Nationalism and Globalisation are not simply “good” or “bad”: They are human stories that need better narrators.
The spectre haunting Europe in 2017 is nationalism.
Our world, with its global market, transnational corporations, and reserve pool of cheap foreign labour, has left millions of people in the major capitalist economies in its wake. The reactionaries of Europe and the US have seized the initiative. The long-ignored working-classes saw in Brexit and Trump a chance to use a vote with serious long-term consequences as a referendum on the failures of the market economy to provide for their needs.
Now nationalism is ascendant, globalisation is out of vogue, and people are voting for tougher borders, an end to globalisation and a return to the security of the nation-state.
We are told that the political divide today is not between left and right, or socialist and capitalist; it is between nationalist and internationalist, and globalist and anti-globalist.
At least that’s one narrative.
We on the left have always known to instinctively oppose nationalism and distrust globalism. Nationalism, the measles of humanity as Einstein put it, is the rallying cry of the ruling classes, used over and over to press useful idiots into drudgery, or war, while they reap the benefits. Globalisation has led to the replacement of the democratic state with the undemocratic corporation. Businesses now have better human rights than people, and capital crosses borders easily (and is never in danger of deportation).
The opportunists of the far-right also attack these monoliths, with figures from Trump to Farage to La Pen denouncing the EU, unaccountable corporations and other global actors as responsible for imposing unrestricted immigration and facilitating the flight of decent-paying jobs. They read from the same book as the left, but of course have radically different solutions.
But both sides are wrong.
Nationalism and globalisation are treated as if they were tangible objects, as if they are a natural software downloaded and installed to make the hardware of humans work in a certain way.
But they are not laws of nature. They are stories that we have invented.
They are religions.
Like all religions they are man-made, and so they are only as ‘good’ or beneficial or efficient as the people who practice them. This is the central thesis of Professor Yuval Harari in his magisterial book ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humanity’. As Harari explains, only a few objective facts apply to our definition of what it is to be human, such as the fact that we are all the same species, all reproduce, consume food, and die.
Everything else is a story.
Democracy, capitalism, socialism, law, human rights, gods and religions, gender, and nations are all entirely fictional. They do not exist in nature, and could not exist unless humans invented them. Their success is contingent on agreement, such as you and I both agreeing to believe that there is a sky-God who created the Earth, that torture is wrong, that capitalism is exploitative, and that the border from where I sit here in Italy ends at another arbitrary line marking the start of another fictional invention known as ‘Austria’.
Nationalism and globalisation are no exception. Both are human inventions. And, like the above-mentioned stories, they can be enormously beneficial.
Take nationalism. The concept of belonging to the same nation facilitates large-scale cooperation between millions of human beings, an extraordinary achievement. The belief in a shared history, culture and heritage promotes what economists call ‘mutual regard’, which is essential for the effective functioning of public services. A national health service like that of Britain would be impossible if everyone didn’t agree that they had some common affinity with the other people using it. I pay my taxes for the upkeep of the NHS not only for me, but for everyone who lives in the same country, so we all benefit (even though we will never all meet each other!) Likewise, democracy would be useless if no one had any interest or stake in electing a president or prime minister who was going to best improve the lives of everyone in the state. (This is a very, very compressed article on both subjects. For a much better explanation, I suggest Michael Cohlier’s book ‘Exodus’ and Yuval Harari’s book ‘Sapiens’).
Globalisation is also beneficial. Travel between states, whether for holidays, work or education, is easier than ever, and this has led to great cultural exchanges, and advances in cooperation on matters of great importance, such as climate change and medical research. Doctors from across the world can congregate in different cities and work to combat disease, and aid agencies with volunteers from a myriad of nations are better than ever at responding to famine, drought and war.
Unfortunately, as mentioned above, these are human concepts, and so they are vulnerable to exploitation by opportunists who have a limited, narrow view of what it is to belong to the nation, and a dim view of the benefits of globalisation regarding them instead as its main problems.
Nationalism and globalisation are not only vulnerable to human interpretation, but to that other great invented force, the free market. Its appalling failure to provide dignity, employment and security to so many has led to a fundamental breakdown in trust for globalisation, and a desire for a return to the safety of the nation-state. The grotesques of the Front National, UKIP, and the reactionary right in the US want a return to the 19th Century concept of the nation and its people, a reaffirmation of the connection of blood and soil that truly makes someone French, British or American. In this narrative nationalism is not a tool for cooperation, but an exclusive identity, a barrier to infiltration by the potentially dangerous ‘other’, a barrier based on the insane claims of outdated concepts such as race and DNA. In this world, only those born within the borders of the state should be eligible for healthcare, housing and education. Resources are scarce. The fault, they say, is not an inefficient and unequal economic model, but unchecked immigration at home, and too much charity abroad. The nation, and its members, are exclusively defined by DNA and place of birth. “Why should I share with an immigrant? After all, an immigrant cannot possibly be considered ‘as British’ as me, since they weren’t born on the same island. And since immigration is the most tangible consequence of globalisation, it is globalisation itself that must be opposed.”
This view, though wildly unscientific, is an appeal to the human emotions that make us so vulnerable. The abject failure of the market economy has created the opportunity for the reactionaries and racists to announce the revival of the nation along ‘ethnic’ lines, and an end to the liberal project of globalisation and “open borders” (I add the quotation marks not because I am necessarily opposed to open borders, but because no nation anywhere has them, despite the contrary claim).
The answer is not to end nationalism and globalisation; the answer is to provide a better narrative. Liberalism has failed. It repeatedly bemoans capitalism’s limitations and inequalities, and in the same breath tells us that it is the only viable option. This is absurd on the face of it. We on the left must provide a different, better alternative.
A democratic-socialist economy and society, with a humane and open immigration system, democratic control of institutions, and economic democracy and justice, will harness the power of national cooperation and globalisation to provide for the so many millions across the world who have been rendered superfluous by market capitalism.
The anthropologist Richard Leakey once remarked that Homo sapiens is the only species that takes collective decisions that consciously harms itself. Unless the democratic left provides a viable alternative to the right’s answer to the failure of capitalism, we will continue to self-harm as a species, with disastrous results.