Diego Rivera's Unity House mural. | Kheel Center
Jamie Merchant,  October 4

Trade and Unions

Why economic nationalism is a dead end for the labor movement

Diego Rivera's Unity House mural. | Kheel Center
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My country is the whole world.

—Dante

“America first,” the catchphrase of the Trump era, has a dark history. In the 1940s the slogan carried distinctly anti-Semitic overtones in the isolationist case against U.S. entry into the war against Nazi Germany. That history didn’t stop Pat Buchanan from making it his rallying cry as the paleoconservative Reform Party candidate in 2000. Nor, of course, did it discourage Donald Trump from working the words into his inaugural address in January of 2017. All manner of reactionaries gravitate toward the insularity and tribalism evoked by the idea of American primacy.

But while the slogan has come to be associated mainly with the hard right, at a deeper level “America first” is also a sentiment, an underlying mood in American politics that spans the political spectrum. Even supposedly sober centrists and the pro-labor left commonly display what sometimes seems an unconscious drive for American supremacy. Consider the way labor leaders have responded to the Trump administration’s ratcheting up of tariffs as part of an escalating trade war. Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, applauded the Trump administration’s new tariffs on steel and aluminum that targeted Chinese companies. Leo Gerard, President of United Steelworkers, put forth a “pro-union case” (in the left-wing magazine In These Times) for the job-creating potential of such tariffs. Both union leaders focused on the actions of foreign governments, mainly China, who are said to manipulate trade rules in their interests to the detriment of American industries. At the end of July, Trump received an enthusiastic welcome from steelworkers in downstate Illinois, who credit his tariffs for bringing back jobs.

While it’s long been the role of American unions to take an “interest group” approach to politics—pursuing direct economic benefits for their members—there is almost always an unspoken assumption that American workers come first, and that for “us” to win, foreign workers must lose. In league with the industrial unions, the left wing of the Democratic Party wages a sustained attack on the world wrought by globalization. Senator Bernie Sanders speaks up for communities suffering from decades of disinvestment, stagnating incomes, deteriorating social benefits, and skyrocketing inequality. One of his core messages is that U.S. corporations have sold out working people in America by offshoring their businesses, again mostly to China. Senator Elizabeth Warren has joined in the protectionist chorus, suggesting that tariffs are a useful tool as the United States looks “more aggressively at pushing China to open up [their] markets.”

The logic of economic nationalism is fatal to the prospects for a revitalized left.

Though centrists, for their part, tend to accept globalization as an unchangeable fact of life, they don’t shy away from America-first attitudes. The intrepid leader of the Democratic minority in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, is ready to make America great again, declaring anti-China tariffs to be “on the money.” And a more jingoistic, directly confrontational foreign policy can easily win cheers among members of the punditburo who dream of a return to national unity. In an emerging new Cold War with China, mainstream commentators yearn for “a totally unified and bipartisan display of strength and steely American resolve” that would see Republicans and Democrats “rally around the flag.” In an apparently deleted tweet, Vox writer Matt Yglesias has referred to the potential for “anti-China politics” to be “the unifying national project we need,” while others have all but called for making China “a unifying villain on almost every topic.” It would seem that if we could only drop yesterday’s demonization of Russia to focus on China as our primary national enemy, then maybe America could be a family again.

The common denominator of all these stances can be formulated in a phrase: economic nationalism. Economic nationalism is an ideology built on the principle that the wealth generated inside a country belongs solely to its legal citizens, and that economic policy should reflect that. It opposes globalism and advocates more domestic control over the economy. This idea is distinct in theory from the direct appeals to race that define ethno-nationalist ideology, such as white nationalism. In fact it explicitly rejects such appeals. Steve Bannon, its foremost American representative, distinguishes his purely economic doctrine from racial chauvinism. Supposedly it is meant to, in his words, “maximize the value of citizenship.” Who would disagree? Economic nationalism might appear to be the rational Ego to the pulsing, nihilistic Id of Trumpism.

The intuitive sense of the idea partly explains its appeal across the political spectrum. Yet one only needs to lightly scratch the surface of Bannon’s distinction to detect the sleight of hand at work here. Nationality and racial identity have always been two sides of the same coin, because historically the modern nation-state has always enshrined a dominant culture into its laws and institutions. The very idea of a nation-state entails a geographically bounded political unit that serves and upholds the language, values, and ideals of the cultural majority—a “nation.” White nationalism, in other words, is a feature, not a bug, of American national identity. In this context, “maximizing the value of citizenship” would inevitably reinforce the divide between the white American citizenry and people of color, especially immigrants, whose citizenship status is always precarious and contingent.

More broadly, to accept the framework of economic nationalism is to believe that workers in different countries are inescapably locked into zero-sum economic competition with one another, so that gains for workers in one country come only at losses for workers in others. In the age of backlash against the failures of globalization, this might seem plausible. But socialists and the broader left have no business taking up a position of this kind.

The logic of economic nationalism is fatal to the prospects for a revitalized left. It is precisely the shared struggle against the predatory global plutocracy, which is hoarding more wealth than ever before, that ought to unite workers across national boundaries. Workers in the United States and other wealthy countries have more in common with working people in China and other developing states than they do with their bosses. These are the glowing embers of class unity simmering beneath the surface of national competition, growing hotter with every wildcat strike in China, or with every strike of hundreds of thousands of tea-plantation workers in India. To set ourselves against them is to lose sight of the crucial fact that it is the super-rich, international elite of these countries that is robbing us blind, not the working masses of China, Mexico, or—as Trump would have it—even the European Union and Canada.


Current left-populist critiques of trade policy are shot through with nationalist assumptions. In the standard anti-China story put forward by Sanders and Warren, among others, Chinese workers are cast, along with their bosses and government, as a single, unified threat to Americans. Real human beings are imagined as a faceless abstraction, “China,” which is supposedly lowering American wages and stealing jobs. This is at least partly an illusion: technological automation, not foreign outsourcing, is the leading cause of manufacturing job loss in the United States. Those jobs are gone and not coming back. But from a political perspective, “standing up against China” effectively erases the class distinction between workers and oligarchic elites in that country. Workers in China face serious challenges, just as workers in the United States do. Manufacturing plants are moving offshore, factories are closing, and jobs are disappearing. China even has its own “Rust Belt” in the country’s old northeastern industrial corridor, where deindustrialization has devastated local communities, just as it has in the American Midwest. Further south, workers have organized strikes against dangerous labor conditions and rampant wage theft at Foxconn, the manufacturer that makes Kindles and tablets for Amazon.

Economic nationalist thinking also draws a connection between “external” and “internal” competitors. The enemy without quickly becomes the enemy within. As Robert Lighthizer, Peter Navarro, and their fellow nativists in the Trump administration have made abundantly clear, this ideology translates easily into crackdowns on immigrants, undocumented people, and anyone seen as unfairly “competing” with the national citizenry. It then appears natural to begin identifying and persecuting the latter. Depraved, dehumanizing policies—say, detention camps for children—might come to seem defensible because they send a message that refugees and immigrants are not welcome here.

The way forward lies in a rejuvenated international labor movement.

Some on the left might object that Trumpist nationalism is backwards and xenophobic, but a left-wing nationalism need not be. Some, impressed by the power of resurgent nationalism, even see it as a force the left must embrace, advocating “inclusive patriotism.” This is delusional. Looking abroad, the mounting nativist defense of the welfare state in the Nordic social democracies suggests that under current conditions economic nationalism is bound to take a reactionary form. Denmark, often seen as the social-democratic gold standard by the American left, is leading the way in draconian crackdowns on immigrants, motivated by a perceived need to defend its welfare state from freeloading “parasites.” Regardless of whether it dresses itself in progressive garb, the push for economic “sovereignty” would unleash enmity toward workers abroad and hostility toward immigrants at home. Further, even if the left manages to win on a platform of this kind, it sets up the right for key strategic advantages in the political fights to come, most notably by establishing the hard and fast distinction between worthy insiders and unworthy outsiders that the right thrives upon.

The upsurge in economic nationalism is a sign that the project of globalization as we know it has exhausted itself. Its promises of rising living standards for all, ritually recited for decades by soothsayer economists, never materialized. The neofascist right capitalizes on this, claiming, like its twentieth century predecessors, to have unmasked these empty liberal platitudes to expose the raw struggle for domination that lies beneath them. Yet the choice between national economic sovereignty and a discredited corporate globalization is a false one. Both are dead ends for the left. The way forward lies in a rejuvenated international labor movement, the only real way to vanquish global Trumpism and win what we want for our lives and our communities. And forces, in fact, are mobilizing to lead the left in a new direction.


Workers everywhere face the same shared enemy: the transnational, plutocratic elite waging class war against them from the top of the pyramid of global inequality. As most now know, the scale of that pyramid is staggering: a mere 8.6 percent of the world’s population holds 86 percent of its wealth, a trend only expected to grow in coming years. The best prospect for the left is to advance a political vision that would truly terrify the right: cross-border, international labor solidarity. We need a new, left-wing engagement on global trade. What might this look like?

As usually happens when capitalism spins into a prolonged crisis, the outlines of a new order emerging from the shell of the old have begun to come into focus. Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis has led the way in calling for a globally coordinated Internationalist New Deal of trade and investment to combat the threats to humanity whose roots are transnational, such as climate change, endemic poverty, and neofascism. In a gratifying recent twist, Bernie Sanders has also thrown his support behind Varoufakis’s proposal. Similarly, the Roosevelt Institute recently released an ambitious blueprint for a Workers Power Agreement, an international accord that would be analogous to the Paris climate deal but oriented toward improving union density within participating countries.

Proposals like these share a common feature: they aim not to roll back globalization, but to deepen it through political cooperation and the decommodification of labor. The underlying idea is analogous to the New Deal and similar social reforms of the mid-twentieth century, but at the scale of the global economic order itself. If globalization up until now was premised on the power of the global market to subjugate labor, it would be radically transformed if the forces of labor were empowered to discipline the market. So where do we start?

International trade agreements are a key piece of the puzzle. Regional or continental agreements like NAFTA, or even pan-hemispheric treaties like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) provide a natural, immediate beachhead for a movement of this type. Until very recently, NAFTA was in limbo as negotiations broke down between the protectionist Trump administration and the interests of its “partners,” Canada and Mexico. A new pact was hammered out at tariff gunpoint and creatively dubbed the “U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.” Its boosters are hailing it as a triumph of the new philosophy of protectionism.

The whole debate around trade policy needs to be re-politicized. Instead of picking one side or the other in the current battles—nationalist protectionism or status quo free trade—the left should push for a genuinely progressive agreement that would build mandatory labor and environmental standards into the agreement’s conditions. Mandatory limits to the working day, the prohibition of child labor, insistence on a living wage, and most crucially, the right to organize and bargain collectively without threat of retaliation. Still more radically, one can even imagine agreements of this sort including new provisions shortening the length of the standard working day, as German metal workers did in a landmark deal earlier this year that allows them to work twenty-eight-hour weeks for up to two years. Measures like these have the potential to rebalance the measure of class power away from employers and toward workers on a continental level.

A binding, enforceable agreement of this type would kneecap the decades-long corporate offensive against organized labor in the United States. The decimation of workers’ collective power everywhere has depended on the mobility of capital across borders in a global race to the bottom in wages and working conditions. Establishing a “floor” of common standards would eliminate this dynamic, ensuring that all working people can rise up together while halting the downward spiral of poverty wages, grueling hours, and dangerous work environments in both the United States and its trading partners. Ultimately, the fate of any campaign to reignite a dormant labor movement in the United States is necessarily tied to the strength of the labor movement in other countries.

The outlines of a new order emerging from the shell of the old have begun to come into focus.

Progressive trade pacts are an essential tactic for a new left internationalism. But they are only one part of what must ultimately be a grand strategy to organize the intercontinental networks of subcontracted work. The vast supply chains that link people together across the planet, from Brazil to Beijing and London to Johannesburg, lay the groundwork for igniting a movement that is as multinational as the world market already is. The key element here is an enforceable legal framework that would compel corporations to recognize workers’ rights, not just in their corporate campuses in the West, but all along their contracted supply chains across dozens of countries. There is no shortage of research and recommendations in this area. One of the most promising angles, as Erik Loomis has proposed, is the passage of a “Corporate Accountability Act” (CAA) compelling transnational giants like Walmart and Target to assume legal responsibility for the labor conditions in all of their factories, regardless of their location. This is a legal statute that workers here in the United States can fight for here and now.

Similarly, a global minimum wage system is an idea that my colleagues and I are pursuing as part of the Justice Is Global project in Chicago. A system of this kind could be implemented through laws like the CAA or as part of progressive trade agreements, in partnership with supranational monitoring bodies like the International Labor Organization. It would establish a set of global rules for mandating a living wage that multinational corporations would be forced to recognize through all of their contracted manufacturers. Working people in the United States can reach out to our allies in other countries to coordinate this strategy, as we have done by building a coalition with partners here and in Mexico, Germany, the United Kingdom, China, and Hong Kong. Building such a transnational movement to achieve these universal standards could result in a transformation of the global economy into a new egalitarian configuration, a form of “progressive globalization” based on the steadily rising power of organized labor on a world scale.

A left trade platform should be seen as part of the same package of bold, widely popular proposals that are gradually shifting the battle of ideas leftward, like Medicare for All and the federal jobs guarantee. A little over a year ago such ideas were taboo. Now they are commonplace. Likewise, there is no reason to think that the left could not set itself to work on a transformative reinvention of trade along similarly ambitious principles. In the event that we find ourselves in executive and legislative power, which is in no way improbable, we need a strong trade vision in place and ready.

Obviously a precondition for realizing a vision of this magnitude is a reinvigorated, confident mass movement of the left. The road to winning it is clear, though—and it won’t happen from trying to out-Bannon the right. Nationalism only begets more nationalism. And Trumpism is the uniquely rancid American strain of a global malaise, what some have called a “nationalist international.” Crushing it will require an equally global response from a coalition of the international working class.

Jamie Merchant is the Media Director of the Center for Progressive Strategy and Research in Chicago. He has the misfortune to be on Twitter.

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