After the global

Tom Nairn
3 November 2008

Global Imaginary... is a title that conjures up the totalising and overweening, even more so in the present moment of financial and other crisis. Over-exposure to "globalisation" has become a feature of our age: it comes with the cornflakes, follows through until the bedtime headlines, and haunts the dreams that come later. But don't worry. Manfred B Steger's The Rise of the Global Imaginary: Political Ideologies from the French Revolution to the Global War on Terror (Oxford University Press, 2008) is a sober and thorough examination that lies at the other extreme from apocalypse, revelatory vertigo and love-storms.

Tom Nairn is an expert on globalisation, nationalism, British institutions and Scotland. He is innovation professor in Nationalism and Cultural Diversity at the Globalism Institute at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT University), Australia

His many books include Faces of Nationalism: Janus Revisited (Verso, 1998), After Britain (Granta, 2000) and Pariah: Misfortunes of the British Kingdom (Verso, 2002), and Global Matrix: Nationalism, Globalism and State-terrorism (Pluto Press, 2005)He does take globality as his primary point of reference, but the book is mainly deconstruction of a sobering and relentless sort: a critique of the Zeitgeist, rather than one more manifestation. Actually the title is rather misleading: the questioning and straightening-out of the global imaginary would have been better. The author takes us on a journey across ideologies, from the French revolution down to the foundering of neo-liberalism. One heedless pseudo-faith after another is wryly described, with the aim of leading readers away from them. On the contrary, he suggests, a cautious democratic learning process is the only long-term answer. What rising globality demands is a lot more imagination than homo sapiens seems at present to possess - and probably of a kind we can hope only to make way for.

Ideologies are produced by ideologists - "intellectuals" conscious of ideas as theirs, and convinced they should become ours. There is of course an anthropological history to this, rooted in all earlier social formations, and linked to apprehension of extra-kinship ideas as in some way sacred or obligatory.

However, the sacred is also the practical, and Steger focuses on more recent manifestations. He begins with the explicit formulation of "idéologie" offered by Count Antoine Destutt de Tracy in the course of the French revolution. The point then was a "science of ideas" intended to replace religion, and provide the secure foundations of "a cohesive republican nation". We're still at it, naturally, even if the faith-addicted are fighting back with a vengeance. Ideologies become more prominent at times when the once-solid melts disconcertingly into air: as ageing helmsmen are found unconscious beneath tavern tables, perfectly visible reefs show up ahead.

Steger shows how Napoleon Bonaparte dealt firmly with the first round of idéologie: the globe had to learn French, and adopt the logic of that enlightened culture. Then 1815 set everything back, and allowed a new corps of would-be helmsmen to try again. This brought 1848 and - alongside nationalism and more imperio-globalisms - what was to be the endlessly-gnawed bone of another century: Marxism, with its lecture-hall attire, "historical materialism".

Steger points out that "the co-founders of scientific socialism never considered their own theory to be ideological", merely a revelation of facts and consequences. "Imaginary" no longer, the bourgeois globality had to be accepted and enacted, as prelude to something other and better - the socialism inevitably inscribed in its own nature. This drama won out in the "grand ideological' contests he outlines in Chapter 2. As "-isms" took over, the ball bounced from one to another, guided by what he calls "the pivotal role of social élites as codifiers of ideational systems that mobilize large segments of the population behind a political vision".

Thus did "intellectuals" assume their 20th-century function, first and most ably described in Antonio Gramsci's Quaderni del Carcere: those Prison Notebooks containing most of the DNA in all subsequent disputes around the subject. After 1917 the co-founder imaginary was translated into "Leninism": "a simplistic version...became the dogmatic (secular) orthodoxy for all citizens between the Elbe and the China Seas", as Eric Hobsbawm puts it in The Age of Extremes (1994). How could such a prime competitor in the global imaginary race disappear overnight? Because "communism" was not based on mass conversion, but remained a faith of cadres or (in Lenin's terms) "vanguards"...all ruling communist parties were, by choice and definition, minority élites." They were codifiers, "clerics", standing in for the congregated populations themselves.

Among Tom Nairn's articles on openDemocracy:

"Pariah Kingdom" (24 May 2001)

"The party is over" (22 May 2002)

"America vs Globalisation" (a five-part essay, January-February 2003)

"Britain's tipping-point election" (26 June 2005)

"After the G8 and 7/7: an age of 'democratic warming'" (10 July 2005)

"On the beach: a bonfire of monarchies in Melbourne" (15 November 2005)

"Ending the big 'ism" (26 January 2006)

"The Queen: an elegiac prophecy" (27 September 2006)

"Not on your life" (14 May 2007)

"The sorcerer's birthday: notes from the apprentice" (28 November 2007)

"Globalisation and nationalism: the new deal" (4 March 2008) A ghost from the future

The substance of this diagnosis was shown by what came next, in the ideological great game. Liberation from one orthodoxy was succeeded by imprisonment in the other: that is, the "counter-Leninism" of free-trade economics. Ideology abhors a vacuum: this ought to have been one of the principal rules of Count de Tracy's science of ideas. As opinion was mobilised from the right, along lines projected by fellow-Austrian Friedrich von Hayek, inevitabilism informed the transition as a matter of course. "Inevitable" and "inexorable" are the top hats at every ideological wedding, or civil ceremony. It was not enough to revoke the dissidence of the 1960s: the latter had to be replaced.

Hence it came to be assumed, mistakenly, that "capitalism" was essentially of the right: in effect, an historical materialism of the right supplanted that of the left, to be projected as the truly global mentality. In Gramsci's terms, a "passive revolution" had been pushed through, and "neo-liberalism" was emblazoned on the universal horizon by another troupe of codifiers, columnists, political megaphones, academics, cut-price visionaries and saloon-bar pundits.

These neo-intellectuals of the 1980s and 1990s were rewarded with inebriate hegemony after the demolition of the Berlin wall. The conversion of much of the former east-central European intelligentsias to a surrogate faith proved straightforward: one content replaced another, but within the same form of a no-alternative orthodoxy. Fuelled by north-Atlantic economic power, this demolished the short-cut developmental route that had been prospected as socialism in the "second world" and parts of the "third".

The short-cut turned into a dead-end. And yet, the triumphalists' orgy was itself to be short-lived. Eric Hobsbawm, in The Age of Extremes, had wondered what might become of a capitalism "alone in the world for the first time", and deprived of older societal formations to infiltrate and exploit. Count de Tracy had imagined republicanism stepping forward with new kinds of cohesion, or democratic community. But the globalising imaginary had a much more difficult task before it, as Steger says, since the initial north Atlantic matrix was weighed down by anachronisms like the United States and Westminster constitution, as well as by the fossils of républicanisme.

Then other global regions veered over to the authoritarianism of China, and Vladimir Putin's Russian Federation: communism's ultra-capitalist revenge from beyond its makeshift grave. The drunks had forgotten all about another, deeper element in the Marxian inheritance - the conception of all known forms of civilisation as carrying "contradictions" within themselves, which most states and intellectuals either ignored or (more to the point) felt compelled to stifle by "ideological" means. Capitalism's alter ego "socialism" had indeed been a striking example; but how likely was it that capitalism itself would remain the exception?

Even as proletarian class-cum-internationalism was irreverently dumped in the bin, the revellers felt some odd, cold eddies at the gate, like ghosts from the future: transient revenants or nostalgic reminders? Preposterous régimes of resurrection and bombast arose,such as George W Bush's neo-conservatism and Tony Blair's New Labourism. In fact, these did little but foster a rising storm rooted in the very circumstances of the hegemony earlier obtained.

A border's horizon

Alone in the globe, capitalism could only manifest and disguise itself by what Umberto Eco has described as "turning back the clock" - a mixture of "media populism", warfare and aggravated privatisation. Its new-old political élites, deprived of system-foes, were compelled to invent one: the "war on terror". At the same time, traditional religious beliefs enjoyed a return to life. Steger rightly underlines this as a key question: "Are we witnessing a reversal of the powerful secularisation dynamic that served two centuries as the midwife of ideology? If so, does the rising global imaginary create more favorable conditions for the mixing of political and religious belief systems?"

Earlier, it was often argued that nationalism represented a kind of "earthing" of older religious faith - transcendent nations took over from totems and deities, as the imagined bearers of societal cohesion and continuity. They became the vectors of an extra-kinship solidarity, the sources of a broader meaning for which it was felt possible to live and die. But if that source was now shrinking or drying up, as neo-liberal enthusiasts invariably declared, then what could it be replaced by? Leftwing historical materialists had their answer in terms of social class and an ostentatious "internationalism" capable of reconciling human diversity and the Babel of cultures. Did capitalist development alone offer anything remotely comparable to this - a humanism beyond competition and the indifferent play of market forces?

Steger again and again denies that globalisation merely spells the denial or exit of nationality-politics. But he concedes that with the rise of the global imaginary, "the national and its political translations have become destabilized". Hence any successor ideology has to imagine its way forward, out of this, a process that can't avoid creating favourable conditions for religious revival, with "ideological religions" giving secularity a run for its money. In the nationalist era, that "-ism" itself always held the seeds of a more universal future.

A quotation from Frantz Fanon's Les damnés de la terre in Chapter 4 makes the point strongly: "The building of the nation is of necessity  accompanied by the discovery and encouragement of universalizing values...It is at the heart of national consciousness that international consciousness lives and grows". The same theme consistently informed Gandhi's nationalism, which Steger has also studied closely. In all these cases the affirmation of a particular border enables wider horizons, as well as mobilising active solidarity on one side of it. But how can this function where all borders become lowered or redundant, and no other society or culture stands up as the object of refusal or counter-definition?

It is such "destabilization" that invites retreat to the most traditional forms of other-worldism. Only a godly "nation" in the skies can provide a kind of global answer. But the solution is null, since celestial alternatives are by definition timeless (out-of-date), numerous, querulous, and rooted in what Gramsci diagnosed as traditional clerical intelligentsias. Anything approaching stability (or "maturity" in Steger's terms) needs something stronger: the conception and diffusion of a this-worldly spirituality rooted in whatever national and international consciousness that is already lived and grown. The author perceives some parts of this in recent movements for global justice. In Chapter 5 he traces them back to the 1960s, and maintains they have become more than simply a "backlash". May they not develop farther, in the direction of an "imaginary" on the level of the times - a more persuasive riposte to the decades of neo-liberal and "flat-earth" hegemony?

An elusive terrain

However, he is cautious about such predictions. In his previous Globalization: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2003), he ended by noting how, after 9/11: "Humanity has reached yet another critical juncture. Lest we are willing to let global inequality climb to levels that ensure recruits for the violent forces of particularist protectionism, we must link the future course of globalization to a profoundly reformist agenda." Only thus can the eventual emergence of a "democratic and egalitarian global order" be imagined. Global Imaginary is a solid continuation of both argument and cause, exhibiting the same realism, scholarly care and scruple to avoid the flights, exaggerations and pious dreams that have become too common in the area. Steger dissipates, balances and doubts much more than he evokes and endorses: the heart that shows so clearly between the lines is strengthened rather than lost by an approach too many may dismiss as academic or punctilious.

And as it happens, his book is encountering still another "critical juncture", the high-financial crisis of 2008-09. The costs of capitalisms's pyrrhic cold-war victory continue to accumulate, and underline the need for alternatives and new departures. The mounting scale of such "contradictions" may suggest that "imaginary" is no longer quite the right term. Like Benedict Anderson before him, Steger naturally insists that imagination doesn't mean fancy, dream or mere conjecture. However, it may also be relevant to point out that he's really discussing mindsight, in Colin McGinn's sense.

McGinn's eponymous book "tries to give imagination the recognition it deserves", as "a ubiquitous and central feature of mental life", societally as well as individually. "It plays a constitutive role in memory, perception (seeing-as), dreaming, believing, meaning - as well as high-level creativity. We use our imaginative faculty all the time" (see Colin McGinn, Mindsight: Image, Dream, Meaning, Harvard University Press, 2004). The rise of a different mindsight is not an ideological phenomenon, but a long-drawn-out mass transformation certain to find different expressions on various levels, including false trails and premature conclusions. It will be a matrix of later ideological initiatives, rather than an ideology by itself. Upon this difficult and elusive terrain, Manfred B Steger's Global Imaginary is easily the best guide so far.

Peter Geoghegan: dark money and dirty politics

Democracy is in crisis and unaccountable flows of money are helping to destroy it. Peter Geoghegan’s new book, ‘Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics’, charts how secretive money, lobbying and data has warped our democracy.

How has dark money bought our politics? What can be done to change the system?

Join us for a journey through a shadowy world of dark money and disinformation stretching from Westminster to Washington, and far beyond.

Sign up to take part in a free live discussion on Thursday 13 August at 5pm UK time/6pm CET

In conversation:

Peter Geoghegan Dark Money Investigations editor at openDemocracy and the author of ‘Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics’.

Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief, openDemocracy.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData