The Internationalist Disposition

A guest post, the second in our occasional series on left and progressive foreign policy, from Alex Colás. Alex is Reader in International Relations at Birkbeck, University of London and the author of many pieces on empire and imperialism, social movements, global governance, and piracy. Most recently he is author, with Jason Edwards, Jane Levi and Sami Zubaida, of Food, Politics, and Society: Social Theory and the Modern Food System (University of California Press) and, with Liam Campling, of ‘Capitalism and the Sea: Sovereignty, Territory and Appropriation in the Global Ocean’, in Environment and Planning D.


Any credible political movement, the late Peter Gowan used to say, needs to have a programme, a strategy and a tactical arsenal. Progressive or leftist internationalism, in all its diverse expressions, is no exception. But it is precisely this rich variety that advises against associating emancipatory internationalism to a fixed programme or a single strategy, and instead talking of a more general disposition: a standpoint on how the world is, and an outlook on how it might be transformed. For radical internationalists – ranging from Karl Marx to Frantz Fanon; Emma Goldman to Ho Chi Minh –  these include a rejection of transhistorical or naturalised claims to cultural or territorial identity; a focus on the universalising contradictions of modern capitalism; harnessing the democratic potential of the cosmopolitan admixture of peoples, languages, religions and customs, particularly though not exclusively in cities; an unwavering commitment to racial justice and minority rights; an insistence on the need to ‘think globally, and act locally’, and to always chase the avenues of solidarity opened up by the everyday, transnational experience of workers on the factory shop floor,  the ship’s lower decks, the contemporary call centre, the processing plant or fast-food restaurant kitchen.

An internationalist disposition is acquired through political education and mobilised collectively in very different contexts – often in unsatisfactory, weak or marginal ways. It is not an intrinsic quality of this or that class, ideological tendency, cultural community or political organisation; nor is the history of left internationalism everywhere bathed in glory. There are, however, some characteristics to the internationalist disposition, its present expressions and historical trajectory that make it an indispensable component of any democratic response to the global national-populist involution we are currently witnessing.

Reality Bites

Our world is still very much the product of the dual revolutions of the eighteenth-century which saw the advent of industrial capitalism and the consolidation of the national sovereign-territorial state. Internationalism today continues to adopt liberal, hegemonic and revolutionary forms first essayed during that period, and the aspirations to liberty, equality and solidarity still resonate (albeit plainly with different ideological, geographical and cultural inflections) among emancipatory struggles across the world. One of the distinguishing features of left internationalism is that it dreams with sober senses: its cosmopolitan projection is grounded in the practical routines of household, workplace, neighbourhood or community. It has been built on grassroots solidarity campaigns, secondary strike action, international volunteering, refugee support networks and mass boycotts coordinated by explicitly internationalist organisations. Liberal internationalism in contrast has mainly been the product of elite efforts at institutionalising multilateral cooperation; it has never had a broad social base (unless, at a push, one includes more recent and generally passive NGO membership). Hegemonic internationalism for its part has found expression in clearly hierarchical or paternalistic traditions of imperial patronage (like those which brought millions of colonial peoples into Europe’s world wars), or in transnational religious charity. Of course, there has been some overlap between these three forms of internationalism – hegemonic internationalism in particular has adopted both a revolutionary and liberal garb, and the defence of universal human rights for instance has sometimes bound the latter two. But the fact remains that the only genuinely democratic forms of internationalism have historically been of a leftist persuasion – feminist, anarchist, communist, socialist, anti-colonial.  

This reality has bequeathed a tradition of analysis which might be called methodological internationalism: an assumption that all modern socio-economic and political phenomena; all social formations and cultural identities are always-already entangled into a wider web of ‘modes of foreign relations’. Within this framework, the world capitalist market and the states-system continue to be the globe’s most powerful social structures, even if they combine with other enduring hierarchies of patriarchy, racial supremacy and ecological imperialism. A progressive methodological internationalism has to factor in these dynamic forces, accounting for their material reproduction and transformation across time and place. Put in plain English, context matters. Universalising forces like commodification, urbanisation or the feminisation of the (paid) workforce always find particular manifestation in concrete settings, which might deliver distinctive local expressions (prevalence of bonded labour, diverse forms of pigmentocracy, varying fertility rates). No state, region or people is exceptional, but it will always be specific to a historical moment and a geographical location. Internationalism as a principle, policy and political practice is an outgrowth of such structured processes, and its history and present should therefore be at the core any democratised or decolonised International Relations as represented in the works of, inter alia, Vijay Prashad, Winston James, Janet Abu-Lughod, Paul Gilroy, Arne Westad or Robert C. Young.

These axioms contrast to both Realist reifications of the state and Liberal Institutionalist conceits that elite-led global governance is the midwife of peace and prosperity. A critical methodological internationalism moreover counters nativist fantasies of unblemished indigenous cultures or uninterrupted and uniform national traditions by, among other things, demonstrating that all domestic politics is, at root, international. It reminds us that ‘America First!’ is a slogan best served through US-led multilateral institutions; that whomever speaks of ‘white working class’ also needs to talk of imperialism; that fossil capitalism and global inequality – not overpopulation or migration – are the gravest threat to our local ecologies and built environments. 

In all this, left internationalism should not be confused with the cosmopolitanism of frequent travellers. There is a strategic advantage in insisting on internationalism versus globalism as a political worldview, since the sovereign territorial state remains a pivotal mediating force in internationalist struggles for democracy, including those for national self-determination. However, two sorts of interconnected challenges confront progressive internationalism in this regard. The first revolves around what to do with state power; the second, how to articulate people-to-people solidarity.

Size Matters

At the founding congress of the First International in 1864, Marx enjoined workers ‘to master themselves the mysteries of international politics’, declaring that ‘foreign policy forms part of the general struggle for the emancipation of the working classes’. From this perspective, a left-wing foreign policy at one level simply means exporting as widely as possible the democratic gains made within any given state. This is what Cuba does via its medical internationalism, or what Nordic social-democratic states have done through conflict resolution. Isolationism and unilateralism are the enemy of progressive causes, and it is unthinkable for any left-wing government to ignore the resources and apparatus of the modern state in promoting its own agendas abroad. The difficult question is how to counter the inevitable resistance to change from within and outside the state when embarking on a radical foreign policy. Making, or drawing on existing international allies is one obvious insurance policy. Another is locking-in foreign policy into domestic political change, embedding it within the political power-bases at home, and reinforcing it with a cadre of practitioners as well as a clear and credible programme of external relations. (When it comes to international affairs, the global left still lags woefully behind its right-wing counterparts in forging an organic connection between think tanks and policy-making). A third is the development of a much more pro-active, pre-emptive analysis of global politics. The left is all-too-often reactive, responding to international crises that have already been framed by the powerful in terms of the lesser evil – the guiding question, particularly with reference to humanitarian intervention, is ‘what would you do instead?’ rather than ‘how did we even get here in the first place?’.

Questions of scale become especially pertinent here since bigger tends to be better for left internationalism. Lexit is a case in point. The strongest, and probably the only, progressive argument for Brexit is that it would give a leftwing Labour government greater political latitude to deliver Keynesianism in one country. Everything else about Brexit – its bolstering of a rightwing, xenophobic English nationalism, the economic downturn likely to accompany the post-divorce period, its reinvigoration of the campaign for Scottish independence, its further weakening of UK influence on the international stage – presents a hostile environment for a radical leftwing transformation of British politics. Most EU institutions are and will for the foreseeable future remain vehicles for advancing the interests of Europe’s ruling class. But in the current involutionary global conjuncture an internationalist ‘voice’ within these institutions trumps the unilateral ‘exit’ as a strategy for a more social, let alone socialist, Europe. Much the same can be said about the United Nations as a venue for progressive change. The left in the Global North has in particular indulged in idealist expectations that the Charter, Secretariat and Security Council will impartially arbitrate international conflict, as if they were somehow transparent and beyond state interest. On the other hand, the important work of the UN’s specialised agencies is under-appreciated by the internationalist left, probably because it is deemed to be too institutionalised and bureaucratic. These actually-existing multilateral institutions, collectively known as the UN system, are probably the worst, except for all other multilateral institutions that have been tried from time to time. They certainly serve a progressive internationalist disposition if nothing else because much of their universalism, democratic content and historical relevance has come from the global left.

It would, however, be a depressing lack of political imagination to limit left internationalism to a radical reform of global governance. Bigger is better in terms of geographical scale, but the there is much an internationalist disposition can do in terms of political shape too: municipal internationalism, where cities and regions become the protagonists of international relations, can serve progressive forces (we are not just talking about town twinning here, but the possibility of more formal and substantive socio-economic and political associations between sub-national entities across states which draws existing and emerging diasporic networks). Similarly, the domestic architecture of states can be transformed through its international relations: a Federal Republic of Britain within a United States of Europe seems to be the hardest thing to say (in English at least). One of the favourite canards among critics of internationalism is that such supranational schemes erase local identities expressed in languages, food, landscapes, architecture and so forth. Faceless bureaucrats in distant capitals are blamed for everything from the decline in fisheries to the height of buildings. But it is national and international bodies that protect and often reinvent local traditions (think of the EU’s food and drink Protected Designation of Origins) and it is very local speculators that are generally responsible for the destruction of regional ecologies and historic neighbourhoods. Internationalism is not at odds with sense of place.

It will certainly take more than re-imagining the political community, or enlarging the realm of the ‘we’ in world politics to defeat contemporary nativist populism. Yet thinking big helps to focus the mind on how limited our political horizons have become in a supposedly globalised world, as much as how large the obstacles and how critical the proper reckoning of international power are to a left internationalist programme today. The greatest asset the left has in this regard is a long history of subaltern internationalism and a present marked by the continued intensification of social relations across states.

Same Difference

A left internationalist disposition can puncture the contemporary national-populist denunciation of globalism by emphasising the complicity of the national state and its ruling classes with neoliberal globalisation, and insisting that it is transnational solidarity among working people that can best secure greater equality at home. It is not immigration but automation that has caused the decline of heavy industry in the Global North; it is the political choice of austerity, not the inevitable forces of global competition that have weakened public services; it is state-sponsored financialisation, not reckless public spending that was at the root of the 2008 crisis. Plainly the populist right has in many countries succeeded in making chauvinist nationalism one political response to capitalist globalisation. But the left has a radical counter-narrative to offer which puts class above nation, and reminds us of the vital connections we all have with the outside world every time we are cared for by a foreign nurse, learn from overseas teachers, experience extreme weather events, and so on. The notion of internationalist solidarity – a political unity between relative strangers built on common experiences – is critical in this respect, but it needs to be mediated by political organisations with roots in workplaces, communities and the wider public sphere.

Recognising others as equals without erasing difference or context is clearly part of the process of exercising solidarity. There is no useful universality without political dialogue, negotiation and adaptation. Left internationalism is, admittedly in all manner of contradictory and incomplete ways ‘intersectional’, articulating different but connected struggles against capitalism, racism and sexism. Internationalist organisations representing millions of unionised workers, party members, solidarity campaigners or civil society activists of various tendencies offer a transnational political resource that allows for rapid mobilisations in moments of crisis – in world-wide anti-war protests or over misogynist violence. What is missing is a permanent body that can coalesce these diverse movements into a more durable, strategic exercise of power. The world and regional social fora which inaugurated the 21st century for a while seemed to occupy that role, but it is telling that their impact declined with that of the larger political movements that sponsored the meetings (the Brazilian PT, assorted communist parties and later those movements inspired by Chávez’s Bolivarianism). The alter-globalisation ‘movement of movements’ also hit the buffers when it was unable to translate the pure process of protest into a lasting hegemonic challenge to the existing order. There is no obvious off-the-shelf model of internationalist organisation available, although something combining the scope and discipline of the Third International with the modularity of the World Social Forum would probably fit the bill. Instead, the internationalist disposition offers the practices and principles of solidarity as a ballast against the national-populist wave.

Internationalist solidarity involves a formal reciprocity between political equals across borders. It is not the patronising charity that often accompanies humanitarian campaigns, nor the one-sided imposition of raison d’état which characterised the worst episodes of communist internationalism. Liberty and equality can clash with solidarity, and the proverbial difficult choices follow from this: how to reconcile support for Palestinian rights with the open homophobia and anti-Semitism of movements like HAMAS or Hizballah? What if international solidarity complicates, rather than facilitates, local freedom struggles as happened to some Iraqi feminists during the American-led occupation? Should we support the work of left-wing Catholics among the world’s poor despite the Church’s reactionary teachings on reproductive and other women’s rights? How can socialists across the world express solidarity with a war-supporting British Labour Party?

An internationalist disposition will arrive at different answers, but some sense of universality must permeate them all. Unwanted pregnancies, union-busting, forced displacement, military occupation, sexual violence, neoliberalism, sweatshop super-exploitation and all the rest mean the same thing across the world, even if they are experienced and addressed differently. The empathetic basis of solidarity with distant strangers does not require that we suffer exactly the same kinds of oppression, exploitation or domination, but that we recognise the sentiments that accompany such conditions. Universality here doesn’t mean homogenisation or the effacement of cultural peculiarities, but it does entail focusing on what Chandra Talapade Mohanty calls ‘common differences’: “[N]o border or boundary is ever complete or rigidly delimiting. The challenge is to see how differences allow us to explain the connections and border crossings better and more accurately, how specifying difference allows us to theorize universal concerns more fully”. So that it doesn’t become a thoughtless, mechanical exercise, internationalist solidarity must constantly ask questions of its counterparts: are we fighting oppression democratically? Which social forces and political projects are the beneficiaries of transnational solidarity? Are the political objectives of international solidarity interchangeable across the communities involved? This sort of ‘complex’ solidarity engages in the messy business of making political judgements; pondering on strategy, alliances and prudential calculations; entering in protracted and often fraught deliberation and negotiation with international allies; reflecting and acting upon prejudices we may hold about other peoples.

Rights also play a fundamental role in any democratic internationalism, assuming as they do that the life-chances and freedoms – both positive and negative – obtaining in one part of the world can and should be extended elsewhere. But rights need to be legislated for, activated, and enforced. And even where there are democratic institutions in place to implement them, rights need to be constantly defended. Here it is political and socio-economic mobilisations through internationalist movements and organisations that act as conveyors of universal rights. Multilateral regimes, international charters, elegant schemes for cosmopolitan justice can be of assistance in this regard, but they are rarely the enforcers or guarantors of democratic rights. The judicialisation of global politics itself marks the shift to a ‘simple’ or one-dimensional solidarity when it falls back on the categorical imperative of proclaiming the sanctity of universal human rights and relies on distant courts to settle complex local disputes by fiat.

The central paradox of left internationalism, then, is that it aims to transcend the national state through the national state. Any progressive transformation of our world has to start from radical change within existing states – ideally the largest and most powerful ones. In the face of the national-populist mobilisations of nativist identities, democratic internationalists have another political repertoire to offer, built on an unapologetic invocation of the ordinary, humdrum universalism present in most people’s everyday lives across the world.

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3 thoughts on “The Internationalist Disposition

  1. Pingback: Philip Cunliffe – We Already Had Empire 2.0: it’s Called the EU – Brave New Europe

  2. Pingback: The Internationalist Disposition and US Grand Strategy | The Disorder Of Things

  3. Pingback: BE REALISTIC, DEMAND THE IMPOSSIBLE! | The Norwich Radical

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