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The paranoid phase of globalisation

About the author
Thomas Hylland Eriksen is professor in the department of social anthropology at the University of Oslo. His books include What is Anthropology? (Pluto Press, 2004); Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010); and Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). His website is here
The world revealed to us in the aftermath of 11 September 2001 made it evident that the fabric of society was trust. Just as the air we breathe is noticed only when it becomes polluted, the importance of trusting strangers was revealed only when it no longer functioned outside of the circles of intimacy – that is, when it had been replaced by its opposite, suspicion.

Imagine this scenario for 2002 – science fiction a short while ago, exceedingly likely now. The world had entered the paranoid phase of globalisation. Countries were neither at war nor not at war. Detailed surveillance of citizens and quixotic imprisonment of individuals became commonplace. Politicians eagerly elaborated on the imminent threat of terrorist attacks, thereby justifying ever more draconian measures. Radical humanist networks and human rights groups were ostracised for their lack of loyalty and structural similarities to terrorist groups. Yet everybody, including the politicians, knew in their heart of hearts that turning the citizenry into potential enemies would only aggravate the problem.

And so it did. Terrorist attacks did not stop, nor did they escalate to all-out war. They were just frequent enough to keep everybody constantly worried. A plane-crash here, an epidemic there. The fun immediately went out of travelling. Even commuting ceased to be a drowsy and boring affair as people became increasingly wary of their fellow passengers on the tube. Those who entered poor countries from rich countries were screened thoroughly for signs of contagious disease. Many began to let their favourite teams down for fear of stadium attacks. Others felt a lump in their stomach whenever they entered a crowded basement, for they knew that the armed paramilitaries in fatigues guarding them were only impotent symbols of the state.

The death of distance

A beginning, then, though one which had been prefigured and made possible by the development of a human world that is more tightly integrated than at any earlier point in history. In the age of the jet plane and satellite dish, of global capitalism, ubiquitous markets and global mass media, various commentators have claimed that the world is rapidly becoming a single place. Although this slightly exaggerated description has an important point to make, a perhaps even more striking aspect of the post-cold war world is the emergence – seemingly everywhere – of identity politics whose explicit aim is the restoration of rooted tradition, religious fervour and/or commitment to ethnic or national identities.

It is doubtless true that globalisation is a pervasive tendency influencing the lives of people everywhere – from the Amazon rainforest to Japanese cities. The concept became fashionable during the 1990s, and as a result, its meaning became fuzzy. I would propose, therefore, a view of globalisation as all the socio-cultural processes that contribute to making distance irrelevant. It has important economic, political and cultural dimensions, as well as equally important ethical implications.

Truly global processes affect the conditions of people living in particular localities, creating new opportunities and new forms of vulnerability. Risks are globally shared in the age of the nuclear bomb and potential ecological disasters. On the same note, the economic conditions in particular localities frequently (some would say always) depend on events taking place elsewhere in the global system. If there is an industrial boom in Taiwan, towns in the English Midlands will be affected. If oil prices rise, this implies salvation for the oil-exporting Trinidadian economy and disaster for the oil-importing Barbadian one.

Patterns of consumption also seem to merge in certain respects; people nearly everywhere desire similar goods, from cellular phones to ready-made garments. Now, naturally, a precondition for this to happen is the more or less successful implementation of certain institutional dimensions of modernity, notably that of a monetary economy – if not necessarily wagework and literacy. The ever-increasing transnational flow of commodities, be they material or immaterial, seems to create a set of common cultural denominators which threaten to eradicate local distinctions.

The hot-dog (halal or not, as the case may be), the pizza and the hamburger (or, in India, the lamburger) are truly parts of world cuisine; identical pop songs are played at identical discotheques in Costa Rica and Thailand; the same Coca-Cola commercials are shown with minimal local variations at cinemas all over the world, and so on. Investment capital, military power and world literature are similarly being disembedded from the constraints of space; they no longer belong to a particular locality. With the development of the jet plane, the satellite dish and more recently, the Internet, distance no longer seems a limiting factor for the flow of influence, investments and cultural meaning.

The rise of identity politics

Globalisation is, in other words, not merely another word for the growing transnational economy. It is true that it is largely driven by technology and economic interests, but it must be kept in mind that it encompasses a wide range of processes that are not in themselves technological or economic. Take the discourse of human rights, for example. In the course of the second half of the twentieth century, the ideas and values associated with human rights spread from educated elites worldwide (and not just, as some wrongly believe, in the West) to villagers and farmers in remote areas. The rapid dissemination of human rights ideas is probably one of the most spectacular successes of globalisation.

At the same time, we have in recent years witnessed the growth, in very many societies in all continents, of political movements seeking to strengthen the collective sense of uniqueness and cultural purity, often targeting globalisation processes, which are seen as a threat to local distinctiveness and self-determination. A European example with tragic consequences is the recent rise of ethnic nationalism in Croatia and Serbia. But even in the more prosperous and stable European Union, strong ethnic and nationalist movements have grown during the 1990s, ranging from Scottish separatism to the anti-immigration Front National in France. In Asia, two of the most powerful recent examples are the rise of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan, and the meteoric success of the Hindu nationalist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party, “Party of the Indian People”) in India; and many African countries have also seen a strong ethnification of their politics during the last decade, as well as the rise of political Islam in the north. In the Americas, various minority movements, from indigenous groups to African Americans, have with increasing success demanded cultural recognition and equal rights.

In sum, politics in the 1990s to a great extent meant identity politics. What is peculiar to the Al-Qaida and similar non-territorial networks is that they seem to have relinquished state-building aspirations, fighting for honour and glory rather than for conventional political power. This makes them difficult to understand, let alone combat, by states relying on a territorial globe. The Gulf War was still a war over territorial control; the present war is a war over people’s minds.

This new political scene, difficult to fit into the old left–right divide, is interpreted in very different ways by the many academics and journalists who have studied them. This is partly because identity politics comes in many flavours. Some are separatist nationalist movements; some represent historically oppressed minorities which demand equal rights; some are dominant groups trying to prevent minorities from gaining access to national resources; some are religious, some are ethnic, and some are regional. Some are peaceful and others are extremely violent.

Many writers see identity politics in general as an anti-modern counter-reaction to the individualism and freedom embodied by globalisation, while others see it as the defence of the weak against foreign dominance, or even as a concealed strategy of modernisation. Some emphasise the psychological dimension of identity politics, seeing it as nostalgic attempts to retain dignity and a sense of rootedness in an era of rapid change; others focus on competition for scarce resources between groups; some see identity politics as a strategy of exclusion and an ideology of hatred; while yet others see it as the trueborn child of socialism, an expression of the collective strivings of the underdog.

None of these interpretations and judgements tells the whole story, both because the concrete movements in question differ and because the phenomenon of identity politics is too complex for a simple explanation to suffice. What is clear, however, is that the centripetal or unifying forces of globalisation and the centrifugal or fragmenting forces of identity politics are two sides of the same coin, two complementary tendencies which must be understood well for anyone wishing to make sense of the global scene in the new millennium.

The character of “glocal” movements

For a variety of reasons, globalisation creates the conditions for localisation, that is, various attempts at creating bounded entities – countries (nationalism or separatism), faith systems (religious revitalisation), cultures (linguistic or cultural movements), or interest groups (ethnicity). For this reason, a more apt term, coined by sociologist Roland Robertson, might be “glocalisation”. I shall now present some features that the “glocal” identity movements of the early 21st century seem to have in common.

First, identity politics always entails competition over scarce resources. Successful mobilisation on the basis of collective identities presupposes a widespread belief that resources are unequally distributed along group lines. “Resources” should be interpreted in the widest sense possible, and could in principle be taken to mean economic wealth or political power, recognition or symbolic power – although what is primarily at stake are either economic or political resources.

Secondly, modernisation and globalisation actualise differences and trigger conflict. When formerly discrete groups are integrated into shared economic and political systems, inequalities are made visible, since direct comparison between the groups becomes possible. In a certain sense, ethnicity can be described as the process of making cultural differences comparable, and to that extent, it is a modern phenomenon boosted by the intensified contact entailed by globalisation. You do not envy your neighbour if you are unaware that he or she exists.

Thirdly, similarity overrules equality ideologically. Ethnic nationalism, politicised religion and indigenous movements all depict the in-group as homogeneous, as people “of the same kind”. Internal differences are glossed over, and for this reason, it can often be argued that identity politics serves the interests of the privileged segments of the group, even if the group as a whole is underprivileged, since it conceals internal class differences.

Fourthly, images of past suffering and injustice are invoked. To mention a few examples: Serbs bemoan the defeat at the hands of the Turks in Kosovo in 1389; leaders of the Hindu BJP have taken great pains to depict Mughal (Muslim) rule in India from the 1500s as bloody and authoritarian; and the African American movement draws extensively on the history of slavery. Even spokesmen for clearly privileged groups, such as anti-immigrant politicians in Western Europe, may argue along these lines.

Fifthly, the political symbolism and rhetoric evokes personal experiences. This is perhaps the most important ideological feature of identity politics in general. Using myths, cultural symbols and kinship terminology in addressing their supporters, promoters of identity politics try to downplay the difference between personal experiences and group history. In this way, it becomes perfectly sensible for a Serb to talk about the legendary battle of Kosovo in the first person (“We lost in 1389”), and the logic of revenge is extended to include metaphorical kin, in many cases millions of people. The intimate experiences associated with locality and family are thereby projected onto a national screen.

Sixthly, first-comers are contrasted with invaders. Although this ideological feature is by no means universal in identity politics, it tends to be invoked whenever possible, and in the process, historical facts are frequently stretched.

Finally, the actual social complexity in society is reduced to a set of simple contrasts. As Adolf Hitler already wrote in Mein Kampf, the truly national leader concentrates the attention of his people on one enemy at the time. Since cross-cutting ties reduce the chances of violent conflict, the collective identity must be based on relatively unambiguous criteria (such as place, religion, mother-tongue, kinship). Again, internal differences are undercommunicated in the act of delineating boundaries towards the frequently demonised Other.

Refreshing the air

Identity politics is frequently dismissed as an anachronistic survival from a time when kinship (“blood relations”), religion or local belonging formed the basis of politics. Against this view, it has been argued many times, always correctly, that although identity politics tends to be dressed in traditional garb, beneath the surface it is a product of modernity. The strong emotions associated with a tradition, a culture or a religion can never be mobilised unless people feel that it is under siege. To put it metaphorically: a fish knows nothing of water as long as it is surrounded by it, but the moment it is pulled out into the air, it develops an intense interest in the water and nostalgia for it. Indeed, it could be said that the fish discovers the water only at the moment it is removed from it.

Viewed in this way, the collective emotions that identity politics depends on reveal themselves to be deeply modern emotions associated with the sense of loss experienced in situations of rapid change. The articles by Murat Belge, Omar Al-Qattan, and Malise Ruthven in openDemocracy have demonstrated the intimate relevance of this process to the contemporary Muslim world. Yet the religious or political movements which emanate from it do offer rewards – a larger share of the cake, collective redemption for the sins or crimes of history, a positive sense of self – and like it or not, these movements will remain influential in most parts of the world until something better comes along.

11 September, then, is only the beginning. As we return from its edge to the centre of our own, changed lives (to adapt Hugh Brody), the need to imaginatively re-order our shared, “glocalised” world becomes not just a task, but an urgent necessity. May this next era be a more soft-spoken one, announcing its entry through the common understanding that the enemy is not a certain number of evil individuals – hiding in isolated caves or in Western ministries of “defence”, as the case might be – but an odourless and colourless quality of the air that we breathe. The air must be cleansed before reconstruction can begin. The new era must move beyond the paranoid to the more fully human: discovering a “universal” language of recognition and respect while realising that the more fundamental emotions are compassion and love.


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