3. Apocalypse is in the air

Tom Nairn
22 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.


In Part 2 I tracked the impact of the way consciousness has mutated with the shift from a world of nation states to a world that is globalised. A crucial effect of this is the altering character of political violence. Few more urgent issues confront individuals as well as governments right now.

We should not leave the issue to President Bush and his advisors and allies, but we need to try and figure it out for ourselves. For this is the question capable of carrying us beyond economics, to the cultural and political heart of what the mutation may portend.

Normal violence

Not so long ago ‘physical force’ such as blowing things up (bridges, institutions, supposedly detested symbols such as statues, emblems of the state) and occasionally assassinating hated individuals (presidents, governors, traitors to the cause) was a regular aspect of political struggles.

Nationalism was the most common single motivation for such old-hat violence. It aimed at liberating a people from oppression by some over-arching state (which was, of course, usually supported by some other people or nationality). The justifying formula was that nationalist movements would be followed by ‘nation building’ (or sometimes re-building), and the nation state was accepted as generally right and inevitable.

This recipe was never uncontested, or free from disasters; but it was at least intelligible, and its more or less tried-and-tested solutions were based upon an approximate global realisation of such objectives. Independent statehood remained the norm, but variations were also contrived over a lengthy period for a spectrum of look-alikes and stand-ins: regional self-rule, federal or confederal deals, or – more rarely – joint or consociational modes of government, as historically in the Netherlands and (until recently) in the Northern Ireland of the ‘peace process’.

Even execrable and generally deplored features of such solutions (population flights or ‘exchanges’, uncomfortable minority plights, pogroms) were part of the nationalist recipe. The best-remembered and most-quoted example is now post-communist Yugoslavia (at this moment in its final death throes, with the Serbia–Montenegro separation). But there were plenty before that, there have been a few since (East Timor), and anyone can see a number of others still on the agenda (West Papua, Aceh, Corsica, Chechnya).

The changing rules of violence

These physical-force activities are unlikely to stop. However, something else is happening as well. In this new trend, both the character and the scale of political and social violence have escalated. The most striking change is that greater and greater numbers of perpetrators now appear willing to kill themselves. This is the opposite of ‘war at a distance’; it is war and mayhem by intimate presence, on an aircraft, in a bus or just in the street, and part of its character is that it is indiscriminate and reckless.

There are no ‘innocents’; a whole population is guilty, not just its state, or its tyrants. The peculiar horror inseparable from this has become known to everybody, as is the awfulness of having to ‘live with it’ in Colombo and Tel Aviv. 9/11 was the most sensational episode thus far, followed closely by the Moscow theatre siege (see Susan Richards in openDemocracy) and the Grozny explosion.

There have been earlier, rare examples of this kind of political violence such as the anarchist campaigns before the First World War; Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) is a depiction of this in London. Some commentators rediscovered the book after 11 September, but for any contemporary reader I suspect the contrast will be more telling than the similarities.

At that time self-immolation was a rare, individual phenomenon, whereas it has become quite common since the 1990s – indeed almost an established technique of protest and warfare. In the old days, individuals were often surprisingly willing to ‘die for the nation’ in battles and struggles, where there was a chance they could live for it too. Now they are willing to embrace certain death for ‘the cause’, or the faith. Youngsters put their names down for martyrdom, and impatiently wait their turn.

In Bali the perpetrators did not get themselves killed, since it was easy to escape the scene. But most are now likely to assume that they would have sacrificed themselves, had that not been the case. The much darker shadow of American preparations to attack Iraq looms over everything, because the Bush government claims to identify Baghdad as the ‘heart of darkness’ – the main source of capital-T Terrorism in this pervasive new sense. So we are confronting not just altered rules of insurgent violence, but changing procedures of counter-insurgent violence as well. Self-immolating terrorism was bad enough, but going by past record the counter-terrorism it arouses is almost always far worse.

In the older perspectives of national liberation and anti-imperialist struggle too, it was always the case that most of the mayhem was perpetrated by states, rather than by the dissidents, agitators, guerrillas and other freedom fighters. In the same way, we can be sure that most of any eventual body count in the ‘war against terrorism’ will be down to the forces of counter-terrorist revenge. In The Secret Agent (one should not forget) the crazy bomb plot was actually instigated and paid for by the Tsarist Russian state, in order to ‘teach a lesson’ to an over-tolerant, wimpish Great Britain.

The failures of global ‘success’

In her essay A World on the Edge, the Chinese-American scholar Amy Chua provides an impressive longer list of the escalating post 1980s violence, from Sri Lanka, Rwanda, the Serb concentration camps of the 1990s, and the Indonesian anti-Chinese pogrom of 1998, down to the murder of her own aunt in Manila. The latter was killed by a Filipino servant in their own affluent household. He was never tracked down by the Filipino police, and their official report gave as the motive simply: ‘Revenge’.

It is worth quoting her concluding attempt at a theorisation: ‘There is a connection among these episodes apart from their violence. It lies in the relationship – increasingly, the explosive collision – among the three most powerful forces operating in the world today: markets, democracy, and ethnic hatred. There exists today a phenomenon – pervasive outside the west yet rarely acknowledged, indeed often viewed as taboo – that turns free-market democracy into an engine of ethnic conflagration. I’m speaking of the phenomenon of market-dominant minorities, ethnic minorities who…tend to dominate, often to a startling extent, the “indigenous” majorities around them.’ (The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2002)

Putting aside for a moment the general validity of this theory, it is important to note that Chua is stating the contrary of what neo-liberal apologetics gave as gospel; the ‘end of history’, in which the combination of free-market conditions with democracy – albeit with some delays and hiccups – was an engine of enhanced capitalist development bringing well being to all. Conflagrations would become simply unnecessary, as nation states lost their grip and ethnicity withered as equality came their way.

Thomas Friedman’s prediction (in his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree) is possibly the best known: ‘Globalisation tends to turn all friends and enemies into “competitors”, erasing not just geographical borders but also human ones.’ He even proposed a ‘Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention’, with explicit reference to the spread of McDonald’s.

openDemocracy readers will have noticed another example: Rajeev Bhargava’s Gujarat: shades of black. This devastating analysis shows vividly what Friedman’s ‘competitors’ have become capable of.

Gujarat, in north-west India, has gone through very rapid economic development linked to globalisation, which has demolished traditional hierarchies and greatly benefited the dominant Hindu community, now finding a voice in the BJP (Hindu nationalist) government. The 8.8 per cent Muslim minority reacted by burning a train at Godhra in February 2002, which led in turn to a tidal wave of anti-Muslim hatred, in which around 2,000 were massacred in what was clearly a semi-officially encouraged process.

Bhargava found most middle-class Hindus united in justification of this retribution: ‘There were no shades of grey…the same stereotypes, the same anti-Muslim stories relentlessly ricocheted on us, visit after visit.’ These were not the households of suffering victims. ‘Have we all been too complacent about our darker motivations?’ he asks. ‘Do we all have a much greater capacity than we realise to shrug off wrong done to others in pursuit of self-affirmation?’

He concludes by suggesting that the weakening or dissolution of traditional boundaries by economic success must have something to do with it. Globally-assisted growth has engendered ‘a generalised egoism – a condition inextricably linked to the current experience of globalisation.’ In the latter’s uncertainty and disorientation, people ‘tend to fasten on to material interest and prejudice … In the midst of a world of evanescence and effervescence, at least these provide an anchor.’

Ethno-religious borders don’t have to be territorial (as was seen in Bosnia, for example); in Gujurat they were furnished by caste. But Chua’s ‘engine of conflagration’ works in similar fashion.

‘Something else is afoot in India,’ Bhargava sombrely suggests. ‘It is wrong to dismiss the violence and its links to terror…as “evil”. The point is: it is human.’ He refers back to Alexis de Tocqueville as well as to the Gandhian tradition, in striving to understand just what it is about human nature that falls foul of such changes.

I mentioned earlier how human nature had re-entered the arena of debate, and how social anthropologists have demonstrated more insight into really-existing globality than many economists and political scientists. Again, we are forced back to the same difficult terrain.

Borders and boundary-loss

A still wider category may be helpful in grappling with the issue. What can be termed the ‘official’ or received version of ‘globalisation’ theory was founded on ‘the decline of the nation state’ and notions of a benignly advancing ‘borderless world’. Such concepts are invariably linked to the imagined attenuation of ‘old-fashioned’ nationalism, a moderate rationality in the conduct of human affairs and general welcome for economic advance. One-worldism entails opening frontiers, and a growing similarity or convergence in what happens on both sides of them. ‘One market under God’, it presumes, is bound to foster one human nature as well; Golden Arches all round (for Muslims as well as for Hindus in Gujarat, for Filipinos as for better-off Chinese in Manila and Jakarta) must bring conflict prevention along with it, as long as the process is given time to work its spell.

All four cases I have mentioned (Zambia and Scotland in Part 2, Gujarat and Chua’s Chinese minorities in this section) suggest that exactly the opposite must be taking place. It has, of course, been happening at the same time as free-trade-led globalisation. So somehow these two processes are interfused, or interdependent: the long contradiction of globalisation.

One way of envisaging this is to say that the post 1989 neo-liberal onrush brought about generalised boundary-loss. This combined lowered or even abandoned borders, plus a very powerful ideological conviction of this fact’s inevitability. The latter became the veritable Zeitgeist of the transitional era. It was welcomed and applauded by the Atlantic-zone élites and their post-cold-war disciples around the globe. They benefited from the loss of borders.

But, invisible to the tunnel vision of their economic correctness was the cost. Human nature is essentially differentiated, in structural ways that are by no means reducible either to language alone, or to aesthetic displays, tastes and ‘identity’ in a trivial sense.

All known forms of human society have been actively configured by various boundaries, ranging from the territorial to the life–death frontier underlying all religious customs and convictions. These have been indispensable to kinship formations and collective agency – the capacity of social formations to act meaningfully as one. Whatever the economic gains, boundary loss is also a loss which impacts on the heart of politics.

The origins of what we now call the political domain must have long preceded antiquity. In one sense, the ‘frontiers’ of the contemporary world may date back to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia; in another, they must be rooted in, or attendant upon, the familial or kinship transmission processes which, for example, Emmanuel Todd attempts to map in La diversité du monde (1999). Political nationalism of the 18th–20th century sort has been one phase of an altering process. And it is these nation-state borders that have taken the brunt of late 20th-century globalisation, above all in economic terms.

It does not follow that the deeper effects of the shock were confined to the same terms. Boundary loss must have impacted upon such accreted communal structures, and undone (or at least appeared to threaten) the societal meanings through which kinship and other relationships are traditionally reproduced. And this sort of impact can then strike through into the core of individuals in innumerable ways, bringing about that mutation of the person–society connection which Bhargava found himself observing so acutely in Gujarat.

One aspect of such shifts seems relevant to what I singled out earlier: self-immolation, the growing martyr complex. Emile Durkheim called it ‘altruistic suicide’ over a century ago, in one of the founding works of sociology. He argued that killing oneself is a societal phenomenon, rather than just a personal decision; and usually it is related to social isolation and disintegration, or ‘anomie’. But there is another variant that reflects the contrary – over-close integration, helpless emotional identification with the society or group.

Altruistic suicide, Durkheim argued, ‘…is caused by too rudimentary individuation…(where) the society holds the individual in too strict tutelage, where the ego is not its own property, where it is blended with something not itself. Where the goal of conduct is exterior to itself. That is, in one of the groups in which it participates’ (Suicide, 1897)

The examples he gave were of Japanese harakiri, the Prussian officer corps and Hindu suttee. In the present, however, we need to understand why this has somehow grown in political significance and diffusion – to the point, since 9/11, of fostering a climate of general violence and readiness for indiscriminate destruction. If apocalypse is so much in the air, it must arise from a general social change, linked in some way to globalisation. Since it fails to figure in the latter’s official apologetics, it must be found in its unintended consequences or side effects.

Globalisation fuels collective identities

The dogma of neo-liberalism foresaw a shrinkage of the political sphere. As national states grew less important, so would their politicians, and so would mass interest in both nation and state. Individuals were supposed to feel less involved or concerned, and more devoted to material advancement – their own, or that of (at most) their micro-communities, like the extended family or village.

If most governments in the neo-liberal world were mediocrities, this only seemed natural as the very project of government was seen as second rate and probably futile. If electorates perceived this futility, and stopped voting for politicians, that too was a sign of the globalising times. ‘Global village’ was the slogan that summed it up. It originated with Marshall McLuhan in the early days of the information revolution, came into its own after 1989, and is still quite popular.

We can now see more clearly that this was never more than a miserable half-truth. And unfortunately, it is the other half that is hitting the world right now. It may be quite true that globalisation diminishes and occasionally abolishes borders, by imposing very general economic constraints upon national aims and expectations. But it is absolutely untrue that the latter then atrophy, or become less emotively significant. In fact, just because ‘politics’ is in some ways confined by global circumstances, it may grow more important – above all, in the vital dimension of collective ‘meaning’, or identity.

And in fact, primarily through American influence, the information revolution has fuelled that dimension in a fashion undreamt of by the older written word. Its technology has fused with lowered borders, increased migratory movements, rising expectations and correspondingly inflamed resentments, to create a militant identity-thirst.

People who despair of neo-liberal lackeys and third-way hypocrites don’t lose their wish for meaningful lives, and transcendent purposes. They go elsewhere; in the west, religion, re-heated xenophobia and ‘reality-TV’ are evident candidates. But, of course, elsewhere more violent possibilities abound, and the chance for more colourful revenge.

Going back to Durkheim, individuals in those situations then ‘find themselves’ through the emotionally-driven need to ‘blend with something’ other than their mere selves. The meaning-nexus undermined by boundary loss is reclaimed by strident affirmation of identity, or even more splendid martyrdom.

What was wrong with free-trade mania was not just its economics, but its absurdly parched philosophy of humanity and society. After 1989 right-wing materialism preached the rise of the capitalist individual in a boundary-loss globe; but this ‘Capitalist Man’ has turned out to be as much of a delusion as the ‘Socialist Man’ once projected by left-wing materialism – that already half-forgotten hero of the proletarian Internationale. The profounder sources of nationalism and collective agency have outlived both. Can they now find democratic expression, in a globalised world?

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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