The European Union and the BNP are in the news a lot right now. And many lefties are worried that the left is ‘losing the battle of ideas‘, or in general stumbling around with its pants around its ankles. In the spirit of contributing to that confusion, I wanted to offer some comments on, um, well I guess the three things in the title really.
In the middle-section of the 20th century there was in many countries a kind of grand class compromise. In the UK it was the welfare state, the NHS, and the various other measures of the Attlee government: in the US it was the ‘new deal’ under FDR. For the next few decades, Keynesian state regulation, nationalisation, and various forms of left-reformist measures and ideas were comparatively widespread and popular across the world (including, of course, in the USSR and its imitators).
Two things have undermined this compromise. One is the active class fightback waged by capital in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. In the UK this was led by Thatcher, in the US, and globally, by Reagan. It involved the final folding of the USSR, with all its ambiguities. That’s a familiar story, so I won’t focus on it.
The other thing is globalisation. The old class compromises operated at a national level; the economy increasing functions globally. This in itself does not give an advantage to any side – it simply undermines the previous compromise. As a matter of contingent fact, however, capital has reaped the political benefits from globalisation, because it is organised globally.
Three examples of this are
1) through outsourcing and relocation of production, capital can chase the lowest wages, driving them down globally,
2) through shifting bank balances and production around, capital can avoid taxes and regulations, and moreover can, through the threat of doing so, drive them down in all countries. Corporation tax, for example, has been falling steadily in most developed countries because if it is too high, capital will move to other countries.
2a) this process can be made even more aggressive when the national states in question are weak and underdeveloped, through the creation of international institutions (WTO, IMF, etc.) that can vigourously pressure them into ‘liberalisation’, while mouthing the odd homily to powerful countries about their subsidies and protectionism.
3) mass migration provides a section of the working class who are outside the scope of the national compromise, its guarantees about benefits, wages, working conditions, collective bargaining, etc. They are thus easier to exploit, and this exploitation can serve to drive down the wages of other workers who they compete with.
Now this again is not a particularly novel idea. Most people are fairly aware that globalisation is a generally pro-capital phenomenon. But what I think needs to be emphasised, is what needs to be done to counter this, and how it differs from what is in fact being done.
A line that summed this up for me quite well was the following: “These EU rules allow employers to escape from national collective bargaining and employment legislation and impose lower wages and worse working conditions, creating a race to the bottom.” This line is from an election leaflet for the Trade Union/Socialist Party backed ‘N02EU’ campaign (via. SP member AVPS). The campaign centres around opposition to the EU and a re-assertion of national sovereignty/democracy/social-democracy – that which the EU “allows employers to escape”.
This to me is emblematic of the widespread working-class response to globalisation: maintain the attachment to the victories won at a national level, and through them an attachment to the national and ‘national community’, while expressing hostility to the pro-capital character of globalisation as a hostility to what symbolises and embodies globalisation.
Now in this case, what symbolises and embodies globalisation is the EU, a bunch of capitalists sitting in Belgium writing long documents. That’s a fairly benign and reasonable sort of hostility. Just as common though, is the far more damaging phenomenon of hostility towards immigrants, as the people who best symbolise the intrusion of the world economy into the national economy.
Now I’m not trying to criticise or disparage N02EU, especially given how generally rudderless the left in general seems. They’ve made a point of distancing themselves from anti-immigrant sentiment, and God knows the middle-class liberal tendency to dismiss hostility to immigration as mere racism, rather than a distorted expression of a correct perception of globalisation, is no help to anyone.
And maybe this kind of appeal to ‘where people’s head are at’ is strategically wise, I don’t know, I’m no strategist. But I do think that in the long run, it is precisely the tendency for the native first-world working class to fetishise the national community, and to seek to re-assert the national against the international, which will doom them to defeat. In the long term, the prospects for working class interests lie in forming international organisations of labour to combat the international organisations of capital.
Because for all that it might seem easy to renew and re-vamp national social-democracy (well, it doesn’t, but anyway), as long as capital is organised internationally, and labour is organised nationally, labour is fighting with one hand tied behind its back. For example, in trying to raise sufficient taxes to fund public services, any national government will be hamstrung by the ability of capital to move away from high-tax countries to low-tax ones. To hold that back is likely to require quite strong restrictions on capital, and if nation X is attacking its capitalists on its own, it will probably face resistance from global capital in every other nation. Whereas if there were international labour co-ordination, those taxes might be raised simultaneously in many countries, preventing capital from evading them so easily.
Not only is tying ourselves to national organising like fighting with one hand tied behind our back, but that hand is holding a knife, and could quite easily lead us to stab ourselves. Nationalism is not a pro-working class ideology. Indeed, the whole point of a national compromise, a truce in the class war, is that by its nature, it benefits the exploiting class, who have an interest in stabilising the conflicts their exploitation produces.
What this means in practice is that whatever power goes to a national government to hold out against globalisation is power in the hands of a capitalist government, which it will use against the working class. The prospect of this is most obvious with immigration, since anti-immigrant feeling is the most pro-capital form of hostility to globalisation (since immigrants are, by and large, working class).
Controlled immigration – lots of immigrants, but without the legal security or rights of natives – is a pro-business arrangement. To do away with it means either doing away with controls, or with immigration. Doing away with controls (open borders) is not in itself something that will benefit the native working class (though neither is the intensification of controls – fewer immigrants yes, but also weaker and more vulnerable ones to exploit). It is, however, a necessary condition for long-term benefit to the native working class, because it allows international organisations of labour, which are difficult to form if one of their sections is calling for physical assaults and criminalisation of another section.
The alternative, and currently the more popular alternative in some areas, is to do away with immigration. This is perfectly possible; in a police state. Or possibly with major paramilitary action. But a police state also means no strikes, no independent trade unions, no political dissidents – i.e. no independent working class power (on pain of Godwin’s law, I won’t spell out the comparison I’m making).
So in the l0ng term, a focus on the national community as the site for class struggle is, at best, a handicap, and at worst, to walk towards being crushed by authoritarianism. In the words of the SWP slogan, it is necessary to ‘globalise resistance’.
How does this work? How do we get there? Is it happening at the moment? Is a tactical retreat to nationalism the best way to win working people to the cause of socialism, and hence of internationalism? Sadly, the bones don’t give me answers to these questions. Good luck to everyone trying.