It’s got to be tough to be a proud veteran of N30. That’s the in-house term for the anti–World Trade Organization riots that thrilled and scandalized Seattle beginning on November 30, 1999, back when “globalization” was a fighting word. Black-clad self-described anarchists, in their dozens, tossing the odd brick for emphasis while denying that they threw Molotov cocktails, warned ceaselessly against a sinister cabal of bankers and elitists who were bent on . . . well . . . something bad. For the fringe Left, it was a glorious time filled with, if not passionate direct action, well-calculated performance. These days, Bernie Sanders helped the anti-WTO veterans and their admirers recall their heyday for a time. But now, as Sanders slides into the bland (but still controversial!) business of constructing the Democrats’ platform, Donald Trump is keeping the anti-globalization rhetoric alive. That has to gall the folks who think they got there first.
Inveighing against globalization is an effective political device. And like so much else in Trump’s rhetorical arsenal, it bothers little with the truth. On Tuesday, against a garish backdrop of metal waste in western Pennsylvania, Trump delivered a speech attacking our alleged “policy of globalization.” As always, this was said to be the noxious byproduct of loving capital more than country: or, as Trump put it, of a philosophical commitment to “globalism over Americanism.”
Many have pointed out that forging trade relations with other countries is not the same thing as ceding sovereignty to international bodies. If an American buys an air conditioner from Walmart, the product is the end of a long but efficient process running from manufacture through supply chain to endpoint consumer. The objective is to cool one’s room, not to demonstrate patriotism. But in Trump’s world, the act of shopping becomes no less fraught with political import than in the world of the militant locavore. The latter hates your supermarket and everything in it. Trump hates your air conditioner if it wasn’t made in the United States. Of course that view ignores the classical economic insight of comparative advantage — but so what? Trump finds himself in unfortunate company: parroting the conspiracy theory of the globalist bogeyman.
“Globalization,” properly understood, refers to the process over the last several decades whereby economies and supply chains, abetted by technological advances, became increasingly interconnected. The term “globalism,” is used loosely to denote an ideology, or more forebodingly, the notion of a one-world government. The conflation of globalization and globalism has traditionally been made by anti-capitalists who play up fears of Americanization to rally opposition to trade agreements and economic institutions. On that view, if the United States benefits from international trade, then international trade agreements are a bad thing.
The French performance activist José Bové was one champion of this idea. He famously railed against McDonald’s for having poor food quality. “We shall overcome — save our Roquefort and down with junk food,” Bové preached. It helped that he was a French dairy farmer, albeit one who grew up in Berkeley. To cinch his place as an iconoclast in the hearts of supporters, he helped to tear down a McDonald’s in the town of Millau. His activity is part of a larger argument that globalization has led to the world’s becoming dominated by American mores. Under neoliberalism, massive multinational corporations such as McDonald’s, whose Americanness is axiomatic, would come to erode sacrosanct national identities and render the French, among others, into subjects of American corporate rule.
Fears of globalism on the left come intertwined with the idea that elite capitalists order the world according to their whims.
A necessary element of Bové’s position is the rejection of international trade agreements. Sure enough, he was front and center at the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. The coalition of protesters was numerous and varied: the AFL-CIO, anarchists, and environmental-advocacy groups made common cause out of a reflexive fear of the new global economy. Writing at the time, George Monbiot summed up their main worries: “The world will consist of a single deregulated market, controlled by multinational companies, in which no robust law intended to protect the environment or human rights will be allowed to survive. . . . If this new global master plan is to be thwarted, we must drag it into the light.”
Fears of globalism on the left come intertwined with the idea that elite capitalists order the world according to their whims. Sam Gindin argued at Jacobin that “the eventual revival of globalization was not a spontaneous development but dependent on the role of states, and above all the role of the US state.” This has its analogue in the farther fringes of the Right, where people are kept up at night by fears that the Trilateral Commission is plotting the nation’s demise. (The religion of these capitalist kingpins can be elided.) In any case, to the fretful on left and right alike, the enemy is always American political elites abetted by powerful financiers who prefer to operate behind the scenes.
The rise of Trump makes one thing clear: Fear-mongering about globalist cabals is not confined to the Left. Trump, who in his speech on Tuesday warned against “Hillary Clinton and her friends in global finance,” places blame for economic hardship on the very same bogeyman as do his anarcho-grunge Seattle predecessors. His message is even more explicitly aimed at the working class: Trump quoted Bernie Sanders, delivered the speech at an aluminum factory, and made repeated reference to steel and manufacturing. The Drudge Report blared that Trump “STARE[D] DOWN THE GLOBALISTS.” The distance between Matt Drudge’s site and Alex Jones’s Infowars grows smaller by the day.
The Left has a reflexive distaste for globalization because it resents capitalism’s role in global enrichment. Its rhetoric of anti-neoliberalism is a desperate attempt to convince itself that an international worker’s movement still stands in opposition to the globalized economy. Nevertheless, its position is the product of deeply held principles.
But Trump is no dogmatist, and likely not a true believer. His motivations are simultaneously pragmatic and atavistic. He knows that Americans rightly worry about unfettered immigration. And he melds this with a fear of foreign workers. Both of these anxieties have been exacerbated over the course of our current administration: the first by a reluctance to enforce immigration laws, the second by sluggish economic growth. Trump combines distaste for the foreign with a vilification of politicians who stand in his way. All the problems are rolled up into one mass, and all the opponents are likely slaves to the same problematic impulses. Hence, Congress and their financier friends outsource jobs to Mexico in pursuit of globalism.
It’s simply a question of “Who is the bogeyman?” Bové said it’s the United States. Socialists say capitalism. Trump says foreigners and the American political establishment, in a clever populist hedge. All agree that the culprit is a group of globalists. And anyone with any historical memory knows that complaints about shady international figures who owe allegiance not to their country but to their secret group lead down a dark and dismal path.
The clear truth, as always, is that there is no conspiracy. Secret cabals exist only in the collective imagination, to clarify matters for those uncomfortable with the idea of a world rolling along without direction. Trump knows how to prosper in a fast-paced environment, but he has chosen to simplify the narrative by adopting the language of conspiracy, the same language used by radicals to denounce our global economy — and this from the candidate who heads the political party best equipped to make the argument that the capitalist world is supreme when it comes to adaptation. It’s a shame.