Street demonstrations against globalization date to December 1999, when more than 40,000 protesters blocked the streets of Seattle in an attempt to shut down a World Trade Organization meeting being held in the city. The demonstrators were protesting against a wide range of issues, including job losses in industries under attack from foreign competitors, downward pressure on the wage rates of unskilled workers, environmental degradation, and the cultural imperialism of global media and multinational enterprises, which was seen as being dominated by what some protesters called the “culturally impoverished” interests and values of the United States. All these ills, the demonstrators claimed, could be laid at the feet of globalization. The WTO was meeting to try to launch a new round of talks to cut barriers to cross-border trade and investment. As such, it was seen as a promoter of globalization and a legitimate target for the antiglobalization protesters. The protests turned violent, transforming the normally placid streets of Seattle into a running battle between “anarchists” and Seattle’s bemused and poorly prepared police department. Pictures of brick-throwing protesters and armored police wielding their batons were duly recorded by the global media, which then circulated the images around the world. Meanwhile, the World Trade Organization meeting failed to reach agreement, and although the protests outside the meeting halls had little to do with that failure, the impression took hold that the demonstrators had derailed the meetings.
Emboldened by the experience in Seattle, antiglobalization protesters have turned up at almost every major meeting of a global institution. In February 2000, they demonstrated at the World Economic Forum meetings in Davos, Switzerland, and vented their frustrations against global capitalism by trashing that hated symbol of U.S. imperialism, a McDonald’s restaurant. In April 2000, demonstrators disrupted talks being held at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and in September 2000, 12,000 demonstrated at the annual meeting of the World Bank and IMF in Prague. In April 2001, demonstrations and police firing tear gas and water cannons overshadowed the “Summit of the Americas” meeting in Quebec City, Canada. In June 2001, 40,000 protesters marched against globalization at the European Union summit in Göteborg, Sweden. The march was peaceful until a core of masked anarchists wielding cobblestones created bloody mayhem. In July 2001, antiglobalization protests in Genoa, Italy, where the heads of the eight largest economies were meeting (the so-called G8 meetings), turned violent, and in the now familiar ritual of running battles between protesters and police, a protester was killed, giving the antiglobalization movement its first martyr. Smaller scale protests have occurred in several countries, such as France, where antiglobalization protesters destroyed a McDonald’s restaurant in August 1999 to protest the impoverishment of French culture by American imperialism.
While violent protests may give the antiglobalization effort a bad name, the scale of the demonstrations shows that support for the cause goes beyond a core of anarchists. Large sections of the population in many countries believe that globalization harms living standards and the environment. Both theory and evidence suggest that many of these fears are exaggerated, but this may not be communicated clearly. Both politicians and businesspeople need to do more to counter these fears. Many protests against globalization are tapping into a general sense of loss at the passing of a world in which barriers of time and distance, and vast differences in economic institutions, political institutions, and the level of development of different nations, produced a world rich in the diversity of human cultures. This world is now passing into history. However, while the rich citizens of the developed world may have the luxury of mourning the fact that they can now see McDonald’s restaurants and Starbucks coffeehouses on their vacations to exotic locations such as Thailand, fewer complaints are heard from the citizens of those countries, who welcome the higher living standards that progress brings.