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Early globalisation and its discontents

"Globalisation," as we call it today, was never universally beneficial or beloved, and underneath it coursed a growing discontent

Book cover

AGAINST THE WORLD: Anti-Globalism and Mass Politics between the World Wars

Jennifer Szalai | NYT
AGAINST THE WORLD: Anti-Globalism and Mass Politics between the World Wars  
Author: Tara Zahra 
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company 
Pages: 352 
Price: $35 
Picture it: A parade of men from all over the world, wearing their national attire and clambering into a giant papier-mâché “melting pot,” only to emerge minutes later dressed in American-style suits and derby hats while singing The Star-Spangled Banner.
It sounds like something out of a musical, but this was a real event, one that took place on multiple occasions during the first decades of the 20th century. The men were graduates from the Ford Motor Company’s English School, immigrant employees who had been tutored in a new way of life. Total assimilation was the goal. “Our one great aim is to impress these men that they are, or should be, Americans,” one executive explained, “and that former racial, national and linguistic differences are to be forgotten.”
As the historian Tara Zahra shows in her lively and ambitious new book, Against the World,  the melting pot ceremony was also an encapsulation of Henry Ford’s own contradictory attitudes toward the world outside of America’s borders. Ford was a profit-seeking industrialist, so he relied on immigrant labour when it was expedient, and he expected the world to be his market. At the same time, he was a virulent nationalist, railing against global finance and “the Jews.” Ford’s bigotry was so extravagant that Hitler singled him out for lavish praise in Mein Kampf.
Much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was marked by a flourishing internationalism — more travel, more migration, greater cross-border flows of money and goods and ideas. But “globalisation,” as we call it today, was never universally beneficial or beloved, and underneath it coursed a growing discontent. Its victims included families separated by emigration; migrants toiling away in dangerous jobs; shopkeepers and farmers ruined by foreign competition.
Globalisation connected people, for good and for ill; they were more vested in — and vulnerable to — whatever happened on the other side of the world. Zahra trains our attention on the nationalists, on the reactionaries, on the back-to-the-land activists on both the left and the right who gained political momentum between the two world wars. Writing from Berlin in 1931, the American journalist Dorothy Thompson could see that efforts to halt the tides of a surging nationalism were coming to naught. After 12 years of multilateral treaties and celebratory conferences, “the whole world is retreating from the international position and is taking its dolls and going home.”
But the forces of reaction, like the forces of globalisation itself, were never entirely consistent or pure. Some, like Ford, embraced a borderless world when it was convenient while also fulminating against it. Still, Ford did have a moment of magnanimous internationalism in 1915, when he teamed up with a Hungarian-born woman named Rosika Schwimmer to charter a Peace Ship to Europe with the hope of halting the war. Needless to say, their mission failed.
Schwimmer is one of the most fascinating figures in the book — a feminist, a pacifist and a Jew, she was a steadfast believer in world peace who ended up dying stateless. Zahra’s depiction of her is pointed yet sympathetic.
After World War I, migration restrictions made for shortages in housing and, again, in food. In the new nation-states created out of old empires, minorities were pushed out or murdered. Hitler envied the ability of the United States to feed its people without relying on imports. The Nazis pursued a fantasy of “self-sufficiency” through imperial conquest. What they envisioned as Grossraumwirtschaft, or a “large regional economy,” was essentially an empire.
I was so rapt by Against the World that it was only when sitting down to write about it that I realised how resistant it is to a neat summary, because there isn’t a single story Zahra tells. In addition to Ford, Schwimmer and Hitler, her characters include the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, an anarchist labour activist named Rose Pesotta (born Raikhel Peisoty) and the Czech shoe manufacturer Tomas Bat’a. Every story in this book is relevant and absorbing; Zahra plaits her narrative strands together with such deliberation and skill that nothing is out of place.
Even though much of what Zahra writes about took place nearly a century ago, the tensions she explores have never gone away. The benefits and harms of globalisation continue to be unequally distributed; the antiglobalist response continues to thrive on resentments that can be whipped up by demagogues but nonetheless stem from frustrations that are real.
During the early months of the pandemic, the United States learned the hard way that it had outsourced its manufacturing capabilities to the point where basic protective gear for hospital workers was difficult to procure. Zahra herself does not take a position against the world, but she conveys how the transformations wrought by globalisation can leave people feeling bewildered and powerless — just as she conveys how a rejection of the world can be self-defeating and cruel.
Zahra conducted archival research in five languages, which is part of what makes  Against the World  so rich and surprising. She doesn’t rely on the syntheses of other scholars, examining instead how people understood events as they unfolded in real time. Her searching book reminds us that a view from 10,000 feet doesn’t always capture what’s actually happening on the ground. As John Maynard Keynes wrote about the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, at what was supposed to be a time of international healing and reconciliation, “The earth heaves and no one … is aware of the rumblings.”

©2023 The New York Times News Service 

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First Published: Jan 29 2023 | 10:16 PM IST

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