Book Review – The Rise of the Global Imaginary – Part 2

RGI Here is the second part of my review of Manfred Steger‘s The Rise of the Global Imaginary (part 1 here). In the last part of the book, Steger focuses on the sometimes conflicting ideologies derived from the global imaginaries.

Starting from the collapse of the USSR, Steger argues (correctly, I think) that the first winning ideology in the decontestation game was market globalism , the ideology that managed to decontest "globalization" in the limited sense of deregulated markets on a global scale.

To explore the tenets of market globalism, Steger reviews the writings of one of its main proponents and popularizers: Thomas Friedman. Needless to say, this is painful to read as is anything related to Thomas Friedman (hence no links), however he is indeed a central figure in the promotion of market globalism. He is also a good representative of the way this ideology was promoted by the political, economic and corporate elites in the 1990s (or the transnational capitalist class as Leslie Sklair calls this group, Friedman belongs to the ideological sub-group of the TCC).

Market Globalism

As Steger puts it,

"The articulation of the rising global imaginary as market globalism fell mainly to the global elites composed of corporate managers, executives of large TNCs, corporate lobbyists, high-level military officers, journalists and public-relations specialists, intellectuals writing to large audiences, state bureaucrats, and politicians." (184)

All this ideological work (should it be called propaganda?) was supported by strengthened global institutions such as the IMF, World Bank, WTO but also universities and the media along with governments that agreed to de-nationalize some of their capacity for policy-making, especially in the financial and trade sectors. All these social actors worked toward the decontestation of globalization and Friedman contributed to that process in different ways:

1. For Friedman, globalization is about information and communications technologies (ICTs) that permitted global integration and liberalization by facilitating the global flows of goods and services. For him, such mechanisms are empowering for individuals.

2. Globalization will benefit everyone… in the long run… and that’s because globalization = prosperity = democracy = global political stability.

3. Globalization = Cultural Americanization because American values and lifestyles have universal applicability with some modification depending on the context.

These are the three decontestation claims that Friedman made in his successful book The Lexus and the Olive Tree. They all amount to presenting globalization as inevitable and irreversible: there is no alternative, as Margaret Thatcher told us a long time ago. Globalization represents the next stage in capitalistic evolution. It is a "natural" force that no one controls (Steger notes the ironic parallel to Marxist claims of the inevitability of socialism). Resistance is futile. We’ll just have to adapt (and let me add that we need to adapt individually, we should not count on government support for that as both Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman have written).

"The globalist rendition of Hayek’s spontaneous, self-regulating market order buttresses Friedman’s larger argument that globalization does not reflect the arbitrary agenda of a particular social class or group. In other words, globalists merely carry out the unalterable imperatives of a transcendental force much larger than narrow partisan interests. People are not in charge of globalization; markets and technology are. Enter the "Golden Straitjacket," Friedman’s rather revealing metaphor for the defining political-economic framework of the globalization system." (189)

The other metaphor is that of the "Electronic herd" (Lexus? Olive tree? Golden straijacket? Electronic herd? How does he come up with this stuff?) as metaphor for the global marketplace; it represents the traders, investors, all connected through electronic networks of the 24 hours global economy.

And for those who don’t like it? Well, there are ways of forcing everybody in line, like using global institutions to impose neo-liberal policies to countries of the Global South through debt management. These policies are subsumed under the nickname of the "Washington Consensus." which indicates that the supposed leaderless globalization is actually led by the United States (Friedman acknowledges this without noting the contradiction). After all, the US military can be used to force countries to open their markets to reform (the euphemism for neo-liberal policies).

The second decontestation claim refers to the constant association of free markets and democracy, here is the trick though:

"The assumed affinity between democracy and free markets hinges on a definition of democracy that emphasizes formal procedures such as voting at the expense of the direct participation of broad majorities in political and economic decision-making. This thin definition of democracy differs from "popular democracy" in that the latter posits democracy as both a process and a means to an end – a tool for devolving political and economic power from the hands of elite minorities to the masses. "Low intensity" or "formal" market democracy, on the other hand, limits democratic participation to voting in elections, thus making it easier for the elected to govern effectively, that is with a minimum of popular inputs. The promotion of low-intensity democracy provides market globalists with an opportunity to advance their economistic vision in a language that ostensibly supports the "democratization of the world. "(193)

Emphasis mine. In other words, for market globalists, globalization is founded on a basic and increasing imbalance of power where certain actors (roughly, the TCC) have increased their power whereas there has been a weakening of mechanisms of "thick democracy".

These three major decontestation claims were ideological but presented as objective facts to be sold to the larger population again through a variety of media. And again, if the ideologically-laden rhetoric did not work, institutional pressure, or ultimately, military force (or police force for internal dissent) could be applied.

But of course, it did not take long for a countervailing articulation of the global imaginary to emerge to contest the meaning of globalization.

Justice Globalism

We all remember the demonstrations on the streets of Seattle in 1999 to protest the WTO meetings. This was only the first flashpoint as massive demonstrations have occurred in various parts of the world as challenges to corporate globalization. The social movements that emerged as reaction to "globalization from above" promoted their own global ideology of "globalization from below" and the idea that "another world is possible".

This time, Steger examines the tenets of justice globalism through the writing of one of its main proponents: Susan George, of the Transnational Institute. There is a thick context though, relating to the emergence of the Global Justice Movement (the social movement whose ideology is justice globalism).

Very quickly, the level of social inequalities and poverty attributed to the policies of the Washington Consensus became glaring, the Chinese case notwithstanding. It is not coincidental that social demonstrations became known as IMF riots. And so, the legitimacy of the claims made by the market globalists came under attack not from isolationists but from social movements animated by another global framework.

"Social activists around the world began to engage in what social movement expert Sidney Tarrow calls "global framing", that is, a flexible form of "global thinking" that connects local or national grievances to the larger context of global justice, global inequalities or world peace. Tarrow argues that most of these activists could be characterized as "rooted cosmopolitans," because they remained embedded in their domestic environments while at the same time developing a global consciousness as a result of vastly enhanced contacts to like-minded individuals and organizations across national borders. Indeed, the forging of global attitudes inside and alongside the national identities of the social activists was one particular manifestation of the eruption of the global imaginary within the national." (199)

Sidney Tarrow is an important figure of the sociology of social movements in a global context. Especially important is his book The New Transnational Activism. As Steger puts it, justice globalism engages in multi-issue framing (which led people like Friedman to mistakenly assume an inability to offer a coherent framework). So, justice globalism is much broader and diverse than market globalism. A good example of this is the EZLN whose case is well-known and a very successful example of multi-issue global framing and whose rebellion in 1994 (after the passage of NAFTA) was a major point in the rise of the resistance to market globalism. Other major events were the major strikes in France in 1995, the collapse of the Asian economies in 1997, and the battle in Seattle in 1999.

This crisis of legitimacy prompted the creation of the World Social Forum (a response to the World Economic Forum) accompanied by critiques initiated by people considered part of the system such as Joseph Stiglitz and George Soros. It is in this context that one should read Susan George’s Another World is Possible If…. This is a work of contestation where she refutes the ideological claims of market globalists, armed with hard data.

"Hence [George] assigns the GJM two fundamental tasks. The first is ideological, reflected in concerted efforts to undermine "the premises and ideological framework" of the "reigning neo-liberal worldview" by constructing and disseminating an alternative translation of the global imaginary based on the core principles of the WSF: equality, social justice, diversity, democracy, nonviolence, solidarity, ecological sustainability, and planetary citizenship. The second is political, manifested in the attempt to realize thse principles by means of mass mobilizations and nonviolent direct action targeting the core structures of market globalism: international economic institutions like the WTO, and the IMF, TNCs and affiliated NGOs, large industry federations and lobbies, the mainstream corporate media, and the "present United States government." (209)

These goals are to be accomplished through a variety of decentralized structures, a "network of networks." The first task set by George seems partially accomplished. The second one seems an uphill battle.

Jihadist Globalism

Steger classifies Jihadist globalism as a form of populist ideology whose rhetorical power is based on four characteristics:

1. Paint the world in clear manichean terms where differences are irreconcilable. It’s good versus evil, us versus them. The good and moral people versus the evil and corrupt elites.

2. Populists make their claims in moral terms whereby political disagreements become major moral disputes (e.g. the culture war) in the name of the people, tradition against moral degeneration brought about by outsiders (undocumented immigrants are the current favorite scapegoats of populists like Pat Buchanan or Lou Dobbs).

3. Populists need crises that demand immediate solution but the spineless elites will not do anything about it.

4. Populists imagine "we" as a homogeneous community united by common traditions, interests, language, and history all of whose are being threatened.

According to Steger (and I might add, Olivier Roy as well, see his Globalized Islam), Osama Bin Laden mixes political Islam with populism in his invocation of a global umma or religious community. So, what are the main tenets of Jihadist globalism?

"The ideological edifice of jihadist globalism rests on the public evocation of an exceptional crisis: the umma has been subjected to an unprecedented wave of attacks on its territories, values, and economic resources. Although he blames the global "Judeo-Crusader alliance," Bin Laden considers its assaults on Islam to be the expression of an evil larger than that represented by particular nation-states or imperialist alliances." (222)

For those who have studied the Salafist movement, there is no question that it experienced a global turn from fighting the "near enemy" (the Middle East secular regimes such as Egypt, with the assassination of Sadat) to fighting the "far enemy" (Western countries) and taking the struggle to a global level in order to defend a global umma not as a territorial entity but a deterritorialized one (Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities is relevant here as well as in other parts of the book). The global goal then is to protect the umma against threats that affect the truth of tawhid (the unity of God and his creation) through the erasure of national or docrinal differences within the umma and apply religious law detached from any specific national context. One is with them or against them in this endeavor.

Imperial Globalism

The last articulation of the global imaginary is imperial globalism. As I have mentioned before, market globalism usually refers back to neo-liberalism. Imperial globalism refers back to neo-conservatism: the idea that the United States is entitled to reshape the world in its own image, through military means. The US is also entitled to force open foreign markets and exercise global leadership through force.

Being the only remaining superpower (or so the ideological claims go), or rather hyperpower (a concept also used by Amy Chua), the entire world has become the US’s sphere of influence. It is its right to police it. The sources of that thinking are well-known American think-tanks and its ideology is clearly laid out in PNAC. Specifically,

"The conviction that American foreign policy must reflect the deepest values of democratic societies, and that American power has been and could be used for moral purposes; the notion that the United States needs to remain engaged in international affairs, and, as the world’s dominant power, it has a special responsibility for global security; a fervent belief in free markets and free trade coupled with a strong distrust of "social engineering projects"; and strong skepticism about the legitimacy and effectiveness of international laws and institutions to achieve global security." (232)

In the imperialist version, in contrast with market globalism, the United States is in charge of globalization and it is its task to make the world safe for global investments, trade and integration, including through preemptive war if necessary. The world and globalization have to be defended against extremists: jihadists and alter-globalization activists. The former are being dealt with through the war on terror, the latter through control of internal dissent.

This is an ideology that has been well-explored as neo-conservatives are prolific writers and also as authors and journalists look back at the run-up to the Iraq war. Steger reviews several neo-conservative authors of that school of thought.

What is interesting is that all four ideologies also share a return of the religious. Anyone who has read Thomas Frank’s One Market under God understands the religious dimension of market globalism (although Steger does not include it in his discussion of the convergence of ideology and religion). Justice globalism is also infused with religiosity, but of a more diverse kind as no one religion or denomination dominates the movement, but as Steger puts it, it contains "heavy doses of spiritual and religious thought from affiliated environmentalists and peace activists." (243)

Religiosity is by definition an essential component of jihadist globalism (whether Christian or Muslim or other) but it is so as well in imperial globalism that its proponents have been nicknamed "theocons" by commentator Kevin Phillips.

There is no question of a convergence of ideology and religion, especially, of the apocalyptic variety as a political force.

"We are, indeed, witnessing a weakening, if not a reversal, of the powerful secularization dynamic of the last centuries as a result of the decline of the national. And, yes, the rising global imaginary has been creating more favorable conditions for the convergence of political and religious belief systems. (…) Consequently, we ought to treat religious ideas and beliefs as an increasingly integral part of the three competing globalisms that translate the rising global imaginary into concrete political agendas. Increasingly, the common frame of reference will be the "global community" although national, or even tribal, imaginings of human associations will remain with us for a long time to come." (246)

This religion-ideology-politics nexus is at least concerning, if not frightening.

It is a very interesting book that makes essential points toward understanding the ideological and political dynamics we are currently witnessing. It was a long review because the book is fairly dense and detailed.

Highly recommended.

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