Sunday, March 05, 2006

Neoliberalism and the left

Free trade is not, repeat not, some half-baked theoretical justification for letting Asian sweatshop capitalism run riot until the last industrial worker in Europe finally draws the dole.

Indeed, it will lift tens of millions of people in the third world out of desperate poverty in the next decade or so. What’s for the left not to like?

Or at least, that’s the story if you listen to some of the cannier advocates of neoliberalism, who sugar-coat their vision of Thatcherism on a planet-wide basis by stressing its bogus progressive credentials. Recent pro-globalisation speeches from Blair and Brown have been cases in point.

This neat little conjuring trick allows socialists and the labour movement to be portrayed as narrow-minded and self-interested protectionists, criminally content to prioritise comparatively small numbers of well-paid unionised jobs in the North over the eradication of starvation in the South.

To be sure, the debate is completely rigged. Statistical prestidigitation starts with setting $1 a day as the benchmark for poverty. So an income of $2 a day becomes, by definition, non-poverty.

That’s how a standard of living equivalent to the subsidy enjoyed by the average European Union cow can be dressed up as justification for free market permanent revolution.

And even if neoliberalism did what it said on the can, that would barely scratch the surface of the problem. The challenge humanity faces is to end the precarious existence suffered not by tens of millions of human beings, but perhaps two billion people.

Daunting? Obviously. But at the same time, this truth is the only realistic starting point for a meaningful twenty-first century socialism. If we are unable confidently to argue that our analysis can provide answers, we might as well give up now and let neoliberalism see what it can do.

Yet the political left’s intellectual and organisational responses rarely seem up to scratch. Well into the third decade of neoliberal ascendancy, our side remains on the defensive.

Although an almightly backlash against globalisation is increasingly apparent, we can no longer take for granted the hegemony within oppositional currents that once seemed to come as our birth right. It is even possible that current developments will conspire against us.

Forces on the political right are actively striving to co-opt discontent and harness it to nationalist and reactionary ends. That point is not lost on Peter Mandelson, perhaps the Brother Number One of New Labour neoliberalism, who seems to be worried that the ostensibly watertight arguments for free trade aren’t pitilessly sweeping all before them.

Recently the EU trade commissioner he has been heard fulminating against ‘the emotion of economic nationalism’ and expressing fears of a ‘swing against openness and a drift towards populism’.

The frightful French want to protect 11 sensitive industrial sectors from foreign takeovers. Luxembourg is up in arms against New Labour financial backer Lakshmi Mittal’s bid for world number two steelmaker Arcelor. Poland’s unpleasantly rightwing government wants to block a planned merger of foreign bank subsidiaries.

The left is pretty much a bystander in all of this. By default, the right is able to pose as the defender of ordinary people. Sometimes it does so while explicitly linking opposition to globalisation with hostility to immigration.

Take maverick Republican congressman Tom Tancredo, himself the son of Italian grandparents. This man is currently generating much publicity by touring the US to denounce the depredations of job-snatching Hispanic illegals.

Even as he does so, anti-big business rhetoric freely trips off his lips. Here‘s one typical soundbite: ‘The American people need to have a voice so strong that it would drown out that of corporate America.’ It certainly does. But surely the left should be the ones to provide it, rather than leave matters to the proteges of Pat Buchanan?

We will only be able to do so if we refuse to make common cause with anti-globalisation reactionaries. The left is, by definition, internationalist. That’s how we can simultaneously insist on full employment while not buying in to the concept of saving ’our’ jobs from either immigrant workers arriving in advanced countries, or from the new proletariat of the free trade zones.

That’s why we need to stress positive support for third world development, even where that entails poorer countries undertaking work that economic development once made the sole province of the first world.

That’s why we need to reiterate opposition to immigration controls, an issue over which many on the left have been content to give ground of late. Remittances from migrant workers are now a major source of income for many third world countries.

Nor should we ever invoke ‘the national interest’ to oppose foreign companies taking over UK companies. Why should socialists have any particular brief for British capital, as opposed to capital of any other provenance?

Then again, there are occasions where protectionism is justifiable. Of course we should protect the environment. Of course we should protect labour standards and demands that workers everywhere have the right to organise. But our protectionism needs to be thoughtful rather than knee-jerk, reflective rather than reflexive. It’s either that, or crossing over into some rather strange political territory.

* This article appears in the March 2006 edition of Red Pepper

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