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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Solidarity among workers

The same radical ideas of justice and equality that spurred the abolition movement also led to an international movement focused on the rights of workers in the globalizing economy of the mid-19th century. Marx's description of that time could easily describe our time: “All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries...whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe ... In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations.”

It was in this context that, in the 1850s, English factory owners fought back against the growing power of unions by importing workers from poorer European countries to replace striking workers, including cigar makers, tailors, and builders.

The workers then developed an international strategy. With Karl Marx's involvement, they formed the First International Workingman's Association in 1864. In 1866, the First International helped prevent the bosses of striking tailors in England from hiring strike breakers from Belgium, France, and Germany by convincing their comrades overseas not to become “scabs.” In 1867, a delegation of striking Parisian bronze workers visited London to seek support for their right to unionize; the First International subsequently sent hundreds of pounds from British unions and contributed to the success of the strike.

The First International crashed in 1872 due to internal conflicts that make today's tormented consensus meetings look orderly. Still, in the long-term, the First International played a key role in the development of national labor unions and working-class consciousness in Europe. These new unions and new ideas made significant changes not only in labor conditions, but also in national policies, from free speech laws to the expansion of the right to vote beyond the propertied classes. Like the global justice movement, the international workers' movement was a multi-issue struggle that included domestic as well as global goals.

One of the broad lessons of the First International is the importance of going beyond economic nationalism for solutions to labor exploitation. The Teamsters', Steelworkers', and other unions' involvement in the 1999 Seattle coalition was a hopeful sign of the U.S. labor movement's renewed focus on internationalism. Yet labor's involvement in today's global justice movement remains fragile. The First International also teaches us that union leadership must aim to involve a broad base of rank-and-file members in international policy. Also, the non-labor branches of the global justice movement should work harder to strengthen relationships with workers, whose past struggles have achieved major victories for all of society. It is workers—that is, all of us who work for a living—who stand to lose or gain from changes in the international economic order.

Opposing ‘free' trade

The movement against King Leopold's colonization of the Congo provides additional evidence of continuity between past social movements and the current global justice movement. From 1890 to 1910, a particularly brutal form of colonization took place in the Belgian Congo. The King's henchmen not only worked Congolese to death through forced labor gathering rubber in the jungle. They also chopped off the hands of any who rebelled—even the children of those who rebelled.

Adam Hochschild's superb book, King Leopold's Ghost, tells the story of the movement against these offenses. As Hochschild relates, the movement was sparked by a manager from an English shipping company, who recognized that his company's “free trade” with the Congo was not really free. As Edmund Morel supervised the loading and unloading of ships in Belgium, he observed that a great wealth of ivory and rubber was being imported from the Congo, but only soldiers and guns were being exported. Helped by exposés from two charismatic African Americans who had lived in the Congo and a gay Irish republican who served as a British diplomat, Morel led a solidarity movement that eventually included activists in England, the United States, Italy, and even Australia.

New technologies played a large role in the development of the movement: transportation innovations and the telegraph made international communication and cooperation more feasible, the camera was used to document the atrocities, and slideshows helped spread these images to a wide audience. Like today's multinational corporations, the King fought back with his own information campaign: strategically placed advertisements and articles in newspapers the King supported financially, brochures and booklets distributed to elite decision makers, and high-paid lobbyists in America and England. Eventually, however, the activists succeeded in tarnishing the King's reputation and portraying his rule as a “crime against humanity,” a term that African-American George Washington Williams invented to describe Leopold's lethal role in the Congo. The movement's success in education did not produce a complete change in policy, but gradually, some reforms were made, and the worst abuses of the colonial regime ended with King Leopold's death.

Just as King Leopold purported to be a philanthropist, interested only in the well-being of the Congolese, the World Bank, IMF, WTO, and FTAA all present a public face of benevolence, development, and assistance for the poor. The activists of the turn of the last century had less sophisticated technology to document abuses, but they used what they had more successfully to convince the public and politicians that the allegedly benevolent institutions of the colony were in reality incurring injury of almost unbelievable dimensions. Just as King Leopold's image became linked in the public mind to the image of a child with hands cut off, the World Bank could be linked to the image of a starving child.

Today's global justice activism has one great advantage over Congo activism: it is largely a movement of the people affected by globalization, not just a movement for them. Global justice organizers in the North must build on this strength by using their power to amplify the voices of the activists from the South, not to speak on their behalf.

History's long arc

Just as the movement against the slave trade contributed to the struggles for workers rights and human rights in the 19th century, all three movements laid the foundations for the major social justice movements of the 20th century: the anti-imperialist movement, the women's movement, the civil rights movement, the anti-apartheid movement, and more. Each of the older movements provides lessons for today's activists. While some aspects of the current global justice movement are new—the use of the Internet for informing and organizing, small groups coordinating to produce mass demonstrations, and a high degree of economic literacy—its roots are deep. The latest technology, innovative protest styles, and information politics have been used for hundreds of years by activists seeking to oppose the devastating effects of global trade on their communities and communities in other countries. Perhaps the most important lesson to draw from this history is not to get discouraged by short-term defeats. The arc of history is long. Though it may not seem so at the time, each movement bends it further toward justice.