Technocrats and cosmopolitan politicians are abetting globalization for political influence, economic gain, and utopian delusion. We might add another incentive: A forgotten or deliberately ignored reverence for civic life. Might a hyper-focus on global advancement be contributing to a growing state of national anomie in liberal democracies worldwide?
Globalization has become an ineluctable reality. It’s in economics, politics, technology, business, and virtually every other facet of our modern lives. The way in which we interact with the world has been amplified and accelerated thanks to the economic and technological advancements that make a network of this scale possible. Before the revolution in information technology, globalization had an economic function primarily. Something happened along its trajectory, however, that opened globalization to political and cultural influence, altering the initial intention of contributing to international development through free trade and information exchange. Now, it is also influencing our understanding of community and replacing it with one that is stultifying our sense of national identity and civic responsibility.
There are new social and political implications to this project that have been increasing its scope and influence since the early twentieth century. In The Managerial Revolution (1940), James Burnham observed that “occasionally, in human history, changes take place so rapidly and are so drastic in extent that the framework itself is shattered and a new one takes its place.” Reminiscent of Henry Adams’ 1907 analogy of the dynamo “breaking the neck” of history, Burnham also believed that rapid technological change in the twentieth century was occurring at a pace that altered the way of life so drastically that it became something entirely “different in kind, not merely modified in degree.” This sentiment resonated across continents: In The Revolt of the Masses (1929), the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote that the civilization of the twentieth century could be summarized in two dimensions: Liberal democracy and “technicism,” which were the result of the union between capitalism, industrialization, and experimental science. But these two dimensions were merging and, in so doing, were crafting a new vision for the world of the future.
Ortega y Gasset called man’s antagonist in modern society the señorito satisfecho, the self-satisfied young man, who, through his political influence and wealth, was relegating man’s individualism to a collective identity he called the “mass man,” levelled and homogenous in European society. We can pick up from where these authors’ critiques left off. Technocrats and cosmopolitan politicians are abetting globalization for several of the same reasons that Burnham and Ortega y Gasset pointed out in their books: Political influence, economic gain, and utopian delusion. Here, we might add another incentive: A forgotten or deliberately ignored reverence for civic life. As a result, it is no longer the case that globalization is appurtenant to community development and nation-building, either domestically or internationally, because it is insidiously wearing away people’s desire to participate in their own civic affairs. The political philosopher Michael Sandel put it in a similar way: We were a society with a market system; we’ve become a market society. Our environment is becoming more and more consumerist, but not just in a materialist sense (though that is a big part of the problem). We are equally transacting our political principles, morals, and ethics in a global market, selling them abroad but hardly at home.
To be fair, our morals and market systems do contain some form of inherent goodness that renders them suitable to most societies in the free world—such is the premise of liberalism that engendered globalization. But we do not understand the inherent goodness of an idea unless we learn it from experience. Globalization is helping us forget this caveat. It is one thing to learn how to craft a box and then sell it to other parts of the world (perhaps teaching others how to make these boxes in the process) and another thing to be born into a family business where we’ve inherited thousands of already-crafted boxes and we sell them without even bothering to learn how to make them for ourselves. At some point those people who know the craft will be gone—the vanity of youth leads us to believe it won’t happen just yet—and we will run out of boxes. But we have become those heirs of a family-owned enterprise that neglected the value of the careful crafting that built our wealth in the first place. Nevertheless, we are compelled to trade on.
Packed inside this box analogy lies liberal democracy. Within globalization’s project we can still see traces of liberalism as it pertains to its humanitarian values. Advocates of globalization define the term by always making a reference to an idea of connection with others and of contribution to human progress. But we are turning this altruism on its head: We are more compelled nowadays to connect with a distant other who we suspect is more like us than our distinct neighbor. (We think) we know our neighbor because of who he voted for, what religion he practices, where he comes from, etc., so the rose-colored glasses are off. On the other hand, we feel connected to the distant other because we construct an idea of him that fits in with our ideals that cannot be tested by the experience of having this person as our fellow citizen. And here is the problem: Expecting people to execute the civil conduct that comes with being a neighbor (be it next door, in a nearby city, in another state, or, dare we say, in our nation) to someone who we know is different from us is far less appealing than doing it to someone abroad who we believe is just like us or whose story fits in with our political narrative of everything that is wrong or right in the world. Solicitude is easier when there isn’t someone physically there to test it. Insofar as our tolerance and civil conduct has been tested nationally, we seem to be failing.
Might a hyper-focus on global advancement be contributing to a growing state of national anomie in liberal democracies worldwide? As people become increasingly more divided along political lines domestically, they are likewise becoming more connected internationally for these same reasons. For example, progressives appreciate the interconnectedness it creates that heightens our universal conscience by making use of our digitally charged culture to bring us closer to foreign causes; yet, they chastise the economic weight globalization adds to capitalism and the political weight it adds to western liberalism as the best systems to achieve these humanitarian ends. Free market advocates laud globalization for the economic advances it has brought to all societies around the world through wealth-creation, innovation, and trade; but on the social level, conservatives worry that its emphasis on the international market and profit ignores the more important issues of localism, community, and patriotism. Both groups also question the morality of an international market system, with the left generally claiming that it impoverishes workers by keeping them tied to low wages and subordinate to their managers, and the right generally claiming that it detracts from the value of a moral society, usually Christian, through which to nurture and grow a healthy citizenry.
Whatever viewpoint we fall into, it’s fair to say that through the action and process of entering a transnational market of ideas and commodities, nations are coming out socially changed. We align ourselves with the countries whose political predicaments fall into our own views: If we value the family and tradition, we suddenly laud Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. If we value human rights, we side with Hispanic refugees. We ignore the cultural and historical nuances that make each nation’s issues unique. The result, of course, is mistaken ideals about what places that we’ve never been to need in order to be more like “us”—which really means more like “me.” Domestically, however, the impact is more pernicious. As a result of what we see outside, we assume people inside our nations fall into either category of right or wrong: If you don’t like Brexit, you don’t like Tories, and you know your neighbor is Republican, therefore, conservatives in the U.S. must share some intellectual fault for Brexit. We are more likely now to stop seeking the help and advice of people within our own communities, and instead choose to cherry pick the views of people around the world who champion our views.
We have the option to turn away from our neighbors digitally through our phones and every other electronic medium. By keeping this separation through globalization going, as we’ve been doing for some years now, we will surely reach the day when national identity and citizenship mean nothing if they don’t validate our convictions. Protecting civicism is more important now than ever. We should be wary of the arguments for globalization that are destructive to liberal democracy on a national level. In this case, the progressive understanding of globalization champions a cosmopolitan ideal that acts inimically to the nation-state and it objurgates the market system that is most conducive to self-sufficiency and independence, which is also essential for a country. Taking a more critical look at globalization is not above conservatives then, especially in our current climate that is holding liberalism in crisis. We can revisit Locke all we want and seek refuge in de Tocqueville (he wasn’t wrong), but part of the answers and solutions to our socio-political predicament need to be studied through this contemporary phenomenon.
The political theorist and international relations scholar, David Held, has written that globalization’s desire to evolve traditional patterns of socio-economic organization is a power play that mounts a direct challenge to the modern state by challenging the very principles that compel citizens to participate in the collective mission of sustaining our republic. Favoring citizens over foreign nationals is unethical, we are told; national borders impede the free flow of labor and goods that all countries need to grow their wealth; the goal of trade and immigration policies should not be for the benefit of any particular country, rather for the universal human race. These objections are reasonable enough on their own. But for the global market to execute these goals worldwide means that it needs to dissolve fidelity to the nation and therefore remove any sense of civic identity between countries, despite their varying histories, traditions, and cultures. Globalization is a project that seeks and requires a considerable level of political, social, and economic homogeneity—a cultural homogeneity, in other words—in order to regulate between nations.
One of the most interesting questions on this topic was raised by Kenneth Minogue. A skeptic of globalization, he was concerned with the social and political implications of the global market, since he believed that globalization’s economic facet was contributing to the corrosion of civic identity more than anything else. The popularity of the global market won the victory for globalization, he argued, and it struck a heavy blow to political philosophers in the liberal tradition when it demonstrated that man’s alleged intrinsic yearning for freedom and self-actualization could be easily placated by the corollary consumerism of a transnational market society. That globalization succeeded by becoming so pervasive in our lives made Minogue wonder if the laws of economics (and he used the word “laws” intentionally) determine an emerging homogeneity of human life. He never answered this question definitively but concluded that belief in the universality of globalization was an economic illusion that could dangerously mislead society about the “dynamics of the modern world.”
The modern world, after all, is one that has not yet come into existence in many parts of our nations. In many places, globalization’s influence has created only a semblance of modernization upon which to implement its project, and it has been an overlooked culprit for the social—and consequentially political—instability we are seeing in liberal democracies. One such contemporary event is the ongoing transformation of “global cities” (the term coined by sociologist and globalization theorist, Saskia Sassen). The way that wealth and technology converge in global cities today is widening the cultural gap between small towns and their cosmopolitan counterparts. These cauldrons of unholy loves—to borrow the apt description by St. Augustine—share some of the blame for our global anomie.
Cities influence culture, and, as they have globalized, they have become centers that are devoid of culture not in spite of their multicultural amalgamation but precisely because of it. All the global cities of the world are more culturally similar with each other than with other places on their same soil. This lack of local culture in cities has pit them against the rest of their host countries where, for the most part, residents still value and practice a form of national identity and patriotism that drives their lives. For many people living in peripheral places outside of the global limelight, globalization is either an illusion or a competitor that is challenging their livelihoods.
It might sound like a platitude, but the widening divide between the cosmopolitan and the national, the global and the local, can be mended with a reemphasis on community. Still, for many places, focusing to fix this social dirge is difficult in light of pressing economic realities. Our socio-political tensions are bubbling in part because people’s economic hardships are being either muted or mollified. Increased trade requires larger government. Trade liberalization, moreover, unequally distributes the gains, so the prototypical blue-collar worker who loses his job or is stuck doing menial work is typically worse off. To rectify this effect, some sort of government action occurs, either with different forms of intervention or by already-existing welfare programs that only fix them at a surface level.
But instead of considering that a market-centered society might have played a part in elevating the need for the welfare state, we like to say that the problems plaguing America’s poor, for example, are not financial at their core: They are the result of a moral and spiritual deprivation, where people don’t prioritize the value of unified families, communities, and faith, which creates a cycle of poverty that no amount of government aid can alleviate, only exacerbate. All are true. Our failure to prioritize our communities over our economic and technological progress, however, has helped the wrong people appropriate and distort these issues in a way that is antithetical to free societies. These cultural gaps between the globalized world and quasi-globalized world have lingered long enough to come up today at an opportune or dangerous moment, depending on who you ask: When social justice issues and identity politics dictate the public discourse, and when socialism is gaining traction.
On the topic of globalization’s impact on moral and pecuniary poverty, the Brazilian geographer Milton Santos has offered up one of the best analyses. Sharing Minogue’s concerns, Santos described globalization as a fable that claims that the “all-consuming market” can be an economically homogenizing force. He believed that a quest for uniformity through globalization resulted in a less unified society, with the only visible increment in “the cult of consumerism” and dependence on the state. He wrote primarily with the experience of the Third World, but generalized his research to needy communities in general.
Santos was fascinated by theories and philosophies of history. Globalization, as he defined it, was the combination of a new system of “techniques” (technological development) and politics along a historical progression. When Kant said that history is a progress without end, Santos expanded this statement, adding that history is also “an endless progress of techniques.” With each technical evolution, a new historical phase becomes possible. According to Santos, the first phase was the international division of labor that was strengthened by the emergence of a metropolitan, legislative superstructure coming mainly from the West; the second was a post-industrial revolution phase where urban areas capitalized on their geographic positions by developing land and maritime transport to facilitate “large-scale metropolitan capital accumulation”; finally, Santos called the third phase a “revolution in consumption” that encouraged rapid industrialization in underdeveloped places.
Cities were first affected by urban poverty when new issues with housing, employment, marginality, migration, and over-crowding became too large to handle. Beyond cities, however, globalization made it so that “neutral spaces,” as Santos called them, were drawn into the orbit of “operational space” in cities—that is, space focused on production and consumption. The problem for rural towns is that globalization diffuses the innovation “from a polar region to a peripheral, subordinate region, and/or from an anterior historical period to a subsequent one.” Polar regions (developed areas), in other words, speed up the change of progress in peripheral region (underdeveloped areas). Globalization thus presented underdeveloped places with a jaded form of historical progression: Their socio-economic evolution depended on how and when they first felt the pressure of globalization, not the natural growth of it.
Globalization first polarized people in terms of class and economic gains, before the current phenomenon we are witnessing with technological polarization. Santos’ training as a geographer led him to focus on the spatial implications of globalization in several underdeveloped countries, which is why his critiques are tied to city development. But his views on the issue remained social in essence; he understood that the ways in which places are organized and designed have a direct influence on people’s perception of their place in society. He believed that globalization was corroding the fundamental opposition between the consumer and the citizen by putting him in an environment where consumerism reigns and citizenship is viewed as outdated. Civic participation has little sway when individuals don’t see that their governments are working for them. Instead, the possibility and future prospects of a continued full citizenship depend on locally sought solutions, Santos argued, lest we allow production and consumption to become the new citizenship.
All critiques aside, no conclusion on globalization can be made without the indispensable qualification that recognizes its benefits, its inevitability, and its irreversibility. Helping other nations is essential and noble. A certain dose of globalization has been beneficial and improved the health, education, and wealth of many societies. These achievements are a testament to the human innovation possible by free market systems under free societies. The danger comes when we stop believing in the plural form of these enterprises and seek to make them one global enterprise. An underlying premise of the spontaneous order that our market system prides itself upon is that plurality is natural, good, and necessary for innovation and exchange. But plurality can only be sustained through the protection of the local ties that motivate people to develop and preserve their particular milieu.
To take this claim another step further, and make one final packaging metaphor, multiplicity cannot survive without nation-states generally construed as the best covers for the many pages of our varied and unique cultures and histories. The problem with globalization and our social anomie, then, lies in globalization’s effect on the civic psyche: It is removing our connection with our land, which, in turn is having palpable effects on our national solidarity—our obligation to our neighbors and our communities, which should always take priority if we are truly to experience and learn the impact of our beliefs. Globalization is asking us to choose between preserving our multitude of cultures or embrace multiculturalism. The latter is only a pastiche.
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 James Burnham, The Managerial Revolution, (Harmondsworth: 1942). p. 18.
 Ibid. p. 16.
 Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, (New York: 1993), p. 120.
 Michael Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, (New York: 2012) p. 10-12.
 David Held and Anthony McGrew, Globalization/Anti-Globalization, (Cambridge: 2002). p. 6.
 Milton Santos, Towards An Other Globalization: From a Single Thought to Universal Conscience, (Cham: 2017), p. 2-3.
 Ibid., p.
 Milton Santos, The Shared Space, (London: 1979), pp. 13-14.
 Ibid., p. 12.
The featured image is “Vanitas Still Life With Books, a Globe, a Violin and a Fan” (c. 1650) by Jan Davidszoon de Heem (1606-1683), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.