Can the Left Reclaim Nationalism?

Can the Left Reclaim Nationalism?

A leading proponent of globalist capitalism has recanted, advocating instead the development of “responsible nationalism.” Is that an oxymoron?


Writing in The Washington Post last month, former Treasury secretary Larry Summers suggested that the proper response to recent manifestations of popular discontent—i.e., the rise of Donald Trump and the vote for Britain to leave the European Union—should not be for elites to insist on continuing their decades-long project of globalization. Rather, they should recognize that “the willingness of publics to be intimidated by experts into supporting cosmopolitan outcomes appears, for the moment, to have been exhausted,” an observation that carried with it a tinge of lamentation.

In place of such intimidation tactics, he proposed that elites meet the people halfway, by fostering the development of an ideology he called “responsible nationalism.” This “new approach” would “begin from the idea that the basic responsibility of government is to maximize the welfare of citizens, not to pursue some abstract concept of the global good.” Under “responsible nationalism,” it would be “understood that countries are expected to pursue their citizens’ economic welfare as a primary objective but where their ability to damage the interests of citizens of other countries is circumscribed.”

The argument is as surprising, coming from someone like Summers (formerly a leading proponent of globalization and neoliberal capitalism), as it is disturbing, suggesting that the dream of progressives and liberals for more than a century—what Summers dismisses as “reflexive internationalism”—can now be officially declared dead. But not everyone on the left is fully prepared to concede that there can be such a thing as “responsible nationalism,” or that it’s the proper response to the small-minded, anti-immigrant invective that has fueled the rise of the far right in the United States and in many places around the world. We asked four writers on foreign policy and international affairs to consider the Summers op-ed and to respond to his argument.
—Richard Kreitner

Carne Ross

A New Moral Order

Larry Summers’s admission that globalization isn’t all it was cracked up to be is a bit like the pope’s confessing that Mary wasn’t a virgin after all. In the old days, such heresy would be met by excommunication and torture. Today’s elite can disavow decades of their own sermons at the stroke of an insouciant op-ed. But entertaining though it is to see a fully paid-up member of the economic elite humbled, it is, alas, a little too late. The horse has bolted from the barn.

Summers nevertheless argues that the stable door should be slammed shut. His proposal is that national governments should now protect the interests of their voters rather than “reflexively” promote the merits of international cooperation. “Responsible nationalism,” Summers calls it—a pretentious contradiction-in-terms that conceals the same old poverty of thought. As long as environmental and labor standards are protected and tax havens are abolished (Summers, as high priest, doesn’t care to say how these miracles might be effected), national governments should be permitted to make decisions unconstrained by international obligations. This sort of gentle, paternalistic protectionism, he suggests, might be a cure for the more toxic kind of nationalism exemplified by the supporters of Brexit and Donald Trump.

I’m unconvinced. The inequality and loss of agency that are driving right-wing extremism are the inevitable outputs of the current form of the capitalist system itself. Neoliberalism, not globalization, is the problem.

Fixing these problems requires more than a slogan. It means fixing, or replacing, capitalism. This is a rather more complicated and massive task, to say the least. It is different from the recooked socialism proffered, in mild form, by Bernie Sanders and, with less dilution, by Jeremy Corbyn. It means a reinvention of the economic model from the bottom up, where those who contribute to a venture share in its benefits from the outset, not as beneficiaries of after-the-fact government redistribution. This is not state ownership but a new kind of cooperativism that some on the left, demonstrating much more imagination than the likes of Summers (and, indeed, Sanders et al.), are already exploring. Values such as agency, shared benefit, and consideration of environmental and social costs are intrinsic to the model, rather than afterthoughts to be ignored by the market or attended to by government. This is reform at the level of the company and the group, not the country or the globe.

How does this microcosmic reform mitigate the risk of an international “race to the bottom,” whereby investment flows to the places with the barest labor, social, or environmental protections? In formal terms, it doesn’t. In the moral order created by Summers and other worshipers in the church of capitalism, there is no reason to stop capitalists from behaving so selfishly. But a reconstructed moral system will transmit its own standards by normative rather than by the legal means that have already largely failed when instituted at the global scale. This prescription is necessarily speculative, but it’s based on the assumption that people don’t in fact believe capitalism is ideal, and that they are prepared to act in pursuit of a better alternative, including against “their own interests” when those interests are framed in merely economic terms. The toxic phenomena that have inspired Summers to dump his own beliefs in fact prove this very point and thus, in a supreme paradox, offer hope as much as despair.

Sherle R. Schwenninger

A Truly Progressive Nationalism

Faced with the rise of Trumpism in the United States and nationalist parties in Europe, even the most influential architects of globalization are rethinking some of its major tenets. Larry Summers’s suggestion of a new “responsible nationalism” is especially promising because it offers a third way between the potentially dangerous ethno-nationalism on the rise in Europe and the empty globalism that continues to be promoted by many financial and tech elites, as well as by many liberal intellectuals. Progressives should eagerly take up Summers’s call.

In international policy as in domestic policy, the advent of a genuinely progressive nationalism would be a healthy corrective to the guiding ideas of the past two decades. With the end of the Cold War, US foreign policy became driven by a fusion of American exceptionalism and revolutionary globalism (with its emphasis on the liberalization of trade and finance and open borders). This heady brew led to the disastrous wars in Iraq under Bush and then in Libya and Syria under Obama, and has in recent years pushed us toward new cold wars with Russia and China. It also produced a pattern of global economic growth that resulted in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and the stagnation that has followed.

The American-led globalization project of the past two decades has been a particularly bad deal for this country’s middle class. Not only did it divert the funds required for necessary investments at home to serve hegemonic goals abroad, but it asked working Americans to bear the burden of integrating major new economies into the world system—and this even as the shareholders of the most globally nimble American corporations and financial institutions grew ever richer by arbitraging the lower cost of labor in foreign countries and by managing the increased flow of investment capital. In the process, this left working Americans with a huge debt overhang and fewer jobs that actually pay middle-class wages.

As Summers suggests, a truly progressive nationalism would make US international policy accountable to the broad national interest, not just the ideological proclivities and economic interests of a narrow few. Our overriding national priority must be to reduce inequality and to rebuild the American middle class. That means the priority of US foreign policy should be to address the worrying economic conditions that threaten economic growth and political stability in much of the world. This would mean curtailing geopolitical crusades and military commitments not essential to our national security, while promoting international efforts to expand investment and jobs in strategically important regions in ways that would benefit the middle class at home.

More specifically, we need to abandon the efforts to create new cold-war alliances against Russia and China and instead see them as working partners essential to our national interest. We need Russia to help us in the fight against Salafist-inspired terrorism and to help steer Europe toward efforts to rebuild Ukraine and the war-torn Middle East. In Asia, we need to pivot away from the geopolitically motivated Trans-Pacific Partnership that will expose US workers to more low-wage competition. Instead, we should pursue a broader regional partnership that would expand investment in demand-enhancing infrastructure projects and that would grow the Asian middle class so as to create new markets for American-made goods and services and relieve Asia’s dependence on our market. In the Middle East, we need to broaden the anti-terrorist coalition to include Russia and Iran as well as our European and Middle East allies. And we should begin to shift our focus from airstrikes and American “boots on the ground” to development and investment programs that would offer jobs and hope for the millions of young men and women who are now drawn to radical clerics and online brain-washing. Above all, we need to help change the narrative in Europe as well as in the Middle East from one of opposing religious and cultural identities to one of healthy national development. At home and abroad, we need to redirect nationalist passions, not deny them.

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian

Inclusive Nationalism

Can “responsible” nationalism exist in times when freewheeling global trade and racist demagoguery are fighting to the death on the world stage? Can there be a middle ground between elitist cosmopolitanism and closed-off ethnic nationalism that halts the race to the regulatory bottom without crippling individual economies?

In his op-ed, Larry Summers emphasizes that international trade agreements and supranational organizations must be reformed in order to address the root causes of the malaise that’s contributed to Brexit, Trump, and other crises of contemporary democracy. But it’s worth pausing to ask, in a discussion about responsible nationalism, who is permitted to partake in it, and who belongs.

Before we attempt to give nationalism a human face, we ought to consider whose voices, bodies, and opinions this nationalism excludes, and at what cost. Without responsible nations, there cannot be a responsible nationalism. In 2016, in the midst of a refugee crisis, looming climate change, and the rise of non-state actors, responsible nations must also consider the welfare of immigrants, residents, and non-citizens.

Technically speaking, that’s an oxymoronic kind of nationalism. All countries are, by virtue of their nationhood and their sovereignty, inherently discriminatory institutions; it is a central project of any nation to decide whom it wants to admit, and to keep others out by whatever means it deems fit.

But nations also exist in the world. They are interdependent, and increasingly so. Responsible nationalism, particularly in the modern American context, given this nation’s self-professed ideals, means finding a way for those abandoned or persecuted by their native countries to be safe, prosperous, happy, and at home, to be treated as though they belong, even without the immediate provision of formal citizenship.

It is a mistake to speak only of “citizens” and their needs when so many are unfairly deprived of citizenship, when so many have no means to obtain it, or are prevented from doing so. There are roughly 11 million US residents who lack legal documentation but contribute labor, taxes, and innumerable social and cultural benefits of an inestimable, qualitative nature to a country that many of them consider more their own than any other. Even more shocking is that the United States has deported hundreds, if not thousands of military veterans after they’ve risked their lives for a country they thought was at least partly theirs. Too many take on the responsibilities of citizenship without enjoying the rights, while the converse is true for the ultra-rich: The benefits of citizenship come without basic responsibilities. Responsible nationalism should recognize, and correct, this imbalance. Too often, countries push out those who most want to belong and play a role. Nationalism cannot engage in this kind of cannibalization if it is to remain coherent, or, indeed, if it is to survive in an increasingly interconnected world.

If nations exist in the world, and not in a vacuum, there can be no responsible nationalism without inclusiveness. Nothing prevents countries from adhering to a philosophy along the lines of this: “You are all welcome to join us in our effort to make our country a better place for everyone in it, and not at the expense of anyone outside it.” During the Scottish independence referendum, there were glimmers of responsible nationalism in the Scottish Nationalist Party’s embrace of Scotland’s foreign-born and immigrant population. Of course, individual countries will place limits on how many people they can accept for a variety of reasons. But any nationalism, even at its most responsible, is flawed if it ignores that there are millions of non-citizens who would jump at a chance to serve its interests, but are given no chance to do so.

Mark Blyth

Drawing-Room Fascism

In the “responsible nationalism” that Larry Summers proposes, “the basic responsibility of government is to maximize the welfare of citizens, not to pursue some abstract concept of the global good.” In other words, democratic governments should actually pay attention to the interests of the citizens that elected them. Since when is that an argument that even needs to be made?

A clue lies in his diagnosis. Summers writes that “electorates are revolting against the relatively open economic policies that have been the norm in the United States and Britain since World War II.” But this obscures more than it illuminates.

Today’s global economic order may have the same “names on the brass plates” as in the 1950s—the IMF, the development banks, the NGOs, and the countries that delegate powers to them—but the content of those institutions has shifted dramatically in the last 20 years.

The postwar order that brought widespread prosperity to Western working and middle classes was based around restricted financial flows, dependent central banks, a shared policy goal of full employment, and strong domestic institutions that made sure that productivity gains were shared by capital and labor so that wages and profits rose together.

That order was systematically dismantled in the 1990s. Capital was globalized (thereby ending labor’s ability to demand its productivity share), unions were cauterized, finance was liberalized, and full-employment policies were subordinated to inflation targets, while policy was hived off to independent central banks and global bureaucracies such as the WTO and the EU. The returns to capital exploded, as wages for the bottom 60 percent stagnated.

This is the order that citizens are revolting against: not against a long-deceased postwar order that actually took seriously Summers’s ostensibly novel proposition that “the basic responsibility of government is to maximize the welfare of citizens,” but against a very different neoliberal order that grew up in the shell of the old, one that sees citizens as useful only insofar as their tax contributions serve as insurance against bank failures.

The first step toward reconstruction of a more just world order would be to recognize that what needs to be curbed is not the “reflexive internationalism” that Summers derides but an entire set of institutions and policies that channel wealth and opportunity ever upwards. Yet we also need to recognize that there is no going back to a time when 30 percent of the population worked in unionized manufacturing. We need to accept the world as it is, not wish it anew. That means focusing on the generators of inequality and its attendant politics. Summers homes in on corporate tax evasion, which is a good place to start. But there are many more spaces where policy can make a difference. Global finance may be good for global banks, but local businesses are starved for credit. Let’s create policies that re-embed finance in investment and not in trading.

The world today’s governing elites built is being rejected for perfectly rational reasons. It’s not a revolt against openness, but against inequality. Unless we commit to doing more to counteract it, there will be only more defined and defiant nationalisms—drawing-room fascisms, in George Bernard Shaw’s phrase—and without any hint of progress or responsibility.

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