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World: Analysis From Washington--A New Source Of Nationalism

  • Paul Goble

Prague, 3 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - An American labor leader warned international political and economic figures on Friday that the pressures of global economic competition are generating an "ugly backlash" among workers around the world, one that threatens both the social cohesion of individual countries and relations among them.

Speaking to the annual Davos economic forum in Switzerland, John Sweeney, the president of America's largest labor federation, the AFL-CIO, said that these pressures were affecting countries with little or no tradition of ethnic nationalism as well as those riven by communal conflicts.

In the United States, Sweeney said, the pressures arising from the competition of low-wage countries and from the consequent search for ever greater productivity now mean "most people are working longer and harder just to make ends meet."

And that in turn has contributed to the rise of a "surly nationalism" often directed against both minorities and foreigners.

Were this problem was limited to the United States, things would be bad enough. But Sweeney noted that it is found in many other countries as well, especially those where the economy is doing less well.

And that pattern means that anger in one country at another frequently becomes the occasion for an angry response by the latter, often in a vicious upward spiral with explosive consequences.

But Sweeney warned, such trends in popular attitudes is also fed by what he called the "costly and very toxic export" of the striving for increased productivity from one country to another.

The American labor leader suggested that the pursuit of productivity increases by businesses in the United States was directly responsible for labor unrest in South Korea, France, and other countries.

And he concluded that this kind of export benefited nobody involved.

At one level, of course, Sweeney was simply making an argument about the need to protect and enhance the rights of workers in the United States and other countries. That is what the more than 13 million members of the 90 unions in the AFL-CIO expect.

But at another and more profound level, Sweeney was calling attention to three phenomena most people have preferred to ignore.

First, he highlighted the extent to which economic forces can produce nationalist responses even in countries without a history of ethnic assertiveness. Over the last decade, many analysts and politicians have viewed ethnicity as a cause rather than a symptom; Sweeney pointed out how dangerous that assumption may be.

Second, he showed the ways in which nationalism can arise as a result of class conflict. In many countries, Sweeney noted, the elite benefits directly from increased international trade and competition even as the working class may at least for a time suffer from it.

Indeed, as the American experience has shown, the push for freer international trade comes almost exclusively from the former and almost inevitably generates a "backlash" of the latter.

And third, he challenged one of the most cherished assumptions of the current political scene and suggested that increased world trade can undercut rather than enhance good relations among them. Indeed, it may even lead to serious conflicts or wars.

Because Sweeney's analysis challenges so many assumptions of the business and political leaders he spoke to, it might not have been expected to get much of a hearing. But his warning that the current pursuit of higher productivity, with the pressures it imposes on workers directly and on national and international systems indirectly, almost certainly will and for a very good reason.

As all of these leaders know, nationalism caused by the forces Sweeney describes could quickly come to threaten those who benefit from trade and the system which makes such trade possible, just as such nationalism has done several times earlier this century.

Consequently, they may be willing to take some of the steps Sweeney and his unions advocate -- a partial retreat from untrammelled competition and greater protection for workers' rights -- precisely to avoid such a disastrous outcome.