concludes in an op-ed in the International Herald Tribune. "While they are not deliberately setting out to slaughter thousands of innocent people, the protestors who want to prevent the holding of meetings like those of the IMF or the WTO are seeking to advance their political agenda through intimidation, which is a classic goal of terrorism."

Not unlike red-baiting of the Cold War era, this terrorist-baiting of what is an overwhelmingly peaceful, democratic movement, is a dangerous trend that could have serious implications not only for the future of dissent and democratic debate, but also for the safety of the dissenters themselves.

By defining dissent as unpatriotic, terrorist-baiting may wind up smearing people who may disagree with the government and the global status quo, but by no means support the ideology or tactics of the group defined as the "enemy."

To combat terrorist-baiting and keep it from becoming a more pervasive and dangerous phenomenon, the movement against corporate-driven globalization should take several steps. It is vital, for instance, to counter irresponsible statements such as those quoted above. It is also key to demonstrate solidarity with others who are already victims of the racist backlash in the wake of the attacks, especially South Asians, Arabs and black Muslims.

The movement must also now, more than ever, be unequivocal in its commitment to non-violence, and in condemning and preventing any violence from its own ranks -- be it window smashing, dumpster burning, rock throwing or attacks on police.

I also believe that it is critical to clearly underscore the ideological differences between ourselves and the religious fundamentalists who carried out the attack on the World Trade Center. In theory this should not be too difficult since our movement has, for the most part, wisely kept its distance from other anti-globalization fundamentalists.

Indeed, in some respects the Islamic fundamentalist critique of globalization (including Osama bin Laden's and Al Queda's), may well share some broad ideological characteristics with these other religious fundamentalist and right-wing nationalist critics of globalization.

For instance, Islamic fundamentalists seem to want nothing to do with western culture, corporations or values. Meanwhile, in India, nationalist Hindu fundamentalists have opposed corporate-globalization for the same reasons. In France, neo-fascist Jean Marie Le Pen's racist nationalism has included a critique of globalization. Russia has experienced a similar phenomenon in the form of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's racist, anti-semitic, anti-globalization nationalism. And here in the United States Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson's nationalist xenophobia has also been anti-NAFTA, and anti-free trade.

To be clear, I am not saying that any of these fundamentalists are in any way politically aligned with each other. In fact, most of them would never speak to one another. Nor am I saying that people like Pat Buchanan or India's BJP party, espouse terrorism. Rather, I am suggesting that these diverse political forces share a certain fundamentalist (as opposed to a post-colonial or post-modern) reaction to globalization.

The divergences between these constituencies and our movement are clear. We are for a different kind of globalization; the fundamentalists are against globalization altogether. We are internationalists; they are most often nationalists. We are for openness, transparency, democracy, diversity and tolerance; they are almost always characterized by secrecy, xenophobia, homogeneity, and intolerance of the "other."

These divergent ideological approaches to globalization lead in two different directions in terms of the political response and solutions they generate. In many respects these differences reflect the analysis of Palestinian scholar Edward Said and many others who have described the new era we are entering as a battle not between the West and Islam, but rather between modernity and fundamentalism of all sorts. In this context the vast majority of our movement can be characterized as engaged in a debate with the corporate globalizers as to the direction modernity should take, rather than across the board opposition to it and advocacy for a return to strict, traditional values.


Challenge 3: Regaining the Initiative

Clearly, the events of September 11th and the ensuing war now unfolding in Afghanistan have stymied the movement for a different kind of globalization and placed it in danger. What's more, in many respects, those pushing the corporate globalization agenda have taken advantage of the political vacuum created in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon to attempt to move their agenda forward.

Unsettling as these times may be, we can't just react to the shifting political terrain. Of course, we must redouble our efforts to halt fast track, stop proposals for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and prevent a new round of World Trade Organization negotiations. But we also must come up with an agenda of our own that addresses the suddenly changed times in which we are living and that allows our movement to regain the initiative which we saw disintegrate with the collapse of New York's Twin Towers.

The following are four key areas from which we can begin to rebuild and redefine that agenda.

Peace and Non-Violence: Our movement for a different kind of globalization needs to call unequivocally for peace with justice. It is clear that the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks must be brought to justice and their network dismantled. If this does not happen, there will only be more terrorist incidents. It was also clear from the moment of the attacks onward, that the US would respond with military force which would only bring with it more suffering, terror and injustice (and ultimately more terrorist events.) The US military response to September 11th also runs the risk of pulling South and Central Asia, the Middle East and much of the rest of the world into a vicious cycle of violence that will threaten global stability and security, affecting the lives and livelihoods of literally billions of people. The US military response may well also sow the seeds of more terrorism against the US in the future.

Therefore, the call for peace with justice. In this context justice should be taken to mean both that the perpetrators of the attacks be brought to justice, and that there be greater justice in the world economy in order to address the deeper socio-economic conditions that are part of the context of terrorism.

Although there are no clear answers to the current situation (For example: How do the perpetrators get brought to justice?), what is clear is that the cycle of violence is escalating. We must stand with the voices of reason, and against the madness of war.

What's more, as mentioned earlier, now, more than ever, any form of violence emanating from our own movement must end. It was already obvious to many, especially in the aftermath of the July demonstrations in Genoa, that the so-called "black bloc" was undermining the movement's democratic processes, putting peaceful protestors in danger, making street demonstrations exceedingly vulnerable to police infiltration, and diverting the debate from one about globalization to one about street tactics and police repression.

In the new post-September 11th climate, it is critical that the vast majority of activists who believe in non-violent social change publicly disassociate themselves with the violent and incendiary tactics of a small minority of protestors who were already threatening the legitimacy of the anti-corporate globalization movement in the public eye. Not to make this break now endangers the future credibility of our movement.

Human Rights: Many in the US, from grassroots activists, to the mainstream media, to members of Congress from both parties have expressed concern for the potential loss of civil liberties in the "War on Terrorism." Those who are inclined to restrict our civil liberties have just been handed a powerful new club. And while so far Congress has resisted measures it considers extreme, it is likely that the new era of "homeland security" will see significant attempts to curb these liberties. Among other impacts, such limits could seriously constrict the democratic environment in which our movement, not to mention the myriad of other social movements, have thrived.

Therefore, it is critical that the anti-corporate globalization movement join forces with a broad array of constituencies fighting to protect democratic rights. Given that we may find ourselves heading down the road toward a neo-McCarthyite era of terrorist-baiting, it is crucial that we stand together with other potential victims of this emerging trend.

This means not only standing up for civil liberties, but also against racism. In this time of crisis, a variation of America's long-standing racist history has emerged from just below the surface of our cultural landscape to rear its ugly head once again. This time it has taken the form of direct discrimination, murderous attacks and other forms of physical and verbal violence against Arab-Americans, South Asian-Americans and American Muslims, among others.

Finally, we must continue to advocate for human rights around the world. So, as global geopolitics undergo tectonic shifts, we must not ignore those who fall through the massive cracks that come with the new territory. As Russia realigns itself with the United States, the people of Chechnya are ever-more exposed to brutal violations. As China joins the US coalition, the people of Tibet will become less of an "official" concern for the US government. And as the US bombs Afghanistan it will be the children and women of that country -- suffering the restrictions of the Taliban regime -- who will be least able to flee and most exposed to the death and destruction.

Security Through Clean Energy: Oil plays a central role in the Middle East. And access to oil has defined US foreign policy and national security interests in the region since the end of World War II. But our dependence on Middle Eastern oil and therefore our seemingly inextricable entanglement in the region is increasingly proving to be a liability. Our economy's dependence on oil is even more of a problem when one considers that the most significant new sources of oil currently being developed are in the Central Asian Caspian region -- a group of countries immediately north of Afghanistan with predominantly Muslim populations -- nations which the Bush administration is using to various degrees as staging grounds for military action.

While the politics of oil now threaten global security in the military sense, the combustion of oil is also the single largest contributor to climate change -- one of the greatest threats to global environmental security in the coming decades. Climate change's more frequent and extreme weather events threaten to dislocate millions of people, triggering mass migrations of environmental refugees. Entire coastal areas will be flooded. Diseases such as malaria will spread to areas where before they were unheard of. Economies will be disrupted. Many people will die.

On top of this add the local pollution and human rights impacts of oil production, transportation and refining, and it makes absolute sense to argue that in order to achieve local and global security in the medium to long term the US needs to rid itself of its dependence on fossil fuels and extract itself from the Middle East quagmire. Such a move would go a long way toward addressing a series of other oil-related human rights and environmental debacles in countries like Nigeria, Ecuador and Indonesia, as well as here at home in places like Louisiana and Los Angeles.

So, despite the fact that we've got a couple of oil men in the White House, the time is ripe for the movement for a different kind of globalization to join hands with environmentalists and peace activists to step up their advocacy for clean energy.

A transition to clean energy would head off the worst effects of climate change, reduce local pollution and diminish our country's compulsion to be so deeply involved in the politics of the Middle East and Central Asia. Kicking our addiction to fossil fuels through massive public programs to promote electricity generated by solar, wind and biomass; hydrogen powered vehicles; and more efficient public transportation systems could together help achieve true global security, making the world a much safer place for everyone to live in.

Grassroots Globalization: Finally, the movement against corporate-driven globalization needs to keep doing what it's been doing. Now more than ever, it is important to demonstrate how institutions like the WTO, or trade agreements like NAFTA and the FTAA are letting corporations run rampant across the earth, with little or no regard for local communities, national governments, the environment or human rights. It is essential to continue to show how such a system is deepening poverty and inequality, while potentially leading to greater cultural polarization, religious fundamentalism, and political instability.

We must continue to work to stop these accords from being implemented, and to stand up and call for greater transparency, democracy and equity in the global system. We should advocate for alternatives, connecting this call to the urgent need for peace and justice in the world today.

At the same time we've got to continue to work to hold specific corporations accountable for their abuses at the local, national and international levels. Part of this means exposing companies that may be opportunistically benefiting from the current crisis. The other part means not letting issues such as sweatshops, environmental crime, or corporate complicity in human rights violations drop off the radar screen.

It is also vital to support other multilateral efforts that do promote the values we believe in. These include agreements like the treaties on climate change, or regulating biological weapons, or banning landmines, as well as UN meetings aimed at providing resources for development in poor countries and those directed at promoting sustainable development.

All of these efforts will contribute to a more truly secure and healthy globe. Richard Falk put it best in a recent article in The Nation when he wrote:

The attack on America was the tip of an iceberg, the submerged portions being the mass of humanity that is not sharing in the fruits of modernity, but finds itself under the heel of US economic, military, cultural and diplomatic power. To eliminate the visible tip of the iceberg of discontent and resentment may bring us a momentary catharsis, but it will at best create an illusion of victory. What must be done is to extend a commitment to the sacredness of life to the entire human family -- in effect, joining in collective effort to achieve what might be called "humane globalization."

In these bleak times, with what may be even darker clouds gathering on the horizon, above all we must continue to believe that, as the slogan of the World Social Forum, held earlier this year in Brazil, declared "another world is possible." And we must continue to build that world.

Joshua Karliner is Executive Director of CorpWatch.