By Paddy Quick,
- It is important to distinguish between “trade” policy, i.e. policy that focuses on imports and exports (e.g. through tariffs and quotas) and the so-called “trade pacts” such as the WTO, NAFTA, and the (now-rejected) Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The latter are in fact mainly designed to “open” countries to the capital of multinational corporations and restrict government measures to control this capital, for example through regulations on labor and the environment, and measures designed to promote domestically-based economic development. Workers can and should oppose the enactment of rules that prohibit limits on capitalist exploitation and imperialist conquest, and subject “less developed” countries to the decision-making of supranational institutions dominated by multinational capital. But this is a very different issue from the question of the imposition of tariffs on imports, such as Trump has proposed.
- The (almost) unanimous clamor of mainstream economists in support of “free trade” fails to distinguish these two. The dominant sections of the US capitalist class support these pro-capitalist “trade pacts” while rejecting protectionist measures for individual industries, such as those of the steel and aluminum, which they rightly fear could lead to a disastrous trade war to the detriment of the world economy.
- It is very clear that Trump himself not only does not recognize the distinction between the movement of capital and the transactions that comprise imports and exports, but sees only those goods that have a material form (such as steel and aluminum) while ignoring the trade in “services.” For him the “balance of payments” means the merchandise balance on goods alone. But before we dismiss him and the workers who respond to his rhetoric as “ignorant” we should reflect that the “services” that constitute US exports (in which US capital does very well) consist largely of the “services” provided (at a cost!) by financial capital.
- Thus the surplus that US capital (i.e. US-based multinational corporations) accumulates is increasingly derived from the labor of workers outside of the United States through the workings of the international financial system. Trump is therefore able to draw on the very legitimate belief that it is the “hard labor” of manufacturing workers that constitutes the basis for the wealth of the US, albeit in the hands of the US capitalist class rather than in their own hands. And from there he plays the very old and effective strategy c of setting different sets of workers at each others’ throats.
- There is a direct connection between Trump’s racist and anti-immigrant approach when applied within the United States, and his xenophobic appeal to US workers as a whole to unite in opposition to the workers of other countries
- Trump is able to tap into the very legitimate concern of US workers that they are increasingly in competition with workers throughout the world. This competition extends, of course, into the service sector as the “back-office” work involved in the processing of records of financial transactions is increasingly located outside of the territorial United States. His claim to be providing “jobs” resonates with US workers, but their fear is based not so much on the prospect of actual unemployment (the rate of which has been falling) as on the very real prospect of increasingly scarce opportunities for stable employment in good-paying jobs, let alone ones that allow workers to share in even a small portion of the increase in their productivity. In other words, they fear, and are right to do so, the prospect of the falling wages that is inevitably accompanying the increasing globalization of production.
- Competition between workers has always constituted the basis for the reduction of wages to the minimum necessary for the reproduction of the working class. It has been fostered by the exacerbation of distinctions between different sections of the working class divided by ethnicity, race, national origin, religion, gender and culture, or, to put it in more general terms, by the myriad historical differences between workers. The difficulty of uniting workers within a single country such as the United States is hard enough. But we are very, very far from even the beginnings of development of a united international working class.
- There is, however, a serious opportunity today for an intermediate and partial strategy to counter the influence of Trump and his allies, namely focusing on the need to strengthen the “safety net”. Whether workers lose their jobs because of technology, changes in the pattern of domestic demand, or (quantitatively less significant) shifts in the pattern of trade, it is the fear of unemployment and its attendant miseries that feeds the antagonism between workers both within and between countries. (It is in practice, not easy to even identify the immediate cause of lay-offs.) The US is woefully behind the other “developed” countries in protecting workers from lay-offs, providing for severance pay and unemployment compensation, guaranteeing health care, protection against eviction from housing, and provision of food, regardless of former employment or immigration status.
- Thus it is important to oppose Trump’s protectionism and maintain opposition of capitalist expansion through “trade pacts.” As we do so, we must work to build a working-class movement within the US focused on the need to construct a strong “safety net” while opposing any limitation imposed by race and gender on those whom it must protect.