Nationalism & globalisation

Gavin Kitching

When speaking about my book Seeking Social Justice Through Globalisation (Penn State Press, 2001), I always feel the need to begin by saying that it is not a book about Australia and globalisation, or about the impact of globalisation in Australia. But until I sat down to write these remarks, the significance of this felt need, and of the slight discomfort that the very making of this statement (I almost want to say 'admission') generates in me, had not really struck home. But it ought to have done, because in some ways it strikes to the heart of my book, and of what the book is trying to say.

This is because one of the leading threads of argument which runs through Seeking ... is that globalisation as a process - its social and human consequences and its economic dynamics - are subtly but deeply misunderstood if that process is looked at from a national perspective (any national perspective). A friend and colleague from Sydney University's Political Economy department, Dick Bryan (who unfortunately cannot be here tonight), has spent a lot of time and hard work over the last few years trying to demonstrate that, as tools for analysing global financial movements and their implications, so-called 'national accounts' are now so misleading as to be positively worthless. He has argued, for example, that in our contemporary world, interest rate movements, exchange values of currencies and, indeed, 'national' balance of payments surpluses or deficits, are far more determined by activities in global financial markets and by the locational and purchasing decisions and investments of transnational and other companies, than they are by any 'national' economic variables, including policy decisions by national governments. In fact Dick, I know, is of the view that one of the technical tasks now confronting economists (a task yet hardly addressed) is the creation of global economic accounts, partly to supplement, but actually partly to replace, national accounts; the kind of accounts in fact that would allow us to plot the dynamics of a global capitalist system more accurately - where it is expanding, where contracting or stagnating, both as a total system and by sectors.

But as I try to argue in my book, these 'technical' problems with analysing a global economic system (or more accurately, a globalising economic system - the process is far from complete) is just the tip of an iceberg; just the technical expression in fact of far deeper and more intractable contradictions - contradictions of which the discomfort I alluded to at the beginning of this paper is also an expression - and perhaps in some ways a much more important expression. For why do I feel this discomfort? Why do I feel constrained to make this 'admission' as an opening remark about my book? Because, quite simply, I know I am addressing an audience of Australians, and I therefore just assume that, in so far as that audience is interested in globalisation, it is interested in it from the 'point of view' (as we significantly say) of its impact (positive or negative) on something called 'Australia'. (I should stress of course that there is nothing uniquely Australian about that. I would make the same assumption about an audience of Britons, or French people or Indians, and would make the same admission, just changing one word).

'And what is problematic about that?' I seem to hear you say. Well one thing that is problematic about it (apart from the technical economic issues mentioned above) is that it simply may not be possible now for us to understand at all accurately who is benefiting from and/or who is losing or suffering from globalisation by seeing its processes through national lenses. That is to say, if we want to state clearly who benefits from the profits made by the Ford Motor Company or by Sony electronics or by the Ripcurl surfwear company, or who gains and loses from the investment and purchasing/sub-contracting decisions such companies make, the empirically accurate answer always requires us to put qualifiers before national categories. So the answer to those questions in the case of Ripcurl, for example, is "the owners of Ripcurl" (all Australian, Ripcurl is not a public company), "some workers in Australia" and "a lot more workers in China and India". In the case of the Ford Motor Company, the answers would be "a large cosmopolitan conglomerate of its institutional and individual stock holders", "some workers in America" and "rather more workers in various countries of Europe and Asia".

And to put that all rather more polemically, it implies that it makes about as much sense to say that something called 'Australia' gains or loses when Ripcurl gains or loses, as it makes to say that something called 'America' or 'Japan' gains or loses when Ford or Sony gains or loses - i.e. almost no sense at all. And equally - and to take a rather more emotive case - if jobs contract in the textile and footwear sectors in Australia while jobs in the same sectors in China expand massively, it makes about as much sense to say that something called 'Australia' has 'lost' these jobs as it makes to say that something called 'China' has 'gained' them - i.e. almost no sense. That is to say, some Australian workers have lost jobs and some Chinese workers have gained jobs, but what the medium to long term implications of this may be for these entities called 'Australia' and 'China' is actually entirely unclear. If, for example, the newly employed Chinese workers or their offspring turn up as Queensland tourists five or ten years down the track, they may bring some considerable economic benefits to 'Australia', and if there are Australian investors gaining profits from the companies in which those Chinese workers are employed, and a larger share of those profits are spent in Australia (and in the US and Belgium and France and Taiwan, and, and, and ...) than are ever spent in China, then has something called 'China' 'lost' or 'gained' by 'gaining' these jobs? I hope by now you see the problem.

And to be clear, the problem is not that "it is difficult to say whether Australia or China has lost or gained"; the problem rather is that it makes no sense to ask (let alone answer) these questions in these 'Australia' or 'China' terms at all. It makes sense to answer them, as I hope I have shown, with reference to categories like 'workers', 'investors', 'shareholders', 'owners', and you can certainly put national adjectives before these category groups if you want ('Chinese' workers, 'Australian' workers, 'Australian' investors etc). But what about Australian citizens of Chinese origin who buy stock in a Belgian registered company setting up in China? Are they 'Australian' investors or 'Chinese' investors or (indeed) 'Belgian' investors? Take your pick. For me at least, in this context the important thing about them is that they are investors.

That these things are important, that these confusions are indeed confusions, came home to me most strongly because of my particular interest in, my particular slant on, my 'point of view' about, the globalisation process. This is because, since I was a graduate student working on the economics of peasant coffee production in East Africa in the late 1960s and early 1970s, my interest in global trade, investment and capital flows has, above all, been an interest in the implications of these phenomena for the material welfare of the absolutely poorest people in the world - the people to whom Frantz Fanon once memorably referred as "the wretched of the earth". And of course if that is the concern that drives your interest in globalisation, then you very quickly come to measure the value or importance of foreign investment in a country or countries in exactly the same way as you measure the value or importance of (say) overseas aid flows - by whether, and to what extent, and on what scale, they are benefiting the poorest (or at any rate, the poorer) people in that country or countries.

You very quickly focus on that question for two reasons. Firstly, many of the poorest countries in the world are also some of the most unequal, some of the most radically class-divided, countries of the world, and this often means that overseas aid flows and foreign investment flows end up disproportionately in the hands of the rich minorities in such countries. This quickly teaches you to distinguish supposed 'national' realities from (if you like) real class realities. But also, secondly, you come to focus on this just because it very quickly becomes clear to you that so very few people do. That is, ruling classes and elites within the Third World prefer to talk in national categories of benefit or disbenefit, as a way of distracting attention from their own uncomfortable class privileges; and many even left leaning people within the First World tend to assess the process in implicitly if not explicitly nationalist ways too (are Australians benefiting, are Australian workers gaining or losing?) and ways which also tend to 'disappear' the interests of the world's most needy people.

And in fact looking at globalisation from this perspective has led me firmly and ineluctably to one conclusion. This is that the movement of manufacturing and (indeed) service investment to certain parts of what used to be called the Third World (and most notably to East and South-East Asia, including parts of China) over the last 25 years or so (perhaps the economic heart of the process which we call globalisation) has done more to raise the absolute standards of living of more needy people than has over half a century of overseas aid flows (and other well meant 'liberal' measures) since the end of the Second World War. In that sense at least I am constrained to agree with the well-known American trade economist, Paul Krugman:

These improvements have not taken place because well-meaning people in the West have done anything to help - foreign aid, never large, has lately shrunk to virtually nothing. Nor is it the result of the benign policies of national governments, which are as callous and corrupt as ever. It is the indirect and unintended result of the actions of soulless multinationals and rapacious local entrepreneurs, whose only concern was to take advantage of the profit opportunities offered by cheap labor. It is not an edifying spectacle; but no matter how base the motives of those involved, the result has been to move hundreds of millions of people from abject poverty to something still awful but nonetheless significantly better.1

And once I had accepted that what Krugman claims was/is indeed empirically, factually the case, then the question for me became two-fold. Firstly, how might the process of globalisation be carried further and faster so that the hundreds of millions of the earth's wretched still untouched by it can also be moved from "abject poverty to something still awful but significantly better"?; and, secondly, how can that happen without workers and people in the already prosperous parts of the world experiencing such significant material costs from the globalisation experience that they turn against it, and (perhaps) drive their governments back in economically nationalist or protectionist directions?

These are in fact the two major questions addressed in the second half of my book (the first half being given over both to showing that globalisation has had the benefits that Krugman claims, and that the pattern of both its benefits and disbenefits cannot be accurately plotted through nationalist spectacles and categories). One of the principle conclusions of this second part of my book is that, if - realistically - popular support for (or, at least, lack of marked hostility to) economic globalisation is to be retained in the West, then these countries must be protected from entirely open global flows of labour. (I think the rise of racist and ultra-nationalist parties all over Europe, and - to a lesser extent - here, in a context of still highly restricted global labour movements shows indubitably that this is the case). But my book also argues that the quid pro quo of the retention of labour movement and immigration controls must be a commitment, from all parts of the political spectrum in the Western countries, to as unrestricted as possible flows of capital and goods/services globally (to 'free trade' in a word).

I argue that this is simultaneously both the only morally responsible and economically rational position to take in the present global conjuncture (the only 'politically progressive' position in short). And of course underlying this view is a perfectly conventional economic conviction that while, in the short to medium term, there may be costs to some Western workers from this commitment to a world of free trade, in the longer run the majority of both Western and non-Western workers will benefit from it. And at bottom the reason for this is simple. Abjectly poor people can buy little because they produce so little (economically speaking). Therefore, raise their productivity and their incomes and you simultaneously make them much more effective consumers - including consumers of 'Western' goods and services.

From there my book moves to some final philosophical reflections and conclusions - on the philosphical merits and demerits of nationalism generally, on the historical genesis of the nation-state and its historical relationship to the development of capitalism, and even to some speculations about how capitalism may be regulated for progressive social and political purposes in a world without nation-states, as we currently know them, or with much politically weakened nation-states. And as part of the philosophical reflections in particular, I found myself engaged with the issue with which this presentation began - the issue of relating whatever one might conclude intellectually about nationalism and national identity to how, despite one's intellect, one may still feel about it.

For why do I feel discomforted by having to 'admit' to an audience of Australians that my book is not about the impact of globalisation on, or in, Australia? In part because I feel that such an audience is justified in looking at globalisation from that point of view - even that it has a right so to do. I also just assume that if any aspect of globalisation damages the wellbeing of Australians, their fellow-Australians are justified (meaning, also, that I'm justified) in being concerned about that more than they (we) are concerned about what its implications may be for Indians, or Malaysians or Brazilians. For, after all, if their fellow Australians do not weight the 'welfare-calculus' of globalisation in that way, who else is going to?

Indeed, but I also argue intellectually in the book, that the only humanly defensible way of weighting the welfare gains and losses of globalisation is in a globally equal way. I argue, for example, that one job created anywhere on this planet is the human equal of one job created anywhere else, that one humanly fulfilling life lived anywhere on this planet is morally equal to such a life lived anywhere else. But, as I say on the very same page of the book on which I reach these conclusions, "thoughÂ…I can write such words I cannot feel what they mean", and I am clear that the reason for this is that concepts like 'humanity', 'a common humanity', 'human welfare', have no real affective meaning for any human beings on this planet at this moment in history. For, as I also say, "we all of us spend far too much time interacting with our fellow nationals and far too little time interacting with non-nationals for us to be able to treat these kinds of abstract ideas as anything other than just that - abstract intellectual ideas".

I don't resolve this contradiction - between my thoughts about nationalism and my feelings about my nation - in my book, simply because it cannot be intellectually resolved at all, at this point in history. But what I do say is that, like John Locke 300 plus years ago, when arguing for a world of religious toleration, or like John Stuart Mill nearly 150 years ago when arguing against "the subjection of women", at this point in history my duty as an intellectual, and the duty of those who agree with me, is to put our intellect before and above our feelings, to commit ourselves to ideas (and actions justified by those ideas) that we intellectually believe to be right, even if we cannot feel how or that they are. And it is our duty to do so, because doing so is an absolutely necessary first step to creating a future in which our descendents can (perhaps) live in a genuinely cosmopolitan, internationalist world (a genuinely human world, in a word), which we can presently barely imagine. So, in short, the discomfort and even embarrassment with which this presentation began is still there at its end. But I intend to ignore it, and I hope to at least have begun the process of convincing you too to ignore it, and to feel (moreover) that you are right so to do.

Gavin Kitching is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of NSW and this is the transcript of his address to the Evatt Foundation on 10 March 2002. Gavin's new book is Seeking Social Justice Through Globalisation: Escaping a Nationalist Perspective (PSUPress, 2001).


1. Paul Krugman, The Accidental Theorist and other Dispatches from the Dismal Science, New York, Norton, 1998, p. 83.


Suggested citation
Kitching, Gavin, 'Nationalism & globalisation', Evatt Journal, Vol. 2, No. 3, April 2002.<>