In the Belly of the Beast
A perspective on the global justice movement in the United States: its roots and emergence

By Sara Burke and Claudio Puty


NEW YORK, JUNE 2004—An estimated 10 million people worldwide demonstrated on February 15, 2003 against American (and British) plans for war in Iraq. While many demonstrators—previously unaligned with political organizations against the war—were moved independently to express their outrage against American aggression, the core organization of the globally coordinated protests took place via international networks formed over the years by activists in the global justice movement.

It is impossible to understand the global justice movement from any one snapshot in time or from a single national, regional, or even organizational perspective. That’s because the history of this social movement is the entire, complex set of histories of smaller movements that have evolved—sometimes in isolation, sometimes in coordination with each other—over a period of more than 25 years.

And while the World Social Forum [WSF] is—in some sense—the culmination of an evolution toward a fully international movement, in its present formulation it is not without its critics, some of whom see the Forum's institutional structure as more representative of NGOs and their interests than that of the world's "rank and file." [For instance, see Emir Sader's remarks in our last issue on the construction of civil society within the WSF in "A Brazilian Perspective."]

Partly because of the enormity of the task of researching and writing a general history of the movement, and partly because the current American imperialist project makes it important to understand what the opposition within the US looks like, this article focuses solely on the American "branch" of the global justice movement.

To understand the history of the global justice movement in the US, it is as important to grasp the political and economic context out of which it emerged, as it is to examine its particular manifestations, like the anti-WTO protests in Seattle or the rivalry between International ANSWER and United For Peace and Justice. We take a political-economic approach to our exposé on neoliberalism, because neoliberalism is widely understood within the global justice movement to be the primary enemy. In addition, we found in the course of our research that neoliberalism is not widely understood to be merely a phase—or a historically specific manifestation—of capitalism, but rather to be synonymous with capitalism itself.

We think it is particularly important to recognize that the neoliberal phase of capitalism is just one aspect of its long-term development because without this periodization, critique tends to stay within the parameters of capitalism. The goal is not give capitalism a human face by reviving the policies of an earlier era but to move beyond capitalism itself. With this in mind we have devoted the first part of this history to a "stage-setting" look at the transition from the post-World War II Golden Age of capitalism to the crisis in the global economy that began to set in during the late 1960s—the "backstory" of neoliberalism.

The neoliberal years contrast sharply with the post-World War II Golden Age. There are differences in both economic performance—as seen in output growth, patterns of technological change, employment, inflation and the movement of wages and profits—and institutional arrangements—such as economic policy, capital-labor relations, and unionization levels—among other factors.

Dating and characterizing historical periods is always difficult, since the line between coincidence and real cause and effect in history is only drawn in the long run. This is certainly the case with neoliberalism, which emerged as a concept long after its hallmark policies were already raging across the US, the UK and Latin America in the name of "Monetarism," "Supply-Side Economics," "Reaganism/Thatcherism," and others. We are now able to identify not only the period when neoliberalism rose and became hegemonic, but can begin to speak in terms of its demise.

The crises of the late 1990s arise from the contradictions of neoliberal arrangements [a model failing due to its own success, as it were]. That neoliberalism would eventually undergo a demise is true because it is an historical arrangement, and no historical entity—whether free markets or thousand year reichs—lasts forever. We could say, therefore, that the global order is in a period of transition from neoliberalism to something else—potentially socialism—although we are a long way from winning that sort of fight at this point. But we could also be in the midst of a reshuffling and continuation of capitalism, and if so, the brutality of American torture at Abu Ghraib indicates some of the lengths to which the stewards of capital are willing to go. 

This is why political engagement is so important.  The desired post-capitalist future—a socialist order—is not going to arrive by itself, otherwise the international working class, the global peasant movement [Via Campesina], and the NGOs and other middle-class fence-sitters could join hands in a circle, tap their heels together, and wish the new order into existence. The necessity for educated struggle—theory and practice—in the battle against capitalism reminds us why it is critically important not to conflate neoliberalism [a historical phase of capitalism] with capitalism itself [a 500 year old social system]. The end of neoliberalism is no more synonymous with the end of capitalism than it is with the rise of socialism.

Our goal with this article is to provide some general points of reference for understanding both the past 25-30 years of deep structural change in the global economy and the growth of social movements that oppose the human costs of that deep structural change.

To that end, we have divided the article into four parts. The first two examine the economic and political background from which the global justice movement emerged: the post-World War II "golden age," it's demise, and the neoliberal regime that took its place. The last two parts look broadly at the social movement[s] that arose in opposition to neoliberalism and examine the emergence of the movement, particularly its anti-capitalist "rank-and-file."

The Post-World War II Golden Age of Capitalism and Crisis of the 1970s

The massive expansion in production in the US during World War II lifted the US—and global—economies out of the crisis of the Great Depression and into a "Golden Age" of expansion that lasted until the great economic crisis of the 1970s. This era gave way to the neoliberal backlash of the 1980s.

The Neoliberal Years

[The 1980s]
The collapse of the Mexican peso in 1982—near the beginning of the era—was to the global economic order what the elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were to the global political order: the beginning of a new, conservative political hegemony that shaped the world's economic policy for the decade. Resistance to neoliberalism in Latin America.

NAFTA and the Zapatista Uprising

[The early and mid 1990s]
The North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA] went into effect on January 1, 1994. The Zapatistas' autonomous revolt against NAFTA and neoliberalism that very day came to have a powerful effect on the nascent movement in the US.

The Anti-Capitalist Side of the Movement

[The turn of the century: 1999-2002]
Protest erupts in Seattle in 1999 as opponents of neoliberalism from around the world join American demonstrators against the World Trade Organization. The mainstream media focused on the surface: we look deeper.

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