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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  1. #1 Austtin 02 May 13

    great stuff!

  2. #2 Vivian Davidson 02 May 13

    This article provides an accurate example of how the 'us vs them' approach, the default setting of today's nation-state thinking, has left all of us (independent of race, age, gender) in a continuously sinking vortex of antipathy towards others who inhabit other nations, speak other languages and believe in different things. But, the article is prophetic in its vision of how there is an opportunity to realize that the ’struggles’ of ever-day are indeed not unique to any one nation and that if we are aware of our increasing inter-connection in all realms of life (social, political, economical), then there is hope that together we can improve the lives of each and every one of us.

  3. #3 disorderedworld 02 May 13

    Shimri, I agree with your statement that if we want the globalization of democracy, not only the globalization of capital, then we must also have international struggles. I think the Left's failure in recent decades has been the failure to look beyond national borders and assume a shared responsibility for building a fairer world. Neoliberalism's greatest success has been to co-opt the Left and divert them from this historic vision.

  4. #4 Shimri Zameret 02 May 13

    Thanks Austin, Vivian and disorderedworld!

  5. #5 bundle whip 03 May 13

    Agree 100% with article and comments. New Internationalist continue to get great writers and great views, way ahead of all similar publications.

    Shimri, I was there at Occupy and watched as what was an opportunity for a global justice movement became shifted into national issues only. But that was just the start and the initiative that Occupy was is leading on to others. And the web itself is the tool the movement has always needed for it to become global.

    I think those who are not Internationalists are dinosaurs.

    Thanks once again to New Internationalist and to Shimri!

  6. #6 jan 03 May 13

    This argument has several problems: it pits 'national' struggles (and, I presume, more local struggles) against 'global' struggles and in so doing it fails to recognize that, 1.) 'national' need not be opposed to 'global', conceptually, and 2.) working conditions and how they are instituted vary hugely around the world, and that part of the reason why struggles are pitted at less-than-global levels is because non-abstract struggles are actually quite complicated affairs.

    Regarding this:
    '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.'

    Indeed, your answer to the first argument is *too* simple. Firstly, it's not clear why if 'a strategy leads to failure, it's time to change it', at least not as radically as you suggest, and, secondly, you are implying that 'national labour struggle' is 'a strategy' when actually many and varied strategies are part of labour struggles, according to different conditions. Furthermore, the implication is that the only choice is between 'national labour struggle' or 'global labour struggle', both of which point to abstractions that few people working in labour struggles would recognise.

    Moreover, to usefully apply any of these categories - technology, communication, climate, trade, capital -€“ to the labour or any other struggle requires that they each be dealt with in some considerable detail - might I even suggest contextual detail, rather than taking them as somehow monolithic global concepts which here represent just about everything.

    If you're suggesting that any labour struggle that is not global is bound to fail, or bound to fail in the long term, then indeed this is a pessimistic view. Is it then fair to extend this argument to political struggles: the struggles in Tahrir Square were primarily a national struggle to oust a national leader, which may even have appealed to some broad sense of national identity. Their victory, with however many caveats, inspired movements around the world, suggesting, in contrast to your argument, that national struggles can inspire international or global struggles. Hence, the 'global' labour struggle could be constituted of successful national (or other scale) labour struggles which require specific strategies according to context.

    That is, national and global need not be in opposition in quite the stark way that you argue.

  7. #7 william duckworth 08 May 13

    I could not agree more. We must be seen to protest at injustice at every level including international level, yet be aware that marches and protests alone are not enough. We must become far more sophisticated. But we have a drawback ,unlike the Multi Nationals and all Governments we cannot lie,they can and do ,Unfortunately people believe them !!That s were the work must be!!! In Britain people are in a ’slough of despond’ and we re heading pell mell into decadence,We have had so many truly awful ’rulers’ that a lot of intelligent people are saying ’Why bother?’ They are the ones who need to be inspired once more,Give them back their pride

  8. #8 todawgs 11 May 13

    Wouldn't it be more expedient to kill the 1% in a worldwide revolution? And more fun!

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About the author

Shimri Zameret is an Israeli anti-occupation activist and was involved in Occupy London from its first day. He wrote his dissertation in the London School of Economics about the link between globalization and the financial crisis. He can be followed on Facebook and Twitter.

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