Globalism and Terror

I’d like to look at the problem of terrorism from a rarely examined angle: the spread of globalization.

Up until very recently I regarded anti-globalism and its adherents as behind-the-curve luddites, idealistic kids with fancy but unemployable degrees and too much spare time on their hands.

This article, not the first one on anti-globalism that I read, but well-argued and profound given its context, nudges me even further into an anti-globalism camp.

I find this idea, that the globalism is in fact a precursor of terror, interesting and worthy of examining. In sum, we blame tradition and ‘ancient hatreds’ when it is in fact modernity and race for growth-at-all-costs that may be at the root of current spike in conflicts all over the world.

The author argues that the new global economy, brought to Global South by the developed nations, breaks down human-scale structures, destroys bonds of reciprocity and mutual dependence and forces the young to reject one’s own identity and one’s own self.

The standard thinking goes that globalization erases the self-identity of a Muslim or a Buddist or a Catholic and turns them all into one nation, one ethnicity – that of a global consumer. But, as the author shows, the opposite has occurred. As the fruits of globalization are dangled in front of everybody, only a minority, usually politically connected, is a beneficiary of those fruits. The rest see what they can be or rather what they should be and then are denied the path to that new identity. Thus tensions begin to appear where there were none before.

I noticed that something was amiss when I travelled through Asia back in 2010, although I couldn’t explain what exactly. Freshly resigned from Wall Street, an adherent to neoliberal economic model with a crystallized set of beliefs about how this world works, and with a fully developed White Savior Complex, I believed in the righteousness of bringing my tourist dollars into a third-world economy. At the same time, I had romanticized notions of meeting self-sustaining fishermen and village folks who live off the land and sea and don’t care much for the tourists. Naturally, my on-the-ground experience didn’t match my idealistic expectations. What I ended up seeing were locals, poor just like I imagined, but cut off from their former self-sufficient way of life. They were, however, selling the appearance of that life to naïve tourists like me. They were still catching fish, just like I imagined, but did not care to have it for dinner, they cared to sell it to me for $20 a kilo – a classic manifestation of the globalization. It kind of annoyed me. But I failed to see the contradiction. That massive cognitive dissonance didn’t register back then: I was disappointed not to find the kind of authentic, pre-globalization experience that I saw in the old movies and yet I celebrated my being a contributing little cog in this big new global experiment. Now it’s almost comical to think of it: a traveling globalist, on a trip to a third-world country, somehow expecting to immerse herself in pristine, Middle Earth-like, primitive, bucolic setting. But I swear back then it was totally lost on me.

Jokes aside, if I’m not being clear enough with the point I’m trying to make, think of the last time you traveled to an exotic land and wanted to bring something from there as a unique marker of that land, a token unavailable anywhere in the world. The thing is it doesn’t exist anymore. Even in some poor village in Cambodia they’ll be selling you some hand-made crap, marketed as local fare, but widely available elsewhere in the world. It’s just a regular hustle, found on any flee market in the world, masquerading as local specialty. (Btw, I mostly stopped traveling after deconstructing it in this manner. Tourism just seems like a bullshit pastime. After you’ve seen a few major castles and cathedrals and pagodas, it’s pretty much all the same.) And as for the people – you won’t meet the uncorrupt, pristine, friendly locals – the kind of locals your travel magazine is telling you about – you’ll meet sellers of a product.

We, the Global North, made them like this. Before we came into their life, with our new ideas and exciting products and corporations and marketing, they didn’t have to do this.

Of course, my lament here is not that we, first-world travelers, are deprived of a genuine experience. That would be too self-centered and self-indulgent. My complaint, like the author’s, is that bringing what we thought of as civilization, we destroyed communities that used to be self-sufficient even though they didn’t meet out globalized standards. They got electricity, roads and vaccines but in turn they lost social cohesion, something that held back discontent and resulting extremism for generations. Surely, roads and electricity are more tangible than some elusive notion of ‘community.’ Thus, in an argument, a quick cocktail party exchange of wits, the globalist’s version will come across as superior. The globalist will bring up cures for malaria and fresh water, etc. while an anti-globalist will be talking about tradition and way of life and, gasp, religion – mentions of which will only cement the globalist’s doctrine as intellectually superior.

Such destruction of the old way of life, the author argues, is the cause of what she calls a “cultural inferiority complex.” Before globalization arrived those communities didn’t view themselves as poor, and in a sense they weren’t, because up until that point they somehow managed to procure enough food, water and medicine to take care of themselves. With the new exposure to Western values, new products, movies and magazines that traditional culture was displaced by consumer monoculture.

The production and consumption of local materials stopped as the farm land was replaced with new development and local products replaced with imported. This caused scarcity of resources where before there wasn’t one; the former farmers and fishermen flocked to the cities with no skills and no means to fend for themselves. And this is a crucial moment. Before, in their old communities, they were religious but not fanatics. With the arrival of consumer monoculture, unmoored from their old anchors, they had to quickly acquire new ones. And they did:  Rambo and James Bond and Western standards of beauty and appearance, and accompanying psychological insecurity. “Battered by the impossible dreams foisted on them by their schools, the media, and advertisements, many youth ended up unwanted, frustrated, and angry.” We promised them newer shinier toys if they abandoned their backward lifestyle, and when they did we released the fine print: only for some, not for all. In a rude awakening, the people who were just recently equal and respected members of their own tribe simply by the fact of being born into that, had to familiarize themselves with the alien Western Protestant notion of the deserving and the undeserving. How can we expect them to not turn to fundamentalism after such a betrayal?

Today, forces of globalization don’t just ravage the Global South. Some rural communities in the Global North are being ripped apart by the same forces. Christian fundamentalism, fear of immigrants and Muslims has taken root in America’s rural heartland. There’s a clear hostility towards immigrants in Europe. The first impulse for many is to blame Muslims and refugees (as if it wasn’t the exact same kind of terror that they are fleeing in the first place). But I think the author is up to something here: right-wing American mass-shooters and ISIS terrorists are two sides of the same coin, a manifestation of global economic insecurities, a product of dying communities and disintegration of old social bonds.


3 thoughts on “Globalism and Terror

  1. I disagree with your point that the people are cut off from their subsistence level survival by globalization. They’re not – those fishermen trying to sell you fish for $20/kg are also free to keep the fish and eat it with their families. What globalization really did was to to offer them a choice – try to survive as before, or be tempted by the fruits of civilization and try to attain them. It’s true that not all succeed, but few do, and many succeed partially: that is, they don’t get a oceanfront villa and a Ferrari in the garage, but they feel more secure in their future than they would by staying in the farming or fishing. The fact that they chose not to go back is probably a sign of that additional security.
    And if you were to go farther away from the tourist areas, you’d probably find that most of the people are still working in farming as their ancestors did, because there’s just not enough tourist traffic to support more than a few people in the village.

    • Maybe. Still, I don’t want to dismiss globalism as a factor. I think it causes a level of alienation in the communities that before had social cohesion and thus held extremism in check. There’s a real life example in the article that I sited about Buddhists and Muslims living side by side for centuries until the late 20th century when they started bombing each other, which coincided with the arrival of new economic development.

    • List of X, I stumbled upon this read today. It’s long, but touches on many topics that are all connected. In particular, he talks about the effects of globalization. He actually quotes Clinton who, well, “found Jesus” and denounced his own policies. I’ll quote:

      “Clinton was very clear in putting blame not on individual states or governments but on U.S. and EU long-term global policies carried out for decades by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other international economic institutions. Such policies pressured African and Asian countries into dropping government subsidies for fertilizer, improved seed and other farm inputs. This allowed the best land to be used for export crops, which effectively compromised the countries’ self-sufficiency. The integration of local agriculture into global economy was the result of such “structural adjustments,” and the effect was devastating: Farmers were thrown out of their land and pushed into slums fitted for sweat-shop labor, while countries had to rely more and more on imported food. In this way, they are kept in postcolonial dependence and became more and more vulnerable to market fluctuations. For instance, grain prices skyrocketed last year in countries like Haiti and Ethiopia, both of which export crops for biofuel and consequently starve their populations.

      In order to approach these problems properly, one will have to invent new forms of large-scale collective action; neither the standard state intervention nor the much-praised local self-organization can do the job. If the problem will not be solved, one should seriously consider that we are approaching a new era of apartheid in which secluded, resource-abundant parts of the world will be separated from the starved-and-permanently-at-war parts. What should people in Haiti and other places with food shortages do? Do they not have the full right to violently rebel? Or, to become refugees? Despite all the critiques of economic neo-colonialism, we are still not fully aware of the devastating effects of the global market on many local economies.”

      Anyway, Slavoj Zizek as usual, gives much food for thought.

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