THE NATION | Economic Nationalism is Suicide
By Jamie Merchant | The Nation
The ongoing melodrama of the Brexit negotiations has lived up to its billing as one of the great shit-shows of our time. But the whole tragicomic affair has shown us the clear political premium of nationalist ideas today: Both UKIP’s Nigel Farage and certain socialist contributors to Jacobin magazine share a basically national definition of sovereignty, and so too of democracy. Both sides accept the assumption that withdrawing from the European Union is the way to rejuvenate democracy. Both right-wing “Brexit” and left-wing “Lexit” presume the national state to be the only possible terrain of genuine self-rule.
Sensing the wind blowing toward a broader neo-nationalist revival, the thought leaders of the American center-left call for a similar recovery of national democratic integrity against the failures of globalization. Recent years have seen a cascade of earnest center-left think pieces pleading for an inclusive, responsible nationalism from the likes of John Judis, Noam Gidron, and Yascha Mounk, among others. Hillary Clinton, in her recent remarks that Europe must “curb immigration to stop the alt-right,” offered an instructive example of how the “vital center” drifts toward the very thing it claims to abhor: to beat the right, simply ape the right.
Further to the left of these luminaries lurks a persistent belief that bold, large-scale redistributive programs require globalization to be somehow “rolled back.” This line of thinking implies that some form of disengagement or “decoupling” from the world market is necessary. Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect, for instance, plainly calls for a left-wing form of economic nationalism based on the blueprint of the postwar Bretton Woods order, while others make the full case for economic nationalism as the road to socialism.
These writers insist that imposing strict capital controls at the national level is distinct from the racialized, xenophobic nationalism we’re seeing today, what with its closed borders and hostility to immigrants, the undocumented, and people of color. The left case for economic nationalism can be aptly distilled in a phrase: closed borders for money, not for people.
In fact, the idea that one could build a wall against capital while avoiding a crackdown on the free movement of people is a fundamental premise in the case for economic nationalism as the road to social democracy, or even socialism. But the flows of people and capital are actually closely connected; often, one implies the other. The only way forward for the left, then, lies through globalization, not in an atavistic resurrected nationalist identity.
All of the forces energizing the current, worldwide turn toward nationalist politics are flowing from the same, deep source: the declining dynamism, steadily eroding productivity, and deepening stagnation of the specific form of capitalist growth that has organized global society, both culturally and institutionally, for the last 40 years. For decades, workers were told by the “experts” that despite the ravages of deindustrialization, more markets, more competition, and more “free trade” would eventually deliver higher living standards for all. This narrative accompanied the deepening economic interdependence of the world’s countries, who since the late 1970s were woven ever more closely together through cross-border flows of capital investment and the spread of transnational supply chains. And for some time, neoliberal globalization did benefit millions in the world’s developing countries.
Despite obviously pathological features like deepening, paralyzing class inequality, increasingly hollow, undemocratic political institutions, militarized, unaccountable police, and, in the United States, an epidemic of nihilistic mass-shootings, the neoliberal form of growth seemed for a while to sell a convincing story about the future. Now, the increasingly visible, virulent expressions of ethno-nationalism that we see cropping up around the world are symptoms and, to a growing extent, engines of its disintegration.
“The Great Regression,” as some have labeled this multinational reactionary revolt, pushes toward a post-globalization, post-democratic world that pits workers in different countries against each other in alliance with their respective national capitalists. In other words, it points toward a world of competing states as national firms. This world will not be compatible with what anyone on the left should want. In this historical moment, nationalist politics of whatever stripe drive towards the fragmentation of the global economic order into a more directly geopolitical mode of competition between rival power blocs. In the United States, this movement is clearly visible in the transition over the last decade from an abstract, stateless official enemy—“terrorism”—to the identification of powerful states as the national enemies: Russia, China, Iran.
Hard-line US nationalists now dream of swapping the present global order for a different one that would reestablish economic supremacy by repatriating national wealth and manufacturing capacity at the expense of foreign competitors, especially China. They wish to abolish economic dependency for a new dream of sovereignty: a fantasy of total control.
Yet, as careful observers have noted, China’s developmental model is not going away any time soon, and the current strategy of the US ruling class to badger the CCP into fundamentally changing course at this late date is reckless at best, and blindly suicidal at worst. This is a developing conflict rooted in objective economic forces that are driving toward something most thought had been left behind as a relic of the 20th century’s “age of extremes,” or the incommensurable interests, struggle for dominance, and slow-burning hostilities of classical imperialism.
Instead of placidly sailing into a common future of international cooperation, shared growth, and the gradual development of the world’s poorest countries—once the happy future envisioned by liberals everywhere—we once again face the untimely return of great-power conflict, something almost everyone thought had been banished to history. The “great regression,” indeed.
The global scope of our problem demands an equally global vision. It requires a clear grasp of the objective trends driving toward an almost unimaginably dark future. But since left-wing nationalism rules out a global response to an equally global crisis, it would only exacerbate the present conditions. Instead of confronting them head-on, it would double down, reinforcing and accelerating current trends toward the fragmentation of the global economic order.
As was the case a century ago—the last time a tightly interconnected form of capitalism came apart at the seams—the gradual breakup of the current global economy will almost certainly not be a peaceful affair. Then, as she watched the world she knew dissolving into a storm of fire and steel, the socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg claimed that bourgeois society stood at a crossroads. One direction lead from the chaos of World War I to a transition into socialism; the other toward regression into a new, modern barbarism. For her whole generation, the foundational beliefs of an entire civilization were literally going up in flames across the plains of France. The immediate question became what would now replace that dying world.
We are now at an analogous crossroads. National competition for market share in an increasingly anemic global economy is ramping up the tension between the world’s great powers by the day. Yet economic nationalists on the left make the dangerous mistake of assuming away this entire context in their abstract models for social democracy, or even socialism, in one country. Their analysis takes place in a historical vacuum, not our concrete, fraught historical moment. Dismantling existing networks of transnational interdependence will not subdue economic competition between countries, but will heighten it by intensifying the zero-sum, geopolitical logic that we can already see taking over the political economy of state after state. This, again, pushes toward a world of growing jingoism and martial confrontation—a world we are already perilously close to realizing.
As the recent centenary of Rosa Luxemburg’s murder at the hands of ultranationalist, paramilitary thugs should sharply remind us, this is a world in which it is impossible for the left to win. Emphasizing the nation state as an ideological and economic formation, under current historical circumstances, can only result in the political empowerment of the right. Again, the right grasps this clearly—it is only the left that remains deluded about the supposedly progressive potential of nationalism.
In this volatile conjuncture, the proposal to rewind the tape of history in order to return to some nostalgic nationalist model leads straight into the abyss. But nevertheless, let us assume for a moment that it would be hypothetically possible to cleanly dismantle the world market and the whole global division of labor, rolling globalization back without these consequences. Is it compatible with socialism? Is even an ideal worth fighting for?
Hardly. There is an inherent contradiction between the project to “de-link” from the global economy and the aims of working-class internationalism, which left nationalists still, somehow, claim to uphold. Because it abandons any universalizing connections to the global working class in favor of a narrowly national articulation of collective identity, de-linking would foreclose on the very possibility of workers’ solidarity across borders. It is simply not possible to think and act as a member of the universal working class if the relevant political community, the boundary of our imagined, common life together, only reaches as far as some artificial border. As a fortress of capital controls will wall off “our” capital from the rest of the world, reserving it for the exclusive benefit of legal citizens, so will they drive a wedge between “us” and the rest of the working class by building a wall around our political imagination.
This is not a purely abstract point: the strongest evidence for it is plainly visible in the contemporary Scandinavian social democracies, which are the vanguard in the mounting nativist defense of the national welfare state from freeloading non-citizens ‒ the “parasites” of the body politic. Regardless of whether it dresses itself in a leftwing garb, emphasizing national citizenship pushes in the direction of welfare chauvinism, the jealous protection of public property from undeserving outsiders.
Within the oppressive, stifling economic environment in which we live, xenophobic nationalists provide an answer to the question: who counts? The only way to truly escape the corrosive politics of exclusion, ultimately, is to affirm that everyone counts. This means nothing less than the realization of the concept of global citizenship.
To make global citizenship a reality requires transnational institutions and a visionary politics that could coordinate the planned investment of capital into communities devastated by deindustrialization, as well as into the capital-starved zones of the post-colonial world, whose systematic despoliation still feeds the relative prosperity of the Global North. Global citizenship can only become more than an abstract idea by creating the necessary economic and material foundations for it. But this will remain impossible from within the obsolete ideological cage of the nation-state, walled in as it is by the chauvinistic pull of bourgeois citizenship and capital controls that prevent the planned investment of capital into other parts of the world.
Likewise, it is only such investment that could relieve the pressures of emigration from their root causes in the oppressive economic destitution that billions of people face in their home communities.
A macro-scale program of this sort might sound wild, but crazy things have happened before. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, during the height of labor militancy in the United States, industrial workers from almost every different background collaborated across the lines of ethnicity, language, and geographical distance to advance a nationwide class politics, something few thought possible on such a scale at the time. Working in tandem with political allies, workers targeted strategic choke points in the supply chains of a few key industries with coordinated strike actions across the economy, winning union representation and forging, in the process, a relatively class-conscious identity. Using the momentum provided by the introduction of the New Deal, the Congress of Industrial Organizations worked with seasoned organizers, including more than a few socialists, to communicate and coordinate an industrial strategy throughout the interlocking vertebrae of the national economy. The result brought capital to its knees.
We should be thinking in similar terms now, but on a global scale. Unlike the nationalist strategy, this program has the distinct advantage of working on the actual historical, material terrain that lies before us: a globally interconnected working class; corporate logistics chains that effectively work already like immense, elaborate schemes for world economic planning; and existing supranational institutions like the International Labor Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. The latter two bodies have, of course, come to serve primarily as conduits for unproductive private finance. But the fact remains that they were made, at one time, and so they could be remade in the image of a progressive, international green investment program. The tools for constructing a more just, egalitarian, and humane post-neoliberal future for all are already lying on the floor, as it were. The left just needs to figure out how to pick them up.
These are the core ideas of a new industrial strategy for global labor, a program for transforming globalization in a strongly progressive direction. Organizations like DiEM25 in Europe, Global Justice Now in the UK, and Justice Is Global in the United States are each pursuing this program in different ways, but the basic idea is exceedingly simple: stop erasing foreign workers, and start including them in our analysis, strategy, and vision. Organizers and intellectuals on the left are already working together to coordinate with workers’ organizations in strategically important countries. The bulk of the value produced and realized by powerful US-based corporations like Amazon, Apple, and Wal-Mart comes from the labor they exploit outside the United States through subcontracted companies. Their profits depend on it.
An effective industrial strategy for the left lies in seeking out partnerships with unions and other workers’ organizations overseas to successfully organize these supply chains, while capitalizing on the widening groundswell of vocal support for a progressive, egalitarian, and inclusive political agenda at home. Realizing that agenda will obviously mean cracking down on basic tricks of the neoliberal trade, like tax evasion and predatory currency speculation, but their purpose should not be to construct socialism in one country. Winning political power at the state level is a necessary condition for a rejuvenated left vision of international justice, but it is not sufficient. Ultimately, new forms of transnational investment, cooperation, and solidarity are the only real way to deal with the global scope of the crises we face. Transnational problems require transnational solutions, period.
The left will not win on the terrain of nationalism, because the exclusionary politics it inevitably brings with it are inherently reactionary. Whatever shape the dream of nationalism takes, it will inevitably become our nightmare. The alternative we now face is between a slow, dystopian descent into the great regression, or a progressive globalization of a new type. Either way, zombie neoliberalism’s days are numbered. The question is whether it will be a controlled demolition that reveals the edifice of a new world where our most basic values of equality, freedom, and human dignity can flourish, or a violent self-destruction that ushers in the dark future the nationalists so fervently desire. As for Luxemburg and her generation, so too for us today the choice is socialism or barbarism.
Jamie Merchant is the media director for the Center for Progressive Strategy. His writing has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, the Baffler, and Al Jazeera English. He has been a leader with Justice is Global since 2016.