Technology and nationalism have always had a very intimate relationship. Technology has often been an instrument of national power; and the quest for national power has, in turn, led to the investments in, and the creation of, different models of scientific organisation. In some senses “techno-nationalism” has always been around as long as states have existed. Over the last two-three decades, the rhetoric of globalisation blunted visible expressions of techno-nationalism. One of the most euphoric ideological constructions of recent technological revolutions was that it would make the nation as a unit less salient for the development and deployment of technology. But there is a growing sense that the zeitgeist might be shifting. The one common thread that we will see emerge in global discourse is the more open reassertion of techno-nationalism. A techno-nationalist imagination will be more ascendant in political discourse, and this will shape the course of economic reform as well. India’s politics is too distracted to focus attention on this. The RSS has been calling attention to the issue of techno-nationalism for a while, and don’t be surprised if it rises up the agenda very quickly after the elections.
The current moment of techno-nationalism has both continuities and discontinuities with the past. The rise of China has upended technological globalism in several ways. First, many people around the world now buy the old argument that techno-nationalism is a good development policy. Chinese success, then, is not seamless integration into a global system; rather it is the artful use of the rhetoric of integration into the world economy to advance national technological goals. For Indian critics, the missing piece in our reform story is that there is no serious national technology strategy as a development policy. Second, China demonstrated capabilities to resist the western-led institutional order in a number of key areas such as information technology; precisely the areas that techno globalists thought would dissolve national salience. Third, as in the past, great power competition will in part depend upon countries’ abilities to take the right bets in technologies of the future, and these have to be proprietary national technologies. This race is now increasingly at the heart of Sino-US rivalry. The fourth issue is the redefining of the relationship between political order and information order. The Chinese and Russians have done this in two ways: First, by demonstrating that political control of the information order can still be possible in this age; and, second, if this political control is not exercised, open information orders can be vulnerable to manipulation. Even as authoritarian tendencies grow in democracies, the desire to reassert political control over information orders will surface more and more. Given the nature of modern technologies, it is difficult to see that assertion happening without a degree of techno-nationalism. Fifth, techno-globalism is always premised on shared values in the international system. As consensus around the shape of the international order weakens, and more countries take divergent authoritarian paths, the temptation for technological nationalism will grow.
The concerns would lead countries to create national technology strategies. But there are other curious ideological aspects to the new discourse of techno-nationalism as well. One is an old trope, namely new nations telling a narrative of their past in terms of “national” traditions of science. Some recent writing in China uses Joseph Needham’s classic work to reassert China’s national identity in terms of a distinctive scientific tradition. India has its own version of “India as Scientific Civilisation” trope, unfortunately hijacked more by its nuttiest proponents rather than those who engage more thoughtfully with the question of the relationship between science and tradition.
But the more curious aspect of the current wave of techno-nationalism is the association of private companies with the techno-nationalist imaginary. States have often aligned to promote the interests of national companies. But in this techno-nationalist moment, many see the presence of big companies as a sign of being able to harness national technology prowess. In Indian techno nationalist circles you will always get questions like: Where is the Indian Amazon or Indian Alibaba? This might be a sensible question and an answer might focus on the nature of Indian regulation. Indian companies could use a lot of help in many areas. But the underlying premise is less about regulation or development; it is more about creating large private sector icons as signs of national capabilities. There is open talk in many circles that what India will need is a couple of behemoth private companies that can leverage scale to rival global giants. It is almost as if Amazon versus Jio versus Alibaba becomes a proxy for national prowess. The economic logic of this construction is not the issue here.
What is of interest is that in the new techno-nationalist imagination, the issue is not protecting small producers or indigenous technology etc. The focus is on creating what people believe to be the carriers of national power in the form of large companies. India’s regulatory flip flops on globalisation in recent months (most notably in e-commerce), are in part driven by this temptation that we need to create big Indian private companies that are also national icons.
Again, the issue here is not the technological or economic logic at work. The issue will be positioning the necessity of these behemoths as signs of success of techno-nationalism. To take a random example, the rise of Jio and associated companies, becomes a national mission, not just an ordinary private sector investment. The nexus of big companies, state power and consumerist populism might be the new carriers of techno-nationalism, instead of the old public sector. So one of the oddest manifestations of techno-nationalism will not just be conventional arguments for investing in more R&D. They will be arguments for the subtle promotion of a few big companies, now positioned in their nationalist avatar. Of course, reality will be far messier than a simple unfolding of techno-nationalism. In reality, countries like India will continue to be hobbled by capacity issues. But both the changes in the international system, and the new domestic political economy, point in the direction of a greater salience for techno-nationalism, in all its varieties. We might enter an “RSS meets Jio” ideological world.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 1, 2019, under the title ‘The new techno-nationalism’. The writer is vice-chancellor of Ashoka University. Views are personal.