An armchair anthropologist’s oversimplification of“globalism”

On the current political state, how we got here, and what’s standing in the way of progress.

The word “globalism” gets thrown around a lot as a filter for understanding how nations in the modern world interact with each other. A quick dictionary check gives you the definition as “planning economics and foreign policy on a global basis,” but that doesn’t help you understand how the word has taken over is the paragon/pariah of first-world politics. So, it’s worth revisiting the “first principles,” via the building blocks of social organization and our relationship with the natural world: geography, economics, social structures, and political structures.

Social structures emerge for humans like they do any other species, in part to manage a group’s resources, aka “economics.” The natural resources available to a group in their geographic area defines the original system they need to manage those resources. Civilizations that form on bodies of water become more centered on trade, while those that arise in mountainous terrain become more focused on the harvesting of local resources, and so on.

Societies change when economic systems change, like the discovery of oil or the figuring out how to burn coal. New social structures are built around those economic systems, further shifting the group’s “culture.” Political structures emerge as a way of leading and protecting that culture.

It’s important to parse out a couple of key players in macro-economics:

  • Cities, the major urban centers of economic (and thus social capital). The cities with the most economic activity drive the most cultural activity (e.g. New York, San Francisco, Seoul)
  • The land and people that surround those cities, which act as a “network” of resources organized by the city
  • The central governing bodies (municipal, county, state, federal, etc.) that define, protect, and organize those networks for economic activity to happen efficiently

Cities have long been “nodes” of power for organizing a group’s economic (and thus social) relationships. City-states (nations completely defined by a city’s metropolitan area, like Athens) emerged as a means to create a network of resources (at the time, mostly agrarian) between the the urban center and surrounding dependent land, because the city could more efficiently centralize and thus organize the management of those resources.

Industrialization exponentially accelerated production and growth, and thus the size of the “network” expanded beyond the city-site limits, requiring a wider net of control for the city to efficiently organize it’s territory’s resources (hence the emergence of the national power, and thus the nation state). Note: countries like the USA are an oddity here because it’s a union of several nation-states, requiring an extra layer of industrial centralization (the federal government) to organize economic interaction between its states, and had an equally unique hybrid political structure as a result.

In that way, the US is almost a forerunner of what a third model of state-interaction looks like as the emergence of digital economies takes place: Globalization. The Internet has allowed the network of economic interaction to expand beyond the national borders (as it had once expanded beyond the metropolitan borders) and now includes players across the entire world. Centralization of political power and control must thus too become global, governing economic relations that transcend national borders, (e.g. a better version the UN or the World Bank). As it did at the municipal and national level, new global economic interactions require a reshuffling of international social structures, as we’re experiencing in the current crises surrounding immigration, trade wars, nationalism, xenophobia, and so on.

Political structures have always existed to organize economic relationships. Each successive economic revolution has only reinforced the roles of cities as the major players now: Agrarian economies build on huge swathes of land required a central trading point; Industrial economies centralized all of it’s production to a major urban area; Digital economies contained all of the value of hyper-connectivity to only the cities with technological infrastructure to support a strong Internet. But, that hasn’t changed the need for strong central powers to create rules for markets, invest in technologies that allow for everyone to participate, and manage economic trade-offs, all current responsibilities of the nation-state that could at some point be inherited by a new, global successor.

Today’s current political climate is in many ways the result of a lack of that new global regulator. Global markets are bigger than national ones, and thus they create more economic opportunity. Economic players that can afford to pursue that greater economic value(and keep others from pursuing it) are incentivized to do so, and so they have. The major corporate economic players of today are already operating in a global economy, taking advantage of all of the opportunity that affords them like expanded markets and access to cheaper labor, and in turn exploiting the legacy model of the nation state by using their economic influence to forward legislation that restricts the working class’s power while enhancing their own.

The protectionist agenda presented by the “far right” as the savior to to the working class (the so called “populist” movements of Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini, Jair Bolsonaro and so on) suggest to working class voters that rolling back from a global economy will protect them from the threat that globalism inevitably presents to their way of life, when so far all it has done is keep them out of the benefits. As long as national political structures allow the corporate elite to forward an agenda that legitimizes the working class’s own economic exile from the global process(an exile the working class willingly buys into with electoral support for the narrative the corporate powers create), their resulting social inequality will continue to exist. Problems like homelessness, lack of funding in healthcare including mental health, lack of economic opportunity via education/employment, rampant poverty and crime, are all allowed to go on because of macro-economic forces.

It may be that only the investment and pursuit of a strong global governing power to supersede the old national model (and regulate the global market that the corporate elites are keeping to themselves) will democratize the economic (and thus social) advantages of globalism.

More great reading for and against nation-states and their role in an increasingly “global” society here and here.