Blogs > Cliopatria > globalization and the state (slight return)

Apr 13, 2006 4:34 pm


globalization and the state (slight return)



Wonderfully, Rob McDougall and Caleb McDaniel have picked up where I left off in my last commentary on globalization and political history. Less wonderfully, they've done so when I'm still in the thick of Exciting Committee Meetings and other distractions from the actual give-and-take of academia.

But what game academic ever let such business stop him from hastily adding a few stirs to a hot pot of debate?

Quickly, let me rehearse my position: I don't think you can talk meaningfully about globalization or if you like transnational factors without talking also about politics, and about the nation-state. That's the argument I made in the commentary on globalization and political history linked above.

Now, I'll go a step further. I find that the more you look at transnational factors in American history, the more you're drawn back to the peculiar character of the American state. I'll state it as bluntly as I can: transnational factors have reinforced the exceptional character of American politics.

We come now to the question that Rob's astute students prompted him to pose:

When impersonal forces like globalization and trans-nationalism get invoked, it is very easy to lose sight of actual historical actors and actions. Like all the passive voice sentences in the papers I'm currently grading, these important-sounding nouns obscure the key verbs. Who is doing what to whom? Who's globalizing who?

As it happens, this Tuesday I was fortunate enough to be asked similar questions by a different, exceptionally acute group. I'm going to try to paraphrase here what I said there.

I'm easily confused, and words that end in -ism and -ation confuse me especially easily. I think therefore that if we want to talk about transnationalism and globalization, or rather, about some factors that might come under these headings, we ought to try to refer as precisely as possible to what we're looking at. I think that will also clarify the question of what is, or was, actually happening.

When I say"globalization" and want to look at"transnational" factors in history, I mean what Edward Learner (pdf link) and pretty much a large school of thinkers mean:"Globalization is the increased international mobility of goods, people, contracts including financial claims) and thoughts (facts, ideas, and beliefs)."

With this definition, it's suddenly much easier to talk about who's doing what, when, where, and to whom. When I talk about the impact of globalization on c19 American politics and culture, I tend to focus on the movement of people and money, because (a) we who are familiar with tariff debates know pretty well how the movement of goods provoked a policy response¹ and (b) we who are familiar with the propensity of American progressives to peg their accomplishments to those of their overseas counterparts know a great deal already about the international trade in solutions to industrial problems² and (c) I think that in terms of the influence of these international factors on the course of American history, the movements of people and money appear to matter most obviously.

Now, let me run really briskly through a thoroughly stylized and cartoonish version of the argument, but one that will make the major points.

In an age of more or less free migration, such as the one that prevailed in the world between about the Civil War and World War I, people moved across borders when they saw an opportunity to do so profitably.

The great majority of the international migrations of the late c19 appear to have been essentially unforced. They happened when (mostly) young (mostly) men saw an opportunity in one of the New World countries that sufficiently exceeded the opportunities available to them in their Old World countries.

We sometimes talk as if we could meaningfully dismiss the impact of this migration because (a) it wasn't as a proportion of the U.S. population a very big migration (though it was on its own merits, in terms of millions of persons, a very big migration indeed) and (b) the reaction Americans had to this migration as to others can and should be seen in terms of the historic reactions to people of all categories of"others".

Without rehashing an argument that could take up a major chunk of a book (not that I'm thinking of any particular book) let me sketch a few worthwhile points.

(a) The impact of immigration was not national, but regional; (b) the reaction to immigration was not national, but regional; (c) American politics is not actually organized on a national, but on a regional basis; and (d) the regional differences in the impact of globalization (immigration flavor) mattered in terms of the vote on immigration-related policies (which covers laws other than immigration restriction bills).

Also, although racial reactions to immigration loomed large in the American (and the Australian and Canadian) behavior on the issue of Chinese migration in the mid- to late- c19, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion laws, the reaction to the Eastern and Southern European migrations of the decades around 1900 looked a lot more like a reaction to job competition. Which is why the New York Times referred to the literacy test act as a"Labor Exclusion" law.

Similar points could be made about the regional impact of international investment capital and the reaction to it.

We can thus begin to think about the growth of the state in this most critical era of American history as a story about the regional reactions to globalization in a country where regional reactions can shape national policies in peculiar ways.

So, who's doing what to whom? International actors—investors of capital and labor—are making bets on return-on-investment in the U.S. economy. Measure, as accurately as you can, the impact of these actions on various parts of the U.S. and you will begin to notice that these actions created discernible reactions among Americans of the period in the regions most affected—listen to the voices of the populists and progressives and you will hear them over and again talk about the peculiar place of the U.S. in the newly small world of the late c19.

In this story, who shapes globalization? Both the transnational actors, and the transnationally acted-upon (who become political actors in their turn): the reactions to transnational movement, channeled through politics, determine whether, and how much, it can continue.

On these terms—the impact of international effects on the American process of state-building, on American political culture—I think we can talk meaningfully about the connection between globalization and exceptionalism. Because the state the Americans built in response to these international forces did not look like the states other peoples built in response to other forces.


¹Although Andrew W. Cohen has persuaded me that there is more to be said on this score and that he is working on saying it.

²Although John Witt has persuaded me that there is more to be said on this score and that he is working on saying it.


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More Comments:


Rob MacDougall - 4/17/2006

Thanks for this post, Eric. This is good stuff, just the sort of material I was seeking on this topic without quite knowing I was seeking it. I'm very much looking forward to your book.

I'll also comment here, since I don't think your home blog takes comments, how pleased and impressed I am that your 20th C US and the World syllabus begins with Peter Galison's book Einstein's Clocks. I was a research assistant for Prof. Galison on that book, a great experience. I don't know that I would have thought of using it in a US & the World course, but it's a really neat place to start.


Eric Rauchway - 4/13/2006

Why is so much html broken in the comments?


Eric Rauchway - 4/13/2006

Okay, I'll do a thumbnail sketch—but I'll do it in a post. Which means you'll have to wait.

The axes of comparison I use in the book mostly have to do with (a) nature and volume of immigration (and response thereto) (b) nature and volume of capital investment (and response thereto) (c) nature and scope of commitment to welfare (and result therefrom) (d) nature and volume of commitment to warfare (and result therefrom)

Japan is included in the various datasets I've consulted, but I didn't treat it as a separate case study and unless I'm already misremembering the book, gets no special mention.


Oscar Chamberlain - 4/13/2006

Not at all. It's a topic that fascinates me. And you might well win me over. Still I don't think I was wrong to hope for a thumbnail sketch of an answer.

One more question. It strikes me that a comparison of the United States with Japan, which industrialized and liberalized (to a point) without much external immigration but with a wholesale importation of ideas, could be fascinating. Is that a part of what you do in your book?


Eric Rauchway - 4/13/2006

Would it be churlish to say, Oscar, that I really hope you'll read my book, because it's all about this subject?


Oscar Chamberlain - 4/13/2006

"Because the state the Americans built in response to these international forces did not look like the states other peoples built in response to other forces."

Maybe that's true, but is it distinctive. Do other countries responding to the same forces resemble each other with only the US sticking out, or are many responces unique or exceptional?

If many responses are in themselves exceptional, then what is exceptional about American exceptionalism? At minimum the term would need a serious redefinition.