On the same day the North American Free Trade Agreement came into force in 1994, a small band of armed revolutionaries led an uprising centred around the Southern Mexican city of San Cristobal de Las Casas. Named for Emiliano Zapata, a Mexican revolutionary of the early 20th century, the Zapatistas carried traditional weapons, but they weren’t revolutionaries out to seize control of the country. Instead, they sought to give a voice to the struggling peoples of the world in an era of corporate globalisation.
After a mere 12 days in control of the city, the Zapatistas retreated back to the jungle communities from whence they came. Via a rudimentary connection to the nascent internet, they began communicating their message of a transnational rebellion against the rule of corporate interests. They issued regular “Declarations from the Lacandon Jungle”, which addressed not only their compatriots in Mexico but “the peoples and governments of the world”. In 1996, they declared that:
We will make a collective network of all our particular struggles and resistances. An intercontinental network of resistance against neoliberalism, and intercontinental network of resistance for humanity.
By the turn of the 21st century, this one spark of resistance had become a genuine global movement. Its members were a small percentage of the world’s population, but they mounted significant and visible protests outside meetings of the new global order: the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund, the G7/G8 and G20. These protests, in places such as Seattle in 1999 and Genoa in 2001, pulled together many diverse groups from both the Global North and South, who proclaimed loudly that they too deserved a stake in the new financial order.
These groups spoke for the original “left behinds” of neoliberalism. They would become known as the alter-globalisation movement, calling not to roll back globalisation altogether, but for a different type of globalisation – one in which they too would have a voice.
Whenever national structures are broken down to allow for economic liberalisation, somebody or some group always loses, whether it is the small landholders in rural areas who suddenly find themselves competing in a “free” market dominated by multinational agribusiness corporations, or the workers of once-strong industrial regions whose employers are suddenly free to take their production facilities to cheaper parts of the world.
Ever since the late 1970s, most of the nation states and corporate interests of the Western world have steadily pushed for deregulation towards a global open market. And as various people and groups have lost out, they have consistently met different forms of popular resistance.
The populist convulsions of Trump and Brexit are but the latest responses to the disruption neoliberalism has visited on millions of people. But these responses have been channelled by unscrupulous politicians and media outlets into an insular nativism, pitting one social group or another against “outsiders” who’ve supposedly done them wrong. The dangers and historical precedents are alarming, and well-documented.
But however depressing it might be, those of us invested in social progress should not throw up our arms in despair. Instead, we should seize the opportunity to return to the alter-globalisation movement’s insurgent ideas.
Like Trump and Brexit, this earlier “movement of movements” consisted of claims on behalf of people who felt left behind in the age of neoliberalism: look again at the footage and the literature of the protests of the time, we see and hear different voices around the world clamouring for a foothold in globalisation.
This is the crucial difference between today’s anti-global spasms and the alter-globalisation movement. Yes, all its sub-movements called for the regulation of global markets, and for better ways to ensure the spoils of a new globalised world were properly shared. But at the same time, they called for continued social, intellectual, and moral globalisation.
They called for the continued spread of the ideas of a universal humanity, the central dignity of all human life, and the collective global solidarity of peoples and political institutions that would be needed to deal with the 21st century’s global problems, such as climate change.
Beyond that, the very tools and concepts the alter-globalisation protesters used were products of globalisation. The internet allowed these groups to organise collectively, across borders, in ways that were previously unimaginable. Many of their ideals and principles had been built in part by the new international institutions of the postwar period: human rights, transnational governance, global citizenship.
This movement put the landless farm workers of the Global South side-by-side with the industrial trade unionists of the North, and yet it didn’t collapse into incoherence. Instead, it came together around a core principle: while its constituent groups all had their own distinctive concerns, they could all come together to fight their abandonment by corporate-led neoliberalism.
Outrage at that same world order has lately turned Western politics in a new and alarming direction – and to change course, it’s time to revive the alter-globalisationists’ ideas. We should be inspired not only by what it was against, but what it was for: a transnational movement of people seeking nothing more than the dignity that should be afforded to all humans across all borders.
This is a vision of social progress we urgently need. As today’s tide of populism signals a retreat from globalisation to the protection of individual nations, all at the expense of global solidarity, we should remember the world has a long and rich history of other alternatives to neoliberalism. To borrow one of the alter-globalisation movement’s familiar phrases: another world is possible.