Urban Planning + Design + Research


Writing on a variety of topics related to cities, urban theory, sustainable development, China, urbanism.

The Other "Square People"


Thailand's military declares a coup for the second time in 8 years, India elects a prime minister who has called himself a Hindu nationalist and looked the other way as over 1000 Muslims were slaughtered in his city, Japan's Shinzo Abe begins an effort to 'reinterpret' the country's pacifist constitution to allow for a broader use of military force, and in Vietnam, citizens erupt into violence to protest China's encroachment on disputed shoals in the South China Sea.

It is hard not to see recent events as the stirrings of a global reemergence of nationalism. Pundits are always warning about nationalism , be it the rise of China, or recently of Putin's Russia. Its a bubbling cauldron always there in the background waiting to overflow into our liberal order. But the reemergence of nationalism is not limited to Asia, nor to emerging "BRIC" countries. In Europe, the inchoate and incoherent anti-globalization/anti-Muslim movements are beginning to reach the point where right-wing parties could soon become viable in the mainstream of several European countries including Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Italy.

What to make of these seemingly interconnected events? Surely, as we are told by many pundits, (yes I'm talking about you Thomas Friedman) the rise of such movements is always the result of a stirring of populations who yearn for greater voice in the affairs of their country, the so-called "square people" as Friedman's recent series of columns has argued. But how to explain the rising nationalist sentiment at a time in earth's history that is arguably more globalized than any other era? The typical answer from people like Friedman is that nationalist leaders, like Russia's Putin or Turkey's Erdogan, are simply manipulating the communal spirits of the poor and uneducated at the expense of a rising middle class who want to fix entrenched power structures. Such members of the pundit-gentsia are always ready to see any new event as a sign that  a magical convergence of internet communications technology, rising incomes, and consumerism is about to spur a movement that will bring people's of these countries closer to our own. But its just the opposite: while there may be a convergence in the desires of people around the world to enjoy similar material benefits, the current global system is leaving a gaping hole in societies that is often filled by movements that are far less kumbaya than the ones Friedman seems to imagine. These are the other square people.

What Square, people?

In his latest columns, Friedman argues that this new class is, "mostly young, aspiring to a higher standard of living and more liberty, seeking either reform or revolution (depending on their existing government), connected to one another either by massing in squares or through virtual squares or both, and united less by a common program and more by a shared direction they want their societies to go." Friedman has always been a cheerleader for globalization, and this column is no different. In a follow-up (The Square Part 2), he admits that, " failure to translate their aspirations into parties that could contest elections and then govern is the Achilles’ heel of The Square People — from Tahrir Square to Occupy Wall Street." Thus, what happens (or doesn't happen) the day after the protest remains the eternal unanswered question about all of these movements.

Friedman is right that there is global discontentment with governments who are corrupt or unrepresentative of popular interests, but he never delves into the deeper, latent reasons, the hidden factors behind so many corrupt or unrepresentative governments around the world: the forces of global capital and global trade have made the leaders of most countries beholden to global capital rather than the electorates who voted them into power. As Naomi Klein recounts in her 2007 book Shock Doctrine, Nelson Mandela admitted to ANC party members that, "the very mobility of capital and the globalization of capital and other markets, make it impossible for countries, for instance, to decide national economic policy without regard to the likely response of these markets." Klein writes of how South Africa's democracy movement, elected with popular mandate to create a fairer economic system than the one under apartheid, found themselves against the reality of IMF loans, stipulations, and other conditions which made it impossible to deliver their promises. South Africa may be freed from apartheid, but any visit to its sprawling shantytowns will show that economic apartheid never really ended.

Protesting against entrenched systems of corruption/power does not translate necessarily into pro-Western or pro-American sentiments. This is rather obvious, but it should also be said that the very globalization that Friedman and other Pollyanna-ish chearleaders describe is the primary force that has unsettled so many of these societies, and it is the inequality and societal dislocation that has produced much of the latent discontent in such countries.

After all, the U.S. and Europe do plenty of business with these countries: Europe buys Russia's oil, and still does even after the Ukraine crisis, China is the one of our largest trade partners, even Mubarak was a close U.S. ally. The spread of global capitalism, while enabling a rise in incomes for a growing class of urban consumers around the world, has also fostered a deep dissatisfaction in those same societies.  It is natural that those writing from the U.S, where we still see ourselves as the paragon of a free democratic country, would believe that deep down, everyone in the world wants to be closer to us and have what we have. And just as Putin may see in the pro-Western uprising in Ukraine the hand of the U.S. state department or CIA, so too do western pundits see every iteration of nationalist sentiment as merely the manipulation of uninformed yokels in the hinterlands by strongmen. And yet, while partially true, western governments can no longer afford to wish away such sentiment as the fringe or the result of autocracies--strongmen may manipulate nationalist sentiment but admittedly there is still the sentiment in the first place to be manipulated.

Not Just the BRICS

I connect the events in developing Asian countries with Europe to make the point that the problems that people are reacting again are not limited to developing "non-Western" countries. The core of Europe--not just the PIGS periphery but also France and the UK--has also seen populations turn against globalization, which in their eyes is symbolized by the EU, and by the influx of Muslim immigrants into formerly "Christian" countries. This is, in itself odd, because these very European countries have themselves already ceased to be Christian and long ago embraced secularism.

Still, leaders of  far-right parties, Geert Wilders of the Netherlands, Farage in the U.K, Marine Le Pen in France, have skillfully positioned themselves to capitalize on simmering discontent in their countries, which while largely economic, tends to take an anti-cosmopolitan and parochial tone. This sentiment is not unlike sentiments that have led to the rise of people like Narendra Modi and Vladimir Putin, and perhaps to a lesser degree Xi Jinping—his rise may have had more to do with family connections but he is clearly more comfortable playing on nationalist sentiment than any of his predecessors since Mao.

Philosopher and polemicist Slavoj Zizek, writes of the hypocrisy of the European left, who condemn anti-immigrant rhetoric as racist, yet admit such sentiments as being reflective of ordinary people's real discontentment. But, how to deal with the roots of such discontentment? Zizek's response is that the left's failure to address such economic discontentment in any effective way is the enabling factor that has allowed these parties to emerge, for better or worse, as the only trusted advocates for the fears and concerns of the lower and lower middle classes.

Closer together, further apart

Those in the west have long confused the material yearnings of the world's citizenry with the yearning to "be western". As more and more people attain lifestyles that were previously reserved for a few hundred million in Europe and North America, they are also increasingly desperate to find meaning and belonging in a community—after all, the traditional communities of the village, or the extended family-unit are only being continually eroded by the forces of urbanization and mechanization. As single men have moved off the farm to work in cities in China, so too have the very same forces of outsourcing limited the prospects of working-class men in the west, preventing the formation of families and leading to a rise in "single family households" in the U.S and Europe as well as China.

Writing of Modi's ascent in India, Pankaj Mishra worries that, "The failure to generate stable employment – 1m new jobs are required every month – for an increasingly urban and atomised population, or to allay the severe inequalities of opportunity as well as income, created, well before the recent economic setbacks, a large simmering reservoir of rage and frustration." This is the reservoir that is ripe for exploitation by nationalists like Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party.

Mishra's recent book, "From the Ruins of Empire" charts the intellectual origins of political movements across Asia: the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East, Indian nationalism, and Chinese Communist Party. According to him, the nationalist underpinning in these societies is a long legacy of colonialism and the desire to surpass the west. But he also raises another important point: that countries in the "East" have failed to come up with an alternative vision for their societies. In embracing global capitalism and export-led development as the key to national revitalization, these countries have in fact replicated the very European-created systems that were the cause of their colonial subjugation in the first place. He discusses the dilemma of intellectuals like Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian poet and intellectual, who first admired the rise of post-Meiji Japan for providing inspiration to other countries looking to break free of the West. But he soon grows disillusioned as Japan's industrial success turns into a nightmare of colonial expansion and militarism in its own right.

The 19th century, which saw a similar proliferation of communications and global trade under the Pax Brittanica, was also the century in which some of the most powerful new nations of Europe took shape, including Germany and Italy in 1872. It was the time in which such states, empowered with new technologies such as literacy, railroads and books, created "imagined communities", to use the words of political scientist Benedict Anderson, the sense of belonging to a shared community of culture and values, even though most citizens of new nations would never meet their fellow compatriots, and often spoke different regional languages and had different customs and food.

What's Next: the vacuum of a Post-American World

Are we really on the verge of our own "1914" moment, as some have recently warned? Is the Pax Americana about to give way to a new era of instability and multipolarity, even war? We are witnessing a decline of American and western power relative to its dominance after World War II. This may be inevitable, and even a welcome change for many. But the lack of alternatives for a new global vision is worrying. Not only is Xi Jinping's "Chinese Dream" lacking in the substance or power to inspire anyone else outside China, but there is virtually no other alternative that can serve as a useful global vision for people around the world to believe in. That would seem to leave nationalism, above anything else.

The problem for the left--for people like Mishra who are critical of both global capitalism and the West AND the new nationalists in Asia--is what to do about alternatives? How do we fault the rising urban classes of India who see in Modi a hope for a better economy and stronger India? How could we argue with Chinese nationalists who have dreamt of restoring their country's central place in the world? It's clear that the phenomena seen in countries are interconnected: income inequality is rising in China as well as the U.S. And yet, imagining a movement for a more equitable stable system that could span China, the U.S. and Europe or other countries, seems  impossible. Could a new Marx proclaim now as in 1848, "workers of the world unite"? But what workers? And unite for what? The problem is that the interests of the working class in developing countries and the developed world are hard to reconcile: factories moving to Bangladesh open up new opportunities there but may take away those in West Virginia, or even Shenzhen. Even if you believe some empirical research showing globalization ultimately benefits everyone, the perception among working classes is that it doesn't. And perception matters. In the meantime, purely domestic movements like Occupy Wall Street or anti-EU protests come up against the hard reality that even if they were to affect policy change at the national level, they would be powerless to change the truly important forces that lie outside their borders and require global effort.

Friedman is not wrong to speak of young people around the world who share similar aspirations for a better life and better political systems. But in assuming that the objects of political protest will always be local corrupt governments, he (along with most American thinkers) obfuscates the real source of the problem: the current tendency of global capitalism to undermine democratic systems of governance around the world.

Its time that we realize the very forces that have been pulling the world closer together are also pulling us apart. Globalization of production, information technology, none of these things appear to be going away nor should we hope for them to. Nationalist sentiment—fueled partly by a sense of historical injustice in certain countries as well as the feeling of lost status in others--is not going away either. But its influence will become more sinister if the world fails to deal with the root causes of inequality, environmental degradation, and social upheaval. This won't happen with a few tweets or a few sporadic rallies. This requires real work, real thinking, real policy solutions, and perhaps a little more creativity. The world is flat, right? So what's stopping us?






Thomas Friedman "The Square People" and "The Square People Part 2" The New York Times. May 14 and May 18, 2014.



Pankaj Mishra. "Narendra Modi and the new face of India." The Guardian. May 18, 2014  http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/16/what-next-india-pankaj-mishra

Slavoj Zizek on European Nationalism, on "Democracy Now"

Phillip Stevens, "The perils of Asia's nationalist power game" The Financial Times. May 22, 2014. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/a886a89e-e041-11e3-9534 00144feabdc0.html#axzz32Voo2qX1

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983) http://books.google.co.kr/books/about/Imagined_Communities.html?id=4mmoZFtCpuoC&redir_esc=y







Almost daily we are treated to the confident pundit who looks out on world events and sees a glorious convergence of information technology, globalization, and the repressed yearnings of repressed peoples waiting to break free of various shackles and join the free world. Most notably of these is Thomas Friedman, who recently published just such an op-ed (or rather a two part series) called "The Square People", followed by "The Square People Part 2".