The Long, Bitter History of Globalism

The Long, Bitter History of Globalism

A conversation with Tara Zahra about the early-20th-century origins of globalism, how debates over a globalized world have morphed across a century, and her new book, Against the World.


Historians often interpret the history of Europe between the two world wars as an epochal struggle between emergent and entrenched systems of governance: communism versus fascism, democracy versus dictatorship. Yet in her new book, Against the World: Anti-Globalism and Mass Politics Between the World Wars, Tara Zahra offers a different frame for grasping the interwar period. Zahra, a professor of Eastern European history at the University of Chicago, sees these years as a mass political reaction to the advent of a truly globalized world and the consequences of a global economy (and the interwar depression) that affected the lives of millions.

Anti-global sentiments could be found on all points of the political spectrum. Zahra casts an eye on the far-right nationalist movements in Europe, namely fascism in Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Nazi Germany, but she also shows that anti-globalism could be found in the liberatory programs of oppressed peoples throughout the world as well—from Mahatma Gandhi’s drive for Indian economic independence to Marcus Garvey’s Pan-Africanism movement. In doing so, she exposes the general anxieties—immigration, the 1918 flu pandemic, the Great Depression—that undergirded the first half of the 20th century. In this manner, Against the World offers a refreshing new history of the period by unpacking the interplay between the forces of globalization and anti-globalization—a tension that continues to haunt the present.

I spoke with Tara Zahra about her book, liberal optimism over a borderless world before World War I, and the present debates over globalization. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

—Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: The history of Europe between the world wars is typically framed as a battle between fascism and communism or a contest between democracy and dictatorship. What do you find limiting about interpreting the interwar period in this manner?

Tara Zahra: I don’t think that those interpretations are wrong—these were the critical ideological and political battles of the interwar years. But if we want to understand why those two decades produced such radical forms of politics, I think we need to consider the anxieties that underpinned them, and these anxieties clearly transcended political divisions.

Globalization was one of the most pressing issues of the time, even if they didn’t call it that. The years leading up to the First World War were a time of rapidly accelerating globalization in the realms of transportation, communication, and finance. It was a high point for mass migration as well, with millions of people moving across borders. All this upheaval was already generating a reaction at the turn of the 20th century in the form of rising xenophobia, migration restrictions, and tariffs—but the war was still a sharp breaking point.

For example, passports were introduced during the war. It was supposed to be a temporary security requirement, but it wasn’t lifted once the war ended. Trade was upended, and then the Allies blockaded the Central Powers, cutting off food supplies to civilians. Hunger taught millions of people that it was very dangerous to depend on imports for life’s necessities. After the war, there was an even greater determination among many states to achieve a degree of independence from the global economy. But it wasn’t only in Germany and Italy, the places that veered toward fascism—for example, in the United States, Congress refused to join the League of Nations. In 1924, transatlantic migration was sharply reduced by the Johnson-Reed Act, due to fears about “racial degeneration.” The Ku Klux Klan was on the rise as well.

The Great Depression dealt an even more fatal blow to globalization. The very fact that it was such a global economic crisis—that the bankruptcy of an Austrian bank or a Wall Street firm translated into the unemployment of millions of people around the world—suggested that too much entanglement in the global economy was dangerous. Many individuals, experts, and political leaders were convinced that the age of globalization and of economic liberalism was truly over. These views were widespread on the right and the left.

DSJ: So, in a sense, is it correct to say that framing the story around globalization allows us to understand how both democracies and dictatorships were reacting to the same challenging predicament?

TZ: Yes, exactly. Of course, to say that they were responding to the same predicament is not to say that democracies and dictatorships were the same ideologically or that everyone had the same goals. On the right, anti-globalists often saw the nation as the primary victim of globalization, while on the left, I’d say that workers came to the forefront. There were different scapegoats or enemies as well. But some of the policy measures that emerged to address these concerns were shared across the political spectrum—like restricting trade or going “back to the land.” There was a widespread movement to be less dependent on imports for food and natural resources; local foods were never more popular. And there was a general desire to curb mobility and reinforce borders. Incidentally, the so-called “Spanish flu” pandemic was also a part of the story of interwar anti-globalism. The spread of disease was yet another dangerous by-product of globalization that preoccupied people and governments after World War I. As the flu spread across the world and killed millions of people, many people blamed immigrants and foreigners.

DSJ: How did contemporary debates over globalism and anti-globalism shape your approach to the interwar period? You observe, for instance, that the prominent liberals—such as the economist John Maynard Keynes—who praised globalization before World War I were myopic about the extent to which the benefits they associated with globalization, such as free trade and unrestricted global travel, were actually restricted to liberal elites like themselves. This sounds very much like today’s critics of the neoliberal elite.

TZ: I began working on this book in 2016, in the context of the election of Donald Trump, the recent refugee crisis in Europe, the vote for Brexit, and the growing success of far-right populist regimes globally. Those events made me look back and see the interwar era in a different way. I did not anticipate the Covid pandemic or the Ukraine war, which only exacerbated the anti-globalism of the contemporary moment. But in a context in which the inequalities generated by globalization were fueling populist movements, it suddenly seemed very surprising to me that I had never really thought about the 1920s and ’30s in terms of a struggle over globalization. I began to look back on those decades with fresh eyes.

Of course, there are also real differences between now and then. Some are technological. However, as we have seen in the past few years, technological connectivity does not always guarantee real communication, which can be blocked by censorship or corrupted by lies and misinformation. Also, while there has been a general reaction against global trade and migration, finance has been less affected in the past few years—money has continued to move even when people and goods cannot.

DSJ: I was fascinated by the book’s comparative discussion of the settlement movement in Austria, the homestead movement in the US, and Fascist Italy’s attempt to establish anti-globalist cities of self-sufficiency. In some sense, all of these movements could be read as attempts to achieve some kind of autarky or what you describe elsewhere as a kind of “internal colonization.” Can you elaborate on what is meant by the idea of “internal colonization”?

TZ: It was very striking to me as well that all of these “back to the land” movements sprung up at the same time in vastly different political contexts. The fact that they used the term “internal colonization” was not coincidental: Austria had just lost its empire, and Italy aspired to have an empire. In both states, “colonizing” the homeland was seen as an alternative to acquiring colonies abroad or sending emigrants abroad.

The United States was somewhat exceptional, in that it was one of the only countries in the world that could feed its population from its own land in the 1930s. There was a serious agricultural surplus rather than a shortage during the Great Depression. Hitler famously envied the fact that the United States had such a vast and self-sufficient land empire, even though it had been achieved through the mass displacement and death of Indigenous people. That was precisely what he wanted to achieve in Europe.

But in the United States, there was also a significant movement “back to the land” during the Great Depression. In this context, the goal wasn’t so much to produce more food for the nation, but to give unemployed workers a mode of subsistence, a shelter from the free-falling global economy. Even Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal supported these “subsistence homesteads.” However, some people argued even at the time that what workers really needed was not subsistence gardens, but better unemployment insurance and welfare benefits.

DSJ: I think many on the left would find attractive the idea of self-sustainability that undergirded these movements, especially given concerns about environmental degradation and climate change. But should they proceed with caution, given that many of these movements expressed clear fascist and xenophobic tendencies?

TZ: That’s one way to think about it, but the other is that these anti-globalist ideas could be mobilized for extremely different political ends. They don’t have any inherent political content—I would not say that movements for local foods or other efforts to achieve environmental sustainability are inherently tainted by history. The same goes for fair-trade movements. I do, however, think it is good to be aware of the ways in which localism can morph into xenophobia. And when localism or ideals of self-sufficiency become infused with mistrust toward all forms of government or expertise, as we’ve seen, it can become problematic, to say the least. The ideal of local foods is not inherently progressive.

DSJ: I was interested by the book’s discussion of Gandhi, who despite his critique of imperialism did not consider himself an anti-globalist. Gandhi and his followers, you point out, “insisted that economic deglobalization was not an end unto itself, but instead a means to a more authentic form of globalism.” What did this more authentic globalism entail for Gandhi?

TZ: Gandhi believed that Indians needed to free themselves from imperial economic relationships based upon dependence and exploitation; only then could they participate as true equals in the international community. He did not reject political globalism or internationalism—in particular, he encouraged international solidarity among colonized people. But he did not want India to be trapped in a relationship in which it served as a source of raw materials for Britain and a market for British industrial goods. On the other hand, Gandhi was different from many other anti-colonial leaders who were really promoting industrialization. He thought that the better path to freedom was through rural development and local “village industries.”

DSJ: And yet you are quick to point out that Gandhi had a gendered bias in his conception of the division of labor—indeed, he generally relegated women’s labor to the domestic sphere. If there is a common theme throughout this book, it would be that the anti-globalist movements between the world wars had extremely conservative views of women’s role in society. Why did anti-globalism move in this direction?

TZ: That was not only true in India. Movements for autarky—particularly when they were pushing home production or homesteading—clearly fell on the backs of women, who were often expected to take on a lot of unpaid labor in the name of self-sufficiency. Growing or making all your own food, spinning your own cloth, and making your own clothes all take a lot of time and skill. Even at the time, critics pointed this out. For example, in the United States, one of the gurus of the 1930s “back to the land” movement was Ralph Borsodi, who argued that families could produce all their own food and textiles more cheaply than they could buy them. But as public housing advocate Catherine Bauer wrote in the pages of this publication in 1933, to achieve the self-sufficiency prescribed by Borsodi, “You must have a husky wife with a positive taste for domestic production, no desire to do anything else with her time, and a gift for home education as well.”

DSJ: Would it be wrong for the reader to conclude from your book that anti-globalism movements are a futile endeavor?

TZ: Quite the opposite! The idea that globalization is a genie that can’t be put back in the bottle was widespread in the 1990s, in the aftermath of communism’s collapse. But the interwar years demonstrate pretty clearly that globalization can be slowed down, paused, or reversed. It’s true that the most ambitious movements to achieve autarky ultimately failed—but that does not mean that they were inconsequential. Many of the legacies of interwar anti-globalism remain with us 100 years later. We still carry passports. There are no “open borders.” The gold standard is gone forever. Many of the innovations of the New Deal and the welfare state were intended to counteract the insecurity caused by the fluctuations of the global economy. States that were seeking greater autarky also invested in technology that would enable them to produce more food on less land, and in the production of synthetic substitutes for products like cotton, wool, rubber, and oil. The homestead communities, settlements, and “New Cities” built at this time also still exist, even if many of them have become leafy suburbs rather than a source of subsistence.

In some cases, the efforts to reverse globalization actually produced new forms of globalization and internationalism. For example, new international organizations sprung up to assist the victims of anti-globalism or deglobalization, such as migrants, refugees, and members of minority groups. New ideas emerged about how to reform the global economy and encourage economic development. And companies like Ford and Bat’a, when faced with high tariffs on their finished products in the 1930s, increasingly shifted production overseas, where they used local labor. That was the beginning of the multinational corporation as we know it today. So the anti-globalism of the interwar years often had surprising or unexpected consequences, and those consequences were real and long-lasting. The same is sure to be true of our own anti-globalist moment.

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