As mentioned in one of my previous posts, I’ve started to participate in a discussion group around topics that are relevant to society. We recently had our first conversation and it was centered on globalization and the rising tide of nationalism. This is both a summary of the conversation and some additional thoughts from me. I know you’re considering whether you want to spend brainpower reading another intellectual post, but I’ve tried to make this interesting enough so join along.
Note that this is not meant to be an authoritative piece on the topic – a lot of the views follow conjectures that are extended from what we see in the news, read in books and articles as well as witness from conversations we have in our circles. These don’t negate the validity of our views, they simply require more rigorous research for actual verification. We did use some resources as starting/additional material and I wanted to invite you to check them out with us.
- League of Nationalists
- Quora on Globalisation
- Power of Populists
- For Third Culture Kids, Travel is Home
- Fuck Chineseness: On the ambiguities of ethnicity as culture as identity
The conversation can be divided into two main sub-discussions – the first on the Polito-economic debate and the second on the cultural debate.
Let’s look at the Polito-Economic portion first:
It probably is worth noting that globalization was popularly more of an economic concept than anything else. We know the basics: countries produce on their comparative advantage, overall production increases, global costs lower and everyone ends up happier. Of course, we also know this isn’t completely true. But economics is always in bed with politics and so too, in this case, has globalization seen so much more exacerbation of its forces with the wavering will of politicians and bureaucrats.
Political institutions are the focus here. Firstly because of what they do and second because of what they don’t. Global trade and commerce aren’t new – we’ve had empires and trade routes since some of the earliest of societies. What is relatively new is the emergence of a plethora of global institutions such as the UN, WTO, IMF, EU etc and the manner in which nations interface with them. Globalization as an economic concept has been a long time coming, and as a member of our group said:
Debating globalization is debating the inevitable
So what should we debate then? Well there are some real pains out there:
- Economically uncompetitive jobs in developed countries are being lost to developing countries
- Rapid emergence of low cost and primary/secondary economic activities in developing countries are causing labor exploitation and environmental degradation
- Retraining isn’t happening nearly as fast enough around the world to catch up to technological advances and job losses
- etc. etc.
Here we find some truth to the argument for nationalism. Countries have lost their ability to determine their futures by themselves. For the longest time, aside from the occasional war/invasion/diplomatic mission, domestic policy was the only policy to care about. Even then, the only wars you had to fight were the ones you had an actual stake in – as in, you had to protect something of your own such as your border, people or asset. But now, with the intertwining of national and global agendas under the umbrella of global cooperation, we have global institutions that are mostly run by unelected officials taking over ownership of some policy topics. Environmental preservation, free trade, international peacekeeping and many others may have used to be a concern of national governments but now are law of the land under global institutions. But here’s the catch – countries get pressured to sign a lot of these agreements – a lot of times not because of moralistic agendas but ultimately economic and political strategy. These coalitions and policies take years to discuss and are in no way a small feat, but are ultimately answerable to only the politicians that sign it, not the citizens of the countries that are pulled into it. You could argue that your vote for your politician is by proxy a vote for the international support, but many a time these international deals are swung hard and fast between election seasons to manage the costs of disapproval. Politicians and bureaucrats hardly manage the impact of some of these policies on their own citizens.
So there’s a moralistic question here. Is this necessarily a bad thing? The ‘nationalists’ argue that their wages are depressed and their lives are of a lower standard but they vote for the nationalist candidate not because he necessarily promises them a better life, but because he promises them control over their destinies again. No longer can the private citizen in the US feel that his fate is determined by the cosmopolitan will of a Singaporean minister. But is that really going to happen? No matter whether we like it or not, global institutions have become hard-coded into our political machines to the point that its place is certain. Until another global crisis perhaps.
What could be an interesting thought though, is that countries that do end up taking advantage of globalization end up ‘winning’ and the countries that don’t do so end up ‘losing’, shifting the list of developed and developing countries again. This constant flux of economic powers in the world is something that we’ve seen before in history. In 50 years, if the US continues on its nationalistic path, would it perhaps be considered a ‘developing country’ because it isn’t economically competitive as a complete nation anymore. I don’t know the answer and won’t try to navel-gaze but it really is an interesting thought.
We ended the polito-economic portion of this debate here, but I have a personal addendum. Modern society really isn’t that old. We like to speak in terms of economic values and traditions and the way things used to be, but none of these things were entrenched in humanity for too long before making way for new values and traditions. In the Quora link above, there is a conversation on the Transformationalist school of thought in globalization conversations. This school believes that while nation states are stuck in between this struggle of satisfying domestic voters and achieving global goals, it is time for citizens all around the world to recognize that it is time to give up some political clout to global institutions so that world problems can actually start being solved quickly. Global warming is scarily advancing and we’re spending more time bickering rather than creating change.
Theresa May recently stated
But, if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.
But I truly wonder if it could also mean that you are a citizen of everywhere. Citizenship like most constructs we’ve lived with can take on new meaning in changing contexts if current meanings don’t do well enough. I’m still exploring this idea because I understand the implications. Sovereignty is a beautiful privilege that we must always fight to preserve, and the idea of loosening that is potentially a slippery slope. But I don’t think we’ve given the space enough room to grow. That could be interesting.
We then moved on to talk about culture:
This is also a good time to segue into our conversation on culture. One of the big components in globalization is the loosening of borders. Explicitly and economically, this allows labor to move freely to suit economic needs. More implicitly, this is also part of cultivating a connected world where traveling is much more commonplace and the understanding of other cultures contributes back to building a global mandate to protect our world.
Nationalists aren’t too supportive of that. They see the arrival of different kinds of people as diluting of local culture. “Go back where you came from” and “You have to learn to be like us” are common quips. I don’t want to reduce these arguments though so let’s expand some of these wider:
- We visit other countries for many reasons but culture is a big one. We visit India to see how the locals live and celebrate festivals such as Deepavali. We visit China to see how Confucian principles have shaped policies. We visit Peru to see what the Incans left behind and how their descendants grapple with their history. The dilution of culture is scary because we lose a lot of this ‘preciousness’. Diversity doesn’t necessarily promise plurality – especially if politics have to try to be ‘one size fits all’. It could cause blending instead.
- Friction does arise when groups from different cultures have to adapt to a new environment. But also when existing groups have to adapt to them. It goes both ways and it hurts each way.
- Adaptation has costs, and these costs are borne by taxpayers. While those who have grown up in a country know they will continue paying taxes for the rest of the life, the certainty of an immigrant setting down roots and being a contributing member of society is low and that’s a fair judgment.
So let’s tackle these. I do want to start with this though – a lot of these arguments assume a pure and stable initial state that is now undergoing change and shock to an impure and fluctuating state. But very few cultures are ‘pure’. The Irish love for potatoes couldn’t have existed if not for imports from South America. Australian coffee culture isn’t a thing without imported coffee beans because of its imperialism. Even the American sport of football is derived from rugby and soccer. It is an amalgamation of two different cultures. There is no purity.
Cultures are still ethnocentric and this is because history has always been biased towards the dominant narrative. While no country is ethnically homogeneous, it is the privileged who dictate the cultural hegemony. So when change is introduced and culture is once again caused to shift, what are we really fighting? Are we fighting the loss of a unique way of life or are we really fighting an unhealthy obsession with the notion of purity and tradition?
Cultures have evolved year on year, century on century in every part of the world as long as it has been open to people from the outside. Heck, even from people on the inside. Politicians love the buzzword though. It’s a sellable point – something that can unite and create stability. I get that – as someone in power, you don’t want unpredictability. Having a culture that benefits your agenda is crucial. So they use culture as a political tool to fight against immigration and an increase in diversity. Perhaps what’s more important is preparing generations for a culture that isn’t ethnocentric and is focussed on values rather than experiences. These are tough by so many standards, but they seem more robust. Someone in our discussion talked about having an overarching culture that is easier to buy into – such as capitalism. Everyone loves money so if we all just agree on that then perhaps we can all get along. I’m not too sure how far that one will go.
So there you have it, some interesting thoughts on some recent discussions. It’s very evident that I’m globalization-leaning in my arguments and that’s a result of both my background in Singapore (where we are fed globalization as baby food) and my left-leaning political beliefs. But I’m starting to understand the nationalistic argument in more believable forms now. There are legitimate concerns and issues and none of them are easily solvable. All my proposed solutions are far fetched, idealistic and require massive shifts in perspective. But that’s the world we live in, and we have to navigate that. If you know me, far fetched, idealistic and perspective shifting are some of my favorite fuelwords though, so I do hope to try to play my part in advancing the world in a better direction.
I’d love to hear your own thoughts on my post above. A lot of you have dropped my DMs in response to my previous posts so thank you for that, but do feel free to drop comments on the post too! I am more in favor of discovery and discussion than holding any particular world view at this point of my life – so your conversation will only help me and others grow.