In Errol Morris’s new documentary, American Dharma, Morris asks Steve Bannon — former executive chairman of Breitbart News, mastermind of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential victory, and subject of the film — if he could pinpoint a defining moment in the crystallization of his political worldview. Pondering the question, Bannon recalls a visit to West Point sometime in the aughts, when his oldest daughter was a cadet there and a member of the volleyball team. Stopping by her practice one day, Bannon says he saw a stack of boxes that contained the team’s new uniforms. Pulling one out he noticed, to his horror, that the uniform had been made in Vietnam.
That his daughter’s army jersey should have been made in Vietnam — a country where thousands of American soldiers had died — was apparently more than Bannon could bear. It reeked of “globalism” — Bannon’s explanation for everything wrong with the world today.
For Bannon globalism encapsulates the worldview of an international elite — the “Party of Davos” — that has lost its way. Instead of the Judeo-Christian principles of piety, thrift, and national pride that purportedly once guided Western capitalism, Bannon sees a world run by a cabal of crony capitalists obsessed with quarterly returns and share prices. The result, Bannon contends, is an alienated working class ready to explode.
New York Times columnist David Brooks professes a similar dislike of globalists, “whose hearts have been bleached of the particular love of place.” Like Bannon he calls for a renewed spirit of nationalism to combat the pervasive sense of hopelessness and anger in America today: “People begin to feel that the injustices in American society are the whole and there is no hope of redemption. They get the urge to burn everything down.”
Coincidentally, American Dharma itself ends with a mighty conflagration — Morris’s ironic demonstration of Bannon’s eagerness to set fire to the establishment. Indeed, the urges of men like Bannon are the stuff of nightmares for centrists who want to preserve rather than dismantle, and who have profited handsomely from the post–Cold War status quo. They warn about the dangers of abandoning liberal internationalism or, as the body of ideas that has defined the Western political consensus since the 1990s is often called, globalization.
For decades Third Way advocates held up globalization as humanity’s evolution beyond the crude errors of Keynesianism. With free trade and free markets, boats would be raised, knowledge and technology would blossom, poverty and corruption would be innovated away, and profits would trickle down.
The Left was quick to challenge the globalization fantasy. Before globalism became the epithet du jour, there were two schools of criticism of globalization: the globalization skeptics and the anti-globalization movement.
The globalization skeptics, writing in the 1990s and early 2000s, questioned the veracity of claims that the state was shriveling, that production had become truly globally integrated, and that cultures were homogenizing. Skeptics argued that the state remained a dominant force in shaping the terrain of global capitalism and that corporations were not as footloose and fancy-free as they professed. They emphasized that globalization was a political project, not an implacable force of nature, and as such, could be challenged and shaped by social movements.
In this the skeptics intersected with the loosely defined anti-globalization movement, comprised of groups who were perhaps less skeptical of the reality of globalization but considerably more forceful in their disavowal of its processes and effects. The last decade of the twentieth century saw fierce battles in cities across the globe as grassroots activists North and South tried to disrupt the workings of the Washington Consensus.
But the centrists retained the upper hand. September 11 and the second Bush administration’s War on Terror pulled the rug out from under the burgeoning anti-globalization movement. In the United States many leftists turned their energies toward anti-war work and mobilizing against the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant turn of law enforcement. Fighting globalization took a back seat.
After the 2008 financial crisis the notion of the global returned to the popular imagination. But critique of the globalization project became shaped by the Right more than the Left. Anti-globalization gave way to anti-globalism — a worldview with a very different politics.
Anti-globalization movements emphasized justice and equity for all. Grassroots organizations championed food sovereignty, workers’ rights, and an end to sweatshops. They organized around the rights of migrants and indigenous peoples and demanded that corporations be held accountable for their abuses against people and the environment.
Anti-globalism, while it also denounces the elite status quo, is grounded in an aggressive nationalism that views migrants, Muslims, and progressives as the problem. Instead of highlighting the inherent contradictions of global capitalism, anti-globalists want to build a wall around America, imagining that if we expel or repress the “undesirables” we’ll be able to rebuild a Judeo-Christian capitalist paradise of white picket fences and jobs in the local manufacturing plant. The specter of globalism has spawned a right-wing fantasy even more dangerous than the centrist globalization project.
No doubt the problems identified by the anti-globalization movement persist. In fact, they’ve worsened, compounded by a profound popular distrust of institutions amid the inaction and inefficacy of governments, corporations, and big NGOs on issues of environmental destruction, poverty, and inequality. But the vision of an alternative to neoliberal globalization is being shaped by the wrong ideas — ideas rooted in hate and exclusion.
The answer is not a return to anti-globalization, however. We need a vision of the global that moves beyond negation and constructs a positive left agenda — linking strong, grounded social movements with a concrete international program for solidarity and justice.