Wednesday, March 01, 2017

The Left, Brexit, Trump and the Future of Political Economy

Outside of Canada, the last year has not really been kind to progressive politics and ... even in Canada ... there are signs of worry. No one is going to defend -- or, no one who thinks of themselves as a progressive individual (see earlier blogs for what this might mean) -- can or should defend the British Conservative Party nor the current incarnation of American Republicanism. Both have become more stridently extreme. Both have stripped away the veneer of respectability in politics to pander to very base ideas. And, if left in power very long, both will wind up causing just tonnes of problems.

This said, one might ask: what can we learn from these developments? There are, I want to contend, important lessons for progressive (or, leftist) thinkers in these developments because the success of more extreme right wing politics is, simultaneously, the failure of progressive politics.  Most commentary -- at least the stuff I have read -- has focused on explaining why Trump or Brexit occurred. The general conclusion -- for good or ill -- involves a combination of factors that amount to strategic miscalculations one the part of party establishments or moderates or the general public. I strongly suspect that large sections of the US and UK population will, very shortly, have a serious case of buyer's remorse but in the meantime learning only this lesson is detrimental to progressive politics because it is about how to win elections. And, again for good or ill, progressive movements have been not bad at this. I know ... I know ... progressives have not gotten all they wanted. But, they managed to elect Obama to two terms despite intense reactive racism in the US; they got rid of Harper; kept the Labour Party in power in Britain for years. The record, overall, is not all that bad.

The problem progressives have is that they often don't know what to do with power when they get it. (Now, to be honest, it seems the British Conservative Party has the same problem.  They didn't like Labour governments but once they had settled in ... well ... what came next never seemed very clear. There is a standard script -- cut taxes, talk about people getting soft, say environmentalism has "gone too far" -- but, we have all heard that a bunch of time and ... seriously ... how much lower you gonna cut taxes on the wealthy? How much less can they pay? How much less environmental protection can one actually have?) And, this is where the left can learn from Trump and Brexit.

One of the odd things about the election of Trump and about Brexit is that the left was left (ha ha) holding the bad of the old right. The left never supported neo-liberalism and campaigned long and hard against it. Organized labour railed against free trade, said that the working class would pay the price for multinational corporation super profits, indicated that mobile capital created a race to the bottom in terms of environmental protection, etc. Said differently, progressives were always the ones who said that government needed to rethink (or, renegotiate) NAFTA and who said that there was nothing wrong with protecting domestic markets to ensure high employment rates, and that one did not need to embrace globalization (in the form of the EU or of NAFTA or the TPP) in order to have a vibrant economy. So ... how did progressives end up fighting a rearguard action in favour of the very policies they opposed while right-wing populists scooped up victories adopting leftist ideas about putting big business in its place?

I recognize that this right-wing populism was mixed with a lot of racism. Said differently, right-wing populists were able to mobilize a racist language about (in the US) Mexican "stealing jobs" (when in reality it was American corporations in their quest for super profits who were creating the rust belt) but ... you see the point. One need not embrace racism to be concerned about the fate of working people and to raise questions about neo-liberalism. Indeed, most progressives I know raised precisely these questions and were vibrantly anti-racist. And, here is the thing, in theory, progressive thinkers raise concerns about neo-liberalism all the time. In practice, in government, running the show, they tend to make their peace with it. This is the lesson that progressives need to learn. Why make peace with the very thing that you oppose? Is this a case of "only Nixon could go to China"?

Maybe. Right-wing populists can talk tough to big business in a way that progressives no longer can (and, in the US, maybe have not since the days of Kennedy) because they know that the right-wing media will not mobilize against them, in the US Tea Party activists will stay silent, Fox News hosts will have nothing to say, and that the moderate mainstream media won't do a very good job reporting this and so will do one of their standard "some people say this; some people say that" reports. Progressive politicians, in other words, have been worried about a bad media, about protest, and about business reaction. If Obama or a Labour PM had raised questions about NAFTA or the EU, the right would have been all over them. Fox would have predicated a  disastrous recession; would have talked about  "government over-reach", would have explained the price consumers would pay for "special interests." I recall FTA reporting of US Democrats who raised questions about free trade. One right-wing journalist calmly explained that if Democrats had been in charge of lightbulbs, we would still be using candles to protect unionized candle makers. Nothing of this sort has gone on in opposition to British Conservatives and American Republicans raising similar types of concerns.

But, there is more than biased, two standards media spin going on here. For a variety of complicated reasons progressive, moderate, reformist, and leftwing thinkers embraced internationalism and globalization but in the process became heavily confused about it. They embraced it because they wanted to win elections and felt that they wouldn't without it, but they embraced it because they really were committed to internationalism and, on one level, you can see why.  Progressive internationalism involved evening out standards of living (improving economic development) in marginalized economies; diversity at home, respect for difference and acceptance of refugees, among other things, including finding ways to address common international problems (human rights, climate change, e.g.). Said differently, moderate (Democrat) and progressive (Labour) leaders confused neo-liberal globalization (bringing down barriers to business) with a different form of globalization that approached issues from a humanistic and ecological perspective. Defending the latter became defending the former but ... it actually ain't really so. And, in the process, in the wake of this confusion, centrist and left-wing politicians were left holding the bag for policies about which they were -- or, should have been -- deeply suspicious.

Let me give you an example: Hilary Clinton  was, more or less, silent on the issue of NAFTA. Instead, she focused on another job-creation strategy. This strategy might have made sense. I don't actually know because I didn't investigate it. She could have maintained this strategy but she also should have taken aim at NAFTA and, I think, she could have done so in a way that did not "scapegoat" Mexicans. I think a lot of Bernie Saunders' popularity arose from the fact that he did precisely this.  The Democrats could, for instance, have pointed out that Mexicans did not "steal" jobs, rich people elected to move companies south of the border. They could have argued that this is a reason to strengthen the labour and environmental side agreements to NAFTA. They could have argued that this is a reason to better regulate business. Said differently, instead of keeping (more or less) silent on the issue while taking about the importance of international openness (which is a good but vague thing), Clinton and other Democrats could have pointed out that it is the very weakness of these agreements that harms both Mexican and American workers. Strengthening them would allow for higher wage rates and better environmental protection. Regulating business -- say, the mobility of plant and capital -- would allow for public good assessments of relocation and whether or not they are actually needed. It would have allowed and open and needed discussion on this issue: how much profit is enough? After all, if a company is leaving Ohio or Michigan or Missouri to make *more* money elsewhere ... should one not discuss exactly how much money one should be making? Surely, in a day and age of widening income gaps such a question is of some importance?

Said differently, the new right (let's call them that) has caught moderate, progressive, leftist politicians by surprise. The new right is deeply unpopular with some sections of the old right but that does not matter too much. Perhaps, in fact, moderates and leftists made too much of the dislike of, say, Republicans for Trump or British Tories for Brexit. The success of this new right, however, highlighted a problem with the political centre and left. Instead of demanding changes to international trade agreements, they missed an opportunity to shape discourse and, in the process, it took on nasty racist tones. As Labour and the Democratic Party rethink their politics, they would do well to bear these points in mind.
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