Globalism, Nationalism and Neoliberal Capitalism
Updated: Apr 29, 2021
“You know, they have a word, it sort of became old-fashioned. It’s called a nationalist, And I say, ‘Really? We’re not supposed to use that word? You know what I am? I’m a nationalist. OK? I’m a nationalist.”
The post-cold-war embrace of a 'new internationalism' promised to usher in a global economic system that would eliminate barriers to the flow of capital and goods through new global institutions such as the World Economic Forum and the WTO, and a focus on trade agreements designed to eliminate protectionist subsidies and promote the interests of foreign investors. It was going to be good for everyone, they claimed.
At the time defenders of neoliberal capitalism promised that the new globalism would create a borderless world, and end the nation-state. Of course, that never happened precisely because neoliberalism is parasitic upon the existence of the nation-state. What did happen under the inevitably rigged system of globalism was the gutting of labour and environmental protections. The new corporate global elite was able, through wide-ranging free trade agreements like NAFTA, to gut labour rights and environmental protection rights. Powerful wealthy nations sought to unify the world through a political and economic system known as neoliberal corporate capitalism. Far from being enriched, the resistant poorer nations of the world were sanctioned and starved until they capitulated the logic of unregulated 'free-market' capitalism.
The new neoliberal globalism was, predictably, a crashing success for corporate elites and an utter disaster for everyone else. Then again, it was never designed to enrich the impoverished or bring the world together under a new politics of mutual recognition and pluralism. It was never meant to universalize an ethical commitment to environmental sustainability, peace and security, or a human rights-based system of international cooperation and collaboration. In fact, its express intention was to do away with social democracy, labour rights and environmental protections in order to put in its place a system made up of a cabal of global elites who were encouraged to enrich themselves while impoverishing the rest of humanity and wrecking the planet. It has been argued that globalism ended abruptly in 2008 as casino capitalists literally crashed economies around the world. Did it?
Well, if globalism means a world largely oriented through rigged free trade agreements and the interests of corporate financial elites, then definitely not. As long as globalism and international trade poses no threat to the continued accumulation of wealth and opulence for the few, it can be tolerated. Even better than globalism is nationalism. Yes, in nationalism there exists parochial exclusionary attitudes, growing intolerance, racism, xenophobia and a desire to reclaim the greatness of a mythic past. But strident nationalism and mindless patriotism also work hand in glove with neoliberal capitalism, because the latter thrives best not under social democracies or globalist conditions that might regulate and police its activities, but under autocratic nationalist rule.
As Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini proclaimed "we declare war against socialism, not because it is socialism, but because it has opposed nationalism". When challenged by those protesting the extreme wealth of the 1%, capitalism simply reorganized itself around rising nationalism. Instead of globalism and the cosmopolitan plutocrat, neoliberalism shifted allegiance back to the nation-state and reaped unprecedented profits, aided and abetted by a neoliberal nation-state that showered it with financial gifts in the form of subsidies and tax breaks, and protected it from encroaching protesters by enlisting the help of police and military forces.
The notion of capitalism as competition is actually anathema to neoliberal corporate capitalism simply because its modus operandi is monopoly and the unfettered accumulation of shareholder wealth. Indeed, neoliberal capitalism relies on national governments to deregulate industry, reduce government spending on public programs, provide corporations with subsidies, land and infrastructure and most importantly, protect them from being held responsible for any negative effects their businesses might have on citizens, the economy or the environment.
A truly globalized system of competing nations cannot do this. Nationalism and capitalism are thus two sides of the same coin. Instead of class or collective consciousness and workers’ rights, we are left with nationalist consciousness, the demise of unions, increased alienation, exploitation and atomisation of workers in gig jobs. The social unity generated through union brotherhood and solidarity is displaced by nationalist unity built on loyalty to a leader and hatred and exclusion of the immigrant other.
Through massive advertising and propaganda corporations put themselves forward as businesses that care about people, jobs and the creation of wealth in the national interest. But the irony is that they could care less about either people or the national interest. What they care about is keeping intact the idea that corporations are not beholden to the nation-state but are truly 'trans-national' entities having no obligation to workers, the environment or the priorities of any one nation-state. They have one and only one obligation: increased profit for the the individual shareholder. Neoliberal governments are fine with this state of affairs. That fact was perfectly demonstrated by the Trudeau government when it bailed out and bought the American owned Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline in order to ensure its expansion. Kinder Morgan wasn't about to hang around and lose money while the Canadian government got its act together. The buy-out was justified by Justin Trudeau as something that was ultimately in Canada’s 'national interest'.
The reality is that the social-Darwinist logic of pathological and nihilistic neoliberal capitalism is just at home in a rigged globalist, free-trade system, as it is within virulent, xenophobic far-right nationalism.