RESURGENCE AND ECOLOGIST May/June 2017
Protecting the local, globally
Colin Hines is best known as convenor of the ‘Green New Deal’ group that influenced many governments to seize the financial crisis moment to transition economies in a greenish direction. His new book is a feisty clarion call to greens and ‘the Left’ to change direction: away from acquiescence in the trade treaties which shaped the deregulated world that spawned the financial crisis — and toward protection of nature, workers, localities and national sovereignty, as the key locale where democracy might resist rootless international capital.
‘Progressive protectionism’ is completely unlike the oxymoronic ‘protectionism’ of the 1930s, that sought to protect one’s own economy while undermining others; this by contrast is an internationalist protectionism, aiming, Hines notes, “at reducing permanently the amount of international trade”, and making countries around the world more self-reliant / resilient.
Nevertheless, this book will be controversial, throughout. I’d say: the debate needs having. For too many ‘progressives’ have sleepwalked into tacitly pro-globalisation positions incompatible with protecting what we most care about. And because, partly because of this, a new political power is rising that threatens decisively to trash the future.
The Brexit vote and (in particular) the election of Donald Trump have restored the word ‘protectionism’ to the popular political vocabulary. Hines holds that it would be a 22-carat catastrophe to take this as meaning that greens/progressives should embrace pro-‘free-trade’ globalisation even more strongly: it would be a catastrophe to knee-jerk assume that whatever Trump abominates is to be welcomed. It would be a catastrophe first because of the catastrophic effects — upon ecology, community, democracy, workers’ rights — of such globalisation. But also because it would fuel the further rise of the ‘Alt-Right’: for, if it appears to ordinary working people as though the only politicians listening to their concerns are that hard Right, then that is who they will vote for.
What is necessary, Hines argues, is to take back protectionism from the Right. His book is subtitled, audaciously “taking back control”; he seeks to take back that slogan itself. He means by this that only policies of progressive protectionism can actually make real the idea of “taking back control”. Britain as a new Singapore, or as a tax-haven, won’t actually give us any more control; far from it. (Ask the average inhabitant of Singapore or of Jersey how much control they have over their country.) But perhaps he also means that only progressive protectionism will make it possible for us progressives to take back some control of the debate, and stop it spinning ever further into the arms of Trump, Farage, le Pen et al. I think that’s right. If we embrace progressive protectionism, then we’ve something better to offer the voting public than they do. Whereas if we sound broadly happy with the globalisationist status quo, or if indeed we sound as if we want to abolish our borders and deregulate the movement of goods, capital and labour completely, then we simply have no chance of assembling a majority in our favour. We would then be condemned to the dustbin of history.
The chapter on ‘free movement’ will be the most controversial of all. But g/Greens should accept that it is absurd to put forward a visionary policy such as Citizen’s Income set at a more than derisory rate at the same time as putting forward a policy of open borders. Hines argues moreover that open borders are a bosses charter; that’s why corporate globalisers are happy to support the likes of Blair or Cameron, rather than the likes of UKIP. He points out that countries such as Romania and the Philippines are being stripped bare of their medical personnel, and argues that no decent internationalist can support the lowering of border controls that makes easier this sucking out of ‘the brightest and the best’ from their home countries. He argues compellingly that much of the future of politics will be conducted via the lens of migration-reduction: both in countries like ours (where high levels of immigration are of very wide public concern outside a small circle of privileged urbanites: note that even most immigrants to this country want immigration reduced) and in countries like Lithuania (where a mirror concern over high levels of emigration / brain-drain has now propelled the ‘Peasants and Greens’ party from 1 seat, incredibly, all the way straight into being the largest party). We can either leave this lens to the Alt-Right, in their xenophobic wall-building way, or we can take control of the agenda, rationally. And seek to minimise such movement for example by helping make conditions better in home countries, tackling dangerous climate change, stopping foreign wars of aggression, encouraging ‘Site Here to Sell Here’ policies everywhere, and bringing back capital controls — which helped the world prosper safely from 1947 til 1971 (and which certain countries, such as Iceland, have already brought back). Capital controls are crucial, because they stop the threat of relocation which multinationals have used to ‘discipline’ democracies for too many years now.
The real question is stark: do we want a progressive or a regressive protectionism? For us to reject progressive protectionism is almost certainly now to allow the hard Right to take power, virtually everywhere.
Has Progressive Protectionism come too late? The book has come too late probably to stop Britain leaving the EU; but Hines’s argument that the Treaty of Rome needs transforming into a ‘Treaty of Home’ that will allow peoples to protect what they hold dear badly needs reading by politicians on the Continent – if they are to prevent further exits, starting possibly with France.
I think I’ve said enough to indicate that this book is a necessary read. Perfect it ain’t; it’s slightly repetitive, and there are problems of substance too: most Resurgence readers will (rightly) dislike how soft Hines is on economic-growthism, and will wish that he were readier to embrace the post-growth future that is demanded by the acceptance that we are already breaching the limits to growth.
But if there is to be a future, then progressive protectionism will surely be part of it. This book is crucial thought-leadership for us, away from the political dead-end of globalisationist fantasy, and toward a localisation that can transform the debate – and then the world.
[Park House Press, 2017; ISBN 978-0-9544751-2-3]