1. America: Enemy of globalisation

Tom Nairn
9 January 2003

The series

1. America: Enemy of globalisation In the first part of a major new series Tom Nairn lays out his surprising and important thesis. Globalisation is not Americanisation. Rather, the onrushing process of globalisation will render America just another country. In this context, the looming conflict in Iraq should be seen not as a war of oil, still less as a response to Osama bin Laden. It is a war over globalisation itself - as Washington seeks to militarise the economic domination it enjoyed in the 1990s.

2. Globalisation today: a human experience At the heart of globalisation is the interlocking of shared, universal human experience with national borders and identities.

3. Apocalypse is in the air Globalisation, far from creating a unified world, also produces invigorated collective identities that lead to new forms of violence.

4. America: being old with a vengeance We are living through the after-life of Western Imperialism, argues Tom Nairn in the fourth part of his series.

5. Are there alternatives? Where lies the potential for a better world order beyond the free market model of globalisation? Democratic nationalism.


Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
Everyone going home lost in thought?
Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.
And some of our men just in from the border say
There are no barbarians any longer.
Now what’s going to happen us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

C.P. Cavafy, ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, November 1898, in Collected Poems, London 1998, p.14

1. America against globalisation

America’s Middle East strategy is often presented as a new expression of globalisation as well as the prosecution of a neo-imperial foreign policy. It may be the second. But it is not automatically the first. US global policy and globalisation are no longer two aspects of the same thing. In fact, the Iraq war may represent the most serious blow against globalisation as it has begun to define itself since the end of the Cold War, by offering the world an expanding, democratic process of greater economic and cultural openness.

What the assault aims to do is drag this process backwards, under ‘Western’ (but really American) leadership. Its aim is to force an awakened American nationalism into a more decidedly imperial mould — which can only be done by ‘old-fashioned’ techniques. Barbarians must be reinvented, to keep Homelanders together, to prop up a half-elected President, and to re-align restive or dissident satrapies. With all its shortcomings and contradictions, globalisation had been showing signs of escaping from US Neo-liberal hegemony over the past few years. Tragically, it is believed in some places that a ‘good war’ will help to rein in such trends, by establishing a new kind of empire-boundary, namely an apocalyptic (and by definition unceasing) fight against Terrorism.

This effort stands no chance of long-term success; a fact unlikely to influence the policy makers in Bush’s Washington. Their attempt to harness, rein in and control globalisation is embedded in their current Iraq policy – whether this remains limited to the subordination of the United Nations (UN) to the White House and an inspection process designed to humiliate Saddam, whether it results in his swift downfall, or concludes in a desperate battle and widespread violence.

In his contributions to openDemocracy, Paul Rogers has made a convincing case that US policy makers are motivated by a long-term strategic need, which they perceive as requiring control of Iraq’s oil reserves. However, the very long-term nature of this interest means that it can’t explain America’s decision to move immediately to ensure its regional supremacy now. Why the implacable urgency, the sense of life or death, and the grotesque inflation of ‘Terrorism’ into an apocalyptic menace? It feels like Cavafy’s poem: as if Barbarians are required, to justify Civilisation in its chosen course. Which may incline one to think that other factors must be in operation. Is it not America’s role in the world, some important part of its inherited national identity, which is felt as being at stake since September 2001?

Globalisation is bigger than America. Indeed it’s leaving America behind. A ragged and confused divorce was well under way before 11 September 2001. Since 1989, the underlying globalisation process has begun to emancipate itself from a US hegemony that stemmed from the nature of the cold war, and the way it ended. The 1990s were marked by the unusual, overwhelming domination of a single country. It drove forward the information stage of globalisation (which I will define more precisely later). But the underlying drive of globalisation is to de-centre and share this out. It may be true that it could not have arisen without US dominance and hegemony; however, the same nemesis is at work here as in all imperiums of the past – beneficiaries are ungrateful by definition. They always think they will benefit most by ceasing to depend, and becoming equals. Globalisation has to emancipate itself from its initial American definition.

The process was brusquely accelerated, or shocked onwards by the events of 11 September 2001 – above all, in consciousness. But an unavoidable part of this greater awareness is a determination to restore the disturbed equilibrium, in the interests of those guiding it – the ‘national interest’ already indicated, the cold war bequest underwritten (supposedly) by the post 1989 triumph of One Market Under God.

Let me attempt to sketch how this may have been be working out. Those who died on 11 September were ‘ordinary people’, identified with as such by (we must assume) a majority of the world’s population. One common reaction to was to feel it was ‘like being in a disaster movie’ made over into the real thing. However, what this film also reflected was ‘real’ in a sense that no epic adventure had ever been: individuals ‘just like us’ were indeed being put through it, and not in their or our dreams. Viewers entered Hell by direct empathy, not via Harrison Ford.

However, ordinary mixed-up people dwell by definition in an ordinary society – in this case a society, it turned out, visibly unprotected by either the CIA or Divine Providence. They do not dwell in a (or the) City on a Hill, beacon to and leader of all Mankind, Home of the Free and the Cato Institute (and so on) but in, well, … just another country. A big country, of course, with an awful lot of resources and (especially) most of the world’s military hardware – and with a dominant culture still beset by elite notions of centrality and chosenness. Such a nation – or, probably more to the point, such a state – presents big problems for everybody else. But these are problems of a recognisable, historically ordinary, kind.

In other words, the global meaning of the accident was contagiously greater than America itself. The very thing so many commentators and anchorpersons so volubly expressed, ‘a universal tragedy’ touching everyone, meant that it would never be completely recuperable or possessed by the United States. The mental explosion had already encompassed the globe. Hence the problem for both Oval Office statehood and the Neo-liberal clerics was more like shrinkage: how to cut it back to manageable size, thereby restoring their own definitional role.

Heroism became one focus for the expression of their anxious efforts to appropriate and ‘nationalise’ the September events. It in no way reflects upon the courage shown by so many, to consider whether among the normal individuals of diverse faith and hue who perished that day – the janitors, cleaners, secretaries, sandwich-makers, young executives and firemen – some may have been planning an early exit to the beach, or hoping that the boss had suffered a heart-attack overnight. Were none of those managers putting in their daily call to Arthur Anderson Inc., or thinking of selling their shares in Enron? The point is not to impugn memories, but simply to point out that, even if solemnly expunged from iconic versions of the day, such humdrum thoughts must have figured in the shared worldwide reaction from the outset. Ordinary folk (of whom we are all specimens) know what we ordinary folk are like – and the poignancy of 11 September remains inseparable from this. What struck people to the heart was a shared, universal loss and fortitude, as well as the specific heroism ‘of New Yorkers’.

What follows, by an instinct no less immediate than the amorphous shift behind it, is that an ‘ordinary country’, however large, may have all sorts of pros and cons to it; but it is by moral definition without entitlement to being judge and gendarme of the international order. In fact, no country or state can be entitled in that way. During the long preceding clash of quasi-religious ideologies, from the 1930s up to the 1980s, this was by no means so evident. Up to the 1990s, plausible if specious alibis still abounded – intact zealotries of race, blood, class, or spirit, whose innate tendency was fallacious universalism. But now all these are sunk for good.

The atrocious slaughter of September 2001 was also the moment of their stage farewell. In the plainer arena left behind, a mounting preference for international regulation and action on international affairs is the sole possibility. This may have all sorts of shortcomings; indeed it may be more shortcomings than achievements. But it is no longer just weakness or evasiveness, as is being suggested by President Bush’s accomplices and supporters.

Thus the rest of the world is taking the opposite reaction to that of official America and its media. As the US proclaims a perpetual war against Terror starting with the Axis of Evil, Schröder, Lula and Roe are elected in Germany, Brazil and South Korea on the strength of popular opposition to Bush’s influence – a combination unimaginable during the cold war.

On 11 September, an identifiable order perished before the eyes of the rest of the world. It was a unique epiphany that engendered ‘a loss for words’. However, meanings already in the air at once rushed in to this void. The resultant tidal commotion of American nationalism only confirmed them. This was the reaction of a nation justifiably brought to passionate and civic life. But in the gaze of everywhere else, that is also all that it was: a nation – not humanity’s Beacon re-kindled, or resumption of the State Department’s divine right to reconfigure the rest of the world.

The great nation itself was moved to action, pursued the forces that had assaulted it into Afghanistan, and toppled the regime supporting them. But Washington was unsatisfied. Now guided by a redemption-minded heartland, it represents the older, chosen nation. The latter’s transcendent meaning of America called for far wider regime changes, and a worldwide mission – that is, an impossible war against Terrorism as such, with the subtext of imposition of one conception of the globe. A national redressement passed straight into a crusade.

A crusade for democracy? An acute commentary on this feature of post 2001 has been given by Anatol Lieven, in a contribution to openDemocracy. ‘When it comes to democracy’, he writes, ‘the American establishment’s conscience flickers on and off like a strobe light in a seedy disco. The rest of the world can see this…(but)…A naïve belief in the universal, immediate applicability of US-style democracy, and America’s right and duty to promote this, is an article of national ideological faith in the US. It easily shades over into a messianism which is, in itself, nationalist and imperialist.’ Nationalism is the most potent of social forces, and for that very reason the most in need of systemic and contemporary democratic rigidity. Notoriously, a combination of external threat and autocracy makes it default into populism, and in the American and British cases this has come about; anachronistic representational systems try to compensate for their deficits by a combination of tabloid antics and external heroics.

The American administration calls this Leadership. The rest of the world begs to differ. In the 1990s the world witnessed a precipitous decline in the moral authority of the United States under Clinton. Then his replacement culminated in the non-election of a successor. In an astounding yet defining moment, a whole year before ‘9/11’, the globalisation process suddenly found itself captained by and dependent upon defective voting machines, gerrymandering and chicanery in the state of Florida. Worse was instantly to follow – a US Supreme Court that would stop at nothing to salvage this hopelessly out-dated Constitution from the wreckage. Far from globalism being led by America towards democracy, it became hostage to a blatant democratic deficit – a partly familial coup d’état which was to put George W. Bush in charge of most of the globe’s military power.

To sum up so far: even without the seismic shift of 9/11 and after, no acceptable world order could conceivably have been led from this vantage point. Globalisation had emerged as an approximately common economic terrain after 1989, and – as Anthony Giddens argues in his Runaway World – started to develop a life-momentum of its own. No one now believes this will be halted, let alone reversed. But leadership of the process is a political question, which it should now be clear will never merely emerge from the homo economicus of Neo-liberal superstition. This is a matter of meaning, and demands a much broader perspective – a view of human and societal nature in fact, seeking to explore the new common ground.

1. America: Enemy of globalisation
2. Globalisation today: a human experience
3. Apocalypse is in the air
4. America: being old with a vengeance
5. Are there alternatives?

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