The victories of Brexit and Donald Trump in 2016 brought an explicitly racist brand of nationalism back into the political mainstream. It is a toxic populism that mixes legitimate criticism of globalisation with xenophobic scapegoating and political authoritarianism.
Trump signed an executive order banning Muslims from certain countries from entering the US, and Britain’s vote to leave the EU was noticeably coloured by fears over foreign immigration. That victory has emboldened right wing political parties across the continent from France to Norway and Austria to Sweden.
Global communication only strengthens the political bonds between these movements. Because while this strain of politics is strongly nationalist in focus, its causes are decidedly global. It is part of a broader international reaction to the economic insecurity and political disempowerment associated with corporate globalisation and financial crises.
Racism is undoubtedly another important driving force for this movement. Trump’s aim to “make America great again” is a not-so-secret call to return to a perceived halcyon time of white privilege. Yet to simply reduce this nationalism to racism, or explain it away as a predictable outgrowth of capitalist exploitation, is to miss its distinctly global character. It is not simply a celebration of the “white” race or Western culture. It is a universal reaction to the economic and political ills of the international free market.
Economic globalisation had promised to usher in an era of peace and prosperity linked to economic interdependence and common development. In reality, it created a “race to the bottom” that severely weakened labour rights and environmental regulations. It left many citizens economically vulnerable, while channelling the vast majority of new wealth to the very top.
The emerging authoritarian populism directly speaks to those “left behind”. Trump promised in his inauguration speech to fight for the “forgotten men and women of our country”.
The 21st century return of the native is framed as a popular “taking back” of national identity and self-determination. We are facing a new solidarity between so-called “indigenous” citizens who want to protect their “culture” from the threat at their borders.
And it is ironic that this resurgent nativism is increasingly global in scope. While it seeks to preserve specific cultural identities, it is an ideology that is threatening to sweep the world. The “real people” must be defended, whether they live in the US, Europe or Asia.
Xenophobia has been transformed into a cure for globalisation – one that each country and its “native” population can and should embrace. Global nativism is about preserving the purity of an “indigenous” American, British, Swedish or Chinese culture against the threat of condescending cosmopolitan elites and unsavoury barbarian invaders. They see their very way of life literally and figuratively under threat – an imperilled condition that they share with other endangered “natives” all over the world.
They are also forging new international networks that span continents for connecting “indigenous” populations. Vladimir Putin, for instance, has been accused of funding extreme groups for the sake of pushing Russia’s geo-political advantage in Europe, while the Kremilin is said to have interfered with the US election.
As bad as all this sounds, it may only be the beginning. The broader danger in the long term is that this will coalesce into a fully networked global “native” movement.
The rise of the global natives raises a profound challenge to progressives. How to build a mass movement and consciousness that is international, anti-capitalist and post-colonial? Where is the direct response to a right wing global movement whose populism is championing nationalism, corporate power and ethnic division?
The women’s march protesting Trump’s inauguration was a clear step in the right direction. In cities around the world people massed to resist the forces of misogyny, xenophobia and nativism. It revealed the growing solidarity around these universal values and the willingness to fight for them across national borders.
Yet it also highlights the lack of internationalism in much contemporary progressive economic discourses. While religious fundamentalists and nativists are always seeking to become more global, mainstream “socialists” are commonly content to remain fixated on domestic concerns.
It also requires a sharing of progressive identity. Global natives are in their own way significantly multicultural – openly sharing and borrowing from each other the best practices for achieving political sovereignty and cultural hegemony. Progressive groups must be similarly coordinated and learn from local experiences to successfully spread power and strength.
The choice of the new millennium appears to be between an exploitative neoliberalism (open markets, low taxes) and a regressive neo-nativism. Both roads lead ultimately to a future of capitalist repression, divisive racism and oppressive colonisation. In order to challenge this dual threat of capitalist oligarchy and global nativism, progressives must create their own international movement that draws strength from its diversity and fraternity. Corporate globalisation is colonising the world. Perhaps the most urgent question of our times is: who is going to liberate it?