9 min read

Abashed the devil stood...

Abashed the devil stood...

In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls wrote, "Once we decide to look for a conception of justice that nullifies the accidents of natural endowment and the contingencies of social circumstance as counters in quest for political and economic advantage, we are led to these principles. They express the result of leaving aside those aspects of the social world that seem arbitrary from a moral point of view." – essentially that justice should seek to make the outcomes most just for the least advantaged first, and that this is defined by who is least served by which they "natural[ly] endow[ed]" (i.e. intersections of, among other things, their race and class). It is with this in mind that I came to find myself reading a piece in a popular (with American leftists) magazine about internationalism, however, skewed by the belief that its ethos and its utility toward mass socialist mobilization should begin by lamenting the loss of free travel across borders by western leftists in wealthy countries (i.e. the loss of British free movement across Europe– arguably something I don't find problematic, but assuming it is, this is the position this publication took in providing an example of injustice). The problems manifest in this position are numerable (not least because actual British socialists took the same publication cycle to concern themselves with the plight of sufferers under western-backed occupation, rather than their own, as this American publication put it, apparent suffering due to things like Brexit). And therin lies the problem with American leftism's influence on global socialist thought; at the expense of liberating the Global South, as the historical internationalist school would have you prioritize, philosophers of justice might as well, the politics of relatability, of "meeting one where they are" (but actually just centering and justifying that their struggle is enough to never sacrifice much to understand the plight of someone more vulnerable), dictated that this be the hill that they die on, that westerners have enough to complain about that it can be overlooked that, among other things, this free travel across borders, the ease of visa-less travel as some kind of utopian ideal, relies on exploitation of the populations of the places they extract from, seek to travel to as tourists or in business, to subsidize a way of life they consider a step toward (but is a dead end distraction from) socialism.

Let's use a less contemporaneous example, but one no less prevalent in the politics of American democratic socialist thought that not only is contra internationalism, but vehemently serving of imperialist rigor in western liberal democracy's proliferation: the Nordic Model, passed as an ideal of how American life could be, but it's not shocking how similar to American political culture it actually is. The Nordic Model is often cited as a successful example of a welfare state that provides high levels of social welfare, equality, and strong labor protections across a very diverse constituency (all true, on the surface, taken in isolation from how it comes into being– and the numbers bear out for feasibility in the United States, but this is not the issue at hand, because of course a wealthy nation can afford to treat its population if capital would allow it to). However, this model is heavily subsidized by imperialism, which enables Nordic nations to provide their citizens with luxuries and benefits at the expense of the rest of the world. The reliance of the Nordic Model on economic exploitation of the global south is unjust and fails from a Rawlsian perspective; consider that the economic viability of the Nordic Model also relies on several key industries that contribute significantly to the region's GDP, and one of the largest is natural gas extraction, particularly in countries like Norway and Sweden. These countries are major producers of oil, gas, and minerals, which have generated significant revenue for the state and helped to fund social welfare programs, while correctly criticized for contributing to global climate change and perpetuating global economic inequality by enriching the Nordic countries at the expense of developing nations that are often home to these resources, both in natural impact from extraction but the geopolitics around the oil and gas industry.

The much vaunted, in these circles in the US, Nordic Model relies on the exploitation of resources and labor from the global south to maintain its high standards of living. The reality is, however, Nordic countries rely on the import of natural resources such as oil, minerals, and timber from the global south, which are often extracted under exploitative conditions, while these same states also outsource their manufacturing to developing countries with lower labor costs, where workers are paid low wages and subjected to poor working conditions. This mirrors the justified criticisms identifying the harm done by programs and policy agreements in the US guided by, among others, NAFTA. The exploitation of resources and labor from the global south perpetuates the subjugation and underdevelopment of these regions, creating a system of global apartheid, where the wealthy in the Nordic countries enjoy the benefits of the welfare state, while the poor in the global south are left to suffer. This is fundamentally unjust and fails from a Rawlsian perspective, as it violates the principle of justice as fairness. Rawls argues that any just society must prioritize the rights and well-being of the least-advantaged members of society first, and approach the standards of the least-disadvantaged. The Nordic Model prioritizes the welfare of the wealthy in Nordic countries at the expense of the least-advantaged populations in the global south, perpetuating the cycle of oppression and inequality that exists between the global north and south.

As such, if we were to reduce all this down into the core problem at play in this kind of valorizing of moderate social gains in already wealthy countries without regard for the extractive processes that got them there, the reliance of the Nordic Model on economic exploitation from the global south creates a vicious cycle of poverty and underdevelopment in these regions. Developing countries are forced to export their natural resources and labor to the global north to sustain their economies, leaving them vulnerable to economic and political instability. This perpetuates the cycle of poverty, which makes it difficult for these countries to invest in education, health care, and other social welfare programs, perpetuating underdevelopment.

Back to the matter at hand, it is the view of popular policy like the Nordic Model that allows discourse that perverts the underlying question of internationalism. The principles of internationalism as defined by considering the plight of the least disadvantaged as primary in the discussion have significant implications for the propagation of internationalism against justice for the most disadvantaged in the global south; it is essential to recognize that the plight of the least-advantaged populations in the global south is directly linked to the exploitation of these regions by the global north, these wealthiest of nations, that may or may not directly participate in imperialism but benefit primarily from it, particularly where among other factors things like NATO membership or adjacency are a factor. As a result any materially or at least morally just internationalist policy must prioritize the support for development and reinforced security materially of the most disadvantaged populations in the global south and towards dismantling the systems of imperialism that perpetuate global inequality that undeveloped them in the first place. This means that the wealthy nations in the global north must, primarily, take responsibility for their role in perpetuating global exploitation and work towards systemic change to create a fair and just global economy, and this must occur by reconciling this disparity between most and least advantaged nations through sacrifice by one in developing stability for the other, and this is materially not even coming close to repaying the debts of empire's extraction on the latter.

The propagation of internationalism in the mold described by these non-Marxian leftist positions that favor participation in western liberal capitalist systems and argue reform is possible, against justice for the most disadvantaged in the global south should not be seen as a zero-sum game, where the interests of the least-advantaged populations in the global north must necessarily come at the expense of the most disadvantaged in the global south; a just internationalist policy must recognize the holistic global systems of exploitation inherent to capitalism in a globalized market and the view must shift towards systemic maneuvering (however that occurs– revolt in places where reform is not possible, policy and other institutional reorientation where it is possible) that benefits all populations, regardless of their geographic location, from the least advantaged first to the most advantaged as a yard stick of how this former group is prospering as a structural impact of this justice system.

The propagation of this internationalism as-intended must, as I said, consider the impact of the travel, business, and tourism industries on the global south in terms of extractive and exploitative impact; industries that often perpetuate systems of exploitation and inequality, and it is essential to prioritize the rights and well-being of the most disadvantaged populations in the global south in these industries--promoting responsible and sustainable cooperative investing in local communities and economies, and working towards fair and just labor practices in these industries, rather than citizens of wealthy, ostensibly more socially just nations extracting for the purposes of leisure from local economies. Engaging in local economies as a tourist is not the same as circulating that economy; tourism is often seen as a way to boost the economies of poor countries, as it can bring in foreign exchange and create jobs in local communities. However, the reality is that tourism often does not benefit local communities as much as it could, especially in cases where tourism is exploitative or unsustainable. Same as it is true of the global economy's influence on local economies in the wealthiest countries, but to greater extractive effect, the benefits of tourism tend to accrue primarily to large multinational corporations and wealthy tourists from developed countries, rather than local communities-- many hotels and resorts in poor countries are owned by foreign companies, and the profits from tourism often flow out of the country rather than staying in the local economy, even when supplied by local vendors, or as wealthy individual travelers dealing in interpersonal transactions in the local community, leading to a circumstance where tourism is seen as a form of imperialist policy driven subjugation of local economies to wealthy tourist demand, rather than a means of building economics that span the two, cooperatively, where the participants operating on the same just plane of influence.

This relationship, as-is mirrors the myth inherent to "trickle down economics" but in place of wealthy capitalists and citizens in one country, the wealthy of one international system and the poor local economy of a tourist destination: From a Rawlsian perspective, this situation's inherent injustice lies in that it perpetuates global economic inequality and does not prioritize the well-being and stability of the most disadvantaged; rather than supporting local communities and building up local economies, it often reinforces existing power structures that primarily sustain itself via, again, exploitation of the global south. Hardly the internationalist project American leftist media makes it out to be, and that leftist thought abroad to varying degrees has correctly identified as false. A true internationalism that prioritizes the well-being and stability of the most disadvantaged would require a more sustainable and equitable approach to, among other things, travel and tourism, but these remain the primary means of making the average citizen of wealthy countries feel a piece with the elites, obscuring that the gains to their social movements are nominal and not structurally or materially significant. The principles of internationalism as defined by considering the plight of the least disadvantaged as primary in the discussion have significant implications for the propagation of internationalism against justice for the most disadvantaged in the global south, and must also consider the impact of these wealthy-nation citizen oriented industries.

In Paradise Lost, John Milton wrote, “Abashed the devil stood and felt how awful goodness is and saw Virtue in her shape how lovely: and pined his loss”– this passage describes the moment when Satan, the chief of the fallen angels, encounters the personification of Virtue. Satan is struck by the beauty and power of Virtue and is filled with regret and despair over his own loss of goodness. In the context of any discussion on internationalism and its prerequisite form of justice for its success, this can be read as, first, warning against the dangers of self-interest, individual and socially, and its requirement of exploitation of others. Satan, here, represents the forces of greed and exploitation that drive imperialism and perpetuate global inequality; Virtue, the ideals of justice, fairness, and equality.

Even the most powerful and selfish individuals and nations will eventually come face to face with the power of virtue and justice; this is found in history, bearing out the ineveitability of Marxian economy reality, when the bend of vulnerable populations' resistance in the J-curve of rising expectation finally breaks, and balance is restored in the face of extreme state violence in the form of this enforced disparity; when confronted with the reality of their actions and the suffering they have caused, imperialist, etc. may/will feel a sense of regret and shame, compelled if necessary, by revolution. One reading, then, necessarily exists to read this as  a call to action for individuals and nations to prioritize the ideals of justice, fairness, and equality in their actions and policies. It warns that ultimately, the pursuit of selfish interests and exploitation will lead to a loss of goodness and a sense of despair, or the systems of oppression masquerading as just could (will, if Marx continues to bear out, as it always has) experience a worse consequence, in the form of this coming break in the face of its unjust persistence.