Why We Need a New Left Internationalism

Neither neoliberal globalization nor populist isolationism offers a workable path forward.

Leon Fink January 4, 2017

The Left should not take its cue from Marine Le Pen, seen here at a meeting of the EU Parliament. (Frederick Florin/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Right-wing pop­ulists from Don­ald Trump to British Brex­iters to French Nation­al Front pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Marine Le Pen are all play­ing the nation­al­ist card. They are flay­ing a lib­er­al inter­na­tion­al­ist world order that has hem­or­rhaged the jobs of the domes­tic work­ing class for the profits of a finan­cial elite.

We need to push for a new architecture of international trade, investment and technology transfer that puts worker representatives at the decision-making table.

In response to the Right’s suc­cess, many pro­gres­sives yearn to advance a full-on pop­ulist mes­sage of their own. This pop­ulist Left (both in the U.S. and in Jere­my Corbyn’s Labour Par­ty) address­es the same domes­tic anx­i­eties as the Right, hold­ing out hope for a return to a buoy­ant nation­al econ­o­my, differ­en­ti­at­ing them­selves by promis­ing a fair­er dis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth and reduced car­bon footprint.

But this nation­al­ist approach to left pop­ulism is lim­it­ed. While both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clin­ton opposed the TPP, nei­ther offered an alter­na­tive vision of the world eco­nom­ic order. Indeed, by gen­er­al­ly iden­ti­fy­ing the inter­na­tion­al eco­nom­ic mar­ket­place as the source of job loss and inequal­i­ty, polit­i­cal pop­ulism — of the Right and the Left — severe­ly restricts the range of reme­dies at our dis­pos­al, lead­ing many to pro­pose false solu­tions or no solu­tions at all. 

For one, if the eco­nom­ic prob­lem is locat­ed some­where out there” in oth­er coun­tries, then why should vot­ers not want to close bor­ders against peo­ple as well as goods? The fears implic­it in pop­ulist nation­al­ism tend to stoke right-wing sol­i­dar­i­ty around God and home and country.”

Sec­ond, the diag­no­sis is wrong. There was no gold­en age” in which we pros­pered by our own boot­straps, with­out reliance on oth­ers’ labor or their prod­ucts. Pop­ulists tend to con­trast the depre­da­tions of present-day glob­al­iza­tion” with the peri­od of rel­a­tive eco­nom­ic abun­dance and oppor­tu­ni­ty last­ing rough­ly through the post­war years of 1946 – 1973. But that era, too, con­tained a com­plex inter­na­tion­al eco­nom­ic order — jobs in Iowa and Wis­con­sin have long been linked to world mar­kets. The U.S. — includ­ing the labor move­ment — pushed for more open trade (and the Bret­ton Woods insti­tu­tions that sus­tained it) in those years pre­cise­ly because Amer­i­can wealth and jobs depend­ed on mar­kets and nat­ur­al resources abroad.

To be sure, as new plat­forms of pro­duc­tion, trans­porta­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion opened up, the glob­al tide of com­merce dec­i­mat­ed the old indus­tri­al work­ing class while dri­ving a stake of inse­cu­ri­ty through much of the work­ing pop­u­la­tion. Yet, as the glob­al eco­nom­ic order has turned harsh­ly against work­er inter­ests, why can it not turn again?

Pro­gres­sives must not cede dis­cus­sion of the world econ­o­my either to the lib­er­al glob­al­iza­tion­ism pro­mul­gat­ed by Thomas Fried­man and Mark Zucker­berg or the pseu­do-pro­tec­tion­ism asso­ci­at­ed with Trump and Le Pen. While the for­mer accepts the cur­rent slide of the West­ern work­ing class as inevitable, the lat­ter pro­pos­es only arbi­trary and author­i­tar­i­an countermeasures. 

Instead, we need to push for a new archi­tec­ture of inter­na­tion­al trade, invest­ment and tech­nol­o­gy trans­fer that puts work­er rep­re­sen­ta­tives at the deci­sion-mak­ing table. Mov­ing for­ward, inter­na­tion­al trade deals — in prin­ci­ple a good thing — must bring wages in cheap­er-labor coun­tries into clos­er align­ment with those of their devel­oped-world trad­ing partners. 

There is a yearn­ing in many of us to explore and inter­act with the larg­er world; those who share this yearn­ing are a far larg­er force than those who would retreat into nar­row, parochial spheres of liv­ing. Giv­en our instant con­nec­tions, our tan­gled sup­ply chains, our inter­re­lat­ed spi­rals of inno­va­tion and debt, the idea of retreat to pro­tect­ed nation­al enclaves — racial, polit­i­cal or eco­nom­ic — is the dark­est of illusions.

The orig­i­nal social­ist inter­na­tion­al­ism cen­tered around Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels began with small groups spread across many nations. Today, we need sim­i­lar cit­i­zen ini­tia­tive from a vari­ety of sources — dis­crete iden­ti­ty” groups, reli­gious com­mu­ni­ties, labor unions, pro­fes­sion­al asso­ci­a­tions — to push a world­wide demo­c­ra­t­ic agenda. 

To be sure, we must now engage local­ly, com­ing to the aid of those most in need. Our imme­di­ate strug­gles, how-ever, should not detain us from build­ing a brighter future. Amidst dis­ap­point­ment, even despair, at the revan­chist impuls­es infect­ing our scared nation, the pow­er of civ­il soci­ety still beck­ons to make con­nec­tions between com­mu­ni­ties and across borders. 

Leon Fink is the author of The Long Gild­ed Age: Amer­i­can Cap­i­tal­ism and the Lessons of a New World Order (2015) and edi­tor of the jour­nal Labor: Stud­ies in Work­ing-Class His­to­ry.
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