Lessons of an Ambiguous Struggle

Against the Current, No. 88, September/ October 2000

Mel Rothenberg

THE CONFLICT AROUND Congress’ granting China Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) signals the opening of important new terrain of political struggle. With the background of the two major mass demonstrations against neoliberalism in Seattle and Washington D.C., perhaps the most significant and interesting political development is the leadership role of the AFL-CIO in mobilizing against the most important policy initiative of the waning Clinton administration.

While these developments present new and exciting opportunities to advance a left agenda in the struggle against international capitalism, they also expose confusions and differences within the left on this issue.

These differences have surfaced most acutely around two related sets of questions. The first is the orientation toward the international organizations most associated with neoliberalism, specifically the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and World Trade Organization (WTO). The second is the orientation towards China.

Reform or Dismantle?

While all opponents of neoliberalism are critical of these international organizations, there are serious differences within this opposition on how to view them. In an interview appearing in the July issue of Democratic Left, the journal of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Mark Levinson, a senior economist of UNITE, gives what the editors describe as the official left-labor view.

Rejecting the call to abolish the WTO and other global regulatory organizations (i.e. IMF and World Bank) Levinson asserts: “The problem with this strategy is that I don’t see how global capital can be regulated by national institutions alone… we need international institutions, supported by democratic sovereign governments, to regulate international capital.”

Two serious confusions are embedded in Levinson’s assertion. The first is a traditional social democratic illusion, stated here in a particularly bald form. He assumes that because these organizations are supported by governments (those of the dominant capitalist powers) which are subject to popular pressures, these organizations have, or can be made to have a democratic character, and thus can be utilized by popular forces to control international capital.

A glance at the structure and function of the IMF, World Bank and WTO shows the absurdity of this position. These institutions are managed directly by a handful of international bankers and financiers who answer only to their counterparts in the dominant capitalist centers.

Structurally the domestic U.S. institution they most resemble is the Federal Reserve Board. The fact that Allan Greenspan’s appointment is renewed every few years by the sitting U.S. president does not make the Federal Reserve Board a democratic or potentially democratic organization.

From the point of view of function, Levinson’s argument is rather more insidious. The primary function of the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO is to ride herd on the Third World whose governments, not to mention masses of people, have no say in the structure or governance of their overseers.

Even if one accepts the dubious assertion that public opinion in the United States and Europe influence the practice of these institutions, it takes some kind of imperialist blind spot to regard this as a form of democratic governance.

An equally serious confusion is Levinson’s assumptions that these institutions somehow regulate and limit international capital. His worst case scenario is capital running wild, eschewing any international institutions or machinery. This whole scenario shares the illusory assumption of neoclassical economics that social regulation, and institutions created to provide such regulations, are by their very nature antagonistic to the natural flow, an inhibitor of the full flowering, of capitalist development.

Levinson’s difference with the right wing free marketers is that he believes some constraints on capital are politically and socially necessary. The reality is that the world-wide dominance of economic and social life by international capital can only be maintained by an enormous apparatus of coercion, whose effectiveness, at the end of the day, depends upon the capacity to starve, shoot or bomb vast numbers of people.

The IMF, World Bank and WTO are effective because, as a last resort, they can convincingly deploy the threat of starvation against whole nations and peoples. Levinson’s fantasy is that they regulate capital; the truth is that they are mechanisms through which international capital regulates the world economy.

A principled and consistent opposition to neoliberalism demands the abolishment of those mechanisms whose basic purpose is to enforce neoliberalism. Anything less is to accommodate to the general program of neoliberalism with the vain hope that it will soften some of its harsh edges.

Debate on China

The campaign of the labor movement to deny China membership in the WTO and permanent normal trading rights with the United States set off a furious controversy within the U.S. left. This is linked to the reform or dismantle controversy, but raises issues far beyond that one.

Levinson defends this campaign as follows: “China is among the worst violators of labor rights, and advancing the pro-corporate globalization agenda hinges on getting China into the WTO…

“For the corporate global agenda, meanwhile, this is exactly what they want: a huge labor force with no rights, the existence of which will be used to undercut labor standards around the world.”

Further: “External pressure on China to end the brutal denial of even the most minimal workers’ rights is a crucial tool for influencing a regime which if left to its own devices will continue to be one of the most anti-labor regimes in the world.”

This campaign has been denounced by broad sections of the anti-imperialist left as racist, imperialist and anti-communist. The Communist Party (CP) has elaborated these criticisms as the main theme of recent issues of its journal “Political Affairs.”This is a striking break with CP past practice of unwavering public support for the current national leadership and policy of the labor leadership, and has had reverberations in left labor circles.

Many other groups and individuals, with strong labor credentials and from very different parts of the left, have issued scathing criticisms of the trade union leadership along similar lines. One prominent example is Jane Slaughter, writing in the June issue of Labor Notes, who endorses the exclusion of China from the WTO and from PNTR but sharply denounces the chauvinist and pro-imperialist character of the AFL campaign.

Another is Eric Mann, who posted his views on the Black Radical Congress internet discussion list. Mann’s statement titled “Defending China’s Right to Self-Determination” repudiates the AFL-CIO campaign as simply a continuation of its historic pro-imperialist, CIA-designed mission of attacking and discrediting the socialist and Third World in the name of workers rights.

The controversy is complicated, because the issues and implications are profound. The Chinese regime over the past half century has had a deep and contradictory relationship to the socialist movement, as well as the anti-colonial movements for national liberation with which the socialist movement has been inseparably intertwined. Consequently the struggle of the Chinese to define and defend their path of development has had a profound impact on the Third World.

Within the left, both internationally and in the United States, different assessments of China have often been major lines of demarcation, separating friends from enemies, revolutionaries from counterrevolutionaries.

On the other side, the United States and its close allies long regarded the Chinese revolution and its reverberations within the Third World as a fundamental threat, and enormous resources, economic, political, and military have been employed to isolate and crush it.

Given this historical background, we should be suspicious of a campaign focused on opposing China. This suspicion should be sharpened, as correctly emphasized in Slaughter’s article, by the existence of a right-wing anti-globalization movement, gathered at the moment around Pat Buchanan, which is explicitly chauvinist, racist and anti-communist.

China-bashing is at the core of Buchanan’s movement and we must be very careful not to give credence and implicit support to this movement, with which important trade union officials, most strikingly the Teamster president James Hoffa Jr., have flirted.

Having said all this, we cannot avoid the harsh reality that any coherent opposition to neoliberalism must be critical of China. The present and long-term policy of the Chinese regime is an alliance with the dominant capitalist centers.

It is a partnership based on the neoliberal agenda: China’s leaders have staked their economic and industrial development strategy on becoming the sweatshop of the world, combining their almost unlimited resource of cheap labor with Western capital, and have consciously initiated a profound restructuring of their economy, welfare system and foreign policy to make this happen.

One can argue that they had no choice, but the salient fact here is that they did it. In doing this the Chinese leadership have made themselves an important junior partner in the global neoliberal project. Thus in the fight against neoliberalism the regime in China is on the other side of the barricades.

We should be careful not to elevate this regime to the status of main enemy, as Levinson tends to, but we must repudiate the grotesque discourse about the “rights” of the Chinese regime to exploit their “comparative advantage” of “their” cheap labor.

As socialists our basic goal is the emancipation of labor. We oppose any so-called right to own or exploit the labor of others. No regime or political apparatus, neither in the name of building socialism, national development, nor for any other reason can legitimately assume such a prerogative.

Collective social and economic decision making is of course necessary, but this must be done by representative bodies directly and transparently accountable to those whose lives are profoundly affected by their decisions. In the absence of clear, unambiguous democratic control by those upon whom the burden falls, our support and allegiance must go to those resisting the brutal economic and social restructuring imposed by neoliberalism.

The Job of Socialists

The strength of neoliberalism is that it can apply enormous pressure on individual governments to play by its rules. Because of the dependence of the Third World on the investment funds and markets of the dominant capitalist centers, the IMF or World Bank can credibly threaten those who defy its economic restructuring dictates with economic collapse and starvation.

The Achilles heel of neoliberalism lies in this very same profoundly anti-democratic, anti-popular character. The ongoing imposition of a harsh neoliberal international economic regime, which remains the central thrust of international capital, has and will continue to provoke mass, militant resistance from those who are its most direct victims.

Our task is to encourage and support the building and strengthening of organization and program, at the workplace, in the community and internationally which focuses this resistance. It is only mass organization at the base, united in clear and conscious opposition to neoliberalism and accountable to no one other then its base, that can effectively lead the struggle against neoliberalism.

The campaign to keep China out of the WTO and to deny it normal trade relations is over. This was only a preliminary skirmish in a growing war on neoliberalism. It had the virtue of focusing on labor rights in the Third World, a central issue. It also pushed an important sector of the U.S. trade union leadership into openly opposing the Clinton administration efforts to advance the neoliberal agenda.

The campaign had its down side. It alienated important sectors of the left and fueled the chauvinist and anti-communist campaign of the right-wing opponents of globalization. Further, by focusing on China as the main enemy it diverted attention from the giant corporations and capitalist financial centers, limiting its effectiveness in raising class and popular consciousness.

Still, on balance, it was a battle that demanded support. Given the weak and marginal state of the organized left, we cannot expect to choose or craft the upcoming battles in the war against neoliberalism. Some of them, like this last one, will be on terrain not of our choosing, and not to our liking.

What we can do is clarify our thinking and our principles, so as to better steer ourselves in the storm, and in doing so help the movement acquire both the mass support and radical vision required for success.

ATC 88, September-October 2000