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In the face of the neoliberal policies promoted everywhere in the European Union and in the face of the free-trade treaties promoted in spite of significant resistance from citizens, one idea is gaining renewed interest: that of protectionism based on solidarity. It was during the French presidential campaign that Jean-Luc Mélenchon, candidate of the France Insoumise, proposed to put an end to social and fiscal competition by introducing a certain protectionism, not to protect strictly national interests but rather to promote cooperation and the raising of fiscal, social and ecological standards. 

Protectionism consists of an interventionist policy by a state to protect its economy from foreign competition. To do this, the state in question will introduce customs duties or non-tariff barriers such as technical, sanitary, ecological or social standards. 

Often situated at the opposite extreme of free trade, protectionist measures are decried as representing the last brakes on the establishment of a large world market where « free and undistorted competition » would guarantee the development of all countries and the flow of wealth produced. This is a dichotomous view idealizing these concepts as ends in themselves. « Competition between entities that are not strictly identical is immediately distorted by their very differences, from which it follows that the concept of undistorted competition is complete nonsense. And that of protectionism with it, at the same time. »(1) There is no point in fetishizing an economic measure as a panacea, these concepts exist as tools to be used according to the context and can be used to achieve different objectives. 

But today, free trade is characterized by generalized competition between workers, relocation, large-scale transport of goods, etc. Faced with this, more and more voices are being raised to criticize this new religion of commerce. But how to oppose these harmful consequences? By developing a protectionism of solidarity? What would it consist of? In Belgium, only one party (Demain, a merger of the Mouvement de Gauche and Vega) takes up the idea of a « European protectionism » , conceived as a It is an « essential tool for redefining European economic policy, and particularly for trade policy ».(2) This protectionism is not thought of on a national scale because it would risk increasing competition between countries, but also makes no sense given the interconnection of economies. In fact, nearly 70% of the goods imported into Belgium come from a country on the European continent, compared to 15.5% from Asia and nearly 12% from the American continent.(3)

Unfortunately, it seems illusory that the European Commission, which is responsible for trade policy for the countries of the European Union, will turn away from free trade in favor of a united European protectionism. The internal competition of fiscal and social regimes already shows little ambition to engage in social progress. On May 10, the European Commission published a « Reflection Paper on Harnessing Globalization ». (4) Globalization is still presented as a blessing, an « evolution [qui] cannot be stopped or reversed »

It represents both trade and openness to the world in a more general way. This broad definition gives him a certain authority and automatically places his opponents in the camp of nationalists or archaic people « less able than others to adapt to change and competition. The objections of citizens are considered as « concerns [qui] to be taken into account » but not as opinions equivalent to those of the promoters of globalization. The solution proposed by the Commission would be better training or retraining for the « most vulnerable regions ». Finally, the objective remains unchanged despite the title of the document, Making the European economy more competitive.

Should we then try to implement protectionism on a national scale, as Jean-Luc Mélenchon and several French intellectuals advocate? Or is it a misdirection that distances the left from the real causes of the crisis of capitalism? If the Belgian Labour Party (PTB) supported Jean-Luc Mélenchon during the French presidential campaign, it is important to underline the disagreements between them, especially on the issue that interests us here, that of protectionism. Thus, Charlie Le Paige, a parliamentary collaborator of the PTB, regrets that the debate is posed in terms of « Nation » and not in terms of « class »: « This idea that we protect the Nation as if it had only one interest must be deconstructed a little. »(5) He points out the illusion of thinking that the big national bosses could have the same interests as the working class of the country in question: « We must fight free trade, but we must be aware that what is at stake is the functioning of the market. And this is essential because protectionism does not necessarily raise this question of the market. It poses more the question on what level the market should be organized as such. » He specifies that it is not necessary to incriminate the economic exchanges but rather the motivation of these: « What guides trade is the logic of profit, the anarchy that exists in production and which means that things are produced here that are exported and the same products are imported… » While Charlie Le Paige recognizes that it will be necessary to rethink the relocalization of the economy and that the PTB could meet on a series of concrete demands with the promoters of protectionism in solidarity, his party does not, however, make it a flagship measure to mobilize workers. 

On the side of the Trotskyist parties and movements, the opposition is similar or even more categorical. They also insist on class membership and consider that « the question of protectionism within national borders has no meaning in a class struggle that is international ».(6) It would be a question that concerns only the capitalists who, from time immemorial, have tried both free trade and protectionism in order to impose their interests in a trade war in which the proletarians always foot the bill. Protectionism, whether called solidarity-based or not, would, in their view, imply higher prices for imported goods at the expense of poorer buyers. They also point to the risk of contagion of protectionist measures leading to economic warfare always to the detriment of workers. 

To support this position, they regularly recall Karl Marx’s 1848 speech on free trade, in which the German philosopher saw free trade as a means to accelerate socialist revolution by exacerbating the contradictions of the capitalist system: « But in general, nowadays, the protective system is conservative, while the free trade system is destructive. It dissolves the old nationalities and pushes to the extreme the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. In a word, the system of free trade hastens social revolution. It is only in this revolutionary sense, gentlemen, that I vote in favor of free trade. »(7) A position that Friedrich Engels reaffirmed 40 years later in a preface to the same speech: « Socialists must wish for as free and as rapid a development of the present system of production as possible, for thus it will develop its inevitable economic consequences: misery of the great masses of people due to overproduction which will engender either periodic crises or chronic stagnation of trade; division of society into a small class of great capitalists and a large class of practically hereditary wage-slaves, a class of proletarians whose numbers are constantly increasing while at the same time they are constantly being replaced by new machines designed to save labor ; in a word, a society led to a dead end, from which there is no other way out than a complete transformation of the economic structure which forms its basis (.… It is from this point of view that Marx, forty years ago, declared himself in principle in favor of free trade as the most direct path, the one that will most quickly lead capitalist society into a dead end.(8)

This « policy of the worst » did not bear fruit, however, and the pursuit of free trade, even if it reinforced class antagonisms, also exacerbated nationalism. Moreover, in view of the climate emergency and the damage caused by free trade, or because they consider that the only political lever is that of the nation, several intellectuals have begun to defend the idea of protectionism. Aurélien Bernier, author, founder of the Mouvement politique d’éducation populaire (M’PEP) and thinker of deglobalization, sees it as a way to fight against the economic order and the development of market forces, but also as a way to address the ecological question.(9) The French essayist observes an evolution and an extension of the definition of globalization, which, formerly concerning an economic phenomenon, extends today to the whole of the exchanges and the relations between the States, being confused with concepts like those of the development, the progress or the Human rights, conferring to him a more humanistic character but also more ineluctable. Faced with this reshaped definition, fighting globalization would have become a taboo for the left.(10) The liberals could not have dreamed of anything better, since their belief in the naturalness of the market was reinforced by Montesquieu’s liberalism and his vision of trade that would generate everywhere gentle ways(11)These are the principles on which the liberal thinking behind European construction through the market is based (and which are again found in the Commission’s document mentioned above). 

It is also imperative to underline that even if protectionism was indeed a strategy of the great economic powers to guarantee their superiority, it seems obvious today that it is free trade that is unanimous. The concerns of Laurence Parisot, at the time president of the employers’ lobby MEDEF (Mouvement des entreprises de France), attest to this: « We are convinced that our economies will return to growth provided that countries put aside protectionist measures.(12) In this sense, Aurélien Bernier underlines that « Free trade is no longer just a means of conquering new markets; it has become a weapon for disciplining the working classes and dissuading states from imposing too many constraints on big business. Subjected to the blackmail of relocations, employees are asked to renounce their social demands, then forced to accept regressions. »(13)

The current political confusion nevertheless leads us to have to discern the different forms of protectionism. With the victory of Donald Trump, we can see the re-emergence of a purely imperialist protectionism, in the sense that it is not thought of as a way of defending the interests of American workers, but rather in a logic of economic warfare against China with a view to competing for the globalleadership . This approach to protectionism obviously does not attack capitalism, which is why it is logical for the left to oppose it… However, it should not legitimize the abandonment of any reflection on it. Aurélien Bernier sums up what protectionism should consist of, in a logic of de-globalization for the left: « Break international finance, oppose the logic of capital and develop a true internationalism .

It must also be specified, and concrete methods of implementation must be found that take into account the obvious: the world system will never reform itself. It is therefore a matter of getting out of it, confronting it, and then dismantling it.(14)

Frédéric Lordon, economist and contributor to Le Monde Diplomatique, denounces this binary vision where one must choose between « the globalized world or the archaic nation ». He agrees with Aurélien Bernier on the need for de-globalization, specifying that « It is not the nationality of the operators that is at stake (…) It is the possibility of constituting an enclave of pacified economic life without having to wait for the great world convergence. But this possibility is only the other name of the break with globalization.(15)

Finally, beyond the economic strategy to be adopted in order to best defend workers against globalization, a question arises: that of the physical limits of the ecosystem and the possibility of perpetuating such a circulation of goods. Thinking about protectionism also means questioning the ecological consequences of the current form of world trade. One can legitimately think that « the irreversibility of the depletion of fossil resources implies in return the reversibility of a human phenomenon like globalization. It would of course be preferable to organize de-globalization rather than to undergo it… »(16)

Sébastien Gillard

Notes et références
  1. Frédéric Lordon, « La « menace protectionniste », ce concept vide de sens » dans Le protectionnisme et ses ennemis, Les Liens Qui Libèrent, 2012, p.18.
  2. Interview de Dimitri Zurstrassen (DEMAIN) réalisée le jeudi 4 mai 2017.
  3. Belgian foreign trade agency.
  4. Commission européenne, Document de réflexion sur la maîtrise de la mondialisation, consulté le 15 mai 2017 sur reflection-paper-harnessing-globalisation_fr
  5. Interview de Charlie Le Paige (PTB) réalisée le mercredi 26 mai 2017.
  6. Interview de Thibault Molinero (LCR) réalisée le mercredi 19 avril 2017.
  7. Karl Marx, Discours sur la question du libre-échange, 1848, consulté le 5 mai 2017 sur
  8. Friedrich Engels cité dans François Ruffin, Leur grande trouille, 2011, p.185.
  9. Aurélien Bernier, La démondialisation ou le chaos, Utopia, 2016.
  10. Aurélien Bernier, La gauche radicale et ses tabous, Seuil, 2014.
  11. Ha-Joon Chang, « Du protectionnisme au libre-échangisme, une conversion opportuniste » dans Le protectionnisme
et ses ennemis, Les Liens Qui Libèrent, 2012.
  12. François Ruffin, Le protectionnisme et ses ennemis, op. cit., p.21.
  13. Aurélien Bernier, La démondialisation ou le chaos, op.cit., p.22.
  14. Aurélien Bernier, La démondialisation ou le chaos, op.cit., p.65.
  15. Frédéric Lordon, « Qui a peur de la démondialisation ? », 2011, consulté le 5 mai 2017.
  16. Bernard Legros, « Vous avez dit irréversible ? », Kairos février-mars 2017.

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