THE TYRANNY OF GEOGRAPHY
"As for the 'tyranny of geography'. Firstly, many of the people I met on my travels were happy to be where they were, and to feel rooted to a particular place and culture. Secondly, the best examples I could find of free market economics 'freeing' people from the 'tyranny of geography' was the global trade in agricultural products creating billions of landless farmers across the world. All of whom have no choice but to go and live in city slums and, if they are lucky, work in a Nike sweatshop. Doesn't look much like freedom to me!"
Stephen McDougall interviews Paul Kingsnorth, chronicler of the anti-globalisation movement and author of One No, Many Yeses.
COPYRIGHT © 2004, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
3AM: Can you say a few words on how this all started?
PK: I was politicised during my time as a student at Oxford back in 1993. I attended one of the Twyford Down road protests, and ended up being arrested and chucked in a cell for a night. That weekend woke me up and I decided that what I wanted to do was write (I had already planned on being a journalist or writer of some kind) as a way of campaigning, getting a political message across, and explaining what was going on behind the headlines.
From there I got involved in more roads protests, and other activities, such as fighting Michael Howard's 1995 Criminal Justice Bill, which criminalised travellers, ravers and protesters (aren't we lucky to have him back?) This led me to involvement in the putative 'anti-globalisation' movement. All this time I was writing, for NGOs, as a freelance and then, from 1999 to 2001, as deputy editor of The Ecologist magazine. It was there that I decided a book needed to be written on what was really going on out there. So I wrote it!
3AM: Some have speculated that the 'traditional left' as it was is finished and that anti-globalisation is the new political narrative for progressives in the 21st century -- do you agree? How do you think it ties in with the anti-war movement that's emerged since 9/11?
PK: It's too early to say whether 'anti-globalisation' will be the political narrative of the left for this century. What we can say at this stage is that there is a vast and growing movement out there -- I estimate it in the hundreds of millions -- which opposes the imposition of free market capitalism around the world. This movement is largely based in the poor world, though we only tend to notice it when it arrives to protest in Western cities.
It's worth noting that 'anti-globalisation' is not a term that those involved like to use, largely because the word 'globalisation' itself is vague enough to mean all things to all people. "Anti-capitalist" might be more accurate or, if you want to be more accommodating, something like the "global justice movement".
It's also interesting how much this movement differs from those of the past; so much so that much of it cannot be described in terms of the traditional 'left' at all. Many of those involved are rural or indigenous people who challenge the very definition of words like 'development' and 'progress'. Many more are determined to learn from the mistakes of the 20th century left, which so often saw its hopes dashed on the rocks of its own totalitarianism, or became identified with an overweening state. It is, at least at the moment, a movement without a leader, a central committee or a ten-point plan; in my view a good thing. And it is more genuinely global than any political movement has ever been. For all these reasons I see it as new, exciting and unlikely to fade away.
It relates to the anti-war movement in two ways. Firstly, many of the same people were involved. Secondly, I think, both were/are public expressions of mass frustration with the failure of democracy, the lack of trust in politicians and the failing mechanisms of the nation state in a curiously new world. I think such expressions of frustration will continue to grow, as the world is changing very fast and many of its institutions are failing to keep up.
3AM: How would you answer critics who label the manifestations of anti-globalisation as 'McProtest' and point to the generally middle-class, university-educated protagonists in the agitational arm of the movement in Britain?
PK: This is something of a generalisation, but one that largely holds true, in my experience. What I found on my travels was a significant difference between the makeup of 'anti-globalisation' groups in the rich and the poor worlds.
In West, in countries like Britain, the US, European nations, Australia, etc, those involved in this movement tend to be professional 'activists', political animals, students, etc. Often young people, they are not necessarily representative of wider society. Occasionally, as with the anti-war marches in February, they catalyse, or are joined by, large swathes of 'ordinary' people - by which I mean people who rarely if ever go on demos or involve themselves in politics.
Mostly, though, it is the 'activists' -- people like me, I suppose -- who run the show. I wouldn't characterise this as a 'middle class revolt' or as a 'McProtest.' Most of the people involved in organising events like, say, the Genoa protests against the G8 in 2001, or the forthcoming European Social Forum, are serious, experienced and well-informed. Often they also have very good links to groups in the poor world. Nevertheless, they can seem cut off from wider societal concerns.
In the South, it is very different. There, the rebellion against corporate globalisation is led by mass social movements - groups with a genuine and often very large community base. The MST (landless peoples' movement) in Brazil, for example; the Zapatistas in Mexico; the National Alliance of Peoples' Movements in India (10 million of them, mostly poor farmers); the township activists in South Africa -- the list goes on. These groups are very large and their mass membership tends to be made up of ordinary poor folk fighting the system through necessity. Unlike many 'activist' cells in places like Britain, they come from below and are genuinely connected to grassroots needs and discontent.
What's also interesting though -- and one of the things that makes this global movement so significant - is the way these two very different types of movements are connecting up. Groups in the North and the South are increasingly well-connected and, as the many global days of action against the WTO, World Bank, etc, show, are well co-ordinated too. This kind of global connection is unprecedented, and makes this movement very powerful.
3AM: What do you think to Joseph Stiglitz's argument [in Globalization and its Discontents ] that the global institutions such as the IMF and World Bank are flawed but they are also entirely reformable? Similarly, how would you respond to Phillipe Legrain's argument in Open World: the truth about globalisation that globalisation is a benign force and that: "the beauty of globalisation is that it can free people from the tyranny of geography" ?
PK: Well, I disagree with Stiglitz. Obviously as a former insider he knows a lot more about how these institutions operate than me. Nevertheless, my view is that the IMF, World Bank and WTO are beyond help. Firstly because they have become (in the case of the first two) or were set up expressly to be (in the case of the WTO) deeply ideological institutions. They are not, as they claim, institutions which exist to alleviate poverty or make trade fair. They exist to impose one economic ideology - US-style neo-liberalism - on the world, whether the world likes it or not. They are virtually run by corporations and rich country governments.
Secondly, and especially in the case of the World Bank and IMF, they are aging institutions failing to adapt to a changing world, or to take seriously issues such as ecological health, economic justice or clashing value systems. Thirdly, I believe that the symbolic power of abolishing these institutions, and replacing them with others designed to create a genuinely fair world, would be something worth fighting for in itself. It would signal a new start, and the end of vampire capitalism.
As for Philippe Legrain -- I took part in a public debate with him at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year, and his problem -- one which he shares with every defender of global capitalism that I have ever come across -- is that he doesn't seem to be able to define what he means by 'globalisation'. It is an unhelpful word, but if you're going to defend (or attack) it you need to say what it is. I am talking about the spread of neo-liberal capitalism across the world. Philippe is talking about everything from free trade to air travel, UN agreements to international sporting events -- in other words, 'globalisation' is defined by him as 'pretty much anything happening internationally.' Which is useful when he's trying to evade questions about all the damage that his beloved free market is causing.
As for the 'tyranny of geography'. Firstly, many of the people I met on my travels were happy to be where they were, and to feel rooted to a particular place and culture. Secondly, the best examples I could find of free market economics 'freeing' people from the 'tyranny of geography' was the global trade in agricultural products creating billions of landless farmers across the world. All of whom have no choice but to go and live in city slums and, if they are lucky, work in a Nike sweatshop. Doesn't look much like freedom to me!
3AM: What, then, was the worst manifestation of neo-liberalism that you witnessed first-hand while writing the book?
PK: This is a tough one! There were so many. I would say that the most shocking was discovering that the South African ANC government is applying neo-liberal policies -- partly through pressure, partly through choice -- to its economy in order to set itself up as Africa's key 'emerging market'. The result, as with neo-liberalism everywhere, has been a social disaster -- the gap between the rich and poor is growing, blacks are poorer than they were under apartheid, and tens of millions have had basic services such as electricity and water cut off because they are too poor to pay the prices demanded by the soon-to-be-privatised companies. If even the ANC can't save its people, who can? This is what neo-liberalism is doing to democracy the world over.
3AM: Do you feel part of a milieu of anti-globalisation writers? How do you rate the work of people like Naomi Klein and George Monbiot? And what do you think of Michael Moore's success?
PK: It's hugely heartening to see how popular political books -- and in particular radical books -- are becoming again. Whether it be Naomi Klein, Michael Moore or Greg Palast, at least one such book is in the bestseller lists every week. This seems to me to give the lie to the suggestion that people don't care about politics any more. The reality is that they don't care about politicians. I think Michael Moore has done a great service in making some of these issues accessible and, most of all, funny. Naomi Klein opened doors for many other writers on these subjects, with the success of No Logo , and George Monbiot is one of Britain's best and brightest thinkers on the whole issue of globalisation and alternatives to it. There certainly does seem to be a growing milieu of writers on these subjects, and I'm more than happy to include myself in it. Hopefully together we can make a difference, and begin to shape the future for the better.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Paul Kingsnorth was born in 1972, in Worcester. Between 1991 and 1994, he studied history at Oxford University, where he found himself involved in the campaign to protect Twyford Down from the extension of the M3 motorway. During that time he was also edited a national magazine, Green Student.
On leaving university, he started work as a researcher and trainee writer at The Independent newspaper. He lasted just under a year before leaving to work as a writer and campaigner for the London-based NGO EarthAction. Two years later he left to become a freelance journalist, and two years after that, in 1999, became deputy editor of The Ecologist, the world's longest-running green magazine. In 2001 he left the staff of the magazine (for which he still writes a monthly column) to research and write One No, Many Yeses. He lives in Oxford, on the river Thames.