The international institutional turn: the missing ingredient in Labour's new political economy.

Author:Adler, David
 
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Labour's economic agenda combines radical redistribution with the construction of new institutions that hard-wire democracy and social justice into Britain's political economy. But its ambition remains largely national in scope. What policies could bring about an 'international institutional turn'?

Martin O'Neill and Joe Guinan's seminal essay on 'The institutional turn' begins with a quotation from Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell--'Another world is not just possible. It is within reach'--before describing the Labour Party's transformative agenda for Britain. (1) This is a telling sleight of scale. For while progressive politicians are advancing a slate of new institutions to reimagine and reconfigure their domestic political economies, no such programme has emerged to address the international one. It is the central contention of this essay that an 'international institutional turn' is strategically necessary, politically desirable and morally urgent. But it is also, as John McDonnell suggests, eminently feasible: 100 days in No 10 could not only change Britain; with a robust international institutional agenda, it could change the world.

A turn not taken

So far, so uncontroversial. Few would object to the need for 'internationalist' politics in an age of increasing national chauvinism. UK Labour, for

its part, has long proclaimed itself an internationalist party, and its members have taken up that mantle eagerly in their activism. 'We must fight for an internationalist Green New Deal that shifts power to the many', tweet Labour's environmental campaigners. (2) But we have scarcely interrogated what it means to be an internationalist in this new century. In some cases, internationalism is code for an exchange of ideas across a narrow strip of the Atlantic Ocean, and shared policy proposals are taken to indicate an expansion of consciousness beyond borders. In other cases, internationalism is defined as 'solidarity' for the Global South, with policies like the Green New Deal designed to reduce Britain's dependency on resource extraction abroad. Across both, though, the project of internationalism is folded into a domestic 'institutional turn'. Insofar as this effort relates to the actually existing international order, it aims to roll back the remnants of empire, rather than to roll out new and improved institutions that can co-ordinate action at the global level. Hence the subtitle of this essay: with the exception of John McDonnell's embryonic 'International Social Forum', the international institutional turn remains a missing ingredient.

The implicit expectation of O'Neill and Guinan's essay is that individual countries can effectively lead by example. 'Corbyn's Labour', they write, 'represents a historic opportunity . . . for the creation of a new economic model--one capable of drawing support from all those who want an equal and democratic society'. (3) This amounts to a theory of change: ideas are contagious. Or, in the academic parlance, the Corbynomic model travels via mimetic isomorphism, as governments respond to the high degree of uncertainty in the global economy by looking for success stories further afield. (4) One of the primary goals of Democracy Collaborative, the US think tank where Guinan is Senior Fellow, is to facilitate this process by exchanging best practices between communities on 'both sides of the Atlantic'. Untouched, if not overlooked, are the international institutions that command a coercive isomorphism, pressuring governments to adopt the neoliberal institutional arrangement and disciplining the ones who don't. From Tunis to Quito, raging protests against the International Monetary Fund suggest that mimesis is a political strategy too small and too slow for the urgent task of transforming global governance; coercion must be met with coercion, power with power. O'Neill and Guinan view global transformation as a product of their institutional turn, bubbling up from the grassroots. But in most cases--particularly in countries of the Global South that lack coercive power against transnational corporations and international financial institutions--it is actually a precondition.

Yet even among observers explicitly focused on global affairs, there remains significant resistance to the 'international institutional turn'. Fascinatingly, these objections come from both sides of the debate that erupted between historians Perry Anderson and Adam Tooze. (5) Anderson, channelling the Western Marxist critique, believes that the so-called liberal international order is just 'one more cloying euphemism for US control'; any effort to reform these institutions is bound to reproduce US hegemony. (6) The international institutional turn, according to the Anderson perspective, is a trap; its advocates the useful idiots of empire. Tooze, a master of the financial mechanics of globalised capitalism, believes that the liberal international order basically does not exist: global capital is 'anarchy', and its institutional managers operate ad hoc. The international institutional turn, from the Tooze perspective, is a chimera. No political project can grow out of quicksand; better to settle for technical tweaks and improvisational changes. 'If globalized capitalism under conditions of partial democratic legitimation is the only game in town, the majority of the population, the "99 percent" may have an existential interest not in debating Ordnungspolitik, but in energetic and unprincipled discretionary action by technocratic crisis-managers', writes Tooze, saying the quiet part of his political project loud. (7) Both arguments essentially reify the actually existing architecture of international institutions--call it internalised Tina--and deactivate the internationalist imagination. The result is that much of the recent writing on the crisis of international relations is elliptical. 'It remains unclear, though urgent', writes legal scholar David Singh Grewal, 'to determine what direction an international politics after neoliberalism could take'. (8)

I argue here that the way forward for a post-neoliberal politics is through the international institutional turn. Borrowing from O'Neill and Guinan, I define this as a shift away from 'tax-and-transfer' policies that redistribute money from richer countries to poorer ones and toward a fundamental reconfiguration of the institutions that determine 'who owns and controls capital' at the global level. (9) Policies based on redistribution continue to play an outsize role in social democrats' approach to international affairs, as the reaction to Bernie Sanders's Green New Deal policy proposal recently revealed: when Sanders announced the pledge to write a cheque for $200 billion to the UN Green Climate Fund--to be distributed among developing nations in their quest for a green transition--he was lauded for advancing a 'Global Green New Deal'. (10) The problem with such transfers is not just...

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