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Globalization from the Standpoint of Its Victims

By Nathan K. Hensley

February 22, 2024

In Response to Why the Georgetown Global Dialogues?

In the rebar and bones of a bombed-out Gaza, we find the crystal of a larger historical process—an emblem, perhaps, of the collapse of a progress story that many of us have believed in implicitly, as a matter of faith, for our whole lives. The world will improve; things get better.

Packaged as “development” and “growth,” even “modernization,” this story remains the official common sense in elite spaces today. It organizes the thought of nearly all politicians, informs the work of every mainstream opinion maker, and shapes the mind of almost anyone considered, by the powerful, to be reasonable. As a student of the British nineteenth century, I’ve become intimate with this plot. The great Victorian thinkers perfected the idea of time’s upward trend, and they linked this improvement story to an ideology of individualism and a presumption that an expansionary and essentially untethered capitalist accumulation would, eventually, benefit us all.

We live in the ruins of that narrative now. As Thomas Banchoff and Pankaj Mishra note, “Globalization has spawned inequality, discontent, and demagoguery rather than a peacefully equitable world.” The munitions destroying Rafah were supplied by executives who live in Arlington mansions and Capitol Hill rowhouses, steps away from housing projects where life expectancy is a decade lower than in the sunrooms and remote-work offices where these words might conceivably be read. Such obscene dialectics are, today, the stuff of regular life.

Call it a period of exhaustion, or the terminal phase of the Enlightenment project: whatever its name, ours is a moment when the Western dreamwork of futurity and progress has faced itself in the mirror and shudders at what it sees. Official thought cannot assimilate this tremor of dark recognition. Equality and freedom feel remote, slogans from another time. How to take measure of this strange new present?

How, even, to talk about it? The question resonates, given that the apparatuses for thinking and speaking have themselves been swept into the vortex. The capture of mass media by profit-scraping conglomerates, for instance, means that the “robust public sphere” of Enlightenment fantasy is now evacuated; an unchecked algorithmic capitalism transforms thought into data that circulates or doesn’t based on calculations of maximal revenue; and whole educational systems have been remade to the specs of autocrats and the servile centrists who implement their visions. And not just in West Virginia.

If some of the powerful might torque their minds to see in Gaza the conclusion of a certain modernizing process, the climate crisis sharpens these problems differently. That is because here the incentives for self-delusion are high and catastrophe cannot be cordoned off by barbed wire and walls. Denial, in this arena, is a matter of psychic maintenance and material self-interest, which means that phantasmic visions—carbon capture, green capitalism, offset farms—have emerged to salvage the concepts of growth and progress from the ruins of extractive accumulation. We are told to carry on as before, when the plain facts—what you can see out your own window—confirm that the present course of things will not do.

In such conditions, the project of freedom requires a revitalized spirit and practice of public thinking. Universities were never fully apart from the social processes on which they might offer commentary and perspective. But this semi-detached position now means that the space of higher education must be protected with special fervor. For even this is being hollowed out from the inside: poisoned, increasingly, by the question-shaping work of billionaires and hedge fund specialists, infiltrated by a common sense that has normalized atrocity and raised utility to the status of universal religion. In this situation, frank speech and clear-eyed assessment are required.

The task becomes to search with conviction and alertness for spaces where a disastrous common sense can be interrupted. In such spaces of actual thought, increasingly rare, intellectual integrity and a shared desire for justice are prerequisites, precisely so that the shape of specific ideas can become matters of principled contestation. “[A]n experiment in hope at a precarious moment,” is what the Georgetown Global Dialogues essay calls these events. The experiment could not be more urgent.

Nathan K. Hensley is an associate professor in the Department of English at Georgetown University.