[Paleopsych] John Ralston Saul: The End of Globalism
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Sun Apr 3 18:17:28 UTC 2005
John Ralston Saul: The End of Globalism
[This first appeared last year in Harper's. I read his _Voltaire's
Bastards. It was about how knowledge, instead of becoming free, became
something to be hldden, played close to the chest. I know many
self-important people who act this way, no matter how useless their
information is. The current Bush administration is notoriously secretive.
I learned a lot about Canada and France, too, by reading his book.]
Grand economic theories rarely last more than a few decades. Some, if
they are particularly in tune with technological or political events,
may make it to half a century. Beyond that, little short of military
force can keep them in place.
The wild open-market theory that died in 1929 had a run of just over
30 years. Communism, a complete melding of religious, economic and
global theories, stretched to 70 years in Russia and 45 in central
Europe, thanks precisely to the intensive use of military and police
force. Keynesianism, if you add its flexible, muscular form during the
Depression to its more rigid postwar version, lasted 45 years. Our own
Globalisation, with its technocratic and technological determinism and
market idolatry, had 30 years. And now it, too, is dead.
Of course, grand ideologies rarely disappear overnight. Fashions,
whether in clothes or food or economics, tend to peter out. Thousands
of people have done well out of their belief in Globalisation, and
their professional survival is dependent on our continued shared
devotion to the cause. So is their personal sense of self-worth. They
will be in positions of power for a few more years, and so they will
make their case for a little longer. But the signs of decline are
clear, and since 1995 those signs have multiplied, building on one
another, turning a confused situation into a collapse.
We have scarcely noticed this collapse, however, because Globalisation
has been asserted by its believers to be inevitable - an all-powerful
god; a holy trinity of burgeoning markets, unsleeping technology and
borderless managers. Opposition or criticism has been treated as little
more than romantic paganism. It was powerless before this surprisingly
angry god, who would simply strike down with thunderbolts those who
faltered and reward his heroes and champions with golden wreaths. If
Globalisation has seemed so seductive to societies built upon Greek and
Judeo-Christian mythologies, perhaps the reason is this bizarre
confusing of salvation, fatalism and punishment. Transferred to
economics, in however jumbled a manner, these belief systems are almost
irresistible to us.
The British and French empires had vaunted and defended their power in
similar ways from the late 19th century on; that is, just as they began
to collapse. And as the various 19th-century nationalisms declined into
ugliness, their supporters increasingly transformed them into a matter
Inevitability is the traditional final justification for failing
ideologies. Less traditional - and a sign of inherent weakness - is the
extent to which Globalisation was conceived as old-fashioned
religiosity. Perhaps the economists and other believers who launched
Globalisation were instinctively concerned that people would notice
their new theories were oddly similar to the trade theories of the
mid-19th century or the unregulated market models that had been
discredited in 1929. And so treating the intervening 40 years as an
accidental interval, they began where their predecessors left off: with
Despite that initial certainty, a growing vagueness now surrounds the
original promise of Globalisation; we seem to have lost track of what
was repeatedly declared 30 years ago, even 10 years ago, to be
That the power of the nation state was on its way out, to be replaced
by that of global markets. That in the future, economics, not politics
or arms, would determine the course of human events. That freed markets
would quickly establish natural international balances, impervious to
the old boom-and-bust cycles. That the growth in international trade,
as a result of lowering barriers, would unleash an economic-social tide
that would raise all ships, whether of our Western poor or of the
developing world in general. That prosperous markets would turn
dictatorships into democracies. That all of this would discourage
irresponsible nationalism, racism and political violence. That global
economics would produce stability through the creation of ever larger
corporations impervious to bankruptcy. That these transnational
corporations would provide a new kind of international leadership, free
of local political prejudices.
That the rise of global marketplace leadership and the decline of
national politics, with its tendency to deform healthy economic
processes, would force the emergence of debt-free governments. By then
wedding our governments to a permanent state of deficit-free public
accounting, our societies would be stabilised.
In summary, global economic forces, if left unfettered by wilful man,
would protect us against the errors of local self-pride, while allowing
individual self-interest to lead each individual to a better life.
Together these forces and self-interest would produce prosperity and
general happiness. In a society where Christian dogma had been so
dominant until so recently, how could people of goodwill not be
attracted by this good news - by these promises of personal redemption?
And if you add to all of this a multitude of new, technocratic market
methods - well, then, the cycles of history would be broken, setting us
on a permanent, inevitable course. In the words of a particularly naive
believer, history would die. History was already dead.
Globalisation materialised in the 1970s from the sort of geopolitical
vacuum or fog that appears whenever a civilisation begins to change
direction, to grope its way around a corner from one era to another.
In geopolitics, a vacuum is not an option. It is the period between
options; an opportunity, providing you can recognise it for what it is;
a brief interregnum during which individuals can maximise their
influence on the direction of their civilisation.
What caused that particular void? Perhaps a quarter century of social
reform had left the liberal elites exhausted. The need to manage a
multitude of enormous new social programs that had been put in place in
a democratic manner - an ad hoc manner - made it difficult for
political leaders to concentrate on the main line; that is, to
concentrate on a broad sense of the public good. Instead, governments
were caught up in the endless and directionless details of management.
Or perhaps the cause of the vacuum was the resulting reliance of those
political elites on technocrats, who understood little of the debate -
in fact, distrusted it - and so drew the leaders into isolation.
In either case, most Western leaders seemed confused about what to do
next. They had come to the end of a chapter of social progress. And
they could not have been less prepared for a religious counterattack
upon their ethical motivations, particularly not one in which the
classic Judeo-Christian ideas of the sacred had been converted into
These theoretically new economic ideas were now scarcely recognisable
as the simplistic economic arguments of pre-1929. The religious fervour
had been blended with sparkling waves of new technology and with masses
of microeconomic data, all presented as fact. Relaunched in this way,
as three in one, one in three, the old ideas seemed new.
Caught up as the liberal elites were in the instrumental rationality
of program management, they responded to this attack with superior,
stolid and unimaginative rejection. Instead of speaking out for the
public good, they defended administrative structures. The effect was to
make tired and discredited market arguments seem young, agile and
One comic sign of the coming era was the creation, in 1971, in a Swiss
mountain village called Davos, of a club for European corporate
leaders. There they could examine civilisation through the prism of
business. Soon businessmen were coming from around the world. Then
government leaders and academics flooded in, looking for investors.
Business leaders, politicians and academics alike seemed to accept
without question the core tenet of Davos: that the public good should
be treated as a secondary outcome of trade and competition and
Davos was just a weather vane, a superficial and self-important
version of a royal court, but when the G6 - now the G8 - was created in
1975, its aim mimicked that of Davos: to bring the leaders of the
biggest national economies together to examine the world through the
prism of economics. Never before had the great nations so explicitly
and single-mindedly organised their core relationship around naked,
commercial self-interest, without the positive and negative
counterweights of social standards, human rights, political systems,
dynasties, formal religions and, at the negative extreme, supposed
racial destinies. Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the French president who
organised the first G6 meeting at his official country residence,
Rambouillet, was the very model of the European technocratic economist.
And his approach dominated.
But what actually opened the door to Globalisation was the economic
collapse of 1973 - the depression that never was. The reigning
technocratic obsession with management and control meant that we all
had to be reassured. So we were told that this was just another
recession. Then there was another recession, then another, and on and
on, always minimised, always about to be resolved. The social
reformers, who dominated within almost all political parties and
governments, denied themselves the right to stand back and deal with
the situation as a whole. They had lost the intellectual breadth and
the emotional balance to do this. And so they gradually lost the right
As for the new force or ideology that came forward to fill the vacuum,
it involved an all-inclusive strategy called Globalisation - an
approach that contained the answer to every one of our problems. It was
delightfully seductive. It contained simple, sweeping solutions and, as
with all successful religions, lodged ultimate responsibility in
invisible untouchable hands. Thus Globalisation required no one to take
responsibility for anything.
This transcendent vision quickly filled the vacuum. I first heard the
variety of personal passivity produced by this belief system on French
national television in a speech by Giscard d'Estaing. He had been
elected as a new-style political leader - a brilliant economist.
Modern. Almost postmodern. He was to lead society via the economy. But
he came in just after the 1973 collapse, which included high inflation
and unemployment. After a year or so of struggling with the collapse,
Giscard went on television to tell people that great global, indeed
inevitable, forces were at work. There was therefore little that he
could do. Nation states were powerless.
This was the beginning of the mania for public declarations of
impotence by democratically elected leaders. Globalisation became their
excuse for not dealing with difficult issues, for not using their
levers of power and larger budgets to effect. They made the force of
Globalisation had brilliant proponents - Margaret Thatcher first among
them, and economists like Milton Friedman, but also growing waves of
new-style managers and consultants. These people had a multiplicity of
roles. They briefed public and private sector leaders, organised the
structures that implement policies, and ran these structures on a
day-to-day basis. And their basic theory was - is - that modern
methodology is universal. What's more, these methods are preferable to
the untidy business of democratic argument and personal will, whether
that is a matter of personal opinion or personal choice. In other
words, they were engaged in the classic struggle to promote method over
opinion; that is, form over content.
And so, as always happens when form is dominant, a variety of
experiments were undertaken. Around the world, civil services were
shrunk, public and private sectors deregulated, markets released, taxes
cut, public budgets balanced. Corporations began growing in size by
merging and remerging. This gigantism was considered necessary for
success in the new world market. Trade grew by an astonishing multiple
of 20. European economic integration accelerated. New Zealand, the
original social democratic model state, did a complete flip in the
mid-1980s and attempted to become the perfect Globalised nation state.
The economies of Canada and the US were rapidly integrated after the
signing of a free trade agreement in 1988, to which the integration of
the Mexican economy was added with the signing of NAFTA.
Social reformers, for their part, restructured their own arguments
until their basic assumptions were the same as those of their
opponents. Social democrats and liberals almost everywhere became
Globalists, but of a kindler, gentler sort.
Government after government, as if in a fit of moralism, legislated
away its right to take on debt or collect new taxes, even though both
of these were fundamental governmental powers, central to the
construction and maintenance of democracies. In fact, debt and taxes
had played the same fundamental role in the pre-democratic period. At
the same time, the private sector invented myriad new debts and
privatised taxes for itself. Everything from junk bonds to credit cards
was treated as an unregulated privatised currency. And corporations
used the old default mechanism more than ever to clear their own decks
whenever it was handy to do so.
The sin of public debt was then broadened by attributing it to public
utilities. Running well or not, they had to be privatised and
deregulated into a global marketplace to cleanse them of public sector
inefficiencies. This led in turn to the large utility-style private
businesses, such as airlines, being freed of regulatory restraints to
satisfy a moral version of individualism that promised, for example,
the right to travel, cheaper fares, greater choice, more destinations.
From the early 1970s to late in the century, multiple binding
international economic treaties were put in place, while almost no
counterbalancing binding treaties were negotiated for work conditions,
taxation, the environment or legal obligations. For 250 years the
painful job of building the modern nation state had depended on a
continual rebalancing of binding rules for both the public good and
Now this balance was tipped violently one way by simply shifting much
of our economic power out into the global marketplace.
With economic power denationalised and transnationals using the new
unregulated debt and currency systems to accumulate a financial worth
greater than that of most nation states, the next logical step was to
think of those transnationals as new nations unto themselves - virtual
nations, freed of the limitations of geography and citizens, freed of
local obligations, empowered with the mobility of money and goods.
Better in every way.
This quarter-century rise of Globalisation peaked in 1995 when the old
system of international trade agreements - known collectively as the
General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade - was reconceived as a new
powerful body, the World Trade Organisation. It was the last triumph.
There was nothing remarkable about the creation of the WTO. It was just
a centralised body to deal with commercial trade issues - not a bad
thing in and of itself. The important point was the context. The
reconceptualisation of civilisation through the prism of economics had
reached a critical barrier. Beyond that barrier any international
exchange that involved a commercial element would be treated as
fundamentally commercial. Culture would be seen as a mere matter of
industrial regulation; food, as a secondary outcome of agricultural
What particularly caught public attention around the world was the
idea that national health and food rules would be treated not as the
expression of a people concerned about what sorts of things it put in
its collective stomach but rather as mere protectionism - unless backed
by the hardest of hard scientific evidence. That sort of evidence was
usually decades in coming. The precautionary principle and the
citizen's opinion were thus to be thrown aside in favour of an
absolutist theory of commercial exchange.
This determinist approach towards agriculture as an industry rather
than as a food source - towards the implications of everything from
fertilisers, herbicides and insecticides to genetics, hormones,
antibiotics, labelling and sourcing - became the flash point for a far
broader concern among citizens. This was the context in which a growing
percentage of people judged the handling of key issues as different as
mad cow disease, the availability of pharmaceuticals in the developing
world and global warming. They were beginning to feel that what was
presented as an argument of Globalism versus protectionism was often
just a confused opposition of personal choice and abstract corporate
interests. So Globalisation, put forward as a metaphor for choice, was
organising itself around not consumers but corporate structures,
structures that sought profits by limiting personal choice.
Soon people began to notice other contradictions in the Global
orthodoxy. How could the same ideology promise a planetary growth in
democracy and yet a decline in the power of the nation state? Democracy
exists only inside countries. Weaken the nation state and you weaken
Why did an unprecedented increase in money supply translate into a
dearth of money for public services? And why did this growth in new
moneys enrich mainly those who already had money? Why did it lead to a
growth in the rich-versus-poor dichotomy and a squeezing of the middle
class? Why did many privatisations of public utilities neither improve
services nor lower costs for consumers but instead guarantee revenues
to the new owners while leading to a collapse in infrastructure
People noticed that the financial value of the great breakthroughs in
female employment had somehow been inflated away. Abruptly, a middle
class family required two incomes. They noticed that in a mere 25 years
CEO salaries in the US had gone from 39 times the pay of an average
worker to more than 1000 times. Elsewhere the numbers were similar.
And the savings from the cuts in civil servants were more than offset
by the cost of new lobbyists and consultants.
There were three particularly obvious signs that Globalisation would
not deliver on its promises. First, the leadership of a movement
devoted to "real competition" was made up largely of tenured
professors, consultants, and technocrats - private-sector bureaucrats -
managing large joint-stock companies. Most of the changes they sought
were aimed at reducing competition.
Second, the idea of transnationals as new virtual nation states missed
the obvious. Natural resources are fixed in place, inside nation
states. And consumers live on real land in real places. These are
called countries. The managers and professors who waxed enthusiastic
about the new virtual corporate nations were themselves resident
citizens and consumers in old-fashioned nation states. It would be only
a matter of time before elected leaders noticed that their governments
were far stronger than the large corporations.
Finally, the new approach to debt - public versus private, First World
versus Third World - revealed a fatal confusion. Those who preached
Globalisation couldn't tell the difference between ethics and morality.
Ethics is the measurement of the public good. Morality is the weapon of
religious and social righteousness. Political and economic ideologies
often decline into religious-style morality towards the end. But
Globalisation had shoved ethics to the side from the beginning and
insisted upon a curious sort of moral righteousness that included
maximum trade, unrestrained self-interest and governments alone
respecting their debts. These notions were curiously paired with
something often called family values, as well as an Old Testament view
of good and evil.
It somehow followed that if countries were in financial trouble, they
were moral transgressors. They had to discipline themselves. Wear hair
shirts. Embrace denial and fasting.
This was the crucifixion theory of economics: you had to be killed
economically and socially in order to be reborn clean and healthy. For
a quarter century, under the severe hand of the IMF, this moralising
and emotionally charged approach has been applied to the developing
world with absolutely no success. Oddly enough, it had been presented
as a form of cool, detached utilitarianism. Those who applied the
theory seemed to fail the basic philosophical test of functioning
intelligence and ethics - the ability to imagine the Other. They simply
insisted, as developing-world debts continued to rise on a
rollercoaster of instability, that those people must learn to act in a
more predictable manner.
Which brings to mind rather aged priests insisting that young men
should take cold showers and exercise more.
By the turn of the century, it had become clear that nationalism and
the nation states were stronger than they had been when Globalisation
began. Indeed, this was apparent as early as 1991, when the Yugoslavian
army tried to stop Slovenia and Croatia from leaving their federation.
The ensuing massacre was a test for almost every international
organisation. All of them failed. As if in a black comedy,
international elites chattered away about how global economic forces
made nation states irrelevant, while thousands of real people were
being murdered and cleansed to facilitate the creation of yet more
nation states. The resulting horror shocked the Europeans into the
realisation that their economic and administrative union was helpless
in a political-military disaster.
Eventually Washington brokered the Dayton peace accords. But Dayton
accepted the model of the local nationalist war criminals. Jews in
Bosnia don't exist as citizens unless they pretend to belong to one of
the three official races. Neither do people of mixed blood. Dayton is
all about racially based nations - the most appalling aspect of
nationalism, but nationalism nonetheless. And so Globalisation's
triumph, with the creation of the WTO in 1995, was paired with its
humiliation at the Dayton signing in the same year.
In a depressing game of leapfrog, the Yugoslavian settlement competed
with a genocide in Rwanda, where half a million to a million people
were murdered. This is a remarkable statistic.
In a global world of economic and social measurement, we are bombarded
daily by apparently exact statistics measuring growth, efficiency,
production, reproduction, sales, currency fluctuations, comparative
levels of obesity and orgasms, divorce, salaries and incomes. Yet we
don't know, or don't care to know, whether it was a million or half a
million Rwandans who were massacred. And the genocide was facilitated
by Paris and Washington, using old-fashioned nation-state powers at the
UN security council to block a serious international intervention. The
Rwanda catastrophe then morphed into the Congo catastrophe, involving
4.7 million deaths between 1998 and 2003. Or was it 3 million? Or 5.5
The point is that the inevitability of global economic leadership has
been irrelevant through all these crises. While the true believers
speak of Globalisation, we are in fact in the middle of an accelerated
political meltdown marked by astonishing levels of nationalist
Observant national leaders couldn't help but notice that the theories
of Globalisation were failing them. The most public of these failures
was the breakdown of international lending and debt mechanisms. For a
short period it looked as if the IMF's punishing approach might
actually work. For a dozen years most Latin American governments tried
to follow instructions laid down by the IMF, Western governments and
the private banks. They endured crucifixion economics, and in many
cases this eventually produced apparently solid growth, even if the
parallel result was a greater rich/poor gap. But in each case the
recovery was followed, a few years later, by even greater collapse. It
turned out that such prolonged austerity had weakened, not
strengthened, the social-economic fabric. So after all of the
liberalisations, privatisations and inflation-stabilisation programs,
growth in Latin America in the late 1990s was a little over half what
it had been before the reforms.
True believers will tell you that it could have worked, if only there
had been less nepotism, weaker unions or less corruption. But real
economic policies in the real world don't require perfect conditions.
Perfect conditions don't exist in the real world. Western growth over
two centuries has come in spite of our own shifting flaws.
Peru and Bolivia are on a precipice. Argentina is picking itself up
yet again, while its educated youth emigrate en masse. Now, like
Brazil, it is going to try something it believes more suitable to its
circumstances. Only Chile seems solid, and that is because, since the
departure of Pinochet, it has carefully designed its own solutions.
In other words, Latin America no longer believes in Globalisation.
Neither does Africa. Nor does a good part of Asia. Globalisation is no
longer global. Indeed, most Western finance ministers have been quietly
working for some time on partial reregulation of the markets. Why
quietly? To avoid the ferocity of the true believers.
In 1998 the governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, Ian Macfarlane,
began calling for reregulation. "More people are asking whether the
international financial system as it has operated for most of the
nineties is basically unstable. By now, I think the majority of
observers have come to the conclusion that it is, and that some changes
have to be made."
In the same year a combination of street demonstrators and distrustful
ministers of finance from around the developed world killed the
Multilateral Agreement on Investment negotiations, which had been aimed
at a further Globalisation of finance and investment. They rejected the
idea of yet more business-oriented binding treaties, with no binding
political or social counterweights.
At almost the same time, Malaysia responded to an economic meltdown in
Asia by refusing to follow the Global rules. The government pulled its
currency off the market, made it nonconvertible, pegged it just low
enough to favour exports, blocked the export of foreign capital and
raised tariffs. These measures were met by an explosion of Western
moral fervour. Malaysia could not do this. Its economy would not
survive. The leading international emerging-markets index expelled
them. Then everyone averted their eyes from the inevitable collapse. In
1999, a short year later, that same index sheepishly readmitted
Malaysia. Smarter merchant bankers began to praise the possible
long-term investment advantages of pegging certain currencies in
By then the World Bank, under new leadership, had begun to soften its
monolithic Global view, even if the IMF has been extremely slow to
accept reality and follow. Late in the year the WTO was humiliated in
Seattle by unprecedented demonstrations.
By the end of the century it was not only national leaders who were
beginning to take a more nuanced view of Globalisation's capitalist
A growing number of people, including the brighter business leaders,
were focusing on where deregulation had worked and where it hadn't.
The airline industry, for example, had been growing since World War
II. The calls for deregulation in the mid-1970s came from a successful,
profitable growth sector, which continued to grow until September 11,
2001. Even then, the drop was only 5.7 per cent, which, given 60 years
of solid growth, should not have been a catastrophe. Yet it was. In any
case, those corporations that had called for deregulation a quarter
century before had pretty well all gone bankrupt, one by one over the
intervening years. The whole industry is now dependent on cut-rate
airlines. So a sector that provides essential services is being run on
dubious margins and institutional instability.
Why? Because of devotion to a simplistic, monolithic model of Global
market forces. But a large aircraft is not a telephone or a pair of
running shoes. Planes that cost hundreds of millions of dollars have to
be paid for with $100 airfares - a daunting business model. The secret
to the industry's pre-1973 success was its stability - produced by
carefully maintained, long-term public regulations.
As for the romance of gigantism - of corporate size as a criterion for
industrial success - it was beginning to look pretty silly. Endless
mergers had led to high levels of unserviceable debt and bankruptcy. It
was as if size had replaced thought. As if it were a male thing.
It was all beginning to resemble the 17th- and 18th-century
speculation markets - the South Sea Bubble, John Law and the French
regency, the Dutch tulip-bulb frenzy. The larger the corporations grew,
the slower and more directionless they became - enormous management
structures frightened of serious investment and risk. They resembled
out-of-control bureaucracies. Yet the whole argument in favour of
Globalisation had been the apparently desperate need to wrench power
from the bureaucracies and place it firmly in the hands of real owners
capable of taking real risks.
More perhaps than the genocides, the disorder in the streets, or the
debt crises, it was those simple recurring images of corporate
ineptitude, combined with an absence of self-criticism, that first made
clear the decline of Globalisation. How then could any of us seriously
believe that our redemption lay in the reconceptualisation of
civilisation so that we could all view it through the prism of business
The larger the corporations became, the more deregulation released
them to be themselves, the faster they slipped out of sync with their
civilisation and even with their customers and shareholders.
Of course most people in business were working away as best they
could, more or less as they always had, whatever the ideology in place.
The people who stumbled badly seemed to be the insistent stars of the
new-world methodology. And so, in full public view, the value of the
fabled merger of AOL and TimeWarner slipped rapidly from $US284 billion
to $US61 billion. And GE's Jack Welch, a model new leader, began
stumbling towards every last penny on the floor like a greedy little
boy. Arthur Andersen demonstrated that accountants can act as badly as
anyone else. Hollinger, whose newspapers on four continents had
trumpeted Globalisation, fell under multiple financial and legal
investigations, as did Parmalat, the great Italian success story. And
Ideology, like theatre, is dependent on the willing suspension of
disbelief. At the core of every ideology lies the worship of a bright
new future, with only failure in the immediate past. But once the
suspension goes, willingness converts into suspicion - the suspicion of
the betrayed. Our brilliant leaders abruptly appear naive, even
And so, in the late 1990s, our disbelief came back, and with it our
memory. The years between 1945 and 1973 no longer seemed such a
failure. In fact, it had been one of the most successful eras in
history for both social reform and economic growth. It was something to
build on, to reform; not something to dismiss.
The first clear hint of the end of the reigning ideology came with
Malaysia's successful rejection of the Globalisation model. We, in our
fervour, saw their crisis as one of economics, and therefore subject to
the rules of inevitability. The Malaysians saw it as a national
political crisis with economic implications. And so they acted
politically and nationally, and were proved right. Abruptly it seemed
possible that nation states were not dying. And that economic certainty
Then, in late 1999, came the general election in New Zealand. Fifteen
years earlier this small country had become the model for
Globalisation. Now, overnight, its electors voted to change direction,
endorsing a strong interventionist government devoted to a mix of
national social policies, enforceable economic regulations and a stable
private sector. Why? Its national industries had been sold off, its
economy was in decline and its standard of living had been stagnant for
all 15 years of its Globalisation experiment. Its young were emigrating
at alarming rates. This, the citizens now said, was not inevitable. If
a small country could flex its muscles, well, then, the nation state
was truly alive.
Then came the explosions of September 11, 2001. In the following days,
the world economy began plummeting into a depression. Corporate leaders
hunkered down to their businesses, forgot about world leadership and,
with a classic desire to reduce risk, slashed their investment
programs, thus accelerating society's economic plunge.
As for the political leaders, ministers of finance, chairs of reserve
and national banks - the constituted elites of the nation states - they
rolled into action. They travelled and talked, printed money and spent
vast amounts of it. And they managed to stabilise the situation. In
other words, there was a brutal, highly public and existential reversal
of roles. The governments of the nation states took back their full
power both to act and to lead. The CEOs retreated back into their
historic reactive role.
Once belief is gone, the churches begin to empty. You could see this
accelerating disbelief in bankruptcy court in December 2001, when, as
if in the last scene of an old-fashioned bedroom farce, the
"inevitability" of Global corporate leadership came face to face with
Enron, filing for government protection from its private debts.
You saw it again in the opening session of the frivolous court of
Davos. This was where, 33 years before, the theology of Globalisation
had been first put forward, all based on the assumption that
civilisation must be approached through a single, monolithic economic
prism. Yet here they were on their opening day in January 2003 feting
Mahathir Mohamad, then prime minister of Malaysia, for his country's
economic success. It was clear to everyone that this success had come
from political leadership at the nation-state level and that it was
based on the rejection of Globalist economics. A few days later, Luiz
Inacio Lula da Silva, the new president of Brazil, arrived in the Swiss
village to lay out an independent, straightforward version of
responsible nation-state populism.
What all of this meant became perfectly clear when US secretary of
state Colin Powell arrived to speak for the country that had achieved
more national power than any other in history. Insofar as a possible
war with Iraq was concerned, he declared, "we will act even if others
are not prepared to join us". So the US would act unilaterally - that
Thus, in a single week, inside the emotional and mythological home of
Globalisation, three very different pivotal governments turned their
backs on Globalisation and acted as if the nation state were the
central international reality.
The war that followed in Iraq quite intentionally put an effective end
to the half-century-old Western alliance produced by World War II.
Washington had chosen in January 2003 not to take the time to put
together the traditional Western battlefield coalition. The effect was
to free a cast of nations to rethink their relationships. This was as
true for the old NATO players as it was for the smaller, newly free,
central European states, which were able to flex their nation-state
muscles by joining in. Some of them had never had such an opportunity.
For others it was the first time since the 1930s.
Throughout the world, nations began moving about like semi-free
agents. Organisations such as NATO are still solid. There is no desire
to storm out. But everyone is checking around to see if there are other
ways they might like to act. And with whom.
What this might mean remains painfully unclear. Here we are, rushing
around one of those sharp corners with no idea of where we are going.
Perhaps back to the worst of old-style negative nationalism. Or perhaps
on towards a more complex and interesting form of positive nationalism,
based on the public good.
What is certain is that nationalism of the best and the worst sort has
made a remarkable, unexpected recovery. We don't yet know whether it
will become the new dominant ideology. What we do know is that there
has been a return across Europe of 19th-century-style negative
nationalism. Although usually the product of fear, it reappeared in
countries that had nothing to fear: Jorg Haider in Austria speaking out
against immigrants, while echoing race and monolithic national myths.
Italy governed by three nationalists, one of them the leader of
Mussolini's old party. Related phenomena in Belgium, Denmark, France,
the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland. A sudden revival of sectarian
nationalism in Northern Ireland. The defeat of a compromise in Corsica.
Everywhere these nationalists are now in coalition governments or are
Many mainstream parties have trimmed their sails to capture some of
this nationalist vote. Non-European immigrants, who rarely account for
more than 5 per cent of a country's population, have become the focus
for a sense of political and social impotence, produced in part by a
quarter century of continental and Global inevitabilities. Today's
growing fear of Muslims is parallelled by a return of anti-Semitism.
The last Australian election was won by provoking a fear of immigrants.
The new president of the Czech Republic is thought to be an
old-fashioned nationalist, as is the governor of Tokyo. Because the US
is so powerful, people say its actions are all about empire. But
empires are mere extensions of nationalism. They are not a phenomenon
of either Globalisation or internationalism.
At the same time, positive forms of nationalism have surged forward,
with countries like South Africa and Brazil taking on the
pharmaceutical transnationals over the availability of drugs to fight
epidemics such as AIDS. And these nations have been winning. A
reasonable number of noneconomic and internationally binding treaties
based on the primacy of ethics and the public good have begun to take
form: the Ottawa treaty against land mines, the International Criminal
Court, the Kyoto accord against global warming. They represent the
beginnings of an attempt at an international balance in which the prism
of civilisation is neither naive market economics nor national
The return of the idea of national power has also meant the return of
the idea of choice - choice for citizens and choice for countries. But
with choice comes uncertainty, which provokes fear. The moment we
entered the post-Globalisation vacuum, you could feel that fear begin
to rise. And curiously enough, the greater a nation's power, the more
intense the fear becomes. Perhaps power produces an expectation of
certainty. Perhaps smaller countries find a certain freedom in
uncertainty - the freedom to choose without being bullied. Necessity,
Pitt the Younger said, is the excuse of every tyranny. For most smaller
countries, Globalisation has felt like an inevitability and, so, like a
History will eventually give all of these contradictory signals a
shape. But history is neither for nor against.
It just is. And there is no such thing as a prolonged vacuum in
It is always filled. This is what happens every few decades. The world
turns, shifts, takes a new tack, or retries an old one. Civilisation
rushes around one of those blind corners filled with uncertainties.
Then, abruptly, the opportunities present themselves to those who move
with skill and commitment.
John Ralston Saul is the author of Voltaire's Bastards: The
Dictatorship of Reason in the West, Unconscious Civilisation and, most
recently, On Equilibrium: The Six Qualities of the New Humanism.
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