Sunday, December 21, 2014

Globalization, Democracy, and Empire

The world's fierce battles over whether to expand or limit the global movement of people, goods, money, ideas, cultural artifacts, etc., have prompted me to reflect a lot about the issue usually termed, sometimes approvingly, sometimes disparagingly, as "globalization." Globalization, it seems to me, is in its broadest sense an imperial impulse--expanding outward, eliminating barriers (or protective fences), subordinating everyone and everything equally to a common order (a standardization which may imperil individuality and singularity even as it fosters universal values and overall tolerance). Opposed to globalization are all forms of tribalism/nationalism/fundamentalism--those dispositions which esteem, above all else, the freedom of individuals or groups to pursue the limited interests of their own self-identified "demos," without regard for the interests of other peoples or of the larger global community.  In short, the opposite of globalization would appear to be our much vaunted but oh-so-loosely-defined democracy.

Here in America, our professedly "democratic" elites (both political and industrial/financial) will, of course, deny this and posit the contrary notion: that globalization--by which, in truth, they mean the expansion of American practices--will actually and necessarily not only spread democracy but universalize it.

This, alas, is a major fallacy in American (and Western) thinking and a profound misunderstanding of the true meaning of democracy (self-rule by a particular people in accordance with principles which that people finds "self-evident" and which suit that people). Globalization merely spreads the values and life-style of the dominant culture and the dominant demos. It does not ensure that other peoples, those who proudly self-identify as "exceptional" or "divinely chosen" or "ethnically superior" will experience this universalization as in any way "democratic." On the contrary, they are likely to regard American "democracy" (i.e., free-trade capitalism/Jeffersonian assumptions about "self-evident truths") as oppressive and threatening to their very identity as a demos.

Myriad examples illustrate this truth: the Islamic fundamentalism that regards the U.S. as the Great Satan; the xenophobic right-wing parties of Europe and America (who want, above all, to prevent alien migrants from crossing their frontier fences and thus defiling or impoverishing their hitherto happy demos); the angry economic protectionists and political isolationists on both the left and right; the unionists and left-wingers who decry outsourcing, etc. Gosh, the list is long--and as you see, the traditional divisions of left and right do not really apply to this discussion. There are both left- and right-wing globalists; there are both left- and right-wing democrats.

So who will be the winner of these battles--the outward-looking, expansionist globalists or the inward-looking, protectionist democrats? Obviously, the two temperaments are always in play, but at any given time in the history of civilization, one temperament is likely to dominate and thus exercise greater influence, while the other languishes in fretful disfavor. At the moment, it would appear--and this despite all the frenzied Sturm und Drang emanating from numerous hotspots around the planet--the imperialist/globalists have the upper hand. Indeed, the very derangement and hysterical desperation of, dare I say it?, "democratic" tribalism now lashing out so violently at the West, serve only to underscore the degree to which globalization and imperial values have implanted themselves and are perceived as threats by the besieged democrats who feel neither empowered nor liberated by the prospect of an American (or Chinese or Russian)-inspired "global village."

Which is not to say that the current imperium (multinational capitalism, American military force, English-speaking media, Chinese financing) will necessarily endure. The pendulum may again swing, as it has in the past, toward fragmentation and little, self-centered tribal groups. Triumphant globalism may indeed grow overconfident, arrogant, atrophied and eventually of diminished service to the populations whose lives its universalism purported to make more comfortable. In such a scenario, the long-smoldering tribalism may once again burst into flame, incinerate the empire and re-establish a medieval Westeros of enclaves, bailiwicks and principalities, each the domain of a single self-identified demos--a sort of democracy (though perhaps governed by a single ruler in the "name of" the people). Some such break-apart campaigns have recently surfaced in Scotland, Catalonia, Flanders, Tibet, Texas, even northern California. But so far, little fragmentation has come of all the hubbub.

Still, if the world does once again split up into disparate navel-gazing states, true (and, for many of us, quite undesirable) democracy may see a fierce resurgence--rule of, by, or at least for some sort of "majority mob" (or a mob-supported elite). Then, licking their wounds and motivated by the inevitable excesses and cruelty of the now prevailing tribalists, the discredited globalists will have to take their turn in the dusky shadows, plotting and pursuing (for centuries) their return at last to dominance. So that the cycle can begin all over again. The empire is dead; long live the empire!

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