Searching for an Alternative to Neoliberalism and Right-Wing Nationalism

From Brexit to Donald Trump and Joe Biden’s anti-China policies, elites are offering their own challenges to the free-trade consensus — just as they did during the early 20th century’s pushback against “globalism.”

Workers label tins at the Jacob's Biscuit factory in Aintree, Liverpool, 1926. (Topical Press Agency / Getty Images)

Among the many things the tumultuous last half decade has demonstrated is that “deglobalization” — the reduction of ties between regions of the world — is a traumatic process. Whether in a willful form like Brexit or through the temporary quarantines of the pandemic era, unstitching political communities from global networks of trade and commerce has had dramatic effects: inflation, political chaos, stalled factories, empty shops, and increased poverty.

That Great Britain has become the most salient contemporary example of this is, of course, deeply ironic. For it was Britain that was at the forefront of the great wave of European and US imperialism that oft-violently stitched our globalized world together in the first place. This was what the English historian A. G. Hopkins aptly described as the “enforced globalization” of empire. Its memory has tarred subsequent attempts at globalization, even those unaided by gunboats. Hostility toward globalization is compounded by the fact that, though planetary divisions of labor and networks of exchange have created great wealth in the aggregate, these gains are so maldistributed that a relative few see most of the benefits. Meanwhile, globe-spanning hierarchies of wealth and power undercut democracy, even in the wealthiest countries, spawning a resentment that often manifests as xenophobia and other dangerous forms of political reaction.

If there is a bright side to these seemingly insuperable difficulties, it is that they are not new. As Tara Zahra’s superb new book, Against the World: Anti-Globalism and Mass Politics Between the World Wars, reveals, the past century provides no shortage of examples of people and communities — well-intentioned and otherwise — wrestling with just these problems. Though nothing like a map of the way forward, her history of the twentieth century certainly shows many paths to avoid.

The Rise of Anti-Globalization

As her title suggests, Zahra’s focus is on the so-called “interwar” period between World War I and World War II. This is an age traditionally understood as an era of extremist nationalism and great ideological battles between the left and right: communism and fascism fighting against each other and against a liberalism staggered by the horrors of the Great War and Depression. While not rejecting these traditional narratives, Zahra provocatively reframes the period as one also defined by a broad “revolt against globalism,” thanks to “mounting tensions between globalization on the one hand and equality, state sovereignty and mass politics on the other.” Doing so allows her to break free of the restrictions that the nationalism and ideology narrative imposes, imaginatively linking movements as diverse as fascism, Austrian agrarianism, New Deal liberalism, and Mahatma Gandhi’s anti-imperial swadeshi movement into a capacious social history that speaks powerfully to present dilemmas.

Though globalization was a centuries-old phenomenon, it had accelerated in the 1880s as new technologies made transporting goods, people, and ideas in large quantities easier than ever before. The great powers of the age — Britain, France, the United States, and Germany — either controlled much of the world directly, or otherwise enforced relatively liberal trade policies that facilitated close integration of markets and peoples. For those in the right circles, it was a time of incredible optimism; it seemed a better future for humanity was just around the corner.

Wealthy elites like the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig and the English economist John Maynard Keynes zipped across Europe by train without ever reaching for a passport, the goods of the world seemingly a phone call away. Meanwhile “scientists, artists, social reformers and policy makers gathered at great congresses to exchange ideas” about improving the world, with international solidarity seemingly reaching a fever pitch.

From the cheapest cabins and train cars, the world “looked quite different.” For the less well-off, international travel was still challenging, and usually a result of economic need rather than pleasure. While globalization certainly offered a way of escaping difficult local situations, such as for women in relatively more patriarchal societies, it often provided a path from one form of tyranny to another: from an arranged marriage in what is now Western Ukraine to the time clocks and chained doors of Manhattan’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

Indeed, regardless of the material situation, globalization stoked great cultural resentment. For all those who appreciated the chance to escape the constraints of traditional culture, there were others aghast at such a disruption of gender roles, worried over the consequences of depopulation in the countries producing migrants, or fearful of the impact of their arrival in the lands receiving them. In colonial territories like India, these economic and cultural tensions were further inflamed by a racially stratified hierarchy that, despite the claims made by its apologists, was clearly meant to enrich Britain before India.

There was, Zahra notes, “nothing . . . contradictory about the synchronous rise of globalizing and anti-global policies and politics” for they were “two sides of the same coin.” Yet, as the nineteenth century became the twentieth, globalization seemed to have the upper hand, retaining an air of inevitability no discontent could dislodge. A global future held together by imperialism seemed the only world on offer, whether one liked it or not — right up until the outbreak of war in August 1914.

The Two Faces of Anti-Globalization

World War I shattered the myths of inevitability that surrounded the liberal-imperial globalizing project, as the great powers rushed to tear up the infrastructure of globalization “damming international flows of people, supplies, and intelligence” in the hope of weakening their enemies and sustaining themselves. Boycotts, tariffs, and blockades unraveled intricate supply chains, messages that traveled the world in hours in 1913 took weeks by 1920.

Shipping and insurance costs spiked and remained elevated after the war, as did prices for goods in general. The downturn was so severe that global trade as a whole would not reach prewar growth rates again until the 1970s. Some deglobalizing consequences of the Great War lasted even longer — passports were instituted as an ad-hoc wartime measure only to be institutionalized when peace resumed; they remain a feature of international life to this day.

The same goes for restrictions on immigration, another product of interwar deglobalization. World War I does not deserve the blame for this alone. In a painfully relevant discussion of the 1918 influenza pandemic — often erroneously called the “Spanish” flu — Zahra documents how fears of disease were intimately tied up in the immigration restrictions of the postwar era, as supposedly temporary quarantine measures were made permanent in laws (like the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act in the United States). Flu-related fears mixed with older xenophobic ideas about immigrants as biological, political, and cultural contagions — developing into particularly virulent form when added to antisemitism.

Indeed, for hate-mongering anti-globalists of all stripes, antisemitic tropes provided a deep well on which to draw. In the antisemitic imaginary, “the Jew” was already a figure somehow stateless yet deeply entrenched; weak and yet all powerful; politically radical and yet also allied with elite wealth — a symbol easily deployed as a stand-in for inchoate fears about the global order. Returning home to Austria in 1919 from his wartime refuge in Switzerland, Zweig lamented how a once routine train journey had become instead a grueling “Arctic expedition” to “a different world.”

All told, the war and its aftermath altered the balance of power between globalization and anti-globalization, giving new impetuousness to those looking to move on from prewar patterns of international integration. Few wanted to stop that integration altogether, looking instead to “alter the terms on which globalization took place,” rejecting the liberal-imperial framework established in the nineteenth century.

On the Right, the focus was on restoring power to the nation, rebuilding the sovereignty and self-reliance supposedly lost to a globalizing order. Particularly salient for nationalists in Central Europe was the memory of the Anglo-French “Hunger Offensive” against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Cut off from global food markets by the Royal Navy — in 1914, Germany, for example, relied on trade for roughly a third of its total food supply — the central powers suffered cruelly from starvation and malnutrition.

Even Italy, ostensibly one of the Great War’s victors, faced significant food disruptions during the war. Promoting agricultural self-reliance was a central part of the program of the Italian Fascists following their assent to power in 1922. Large land reclamation projects and a “wheat offensive” were part of a plan to reverse the outflow of migrants that had marked Italy’s prewar relationship with the world. “No longer” Mussolini promised, would Italy “send the flowers of our race to faraway and barbaric lands,” when they could be settled on reclaimed land at home.

On the Left, attention was instead on how a globalizing world disadvantaged workers rather than nations, leaving them at the mercy of international markets for labor and goods. In the Global South, the labor and nationalist perspectives mixed to produce an anti-colonial nationalism that rejected imperial globalization and national competition.

Jawaharlal Nehru insisted that Indian independence from Britain was not about promoting isolation from the world, on the contrary, it promised true liberation for all. “Internationalism,” he argued, “can indeed only develop in a free country.” Gandhi agreed, though he wished also to see India achieve greater self-reliance through reliance on swadeshi or the goods “of one’s country.” At the heart of this was a rejection of clothing produced abroad — in Britain especially — in favor of handspun textiles made at home. This rough khadi cloth might mean the sacrifice of ease or comfort, Gandhi admitted, but India could “not be free as long as India voluntarily encourages . . . the economic drain” of imperial globalization.

Prewar internationalism did not die out completely, at least not right away. The 1919 Paris Peace Conference did all it could to reestablish the old order with some minor changes. International trade revived briefly in the 1920s, Zweig’s trains began to run on time again, as he returned to a life of ease, arts, and travel that, for a moment, seemed a restoration of the world before the war. But the prewar model proved unstable yet again, collapsing in 1929 as the Great Depression halted incipient re-globalization.

Tariff barriers reached new heights, global capital networks unraveled, and international cooperation plummeted. Out-of-work Austrians moved from Vienna to the countryside as part of a wave of interest in “internal colonization,” establishing self-sufficient agricultural homesteads on unsettled land. A similar fascination with agricultural settlement impacted even the United States — quite capable of producing enough of its own food — as both New Dealers and anti–New Dealers explored the possibility of returning industrial workers to farms. Henry Ford, for example, wanted his workers to do both, turning to the family plot after a shift in the auto plant (therefore avoiding the need for “handouts” from the government).

Across the globe, from the United States to Ireland and from Germany to India, the Depression spawned or deepened interest in “autarky,” an ideal of national economic self-sufficiency, that blended particularly well with right-wing nationalism. Few pursued it with such zeal as Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime after their seizure of power in 1933. Nazi autarky incorporated Italian-style internal settlement, tariffs, boycotts, capital controls, antisemitism, and xenophobia — fundamentally rejecting all of the old model of globalization in pursuit of a Germany that would supposedly be immune to the slings and arrows of the broader world.

Yet, as Gandhi warned — and Great Britain is discovering today — greater self-sufficiency required sacrifice. Zahra documents how, over and over, the rigors of deglobalizing were more than many could bear, whether that meant the poor struggling with less necessities or the rich with less luxury. In Austria and the United States, the spartan life of agricultural settlement had little long-term appeal, and in India, khadi proved unpopular with members of the laboring and managerial classes alike. For nationalists in Italy, Japan, and Germany, meanwhile, domestic resources proved insufficient to sustain their militarist fantasies. One by one, each turned to conquest as a solution, a form of violent re-globalization on nationalist terms that soon triggered another world war.

It’s impossible in a review of this, or any, length to do justice to the richly layered tapestry Zahra weaves in the book, an in-depth illustration of a troubled age. More than that, her story helps explain the broader narrative of global history in the twentieth century, how the world transitioned from liberal-imperial globalization of the prewar era to the attempt at a managed globalization under the Bretton Woods regime that followed World War II. The latter, as Zahra notes, tried to balance the aggregate productivity benefits of globalization with the interests of individual nations and their understandable desire to protect their own citizens and economies from the changeable whims of global trade and finance.

Bretton Woods too, of course, failed, if less spectacularly than its predecessors, leaving us with the neoliberal (and, arguably, neo-imperial) order of the present. This represents something of a reversion to the world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — and its problems: a global economy growing wealthier in the aggregate as the average individual grows poorer; an international community that pays lip service to democracy even as large swaths of the population lack power over the financial and commercial institutions that shape their lives.

Reading Against the World against the backdrop of the present makes it hard not to conclude that the path forward lies not in more deglobalization — or more globalization — but in more justice.