by Susil Gupta

This article is reprinted from Tony Norfield’s excellent blog  economics of imperialism

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.GOP 2016 Debate

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.

Clarity

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,[1] 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.

[1] Racist attitudes among even left-wingers in Spain are often quite shocking and would be unthinkable in the British left, for example.

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Comments
  1. Sean Kearns says:

    I can see this article raising some eyebrows, maybe even some hackles. Not a bad thing probably. The Western left is often so smug about how the imperialist countries are the centre of the world. Maybe once they were. Today, there are more industrial workers, more computers and more robots in the Third World industrial centres.

    Revolutions also break out elsewhere and those revolutions stimulate developments in the ‘West’. The Portuguese revolution of 1974, for instance – unimaginable without the liberation struggles in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau. Even the mass youth radicalisation in the United States in the 1960s – unimaginable without the struggle of the Vietnamese against US imperialism.

    Why don’t the working class in the imperialist centres fight like the Vietnamese, the Irish, the Palestinians, the Filipinos, the Algerians, etc etc?

    Perhaps the left in the First World needs to stop sneering at the revolutionary movements in the Third World and start learning from them.

    • daphna says:

      I agree Sean, this is a hard-hitting article that deals with some uncomfortable truths. I think the revolutionary centre moved long ago from the West to the Third World. Unfortunately even where the struggle is quite mature, such as the Philippines, it has proved so far not possible to get beyond a strategic equilibrium.

      Initially I thought Trump would not succeed in winning the Republican nomination, but once he managed that I started to wonder if he could pull off a victory in spite of all the opposition.

      It still does seem a bit unreal, almost like watching a reality tv show that has gone on for too many series. Susil’s point that narcissists love to be loved is spot on, I expect Trump will moderate his message accordingly.

  2. Wow I hadn’t realised you guys were so down on the metropolitan working classes! This stuff reads a bit like David Yaffe of old in his ANC-loving third worldist phase or the old IMG. I’m afraid that despite illusions in third world movements like those displayed here, things aren’t a lot better in the working class movement here in South Africa. Maybe Gupta would call the relatively well-paid, but shrinking industrial working class here a labour aristocracy too? Our ruling elites certainly do.

    • Admin says:

      We’ve actually never been down on the working classes of the metropolitan countries. But the long, long dry spell forces Marxists to think and to come up with why the working class in the imperialist centres is so dormant and why, when it does fight, it fights a lot less militantly and for much less, than workers in the Third World.

      The references to Yaffe and to the IMG are probably a bit dated. The reality now is that most of the industrial working class lives in the Third World – that’s quite a different situation from the 60s and 70s. Third Worldism in those days was a way of avoiding working class politics. Find someone else – students, lumpens, Third World peasants, etc – as social agent of revolution. Today we see the reverse – First Worldism, which is also a way of avoiding engaging with the working class in its great mass.

      I think today’s First Worldism is actually the flip side of the coin of the Third Worldism of yore.

      And interestingly, of course, Susil was in the same left current in Britain as yourself.

      The ruling elite in South Africa calls the industrial workers there a labour aristocracy because they’re engaged in demagogy to protect their own amassing of wealth and privilege. But Susil, from what I can see, is talking about the United States and NOT layers of employed workers in the Third World – in fact, from what I have seen of what he has written on the subject, he is arguing the *opposite* in relation to the proletarian masses of the Third World.

      The working class are still the indispensable agent of social revolution – but where they are predominantly situated has changed. We can’t simply ignore that or avoid the fact that it has political consequences.

      We also have to have a materialist explanation for the long hiatus of working class struggle in the imperialist world. It can’t be all put down to the working class being ‘brainwashed’ by the capitalist media, a notion that suggests the workers in the west are so vacant that any old capitalist rubbish can be pumped into their heads and they’ll accept it.

      If the big battalions of the working class are now in the Third World that would actually suggest that the revolutionary left in the First World needs to make some political adjustments. We’re just not the centre of the universe any more – certainly not the way the western left thought it was in the past. We’re the periphery now, although some comrades appear to chafe at the idea of such a role reversal.

      The left in the imperialist world got much more comfortable judging and patronisingly ‘teaching’ the masses in the Third World that accepting a new, more modest role is difficult to take.

      Lastly, Russell you’re a very bright guy and yet you haven’t actually made a political argument against the article. Is there a labour aristocracy that feeds off imperialism as Marx and Engels noted, and as Lenin and his comrades noted in their analysis of imperialism and the split within the Second International, as Trotsky noted, etc etc? How big and broad is that labour aristocracy? Is it as broad as Susil suggests or is it more narrow? Or, as the Cliff current suggests, was Lenin’s theory of imperialism flawed and there is no labour aristocracy that feeds off imperialism? What is the material basis of the quiescence of the working class in the west? How is it that capitalist ideology is so dominant?

      Phil

      • Susil Gupta says:

        I am always amazed that my writing is dubbed ‘forthright’ as if allowances have to be made for eccentric behavior, or as if confused, ambiguous, bivalent and unclear writing were an acceptable standard.

        It cheered me up no end to look up the synonyms for ‘forthright’ in Rogets Thesaurus and find the following: straightforward, honest, candid, categorical, outspoken, plainspoken, sincere, aboveboard, bald, call a spade a spade, direct, directly, forward, frank, from the hip, like it is, no lie, open, plain, real, simple, straight, undisguised.

        That’ll do me fine. Not bad qualities for a revolutionary Marxist! Some would say they are essential. The antonyms are also interesting since they are so applicable to so much of that goes for ‘discussion’ on the Left: devious, dishonest, secret, tactful, trickey, untruthful.

        A couple of additional points.

        The RCP disbanded in the mid-1990s when it was forced to admit that British workers were not in the least bit interested in radical politics and that it was pointless trying to build a radical organization in such circumstances. Impeccable reasoning followed by the right decision. To continue on heroically, as if blind perseverance in the face of stubborn reality is some sort of virtue, only serves to drive Marxism into the dust. It would have been even better to have explained precisely why British workers were not interested in radical politics.

        A confirmed ‘non-joiner’, James Heartfield could be found in multiple radical milieus. But he was never an organised member of the RCP, though he did occasionally turn up to things.

  3. Lycaon says:

    “The non-imperialist world is not on the brink of revolution, but it is warming up nicely everywhere.”

    Translation: while much of it is consumed by various futile etho-religious and nationalist conflicts, the post-imperialist world is at the same time the first victim of fossil fuel induced heating of the climate.