New Research

No Globalization Without Representation: U.S. Activists and World Inequality – Dr. Paul Adler

By Dr. Paul Adler

I was a senior in high school in the winter of 1999 when I flipped on cable news and saw something completely unexpected: a big protest in a major U.S. city. The day was Tuesday, November 30. At the time, I lived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The protests beaming out from the screen were happening a continent away, in Seattle, Washington. In the moment, the “Battle in Seattle,” seemed a distant and odd event to me. The idea that tens of thousands of people in the U.S. would go into the streets for a left-wing cause registered as a weird form of nostalgia, better suited to movies about the 1960s than the present. Sure, people still protested in the 1990s. That did not mean national news covered such events. Moreover, those protests tended to be marches and rallies, meant to send a signal, not to cause a disturbance.

Soon, however, the Battle in Seattle’s impacts became apparent. More and more stories popped up in magazines, newspapers, and news shows about globalization. Suddenly, “respectable” people, like the former chief economist of the World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz, started appearing in the mainstream U.S. press to say that maybe not everything about late 1990s globalization was great. By the following fall, when I entered my first year at university, protesting against sweatshops, for fair trade products, and around other globalization adjacent issues seemed natural. These issues partly appealed to me because of their technicality. Those of us involved in the “anti-globalization movement” (we preferred “global justice movement), didn’t just get to shout “X is Bad.” We had to learn what “X” was. This led many of us to learn about the most arcane injustices one could imagine: the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), investor state dispute settlement, structural adjustment programs, and more.

Years later, I ended up working at Global Trade Watch, a division of the Ralph Nader-founded public interest group, Public Citizen. There, I dove into the more professionalized side of the U.S. based opposition to what many call “neoliberalism.” After two years doing grunt work fighting off free trade agreements or pushing back against the WTO, I remained full of questions about how it had all happened.

No Globalization Without Representation: U.S. Activists and World Inequality is my attempt at dissecting how a substantial number of people in the United States of America came to be mobilized around world-spanning injustices during the closing decades of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. The book highlights several points of tension within late twentieth century U.S. liberalism and parts of the left. One of these tensions revolves around conflicts between more grassroots approaches to politics versus ones emphasizing “insider” elite work. Another tension involves building coalitions among diverse peoples and organizations. In a U.S. context, this entailed bringing together Washington, D.C.-centric think tanks and advocacy organizations with organized labor, family farmers, left-wing activists, sympathetic legislators, and more. Internationally, U.S. activists navigated a complex field. As critics of U.S. hubris, they did not simply believe in their natural right to lead. Still, such desires needed actualization as they collaborated with activists from countries all across the world – sometimes effectively, and sometimes not.

No Globalization Without Representation explores these histories by examining professional advocacy nonprofits whose work focused on a mix of “good” government, consumer, environmental, and corporate responsibility issues. I identify these organizations as, starting in the mid-1960s, forming a political formation I call “public interest progressivism.” Think Ralph Nader and his bands of experts researching and writing reports, generating media coverage, and lobbying for laws and agencies to counter corporate power. From the mid-1960s to the late 1970s, public interest progressives won a lot of victories – new laws, new federal regulatory agencies, improved agencies, etc. In waging these fights however, a subset of U.S. public interest progressives increasingly turned their attentions to the rest of the world. After all, big companies did not just operate in single countries. The world was their market. My book follows these internationalist public interest progressives from organizing a boycott of Nestlé in the 1970s to building transnational ties in the 1980s to their 1990s battles against the alphabet soup of neoliberal globalization: the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Fast Track, the WTO, the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) and more.

Just as neoliberalism evolved and changed, so too did these nodes of resistance. At the core of my book is a story of trial and refinement. Waging a campaign – whether to change a company’s behavior through a boycott or to stop legislation in the U.S. Congress – is never a static affair. No one tactic works every time. Rather than treat any approach or any kind of organization (whether small nonprofit or massive trade union) as static, this book emphasizes adaptation and learning. By no means does that imply the groups I focused on got everything right. Instead, I view it as a call for exploring how historical actors respond to their contexts and change themselves in order to change the world.

Paul Adler is an Assistant Professor of 20th Century U.S. and the World History at Colorado College.

No Globalization Without Representation is now available at