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A Conspiracy of Hope

Ever since global trade began to transform cultures, people have worked together across borders of nation, religion, and race, finding strength together that they lacked separately.

Oloudah Equiano

Title page from the biography of former American slave and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano.

Photo courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia

As the tear gas cleared from the 1999 “Battle of Seattle” protests at the World Trade Organization meetings, there was one thing that both sides agreed on: the protest that had exploded there was a new phenomenon. The goals, tactics, alliances, and structure of the movement clearly represented a break with the past. Protesters rejoiced that a new mode of organizing had been unleashed. Police bemoaned the unpredictable patterns of protest and began to develop updated training to deal with the strange new world of transnational social movements against corporate globalization.

But both police and protesters were wrong. The roots of this moment were deep. For over two centuries, as international capitalism has overtaken mercantilism and traditional ways of producing things, activists have united across borders to demand more just forms of global trade in raw materials, manufactured goods, agricultural products, and labor. Many of these movements built upon and cross-fertilized each other. While all of the historical examples explored here failed to various degrees in the short term, in the long term they have all contributed to lasting social change. Yet many of these fights have been forgotten, leaving current movements to re-invent strategies and repeat mistakes. Worse, this amnesia obscures the larger context of the struggles, leaving the movements to be defined by their opponents.

The current global justice movement is better known by its media label, ‘anti-globalization,' and by a list of cities that experienced protests against international institutions: Seattle (the WTO, 1999), Prague (the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, 2000), Quebec (Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, 2001) and others. The movement has also included struggles in Chiapas (North American Free Trade Agreement, 1994–present) and hundreds of less publicized events and campaigns in the southern hemisphere. It also continues a much older tradition. A glance at three examples from this history yields striking lessons for today.

Abolishing the slave trade

The first documented modern, mass movement against an element of the global economy was the campaign against the Atlantic slave trade. At its peak, from 1787 to 1807, the movement mobilized huge numbers of Europeans, Americans, and people of African origin, including people from Africa's West Coast, black sailors, free blacks, escaped slaves and former slaves from the Americas, and even sons of African royalty sent to Europe to round out their education. The campaign was strongest in Great Britain, where organizers mobilized virtually all sectors of society, from the radical textile workers of Manchester to wealthy businessmen in London, including Josiah Wedgwood of fine pottery fame.

The Sons of Africa, based in London, was the leading organization for Black involvement in the movement. Founding member Olaudah Equiano toured England, Scotland, and Ireland after the publication of his first-hand account of his capture from an African village, cruel transport to the Caribbean, enslavement in colonial America, and his subsequent travels as a sailor to Spain, Portugal, and the Arctic. Equiano's dramatic book and speeches helped build the movement.

The movement gained its leading European organizer, Thomas Clarkson, through, of all things, the Cambridge University Latin prize. In 1787, the topic for this essay contest was the question of whether the slave trade was morally defensible. Clarkson, an undergraduate at the university, didn't have an opinion, but he wanted to win the prestigious prize. By the time Clarkson won the contest with a meticulously documented treatise describing the horrors of the slave trade, he had gained a mission. He traveled through Britain and France on behalf of the Committee of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, organizing chapters wherever he went. In addition, thanks in part to trans-Atlantic Quaker networks, American and European anti-slave trade activists crisscrossed the ocean to share organizing strategies and tactics.

The tactics would sound surprisingly familiar to the Seattle organizers: popular theater, speaking tours, letterwriting campaigns, petitions, and boycotts. Oroonoko, the tragic story of an enslaved African prince, was the most widely produced drama of the 18th-century in Britain. A whole new genre of political poetry was invented by female activists to bring to light the horrible implications of the slave trade for African women. Wedgwood created the must-have fashion accessory of the 1790s: pins and brooches with the image of a slave and the slogan “Am I not a man and a brother?” The electoral arm of the campaign was so powerful that in some districts politicians debated each other to prove which candidate was most strongly against the slave trade. Thousands of anti-slave trade pamphlets and newsletters reached the furthest outposts of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, as well as the United States and Canada, playing much the same role as the Internet and listserves play now.

After the French Revolution, the European branch of the movement was almost destroyed by reactionary repression, a period comparable to the current post-September 11th era. But the anti-slave trade movement eventually succeeded beyond the dreams of its originators. Not only was the trade banned in England and the U.S. after 1807, but both navies were used (at least intermittently) to intercept ships off the coast of Africa, search them, and send any Africans back to Africa. The banning of the slave trade also helped create momentum for the abolition of slavery itself. The movement thus permanently altered the rules of the global economy and set a precedent for citizen movements promoting the value of human rights above commerce.

The anti-slave trade movement provides a model for moving from activism (protest and isolated educational events) to organizing (strategic campaigns with ambitious but achievable goals). The organizers of the anti-slave trade movement were in many ways more systematic than today's global justice activists. For example, they used even the smallest meetings and events to gather signatures and petitions—a level of organization that has not yet been matched by today's movements. The anti-slave trade activists were also more successful in convincing the masses in Europe that the atrocities committed in Africa and the Americas concerned them; the global justice movement, at least in the U.S., has not yet become a mass movement.

The most important lesson, perhaps, is that to create institutional change, you must engage with the system. Protest alone did not end the slave trade; a change in laws did. Likewise, unless as much energy as is put into protests is invested in electoral politics and campaigns to change laws, the World Bank and other international financial institutions will not change their behavior, and the rules of the global economic structure will continue to hurt the interests of the poor.

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