Global Policy Forum

Are there Alternatives?


by Tom Nairn

Open Democracy
February 20, 2003

The concluding, fifth part of Tom Nairn's series on America and globalisation addresses an urgently practical question: where lies the potential for a better world order beyond the free market model of globalisation? In two words: democratic nationalism.

Some estimate of the question that frames the conclusion of this series can be got from looking briefly at two recent and different vistas: Roberto Unger's Boutwood Lectures (2002), and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire (2000).

Unger's title is ‘The Second Way – why we need an alternative to the present consensus and what the alternative is'. His ‘untimely remarks' begin by describing and deploring the ruin of European social democracy, including its ‘third way' alibis. These brought a miserable ‘spiritual movement' of privatisation that led to ‘the abandonment of public life as a proper sphere for advancement of large projects'.

Politics became a sphere of mediocrity, while culture responded with fantasy escape, expressing ‘a sense of entrapment…awareness that the diminished life one lives is the only life one is ever going to have.'

Non-fantasy escape requires, Unger argues, a root reversal of attitudes, and a reorganisation of the production process itself. This will be possible only through ‘the creation of a high-energy politics', sustained by ‘a high level of political mobilisation (which) addresses the creation and the contest of alternative trajectories of cumulative institutional change.'

Unger lists the changes that might bring this about, culminating in the surprising idea of ‘a public-law framework…making it easier for civil society to organise itself around neighbourhoods, around jobs, and around topics of common interest such as health and education.' Overall, this strategy is designed ‘to make us more god-like'.

The divinisation of humanity rests upon Unger's conception of human nature, as a self-transcending source forced to try and ‘slowly turn society into a mirror of the imagination'. This potential has been lulled to sleep, as neo-liberal incantations have sectioned society ‘into the care of politicians, entertainers and philosophers who taught the poisonous doctrine that politics must be little for individuals to become big.'

Where are the vehicles to a new world?

In contrast to Unger's low, careful road towards a god-like future, Hardt and Negri's Empire took the high road with at times rapturous enthusiasm. Their ‘empire' already appeared in the year 2000 as an unstoppable, expansive network that had left the US behind. It signalled less a mundane one-ness than a kind of ontological mutation.

We live in the last days of a second Roman Empire, which the incursion of the modern barbarians (migrants) is about to transform. A contemporary ‘multitude' is under formation – in effect, an alternative ‘network' to that of the capitalist sorcerer. Global by instinct and experience, this global network-proletariat will develop its powers of subversion without Benedict Anderson's ‘imagined communities', peoples or nations left over from a discarded past.

All the new-style multitude needs is to become cognisant of its own subjectivity. This is a task (as í‰mile Durkheim would undoubtedly have thought) of some difficulty, since it requires human society to tear up its own historic roots altogether, and just stop using ‘gods' to express what is its own power. Presumably this feat is up to prophets – the book is devoted to Spinoza, the early-modern philosopher who coined the epigram: ‘The prophet creates his own people'.

Hardt and Negri's conception of America is odd, in the prophetic context. They perceive it as mainly the home of a left-wing, intrinsically experimental republicanism – like a laboratory for the liberated, mass future. In other words, the America that was crippled by the weird presidential election of 2000 (as their book was coming out), and then marginalised more profoundly by non-President Bush, after September 2001. They seem to believe that the United States Federation is not really a state-nation, just as it had never been a colonial empire (and could never become a dreary ‘homeland'). The US still figures in Empire as a way station towards some dawning golden age.

How then has the US turned instead into a relay station for the past, that has re-grouped to launch a devastating assault upon all the symptoms of change and awakening that Hardt and Negri discerned? As Gopal Balakrishnan pointed out in his review of this book (New Left Review 5, Sep–Oct 2000), what they have produced is a far-left rendition of what Thomas Friedman had done for the right, with The Lexus and the Olive Tree – only, without indication of the institutions, movements and transmission belts that might bring their all-encompassing change about.

Roberto Unger's similar résumé of the process is: ‘The network of these advanced networks has now become the driving force in the world economy.' This demands the ‘reinvention' of practically everything. But what is a ‘network of networks', if not an alliance and cooperation of nodes? And what can these ‘nodes' be, except nations – that is, polities. Of course, as human constructs polities are partly ‘invented', but always in response to nature, both societal and pre-human.

The completion or advance of democracy indeed calls for novel constitutional experiments. But such innovation needs vehicles to carry them; and what vessels are there, except those made by past collective histories, languages and cultures? Are ‘high-energy politics' and high-level mobilisation' conceivable without ‘nations'? Yet the term is conspicuous by its near-absence from both manifestos – as if the authors were above all anxious to steer clear of horrid nationalism. When the idea does force its way in through the back door, however, the effect is rather sobering:

‘How can a reform of the world economy…come about? The first step is for alternatives – real alternatives – to be established in particular nation states, especially in some of the large, marginalised continental countries (China, India, Russia, Indonesia, Brazil) that are now the natural seats of resistance…' (my italics).

These are the places with ‘the spiritual resources to imagine themselves as different worlds, though each of them has recently been inhibited in the achievement of this potential for deviation and rebellion.' Unfortunately, Professor Unger omitted Germany and other parts of the European Union from his miscreants. But at least the list carried listeners back down from Planet Zylon to filthy old Earth, our minefield of identity-mania, boundaries, envy, revenge, irrepressible curiosity and other un-godlike traits.

Globalisation produces diversity

The same cannot be said for Empire, although it does strive to touch base by practically unbounded exaltation of migration, and pleas for abolishing border controls. Its authors seem to believe this would in itself empower their ‘network of networks', which they perceive as inheriting the globe.

In reality, surely, population movements are likely to be important determinants of the ‘nodes' of futurity – that is, of nationality-politics with a different skin, ‘civic' rather than ‘ethnic', litigious rather than bellicose, identitarian rather than genocidal.

Future national identities will be conditioned by the globalising forces from the bottom up. In a more mingled world, ethno-nationalism is already near the ‘exit' door. But it is mistaken to confuse necessary with sufficient conditions here. This shift neither embodies nor represents the place of nationality, in either history or human nature. Diversity remains a compelling structure, not a pose or an optional display. Globalisation is likely to give it more house-room, not less.

It seems to me that such theoretical sallies end by resoundingly confirming Paul Hirst's position, in that original openDemocracy debate I mentioned earlier: democracy finds its voice through nationality.

There is nothing dishonourable about the abstractions and uncertainty of such panoramic surveys as Unger and Hardt and Negri. The nerves of political agency were paralysed and mutilated for so long, by both sides of the cold war, that they were bound to be influenced – even in its aftermath - by the rampaging Old World.

On the other hand, the latter – unrestrained, US-driven globalisation – will cross the finishing line only to meet a counter-productive world, in which Hirst's persistent communities reassert themselves. As one unpredictable repercussion succeeds another, and ‘natural seats of resistance' find new voices and agencies, a multi-polar globe will be that much closer, with growing numbers of sovereign units around each pole: discordant, squabbling, overflowing with imaginative difference and far less inhibited in their potential for deviance.

They will also be united in relief at common escape from the Invasion of the Body-snatchers that threatened them around the fin de sií¨cle. By comic coincidence, the move to war in Iraq is being accompanied by a showing in Britain and Ireland of Stephen Spielberg's latest, interminable version of this classic tale of American dystopia, Taken. It is what Americans have always most feared about themselves.

The politics of neo-liberalism

In his contribution to the openDemocracy arguments about the war, Philip Bobbitt echoes what he calls ‘a new resolve, and a new urgency' as the motive force of the military expedition. These elements are certainly present, and I presume to explain why it is felt that ‘we must act now', rather than go on dithering as both the United States and United Nations have done for so long, over both Iraqi threats and the Palestinian question.

But who are ‘we'? The urgent determination comes from the government of the US alone, abetted by the dependent government of the UK. None of the allegations or suggestions made elsewhere in Bobbitt's essay is novel, or implies the need for such a turning. This need has arisen from the dilemma of a feeble and doubtfully legitimate government, aggravated by the repercussions of 11 September 2001.

American nationalism injected new resolve and urgency into it – which it feels is best harnessed by external deployment. Superpower status then makes it easy to expand ‘we' into the international community (maybe ill-served by a foot-shuffling United Nations).

Nascent globalising conditions can of course be interpreted as supporting the extrapolation: the world is not emancipating itself from American control, but returning to the fold and ‘recognising reality'. The hope is that neo-liberalism will also be revived through this conflict – the opiate of that secular fundamentalism which suits a dominant economy.

On this terrain, fake cosmopolitanism comes with the star. ‘Nations' don't figure in Bobbitt's plea either, apart from a fairly pious remark about ‘restoring Iraq's wealth to its people' (which should be ‘peoples' of course, unless Kurdistan is again being overlooked).

This is not surprising. ‘Nation-building' seems to have vanished from the new gendarme's manual. According to a recent issue of The Washington Quarterly (Autumn 2002) the idea is in any case quite outdated. Its main section is devoted to ‘Nation-Building's Successor', which turns out to be: ‘Post-conflict Reconstruction'.

Iraq appears to have concentrated the thoughts of Reconstructionists wonderfully, and six different articles go on to spell out its principles and aims. The latter stem from a super-principle: ‘Not all failed states are created equal'. This disappointing fact naturally entails another: ‘Not all will be equally important to the United States and the international community'. The emphasis should thenceforth be upon supporting ‘minimally capable states, not building nations'.

The woes of this global underclass stem mainly from ethnicity and criminality, and the hegemon's aim must be to restrain (and only occasionally suppress) both. There need be no more Vietnams – that misfortune was brought about by taking nation-building far too seriously. Instead, much more distant and institutional means should be used, establishing the general climate and conditions for natives to proceed (eventually) with their do-it-yourself business of building up nations.

A democratic malaise

When such ‘pillars' are set out, they look astonishingly like those of the neo-liberal order already in existence. John Keane sketched an outline of the 1989–2001 system in a March 2002 lecture called Whatever Happened to Democracy? (Institute for Public Policy Research).

The political world of neo-liberalism is in truth a ‘cosmocracy', in which boundary loss has been exploited by craven leftovers of the cold war to restore inequality, electoral indifference, and the ‘no alternative' economic rules of competition and de-regulation.

I touched on the same theme earlier, from a different angle – that of national identity rather than democracy. But successful cosmocracies were not created equal, any more than ‘failed states'; some are distinctly more equal than others, nor does anyone doubt which is the most equal (and powerful) of the lot.

The combination of ‘an inner decay of representative government' with simultaneous ‘communicative abundance' has created a democratic malaise and an atrophy of popular will – as if the very sense of an alternative agency, in Unger's sense, is now threatened.

Western-led cosmocracy was an inchoate and dismal imperium of informality, which after the shock of 2001 felt called upon to acquire some backbone and principles – those of Post-conflict Reconstruction, precisely, in which capitalism's slipshod moeurs are re-garbed as brisk lessons in worthy deportment, slimming-down and régime change.

The Washington Quarterly is published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a body featuring Walter Laqueur, Zbigniev Brzezinski and Francis Fukuyama on its board. This is no doubt why the message is voiced in a new obfuscatory jargon, made up of managerial euphemism, post-modern academe and Beltway gibberish: ‘Indigenous ownership of the process of governance is key', ‘Engaging the local business community is a first step to economic well-being', ‘We know now that development can take place even when parts of a nation are at war'.

Their conclusion is that of Philip Bobbitt's, almost word for word: ‘In order to succeed in the future, the United States must act now' (here the voice is that of John J. Hamre, President of the Association of the United States Army).

It should not be thought that the US is exempt from the CSIS's criticisms of the failed-state world. No, two sentences are devoted to the subject, one of which distinctly states that the United States should ‘get its own house in order'. But the point is not elaborated further, and clearly stands low in the order of reconstructional priorities. Today's cosmocrats are beset by matters more urgent than getting presidents elected by majority votes.

Moreover, democracy is not entirely absent from their vista. Indeed, one of the Quarterly's chapters is on ‘Strategic Democracy Building'. However, a closer scan reveals the real subject to be an operation unknown to everybody outside the US, and quite probably to most inside it too: the State Partnership Program.

This is a curious ‘twinning' device through which the father of today's president sought in the early 1990s to ‘accelerate the integration of former Eastern bloc nations into NATO', by letting them know about the National Guard, and other exemplary forms of devolved rule. Thus, the Slovenes were rewarded by partnership with Colorado (whose Governor, Bill Owens, is one of the authors). But since then, expansion of this successful plan beyond eastern Europe has meant, for example, that Venezuela is enriched by learning from Florida, and the Estonians by knowledge of appropriately tiny Maryland.

From morality to reality

Democratic nationalism is the only possible riposte to ‘Post-conflict Reconstruction', and the other near-incredible alibis of the moment. Over the last year everyone has learned a lot about what Keane called ‘the struggle against blind arrogance and stupidity caused by power', and ‘democratic power-sharing as the best human weapon so far invented against the hubris that comes with concentrations of power'. There may have been an old left that washed its hands in impotent pieties and gloried in impotent moralising, but I doubt if it will have much to do with the new one now being called up by the tragic mistakes of the sorcerer's apprentices in Washington and elsewhere, and their wind-bag excuses.

We used to read about such problems in histories and politics textbooks; now they're in the Washington Post, the Daily Mirror and every country's evening TV news bulletin. In the original fable, the apprentice got everything hopelessly out of hand, until the sorcerer himself (history) returned to try and sort out the chaos. Now this is the task of reasserted democracy, in alliance with reformed national identities. The coat of infinite colours can never be shed, but it can be remade – initially, from the gathering storm of popular resentment and shame against the Bush–Blair crusade, allied with emerging ‘anti-globalisation'. The latter can also be read as ‘anti-cosmocracy' – a long-delayed, still uncertain reaction against all the intolerable aspects of first-stage globalisation.

The delay is understandable. Over the period 1980–2000 the political left had to swallow an unprecedented amount of bitter medicine. But much of it worked, real lessons were learned and are still finding their voice. ‘Everyone's heart must be torn to shreds', said Berthold Brecht in his last poem. ‘You'll go down if you don't stand up for yourself – surely you see that.' But surely enough have now seen it, even before the attack on Iraq, and the tide is already flowing the other way.

Now it is the turn of the right. In his essay A Perfect Crime: Inequality in the Age of Globalization, James K. Galbraith points out that: ‘It is not by accident that the effects of neo-liberalism at a global level resemble those of a coup d'état at a national level' (Daedalus, Winter 2002).

Neither globalisation nor technology as such are to blame. The guilt lies with the right-wing elites that exploited the great windfall victory of 1989, to make ‘progress' mean intolerable levels of inequality, neo-colonial patterns of centre-periphery dependence, and debt-peonage.

Under the name of ‘neo-liberalism', this ‘perfect crime' posited an invisible hand as the natural law of deregulation. It wrapped inevitability around a phony destiny by proclaiming that, given time and misery enough, everywhere would find it beneficent. Hence no one seemed responsible for what happened in the meantime.

Then brusquely, after 11 September 2001, the hand decided it was time to make itself more visible. A year later, and it was working up a war to make itself permanently unassailable – the imperfect sequel to that all-too-perfectly coordinated crime against it.

The objective: to recapture globalisation, and confine it within the ultra-capitalist straitjacket of its own beginnings. Its elated, planetary exploitation of the triumph of 1989 was unforgivable enough. Now the right deserves to fail in its global coup d'état, finally and completely.

This essay is the fifth in a five-part series by Tom Nairn on America and Globalisation, part of a debate on Open Democracy.

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