Manfred B. Steger’s 2008 book, The Rise of the Global Imaginary: Political Ideologies from the French Revolution to the War on Terror, is a unique and nearly magisterial contribution to the vast literatures on globalization. In it, Steger explores the true novelties of ‘neo-’ and ‘post-’ political ideologies, claiming that the distinctive feature of such ideologies is their fit to a rising global imaginary—the capacity to imagine a global community and to articulate global ambitions as the basis for shared norms, beliefs, and practices.
Steger is no stranger to the wider literature on globalization. In his Globalization: A Very Short Introduction (2009)—a highly regarded, concise, and accessible examination of the origins and implications of globalization—he differentiates between three important concepts: ‘globality’, the condition of interconnectedness; ‘globalization’, the process of becoming increasingly interconnected; and ‘globalism’, the rising awareness of a global community as a point of reference. This last is Steger’s subject matter in The Rise of the Global Imaginary, which develops a line of critique first articulated by Steger in Globalism: The New Market Ideology (2001) and in updated editions, Globalisms: Market Ideology Meets Terrorism (2005) and Globalisms: The Great Ideological Struggle of the 21st Century (2009). In these three books and in The Rise of the Global Imaginary, Steger exposes the global ambitions of both market ideologies and fundamentalist religious terrorists, tracing the emergence of their cosmological, rather than parochial or national, visions. Steger situates his study at the intersection of ideology and imaginary, drawing upon important contributions to scholarship on each of these concepts. This is characteristic of Steger’s commitment to balance concepts that, when considered apart from each other, have cast other analytical frameworks off-kilter, causing them to miss relevant developments thrown out of focus by a more narrow approach. In devoting his attention to the intersection of these two ideas, Steger is able to see each with greater clarity. Focusing on one or the other—or worse, conflating the two—it would be all too easy to miss the discontinuities or developments in one because of the continuities in the other. In order to excavate the emergence of a global imaginary and its articulation to various political ideologies, Steger draws upon the work of Antoine Destutt de Tracy, giving primary attention to decontestation chains, processes by which multiple understandings and interpretations are restricted ‘to those few options that are deemed “correct” on account of some higher standard like “divine revelation,” “reasoned deduction,” “sound observation,” or “scientific analysis,”’ locking in meanings that become widely accepted, removed from further challenges, and regarded as the kind of truth that can serve as the ‘backbone of concrete political agenda[s]’ (p. 30).
Steger first deploys his approach in a study of the rise of the national imaginary and its links to political ideologies. In ‘Part I. The National Imaginary’, he considers nineteenth-century British Liberalism, French Conservatism, and German Socialism before tracing the emergence of twentieth-century totalitarianisms of Russian Communism and German Nazism. This allows Steger to establish the credibility of his approach to the intersection between imaginaries and ideologies and to demonstrate its explanatory and critical power before moving on to establish its currency at the novel intersection of ideology and imaginary on the global scale. In ‘Part II. The Global Imaginary’, Steger turns his attention to the titular subject of the book. In Chapter Four, Steger recalls that the demise of the Communist Bloc and the end of the Cold War occasioned premature declarations of an end to ideology. He notes that these tipping points were represented not so much the end of ideology as the beginning of the end for the national imaginary and the birth of the global imaginary—the beginning of ideology rescaled. Here Steger locates the seeds of what would emerge as the first truly global ideologies—the first ideologies articulated to global imaginaries—‘market globalism’ and ‘justice globalism’. Thomas Friedman and Susan George serve as Steger’s primary interlocutors in this chapter, the work of each serving as an exemplar decontestation chains in action. In Chapter Six, Steger outlines the emergence of two dominant globalist ideologies of the twenty-first century: global jihadism and global imperialism.
Both of these draw strength from four rhetorical maneuvers common to various forms of populism: (1) ‘the construction of unbridgeable political differences’; (2)‘attack from moralistic high ground’; (3) ‘the evocation of an exceptional crisis which requires immediate and forceful response’; and (4) the imagination of ‘the people as a homogenous unit, welded together by a common will, a single interest, an ancestral heartland, shared cultural and religious traditions, and national unity’ (pp. 215–222). Steger’s emergent globalisms adopt the first three while adapting the fourth and extending it beyond the national to the global scale.
Steger makes at least three important contributions with this volume: first, he brings clarity to the imaginary aspect of globalization without losing sight of techno-material aspects of the phenomenon that have been the focus of so many other studies. Second, Steger is clear about the cosmological visions and global ambitions of justice globalism and jihadist globalism, both of which are often painted as anti-globalization. Steger demonstrates that justice globalism, for example, is not anti-globalization, but that it has a competing global agenda. Global justice movement (GJM) advocates are against ‘neoliberal globalization’, rather than against the process of increasing global interconnectedness. The imagination of the global justice movement is just as powerfully global as that of the global market movement. Likewise, the jihadist movement, which conceives of a global umma, or community of believers in ‘the one true god’. In this respect, Steger’s argument evokes Charles Taylor’s ‘cultural theory of modernity’, advancing a notion of ‘multiple’ or ‘alternative’ globalisms. Steger presents what in Taylor’s terms would be a cultural theory of globalization, rejecting the presumption that, for example, GJM advocates espouse the same moral landscape as do supporters of global neoliberalism but fail to see clearly the benefits of globalization and in their blindness promote backwardness. Rather, GJM advocates and supporters of neoliberal globalization espouse distinct moral outlooks on the person, nature, society, and the good and how these intersect with the increasing global interconnectedness. By invoking and clarifying these differences, Steger is recontesting globalization and opening the discourse to multiple understandings and interpretations.
Steger’s third contribution is to bring religion and ideology together on the global stage. Steger convincingly argues that the rise of the global imaginary has opened the door to the resurgence of religion, emphasizing the religious dimensions of global jihadism and arguing that global imperialism incorporates ‘religious and moralistic features’ that ‘mirror’ jihadism (p. 241) in some respects. Even justice globalists have ‘absorbed heavy doses of spiritual and religious thought’ (p. 243). While the national imaginary had the potential to suppress religious ideologies, drawing boundaries that do not correspond to the cosmological visions of religion, the global imaginary opens up the door to the religious by bounding the community in a way that does correspond to such cosmological visions. In this respect, Steger undermines Tracy’s assertion that ideologies are secular ideational alternatives to religious belief systems. Rather, the connection between political ideologies and global imaginaries leaves considerable room for the ascendance of public and private articulations of various cosmological religious visions. In this respect, The Rise of the Global Imaginary evokes Weber who, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, articulates the religious underpinnings of the rise of a globally ambitious capitalism; Steger demonstrates the global underpinnings of the resurgence of public religion. The one troubling dimension of Steger’s argument is the implication that religious exclusivism and political pluralism are necessarily at odds. Despite a short section suggesting the myopia of scholarship that has overlooked religion, even as a feature of the national imaginary, Steger seems to set up a dichotomy between secular ideologies meant to serve pluralist national agendas and religiously inflected ideologies meant to serve global populisms oriented toward homogenization. This underdeveloped assumption suggests that each ideology articulated to global imaginaries necessarily intends to institutionalize monolithic political cultures and agendas, leading to inevitable clashes between various globalisms. Recent research on this matter suggests that the relationship between religious exclusivism and political pluralism is far more complicated than is implied by Steger. While jihadist and imperialist ideologies may, in fact, have ambitions toward mutually exclusive monolithic global politics, global pluralist alternatives may be more numerous than Steger suggests.