Free Trade or Protectionism?

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By: Carlos Borrero

Economic protectionism is on the rise.  The ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency in the US has been accompanied by demagogic rants against free trade in addition to threats of tariffs on imports.  The US capitalist class continues to be divided on this issue on the basis of the function and relative strength of each particular business within the world economy.  In the same way, divisions related to trade policy are deepening within all of the capitalist powers.

In the mid 19th century, when the question of free trade versus protectionism was a concern of European capitalists, Karl Marx, the greatest teacher of the international working class, highlighted that while this debate remained within the framework of capitalist production, it was important for the workers to grasp the immediate implications of both policies.  His reasoning was that the expansion of capitalist production beyond national borders invariably produced at the same time an expansion of the working class as well as the development of the necessary material conditions for socialism.

The past 100 years of capitalist expansion together with the tendency to reduce to a minimum trade barriers have seen the skyrocketing growth of the world-wide proletarian army.  In Asian countries as well as throughout Africa and South America, the number of salaried workers has expanded exponentially even while the problem of unemployment persists in the developed centers of capitalism like North America, Europe and Japan.  The structural inability of capitalism to provide work to all, which results from the contradictions of technological development, does not negate in any way the fact that the unemployed objectively are part of the same mass of people that can only live through the sale of their labor power.  The masses of unemployed form part of the reserve army of the working class independently of the prevailing trade policy.

And, what are the implications of protectionism?  Marx defined protectionism as a policy to “manufacture manufacturers.”  In other words, protectionism is the preferred policy of those that want to protect national capitalists from international competition.  Protectionism has nothing to do with improving the lot of the workers as the demagogue Trump has cynically proclaimed.  Rather, it is a policy that reflects the economic decline of US capitalism viz. a viz. its international rivals.  The truth is that while Trump promotes protectionism for some capitalists in the US, he aggressively demands that other countries reduce their restrictions on US exports.  The emerging economic war between capitalist powers threats to lead the world into a real war.

Notwithstanding, protection, precisely because its objective is to manufacture manufacturers, also leads to relative growth of the number of salaried workers.  There cannot be one without the other.  The policy promoted by Trump represents the continuation of the efforts by Obama to create a new platform of cheap labor within the US.  Such a platform, however, is being built on a technological basis that is distinct from the past.

For the communists, the question of free trade versus protectionism is secondary.  Whatever the combination of free trade or protectionism implemented by the capitalists, the workers must reject the ideological trap of economic nationalism used to subordinate them politically to the exploiters.  Only on the basis of proletarian internationalism will the workers be able to effectively fight for the overthrow of capitalist exploitation.