On the day of the US election many are asking: how did we end up here? There are millions of words being written about the Trump campaign and his supporters. Hilary Clinton is under massive strain as her candidacy is permanently undermined by her own position within the US establishment, corruption and the fact that she faces an insurgent candidate in an era of social and political polarisation.
But the problem with most of the analysis of what is going on is that it doesn’t root the political situation within the broader context of capitalist crisis, stemming from the 2008 financial crash. In other words, the development of uncharted political explosions and phenomena are seen all too often as the result of forceful personalities. For some there is the underlying belief that these are temporary events that will be enveloped by the well-integrated and cohesive socio-economic system that we call global capitalism, or that centrist forces can continue things as normal.
But this is not the case. The crisis at the heart of the system is structurally entrenched, and is tending towards further economic crises and schisms which overlap with social upheaval and political change. As Ben Wray and I have detailed here ‘Mayday Warning’, globalisation has peaked and this is generating a division in the ruling class itself over the direction of the system.
On the one hand we have the continuity project, who are looking to overcome structural problems in the global economy and re-establish political consensus to resurrect neoliberal globalisation. In this category we have a range of actors including business associations such as the CBI and the Institute for Economic Affairs as well as individuals such as Tony Blair and Hilary Clinton. On the other, we see the emergence of a split which is best understood as a combination of inward looking national chauvinism and a form of punishment based neoliberalism. This is a rejection of what triumphant neoliberals in the mid-90s referred to as the ‘global village.’ They are presenting a vision for society which synthesises collective social discipline around work, anti-welfareism, jingoism and the nation state. This is encapsulated by Trump, Farage, the May Government, and a range of radical right-wing movements and organisations throughout Europe.
May made clear the era of globalisation had passed when she said: ‘If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.’ But to fully understand the rupture in the neoliberal consensus we must assess the changing relationship between right-wing politicians, of either side of the ruling class division as outlined above, to the general public.
William Davies writes: “The target political audience of the neoliberal politician was always the ‘hard-working family’. This imaginary unit had ‘aspiration’ and wanted to ‘get ahead’. The state’s job was to keep interest rates low on the assumption that people wanted to own assets, and otherwise to maintain a ‘level playing field’ so they could reap the rewards of all that hard work.”
“The target political audience of the neoliberal politician was always the ‘hard-working family’. This imaginary unit had ‘aspiration’ and wanted to ‘get ahead’. The state’s job was to keep interest rates low on the assumption that people wanted to own assets, and otherwise to maintain a ‘level playing field’ so they could reap the rewards of all that hard work.”
“May has replaced ‘hard-working families’ with ‘ordinary people’, which includes the ‘working class’. She says she wants the Tories to be the party of ‘working people’, though it no longer sounds as if these people are looking for much improvement or change in their lives. Faced with the unknown, they are more likely to retreat than found a start-up. They need looking after. This means that the necessities of life – health, energy, housing – must remain affordable, and threats must be kept at bay. The role of the state is not to initiate or facilitate change, but to prevent it, on the assumption that in general it is likely to be undesirable. Of course, in an age of political and economic crises, the ‘protective state’ must develop a very clear idea of who is to be looked after and who is to be rebuffed.”
This sense of repositioning on the right is not of their own choosing. Yes – there will be the traditionalists within conservatism who have been waiting for such a moment. But fundamentally, this is only happening because of deep seated problems in the global economy and the global state system. This is leading to a breakdown of the WTO project of the 1990’s and giving rise to a dis-united ruling class, as is classic to all major crises.
As WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo says:
“The dramatic slowing of trade growth is serious and should serve as a wake-up call. It is particularly concerning in the context of growing anti-globalization sentiment.”
Political Polarisation and the Collapsing Centre
This global economic contraction is integrated onto existing tensions within society and combines with the alienation between people and the formal political process. At this time you will not find a lecture, a speech or a briefing from the WTO, the CBI or similar organisations that discusses globalisation without also noting the need to correct the inequality it has bred between and within states. This is now a central element of the situation, because the stability necessary to conduct global trade and raise profits can only be realised if there is increased social peace and political consensus. It is recognised that one of the primary drivers of the political destabilisation we are witnessing is inequality and that the ‘benefits of globalisation’ are not being shared to a great enough degree.
With the decline of living standards in the West, a process that has been exacerbated by both the 2008 crash and the austerity driven response to it, coupled with the slow decline of the global neoliberal framework, an insurgency on the left and right has developed. On the left, the key year of reference was 2011, which saw the world ablaze with street protest from the left against welfare reforms, oppressive labour laws and austerity. In addition, we saw the potential for a new Middle East in the shadow of the failed Project for a New American Century that could displace imperial power and dictatorship from below via the Egyptian revolution.
However, social movements without political power suffered defeat, and the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, while still a live process, have – for the time being – failed. Leftist movements aware of the need to take political power engaged in the development of forces like Syriza, who came to power in 2015 only to be crushed by the Troika. And we have seen the development of Podemos, Sanders and Corbynism. All of this means that the left has not been absent from the scene, but has suffered set-backs, met the limits of reformism and as a result has been temporarily disarmed.
The far-right have been able to capitalise. In just about every country in Europe, even Germany, there is now a significant populist Right presence. This is a contradictory force – on the one hand it is anti-establishment because it is capable of mobilising the worst, most atavistic aspects of anti-globalisation sentiment within the working class, and on the other it is led by bankers (Farage) and billionaires (Trump), because it doesn’t seek something new, but a nostalgia for something old – a 1950’s western world where pub owners could get away with putting up ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ signs.
That said – something else is going on. They have managed to re-cast left-wing positions into their discourse. May’s references to the ‘working class’ and Trumps railing against NAFTA and other trade agreements that have seen American communities turned into areas of jobless despair have encroached heavily on the left’s territory. This has been blended together with the racism and sexism that has come to dominate his persona. The populist Right’s potency is this combination of racist nostalgia with economic protectionism.
Immigration in particular has been a lighting rod that has conducted widely felt frustration about living standards. But we have to be careful in our reading of this if we are to effectively intervene. The most comprehensive study of Brexit voters, for example, found that immigration was tied with class concerns around austerity, jobs and services. This is partly why the right are so keen to drive the Leave narrative to such a toxic degree – to bury the potential of progressive class politics emerging as a solution.
The authors of the study carried out at Warwick University find:
“…that fundamental characteristics of the voting population were key drivers of the Vote Leave share, in particular their age and education profiles as well as the historical importance of manufacturing employment, low income and high unemployment. Migration was relevant only from Eastern European countries, not from older EU states or non-EU countries. We also find an important role for fiscal cuts being associated with Vote Leave. Our results indicate that modest reductions in fiscal cuts could have swayed the referendum outcome. In contrast, even drastic changes in immigration patterns would probably not have made a difference. We confirm the above findings at the much finer level of wards within cities. Our results cast doubt on the notion that short-term campaigning events had a meaningful influence on the vote.”
This is not to deny the worrying amplification and spread of overtly racist rhetoric and indeed the rise in racist attacks in Western Europe, but we have to understand this as part of a wider context in order to engage with the issues that it raises and to prevent further loss of ground to the right.
The Left and the Establishment
Within all of this lies a danger, and a trap, that the left must avoid as it undergoes a process of rebuilding. That trap is to be seen to be the driving supporters of establishment interests and politicians. So, to give a topical example, those leftists who positively and overtly support Hilary Clinton also contribute to rendering the left impotent to the challenge of the radical right after the election. They will be moving against Clinton, offering an alternative vision and will have entrapped the left within this process. Remember, stability is not an option against the backdrop of global crisis. That does not mean there is a better realistic option in the election – but at the same time it does determine how you express that. A vote to stop Trump is different from advocating for Clinton.
In any event, the left needs to forge an independent political reality for itself that operates on the basis of opposition to the radical right, not through the immediate sheltering that can be provided by a weak establishment. The left need to be articulating a vision for a new, post-capitalist society. Without the space to do that it will lie incubated within the parameters of a decaying system, and tied to the inevitable failure of Clinton. This example can be internationalised to different contexts with the same general principles. The left cannot become entangled in an establishment politics that has failed, or in unwittingly defending neoliberal globalisation because it is seen as a better alternative to the rabid nature of vision the right-wing proposing and their National Conservative vision.
There is a huge risk that progressive forces can be locked out of position in the critical years ahead. Is it not striking, that given the left organised the anti-globalisation movement against the IMF, NAFTA, the G8 and so on, that it is the right that is profiting from the crisis in the global system, using much of the same language the anti-capitalist movement deployed in relation to corporate greed, inequality and special interest lobbying?
The left, if it is to be effective in repudiating the chauvinist right and the fascist undertone it carries, needs to decide how it is going to tackle globalisation. It cannot be for inward looking nationalism, but equally it cannot be for the free-trade superhighway of neoliberal globalisation that generates massive inequality – and in any event is a failed model. It needs its own vision, and that means more than nationalisation and more than campaigning for better pay alone. It means nothing short of developing a strategy for a new working-class internationalism.
From the organised working-class that is mobilising in the emerging economies such as India through to the indigenous defence of the environment at Standing Rock, to precarious workers organising in the UK – the grassroots energy that can revive the international left exists. But we are without coordination and without a linked-up vision for the world we want to build together. This needs to be addressed, and it can be.
Today is not the only day. There is a long way for things to travel yet. The sociologist Wolfgang Streeck was quoted recently in the Financial Times:
“Capitalism will for the foreseeable future hang in limbo, dead or about to die from an overdose of itself but still very much around, as nobody will have the power to move its decaying body out of the way.”
Moving it out of the way is the left’s mission, and nobody else’s. Not May, not Trump, not Clinton, not Blair. The dystopian nightmare predicted by many is not the final phase – but a difficult, demoralising and frightening part of a wider process. The ability of the left and energised class forces to organise collectively, internationally and independently will determine the outcome – good or bad – in the decades ahead.