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At the heart of the study of sociology, one of the major themes that emerges is the tension between the individual and society. In our modern, hyperconnected world, the task of sociology in examining and articulating the various dimensions of this tension becomes all the more acute given the paradoxical effect of disjointedness and isolation that such connectedness can often create. At the dawn of the twentieth century, German sociologist Georg Simmel isolated the manifestation of this tension on the individual level:
The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of the historical heritage and the external culture and technique of life.
What Simmel appears to have identified is a problem that, when projected on a societal scale, has the potential to set into motion disruptive and latently violent social forces that portend political and economic upheaval. As the decades subsequent to Simmel’s above-quoted writing showed, the world became engulfed in two world wars and a global economic depression that forever altered the world we live in.
What are these social forces, and what political and economic phenomena stemming from Simmel’s “deepest of problems” set them into motion?
In our modern context, it would appear that these social forces have been unleashed by the ongoing tension between globalism and nationalism. The seemingly exponential pace of technology has been accompanied by the side-effect of increasing the world’s interconnectedness, making the world feel ever smaller, but at the same time leaving the individual often feeling isolated.
The advent of the telegram, telephone, and mass media culture of the early twentieth century increased the pace of global interconnectedness. The maturing of the internet in the twenty-first century likewise brings with it a new leap forward in global interconectedness. As these forces set the stage for a new wave of upheaval, it becomes ever clearer that society is once again merely a mass projection of the individual “deepest of problems”. Specifically, it raises the question of how individuals are supposed to reconcile their individuality – their place in this ever-shrinking world – with the shifting identity of the societies they live in. Two possible responses arise: to either embrace and productively channel this interconnectedness, or to raise walls and attempt to isolate oneself from its effects. In short, the choice between these two reponses is the choice between globalism, embodying the former option, and nationalism, embodying the latter option. This paper will briefly examine the political dimensions of the present conflict between embracing interconnectedness or rejecting it – between globalism and nationalism – arguing that the globalist approach serves as the most effective response because of its proven ability to improve cooperation, and create peaceful outcomes worldwide.
The remarkable transition of political discourse in U.S. towards nationalism in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election is one of many events that has cast into stark relief the need for a return to globalist policies in politics worldwide. Trump won an election campaigning on an overtly nationalist agenda: his “America First” rhetoric embraces a pessimistic worldview in which foreign affairs are a zero-sum game, where global interests compete with national ones, and where nations would be the wiser to erect physical, rhetorical, and ideological walls to keep the rest of the world out. During an April 2016 speech in Washington, Trump declared that “we will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism” In yet another speech, Trump stated that, “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo”. Thus, President Trump has made his rejection of globalism in favor of an inward-looking brand of nationalism abundantly clear. Such political developments do not happen in a vacuum: in Putin’s Russia, a there is a resurgent brand of nationalism steeped in Russian Orthodoxy and Slavic tradition gaining ground; in Erdogan’s Turkey, Islamic nationalism is on the rise under the AKP; in Modi’s India, Hindu nationalism is likewise consolidating its grip under the BJP; and in Poland and Hungary, the ruling political parties are openly embracing what they term to be “illiberal democracy” centered on ethnic nationalism. Even traditional centers of European globalism are falling victim to such insular brands of nationalism: the United Kingdom is reeling from a Brexit vote that was driven by “Britain-first” political factions stoking fears about foreign immigration and seemingly sinister powers in Brussels, Belgium, the European Union capital. Likewise Italy is currently ruled by anti-immigrant, overtly nationalist political parties bent on closing their borders to those seeking asylum across the Mediterranean. The overall picture in global politics is thus clear: globalist sentiments are giving way to nationalists worldwide who expressly reject the pro-immigrant, pro-inclusivity, and pro-interconnnectedness positions of globalism, choosing to pursue ethnocentric unilateral policies instead.
Despite the growing currency of nationalism in global politics, the idea that globalism is fundamentally flawed and impracticable is both false and misleading because its rejection of our increasing global interconnectedness only sets the stage for increased conflict among nations, societies, and cultures. The multilateral system of institutions, rules, and alliances created by America in the wake of World War II has underpinned global prosperity for seven decades precisely because it sought to embrace and constructively channel the growing forces of interconnectedness fueling globalization. Through the creation of the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the International Criminal Court, and the International Monetary Fund, the U.S. envisioned a world governed by a rules-based order so that it would never again fall victim to the dangerous forces of ethnic nationalism – forces that unleashed upon Europe and the rest of the world the dangerous, conflict-fueled ideologies of imperialism, authoritarianism, and totalitarianism. At the heart of the postwar, rules-based order the U.S. sought to create, there lies a basic sociologocial principle: that cooperation is more sensible than conflict. This elegantly simple yet profound principle entails that all humans should work together to protect their common values and advance their common interests where the movement of ideas, goods, people, and money across the globe is conducted under a shared institutional and legal framework. The only viable manner to make this vision a reality is to engage one’s neighbors on the political level, to strike agreements, and to work towards common, mutually beneficial goals. Embracing a nationalist wordview that prioritizes walls and zero-sum competition over cooperation is bound to fail in the achievement of peaceful outcomes because it encourages rivalry, and is therefore not viable.
Nationalists will argue that their approach does not rule out peaceful cooperation, envisioning a world composed of a network of “walled” but friendly fortresses with each protecting its unique ethno-cultural identity and interests but peacefully trading and cooperating. The problem with this argument is that this world envisioned by nationalists has been attempted before, and did not produce peaceful, cooperative outcomes. In fact, it is the sort of unhinged nationalism prevalent in past ages that introduced the world to imperial domination, colonialist exploitation, two world wars, the Great Depression, and the type of ethno-racial supremacy theories that made the Holocaust and Armenian Genocide possible. On the other hand, globalism embraces interconnectedness by breaking down political and economic barriers to transnational cooperation. As countries become more interconnected, they become more economically interdependent, which means they have all the more to economically lose from engaging in armed conflict with each other. In this elegantly simply fashion, globalism is able to defuse conflict before it even begins and disincentivize resorting to war as a policy tool. It is thus no coincidence that, since the U.S. began underwriting this postwar, rules-based cooperative international order, for the first time in human history, starvation kills fewer people than obesity, plagues kill fewer people than old age, and armed conflict kills fewer people than accidents. Globalism’s embrace and productive use of human interconnectedness has proven positive historical results.
In an age where the tension between the individual and society continues to become more acute, it is imperative that world powers to not yield to the growing appeal of nationalism as the framework for resolving this tension. The threats of nuclear war, global pandemics, climate change, and technological dispruption do not recognize national boundaries; rather, to combat them requires coordinated, collaborative, and cooperative international efforts. Retreating into the long-repudiated ideology of nationalism does not offer the viable option for such efforts. Globalism does because it is underpinned by a commitment to pluralism, the consolidation of democracy, the repudiation of empire, and a conception of global identity that encourages people to be loyal to humankind and to the planet earth in addition to one’s own country and heritage. For these reasons, this paper argues that the best solution to Simmel’s “deepest of problems” – a fundamentally sociological question – may be found in globalism, and not nationalism.
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