The election of Donald Trump, in addition to Brexit, has led to much soul searching within the left.
My own view is that the election of Trump, to no small degree, was due to a working class backlash against corporate globalisation. One can see this especially in working class counties in states such as Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania that previously voted for Barack Obama yet this time turned to Donald Trump.
I do not subscribe to the view that Trump owes his victory to an outpouring of racism per se, although doubtless this was a factor. Race had added bite in key constituencies to the extent that it was successfully intertwined with the backlash against corporate globalisation.
It is easy to examine the Trump victory in isolation, but there is a definite trend in the advanced Western industrial states against globalisation and so a more holistic analysis is required to reach understanding. Let us avoid an analytical type of American exceptionalism.
What came first?
Did globalisation foster racism which was fanned and exploited by the right or did the right construct racism so that it could be fanned and exploited to further corporate globalisation?
Racism, of course, has a long history however I feel that the latter better explains the racist politics of what by now is termed the Alternative-Right or Alt-Right.
We should recall that racist sentiment has been exploited by conservatives throughout the neoliberal era; Reagan and African-American welfare queens in pink Cadillacs, Willie Horton and the 1988 US presidential election, with the Tory right from Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech onward, Nicholas Sarkozy in France, John Howard and Asian immigration, and so on.
It would be wrong therefore to associate the whipping up of racist sentiment to the Alt-Right exclusively, or that somehow this is a novel phenomenon.
The 1960s and 1970s represented a period of enlightenment when society became more civilised, and important advances were made to combat racist attitudes, opinions, legislation, and structures. These advances were brought about by social struggle and social movements. It was action and dissidence that enlightened the society, not legislative fiat.
This process occurred in conjunction with a number of other social movements that had the effect of democratising society. When racial, gender, sexual and other minorities win rights previously denied them society becomes that much more participatory and that much more democratic.
However, all this led to a reactionary counter movement by conservatives who sought to restore the old bonds of authority and hierarchy. Neoliberalism is a part of this statist reactionary conservativism. Liberalism it is not.
It is well understood that markets foster discipline and obedience.
For example, free and flexible labour markets mean that more and more workers are employed in precarious and unfulfilling jobs. This uncertainty turns the worker into a slave. They also mean that workers bargain with their employers in a position of gross asymmetry as free labour markets are accompanied by the destruction of union power, if need be through the forceful agency of the state. Furthermore, the centralisation of corporate power, which is facilitated by deregulation, through mergers, acquisitions and the like exacerbates the asymmetry of power between workers and management.
The neoliberal order, what is sometimes also called “globalisation,” relies upon the erosion of the power of the organised working class. Workers are not to organise or bargain as a class. No. They are to bargain, ideally, as individuals or, if collectively, from firm to firm.
The erosion of class consciousness is a key facet of this process. The fanning and exploitation of racist sentiment has the effect of eroding class consciousness and principles of solidarity, which makes it that much easier to assault the working class at the behest of corporate power.
Additionally, the fanning of racist sentiment has the added bonus of assisting the electoral appeal of conservative parties. It is hard to win elections through an honest and overt declaration that the interests of the top strata of society matters above all else, but fanning racism and throwing red meat every now and then to the wolves is designed to wedge parties of the left in addition to providing an electoral coalition that otherwise would be hard to fashion.
This works because the left has forgotten class. It works because left wing political parties and trade union bureaucracies have either actively promoted or acquiesced to neoliberal restructuring. The working class feels betrayed, and the left, through its predominant focus on the politics of identity, pays little heed to working class communities. They turn, thereby, to those forces who they see articulating their grievances.
The left is also quite classist. Derisive comments regarding working class communities and people are common in left wing circles. This hardly helps matters.
Trump, Le Pen, Farage, and so on are, in part, a reflection of a left that has turned its back on the working class. They are also a reflection of the fact that as the neoliberal assault continues the wolves become hungrier so much so that a little red meat from the traditional conservatives no longer suffices. Enter Trump, Le Pen and Farage that offer a veritable smorgasbord.
The Communist Party of yesteryear had several pathological features. But one thing it did do well was foster regular social and political discussion right in the heart of working class communities, and also at workplaces it must be added. If such networks of discussion and intellectual reflection on the weighty issues of the day existed today then the task the reactionary conservatives face would be much harder. It is hard for a demagogue to waltz into town when a community is armed with facts, figures, well formed and presented arguments, bonds of solidarity fostered through joint struggle, a developed philosophical outlook upon the world and so on.
But such does not exist today because the left is not interested in developing an organic intellectual culture within working class communities. This detracts from deconstructing the text and contemplating the latest wonder from Slavoj Zizek.
There exists this view that working class communities are somehow naturally disposed to racism. This is a lie. Working class communities have been the most cosmopolitan in history. It was working class toilers that travelled the seas to give their lives for no other reason than to create a better world and to express their solidarity with the most wretched that walk this Earth.
It was working class communities that opposed imperialism, jingoism and militarism. There has always existed an internationalist current within the organised working class, such as the IWW in the United States and elsewhere.
It was working class communities that absorbed waves of immigration at a time exhibited by a social contract between capital and labour. It was working class communities that absorbed waves of refugees following World War Two.
If the capital owning classes band together at the global level it is to jointly rob, plunder and divide the loot.
Race, gender, and so on matter. But so does class. And how we parse race, gender and so on depends a lot on considerations of class.
A left without class is a left without hope.
Hope there still is.
The Alt-Right has no solutions for the problems facing the modern world. In this sense the Alt-Right is like its brethren, the political Islamists, in the Muslim world. If the Alt-Right were in Egypt we would call it the Muslim Brotherhood. Trading on the grievances of those suffering from the depredations of globalisation is one thing addressing those grievances meaningfully is quite another.
The soul of the left is class. Should the left find its soul it can once again challenge the power of the corporate elites and the political establishment that supports them.