Demystifying the ‘global ideology’

David Chandler’s new book Hollow Hegemony draws on the work of Marx and Engels to explain how the political class’s embrace of ethics and ‘global politics’ springs from their political weakness and isolation.

Philip Hammond

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Today, virtually every major issue is discussed in terms of ‘global’ politics. From the environment to terrorism, economic crisis to pandemic disease, we are continually told that ‘global problems demand global solutions’.

Yet even as political leaders outline a seemingly ambitious global agenda – to end poverty, reorder the world, save the planet – they disclaim responsibility. ‘Global’ problems are understood to be, by definition, beyond the control of mere national governments. Instead of taking on the responsibilities of power, politicians make a claim of disempowerment, behaving less like leaders and more like activists attempting to ‘raise awareness’. UK foreign secretary David Miliband, for example, recently toured European foreign ministries ‘using powerful climate change imagery to concentrate official minds’, as if he were a Greenpeace lobbyist rather than one of the ‘official minds’ in question (1).

Very few analysts have questioned the claim that politics must now be understood in ‘global’ terms. In the 1990s, liberal cosmopolitan theorists welcomed Western governments’ claims to be acting more ethically in the international arena, seeing this as a sign that ‘global values’ were challenging the narrow pursuit of national interest. Over the past few years, more radical critics have viewed the values-driven approach more suspiciously, as serving rather than subverting power. Yet they still accept the premise that politics has gone global, in the form of neoliberal Empire. Where liberal advocates of ethical interventionism present themselves as heralds of an emergent ‘global civil society’, radicals fantasise that they are in the vanguard of an incipient ‘global resistance’, speaking on behalf of the ‘multitude’.

In Hollow Hegemony, David Chandler sets out to challenge this consensus and to demystify what he characterises as the ‘global ideology’. The conventional wisdom that irresistible global forces have undermined ‘territorialised’ national politics, argues Chandler, turns reality on its head. It is the end of the established framework of left and right that has hollowed out the domestic political process and robbed it of meaningful content. Without any forward-looking political project to cohere their own societies, elites are reduced to a technical managerialism at home and the fantastical projection, internationally, of abstract ‘values’. Globalised politics is not collective political contestation writ large, he points out, but rather signals the lack of such engagement today.

As Chandler observes, today’s talk of global politics reflects our experience, since ‘time and space really do contract and appear to be meaningless once politics is globalised’ – such as when we demonstrate solidarity by our choice of coffee at the supermarket or by wearing a wristband. Yet it would be mistaken to take the appearance of global political engagement at face value. Such self-absorbed activities are far removed from externally oriented collective organisation and action: instead, ‘the goal of political protest becomes increasingly an end in itself in the form of awareness-raising’. Dominant ideas about global politics are ideological because they invert cause and effect, naturalising and objectifying economic and technological change as an inexorable external force which determines subjective political responses. Rather, Chandler contends, it is precisely the absence of shared social and political engagement that gives rise to the appearance of globalised politics.

In developing this argument, Chandler draws inspiration from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s 1845-46 work The German Ideology, which analysed the German bourgeoisie’s crisis of political subjectivity in the early nineteenth century. ‘In the very different context of today’s post-political world’, Chandler suggests, ‘similar questions of the governing elite’s capacity to cohere and project political authority are raised’. Now, as then, a ‘flight to ethics and values is… a reflection of the weakness and incapacity of the political class’. Yet Chandler does more than simply draw an interesting historical parallel. He assimilates Marx’s analytical method and demonstrates its critical edge over contemporary thinking about ‘global’ politics.

‘We do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive… in order to arrive at men in the flesh’, said Marx and Engels, contrasting their approach with the idealist German philosophical tradition. ‘We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life processes we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process.’ (2) Adopting the same approach, Hollow Hegemony brilliantly challenges the ascendancy of the global ideology both in theorising about international relations and in policy debates and practices, not only laying bare its intellectual faults but also uncovering the real circumstances that have allowed it to appear plausible and attractive.

Chandler shows how, for liberal and radical theorists alike, ideas about global politics arose out of the defeat and marginalisation of the left in the 1980s. For liberals, celebrating the ‘anti-politics’ and civil society activism of Eastern bloc dissidents offered a way to be ostensibly critical while avoiding engagement with mass politics, celebrating the individual conscience rather than seeking to win adherence to a broader political programme. In the 1990s, their ideas became mainstream because their ethics-driven approach seemed to offer an alternative for elites no longer able to outline a coherent political vision. For the post-Marxist radicals, meanwhile, a focus on the ‘subaltern’ and a celebration of difference was presented as a critique of all forms of power, but expressed a similar underlying disenchantment with the masses.

The radicals’ ideas, Chandler notes, ‘became “globalised” at the same time as their political horizons became more and more parochial and limited and they drew back from seeking to engage instrumentally or strategically with the external world’. Readers familiar with Chandler’s previous work will know that he is a long-standing critic of cosmopolitan theories of ‘global civil society’. As a supposedly critical perspective on international relations, liberal cosmopolitanism faltered in the years between the 1999 Kosovo conflict and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, as it became increasingly obvious that ethical claims were being used to legitimise aggressive Western intervention. A particularly welcome feature of this book is that it also takes aim at the alternative, radical approaches that have gained ground over the past decade. Indeed, his central concept – of ‘hollow hegemony’ – is mainly pitched against those currently fashionable critiques which, despite the West’s obvious disarray and confusion in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, insist on seeing a confident and coherent global Empire.

Chandler examines a number of key international policy areas – security and development, statebuilding, and human security – focusing not on the rhetoric but on the policy actors themselves. For Western politicians and policymakers the absence of a coherent political vision transforms their relationship to power, making them more likely to experience it ‘as a “risk” or a cause of potential embarrassment than as an opportunity’. Policy rhetoric, he argues, has to be understood in relation to these circumstances, where leaders find it increasingly difficult to conceive of political action in terms of strategic attempts to act on and transform the world in line with clear interests or beliefs.

The concept of ‘human security’, for example, suggests that Western policy should be concerned with empowering global others rather than serving the interests of the nation state. Taking the human security discourse at face value, cosmopolitans promote it as part of an ethical, values-based approach, while radicals condemn it as a disciplinary mechanism of global control. In contrast, Chandler argues that the human security agenda is better interpreted as reflecting the ad hoc and reactive behaviour of disorientated Western elites. In the absence of the clear enemies and clashing interests of the past, virtually everything becomes securitised as a potential threat, indicating ‘a search for a policy agenda rather than a strategic manipulation of one’. Indeed, the discourse of human security facilitates the evasion of responsibility, rationalising the difficulty of forming a clear strategy by suggesting that, in an interconnected world, it would not make sense to prioritise some threats over others.

Hollow Hegemony is an important book which sets out a sophisticated and powerful critical framework for understanding contemporary international politics. At a time when commentators seem perversely determined to interpret the chaos and confusion of Western policy as concealing some grand plan for world domination, Chandler exposes the hole at the heart of Western hegemony, revealing the elite’s lack of purpose and abdication of responsibility. The challenge he poses is to reclaim the possibility of real political agency by rejecting the empty global ideology.

Philip Hammond is reader in media and communications at London South Bank University, and is the author of Media, War and Postmodernity, published by Routledge in 2007 (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

Hollow Hegemony: Rethinking Global Politics, Power and Resistance, by David Chandler, is published by Pluto Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) David Miliband sets out to shock on global warming tour, Guardian, 7 September 2009

(2) The German Ideology, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Lawrence & Wishart, 1974: p47

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