Questioning the Future - As A Historical Paradox

Questioning the Future - As A Historical Paradox

The Fall of Globalism, the Rise of Populist Nationalism, & the Question of 'Global History'

It seems as though the world is changing fast these days. It’s hard to keep up at times. There’s a lot of talk about a new age of uncertainty. And it seems as though many people are trying to gain some perspective on what is actually happening around us, but often it’s hard to see the wood for the trees when you are in the midst of the forest.

The internationalised future which appeared to have dawned in the last decade of the twentieth century seemed to presage an auspicious start to the new millennium. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, borders were beginning to blur, barriers began to be replaced by bridges – Europe was becoming more united with the establishment of the Schengen zone and a common currency, the founding of the World Trade Organisation, the economic rise of big countries such as China and India – globalism seemed to have been given the green light. The dichotomy of the Cold War era was now redundant, a new era of international harmony seemed a realistic possibility. But then everything began to change, and the changes seemed inconceivably contrary to all those optimistic expectations. Instead, the new century began with the unprecedented horrific spectacle of the terrorist attacks on the twin towers in New York in 2001, which in turn precipitated the ‘global’ war on terror. A cultural dynamic had shifted dramatically, and today the repercussions are still reverberating from this seismic shift.

Then there was the financial meltdown of 2008. The pillars of the present world system suddenly seemed to be standing on political and economic foundations which were (and still are) dissolving with spectacular rapidity. Capitalism was in crisis. That optimistic new dawn, we were now being told, had been replaced by a new ‘age of austerity.’ The global financial downturn augured and helped to incubate a growing sense of disenfranchisement and disillusion. The green grass of the future had yellowed and dried to tinder. Hence the unexpected rise of popular nationalism seems to have suddenly spread out of nowhere, like wildfire. One can’t help wondering if this – our present time – is but the calm before the conflagration? Are we about to watch our world burn as that former optimistic future seemingly goes up in flames?

2016 may well come to be seen as a momentous year for global history. With the precarious onset of Brexit (perhaps for the EU as much as for the UK) in an uneasy near centre split of 52% versus 48%; the similarly narrow margin in the election of Donald Trump on a xenophobic nationalist platform (the likes of which, some outlets have been quick to tell us, ‘the West’ has not seen since the fall of the Weimar Republic) has prompted a great deal of worried navel gazing in public discourse, with pundits looking to history for similar precedents, and there by logical extension to historians in an attempt to unfathom the all-too-often hasty conclusions which some folks seem to be drawing from such history lessons. It is no wonder historians are being asked to step up to the task. These days the zeitgeist is ghastly. How often now do we read of the “lessons from history” being bandied about as a favourite phrase of the moment in the press and media?

These are bewildering times to be sure. And as someone currently enrolled on a programme of education with the goal of becoming a professional historian, I’ve often found myself contemplating the wider implications of such a career choice and the kind of calling it represents for me personally. It poses questions to which I have no concrete answers. All academics know that a perceptive question simply begets further questioning, but as a discipline our collective historiography is based on the process of asking and reflecting upon such questions. A recent article by Jeremy Adelman in Aeon Essays ruminating on the question: “What is global history now?” has really sparked a diode in my mind and focussed my thoughts a little further on this theme. It’s prompted me to ask myself again the question which every historian should constantly be asking themselves: what kind of a historian am I?

Of one thing I am definitely certain – I’m a global historian. And in reading Adelman’s article I find myself concluding that a 'global history' perspective is still just as relevant now, if not moreso, than it ever was before. My own field, the study of empire, is not a simple analysis of historical determinism; its scope is far, far broader than that. If global history is anything, it is pluralistic. It is as much about the local as it is about the international. You can’t raise questions of imperialism without invoking further questions about nationalism, there is no international without the local – and neither can be mutually exclusive. Hence today’s socio-political shift towards populist nationalism isn’t necessarily a retreat from the global, instead it presents a different set of contradictions to the surface simplicity that this same populist nationalism appears to champion. I, for one, think it is politically short-sighted on the one hand, and on the other, it is disingenuously calculating as a short-term tactic for taking and consolidating control. And clearly it is working. This is happening. 

Recently there’s been much talk in the UK about the nostalgia for empire. There is this harking back to a halcyon view of an untarnished past in which life was better at home in a country which was outwardly confidant and strong, exporting its vision of a just and rational modernity to a benighted and backwards wider world which naturally could only benefit from such an advanced and enlightened benevolence. But many have been pointing out that this is at best a false premise. The past was nowhere near so clear cut, nor so black and white. The study of empire is in effect a study in shades and nuances; it is an analysis of a greyscale of good to bad, benefit to harm, boon friend to bogeyman (cf. Ferguson versus Mishra). Theresa May talks about making a post-Brexit Britain a ‘global’ nation again – but what does that mean?

Surely being an active member of an international union such as the EU was a highly effective way of pursuing such a globalised vision for greater international harmony? Then again, I’m well aware that the same basis for such an arguement can be turned on its head and argued for precisely the opposite. Hence the question: - is a globalised world of individual nation states a more equitable base for a world system than one predicated on a preference for international unions of similar socio-economic ‘friends’ operating in concert? – Some might say it depends on the size of both the economy and the population of the nation state we are looking at. Think of the Philippines and China currently at diplomatic loggerheads over mutually disputed territories in the South China Sea. How can a small country vie with, let alone have its voice heard and respected by a relative superpower? Not all countries can “punch above their weight” as the oft-used trope of nationalist nostalgia in Britain would have us believe we do here in the UK; it’s a phrase which has so frequently characterised the rhetoric of British politicians since the demise of this country’s empire; indeed, whatever their party colour, UK politicians all seem to relish either cooing or crowing about this seemingly paradoxical incongruity of a plucky little island nation retaining its seat at the top table of global powers – history has denied many similarly small or even a fair few bigger nation states such a chance to join this particular club.

But nationalism versus globalism is the real question which Jeremy Adelman’s article set me thinking about. If the recent trend towards globalism has resulted in an unexpectedly inward turn towards parochial or populist nationalism, what follows on from that? – If such a nationalist turn seeks to differentiate a new (or renewed) notion of “us and them”, we have to wonder how such a polarisation is meant to take effect? Not least because the previous trend towards globalism has prompted a greater transnational social integration in so many countries. Many of our most economically burgeoning and flourishing cities are booming precisely because they have become expressly international cities. If the nationalists wish to categorically differentiate their “us” from ‘the other’ they can’t hope to do so on a macro, global level without precipitating doing so on a local, micro level at home too; and so, such a policy would simply end up being endemically fissiparous, or to put it another way, they’d in effect be throwing the baby out with the bathwater – hence some people’s legitimate fear that the implementation of such a policy would in effect equate to pushing a self-destruct button.

But then again, this might well be the intention ... Indeed, it follows that in the logical progression of such nationalism – anyone perceived to be a foreigner, say because of their colour or their creed, regardless of the fact that they were born in that same country, were fully acculturated therein, and held official papers attesting to their legitimate citizenship, perhaps even being several generations removed from their original immigrant forebears, would count for nothing. They may well end up being stigmatised as the enemy within, as indeed was the case with the Japanese in the USA after the attacks on Pearl Harbour, or worse with the Jews within Nazi Germany and occupied Europe in the 1940s , or similarly with the 'ethnic cleansing' in Balkan nations following the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Undoubtedly, though we might well shudder to consider it, there is every possibility of similar things occurring in exactly this way as the norms of civil society become increasing corroded and eroded by a toxic and exclusionary insularity. I would argue that the key question is not so much how this wave of populist nationalism has arisen or whether history is in any sort of sense repeating itself, though these are certainly important points to consider and debate; but rather, I would venture to suggest that the key question of our time is whether the dichotomy of this dilemma – globalism versus nationalism – is recalibrating and accelerating a new kind of global schism?

In his article Adelman quotes a deeply worrying statement about an imminent cultural collision of East and West apparently made in 2014 by the current chief strategist in the White House, Steve Bannon: “There is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global. Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act.” … Little hope then, perhaps, to echo a famous phrase attributed to Winston Churchill, that “jaw, jaw” might be allowed a chance to take precedence over “war, war.” But more essentially such an overtly militarist stance in terms of the foreign policy of such an intrinsically pluralistic nation does not look sufficiently deeply into the reality beneath its nose on its very own doorstep. You cannot have a dualistic confrontation in the form of a "clash of civilisations" when your own society is already one built upon an integrated internationalist base, as this is in essence blindly self-destructive. The fact that we are clearly so split right down the middle (vide the voting splits for the two opposing Brexit camps, or the Presidential campaigns of Trump and Clinton), I think utterly precludes it. Trying to purge a society of ‘the other’ from within its own midst today would in the end be tantamount to instigating a civil war (think again of the 1990s Balkans War). Ours is no longer a world of near and far. The ‘global village’ is real, we are all living it now, and we are all more closely interconnected than ever before. Take Brexit and the issue of the current right of EU nationals to permanent residence in the UK which has simply highlighted how deeply married Britons are to the Continent, literally in the case of so many transnational married couples who are currently facing the threat of dislocation.

And yet – in looking through this present glass darkly and attempting to envisage the potentially deeply dystopian future that may well now lie ahead of us: what if this populist nationalism ultimately succeeds in its goal of disuniting the globe?What will follow to police and maintain the new world order which will result from this epic "clash of civilisations"? Will such resurgent nationalism eventually beget a shift to a reinvented imperialism? Will it end in a new Cold War-like stand-off between Crusader and Jihadi? Or will it require a new kind of colonialism? And if so, who will end up being subjugated, colonized, exploited, and controlled as ‘the other’ in this nightmare vision of our collective future –  both at home and abroad? … The globe might well be up for grabs, but in my opinion, taking my lesson from history – the outcome of the impeding tussle will be anyone’s guess to call. But right now – it’s the moment when we stop asking questions which worries me the most.

References & Further Reading

Jeremy Adelman, What is Global History Now? Aeon Essays (March 2, 2017)

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, 1983)

David Cannadine, The Undivided Past: History Beyond Our Differences(Penguin, 2013)

Sebastian Conrad, What is Global History? (Princeton, 2016)

John Darwin, Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain (Penguin, 2013)

Pankaj Mishra, From The Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against The West and The Remaking of Asia (Penguin, 2013)

Jürgen Osterhammel, The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the 19th Century (Princeton, 2014)

Edward Said, Orientalism (Pantheon, 1978)

Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (Knopf, 1993)

Pierre-Yves Saunier, Transnational History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

Ooi Kee Beng, The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2015)

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