New Internationalist

Forget about winning, Lefties

people holding a May Day banner
Are national struggles for social justice failing? bogieharmon, under a CC License

We won’t have social justice soon, and the day after May Day is a good day to explain why. National protectionist struggles against free trade are often a perfect example*. As long as labour unions and leftist activists say ‘let’s defend our national workers from competition with exploited overseas workers’, and do not say in addition: ‘Let’s unionize internationally to prevent exploitation everywhere, not only in our state’, we are bound to lose.

Social justice activists and trade unionists often react to criticism about the lack of internationalism in their struggles with two kinds of arguments – a strategic one and an economic one.

First, they say, it’s nice to support the international dimension of the labour movement in theory, but actually putting energy into it is a strategic mistake. As the Left and labour movements are facing gigantic tasks fighting cuts, privatization and austerity, their ability to fight for workers abroad is very limited. Yes, they say, it’s important to symbolically support workers abroad with statements of solidarity, but a joint international struggle? That should come after we win the national struggles.

Second, they say, this is not an economic zero-sum game: continued protection of local industries will not lead to job losses for poor workers living abroad, but will only reduce the profits of foreign companies. On the other hand, national protectionism will prevent worse labour conditions and wages of local workers.

My answer to the first argument is simple: if a strategy leads to failure, it’s time to change it. Choosing a struggle that is only national in character means fighting a hopeless battle of retreat against the forces globalizing politics and economics – for example technology, communication, climate, trade, capital.

No nation alone can impose democratic control on international markets, tax havens, Rating Agencies, the IMF. And if we want the globalization of democracy, not only the globalization of capital, then we must also have international struggles. Yes, international struggles with concrete international goals – not in some future utopia, but as part of the present day-to-day strategy of workers and Left movements.

My answer to the economic argument is more complex, as is indeed reality. Yes, some of the competitive advantage of transnational corporations derives from exploiting workers. But not all competitive advantage. For example, when employees are in countries where it is cheaper to live, a fair salary is lower as well. So if you choose to join national-protectionist struggles against international trade, it is important to clarify why – because you stand with workers and humans struggling against oppression. Not because these are people from your state struggling against people from other states. When leftists oppose companies because they are ‘foreign’ – when they don’t oppose them because they exploit or because they are transnational (meaning above the existing democratic mechanisms) – they shoot themselves in the foot. What will they say when the rightwing calls for the deportation of ‘foreign’ workers? What will they say when national companies exploit workers in ‘foreign’ countries like India?

On the day after May Day, it is worth recalling that Marx and Engels wrote, ‘workers of the world unite’, not ‘workers of the state unite’. To win, a struggle for social justice cannot stop at state borders. The solution to the ‘race to the bottom’ in taxation and labour rights cannot happen through rearguard national struggles, but through fighting an international struggle.

In a globalizing world there is no substitute for setting and enforcing international labour laws and setting up global taxation floors (for example, in corporate taxes). There is no substitute for creating democratic institutions able to enforce the closure of tax havens globally, even at the cost of some national sovereignty. In a world of globalizing economy there is no substitute for control of citizens and employees on international institutions – by their radical democratization and federalization. Just as workers demanded nationally during the 20th century, we must now demand internationally during the 21st century: a shift away from a one-dollar-one-vote system – a shift to democracy. Alternatively, we could give up on this strange idea of social justice.

* This text was originally written in relation to a specific and high-profile workers struggle in Israel – a country where nationalism is often a tempting tactic to win mainstream support. However, it is relevant to leftwing and labour activists elsewhere as well. For example, for many in Occupy London, it was in practice mainly about achiving social justice in Britain.

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