For some socialists, any instance where change is proposed at the national level is considered a form of nationalism. While it’s understandable (and maybe even commendable) that the socialist left in the United States is instinctively resistant to any display of American patriotism, due to the reality that it is most often used as the official justification for war and imperialism abroad and xenophobia and racism at home, the anxiety over nationalism among the American left is often alarmist.
Jacobin‘s article The Same Bosses is a reminder to us that whatever trade policy the United States adopts, the international economy is still divided between those who produce wealth and those who own it. Laboring to demonstrate that free trade policies really haven’t damaged the American working-class all too much, the article goes on to polemicize against Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump based on their remarks about offshoring and trade policy that protects domestic manufacturing – and it can reasonably be assumed the article is equally directed at socialists who agree or sympathize with these positions.
It is a fact that allowing capital the right of flight – the right to total freedom of movement around the globe – has destroyed entire regions of the United States, impoverished the working-class, and threatened the existence of their entire cultural way of life. Yet still, there are socialists who are tacking asterisks on any effort to curtail capital’s ability to flee decent labor standards. I know I know, it’s cliche to point out that the socialist left is populated mostly by postgraduate intellectuals masquerading themselves as “the working-class,” but Jacobin‘s chic postmodern illustration, persistent coverage of some of the most obscure events in economics and global politics, and editorial offices in where-else-but-Brooklyn, is about as subtle as a swift punch to the face. It’s not so much that I disagree with them, but the overall presentation of the publication never fails to remind me what perspective I’m reading from – and I sort of feel like with the amount of effort they do put into their “brand” that this is a pretty deliberate goal of theirs. Put plainly, Jacobin is the New Yorker of the left – but to be fair I guess this is exactly what someone who blogs about socialism on the internet would say.
But hey, I digress. The point is that, to me, open borders is like open shops. An open shop, as we all know, is when bosses demand the right to hire non-union workers to avoid paying fair(er) union wages and benefits. Similarly, opening borders for capital allows it to flee working-class self-organization and move to the regions of the world with the weakest labor standards and the harshest political repression with few if any consequences. Jacobin seems to disagree:
[…] Socialists and labor activists won’t successfully challenge the impact of neoliberal free-trade policies on workers of any nation by pitting US workers against “people in Mexico making 25 cents an hour” — instead, they must organize initiatives to promote cross-border solidarity and legalization of Mexican workers, who are a de facto part of the US labor force.
I’m not sure I know what “organizing initiatives to promote cross-border solidarity” means (and I’m pretty sure the author doesn’t have much of a clue either) besides the fact that it would look really good as the title of the keynote speech at your city’s next socialist bookclub meeting. This looks like a common situation in leftist politics where one group of people will suggest a practical solution to something, and another will counter it by offering some incredibly abstract nonsense. Marxists say nationalize the economy, anarchists counter it by suggesting something like “horizontal directly-democratic neighborhood assemblies.” Similarly, my response here is “Okay…but what does that even mean?”
Maybe it means that American labor unions should fund and support the Mexican and Chinese labor movements. Besides the fact that the UN-sanctioned International Trade Union Confederation already exists, and that any global outreach led by the American AFL-CIO would definitely not be revolutionary or probably even progressive, a “bottom-up” strategy like this (which wouldn’t be bottom-up anyway, since it would have to be mediated by the leaders of both countries’ labor unions) would take, generously, decades to have any affect if it had any affect at all.
I’m sure Mexican workers and American workers would benefit emotionally from some face-to-face organization where they learn that they’re both “in this together,” but it wouldn’t bring American workers’ plants back, and it wouldn’t raise Mexican workers’ wages.
But applause lines like “Let’s make America great again” (from Trump) or “American workers should not be forced to compete against people in Mexico making 25 cents an hour” (from Sanders) pack a punch.
It’s obvious that Donald Trump’s scapegoating of immigrants and China is designed to galvanize supporters in the US against foreign bad guys — an us-versus-them competition where “Americans,” from the bottom of the economic ladder to the top, are in it together. This is straight-up economic nationalism that anyone on the Left will recognize as identical in logic to military nationalism.
Well should American workers be forced to compete against workers in Mexico making 25 cents per hour? Should American workers be forced to surrender their pensions, health insurance coverage, mortgage-paying wages, vacations, and overtime protections – gains that were won through decades of violent mass struggle – to make themselves more competitive with workers who cannot demand the same? It’s demoralizing that Jacobin would rather scold the American working-class than offer support and solidarity to them in these situations. The entire objective of the labor movement is to take labor out of competition with itself. Can the above statement really be interpreted in a way that’s a slight against the Mexican worker, and do the people saying these things (even the unsavory “white trash” working-class people) really mean it that way?
The “straight-up economic nationalism” is lost on me. Hell, in the article, Jacobin rolled right over the Carrier Air Conditioning incident without so much as paying lip service to the 1,400 union members who are now on the benefits rolls in Indiana. I’m not sure whose side these people think they’re on, but they don’t get the American worker and it shows – painfully.
My plant recently got a few new CNC machines, all of which prominently display on the side a big waving American flag over the words “MADE IN USA.” Is the American flag iconography obnoxious? Sometimes, yes; and that’s often enough to dishearten some socialists entirely. But even if it’s a defensive victory, I consider it a victory nonetheless that we prevented the manufacturer from fleeing the decent labor standards the American labor movement has sustained in the United States, and that we successfully pressured them to build their machinery in a nation (or, to avoid sounding nationalistic, an “economic region”) with such standards.
When Mexican and Chinese workers throw the yokes off their backs, I’ll support them with the same enthusiasm I would show for workers in this country. But preventing the erosion of labor standards here, and preventing the further erosion of living standards in rust belt areas like Paterson, Newark, and Philadelphia is a valid class interest.