Illustration by Caroline Sullivan.

The Left Should Embrace Globalization, Not Oppose It

There is no theory which justifies restrictions based on artificial constructions of national borders. Progressivism should demand that the fruits of globalization are more fairly distributed, not to destroy those fruits altogether.

Apr 18, 2021

At a time when most political and economic power across the world lies either in the hands of neoliberal centrists or right-wing xenophobes, movements of the global left find themselves at a crossroads. They can either fight unconditionally against the cruelty of the contemporary world order, or they can chauvinistically restrict their struggle to their own countries, often at the cost of global justice.
The most pervasive and harmful example of the latter is the traditional opposition of the Left to globalization. From Bernie Sanders to Jeremy Corbyn, leftist leaders have displayed a tendency to espouse reactionary positions on both free trade and immigration. Sanders has helped mobilize campaigns against free-trade deals, helping build a nonpartisan case against the Obama administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership. Similarly, despite initially campaigning against Brexit, Corbyn showed little enthusiasm for economic integration and then suggested that immigration was to blame for the UK’s economic troubles.
In all of these cases, the leftist opposition to free trade and increased immigration are illogical at best and morally bankrupt at worst. Most arguments against free trade agreements, especially in the developed world, are based on the debatable notion that such deals harm workers in the West. In particular, leftist critics of free trade often point to wage stagnation in Europe and North America.
Even if one accepts the contention that free trade, rather than decades of pro-corporate economic policy, is responsible for this stagnation, the argument propounded by the likes of Sanders and Corbyn seems to stem from a distorted and, frankly, nativist calculus. If free trade has brought stagnation to the West, it has also enabled tremendous levels of growth across the Global South. In East Asia, the region that most unabashedly embraced globalization, absolute poverty decreased from nearly 80 percent in 1981 to 18 percent in 2005. In India, home to one seventh of the world’s population, a period of increased trade integration has resulted in improved educational outcomes. It is no coincidence that during a period of increased globalization since 1990, the number of people in extreme poverty has fallen from nearly 1.9 billion in 1990 to about 650 million in 2018. Those are facts that cannot be negated by any amount of ideological posturing.
Have the benefits of globalization disproportionately flowed to the rich? Yes, but the unearned prosperity of the global elite does not negate the fact that globalization has also resulted in improvements in the livelihoods of the global poor, helping advance the very priorities that the left claims to purport. The solution to the unequal distribution of wealth is not to reduce free trade, but to dismantle the economic structures — such as low corporate tax rates and debilitated welfare systems — that lead to the unequal distribution in the first place.
Beyond the economic logic, the moral apathy of leftist anti-free trade arguments is particularly appalling. When leaders like Sanders bemoan the outsourcing of jobs to countries like China, India and Mexico, they essentially suggest that there is something inherently wrong with individuals from the Global South accessing opportunities that were previously only limited to those in North America and Western Europe.
In essence, while their intentions may be more noble, leaders like Sanders and Corbyn end up reinforcing the nativist notion that the welfare of their constituents in the United States and the United Kingdom is more important than the welfare of individuals from the Global South. To paraphrase the British writer George Monbiot, they seem to reinforce the notion that the life of a person in Kinshasa is less valuable than the life of a person in Kensington in London.
This is even more evident when one discusses immigration, especially for low-paying jobs. Traditionally, leftist leaders, particularly in Europe and North America, have displayed a strange aversion to mass immigration, again repeating misleading right-wing arguments which suggest that immigration brings down wages. This is not only economically incorrect, but also again reinforces the notion that the place of one’s birth should determine the opportunities they enjoy in life.
Often, such leftist opposition is shrouded in the language of humanitarianism, with the supposedly noble suggestion that low-income immigrants often face tough working conditions in their new homes. But this suggestion is patronizing, for it implies that economic migrants do not have the decision-making ability to assess relative conditions and make their own decisions.
And while such toxic leftist nationalism is most prevalent in Europe and North America, it has also found a place in the rhetoric of socialists and social democrats in the Global South. From Mexico to India, so-called leftists not only resemble the right-wing in their globalization-related rhetoric, but also seek to implement policies that would disadvantage immigrant communities.
In an age of declining neoliberalism and an ascendant ethnonationalism, the left cannot succeed by looking inward, by only seeking to improve the well-being of the working class in their own countries. As Cornel West has argued, the injustices of the modern age are fundamentally international and require a global approach to address them. Police brutality on the streets of Minneapolis cannot be separated from the extrajudicial killings of the American empire in Afghanistan.
There is no theory, economic or moral, which justifies restrictions on the exchange of goods, services and human beings based on artificial constructions of national borders. Progressivism should demand that the fruits of globalization are more fairly and justly distributed, not to destroy those fruits altogether.
Abhyudaya Tyagi is Managing Editor. Email him at
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