2. Globalisation today: a human experience

Tom Nairn
16 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.


I argued in Part 1 of this series that America has now become the enemy of globalisation. Here, I want to look more clearly at what is special about ‘globalisation’ as we now know and experience it. Of course ‘America’ here refers primarily and unfairly to the administration of George W. Bush. Many Americans have a more benign view of the rest of the world and a more cautious awareness of the limits of American wealth and power – suffering from a lack of the latter, as most of them do. The Middle Eastern expeditionary force is an attempt to keep globalising forces in safe hands. But the ‘hands’ are those of the state, and also of the now vast and influential neo-liberal clerisy of journalists, academics and corporate leaders, which has so recklessly thrown in its lot with George W. Bush’s foreign policy.

These must not be confused with the hands, or the will, of the American people. In December 2001 the British journalist and writer Bonnie Greer (who grew up in the USA) made a moving and informative BBC2 documentary about the reaction of the ‘ordinary Americans’ she had known (principally from the black community in Chicago) to the September events. Even then, the result was strikingly at odds from what has become the standard patriotic litany: sceptical, and searching for better justifications than those handed out by the media. The American left may have been temporarily overwhelmed by the orchestrated reaction of post-9/11; but no one should assume this will endure.

In their widely read debate on openDemocracy, two of the world’s leading scholars of globalisation, David Held and Paul Hirst, have surveyed its nature, offered their different interpretations and how they see the future. Hirst argues that the concept itself is misconceived. He opposes the neo-liberal view that a global economic process is sweeping national politics into impotence; he insists that, measured by the degree of trade and other economic indicators, the world has merely managed to recover the degree of internationalisation it achieved in 1914, before the outbreak of the First World War; and he scorns the idea that global rules and institutions can replace the traditional power of great states.

Held agrees with Hirst that the ‘hyper-globalisers’ who foresee the inevitable triumph of market forces over politics and natural power are wrong. But he places much greater emphasis on the originality and extent of globalisation today, and sees both the necessity and the possibility of creating a cosmopolitan political response to it at the global level, which can govern the outcomes.

Few who have read the exchange are likely to be any longer either ‘for’ or ‘against’ globalisation as such. While the two contenders thrash out the historic canvass and the international reach of the forces at work, it is clear to both that if the nature and meaning of globalisation remains disputed, its existence has become rooted and irreversible. Around the same time as this debate was published, the World Social Forum (WSF) prepared for its conference at Porto Alegre by calling for ‘global justice’. The WSF gathers together the ‘anti-globalisers’. While their image as opponents of globalisation has become an essential icon for media coverage, press and TV actually failed to cover this development in their attitudes especially in the Anglo-Saxon countries. The fact is that the WSF is one step in globalisation itself – a pioneering global movement with (as Chomsky put it) more claim to represent the truth of the process than the giddy abstractions of the apostles of the market drone of with their ‘No-Alternative’.

New politics, new dialogue

Critics have also complained that Porto Alegre was like an interminable series of seminars. The judgement was accurate, the censure revealingly mistaken (see an article by Paul Kingsnorth). The world desperately needs debate about the new turning, and the formulation of alternative stories and projected meanings. openDemocracy’s Held–Hirst polemic together with the present articles are only more contributions to this ongoing ‘seminar’. The aim has perhaps been best put by Roberto Unger and Dani Rodrik, in their admirable website at www.sopde.org (the Seminar on Progressive Democratic Economies). What’s needed is not desperate recuperation of has-been socialism or garbled papier-mâché concoctions, such as the ‘Third Way’ of recent and shameful memory. As Unger says, the question boils down to a formulation of a viable ‘second way’, an alternative to the intolerable dystopia now being inflicted by Bush, Blair, Berlusconi and their hive of pseudo-global termites.

Of course this has to include a global opposition ‘from below’ to the annual gathering of corporate, financial, institutional and political leaders of the world’s main economies at Davos. And there may be more to it than that. Without at least a dose of anarchism, how can the world learn to breathe again?

Those concerned about chattering conventicles and the resurgence of assorted Old Adams might also turn to reassure themselves with the recent thoughts of the singular figure who bridges these two worlds: George Soros. This unimpeachably practical capitalist, who did possibly more than any other individual to usher in the victory of neo-liberalism in the 1990s, has turned against his own progeny. He is still too much of a genuine intellectual to stand what they have made of his work. His Central European University was meant to foster liberty and democracy – an open society, rather than the termite-mound of manic deregulation and take-all rapacity which grew so monstrously beyond the fallen walls of 1989. By 1998, in The Crisis of Global Capitalism, he was already acutely (and of course, knowingly) aware of the contradiction; his more recent George Soros on Globalization has carried the argument further.

With typical self-critical candour, Soros wrote near the end of the first book that he felt disturbed by the sheer abstraction and implausibility of the talk about alternatives then going on. But since then things have become considerably more concrete. Opposition from below has swelled and gained in confidence and sophistication. The proof that a new stage of globalisation has arrived is at all levels. It is not so much economic as political and cultural – and human. Neo-liberal economism, that’s to say the notion that the market can solve all human ills so long as government constraints are removed, sees only ‘economic’ men and women. These are dessicated calculators: of rational-choice rodents moved exclusively by the short range and the quantifiable.

Humans are not like this. In the real world, to take just one example, the Earth is being convulsed by a colossal migratory movement in which ever-growing numbers of ‘ordinary folk’ have globalised themselves in advance (as it were) by climbing into aircraft holds and leaky boats, and making for town – often someone else’s town – across any number of frontiers, with defective or non-existent paperwork. Driven largely by unquantifiable desperation and long-range risks, by rage against confinement and hopes for new life chances and identities, these nomads are like a millions-strong repudiation of economists’ fantasies, in which they are seen only as ‘labour’ – not headstrong, troublesome folk.

As all serious surveys of the phenomenon admit, this is also a contemporary reprise of one of the oldest constitutive factors of human society. The global countryside deciding to go to town, in such numbers and so unstoppably, is a qualitative shift that in turn alters the parameters, and makes return unthinkable. Terribly poor behaviour, of course, for those to whom ‘globalisation’ meant cosy transnationalism and capital transfers. The still-dominant, governing myopia perceives migration as a contemporary malaise, calling for miserable, short-term therapies of restriction and control, or forced-march assimilation. But the same analyses make the point of how futile such steps are likely to be. There’s no use hurrying rolls of razor wire to the border to stop George Cavafy’s ‘barbarians’. As in his poem, they are ‘no longer there’ and find ever better and earlier ways to cross – when the sun was still scattering the stars to flight, and ‘striking the Sultan’s turret with a shaft of light’.

The anthropology of globalisation

The results are not at all a homogeneous, uniformly ‘global’ world. Anthropologists are often far better at observing the nature of change than political scientists or sociologists. The Anthropology of Globalization, edited by J. Inda and R. Rosaldo (Blackwell, 2001), shows not how omnipresent and inescapable America is in this process, but exactly the opposite. In most new global transactions the US impinges only marginally or partially (where it shows up at all). A similarly disconcerting panorama is provided in the collection Many Globalizations: Cultural Diversity in the Contemporary World by P.L. Berger and S.P. Huntingdon(Oxford University Press, 2002).

In The Anthropology of Globalization, a particularly good example is James Ferguson’s bitter portrait of today’s Zambian ‘copperbelt’. Here, de-industrialisation has brought about ‘the un-making, rather than the making, of a working class’. The technological advances made by the information explosion have lessened demand for copper wiring, and hence for the main Zambian export. Fibre optics and satellite communication have altered the nature of the ‘wired world’, disastrously for Zambians. The mining and industrial development which was supposed to make them part of the wider world is suffering severe contraction, and the usual remedies of privatisation, lay-offs and ‘back to the land’ schemes.

Most Zambians never made a phone call in their lives, Ferguson points out; but some of them did live in hope of doing so, via the copper wiring they were helping to export to everywhere else. Now they are getting used to the idea they never will. Here, the ‘New World Order’ means more and more ‘poor Africans’ (unless of course these new ‘barbarians’ can scrape together enough to emigrate).

Ferguson sums up his account powerfully:

‘A fundamental point is suggested in this small detail. That is that what we have come to call globalisation is not simply a process that links together the world but also one that differentiates it. It creates new inequalities even as it brings into being new commonalities and lines of communication. And it creates new, up-to-date ways not only of connecting places but of bypassing and ignoring them.’

The former system meant they were supposed to ‘catch up’ by the right mixture of political nationalism and industrial development (Zambia gained independence in 1964). Failure of this formula has resulted in marginalisation and what Ferguson calls ‘abjection’ – uneven development rendered unassailable and permanent, in a population with an average life-expectancy of just over 37 years.

Among the factors that stalled Zambian expectations was the rise and rise of the mobile telephone, that indispensable tool of connectedness. Who needs copper wire, when they have ether waves and regular relay masts? As Ferguson puts it, this is a perfect symbol of the new world order which habitually ‘presents itself as a phenomenon of pure connection’ and inexorable interaction. Of course, the US-led information revolution played an important role here; but its articulation assumes wildly varying, concrete and distant forms, where the first causes disappear from view.

This was brought home to me vividly on the day I happened to read his essay, while in a plane returning home from Australia to Scotland. I landed in the latter’s ‘industrial belt’, which in the 1980s and 1990s had become a significant producer of mobile phones. And the news there was that 1200 people who made these phones (including our next-door neighbour) had just lost their jobs. After a steep fall in demand for mobiles over 1999–2001, the Motorola Corporation was pulling out of Scotland and relocating somewhere cheaper (and not in Zambia).

Resignedly, I switched on my old-style copper-wire-connected computer to Internet news of indignant local protests about marginalisation, and the utter failure of both politicians and outworn development formulae. In this zone of once immovable Labour (and even New Labour) voters, local MP Tam Dalyell was instructing his constituents to take it on the chin, preferably lying down. Unseemly protests were unnecessary, because the Motorola management (quite decent chaps) were doing simply everything in their power to help them.

My object here is not spurious parallels between very different situations, but to underline the same common factor that Ferguson stresses. The ‘one world’ of globalism is no ectoplasmic sphere from which ‘uneven development’ will vanish, exorcised by priestly spells of economic correctness. It is much more likely to be one in which unevenness increases sharply and, at the same time, awareness of this increases in consciousness.

Counter-spells invoking the standards of ‘cosmopolitanism’ will have little purchase upon such differentiation. Those who need to oppose the impacts of unevenness will need more robust sources to mobilise their own will to challenge such outcomes. Here, Paul Hirst’s emphasis on the continuing necessity of the national state as the primary hearth of countervailing democratic power is well taken.

Nation and identity in the new century

Which means that nationality politics are needed, to mobilise resistance against such outrages, and to formulate on-the-spot alternatives. Far from disappearing, nationalism is changing its skin. The buzz-saws of marketolatry rasp out their habitual comment here: where ‘protectionism’ is given an inch, can ethnic cleansing be far behind? Thus phony history is added to the dismal apologetics of the moment. The modern nation state has behind it a phased development, still under way – from the kingdoms that emerged after the Treaty of Westphalia in the 17th century up to the iron-clad Leviathans that came after the US Civil War and the Franco–Prussian War in the late 19th century. It will evolve differently again under the conditions of globalisation, inwardly conditioned by the latter’s vast climate shift.

Take the British–Irish archipelago of today as an example. It used to be considered as the veritable forge of the nation state, a template of modernity. Now, in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, three very distinct models of novel self-government are already visible while the older ethno-nationalism of the Irish Republic is altering so quickly no one can keep up with it. And still newer versions are surfacing within England itself.

Not only is consciousness important in all this, it is much more salient since the 9/11 turning point. It’s difficult to pin down, but I suggest it may be closer to what the American poet Robert E. Duncan meant thirty years ago when he wrote that the story of our age is one of people ‘coming to share one common fate’. ‘Fate’ has a literary or even a religious resonance; but I think this is not inappropriate. It may be what people ‘obscurely feel’; but then, in this context, that may be the important thing. ‘Feeling’ is a mode of thinking too – a way, perhaps, of both seeking out and confirming novel parameters of evolution (searching to define this, the Welsh novelist and critic Raymond Williams referred to ‘structures of feeling’). Originally the parameters of Fate were supposed to be divine. God decreed them (and often decreed that his Chosen Ones were endemically superior to the misbegotten or left-over rest). Now, the horizons of an uncapitalised fate are simply a cognitively-shrinking globe, and the knowledge that none are chosen – and hence, none can be second-rate either.

And of course this is a ‘climate change’, rather than a crafty reconfiguration of ideas. It has not been beamed down from the Enterprise Institute or from Departments of Post-Modern Sociology. Changing metaphors, it is more like a breach birth out of the old world. The first cries suggest something quite different from the traditional ideological projections of universality made by religions, or by the abstract secular Enlightenment of the 18th century. Globalising awareness seems more like ‘being in the same boat’ than any form of exalted transcendence. The ‘boat’ may be leaking, unstable, overcrowded and squabbling, with the passengers fighting over the dwindling rations and water, as well as over which direction the craft should take. None the less, what has come to count for far more than any version of transcendence is the awkward and uneasy recognition of that non-reversible ‘common fate’, in Duncan’s sense.

After the Berlin Wall came down, all particular borders somehow were breached for all time to come. Since 1989 mankind’s development is not and never will again be threatened by essential societal (or bio-social) divergence. Threatened, I mean, by an Elect of ‘Aryans’, or White Australians, or America-Firsters, or Socialist Men (gender stereotypes were essential for essentialism). Without losing their old sense, borders have already acquired a new and less parochial one. Quietly, uncelebrated by pageant or ideological transports, like the greyest imaginable break of day, oneness crept in, but has come to stay.

Though not a by-product of science, it is important to note that consciousness 0f this was almost at once underwritten by the advances made in genetics, culminating in the Human Genome programme. Practitioners of ‘it was no coincidence that…’ still have much to say about this, I know. But it must be of some importance that the last vestiges of Social Darwinism have been finally put to rest. That elaborate culture of delusion stretching from Robert Knox (1791–1862) down to the Montana Militias and Jean-Marie Le Pen has taken to its deathbed, amid appropriate death rattles. Which does not mean that racism expired, of course; its ‘-ism’ has lost all credibility, but not the differentiations that it sought in vain to justify. Just as the means arrived for carrying out genetic engineering, the ideological vehicles for misusing it have disappeared for good.

However, mindsets do not vanish because they are without a civilisational future. At best, they fade away within the advancing common fate. At worst, they pitch themselves not just against a definable enemy whom they can hope to frustrate, but against a global one whose extent defies their puny influence. This, then, can provoke even more extreme measures, imparting a new character to political violence itself.

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?

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