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Distorted World: End of Globalism

Moving through time and across space, I aim to give voice to the diversity of individuals who participated in this debate, to how it played out in local everyday contexts and at the level of national and international politics.

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Millions of people in the world lived in deep poverty in regions that were denied political sovereignty and exploited economically for the benefit of Europeans and North Americans. Photo credit [ Taylor Brandon/ Unsplash]

Following excerpts adapted from the author’s newly released book, Against the World: Anti-Globalism and Mass Politics between the World Wars published by W. W. Norton & Company

“In a world of falling prices, no stock has dropped more catastrophically than International Cooperation.” — DOROTHY THOMPSON, 1931

The era of globalism was over.

Even committed internationalists “have lost faith and join in the chorus of those who never sympathized with our ideals, and say internationalism has failed,” despaired Mary Sheepshanks, a British feminist and internationalist. Although she was confident that the spirit of internationalism would return once “the fumes cleared from men’s brains,” it had been replaced for the moment by “race hatred and national jealousy, leading to tariffs, militarism, armaments, crushing taxation, restricted intercourse, mutual butchery, and the ruin of all progress.”

The year was 1916. Hundreds of thousands of European boys and men were already dead, and nearly everyone was penning obituaries for internationalism. The fumes did not clear quickly. More than twenty-five years later, the Austrian Jewish writer Stefan Zweig would publish his memoir, The World of Yesterday. It was a nostalgic eulogy for a lost era of globalism. Zweig, a self-described “citizen of the world,” recalled, “Before 1914, the earth had belonged to all. People went where they wished and stayed as long as they pleased. There were no permits, no visas, and it always gives me pleasure to astonish the young by telling them that before 1914 I travelled from Europe to India and to America without passport and without ever having seen one.” After the war, everything changed. “The world was on the defensive against strangers . . . The humiliations which once had been devised with criminals alone in mind now were imposed upon the traveller, before and during every journey. There had to be photographs from right and left, in profile and full face, one’s hair had to be cropped sufficiently to make the ears visible; fingerprints were taken . . . they asked for the addresses of relatives, for moral and financial guarantees, questionnaires, and forms in triplicate and quadruplicate needed to be filled out, and if only one of this sheath of papers was missing one was lost.” He linked these bureaucratic humiliations to a loss of human dignity and the lost dream of a united world. “If I reckon up the many forms I have filled out during these years . . . the many examinations and interrogations at frontiers I have been through, then I feel keenly how much human dignity has been lost in this century which, in our youth, we had credulously dreamed as one of freedom, as of the federation of the world.”

In Britain, economist John Maynard Keynes penned his famous obituary for globalization shortly after the war ended. “What an extraordinary episode in the economic progress of man that age was which came to an end in August, 1914!” he wrote. In the golden age before the war, “The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep.” It was an age in which “the projects of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions, and exclusion, which were to play the serpent to this paradise, were little more than the amusements of his daily newspaper.” These looming threats “appeared to exercise almost no influence at all on the ordinary course of his social and economic life, the internationalization of which was nearly complete in practice.”

Stefan Zweig and John Maynard Keynes remain among the most renowned analysts of the changes brought by the First World War. They both understood these changes in terms of the end of a golden era of globalization, during which people, goods, and capital breezed across international frontiers. But their very nostalgia for a lost world of globalism offers an important clue as to the causes of its downfall. Both men were myopic about the extent to which the freedoms they associated with globalization were the privileges of a narrow elite (“It may be I was too greatly pampered,” Zweig speculated . . . ). The earth had not belonged to everyone before 1914. It had, however, belonged to people like Keynes and Zweig.

Zweig and Keynes traveled the world unmolested by bureaucrats before the First World War largely because they were wealthy, highly educated, white European men. They traveled freely for business and pleasure, with no concern for their physical safety. Nor did they worry about the meddlesome interference of husbands, fathers, or state authorities.

In steerage, the World of Yesterday looked quite different. Migrants headed toward the United States in the late nineteenth century were already subjected to the poking and prodding of doctors charged with excluding sick, disabled, and mentally ill migrants, along with those deemed “likely to become a public charge” (including most single women). Nonwhite migrants were categorically excluded. Millions of people in the world lived in deep poverty in regions that were denied political sovereignty and exploited economically for the benefit of Europeans and North Americans. While it was true that international trade benefited all parties in the aggregate, it exacerbated inequality between rich countries and poor countries. Likewise, within industrialized countries, globalization did not benefit everyone equally: there were clear winners and losers.

Keynes frankly acknowledged all this. The bounty of globalization was not shared equally. But inequality, he claimed, had been seen as a necessary corollary to progress in the nineteenth century. “The greater part of the population, it is true, worked hard and lived at a low standard of comfort, yet were, to all appearances, reasonably contented with this lot.” This was because they believed in the prospect of social mobility. “Escape was possible,” he insisted, “for any man of capacity or character at all exceeding the average.”

The war shattered those illusions. The magnitude of wartime sacrifices bred popular demands for more immediate justice. Across Europe and the world, workers, women, and colonial subjects took to the streets, demanding sovereignty and greater equality. In Russia the discontent combusted into revolution, which seemed poised to spread westward. The wheels of global integration ground to a halt. This spelled disaster for Europe and the world, Keynes warned. “An inefficient, unemployed, disorganized Europe faces us, torn by internal strife and international hate, fighting, starving, pillaging, and lying.”

His warning was prescient. The era of anti-globalism lasted another two decades, punctuated by the greatest global economic crisis in world history, the Great Depression. Nor would the strife be overcome with a new treaty or a peaceful handshake. Rather, as American journalist Dorothy Thompson would observe from Berlin in 1931, “Looking at Europe, from the British Isles to the Balkans, one is forced to the admission that after twelve years of the League of Nations, the International Court . . . multilateral treaties, Kellogg Pacts, the International Bank and disarmament conferences, the whole world is retreating from the international position and is taking its dolls and going home.”

WHY AND how did so many people turn against the world after 1918? And what were the consequences of this anti-global turn? This book attempts to answer these questions. In the process, it reframes the history of interwar Europe not only as a battle between fascism and communism, democracy and dictatorship, but also as a contest over the future of globalization and globalism. The era between the two world wars was defined by attempts to resolve mounting tensions between globalization on the one hand and equality, state sovereignty, and mass politics on the other.

Moving through time and across space, I aim to give voice to the diversity of individuals who participated in this debate, to how it played out in local everyday contexts and at the level of national and international politics. The protagonists include several famous and infamous people—dictators, internationalists, industrialists, and economists— but also many individuals on the margins of history, including migrant women, garment workers, shopkeepers, unemployed veterans, radical gardeners, and disillusioned homesteaders.

There is no doubt about the decline of global mobility and trade in this period. On the one hand, the First World War was a “global” war. It mobilized human and material resources around the world and increased international financial entanglement through a massive web of international debt (especially debts to the United States). But at the same time, the war produced unprecedented supply shocks. The cost of shipping tripled, and inflation soared. Meanwhile, states introduced new tariffs, exchange controls, and other protectionist measures, and sought to cut off supplies to their enemies. Economic historians estimate that global exports declined by 25 percent due to the outbreak of the First World War, recovering to prewar levels only in 1924. There was a brief period of growth in the late 1920s, but all these gains were lost during the Great Depression. By 1933, world trade had declined 30 percent from 1929 levels and was 5 percent lower than it had been in 1913. Trade did not reach pre-1913 rates of growth again until the 1970s.

Transatlantic migration, which reached a peak of 2.1 million in 1913, came to a sputtering halt during the First World War and recovered only briefly after the war ended. Global migration rates remained high in the 1920s, especially within Asia, but the Great Depression radically curbed mobility everywhere in the world. This was partly due to a reduction in demand for migrant labor, but it was also caused by the closing of state borders and new restrictions on migration and mobility. Global communication also slowed down. News that raced via telegraph from Europe to North America and Australia in a single day in 1913 took weeks to arrive in 1920. And the gold standard, the motor of global financial integration, broke down during the First World War and was abandoned by the roadside during the 1930s, first by Great Britain (1931), then the United States (1933), and finally by France and other European powers.

These numbers, and the broader economic histories of globalization and deglobalization between the two world wars, are critically important. But my focus is rather on the grassroots origins and human consequences of the popular revolt against globalism, both for self-professed globalists such as Keynes and Zweig and for individuals who saw globalism as a threat to their aspirations for greater equality and stability. It was this popular confrontation with globalization that ultimately caused its disruption and transformation. Popular anti-globalism arose with accelerating globalization itself in the late nineteenth century, but in the 1920s and 1930s, the demands of anti-global activists were increasingly taken up by political parties and states. Their efforts to render individuals, families, and states more self-sufficient had mixed results, but lasting consequences.

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Tara Zahra

Tara Zahra is a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellow, and a professor of history at the University of Chicago. Recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, she lives in Chicago, Illinois.

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