Peace on Earth and Goodwill to All Mankind

23 12 2013

goodwill to all men

At the risk of sounding trite, I will point out that Christmas is when we think about “goodwill towards all men.”

At the risk of stating the obvious, I’ll point out that postal services play a big role in the lead up to Christmas, especially in the Age of Amazon.

At the risk of killing the festive mood with an ideologically-charged political statement, I’m going to say something about the history of globalization in this blog post.

amazon package

As readers of this blog will know, I’m currently organizing a conference on the impact of the First World War on international business. (See details here). The conference will feature papers dealing with a wide range of industries and countries. The presenters are from a wide range of countries and disciplinary backgrounds. What they have in common is an interest in what happened to the world economy, which was highly globalized and interconnected in 1914, when politicians suddenly took decisions that prevented people of different nationalities from engaging in economic exchange.

The complex set of theoretical and historical questions related to the capitalist theory of peace has long fascinated me. Since the time of Montesquieu, social theorists have thought about the relationship between commerce and war. Montesquieu famously argued that commerce made people peaceful and more moral in other areas of their lives as well.   Although there are clearly some problems with the simplistic idea that free-market capitalism will, by itself, ensure perpetual world peace, there is also abundant evidence to support that international trade and other forms of cross-border economic exchange help to “soften” people, make them less warlike, and reduce the frequency, duration, and severity of warfare. (For a gateway into the social-scientific literature on this topic, see here, here, and here).

We are blessed to live to live at a time when the levels of globalization approach those last seen on the eve of the First World War. The descent of Europe into madness in 1914 makes once cautious about predicting future peace, especially when one reads about recent sabre-rattling by the nations of East Asia.  However, I feel that we in the West have put in place institutions designed to ensure that the capitalist peace will continue in our part of the world.

My optimism was recently reinforced by something I saw in my neighbourhood. Over the last few days, the streets around here have been filled with vans from courier companies and our (recently privatised) Post Office rushing to deliver parcels for Christmas.

Traditionally, nationalised post offices such as Britain’s Royal Mail were closely identified with the state. By their very nature, nationalized post offices help to entrench nationalism, to make the nation-state and its associated identities (and national antipathies) seem natural.  Nationalized post offices are part of what scholars of nationalism call “banal nationalism.” In wartime, post offices were used by the state to distribute propaganda: one read the state’s propaganda on the walls while one waited in line at the counter. In 1916, visitors to post offices in the UK saw the following notice.

wwi enlistment

The fact that national post offices in European Union are now allowed to compete for business in other EU member states is a healthy development, as it blurs national identities. I would also say that privatization and the introduction of competition in the postal business has had the same effect.

In the UK, firms that supply particular goods to the royal family are given royal warrants, which allows the manufacturer to slap the royal coat of arms on the labels of their products. For instance, Colman’s Mustard is the official supplier of mustard to Buckingham Palace. I suppose the royal warrant on their mustard jars makes the product seem more desirable to consumers. It’s a celebrity endorsement, essentially.

DHL truck

Anyway, to return to my point about post office, commerce, and nationalism, I noticed that the German-owned courier company DHL is now the official supplier of courier services to Queen Elizabeth. (See picture of a DHL van above). That’s right. The head of state of the United Kingdom no longer uses the Royal Mail for courier services and instead entrusts her packages to a German-owned company!

As we approach the centenary of the First World War, the complex historical developments represented by the DHL van I saw a few days ago are something worth celebrating.

Merry Christmas Everybody!