Trade deals and the neoliberal underpinnings of xenophobia

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Many of us have been dismayed -- nay, depressed -- by the jump in xenophobic sentiments globally since the Paris attacks. This has countered or eclipsed the compassion following photos of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi's corpse two months ago. Then, the widest Canadian Google search phrase under refugees was, "how to sponsor." That clearly wouldn't be so now. The animosity may not be new, but it's uglier.

I'd consoled myself that Donald Trump's success in the U.S. wasn't too worryingly fascist because it still lacked a key element: it had the racism, Caesarism etc., but not the organized violence of brownshirt militias and thugs to cow opponents. That's now begun to appear at post-Paris Trump rallies, egged on by The Leader.

Trump had played on fear of the Other, personified in Mexican migrants ("drug dealers," "rapists"). Now Paris is doing his work for him. It further transformed the Tea Party constituency from a potpourri (intrusive government, high taxes, abortion etc.) to a single, obsessive panic over immigration. In Europe the tense consensus on taking Muslim refugees has frayed. Hungarian leader Victor Orbán -- to his shame, considering the reception Hungarian refugees got after the 1956 Soviet invasion -- opposes any further intake, saying all terror is due to migrants.

These "nativist" movements have a long history. They routinely involve older waves of immigrants fiercely opposing newer waves. In places like Canada and the U.S., they often try to evoke a faux ethnicity based on nationalism. When I was a kid I was attracted to a group called the Native Sons of Canada since they proposed a Canadian flag (versus the Union Jack), till I learned they were anti-Semitic. Pearson's Liberals defused them by adopting our current flag.

But I want to note a new element in the toxic formula: anxiety among economically precarious people over globalization and trade deals. Look at a Trump rally; it's like a pastiche of all those undereducated white guys who used to have decent jobs in the factories that were (often literally) dismantled and shipped elsewhere after "free trade." Early on they may have bought optimistic predictions about the deals but they've lived with the results for almost 30 years; they're devastated and furious -- at those Mexicans, not the dealmakers. Now there's a trans-Pacific trade deal which (rightly) further fuels their fears.

The European Union is free trade writ continentally. It has various bloodlines but it's been hijacked by neoliberal globalizers. In the name of their dogmas they've shredded southern (Greece, Spain etc.) economies; scared the eastern countries (Hungary, Rumania …) and antagonized Germans and others in the north who think they're subsidizing lazy Mediterranean layabouts. Anti-EU right-wing, xenophobic parties like France's National Front profit from these economic blows to ordinary people and then glory in the panic over refugees. Not only are those foreigners coming for your jobs, they'll kill you in the bargain.

What's also strange? The most humane voices speaking for refugees are often also supporters of the trade deals that will brutally destroy jobs. Barack Obama speaks eloquently on immigration -- and relentlessly pushes the TPP. EU boss Jean-Claude Juncker has admirably tried turning back the anti-Muslim tide. Even Justin Trudeau, apostle to the world of Canadian tolerance, is caught in this thicket, with his declared love for (en principe) trade deals like the TPP. I don't think these contradictions simply expose their hidden economic agendas; I think there can also be genuine fissures in individuals that get out of control.

I'm not an economic determinist and I'm not saying free trade deals (which I've always hated, which aren't free in any serious sense and which mainly advantage the already wealthy) are the "root causes" of all the recent xenophobia. Anyway racism is racism, no matter how understandable its roots are. The hell with it, it stinks. But human nature is volatile enough, with its mix of admirable and execrable, why give it a push in the worst possible direction?

Canada used to be at the forefront of the fights over free trade. Lately though, says a longtime comrade in those wars, we've become a bit of a backwater. Still, Justin Trudeau should give some careful thought to both the upcoming Pacific (TPP) and Atlantic (CETA) versions. If just saying No seems unthinkable, he should at least give them a serious shake, before signing on.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: EFF Photos/flickr

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