This blog post is inspired by Donald Trump’s April 2016 declamation: “We will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism.” When this statement, with its combined affect of simple steadfastness and poetic heroism (a combination that is a common quality of folkish ethno-nationalist movements), resurfaced in the aftermath of last week’s Brexit vote, it drew my curiosity. I mentioned it to a couple of people and one said, “what is this word ‘globalism,’ when the correct word is globalization?” Despite considering these two words side by side for the first time in my life, I found myself fluently defending globalism’s integrity, and difference from globalization. Globalization, I said, captures the practical structures and processes of global movements, trade, communication, and so on. Globalism captures a culture, an ethos, an epistemological framework, a way of understanding the world, I said. The two words stayed with me because something about them seemed to be central to political disturbances in the United States and throughout Europe, with related-but-different expressions in other parts of the world.
I’ve heard globalization a lot more frequently, often hailed by politicians and business leaders as both the driver and result of economic growth and technological progress. With globalization, the world becomes a single marketplace of commodities, ideas, cultural aritifacts, and people. Governments manage globalization across national boundaries, building trans- and multinational infrastructures to streamline processes for inflows and outflows. But these are not globalism, and the apparently comprehensive marketplace of globalization is not the same as a community marketplace of symbolic exchanges, affective ties, and social contracts. The lived world of social contracts and affective ties is still shaped primarily by ethno-nationalist categories and the sentimental content of associated mythologies, certainly for my over-50 generation, and lags behind the structures of globalization. As a result ethno-nationalist rhetoric is still very potent in rallying disaffected people, and “globalist” rhetoric does not yet have discursive or affective depth on a wide scale.
I looked up globalism (on Wikipedia, of course, as the lexicon of common knowledge, whether “correct” or not) and found that globalism has been used as a generic term for global ideologies (such as “justice globalism,” “market globalism,” “jihadist globalism,” etc.), but it seems not to have any full or textured content of its own. And yet, Trump’s “false song of globalism” evokes something coherent and complex, a world of symbols, images, ideas, and relationships that competes with (the songs of) ethno-nationalism.
The benefits of globalization tend to accrue to well-off people; for them (including people like me) globalism, though largely unnamed, is developing mythological and affective depth. But for the majorities who relatively benefit much, much less (even when some sub-proportion benefits in absolute terms), globalization and its accompanying “false song of globalism” are elitist and exploitative. If globalism is to be a new framework for social contracts, symbolic meaning, and democratically legitimate politics, it needs a concerted and accelerated coagulation of new global language, mythology, structures, and actions that deliberately include the beauty and struggles of local and regional communities, not merely alternations between the pragmatics of globalization and the articulations – sometimes sublime, often shrill – of aging ethno-nationalisms.
So all this mulling has led me to ask: What would it look like to have a politics of globalism? What could a new politics of globalism look like? Not globalization. Globalism. Not multilateralism. Perhaps not even a new kind of federalism. This I believe is the gauntlet that Brexit and Trump, as expressive moments, throw before our political imaginations. I don’t have an answer and I don’t think we’ll come up with an answer in the near future. Perhaps our descendants will see an answer retrospectively in fifty to a hundred years. But I believe that these are the paradigmatic political questions of our times.