Review of Adom Getachew’s Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019).
By Alden Young
As the century drew to a close, elites believed themselves to be at the end of history. Many American foreign policy elites had taken for granted the United States’ commitment to economic globalization. From the Clinton era onwards, Democratic Party elites frequently suggested that globalization was an inevitable, irreversible, and ultimately beneficial process. According to Bill Clinton, the championing of globalization was one of the United States’ greatest achievements during the decades since 1945, and while a few rough edges remained, globalization was an unambiguous good for the United States and for the developing world. These narratives about the success of the American project help to explain the shock and outrage that policy wonks expressed when President Trump abruptly reversed course and suggested that globalization was a scam, a project crafted by corrupt elites and designed to rob hard-working Americans of their livelihoods.
Perhaps Trump’s greatest heresy, in the eyes of the liberal orthodoxy of globalization, was his suggestion that the United States adopt industrial policy in the name of national security and unilaterally use tariffs to seek to preserve and expand America’s economic advantages while arguing that the international market was something that an American president could seek to shape rather than prepare his country’s workforce to adjust to. Crude as his articulation was, it made an explicit claim that markets did not naturally stand apart from politics, but were actively created and shaped by political action.
In a brilliant new book, Worldmaking After Empire, Adom Getachew highlights the many ways in which the longstanding narrative of inevitable globalization relies on elite amnesia, especially from Democratic Party elites. Modern theories of globalization arose in the era of decolonization, rooted in regressive models of self-determination from thinkers such as the South African leader Jan Smuts that sought to limit the scope of what anti-colonial activists could hope to achieve. Getachew highlights the vast intellectual work that anti-colonial thinkers put into transforming those models in order to enfuse self-determination with the possibilities of national liberation. We often label these anti-colonial thinkers “nationalists”, but that label ignores the full breadth of their revolutionary thought which was never focused solely on the independence of isolated nation-states, but rather on creating international institutions that would effectively replace empire as the basis of world order and level the playing field between the haves and the have-nots.
Perhaps the most promising effort to bring about such a world was a project begun by the newly decolonized members of the United Nations’ General Assembly entitled the New International Economic Order (NIEO), which strove to create a series of agreements that would address the constantly deteriorating terms of trade that the exporters of raw materials faced in relation to the producers of manufactured goods. Creative thinkers like Jamaica’s Michael Manley even proposed that the international relations between the wealthy and the poor nations could be reimagined as akin to those between the wealthy and the poor classes in a welfare state, with the poor nations entitled to progressive transfers from the wealthy nations. The idea that the poor nations of the world could make claims on the resources of the wealthy nations alarmed even liberal stalwarts in the United States, who consequently sought to propagate a more restricted form of globalization.
As an example of the types of anxieties that were becoming prominent among elites in the United States, Getachew ends her work with the fears of the liberal stalwart Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In 1975, Moynihan, fresh from his stint as the United States ambassador to India, wrote a scathing review of the NIEO, which he saw as a dangerous international initiative to undermine the United States and its commitments to a liberal world order. Moynihan believed that the transition from a world of empires to a world of nation-states could be managed without great transfers of wealth, and warned that “a vast majority of the nations of the world feel there are claims which can be made on the wealth of individual nations that are both considerable and threatening.” Moynihan and his ilk became supporters of what writers such as Quinn Slobodian have termed neoliberal globalization as a means of staving off the challenging idea that the global economy should be democratized.
With national independence coming to large parts of Africa and Asia, post-Vietnam era US policymakers have had as their target diminishing the political and economic usefulness of the United Nations’ General Assembly. They found the NIEO particularly offensive and dangerous. In response to the possibility that other nations would fight for a more equal world, American policymakers pushed for a “new sovereigntism” that reduced the possibility of democratic reform in international economic policy and enshrined the right of the United States and the countries of the Global North to act as they saw fit.
However, Getachew is not concerned with thoughts of men like Moynihan or Jan Smuts—American or European imperialists; rather, she is writing about what she defines as a history of anticolonial “worldmaking.” She focuses in particular on the thinkers of the Black Atlantic, men such as Manley, Nnamdi Azikiwe, W. E. B. DuBois, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, George Padmore, and Eric Williams. She writes that anticolonial worldmaking “took a distinctive trajectory in the Black Atlantic, where imagining a world after empire drew on an anticolonial critique that began from the foundational role of New World slavery in the making of the modern world and traced the ways its legacies were constitutive of racial hierarchy in the international order.” This formulation allowed scholars such as DuBois to link the phenomenon of Jim Crow in the United States to the global expansion of imperialism. In using the phrase worldmaking, Getachew argues that anticolonial nationalism was never parochial and that studying these thinkers allows us to see how “the age of decolonization anticipated and reconfigured our contemporary questions about international political and economic justice.”
Chapter Three, for example, demonstrates how in the wake of the Second World War and the founding of the United Nations, anti-colonial nationalists were able to subvert and expand the meaning of self-determination by theorizing the history of empire as the history of enslavement. Thus, Getachew brings to the fore the political importance of classic works like C. L. R. James’ Black Jacobins and Eric Williams Capitalism and Slavery. These books were not merely empirical works of economic history, they were also anticolonial treatises. Chapter Five discusses how Nyerere in Tanzania and Manley in Jamaica dealt with the failure of the newly independent states to find a sustainable formula of national development.
Getachew in particular highlights how thinkers of the Black Atlantic combined Marxist notions of dependency theory with concepts of interdependence in order to argue for a “welfare world.”
The idea of expanding the welfare state constructed after the Second World War at the national level to the international level meant the possibility of exerting an ethical claim for the wealthy nations to create policies that transferred a portion of their wealth to the poor nations. Rather than aid or debt, transfer policies would be enshrined as a principal of international law. They believed that democratically controlled international financial institutions would be able to intervene in sovereign domestic economies in order to realign them so that international trading was both expanded and made fairer.
In our current age in which global economic crises occur with greater and greater frequency and depth, it is worth revisiting these thinkers and the international society they imagined. Is it possible to tackle global inequality both on an international scale and domestically? Would an international system in which labor was protected and terms of international competition stabilized head off the dangerous rise we are witnessing globally of populism? Is it possible to find a progressive reconciliation between nationalism and internationalism? This book offers a helpful reminder at a moment in which it is tempting to believe that we are confronting these dilemmas for the first time that it is possible to go back to the writings of seminal thinkers of the Black Atlantic to see how they grappled with the conditions of our shared modernity.
Alden Young is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies and a member of the International Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Transforming Sudan: Decolonization, Economic Development and State-Formation.