The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, much like the Brexit vote in the UK earlier this year, has been greeted by mainstream commentators with a mixture of vapid incomprehension and shrill, moralistic denouncement. The emptiness of these responses reflect a central problem for liberals, centrists, so-called ‘leftists’ and others in advanced capitalist countries, namely that their gods have failed them. Capitalist development and competition, wedded to (and notionally tempered by) limited, representative democracy and consensus politics have all proven inadequate to the historical tasks before them.
The capitalist system is in profound crisis, dating from at least the 1970s, and as a consequence traditional models of acceptable politics are collapsing. This tendency has been well documented by Peter Mair in his book Ruling the Void. In this book Mair, through careful statistical analysis, shows that democracy in the West is being hollowed out by a twofold movement: wherein political elites withdraw from the people, and the people in turn withdraw from political elites.
This, in certain respects, is the necessary development of democracy under capitalism. It should not be forgotten that capitalism was only belatedly democratised, and that in the almost 600 year existence of the capitalist system, there has only been a brief period (of roughly 30 years) when broadly democratic politics existed alongside increased material well-being for a majority of people. Even then, this ‘golden age’ was confined to the advanced capitalist countries in the global North.
With the deepening crisis of the capitalist system, the reversion to form and gradual shift towards undemocratic and unresponsive political regimes advanced apace. In this context, Mair argued that
in terms of politics on the ground, the widening gap between rulers and ruled has facilitated the often strident populist challenge that is now a feature of many advanced European democracies … Each of these particular versions of the challenge to the political mainstream has its own nationally specific set of ideas, policies and interests, often revolving around shared expressions of xenophobia, racism and cultural defence, and usually emerging on the right wing of the political spectrum … But each is also marked by a common and often very explicit hostility to what is seen in the different countries as the national political class.
Mair goes on to argue that ‘because of the growing enfeeblement of party democracy, and the indifference towards party democracy that is being expressed on both sides of the political divide, we now find ourselves being offered as alternative scenarios either the populist or the ostensibly non-political expert’.
This last line from Mair is crucial. Because it captures in a nutshell the essence of the choice presented to the US people in this presidential election: a demagogue and charlatan, mobilising racism and xenophobia while claiming to speak for ‘ordinary’ people and stand with them against ‘the system’. Or Clinton, who while not being a non-political expert, amounted to much the same thing: the hand-picked, trusted agent of the status quo.
So while the mainstream media, political commentators and so on recognised Clinton as one of their own, and lauded her campaign every step of the way, they simply could not conceptualise Trump. They could not understand the appeal of Trump, because, in various ways, they inhabit, in a tangible way, a political, economic and cultural world in which Hilary Clinton as president and business as usual makes sense. They cannot understand the world of people so marginalised, alienated, and (in many cases) impoverished by a system, that they’d place their hopes in a charlatan like Trump.
Much like the Brexit victory (and the prominence it afforded Farage, his fellow travellers and their reactionary views), the Trump election shows, to borrow from Marx and Berman, how quickly all that seems solid can melt into air. The contemporary, structural crisis of capitalism is deep and profound, and the existing models of democratic politics, and liberal frames of reference (which presume that all crises can be resolved within the system) are, plainly, insufficient to the tasks of understanding the current moment, or pointing a way beyond it.
What is needed now, instead, is a serious re-foundation of, broadly, socialist ideas and political practices. Only political movements, married to innovative ideas, that offer a genuine alternative to the extant social order will stand a chance or resisting the rising tide of reaction evident across the world. As Samir Amin once put it, in the ‘absence of positive utopias the peoples of the world invariably react to their desperate circumstances by reviving other types of utopia’. Trump and others are able to present their racist, reactionary false safe-haven as the only genuine alternative to people alienated from a system in crisis, because the left (in all its forms) has so spectacularly failed to offer any meaningful alternative.
It is, therefore, no small tragedy that so many on the broad left have become, unwittingly, the true heirs of Margaret Thatcher. In myriad ways, they have internalised the mantra that there is no alternative to the existing system, and the most they can offer people is Clinton instead of Trump; an admittedly imperfect EU instead of Brexit; falling instead of landing. Rather than accept that this is the best we can hope for, it would appear that enough people are so alienated and marginalised from the status quo, that they have been seduced by con-men and cast their lot in with the only alternative on offer to them.
This mass apostasy has left mainstream commentators scratching their heads: rather than engage in any meaningful critical reflection, the rush to apportion blame takes over. It’s the fault of people who voted for Jill Stein, it’s the fault of Comey and the FBI, it’s angry, reactionary white people, who cannot be reasoned with. It’s everything and anything but the system itself, because the system just is. But this, of course, is the very crux of the matter: the system is coming apart at the seams, Trump offers a false alternative while the left seeks to patch it up, and then reacts with outrage and incomprehension when people are not grateful for their efforts at keeping things as they are.
The lesson that has to be drawn from the Trump victory, and from the rise in reaction right across the world, is that the old formulae are no longer sufficient. One of the key lessons in the rise of Fascism in the 1930s is that the left was insufficiently robust and radical in opposing the right, and offering people an alternative to the existing social order. As Florian Wilde put it
The task of socialists … has to go beyond simply defending the status quo against fascist encroachment. The repeated crises of capitalism are what drive people to such desperation that they will even listen to racists and fascists in the first place; thus socialists have the responsibility to develop and present a realistic alternative: namely a socialist alternative. This alternative must be positive and appear convincing; it must be grounded in solidarity, cooperation and class struggle and emphasise a democratic, socialist response to capitalist crisis … We should take the experience of the SPD before 1933 as a warning: a workers’ party that allows itself to become an administrator of the capitalist system by joining or supporting bourgeois governments—and thereby providing left wing cover to austerity—runs the danger of becoming identified with the system itself. It risks discrediting any claim to be an alternative to the status quo. In times of economic crisis like 1929 in Germany or today … millions begin to turn their backs on a status quo that no longer offers them a future. It is precisely then that a credible socialist alternative is needed to channel the anger of the masses in an emancipatory direction. The building of such an alternative is a task the importance of which must not be understated, particularly in the midst of the deepest economic crisis since 1929.
In The Junius Pamphlet, published one hundred years ago, Rosa Luxemburg argued that the choice for us was quite simple: socialism or barbarism. The intervening years have simply served to validate this stark contention. If the election of Trump appals you, if the rise of the right across Europe and elsewhere terrifies you, then you have to now realise that there is no salvation with the old gods of liberalism. Either you commit yourself to challenging the capitalist system root and branch, or you resign yourself to Trump, barbarism and whatever comes after.