Monday, September 28, 2009

Has The American Anti-Globalization Movement Jumped the Shark?

Last week's G20 meetings featured anti-globalization protest shenanigans that have become routine since the genre began in Seattle 10 years ago - anarchists, arrests, misguided vandalism against Starbucks and other alleged symbols of corporate global-greed, English majors unintentionally demonstrating why they're English (and not Economics) majors, etc etc.  But lost in the routine media coverage of the anti-trade protests in Pittsburgh was their striking impotence relative to earlier iterations of the "movement."

According to the AFP, Pittsburgh police estimated that up to 4,500 "protesters on Friday flooded into city streets lined with police in full riot gear, still tense after violent anti-G20 protests in the eastern US city late Thursday." Those violent Thursday protests featured only about 400 hooligans and a few dozen arrests, the AFP also reported.

Sounds pretty big, huh? Well, it's actually pretty insignificant when you provide some perspective (instead of just focusing on the protesters' attention-grabbing violence and tomfoolery):
  • The granddaddy of the modern anti-globalization movement - the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization's Ministerial Meeting in Seattle - drew over 40,000 protesters, according to similar local police estimates.  Those protests - featuring the strange bedfellows of US labor unions, anarchists, environmental "advocates," socialists, and "consumer groups" like Public Citizen - really flooded Seattle's streets and literally shut down both the city of Seattle and the WTO meetings themselves.
  • The follow-up to Seattle - the April 2000 protests against the annual World Bank and IMF meetings in Washington, DC - featured at least 10,000 protesters, summoned about 1,500 additional cops, and shut down most of DC (although the official meetings still managed to happen).  I was working in DC at the time and vividly remember how most people stayed home that day in fear of violence (or just really, really bad traffic).

Compared to these protests, the G20 ruckus was pretty tepid.  Granted, the devolution of the American anti-globalization movement is not a brand new phenomenon: compared to last April's World Bank/IMF protests - which apparently drew only 150 protesters - the G20 protests were huge.  Nevertheless, the G20 meetings were highly publicized, came in the midst of a global recession that's (unfairly) being blamed on "free market policies," and were located in a traditional "rust belt" city with large numbers of folks that are highly skeptical of free trade (Pittsburgh is the national headquarters of the United Steelworkers union, afterall).  And the March 2009 G20 protests in London drew "tens of thousands" of protesters. 

Yet the G20 meetings attracted a little more than ten percent of the numbers in Seattle.  What gives?  Has the anti-capitalist movement been replaced by cooler protest movements on the nation's liberal arts campuses?  Or have the USW and its anti-trade bedfellows grown complacent in the face of declining US foreign trade activity and a recent victory against Chinese tire imports gifted to them by President Obama?

Well, maybe.  Although I have another theory that's at least equally plausible: the vast majority of America's young people (and a lot of other Americans) just don't fear globalization anymore.

Since 1990, the share of US GDP represented by trade - imports and exports - has exploded from a little over 15 percent to almost 30 percent before the onslaught of the current recession.  And the share of foreign-owned companies on US soil also has expanded dramatically in recent years.  This trend means that today's young Americans - those most likely to be enamoured with protest "movements" (and have the parentally-funded free time to participate in them!) - grew up and now live in a much more globalized America than did their flannel-wearing, Pearl-Jam-loving counterparts of the late 1990s.  And because more "potential protesters" own an iPod assembled in China (but designed in California), or have a parent who works for a foreign-owned company, or drive a Toyota Camry made in the US (or a Ford Focus made in Mexico), they're just not buying the anti-globalization hype.

So they, and a lot of similarly-affected older Americans, politely delete the mass-organizing email from, and the only ones left at the anti-globalization protests are the anarchists, the diehard unionists, the career protesters, the plain ol' nutjobs, and the professional protectionists.  Such a "coalition," while kinda entertaining, does not an official protest movement make, and thus the relatively small numbers on the streets of Pittsburgh.

Either that, or there was a wicked kegger/Dave Matthews concert/global warming protest that day.

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