Taking Aim

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The massive protests in the UK against Donald Trump and his abhorrent “Muslim ban” show that there is potential for building a mass, anti-racist, pro-migrant movement in the UK and elsewhere. Many of the people who attended these protests have no background in political activism, but have been spurred into action by Trump’s blatant racism and reactionary stances – there is a palpable anger, and this can play a crucial role in realigning politics in the UK.

However, anger, no matter how righteous, is not enough. It is crucial that this nascent movement from the very outset engage in serious, critical reflection and debate about what sort of politics will be necessary to challenge Trump, and the broader, systemic pathologies of which he is a particularly malignant symptom.

In this regard, one key misapprehension must be challenged from the outset: Trump and Brexit (a clumsy, now almost meaningless term) are not the same thing – failing to see this will set any emerging oppositional politics on a course of ultimate failure. John Harris and others have spun the lazy Trump-Brexit conflation, and argue that if we are angry at Trump and oppose his politics, then we (and in particular Labour MPs voting in Parliament on whether or not to trigger Article 50) must also oppose Brexit and set the UK on a different, pro-European course.

The move Harris, and others, make here is one from correct premises to wrong conclusions. The argument, seductive in its simplicity, is as follows: Trump is patently racist and we oppose him – many of the leading voices for Brexit are racist – therefore we should oppose Brexit also. The problem with this is that it erases history and context: it ignores the fact that, whether in or out of the EU, any British government would have slovenly towed the US line; that the EU itself is structurally racist; that the processes of EU integration have engendered racism and seen the growth, within the EU, of far-right parties, not as an aberration, but as a necessary consequence of the truncated sort of integration that the EU represents; and, on a very simple note, that Theresa May, now arch villain, was herself a vocal campaigner for remaining in the EU.

The premise that we oppose and despise Trump and his politics only leads to the conclusion that we should, therefore, seek to overturn the Brexit referendum result and remain in the EU if we completely fail to understand the nature of the EU, and the differing contexts that gave rise to the Brexit vote and the Trump victory.

The fundamental problem is well captured by a scene from John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. In it a tenant farmer is told by a worker that his house is to be demolished and the following exchange ensues:

“I built it with my hands. Straightened old nails to put the sheathing on. Rafters are wired to the stringers with baling wire. It’s mine. I built it. You bump it down—I’ll be in the window with a rifle. You even come too close and I’ll pot you like a rabbit.”

“It’s not me. There’s nothing I can do. I’ll lose my job if I don’t do it. And look—suppose you kill me? They’ll just hang you, but long before you’re hung there’ll be another guy on the tractor, and he’ll bump the house down. You’re not killing the right guy.”

“That’s so,” the tenant said. “Who gave you orders? I’ll go after him. He’s the one to kill.”

“You’re wrong. He got his orders from the bank. The bank told him, ‘Clear those people out or it’s your job.’”

“Well, there’s a president of the bank. There’s a board of directors. I’ll fill up the magazine of the rifle and go into the bank.”

The driver said, “Fellow was telling me the bank gets orders from the East. The orders were, ‘Make the land show profit or we’ll close you up.’”

“But where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don’t aim to starve to death before I kill the man that’s starving me.”

This poignant exchange reveals the problem we now face. People are angry, and rightly so, but they are not clear about who or what they should be angry at.

This is not to be wondered at. The system we live under operates in myriad ways to obscure, occlude and mystify the nature of power and how it operates. In this context, Trump makes things somewhat easier. He is a villain, and patently so. Obama wasn’t as blatant, yet he deported more people than any US president before him, militarily intervened in dozens of countries around the world, and was pushing the much hated TPP and TTIP trade agreements, he also, incidentally, was in favour of the UK remaining in the EU.

With Trump, now, we have an easy, minor premise: he and everything he represents must be resisted, by any and all means. However, we need to dig deeper to work towards correct conclusions about where this should lead our politics. To build a radical, anti-racist and socially progressive movement in the UK we cannot retreat into the reactionary liberalism that seeks to sustain the EU at all costs. Likewise, in the US, building an alternative to Trump cannot be premised on embracing Hilary Clinton and establishment Democrats.

We can, however, draw some inspiration from Clinton’s long-time partner in crime, her husband Bill. In his 1992 campaign for President of the US, Clinton’s team coined the famous phrase ‘it’s the economy, stupid’, and they were more right than they could imagine. To the extent that Brexit and Trump (along with Erdogan, Putin, Le Pen etc.) have something in common, it is that they represent the morbid symptoms of the capitalist system (the economy, stupid) in terminal decline.

The rise of the populist right represents a misguided rejection by angry, scared people of the status quo ante. Where the left fails to offer genuine, radical alternatives, the right prospers. The EU, notwithstanding what “some sillies” (as E.P. Thompson would have termed them) in DiEM25, Another Europe is Possible etc. would like to think, is irredeemably a set of institutional arrangements for the maintenance of this status quo. If we wish to build on the anger and passion that the nascent anti-Trump movement represents, then we must not make the mistake of conflating opposition to Trump with defence of the EU.

Trump is the enemy, but capitalism is the problem. In the coming months and years political positions will be clarified, and it is crucial that we are clear-headed from the outset. If, at this juncture, you find yourself celebrating a pillar of the Tory party, and cheerleader for austerity, for his speech against Brexit, but criticising a lifelong socialist who has consistently stood against Trump’s spiritual predecessors, because he has taken the position that the fight is not to maintain the EU, but to build a more just UK, then you may need to re-calibrate your political coordinates.

A good place to start with this would be by rejecting the simplistic, Guardian editorial line that opposition to racism necessitates support for the EU. The real fight is for a genuine alternative to Trump, and everything he represents. This means breaking with the centrist liberalism that created the conditions for Trump’s ascendancy, and challenging the extant system at a fundamental level. This is not done by pining for a mythical EU that never was, but by directing our legitimate anger against racism, sexism and the capitalist system in its entirety. This is no easy task, but it is the necessary one if the anger against Trump is to be transformed into something meaningful and sustainable.

 

Trump, Mair and The Gods That Failed

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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.