In the wake of Brexit, European political developments and Trump now being POTUS #45, surely it is time for the left that goes on about ‘neoliberalism’ to wake up instead to the emerging nationalist economic policies in the rich imperialist countries. Unwelcome as it may be, these policies are backed by the mass of the people in such countries, not simply by a small bunch of reactionaries. Furthermore, the nationalism of one imperialist power is, as one would expect, opposed by another, so it is also a time for the left to consider whether it will play a part in siding with one of these or rejecting all of them. That often turns out to be difficult. As with some parts of the left-wing vote for Brexit in the UK, there is often an attempt to adapt to reactionary nationalism by claiming that it represents an opposition to the established political order that can be turned to radical ends. (Which, however, is not to say that voting for EU membership was a progressive option – so I abstained)
The term ‘neoliberalism’ describes the changes in economic policy after the 1970s. I do not use it for several reasons. Firstly, there was not much of a change and what change did occur did not start from the Thatcher and Reagan governments after 1979-81. Secondly, the most important reason for the new stance in capitalist economic policy was derived from the new imperatives of the global capitalist economy, riven by crises from the late 1960s, not from a policy ‘coup’ by arch conservatives or due to the domination of government economic policy making by reactionaries. Thirdly, the perspective of people arguing for the notion of ‘neoliberalism’ is to argue for alternative and more progressive policies, but under a capitalist government and/or in a capitalist economy. Nostalgia for an illusory past – a more caring capitalism – was their common trait, and they also ignored how pressures from the global economy on policymakers led to the ‘neoliberal’ policies.
A number of articles on this blog have covered the question of the ‘China price’ and the benefits that inhabitants in the rich powers have gained from the import of cheap goods produced by super-exploited labour elsewhere. Although it is an uncomfortable fact for radicals in rich countries, this has also underpinned the complaint by workers that their jobs and living standards are being undermined by low-cost imports. In a related fashion, a more strident complaint from these workers is that the problem is migrants who will work for less than them. I would be generous here and describe these complaints as economic nationalist, and not necessarily racist, although sometimes they are.
In recent years, the ruling elites in several rich countries have adapted to these popular complaints, even if they had previously been at the forefront of promoting free trade and global economic connections. In democracies, popular opinion ends up influencing the political stance of the government. This has been behind Trump’s support in the US, Brexit in the UK, Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, etc. Much of the anti-Moslem sentiment in Europe and the US is also due to a resurgence of such economic nationalism. Not that Moslems can rationally be seen as an economic threat, but they provide a convenient focus when the issue is to ‘protect our way of life’ from foreign influences.
The real challenge to the left in many rich countries comes not from the ruling class, or its policies, but from their inability to take on reactionary popular sentiment in the mass of the population. Instead, mostly they focus on their own version of progressive policies that their national capitalist state should implement, whether taking over banks or diverting public spending to better causes. That is why most radical invective around these issues will use the more acceptable pejorative term ‘racist’, rather than the often more accurate term ‘nationalist’. With this approach, they will be wrong-footed by the new, more strident nationalist stance of Trump for the US and likely similar positions taken in other major powers.
Tony Norfield, 21 January 2017