Economic issues are not separate from “identity” issues
Building the largest possible movement to not only tackle the immense, and intensifying, problems facing humanity and the environment but to overcome these problems is our urgent task. Given the position the Left finds itself in today, serious discussions inevitably include a variety of perspectives, and that is healthy.
But sometimes these discussions can veer too far into an “either/or” dynamic. These debates center on who should be the subject(s) of a mass movement that can begin to reverse the European and North American slide toward the right, a direction that, at least for now, appears to be sweeping across Latin America as well. In the United States, following the shock election of Donald Trump, an “either/or” debate has taken shape in the form of “identity politics” versus “class politics.” But do we really have to pick a side here?
An example of an activist arguing that there has been too much focus in the U.S. on “identity politics,” Bruce Lerro, writing for the Planning Beyond Capitalism web site, argues that both the Democratic Party and the Left ignored working class concerns, catastrophically leaving an opening for a right-wing demagogue like President-elect Trump to fill a vacuum. Critical of what he calls a capitulation to “long-standing liberal ideology [that] all ethnicities and genders will be able to compete for a piece of the capitalist pie,” Professor Lerro writes:
“Calling people into the streets on the basis of attacks on ethnic minorities or anti-Islamic remarks alone ignores the results of the election. It reveals the left’s inadequacy in having next to no influence over all the working class people who voted for Trump as well as the 47% of the people who didn’t bother to vote at all. It continues the same 45 year history of identity politics which has failed to make things better for its constituents, except for all upper middle class minorities and women in law and university professors who benefit most from identity politics and who moralistically preside over politically correct vocabulary.”
It is true that liberal ideology tends to fight for the ability of minorities and women to be able to obtain elite jobs as ends to themselves rather than orient toward a larger struggle against systemic inequality and oppression. Leaving capitalism untouched leaves behind all but a handful of people who ascend to elite jobs. Barack Obama’s eight years as U.S. president didn’t end racism, did it? Nor would have a successful Hillary Clinton campaign have brought an end to sexism. A movement serious about change fights structural discrimination; it doesn’t fight for a few individuals to have a career.
But to say this is not to deny that racism, sexism and other social ills have to be fought head-on. So even a focus on class issues does not mean ignoring these issues, Professor Lerro writes:
“In criticizing identity politics I am not proposing that race and gender issues should not be discussed or that they don’t matter. My criticism of identity politics is that it has historically excluded social class. From an anti-capitalist and socialist perspective, race and gender are most importantly discussed at the location where capitalists produce surplus labor — on the job. So where there is white privilege over wages or the quality of jobs offered, this issue should be discussed openly by workers in and out of a union setting. At the same time, when we are organizing against capitalism and developing a socialist political practice, race and gender issues as they affect socialist organizing, need to be confronted. But the further away discussions of race and gender get from social class, the workplace and efforts to organize against capitalism and for socialism, the more they becomes discussions for liberals — not socialists.”
Racism and sexism in our own movements
Racism and sexism, however, are found outside the workplace, and have not been eradicated from social struggles. Certainly there can not be any going back to the open sexism of 1960s movements. There was a prominent demonstration of that era in which no women were invited to speak, and a group of women in response confronted men organizing the event about this, insisting that their demands be included. In response, one of the men told them that there was already a women’s resolution, which was simply a general plea for peace. Demanding that issues specific to women’s oppression be included, the male activist not only refused further discussion, but actually patted Shulamith Firestone, soon to be the author of The Dialectic of Sex, on the head!
Such degrading behavior would not be tolerated in a Left movement today, but it can hardly be argued that sexism (or racism) has been overcome once and for all in Left movements, never mind in larger society. The days when a Left movement can tell a member of an oppressed group to “wait your turn, it’ll all be better after we have the revolution,” really should be behind us.
Even after a revolution, these issues have to be worked on. Women, for example, made serious advances in the 20th century’s socialist revolutions but never sufficient advances, and there was often backsliding. The Sandinistas banned the display of women’s bodies in commercial advertising after coming to power in Nicaragua, but near the end of their first 11 years in power sponsored a beauty contest, nor did they legalize abortion. No woman sat on the Sandinistas’ highest body, the nine-member National Directorate, during those 11 years despite their fighting in large numbers, and even commanding, during the hard struggle against the Somoza dictatorship. No woman ever sat on the Politburo during the Soviet Union’s 74-year history.
Working people are oppressed, but not all to the same degree
The world’s advanced capitalist countries are far from a revolution, so all the more is it necessary to seriously make structural discrimination a component part of Left struggles, without forgetting the class dimension any such struggle must contain. In a typically thoughtful article in CounterPunch, Henry Giroux, while not losing sight of class issues, and the overall repression of working people under neoliberal regimes, refused to downplay the extra repression that rains down on minority communities. He wrote:
“Large segments of the American public, especially minorities of class and color, have been written out of politics over what they view as a failed state and the inability of the basic machinery of government to serve their interests. As market mentalities and moralities tighten their grip on all aspects of society, democratic institutions and public spheres are being downsized, if not altogether disappearing.
As these institutions vanish—from public schools to health care centers– there is also a serious erosion of the discourses of community, justice, equality, public values, and the common good. With the election of Donald Trump, the savagery of neoliberalism has been intensified with the emergence at the highest levels of power of a toxic mix of anti-intellectualism, religious fundamentalism, nativism, and a renewed notion of American exceptionalism.”
Professor Giroux argues against a focus on what he calls “single-issue movements” but not in the sense of dismissing liberation movements based on specific oppressions, but rather argues for a joining together of struggles through drawing the connections among various social movements. He writes:
“Central to viable notion of ideological and structural transformation is a refusal of the mainstream politics of disconnect. In its place is a plea for broader social movements and a more comprehensive understanding of politics in order to connect the dots between, for instance, police brutality and mass incarceration, on the one hand, and the diverse crises producing massive poverty, the destruction of the welfare state, and the assaults on the environment, workers, young people and women. …
Crucial to rethinking the space and meaning of the political imaginary is the need to reach across specific identities and to move beyond around single-issue movements and their specific agendas. This is not a matter of dismissing such movements, but creating new alliances that allow them to become stronger in the fight to not only succeed in advancing their specific concerns but also enlarging the possibility of developing a radical democracy that benefits not just specific but general interests.”
Economic issues aren’t separate from other issues
All working people are exploited under capitalism. It would be the height of folly to sideline this fundamental commonality. But the levels of exploitation, and the intensity of direct oppression, varies widely and it would be folly to ignore this as well. Those subject to higher (often far higher) levels of discrimination have every right to focus on their own emancipation, and those in more privileged positions have an obligation to support those emancipations. Further, the perpetuation of class oppression central to capitalism depends on deep divisions within the working class, not only in terms of setting different groups at each other’s throats but in providing relatively better pay and conditions to some so that the more privileged set themselves apart from the less privileged, reinforcing hierarchies that maintain divisions among working peoples.
Therefore it is self-defeating to attempt to downplay racial, sexual and other divisions in an effort to “concentrate” on economic issues, as if these are somehow separate from other issues. In a very thoughtful essay dealing with the roles of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in dampening activism and propping up the system they purport to critique, Sophia Burns goes on to argue that no fight against capitalist exploitation can succeed without women and People of Color playing central roles. If they are playing central roles, then the fight for their specific emancipations is central to the struggle.
Her discussion merits being quoted at length. Writing in The North Star, she argues:
“There’s an implicit notion that members of more privileged groups (men, whites, straights, etc) do not meaningfully stand to benefit from doing away with racism, sexism, etc. That underlies the moralistic connotations of ‘allyship’ — you support struggles in which you yourself have no personal stake, because that’s what an ethical person would do. Now, if you’re middle-class, that assumption is basically true. You aren’t part of the ruling class, but you have a degree of security, comfort, and control over your life. If you’re middle-class and white male, then pro-male or pro-white inequalities are pretty unambiguously good for you. So, the only reason you’d oppose them would have to be ethics, not self-interest.
But the working class has neither power nor security under capitalism. The fact that different parts of the working class are treated comparatively better or worse along racial, gender, etc lines does not change the fact that the whole class is exploited, oppressed, and ultimately powerless. However, white workers, male workers, and straight workers could not possibly defeat the ruling class alone. After all, it’s the middle class that is disproportionately white, male, etc — the working class has more people of color, women, and social minorities in general than other classes do. White men are only around 1/3 of the total US population, and an even smaller portion of the working class. So, because racism, sexism, etc exist within the class system and (combined together) directly oppress the large bulk of the working class, no working-class politics that rejects or ignores them has the ability to succeed. They’re components of the operation of the class system in practice, serving both to allow extra-high exploitation of female and non-white workers and to undercut the political potential of the class as a whole, which deepens all workers’ exploitation.
Racism and sexism are components of capitalism, and all ‘capitalism’ means is the exploitation by business owners of everyone else. So, when a white male worker understands capitalism as a class system that exploits the class of which he is part, it’s only through externally-imposed propaganda that he’s convinced that he has no stake in getting rid of racism and sexism. Economics is not a separate issue floating alongside others. Nothing that exists in capitalism is outside of capitalism.”
From the standpoint of the relationship to the means of production, white-collar middle class employees, as commonly defined, are of the same class as a blue-collar assembly-line laborer. Both are exploited economically in the same way, being paid a small fraction of the value of they produce. Nonetheless, it is indisputable that such middle-class workers (even if more properly understood as a strata within a working class that includes the vast majority of humanity) are privileged compared to other workers, and that their composition will be more heavily weighted toward dominant racial, ethnic or other groups in a given capitalist society, with the nastier and lower-paid jobs disproportionally held by disadvantaged groups.
Struggles against chauvinism are not an adjunct
The pervasive propaganda that denies that capitalism is exploitative or even refuses to acknowledge the different opportunities among different groups “is not a class-free worldview, but rather a worldview that’s natural for the middle class and that gets promoted because it serves the ruling class,” Ms. Burns writes. Thus, she argues, a false opposition is created between economics and other issues.
“Of course, because sexist and racist ideas receive the massive institutional sponsorship they do, working-class whites do have deep-seated racist notions and working-class men are often profoundly chauvinistic. The struggle against such beliefs and practices, even (in fact, especially) when they manifest within the working class, is not an adjunct to class struggle. It’s a central and necessary part of it. But when activist nonprofits and their supporters use an exaggerated account of working-class bigotry to dismiss working-class politics and a class struggle worldview entirely, they aren’t benevolently defending the marginalized. They are playing a useful role for the system that brings bigotry and privilege into being.
Neighborhood and workplace organizing, inside the working class and outside of the activist subculture, must include breaking down racism and sexism, within the class and everywhere else. But the self-interest of each part of a class is in the ultimate self-interest of the entire class. Even white male workers have a material stake in abolishing white and male privilege, despite the fact that it’s a long-term interest that isn’t acknowledged by mainstream ideas. Middle-class white men, of course, do not have that same stake. If a socialist movement is healthy, it’s not a middle-class affair.”
Let’s take this discussion a step further. Should we even use the term “identity politics”? Susan Cox, speaking on the Joy of Resistance: Multicultural Feminist Radio program on December 4, argued that being female is not an identity but rather is a material reality, and one of the most foundational realities that define the world’s social organization. She pointed out that women’s unpaid domestic labor props up the entire capitalist economic system. Defining feminism as a movement with a goal of global resistance wrenches it from the idea that it is an individualistic, lifestyle choice.
Further discussing this issue in an article in Feminist Current, Ms. Cox wrote:
“One would think being half of the damn population would make us more than some minor, divisive concern.
Women’s issues have been labelled “identity politics” for decades in order to belittle the feminist cause as politically unsubstantial/unimportant. In fact, the term first became prominent in American academia during its anti-Marxist ’80s in order to describe women as a fragmented group of individuals, rather than a class of persons with common class interests.”
It is reasonable to dispute the use of the term “class” in this context, but it should be indisputable that women face a particular oppression, one that although predating capitalism has long been an essential prop for maintaining capitalism. Racism is also necessary to maintain capitalism, and thus fighting it can never be an adjunct to a broad struggle for a better world.
Dismissing all those who voted for Donald Trump as bigots, “deplorables” or ignorant is not only simplistic and mistaken, it is bad practice. Some who voted for him can be described in such terms, but plenty voted for him, however mistakenly, out of a belief that he would bring back their jobs and because he represented, in their minds, “change.” Some Trump voters previously voted for Barack Obama — such folks can hardly be described as racists. Similarly, in France, many now supporting the National Front formerly supported the Socialist Party or the Communist Party. The United Kingdom Independence Party, however ridiculous we might find its name, is peeling off supporters from Labour.
Again, those trends do not mean there is no racism in such movements; that plenty of such exists is obvious. But economic insecurity is driving the rise of far right movements on more than one continent. Establishment politics has failed working people, and working people, including those without higher education, know it. They live it. At the same time, the far right movements that are gaining support among working people tap into the racism, nationalism, sexism and anti-Semitism that both exists within working classes (reflecting the whole of society) and is an inculcated weapon of division launched by elites who have every interest in our not uniting.
To “choose” between class politics and identity politics is a false choice. We are defeating ourselves if we decide to separate interrelated struggles and then debate which is the “proper” one. A multitude of tactics are just as necessary as fighting on multiple fronts, taking on the multiplicity of interconnected issues.
Economic issues are not separate from “identity” issues
“Anti-Trump” New Left Continues Crypto-Identity Politics
It does not take a Marxian economist to say that capitalism is in its worst shape in history. Not only are the countries of Africa, Southeast Asia and Central America being exploited for their labor and land as usual, but even the original home of capitalism, Europe, is in big trouble. As for the United States, people as different as Michael Hudson, Robert Brenner, David Harvey and Immanuel Wallerstein are far from alone in claiming the United States has been in decline for 45 years. Even Zbigniew Brzezinski admits this. Addtionally, as we know from the now famous Pew Research Center poll that was recently conducted, half of the people under 30 in the United States have said they look favorably on socialism. At least the “Bernie or Bust” crew didn’t bat an eye when Bernie Sanders said he was a socialist. Finally, in this last election, the American working class has shown it will respond to appeals based on economic issues of social class.
From a classical Marxist perspective, these conditions would seem to be a formula for a mass movement towards socialism. But in the United States both the social democratic left and the anarchists draw their inspiration from the New Left and share a 45 year history of having no base within the working class. Instead, they’ve spent the years from the early 1970’s to the present embroiled in identity politics.
Socio-economic class issues trumps identity politics
In every U.S. election I know of in the 20th century, the ruling class has always won regardless of the party or the candidate, and this election is no exception. However, among the middle and working classes that voted, a good case has already been made that the election of Donald Trump is an indicator of the triumph of the working class and lower middle class over the upper middle class and middle class right wing liberals who voted for Clinton II. Of course Republicans have been elected partly by the working class before. However, when the working class voted for Republicans in those past elections, those Republicans campaigned on the usual cultural issues of religion, family and gender. In this election Trump hardly appealed to traditional conservative issues. Of course he appealed to the white working class around ethnic prejudice (Mexicans) and religion (Islam). However, the biggest appeal to the working class was the prospect of jobs; that is, economic appeal. When was the last time a Republican candidate won an election appealing to the economic interests of the working class? Isn’t the prospect of providing jobs supposed to be what the Democratic Party does? If this doesn’t convince you that the Democratic Party is anti-working class, I don’t know what will. But the Democratic Party is not the only group that is anti-working class.
Liberals, social democrats and many anarchists who embrace identity politics view the election results as proof that the American working class is racist, sexist and against Islam. To some extent this may be true, but in a talk given in New York the day after the election, Marxian economist Richard Wolff pointed out that in most of the counties that voted for Trump, these same people voted for Obama in 2008. That means that the same working class people liberals and social democrats label as racist voted for an African-American president. If social class is any indicator, these working class people switched from Obama to Trump because Obama’s administration actually made economic life worse for them, as it did for the poor and the middle class.
In an article published on November 12th in the World Socialist Website, we find that as a percentage of votes cast, a higher percentage of ethnic minorities voted for Trump: (7% African-Americans; 8% Latinos; and 11% Asian-Americans) than voted for Clinton II. Why would ethnic minorities vote for a wealthy white man who has said some nasty things about ethnicity? Does this make them “self-hating minorities”? Does it make these voters “anti-feminist” because they didn’t vote for Clinton II? Or perhaps are the reasons because Trump promised them jobs, just like he promised them to the white working class and lower middle class? So after 40 years of political invisibility, the working class in the United States has asserted its importance in an election that centered on the economy. For traditional Marxists that would be sweet revenge against 40 years of social class being marginalized by the identity politics of the New Left. But what has the social democratic left learned from this election moving forward?
Protesting on cue
There was something nauseatingly familiar about protesters pouring into the streets egged on by the organizers of these demonstrations two days after Trump was elected. This left will come into the streets to protest elite policies only if the elites are white. For eight years the Obama administration was at war. For the same eight years there has been no anti-war movement in the streets. For eight years Obama has presided over a deepening financial crisis. With the exception of the Occupy movement, (which lasted about 6 months) there has been no anti-capitalist movement. Why was this?
The extent to which identity politics still governs the liberal and social democratic left, the answer is because Obama, after all, is an African-American president. From the point of view of identity politics, what more can we ask for? He is the first African-American president. For identity politics advocates, the fact that Obama is a Harvard lawyer is no reason to be cynical of his true class interests. Rather, we should be impressed with his credentials.
But as soon as a rich white male is elected, these crypto New Leftists at last gladly see a familiar target. People pour into the streets. What is Trump attacked for? Is he attacked as one of the last representatives of a social class of fictitious capitalists who produce no social wealth, as Michael Hudson might say? The answer is no. Instead, Trump is attacked as an individual who has spewed racist, anti-Muslim comments and who has acted in a misogynous way. Undeniably, these are unbelievably insensitive comments and actions and people should be angry and in the streets over them. However, these are not the heart of the problem that affects all of us in the United States. What I question is the lack of ambition on the part of leftist leadership who claim to be socialists, who frame the protests. What is this call into the streets in the name of?
What has the New Left learned from this election?
What have leftist leaders who organized these demonstrations learned from the last eight years or for that matter, the last 45 years? Has capitalism improved so that calling the system into question is not realistic? Is the fear of being red-baited an issue? If half the people under thirty say they look favorably on socialism, and given the electoral results, do these leaders take these cues to develop a promise to the working class things that Trump will never deliver? Is there a call for a socialist transition program which will provide jobs for workers? Where is the call for a 30 hour work week? Where is the program that promises full employment? Where is the call for democracy in the workplaces? Is there a call to unify the workers’ centers around the country? Is there a call to rank-and-file unionism as promoted by Labor Notes? There is none of this. Instead, these leaders focus on the same old identity politics that has just been proven to have failed.
Calling people into the streets on the basis of attacks on ethnic minorities or anti-Islamic remarks alone ignores the results of the election. It reveals the left’s inadequacy in having next to no influence over all the working class people who voted for Trump as well as the 47% of the people who didn’t bother to vote at all. It continues the same 45 year history of identity politics which has failed to make things better for its constituents, except for all upper middle class minorities and women in law and university professors who benefit most from identity politics and who moralistically preside over politically correct vocabulary.
Identity politics is a liberal issue, not a socialist one
It is part of a long-standing liberal ideology that spans over a century to promise that under capitalism all ethnicities and genders will be able to compete for a piece of the capitalist pie. Gradually we are told that with education and an expanding economy capitalism will welcome all. After the 1960’s liberals gave up on supporting their color blind ideology, and have been sliding to the right ever since. The New Left, never having taken their own working class very seriously, happily took over race and gender inequalities that should have been the domain of liberals. For 45 years leftists, instead of developing and expanding a socialist program, simply took over the New Deal program that the old liberals abandoned. This “New Deal New Left” reached its climax when Bernie Sanders presented a New Deal program and called it socialism. If Eugene Debs could arise from the dead my initial hope would be he would hit Bernie Sanders over the head with that picture of him hanging in Sanders’ office. Only a child of the 60’s (Bernie Sanders) couldn’t tell the difference between a New Deal liberal and a socialist.
Sites where discussions class, race and gender are socialist
In criticizing identity politics I am not proposing that race and gender issues should not be discussed or that they don’t matter. My criticism of identity politics is that it has historically excluded social class. From an anti-capitalist and socialist perspective, race and gender are most importantly discussed at the location where capitalists produce surplus labor – on the job. So where there is white privilege over wages or the quality of jobs offered, this issue should be discussed openly by workers in and out of a union setting. At the same time, when we are organizing against capitalism and developing a socialist political practice, race and gender issues as they affect socialist organizing, need to be confronted. But the further away discussions of race and gender get from social class, the workplace and efforts to organize against capitalism and for socialism, the more they becomes discussions for liberals – not socialists.
The dangers of “Anti-Trump” “Anti-fascist framework
Limiting protests to being “anti-Trump” says nothing about what we are actually for. What do we have to offer? That we are pious and moral? That we are well-intentioned humanists or politically correct agents? To paraphrase Marx, when he wrote his Critique of the Gotha Program, he said it is a sad state of affairs when all a socialist program has to offer is a higher morality or that some particular politician is not to be trusted. Saying we are anti-Trump leaves the door back open to the same right wing liberals who voted for Clinton II. The very people we finally thought we were rid of, we are inviting back in. What does being “anti-Trump” offer the lower middle class, poor and working class in terms of a positive vision of the future? It offers nothing.
To cite just one historical example, between 1936 and1939 the anarchists in the Spanish revolution helped lead the workers in the cities and the peasants in the countryside to take over the political economy. At its height, there were a third of a million people involved in worker-self management. During this entire period the anarchists did not hide from anyone the fact that they were anarchists. But then, through their own bad judgment and partially from pressure from the Stalinists, they stopped calling themselves anarchists and joined the “anti-fascist movement”. That was the beginning of the end for all the self-managed collectives.
The crypto-identity politics of the New Left is as dead now as the Old Leninist Left was by the early 1960s. The New Left and its identity politics was not very successful in its heyday when economic times were better. It is a failure to deal with the continuing crisis in capitalism which has been accumulating for 45 years. We have to be far more ambitious, show far more socialist imagination if we want to have any hope of forming an alliance with the poor, working class and middle class people.
“Anti-Trump” New Left Continues Crypto-Identity Politics
2016: The Death of Liberalism
The year 2016 ended with two more dramatic and bloody occurrences: the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Istanbul and the brutal murder of people in Berlin who were peacefully enjoying preparations for Christmas. These events were linked to the bloody morass in the Middle East and more specifically to Syria.
The fall of Aleppo represented a decisive turn in the situation. Russia, which was supposed to have been isolated and humbled by the “international community” (read Washington) now controls Syria and decides what happens there. It called a peace conference in Kazakhstan to which neither the Americans nor the Europeans were invited, followed by an agreement for a ceasefire dictated on Russia’s terms.
In different ways these developments expressed the same phenomenon: the old world order is dead and in its place we are faced with a future of instability and conflict, the outcome of which nobody can predict. The year 2016 therefore represented a turning point in history. It was a year marked by crisis and turbulence on a global scale.
Twenty-five years ago after the fall of the Soviet Union the defenders of capitalism were euphoric. They spoke of the death of socialism and communism and even the end of history. They promised us a future of peace and prosperity thanks to the triumph of the free market economy and democracy.
Liberalism had triumphed and therefore history had reached its final expression in capitalism. That was the essential meaning of the now notorious phrase of Francis Fukuyama. But now the wheel of history has turned full circle. Today not one stone upon another is left of those confident predictions of the strategists of capital. History has returned with a vengeance.
Suddenly the world seems to be afflicted by strange and unprecedented phenomena that defy all the attempts of the political experts to explain them. On 23 June the people of Britain voted in a referendum to leave the European Union – a result that nobody expected, which caused shock waves on an international scale. But these were as nothing compared to the tsunami provoked by the result of the American presidential elections – a result that nobody expected, including the man who won.
Within hours of the election of Donald Trump, the streets of cities all over the United States were filled with demonstrators. These events are the dramatic confirmation of the instability that has afflicted the entire world. Overnight the old certainties have disappeared. There is a general ferment in society and a sense of widespread uncertainty filled the ruling class and its ideologues with deep foreboding.
The apologists of capitalist liberalism complain bitterly about the rise of politicians like Donald Trump who represents the antithesis of what is known as “liberal values.” For such people the year 2016 seems like a nightmare. They are hoping that they will wake up and find that it was all a dream, that yesterday will return and tomorrow will see a better day. But for bourgeois liberalism there will be no reawakening and no tomorrow.
Political commentators speak with dread of the rise of something they call “populism”, a word that is as elastic as it is meaningless. The use of such amorphous terminology merely signifies that those who use it have no idea what they’re talking about. In strict etymological terms populism is merely a Latin translation of the Greek demagogy. The term is applied with the same gusto that a bad painter plasters a wall with a thick coat of paint to cover up his mistakes. It is used to describe such a wide variety of political phenomena that it becomes entirely devoid of any real content.
The leaders of Podemos and Geert Wilders, Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Evo Morales, Rodrigo Duterte and Hugo Chavez, Jeremy Corbyn and Marine Le Pen – all are tarred with the same populist brush. It is sufficient to compare the real content of these movements that are not only different but radically antagonistic to realise the utter futility of such language. It is not calculated to clarify but to confuse, or more correctly to cover up the confusion of stupid bourgeois political commentators.
The death of liberalism
In its editorial of 24 December 2016 The Economist chanted a hymn of praise to its beloved liberalism. Liberals, we are told, believe in “open economies and open societies, where the free exchange of goods, capital, people and ideas is encouraged and where universal freedoms are protected from state abuse by the rule of law.” Such a beautiful picture really ought to be set to music.
But then the article sadly concludes that 2016 “has been a year of setbacks. Not just over Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, but also the tragedy of Syria, abandoned to its suffering, and widespread support—in Hungary, Poland and beyond—for ‘illiberal democracy’. As globalisation has become a slur, nationalism, and even authoritarianism, have flourished. In Turkey relief at the failure of a coup was overtaken by savage (and popular) reprisals. In the Philippines voters chose a president who not only deployed death squads but bragged about pulling the trigger. All the while Russia, which hacked Western democracy, and China, which just last week set out to taunt America by seizing one of its maritime drones, insist liberalism is merely a cover for Western expansion.”
The beautiful hymn of praise to liberalism and Western values has ended on a sour note. The Economist concludes bitterly: “Faced with this litany, many liberals (of the free-market sort) have lost their nerve. Some have written epitaphs for the liberal order and issued warnings about the threat to democracy. Others argue that, with a timid tweak to immigration law or an extra tariff, life will simply return to normal.”
But life will not simply “return to normal” – or more correctly, we will enter a new stage of what The Economist refers to as a “new normality”: A period of endless cuts, austerity and falling living standards. In reality, we have been living in this new normality for quite some time. And very serious consequences flow from this.
The global crisis of capitalism has created conditions that are completely unlike the conditions that existed (at least for a handful of privileged countries) four decades after the Second World War. That period witnessed the biggest upswing of the productive forces of capitalism since the Industrial Revolution. This was the soil on which the much vaunted “liberal values” could flourish. The economic boom provided the capitalists with sufficient profits to grant concessions to the working class.
That was the golden era of reformism. But the present period is the era, not of reforms but of counter-reforms. This is not the result of ideological prejudice, as some foolish reformists imagine. It is the necessary consequence of the crisis of the capitalist system that has reached its limits. The whole process that unfolded over a period of six decades is now thrown into reverse.
Instead of reforms and rising living standards, the working class everywhere is faced with cuts, austerity, unemployment and impoverishment. The degradation of working conditions, wages, rights and pensions falls most heavily on the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society. The idea of equality for women is being eroded by the remorseless search for increased profitability. A whole generation of young people is being deprived of a future. That is the essence of the present period.
The elite’s Marie Antoinette moment
The ruling class and its strategists find it hard to accept the reality of the present situation and are completely blind to the political consequences that flow from it. The same blindness can be observed in every ruling class that is facing extinction and refuses to accept it. As Lenin correctly observed, a man standing on the edge of a precipice does not reason.
The Financial Times published an interesting article by Wolfgang Münchau entitled “The elite’s Marie Antoinette moment”. It begins as follows:
“Some revolutions could have been avoided if the old guard had only refrained from provocation. There is no proof of a ‘let them eat cake’ incident. But this is the kind of thing Marie Antoinette could have said. It rings true. The Bourbons were hard to beat as the quintessential out-of-touch establishment.
“They have competition now.
“Our global liberal democratic establishment is behaving in much the same way. At a time when Britain has voted to leave the EU, when Donald Trump has been elected US president, and Marine Le Pen is marching towards the Elysée Palace, we — the gatekeepers of the global liberal order — keep on doubling down.”
The comparison with the French Revolution is highly instructive. Everywhere the ruling class and its “experts” have shown themselves to be completely out of touch with the real situation in society. They assumed that the order of things that emerged from the post-war economic boom would continue forever. The market economy and bourgeois “democracy” were the unquestioned paradigms of the epoch.
Their smug complacency precisely resembled that of the unfortunate Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France. It is by no means certain that her famous phrase was ever pronounced, but it accurately reflects the mentality of a degenerate ruling class that has no interest in the sufferings of ordinary people or the inevitable consequences that flow from them.
In the end Marie Antoinette lost her head and now the ruling class and its political representatives are losing theirs. The Financial Times article continues:
“Why is this happening? Macroeconomists thought no one would dare challenge their authority. Italian politicians have been playing power games forever. And the job of EU civil servants is to find ingenious ways of spiriting politically tricky legislation and treaties past national legislatures. Even as the likes of Ms Le Pen, Mr Grillo and Geert Wilders of the far-right Dutch Freedom party head towards power, the establishment keeps acting this way. A Bourbon regent, in an uncharacteristic moment of reflection, would have backed off. Our liberal capitalist order, with its competing institutions, is constitutionally incapable of doing that. Doubling down is what it is programmed to do.
“The correct course of action would be to stop insulting voters and, more importantly, to solve the problems of an out-of-control financial sector, uncontrolled flows of people and capital, and unequal income distribution. In the eurozone, political leaders found it expedient to muddle through the banking crisis and then a sovereign debt crisis — only to find Greek debt is unsustainable and the Italian banking system is in serious trouble. Eight years on, there are still investors out there betting on a collapse of the eurozone as we know it.”
In 1938 Trotsky wrote that the ruling class was tobogganing to disaster with its eyes closed. The above lines are a graphic illustration of this fact. And Mr Münchau draws the following conclusion quote:
“But it is not happening for the same reason it did not happen in revolutionary France. The gatekeepers of western capitalism, like the Bourbons before them, have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.”
The collapse of the centre
Contrary to the old prejudice of the liberals, human consciousness is not progressive but profoundly conservative. Most people do not like change. They cling obstinately to the old ideas, prejudices, religion and morality because they are familiar and what is familiar is always more comforting than what is not. The idea of change is frightening because it is unknown. These fears are deeply rooted in the human psyche and have existed from time immemorial.
Yet change is as necessary to the survival of the human race as it is to the survival of the individual. The absence of change is death. The human body constantly changes from the moment of birth; all cells break down, die and are replaced with new cells. The child must disappear in order for the adult to be born.
Yet it is not difficult to understand people’s aversion to change. Habit, routine, tradition – all these things are necessary for the maintenance of social norms that underpin the functioning of society. Over a long period they become ingrained, conditioning the daily activities of millions of men and women. They are universally accepted, as are respect for the laws and customs, the rules of political life and the existing institutions: in a word, the status quo.
Something similar exists in science. In his profound and penetrating study The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Thomas S. Kuhn explains how every period in the development of science is based on an existing paradigm that is generally accepted, providing a necessary framework for scientific work. For a long time this paradigm serves a useful purpose. But eventually small, apparently insignificant contradictions appear that eventually lead to the downfall of the old paradigm and its replacement with a new one. This, according to Kuhn, constitutes the essence of a scientific revolution.
Exactly the same dialectical process occurs in society. Ideas that have existed for so long that they have hardened into prejudices eventually enter into conflict with existing reality. At that point, a revolution in consciousness begins to take place. People begin to question what seemed to be unquestionable. Ideas that were comfortable because they provided certainty are shattered on the rock of hard reality. For the first time people begin to shake off the old comfortable illusions and look reality in the face.
The real cause of the fears of the ruling class is the collapse of the political centre. What we are seeing in Britain, the United States, Spain and many other countries is a sharp and increasing polarisation between left and right in politics, which in turn is merely a reflection of an increasing polarisation between the classes. This in turn is a reflection of the deepest crisis in the history of capitalism.
For the last hundred years the political system in the USA was based on two parties – the Democrats and Republicans – that both stood for the maintenance of capitalism and both represented the interests of the banks and big business. This was very well expressed by Gore Vidal who wrote “our Republic has one party, the property party, with two right wings.”
This was the solid foundation for the stability and longevity of what Americans regarded as “democracy”. In reality, this bourgeois democracy was merely a fig leaf to conceal the reality of the dictatorship of the bankers and capitalists. Now this convenient setup is being challenged and shaken to the core. Millions of people are waking up to the rottenness of the political establishment and the fact that they are being deceived by those who claim to represent them. This is the prior condition for a social revolution.
Crisis of reformism
We see a similar situation in Britain, where for 100 years Labour and Conservatives alternated in power, providing the same kind of stability for the ruling class. The Labour Party and Conservative party were run by solid, respectable men and women who could be relied upon to run society in the interests of the bankers and capitalists of the city of London. But the election of Jeremy Corbyn has upset the apple cart.
The ruling class fears that the massive influx of new members into the Labour Party may break the stranglehold of the right wing over Labour. That explains the panic of the ruling class and the vitriolic nature of the campaign against Corbyn.
The crisis of capitalism is also the crisis of reformism. The strategists of capital resemble the Bourbons, but the reformist leaders are only a poor imitation of the former. They are the blindest of the blind. The reformists, both of the right and left varieties, have no understanding of the real situation. Though they pride themselves on being great realists, they are the worst kind of utopians.
Like the liberals of whom they are merely a pale reflection, they are pining after the past that has vanished beyond return. They complain bitterly about the unfairness of capitalism, not realising that the policies of the bourgeoisie are dictated by the economic necessity of capitalism itself.
It is a supreme irony of history that the reformists have fully embraced the market economy precisely at a time when it is breaking down before our very eyes. They had accepted capitalism as something that is given once and for all, that cannot be questioned and certainly not overthrown. The alleged realism of the reformists is the realism of a man who tries to persuade a tiger to eat salads instead of human flesh. Naturally, the realist who attempted to perform this laudable feat did not succeed in convincing the Tiger and ended up inside its belly.
What the reformists to not understand is that if you accept capitalism you must also accept the laws of capitalism. And under modern conditions that means accepting cuts and austerity. Nowhere is the bankruptcy of reformism more clearly expressed than in the fact that they no longer talk about socialism. Nor do they talk about capitalism. Instead they complain of the evils of “neoliberalism”, that is to say, they do not object to capitalism per se but only a particular model of capitalism. But the so-called neoliberalism is merely a euphemism for capitalism in the period of crisis.
The reformists who imagine that they are great realists are dreaming of a return to the conditions of the past when that past has already receded into history. The period that now opens up will be entirely different. In the decades that followed 1945, the class struggle in the advanced capitalist countries was attenuated to some extent as a result of the reforms won by the working class through struggle.
Trotsky explained long ago that betrayal is implicit in reformism in all its varieties. By this he did not mean that reformists consciously betray the working class. There are many honest reformists, as well as a fair number of corrupt careerists. But the way to hell is paved with good intentions. If you accept the capitalist system – as all reformists do, whether right or left – then you must obey the laws of the capitalist system. In a period of capitalist crisis, this means the inevitability of cuts and attacks on living standards.
This lesson had to be learnt by Tsipras and Varoufakis in Greece. They came to power with huge popular support on an anti-austerity programme, but were very quickly made to understand by Merkel and Schäuble that this was not on the agenda. In the end they capitulated and meekly carried out the austerity programme dictated by Berlin and Brussels. We saw a similar situation in France where Hollande won a massive victory promising an anti-austerity programme, then did 180° turn and carried out even deeper cuts than the previous right-wing government. The inevitable result has been the rise of Marine Le Pen and the Front National.
Capitalism in a blind alley
In countries like the United States every generation since the Second World War could look forward to a better standard of living than that enjoyed by their parents. In the decades of economic boom workers became accustomed to relatively easy victories. The trade union leaders did not have to struggle much to obtain wage increases. Reforms were considered to be the norm. Today was better than yesterday and tomorrow would be better than today.
In the long period of capitalist upswing, the class consciousness of the workers was somewhat blunted. Instead of clear-cut class socialist policies, the workers’ movement has been infected with alien ideas through the transmission belt of the petty bourgeoisie which has elbowed the workers to one side and drowned out their voice with the shrill declamations of middle-class radicalism.
The so-called political correctness with its mishmash of half-baked ideas fished out of the rubbish bin of bourgeois liberalism has gradually become accepted even in the trade unions where the right-wing reformist leaders eagerly seize upon it as a substitute for class policies and socialist ideas. The left reformists in particular have played a pernicious role in this respect. It will take the hammer blows of events to demolish these prejudices that have a corrosive effect on consciousness.
But the crisis of capitalism does not permit such luxuries. Today’s generation of young people for the first time will face worse conditions of life than their parents enjoyed. Gradually this new reality is forcing itself on the consciousness of the masses. That is the reason for the present ferment of discontent that exists in all countries and is acquiring an explosive character. It is the explanation for the political earthquakes that have taken place in Britain, Spain, Greece, Italy, the United States and many other countries. It is a warning that revolutionary developments are being prepared.
It is true that at this stage the movement is characterised by a tremendous confusion. How could it be otherwise, when those organisations and parties that should be placing themselves at the head of a movement to transform society instead have been transformed into monstrous obstacles in the path of the working class? The masses are seeking a way out of the crisis, putting political parties, leaders and programs to the test. Those who fail the test are mercilessly cast to one side. There are violent swings on the electoral front, both to the left and to the right. All this is a harbinger of revolutionary change.
In retrospect the period of half a century that followed the Second World War will be seen as an historical exception. The peculiar concatenation of circumstances that produced this situation in all likelihood will never be repeated. What we face now is precisely a return to normal capitalism. The smiling face of liberalism, reformism and democracy will be cast aside to reveal the ugly physiognomy of capitalism as it really is.
Towards a new October!
A new period opens up before us – a period of storm and stress that will be far more similar to the 1930s than the period after 1945. All the illusions of the past will be burned out of the consciousness of the masses with a hot iron. In such a period as this the working class will have to fight hard to defend the gains of the past, and in the course of bitter struggle will come to understand the need for a thoroughgoing revolutionary programme. Either capitalism is overthrown, or a terrible fate awaits humanity. That is the only alternative. Any other course of action is a lie and a deceit. It is time to look truth in the face.
On the basis of diseased capitalism there can be no way forward for the working class and the youth. The liberals and reformists are striving with might and main to prop it up. They whimper about the threat to democracy, hiding the fact that so-called bourgeois democracy is merely a fig leaf behind which hides the crude reality of the dictatorship of the banks and big business. They will try to lure the working class into alliances to “defend democracy”, but this is a hypocritical farce.
The only force that has a real interest in democracy is the working class itself. The so-called liberal bourgeoisie is incapable of fighting reaction, which flows directly from the capitalist system upon which its wealth and privileges are based. It was Obama who paved the way for the victory of Trump, just as it was Hollande who has paved the way for the rise of Le Pen.
In reality, the old system is already breaking down before our very eyes. The symptoms of its decay are evident to all. Everywhere we see economic crises, social breakdown, disorder, wars, destruction and chaos. It is a terrible picture, but it flows from the fact that capitalism has led humanity into a blind alley.
It is not the first time that we have seen such things. The same symptoms can be seen in the period of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and the period of decay of feudal society. It is no accident that men and women in those days imagined that the end of the world was approaching. But what was approaching was not the end of the world but only the end of a particular social economic system that had exhausted its potential and become a monstrous obstacle in the path of human progress.
Lenin once said that capitalism is horror without end. We now see the literal truth of this assertion. But alongside the horrors produced by a decadent and reactionary system there is another side to the picture. Our epoch is a birth-time, and a period of transition from one historical period to another. Such periods are always characterised by pains, which are the pains of a new society that is struggling to be born, while the old society struggles to preserve itself by strangling the child in the womb.
The old world is dying on its feet. That it is tottering to its fall is indicated by unmistakable symptoms. The rot is spreading in the established order of things, its institutions are collapsing. The defenders of the old order are seized by an undefined foreboding of something unknown. All these things betoken that there is something else approaching.
This gradual crumbling to pieces will be speeded up by the eruption of the working class on the scene of history. Those sceptics who wrote off the working class will be forced to eat their words. Volcanic forces are building up beneath the surface of society. The contradictions are building up to the point where they cannot be endured any further.
Our task is to shorten this painful process and ensure that the birth takes place with the least possible suffering. In order to do this it is necessary to accomplish the overthrow of the present system that has become a terrible barrier to the development of the human race and a threat to its future.
All those who are trying to preserve the old order, to patch it up, to reform it, to provide it with crutches that will enable it to hobble along for a few years or decades more are playing the most reactionary role. They are preventing the birth of a new society which alone can offer a future to humanity and put an end to the existing nightmare of capitalism.
The New World that is struggling to be born is called socialism. It is our job to ensure that this birth takes place as soon as possible and with the least possible pain and suffering. The way to achieve this end is to build a powerful worldwide Marxist tendency with educated cadres and strong links with the working class.
One hundred years ago an event took place that the changed the course of world history. In a backward semi feudal country on the edge of Europe, the working class moved to change society. Nobody expected this, on the contrary. The objective conditions for a socialist revolution in Russia seemed to be non-existent.
Europe was in the grip of a terrible war. The workers of Britain, France, Germany and Russia were slaughtering each other in the name of imperialism. In such a context the slogan “workers of the world unite” must have seemed like an expression of bitter sarcasm. Russia itself was ruled by a powerful autocratic regime with a huge army and police force and secret police whose tentacles extended to every political party – including the Bolsheviks.
And yet, in this seemingly impossible situation the workers of Russia moved to take power into their own hands. They overthrew the tsar and established democratic organs of power, the Soviets. Only nine months later the Bolshevik Party, which at the beginning of the revolution was a tiny force of no more than 8000 members, came to power.
One hundred years later Marxists are facing the same task that Lenin and Trotsky faced in 1917. Our forces are small and our resources are meagre, but we are armed with the most powerful weapon: the weapon of ideas. Marx said that ideas become a material force when they grip the mind of the masses. For a long time we were fighting against a powerful current. But the tide of history is now flowing strongly in our direction.
Ideas which are listened to by ones and twos today will be eagerly received by millions in the period that now opens up. Great events can take place with extreme rapidity, transforming the whole situation. The consciousness of the working class can change in a matter of days or hours. Our task is to prepare the cadres for the great events that impend. Our banner is the banner of October. Our ideas are the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky. That is the ultimate guarantee of our success.
2016: The Death of Liberalism
Betrayal and Solidarity in Greece – An Audio Documentary
The Upstream Podcast is at it again, with a documentary produced in Athens and focused on the Greek debt crisis. Greece was all over the news in 2014 and 2015. You might remember hearing about the new radical left party Syriza, the referendum, the demonstrations and violence in the streets, the German banks, or the flamboyant Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis. So what happened? Mistrusting the mainstream narrative coming from western media outlets, and suspicious of the abrupt end to most news coverage, Upstream traveled to Athens in May to see for themselves what was going on in the aftermath of the turbulent events which have been building up over the last few years in Greece.
In this episode, Betrayal & Solidarity in Greece, the Upstream team takes us on a tour of Athens, from street demonstrations in the anarchist neighborhood of Exarchia to many of the occupations, or “squats”, which have been emerging in Athens as part of the larger solidarity movement. We’ll learn how neighborhoods and communities are taking their wellbeing into their own hands, and what grassroots resistance looks like – Greek-style. The documentary shows how solidarity movement in Greece has given the population a degree of resilience that has helped them to weather these tumultuous times.
A thoughtful cultural and historical analysis is provided by Greek activist Maria Scordialos, who experienced the debt crisis first hand, at first through the superficially affluent bubble years pre-2008, and then more recently in the depths of the individual and societal depression during the debt crisis.
We also hear from Founding DiEM25 member and advisor to Yanis Varoufakis – James K. Galbraith, who has likened Greece to a modern day colony. Galbraith, who pulls no punches, provides a highly critical economic analysis of what happened here before, during, and after the referendum in 2015.
Throughout the podcast, we also learn about some of the most exciting and talked-about initiatives that are under way in Athens, from anarchist groups taking over a hotel and converting it into a refugee accommodation space, to acts of solidarity with laid-off government workers and striking transportation employees.
Peppered with exciting stories and lots of Rembetika music from Greece, Upstream takes us through the streets of Athens and give us a solid understanding of what happened – and is currently happening – in this resilient Mediterranean country. Don’t miss it!
Audio: Betrayal and Solidarity in Greece – An Audio Documentary