The political economies of different globalisations – Part 3: ‘Deglobalisation from the left’

The left-wing critique of neoliberal globalisation is powerful up to a point, but ultimately it doesn’t stand on the ground where the real battle has to take place

Part 2 of the blog is available to read here

Although many on the centre-left in the West have effectively found themselves defending a neoliberal form of globalisation about which they should previously have been more sceptical, there were plenty of others on the wider left who always stood against its seemingly universal appeal.  They drew on a long history of critique of global capitalism that has again resurfaced today.  For ‘deglobalisation from the right’ is matched these days by an analogous variant ‘from the left’.  It advances a progressive left-wing, rather than a regressive right-wing, nationalism, and yet the conclusion reached is much the same.  Globalisation needs to be pared back via a retreat behind domestic borders, the difference being that this process should ostensibly serve progressive ends, such as the re-creation of national industrial capacity and the building of a ‘green state’.

This is an important intellectual and political development that needs to be taken seriously, not least because it challenges one of the supposed ‘lessons of history’ for the left.  The Mitterrand experiment in France, which ran from May 1981 to March 1983, was the last time a full-throated socialist programme was attempted in an advanced capitalist country. However, the simultaneous emergence of European and global financial markets, as part of the incipient new neoliberal globalisation, meant that capital could easily flee. As Jeffrey Sachs and Charles Wyplozs tell it, unemployment quickly rocketed to 10 per cent and growth collapsed.  France’s trade deficit widened precipitously, generating a major currency crisis in 1983 and an immediate political retreat by Mitterrand – the notorious ‘tournant de la rigueur’.  By 1985 the French left had imposed even harsher austerity than the right-wing regime that preceded it.

Like many others, Arthur Goldhammer concluded that Mitterrand’s programme was ‘rooted in a faulty diagnosis of the evolving global economy in the 1980s’.  In consequence, a new orthodoxy was forged on the left in Europe, namely, that, under neoliberal globalisation, socialism – or even ‘dark-red’ social democracy – was impossible ‘in one country’.  This of course explains in part the fateful embrace of neoliberal globalisation by the European centre-left in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  Yet this totem is now questioned by progressive nationalists, albeit often under the guise of criticising the perceived hold of neoliberalism upon the EU, rather than the neoliberal nature of globalisation per se.  The bitter irony, as Goldhammer himself noted, is that the French architects of the EU’s Maastricht Treaty, many of whom had served in the bitter end-days of the Mitterrand experiment, were so scarred by the experience that they designed many of the EU treaty frameworks (and later the Eurozone) in more inflexible ways than otherwise might have been the case.

The new left critique of globalisation takes many forms and has actually had the greatest impact in Germany and Britain, rather than in France.  Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left-populist party, La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) calls for a new global economic regime based on ecological planning and ‘protectionism with solidarity’.  As regards the EU, Mélenchon’s current platform commits to renegotiating, or simply ignoring, the EU’s ‘neoliberal’ treaties, leaving ‘Frexit’ to ‘hard-right sovereigntists’.  In Germany, by contrast, there has emerged a distinct intellectual position, sometimes dubbed the ‘Cologne School’, associated with the writings of Wolfgang Streeck, Fritz Scharpf and Martin Höpner.  Its claim is that the EU is ‘a non-democratic non-state without demos’ that is now lost to progressive causes and that the fight-back against neoliberalism can only be built from ‘retained’ nation-states.  As Manès Weisskircher has noted, these arguments have had an influence on the new ‘party-movement’ recently formed in Germany, Aufstehen (Rise Up).

However, the most striking illustration of this new progressive nationalism is the case that has been made in Britain for a ‘Lexit’ (or left exit) from the EU, for which support exists in the Labour Party, including perhaps its leader, Jeremy Corbyn.  Although some have dismissed Lexiteer arguments as little more than soundbites, they draw on a substantial intellectual base and possess an inherent credibility.  As advanced by its most sophisticated exponents – for example, Chris Bickerton and Richard Tuck, Samir Amin, Lee Jones, Costas Lapavitsas or Richard Seymour – the Lexit argument is also that the EU has become too distant and anti-democratic and that governance needs therefore to be ‘re-scaled’ back to the national level.  As Jones puts it: ‘the EU emerged through the rescaling of governance to inter-elite networks insulated – by design – from popular control, which lock in anti-democratic and conservative policies’.  Typical in this view were the horrors of the Greek debt experience, which looms large in much Lexiteer analysis.

There is undoubtedly something in this critique.  The EU, as presently constituted, does suffer from a massive democratic deficit that has lately allowed deflationary German ‘ordoliberal’  hegemony to become firmly institutionalised.  Nevertheless, the conventional Lexiteer reading of the EU is too partial.  It says little or nothing about ‘social Europe’, or EU pre-eminence in global climate-change diplomacy, or its various initiatives to try to tax global financial transactions.  It also paints the EU as fixed in stone, impervious to change politically, even though it argues, correctly, that the EU became more neoliberal as a result of conscious decisions made by political actors.  In sum, the Lexit argument distorts, or underestimates, the complexity of the EU in a variety of ways in order to make its case, and there is a distinct tendency – especially in more popular, journalistic accounts – to sometimes quite glibly reduce the whole panoply of European institutions to the infamous n-word.

It’s therefore worth reminding ourselves that: firstly, Lexit is potentially just as socially regressive as its right-wing variant, particularly when it comes to questions of migration and free movement; secondly, the EU does relatively little to restrict a social democratic programme of state-led industrial development; and, thirdly, Single Market rules only proscribe certain policy tools, like indiscriminate state-aid subsidies, which arguably are not that useful in a serious industrial strategy anyway.  More importantly, the Single Market itself is an attempt to regulate, beyond the national level, global processes of production and consumption and to do so to the advantage of workers and consumers as much as corporates. 

Our purpose in this post is not, however, to try to adjudicate the Brexit debate, but rather to expose the big question unanswered by Lexiteers: how does Britain leaving the EU help resolve the neoliberal pathologies that concern them – pathologies which, moreover, are to a substantial extent the result of British design and diplomacy! – and thus advance the interests of the left, either within Europe or globally?  On day zero, a weakened Britain still has to negotiate with the EU, with any substantive continuity deal taking on much of the EU’s regulatory acquis anyway, just with far less say over it. This diminished country also has to find its niche within presently continuing neoliberal globalisation. Aditya Chakrabortty’s disbelieving words capture the problem well: ‘Lexiteers … just know [leaving] will bring the death of neoliberalism even though the neoliberals will still be in charge’.

Ultimately, then, Lexit is a faulty diagnosis, to repeat Goldhammer’s term, of the evolving global economy of the 2010s and beyond.  Indeed, it runs away from the big challenge, which is how to tackle the power of ongoing, but crisis-ridden, neoliberal globalisation at the global level.  It is even harder now to conceive of ‘socialism-in-one-country’ than in the 1980s.  Global value chains and production networks are not going away: multinational firms operating within them want transnational regulation and governance. Accordingly, the game that states have to play involves sitting at the top table influencing the development of these rules and systems in socially beneficial ways.  If they do not, and try to deglobalise alone, the game just continues without them. As Nissan and Honda have entirely predictably shown in Britain recently, cutting-edge firms will disinvest and take their high-quality jobs to where regulation gives them the best and most predictable access to the biggest markets.

In short, ‘deglobalisation from the left’ is revealed in the end as a chimera that avoids the key question of how to offer global citizens substantive solutions to the problems created for them by neoliberal globalisation.

Read the first and second part of Matt and Tony’s new blog series on ‘political economy of different globalisations’ here: ‘Part 1: Neoliberal globalisation’ and ‘Part 2: Deglobalisation from the right’