Volume 50, Issue 4: Autumn 2016

What’s left of neoliberal globalization?

Photo by Josh Edelson/Getty

From a Canadian vantage point, it is easy to lose track of the sheer volume of discontent, if not outright resistance, around the world to the structures and policies of neoliberal globalization. People everywhere are chaffing at the limits imposed on their capacities to democratically shape and plan their own political and economic lives. Investor State law suits brought by transnational capital to overturn democratic outcomes are just the most obvious of a myriad of tactics by our “free traders” to undermine people’s rights.

It is this frustration that propelled the Greeks to vote against neoliberal austerity, that created the burgeoning Podemos movement in Spain and the Five Star movement in Italy, that pushed the U.K. to embrace BREXIT and added fuel to the insurgent Corbyn and Sanders movements. Even the right-wing populist movements on the rise in the U.S. and Europe are a vocal if distorted working-class protest against the social breakdown and precarious existence intimately linked to the free movement of capital, deregulated labour markets and the destruction of manufacturing capacity. Working-class responses don’t necessarily take left-wing forms, and too often leave doors open to a racist and nativist demagoguery. But they can also provide an opportunity for the socialist Left to craft a larger class-oriented challenge to the world that free trade agreements solidified over the past 25 to 30 years.

These days, even mainstream liberal politicians like Hillary Clinton have been forced to, at least temporarily, moderate their public defence of the free movement of capital, export dependency and “unfair” free trade agreements. But here in Canada, it seems corporate rights masked as ever freer trade is getting a pretty easy ride. The Trudeau Liberals are now the new poster children for free trade and globalization — championing exploitation as “openness” with barely a peep of protest from within the ranks of provincial governments or the NDP.

Recently, the government signed a peculiar “ideological” free trade agreement with the Ukrainian oligarchs (a very minor Canadian trading partner), are working towards free trade agreements with China and India and are carrying on bogus consultations over the controversial Trans Pacific Partnership (which the Liberals obviously support). Despite promises to undo the worst of the Harper legacy, there seems little appreciable difference in core economic policies, such as free trade, between our photogenic young PM and the stern old schoolmaster from Calgary Heritage.

And where is the Canadian Left in all this? Silence is deafening. The NDP’s opposition to the TPP was late in coming and tepid at best — not based on fundamental principle to the neoliberal ascendency. One gets the sense that, with much celebration over a few altered clauses, it would be more “go along to get along.” This is also a time when the labour movement could be forging links across borders to build a counter power to the holy grail of free trade. Yet most Canadian trade unions seem more concerned with the issues in the sector in which they are based than the larger issues which in the end shape the smaller ones. Certainly the Council of Canadians has consistently opposed free trade and its larger agenda, as have some of the smaller socialist groups across the country, and we here at CD have tried to do our part. But links to a broader public and class base are missing.

Where are the activists who led the campaign against the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement in the late 1980s? The fighters for an independent socialist Canada? It seems like much of the Left has ceded the policy terrain to the business community and their political allie. Even a minimalist program of economic and ecological sanity like the LEAP manifesto is deemed “politically unsaleable” as ever more desperate ways to restart the growth machine dominate the debate. A more complete counter-agenda of finance and investment in the public service and comprehensive democratic planning based on egalitarian principles seems lost in single-issue organizing and the problematics of identity politics.

This is a perfect opportunity for socialists and activists across the social movement Left to publicly challenge the fundamental assumptions of neoliberal globalization and the façade of its “trade” agreements that dig us ever deeper into a hole of oligarchic inequality. We need to do this by counterposing our own agenda, building in working class communities across the country, and speaking loud and clear both through our own media and in whatever spaces the mainstream still allows. While speaking out is a start, we have to root our analysis in political and social movements capable of leading both opposition and alternatives.