On Walls and the Disappearance of Left Wing Discourse


According to an op-ed by Thomas Edsall, appearing in the New York Times, the erstwhile definition of the left/right political divide has shifted, and new alignments are developing that have changed the nature of political debate. According to Edsall, supported with impressive sources, the traditional definitions of a liberalism supporting government intervention and a market-oriented conservatism is giving way to paradigms shaped by globalization and nationalism.

Edsall makes the case that the political divide in the United States and Europe is increasingly less about social class and more about…well…walls. Should we have them or shouldn’t we? The right emphasizes nationalist paradigms, defined by Edsall as “resistance to open borders and immigration.” Countering this is the new liberal paradigm of globalization which Edsall defines as, “receptivity to open borders, the expansion of local and nationalistic perspectives and support for a less rigid social order and for liberal cultural, immigration and trade policies.”

Now it’s not the intention of this post to quibble about definitions here. There may be some problems with the underlying premise, but the larger point that Edsall and his sources are trying to make does seem to be valid and valuable. It does appear that a great deal of western political debate has to do with walls, or what I’ve referred to as the “those people” rhetorical structures. Certainly, with the rise of Trumpism and the bigot right (also called the Alt-Right) in the United States, the Brexit neurosis in Britain and a neo-fascist renaissance in the rest of Europe, it’s hard to deny the nationalistic impulses of the right.

The issue, however, to my mind, is the idea of a left turn toward globalization (using Edsall’s term. I would rather use the word “globalism” as I believe this is a better term to articulate a belief system, whereas globalization is more appropriate for describing a process). If Edsall’s analysis is correct–and I think it is, at the very least, informative–then liberalism and the left are in big trouble. A liberalism that is premised on globalization is hard pressed to perpetuate its relevance in the political theater.

The problem for the left and its liberal branches is two-fold. First, both nationalism and globalization as social expressions are entrenched in an essentially conservative, corporatist system. Secondly, an emphasis on globalization, albeit with progressive intent, strays from the foundational left/liberal argument. Though the Left has something to say about globalization/globalism, the goal must be to institute a leftist globalism, not a globalized left, which is a much different thing.

First, let’s take a look a the paradigms of nationalism and globalization and how they are intrinsically conservative. By conservatism, I’m referring to movements that strive to preserve or entrench existing and/or traditional power structures. Today, that means corporate and multinational capitalism or, using my standard shorthand, corporatism. When it comes to the perpetuation of existing power structures, both nationalism and globalization are secure under the purview of the capitalist class.

Nationalism is the easy argument, here. Though we can see trends of nationalism in both liberal and conservative thought, the kind of exclusionary nationalism embraced by the right today is a mainstay of conservative rhetoric. This kind of nationalism is one of us against them, a constant drumbeat that “our people” must be protected from “those people.” As such, it has always been a bulwark against a more communitarian classism advanced by the left. In essence, nationalism is about building walls against dangerous incursions. Yet those walls always serve to foster the corporate elite.

There are two layers of nationalist wall building. The most obvious is that which demands walls along our national borders. Such walls, often symbolic, but of late, obnoxiously real, are premised on keeping “us” safe from “those people.” It doesn’t matter if those people are refugee children. It does not matter if they are fleeing poverty, political oppression, deadly drug cartels. They are dangerous to us. They are criminals, murderers, rapists. They spread disease. They are taking our jobs. These are the most immediate dangers. The more abstract danger of “those people” is that they destroy our obviously superior way of life with their clearly inferior culture. The appropriate response is walls, militarism, surveillance, imprisonment.

The second layer of walls are built within the country and separates the “real citizens” from the “so-called citizens.” The so-called citizens are another manifestation of “those people.” They may be legal citizens, but they are not true citizens. They are not patriotic. They don’t pay taxes. They commit crimes and live in poverty and, because of liberals who are trying to buy their votes, they are able to sponge off of the system, get handouts and take from the real citizens. And they’re usually brown and hate white people. They lurk in the dark waiting for a white victim to come by. The appropriate response is walls, militarism, surveillance, imprisonment.

Race and 2016Exclusionary nationalism has fueled right-wing, conservative activism for generations. A cursory reading of conservative thought is all that’s needed to confirm this. And it is a driving force of right-wing movements today. As Edsall points out in his essay, racial animus was influential in the 2016 election. Making America Great Again was largely seen as a white endeavor.

Now conservatism’s influence on globalization is a bit more abstract. Yes, we must recognize that paradigms of multiculturalism, anti-colonialism and the responsibility of core nations to the periphery and third-world are common left-wing themes, and should remain so. The practice of globalization, however, is thoroughly ensconced in global, neo-liberal, capitalism.

The major paradigm behind globalization is that governed by free trade and perpetuated by multi-national corporations and aligned financial entities. Any political or cultural elements of globalization run tangentially to its economic function. Multi-cultural exchanges are commodified and colonized and can be mailed directly to your door via Amazon Prime, free shipping! Nobody questions the legitimacy of “free exchange of capital,” “free exchange of information.” The infrastructure for both, namely globalized transportation and communication networks, are all in the hands or under the control of the multi-national, corporate elite.

In many ways, the victims of globalization are problematized relative to the needs of the corporate class. Namely, workers challenging national borders in search of economic opportunities, fair wages, an escape from poverty face increasingly guarded and even militarized borders. This serves the interests of regulating labor or trapping “undocumented migrants” into a state of lawless limbo and concomitant exploitation. Refugees fleeing the instability and atrocities of wars fought and tyrannies imposed in the corporate interest are concentrated into U.N. controlled camps and slowly filtered into host nations so as not to destabilize the status quo. Capital may be free to cross borders, as is information, as is business. People, however, are not free. They are surrounded by walls and barbed wire.

If the relative value of walls is the new Left/Right divide, then the left is playing against a huge rhetorical deficit. The corporate elite largely controls both paradigms, with the possible exception of a Right Wing embrace of economic protectionism exploited by Trump, both nationalism and globalization serve the interests of finance capital. Consequently, there is very little rhetoric with regard to the victims of this global system of exploitation. Paradigms of class and class consciousness are missing on both sides of the wall separating nationalism from globalization.

The Left is, first and foremost, the voice of the exploited, the oppressed, the marginalized. A Left analysis is predicated on the notion that there is an exploiting class and an exploited class and promoting the interests of social justice is contingent upon empowering the latter. Without this analysis, we are left with a nationalist vision of a world webbed with walls segregating “those people” from the deserving, or a world in which “those people” can find acceptance so long as they can fit into the existing order.

What’s needed, however, is an analysis that challenges exploitation head-on, that identifies nationalism and globalization as two sides of the same exploitative coin. Maybe these two competing narratives define “those people” differently, but neither offers a collective human narrative. A liberalism based on globalization cannot be a proxy for a Leftist understanding of a collective consciousness that identifies the interests of the sweat-shop laborer in Malaysia and the poisoned children of Flint Michigan, and the Chinese factory worker and ghetto youth and Syrian refugee as sharing a common interest, as exploited by the same corporate system.

It’s a case that can be made as The Occupy Movement and the Bernie Sanders campaign made clear. Even many Tea Partiers and Libertarians see “crony capitalism” as a betrayal of free markets and a form of exploitation. What’s missing is a unifying theme of class. The Right, harping on the dangers of “those people” are, perhaps unwittingly, doing the bidding of the very corporate class that serves to abuse them. The corporate elite spoon feeds The Right a hateful regimen of stereotypes and scapegoats by which walls are erected between “those people” and “we the deserving.” So long as those walls stand, there can be no effective vanguard against global exploitation.

The Left reacts by correctly pointing out that such scapegoating is bigoted and closed minded, that “those people” are just as deserving of basic human dignity of everyone else. But this is a reactionary strategy that cannot build the unity we need. Indeed, the Left-Wing response may inadvertently create more walls between working people who need to work together. Instead, the left stumbles on globalized rhetoric that lacks a unifying theme. The left is trying to teach the unemployed, white Cajun that the ghetto teen or the barrio Dreamer isn’t a threat.

The Left has never been successful with this argument because the very nature of the conversation assumes the validity of an Us and a Them. The Left wins when it reminds the exploited that they are brothers and sisters sharing the same fate, trapped in the same exploitative system. Erecting walls between us, walls that we can call racism, sexism or any variation of bigotry and segregation, makes us all weaker. So long as we see a “those people” instead of an “us” we are all prostrate to the same masters.

The Left can and should build upon a globalized understanding of humanity, but it cannot compete on the same rhetorical playing field of globalization that is controlled by the corporate elite. The Left can only compete speaking in an inclusive and collective voice.

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