Nationalism versus Internationalism: What Path for the Left?

Internationalism has been the default position of the left. Suspicion of nationalism stems from its long association with a single ethnic or religious group, excluding the ‘other’ and defusing class solidarity. But is the default position valid any longer?Some on the left think not. They advocate instead a ‘progressive’ vision of nationalism and national sovereignty. Although this vision is undoubtedly attractive, we may nevertheless be in danger of exchanging one illusion – international solidarity – for another – the feasibility of radical New Deals.

 Why Progressive National Sovereignty?

Proponents of a renewed leftist nationalism advance two powerful arguments. They are boldly presented in Reclaiming the State, a recent book by William Mitchell and Thomas Fazi.

  1. Forestall the right-wing populists:
    • The far right has far more effectively tapped into the identity and grievances of disgruntled electorates than left-of-centre (LOC) parties. This generalization holds true for Europe (especially in the East and Turkey, but now also Italy), the United States and India, though not for Latin America where the left has tended to be nationalistic/anti-imperialist in outlook. Not surprisingly, voices on the left respond to this challenge by contending that nationalism is not inherently reactionary and xenophobic. They argue for a progressive national sovereignty, shorn of the nativist narrative propagated by the right, and directed to cultivating a civic nationalism and protecting citizens from destructive global market forces.
    • Neoliberal policy, they rightly point out, has removed major levers of control from national governmental hands, thus exposing growing sectors of their populations. Independent central banks determine monetary policy. Trade agreements and World Trade Organization treaties shape trade policy and much else. Deregulation of capital account and of banking permit a dizzying level of cross-border capital and financial flows. The European Union allows the free flow of EU residents, while liberal refugee policies and non-legal migration there and elsewhere swell the immigrant populations. In this context, it is the populists who offer national protection to those left behind by neoliberal globalization, not the left. That must change.
  2. Embrace the national state as the principal venue for progressive policy making:
    • The liberal-democratic and socialist national states, it is claimed, were responsible for the principal social advances, such as the welfare state, before the neoliberal era. Since the 1970s, these governments have relinquished their capacity to make further advances by ceding controls via international agreements and multilateral and supranational organizations. Even many LOC parties and leaders have embraced the neoliberal agenda of globalization and austerity. Offering no coherent alternative to neoliberal policies, these parties saw their popular support erode.
    • But there is a radical left alternative, so goes the argument. It requires the reassertion of national sovereignty. The nation is the broadest basis of solidarity and the only real tool of social emancipation. We can’t realistically depend on neoliberal-inspired supranational or international organizations. Moreover, the national option is not only necessary but possible. Globalization, it is said, was negotiated, and can be renegotiated to fortify national decision making. Furthermore, currency-issuing governments are not constrained by insufficient revenues. In short, rejuvenated national governments can use an augmented policy space to achieve full employment, expand the state’s role in the economy through nationalization and some degree of planning, spread prosperity and, last but not least, build ecological sustainability.

Obviously, this condensed statement removes qualifications and homogenizes arguments, though exponents differ one from the others in nuance and willingness to draw implications. Nevertheless, I think this statement, in baldly capturing the logic of the nationalist case, clarifies the option. The vision is bold, but can it work?

Can It Work?

This strategy holds that nationally-based, radically-conceived New Deals remain possible in today’s globalized world. Political struggle can produce configurations of power whose agents can shape capital accumulation and  income, wealth and service distribution at the national level. This approach is congruent theoretically with Antonio Gramsci’s focus on hegemony and the role of political struggle in eroding it. Robert Brenner’s famous study of capitalist breakthrough in England as the unintended consequence of class struggle is also pertinent. Of course, contemporary exponents of the New Deal option also call for the transformation of global neoliberal structures. But their emphasis is national.

In contrast, others on the left contend that global market forces are so strong as to preclude substantial deviation from global neoliberal norms. For example, the Marxist/neo-Marxist ‘logic of capital’ approach holds that the logic of capital accumulation on a global basis shapes class forces and states, leaving little space for policy experiments. Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems approach is a well-known case in point. What shapes socio-economic trajectories are not national class/political struggles but the global imperatives of profitability and its agent, a more-or-less coordinated global capitalist class, with contradictions emerging over the longer term. Although capital-logic proponents might be loath to say so, those championing nationally-based New Deals are seen as whistling in the dark. Global capitalism rules.

So how much policy autonomy could a popularly-supported left-wing government wield? Mitchell and Fazi (2017) believe that national governments (in Europe) have far more leeway to pursue radical policies than is thought. They can attain full employment via job guarantees, democratic controls over the economy through renationalization of key sectors and a new approach to planning, redistribution from the rich to the poor, inclusivity and more. How is this program to be achieved?

  • Abandon complicity with neoliberalism by adopting a radical program and recapturing a class-based approach that wins over the working class from the populists. The existing identity politics is easily reconcilable with neoliberalism, whereas a class rhetoric is not.
  • Act on the recognition that globalization is not a force of nature but was negotiated by governments. Thus, governments can abrogate agreements and reassert controls, especially exchange controls. The reassertion of national sovereignty and national control is the only basis for refounding the left.
  • Recognize the reality that sovereign, currency-issuing governments can never run out of money ‘because they issue their own currency by legislative fiat.’ ‘They can purchase whatever they like, as long there are goods and services for sale in the currency they issue’ (Mitchell & Fazi 2017). Thus, consistently high budget deficits can finance job guarantees for full employment and programs enhancing social justice.

Is all this realistic? There are reasons to be skeptical.

  • A program as radical as that outlined above would have foreseeable, devastating consequences. Private investment would cease. Firms and the wealthy would find ways to transfer financial assets abroad. Speculation against the national currency would drive down its value and induce price inflation. Meanwhile, major deficit spending and redistributive polices would expand demand for goods, also driving up prices. Importers would demand advance payment, citing financial instability, leading to shortages. The privately owned mass media would ceaselessly denounce the ‘irresponsible’ government. The IMF would join the chorus. Many citizens, especially in the middle class, would raise the alarm, demanding a change of course. A policy reversal, such as that undertaken by Franҫois Mitterand in France in 1984, would be in the offing.
  • There is no free lunch when it comes to sovereign, currency-issuing states running high deficits, in light of the economic challenges just mentioned. Growing inflation could veer toward hyper-inflation, as in Zimbabwe.
  • The global economy has transformed national economies: can humpty-dumpty be put back together again? Many manufacturing centres have declined and are no longer linked to hinterlands through supply chains for inputs, energy and ideas. In their stead we have interconnected global cities – cities that are nodes in the global economy. New York needs London, but does it need Pittsburgh? The more globally connected a city, the more prosperous; the less connected, the less prosperous. It will be difficult and prolonged to restore the old national linkages.
  • Many on the left propose replacing identity politics with a refurbished class politics; but how is this to be done? Racial/ethnic, gender and LGBT grievances are real. They cannot be readily rolled into a renewed vocabulary of class and class grievance, nor perhaps should they be. And how will LOC parties reconcile a militant class-based movement with their current support among cosmopolitan, highly educated, high-expectation, urban progressives?

It is not a matter of what should be done, but what can be done.

So Which Way?

Radical New Deals are unlikely to succeed under current circumstances. What might work, in the short term, is something less ambitious.

  • A more limited New Deal such as those proposed by Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise. Each stands for worker protections, a solid welfare state including a fortified public health system and public education, and more popular involvement in decisions affecting persons’ lives. This program  is not neither socialism nor social democracy as currently conceived; it is an ‘in-between’ strategy. These leaders promise substantial bread-and-butter advances and demand adjustments aimed to benefit those left behind, the working class and the beleaguered middle class. Their programs only appear radical because of the slippage in LOC parties who have accepted neoliberalism.
  • Such a program, together with strong civic nationalism, might be enough to win back to the left many of the disaffected supporters of right-wing populism. Nationalism, indeed, is not necessarily reactionary and xenophobic. It satisfies a powerful need for identity and solidarity for those rooted in their localities. But the left’s nationalism must obviously be an inclusive nationalism. It must accept, even embrace, people of different religions and ethnicities in our multicultural societies. Equal opportunity, equal legal rights and respect, mutual support through the welfare state, and commitment to a common defense are the essence of civic nationalism. Many will not accept such a deracinated view of nationalism. But we have to count on the likelihood that racists account for only a quarter or half of those supporting the populists, and that the remainder are open to reconciliation based on an open, just society.
  • The global rules of economic exchange have to change. Financialization is a large part of our current malaise. We have to civilize globalization, first and foremost by controlling cross-border capital movements. There are many proposals for how this civilizing might be achieved to move beyond neoliberal globalization. Attaining an International New Deal is essentially a political problem, however. How to articulate an effective alliance between LOC governments and transnational social movements to attain this goal is a perplexing, even overwhelming question. But it must be done.

Nationalism and internationalism are not mutually exclusive choices; reality is messy. The prospect is daunting. But surely it is preferable to accept this than to retreat into arcane theory or wishful thinking.

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