Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Globalisation, Citizenship and Nationhood: A review article

Rounding off his account of Nations and Nationalism, the historian E.J. Hobsbawm, in a work widely recognised – even 15 years after it was published – as one of the most authoritative in recent times, firmly stated his belief that the phenomenon of nationalism may have exhausted its energy as a historical force. “The owl of Minerva” which brings wisdom, he says, “flies out at dusk”, invoking Hegel’s famous pronouncement that “philosophy, as the thought of the world, does not appear until reality has completed its formative process”. The mere fact then, that the “owl of Minerva” has now begun to circle the nation-state, indicates that nationalism has completed its formative process.

Hobsbawm’s prognosis that nationalism is unlikely to be a vector for major historical changes in future, may seem rather reckless since it was authored at a time when a new wave of ethnic and cultural assertion was wreaking havoc with the mosaic of nation-states that had seemingly been cast in stone after World War II. Evidently though, he has in mind a different phase of nationalism, when people looked for unity in larger units, when small was disdained and no ethnicity or culture seemed so valuable that it needed to be preserved against the imperatives of unification within larger units.

Yet the gravitational pull towards integration within larger units is also an undeniable part of contemporary reality. This is a process commonly expressed in the term “globalisation”, a word unknown and virtually unspoken till fifteen years back and yet now an indispensable part of the political and economic vocabulary. What are these contrary pulls and pressures that the world economy is beset by and what do they portend for the future of much of the world’s people? Prem Shankar Jha’s recent volume is an effort to answer these questions at least in some measure. In its eloquence, his title draws a direct correlation between the hastening demise of the nation-state as a form of political organisation and the process of globalisation. But this is no easy transition. Rather, war is the midwife of the new global order and chaos is its attendant.[i]

In contrast to the rose-tinted views of globalisation as an unqualified agency of human progress, Jha presents an alternate thesis: that technology bears little inherent potential to “transform the world for the better”. Rather than take its transformative potential for granted, it would be more prudent for the greater common good, that “deliberate human intervention” be directed towards slowing down “the pace of economic transformation sufficiently to give the social, political and international institutions upon which civilisation depends time to adapt”.

The task is of immense importance in Jha’s estimation, because the forces of technological change when unfettered show a persistent tendency to burst the banks of established institutions. Capitalism evolves within the confines of a “container”, which could be understood as the “social, economic and political unit that is large enough to organise and contain all the interrelated functions of capitalism: finance, production and marketing”. Technology in turn, is the agency that propels the relentless growth in the scale and scope of the container of capitalism. But left to its own pace, technology will tend at epochal turning points in human history, to burst through the space afforded by the container.

The current phase of capitalist evolution on a global scale has brought economic change “into conflict with the deeply embedded institutions of nation state-based capitalism”. Intensified conflict and rising levels of insecurity have been the inevitable outcome. Within states, globalisation has “triggered conflict between the new winners and new losers in society. Not just individuals, but entire classes of people that enjoyed an assured status, some degree of affluence and, above all, security, have been robbed of all three, and found themselves scrabbling frantically to retain their place in society. At the same time, ethnic, occupation and social groups…. who were treated with condescension or reviled under the older dispensation, have shot up in status. Such dramatic changes are bound to be resisted and have often led to rebellion and bloodshed”.

Jha then proceeds to document with great diligence and rigour, all the consequences of these chaotic, uncontrolled changes: a slackening of economic growth, stagnant levels of industrial productivity, rising inequality between nations and within them, and a growing army of the unemployed who have essentially lost all hope of ever being productive members of society. Capitalism has of course, periodically shown a tendency to burst its banks. The Italian city-state was an adequate container for all the ambitions and potentialities of the system in its early phase of growth. But in a subsequent phase, the city-state of Amsterdam needed to bolster its claims to being the centre of world capitalism by drawing upon the sustenance of a substantial hinterland, in a sense creating the first inkling of a “national” form of organisation. This too proved an ephemeral triumph, since capitalism required for the next phase of its growth, to be nurtured within the confines of a true nation-state, rather than an uneasy hybrid between city and nation. That was when Britain emerged as the dominant economic power, only to yield pre-eminence to the U.S.A. when capitalism once again demanded a transition from a relatively small nation to a truly gargantuan one.

At the next phase of its expansion, capitalism demands all the world as its stage and lacking the means to win consent, imposes its will through military coercion. Jha sees as a shallow pretence, the claim that the current U.S. rampage through diverse corners of the world is a justified response to terrorism. He argues rather, that the trigger for the U.S. to embark upon this program of remaking the world, to create the globalised conditions for the sustenance of the capitalist system, was the end of the Cold War in 1989. The aerial war against Serbia in 1999, Jha suggests, was the first rehearsal for empire. And the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a final gesture of contempt by the capitalist superpower for a world order built on the sovereignty of nation-states.

If the world is not to descend into a phase of terminal despair, human civilisation needs to step back from this world order being crafted under the tutelage of the U.S., and build its institutions afresh. New supranational bodies ensuring the fair and equitable governance of global affairs need to be put in place. And this endeavour would naturally enough, need to engage with the resistance of the world hegemon and overcome all its efforts at sabotage.

These are arresting formulations but they do not quite grapple with the crucial issue of agency. Who among the diverse peoples of the world today would be the architects of the new world order that secures justice for all? This elision in turn could be the outcome of Jha’s broader failure to identify human agency within his narration of capitalist evolution, raising the disembodied force of “technology” to the status of the main protagonist.

Historians have seen in the forging of nationhood in Britain – and more so in France’s epochal revolution of 1789 – a process of contention between an emerging mercantile elite, or bourgeoisie and a traditional aristocratic class. They have seen capitalism and its inseparable companion, imperialism, develop as a consequence of competition between national bourgeoisies. In turn, the emergence of new nations in the crucible of the struggle against imperialism has been seen in terms of new forms of elite solidarity in the periphery, which have successfully contested the pre-eminence of metropolitan capitalism.

All these complexities are subsumed by Jha under the narrative of the rise and fall of the Westphalian world order. This effectively reduces a complex three-century long evolution of the global economy to a rather simplistic formulation. It could credibly be argued that the Westphalian world order, named after the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, which put an end to the 30-year war and guaranteed the mutual recognition of the sovereignty of monarchs, never really existed. Westphalia recognised that sovereignty vested not merely in the person of the monarch but in the aggregation of his territorial holdings. The nation still remained a territorially defined entity. It was only till the French Revolution forged a notion of a citizenship of equals that the “nation” was infused with the vital component of popular participation. Yet the French Revolution was untrue to its proclaimed ideals from the moment of its birth. Despite its professions of the universal values of freedom and equality, revolutionary regimes lost little time before plunging into military adventures abroad – first in the cause of revolutionary defence and then in the cause of conquest.

A Westphalian world order in the sense that Jha means it, perhaps existed only briefly, in the years following 1947, when Indian independence heralded a phase of decolonisation across the world. But this world order of relative autonomy for the new nation-states was eroded by factors both internal and external to them. The regimes that came to power in the euphoria of liberation, promised their citizens a dispensation of fairness and equity, where no person would suffer discrimination on grounds of race, ethnicity, gender or religion. Since few of these countries could afford to give excessive sway to the corrosive forces of free competition, they made a conscious decision that the state would function as the arbiter of a system of fairness and equity. This apart, the state would also be the agent of development, of ensuring not merely that existing resources were deployed equitably, but of securing access to opportunities for all citizens.

These were the basic commitments of the developmental state, as it came into existence in several newly liberated countries. By the 1980s, these promises were proving impossible to deliver on. Ethnic strife engulfed some of the newly liberated nations, and a financial crisis, which discredited – when it did not directly indict -- the ruling elites, was beginning to play havoc with policy autonomy in some of the newer nation-states. By the late-1980s, the nation-state as constituted in the struggle against colonialism, was being challenged from above and from below. The demands of international finance were draining it of precious capital. And burgeoning strife between communities – ethnic, linguistic and religious – accentuated by the famine of resources, had begun to seriously erode the democratic commitments that these states were founded on. What has been called the decade of “globalisation” could also be viewed as a conjunction of two crises – of the welfare state and the developmental state.

These dual crises have sharply accentuated disparities, constricted creative thinking on the possibilities of human betterment, and enforced a mindless conformity with the neo-liberal economic policy consensus. To address the issue of agency once again, it may be foolhardy to believe that older nationalist elites which are responsible for current global predicaments, will have the intellectual resources and political courage to steer the world community out of them. That task may well require new forms of solidarity between communities, widely dispersed over the world, who share the misfortune of being at the receiving end of the worst of globalisation.

Prem Shankar Jha, in addition to being a prolific writer, has been a teacher of economics and a senior editor at some of India’s leading newspapers. He also held the post of media advisor in the office of the Indian Prime Minister, during the all too brief tenure of V.P. Singh. Interestingly, the current incumbent in that post, whose resume shares several other significant features with Jha’s has also published a book dealing with broadly a similar canvas of issues, though in a more limited geographical and historical frame.[ii] Sanjaya Baru’s book is a collection of newspaper columns and conference papers written over the years when he was an active media practitioner. It consists of no fewer than 63 distinct pieces and offers Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech to the Indian Constituent Assembly in December 1947, spelling out a vision of “India’s emergence in world affairs”, as an appendix.

In some measure, Baru’s book may have benefited from an additional editorial effort to reduce the proliferation of its articles to a more manageable number. That would have trimmed the overall length of the volume and also eliminated the repetition of ideas and phrases that is inevitable in newspaper articles written over a longish timespan. It would also have helped to cut out certain logical dissonances. For instance, for a book published in 2006, the prognosis that India, while not a “major power today”, is “capable of becoming one within the first half of the next century”, might seem an unnecessary burden on the reader’s powers of imagination, since nobody is likely to survive long enough to see that happy outcome. But if a text written long years back has been preserved unamended for publication now, then it has to justify itself in terms of insights and its ability to account for all that has ensued in the intervening period.

The issues that Baru addresses are interesting in themselves. For instance in his opening two essays, he addresses the counterpart themes of the “strategic consequences of India’s economic performance” and the “economic dimension of India’s foreign policy”. He then turns his analytical gaze towards the issue of “conceptualising economic security” before engaging with the issue of “national security in an open economy”. He tells us for instance, that India’s fiscal and foreign trade policies since 1991, which have underlined a re-engagement with the west and with the larger Asian neighbourhood, has been an entirely pragmatic and unavoidable response to the end of the Cold War. We are also told that with a share of world trade that is considerably less than 1 percent, India’s strategic influence still remains way below potential.

There are a number of interesting questions that arise from Baru’s projection that India would need to increase its share in world trade significantly to gain an appropriate measure of strategic clout. How for instance, would this increasing share be obtained? There is a belief afloat – integrally related to the neoliberal economic policy consensus – that a rising tide lifts all boats. One country’s economic dynamism in other words, can create the conditions for all others to grow. But this does not necessarily mean that the relative position of one with respect to the other – in terms of share in world trade for instance – should be altered. An absolute increase in India’s share of world trade though, implies a zero-sum game, in which for every gain that India makes there has to be a loser. This raises the possibility that raising India’s profile in the global marketplace is itself a process involving strategic competition. Rather than being an end-point from where India can begin to exert its strategic influence, it is a process that requires strategic calculations at every stage. So who would be the countries that India would need to engage in this strategic competition and what would be the consequences? These are questions that still remain to be addressed by advocates of the new economic paradigm. Perhaps more fundamentally, considering the evidence available today on the multifarious problems and iniquities that globalisation has thrown up, they cannot take for granted the premise that the way forward lies in strategic competition, rather than cooperation.
[i] Prem Shankar Jha, The Twilight of the Nation State: Globalisation, Chaos and War, Vistaar Publications, Delhi, 2006, pp xx + 373, Rs480..

[ii] Sanjaya Baru, Strategic Consequences of India’s Economic Performance, Academic Foundation, Delhi, 2006, pp 496, Rs 795.

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