Globalists Blind To Communitarianism

Very recently a new term has entered the public discourse, in which major segments of Americans are referred to as "nationalists." These are people who put community and country--their nation--above all, rejecting globalization, free trade, open borders, and even the United Nations' "Universal" Declaration of Human Rights. According to Michael Lind in an article in Politico, "[n]ationalists support immigration and trade deals only if they improve the living standards of citizens of the nation." Robert Merry, differentiating between nationalists and globalists, writes that "[n]ationalists believe that any true nation must have clearly delineated and protected borders, otherwise it isn't really a nation. They also believe that their nation's cultural heritage is sacred and needs to be protected, whereas mass immigration from far-flung lands could undermine the national commitment to that heritage."

The self-righteousness of globalists is captured by an August 2016 New Yorker article which sees in Trump's America--and in Europe, India, and Russia--whole countries that "seethe with demagogic assertions of ethnic, religious, and national identity." These movements are said to threaten "the great eighteenth-century venture of a universal civilization harmonized by rational self-interest, commerce, luxury, arts, and science."

As I see it, the rise of right-wing populism in the United States and in Europe can be attributed in no small extent to the profound misunderstanding globalists have of community and communitarian values. Globalists tend to view society as composed of free-standing individuals, each of whom has his or her own individual rights and is keen to pursue his or her own self-interest. The trouble with this view of society is that it ignores that human beings are social creatures, whose flourishing depends on lasting relationships and on the sharing of moral and social values. These kinds of relationships and values are found in national and local communities (including families, which are micro-communities). By definition, communities are differentiating between members and outsiders, are never all-inclusive, and inevitably parochial rather than global.

If one seeks to reduce populism, violence, prejudice, and xenophobia, then communities must be nurtured as they are urged to change, rather than being overridden. This thesis can be tested by examining the arguments for free trade. When globalists champion free trade, they tend to ignore the "externalities." Many developing nations can produce cheaper goods because they pay little mind to the welfare of their workers and to the environment. Trade agreements are supposed to curb these social costs and help workers in countries that pay higher wages compete with workers in countries that don't, but such curbs have only limited effects. True, free trade lowers the costs of consumer products at Walmart and Target, but hardly to the workers whose jobs are outsourced. Promises to retrain them and find them other jobs--for instance, to make computer programmers out of coal miners--are often false promises. Free trade is the modern equivalent of the old challenge to utilitarian ethics: how many Christians one may throw to the lions if this amuses large hordes of Romans, makes them really happy?

Above all, globalists ignore the effects of free trade on people's essential communitarian needs. Economists often fail to understand people who are reluctant to move from West Virginia to Montana, say, when the coal industry is declining but the gas industry is growing. They do not take into account that people lose their communal bonds when they move. That they leave behind friends they can call on when they are sick or grieving. Their children miss their friends and everyone in the family is ripped away from the centers of their social lives: school, church, social club, union hall, or American Legion post. And when these people finally bring their families along and form new communities, changes in free trade often force them to move again. Thus, after a boom in Montana, prices of oil and gas have fallen, and so many of the workers who moved there now need to relocate again. In this way, free trade churns societies, exacting high social costs by undermining communities. An evaluation of the benefits of free trade should take into account the destructive effects on communities of churning the labor force.

These social costs do not mean that nations should stop trading with one another; rather, it means that those who are concerned about the social effects of new trade treaties are not know-nothing, parochial nationalists but are people with valid concerns. Those must be addressed first of all by treating the coal miners, steel workers, and others who lose their jobs with compassion rather than dismissing them as white trash and rednecks who do not get how wonderful free trade is for one and all. Second, those who cannot be retrained should be offered early retirement (much less costly than retraining and government-driven "job creation") or jobs in an infrastructure corps. At best these programs should not require them to relocate, because relocations both increase costs and undermine communities. In other words, globalism can be reconciled with parochialism, and with communitarian values, but only if globalists get off their elitist high horse and recognize that we are social creatures.

This op-ed draws on "We Must Not Be Enemies" from the December 2016 issue of American Scholar.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University. His newest book, Foreign Policy: Thinking Outside the Box, was recently published by Routledge. Follow us at or find us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.