Grasping the Moment: Class, Race and the Crisis

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Class and race were both at the heart of the two major political events that rocked the cosy consensus-politics of Western democracies this year: the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. In the aftermath of both of these events fissures have opened amongst people on the broad left, trying to make sense of and respond to the current moment.

There is a broad, and clumsy, division between those who want to shoehorn the Brexit/Trump phenomena (and indeed the rise of right wing, racist movements throughout the West) into a neat, mechanical understanding of class; and those who insist on the absolute priority of race and racism as categories for understanding the contemporary crisis.

Neither of these approaches, as currently formulated, seem adequate to the historical moment we find ourselves in. Which means that in the midst of a profound crisis of the capitalist system, sections of the left appear to lack the capacity to meaningfully comprehend, explain and approach the current conjuncture.

The sharp division between those who emphasise class and those who emphasise race as the key optic through which to understand the present moment is nothing new. In the late 196o’s Fred Hampton noted how many people were uncomfortable with the Black Panthers for insisting on the centrality of class analysis, as Hampton put it:

You know a lot of people have hang-ups with the Party because the Party talks about a class struggle. And the people that have those hang-ups are opportunists, and cowards, and individualists and everything that’s anything but revolutionary. And they use these things as an excuse to justify and to alibi and to bonify their lack of participation in the real revolutionary struggle.

It may be that Hampton’s harsh words cannot, easily, be transposed to the current moment. But what is significant about them is that they reveal that the most important black liberation movement in the United States (after the Civil Rights movement, perhaps) had class and race at the centre of it’s analysis, and also had it’s detractors, even back then, who wanted to emphasise a disembodied, de-classed concept of race.

With the defeat of the Panthers, and some time later the collapse of the Soviet Union, the capitalist West entered a period of triumphalism. In a period where economic growth was fuelled by a succession of speculative bubbles, mass movements built around issues of class receded from the stage of history. In their place, contentious politics shifted to questions of identity: race, gender, sexual orientation and so on

This period saw a flowering of interesting and important theories about these various other vectors of oppression, which had, historically, been neglected (though not uniformly) by thinkers and organisations on the socialist left. This era also saw the mainstreaming of legislative interventions that explicitly outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, gender and other grounds (for example the Equality Act 2010 in the UK).

This era, loosely sketched, is the period we now file under “the era of neoliberalism”. We should be clear, that throughout this entire period the leading Western countries remained, at all times, structurally racist. People of colour consistently suffered diminished life chances, and were far more likely to find themselves at the coercive end of state violence. While the mainstream media continued to peddle and reproduce racialised narratives that copper-fastened wide-spread racism.

It’s interesting, that during this period the question of class (and even the idea of capitalism as such) disappeared from much public discourse. While awareness of and sensitivity to issues of race, gender, sexual orientation and so on proliferated in the formal, neoliberal discourse, questions of class were persistently elided. This, of course, is not surprising.

Class is the fundamental antagonism at the heart of the capitalist system, and as the neoliberal era was one of capitalist triumph, it should come as no surprise that it was also one in which discussion of the ghost at the banquet was forsworn. In this context class analysis, as such, was divorced from any meaningful, vibrant political movement, and as a result atrophied.

With the unfolding crisis of capitalism, since at least 2008, class tensions and class divisions have once again come to the fore, but they have not necessarily been understood as such. In a gambit to “regain some control”, or make their countries “great again” racist, right wing demagogues have sprung up throughout the world (particularly in the West) and mobilised racism, xenophobia and reaction to try to explain the current crisis.

The left has found itself toothless in the face of this rising tide of reaction. The centre, as represented in the UK by New Labour and the US by the Democrats, has ceded ground, made excuses for the racism and xenophobia stoked by the mainstream media, and cleared the way for the far more virulent forms of racism that Trump and others represent.

Following the shocks of Brexit and Trump, then, we have been left with moribund class analysis, and inadequate race analysis divorced form one another. With neither of them up to the task of comprehending the current conjuncture. The limitations of many, contemporary approaches to race are well captured by Adolph Reid Jr. who writes that:

The rise of neoliberalism in particular suggests a serious problem with arguments that represent race and class as dichotomous or alternative frameworks of political critique and action … [a] historical materialist perspective throws into relief a fundamental limitation of the “whiteness” notion that has been fashionable within the academic left for roughly two decades: it reifies whiteness as a transhistorical social category … whiteness discourse functions as a kind of moralistic exposé rather than a basis for strategic politics … The whiteness discourse overlaps other arguments that presume racism to be a sui generis form of injustice. Despite seeming provocative, these arguments do not go beyond the premises of the racial liberalism from which they commonly purport to dissent. They differ only in rhetorical flourish, not content … [they] reify racism by disconnecting it from the discrete historical circumstances and social structures in which it is embedded, and treating it as an autonomous force. Disconnection from political economy is also a crucial feature of postwar liberalism’s construction of racial inequality as prejudice or intolerance. Racism becomes an independent variable in a moralistic argument that is idealist intellectually and ultimately defeatist politically.

That is to say that in the era of neoliberal capitalism, questions of race were successfully divorced from questions of class in many mainstream discourses. The limits of class analysis is illustrated in simplistic claims that Brexit was a victory for the working class, or the simplistic equation of class with income bracket following the US election.

As a consequence, when confronted with the rise of mass movements that mobilise around questions of race, but are situated in a deeper, structural crisis of capitalism (that requires an understanding of class to make it intelligible) many people are left with little more than fear, and moralistic outrage. While the fear is completely understandable, particularly for people of colour (and more specifically migrant and working class people of colour, who are and will be the ones bearing the brunt of this racist onslaught), the outrage is no substitute for analysis.

We need an analysis now that can make the term “intersectionality” meaningful. Race is always situated within contexts of class, and class is always racialised. In the current moment we can, and must, insist that our political priority is uncompromising resistance to racism, xenophobia and solidarity with the people of colour who will feel the brunt of this rising tide of reaction. However, we must also insist that the racist character of these movements does not mean that a de-contextualised, de-classed race analysis must take priority in how we understand the current moment.

The analysis we need, of course, will not flower in  darkness. It is only through organising with one another, building movements and campaigns to resist racism in it’s various forms, and connecting that up to the broader need to fight against a system that necessarily produces barbarism in all it’s forms, that a clear, meaningful set of ideas will emerge to inform the struggles ahead.

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.