Out of the Cage

Tom Nairn

  • After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order by Emmanuel Todd, translated by C. Jon Delogu
    Constable, 288 pp, £8.99, July 2004, ISBN 1 84529 058 5
  • Bubble of American Supremacy: Correcting the Misuse of American Power by George Soros
    Weidenfeld, 207 pp, £12.99, January 2004, ISBN 0 297 84906 9

In some ways, millennium absurdity has not yet ended. Although the Dome reached oblivion in record time, a deeper dimension of fever, wild surmise and unhinged ‘radicalism’ has remained, greatly intensified since 11 September 2001. Its future was prepared by the non-election of George W. Bush in 2000, equivalent to the failed coronation of a pope in 1000. Simultaneously, the persistence of 1990s neoliberal science fiction (Homo economicus etc) provided some conceptual continuity for the usurper’s regime. Then, on the back of America’s reaction to the atrocities, teleportage was guaranteed to the planet of eternal terrorism, homeland security and the axis of good. All that was missing was an experimental test for this kingdom come, and now it has been supplied by Mesopotamia.

But as the experiment nosedives, more earthly diagnoses of the whole episode are starting to appear. These two essays come from widely differing positions, but intersect quite extensively on fundamental issues. They agree that US quasi-imperial supremacy is a ‘bubble’, a semblance that may have overawed the globe during a period of disoriented transition, but never derived from American military or economic power alone. It depended on the absence or indifference of the US’s earlier foes, Russia and China, plus the collusion of its former allies – ‘partnerships’ which would really be more accurately described as a decade and a half of abject self-prostration. Such empire as the Americans have had never of course depended on colonisation, a category disallowed by their own ideology of origins. It depended on something more novel, and ambiguous: the self-colonisation of their one-time fellow-travellers.

Now, self-colonisation is wearing off. The events in Spain after 11 March have shown how fast and how inexorably it is vanishing. Unlike those of the old Persian empire, the satrapies of neoliberalism needed a minimum of popular support (or of simple indifference or abstention). A shared merit of these books is their suggestion of the reasons for this shift. To summarise their complex narratives rather brusquely, both authors maintain that neither modernised ‘human nature’ nor the actual nature of post-1989 ‘globalisation’ was likely to put up for long with an American or any other imperium, or ‘leadership’. Misreadings of the one world bequeathed by 1989 have suggested that US hegemony – which is inseparable from its immediate circumstances – must also represent fate, or long-term inevitability. In truth it was more of a Magoo-like delusion, initially inflated by the cheap enchantment of millennial economism, and then (after 2001) by the storm-blast of a wounded American nationalism. Both Todd and Soros try to focus on more profound trends, and give different philosophical and anthropological explanations of what globalisation may really be about.

Soros is a hero of the capitalist world, known especially in the 1990s for his activity in Central and Eastern Europe. With the Central European University and a chain of Open Society initiatives, part of his wealth went towards supporting democracy in the post-Communist countries, as well as the extension of private enterprise and market values. When I arrived there in 1993, one of the Prague CEU staff warned me not to heed the smartarses and opportunists with whom Soros was inevitably surrounded: ‘He actually means what he says,’ was the message – the open society stuff wasn’t just coating on the free-enterprise pill. There was a substantial basis for his convictions, rooted in earlier travails and a passionate conviction that Karl Popper had been right, in his view of science and philosophy as well as in the theories of The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945). A little later, I and many others were convoked to a seminar at which Ernest Gellner, Soros and Popper himself spoke – it was one of Popper’s last appearances in public. He shared his recollections of the outbreak of World War One: it had ruined his school holidays.

This was an inheritance light-years away from that of the millennium’s righteous-cause addicts. Whatever the verdict on his open society, no serious analysis could confuse it with the open market religion of the 1980s and 1990s. In broad terms he was a social democrat, who thought that social engineering was indispensable for any liberal or capitalist society. Failures of the Cold War period have shown this concept to be more complex than anybody imagined in 1945; but they have not invalidated it for true believers like Soros and he returns to it here with renewed conviction. The global success and diffusion of market economics has simply made the dilemma more acute, and its avoidance (as with George W. Bush’s administration) more intolerable and destructive.

Todd is less well known to anglophones, but such ignorance is likely to be cured by After the Empire. Todd was the demographer who attended seriously to the almost invisible signs of decay in the Soviet Empire, and pored over the statistics of the Eastern Bloc for an explanation. The result was La Chute finale (1976), the first prediction of the edifice’s coming collapse. His figures showed the emergence of a middle class with typical falls in fertility, but without the socio-economic prosperity that accompanied such changes elsewhere. In other words, the Second World’s pseudo-colossus was already being invaded: a stealthy yet irresistible osmosis, preparing a fatal contradiction. The one-sided social advances of Communism, plus minimal information about the West, would lead to disenchantment, and eventually to implosion.

This alone would be good reason for heeding what Todd now writes about the West itself. When La Chute finale appeared, the table-thumping realists of the day had little patience with such idle speculation. Security specialists were what sensible governments were clamouring for, sound fellows with some influence on public opinion. Grave, gimlet-eyed prognoses of doom remained the staple diet, in responsible editorials and sock-it-to-’em columns alike. Today, ‘international terrorism’ may have shakily assumed the role of ‘Communism’. However, the hard nose and the reluctantly shaken head have easily weathered this change. If the new bunch have a distinguishing trait, it is born-again brazenness. In an analysis of Christopher Hitchens and his historic predecessor in the craft, George Orwell, in the LRB (23 January 2003), Stefan Collini coined a superb descriptive phrase: what the reborns stand for is ‘the "no-bullshit” bullshit’ of anti-liberalism, re-equipped with post-9/11 riot gear. In differing ways both Todd and Soros are taking on these bullshiteers, above all in political terms. But they can’t avoid doing so in a climate still regulated by the malignant gnome of 1970s anti-politics: ‘There is no alternative.’

Neither author can be accused of daft anti-Americanism. Soros has lived and worked mainly in the US for many years, and one of the asides in Todd’s book describes meeting up with his Jewish-Austrian grandfather in Disneyland in California. To an accompaniment of dancing Mickeys, his grandfather confessed that certain American attitudes ‘reminded him unpleasantly of the Vienna of his adolescence’. The son of the novelist and biographer Olivier Todd, he also owns up to a strong English streak, at once familial and cultural. Anyone inclined to dismiss After the Empire as a French tirade should reflect that nationalism is, if anything, understated by the author.

Equally, neither writer can be convicted of anti-capitalism. Here Soros’s record speaks for itself, while Todd accepts the necessity of free enterprise and market forces in the post-1989 world. What both denounce is the zelotic faith that has been reared on such necessity: the high-decibel ism of deregulation, accumulation and state liquidation. As Todd puts it, the latter sees ‘globalisation as an apolitical phenomenon in which ‘nations, states and military powers do not exist’. Fuelled by missionary societies such as the American Enterprise Institute and evangelical tracts such as Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree (2000), this religion has led to what Amy Chua has depicted as a ‘World on Fire’ in her book of that title.[*] She is concerned primarily with the outer reaches of the conflagration, in South-East Asia and Africa, but Todd and Soros emerge onto a scene dominated by the central fire-storm in the Middle East. There, the attempt to stabilise a whole region, and make it safe for neoliberal capitalism and democracy, has become a battlefield where stumbling rearguard retreat is the sole option. On this abandoned terrain, supposedly evaporating nation-states will then have to fight it out. Turkey, Iran, a Shia-nationalist Iraq and the protagonists in the most embittered and least resolved national question of modern times, Kurdistan, will simply be unable to put either liberal democracy, or supplying petroleum, near the top of their agendas.

Oddly enough, Soros says comparatively little about the economics of the US supremacist bubble. His main idea here is to compare it to ‘the boom-bust process, or bubble’, which his experience of the stock and exchange markets has made him familiar with. Investors are irrationally carried away by their heady gains, think that the process will be never-ending, and ignore tell-tale signs until it’s too late. Yet he is also quite conscious of this model’s inadequacy, and admits that ‘comparing the present situation to a stock market bubble is a flight of fancy.’ People will indeed ‘wake up’ at some point, and rue their commitment to the excesses of Bush, Cheney and Wolfowitz. However, a great deal more than their shirts and savings will by that time have been lost. After its ill-mannered restart in 2001, history will presumably have once more altered its course, with consequences for every soul on earth, not just stockholders.

Todd’s economic diagnosis is far more searching. For most pulpiteers of the free trade denomination, the equivalent of the Lord’s Prayer has since the 1980s been a descant on America’s role as the indispensable motor of capitalist growth. After the Empire underlines the fallacy at work here. Although it retains predominance in sectors of the electronics and armaments industry, US manufacturing has steadily declined in importance. America has indeed been essential to the particular manner of post-1989 expansion – as a swelling market-place for both the investment and the industries of other countries. In other words, though the globalising economy may have benefited from that role, the US has come to depend on the rest of the globe.

The economic pattern of the early 21st-century US is astonishingly similar to that of early 20th-century Britain. Page after page in Todd’s book recalls the analyses and verdicts of J.A. Hobson’s Imperialism (1902). Hobson noted that the UK relied on naval predominance to enforce free trade around the globe, and that Southern English society was transforming itself into a financial and consumerist hive, sucking in ‘tribute’ from developing economies everywhere else. This would all come to no good, he warned sternly. The rest of the world was bound to catch up, in blood if it had to, and British industry would rapidly find itself outclassed. I noted on a recent internet search that an Amazon two-book special bargain offers Imperialism alongside Lenin’s later polemical variant on the same thesis, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916).

Dependency has fateful consequences. The rest of the world can no longer be allowed to go its own way. Between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the millennium, America enjoyed an inchoate preponderance, or hegemony. The Clinton years witnessed the build-up of the almost parasitic dependence Todd describes, accompanied by striking symptoms of moral disarray and social disaggregation at home. Nor were such warning signs confined to the White House. Persisting black-white antagonisms were aggravated by Hispanic and other immigrations, and by gnawing disquiet about elites, privatisation, and the loss of class and other communities. The weird non-election of 2000 ended by placing a question mark over the greatest constitution on earth, even if officialdom closed ranks against admitting any crisis.

If any way of the world was implicit in those circumstances, it should have been growing multilateralism: a fussy old think-tank term, yet everyone knows its sense. After Cold War confinement, the liberating side of globalisation should have been freedom for peoples, not just for investors, companies, entrepreneurs and bottom lines. If capitalism was generalised, it had to become various, assorted and embodied in new social and political forms, possibly dissonant, or at odds with one another. Alternatives were bound to arise, with differing polarities and directions. Just as it had been folly to imagine Soviet guidance of the former socialist imperium, so it was hopeless to think that the US could now continue (let alone develop) what was an essentially defunct leadership status.

Todd sums up his alternative model like this:

At the very moment when the world is discovering democracy and learning to get along politically without the United States, the United States is beginning to lose its democratic characteristics and is discovering that it cannot get along without the rest of the world.

The planet is therefore faced with a double reversal: first, the new economic dependence of the United States vis-à-vis the rest of the world and second, the new distribution of democratic energy around the world, henceforth positive in Eurasia and negative in America.

The US therefore has to maintain the order attained during first-phase (post-1989) globalisation, with a ‘fundamental strategic objective . . . of political control of the world’s resources’. It can’t do so by colonisation, but can attempt to maintain its position by means of the self-colonisation I mentioned earlier, as long as this is sustained by three vital supports. The first is a neoliberal clerisy imbued by the inevitabilism of capitalist material progress (as the Eastern elite was once persuaded of Marx’s ‘historical materialism’). The second is not so much military power as its display: the brute fact, reiterated every single day since 11 September 2001, that the US owns and is willing to use most of the globe’s advanced killing hardware. Most of it may be essentially unusable; but as Todd points out, its menace can be expressed through ‘theatrical micro-militarism’, an overawing deployment of force against insignificant and suitably noxious second-raters. The last precondition is of course ideological: the terrorist axis of evil, eternal and malevolent, that has replaced Communism. Many critics have shown the conceptual absurdity of this; but it has two big advantages. It accords with the religious revivalism provoked by the success of neoliberal expansion since the 1980s: a heartless world has had to solicit new opiates for the heart. Also, a paranoid belief-system is by definition relatively termite-proof: it counts on perpetual mobilisation, and will resist settling down into institutional decay.

Yet all these are makeshift manoeuvres, for more profound reasons that Todd signals. Behind the grotesque inequities of 1990s economics, a steadily rising world level is visible: ‘One can begin to see in a not too distant future a totally literate world . . . we can imagine that among the younger generations universal literacy will be achieved by 2030’ – the final attainment of ‘the revolution linked to the written word’. And naturally, that ‘word’ will be vastly more effective than its predecessors, the pen and print room which fostered nation-state formation in early modern times, as Benedict Anderson showed in Imagined Communities. The new literate world will be more outward-reaching and multiform, providing vehicles for a ‘new distribution of democratic energy around the world’. An information revolution counterpointed the expansion of transnational capitalism in the last third of the 20th century, and acquired its own momentum and consequences. Microsoft helped to establish this; but it would be absurd to identify its wider historical import with a single enterprise or nation, however ambitious or ruthless.

However, while Hamlet stands roundly condemned by both authors, the Prince of Denmark remains puzzlingly absent. He is half-glimpsed in mirrors, or disappearing behind an arras, as if not quite at home amid these bracing sermons. Something vital is missing from both arguments. These authors provide persuasive portraits of certain necessary conditions of the great turning of 2001-04. Yet the sufficient condition, the precipitating factor or force, eludes them. I mentioned Soros’s modesty earlier, a stance implicit in his Popperian method. The apology is very nicely made to readers in an appendix called ‘My Conceptual Framework’. This turns out to be founded on ‘the postulate of radical fallibility’, the ‘foundation principle of an open society’, which enjoins everyone to refrain from dogmatism. Though unable to refrain from a hefty side-swipe at Robert Kagan’s Martians, Soros generally abides by his own rules. Thus a liberal concept of human nature is saved, albeit by a curious exaltation of indeterminacy.

In his introduction, Todd says that the most disturbing thing about the present situation is ‘the fundamental absence of any satisfactory explanation for American behaviour’. Has America become a destabilising busybody because it is all-powerful or, on the contrary, because it ‘feels it is losing its grip on the new world that is being born’? The author promises ‘a rigorous explanatory model’, but fails to provide it. Soros is right on this point: on the present-day theoretical stage, ‘rigorous’ has become as untrustworthy a term as ‘radical’.

But there is a non-rigorous, indeed positively old-fashioned, absentee from the arguments in both treatises: the nation. Soros and Todd aren’t alone in this. According to one report from the recent World Social Forum in Bombay, the shifty old blighter was doing the same act there: now you saw him, now you didn’t. ‘For an event that could be deemed a great cosmopolitan movement,’ the Australian commentator Damian Grenfell noted in Arena in March, ‘lists of speakers were still accompanied by a bracketed nationality’:

Similarly, a range of speakers suggested that the fight against neoliberalism needed to be ‘taken back’ and waged at the national level, declaring that a reinvigoration of national politics would be an appropriate future strategy for contesting neoliberalism. While it is important not to overstate such a tendency, for movements that have typically emphasised the local and the global as appropriate locations for action, the importance of the national did not seem far below the surface in many debates.

Soros falls back on the nation, too, when there is no alternative. Discussing Bush’s embrace of supremacism, for instance, he points out the way the macho-bullshit faction adapted Dubya’s chronic irresolution to its plan: ‘In effect, they exploited the instinctive reaction of the public for their own purposes.’ But of course this means that US nationalism was providing the motive power. The whole nation had been irresolute and all at odds, not merely its half-accidental president. Now suddenly the odd hangover of Clintonism and the anti-climactic semi-triumph of 1989 were gone. A nation was ‘itself’ once more, feeling and acting as one. But Soros finds the least appropriate formulation for the phenomenon, constantly repeating that Social Darwinism inspires the neo-imperialists.

This is wildly inaccurate. Social Darwinism was a late 19th-century delusion, indispensable to the New Imperialist ambitions of that period, but utterly defeated in 1945. Then from the 1950s onwards, genetic science rendered it completely irrecoverable as a philosophical justification. That fragments of it still survive among nostalgic right-wing sects is unimportant: so do Nostradamus and the Number of the Beast. But the instinctive reactions of the public are another matter. Since 2001 the globe has been witness to how nationalism remains vital, and decisive – and, of course, it was a sense of this that worried Emmanuel Todd’s grandfather so much, on his trip to Disneyland. On a recent visit to Los Angeles I was surprised to encounter something quite similar. After a talk suggesting the end of the world was not nigh, a Jewish Angeleno came up, took me to one side, and burst into a confession of how fearful he felt about Armageddon. Though born in the US, and with no direct link to old Vienna, he was unmoved by the high-profile alliance between US and Israeli foreign policy – was this not an inherently fragile accord, liable to burst along with the rest of the bubble, and bring aggravated anti-semitism in its wake?

After the Empire has some passages recounting Todd’s earlier forays in this direction. These are also retraced in the important preface to his La Diversité du monde (1999), with a memoir of the earlier stages of his theory, and the furious polemics that have attended them. The back pages of that volume contain two maps known to all toilers in the stony vineyards of nationalism theory, showing ‘Family Types’ in Europe and the world respectively. His idea was that such variations must explain most of what has happened in modern times: the diversity of Homo sapiens derives from a remote ancestry of kinship patterns, nuclear, communitarian or ‘stem-family’, sibling egalitarianism or its contrary, cousinate or non-cousinate marriage, and so on. Such trends underlie the contemporary checkerboard of national states, and can be used to account for phenomena such as Nazism and Communism. They are the species equivalent of the ‘unconscious’, shaping forces transmitted not through the blood but via child-rearing across an astonishing range of specific familial matrices.

This theory brought howls of protest from social scientists (including from many fellow anthropologists). Some of it was ideological: Todd’s new rigorism coincided on one hand with the collapse of historical materialism, and on the other with the rise of last-word postmodernism. He had managed to offend the old Left and neoliberalism’s superego simultaneously – a triumph of refractoriness which some readers may see as related to the shaping forces of the author’s own familial nexus, and its arm’s-length rapport with France. In the 1999 preface he explicitly compares his approach to that of Freud. Just as the practical utility of the unconscious was to assist patients towards conscious readjustments in living, so recognition of contemporary society’s primordial side should help us gain greater political control, to use and transcend this inheritance.

The trouble with the famous charts was always that they explained far too little: the family types only half coincide with the actual contrasts and borders of the modern globe, tantalisingly suggesting explanations rather than providing usable ones. One striking aspect of After the Empire is the way that Todd’s earlier philosophical obsessions have receded in importance – without renouncing them, he now refers to the earlier Grand Theory with a degree of nostalgia, and spends far more time on relatively straightforward arguments about economics and the post-2001 state of international relations. It is as if he were unable to relate the two confidently any more, and so has to oscillate from one to the other.

But it’s what lies between (and connects) these two perspectives that counts: the quick of modernity, rather than its economic innards or its carapace of diplomacy and armour-plated rhetoric. Todd’s earlier theses plunged into this originating stream, albeit with a rather crazy, one-eyed force. His philosophical anthropology strained to embrace everything, yet ended by explaining far too little. He still falls back on it now and then, but with decreasing conviction. It’s evident, for example, in his perception that a ‘loss of its democratic characteristics’ is among America’s current failings – as if an earlier universalism was somehow ebbing away, and demanding replacement by more forceful leadership, with the unavoidable implications that have dogged every officer class or aristocracy in history. What’s the ‘rigorous’ explanation of this slide?

Alas, Todd now returns the reader to poor old England. The hobbits resurface, with their ‘Anglo-Saxon uncertainty when it comes to determining the status of the "other"’. This is ‘the legacy of a primitive anthropological condition having to do with England’s peripheral position . . . on the border of the Old World’. The consequence is a deep-seated ambivalence, passed on to colonial America, and manifested in the troubled tale of US race relations and (since the 1960s) ‘ethnicity’. The Cold War imposed a universalist style, but with its end the alter ego of Anglo-Saxondom was bound to re-emerge, as a frankly differentialist imperium was established – a new Rome sustaining herself by imposition, bribery and the kind of ‘indirect rule’ its British ancestors were quite good at a hundred years ago. Once this pre-emptive direction is taken, men on horseback quickly gain control, and insist on the absolute primacy of military values and homeland defence, as Michael Mann shows in Incoherent Empire (2003). In today’s USA this conversion is especially tempting: the military are widely popular, because their values are perceived as contrary to those of neoliberal economics: the army is seen as a place where rules are obeyed, and not so many are in it for what they can get out of it. And, of course, American ethnic minorities are over-represented in its ranks, a fact never underplayed in the embedded war reporting of last year.

As an overall account of the Coalition’s war in Iraq, this is disappointing. Were the Anglo-Saxon hypothesis reliable, then New Zealand and Anglo-Canada would surely have been with us, battling around Baghdad. In fact, and in spite of being as ‘peripheral’ to world events as Australia, they remained hostile to the whole enterprise. The more recognisable pattern is that of nation-state anachronism: the Iraqi project is an attempt to revive the nation-state’s fortunes and popularity by means of a deliberately stoked-up nationalism. On the anachronism front, the relevant dates are 1776 and 1688: these were bath-chair constitutions long before 2001, of course, but had been unexpectedly reanimated by blood transfusions from the economic onrush of the 1990s. Such states descended from mercantile oligarchies, early modern contraptions preserved from reform by good luck or (in America’s case) by Lincoln’s victory in the War of Secession. After 1989, febrile pseudo-youth was bestowed on these codgers, exemplified by Blair’s Cool Britannia, as well as by the phoney radicalism of the US neo-conservatives. What Anthony Giddens labelled the ‘runaway world’ of postmodern capitalism was partly devoted to running away from democracy, notably at home. This was accomplished by coupled strategies of reaction: a resanctification of principles that have stood the Test of Time, plus an infusion of Great-Power nationalism. The former naturally allows the latter to present itself as righteous, as Zbigniew Brzezinski’s ‘leadership’, rather than as crude, self-interested domination.

Australia may appear an exception in this line-up, but the Australian Federation of 1901 was set up on deliberately retrospective lines, adopting the Wisdom of the (post-1688) Ages to contain a potentially unruly people, even if this meant ceaseless tensions and a permanent identity crisis. In 2001, when John Howard’s Liberal government was returned to power with an increased majority, it found the post-9/11 climate wholly sympathetic to its belief that further doses of nationalist purgative were required, in order to allay the strains of a still novel multiculturalism, as well as the standard pangs of a boundary-less world. New Zealand and Canada have certainly not been spared either problem, but these countries enjoy significantly more modern and democratic constitutions, and have correspondingly less need for identity-antics and uniformed idiocy.

Both of these important polemics are aimed in the right direction. They just don’t go far enough, because they don’t allow for the autonomy and the future of nationality politics. They remain handicapped by one feature of the millennial zeitgeist which, in other ways, they denounce so effectively. Neither Soros nor Todd acknowledges the endemic confusion between ‘nations’ and the ‘-ism’ that was welded onto nationality by the specific conditions of the century of Great-Power warfare between the 1870s and the 1980s. Nationalism did not simply grow out of the political, self-governing nationhood that marked the preceding era – the one launched by the 18th-century revolutions in France, America and elsewhere. Although it has come to be understood as inherent in the liberal-romantic movement of democratic differentiation that culminated (temporarily) in the defeats of 1848, in fact it was an add-on, invented in France and the United States after the two greatest wars of the 19th century: the War of Secession (1861-65) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). It was these that converted the nationality politics of 1815-48 into that distinctive mixture of creed, obligation and armoured mission which nationalism still denotes.

Once this philological mutation was embedded in discourse, it proved irresistible. The big guns were behind it. By the end of the century, at the time of the Dreyfus affair and the Spanish-American conflict, the globe was indeed going nationalist. But that was a by-product of the New Imperialism and of Social Darwinism – not a natural growth from liberal-romantic nationhood. Nationality politics had to be reconfigured into what became the 20th-century ism, in order to make Great-Power mobilisation possible. The military metaphor isn’t accidental. Forced into the new, post-1870 template, nations had to be mobilisable in order to be themselves, and they had also to remain in a permanent state of latent war-mindedness. Threats to this new essence were unceasing, malevolent and omnipresent – and hence better pre-empted than allowed to gather strength.

Recent revisions of comparative history have begun to lay more stress on these features. In The Birth of the Modern World: 1780-1914, Christopher Bayly points out that armed conflict between states and populations was not marginal to modernity: ‘The intensification of nationalism during the 19th century was itself pre-eminently a consequence of war and invasion. Nationalism defined itself against "others". The experience of common military service, basic education in the ranks, and élite leadership widely transformed peasants and workers into nationalists’ and ‘the multiple crises of the middle of the 19th century widely confirmed this transition, not only in Europe, but also in the Americas, the Middle East and Asia.’ Later on he reinforces the argument still more incisively: ‘The new nationalism and the "new imperialism” were two sides of the same coin’ and from the 1870s onwards explain just how ‘the most powerful forces of globalisation became internationalised.’[†]

Once forged, modernity’s coin quickly became the common currency: the also-rans, the left-behinds and would-be nation-states all had to get their doses of the ism, sometimes exaggerating its ideology to make up for their lack of real punch. In the first half of the 19th century, liberal-democratic nationhood had struggled to make its mark; but by the end of the century a related yet quite distinct mark was triumphant: the fixed and embedded essence of ‘nationalism’. This was less the realisation of Mazzini’s ‘world of nations’ than its degradation (and near the end of his life in 1872, the old prophet saw it coming).

The essence of an essence is always to have been there. As a back projection, it meant that awakening nationalities had simply been in training for the competition of nationalism, the homicidal Great Game launched in the 1870s, and tawdrily re-staged over the last three years. Because competitions must have winners, the losers must also have been unwittingly gearing up for empire: Roman, Chinese, Spanish, German, British or whichever. If not simply repressed, they could be rewarded with invitations to self-suppression: indirect or home rule, decaffeinated regionalism, or the righteous allegiance of self-alignment with imperium, bloc or axis. The accompanying forward projection imagined a globe of (eventually) grateful folk-dancers: nations able to be themselves at last, secure within a wiser and all-conquering suzerainty.

Todd and Soros are right to denounce this fantasy, in its latest American variant. It’s quite true that globalisation entails the run-down of nationalism. But the latter is now better understood in its determinate, time-bound sense. And what neither sufficiently recognises is that curtailing the ism also means the release of the nationhood that it imprisoned for so long. Nationhood can now escape from the essentialist cage of regimented identity, flag-worship and armour-plated community that imperial warfare couldn’t help generalising throughout the era of world wars (including the Cold War). This will lead to ungrateful folk-dancers, surly dismissals of self-colonisation, peremptory demands for meaning, identities reasserted rather than conveniently fading away. This is the reason, as Grenfell remarked in Bombay, that the Prince of Denmark keeps half-obtruding, even among the anti-globalisers: they can’t do without him. Liberation from the ism will also allow a return to Mazzini’s ‘world of nations’, to democratic nationality politics, including a measure of that romanticism so sneered at by hard-hat neo-cons, as well as the ‘no-bullshit’ stall holders crying their wares at the seedy end of the High Street.

A much longer revision of theories about nationalism and nations is now needed, to complement the brilliant destructive assaults in The Bubble of American Supremacy and After the Empire, and it’s clear from studies such as Bayly’s that this is under way. Todd foresees a literate world, but the basic optimism of his stance (which underlay his famous unveiling of Soviet Communism, as well as his patient quest for the sources of diversity) doesn’t let him see how this world will also be one divided between at least 220, or even 230, self-governing nations. After the ordeal of 2001 to 2004, most will be converted to Gertrude Stein’s alarming democratic theory: ‘Self-government is self-government is self-government.’

Bush, Blair and Howard were attempting a return to the security of the cage: that is, the psychic and military security of nationism, the elixir of the past century’s order and leadership. Naturally, they interpreted the global as an eternalisation of properly constituted nationalism, analogous to (and hence led by) their own. This was the sufficient condition, or precipitating factor, of the Empire’s last stand – a retrogression which also explains what so many felt at the time, that the process was somehow inevitable, and a return to neglected truths. It was actually a return to what has become the authentic last refuge of scoundrels, a world of Great-Power nationalism incapable of adapting to what both Soros and Todd are in their very different ways trying to evoke and to justify: the reality of globalisation, as an emergent, multiform, diversifying pattern of open and more democratic nations.

[*] Heinemann, 352 pp., £12.99, November 2003, 0 434 01220 3.

[†] Colin Kidd will review Bayly’s book in a future issue.