Written by Matti Mattila and first published at The Conversation
For the past few decades, globalisation has been the status quo. Advancements in communication and transport technology have made the world far smaller than it once was, and governments and businesses everywhere have long since sought to make this notion profitable. This has manifested in free-trade agreements, economic and political unions and, in Europe, the unprecedented common citizenship of 500m people across 28 countries.
But after the Brexit vote, after Donald Trump’s victory, and with Marine Le Pen’s French presidential campaign on the horizon, globalised nations are finding themselves divided down the middle on ideological lines. So entrenched are the beliefs on each side of the divide that they invoke a counterculture of their own, threatening to spurn the society they once shared.
In 1996, political scientist Samuel Huntington hypothesised that identity politics would become the fulcrum of global conflict. He described the fundamental bonds of nation as “history, language, culture, tradition and, most importantly, religion”. For him, these characteristics bind nations together above all, and do so in opposition to those on the outside.
Huntington foresaw a heightened awareness of cultural differences as a result of globalisation. Regional cultures, he predicted, would see their own identity through differences with their neighbours. Detractors of Huntington, such as economist Amartya Sen, warned that such a homogenised view of cultural groups was a mistake as most valued diversity as a defining characteristic. In reality, they were both correct. But not entirely.
Language, culture, tradition and religion are no longer enough to bind the regions of the Western world. There has been a markedly political transformation. Identity within Western culture has unravelled into a question of how outsiders are, or should be, viewed. Working-class voters, traditionally the base of social democratic parties, are turning towards the anti-immigration populism of the right. This in itself is nothing new, but for the first time traditional notions of “left” and “right” are being replaced. In the US, it’s for or against the Mexican wall. In the UK, it’s “Remain” or “Leave”.
On the other side of the aisle, globalists are equally determined to preserve a common citizenship. Luxembourg MEP Charles Goerens, for example, proposed that “associate” EU citizenship could allow citizens of former member states to opt-in voluntarily. Here, a new kind of transnational citizenship would be on offer – one that would be invulnerable to the whims of nation-state isolationism.
Division and union
The existing geography of nationhood then, at least in terms of nation-state unions, is under pressure from both globalists and anti-globalists simultaneously. Right-wing populist movements in Europe are pushing for more countries to leave the EU, while the UK wrestles with internal disputes. It’s not just the familiar spectres of regional nationalism that threaten to dismantle the UK now either.
In London, city mayor Sadiq Khan wants a “London work permit” to sidestep the EU immigration restrictions that look to become an inevitable part of Brexit. There are even murmurings of a full London independence movement. In the US the notion of Californian independence (“Calexit”) has been gaining traction since the election of Donald Trump.
While right-wing populists seek to destroy the globalised world in pursuit of a traditional nationalism, these new independence movements seek to do the opposite: to liberate themselves from their historical identity in order to forge worldwide relationships.
Herein lies a striking similarity between the music subcultures I study and current geopolitical trends. Scholars in my own field have found that music lovers – goths, for example – can feel they have more in common with other members of their musical subculture, even if they live thousands of miles away, than with people in their geographical community.
In the same sense, internationalism has become a subcultural identity. A social democrat in the UK is likely to have more in common with a social democrat in France or Germany than with a nationalist in their home town. The prospect of individual EU citizenship (which seems increasingly possible), alongside desperate attempts for British citizens to seek citizenship in other EU states, is proof of this. Irish passport applications doubled overnight after the Brexit vote, while Trump’s election saw the Canadian immigration homepage crash.
Globalisation may have paved the way for the populist right to flourish in response but, in opening up the world through technology, the barriers of geography have been diminished permanently.
After the end
As Trump’s election was assured, Florian Philippot, the vice-president of Le Pen’s Front National, tweeted: “Their world is collapsing. Ours is being built.”
This is momentarily true for the physical world, in the form of existing governmental power structures. But the ideological sphere of internationalism is still intact. Imagine a world, within our lifetime, in which the people of California, Scotland, Catalonia, London, and Berlin shared free movement and common citizenship, but where visas were required to visit Florida or Plymouth.
Once, not too long ago, such an idea would have been absurd, but no more – we have already witnessed the unimaginable. Is the possibility of a world map shaped by ideological nationhood so extraordinary?