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International Trade

April 15, 2016

Recent discussions of international trade – specifically around the UK steel industry, and Bernie Sanders’ recent trade proposals – made me want to articulate some extremely basic points about international trade. I’m going to distinguish three different arguments about international trade, painted here with the broadest of possible brush strokes.

1) The traditional liberal gains-from-trade argument. Efficiency gains from the division of labour, and from comparative advantage, mean that international trade can produce greater overall social wealth and welfare than the same resources would generate if nation states did not trade. In this respect, international trade brings benefits to everyone.

2) The third-worldist critique of international trade. From this perspective, international trade is a mechanism for extracting wealth from the world’s poorest and least powerful nations, and channeling that wealth to the world’s richest and most powerful nations. This is the case in both the historical colonial domination of the periphery by the core, and contemporary neo-colonial relationships. In this respect, international trade benefits the core at the expense of the periphery.

3) The labour-aristocracy critique of international trade. From this perspective, international trade weakens the bargaining power of labour in the core, by outsourcing jobs and production to the periphery. In this respect, international trade brings benefits to countries in the periphery, at the expense of workers in the core.

All three of these arguments are common. In my opinion, all of them capture important dimensions of the international trade. That is to say, in my opinion, it’s a mistake to deny any of the following: 1) international trade can bring aggregate economic benefits via specialisation and the division of labour; 2) international trade can extract the resources of the periphery to the benefit of the core; 3) international trade can outsource production and diminish workers’ bargaining power in the core, to the benefit of the periphery.

The question, then, in my opinion, is where and when these different elements of international trade occur. This is clearly a complicated empirical question – and much more complicated than the above typology suggests. Still, I think that debates over international trade would benefit if all parties made the specific case for their emphasis, among these three perspectives – and for the consequences of their preferred policies on all three of the dimensions listed above.

Liberalism and Radicalism

December 6, 2015

Circling once more around what seems to be this blog’s only real topic of late – radicalism versus liberalism. Nothing revelatory here – just the solidification of what seem like fairly commonplace ideas. Starting with the concept of a collective ‘subject of history’, and moving on to alternatives.

If your politics is based on the idea that if the appropriate collective subject of history attains political power then domination and oppression will cease, your politics will predictably result (should it succeed in attaining power) in domination and oppression. That last sentence is the standard critique of the strand of Marxism that believes in some form of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. It’s a correct critique, in my now quite firmly held opinion. But it doesn’t just apply to that strand of Marxism – it also applies to strands of feminism, of postcolonial politics, of anarchism (where ‘gaining power’ may be understood differently, but still) – and indeed to strands of would-be emancipatory movements of all kinds. Problem: one group of people is being oppressed by another. Solution: switch roles, get rid of the oppressors and replace them by the oppressed. The oppressed are the good guys, so problem solved. That’s the approach I’m criticising.

Obviously, I am caricaturing, and in a familiar way that is often used to criticise emancipatory movements as a whole – that is of course not my intention here. Nevertheless, I think this caricature accurately captures the core of a significant portion of left politics. What’s wrong with this approach? A range of things. One of them is using the collective as the unit of analysis. Why is using the collective as the unit of analysis a bad idea? Because doing so makes it harder to see how different elements of the collectivity have different interests, preferences, politics, etc. – and how oppression can operate within the collectivity, not just against it. This lack of critical insight into the internal dynamics of the collectivity means that would-be emancipatory movements that understand themselves in this way frequently and predictably fail to adequately plan for holding power – as well as failing to adequately moderate existing internal power dynamics. More precisely, they fail to adequately consider how to limit the power of those within the collective who end up wielding it. Thus would-be emancipatory movements frequently and predictably end up producing new forms of oppression and domination, rather than any kind of lasting emancipation.

Contrast liberalism. Liberalism is of course an extremely diverse political tradition, so there are major exceptions to what I’m about to say. Still, one of liberalism’s major unifying interests is the way in which diverse individual actions which may be individually self-interested can, with the appropriate institutional structures, create positive collective outcomes. This idea unites economic liberalism (where despite following individual self interest we are led, as if by an invisible hand…) and political liberalism (in which incompatible interests and perspectives hammer out some compromise in the negotiations of non-absolutist government). The radical left is often impatient with / hostile to this approach, for a range of different reasons, some good, some bad. But this liberal perspective is in my opinion a much better starting point for thinking about politics than any concept of a ‘subject of history’ or ‘collective will’.

That is to say: One of the things this liberal approach is good for, is not taking it for granted that with the right people in charge, or with the right collective will expressed, the right political decisions will made. Liberalism tends to assume, instead, that people won’t reliably look out for each other in solidarity, but will rather engage in conflict, disagreement and, potentially, oppression at all levels of the body politic – and that a core political problem is setting up the institutions within which people operate, such that those conflicts can function as checks and balances to produce positive, rather than negative, overall outcomes. In its approach to institution design, therefore, liberalism is a better starting point for thinking about abuses of power than many forms of radicalism.

OK – so drop the radicalism and embrace liberalism? Not altogether, no. There are, obviously, a range of problems with liberalism – or, at least, with ‘actually existing liberalism’ (including most ‘actually existing’ articulations of liberal political ideals). As I have done before on the blog I want to focus in this post on those emphasised by Charles Mills, in his The Racial Contract and other works. That is to say: liberalism’s ideals – including the ideals of institution design I was just talking about – are severely limited in their application. In particular, they are limited by a hierarchy of the human, in which the principles of liberal politics only need be applied to those near the top of the hierarchy – those humans who are fully human, fully adult, in full possession of their own individuality, which individuality can be given voice by the institutions of the liberal polity and economic order. As we move down the hierarchy of the human, people become less and less entitled to have voice or power within liberal institutions, because, from the liberal perspective, they are not real people. This describes the system of global racial oppression – but also many forms of gender oppression, and other forms of systematic domination.

So we have on the one hand a system of checks and balances that aspires to transform varied and conflictual individual preferences into acceptable collective outcomes, without presupposing an unrealistic degree of harmonious or self-sacrificing solidarity or collective will – then on the other hand we have those excluded from full participation in this institutional space, who therefore do not enjoy those liberal checks against oppression, coercion, violence, etc., and do not find their preferences accounted for within the system of liberal negotiations and exchanges. Here the ‘space of liberalism’ itself functions as a form of collective subject – the human, the civilised – contrasted with another collective non-subject – the inhuman, the uncivilised, the childlike brutes, the Other. And this is of course a way of justifying the actually-existing systematic oppression or domination of the latter by the former.

One way of narrating the history of liberalism is as a series of assaults on this charmed circle of the human, in which excluded groups, through the use of collective action, seek to challenge the existing liberal order, and extend the scope of liberal freedoms and rights. These assaults on the liberal circle of entitlements must use methods that are not permitted by the existing liberal order – in that sense, these movements are not liberal ones. But the end result of many of these movements has been the incorporation of their demands into an expanded liberal politics – a liberalism that includes, rather than opposes, workers’ rights, women’s rights, minorities’ rights, LGBTI rights, etc. – at least within some limited, but meaningful, political and economic field. These achievements should be regarded as (incomplete) political successes, in my opinion.

Now, the hierarchy of the human I just described is not the only problem with ‘actually existing’ liberalism – hopefully I’ll come back to all this again one day. Still, I think all this is enough of a starting point to make the case for a form of liberalism. This liberalism should take a ‘cynical’ approach to the problems of political and economic life – it should presuppose high degrees of social conflict and self-interested action at all scales of social life, and aim to design institutions that use this social discord to provide checks and balances against the abuse of any given group of individuals by any other. It should aspire to the traditional liberal goal of achieving positive overall collective outcomes by ensuring, through institution design, that where possible the individual and diverse interests of many diverse individuals interact in broadly socially beneficial ways. But this liberalism should be alive, in a way that actually-existing liberalisms have traditionally not been, to the systematic exclusion of the bulk of humanity from full participation in and representation through actually-existing liberal institutional structures – one major way, though not the only one, in which actually-existing liberal institutions cannot fulfill their (purported) political goals.

As I say, none of this ought to be very earth-shattering – I’ll aim to come back to all of this in greater depth, one day.

Why Labour Lost

September 30, 2015

I’ve read a lot of commentary in the press, re: Corbyn’s leadership of the UK Labour Party, along these lines (the quote is Pippa Crerar on Twitter, but it could be one of many UK journalists, the theme is widespread):

I do wonder how much Corbyn has reflected on Labour losing the election. Badly. And on what it means.

When media commentators write like this, they mean the following: Ed Miliband’s Labour lost the 2015 election because it moved too far left; Corbyn’s strategy of taking the party even further left is therefore absurd.

But although most of the UK commentariat and political class share this analysis of Labour’s 2015 defeat, it is not a good one. Here, imo, is a better one – which, as it happens, Corbyn seems to also hold. Of course, political reality is complex, and the following is crass – but to a first approximation, I think it’s useful to see Labour as losing in 2015 for two reasons.

1) Labour disregarded the base for years. The New Labour strategy was, essentially: take the base for granted, and appeal to the ‘floating voter’ in the centre ground. This works while it works – but it cannot work indefinitely. It relies on a reputation with the base established over the years in which the base was actively appealed to, and it eats into that reputation, gradually destroying it. Furthermore, as the party is remade in accordance with the new strategy, organisational ties with the traditional base diminish. All of that is bad, but not fatal, as long as voters have nowhere else to go. But the SNP provided Scottish voters with somewhere else to go. Labour’s mishandling of the referendum exemplified their disregard of their Scottish base, and so Labour lost 40 seats ‘overnight’, in one of their traditional ‘heartlands’.

2) Labour permitted the Conservatives to establish the following narrative on the economy: Blair-Brown era Labour spent too much on welfare, creating a huge budget deficit; the budget deficit (somehow?) caused the global financial crisis, and the recession that followed; getting out of that recession requires balancing the budget; which requires cutting welfare. Labour failed to effectively challenge any of the steps in this argument, even though (as I see it) they are all incorrect. Having permitted the Conservatives to portray them as fiscally irresponsible, and to blame for the great recession, they further accepted the Conservative line that ‘austerity’ is the only way to demonstrate fiscal responsibility. On this framing, Labour are always going to appear weaker than the Conservatives, because if austerity = responsibility, even ‘austerity light’ policies are less fiscally responsible than ‘austerity heavy’ policies. So Labour lost the ‘floating voter’ because they seemed weak and irresponsible on economic policy.

That’s why Labour lost in 2015, in a nutshell – losing votes both in the centre ground and among their (former) base. And although the commentariat can’t seem to see it, Corbyn’s strategy aims to address both of these weaknesses.

1) Corbyn appeals to the base, with traditional labour policies denigrated by New Labour – this observation is uncontroversial. Unfortunately New Labour fucked up in Scotland so comprehensively that the party has a mountain to climb to regain ground there. But you’ve got to start somewhere.

2) Corbyn aims to ‘reframe’ the discourse on economic policy, by presenting ‘anti-austerity’ arguments on two fronts. First – progressive taxation-funded government investment expenditure can be a major driver of economic growth, increasing overall prosperity; second – redistributive policies can provide the traditional social safety net, increasing individual economic security. Conservative economic policies, by contrast, are recessionary, at the macro level, and remove the economic security associated with social safety net measures, at the individual level. Therefore Labour are the economically responsible ones, and the Conservatives are a source of economic insecurity, at least for low and middle income voters. Bolted on to this is the insistence that Labour will eliminate the deficit, because apparently everyone has to say that now.

Most of the commentariat and political class think these two strategies are silly. They think (1) is silly because they think the concerns and interests of the traditional Labour base are silly; this is a problem of class perspective, at root. They think (2) is silly because they’ve bought the austerity ideology – they think that a perfectly sound left Keynesian economic approach is absurd and unfeasible – and they can only hear voters’ ‘concerns about the economy’ as meaning ‘cut welfare’.

But Corbyn’s strategy isn’t silly. It might very well not work – politics is hard, the party is divided, and the media are hostile – but as I see it there’s no intrinsic reason why it couldn’t work. Despite the consensus among journalists and politicians, there is a strong case to be made that social-democratic, Keynesian economic policies increase the prosperity and economic security that voters care about, while austerity policies reduce them. If Corbyn’s Labour can persuasively make that case, it should in principle be possible for the party to make significant electoral gains.

By contrast, the ongoing ‘moderate’ Labour strategy of telling the base to go fuck itself, while agreeing fulsomely with the Conservatives about how poor Labour’s economic record has been, seems on its face to be a poor electoral strategy. Anything is possible in politics, of course, and I claim no great insight – but there is reason enough to see Corbyn’s strategy as sounder in important ways than the conventional ‘centrist’ approach, even in electoral terms alone.

I don’t have any great insights into the Corbyn phenomenon – but I do have something to say about the New Labour reaction. It is of course the aggrieved rage of an elite suddenly confronted by the agency of their supposedly passive inferiors. But the incomprehension in that rage comes not just from the isolation of the political class’s social echo-chamber, but also from a faulty theory of history adopted within that echo-chamber. The New Labour elite saw itself as progressivist in a literal sense: history has a direction, and the task of political leaders is to align with history’s movement. Just as much as any stagist Marxist, they saw a teleology in history, and saw themselves as the vanguard of the inevitable. As with all such theories of history, actual political events were taken both to validate their sense of progress, when they matched expectations, and to sometimes, sadly, depart from history’s truth, demanding remedial political action. This teleological view informed both New Labour’s domestic policy – where the structural transformation of the ’80s, and the shift in the political balance of power associated it, was seen as showing the direction that any future politics must take – and its foreign policy – where nations could be ranked on a progressive scale of development and civilisation, with US geopolitical power expressing high advancement on that scale, warranting civilising and humanitarian military interventions into the affairs of the brutes.

Because New Labour understood their historical task in this way, they saw radical politics of both the left and right as something that had been superseded, on the way to a more civilised ‘centrist’ consensus – rather than as the expression of social interests and social movements that were only contingently diminished or transformed. The postwar settlement, wherein radicalism was tamed through social-democratic compromise, was seen by New Labour as a waystation towards fuller achievement of elite political goals, rather than a concession made to diminish otherwise unmanageable dissent. For New Labour the masses are atavistic – and can be manipulated by appealing to this atavism, in the form of racist dogwhistling and law-and-order demagoguery – but they are, at base, on the wrong side of history, when they challenge elite policies and power. The New Labour horror at Corbyn’s ‘regression’ to ‘old Labour’ policies is therefore more than just a rejection of Corbyn’s politics; it is more than a conviction that this politics forfeits electorability; Corbyn’s politics are repulsive to New Labour because they are, from the New Labour perspective, quite literally unnatural; they prompt the horror and unease associated with those moments when the fantastical becomes real.

Occupy Liberalism

August 11, 2015

No new content here from me, but as a sort of follow-up to this post from last year, in which I discussed Charles Mills’ Stony Brook lecture on ‘liberalism and racial justice‘, I wanted to draw attention to a related essay by Mills, also from 2012, but which I missed until this week: ‘Occupy Liberalism! Or, Ten Reasons Why Liberalism Cannot Be Retrieved for Radicalism (And Why They’re All Wrong)‘.  You will of course be a better judge of how to spend your time than I am – but imo this is a great essay which deserves very broad readership in radical spaces, so I wanted to ‘signal boost’.

Some relevant quotes from early in the piece:

In this essay, I want to propose as a target for radical occupation the somewhat unusual candidate of liberalism itself.  But contrary to the conventional wisdom prevailing within radical circles, I am going to argue for the heretical thesis that liberalism should not be contemptuously rejected by radicals but retrieved for a radical agenda… My aim is to challenge the radical shibboleth that radical ideas/concepts/principles/values are incompatible with liberalism…

Once the breadth of the range of liberalisms is appreciated – dominant and subordinate, actual and potential – the obvious question then raised is: Even if actual dominant liberalisms have been conservative in various ways (corporate, patriarchal, racist) why does this rule out the development of emancipatory, radical liberalisms?

One kind of answer is the following (call this the internalist answer): Because there is an immanent conceptual/normative logic to liberalism as a political ideology that precludes any emancipatory development of it.

Another kind of answer is the following (call this the externalist answer): It doesn’t.  The historic domination of conservative exclusionary liberalisms is the result of group interests, group power, and successful group political projects.  Apparent internal conceptual/normative barriers to an emancipatory liberalism can be successfully negotiated by drawing on the conceptual/normative resources of liberalism itself, in conjunction with a revisionist socio-historical picture of modernity.

Most self-described radicals would endorse – indeed, reflexively, as an obvious truth – the first answer.  But as indicated from the beginning, I think the second answer is actually the correct one.  The obstacles to developing a ‘radical liberalism’ are, in my opinion, primarily externalist in nature: material group interests, and the way they have shaped hegemonic varieties of liberalism.  So I think we need to try to justify a radical agenda with the normative resources of liberalism rather than writing off liberalism.

The whole piece is here.

What Did Marx Get Wrong?

January 9, 2015

There are lots of criticisms commonly directed at Marx. Most of these I think are misplaced; two of them I think are correct. This list is obviously not exhaustive, but here, very briefly, are some of those common criticisms. (In line with my new blogging practice, I’m not even aiming to argue for these positions here – this is just what I think…):

Criticism: Marx has a teleological stagist view of history.
My view: No he doesn’t.

Criticism: Marx’s labour theory of value is untenable.
My view: Marx doesn’t hold the labour theory of value.

Criticism: Marx’s humanist philosophical anthropology paints too rosy a view of human nature.
My view: Marx doesn’t have a humanist philosophical anthropology.

Criticism: Marx’s narrow economism has no space for agency.
My view: Marx is not narrowly economistic.

Criticism: Marx is too optimistic about the possibilities of technology.
My view: Marx is right to be optimistic about the possibilities of technology.

Criticism: Marx is too optimistic about the possibilities of central planning.
My view: I agree with this criticism.

Criticism: Marx’s attempt to provide blueprints for future institutions is dogmatic and utopian.
My view: Marx doesn’t provide such blueprints.

Criticism: Marx ought to provide blueprints for future institutions.
My view: I agree with this criticism.

~~

All that is by way of saying, I see two central flaws in Marx’s work. First – he is too optimistic about the possibilities of central planning. His position is – as always – more nuanced than a quick summary suggests, but at base Marx thinks that bringing the uncoordinated and indirectly coordinated actions of the complex system of capitalism under some kind of centrally planned control is the way to eliminate the irrational and coercive aspects of that system. Marx is far too incautious about the concentrations of power that accompany such central planning – he doesn’t give nearly enough attention to the abuses of power and the exploitative dynamics that are likely to result from such massive concentration of political and economic power.

That said, Marx doesn’t spend much time writing about the shape of the more centrally planned society he’d like to see because, second: Marx is of the view that the shape of future society will basically be worked out ‘in practice’ – that it is not the job of intellectuals or political activists to provide ‘recipes for the cook-shops of the future’. I disagree with this too. Institutional change comes about because people change those institutions, and they change institutions by thinking about what institutions they’d like better. I believe there’s no reason why such thought can’t take place ahead of time – and I believe it’s better that a lot of such thought take place ahead of time, so that people aren’t having to do that thinking at short notice in incredibly stressful circumstances with catastrophic consequences of poor judgement calls.

So – those are the main areas where I disagree with Marx.

In other news, I have a new comment policy. (It basically just says that I’m going to stop responding to comments, because it takes me forever – like months and months – and really what good is that to anyone.)

Elements of Liberalism

April 21, 2014

A quick post differentiating some of the different elements of liberalism. Worth doing because both critiques and defences of liberalism often blur quite a lot of different things together.

The following is an excellent starting point: Charles Mills’ 2012 Stony Brook lecture on ‘Liberalism and Racial Justice’.

Mills starts his talk by distinguishing five different things that people can mean by ‘liberalism’. These are:

a) a set of value commitments: moral equality; freedom; self-realisation of individual; etc.
b) a social ontology: atomic individualism
c) a conceptual cartography: the distinction between the private and the public realm
d) a theory of history: Whig progressivism
e) a particular schedule of rights, protections and freedoms.

These are all worthy of long discussion, but I’m going to basically focus on just (a) and (e). That is I’m interested in the political ideals of liberalism, rather than its contributions to our framework for analysing social reality, etc.

Ok – if we’re just interested in liberal political ideals: what are those ideals? Here are five different elements of those ideals:

In the first box – the ideal of liberty. The principal ideal of liberalism is to maximise, or at least give high priority to, the liberty of the individual.

But what does this mean? I think it’s worth distinguishing three different concepts of liberty:

1) Negative liberty, in the good old John Stuart Mill / Isaiah Berlin sense. That is to say – freedom from coercion. Liberalism aims to create a sphere of personal freedom for each individual within which the individual is free from the coercive actions of others. Obviously there’s a lot of different ways of understanding the scope of that sphere, and the scenarios in which this entitlement to freedom from coercion can be lost or withdrawn. Still.

This ideal gives us a role for legitimate force (probably wielded by the state): coercion is legitimate (only?) if it prevents people from infringing on others’ freedom.

Ok – that’s negative liberty. That’s a pretty slim-line concept of liberty.

2) Liberty in the sense of capacity. That is – the concept of liberty associated with, for example, Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach. Here the idea is that you are only free to do something if you have the capacity to do it – so poverty is a form of unfreedom, because it restricts one’s range of action; disability is a form of unfreedom without a social context that accommodates the disability, etc. Prejudice and informal social sanction generate unfreedom, because they restrict the range of action of their targets, etc. etc.

This is a much more capacious sense of freedom. Indeed, a lot of political goals that are often articulated under the banner of egalitarianism (where the ideal of equality is often treated as distinct from and even incompatible with the ideal of freedom) can be captured under this category. And I think that’s a good way to understand these goals: increasing the freedom-as-capability of people across society seems like a more concretely impactful and less arbitrarily relational political goal than equality in the abstract. (Not that these should be conflated.)

Next up:

3) Positive liberty, in Isaiah Berlin’s sense. That is to say, more or less, grounding others’ power over us in our own choices, in some sense.

Putting it crassly: if negative liberty (1) is about the creation of a sphere of freedom from coercion; and capabilities liberty (2) is the creation of the ability to actually act as we might wish within that sphere; positive liberty (3) is about who gets to coerce us at the limits of that sphere, and the source of their ability to do so.

Obviously things can get a bit dicier here, as Berlin among many others points out: grounding the ability to coerce people in those people’s own purported self-determination is a reliable recipe for sophistical justifications for unjustified violence. Still, it doesn’t seem absurd to draw distinctions between more and less legitimate governance apparatuses, and to ground that legitimacy in the choices of the governed. How one goes about doing that will fork our concept of positive liberty in many different directions (different forms of democracy, different authoritarianisms grounded in different understandings of the will of the people), and that can’t be covered here. But this is clearly another important sense of liberty.

Ok – that’s three ideals of liberty we’ve got going. Now, moving away from the ideal of liberty, but staying with the governance apparatus:

4) Checks and balances on the exercise of power.

This isn’t really a political ideal – more an institution-building principle – but it’s another very important element of liberalism. The idea (obviously) is that whatever governance system you’ve got, it’s likely to be abused by those who wield its power – so checks and balances on power is essential to preserving whatever other forms of liberty you’ve got going on. You need to design your governance institutions in such a way that untrammeled power is difficult to exercise – a separate point from how you actually understand liberty.

Ok – then the final element:

5) The appropriate sphere of application of the concepts above.

That is to say, more or less: who gets to count as a political subject who can enjoy these ideals? Who are the citizens of the liberal political entity? And who falls outside it? To whom do these ideals not apply?

As Mills – and Losurdo, and many others – point out, liberalism has historically drawn that line between the citizen and the non-citizen – and, more broadly, the human and the not-quite-really-fully-human – in many different places. John Stuart Mill moves from outlining the ideals of liberty, in one paragraph, to explaining why they don’t apply to the brutes in the colonies he made his living administering, in the next. Liberalism, historically, has been built on a hierarchy of the human. At the top of that hierarchy are the full humans who deserve the full realisation of the ideals of liberalism; at the bottom are those animals or barely-more-than-animals who can and must be coerced – for whom violent coercion is the only possible route to any kind of freedom. And between these two extremes is a vast scale of greater and lesser humanity, that warrants the differential realisation of greater or fewer ideals of liberalism, as circumstances require.

Now throw all these elements of liberalism up in the air, and see where they come down: which among these one chooses to emphasise, and how one understands its application, will determine what kind of actually-existing-liberalism you get. Though, of course, in reality it is more often on-the-ground practice that determines which ideals get emphasised.

I think this is a useful way of breaking down liberalism, though I obviously don’t claim that these categories are anything close to exhaustive. Still – something to keep thinking about.

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