Is Protectionism Nationalistic?

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.

Is Protectionism Nationalistic?

What is Fascism, Really?

This election season has seen more speculation on fascism than perhaps any previous election in the country. Donald Trump’s insurgency within the Republican Party has provoked a considerable counter-offensive against his alleged racism from diverse swaths of the political field, including in fact Republican Party officials who undoubtedly sense what an existential threat his campaign is to the future legitimacy of their party. Salon has branded Trump as a “Mussolini,” and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio similarly identified him as “proto-fascist” and racist.

The most frequent similarities drawn between Trump and 20th-century European fascism are relatively simple aesthetic ones: the seductive and charismatic personality, the harsh rhetorical attacks on immigrants, the violent actions of his followers, and the endorsement of the KKK. These connections, perhaps typified by the “loyalty pledge” incident, make for entertaining journalism and undoubtedly leave a mark in the public consciousness, but don’t do much in favor of getting to the heart of the political content of fascism. Most of the characterizations of “il Duce Donald” fall short of the mark as such.

How fascist is Donald Trump, really? I probably can’t conclusively answer the question, but I’d like to offer up a couple ideas for consideration (and hopefully, discussion and criticism) concerning the definition of fascism and how it relates to Donald Trump and American politics. Firstly, what I believe to be the definition of fascism:

1. Fascism institutes a nationalized, planned economy, but unlike the similar Communist position, this economy is nationalized for the benefit of the nation rather than the victory of the working-class. Fascism has always been anti-capitalist. Across the pond, the noted fascist British National Party declares plainly that “the economy should be managed for the benefit of the nation.” This by no means proves that fascism is pro-labor, however; fascism simultaneously nationalizes industry and destroys the power of the labor movement, giving direction of the economy to the state. Fascism wishes to build a self-reliant national economy, and to this end it promotes protectionist policies like import tariffs, defends domestic manufacturing and agriculture activities, and opposes free-trade.

2. Fascism is concerned with creating a united national and racial identity, and it is because of this that fascism has always been hostile to the class politics of the right and the left. Fascism strives to nurture the power and supremacy of its constituent race, be it Aryans, “indigenous Britons” like the BNP, or the American white race. Fascism “is the movement that does not narrow-mindedly represent the interests of one class, but serves the entire Volk,” as typical Nazi propaganda declared around the elections of 1930.

3. Fascism (usually) rescues capitalism from periods when its legitimacy is in crisis,
though this fact might not help us much because we can almost always point to conditions that hint capitalism is decaying. Regardless, a major political-economic function of fascism is that it allows the capitalist class and the state apparatus to plainly merge for the purpose of disciplining social unrest and suppressing class struggle. If a material reason for the rise of fascism can be found in history, it is generally the reaction of the ruling class to serious threats to its ability to govern. These are not simply economic depressions, but depressions which mutate into clear, organized political challenges such as prolonged strike waves or the emergence of mass-based anti-capitalist political parties. Though no such conditions exist today, in Trump’s case, there’s no reason to believe that fascism can’t be premature.

4. Fascism is not American in the sense that it was not created with our national mythology in mind. In America the forces furthest to the right (like the Tea Party and the Libertarian Party) are usually classical liberal in nature: they emphasize the primacy of the individual over society, the supremacy of the right to private property and the existential imperative of civil liberties, all of which are decidedly un-fascist concepts.

In fact, the closest America has ever come to fascism was probably during World War II when the Democratic Party government instituted the National War Labor Board. The NWLB was created for the purpose of muting the class struggle in the interest of the nation – more specifically, to maintain war production uninterrupted by strikes or lockouts. The NWLB banned strikes (with the consent of the labor unions) and greatly curtailed the authority of both labor and industry to bargain over wages and working conditions.

Trump is running as the candidate of the white race whose birthright it is to reclaim their nation for their people. However, his campaign has most consistently appealed to the white, rural working-class electorate seeking protection from globalization (a population and an issue the left has never successfully understood, organized, or probably even sympathized with), rather than to the middle-class seeking protection from a rogue labor movement. Trump may very well create a new, uniquely American form of fascism, and if Trump is in fact a fascist, that would bring into question whether or not the organized socialist left has an obligation to create a popular front behind Hillary Clinton when Bernie Sanders loses the nomination. Interestingly enough, that would probably damage the reputation of socialists in the eyes of their closest constituents (Sanders supporters) more than it would bolster it.

What is Fascism, Really?

The Working-Class Needs to Abandon Strategic Voting

  • Strategic voting in the United States has been elevated to a level of unquestionable righteousness. We all take for granted that it is an abuse of our civic duties to vote for a third-party candidate, to skip voting in the general election after our preferred candidate lost the primary, or worst of all to not vote at all (which is not only unstrategic, but unpatriotic).
  • The political function of voting within capitalism is that it legitimizes the rule of the capitalist class and the existence of the capitalist state.
  • Low voter turnout is a problem for capitalism because it demonstrates an inability for capitalism to justify itself and to be consented to. The remedy to low voter turnout has never been an alternative, but to use the public relations machine to attempt to increase consent for the same ideologies.
  • We want our votes to matter, to be effective. We concede that in order for them to matter, we must compromise in favor of whatever is presented to us by the two parties. In short, the more we strive to make our votes matter, the less they belong to us – the less they are our votes.
  • The concepts of suffrage and representative democracy become literally meaningless if one cannot vote for someone they affirmatively want to see in power.
The Working-Class Needs to Abandon Strategic Voting

Are Professionals Working-Class?

Over the past thirty-five years, the American economy has shifted from being focused primarily on commodity production to one sustained by professional services. As the American economy has deindustrialized and redeveloped in new, “white-collar” economic sectors like healthcare, education, and technology, the socialist left would do well to analyze how this change has affected the nature of work and the class composition of the United States.

Throughout this historical process, one trend has made itself apparent: Unskilled and semi-skilled manual employment in production is either being automated away or shifted geographically to other nations. In its place, careers – requiring high levels of institutional education, giving the employee a sense that they are fulfilling some mission or purpose like healing the sick or educating children, and offering opportunity for advancing limited seemingly only by the employee’s own drive – dominate the new economy. These are the professions.

It is especially tempting to count professionals among the working-class given the situation the American labor movement finds itself in. When victories are scarcer to find from the once-titanic unions in the auto, steel and construction industries, and where the professionals’ associations in nursing and public education have delivered the most promising activity in the past decade, it would seem that we would be passing up a golden opportunity if we were to exclude the most successful labor unions from being included in the ranks of the working-class.

It is a trend that mirrors itself in the left’s culture as well: The American worker is too culturally backwards to be helped. He is rural, we are urban. He finds as much pride in manual labor as we find in our college diplomas. The left is culturally isolated from this section of the working-class, so it has migrated its fortunes to a new economic demographic – one which is better educated, more articulate, and altogether easier to understand from the perspective of any university socialist club.

The Working Class is Not “Anyone Who Works for a Living”

If for no other reason than to keep it simple for those unfamiliar with Marxist terminology, the socialist left has made it a habit to describe the working-class broadly as “anyone who sells their labor” or “anyone who works for a living.” These definitions may do us well when speaking in a general sense, but some elaboration is necessary.

The concept of work here is itself ambiguous. If you were to ask the owner of a small restaurant or the district manager of a chain of Wal-Marts why they show up to work every morning, they will probably give you an answer similar to the waitresses in the restaurant or the clerks in the Wal-Mart: to pay bills and to feed their family. Many different sections of society work for a living (depending on what you consider work), whether they are proletarian wage workers like food servers or production line workers or small capitalists like small business owners and intermediary corporate cogs.

Capitalist or otherwise, everyone in a society’s economy is forced to participate in it somehow – whether by doing a job someone else offers, hiring someone, buying property, or engaging in financial activities like the stock market – and most people engage with it through employment. Simple dependence on employment, or the necessity of participating in the capitalist economy (in whatever way) can’t be the criterion we use for assessing whether or not a person or their occupation is “working-class.”

Moreover, the concept of “work” is ambiguous in this definition because it does not seek to define what work (or, correctly, labor) actually is. The working-class labors for a living – or at least for a wage. This is an important distinction to make. Work cannot just mean time spent in between punching-in and punching-out, and “the sale of one’s labor” is an economic process much more specific than the exchange of someone’s time for a wage.

Labor is a productive human activity that combines raw materials to make something that fulfills a particular need or use. It is productive because it creates a definite amount of economic value. The combination of raw materials is not relegated to assembly-line work, but includes any scenario in which a person expends their creative energy on an object to change it into something usable. This constitutes fast-food workers preparing and serving meals and warehouse workers packaging Amazon shipments as much as it is about workers assembling automobiles in factories.

The point here is obviously that work, for the working-class, is not simply any tedious time you get paid for, and the subjective experience of work is not constitutive of the working-class identity.

The Nature of Work

It is not just that the working-class engages in labor, it is how they engage in labor. After all, there are many groups of artisans and owner-operators who certainly engage in labor, but are scarcely working-class. What separates a jeweler who assembles rings and trinkets to sell via Etsy or a general contractor who constructs a small house from the food-service worker, the warehouse worker, or the assembly-line grunt is that the work of the former is self-directed rather than mass-produced.

They may not decide exactly what to make, but they decide how to make it. This is in sharp contrast to the labor engaged in by the working-class: their activity is timed, disciplined, watched, corrected… they effectively lose control over all of their activity, from the way their fingers move to the exact words they repeat to customers, from the time they punch in to the time they leave.

This is a core feature of working-class life, as it is the alienation of the worker from the process of their work. This intense discipline of work is a material reality of the way that production is organized in a capitalist economy: as the owner (of the business the worker labors for, and the worker’s labor) has a dire interest in the maximization of profit, and because the source of profit is the creative activity of the worker, the owner must see to it that literally every second of labor-time is as productive as possible. The owner must squeeze as much value as possible out of the living activity of the worker.

What Are the Conditions of Life for the Professional?

So far we have examined some of the conditions of life for the working-class. The conditions of life for the professional sharply differ.

The worker, having whatever skills he or she might possess, finds employment wherever possible to fulfill the basic conditions of life for themselves. In the most skilled sections of the class, the worker belongs to a union that procures work on their behalf (as in the construction trades) or has somewhat reliable job security. In the most unskilled sections of the class, this means taking a job until the alienation is no longer bearable and then finding another (which causes the high turnover rate in retail and food service – workers escape the misery by finding another establishment to work at), working various odd jobs or informal employment situations (compare Uber), and so forth.

The professional seeks out a career that suitably matches his or her personal ambitions, whether it be healing the sick, educating youth, or designing a product. The professional then enters into years of institutional education to enter the field – education, for what it’s worth, which is so intellectual that it is unequivocal to the category of technical “skill” in manual-labor employment. Their tremendous level of education and professionalization equalizes the bargaining power between them and their employers to a degree unknown by any wage-worker. A salary subsidizes their entire lifestyle and negates the necessity that they must sell as much of their living time by the hour as they can bear. True, their salaries and benefits may be threatened by capital – as a school district or hospital is as eager to cut down on costs as any other organization – but their benefits packages are determined by much more than the bare amount of money necessary to allow them to punch the clock tomorrow.

The worker sells their labor by the hour, and the buyer expects to squeeze as much value out of that time as possible. In pursuit of such a goal, the employer utilizes every psychological and mechanical medium possible to rationalize the activity of the worker. The physical consciousness of the worker is rarely necessary. This naturally leads the worker to feelings of apathy, disdain, boredom, and misery.

The professional may not decide exactly what he/she is doing, but a large part of their job is deciding how to do it. The professional uses their superior education and knowledge to make decisions. It is not simply to divide these jobs between “manual” and “intellectual” labor. If a job affords the employee enough autonomy to make these “intellectual” decisions, i.e. how to teach a class and run a classroom, how to treat a patient, or how to design a product, the occupation already lacks the condition of alienation.

The oppressive nature of work under capitalism leads workers to either desperately seek an escape to the alienation and desperation that capitalism provides, most effectively and most destructively through drug usage and crime, or to unite with other members of their class to change the conditions of their work in their favor through strikes and labor unions. Whether or not the worker is conscious of it, the worker’s class has an irreconcilable interest in the abolition of capitalism. The conditions of their life can never prosper in capitalist society, and only through achieving a new society can they begin to reach their full human potential.

The material functions of capitalism do not impute a similar interest in the class of professionals. As a group, they tend to side with the working-class when economic recessions drive them into close quarters with the lot of burger-flippers and janitors, and side with the classes of landowners and business owners they seek to one day enter into when times are better.

Inside or Outside Our Class?

None of this is to say that the only occupations the working-class can find itself in are both productive and mass-produced. There are of course working-class occupations which are alienating, yet do not produce value (like janitors and some retail clerks); and there are still other occupations which produce value but are not as alienating (think the skilled construction trades).

Rather, the importance of this question lies in encouraging the left to begin thinking of these professional occupations outside the narrow mindset that since Marx implied that the majority of the population is working-class (in his own time), then of course the occupations that the majority of people must find themselves in today must be working-class occupations. Embracing a perspective that views these salaried careers as analogous and interchangeable with the wage-workers earlier socialists spoke about during the Gilded Age would result in a horribly confusing interpretation of socialist ideas.

Are Professionals Working-Class?