Those anti-globalization protestors, they ain’t what they used to be

That young blogging whippersnapper rising young blogger Kindred Winecoff beat me to a blog post I intended to write last night.  Winecoff takes note of the dwindling  number of protestors showing up for the IMF spring meetings.  This has been a trend for a couple of years now — far fewer protestors at IMF/World Bank ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images
Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images
Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images

That young blogging whippersnapper rising young blogger Kindred Winecoff beat me to a blog post I intended to write last night.  Winecoff takes note of the dwindling  number of protestors showing up for the IMF spring meetings.  This has been a trend for a couple of years now -- far fewer protestors at IMF/World Bank meetings, G8/G20 summits, and WTO Ministerials. 

Why are protests dwindling?  This is particularly puzzling because the protestors might have an intellectual leg to stand on; the 2008 global financial crisis suggested at least a prima facie case against financial globalization.  Winecoff posits some possible explanations: 

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.

That young blogging whippersnapper rising young blogger Kindred Winecoff beat me to a blog post I intended to write last night.  Winecoff takes note of the dwindling  number of protestors showing up for the IMF spring meetings.  This has been a trend for a couple of years now — far fewer protestors at IMF/World Bank meetings, G8/G20 summits, and WTO Ministerials. 

Why are protests dwindling?  This is particularly puzzling because the protestors might have an intellectual leg to stand on; the 2008 global financial crisis suggested at least a prima facie case against financial globalization.  Winecoff posits some possible explanations: 

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.

Hmmm…. no, I don’t think Winecoff is correct.  Even if it’s true that the kids today care more about environmental degradation than labor abuses, this shouldn’t stop them from protesting at economic summits.  Indeed, from the mid-nineties onwards, protests against labor and emvironmental abuses have gone together like racism/sexism/homophobia accusations. 

Also, I would dispute the empirics of Winecoff’s assertion.  The protests didn’t die out with the change in the decade — they were pretty robust at G-8 summits in the first part of the naughties, as well as the 2003 Cancun WTO Ministerial and the 2005 Hong Kong Ministerial.  This is a more recent phenomenon.   

I’d proffer three possible explanations.  The first, which I don’t really buy, is that the protestors have wised up and realized that these meetings are not the cause of the ills that they bemoan and bewail. 

The second possibility, which I’m very unsure about, is that public opinion has shifted.  Anti-globalization activists usually demand greater state intervention in the economy, and that’s an increasingly unappetizing idea for people living in the advanced industrialized economies

The final possibility is an idea I floated in a book review many moons ago:

During boom times, antiglobalizers score political points by stoking fears of cultural debasement and environmental degradation. During leaner years, naked self-interest becomes the salient concern: in the current economic climate, American opponents of globalization talk less about its effect on the developing world and more about the offshore outsourcing of jobs.

Let’s call this the Business Cycle Theory of Economic Protestors.  I don’t know if it’s true either. 

Readers are encouraged to offer their own hypotheses in the comments — or, better yet, point to some sloid research on the question. 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he is the co-director of the Russia and Eurasia Program. Twitter: @dandrezner

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