Harbinger Vol. 2 No. 1 — What’s in a Name?



Cindy Milstein

The amorphous movement that has appeared on the scene of late—in North America, after Seattle, and around the world several years prior—exhibits an astonishing diversity of tactics, goals, and political beliefs. At the same time, this resurgence of radical politics is united in an equally varied critique of one phenomenon: globalization. Whether understood economically, politically, ideologically, or culturally; as a form of communication or set of new technologies; as an overlapping configuration of these or other factors, globalization provides the umbrella under which hundreds of often life-and-death matters can huddle as one connected whole.

The irony cannot be missed: globalization has spawned a global movement. So should “anti-globalization” be taken on as our self-proclaimed mantle?

It is difficult to pinpoint the origin of the tag “anti-globalization,” although I suspect it is more a term of derision on the part of the media and those in power than a phrase generated from the grassroots. Its origins, however, are not the issue. What is instead at stake in naming this movement is its very identity. We may not have a choice in what we want to be called—BBC news regularly labels protestors anticapitalist even as U.S. news organs stick with anti-global—and certainly only time will tell what historians, social movement theorists, and others will decide to dub this period. But when we do find occasions to self-describe our movement, what will we say? For consciously or not, this reflects both our concerns and aspirations.

“Anti-globalization” seems a rather poor stand-in for what has so far been a flowering of international resistance and solidarity. To begin with, the phrase is purely negative. Such negativity does offer a necessary critique of the great transformation now underway, frequently depicted as the age of globalization. Yet it provides none of the utopian thrust of proactively named struggles: from the civil rights movement and New Left to China’s pro-democracy movement and Poland’s Solidarity, just to mention a few.

More crucially, though, the use of “anti” is partially a misnomer. It makes it sound as if the movement is against globalization as a whole. If globalization is narrowly defined to include only those things we don’t like, assuming that were even possible, perhaps being seen as anti-globalization would make sense. But even those entities perceived as completely bad often aren’t so clearly evil: for instance, international “development” policies may supply people with electricity even as they dam up their rivers; or a world court of law may bring rapists to justice even as it establishes the foundation for ever-more hierarchical institutions.

Globalization itself is double-edged. The Internet is the most famous illustration, making possible both new markets for capital, on the one hand, and free or inexpensive access to information on a scale never before imagined, on the other. Beyond the Internet, however, one could point to communication technologies in general as part and parcel of the mixed bag of globalization.

While it is clearly difficult to separate the culture industry from nonconsumer culture, given capitalism’s dominance, the production and flow of media globally has simultaneously been homogenized and democratized by cheap, portable, miniaturized, and digitized technologies. Hollywood may now reach into hitherto unknown regions, but likewise, because of fairly affordable VCRs, more people see more independent or “foreign” films than ever before. Moreover, despite the best efforts of media monopolies to market culture to the world’s peoples, on the grassroots level worldwide, new and widely disseminated (though not widely enough) technologies facilitate the making of films for reasons of aesthetics, education, or politics that have nothing to do with profit and everything to do with sharing beauty, knowledge, and ideas. This is just a brief example of the promise of a mutualistic multiculturalism on an international scale, one embedded in what could be a liberatory form of globalization. Numerous other instances of the double-edged character of globalization could be explored, from changes in the nation-state and notions of citizenship to ruptures in our sense of time and space. Indeed, this should be one of our primary tasks if we are serious about drawing out the possibilities of a more global world even as we attempt to resist its perils.

Any wholesale rejection of globalization, then, not only ignores the many positive elements such international reciprocity does or could offer; it also leads to some strange bedfellows. First, there are those who in opposing globalization advocate isolationism, whether in the shape of fundamentalism, nationalism, or worse. Christian right-winger Pat Buchanan springs to mind in this regard, as he joined with the likes of Ralph Nader to decry opening trade relations with China last spring. So do the neo-Nazis who showed up to protest “Jewish globalization” this past fall at demonstrations in Italy. And then there are those primitivist “anarchists” who completely reject society, technology, agriculture, art, language, and so on, and thus are quite happy to wave an anti-globalization banner alongside their anti-civilization flag.

The tags that seem to most often replace “anti-globalization” to depict our movement are “anticorporate,” “anticapitalist,” or less frequently, “anti–global capitalism.” All remain in the realm of the negative, which is one of their shortcomings, although they imply vastly different perspectives and so can’t be conflated. “Anticorporate” takes a relatively safe band-aid approach: make corporations more responsible or bring them under greater regulatory control. Thus, it generally doesn’t touch capitalism or the status quo at all. Yet unlike those who utilize the term “anti–global capitalism”—indicating by default that capitalism on a local or continental level would be fine, and if able to be scaled back, would somehow stay put—at least the anticorporate camp is up-front about its belief in the ability of a kinder state to limit capitalism’s excesses. For radicals, “anticapitalism” offers the obvious advantage of taking an explicit stand in condemning not merely corporations or global capitalism but also the very system of which they are an expression. Nevertheless, it leaves out a host of other “anti” issues: antistatism, antiracism, anti-homophobia, and so forth.

So what would an affirmative name for this new movement look like? How can we make it clear that we’re advocating freedom globally, a freedom that can only flourish when institutions and forms of exploitation, coercion, and authoritarianism are rooted out and vigilantly kept at bay? Names like the global solidarity movement or movement for direct democracy, to suggest just two ideas here, may begin to capture this generation of resistance and reconstruction, but such inspiration must come from extensive discussions within our movement circles. Any name, if it is to reflect the egalitarian character of this struggle, should emerge from numerous instances of participatory exploration: to determine what globalization is and what it could be; to sketch alternatives to the capitalistic, statist, and oppressive forms of globalization being forced on most of the world’s peoples; to figure out this movement’s aims and ideals. From this we can embrace a name of our own.

It could be argued that the act of giving a slogan to ourselves reduces an expansive freedom struggle to revolution-as-commodity. The bright yellow “Battle of Seattle” rain ponchos and other such products at direct actions may foreshadow a time when our carnivals against capitalism turn into mere carnivals. Be that as it may, we will be labeled, whether we decide to do so or not. The seven o’clock news will make sure of that, if only to fit us into their sound bite framework, as will the FBI, if only to fit us in their burgeoning files. Yet a self-definition that propels us toward the world we want to see—like the aptly named Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s—is preferable to a descriptor of what we despise, or one that misrepresents what we are demanding and envisioning altogether.

What’s in a name? Only what this movement hopes to move toward.