Protectionism

In my previous post I talked about economic protectionism in very broad terms, rather than the common definition (protecting a some domestic industry from foreign competition). But in a broad sense any kind of policy that protects certain agents from the full effect of market forces can be seen as a form of protectionism. This would include policies like setting a minimum wage.

If we took an even broader view, any regulation of the market can be conceived as some form of protectionism as it will usually result in protection for some agents. Assuming that markets need rules to function (i.e. that they are “not self-creating, self-stabilising, self-regulating or self-legitimising”), then the main issue then becomes – what rules?

Conventional party lines were formed as follows: right-wing parties advocated for rules that tipped the balance in favour of the owners of capital, left-wing parties campaigned for rules that tipped the balance in favour of workers. Now, a new battlefront has formed between rules that prioritise domestic interests and rules that prioritise free trade and globalisation.

It’s difficult to see where the old and new battlefronts cross, but you could make the argument that with more resources and wealth, owners of capital (in many cases, corporations) side with globalisation (given they operate in markets that have already transcended national borders), while only some workers would benefit from a globalised labour market (i.e. not everyone has skills to offer to the global market) and in any case several factors limit individual mobility including:

  • visa and immigration laws (in general, while markets have transcended national borders, citizenship has not and you could even argue, has become more exclusive),
  • issues of social and cultural-fit, in addition to economic opportunity, and
  • the personal cost of moving to a different country.
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Political quadrants

As discussed in my previous post, here’s how I imagine the political ‘spectrum’ today:

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Within each quadrant, politicians will be conservative/progressive to different extents. For example, Trump is probably much more protectionist than Sanders (if we took his campaign rhetoric at face value).

Protectionism tends to be an ugly word. But in the quadrants above, I refer to it in a much broader sense, not just ceasing free trade in order to artificially prop up struggling, weak industries at home. It means giving priority to certain interests above economic interests and freedoms. Most of the time these ‘interests’ turn out to be national interests (e.g. preserving the environmental and social state of the nation), so the point I’m making may be irrelevant if preserving the state of the nation is no longer valued (e.g. if economic globalisation is followed by worldwide labour mobility, dissolution of national borders and transactional/flexible or even no such thing as citizenship other than ‘citizen of the world’). Conservatism in this sense really means blocking certain transactions or dealings which may be economically beneficial to both parties, but may violate other principles. These transactions or dealings could be:

Late capitalism: the weakness of western liberalism

Where do major parties stand now?

In a previous post, I wrote about what it means to be liberal on different fronts, including the difference between being culturally and socially progressive and economically progressive.

Formerly, major parties in western democracies largely differed in the extent of national economic liberalism they promoted. By national economic liberalism, I mean economic liberalism within a country. Left-wing parties supported workers and unions, right-wing parties supported big businesses and the owners of capital. Both sides were not particularly engaged in social or cultural rights, though perhaps right-wing parties more openly supported traditional social structures as time wore on.

Early capitalism was about economic liberty within a nation, and that’s how major parties aligned themselves – capital vs labour. However, when this “low hanging fruit” was picked, capitalism became less about capital vs worker and more about globalism vs protectionism, where the remaining gains lay. Most western major parties, whether left or right are largely pro-trade.

The negative effects of globalisation are only really being felt now (e.g. GFC, Brexit, Trump), but major political parties have been slow to re-align themselves along the globalism/protectionism spectrum.

Compounding this issue is the confusion over where major western parties stand on social and cultural liberty. While most major centre-left parties identify as socially progressive, at times this has jeopardised the support from their traditional voter base (blue collar workers).

Currently, major parties in western democracies tend to be either:

  1. Pro-globalisation (economically liberal) and socially progressive e.g. Democrats, or
  2. Pro-globalisation (economically liberal) and socially conservative e.g. Republicans, LNP

While the old capital vs worker division still exists between major parties, that division no longer meaningfully captures the biggest issues facing people living in western societies.

The common ground between Trump and Sanders

Lots of journalists have analysed the similarities between Trump and Sanders before. My understanding of their political alignment is that

They differ from major parties because they recognise that western countries are now at a stage where pursuing more pro-globalisation policies may do more harm than good. This is a difficult message to sell, possibly because

  • globalisation made so many people richer
  • free trade is the logical extent of capitalism, which in many ways has also become a moral way of living
  • protectionism has nationalistic connotations, and extreme nationalist countries in the past have limited individual cultural and social freedoms

Rebalancing freedoms: economic conservatism and social progressivism

Is the strongest society one that strikes a stable balance between individual freedoms and social cohesiveness? We’ve seen 20th century communism collapse because the balance was too far in favour of social cohesiveness. Maybe the problem with western democracies now is that the balance is too far in favour of individual freedoms.

But what kind of freedoms? Australia is currently conducting a same-sex marriage postal survey and among other reasons for voting no, is the broader concern that certain freedoms should not be allowed in society. This argument does not conceptualise and engage with same-sex marriage as a basic human right, and on its own logic fails to be convincing if same-sex marriage is the kind of freedom that society can absorb without affecting its fundamental “cohesiveness”.

In fact, such cultural and social rights have only been actively explored in mainstream politics since the 70s or 80s. Capitalism, and by this I mean economic liberalism, has had a much longer run time. If there is a critical threshold at which too much freedom becomes bad for society, then I think an argument can be made that this threshold has already been breached but not in relation to social and cultural rights. If western liberalism is retreating it is because we have afforded individuals and other economic agents too much freedom in the market.

A lot of social frustrations and instability stem from the lack of real wage growth and the growing wealth divide in developed countries. In terms of identifying the weakness of western democracies, expanding social and cultural freedoms is at best a distraction from the real issue, and at worst used as a scapegoat for the decline of western societies.

Everyone has a Different Gender Experience or Modern Feminism and Choice

Earlier I wrote about the difficulty that trans-people pose to the feminist movement. Basically the idea that gender, specifically the idea of being female, is a social norm that places females at the bottom of a power structure. For example Hilary Clinton being unable to break the ‘glass ceiling’ of US presidency, wives being expected to stay at home and only carry out domestic functions, and even tiny things like pencil-skirts-and-high-heels dress codes (which limit movement/mobility).

As a trans-female you may claim to adopt certain aspects of female identity (make-up, dresses etc.) but you have never experienced the disadvantages of being female all your life. In fact, your previous life experiences have been shaped by male privilege.

I wrote and later realised that all gender deviants are punished. Most likely, a trans-female would have been punished when she was a boy for being so girly, and barred from claiming any male privilege (even if she wanted to).

Everyone is punished for deviating from gender norms, how this fits in with the feminist movement is very interesting though.

As an ideological movement, feminism to me has always had a multi-faceted and confusing culture and history around it. I think part of the reason why feminism is so hard to get your head around (and why some people hesitate to commit to being a feminist) is because it is always changing and incorporating new ideas, making it hard to keep up with and hard to know what you actually mean when you claim to be a feminist.

First wave feminism was about attaining suffrage and concentrated on very concrete ideals of political rights. Second wave feminism started to tackle more elusive concepts i.e. a sexist power structure which, though more abstract than political rights, was more omnipresent in society (e.g. in education, in the workplace, in the family home etc.). Wikipedia suggests that third-wave feminism was about bringing inter-racial perspectives to the feminist movement and that fourth-wave feminism (probably the most nebulous of all) has something to do with technology. There is of course, also a criticism of the wave theory.

If the third-wave happened at all, it would’ve occurred when I was in primary school and probably too young to notice. But I feel I can fully reject fourth-wave feminism as something to do with technology. Race and technological perspectives may provide important insights to the movement but it doesn’t yet compel a normative direction for feminism (noting race is perhaps more useful than technology since feminism has progressed differently in different cultures, but technology is ultimately just a tool of society).

In my mind, we’re still in third-wave feminism which is about (among other things):

  • recognising that everyone has a different gender experience and that anyone who deviates from the binary structure of gender experiences punishment
  • moving beyond breaking down the sexist power structure that oppresses women (i.e. the cultural infrastructure and social systems) to becoming aware of, and changing, societal biases and gender stereotypes of not just women (i.e. tackling prejudice in the mind and systems that allow and don’t prevent that prejudice)
  • reconciling the group-ish foundation of feminism (i.e. a group composing of members who identify with the female struggle reminiscent of second-wave feminism) and current-day liberalism which aggressively champions individual rights and freedoms including:
    • rights and freedoms in relation to gender and sexual orientation,
    • rights and freedoms in relation to race and religion,*
    • rights and freedoms in relation to a consumer society,** and
    • rights and freedoms in relation to global and social mobility.

Because individual rights have become the rallying cry of the Left and liberal democracies have become increasingly (and perhaps exclusively) focused on individualism (and with it, the fracture of traditional institutions like Church and Family), it’s hard to find what can still unite people to a feminist movement which will always have (and keep re-contextualising) aspects of the first and second waves which were about belonging to and bettering a particular (more well-defined) group.

Current-day feminism, in addition to encompassing equality and rights for anyone who is experiencing gender differently, is also trying to balance and reconcile:

  • how it represents the collective aspirations of its members, and
  • the deeply individualistic idea that women should be given the choice to do whatever they want.

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*The kind of issues modern feminism will have to consider are, for example: whether there are feminist implications for wearing a burqa? And can a woman wear a burqa to identify with her religion yet denounce that it is a symbol of female oppression or ever was?

**Consider the second-wave feminist implications of, for example, buying and choosing to wear a revealing outfit. Modern feminism is also about empowering female consumer choice.

Perspective from poor, rural and mostly white America

Seeing this reminded me again of what JD Vance wrote in Hillbilly Elegy. Poor whites in rural America are the sons and daughters of the people who rose into middle class by working in the manufacturing industry.

This social mobility entrenched the belief that diligence and hard work will bring wealth. However, Vance observes that this belief has persisted even as people stopped working hard. Instead of recognising their lack of diligence (or poor life choices), poor whites believe that the reason they’re not getting rich is because of immigration, or globalisation.

But that of course, doesn’t mean these people aren’t victims. Better tax and welfare policies for example would have all lessened wealth inequality. As I said before, poverty seems to be a complicated mix of poor life choices and factors outside of an individual’s control.