Saturday, 21 January 2017

Trump, Brexit, Nationalism and ‘Neoliberalism’

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


  1. Mr. Norfield, I think that reading "Settlers" by J. Sakai and "Divided World, Divided Class" by Zak Cope helped me immensely to understand what is going on with the politics of first world countries at the moment. I hope they would be as beneficial to you as your work "The City" was as beneficial to me, I would put all these three books into my personal top ten.

  2. Mr Norfield,
    I have been reading and re-reading your book on the City with great interest. I have a particular interest: I am trying to get a grip on the possible implications for Scottish independence, should that come back on the agenda (which looks very likely), of the logic of financial-economic imperialism.
    The case for Scottish independence is not predicated on “economic nationalism” in the sense you employ the term – if I understand you correctly. Rather the reverse, since most of its advocates are for seeking re-entry into the EU, or possibly at least into EFTA – that is, they are in favour of as wide a free trade area as possible. After the debacle of the 2014 position on currency – when a sterling currency union was proposed as the model – opinion now seems to have shifted decisively towards a separate Scottish currency, initially pegged to sterling but with the intention of floating in due course.
    I’d be very interested in your views on some of the more complex implications of Scottish independence, with particular reference to the financial ones. Your book is very clear that smaller nations – apart from special cases like Switzerland, Luxembourg and so on - are very much dominated economically and financially by the big players, especially the USA and the UK. If Scotland were to separate from the UK, would it inevitably find itself in such a subordinate position?
    One observation which might qualify such a conclusion is the projection that Scotland would have a net balance of payments surplus, even without counting oil exports. This would presumably, therefore, lessen its dependence both on foreign investment income and on financial services income. By the same token, Scottish independence would worsen still further the balance of payments for the remainder of the UK.
    I don’t know if this is a topic that interests you; but it seems to me that it might, if only because it could provide an almost unique case study, of an attempt to escape from imperialist domination in its multiple manifestations. The momentum for independence does not come mainly from narrow economic motives, but rather from a wish to escape from the political-economic-financial hegemony of a Westminster government whose direction seems increasingly at odds with the mainstream of Scottish politics. I am fully in sympathy with this position, but I am very uncertain whether a political separation would put much of a dent in the economic-financial hegemony. I’d be very interested to know what you think; and if you know of any other writers who might throw light on the question.

  3. Reply to LynJones:
    You seem to have Scottish ‘independence’ as your main focus. What does that really mean? Scotland has been a beneficiary of British imperialism, having provided many of its political leaders as well as its troops, and having been the recipient of funds from the central UK government. Scotland is not separate from British imperialism as a whole, whatever may be the moans of local politicians about the Westminster-based government. Scotland’s national welfarism and its apparent radicalism are based upon this reality.
    The view that Scotland could somehow go it alone is utopian, which is why you mention the aim of seeking re-entry into the EU/EFTA. This is a hope to find an escape route, a special niche, within which the ‘independent’ capitalist Scotland could survive in the world economy.
    It is possible that Scotland might politically separate from the rest of the UK and try to rejoin the EU, or something similar. But what problem does that really solve? I would guess that the net economic benefit would even struggle to be zero, and most likely would be quite negative. Scotland would most likely make net payments to the EU budget. Could it manage to finance public spending with $55 per barrel of oil? Would it want to adopt the euro? More substantially, Scotland would be put in a position where, as a small country, it would have little ability to bargain with the bigger powers.
    But instead of all this, you should focus on the reactionary, dysfunctional capitalist system, expose the role of your state in promoting it and, more generally, try to understand the realities of imperialism today.