We live in a dissolving age. Institutions, social forms, and traditional authorities recede. To the extent that they endure, they do so under the sign of choice, often reconfigured as economic or therapeutic projects. Man the entrepreneur and consumer is ascendant—or man the wounded, the victim of trauma or injustice. The old idea that we’re most fully realized in sacrifices for the common good exercises less influence over the public imagination. Solidarity is out. For good and for ill, individual achievement, success, and choice are in. The market provides our dominant metaphors of social organization, not the polling booth or town meeting. The “creative class” fires our imaginations, and politicians cast their projects in economic terms. They promise “efficiency” and “innovation.” Social problems are addressed by “social entrepreneurs.” Multiculturalism promises to refill our social lives with rich and diverse substance, but more often than not it leads to a ritual dance of demands and recognitions that promote neither genuine diversity nor a living culture.
As globalism and its doppelganger, identity politics, colonize our imaginations, a moral consensus forms that regards the nation as an impediment to a more just world. Universal human rights become the paradigm of good governance, not traditions of common law or national constitutions that convey hard-won political wisdom. Progressive visionaries propose post-national regimes, some organized around an all-encompassing market, others overseen by benevolent technocrats, or a combination of both. In “The Fusion of Civilizations: The Case for Global Optimism” (Foreign Affairs, May/June 2016), Kishore Mahbubani and Lawrence Summers champion “pragmatic problem-solving” in a “stable and sustainable rule-based order,” undergirded by a scientific, technological, and economic consensus that encourages a “fusion of civilizations.” The globalized international community will lay to rest belligerent notions such as national interest and bring us to an era of universal prosperity and perpetual peace.
Ever richer and ever at peace: The cosmopolitan dream is alluring. We picture a global market overseen by regulators, mediators, and bureaucrats in a system baptized by the holy water of human rights. But the dream is dangerous as well. The capacity for free and effective political action depends upon firm, stable places on which to stand. Bonds of loyalty allow us to resist tyranny, whether in the form of the utilitarian despotism of global capitalism or the universal moralism that regards our traditions as impediments to the realization of true justice. Mahbubani and Summers are hopeful about a post-national future. They are not alone in their cheerful optimism, but it’s a prospect that fills me with dread.
The nation is a realm of givenness, not choice. We are born into a nation, which is why we speak of fatherlands and motherlands. The newcomer marks an exception, not the rule. We use the term “naturalization” to describe the process by which those who arrive from the outside become citizens. They choose, in a certain way, to be “born again.” Peoples can be overrun by invaders and thus remade, as were so many in Europe during the first millennium. But nations composed of different peoples have never long endured. They often end up as failed states torn apart by tribal, ethnic, or religious strife. Only empires are able to rule over a diversity of peoples. No clear-eyed observer will be deceived by the silly notion that the United States is multicultural. America is remarkable because it sustains a national culture that assimilates immigrants and takes possession of their children. This culture has many facets, but it takes on a distinctive shape and manifests a genius that’s admired and resented (sometimes both at once) by those from other parts of the world.
We’re often blind to the givenness and particularity of American culture because we’re a people under the sign of choice. Our Ellis Island myth reflects our national culture, which is one of invention and re-invention. It’s not coincidental that transgenderism has become prominent in America, not just in our political battles, but also in the media. Someone like Bruce Jenner fulfills the American dream. He’s a Jay Gatsby figure, refusing to allow even DNA to stand in the way of his aspiration to be whatever he wants to be. For this reason, a distinct and widespread American mentality can imagine that there are no longer “peoples,” only individuals, and when the rest of the world wakes up to this deep and liberating truth, everyone will be American. The post-national age will be the American age. This explains why a progressive American internationalist such as Lawrence Summers finds no contradiction between promoting American interests and encouraging global structures that limit American sovereignty.
Closely related is the conceit that America is an “idea” rather than an ongoing national project with a particular history. Our founding documents call us to live in accord with the laws of nature and nature’s God. By this way of thinking, our nationality is “humanity.” To be human is to be American. This mentality explains, in part, our recent foreign misadventures. George W. Bush’s administration imagined itself bringing freedom to Iraq (and by extension to the rest of the Middle East), confident that, released from the grip of a tyrant, ordinary people will become American, or at least friendly to America. The same holds true for our leading role in global capitalism. We’re confident that the free flow of capital, goods, and labor will Americanize the globe. There’s something true about this conceit, as French (and other) critics of the “Anglo-Saxon” political economy recognize. But it is only a half-truth, as China is proving to the rest of the world. And, as is often the case, seductive half-truths are more dangerous than simple falsehoods.
The reality of our global power compounds our American blindness to the dangers of an eroded national identity. Americans designed, ran, and dominated the international institutions launched after World War II: the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade that became the World Trade Organization. The global institutions we could not control, or turn to our interests, we neutered. The United Nations provides the most obvious example. After the fall of the Soviet Union, our supereminence has become even more extreme. The world’s central banks may diverge in particular policies, but their outlook is unified by economic theories and monetary practices developed in the United States. A striking number of today’s prominent central bankers cycled through MIT as graduate students or postdocs in the 1970s. The global economic system may not be an American one, but it is an Ameri-centric one. The same is true for higher education more broadly. We’re in the midst of a “harmonization” of university education around the globe, one keyed to the increasingly technocratic American system. Harvard, Yale, and Stanford are global brands. It’s no wonder that the humanities are being eclipsed. The cultural particularity they represent impedes global dominance.
For these and many other reasons, the typical American, whether liberal or conservative, too easily takes an optimistic view. He allows that a globalized future may entail the weakening of the nation-state, but this does not trouble him. In all likelihood, the post-national future will revolve around the United States. We’re the global archetype and the indispensable center. Should things misalign with American interests, we have a powerful military with which to threaten, cajole, and, if necessary, destroy the recalcitrant and uncooperative.
Over the last few years, I’ve come to realize that post-national, American-led globalization represents a realistic vision of the future, one endorsed, to one degree or another, by many, perhaps most, of the people who populate the financial, academic, media, and political establishments in the United States and elsewhere in the West. This should make my patriotic heart swell with pride, but it doesn’t. Such a future will revolve around a certain class of Americans, a technocratic elite, rather than America as a people. And it will be an empire.
We’re already well along in this transition. A series of political decisions (again, almost always American-led) has made possible the economic globalization that now enables the relatively free flow of capital, goods, and labor through most of the world. A great deal has been written about the consequences. Tax “inversions” allow global companies to locate their nominal headquarters in places more advantageous to their balance sheets. The outsourcing of production to countries with lower costs adds to corporate profits. In the United States, proponents of free markets draw a direct link between prosperity and greater freedom to immigrate. Like capital and goods, labor too must be able to circulate globally. Globalization is based on the premise that the more rapidly everything circulates—including people—the more quickly economic systems find their way toward efficiencies and thus greater prosperity.
It may be that some of these claims are true, and if we want to become richer, we must embrace global capitalism and its transcendence of national boundaries. But globalization, however that contested but inevitable term is to be understood, involves more than markets. Of equal importance have been cultural changes that now tilt in favor of globalization. The political significance of the nation has changed, especially in the imaginations of Western elites. Over the last two decades, university leaders have redefined the mission of these schools. Woodrow Wilson formulated Princeton’s informal motto: “Princeton in the nation’s service.” It was recently revised: “In the nation’s service and the service of humanity.” Almost all major American universities now tout their globalized student body, and donations flow from global sources.
Stanford University recently raised $750 million to fund graduate scholarships for students from around the world. As Stanford President John Hennessy explains, “We wanted to create something enduring, that would be unlike anything else currently available to the world’s brightest minds, and that would make the biggest impact possible toward solving global challenges affecting the environment, health, education and human rights.” The language is familiar and reflects the assumption that technocrats and human rights activists will usher in a new age of international peace and prosperity. In this post-political, managerial, and rights-defined future, the global system supersedes the nation as the organizing power for society.
The recent conflicts between American technology companies and various governments suggest that many people believe global markets provide a more credible guarantee of personal security than sovereign nations. Apple has litigated to prevent American security agencies from compelling company engineers to unlock secure iPhones. In the court of public opinion, Apple argues that it is more committed to customer privacy than government agencies are. Technology columnists have been nearly universal in their endorsement of this claim. The marketplace pressures Apple to “protect its brand,” we’re told, and this produces an incentive for the company to keep customer data private. Market principles are more reliable than government officials, and thus we should trust Apple’s profit motive more than the governments’ commitment to protect our interests. By this way of thinking, we should reconstruct social life on market principles rather than political ones, for even personal security, once thought a core competency of the state, is better served by the laws of supply and demand than the laws made by men.
This imperative—economize social relations!—is rarely expressed in pure form, but it’s widely influential. Uber and other “sharing economy” companies promise to overleap government-enforced cartels and entrenched interests, putting customers directly in touch with providers in a self-organizing system of exchange. Taken alone, perhaps it’s a good business model. As an ideology, however, it represents a very modern dream, one in which the burdens of responsibility for common life are transcended and put into the perpetual care of higher principles. The free-market purist is a closet Marxist. The ever-trustworthy invisible hand organizes individual interests in socially productive ways, and the state withers away.
Contemporary emphasis on human rights sounds more idealistic, but it too reflects a globalized, post-political ambition. Human rights courts take responsibility for larger questions of justice rather than public leaders. Here, the assumption is that universal and impartial legal mechanisms should supersede the unreliable give and take of politics. This mentality operated powerfully during the refugee crisis in Europe. There, the nation-defining question of who is and can be a citizen was transformed into a question of human rights. Given the transcendent all-or-nothing character of human rights, this means that nations are not allowed to ask, much less answer, essential political questions: Where do we stand? Who shares our common destiny?
Technology represents another post-political force. It wasn’t too long ago that futurists were predicting millennial transformations of social life made possible by social media. Events have proven this optimism misplaced. Borderless cyberspace seems more useful for the recruitment of terrorists than the triumph of democracy. Yet the faith of technologists remains undiminished. They firmly believe technology is “inevitable” and more powerful than any political institution, party, or movement. Regulation is futile. What can be done will be done.
Market-based thinking, human rights, and the technological imperative: they form a technocratic approach to social life, a mindset common among our borderless elites. They do not administer a consolidated system, but instead function within an informal, loosely woven web. Most of its members are employed by multinational companies, banks, and consultancies. Others work for global philanthropies and NGOs, as well as for the formal elements of the international system such as the IMF, World Bank, and United Nations. In my experience, these people do not lack a patriotic spirit. Their vision of the future, however, is dominated by strategies of social organization—multicultural therapies, market logic, human rights, or technology—that do not require the existence of a political life organized around the nation. The future they promote runs on expertise, moral universalism, and a managerial ethos.
Christians need a considered, theologically informed response to the dreams of a borderless, post-political future. On the one hand, Christianity promotes a global community of faith, and the Church seeks to unite all peoples in worship of the one true God. The nation, especially in its consolidated, modern form, has often been Christianity’s rival, in some cases dominating the Church or attempting to suppress her. Extreme nationalism, an idolatry of the nation, fueled the long, harrowing crisis of European modernity that stretched from 1914 to 1945. It’s not surprising, therefore, that many Christian churches in the second half of the last century advocated global government to supersede or at least tame the nation-state.
One finds internationalist themes in Gaudium et Spes, the Vatican II Pastoral Constitution that expressed the social ambitions of midcentury Catholicism. Although the Cold War divided the globe, bishops who gathered in Rome in the early 1960s recognized a trend of growing interdependence among nations, one moving toward a “single world community.” They regarded this as a trend to be encouraged. “A more universal form of human culture” is developing, Gaudium et Spes observed. “We are witnesses of the birth of a new humanism.” Gaudium et Spes acknowledges that this new humanism goes astray when it loses sight of God. Nevertheless, the council fathers were influenced by the hope that the postwar era marked a new turn in human history, one with a world-uniting dynamic. In this spirit, Gaudium et Spes calls for “a universal public authority,” a call that has been repeated by John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. The idea is straightforward: We need a global political form to express and encourage an emerging global consciousness.
It’s easy to dismiss the idealism of postwar Catholicism. But the bishops at Vatican II were not altogether mistaken. National leaders of Western Europe after World War II, many of them Catholics, used human rights to contain the nation-state and forge a relatively united Europe. In 1975, the Helsinki Accords provided a vocabulary of human rights that dissident groups in the Eastern bloc employed effectively to weaken the moral legitimacy of communism. Beginning with George H. W. Bush, American administrations have justified American use of force by way of United Nations resolutions. The Obama administration consistently clothes American foreign policy in the drapery of multilateralism, human rights, and international law.
So it seems the Catholic Church (and Christianity more broadly—many other churches have issued even stronger endorsements of internationalism) is on the side of history, baptizing the post-national future. Yet when the Holy Spirit came upon those gathered at Pentecost, it was not to teach them Esperanto. They heard the Gospel in their native tongues. Christ’s revelation comes to and within the nations rather than above or beyond them. This fulfills the Old Testament pattern. Isaiah prophesies that the nations will come to Jerusalem, beating their swords into ploughshares and ushering in an eschatological peace—not as a new, universal people, but as nations living together, directly under God’s justice. The organization of humanity into nations functions as divine ordinance, given to us after the Fall. The people of the earth, still undifferentiated in their universal humanity, attempt to reach the heavens with the Tower of Babel. But God scatters them, establishing distinct nations (confusing their tongues) as the means to sustain humanity in a condition of real but limited solidarity until the time appointed by God for our restoration to Eden’s happy harmony.
The Church is alive to this dimension of Scripture’s witness, and so we also find affirmations of nation and peoplehood in Gaudium et Spes. By the second half of the twentieth century, anticolonialist aspirations were powerful within the Catholic Church, which is not surprising given Catholicism’s global reach. One section of Gaudium et Spes answers them by outlining principles of “full cultural development.” It speaks of our “obligation to work with all men in the building of a more human world” by empowering as many as possible “to attain the full development of their culture.” Pius XII put it even more sharply in the early 1950s when he spoke of “the right to one’s own culture and national character.” This affirmation of the intrinsic value of cultural identity—and the Church’s desire to guard and protect it—is echoed in the post–Vatican II emphasis on a proper enculturation of the Gospel. The Church’s decision to shift from a singular Latin to the plural vernacular language after the council underlines this commitment.
It does not require much imagination to see that the anticolonialist spirit expressed in Gaudium et Spes and strongly asserted in post–Vatican II Catholicism has contemporary relevance in the West. Mass immigration without an intention to assimilate is a form of colonization. It threatens the capacity of a people to sustain their distinctive form of life and pass it down to their children. Church leaders exhibit a fitting concern for the well being of migrants, as should we all. But this makes it difficult for them to see the potentially negative affects of mass migration on the cultural integrity and future of a nation, harms akin to those of imperialism, which the Church condemns.
There may be good reasons for Catholics and other Christians to be critical of the rising nationalism in Europe. But I worry that we have not taken the full measure of the challenges globalization poses. Had I come of age during the great crisis of 1914–1945, or even during the tense, early decades of the Cold War, it’s likely I, too, would have sought to defuse the consolidated energies of sovereign peoples, which is what the founders of what became the European Union did in the years after the war. But that was not the experience that formed me. I came of age during our time of dispersed and weakened solidarity. From marriage to the nation, the things that bind us together have been neglected and dismantled. We are freer to do as we please—and more isolated and vulnerable. In our dissolving age we feel more at peace, perhaps, but less at home. We are cosmopolitan by default.
Thus the dangers in the West today are not those of the first half of the twentieth century. As Alexis de Tocqueville warned, when natural solidarity weakens, the resulting individualism encourages greater centralization of power in a perhaps benevolent but nevertheless impersonal administrative authority. A destructive cycle of atomization and centralization takes hold. The remote administration of society discourages collective political action and encourages a greater individualism, which in turn requires further consolidation and expansion of centralized government. Scale this up to a global dynamic and the prospect looks horrifying. Deprived of strong loyalties (for this is what “the fusion of civilizations” requires), unconsolidated, globalized, and deracinated masses will be both more susceptible to market manipulation and more obedient to technocratic elites. Is this the dynamic already at work in the European Union, and to a lesser degree in the United States? Is rebellion against the trajectory toward disenfranchisement at the root of populist rebellions sweeping through the West?
Pope Francis has identified global capitalism (an ambiguous but unavoidable term) as a threatening power. He’s surely right. But the post-national modes of administration and “problem-solving” that the Vatican tends to champion are almost certain to serve rather than resist global capitalism. International institutions draw from exactly the same pool of well-trained technocrats as do giant corporations. The global system—economic, regulatory, and philanthropic—operates at a great distance from any form of natural solidarity capable of challenging its power. Those who run this system are and will remain insulated from accountability.
The trends pressing toward global uniformity are animated by a rigorously individualistic view of the human person. This is as true for the high-minded project of human rights as for the expansion of consumer culture. Promoting Internet access throughout the world assumes that the human race will be better served when individuals can overleap the limitations of their indigenous communities to become globally connected entrepreneurs, consumers, and activists. The universal ambitions of the global system, which are rationalized as necessary for promoting democracy, economic development, and greater freedom, make this individualism obligatory. It is worse than naive for Catholicism and other Christian churches mindlessly to endorse globalization. Modernity’s soft, inviting individualism has damaged the Church more than its hard and tyrannical collectivisms. This damage will worsen as the Church is required to submit herself to the “fusion of civilizations.”
It is heretical to say, as did Nazi theologians, that national solidarity is more sacred than our unity in Christ. To imagine ourselves more at home in our nation than in the Church remains a perennial temptation. But we are not living in the 1930s. In our dissolving era, Christianity in the West needs to lean in the direction of renewing national sovereignty rather than encouraging a globalized, post-national future.
In “The Tale of the Anti-Christ,” Vladimir Soloviev imagines his own version of globalization and the end of history. A progressive intellectual writes an immensely popular book of modern biblical criticism, showing that God’s Word, properly understood, calls for world peace and the unity of religion. He becomes the global leader and head of exactly the sort of “world governing authority” one hears championed as the solution to the problems of war and injustice. In this role he transcends national sovereignty and delivers world peace and universal rule of law. The new world emperor proceeds to solve all economic problems, bringing prosperity to everyone. The global political consensus ensures placid social relations, too. It is as if the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace had attained its most ambitious goals.
But one impediment remains: religious pluralism. To overcome this division—and surely we must if we’re to achieve a truly lasting “fusion of civilizations”—the world’s supreme leader convokes a universal congress of religions. He presides over the meeting as “your true leader in every enterprise undertaken for the well-being of humanity,” which, of course, includes spiritual ones. The world will finally be united, body and soul.
In Soloviev’s tale, most Christians accept the world leader’s role as supreme spiritual guide. World peace and harmony, even a religious unity—who wouldn’t want that? Only a remnant resists. They will not budge in their loyalty to the particular man, Jesus of Nazareth, the true Lord of all and prince of peace. Their resistance and refusal of the world’s promise of unity, Soloviev implies in his inconclusive conclusion to the tale, precipitates the end of times and the return of Christ.
One need not adopt Soloviev’s apocalyptic imagination (or his Christian faith) to recognize a truth his fantasy brings forward. The spirit of authentic unity flourishes in a shared love, which is necessarily a particular love: this family, this town, this school, this nation, and, as Soloviev dramatizes, this savior. An affirmation of particular loves need not set us against the current international system, or even its expansion. After all, our loves can become disordered and perverted, often with bad consequences, as is sometimes the case when patriotism, the natural love of one’s country, becomes a rabid nationalism. Correcting that disorder and perversion requires many different kinds of legal, institutional, and market-oriented tools, some perhaps global in scope. Nevertheless, we need to be clear about human nature. Our particular loves are the sources of all true, enduring, and empowering forms of solidarity. The highest love, a supernatural love of God, is especially important. It protects us against the false promises of our man-made idols: markets, regulatory regimes, legal principles, and other abstract schemes of constructed unity that we’re told will satisfy our deepest needs. But our natural loves of family and nation are important as well. These loyalties guide our hearts toward service of something beyond ourselves. Love of family and patriotic devotion steel us to resist the empire of utility. And they prepare our hearts for the higher love of things divine.
Like so much in human affairs, globalizing trends are a mixture of good and ill. But the truth Soloviev brings before us remains constant. Love unites us to something particular—and unites us to others in that shared love. This is the only lasting, trustworthy, and ennobling way toward unity. Love’s loyalties may need to be purified and reformed. But those loyalties are to be renewed, not suppressed. Natural modes of human solidarity need to be encouraged, not denied. Yes, we all bear the image of God. The impulse toward global fellowship is not mistaken, however wrongheaded the prevailing ideologies of globalization might be. The challenge before us is to find our way toward a more particularized, more Christian cosmopolitanism.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.