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Progressives and Trade: A Response


I want to thank Dan for his discussion of progressives and trade from a few days ago. I would have liked to respond sooner but I just got back from traveling and have been resting and catching up on things. I basically agree with everything in Dan’s post, but I want to comment on a few things.

First, although on a lot of issues around foreign policy, I do have some disagreements with Farley (and maybe Dan, but I don’t know), one thing that Rob has long been correct about is that progressives (or left-liberals or anyone left of Bill Clinton or however you care to define it) simply don’t take foreign policy or defense policy seriously enough. On the anti-interventionist left, which I am guessing is what Dan means when he talks about the “paleo-left,” the answer to all U.S. action is effectively “NO!” But it doesn’t go very much deeper than that and it absolutely has to do so. It doesn’t reflect the reality of the world, it gives excuses for other parts of the political spectrum to ignore the left, and it cedes the field for damaging actors to define the debate.

Second, the shallowness of our discussion of trade became even more clear in the conversations around the Trans-Pacific Partnership before and after 11/8/16. The TPP was of course quite controversial within the Democratic Party. Unions and environmentalists both had strong reason to oppose it and worked very hard to do so, with some real if limited success. Meanwhile, more centrist Democrats and Democrats from Pacific-facing states embraced it for different if overlapping reasons; a belief in neoliberalism from the centrists and local trading interests for the west coast politicians. If globalization has been terrible for Michigan and Ohio, it’s been great for Oregon and Washington, by and large. But at least the debate over the TPP was real and when Obama changed the human rights classification of Malaysia for the better just after mass graves of victims of human trafficking were discovered in that country so that it could be included in the TPP, there was a lot of righteous anger expressed over the issue, including from me. But after the victory of Trump and his white nationalist agenda, most of the anti-TPP conversation on the left disappeared and many began embracing trade agreements as a sign of the global world they ultimately wanted. That’s a simplistic response, not much more complex than Trump’s own. What we need is to articulate exactly what we expect the global trade regime to accomplish and then demand that. But we haven’t, for the most part, done the work

Third, part of what the left struggles with–maybe everyone struggles with this–is understanding what our foreign policy is. Our relationships with the rest of the world are not just what comes out of the State and Defense Departments. Part of our foreign policy is you demanding the cheapest prices on clothing possible, thus sending production to Bangladesh, where 1,138 workers died making your clothes. Part of our foreign policy is you demanding tomatoes in January and flowers whenever your mom’s birthday may be, leading to a global food and flower industry with plenty of exploitation involved. Part of our foreign policy is kids in Indonesia buying LeBron jerseys. All of this is governed by various legal arrangements and organizations that are often quite opaque to everyday people. Our responses to trade must reflect the full reality of our relationships with the the rest of the world.

Fourth, no one is actually anti-trade, at least not entirely. But if there is anyone on the left who is, it’s the private sector unions. In some states, that is very much reflected in politics. When Bernie Sanders or Sherrod Brown or Jan Schakowsky come out against trade agreements generally, they are in no small part responding to their base voters, which are often the remnants of the United Steelworkers or United Autoworkers or other unions. But everyone recognizes that trade is going to take place. What should unite the left is a series of general principles of trade that ensure American workers are able to have a job and maintain their standard of living, that seek to provide rights for workers overseas, that hold corporations legally accountable for their actions overseas, including their supply chains, and that democratize the legal regime around trade so that it can be accessed by everyday citizens of nations. Unions are not going to provide the leadership on this. Too often, they are dominated by strictly protectionist and nationalistic concerns that can slide on into racism toward non-American workers, or at least relative indifference after lip service over the poor conditions there.

Fifth, in order to overcome these problems, Dan is absolutely correct that “we need to invest significant effort into developing progressive thought on international political economy.” And while he may not have the time to do so, I have done so in my first book and continue to do so in other writings. What I believe we need to do is re-imagine what a progressive economy looks like. So the government employment guarantee that I have fought to get on the national agenda is part and parcel of the need for a Corporate Accountability Act that allows for lawsuits against American companies for violating basic standards of wages, pollution, workplace safety, sexual harassment of employees, etc., even when they operate overseas and very much including their supply chains. What we need to do ultimately is stabilize the American working class while doing everything we can to allow the workers of the world to live dignified lives in an economy where unnecessary exploitation does not take place. It’s a big task, but I have big ideas on how to make that happen, or at least what the end game needs to be. And given how many Democrats are embracing the federal job guarantee, it’s not impossible to move this agenda forward at surprising speed.

So yes, I do think we can create a broad progressive agenda around trade. But it does require a few things. First, it requires getting serious about what trade agreements mean and quit creating a dichotomy of being “pro-trade” or “anti-trade.” Supporting a Trans-Pacific Partnership or opposing it does not make you pro-trade or anti-trade. It is a judgment on a particular trade agreement and that’s all. Unfortunately, it rarely gets portrayed that way. And way too often, lots of people, especially Democrats though, reflect this as part of their Democratic team identity and thus support the TPP because Obama supports it, or maybe they opposed the TPP for good reasons when Obama was president but now it has become a reflection of their support for a globally connected world and a rejection of Trumpist nationalism. That’s understandable but not overly helpful to anyone.

Second, a broad progressive trade agenda must include agreement around a general set of principles, hopefully the ones I have laid out above and elsewhere. That includes rejecting protectionism and nationalism in favor of global solutions that democratize trade around the world and provide avenues of recourse for workers so they can fight for their own rights and lives.

Third, that progressive trade agenda must actually mean something politically. Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown have to hear alternatives to protectionism in order for them to embrace something else. That means getting serious about the details and it means doing the work to put this material in front of politicians, asking them questions about trade, and basically doing the same thing as what happened with the federal job guarantee, where Sean McElwee literally just called Kirsten Gillibrand’s office to ask if she would support it and thus, it became something that any contender for the Democratic nomination in 2020 must embrace.

I’m not trying to paper over some of the difficulties. I do think that there should be no room for a pro-corporate agenda in the Democratic Party any longer and I know others disagree with that. Neoliberal economics simply don’t work for us, and yet that doesn’t mean rejecting globalism. It means taking control of the tools of neoliberalism and using them for a more just global economy. And if this sounds impossible, it’s no more impossible than taming corporations seemed during the Gilded Age. We largely accomplished that in the 20th century on a national level. Now we have to do so internationally. That is one of the great tasks of our lives. Whether Trump’s idiocy makes this more or less possible is not a question we have the context to answer yet, but like a lot of leftist economic positions, one silver lining to this very, very dark and foreboding cloud is that there is room for alternatives to the economic consensus of the last 40 years to bloom that would not have existed had Hillary Clinton won the Electoral College. We have to take advantage of that opportunity or cede the field to Trumpism.

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