WILLIAM BRIGGS-The US, walls, and the paradox of a globally integrated capitalist economy

Feb 4, 2019

Two significant events are being played out on the US-Mexican border. They appear at first to be unrelated and yet show the paradoxes and contradictions surrounding the economic structures that dominate our lives.

One of these events is the Trump border-wall and the other, less-well reported, is an industrial action being conducted by Mexican workers. One shows a right-wing populist reaction to the effects of an increasingly globalised economy and the other shows just how that globalised economy works. One reacts against the movement of people and the other shows how the movement of goods, in a global economy is essential. The two events appear separate and yet are anything but unrelated.

President Trump’s demand for a wall to keep people out is an intensely symbolic gesture. While Democrats and many Republicans denounce the wall idea, they tend to agree with the concept of finding ways to restrict the movement of people. Interestingly enough, many of those seeking entry into the United States describe themselves as ‘international workers’. One of the demands of the Brexiteers was that British borders should largely be closed. It is a call that is heard across the world. Nationalism and nationalist symbolism is being vigorously promoted – be it in the US, China, Russia, Australia, or just about anywhere. And so, in order to promote US nationalism, Trump plays this retrograde and regrettable card.

The strike, just across the US-Mexican border, shows just how the global economy operates. The striking Mexican workers, have shut down production at dozens of what are referred to as ‘maquiladora’ sweatshops that operate just a few kilometres south of the border. The work that they do is of special note. They are engaged in the auto industry. A car coming off the assembly line in Mexico, or the US, is comprised of parts that have crossed national boundaries dozens, if not hundreds of times.

To look at the journey of one simple component – a seat control button – is to show how borders are irrelevant for business and for production. A capacitor for this seat control is manufactured by workers in Asia. It is shipped to the US then sent to Mexico where it is inserted by Mexican workers, into a circuit board. Then, it is back to the US, where warehouse workers in Texas move and store the circuit board until it goes back to Mexico where the same circuit board is fitted into a seat activator button. Then, the activator is shipped to either Texas or Canada, where auto parts workers install the activator into the seat itself. Finally, the seat is sent to an assembly plant and installed into the body of the car. This journeying of goods, parts, and processes of manufacture is going on in all industries and in all countries. It is done to keep production costs low and profits high. It is how global business operates.

At an earlier stage of economic development, production took place locally, and workers moved to where the jobs were to be found. Today, it is the reverse. Production moves to where the workers are, or rather to where the most ‘cost-effective’ workers are. The global economy has become increasingly integrated, as in the case of the car button. This poses problems for national governments. What is particularly unsettling, is that it has an eerie echo to events of a little more than a century ago and WWI. National governments, largely in response to a growing globalisation of the world economy responded.

The call to nationalism, and nationalist symbolism was carefully promoted. Imagined walls were erected. The resultant slaughter was all but unimaginable. We see, today, an integrated global economy in contradiction to a powerful nation-state system. We see fears, animosities and distrust between peoples and states rise as those 1914 echoes reverberate. The recent ugly scenes in St Kilda, when fascists, supported by a member of the Australian Senate, rallied, cannot be ignored.

There is a tendency, in times of economic difficulty, to play ever more upon nationalist sentiments. It is a story that is being played out in country after country as nationalism, economic nationalism and populism gather strength. The 19th century ended with economic nationalism leading to a stifling of free trade, militarisation, imperialism, and ultimately war. Threats were found. Today threats are being found and with them enemies are being created.

In the meantime, we are left with the two images on the US-Mexican border. On the one hand is a government refusing to recognise the human suffering before it. On the other hand, money, goods and production processes know no nationality and recognise no borders.

William Briggs is a political economist with specialist interests in International Relations, Global Political Economy and Political Theory. A book, based on his research, will be published in May.

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