Trade, Development, and Immigration

Whatever happened to the anti-globalisation movement? On the anti-capitalist left’s immunity to refutation

As a teenager, I used to read a magazine which had a rubric called “Whatever happened to…”, which was dedicated to the forgotten pop stars of yesteryear. These were usually artists who had never officially quit the music business, who had never flopped spectacularly, and who had never been officially written off – they had just somehow dropped off the radar. You would usually not remember when and why you lost track of the respective artist. Somehow, they had just ceased to be a thing.

Something like that rubric should exist for political movements as well. I recently had a whatever-happened-to moment when I found someone on Twitter who used to be a leading figure of the anti-globalisation movement. Remember them? I do, because when I started as an undergraduate student (in 2001), they were extremely in vogue. They dominated campus life. Not a day went by when I wasn’t handed an anti-globalisation flyer, walk past an anti-globalisation poster, or overhear somebody moaning about globalisation. Not everybody approved of everything they did, but their basic premise that globalisation made rich countries richer, and poor countries poorer, was universally accepted.

A brief anecdote on that note: At one student party, I stood with a group of people I had only met briefly. One of them talked about how awful it was that we forced people in the Third World to work in sweatshops just so that we could have cheap clothes. I countered that global trade was actually a good thing, because it opened lucrative markets to poor countries, facilitated capital and technology transfer, and so on. There was an awkward moment of silence. Then, they all burst out laughing.

“You’re a funny chap”, one of them said. “The way you just said that… for a moment, I thought you seriously meant it!”

The ideas of that movement have not gone away completely, but they no longer play anything like the role they did ten or fifteen years ago. Facts have very little influence on political fashions, but there sometimes comes a point when the divergence between what is fashionable to say and what is actually true becomes just too great to ignore. This is what happened in the globalisation debate. In the late 1990s, almost one third of the world’s population lived on less than the equivalent of $1.90 a day. Since then, that proportion has fallen to one tenth. In Asia, a part of the world which anti-globalisers were especially focused on, the fall in poverty has been particularly steep, with the number of people living on less than the equivalent of $1.25 a day falling from 1.3 billion to 0.6 billion. Global life expectancy has increased by three years since 2001. Child mortality is on its way down. Pick almost any indicator of economic prosperity, human development, health, education, and, yes, environmental quality, and you are likely to find that things have improved over the past fifteen years. The world is becoming a better place, and globalisation is a causal factor: the countries which have opened up most to global trade have recorded the fastest improvements.

On its own, none of this would have shattered the popularity of the anti-globalisation movement. A movement founded on economic illiteracy cannot be weakened by empirical refutation. But rapid economic development in large parts of what was once the ‘third world’ has changed perceptions of economic geography among the wider public. A generation ago, if you had told a British, an American or a West German worker that a Chinese or an Indian company would quite soon become a serious competitor in their line of business, they would have laughed. These people might be good at making spicy food with funny names, they would have said, but they should leave the serious stuff to us Westerners. The mixture of pity and condescension which once characterised Westerners towards the ‘third world’ provided a suitable backdrop for anti-globalisation sentiments. But this outlook has long been replaced by a mixture of nervousness (“they’re stealing our jobs!”), optimism (“they’re buying our products”), fascination and even admiration, a backdrop which jars with the ideas of the anti-globalisation movement.

In short, the anti-globalisation movement has been overtaken, and disproven, by events. But interestingly, nobody sees this as a defeat for the anti-capitalist left. A line like “The 2008 financial crash has consigned free-market fundamentalism to the dustbin of history” guarantees roaring applause from a Question Time audience. A line like “The sharp drop in global poverty has consigned anti-capitalist fundamentalism to the dustbin of history” would at best produce irritated stares.

The leaders of the anti-globalisation movement have simply moved on to other areas. Some are now campaigning against climate change, some against TTIP, some against the privatisation of this or that, some for a combination of various trendy causes. The starkest example has to be Naomi Klein, who, in my undergraduate years, was a god-like figure to most of my fellow students. I knew a few students who lived without central heating, and I knew one fellow student who lived without a fridge, but I did not know a student who did not have a copy of ‘No Logo’. Students in 1968 had Chairman Mao and his Little Red Book, we had Naomi Klein and ‘No Logo’. Klein, of course, has remained one of the shining stars on the anti-capitalist firmament, even as the star of the anti-globalisation cause faded.

There is a pattern here. When anti-capitalist causes fail, they never crash and burn. It is much more like a pop band that drops off the radar, and is soon forgotten, while the band members swiftly move on to other careers. This is what happened after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this is what happens every time another socialist experiment ends in failure (Venezuela, anyone?), and this is also what happened after the unexpected success of capitalist globalisation. What this says about the psychology of anti-capitalism is a topic for another day. For now, suffice it to say that we supporters of free-market liberalism are just as bad at holding our opponents to account as we are at promoting our own successes.

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA’s Head of Health and Welfare.

Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

2 thoughts on “Whatever happened to the anti-globalisation movement? On the anti-capitalist left’s immunity to refutation”

  1. Posted 04/01/2016 at 17:57 | Permalink

    You have confused alter-globalisation with anti-globalisation. The arguments that dominated the late part of the 20th C and early 21st C never held globalisation as an all encompassing evil (although perhaps your source here – a couple of people at a party proves there are always exceptions to general narratives).

    Alter-globalisation always understood both the inevitable continuation of globalisation as a general process but questioned if the specifics of globalisation as it existed then could not be altered to ensure that the negative potential for as you put it ‘free-market fundamentalism’ could be avoided.

    You also mention 2008 and perhaps you could say that the alter-globalisation movement were not entirely wrong in criticising institutions such as the IMF and, WTO which among many other nation states supported and facilitated the rapid growth in high risk financial instruments primarily though a lack of regulation.

    Perhaps a more nuanced analysis of what is meant by ‘anti-capitalist’ could help to substantiate your argument. Also i would consider how the falling of the Berlin wall framed the political and economic discourse of the 1990s and suggest that most considered it a victory for capitalism some even going as far to declare it the ‘end of history’.

  2. Posted 05/01/2016 at 09:12 | Permalink

    Causes and their expressions come and go.

    For me the globalisation fears weren’t really about low pay but more about the way corporations were taking control of people’s lives whether that’s through large-scale palm oil cultivation, seed licencing or what ultimately amounts to land expropriation. Governments were either unprepared, unwilling or financially persuaded to go along with these policies.

    TTIP is a case in point. Although its all very hush-hush at the moment, from what I understand it’s more than an EEC-style trade treaty. It opens the door to compensation from national governments if they fail to provide unfettered access for US companies in their countries. While we might think we can make sure we’ve covered every unwelcome eventuality in any agreement we might sign up to, many take the view that US companies have far more experience in litigation than we have in Europe and there will be large numbers of cases that go against us, resulting in compensation running into billions or opening up our markets to foodstuffs, drugs and technology we might deem dangerous.

    We all want trade but we don’t want to have to deal with corporations with deep pockets for legal expenses. That’s the globalisation fear for me. I want to see governments take on corporations and champion the will of their electorate.

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