Managing the Globe after Empire

The two covers of Slobodian and Selcer's books, one a painting of a brown window and the other overlapping circles

Perrin Selcer, The Postwar Origins of the Global Environment: How the United Nations Built Spaceship Earth (Columbia University Press, 2018)

Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Harvard University Press, 2018)

“It hardly makes any difference who will be the next president,” former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan said in 2007. “The world is governed by market forces.” More than a decade later, Greenspan’s genuflection to the market seems inadequate. The world is governed by market forces, to be sure, but the market has lately been forced into a power-sharing agreement with a warming global climate that threatens the foundations of the post-Cold War economic order.

Two books published last year, Perrin Selcer’s The Postwar Origins of the Global Environment and Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists, offer complementary histories of this new form of global governance as it took shape in the twentieth century. These books highlight how, while often framed as “natural” systems, the global environment and the global economy were not discovered, but imagined, enacted, and maintained as ideologically useful abstractions by transnational institutions. In particular, reading Postwar Origins and Globalists together makes it apparent how the recent (conceptual) histories of the global economy and global environment overlap as shifting intellectual and institutional responses to the end of empire as the dominant form of geopolitical authority.

One shared theme in these two books is the insulation of ostensibly self-regulating entities against democratic control at a moment when many nation-states attained formal sovereignty and competing visions of Third World nation-building and “development” were still being meaningfully debated. To put it somewhat crudely: “Nature” and “the market” were understood (by environmental scientists, on the one hand, and neoliberal economists, on the other) to be too infrastructural, too complex, and too important to be subject to the whims of the people, particularly when represented by postcolonial governments.

The global environment and economy were not discovered, but imagined.

And yet, to achieve autonomy for these systems, new supervisory institutions and initiatives needed to be created, from UNESCO’s Arid Lands Project to the World Trade Organization, in the name of preserving some vision of stable global economic and environmental order. Underscoring this contradiction, Selcer and Slobodian both narrate the paradoxical project of managing the unmanageable. Exploring the tensions within transnational and international epistemic communities and institutions, they seek to explain how clear and resonant understandings of the global environment and the global economy remain elusive.

Inventing a Global Environment

The cover of Selcer's Postwar Origins of the Global Environment with yellow, green, and blue circles overlappingSelcer’s Postwar Origins explores efforts after World War II to integrate and synthesize biological, geological, chemical, and ecological sciences in order to produce a more comprehensive understanding of the environment. He traces how these efforts gave rise to increasingly complex international and transnational bureaucratic arrangements and institutional frameworks to govern environmental problems. Selcer articulates how knowledge production during the second half of the 20th century remains tethered to a paradigm that is premised upon developing increasingly sophisticated practices, scientific networks, and technological infrastructures so as to serve as the basis for better, rational, and objective decision-making.

Over six chapters, he details how knowledge frameworks regarding social psychology, soil science, arid lands, and the development of monitoring and modeling systems informed early debates over what environmental protection and conservation meant. These increasingly standardized “truths” of the natural and social sciences helped to cement ideas about world community, international cooperation, and intercultural understanding as a means to envision a stable global political order. This future stable global order promised a realization of economic and environmental equilibrium and the minimization of tensions brought about by racial and national differences.

Increasingly standardized “truths” of the natural and social sciences helped to cement ideas about world community and international cooperation.

At the same time, Selcer does not downplay how a detached imaginary of Spaceship Earth (the view from space of planet Earth as a singular whole) remains unconvincing to many as a means to catalyze meaningful environmental action. By using the typology of three different United Nations (the secretariat itself, national governments, and scientific and technical experts), he shows how efforts to assemble the view from nowhere of the global environment cannot take place without references to specific places or the participation, even if cursory, of non-experts.

Given the need to ensure diverse and representative geographic participation and to account for perspectives and knowledges from multiple vantage points, Selcer suggests that it is unsurprising that a fragmented image of “the world” persists and attempts to work towards finality or completeness will remain wanting. Despite the global power of technical and scientific expertise institutionalized over the past few decades, such “views from everywhere” will continue to challenge any composite image of the global environment.

Two photographs of the planet Earth seen from space.

The idea of a “view from everywhere” is emblematic of Spaceship Earth and other perspectiveless notions of a global environment. High-resolution global composites created by NASA, 2001.

Defending Capital and a Global Economy

Where Selcer’s book tracks how the rising power of a perspectiveless scientific objectivity made the global environment visible, Slobodian’s Globalists describes the project to create a global economy similarly insulated against political interference. Following the careers of F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Wilhelm Röpke, Gottfried Haberler, and others (a cohort Slobodian terms the “Geneva School” of neoliberal economists), Globalists narrates the story of neoliberal thought, not as a radicalization of nineteenth-century laissez-faire liberalism, but as a coordinated legal and economic program to secure the “rights” of capital in the wake of global decolonization.

The cover of Quinn Slobodian's book Globalists, an abstract oil painting of a brown window Catalyzed by the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 and the reality of national self-determination, Geneva School neoliberalism took shape around a dualistic vision of the world order. As Slobodian describes, by way of Carl Schmitt’s The Nomos of the Earth (1950), one world (the imperium) would be “partitioned into bounded, territorial states where governments ruled over human beings,” while the second world of property and capital (the dominium) would transcend national boundaries. As the world of states and governments became increasingly fragmented, particularly during the period of decolonization after World War II, the neoliberal project became increasingly urgent. Its aim was to preserve what remained of the European empires wherever possible (Röpke, for example, became a vocal defender of apartheid in Rhodesia and South Africa), and, in every other case, to secure the autonomy and free movement of capital against postcolonial nation-states working to subordinate the powers of the global economy to the will of the people.

Slobodian’s book traces the creation or cooptation of supranational institutions and legal frameworks—the International Chamber of Commerce, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the World Trade Organization—that would counterbalance the power of nation-states to disrupt what was increasingly understood by Geneva School neoliberals as a “sublime,” “unknowable,” and semi-divine global economy.

The global economy, like the global environment, is an image of the world(s) projected and safeguarded by an institutional framework.

In this way, Slobodian’s account of neoliberalism departs from conventional descriptions of this semantically overripe concept in a few important respects. Geneva School neoliberals were not simply market fundamentalists, pursuing a policy agenda of fiscal austerity, deregulation, and privatization in an effort to finally liberate homo economicus from the shackles of big government. Nor does neoliberalism name a recent political economic tendency dating to the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system in the early 1970s, flowering during the Reagan and Thatcher administrations of the 1980s, and finally going triumphantly global with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Rather, like the global environment, the global economy was, and is, an image of the world(s) projected and safeguarded by an institutional framework. “The normative neoliberal world,” as Slobodian puts it, “is not a borderless market without states but a doubled world kept safe from mass demands for social justice and redistributive equality.”

Rethinking the “Global”

These two books point to a need for new theoretical conversations and new political strategies regarding the (re)democratization of environmental and economic issues. They also make clear some of the challenges these difficult and open-ended conversations and strategies will encounter. If contemporary representations of the “global environment” and the “global economy” took shape as responses to the end of empire and the emergence of a world fractured by national boundaries, is the nation-state still a viable unit of political resistance in an era of accelerating climate crisis and slowing economic growth on a global scale? Or was Greenspan correct when he said that “it hardly makes any difference who will be the next president”?

At the same time, while local struggles for environmental and economic justice are obviously on the agenda, can such struggles ever be more than reactive, particularly given that environmental protection and economic well-being can be justified using nativist, racist, and fascistic discourses? Similarly, amidst the havoc of Brexit and a generalized disenchantment with technocratic globalism and elite forms of expertise, is any residual postwar optimism about the possibility of governance on a transnational scale now, decisively, kaput? As academic histories, Postwar Origins and Globalists do not pose such questions explicitly. But as books about the knowledge and scalar politics of the environment and the economy, they make them unavoidable and suggest the necessity of alternative world-making projects.

Featured image: The covers of The Postwar Origins of the Global Environment: How the United Nations Built Spaceship Earth (Columbia University Press, 2018) and Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Harvard University Press, 2018).

Zhe Yu Lee is a first year Ph.D. student in the Department of Geography at University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is currently developing a Ph.D. project oriented around the knowledge politics of land-related bureaucratic practices in Indonesia. He has broader interests in how scientistic epistemological frameworks that became dominant during the 1950-1970s in the context of global decolonization and Cold War geopolitics have come to influence contemporary imaginaries of global environmental governance. Twitter. Contact.

Peter Ribic is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he is completing a dissertation on the relationship between the project of “international development” and the narrative form of the Anglophone postcolonial novel in the first decades of the Cold War. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the Journal of Postcolonial Writing, the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, and Doris Lessing Studies. Contact.