A Choice We’re Making, by Hari Kunzru

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Adjust

On May Day 2000, I participated in a “guerrilla gardening” action in London, digging up Parliament Square to plant crops. It was a utopian gesture—one of many made in those years by people opposed to the so-called Washington consensus—intended to reveal a glimpse of the beach beneath the street. I remember watching a man shin up a statue of Winston Churchill with a strip of turf and drape it over the old boy’s head to give him a mohawk. Shorn of political context, the image now appears on postcards.

Deep ecology, localism, and opposition to genetically modified food were and still are sometimes associated with a story about natural order threatened by unnatural forces. As the son of an immigrant, working as a freelance technology journalist, I had little interest in back-to-the-land nativism. I carried no intellectual torch for the “natural,” which seemed to me a marketing word, slippery and prone to misuse. All the same I could feel that the culture around me was shifting, that instead of a citizen nurtured from the cradle to the grave, I was expected to be an entrepreneur of the self, striving to respond to market signals. Orthodox opinion held that anything impeding the efficient transmission and reception of those signals was backward and had to be removed. Forms of life that had profound meanings for their participants were to be sacrificed in the name of a capitalist apotheosis, a global market in which we would all engage, blissfully free of non-economic desires and attachments. This seemed to me a sinister kind of perfection.

Precarity and stress were the visible signs of what we were just learning to call neoliberalism, an ideology that for many years I thought of as purely disintegrative, the acid of financialization eating into the social body. Recently, while reading Globalists, Quinn Slobodian’s history of the subject, I began to appreciate the extent to which neoliberalism has also been an institution-building project. Though it seeks deregulation at a national level, the movement has tried to create regulation at the global level, in the form of an economic framework that insulates the market from what its adherents see as its greatest enemy: democracy.

As first articulated in the middle of the last century by economic philosophers such as Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, the neoliberal agenda never aimed to “unfetter” the market, as if it were some Promethean agent separate from human affairs. Neoliberals have always understood the market as a global set of relationships that they want to protect by redesigning laws and institutions—and even states—to prevent the “politicization” of economic decisions. The ideal is pure technocracy. The hyper-rationality of the price signals that emerge from a perfectly noiseless market has to be insulated from the irrational clamor of popular sentiment.

“For the liberal,” Mises wrote, “the world does not end at the borders of the state. . . . His political thinking encompasses the whole of mankind.” During neoliberalism’s confident prime, instituting any kind of tariff or trade barrier was seen as tantamount to seceding from the global community. The most egregious form of democratic irrationality was state redistribution, and the ultimate sin was planning, a hubristic activity that subjected the market’s sublime unknowability to the crude limitations of human foresight.

While the protests of the Nineties expressed a growing discontent with this order, neoliberalism’s prestige was ultimately shattered by two things: the Bush Administration’s disastrous attempt at nation building in Iraq and the 2008 financial crisis. When the carelessness and greed of the global financial system’s architects was exposed, it destroyed the carefully nurtured image of a cadre of experts steering a depoliticized global economy for the common good. The failure to impose a set of market-friendly institutions via military occupation was a lesson in the stubborn persistence of the politics of the demos. What was scornfully dismissed as tribalism propelled a violent revolt against what the founders of the conservative think tank the Project for the New American Century termed a “benevolent global hegemony.”

News of this hegemony’s collapse would have caused cheers among my fellow guerrilla gardeners. But even as I helped to plant tomato seedlings in front of the Houses of Parliament, I was aware that my reasons for being there—an idealistic belief in horizontal organization, an internationalist wish to show solidarity with those who were being left behind by globalization—did not necessarily align with those of the protesters around me, who wanted no part of globalization at all. I was against globalization as structured by neoliberal technocrats, but I wanted to substitute some other kind. If you’d asked me what that meant, I would have used phrases like “bottom-up” or “from below” and talked about the emergent power of networks.

I’d come into political consciousness in the last years of the Cold War amid a growing sentiment that global divisions were anachronistic, and that unless we overcame them the planet would be destroyed. Left or right, cynical or naïve, we all aspired to be global. “We Are the World,” sang a motley collection of wealthy pop stars on the 1985 charity record whose saccharine wish for unity raised $63 million for humanitarian aid in Africa. It felt inescapable, its message about the planet coming together as one on heavy rotation on every radio station.

The invisibility of what was then still referred to as the Third World was a problem, but it seemed less intractable than the great binary that defined our lives, the two nuclear-armed blocs led by elderly men who—from the vantage point of a teen who feared that he would not make it to adulthood—appeared to be gripped by a kind of bellicose madness. As I fretted about nuclear winter and Chernobyl fallout, another flavor of internationalism was filtering across from the mirror world in the form of children’s animations about communal gardens and posters of workers clasping hands. In mid-Eighties Britain, there was a fashion for early Soviet chic. Graphic designers rediscovered Russian Futurism and bands dressed up as Red Army soldiers. Cheap tin pins were sold in street markets, allowing fashionable kids to accessorize backpacks and jackets with totalitarian trinkets. It wasn’t that we didn’t know about the gulag, or were committed communists, more that wearing the tribal colors of the “other side” signaled an inchoate desire to reject the inherited logic of the Cold War. Figures of this desire were everywhere. Multiracial groups of models were used to sell Italian knitwear, while the famous “blue marble” photo of Earth taken from Apollo 17 adorned the posters of environmental charities.

Almost forty years later, “globalist” has become the insult of choice for a new breed of nationalist conservatives. Populist leaders dismiss a sentiment that once seemed so universal as to be almost beyond politics. During the 2016 election campaign, Donald Trump characterized the choice as one between “Americanism” and “corrupt globalism.” As president, he told the UN General Assembly that “the future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots.” In an early case of palace intrigue, Trump’s first director of the National Economic Council, the former Goldman Sachs banker Gary Cohn, resigned after a protracted power struggle with Steve Bannon, whose contingent reportedly nicknamed him “globalist Gary.”

This reactionary rhetoric isn’t just American. It is, well, global. Jair Bolsonaro promises to put “Brazil above all else.” The Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has called on the European Parliament to “reject the ideology of globalism, and instead support the culture of patriotism.” Vladimir Putin characterized Russians who opposed his invasion of Ukraine as a “fifth column” and “traitors . . . those who earn their money here, but live over there. Live, not in the geographical sense, but in the sense of their thoughts, their slavish thinking.” The Russian people would, he assured his audience, “always be able to distinguish the true patriots.”

It’s safe to say that Lionel Richie did not anticipate this. Globalism names an ideology that populists ascribe to the so-called Davos class, an international elite that they accuse of attempting to destroy national sovereignty and cultural particularity in the name of profit. They have a point. In the Eighties, as United Colors of Benetton marketed the fantasy of interracial après-ski, the International Monetary Fund began to make loans conditional on what was euphemistically termed “structural adjustment,” cutting budgets and opening markets to foreign capital. In many countries that received IMF loans, short-term economic growth was purchased at the cost of environmental degradation, the destruction of social provisions and local industries, and crippling debt that left them politically unstable and vulnerable to predatory investors. Workers in deindustrializing countries who were seeing manufacturing jobs go overseas experienced their own shocks as the social safety net was dismantled and the industrial-era division of labor in the home, between a male breadwinner and a female housewife, began to erode, producing both opportunity and uncertainty. Once the political binary of the Cold War had been transcended, what emerged felt less like global unity than transnational discipline, exerted by entities that seemed remote and inaccessible, indifferent to the aspirations and hardships of working people.

The massive upward transfer of wealth during the pandemic has perhaps been the last nail in the coffin of end-of-history neoliberalism. It’s not that internationalist liberal technocracy has been relegated to the past. The desire for an end to political contestation is a strong (and to some degree understandable) contemporary current. It’s that the space of the apolitical has shrunk. American billionaires have, according to recent figures, gotten 58 percent richer since the pandemic’s start. The idea that this is the market functioning free of the distortions of politics seems laughable. The distribution of wealth is the political problem par excellence, and though certain aging leaders may be nostalgic for the market-based solutions of the go-go Nineties, the splintering of the elite neoliberal consensus (that is, the consensus that certain things should be settled privately among elite neoliberals) will not be reversed.

The antiglobalization protests of the Nineties were largely a phenomenon of the left, though certain currents that ran through them also led rightward. The understanding of globalization as an evil force—placeless, technical, and without strong connections to the earth—could be easily grafted onto religious notions about sexuality, race, and patriarchal authority. Taking these together, you begin to sketch the coordinates of today’s right-wing antiglobalism.

The Republican Party has long relied on an uneasy fusion between two fundamentally different tendencies, a coalition that Trumpism has shattered. On one side, neoliberals believe that the United States should be engaged internationally, shaping the world in its image through the power of the dollar. On the other, Christian traditionalists define themselves against a diabolical adversary and look to a strong national government as the enforcer of their sexual, racial, and religious codes. American nativism has long gone hand in hand with a hostility to international engagement. “America First” was, of course, a slogan popularized by Charles Lindbergh, who tried to support Nazi Germany by keeping America out of World War II.

The antiglobalism that has swept the Wall Street faction out of power in recent years owes as much to the back-to-the-land dreams of baby boomers as it does to evangelical churches, but it is rooted in a conspiratorial tradition that sees international institutions as tools of a sinister new world order. As far back as the Sixties, a cottage industry of books pointed at the United Nations as a front for totalitarian world government. By the Nineties, Pat Robertson could get onto the New York Times bestseller list with a garbled account of a conspiracy involving the Freemasons, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Trilateral Commission.

Unsurprisingly, anti-Semitism is a notable ingredient in this soup of ideas. When Ann Coulter tweets that a CNN journalist with Jewish heritage is “half Globalist” or Marjorie Taylor Greene shares her theories about Black Lives Matter protesters taking Soros money, they are invoking old tropes about rootless cosmopolitans and international bankers whose loyalty isn’t to the nation or the people but to a shadowy cabal overseas.

On the surface, it seems bizarre that the billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel is one of the most enthusiastic shills for the new antiglobalism. Addressing the 2021 National Conservatism Conference, he said that “we think of nationalism as a corrective to the sort of homogenizing brain-dead one-world state.” He also gave a keynote at Bitcoin 2022, throwing out hundred-dollar bills, mocking Jamie Dimon and other titans of TradFi, and presenting cryptocurrencies as an insurrectionary force. The logic of this impossible fusion of nationalism and code-is-law libertarianism heads in the direction of the exit—from international institutions, the U.S. federal government, and perhaps even the public sphere itself. For people like Thiel, far removed from the “ordinary Americans” whose interests they claim to represent, the point is not to make the machine work, but to shake it apart and grab whatever opportunities fall out. Instead of a world order, a patchwork of competing fiefdoms. Instead of sublime rationality, the madness of crowds.

So is another world possible? Can you be a globalist without being a cuck for the Davos class? Nationalists wrap themselves in flags and warn of a one-world state, but some problems really are unavoidably global: climate change, pollution, pandemics. Under the current dispensation, some priorities are considered technical, walled off from democratic control. Others are political, part of the hubbub outside. There’s no reason those priorities should not be redefined. What if environmental costs were not abstracted away as externalities, if the plumbing of the international financial system were redesigned to circulate money through different channels, if offshore tax havens were shut down, sending billions of dollars toward infrastructure and social programs?

As the design theorist Benjamin Bratton puts it in The Revenge of the Real, a book about global governance during the pandemic, “It is necessary for a society to be able to sense, model, and act back upon itself, and it is necessary for it to plan and provide for the care of its people.” Pace Hayek, networked wisdom does not preclude planning. It does not preclude setting goals or changing them. We just need to remember that this is something we can do.


More from