"The Rise of the Global Imaginary: Political Ideologies from the French Revolution to the Global War on Terror" by Manfred B. Steger [Full Text]

Ethics & International Affairs, Volume 23.3 (Fall 2009)

September 11, 2009

Book cover - The Rise of the Global Imaginary: Political Ideologies from the French Revolution to the Global War on Terror

The Rise of the Global Imaginary: Political Ideologies from the French Revolution to the Global War on Terror, Manfred B. Steger (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 336 pp., $43 cloth, $30 paper.

Carole K. Fink (Reviewer)

With the end of the cold war came a wave of pronouncements (and denials) of the "death of ideology." For more than two centuries ideologies—despite theoretical and practical contradictions—provided a solid political compass for governments, parliamentarians, journalists, and the public to define their stands on a huge range of local, national, and international issues. The central question in the current debate is whether, faced with the political, economic, and social challenges of a globalized planet, we are bereft of any coherent political guideposts or whether we still possess realistic and robust idea-systems.

Manfred Steger, a prolific scholar of globalization, adopts a cautiously optimistic version of the second position. The Rise of the Global Imaginary is an essay in two sections. In part one, "The National Imaginary," Steger deftly traces the history of the traditional Western ideologies—liberalism, conservatism, socialism, communism, and Nazism/fascism—and discusses their origins and shared characteristics. From the radical left to the extreme right, freely borrowing their rhetoric and mobilization techniques from organized religion, all these ideologies were aimed at uniting and empowering national communities, and offered competing and compelling visions of past and future, space and identity, as well as their definitions of freedom, power, and social justice. Analyzing essential speeches, popular pamphlets, and unpublished tracts along with the classic texts and major secondary works, Steger details the inherently nationalist roots of these ideologies, including the distinctive "Germanness" in Marx and Engels; the British elitism, nationalism, and imperialism in John Stuart Mill; and the modern form of French racism in conservative Maurice Barrès. He also depicts Stalin's Communism and Hitler's National Socialism as two extreme, as well as related, forms of nationalist mobilization, dominated by ruthless leaders with all-encompassing world views.

The second part, "The Global Imaginary," contains the crux of Steger's argument. The period since World War II and, especially, since 1989 has been the tipping point in which a new social and political consciousness has arisen. In this global era, ideology now serves to bridge the shrinking national-international divide. With decolonization came the contrasting Third World Liberationist ideologies of Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolent "truth-force" and Frantz Fanon's call to violence derived from his Manichean antiracist, anticolonial perspective. In the cold war West of the 1960s the voices of Martin Luther King, Rachel Carson, Betty Friedan, and Daniel Cohn-Bendit were merged into the New Left program for a global humanist and pacifist agenda, while the New Right's heroes of the 1970s (Friedrich August von Hayek and Milton Friedman) and 1980s (Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan) equated peace, freedom, and plenty with a unified and unfettered global market.

The nineties, with Communism gone, spawned Francis Fukuyama's political triumphalism, along with Thomas Friedman's paean to "Market Globalism" (pp. 184ff.) and the inevitably connected world. But this decade also witnessed the rise of two dissenting movements: the "Justice Globalism" (pp. 197ff.) of transnational activists loosely tied to the 1960s, who organized nonviolent and violent public protests on behalf of labor, minority and human rights, and environmental protection; and the rightwing populism of Jean-Marie Le Pen, Jörg Haider, Pim Fortuyn, Pauline Hanson, and Patrick Buchanan, who sounded the alarm against the dangers of an open world in which the movement of currency, goods, people, and ideas were eroding social bonds and personal security.

In the wake of 9/11, two powerful ideological rivals emerged: Jihadist Globalism has been pitted against Imperial Globalism, one side seeking to diminish the West's military and economic might and rebuild the Umma (the family of Muslims) through armed or unarmed struggle, the other (often linked with the ideology of the neoconservatives and with the post-2001 war on terror) seeking to use the United States' economic and military power to "democratize" and to "manage an unruly world" (p. 236). From both sides has come apocalyptic globalist rhetoric, almost exceeding the jeremiads of the cold war.

Steger in 2008 concludes on a realistic but hopeful note: "The national is slowly losing its grip on people's minds but the global has not yet ascended to the commanding heights once occupied by its predecessor" (p. 247). Still, "the first rays of the rising global imaginary have provided enough light to capture the contours of a profoundly altered ideological landscape" (p. 248).

Having restored vitality to the notion of ideas as historical forces, Steger might have been bolder in his analysis, which is largely linear and dialectic. Moreover, focusing on the great European powers, he misses some of the quieter nineteenth century roots of the global imaginary in the liberal views of Giuseppe Mazzini and František Palacký who, like Gandhi and Fanon, equated national independence for their people with freedom and justice for all. Also, by focusing on the dominant First and Third World ideologies during the cold war, Steger omits the Soviet and East European dissidents—Andrei Sakharov, Václav Havel, György Konrád, and Adam Michnik— as well as the pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989, whose views on human rights touched the entire world.

Some details are missing. Steger smoothes over the impact of the periodic economic depressions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries on political ideologies; and he almost ignores the League of Nations, the United Nations, and the European Union as institutions promoting internationalist structures and values. Moreover, he scarcely tackles the issue of militarism as a fixture in the national and global imaginary. Although Steger could not have foreseen the current collapse of global markets and the uneven impact on different states and communities, his stimulating book raises the question whether the "destabilized" national imaginary may yet spring back to life in a new, unanticipated form, and whether new competing ideologies are waiting in the wings, either recognizable or not.

—CAROLE K. FINK The reviewer is Professor of History at The Ohio State University and author of Defending the Rights of Others: The Great Powers, the Jews, and International Minority Protection, 1878–1938 (2004).