Transnationalism and the Left

There seems to be a fundamental paradox in the current dialectic of globalisation and the numerous public debates surrounding it. We are constantly reminded of the inescapable supranational interconnectedness of contemporary economic reality, as recent buzzwords such as “delocalisation”, “debt crisis”, “china factor”, etc. have served to describe. We are also aware of the increasingly cosmopolitan feel of European cities, providing a very tangible representation of the global migrations of the new century.  At the same time, however, a gaze at the political landscape seems to return us to a déjà of competition between states, imperialist ventures, and a tribal conception of the national interest. The Westphalian panorama of gated communities racing to reap the world’s harvest seems to continue unchallenged, as recent international upheavals and the unprecedented insignificance of the United Nations might go to demonstrate.

Within such a reality, the spare arguments for a truly “internationalist” behaviour on the part of developed countries are either understood in terms of sheer benevolence (a moral obligation, or Christian charity), or accused of representing an unwarranted intrusion in the affairs of foreign societies that easily transforms into an interested and profit-driven escapade (as many experiences of the IMF and World Bank have led to believe).

From an ethical standpoint, the dichotomy obliterates a crucial awareness: the appreciation that we are actively responsible for the harm being perpetuated in our name with the maintenance of an unjust global organisation directly sustained by the governments that represent us.

And indeed it can be argued that the very possibility of isolation is today anachronistic, and the anachronism results from a belief that we can no longer debate “the right of interference” when already faced, as Etienne Balibar has expressed it, with “the fact of interference”. And with the duty to organise and direct its effects.

This is a most crucial difference, for upon its mystification hides the false thesis that the problem of world poverty does not concern us, citizens of the first world, aside from the charitable aid that we could offer (in all our generosity). Here also hides the suggestion that not doing anything is not immoral. Europe’s retreat from the world stage – wished by many a postcolonialist and not without reason – proves to be neither ethically sound nor politically wise. To the extent that this abdication simply represents a green light to the powers that be – be it an Atlantic empire or the multinational rule of finance – it does not represent a morally justified response to the great horrors, of which “Europe” is surely in no little part responsible, that have haunted us over the course of the past century and continue to face us today. Is Pontius Pilate our ideal of justice?

This is a most crucial difference, for upon its mystification hides the false thesis that the problem of world poverty does not concern us, citizens of the first world, aside from the charitable aid that we could offer (in all our generosity). Here also hides the suggestion that not doing anything is not immoral. Europe’s retreat from the world stage – wished by many a postcolonialist and not without reason – proves to be neither ethically sound nor politically wise. To the extent that this abdication simply represents a green light to the powers that be – be it an Atlantic empire or the multinational rule of finance – it does not represent a morally justified response to the great horrors, of which “Europe” is surely in no little part responsible, that have haunted us over the course of the past century and continue to face us today. Is Pontius Pilate our ideal of justice?

The current discourse on migration serves as an excellent example of this denial of responsibility. Europeans often act as if “migrants” were being pushed on our lands by baffling gravitational forces or, in a splendid example of intellectual diversion, by “criminal gangs” from the mysterious North African shores (and then the matter becomes one of “fight against crime,” but what is before, literally in front, of those “gangs” if not marching thousands). The state is inclined to view itself as a neutral actor that has nothing to do with migration, and which can respond either brutally or with sympathy (with charity), through a more or less strict regulation on asylum seeking procedures, more or less tight internal controls, concession of partial rights, etc. But, as Saskia Sassen has recently argued on Papeles de Cuestiones Internacionales, this hides the connection between the phenomenon of migration and the economic and military actions of the “receiving” countries or their prime economic actors. Jacques Derrida’s address to the Writer’s Congress later published as On Cosmopolitanism, together with much of the discourse on “hospitality” it has triggered, inadvertently seems to fall prey to just such an obliteration. This discourse risks missing the crucial awareness of the un-foreign nature of the causes that make of a foreigner an immigrant, it risks by-passing the very real daily unfolding of willed exploitation departing from our own capital cities, offering in response a generous disposition of the day-after.

Without removing anything from the utter importance of the fight for incorporation of the migrant populations into Europe (a disgrace for which many have begun employing the term of “European Apartheid”), it would perhaps be worthwhile to raise the question of why, in the twenty-first century, we are faced with such baffling, monstrous, and unacceptable levels of disparity in the planet. And perhaps we should truly look at the terms of the GATT agreements, at Europe’s trade policy and its effect on third world produce, or at the real moral implications of our own delocalised companies enforcing the lowest survival wage to citizens of the third world.

China is repeatedly accused for its sad record on human rights, environmental protection, and inhuman treatment of its workers. Over the course of the summer a new labour law has been passed, increasing the role of trade unions (although these remain state-controlled) in the workplace and calling for greater social security for the workers. The new law includes a stricter code governing layoffs and a reduction on the employment of “temporary” workers without contracts or benefits.
Through the long run-up to the approval of the law by the party congress, strong pressures have been exercised by Western multinational corporations to water-down the bill. The American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, backed by the US-China Business Council, threatened that many companies would leave China in favour of more attractive – read less regulated – job markets such as those in Vietnam.The European Chamber of Commerce initially behaved just as its American equivalent. Faced with mounting criticism from human rights and labour organisations, it finally backed off and renounced its threats. In an example of the moral contradiction of our societies, European governments have been peculiarly silent about these events. No serious discussion in the media has taken place. This, and it is to be stated with the maximum of force, is unacceptable.

But little of this discussion seems to be present amongst the European left. In the program of the French socialists, in the demands of the more radical elements in the centre-left coalition in Italy, in the dialectic of the Spanish or German left—one finds little inclination to truly militate for a structural readjustment of the unequal relations of power that currently govern the rapport between nations and which are at the basis of so much widespread suffering on our own planet (of power understood in the most ample sense, but, to use just one declination, we can mention unequal commercial relations).

An intervention that is not merely humanitarian – one aiming instead at the very core of the global interpenetration of economical, technological, and cultural processes – is surely beyond the capacities of any individual nation state. To truly enact a positive global transformation and to seriously address the immense social inequalities and moral injustices with which this planet overflows—could we name one European country capable of doing this?

An intervention that is not merely humanitarian – one aiming instead at the very core of the global interpenetration of economical, technological, and cultural processes – is surely beyond the capacities of any individual nation state. To truly enact a positive global transformation and to seriously address the immense social inequalities and moral injustices with which this planet overflows—could we name one European country capable of doing this?

All international organisations, beginning with the UN, the IMF, and the World Bank, have thus far proved totally ineffective in truly addressing the problem of global poverty and inequality. But then—as the world’s largest economy, could this not become the role of the European Union? Is that not what we should ask the European Union to do? In much criticism against the neo-liberalism of the EU, as for example evidenced by recent writing in Le Monde Diplomatique, one often finds a lack of a positive alternative vision of what a truly renovated European union could achieve. But this should be our task. Let us not forget that trade – one of the most powerful weapons to address the current global economic imbalance, a far more powerful instrument than aid or any “structural funds” can ever be – is currently managed by the EU on behalf of its member states. Should we not actively push for this tool to be used in novel ways? The material potential existing, should we not militate for its alternative employment?
Faced with an increasingly Hobbesian world ruled by particular interest, it is in the unexplored terrain of global responsibility that Europe must find its call. And the enactment of this transformation is how we can understand the “adventurous” Europe Zygmunt Bauman called for on the pages of the last issue of this publication.

But the crucial objection is well encapsulated by Henri Dorion in the exhibition catalogue of Fronteres [see review on next page]; “should we place hope”, he rhetorically asks, “in the goodwill of our civil authorities in turning a border of separation into a border of contact? This is much generosity when we can reap great benefits on proximity based on differences”.

There are great (economical) benefits to a proximity based on difference. But this very realisation, this very objection, is it not what should forcefully be brought to the fore? In the hope that any remaining sense of justice might finally produce that enraged citizenry that morality now so decidedly demands, should this not become the focus of our discussions? Common sense prescribes profound scepticism towards the current capacities of any European union to truly enact an alternative global politics. But hasn’t this, in our long history, always been the condition faced by emerging political alternatives? And instead of a recoiling-back, isn’t the correct posture a charge forward? Faced with the insufficiency of the present moment, should we not militate for the coming-alive of a genuine European consensus, understood as the consensus of the citizens of Europe and their political consciousness? This is also what it means for Europe to become political, to be invested with serious projections of its potential futures surpassing the restricted scope of the national discourse. But instead of complaints, Europe should become a race of ideas. And of actions.

Lorenzo Marsili

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