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Internationalism as a Strategic Opportunity: Tobita Chow Responds to Max Elbaum

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People holding up a banner written in Chinese at a protest

In an essay on “Left strategy after Charlottesville”, Max Elbaum makes “an argument for the left to interact with the post-Charlottesville surge of resistance by pursuing a strategy that is anti-right, anti-racist, gender-inclusive, grounded in the interests of the working class and oriented toward working both inside and outside of the Democratic Party.” I am in agreement with the bulk of Elbaum’s analysis, argument, and recommendations for left strategy. However, I believe there is a limitation in his analysis of the right, which in turn has consequences for left strategy.

Elbaum identifies white nationalism as the driving force of right-wing politics today, and in his analysis of white nationalism he follows common practice and focuses on its racism. The key political dynamic is right vs. anti-right polarization, and racism is “at the pivot”. The left must therefore find a “path to an more advanced stage of class struggle” through a strategy that puts anti-racism at the center, acting as “an anchor force regarding the ways race and class are interlinked”. This means advancing class consciousness and the principle that “an injury to one is an injury to all” across racial lines.

It is certainly correct to say that white nationalists are currently the driving force in right-wing politics, that they are racists, and that class conscious anti-racism must be central to left strategy. However, this analysis is incomplete. First, it misses the potential for the right to shift its emphasis from white nationalism to economic nationalism, a move which has been promoted by Steve Bannon as well as other figures who remain in the White House. Second, the analysis of white nationalism as racism misses the crucial role that antisemitism plays in white nationalism. As we shall see, antisemitism is not just another form of racism; rather, it is a reactionary critique of global capitalism, which shares central features with the economic nationalism promoted by Bannon. Racism is currently at the pivot of polarization between Trump and anti-Trump fronts, but nationalism is also a potential pivot, which only partially overlaps with racism. This implies that left strategy must be anti-racist, but it must also be internationalist, establishing that “an injury to one is an injury to all” across borders as well as across racial lines.

Economic nationalism on the right

White nationalism is currently the dominant force on the right, but it has a competitor in economic nationalism. Economic nationalism is chiefly a critique of global capitalism, and as we shall see this has parallels in white nationalism. However, economic nationalists aspire to overcome the racism of white nationalism by focusing entirely on supposed conflicts between national economies and setting aside supposed conflicts between races.

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The most prominent proponent of economic nationalism is Steve Bannon, Trump’s recently deposed Chief Strategist. Bannon has repeatedly emphasized the distinction between economic nationalism and white nationalism. In an interview following Trump’s election victory, Bannon said “I’m not a white nationalist, I’m a nationalist. I’m an economic nationalist…. The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia. The issue now is about Americans looking to not get f—ed over.” More recently, in an interview following the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville and shortly before his departure from the White House, Bannon dismissed white nationalism as a dead end: “Ethno-nationalism—it’s losers. It’s a fringe element. I think the media plays it up too much, and we gotta help crush it, you know, uh, help crush it more.” Once again, he proposed that competition with Asia, and specifically with China, ought to be the focus of the right: “To me, the economic war with China is everything. And we have to be maniacally focused on that. If we continue to lose it, we’re five years away, I think, ten years at the most, of hitting an inflection point from which we’ll never be able to recover…. One of us is going to be a hegemon in 25 or 30 years and it’s gonna be them if we go down this path.”

According to Bannon’s economic nationalist vision, the right would shift from the white nationalists’ attacks against all people of color to a zero-sum economic competition with other countries, especially China. This would take the form of protectionist measures such as increased barriers to US trade with China and US investment in China, and anti-Chinese “Buy American” campaigns. Bannon seems to recognize, correctly, that the “fringe” white nationalists alienate too much of the electorate and hamper the right’s ability to build its base. He hopes that economic nationalism, by contrast, can build a multi-racial alliance of US citizens against China – though the right’s ability to overcome its racism is limited, and anti-Chinese economic nationalism is certain to intensify racist xenophobia targeting Chinese and other Asian-Americans.

This aspect of Bannon’s politics is shared by other figures still in the White House such as Peter Navarro (Director of the National Trade Council, a body created under Trump). Navarro is a far less odious figure than Bannon, but shares a focus on anti-Chinese economic nationalism. His greatest claim to fame before joining the Trump White House was his film “Death By China,” which raises some legitimate concerns about neoliberal globalization, but also features sensationalistic military imagery representing China’s alleged attacks on the US economy, including an image of a knife blade labeled “Made in China” plunging into a map of the US and an animation of Chinese bombers labeled “illegal export subsidies” bombarding the US.

As Bannon’s exit from the White House demonstrates, economic nationalism is by no means at the center of GOP politics today. But this could change. Bannon himself has the potential to rebuild his influence on the right. He has a plan to pick anti-establishment fights in GOP primaries by backing candidates whom he will likely groom in economic nationalism in an effort to move the GOP in that direction. This effort is backed by Robert Mercer, a billionaire GOP funder who, along with his daughter Rebekah, has adopted an anti-establishment campaign-funding strategy and were some of Trump’s main financial supporters. Bannon also remains a major right wing media figure, and recently met with the second most powerful politician in China following an address to investors in Hong Kong.

Whether or not Bannon succeeds personally, he makes a persuasive argument that the rising status of China will create increasing pressure on the right to turn its attention toward anti-China nationalism. Under current trends, China could become the world’s largest economy by 2030, and China is quickly advancing as a regional military power. Further, if Asian immigration continues to outpace Latinx immigration as it has since 2010, this may also be reinforced by a rise in anti-Asian racist xenophobia, given that nationalism and xenophobia are natural twins. It is possible that such a right-wing reaction to China will simply be folded into the existing racist agenda of the white nationalists. However, Bannon’s argument is that the GOP has the potential to expand its base relative to the Democratic Party by replacing the white nationalist fight against all people of color with a fight specifically against China. This is plausible, and there are significant forces in the GOP who are eager to move beyond white nationalism and could be brought around to support this as an alternative. With or without Bannon as its champion, there is ample potential for economic nationalism to become a rising force on the right in the years to come.

Antisemitism and the “nationalism” in “white nationalism”

Antisemitism is a core feature of all the various tendencies that make up the white nationalist movement. This was on vivid display at the white nationalist rally at Charlottesville, which included both racist chants such as  “white lives matter” and specifically antisemitic chants such as “Jews will not replace us” and the Nazi slogan “blood and soil.” In the now infamous Vice coverage of Charlottesville, the interviews with white nationalists featured repeated antisemitic remarks.

Modern antisemitism is typically understood as a form of racism which targets Jews. This is basically correct, and distinguishes modern antisemitism from its predecessors which were forms of oppression based on religious rather than supposed racial differences. However, there are crucial distinctions between antisemitism and racism in general. This is not just because it targets Jews, who are stereotypically white. More importantly, antisemitism is distinct from racism in general because the beliefs about Jews are different from other racist beliefs.

The Marxist historian Moishe Postone argues for this distinction in his powerful account of antisemitism in the (original) Nazi movement. Postone writes, “Probably all forms of racism attribute potential power to the Other. This power, however, is usually concrete, material, or sexual.” In contrast, “What characterizes the power imputed to, the Jews in modern anti-Semitism is that it is mysteriously intangible, abstract, and universal. …it is presumed to be of staggering immensity and extremely difficult to check. It is considered to stand behind phenomena, but not to be identical with them. Its source is therefore deemed hidden—conspiratorial. The Jews represent an immensely powerful, intangible, international conspiracy.”

These same features can be found in the antisemitism of today’s white nationalists. This is well-documented. White nationalists believe that Jews are in control of the US and all of global society. Jews are the “globalists”, a right-wing term which, more often than not, functions as an antisemitic dog whistle. They control the global economy, and especially the financial sector. They control the media, the state, and the mainstream of both political parties in the US. They also control the left, immigrants, and people of color. And they are using all of these institutions and social forces as weapons to destroy white culture, white communities, and white nations.

For example, Matthew Heimbach, leader of the Traditional Worker Party, claims in his Vice interview that “the radical left, corporations, and the state are all on the same Jewish side.” Heimbach sees the white nationalist movement as confronting a vast array of anti-white forces. Some of these forces, such as the left and corporations, seem on the surface to be opposed. But white nationalists know that an overarching Jewish conspiracy controls them all behind the scenes.

The old slogan attributed to August Bebel still holds true: “antisemitism is the socialism of fools.” Postone argues that the abstractness and hiddenness of the power that antisemitism attributes to the Jews can be understood as a reaction to the experiences of alienation and disruption caused by the abstract and global forces of capitalism. Jews are identified as the source of these disruptive forces, especially as experienced in the economy through the financial sector, but also in the operations of the state, culture, and civil society.

For today’s white nationalists as well, antisemitism functions as a distorted critique of capitalism on a global scale. Some of these critiques at times resemble some left critiques of neoliberal globalization, calling out free trade agreements, labor exploitation, and the “race to the bottom”. On the one hand, this means that the antisemitism of the white nationalists cannot be separated from their sense that they are at the mercy of global forces beyond their control, which they identify with the “globalist” Jewish conspiracy. On the other hand, this means that white nationalists are attracted to economic nationalist policies for their envisioned white nation-state. The manifestos of white nationalist groups feature proposals to abolish multinational corporations and transnational economic institutions, removing the US from international flows of investment, in exchange for a self-contained national economy in which white American corporations employ white American workers and invest in white American communities.

Internationalism as a strategic opportunity

The right-wing nationalist reaction to globalization is dangerous, but also presents an opportunity for the left. Elbaum argues that we must increase the reach of the left within the anti-right front, engaging anti-right sectors of the ruling class in a “unity and struggle” approach, while exploiting the growing divisions within the ruling class to improve our position. Given the central role of racism in white nationalism, the left’s class conscious approach to anti-racism (which has a brighter future than the spent force of neoliberal anti-racism) is one vehicle for this. By the same token, because of the role of economic nationalism on the right, left internationalism is another potential vehicle.

The guiding principle of a left internationalist approach is the same as that of left anti-racism – “an injury to one is an injury to all” – but extended across borders. This is a founding slogan of the left – “Workers of the world, unite!” The potential to live out this imperative is greater today than it has been at any point since WWII. As both right and left critics of globalization note, the development of global supply chains has served to create a “race to the bottom” across borders, which often provokes a protectionist reaction, on both the left and the right. It is true that the days of neoliberal “free trade” are likely numbered. But nationalism is not the only alternative, nor is it the progressive alternative.

Globalization can also serve as the material basis for a renewal of global working class organizing. The existence of globe-spanning supply chains creates the potential to organize workers across borders around shared demands targeting shared bosses. Recent examples include collaboration between US and striking Chinese Walmart workers, between workers in Driscoll’s supply chains in the US and Mexico, and between US Zara workers and the UNI global labor federation. More broadly, the global “race to the bottom” has created the potential to build a global sense of shared self-interest in rewriting the rules of a global economy that is heavily tilted toward corporate power and against us all.

A progressive rewrite of the rules of the global economy can be implemented through a new generation of progressive trade deals or at a reformed World Trade Organization. A good starting point (which I am pursuing in my organizing) is to work towards a global minimum wage system. This would not mean that all countries would adopt the same minimum wage, but rather that there would be a shared standard for setting the minimum wage which would apply to each country based on economic indicators for that country. This would set off a chain reaction of positive economic and political effects, including increased demand, lower unemployment, more balanced trade relationships, increased political potential for further progressive reforms to the global economy. Contesting the rules of the global economy will also set a precedent for more advanced international class struggle.

The current renegotiation of NAFTA is an opportunity to begin creating binding wage standards. The AFL-CIO has made living wage standards in all three NAFTA countries part of its recommendations. The Canadian government has already included wage standards in its negotiating position. Beyond NAFTA, there are counterparts to the Fight For 15 campaign around the world, as demonstrated by last year’s #FastFoodGlobal day of action in over 40 countries, while organizers are pursuing wage standards for garment workers across Asia through the Asia Floor Wage Alliance and the IndustriALL Global Union.

Under present conditions, this approach recommends itself as part of our strategy for expanding the reach of the left in the anti-right front. There are sectors of society, including the tech sector and many professionals, who are economically and/or ideologically committed to the survival of an open global society and are becoming increasingly polarized against the nationalist threat to the future of globalization. They have been key to the neoliberal coalition, and are currently largely in the centrist camp. But following Hillary Clinton’s refusal to defend the Trans Pacific Partnership and her subsequent failure to win the election, they are rightly starting to lose faith in the neoliberal establishment’s ability to protect globalization from the nationalist right. If we adopt a left internationalist vision of a new global economy, based on progressive global regulations rather than protectionism, we have the potential to win over these pro-globalization sectors with the argument that their only hope of saving global society is to join us in transforming it according to progressive principles. This is an argument that is already being made by some pro-globalization thinkers such as Thomas Piketty.

Further, left internationalism is more in line with the sentiments of the anti-right base than the protectionist alternative which is found not only among nationalists on the right, but also often on the left. Among Democratic Party supporters, a growing majority support “free trade” in polling, and support is especially high among millennials. This was true even of Bernie Sanders’ supporters in the primary, despite Sanders’ constant attacks on NAFTA and TPP during the primary campaign. Protectionism is one of Sanders’ few positions during the campaign which seems out of step with his base. A protectionist, anti-globalization platform will not energize the majority of our base, and it may even become a liability if economic nationalism becomes more central on the right and therefore a more central point of anti-right polarization. We who hope to build power within the anti-right base should therefore oppose the right-wing nationalist vision of ending globalization with a left internationalist vision of making globalization more just.

Confronting antisemitism

Our strategy in the anti-right front must include a struggle against antisemitism. When I viewed the shocking footage from Charlottesville, I came to the conclusion that I had greatly downplayed antisemitism in my understanding of the political dangers of the moment. This has been an unfortunate tendency for the non-Jewish left in general. Mainstream US society has long since accepted Jews as white, and so we have assumed that antisemitism would no longer be an influential force in US politics. This is now clearly incorrect. We must become much more vigilant about identifying and confronting antisemitism, including in our own movement, and invest more in political education on the topic of antisemitism.

Ultimately, the only way to overcome antisemitism and its reactionary critique of global capital is to build the left. A strategy for left anti-racism and internationalism is also, indirectly, a strategy to fight antisemitism by attacking its constitutive components. We must be clear that understanding the role of antisemitism in the worldview of white nationalists does not mean setting aside racism as a secondary problem. To the contrary, the antisemitism of white nationalists arguably intensifies their racism towards non-Jewish people of color, which therefore requires keeping anti-racism at the center of any fight against white nationalism. We must approach these not as competing struggles, but different aspects of a single strategy for the left.




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