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April 29, 2005

The Other September 11th: How anti-globalisation protestors married a Leftist, Statist outlook to Nationalism

Posted by William Coleman

Anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation street protest briefly seemed to be a potent new force in politics throughout the industrialised world. One of the most significant of these protests occurred against the World Economic Forum meeting in Melbourne on September 11th 2000. Whilst such protests continue to occur, they have undoubtedly become a much diminished phenomenon. Dr William Coleman - the author of Economics and its Enemies: Two Centuries of Anti-Economics - argues that the rise of this type of protest occurred due to the coming together, in the aftermath of the Cold War, of a leftist, Statist outlook with a nationalist outlook. The decline of this type of protest is explained by the fact that playing the nationalism card has become less appealing to the left.

September 11th 2001: our world's most notorious date; the symbol of terrorist outrage.

Dates can, however, be treacherous symbols. Fate does not trouble to apportion significant events out evenly across the calendar.

For 365 days before the "September 11th" there was another September 11th. For, 365 days before Al Qaeda struck, "September 11th" was also the flag of a militant movement, whose violence was trivial compared to Bin Laden's, but who could claim to have provided the greatest shock to the world order in the few years preceding the slaughter of 2645 persons at the World Trade Center.

For it was on September 11th 2000 that anti-globalisation protestors made a debacle of the World Economic Forum meeting in Melbourne, Australia. Roving mobs - in eager imitation of the rioting in Seattle that sabotaged the WTO the previous November - blockaded the Forum venue, impounded delegates in their hotels, and cowed authorities into cancelling a speech Bill Gates was scheduled to make to an audience of 4,000.

The protestors called themselves S11.

But now they are gone. Or, if not quite gone, unremarked.

So here is a problem: how did this volcano abruptly erupt, and then suddenly fall extinct?

One may quickly trace the source of the eruption against globalisation to nationalism. But that just begs a question: how could nationalism a force apparently defunct in the First World and despised on the Left - be the power that seemingly resurrected the Left in the First World at the close of the 20th century? I will argue here that the answer lies with the end of the Cold War. I assert that in the post-Cold war period certain ideological forces found nationalism a useful collaborator in the new circumstances. Above all, the collectivist Left suddenly found nationalism useful as a substitute for Marxism in its continuing struggle against liberalism. But, I will contend, with an almost equal suddenness, the Left discovered to its discomfort that nationalism could also be used by elements of the Right.

To make this argument effective I need to expand the standard one-dimensional Left-Right spectrum into a three dimensional schema involving three spectra: Left vs. Right; Liberal vs. Statist, and Nationalist vs. Internationalist.

Left vs. Right
In this schema one's position on the familiar Right to Left spectrum is taken to be determined by one's attitude to Order. Order amounts to, at bottom, calm and stability; that then shades off into structure and pattern; which shades off, finally, into inequality and hierarchy. The Right is attracted to, or trusts, Order. The Left is averse to, or distrustful of, Order. The Left is, at bottom, attracted to motion, change, and turbulence; and that shades into fluidity and formlessness; which shades finally into indistinctness and equality.

Liberal vs. Statist
The second dimension in the schema runs from Liberalism at one pole to Statism at the other. One's position in this spectrum is defined by one's view on the proper location of prerogative. Liberalism is defined as an attraction to the prerogative of the individual. Statism is an attraction to the prerogative of the collective, manifested in state action.

These two spectra provide four basic positions: Liberal Left, Liberal Right, Statist Left, Statist Right. To help make these distinctions concrete, we can label each position with a thinker representative of the position: so Mill is Liberal Left; Hayek Liberal Right; Marx Statist Left; and Comte Statist Right.

Nationalism vs. Internationalism
There is a third spectrum in the schema. It has Nationalism at one pole and Internationalism at the other. One's position on this spectrum turns on one's attitude to the merit and value of a national life. To be nationalist is to be convinced that it is only by participating in their national entity that an individual is fulfilled; and it is only by the maximisation of that participation that fulfilment is maximised.

The critical point is that this third dimension is logically independent of the other two. Thus Nationalism can co-exist with the Left. Nationalism can be Left: it can be agitating (as well as solidifying); flattening (as well as widening); subversive (as well as conformist); democratic in rhetoric (as well as anti-democratic in rhetoric), radical, (as well as reactionary).

However, neither the Left (or the Right) need be nationalist. Marxism was Left but vehemently Internationalist. It was, recall, the workers of the world that were to unite, to join the International Working Men's Association and sing The Internationale. Marx, let it be remembered, approved of free trade.

If we combine the Internationalist/Nationalist with the Left/Right and Liberal/Statist axes we obtain a matrix of eight possible combinations, or positions. There seems to be the potential for a multiplicity of conflicts. For two reasons, however, conflicts are much fewer.

First: some of these positions are unstable, full of tension, and likely to be passing. Any combination of Liberalism and Nationalism is one such unstable position. It is unstable because Nationalism is fundamentally collectivist. By supposing the rifts that partition mankind are deep, it correspondingly increases the significance of the collective that is enclosed. With deep enough divisions there follows the key nationalist position; the political recognition of these clefts, and the erection of a national state, will be the answer to all problems. Liberals, therefore, can at best be only lukewarm nationalists. Nationalism and Liberalism can only be false friends. It is Statism and Nationalism that are true friends.

Secondly, no belligerent is partial to a two-front war. There has consequently been a tendency to have struggles restricted to one front (or dimension), as a truce is called on other fronts, and the differing positions located on one side of the active front enter into coalition despite their disagreements.

I would venture that the Internationalist-Nationalist spectrum has never been the pre-eminent front in political history. Instead the nationalist stance has sometimes been recruited to fight on other fronts, and sometimes ignored. A schematisation of the modern political age will illustrate this contention.

In the Age of Revolution that followed 1789, Right vs. Left was the most active front. Liberal vs. Statism was, however, also warm. And within one generation of the Revolution, the Nationalist/Internationalist spectrum was illuminated by both enthusiasm and hostility towards the Napoleonic Empire. The enthusiasts saw in the Empire a thrilling example of national re-invigoration and self-assertion. The critics saw a supposedly universal culture now exposed as having a specifically national affiliation - French - used to dominate other cultures. One of the significant advocates of this new nationalism was Friedrich List (1789-1846). He was the first anti-globalisation protestor.

The Age of Revolution climaxed and concluded in the revolutions of 1848. In the place of Left/Right, Liberal vs. Statism became the pre-eminent active front, and the collectivist character of nationalism became more significant. From 1848 the age of Liberal Nationalism was over, and nationalism became a resource of the Statist Left and Statist Right.

The subsequent collaboration between Nationalism and the Right is notorious and needs no emphasis. What is worth emphasising, with respect to the anti-globalisation movement, is the subsequent collaboration between nationalism and the Left. This collaboration is illustrated in the American Institutionalism that is associated with Thorstein Veblen, Richard Theodore Ely and John R. Commons.

The American Institutionalists were nationalist. Commons in particular was beset by a race anxiety. He felt that American national life was menaced by a vast and promiscuous influx into the United States of races that were foreign to the "Teutonic tribes" who had planted the seed of America's mother institutions two thousand years ago in German forests. Commons declared:

Race differences are established in the very blood and physical constitution.
The basis of the collaboration between nationalism and the Left was that nationalism was congenial to collectivism. Or, at least, it seemed to be congenial.

The interwar period
The First World War was a turning point that ended the collaboration between Left and Nationalism. Nationalism now caused offence to the Left on the ground of its reactionary aspect; it seemed to represent the survival of an old, barbaric order. Nationalism now seemed to belong to the reactionary Right rather than to a progressive Left.

The First World War also thrust the leadership of the Collectivist Left onto a steadfastly internationalist section of it: Marxism. From 1917 an internationalist leftism was now the reference point of the Left Collectivism.

To a considerable extent the Second World War and its aftermath merely amplified what had already been achieved by the First World War. The association of the Right with Nationalism in the developed world was reinforced. Marxism as a reference point of the Statist Left was reinforced by the trials and triumph of the Soviet Union. The only significant novelty lay in the fact that Marxism was no longer just an ideology, or just the "established church" of one country; it was the gospel of an aggressive world power.

This aggression prompted a worldwide "grand coalition" in the West, centred on the United States. Ideologically speaking, this coalition hinged upon the Liberal Right, and encompassed (for a time) both the Statist Right and the Liberal Left. And this coalition was internationalist. It was a coalition that created "international funds", and "world banks", and "united nations". In trade, the United States was the champion of multilateralism, and sought to make bilateralism taboo.

The Cold War contest, thus, was internationalist; the rival contestants were internationalist.

In 1989 the Cold War finished with the overthrow of the Soviet Bloc. This had three critical consequences:

First. The victory of United States was a great provocation to national feeling. Until 1989 the sheer existence of the Soviet bloc held out implicitly the possibility of an alternative to the capitalist system. It was only in 1989 that there suddenly loomed, for the first time in about a century, the prospect of a single, globally dominant economic and political system. It was one to which, it seemed, all others systems would defer and concede to. They would accept it as their own destiny too. And the United States was its exemplar. This prospect of the inevitable disappearance of the non-American provoked a deep nationalist resentment. This resentment was almost immediately condensed upon a jealous pan-Europeanism that aspired to defend the supposed distinctiveness of Europe - above all, in the term globalisation.

This revived nationalism had its ideologues. Perhaps the most prominent is John Gray, author of False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism (1998). A similar attempt to make Nationalism-Internationalism the leading issue is found in the urgent prose of Chalmers Johnson. Like Gray, Johnson's vision is nationalist; nationalism to Johnson is a great, energising, dynamising, mobilizing force. Like Gray, Johnson detests American ascendancy. Like Gray, he is a choleric critic of the application of universalistic economics to Asia. But whereas Gray is a European nationalist, Chalmers is an Asian nationalist.

The nationalism of Gray and Johnson is so vehement, and so dwarves other ideological considerations, that it amounts to an attempt to make Nationalism-Internationalism the leading front of political contest.

But the fall of the Berlin Wall had a second, pregnant, consequence: the reference point of Statist Left was no longer its one determinedly internationalist expression, Marxism. Nationalist forms of leftism now beckoned. To put the point in summary form: in 1914 the Left gave up on nationalism; in 1989 the Left gave up on internationalism.

From 1989 a Listian offence at the existence of an international economic order had greater resonance than ever before with the Left; an offence at the hierarchy of nations with United States at the top and, say, Guatemala down at the bottom. In the minds of such Left Collectivist anti-imperialists the free market is constructive of the (bad) hierarchy of nations. And the IMF, WTO etc are denigrated as the technical functionaries of that hierarchy.

Thirdly, however, it was not just the Left that abandoned the internationalism of the Cold War. So did elements of the Right. During the Cold War there had been a coalition between Statist Right and Liberal Right. This coalition was in the service of the Right's common cause against the Left. Internationalism was a central part of the Cold War Right's common agenda. But with the Left routed, points of truce could be renounced, and the Statist Right now found nationalism useful. This development was disguised during the Clinton presidency, which in our taxonomy was an era of the Liberal Left. But with the Bush victory in November 2000 the readiness of part of the right to make use of nationalism soon became apparent.

This was most obvious in American "unilateral foreign policy" and the dismissal of the UN. But it was also palpable on economic issues: the US steel tariffs of 2002; the Farm Bill of 2003; a busy multiplication of bilateral trade deals - such as those of the United States with Bolivia, Ecuador, the Dominican Republican, Jordan, Australia - in place of the old multilateralism; and a candid invitation to the World Bank and the IMF to bug out of anything that mattered. The finishing touch was the appointment of Wolfowitz as head of the World Bank. Now nobody talks of neo-liberals. It is another neo which is on everyone's lips.

And so now the nationalism card is not so appealing to the Left any longer.

Here are some heavy ironies. The Left despises Bush. But consider: what is the one institution that has come into conflict with the Bush Administration, and won? The World Trade Organization. The WTO's ruling, of December 2003, that the steel tariffs of 2002 were illegal saw the total and unceremonious capitulation of the Bush Administration. Would any one care to join me in a bitter laugh at the conceited and clueless bullies of Seattle?

Dr William Coleman is Senior Lecturer in Economics at the Australian National University and the author of Economics and its Enemies: Two Centuries of Anti-Economics, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).

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