Fish, Coal, and the Symbolic Value of Dying Industries

 by Michael C. Dorf

On Christmas Eve, the European Union and the United Kingdom reached a trade deal that prevents the latter from "crashing out" of the former, albeit by a so-called "hard" rather than "soft" Brexit. The UK will still be able to export and import goods to and from the EU without tariffs or quotas, but because the deal does not cover financial or other services, London will lose a good deal of business, which in turn will undercut economic growth for the whole of the UK.

Nonetheless, under the circumstances, the deal is about the best that the UK could have hoped for. Had EU leaders allowed the UK to exit on more attractive terms, it would have thereby encouraged other countries to do the same--to obtain the benefits of union without paying any of the costs--and that could have spelled the unraveling of the EU.

The EU may yet fail anyway. The continued membership of Hungary and Poland despite their ongoing devolution into autocracy poses a threat to the very idea of the EU as a union of liberal democratic states. While that crisis awaits, let's allow our friends across the pond and on the continent at least a modest sigh of relief. The more transmissible strain of COVID-19 might keep Chunnel traffic backed up at Dover and Calais for a while, but something like normal trade between friendly countries should resume eventually, albeit now with customs stops.

The Christmas Eve deal almost did not happen and for seemingly the most illogical of reasons. As was widely reported in the last week, the final sticking point was fishing rights of EU-flagged vessels in UK waters. Because fish exports account for about a third of a percent of UK exports, it made no economic sense to allow fishing rights to derail a deal for the remaining 99.6%. So why did that almost come to pass?

The answer is not the lobbying power of Big Fish. Rather, just as support for the dying coal industry in the US (and the UK for that matter) came to symbolize concern for the people living in what were once coal-mining communities, so aggressive assertion of UK sovereignty over fishing rights came to symbolize support for the Leave voters and the ressentiment they still feel towards the Remain voters concentrated in London.

What should we make of the prominent role of symbolism in Brexit and its American cousin, Trumpism?

In an article in The Atlantic, Tom McTague offers a sympathetic (if not wholly supportive) view of Brexit and the seemingly excessive attention to fishing rights in the final negotiations. He concludes:

Politics, like European fishing battles, is complicated. But it is reasonable to wonder whether we have paid enough attention to one of the lessons of the Brexit vote: that national life has to be about more than simple calculations of GDP. Being part of a wider unit—nation or confederation—means looking after the people and communities that make up that unit. Both fish and Brexit are reminders of that, whether it makes economic sense or not.

There's a sense in which that's clearly right, both as applied to rural and white working-class support for Brexit in the UK and Trumpism in the US. But at least on the most straightforward reading, the passage also gets something fundamentally wrong. One could readily read McTague to be saying that a nation ought to prefer a distribution of a medium-sized economy that provides a decent life to everyone--"looking after the people and communities"--to a grossly unequal distribution of a slightly larger economy that favors urban and suburban professionals. The problem with that proposition is not normative; it's factual; neither Brexit nor Trumpism ever really held out the promise of a better life for the supporters of these movements, because the leaders were and are fraudsters and because their solutions were based on a complete misdiagnosis of the problem.

Let's start with coal. Jobs in coal did not disappear because foreigners exploited the honest volk nor because tree-huggers shackled the industry (as Brexiteers and Trumpists would have it). They disappeared chiefly because of automation, globalization, and competition from cheaper alternatives.

To be sure, apologists for Brexit and Trumpism point instead to what they consider excessive regulation. If not for President Obama's "war on coal," they say, the industry would have been doing just fine. That's patently false. The accompanying graph based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows the decline of coal mining jobs over three-plus decades through Republican and Democratic administrations alike.

It's true that regulation is at least a small part of the story recently. In addition to being somewhat cheaper, natural gas contributes less to climate change per unit burned than does coal, which has in turn led to a more favorable regulatory regime (although fracking to produce natural gas brings its own set of environmental harms, which makes natural gas at best a transition fuel en route to reliance solely on solar, wind, and other fully carbon-neutral energy sources). Yet the complaint by the deregulators is unjustified even in economic terms. Local and global pollution caused by coal imposes costs that an unregulated industry fails to internalize. Accordingly, deregulators effectively want the public to subsidize coal through dirty air and a hotter climate.

The notion that regulation is the main threat to any extractive industry is especially laughable when applied to fishing. If current trends continue, global fisheries will completely collapse within thirty years.

Trump and Brexiteers have barely taken measures to prop up the dying industries that have shed jobs in recent decades, but even if they had, the dismal long-term prospects of those industries would make such measures grossly inadequate as a means of what McTague calls "looking after the people and communities" whose sense of loss led them to support Trumpism and Brexit.

What, then, explains support for Trump and Brexit? Part of the answer has to do with misinformation. No doubt many of the people in these movements sincerely believe the false claims of pathological liars like Trump and Brexiteer Nigel Farage. It is often difficult for people who have not fallen for a con man's obvious con to understand how others have, but that's simply another way of saying that the con targets some people and not others. The inclination to accept as true certain false claims of fact depends only slightly on the rational faculties of the believers, instead depending mostly on the believers' affective dispositions.

Which brings us to the core of the appeal of Trump and Brexit--as a balm to the wounded pride of people and communities who feel aggrieved by the loss of status. Some of that is economic, although it's worth recalling that Trump voters are not for the most part down and out. On the contrary, they tend to be wealthier than their neighbors. But they also tend to be concentrated in rural areas that have lost power and prestige over time.

Is there a hopeful path forward? Perhaps. If the feelings of anger and grievance are truly rooted in the economic decline of whole communities, then addressing the underlying economic concerns should address the anger and sense of grievance as well. This view is what we might call the Bernie Sanders/AOC theory of the case. It sees Trumpism, Brexit, and the rise of right-wing populism globally as an expression of frustration with the embrace by center-left parties (the Democrats in the US and Labour in the UK especially) of a neoliberalism that has done a poor job of maintaining or distributing prosperity. I have considerable sympathy for this view--especially because it explains why right-wing populism emerged roughly simultaneously in countries with very different political systems.

If the Sanders/AOC diagnosis is correct, then we should see the ugly racism and xenophobia that accompany Trumpism and Brexit as secondary. They are dangers, to be sure, but they are merely a means of displacing economic grievance onto scapegoats. Treat the underlying economic disease, this view says, and the worrying symptoms will also fade.

Despite my broad sympathy for the Sanders/AOC diagnosis, I have three main concerns.

(1) I doubt that there is the political will in the US for anything like the Sanders/AOC program. Partly that's a result of the rotten constitutional system in the US, in which even if the Democrats somehow win both Georgia runoffs, the median Senator will be Joe Manchin. Although his West Virginia constituents seem like the perfect targets for a left-wing populism that aims to defang right-wing populism, Manchin is at best a centrist on economic issues as well as social ones. More broadly, the Democratic Party is at best center-left; it's more like center-right by European standards. Thus, even if democratic socialism is the antidote to right-wing populism, it does not appear to be on offer. (The Labour Party these days is closer to its roots as a center-left party than under Tony Blair's leadership, and includes more than a handful of MPs who could be fairly characterized as democratic socialists of the Sanders/AOC sort, but to state the obvious, Labour as a whole, much less its democratic socialist wing, does not control Parliament.)

(2) Even if democratic socialists could get their programs enacted, it's not obvious they would work. To be sure, there is much to like in programs like the Green New Deal. It is also scandalous that the US still lacks universal health insurance. And there is no realistic possibility that anyone who would exercise real power in a Sanders/AOC-led Democratic Congress would turn the US into Venezuela under Chavez and Maduro. Likewise for the UK under a now-post-Corbyn Labour Party.

And yet, while many of the programs supported by the democratic socialist wings of the Democratic and Labour Parties are worth supporting, it is hardly clear that they are the solution to current economic woes. For just as we need not fear the US or UK becoming Venezuela, it's not realistic to hope that either country can become Denmark. Indeed, it may not be realistic to hope that Denmark can be Denmark--a prosperous liberal egalitarian democracy--except through social and immigration policies that smack of racial identitarianism. 

I'll return to race and immigration momentarily, but first I want to say a few more words about economics. If right-wing populism is a response to the failures of neoliberalism, and if democratic socialism is not the solution--either because it lacks political support or depends on racial homogeneity that we lack and shouldn't want--is there any other path forward? I don't have the answer to that question, but it's notable that the question has been almost completely absent from our politics.

In the 2020 Democratic Presidential primary campaign, the main issue was who had the best chance of defeating Trump. Biden's general election victory doesn't by itself prove that the party was right to coalesce around him. It's possible that Sanders or Elizabeth Warren (whom I supported) would have done as well or even better and might have had the coattails that Biden lacked. But it's also possible that Biden really was the best choice.

In any event, because the need to defeat Trump overshadowed everything else, the 2020 primaries did not really turn on policy disagreements. To the extent that they did, they replayed the familiar debate between the center and left of the party. Only one candidate articulated a view that was outside the familiar divide: Andrew Yang saw automation and the resulting chronic under-employment as the central challenge. He may be right about that, but if so, he will need to develop a program that includes more than universal basic income. Should he become Mayor of NYC, he will have the opportunity.

For the time being, however, an effective center-left alternative to neoliberalism remains to be articulated, much less implemented, regardless of whether Mitch McConnell spends the next four years stymying the Biden administration as the leader of the Senate majority or minority.

(3) I've noted my sympathy for the Sanders/AOC view that the failure of neoliberalism accounts for much of the rise of Trumpism and its associated counterparts elsewhere, but sympathy is not complete agreement. Xenophobia and especially racism are endemic to US culture rather than mere passing sideshows. It's true that they are more or less prominent in various periods and can be exploited or exacerbated by unscrupulous demagogues. But racism and xenophobia are not simply scapegoating tools for economic anxiety. They are at the core of Trump's appeal. And insofar as these are expressions of universal human psychology, they are likewise at the core of the appeal of other right-wing populist movements.