Left-right populism and the problem of international aid
The right is trying to broaden left opposition to military aid into general opposition to global redistribution.
Socialists will neither be surprised nor disappointed to hear that a majority of Americans want a negotiated end to the war in Ukraine, according to a new series of polls commissioned by The Quincy Institute. Most Americans also oppose “the U.S. providing aid to Ukraine,” but should socialists approve of this, too? I’m not so sure.
If you haven’t already guessed where I’m going with this, that’s part of the problem. No, the US shouldn’t send military aid to Ukraine - but that’s not what the poll actually asks about. Quincy actually asked respondents whether the US should be “providing aid” in general; no mention of arms, intelligence, troops, or anything related to the military in the question. And Americans, overwhelmingly, said no.
How can anyone on the left possibly approve of this? Our position has always been that much of the wealth held by the US bourgeoisie has been captured at the expense of the rest of the world — through labor exploitation, resource theft, market monopolization, debt usury, financial manipulation, and so on. The immediate solution to this problem has always been various forms of economic aid: everything from debt forgiveness to shipping out Covid vaccines and mosquito nets to financing climate adaptation and mitigation development. Even the most radical solutions — like a socialist NWO — would ultimately entail massive global redistribution programs in the course of restructuring the global economy.
Left politics in general, and socialist anti-imperialism in particular, demands massive aid to from the United States to the rest of the world. To Ukraine and Russia alike. But over and over again, antiwar discourse surrounding the war in Ukraine has conflated military aid with aid in general. People are using them so interchangeably that I suspect a lot of readers had no idea, at first, why a socialist would possibly have misgivings about the response to Quincy’s question.
There are, of course, a lot of folks who don’t want to see any redistribution whatsoever from the United States to the rest of the world — in particular, the left’s supposed allies against war on the right. Libertarians reject aid on free market grounds, insisting that it should be left to philanthropists like Bill Gates and George Soros. America-first nationalists have insane tribal ideas about our supremacy and the inferiority of the rest of the world that makes them unworthy of our help. Paleocons think that what happens in the rest of the world is simply outside the scope of our responsibility. There are all kinds of rationalizations for this position on the antiwar right, but the common ground is that we absolutely should not be redistributing the wealth of rich Americans outside of our borders.
If you haven’t noticed the right’s influence in anti-aid arguments, consider this recurring line of rhetoric:
You’ll find this critique all over the left, but consider what she’s actually saying here. First, the problem we’ve already noted: this is not a complaint about military aid in particular, but about any spending whatsoever on other countries. And second, notice the framing: the interests of the international working class are placed directly at odds with working class Americans.
This is textbook right-wing politics! MTG’s objection only makes sense if you take for granted that global redistribution can only come at the expense of working class Americans. But this is the exact opposite of the socialist position, which is that global redistribution can and must come from the rich. The Biden Administration plainly has no interest in making our country’s billionaires help the global poor, but that is what anti-imperialists should be arguing for. Not for simply abandoning them.
Insisting that the interests of the working class are at odds with each other and that state efforts to help the poor will always come at the expense of the rest of the working class has always been the centerpiece of bourgeois opposition to redistribution. In the international arena this has always meant arguing that foreign aid will hurt US workers. This was, for example, the primary argument of Senate Republicans against helping the rest of the world with Covid by waiving our patent rights:
It is not surprising that China, India, and South Africa want to steal our intellectual property and medical technology. What is surprising is that an American president, especially one who claims to be a “jobs” president, would [support it]…support for a TRIPS waiver puts America’s interests last and China’s interests first.
The Americans who actually benefited here, of course, were rich Big Pharma investors, which is why The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America blasted the decision. But “how dare you cut into Pfizer profits in order to help some poor kids on the other side of the world not die?” is not a winning argument, so instead Senators Cotton, Grassley, and Tillis developed an elaborate argument that Big Pharma “provides good-paying jobs for hundred of thousands of American workers, workers whose livelihood will be impacted by this decision.”
Framing that pits US workers against workers abroad is at the very core of the xenophobic anti-immigrant nationalist politics that animates hard right movements all over the world. Marxist scholarship has often identified this as the animating drive of fascism itself: when capitalism has failed and a class struggle against the rich is foreclosed, the precarious middle class starts to look for some other out-group to blame its problems on. I think that dynamic illuminates a lot that is going on right now around the world, whether one wants to call it “fascism” or not; but in any case, MTG’s America first rhetoric is not something any leftist should be rallying behind.
But instead, on the left and among those who pretend to speak for its politics, what we’ve often seen is stuff like this:
When MTG is constantly throwing out broadsides against foreign aid in general and framing it as battle between the interests of American workers and the rest of the world, there is no socialism or progressivism or leftism where she qualifies as “the best person on Ukraine”.
Let me make this clear, because I know the criticism I’ve laid out here is going to be confused with complaints that are much weaker. I am not arguing that MTG’s antiwar positioning is cynical and opportunistic (though it probably is). I am not arguing that it is wrong to praise reactionaries when they get some particular issue right (though I don’t see the point). I am not arguing that MTG is a fascist (though one could). And I am certainly not arguing that we should send Ukraine military aid, or even that we should send them non-military aid at the expense of working class Americans.
What I am arguing is rich Americans have plundered the rest of the world, including Ukraine, and that if you are a socialist you need to defend global redistribution and you need to reject attempts to deflect this by suggesting that redistribution has to hurt the American working class. Even if (for some insane xenophobic reason) you do not want to send humanitarian aid to Ukraine in particular, you have to understand that MTG is wielding the standard go-to argument that reactionaries always pick up whenever they want to derail attempts to help the global poor.
This is just one example of how right-wing politics have infiltrated the antiwar left over the past year, but it tells us a lot about the sort of problems that left-right antiwar coalitions always run into. In the course of their opposition to war, the right always continues to introduce reactionary ideas or adopt reactionary perspectives; even if they aren’t doing this cynically, they’ll default to it because it’s how they see the world. And there will often be a temptation to interpret these reactionary politics as somehow leftist; or at least ideologically neutral; or at least wrong in such a trivial way that only a troublemaker would make an issue out of it. Sometimes leftists won’t even recognize their rhetoric as reactionary since it’s phrased as an antiwar critique.
But regardless of what MTG has to say, Ukraine and Russia are both victims of a post-Soviet vulture capitalism from the United States that left their countries in shambles. And even today, US intervention in the region is filling the coffers of our military industrial complex at their expense. In a just world we wouldn’t just withdraw from the conflict; we’d be paying them war reparations. And even setting that aside, we have billions of dollars of debt to forgive and trillions of dollars to invest in the fight against climate change. Remember that the next time you see vague “anti-imperialist” complaints about foreign aid.