In a recent speech at the United Nations, President Trump railed against “the ideology of globalism” and “unelected, unaccountable global bureaucracy.”
For those of us who came of age in the 1990s, there was an eerie sense of déjà vu. Then, too, there were protests against global institutions insulated from democratic decision-making. In the most iconic confrontation, my college classmates helped scupper the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999.
The movement called for “alter-globalization” — a different kind of globalization more attentive to labor and minority rights, the environment and economic equality. Two decades later, traces of that movement are hard to find. But something surprising has happened in the meantime. A new version of alter-globalization has won — from the right.
We often hear that world politics is divided between open versus closed societies, between globalists and nationalists. But these analyses obscure the real challenge to the status quo.
President Trump and the far right preach not the end of globalization, but their own strain of it, not its abandonment but an alternative form. They want robust trade and financial flows, but they draw a hard line against certain kinds of migration. The story is not one of open versus closed, but of the right cherry-picking aspects of globalization while rejecting others. Goods and money will remain free, but people won’t.
The current United States trade war is a case in point. Commentators lament that Mr. Trump is tearing up “the rules America itself created more than 80 years ago” and conjure up visions of the 1930s, when nations and empires dreamed of total self-sufficiency. Yet they overlook the fact that the actions of the president and his influential trade representative Robert Lighthizer betray no desire to withdraw from the world market.
Quite the opposite. The express effort is to use unilateral action to bully other countries, China in particular, into better market access for American products. The point of comparison is not the dreams of economic self-sufficiency of the 1930s but Ronald Reagan’s assault on Japanese competition in the 1980s. “The basic philosophy that we have is that we want free trade without barriers,” Mr. Lighthizer explained to Congress in August.
In Britain, the Brexit campaign was built on the demand to “take back control” and fear-mongering about refugees and immigrants. Withdrawal from the world economy was never on the program. On the contrary, the Brexiteers championed a pivot from the European economy to the global one unfettered by the regulations of Brussels and the European Court of Justice. Almost all negotiations since the vote to leave have been in pursuit of a vision in which the free flow of goods and money across the channel can be preserved while labor migration can be squelched. A recent report from British and American think tanks close to the Brexiteers proposes a new free trade agreement between the two countries that could act as an embryonic World Trade Organization 2.0 that would target more directly Chinese state subsidies for industries and the lingering state-provided social services like the National Health Service.
The pattern of right-wing alter-globalization is repeated in Germany and Austria, where the Alternative for Germany and the Austrian Freedom Party have recently recorded electoral wins. Neither party proposes national self-sufficiency or economic withdrawal. In their programs, the rejection of economic globalization is highly selective. The European Union is condemned, but the language demanding increased trade and competitiveness is entirely mainstream. The Alternative for Germany takes fiscal conservatism to an absurd degree with criminal charges demanded for policymakers who overspend. Both parties call for no inheritance tax and burdensome regulations, even as they make new promises for social spending.
Free market capitalism is not rejected but anchored more deeply in conservative family structures and in a group identity defined against an Islamic threat from the East. Several of the Alternative for Germany’s leaders are also members in a society named after Friedrich Hayek, often seen as the arch-thinker of free-market globalism.
Even the alt-right, usually seen as the epitome of the fortress mentality of separatist survivalism, contains significant strains of alter-globalization. Some of the alt-right’s most prominent figures, from Richard Spencer to Christopher Cantwell (better known as the “crying Nazi” from the 2017 Charlottesville, Va., protest), have expressed their sympathies for the radical form of libertarianism known as anarcho-capitalism.
Many people on the alt-right — including the premier anarcho-capitalist thinker, the German economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe — believe that cultural homogeneity is a precondition for socio-economic order. Mr. Hoppe envisions a dissolution of the current world map of states into thousands of tiny units the size of Hong Kong, Andorra and Monaco without representative government and ruled only by private contract.
Like Hong Kong and Singapore, these zones would not be isolated but hyper-connected, nodes for the flow of finance and trade ruled not by democracy (which would cease to exist) but market power with disputes settled through private arbitration. No human rights would exist beyond the private rights codified in contract and policed through private security forces. As Mr. Hoppe argues, the alt-right and identitarian vision of “a place for every race” need not conflict with a global division of labor. None of this need disrupt commercial exchange and the international division of labor. As Mr. Hoppe wrote, “not even the most exclusive form of segregationism has anything to do with a rejection of free trade.” The maxim would be: separate but global.
The varieties of right-wing alter-globalization differ significantly in degrees of horror. What they share is a rejection not of the “postwar international order” — as many pundits fruitlessly argue — but of the order of the 1990s. In the cross hairs are the products of that decade, above all, the crown jewels of neoliberal globalism: the W.T.O., the European Union and Nafta (which was recently renegotiated and renamed).
The right’s alter-globalizers unite in a condemnation of the structures of multilateral governance that emerged from that decade along with their implication that democracy and capitalism were twins joined at the reported “end of history.”
Instead, in a forthright embrace of inegalitarianism, they question the ability of every country and every population to practice democratic capitalism and, in many cases, propose a departure from status quo democratic capitalism themselves.
The idea that openness is under attack is too vague. The formula of right-wing alter-globalization is: yes to free finance and free trade. No to free migration, democracy, multilateralism and human equality.
Quinn Slobodian, a history professor at Wellesley College, is the author of “Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism.”