Free trade and the freedom of capital to move across borders have been the cutting edge of globalisation. They’ve also led to the succession of crises that have led to the widespread questioning of capitalism as a way of organising economic life — and of its paramount ideological expression, neoliberalism.
The protests against capitalism at the recent G20 meeting in Hamburg may seem superficially the same as those which marked similar meetings in the early 2000s. But there’s one big difference now: Global capitalism is in a period of long-term stagnation following the global financial crisis. The newer protests represent a far broader disenchantment with capitalism than the protests of the 2000s.
Yet capitalism’s resilience amidst crisis must not be underestimated. For trade activists, in particular, who’ve been on the forefront of the struggle against neoliberalism and globalisation over the last two decades, there are a number of key challenges posed by the conjuncture.
Neoliberalism’s surprising strength
First is the surprising strength of neoliberalism.
The credibility of neoliberalism, to which free trade ideology is central, has been deeply damaged by a succession of events over the last two decades, among which were the collapse of the third ministerial of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999, the Asian financial crisis in 1997-98, and the Global financial crisis of 2008-2009, the effects of which continue to drag down the global economy.