The long-awaited sequel to Seattle's World Trade Organization debacle is about to launch in Doha, Qatar, but delegates and lobbyists worry not about tear gas and protesters but rather the loyalty of the Yemeni-dominated Qatari security services. Worldwide demos planned to mark Doha - including one on Wall Street on November 9, which was to have been "a dress rehearsal for the world's first general strike" - have been canceled. Campaigners struggle to get press attention for issues that will come up in the ambitious Doha trade liberalization agenda, while many activists divert their energies into anti-war activities.
No wonder the FT crowed in a leader last week that no one had done more for trade liberalization than Osama bin Laden. September 11 had killed the anti-corporate protest movement in one swoop: "It cannot tread water for long, it has neither the discipline nor the resources to do nothing and hold itself together." A bigger crisis of war and defense preoccupies everyone and, deprived of the momentum of street demos, the movement will disintegrate. To twist the knife in further, John Lloyd's hostile critique of the movement, The Protest Ethic, is published today; it will be seized upon by the movement's critics as its obituary.
Of course, that's all nonsense. None of the issues raised by the anticorporate movement have gone away - September 11 has sharpened the urgency of many of them. But what is also true is that the movement faces the biggest challenge of its short life in the public eye, and a huge task lies ahead to reshape its message and its methods. Most pressing is the need to differentiate itself from those who perpetrated the events of September 11. That is no straightforward task, given that, despite the enormous differences between Islamic terrorism and anti-corporatism, on two counts there is a murky overlap.
Firstly, as Lloyd rightly describes, a key characteristic of the movement has been its attack on US economic hegemony. Given that most of the world's biggest multinationals are American, by definition anti-corporatism has had a visceral streak of anti-Americanism. Secondly, it has used methods of violent disruption, which in the backwash of September 11 have taken on new and unwelcome connotations. The casual references to conflict and violence that formed part of the culture of the movement - a trivial but telling example: one activist used to wear a T-shirt emblazoned with "terrorist" - is now jarring; a whole new rhetoric and form of mass action will have to evolve.
September 11 and its aftermath have starkly exposed what was the glaring weakness of the movement all along. Its analysis focussed on the dwindling power of the state and overweening corporate power. Its disregard for the state was such that it had no strategy for achieving the political power necessary to deliver its aims, and fell back on subverting the state by declaring it impotent. All that looks a bit threadbare now in the midst of war, as the state re-emerges as hugely important in delivering that most basic of its functions - security. Patriotism has re-appeared as a powerful force, clawing in unprecedented poll ratings for Bush and Blair. Nearly every day, we hear of the state granting itself more power - trampling on civil liberties and over financial privacy, and even broaching the question of higher taxation. The anticorporate movement can no longer convincingly bemoan that the governments of western democracies are simply puppets of corporate interests. It has to revise its analysis of political power and develop its own understanding of how to achieve it.
These are big tasks, but help is on its way from the unlikeliest of sources. The hard graft of linking September 11 with the anticorporate agenda in the public mind is being made by mainstream politicians. Blair in his October party conference speech and Peter Hain last week have been doing the spadework of resurrecting the anticorporate agenda from beneath the obsession with anthrax, hijacks and Afghan bombing that threaten to bury it. Hain declared: "The events of the last two months have taught us that the investment we make in sustainable development worldwide is as much a part of our security as the investment we make in our armed forces."
Behind Blair and Hain, stand even more unlikely recruiting sergeants for the anticorporate agenda. The CIA warned pre September 11, "that the global economy will create many winners but... behind will face deepening economic stagnation, political instability and cultural alienation" that "will foster political, ethnic, ideological and religious extremism along with the violence which often accompanies it". Even Henry Kissinger warns of how "ideological radicalism" breeds in "a two-tiered system of globalized elites living behind security gates... while the populations at large are tempted by nationalism, ethnicity and a variety of movements to free themselves".
This is the silver lining for the anticorporate movement. The tragic events of September 11 have underlined the urgency of its critique of globalization. It shattered the traditional notion that security depended on the individual state's superior military technology. Now, security requires unprecedented transnational cooperation on a huge agenda ranging from intelligence to poverty eradication. Old obstacles are tumbling like ninepins; most strikingly, if financial controls can be put in place to cut off terrorist financing, why can't mechanisms be developed to exact the Tobin tax, which - a New Economics Foundation report out today shows -would pay for all the 2015 development targets?
What lies ahead is a challenge to get the rhetoric into action. There is plenty of evidence that many European leaders grasp this agenda (both Jospin and Schröder have expressed interest in the Tobin tax). But there's little evidence of such good intentions in the Doha agenda, which is as skewed against developing countries as Seattle was, prompting the Nigerian WTO representative to issue a public letter of protest last week. Clare Short's claim that Doha is a "development round" of negotiations is hypocrisy.
And there is a real risk of a gap opening up between Europe and America on this new agenda, with the US in its current state of beleaguered nationalism, retreating into a bullying unilateralism.
So the movement has to, and will, change. But if Doha passes quietly, don't be fooled - the FT's death notice is premature. The anticorporate movement has been the most powerfully progressive cause of the last decade. It has articulated a critique of how corporate-dominated globalization. concentrates power and wealth, and dangerously excludes and disempowers a majority of the world. That critique is as valid today as it was on September 10. The intervening events are driving home that it is not just a moral or environmental agenda, it is also a security one. According to the World Bank, the 90s saw a dramatic increase in inequality between rich and poor countries, and we will pay a bitter price in violence and conflict for our wealth. We ignore the rage of the dispossessed at our own peril.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001