In contemporary Western democracy, the people aren’t the real constituency.
At the end of the twentieth century, the triumph of capitalist democracy convinced many that the field of human advancement had been cleared of adversaries. In the ensuing decades, Westerners were shocked to discover that field had filled with technological challengers. As Cambridge historian David Runciman notes in How Democracy Ends, “the information technology revolution has completely altered the terms on which democracy must operate.” Capitalism is becoming less democratic and democracy less capitalist. Surveillance cameras are embedded in more places; cell phones track our movements; programs log our keystrokes. The resulting information is fed into databases and assembled into profiles of unprecedented depth and fungibility.
The decline in personal privacy might be worthwhile if it were matched by comparable levels of democratic choice and transparency. But for the most part, it is not. Unauthorized opinions are increasingly censored online, while giants like Amazon, Apple, and Google bar disfavored customers and businesses from their marketplaces.
This shifting relationship between capitalism and democracy has not gone unnoticed by the West’s sharpest critics. At his first press conference in 20 years, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid was asked about the Taliban’s commitment to freedom of speech. Journalists, Mujahid suggested, should ask the “promoters of freedom of speech” at Facebook why his government is banned from posting on Instagram and WhatsApp.
The irony is rich. In the heady millenarian days at the “end of history,” Silicon Valley imbued Big Tech with the wide-eyed spirit of the idealistic counterculture. Today, however, these former cultural nonconformists have become global gatekeepers. Twitter’s decision to suspend President Trump after the unrest at the Capitol opened the floodgates for tech companies and other services to ban political dissidents from their platforms.
What is becoming clear is that there was a crucial flaw in the end-of-history vision. What if the capitalists lose interest in democracy or find it inconvenient? An intriguing concept almost unused in journalism but common in political discourse is a “globalist state” whose members have given up part of their sovereignty in return for a say in their neighbors’ affairs.
Big Tech is at home in this globalized schema. Like most billionaires, Mark Zuckerberg regards the concept of nationalism with open hostility. The “struggle of our time,” Zuckerberg suggested, pits the “forces of freedom, openness and global community against the forces of authoritarianism, isolationism and nationalism. Forces for the flow of knowledge, trade and immigration against those who would slow them down.”
Those who seek a grand conspiracy theory to explain this phenomenon will be disappointed. What we are dealing with here are often marginal reforms—a trickle rather than a flood. From western Europe to sub-Saharan Africa, policy-makers are moving many policy fields “upwards,” to the international or supranational arena, and “downwards” to NGOs and private companies. This has been accompanied by a modest measure of structural change which has allowed powerful bureaucracies in the UN more control over national affairs.
One influential advocate of this outlook is the former British prime minister Theresa May. Speaking to the House of Commons on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, May described the events unfolding in the region as a “major setback” for UK foreign policy, adding: “We boast about Global Britain, but where is Global Britain on the streets of Kabul?” May found it “incomprehensible” and “worrying” that the UK was not able to bring together an alternative peacekeeping alliance.
Globalism is best conceptualised less as a fantastic conspiracy so much as an emergent phenomenon among elites with overlapping interests, the goal of which is to deterritorialize politics. Members of the professional and managerial elite—journalists, economists, humanitarian aid workers, technologists—have adopted a very different attitude to borders than sectors of society who are bounded to their community’s territory. As Zygmunt Bauman observed in the 2000s, territorial allegiances have become a class-specific property.
Why history hasn’t ended
It would be difficult to exaggerate the significance of this change. For many hundreds of years, nationalism was the bedrock of international relations. Foreigners were routinely considered to be outsiders and could not be full members of the moral community.
Over the past couple of decades, however, we have seen a dramatic reversal of this rule: pre-political ties are expanding to include larger groups, nations, families of nations, and perhaps even all humans. As a result, elite positions on global issues actually tend to be highly incoherent, and the need to consult “stakeholders” often leads to more liberal policy outcomes.
A case in point here is the British government’s failure to stem the flow of illegal immigrants crossing the Channel in record numbers. In 2019, the British Home Secretary, Priti Patel, campaigned on a platform of opposition to mass immigration, withdrawal from key human rights laws, and hostility to illegal entrants and bogus asylum seekers. Her views accurately reflected the opinions of the great majority of Conservative members, as well as great swathes of the electorate. They were not, however, acceptable within 10 Downing Street, so she failed to muster the support necessary to “take back control.”
This state of affairs illuminates one of the central paradoxes of Western politics. Although the technical capacity of states to control immigration has increased rather than diminished, and border control is widely held to be common sense by the majority of the population in every country, most Western governments are reluctant to implement effective enforcement of their own immigration laws. There is a gap between what politicians say and what politicians do, because immigration policy is considered above the pay grade of the masses. It is the domain of the globalist managers.
The withdrawal of the elites
Globalism belongs to a species of liberal thinking that deplores barriers to trade and disapproves strongly of borders. ‘’Openness,” “inclusion,” “diversity”: the globalist is, in his own eyes, a defender of enlightened universalism against the exigencies of geography. The key articulators of this movement now include not only Silicon Valley but also the military-intelligence complex, NGOs, and non-institutionalised protest groups whose global operations are facilitated by smartphones.
Globalism has ushered in a period of massive wealth redistribution, from the lower middle class to the superrich, and from towns to cities. Today, a large firm in a modern city can source its capital in Shanghai, locate its industrial plant in Wolfsburg, and tap information from a database in Bangalore. Moreover, thanks to improvements in transport technology and infrastructure, businesses can hire large numbers of overseas graduates whose skills could not be realistically recruited from the domestic labor market. This explains why big business and its agents of opinion are without exception supporters of “Global Britain.”
Meanwhile, at the lower end of the labor market, foreign workers are increasingly used to fill jobs that are considered too degrading for the native population to undertake. Whether that is a good or a bad thing is a matter for some debate, but it is beyond question that the wealthy now prefer employing cheap labor from abroad. Today, as David Edgerton argues in The Rise and Fall of The British Nation, “a new anti-egalitarian snobbism is permissible, and a certain reactionary chic possible.”
This is a formidable combination. And it is easy to see why elites don’t want to give up on it, at least not yet. However, these policies must be debated with the utmost honesty if we are to do what is best for our country and for the planet. There is no denying that a gap has opened up between civilians, soldiers, governments, and corporations: the “we” feeling seems no longer to have a voice among our leaders.
Contrary to what many have said, globalism does not rid the world of the nation state. It does, however, delimit it. Once in a position of power, globalists will hive off the functions of the state and farm them out to a complex range of extra-governmental organizations and semi-independent bodies. Their key function is to push “the rules of the game” beyond the reach of democratic politics, the strategy of deterritorialization. To a large extent, therefore, conflicts over territorial sovereignty have replaced many of the more familiar ideological battles of the twentieth century.