How should we socialists understand trade—and how can we act on that understanding? Our forebears have at times opposed free trade, and one of Donald Trump’s appeals to workers was a promise a return to a mythical past. We know that our current trade system is tainted with the usual capitalist miseries, wastefulness, and exploitation. But in an age of globalization, it’s hard to know how to fight so all workers get the full return for their labor when they toil under vastly different conditions. They’re subject to vastly different governmental systems and levels of financial support and are situated within super-complex supply chains, while at the mercy of the consequences of unpredictable currency movements.
Simplistic calls for either free trade or tariffs no longer fit our complex economies. How can we begin to understand the issues, much less formulate socialist policies? Here are a few suggestions for beginning this challenging but essential process:
Let the success of the past inspire you to develop new solutions for the future. The familiar trade system of exploitation has perhaps been surpassed by “super-exploitation” (the forcing of wages below subsistence level) at essential points in the supply chain. We must orient our activism to the basic condition of all workers. However, the policies developed after the Second World War in the industrialized world that supported strategic tariffs and currency policies and allowed for a jump in living standards and working conditions won’t work today. Today’s global capitalist economy features incomparably freer flows of finance, and, enabled by much more advanced technology, will almost certainly provoke a trade war among partners who have become dangerously dependent on trade outcomes. Such a trade war could lead to another great recession. Our activism must be powerfully and strategically oriented to avoid this, as well as to improve the condition of workers, both here and abroad.Don’t be fooled by—or afraid of—populism. Much populist rhetoric, especially when regurgitated by the mainstream media, is idiotic or repulsive. But there’s no denying that the dramatic collapse in living standards that we see around us affects working people primarily and turns some of us into bigots or discourages thought, and even hope. It is our mission to engage with our fellow workers so we can fight together effectively to improve conditions.
Donald Trump is an unmitigated disaster. Trump’s trade policies offer two things: vapid opportunities for self-serving publicity that accompany his introduction of tariffs and tearing up of trade deals and the much more damaging and extensive blows to all workers that result from the deregulatory policies concocted and overseen by his gazillionaire cronies and the Republican-led Congress. Capitalism is the ultimate enemy, but we should never forget who is pushing its take-no-prisoners agenda.
Be smart: keep learning. There is nothing simple about trade and the international system, as Marx himself would emphasize. Challenge yourself to read and keep up with rapidly changing conditions so your activism will become more effective.
Get involved with local labor struggles and read the business press. Labor organizations are a great source of information on trade issues. And good newspapers like the Financial Times, as Noam Chomsky never tires of pointing out, are not solely propaganda outlets. Business leaders and bourgeois politicians rely on them for accurate information they can act upon. Reading the business press in tandem with trade-savvy radicals is a sure way to embark on more effective trade activism. ϖ