I did not think that Trump could win the US election because an electoral base made up of the ‘disgruntled and angry white working classes’ is too narrow. But it is now obvious that Trump has wider popular support. Clinton did gain more of the popular votes by a slim margin, but there is no hiding the significance of Trump’s victory.
So, some thoughts.
A Trump presidency will not mean immediate significant changes on the world stage. The imperialist governance of the world is grounded on the Atlantic agreement, the order based on the US-UK-EU. But these are hard times. An unresolvable crisis, which makes each component of this triptych look more narrowly to its own domestic interests, and more watchful of the clamour of its own populations – particularly since none of the three is capable of providing a solution, or even the illusion of one. The British Brexit, and now the American ‘Brexit’ which Trump represents, will however provoke a slow disintegration of the dominant Anglosphere.
A not so special relationship
On the morning after Trump’s election victory I watched a chirpy TV journalist ask rhetorically ‘Will a Trump presidency lead to better relations with the Soviet Union?’ It was a slip of the tongue as revealing as it was understandable: the US is still milking the Cold War for all it can and that is the propaganda framework most Western journalists work inside. The idea that since both Trump and Putin are plain speaking, tough-talking ‘real men’ they are better placed than Clinton to ‘do business’ is a silly media fantasy. Relations are determined by three factors that still hold true and will do so for some time, whatever politicians may fancy. Firstly, the US is still the most powerful nation on earth and the whole of the privileged West benefits from its hegemonic role. Secondly, Russia is one of the weakest of the powers, economically and militarily. Thirdly, any serious move against Russia would unleash such turmoil between Western nations that it would significantly undermine the first point. So, lots of clacking and clucking, but no attempt to significantly alter the architecture of world politics. The rest is just games.
Trump’s victory is an immense blow for Britain’s Brexit, which looks increasingly unlikely to happen, though this will take some time to sink in. At the heart of the Brexit gamble is the popular illusion that the UK, on the basis of its world power, and other nations’ commercial self-interest, would be able to renegotiate its world trade and financial relationships. Trump is a businessman who thinks he can further American interests by negotiating like a businessman. That is also the militant understanding of his electoral support. Both have some learning to do. So, on the face of it, his presidency should provide a better practical and pragmatic framework for the UK to renegotiate its economic relationships outside the EU.
Yet, as in so many cases, the devil is in the detail. Trump’s negotiating policy, and that of the economic nationalism that has brought him to power, is to drive a very hard bargain that yields tangible benefits for the American people. This will make it very much harder for the UK to negotiate a favourable deal, and certainly makes an early trade settlement virtually impossible. But the UK needs something quick! This will be a significant blow to the UK because a settlement with the US would have been key to achieving trade settlements with other nations (the billboard effect).
The irony of the Brexit mentality is that, if every nation and trade block adopts a hard-line economic nationalist stance, it works for no one. Every nation declares that it wants to avoid the bad old protectionism of the 1930s, but the crisis is making them all inch in that direction. The idea that the UK can cut loose from the EU, sail for the open seas, towards the sunny uplands of a new world trade order, is dead.
Working class politics
Both the British Brexit and now Trump’s victory have put the revolt of the Western working class at the very centre of politics – though not in the way socialists would have liked. Next year will be the tenth year of the crisis. Across the advanced Western world the working class has experienced a significant decline in its prospects. Yet it has opted – everywhere – for economic nationalism and has shifted politically 10% to 20% to the right.
In each advanced imperialist Western country the only radical shift is within a small and embattled current of the middle class still committed to social liberalism and the Atlantic world order. Both the Corbyn and Sanders phenomena are examples of this. In not a single privileged country has there been even a smidgen of working class radicalism. Not even a warming up. The revolutionary left, far from ‘making hay’ at a time when the truths of Marxism are pounding ever harder on the door, is in tatters.
This raises the question: why does the revolutionary Left in advanced imperialist countries persist in basing its strategic outlook on the future emergence of a revolutionary working class when all the evidence, and all the reasoning, is in the opposite direction? Partly, this is due to the fact that the Western left is ossified and has relegated itself to blindly repeating the mantra of ‘one day the workers will rise up and …’ It must be something human. Two thousands years of experience have demonstrated the inefficacy of Christian prayer, but people still pray to God.
There is also a personal motive. Blind and obstinate adherence to something that will never happen, and which every day becomes more obviously so, is the only way many socialists have of personally remaining true to their Socialist ideals and prevent themselves from being absorbed by bourgeois society, as so many have. In the face of never-ending defeat and disappointment, of a popular revolt that never materialises, the important thing is never to give in, never to succumb, and go to the grave in obdurate affirmation of what one has fought for all one’s life. Sadly, such people fail to realise that their stoicism, while morally laudable, only serves to blind them to the many things happening in non-imperialist countries. These show that things are indeed ‘going our way’. The non-imperialist world is not on the brink of revolution, but it is warming up nicely everywhere.
But the main reason why the Western radical left clings to the chimera of proletarian revolution in the West is that its politics and activities are exclusively direct towards the brittle and transient radicalism of the petit-bourgeoisie – the only milieu it can really operate in because there is no other available. Both the left and the radicalized petit-bourgeoisie know in their bones that, however worthy their campaigns, without working class support there is nothing real or lasting. So, the putrefied political corpse of the Western working class has to be kept alive – at least somewhere in the background or hoped for in the distant future – though never directly or honestly analysed. The moment one states the obvious – that the Western working class is thoroughly and irredeemably imperialist, colonialist, arrogant and capitalist, that a working class that continually and substantially benefits from the exploitation of ‘lesser peoples’ can never set itself free – one is dismissed as a hopeless or doctrinaire ‘Third Worldist’ or ‘Maoist’. Never mind that ‘the Third World’ is today the ‘the First World’ in proletarian terms.
In contrast, in those countries with no popular imperialist tradition, politics has shifted significantly and quickly to the left. Last week, an in-depth poll of public opinion in Spain put Podemos at 21% in terms of ‘voting intention’, ahead of the Socialist Party with 17%. The Socialist Party has been the architect of modern capitalist Spain and has governed for most of the last 35 years. It is a seismic shift. Podemos has been in existence for barely two years. The poll showed that most Spanish people are ‘left-leaning’. The top four ‘voter issues’ were identified as unemployment, corruption, the lack of a government and the economic crisis. Even though Spain has a similar level of immigration as other EU countries (10-12%), and even though explicit and politically incorrect racism is widespread, immigration, the key issue in British and American politics, came in at the 33rd position in order of popular concerns.
Trump’s victory also destroys the left’s self-serving explanation of its own continual marginalization as grounded in the capitalist media’s grip on the popular mind. Trump won against the hostility and opposition of practically the whole of the media – in addition to the establishment, and world opinion. Trump, although a billionaire, also had far less election funds than Clinton. The left needs to wake up to the reality that if Western workers for decades have voted for, and consciously supported, bourgeois nationalist and imperialist politics it is because they know on which side their bread is buttered – not because they have been duped by the media.
But the best thing about Trump is he doesn’t conceal what he means: Marxists should welcome how explicit he is. Since Teddy Roosevelt, can you think of a president who in words and in his persona better expresses the realities of American capitalism and imperialism than Trump? That has to be a damn good thing. Of course, the danger is that wiser counsels will eventually prevail and Trump will go all ‘social democratic’ and ‘caring’ on us. Trump is a narcissist and narcissists love to be loved. So, make the most of it while it lasts.