The defeat of the third way
The philosopher Jacques Derrida once wrote an essay called “Of an Apocalyptic Tone Recently Adopted in Philosophy”.1 That tone has, since 8 November, migrated into everyday political discussion. For the liberal left, Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States is simply the biggest fall in an avalanche of reaction. Others include, of course, two European referendums—Britain 23 June and Italy 4 December. Undeniably high bourgeois politics has shifted to the right. But this doesn’t mean that everything that’s happened can be amalgamated into a singular phenomenon all of whose elements have the same meaning.
For one thing, as this journal has consistently argued, there is a powerful progressive case to be made against the European Union. The fact this wasn’t strongly expressed in the British referendum campaign is unfortunate, but it doesn’t make the EU the beacon of enlightenment in a darkening world that, absurdly, the liberal left are portraying it as.2
The Italian referendum was about a package of constitutional changes designed to increase the powers of the central government and pushed through by prime minister Matteo Renzi alongside an electoral reform law (“Italicum”) favouring the big parties that he had agreed on with Silvio Berlusconi. It was opposed, as Armanda Cetrulo puts it, by “a diverse group made up of anti-fascist partisans, trade unions, constitutionalists, radical left movements, Lega, Forza Italia and the 5 Star Movement”. A major factor in the opposition from the left was the 2014 labour law, where “Renzi was able to do what even right wing governments were unable to achieve: the abolition of the right of new workers to be reintegrated in case of unfair firing”.3
The attempt by the European Commission and its echo chamber in the Guardian to portray Renzi’s crushing defeat “as yet another win for populist and anti-Europe forces” is risible.4 As the Independent noted:
The sheer size of the No vote discredits simplistic interpretations of the outcome as yet another expression of populist fervour. Rather, the vote was the expression of a range of different types of No: a No to the specific constitutional reforms being proposed; a No to the political elites in general; a No to the current economic and social malaise; above all a No to the Renzi government.5
Donald Trump, however, is another proposition. The man himself may have few positive political opinions, beyond instinctive racism and sexism—an opportunistic property developer too dodgy even for Wall Street. But his victory (via the electoral college rather than the popular vote, but few Democrats would have complained if Hillary Clinton had won that way) represents a sharp shift to the right of the bourgeois political scene in the US.
The supposedly respectable “establishment” Republicans in the new administration—for example, vice-president-elect Mike Pence—were fringe ideologues in the era of George W Bush. More worrying still, Trump is exposing to the light of day (blinking with surprise like creatures used to living under a stone when it is suddenly removed) figures belonging to the “alt-right” world of open racism and elitism, and of (no longer) closet fascism. He is bringing some—notably Stephen Bannon, editor of the far-right Breitbart News website—into the White House.
So there are very important differences between the events that have, since June, rocked the Western liberal capitalist order. But this doesn’t mean they have nothing in common. Put simply, 40 years of neoliberalism and nearly ten years of what Michael Roberts calls the “Long Depression”—are beginning to destabilise the political systems of the advanced capitalist states.6
Faced with the crash of 2007-8, the Western ruling classes abandoned the neoliberal playbook and resorted to the state to rescue them. But once they were sure the system was safe, they sought to drive through a recharged version of neoliberalism. It may not provide a very good policy regime for managing capitalism—after all, all the major advanced capitalisms (the US, the eurozone, Japan and Britain) continue to depend on extraordinary measures by central banks (quantitative easing, ultra-low or even negative interest rates) to keep the financial system afloat. But neoliberalism works very well in enriching the rich. Ordinary people were left to pick up the bill in the shape of austerity and squeezed living standards.
Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman found in a recent study that:
the bottom half of the income distribution in the United States has been completely shut off from economic growth since the 1970s. From 1980 to 2014, average national income per adult grew by 61 percent in the United States, yet the average pre-tax income of the bottom 50 percent of individual income earners stagnated at about $16,000 per adult after adjusting for inflation. In contrast, income skyrocketed at the top of the income distribution, rising 121 percent for the top 10 percent, 205 percent for the top 1 percent, and 636 percent for the top 0.001 percent.7
Britain too is a case in point, supposedly a relatively “strong” economy and certainly performing much better than the doom-laded Treasury and Bank of England forecasts before the referendum. Nevertheless, the Resolution Foundation argues that figures released by the Office of Budget Responsibility for chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond’s autumn statement in late November suggest real earnings will be:
no higher in 2020-21 than they were in 2006-07. It would also mean that pay growth over the decade from 2010 would be the weakest since the 1900s. Total growth of just 1.6 percent in the decade to 2020 compares with growth of 12.7 percent in the 2000s and over 20 percent in every other decade since the 1920s.8
Figure 1 puts this pay squeeze into historical context. As the economic historian Adam Tooze points out, “the late 18th century, the post-Napoleonic [era], the pre-1914 period and the years since 2008 stand out” as times when workers suffered a sharp fall in their living standards.9 A glance at the steep fall in real earnings since the crash is enough to explain the vote to leave the EU.
Figure 1: Real weekly earnings decadal growth since the 1700s Percentage change in average pay between last 10 years and 10 years before (CPI and predecessors adjusted). Source: Resolution Foundation.
Running through the recent voting upsets has been the tendency of many of the victims of neoliberalism, crisis and austerity to rebel against the establishment responsible for their suffering. In our last issue Charlie Kimber documented this for the Brexit referendum.10 The case of the US presidential election is more complex, as Josh Hollands shows elsewhere in this issue. Trump’s mobilisation of white Anglo racism kept many of the poorest, African-Americans and Latinos, in the Democratic camp, even if they turned out to vote on a smaller scale than they had for Obama. Indeed, this was an election that Clinton lost rather than one that Trump won.
Konstantin Kilibarda and Daria Roithmayr argue that was true in the five mid-Western rustbelt states (Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) that allowed Trump to scoop up enough electoral college votes to make it to the White House: “Relative to the 2012 election, Democratic support in the Rust Belt collapsed as a huge number of Democrats stayed home or (to a lesser extent) voted for a third party. Trump did not really flip white working-class voters in the Rust Belt. Mostly, Democrats lost them”.11
It’s nevertheless striking that the Economist found that the best predictor of where Trump did better than Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate in 2012, was:
county-level data on life expectancy and the prevalence of obesity, diabetes, heavy drinking and regular physical activity (or lack thereof)… The public health crisis unfolding across white working class America is hardly a secret. Last year Angus Deaton, a Nobel-prize-winning economist, found that the death rate among the country’s middle aged, less-educated white citizens had climbed since the 1990s, even as the rate for Hispanics and blacks of the same age had fallen. Drinking, suicide and a burgeoning epidemic of opioid abuse are widely seen as the most likely causes. Some argue that deteriorating health outcomes are linked to deindustrialisation: higher unemployment rates predict both lower life expectancy and support for Mr Trump, even after controlling for a bevy of demographic variables.
Polling data suggests that, on the whole, Mr Trump’s supporters are not particularly down on their luck: within any given level of educational attainment, higher-income respondents are more likely to vote Republican. But what the geographic numbers do show is that the specific subset of Mr Trump’s voters that won him the election—those in counties where he outperformed Mr Romney by large margins—live in communities that are literally dying. Even if Mr Trump’s policies are unlikely to alleviate their plight, it is not hard to understand why they voted for change.12
The Italian referendum differed in many ways from the US election. Nevertheless, according to the Financial Times:
Economic discontent also played a role in the premature ending of Mr Renzi’s mandate. Analysis reveals that higher unemployment rates and lower levels of per capita income were associated with more emphatic votes to reject constitutional reform… While it is true that economic discontent was associated with greater support for the Five Star Movement and for Mr Berlusconi’s party in the general election of 2013, its correlation with the outcome of the referendum was even stronger, suggesting a deeper protest motivation behind the referendum vote.13
Of course, a multiplicity of factors was involved in all these results—democratic concerns and political opportunism helped to mobilise opposition to Renzi, who acknowledged the variety of the discontents ranged against him by vaingloriously dismissing the No campaigners as an accozzaglia, or jumble. Nevertheless, if the motivations for revolt differed the nature of what was being rejected is clear enough. More than anything else, the main casualty of these voting upsets has been the Third Way—the attempt led by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton in the 1990s to marry traditional social democracy and neoliberalism. Both Cameron and Renzi are great admirers of Blair, while Hillary Clinton was, of course, present at the creation. Social liberalism is in trouble elsewhere, as is signalled by the decision of the hapless French president, François Hollande, to take the hint provided by his 4 percent approval rating and not run for re-election.
Fascism on the march?
The Third Way deserves to die. The Long Depression has shown definitively that Blair’s promise to marry the market and social justice is unrealisable. Gordon Brown’s devil’s pact with the City sank the last Labour government, and Clinton’s dalliances with Wall Street helped to scupper her presidential hopes. The trouble is that the main political beneficiaries have come from further rightwards. Indeed it has become fashionable to talk about an “authoritarian international” spreading from Vladimir Putin’s Russia to Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the US under Trump, and—what next? France under Marine Le Pen after the presidential election in April and May?
Once again it’s important to differentiate. Putin’s attempt to rebuild Russian imperial power based on an energy-exporting economy that is highly dependent on world markets is very different from Erdoğan’s neoliberal, and now increasingly authoritarian Islamism, which is tied to the new pious industrial bourgeoisie of Anatolia. There’s a temptation to amalgamate all these different figures as “populists”—indeed one index of the Western ruling classes’ refusal to understand what’s happening is their propensity, and that of their media and academic auxiliaries, to spray around the word “populism”, which has become a catch-all term used simultaneously to dismiss and to assimilate together all challenges to the neoliberal status quo.14
Used more restrictedly, “populism” is helpful in identifying a range of parties of the racist right that have become more prominent recently. UKIP is a paradigm case: it claims to represent a British nation whose interests have been denied by an elite wedded to the EU. This is typical of what Ernesto Laclau calls the “logic of equivalence” at work in populism: the people is constructed as a totality through its antagonism with an “excluded element”—in this case, the pro-EU elite but also, of course, the migrants from the rest of Europe with whom this elite has, according to UKIP, flooded the country.15 Parties of the populist right such as UKIP are undoubtedly racist: indeed, Nigel Farage’s success has lain in marrying Euroscepticism to anti-migrant racism and then using this toxic cocktail to drag the mainstream parties further to the right. In the process, UKIP and its counterparts elsewhere have sucked up some of the anger generated by the economic suffering that neoliberalism and crisis have inflicted and converted it into votes.
Now, however, for many there is a whiff of fascism in the air. It isn’t just Democrats calling Trump a fascist. Here is the neoconservative Robert Kagan:
This is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes (although there have been salutes, and a whiff of violence) but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac “tapping into” popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party—out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear—falling into line behind him.16
A Nazi in the White House is a scary prospect indeed. But what does “fascism” mean in this context? Is it more than a swear-word or an expression of loathing for Trump’s racist demagogy? American politics has produced plenty of racist demagogues—Huey Long in the 1930s, George Wallace in the 1960s. Of course, it’s terrible if one has succeeded in winning the presidency where these earlier figures failed, especially since he follows the first black president. But a fascist would be a different thing altogether.
In the classical Marxist tradition, above all Leon Trotsky’s writings on Hitler’s rise to power, fascism means “a distinctive kind of mass movement” (I quote here my own restatement of Trotsky’s theory):
National Socialism represented a particular response to the intense social and economic contradictions undergone by German society at the onset of [Arno] Mayer’s “General Crisis and Thirty Years War of the twentieth century”. While mobilising its followers in support of a counter-revolutionary project—the destruction of organised labour and the rehabilitation of German imperialism—it promised them an apparently revolutionary vision of a Volksgemeinschaft, a racial Utopia from which both class conflict and alien races (the two united in Nazi ideology in the figure of the Jew setting German against German) had been banished.17
The Nazis forged what I call “a conflictual partnership” with German capital:
It was based on a limited convergence of interests between the Nazis and sections of German capital (particularly those associated with heavy industry) who shared common objectives, notably the destruction of the organised working class and an imperial programme of expansion into the East. Even before the onset of the Great Depression, the leaders of heavy industry were in revolt against the Weimar republic, denouncing it as a “trade union state” whose commitment to social welfare and institutionalised collective bargaining imposed excessively high costs on German capitalism: in this respect the iron-and-steel lock-out of November 1928 marked a turning point. From the fall of the Grand Coalition in March 1930 onwards, the industrialists’ intransigence against the background of a spectacularly deteriorating economic situation helped to doom liberal democracy in Germany.18
This understanding of National Socialism corresponds remarkably closely to the broader definition of fascism offered by Robert O Paxton, one of the leading mainstream scholars in the field:
Fascism may be defined as a form of political behaviour marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.19
How well does this conception of fascism fit Trump? Paxton himself has noted similarities in both the themes Trump plays—the ethnic stereotypes he uses and the way he harps on the theme of US “national decline”—and his highly personalised and operatic political style. But Paxton highlights two important differences. First, at the level of ideology:
the fascists offer themselves as a remedy for aggressive individualism, which they believed was the source of the defeat of Germany in World War I, and the decline of Italy, the failure of Italy. World War I, the perceived national decline, they blamed on individualism and their solution was to subject the individual to the interests of the community. Trump, and the Republicans generally, and indeed a great swath of American society have celebrated individualism to the absolute total extreme.20
Secondly, the historical context in which Mussolini and Hitler triumphed was very different:
It was a conscious choice in both countries to consider the socialists and the communists a much greater threat than the Nazis and fascists, and there was a conscious decision by the conservatives who were still holding the machinery of power to bring the fascists and the Nazis into the system in order to better fight the left. That particular dynamic is of course completely absent now. There was a conscious choice in Germany at the end of 1932 to use Hitler’s mass following to smash social democracy in Germany. The same strategic [choice] was made in Italy. I don’t see any of that dynamic. The old guard is against Trump. They’re not trying to use him, although, they may shift, they may decide that if Trump continues to be successful that he could be useful.21
This last point is decisive. The Long Depression has developed against the background of a protracted stagnation or decline in real wages for the mass of working class people. Of course, the bosses want to force workers’ living standards even further down in order to restore competitiveness and profitability.22 But the weakening of trade union organisation in the neoliberal era means that the workers’ movement doesn’t represent the kind of obstacle to advancing capitalist interests that needs to be broken down forcibly. In the inter-war era the specific attraction of the fascists to big business lay in the paramilitary mass movement they offered to shatter the organised working class, as Trotsky put it, “razing to their foundations all the institutions of proletarian democracy”:
At the moment that the “normal” police and military resources of the bourgeois dictatorship, together with their parliamentary screens, no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium, the turn of the fascist regime arrives. Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of crazed petty bourgeoisie, and bands of the declassed and demoralised lumpenproletariat; all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy. From fascism the bourgeoisie demands a thorough job… And the fascist agency, by utilising the petty bourgeoisie as a battering ram, by overwhelming all obstacles in its path, does a thorough job.23
Not only are the bosses not turning to the fascists to provide this “battering ram”, but there is no fascist mass movement—what Paxton calls “a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants”—capable of playing this role in the United States. Trump captured the presidency through winning the candidacy for one of the two main bourgeois parties. That he was able to do so despite the opposition of the Republican establishment is a symptom of one of the typical phenomena of the neoliberal, the general weakening of structured political organisations. Rather than build a new party, he exploited the decay of the old ones.
The rise of the alt-right is an extremely ugly development. But we need to get their measure. They are racists, elitists, isolationists and protectionists. Two of them, Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos, express what they call a “natural conservative” worldview as:
a preference for homogeneity over diversity, for stability over change, and for hierarchy and order over radical egalitarianism… An establishment Republican, with their overriding belief in the glory of the free market, might be moved to tear down a cathedral and replace it with a strip mall if it made economic sense. Such an act would horrify a natural conservative. Immigration policy follows a similar pattern: by the numbers, cheap foreign workers on H1B visas make perfect economic sense. But natural conservatives have other concerns: chiefly, the preservation of their own tribe and its culture.24
Similarly, the historian Paul Gottfried, who has been called the “architect” of the alt-right, has sought to distance this current from classical fascism: “As a historical phenomenon fascism has nothing to do with advocating an isolationist foreign policy, trying to restrict Third World immigration, or favouring significant income distribution in order to achieve greater social equality”.25 The list of policies implicitly favoured by Gottfried underlines the alt-right’s distance from the neoconservatives so influential in George W Bush’s administration. Many of them renegades from the Democratic Party, the neocons are, as it were, imperialist universalists. In other words, they argued that the universal validity of American democratic values justified the use of the Pentagon’s military power forcibly to spread the US model of neoliberal capitalism.26 But the alt-right generally oppose foreign military adventures, are critical of the effects of neoliberal economic policies on American jobs and living standards and reject universalism. As Bokhari and Yiannopoulos put it, “the alt-right’s intellectuals would also argue that culture is inseparable from race. The alt-right believe that some degree of separation between peoples is necessary for a culture to be preserved”.27 As so often in post-1960s racism, “culture” is a marker for race. Hence the alt-right are fiercely opposed to the more multicultural understanding of American identity symbolised by Barack Obama and his presidency.
This is nasty stuff indeed: it has drawn strength from and helped to legitimise the racist hostility to Obama implicit in the “birther” campaign that Trump fronted and in elements of the Tea Party movement. The resulting political environment is one where openly fascist ideas can be articulated. The notorious speech (greeted with Nazi salutes) by Gottfried’s ex-protégé Richard Spencer to his National Policy Institute on 19 November—“Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail our victory!”—is a prime example. He told an interviewer: “I think we might need a little more chaos in our politics, we might need a bit of that fascist spirit in our politics”.28
So far, however, performances such as Spencer’s seem more like Nazi chic than anything resembling an organised fascist movement. His audience on 19 November looked more like nerds than storm-troopers. Organised Nazis in the US remain scattered grouplets. But this is no reason for complacency. The likes of Spencer and Breitbart News have gigantic online presences. Nazi ideas should not be allowed to become respectable. Those who express or even play with them should be the object of what Herbert Marcuse called “liberating intolerance”. The election of a racist as president of the US, and the figures from further right that he brings in his entourage give encouragement to every racist, every trigger-happy cop, every white militiaman in the US. In more aggravated conditions, this can help to promote the development of real fascist movements. And these already exist in Europe—usually in the guise of supposedly more mainstream populist racist parties that have fascist cores (for example, the Front National in France and Jobbik in Hungary), but sometimes in much more open form (above all, Chrysi Avgi—Golden Dawn—in Greece).
The more immediate threat in the US from a Trump presidency is the reinforcement of existing tendencies—the state racism challenged by Black Lives Matter and the mechanisms of surveillance, repression, and execution by drone that the “war on terror” has allowed the Bush and Obama administrations to build up. Under both, the power of the so-called “national security state” has continued to grow. Michael J Glennon (drawing on an idea of the 19th century liberal writer Walter Bagehot) argues that:
power in the United States lay initially in one set of institutions—the presidency, Congress, and the courts. These are America’s “dignified” institutions. Later, however, a second institution emerged to safeguard the nation’s security. This, America’s “efficient” institution (actually…more a network than an institution), consists of the several hundred executive officials who sit atop the military, intelligence, diplomatic, and law enforcement departments and agencies that have as their mission the protection of America’s international and internal security… The United States has, in short, moved beyond a mere imperial presidency to a bifurcated system—a structure of double government—in which even the president exercises little substantive control over the overall direction of US national security policy.29
The existence of this network must provide some reassurance to the American ruling class inasmuch as it might short-circuit attempts by Trump to engage in foreign-policy adventures. But the evidence of history is equivocal. At the height of the Watergate crisis in October 1973 senior national security officials ignored a drunken president Richard Nixon when handling a potential confrontation with the USSR over the Arab-Israeli war.30 But Nixon did shift the direction of US foreign policy when he entered the White House, in particular through the decision to outflank the Soviet Union by an opening to Mao’s China. Before him John F Kennedy overrode the Pentagon’s advice to mount a military attack on Cuba in October 1962 and instead cut a secret deal with the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, for the Russian nuclear missiles to be removed immediately from the island while US missiles in Turkey would be withdrawn later.31 And Obama has solidly blocked the pressures from the US national security establishment to intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war.
So, though the institutional power of what Glennon calls the “Trumanite network” (because it was created in the late 1940s under president Harry S Truman) is undeniable, whoever occupies the White House makes a difference to the direction of US policy. Any administration faces the internal restraints imposed by this network (and the Washington bureaucracy more generally) and the external restraints deriving from Congress and the state governments, the now highly diversified media, US banks and corporations and their extensive lobbying wing and the financial markets. Together this confluence of forces pushes strongly in favour of maintaining the status quo—a liberal capitalist international order led by US imperialism and underpinned by its military power.
Trump won the presidency by campaigning against this order. One Financial Times columnist mournfully notes:
It would be hard to overstate the epochal significance of Mr Trump’s election. The US-led international order as we knew it for 70 years is over. The era of great power politics is back. An ebullient Russia, led by the strongman Putin, and an increasingly confident China, led by the strongman Xi Jinping, will deal with a wounded America led by strongman Trump.32
In fact, “the US-led international order” is a form of “great power politics”, designed to maintain the hegemony of American capitalism. Is that hegemony really “over”? No: it’s under pressure because of US relative economic decline, but that’s been true for some time. Russia is considerably weaker than it was in the days of the Soviet Union, and the fact that the Chinese government is making more and more strenuous efforts to stem the outflow of capital and prevent the decline of the renminbi (the opposite of what Trump accuses it of) hardly suggests that all is well in Beijing. What difference will Trump really make? First, his will certainly be a more authoritarian presidency, willing to use the extra-constitutional powers of the national security apparatus with even less inhibition than Bush and Obama. The fact that he is stuffing his cabinet with military men is an indication of this. His position is all the stronger because the Republicans control both houses of Congress. The divisions that have emerged (not for the first time) between the CIA and the FBI over the election will probably work to his advantage.
Secondly, it’s much less clear how much a break with neoliberalism Trump will represent, as Paxton notes. Trump has targeted one of the main pillars of neoliberal globalisation, trade liberalisation. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which Trump has pledged to denounce on his first day in office, was painstakingly constructed by Obama to constrain China. So this is a geopolitical setback as well as a blow to the interests of US transnational corporations. The counterpart deal with the European Union, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which was already in trouble, looks dead in the water now.
But global trade has already been slowing down sharply since the crash so it’s unclear how vital these deals are from a strictly economic point of view. Trump’s other policies—cutting taxes for the rich, giving US corporations tax incentives to repatriate the huge profits that they have been holding abroad, boosting infrastructure investment, relaxing banking regulation—are being celebrated on Wall Street, as is reflected in the soaring stock market. Wide sections of American business seem to be hoping for the kind of boost to the private economy that they associate with Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s. There’s a lot of wishful thinking here—US economic recovery under Reagan depended heavily on a combination of wage repression, military Keynesianism and falling interest rates that stimulated the first in the series of financial bubbles that drove American capitalism till the crash. But falling bond prices and the policy pronouncements of the Federal Reserve Board suggest interest rates are going to start rising. This, alongside the strengthening dollar, could hold back growth, though another bubble is possible. None of this will radically improve the situation of the bottom 50 percent whose real income hasn’t increased since Reagan was elected.
The picture is similarly uncertain, finally, in the domain of foreign policy. Trump may cosy up to Putin, but there are already plenty of voices in the Western ruling classes arguing that the Obama-EU policy of isolating Russia was a mistake. China is a different proposition. Trump’s decision to take a call from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, according to the Washington Post, was not a gaffe: “The historic communication—the first between leaders of the United States and Taiwan since 1979—was the product of months of quiet preparations and deliberations among Trump’s advisers about a new strategy for engagement with Taiwan”.33 Once again, this goes back deep into Republican history: Reagan and others on the right were critical of president Jimmy Carter’s decision in 1979 to open formal relations with the People’s Republic of China and to cease to recognise Taiwan. They saw this “One China” policy as a betrayal of a Cold War ally. But, as Trump’s subsequent tweets made clear, the conversation was also a message to Beijing, which claims Taiwan as part of China and has made it clear that it would go to war to prevent the island becoming independent (Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party historically supported independence). Trump subsequently told Fox News: “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a One China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”
The episode suggests a tougher line towards China, though how this will relate to Obama’s famous “pivot” towards Asia, which already sought to contain Beijing, remains to be seen. Overall Trump’s presidency looks set to be a very right wing Republican administration rather than a break with the norms of bourgeois politics in the US. The business executives who, alongside the ex-generals, are being lined up for cabinet posts, headed by Rex Tillerson, the ExxonMobil chairman nominated as secretary of state, similarly suggest that the Trump presidency will be less out of line with the interests of capital than some of his pronouncements on the campaign trail suggested. His administration is still very bad news for ordinary working people and especially people of colour. It will narrow the already limited scope for democracy in the US, make the onset of climate chaos more likely, and give heart to racists and fascists everywhere.
The struggle ahead
Any response from the radical and revolutionary left depends ultimately on our ability to offer the victims of neoliberalism a convincing, democratic and progressive alternative. But there is a real danger that our divisions will get in the way. First the Brexit referendum and then the US election have bitterly divided the left—first over attitudes to the EU and then over whether Clinton represented the “lesser evil” compared to Trump. Those on the left who voted Leave and refused to vote for Clinton have been bitterly attacked for capitulating to racism (and, in the US case, sexism as well).
These kinds of attacks are doubly problematic. In the first case, they are false and unfair. The Socialist Workers Party, which supported the Lexit campaign during the referendum, has for many years been in the forefront of challenging racism and fascism in Britain. In the US there is a powerful case for emancipating the left from the hegemony of the Democratic Party, whose support for neoliberalism and subservience to the banks and corporations was particularly evident in the Clinton campaign.
But secondly there is a danger that these divisions mean that it becomes impossible for the left to use a common language in which to articulate both differences and (more importantly) our agreements. Thus for some on the British left the Utopian project of reversing the outcome of the referendum has become their main preoccupation. This is problematic because it can align them with those capitalist interests keen at the very minimum to make Brexit as soft as possible for their own reasons. But it can also lead to taking an increasingly apologetic stance towards the EU itself—for example, defending the Single European Market even though it has been one of the key mechanisms driving neoliberalism deep into the political economy of the EU and its member states.34
There is absolutely no sign of the EU changing its spots. The recent Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Canada (CETA) nearly capsized because of the same provision for investor panels giving transnational corporations the power to sue governments that has led to such opposition to both TTIP and the TPP. And the idea that German chancellor Angela Merkel has become the champion of traditional liberal values died when she launched her campaign for next year’s federal elections by announcing that she supports a ban on the burka.
The obvious way in which the radical left can re-unite despite its differences is by building movements against racism and Islamophobia. In Britain Stand Up to Racism is becoming increasingly important. Strategically the issue of freedom of movement within Europe is central. It is the bone in the throat of the British ruling class as it faces up to Brexit. Both the Tories and the Labour right wing interpret the referendum result as the rejection of the right of EU citizens freely to move to and work in Britain. Theresa May sought to reunify her party and seize back the electoral terrain lost to UKIP by nailing this rejection to her mast at the Tory party conference in October. The financial markets immediately slapped her down by pushing sterling down even further than it had already fallen. The reason is simple. The EU has made it clear that without maintaining freedom of movement for EU citizens Britain cannot stay in the single market, and the banks and corporations based in Britain are desperate to stay in the single market.
Throughout the tortuous Brexit negotiations due to start in the spring this contradiction will dominate, as the British political elite twist and turn between capitulating to racism and keeping capital happy. May’s show of strength on taking office now looks very hollow, as her government publicly fractures. This makes freedom of movement within Europe a key issue around which the radical left can unite irrespective of how they voted in the referendum. As it stands, millions of workers in Britain will lose their existing rights and (according to home secretary Amber Rudd) be required to carry special identity papers because they come from other parts of the EU. This will weaken the entire working class in Britain. Fortunately, there are two politicians defending freedom of movement against enormous pressure from the Tory media and the Labour right. They happen to be the leader of the Labour Party and the shadow home secretary, Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott. Fighting for freedom of movement as part of a broader anti-racist campaign is therefore a way of strengthening their hand against the right. But, whatever the political alignment, it would be necessary anyway.
The challenge here in Britain, in the rest of Europe and in the US, is to build broad and united anti-racist mass movements that can drive back the likes of Trump and May, Farage and Le Pen. The arrival of a right-wing adventurer at the head of the main imperialist power is unwelcome indeed. But Trump’s power can be broken through the kind of combination of external pressures from above, internal divisions from within, and mass resistance from below that have removed many of his ilk before him. The giant demonstrations in Seoul that have forced the South Korean National Assembly to impeach another right wing president, Park Geun-hye, underline how hubris can rapidly be transformed into nemesis.
Alex Callinicos is Professor of European Studies at King’s College London and editor of International Socialism
1 Derrida, 1984. The title of my piece is borrowed from that of a novel by Anthony Burgess, published at much the same time as Derrida’s, close to the most dangerous moment of the Second Cold War—Burgess, 1983.
2 Callinicos, 2015 and 2016.
3 Cetrulo, 2016.
4 Kirchgaessner, 2016.
5 Newell, 2016.
6 Roberts, 2016.
7 Piketty, Saez and Zucman, 2016.
8 Corlett, Finch, Gardiner and Whittaker, 2016, p17.
10 Kimber, 2016.
11 Kilibarda and Roithmayr, 2016.
12 Economist, 2016.
13 Romei, 2016.
14 D’Eramo, 2013.
15 Laclau, 2005.
16 Kagan, 2016.
17 Callinicos, 2001, developing the arguments in Trotsky, 1971.
18 Callinicos, 2001.
19 Paxton, 2004, p218.
20 Paxton interviewed in Chotiner, 2016.
21 Chotiner, 2016.
22 See, for the case of Europe, Pradella, 2015.
23 Trotsky, 1971, pp159 and 155.
24 Bokhari and Yiannopoulous, 2016.
25 Gottfried, 2016, Kindle loc 90. See also the interesting profile of Gottfried in Siegel, 2016. Gottfried’s book is a collection of erudite essays that seeks to differentiate the “radicalism” of Nazism from “generic fascism”, which he equates primarily with Italian fascism. The relatively sympathetic portrayal of the latter indicates Gottfried’s apologetic purpose, even though he protests that the historic moment of fascism has passed.
26 Callinicos, 2003, and Mann, 2004.
27 Bokhari and Yiannopolous, 2016.
28 Siegel, 2016.
29 Glennon, 2014, pp6-7.
30 Dallek, 2007, pp529-332.
31 Freedman, 2000, part III.
32 Luce, 2016.
33 Gearen, Drucker and Denyer, 2016.
34 Socialist Worker, 2016.