New Empires, New Anti-Empires

‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change’, Prince Tancredi, in Il Gattopardo (1958),

Giuseppe T. di Lampedusa.

‘Empires everywhere, it seems, are on the move again’, writes Alison Caddick in Arena Magazine 96. That ‘big old world’ is still at it, and still guided by ‘hubristic notions of progress and supremacist nationalism’. Globalisation and global warming provide a new theatre for the old brutes, who continue to hog the centre stage as of right, shouting the old slogans louder than those quieter, smaller actors who have increasingly come out from the wings to occupy United Nations space: minorities, dwarf-nations and states like Singapore and East Timor, no-hope out-backs like Tibet, edge-lands like West Papua, reanimated fossils like Scotland and the Basque country.

For God’s sake — what can such pip-squeaks expect, in a globality so evidently configured by and for the big lads? As Caddick puts it, the reborn superpowers naturally seek to maintain ‘a way of life built on unsustainable economic and environmental assumptions … [and] cultural mores associated with the spread of a contagious form of high-tech capitalism’. When it suits them they are entitled to ‘put the clock back’, as Umberto Eco puts it in his new book of that title, with votes where possible (as in India), or by authoritarian means if not (as in China). What they really count on, she suggests, is popular feeling: ‘an exercise of power over actions and desire’, furnished of course by what Eco describes so accurately as ‘media populism’. The proverbial ‘small guy’ (and small nation-state) has no real option but to tag along and make the best of it. Tiddle-pots may sometimes choose sides, but are not allowed a side of their own.

Nor should they have that option, on one influential interpretation of events. The matter has been debated recently in Foreign Affairs, following Jerry Muller’s article in their March–April 2008 issue ‘Us and Them’. In the current issue the question is summed up by none other than Condoleeza Rice. Entitled (yep) ‘The New American Realism’, George Dubya’s Secretary of State is kind enough to add an explanatory subtitle: ‘Rethinking the National Interest’. In years to come (whoever wins in November) the latter must go on being guided by ‘this uniquely American realism’. Unique? It looks awfully like the Great-Chinese and Great-Russian realism that recent events have disclosed. After Iraq and Afghanistan have come Tibet and Georgia. ‘Responsibility’ accompanies ‘stability’ in all these national-interest justifications. Globalisation is fine, but cannot be allowed to upset things.

An academic team has been assembled to back Rice up. Their aim is reinforcement of centre-stage, loud-voice nationalism: ‘responsible’ big-lad politics, in fact. The vanguard is a Harvard–UCLA Sturmabteilung captained by Richard Rosecrance and Arthur Stein, co-authors of No More States? Globalization, National Self-determination and Terrorism (2006). Their message is that ‘apostles of national-self-determination would do well to consider a still more important trend: the return to bigness in the international system’ (Foreign Affairs, vol. 87 no. 4). Some idea of what this implies can be glimpsed in another astonishing essay from the same issue: C. Fred Bergsten’s ‘A Partnership of Equals’, which entreats Chinese leaders to stop being so modest, and turn into international Big Lads with whom Condoleeza can make deals, even alliances. Hey, Beijing, stoke up all that hubris and supremacism, time you joined the club: didn’t you know that economic power entitles you to being a bigness-bully?

Not so long ago, I doubt if Foreign Affairs could have published such rantings. But now there’s something in the air, as Caddick recognises. In the mill-race of globalisation, the previously unthinkable now gets tossed up like this almost every day, casually claiming normality: back-room fantasies, foregrounded as ‘speculation’. The deeper moving impulse behind the No More States? team is simply Great-American nationalism, more often glimpsed in weekend drag these days, as ‘neoconservatism’. However, McCain and Palin are working on a full dress musical revival for the coming Presidential elections.

Naturally, returning to bigness can be seen as favoring the old baton-wielder, the United States of America. But the point is, the latter is also favored by the new conjuncture. As Caddick puts it: ‘The strongest element in this depressing scenario is a common interest shared by these competing empires’. It’s what they jointly perceive as stability and continuity, and holding the clock hands firmly back. Condoleeza Rice’s ‘realism’ is simply an acknowledgement that, good as it was being the superpower, this couldn’t go on for ever. However, much may yet be saved via formal or tacit understandings among suitable ‘equals’. The resultant common interest leaves enough space (for example) to Barack Obama’s notion of the United States returning to ‘inspire’ the globe and renew the leadership beacon. ‘Hegemony’ is the new buzzword here: a fuzzy concoction counting on small fry to colonise themselves, by seeking guidance, collegiate support, orientation conferences and so on.

But surely Caddick’s analysis may be interpreted as pointing also to something more significant, way beyond such compromises. A growing number of people and states in the new global times have no wish to hegemonise themselves, do not long for an eventide beacon, or thirst for inspiration from the City on the Hill. ‘For God’s sake, leave us alone!’ may convey their attitude more accurately. I think quite a few of them resent having been made to feel, six months in advance, that an election where they have no say is, none the less, important enough to make them take sides. This isn’t internationalism. It’s more like unilateralism off its hinges, still pretending to be the only show in town. That there’s more than one unilateralist around — a unilateralist gang, as it were — is no consolation: the streets are even less safe than before.

So what’s the answer? In the decorous language of international relations it’s called ‘multilateralism’ — coined in French, not by chance, as le multilatéralisme. Small guys can defend themselves only by sticking together, and working out their own common interests as a kind of trade union. In the appropriate wider sense, democracy and equality are on their side, not with the City-on-the-Hill kids. The latter want protection money and obeisance (for which of course neoliberalism was the ideal missionary church). Multilateralism calls for something different: initially more modest but ultimately stronger, and more durable.

As for the big-lad populations, I quoted the most famous elegy for a dying culture above, from Colquhoun’s 1960 translation of The Leopard. But the original was slightly more eloquent: what Tancredi said was ‘bisogna che tutto cambi’ — everything, every single thing, has to change. I doubt if Count Lampedusa was looking ahead to globalisation, in 1958, but that’s how it has turned out: like it or not, ‘everything’ and everyone has got involved. And for that very reason, more breathing-space is urgently needed to make the global deal more tolerable. No doubt this is true for big-shot masses as well — but then, that’s the real point: it’s their problem, not ours. They are just nation-states like the rest us, if somewhat weighed down by their ridiculous scale. Would a short cure of ‘isolationism’ really be all that bad?

‘Globalisation’, by contrast, has to mean more differentiation, and substantial rather than formal respect for diversity. This is why Kevin Rudd’s theme of ‘middle-range’ policy and ambition could be so important. He has returned to the idea often enough, since his Lowy Institute address in 2007, and it must be hoped he really means it. David McKnight commented on the trend, pointing out how it represents a rejection not just of neoliberal mania but of the latter’s intellectual basis in the earlier work of Friedrich von Hayek. We may be entering an ideal, and rather prolonged, moment for movement in that direction. Having been disabused of state-led, short-cut socialism in 1989, electorates have now been even more thoroughly disenchanted by the collapse of its contrary, the weird right-wing ‘historical materialism’ of marketolatry and deregulated enterprise. Hayek always urged the Right to imitate the Left in seizing and publicising power, and was rewarded with disastrous success in the 1990s. However, part of that mimesis has continued on into its latter days: the ideological foundering of the Right has now followed (and may well exceed) that of the Cold War Left.

We don’t know how long this disarray will last. In his history of the 1929 Great Crash, J. K. Galbraith points out that about five years passed after the worst moment in 1931–32. Not until 1938 can one find ‘the leaders of the original shock troops (of the New Deal) polishing up speeches on the virtues of the free enterprise system’, satisfied that all that was possible on the public side had been done. George Soros thinks we are not yet at the worst point of system failure. But whoever is right on this, it seems reasonable to hope that, this time round, the disorientation is more fertile.

Rudd’s government had the good fortune to take office in its early phases — the contrary of Brown’s faltering Labour Party regime in Britain, originally set up all too close to the ’90s high tide of neo-liberal exaggeration and optimism. Carried forward on the latter, Blair and Brown felt compelled to focus on the futile business of remaining ‘Great’: the tradition of a once major state that finds it very hard to embrace middle-range identity and aspirations. Instead, it has clung to a Special Relationship that was in truth concealed prostration and camp-following. In other words, the United Kingdom. has consistently chosen the opposite of Rudd’s proposed modesty and co-operative initiatives.

And yet — ‘Never has there been a better opportunity to strike a new social contract between private capital and the people’, wrote Scottish commentator Iain Macwhirter in the Sunday Herald recently (21 September). British Labour seems incapable of making the case. Is there any hope that Australian Labor can do better? ‘Looking at the wreckage wrought by unrestrained greed during the boom years (Macwhirter continues) this should be a great time for a social democratic party like Labour — an opportunity to reaffirm its fundamental values. The people who should be on the defensive are the free-market Conservatives and their friends in the City who have brought us to this state thanks to their bonus culture and predatory lending. All those neo-liberal nostrums about the evils of government intervention have been swept aside as financiers fall over themselves to get state subsidies … ’ Socialism for the banks, as it were, in the service of saving face — Britain’s ‘world role’ — and keeping up with Caddick’s empires on the rebound.

Isn’t this also a new context for the argument on republicanism? Now that a convinced republican has become leader of the Liberals, the case is bound to be re-opened anyway. But the wider republican tradition has always been about more than doing away with monarchy: it embodies a positive drive as well — the reconstitution of collective will and ambition, a reformation of identity and belonging. As Caddick put it, in ordinary (‘middle-range’) states, ‘for ordinary people the struggle and strategy will have to take a different form …’ one that no longer denies ‘more subterranean channels of cultural identity and social meaning’. Wasn’t that a part of Rudd’s great apology to the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, and of the extraordinary emotion it generated? She’s right: the well-springs are there, and calling for more than exploded formulae and time-worn rules.

Tom Nairn is research professor at the Globalism Institute at RMIT University.

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