Egalitarianism in one country?

Lane Kenworthy considers the correlation of social democratic outcomes in a nation’s politics with a strong labour movement, in the context of American politics:

But what if you live in a country with labor unions that are weak, and getting weaker? What if your country is the United States?

He goes on to list a set of strategies to deal with the problem (outreach, incrementalism, baby steps) all of which, it seems to me, are already being undertaken by the Democratic Party. I think it’s reasonable to take the Obama administration as Exhibit A in considering the effectiveness of Kenworthy’s prescription.

The weakness of this approach becomes clear when we consider two big issues: healthcare and climate change. On the first, despite intense opposition and some really poor tactical decisions by the administration, some kind of weak-tea solution was achieved, in not inconsiderable part due to the administration’s presentation of the plan as cost reduction. The second, far more important, problem was quickly thrown into the too-hard basket, because no coalition could be assembled with sufficient clout to counteract the interests of corporations dependant for their profits on the unabated use of fossil fuels.

To find an effective coalition of interested actors able to bring about social justice, environmental protection and some approximation of equality, we should look at the reason that a labour movement has historically been a crucial element. Labour movements represent the interests of the many against the elite. We hear a lot about the interconnectedness of our world; national governments’ scope to determine policy is circumscribed by the forces of globalisation, by corporations and capital flows that know no borders, and by transnational institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF, or the EU.

If the world is becoming a village, then there is little point in trying to achieve equality only among all members of the household within the rich house on the hill, when the people in the shack by the river have nothing. Elites, of course, would prefer us to carry out our efforts separately, because they can then use the threat of national competition to drive down worker conditions and rights.

None of this is to say that internationalism is easy, given the lack of supra-national democratic institutions. But to confine our efforts to the nation, with or without a strong labour movement, is to concede defeat; capital, which has no such limitations, will easily nip any such efforts in the bud (Jane Hamsher’s post on Standard & Poor’s political interference highlights a particularly obvious intervention, but ‘the market’ is always there in the background ready to punish any efforts at democracy proper).

Cross-posted from j.m:thinks>.

Joshua Mostafa

Joshua Mostafa is a fiction writer and doctoral candidate at the Writing and Society Centre, Western Sydney University, researching the poetics of prehistory in fiction. His novella Offshore (2019) won the 2019 Seizure Viva la Novella prize.

His creative practice explores the interstices of prose and metrical poetry, of narrative and the lyric, and of the written and the spoken word. He lives in the Blue Mountains.

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