Capitalist Crisis, Trade Wars and the Nationalist Trap

Capitalist Crisis, Trade Wars and the Nationalist Trap

Over the last several weeks the Trudeau and Trump governments have entered into a trade dispute, with both sides delivering rhetorical denunciations of the other and claiming the moral high ground.

Frustrated with the slow progress in his efforts to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), while insisting the US has been treated unfairly by its trading partners (he has also attacked the European Union and China), Trump has imposed tariffs on lumber, steel and aluminum imports from Canada, and is threatening them on autos. Angered by Trump’s protectionism, and incredulous that any government would undermine the principles of free trade that Canadian governments have treated as sacrosanct for the last thirty years, the Trudeau government has responded with retaliatory tariffs against American imports.

As the trade dispute has intensified the Liberal government has pivoted towards Canadian nationalism to build its support against the Trump government. Sadly, the main organizations of the broad Canadian left – the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the unions – have taken up the nationalist call, offering no alternative vision, such as one based on international solidarity between workers and the oppressed of Canada and the US. This is a disturbing development that must be challenged.

While the NDP and the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) have called for greater support for Canadian workers caught in the middle of the trade dispute, there is little trace of international solidarity in their statements. Instead, the CLC’s solidarity is directed primarily at the Liberal government.

Unifor, meanwhile, has begun its “I Shop Canada” campaign. Unifor president, Jerry Dias, has boasted about his role as a “legitimate stakeholder” who has been regularly consulted by the Trudeau government on NAFTA renegotiations, as if a seat at the adult table somehow gives him a credibility he yearned for but could not find amongst his regular acquaintances. Now, in a video released as part of Unifor’s new campaign, Dias insists that “as a nation we need to pull together” and that “together we can make a difference”.

The Dangers of a Nationalist Response

Long since having given up on seriously educating and mobilizing their members to build a movement that can genuinely challenge the neoliberal attack on living standards, working conditions, immigrants, and the environment, and not having faced a substantive opposition within their ranks pushing for a more fighting stance in decades, the NDP and the union leadership for the most part have offered Canadians a slightly watered-down version of neoliberalism and a milquetoast defense of what remains of the welfare state and workers’ rights. Pandering to nationalism and the notion that workers and the oppressed have some kind of common basis with the rich and powerful logically follows this long trajectory. It chooses alignment with the state and bosses over mobilization, resistance, and international solidarity, and will only weaken progressive forces even further unless it is challenged. It rests on the belief that another world is not possible, and that our nationhood can be a salve for the wounds of four decades of ruling class neoliberal offensive on our lives and ecologies.

Nationalism is profoundly disarming for workers and progressive movements. Ultimately it creates a greater opening for government and employers to intensify the attack on workers and indigenous people – all in the name of supporting Canada in the face of foreign threats, since, after all, “we need to pull together”. Uniting as a nation, moreover, not only plays into the hands of our rulers who will use it to restore capitalist stability – for the well-being of the nation – on the backs of workers, the poor and marginalized, but nationalism is always premised on some being inside the nation and others outside of it. National projects are at their core projects of exclusion, and our history is a stark reminder that those foreign threats we need to defend the nation from can slide very easily from foreign governments or capitalists to migrants seeking sanctuary and survival in Canada, who are already excluded from the Canadian nation we are supposed to be defending. This is particularly important with Doug Ford’s recent decision to withdraw Ontario’s participation in planning with the federal government onsupport for asylum seekers, whom he wrongly but inflammatorily describes as “illegal”, because they “are putting a strain on … our public resources.”

Nationalist pandering and calls to “pull together” as a nation also profoundly misdirect popular anger and energies. The last four decades have witnessed an unrelenting panoply of vicious austerity, attacks on working conditions, rising inequality, intensified land theft and ecological predation, and the expansion of programs to exploit migrants intentionally denied citizenship. And these things have been unapologetically pursued – indeed with a passionate commitment to a class warfare union leaders sorely lack – by Liberal governments and employers, with whom workers are now supposed to ally!

This can only end in disorientation for those unhappy with and seeking an alternative vision to the current political and economic status quo. How can someone develop a clearer understanding of the true nature of the enemy they face and the struggle required to defeat it if they are being told that the people who attacked them yesterday are today their friends, and despite no demonstrable change in their policies or attitudes? When the next round of intensified attacks comes, it will be that much harder to mobilize people to fight against those they were just told were their allies.

Campaigns like Unifor’s “I Shop Canada” – or arguments that business owners and workers are in this struggle together – are premised on the profoundly mistaken and dangerous idea that capitalists and workers have a common ground based on national self-interest that is more important than what divides them. It is a defeatist position that foregrounds national identity and eschews the very politics of struggle that won workers and social movements the social gains that capital and the state (including when led by a Liberal government) are committed to reversing.

This is not simply a question of mere competing tactics: one more defiant, the other more acquiescent – both of which potentially have a shot, so take your pick. The DNA of capitalism makes that common ground impossible, however difficult rebuilding a more militant grassroots fightback may seem from the current vantage point of a weakened left whose horizons of possibility have narrowed considerably and in lock step with the intensification of the assault from above on peoples’ lives and ecologies over the last forty years.

Capital’s unyielding offensive at the workplace, demand for vulnerable migrant labour or insatiable thirst for the land and resources of indigenous people are not decisions made arbitrarily. They are the inevitable logic of a social order the core dynamic of which is not human need but the competitive pursuit of profit, and where the majority have no democratic say in how productive wealth (or capital) is used or distributed.

Laying workers off, not paying a living wage, expanding the tar sands despite the knowledge this will contribute to climate change – these are the kinds of decisions that owners of productive wealth can not only can make, but which are in fact rewarded in our social order. Indeed, to not make them could be the difference between life and death for companies competing with one another for survival in the market, particularly in times of capitalist crisis and volatility. Playing nice with employers, insisting we are all united despite our class differences or simply doing our best to mitigate the damage of neoliberalism does not change that.

What is the Real Threat to Our Well Being?

The last four decades of the neoliberal offensive is indeed a harsh reminder that Canadian capital and the state do not care if workers are Canadian, and certainly do not care about the well-being of indigenous people subject to Canadian colonialism, who have faced chronic underfunding in education, healthcare and welfare, the poisoning of their land from resource development, and systematic violation of treaty rights. What our history does tell us is that capital only modifies its behaviour towards  workers, women, migrants, and indigenous people when these groups organize from below to force it to. The right to collectively bargain, higher living standards for large sections of the working class, women’s legal access to abortion, the existence of some measure of environmental oversight on large-scale resource development – all these things, and many more examples besides, are the product of confrontational mass struggle.

Recovering and rebuilding those militant traditions is by no means easy, though we can see more than mere glimpses of them in  the Fight for $15 & Fairness in Ontario, the 2012 student strike in Québec or the struggle against the Trans Mountain pipeline in British Columbia. It requires the patient, persistent and often unseen (to those outside the movement) day-to-day building of peoples’ capacities and confidence integral to any long-term struggle. It will involve drawing on the lessons and tactics of the past, but adapting them to new conditions and terrains of struggle, given the changes in the last several decades to how our work and non-work lives are organized.

This means sinking roots in communities and workplaces with a vision towards rebuilding union and popular power; identifying key nodal points of capitalist accumulation as strategic sites to target (some, such as Kim Moody among others, have argued logistics hubs are such sites); imagining a labour movement beyond the straightjacket of the postwar labour relations regime and deepening the links between workplace and strike activities and community mobilization; and making debate and political education, especially in ways that centre questions of colonialism, racism and social reproduction, core elements of the project, thus raising the level of politics and disruption together.

And it absolutely must also entail challenging the dead end of nationalism in our movements – seeing in the struggles of those in other countries the hope and commitment for a better world we carry in our own.  Despite the neoliberal assault on the left that has undoubtedly weakened its current organizational capacities, the potential for international solidarity – for building a movement that asserts, proudly, that workers have no nation – is nevertheless greater than perhaps at any time in the past. Not only do social media and other new communication technologies give us ready access to the struggles of people around the world for better working conditions, migrant rights, environmental justice and so on, but many Canadians work for, or suffer ecological predation from, corporations that employ workers and engage in environmental plunder in other countries. Most large employers in Canada have operations in several different countries.

At the same time, retreating behind nationalism and protectionism rather than pursuing international solidarity and a deeper analysis of capitalist accumulation does not actually address the vulnerabilities workers are experiencing in the way those attracted to these positions might assume. While free trade should be opposed because it codifies transnational corporate property rights at the expense of workers, indigenous people and the environment, we should be careful about ascribing to it a primary responsibility for problems whose roots in fact go deeper.

For example, wage stagnation occurred in the late 1970s and continued into the 1980s as the postwar era of labour-capital compromise unravelled and government and employers stepped up their attack on workers, i.e. before the start of the free trade era of the late 1980s and 90s. Wages declined again in the early 1990s before picking up in the second half of that decade. Likewise, the unemployment rate rose through the 1970s, declined in the second half of the 1980s, spiked in the early 1990s and then slowly declined until the Great Recession of 2007-08. The decline of good paying jobs in traditional manufacturing sectors like auto and steel also does not correspond to free trade in the way many people typically assume. While Canadian automobile production has declined from its peak in the late 1990s (i.e. a peak that was hit after NAFTA came into effect), it is higher today than it was in 1990, and steel production currently hovers around the average tonnes produced per year from 1969 to the present.

What wages, the unemployment rate, auto and steel production, and working conditions more generally correspond to, then, are not tariffs or free trade per se, but the underlying rhythms of the boom-and-bust cycles of the capitalist economy. Just as importantly, wages and the unemployment rate are also shaped by the capacity of workers to fight for their rights. That capacity, I would argue, has much greater potential if it is connected to workers’ movements outside of Canada that face many of the same issues as Canadian workers.

But challenging nationalism also means challenging the racist foundations of Canada as a British-European settler society. Nationalism is always mobilized on a notion, sometimes explicit sometimes implicit, of who belongs to the nation and who does not, and trying to find common ground with our rulers because they are part of the Canadian nation is obviously a much easier position for some to take up than others. Solidarity is impossible if the heritage of white supremacist power which still animates Canada’s social order (and the better part of its foreign policy) is not taken seriously and challenged directly in movement organizing.

But to the extent some may benefit materially or psychologically from a deeper belonging to the Canadian nation as a result of British or European background – and may thus not immediately see a need or feel a desire to extend a hand of solidarity to those whose status in the nation may be unclear to them or to workers outside of Canada – it is ultimately a poisoned chalice whose offerings rest precariously on a social order wherein their own situation is marked by an insecurity born of class domination. And those who wield economic, political and social power over them most likely likewise wield it over workers outside of Canada. If building bonds of solidarity in the face of the reactionary legacy of Canadian nationalism is not an easy task, it is not an impossible one either.

The sense of belonging some people might have to their nation, which at times can appear so strong as to be unbreakable, only holds resonance, given how poorly most Canadians are treated by those who rule the country, to the extent the left is unable or unwilling to make real solidarity between workers wherever they are from, and between workers and indigenous people fighting colonialism, a cornerstone of its organizing while offering them meaningful hope for a better world.

We are a decade removed from the worst global crisis of capitalism since the 1930s, but the volatility and instability provoked by it are still very much with us. Such periods can intensify the pressures and fears people face trying survive the unsympathetic and unforgiving forces of the free market. Understandably they seek out answers for the real insecurities they face and strategies to survive. If those on the left, who have a deeper and more systematic understanding of the contradictory and ultimately destructive (of our livelihoods, our ecologies, our hopes) forces that shape our lives, are unable to collectively offer an alternative vision and strategy for achieving it, answers will be sought elsewhere, such as from an NDP and union leadership pandering to nationalism.

Calls to unite as a nation may offer succor to some Canadians in these turbulent times, but measured against what we face – economic and ecological crisis, instability, desperate underfunding of public services, militarism – it is a hollow strategy bound to fail. Once again, unfortunately, the leaders of the main organizations of the Canadian left have proven themselves not up to the task. Renewal from below with a collective commitment to rebuilding our capacities to challenge ruling-class power, driven by a real spirit of solidarity with all those in struggle wherever they are located, is the only way forward.

Todd Gordon is a member of the New Socialists and author of Imperialist Canada and, with Jeff Webber, Blood of Extraction: Canadian Imperialism in Latin America.