By Mark Featherstone
In the wake of Tuesday’s Islamic State terror attacks on Brussels, Donald Trump strengthened his hold on the Republican candidacy for the American Presidential Election by winning the state of Arizona. At the same time the British people are caught up the bewilderingly complex debate about whether to stick with Europe or strike out on their own. Although the causes and meanings of these diverse events and situations are complex, the role of the sociologist must be to try to make connections in the name of understanding broader processes. What, then, is the connection between IS, terror strikes at the heart of the EU, the Trump phenomenon, and the British debate over potential Brexit?
My view is that in the long term what these diverse phenomena signify is the end of what sociologists write about in terms of globalisation, or at least the normal, capitalist version of globalisation. Since its entry into the academic lexicon in the 1980s, the term ‘globalisation’ has gained such popularity that it has more or less found a place in everyday language. Almost everybody would have a view on what this word means. Indeed, globalisation may now be considered so normal that we no longer even need to speak of it at all. Under these conditions it is possible that the concept has completely lost its purchase on our understandings of world. If this is the case, the diffusion and collapse of the concept of globalisation into the normality of a totally inter-connected world represents the height of irony, since I would suggest that what the above phenomena represent is the end of this process of absolute inter-connection.
Of course, globalisation has never been a thing, and there is no global place, but what the term recognises is the dominance of the idea of inter-dependence and inter-relation. This is particularly true of the period since the 1970s when the global economy really took off through the suspension of the gold standard that linked money to precious metal. In the decades that followed globalisation - or the extension of high tech processes of inter-relation binding diverse localities and diverse peoples together through political, economic, and cultural communication – became normal. The reason this was particularly relevant for sociologists is that the idea of globalisation was always essentially a sociological concept on the basis that it signaled the connection between distant places and diverse people. It is this vision of the world which we have lived with ever since and that we learn about when we study sociology.
Beyond recent times, it is possible to project the theory of globalisation back further, and say that Europeans have been globalisers every since the rise of what we call modern society, and it is important to recognise this longer view, because I would suggest that what current events represent is the end of globalisation on a much broader scale than we might first imagine, but which is only really apparent to the long term, macro thinker. Let me explain and, in our post-modern world where we need to keep things simple in the name of the speed of communication, cut to the chase. In a sense what the combination of the migrant crisis, which has seen the movement of people from the Middle East to Europe take on biblical proportions, and repeated IS terror attacks on Europe, which cannot but strike fear into the hearts of those who live in major cities, signify is a crisis of the European idea of modernity, which includes a tendency towards expansion and openness towards others. This crisis is likely to end in the transformation of the EU into a kind of high security state characterised by militarised borders and the proliferation of Stalinist detention centres. Of course, this is not news, because it is already happening. However, what I think is new is the acceleration of this process and its sedimentation into a new kind of common sense. We see this every day on the news and recognise the new state of insecurity - the outside is dangerous and we must build walls and secure our borders against other people who threaten our very existence.
Under these conditions, debates about the EU Referendum and Britain’s place in Europe have become about a choice between global neoliberalism, which really means making money in a free market, and a kind of neoconservative vision of a secure state that is far more particular about its relationships with other places and other people. In the recent past the compromise took the form of something like a militarised version of neoliberalism, which meant that it was possible to remain open to the market and police global space in the name of security, but I think that this is now on the edge of collapse. It is simply too expensive to police global space in the way that Bush Junior and Blair sought to in the early days of the war on terror. In this context it has become clear, at least to David Cameron and Boris Johnson, that we must decide – we can either have a European free market or secure borders, but we cannot have both at the same time.
Across the Atlantic a similar struggle over what we are calling globalisation is taking place. If Europe is in the process of giving up on modernity and its modern tradition of globalisation, in America I think that what is taking place is a comparable struggle over the future of what we might call the post-modern tradition of globalisation, which has always been about the American vision of its own place in the world. Certainly since the early 20th century, when the American president Woodrow Wilson imagined a utopian view of America’s international role, and further on through the Cold War when America was the leader of the free world, up to Bush Senior and the declaration of the New World Order, and finally Bush Junior and the coalition of the willing, American has been ‘the’ post-modern globaliser. After Europe, which had to give up on its idea of globalisation in the wake of the two World Wars and the horrors of Auschwitz and the Gulag, America became ‘the’ dominant globalising force with an idea – the idea of individual freedom and cooperation through markets – that we consumed on TV and various other screens, right up to the contemporary Apple iPad that links global communication to creativity, imagination, and living a good life (here, globalisation is good because it makes us better, happier, people etc.). It is this vision that I think is under threat in the campaign for the party nominations that looks increasing like it will produce a choice between Hilary Clinton, who remains committed to Obama’s vision of America’s role in the world, and Donald Trump who, I would suggest, offers Americans a new vision of withdrawal that is in many respects a response to the decline of American power over the course of the 21st century.
In this way I think that Trump represents the looming collapse to American-led globalisation that has been on the cards since 9 / 11 and later Bush Junior’s attempt to establish ‘full spectrum dominance’ in Iraq that resulted in a catastrophic demonstration of the limitations of American power. When we take into account the continued rise of China, the increasing global role of Russia, and finally the collapse of the financial markets which gave lie to the American vision of universal prosperity through endless growth, it is possible to see how Trump represents the end of what was once called the American century. As a result, far from making ‘America great again’, I would suggest Trump represents the end of American-led globalisation, and a retreat towards a kind of defensive nationalism. We are, consequently, living in the ruins of American over-reach now. It was not meant to be this way. Following the aborted war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Arab Spring exploded, and many commentators imagined the foundation of a new wave of western style democratic nations in the Middle East. But in much the same way that Occupy and Syriza ultimately failed in the West, and mass discontent started to gravitate towards new extreme statist groups, the Arabic liberation movements ultimately collapsed before radical extremists, who stepped into the void left by the old authoritarians. The end result of this process is Syria, which captures the nightmarish scenario of an endless war fought between a bankrupt autocrat, Assad, and a death cult, Islamic State, that imagines an escape from Western globalisation through a return to what its leaders consider a medieval utopia where there is no end to violence and domination. Here, war is normal. War is life.
In light of the horror of Islamic State, the staggering irony of Tony Blair’s warning against ‘flabby liberalism’ is that he completely fails to understand or perhaps recognise that history has found him wanting. How? Surely he cannot fail to recognise that Islamic State emerged in the ruins of Iraq, when Abu Musab Al Zarqawi formed Al Qaeda in Iraq, with the mission to drive the American and British out by creating a situation of general civil war. Given this history, it is unclear how exactly a return to the aggression of the Bush / Blair years will solve the problem of Islamic State, without transforming countries such as Britain into totalitarian police states, where neighbour must inform on neighbour, teacher upon student, parent upon child, and child upon parent. Of course, it is precisely this situation that the opponents of Stalin criticised in the 1940s and 1950s. We find this horror captured in Orwell, Koestler, and the story of Pavlik Morozov, the young boy who denounced his father to the dreaded in Soviet secret police in 1932.
What the story of Pavlik Morozov, who was famously called ‘Informer 001’, captures about the situation in the west is the danger of generalised suspicion and the potential fall towards a state of totalitarianism. In Stalin’s day, the Soviets threw up the Berlin Wall, drew an iron curtain across Europe, and we entered the period of the Cold War which threatened the very existence of humanity itself. The signs of the end of globalisation threaten the potential rise of something comparable in the near future. While Europe is compelled to close its borders under pressure of unmanageable levels of migration and the endless threat of terror attacks, Trump wages verbal war on Mexicans and Muslims and threatens to build walls around America, the great globaliser of the 20th century. If modernity was the period of European globalisation, and post-modernity was the period of the American-led colonisation of the planet, then it may be that the 21st century will herald the start of a new, neo-medieval, period of retraction, regression, and withdrawal. This is more or less the theory we find expressed in the work of the French philosopher of the high speed society, Paul Virilio. However, what I think Virilio missed was that there are two ways to understand the (re)turn to the medieval – one perhaps more hopeful than the other that he emphasises.
What are these alternatives? On the one hand, we might find ourselves in a normalised version of the position we occupy now. In a situation where nations remain committed to economic growth, and continue to seek out profit wherever they can find it, what will happen when they start to close their borders? The answer is perhaps a capitalist version of the fascism of the 20th century. While fascism was exemplified in the German case by a national socialism that was supposed to be for the people, the capitalist version of 21st century fascism will turn out to be a militarised, authoritarian, version of capitalism where the old relationship between the free market and democracy is replaced by a sado-masochistic complex that links competition, profitability, and security. This new form of state-based capitalism, which I think we would see emerge in Trump’s America, would displace the old idea of the welfare state with a new warfare state where what is good for economic growth and profitability (violent competition with others) is also good for security (violent exclusionary politics opposed to suspicious others that sure up the norm of the nation where insiders ‘belong’). The warfare state will, consequently, respond to problems of productivity and low growth, which the French economist Thomas Piketty thinks will define the 21st century, by transforming the economy into a battleground where we must fight to survive and there is no room for sentiment. Here, work will become war – a desperate struggle to make money and make profits in order to remain competitive and stay alive.
While the contemporary cultural imaginary for this capitalist state of nature remain the nightmarish visions of Charles Dickens’ industrial city (consider ‘Hard Times’) or Upton Sinclair’s urban jungle (‘The Jungle’), capitalism has long since found ways to offset the truth of these dystopias in utopian fantasy. Trump’s vision of the hard-nosed capitalist who works hard, plays hard, and emerges a winner from ‘The Apprentice’ is simply the latest in a long line of fantastical visions of Herbert Hoover’s frontiersman, the rugged individual, that have inspired people to believe they can make it in the economic state of nature. But however attractive this fantasy is for Joe Six-pack, who imagines that Trump’s America will take him back to basics, the truth of the matter is that the capitalist brand of 21st fascism will threaten the existence of everybody on the planet because it will take the principle of war for its fundamental good and set about organising society and international relations according to an idea of the existential value of struggle, battle, and competition.
Under these conditions, which are coincidentally conditions we have seen before in the 19th century, the demand for economic growth results in the emergence of an imperialistic state that serves as a lightning rod for the discontent of the masses who are crushed by the economic war that destroys them every day. Herein resides the sadistic (attack others) / masochistic (unify under the banner of the great nation) complex of the warfare state. In the 19th century context, when imperialism became about the need to secure access to precious raw materials in Africa, World War I was the result. I would suggest that the same could easily happen in the 21st century if the contemporary form of globalisation, which is based on interconnection, interrelation, and cooperation, gives way to a more violent, aggressive, chauvinistic, nationalist form. This is, of course, made ever more likely by the state of the natural environment, which has been reduced by 200 years of capitalist exploitation, and is highly unlikely to be able to support continuing processes of capitalist modernisation over the course of the 21st century. Under these conditions imperial war will become about scarce natural resource and the struggle to maintain competitive advantage relative to all others. Given this situation, which would only escalate in the long term as resources become ever more limited and competitive ever more fierce, it is hard to see how the warfare state would be sustainable for the majority socially, psychologically, or ecologically.
If we must pull back from this dystopia of unsustainability in order to survive, what, then, is the answer to the contemporary global situation – the situation I am writing about in terms of the end of globalisation? What would a sociologist looking to the long term suggest? The answer is, perhaps, obvious. Despite the violence of IS, we must reject Tony Blair’s vision of a hard line, militarised, version of liberalism on the basis that it did not work before, and resist the temptation to fall towards a warfare state that regards everybody as a potentially dangerous other. This is, surely, the point of terror? More pragmatically, it would be good to stick with processes of globalisation and, consequently, remain in Europe, suspending uncertainty about economic benefit and so on in the name of the basic good of cooperation. On the American side, if it comes down to Clinton versus Trump, it would be sensible to take the former over the latter and avoid a militarised form of nationalism that would link violence and security in domestic economic competition to violence and security on the international stage.
This is not to say that we should simply accept the neoliberalism of Clinton and Cameron because, in short, the problems of contemporary globalisation are the result of the bankruptcy of the decrepit neoliberal model they can’t see beyond and want to save. According to this model, what we will get is the status quo - capitalist economic inter-relation, vast profits for the rich, increasing poverty and inequality, environmental catastrophe, and ever more violence in the name of the destruction of the old system that staggers on like an extra from a George Romero film. If Trump is no future, neither is neoliberal globalisation. What, then, is the alternative?
I have suggestions, but first, I think it is worth explaining how I understand the difference between my discipline, Sociology and what we might call hard pragmatic political thinking. The reason it is worth prefacing my suggestions with this explanation is because I think Sociology has suffered as a discipline in the global neoliberal period of history because of its apparent lack of concrete responses to social, economic, political, and cultural problems. In my view, this was always unfair, and essentially the result of the development of global, neoliberal, capitalism to the level of hegemon where it was outlandish to suggest alternatives. Why? There was no alternative. In this situation, there is no doubt that the children of Sociology (applied subjects such as Policy and Administration) came to the fore primarily because these sub-disciplines operate within the coordinates of what exists socially, politically, and economically, and remain within these parameters.
Against, the realism of its children, I would argue that Sociology is a ‘surreal’, or ‘super-real’, discipline because it models social, political, economic, and cultural reality and suspends existing structures that may appear unchangeable through processes of abstraction which open up new possibilities for imagining alternative futures outside of the coordinates of what seems possible in the present. While this surrealism was no doubt a massive disadvantage in the period when the global, neoliberal, hegemon seemed absolutely secure and nobody could see further than endless democratic capitalism (we had, apparently, reached the end of history and there was no alternative because even China was in the capitalist camp), in the contemporary period the sociologist’s ability to think beyond the present is absolutely necessary because there are no solutions inside the coordinates of a bankrupt social, political, economic, and centrally cultural system of capitalist globalisation. The end of history is over - the only problem is that many people have not realised this yet.
My view is, then, that sociologists need to upset the apple cart, and they need to do so in such a way that rethinks the potential of the contemporary period of the end of globalisation. What could this mean? Let’s return to Virilio. While the negative potential of the (re)turn to the medieval resides in the elevation of war to the level of a fundamental good, the positive potential of this condition is concerned with the way it could allow for a rejection of the neoliberal mantra of economic growth at all costs - the medieval, dark ages, were after all a period of ‘meta-philosophical stability’ which had no sense of the modern obsession with the arrow of time shooting off into the future. Although growth has become synonymous with globalisation, endless economic growth is unsustainable, and the contemporary period of low growth opens up a space to rethink the limits of economic development on the basis of necessity. In other words, we have no choice. Perhaps, then, a true critical, sociological, surreal, utopian response to the crisis of contemporary globalisation would be to reject militarism in the name of the end of growth and the defence of a state of generalised, neo-medieval, austerity.
It is normal for sociologists to think that austerity is bad and there is no doubt that austerity has struck at the poor in defence of the privilege of the rich who are supposed to make society, and most importantly economy function. At least this is the neoliberal view. But what this means is that austerity is bad because contemporary austerity measures remain caught up in the context of a society driven into the future by its economy (this is what growth is about). The result of this is that those on the receiving end of the cuts agenda are effectively left behind by society for the sake of the rich who keep making money and consuming so that some of what they make trickles down to the rest of us. However, the picture would look very different in a society that rejects the utopian idea of endless growth on the basis of its ecological impossibility and embraced an alternative vision – there is no future in economic growth, where we try to live into the future in search of more of this, that, and the other, simply because the biosphere is no longer capable of sustaining this search for ‘more’. However, there is a viable future in an emphasis on the value of human life, and people, who are part of the natural world, which we can no longer look to exceed, bur rather must respect and care for on the basis that it keeps us alive.
There is no space to unpack the psychoanalysis of this suggestion here, but my overall point is that a new post-growth economy would have to recognise the value of human life, and make this its primary good, especially in relation to money, which has become more important than people under contemporary globalisation. In this situation economy would need to be about ‘need’, which is finite and attached to the rhythms of the body and natural resource, rather than ‘desire’, which is infinite and generates a thirst for endless, unsustainable, growth. What would happen here is that austerity would no longer become a condition of the poor, relative to the excess of the rich who live into the future of growth, but rather represent an ecological limit for everybody equally in the name of the sustainability of the human species.
Today austerity is imposed unequally. The idea is to make savings off the backs of the poor who are seen to generate little value, defend the greed of the rich in the name of growth and the ideology of trickle down, and stimulate everyday warfare which is good by virtue of its potential to drive competition, innovation, and development (growth). But the rejection of the fantasy of endless growth would generalise austerity in the name of equality, cooperation, and sustainability – a balanced human life where we think about natural, before unrealistic economic needs around profit. Of course, from the vantage point of the capitalist utopia, where you can have whatever you want and drown in luxurious things, this sounds like a dystopia, but contrary to what politicians might suggest, this vision of a shared future based on the value of human life and its needs in the context of a limited biosphere, is simultaneously unthinkable, ridiculous, surreal but also absolutely rational, pragmatic, necessary, and, I would risk the claim, in the long run inevitable. This is the surrealism or super-realism of Sociology which involves the both science fiction and hard pragmatism in the creation of a fantastical, essential, utopian form. Ironically, I think this is more real in the long run than hard-nosed short term political realism that claims a monopoly on pragmatic common sense.
Although we might wait, face the inevitable catastrophic consequences of the rise of the warfare state, and then retreat back towards a community based on the need to survive, I would suggest it would be better to make the leap beyond contemporary capitalist globalisation now. It strikes me that this is necessary, mainly because I think that the capitalist vision of the good, what Max Weber once called the spirit of capitalism, is longer operative and that a new vision for the future is required. Nobody believes in the capitalist good, the capitalist fantasy world, these days. How could they? It is simply too exclusive – a rich person’s game – and we are too cynical. This is why, I would suggest, so many disenfranchised young men and women feel that groups like Islamic State, a medieval death cult, offers a better future. The hope here is, of course, a hope in the existential value of war, a hope in the meaning of death, in the afterlife, and it is this that western society must oppose if it is ever to defeat IS and other extremist groups. Defeating IS militarily in Syria and Iraq will only achieve so much because the point remains that the belief system will remain vital so long as the west offers nothing but warfare, competition, and struggle itself. Where is the promise? Where is the hope? Where is the future? Where is the vision of the value of life?
What this means is that the west must respond to the end of globalisation and rediscover its own spirit, not in the kind of warfare state that Blair wants or Trump promises, but rather in a unitary society, where we recognise the value of life, and no longer revel in its destruction through everyday warfare. In other words, the west needs a new idea, an idea that is simultaneously realistic, sustainable, hopeful, and that centrally leaps over the current critical period – the period of the end of late capitalist globalisation. Against the violent medievalism of IS, which is all about the principle of war, I think we must look to the medieval for a model of social stability, sustainability, and a cosmological idea of the relationship between humanity and the natural world that is no longer premised on growth and a violent futurism. Herein resides an alternative, more liveable, vision of a global future that might under-cut the appeal of the extreme to the disenfranchised and the desperate who imagine that utopia somehow grows out of the barrel of a gun and the death of self, other, and world.