This article by Justus Links was first published on the portal OpenDemocracy.
From the distance spanned by social media, since the presidential election, I have observed friends, colleagues, and acquaintances in North America in a state of trauma. Physical illnesses are spreading and anxiety is intense. Some who are educators feel that their courses cannot go on as usual after the disaster of November 8; one announced that she planned to put the curriculum aside in her next session and “talk about empathy” instead. It is hard to talk about empathy without slipping into self-congratulation. Literary theorist Fritz Breithaupt has described a primal “scene of empathy” in which an observer takes sides in a conflict between two people, empathizing with the one she perceives to be suffering righteously.
Empathy is selective, more a matter of choosing sides than of opening one’s heart to “the other” as such. The self-presentation of the liberal self as empathetic conceals the choices she has made on the way to selecting her others. If you empathize with the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who fell victim to the Bush Sr. and Clinton administrations’ sanctions, or the hundreds of thousands more who perished in our subsequent invasion, that you have chosen your others quite differently than Hillary Clinton did. Yet the problem does not stop here: there are some with whom a liberal cannot meaningfully empathize while retaining her liberalism. Does empathy extend to Confederate flag wavers who feel that their “heritage” is at stake, or gun owners who feel unsafe if their legal right to an assault rifle is abridged? Sharing others’ subjective experience cannot be a moral imperative without leading us into a relativism that defies commitment.
Even liberal empathy with refugees and undocumented immigrants is not as unmediated as many liberals suppose. It is not simply a matter of meeting those people and sharing their experience; how one understands that experience depends on the prior interpretive framework with which one approaches them. Within the framework of nation-state legality, the undocumented appear as poachers on a territory they have no right to, claiming jobs and services not rightfully theirs. Those who oppose their presence think they are empathizing with citizens legally entitled to the same jobs and services. Not reacting this way indicates that, whether consciously or not, one is operating within a different framework.
We must make clear to ourselves what this other framework is and then persuade others to share it. Pointing out the economic fact that the undocumented are workers disproportionately exploited by the US economy, not freeloaders taking advantage of it, can only be the first step in pulling other proletarians away from the zero-sum-game model of political economy and toward a recognition of common dispossession at the hands of capital. This may be a hard sell for many, but what will not sell at all is the gesture of simply ruling their initial reactions out of bounds for being racist. Scolds do not make converts.
A successful left-wing politics cannot be an exercise in magnanimity toward the less fortunate. It must be an assertion of collective self-interest on the part of all those threatened, whether materially or spiritually, by the reign of capital. We must band together with people of whatever background, who grasp that in the struggle with capital our common humanity is at stake.
Franz Kafka is said to have seen the painting by George Grosz in which a fat and tuxedoed capitalist sits on a meager worker to whom he is attached by a chain. Kafka allegedly said that the one thing most people don’t understand about Grosz’s painting is that the capitalist too is enchained. It follows that there is hope, however dim, for even the class enemy to come over to the cause. How, then, can we write off that subset of white workers and petit bourgeois who voted for Trump as irredeemably “deplorable”? Is deploring them a matter of principle, or merely a means of shoring up our own moral superiority?
If I have a hard time taking liberal panic about Trump entirely at face value, I will chalk that up to the other country whose politics I know best. Contemporary Turkey is a case study in the failure of professional-class moralism in the face of the populist right, as well as a reminder that things can always get a lot worse. Though the Islamic conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) first came to power in 2002, its leaders have been able to maintain an anti-establishment discourse for over a decade in power, thanks in part to the behavior of much of the established secular opposition in the early years of the AKP ascendency. Secularist attempts to close the ruling party through the courts convinced its pious petit-bourgeois base that the old establishment would never regard their power as legitimate, handing the government the opportunity to label any and all opposition the avant-garde of coming coup attempts.
The results have been catastrophic not only for the old middle class, but also, and most of all, for workers who form part of the ruling party’s support base. As will be true of Trump as well, the AKP economic policies have measurably been most beneficial to the 1%, and have further decimated an already weak labor movement. Yet this is a hard thing to see amid that party’s targeted expansion of certain welfare programs in the face of a mainstream opposition most visibly loyal to the IMF, the EU, and domestic white-collar professionals. Will the Democrats’ “creative class” profile continue to bedevil them while Trump’s promised Keynesian spending plans boost some working-class incomes and provide employment in infrastructure construction (the latter being a prominent AKP strategy as well)?
AKP rallies now officially feature gender segregation and include expressions of hostility to Jews and Alevis that would make alt-right-enabler Donald Trump blush. Over the last year the massacres of Kurds have reached a level unprecedented even in the era of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrilla war against the state in the 1990’s. One can only speculate on whether things would have reached this path had the secular-nationalist opposition taken the plight of Kurds more seriously early on, rather than ceding a portion of the Kurdish vote to the AKP as it worked to construct an authoritarian state capable of more easily repressing dissent.
Like Turkish elites who accepted neoliberalism as long as it wore a secular face, Clinton loyalists cannot afford to go on “deploring” the election results without critically examining their own role in enabling them. If the liberal left retreats into a bubble of self-pity and self-congratulation it is likely to go the way of that portion of the secular opposition in Turkey whose main political activity since 2002 has been to scorn AKP voters as gerici (backwards) and yobaz (religious bigots).
Not that such cultural discontent is without cause: at the apogee of its power, Turkey’s ruling party spends much more on the Directorate of Religious Affairs than on the Education Ministry, and is now moving to lower the legal age of marriage into early adolescence—which would likely lead many teenage rape victims into marriage with their rapists. Yet while extreme religious conservatism poses real dangers for Turkish society, the neoliberal narrowing of political space into an eighteenth-century-style confrontation between enlightenment and obscurantism has damaged the cause of enlightenment. A progressive agenda drained of its class content cannot defeat the right in countries with a significant reserve of cultural conservatism, and the resulting defeats spell disaster even for those interests that a circumscribed liberal left has emblazoned on its banner. This is as true in the United States as in Turkey.
America’s two faces
Hillary Clinton’s supporters are now outraged that Donald Trump should be their president, but who is Donald Trump, if not the obscene truth behind the polite façade of the Clinton family’s United States? Their promotion of financialized oligopoly capitalism enabled real-estate behemoths like him to thrive. Their resolve to compete with the Republicans on the terrain of “law and order” drove the GOP to ever more hysterical promises to confront the “super-predators,” even in the White House, while Democrats’ dismissal of sexual assault allegations against the party’s leading lions provided a model for those who now wave aside Trump’s own vicious talk as “locker-room banter.”
On an array of issues this year, Trump’s crude hyperbole brought into relief the contours of current policy. The Donald asked why we have nuclear weapons if we can’t use them. President Obama has quietly put this logic into practice, funding a long-term overhaul of the US’s nuclear arsenal to put “tactical nuclear weapons” at the forefront: nukes that we can use in battle. Trump offended with his promises to fight the “war on terror” without regard to human rights and legal niceties, as if there were not already on the president’s desk a list of those slated for assassination. Trump taunted Mexico with the task of paying for his ridiculous wall, as if we were not already deporting a record number of Latin American migrants fleeing the aftershocks of our support for reactionaries in their countries.
On the market, in race relations, and at war, official America differs starkly from its underlying reality. The ethic of meritocratic competition conceals the increasingly feudal reality of American capitalism. Liberal multiculturalism distracts from imperialist violence and obscures the contempt the well-heeled feel for those “others” among whom they would never choose to live. High-minded talk of humanitarian intervention clashes with the murderousness that decades of foreign meddling are bound to induce in the mentality of the intervening power.
For the first time in decades, the two images of America were openly at war in an election campaign. There is certainly sufficient ground for anger with Trump’s bizarre proposals and predatory behavior, but why was Clinton’s secrecy, her fondness for war as a solution of first resort, her flippant attitude toward an enemy being tortured to death in Libya, not equally disturbing to many who know to disagree with all these things? Why was white supremacists’ endorsement of Trump singularly beyond the pale for those who thought nothing of their candidate’s ties to the equally murderous architects of the Iraq War and of an intervention in Africa in which civilians were lynched for being Black? If they are now losing sleep because of Trump’s election, how could they sleep so soundly before?
If we are to take the US presidential election results with rigorous literalism, the White House should be empty, because No One won the election. Over 45% of eligible voters voted for No One, by not voting at all. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump each received slightly over a quarter of the votes of eligible voters. The remaining vote went to two alternative candidates, one a right-wing libertarian and the other an environmentalist far to the left of the Democratic Party: neither of them had much in common with the establishment candidates.
This election can hardly be considered a seismic shift of the American political landscape to the right. However he plans to govern, the Republican victor campaigned on a platform in some ways redolent of past versions of the American left, expressing skepticism toward foreign military interventions and hostility to trade agreements demanded by big capital. For all that, the boorish and bigoted Donald Trump triumphed while winning fewer votes than either Mitt Romney in 2012 or Hillary Clinton in 2016. The president-elect is still quite likely the most unpopular man in the country.
One of the lessons of this election concerns the scandalously undemocratic nature of the Electoral College. Yet what happened in the popular vote is a more crucial and divisive matter. Already a feud has broken out on the left over whether or not we should talk about “the white working class” as the catalyzing factor in Trump’s victory. David Mizner comments that, “Trump did not win the working class. Neither did Clinton.” The lower 51% of the income bracket accounted for only 17% of the vote. Union households were split almost evenly between the two major-party candidates: a remarkably bad showing for the party still institutionally identified with the labor movement.
One of the difficulties behind the debate over working-class support for Trump lies in uncertainty over how we should define “the working class.” In Marxist terms, proletarians are all those who owe their subsistence to the sale of their labor-time for a wage. Between the wage-dependent workers and the investment-dependent bourgeoisie, who control the means of production and exchange, there is a middle-class cushion made up of all those, whether small-business owners or salaried employees, whose proceeds enable them to make investments with which to supplement their earned income.
In the context of the Brexit vote in the UK—in which the role of the “white working class” is similarly disputed—one observer estimated that about 80% of the British population was working class, 19% middle class and less than 1% bourgeois or “ruling class.” If we define the proletariat in this capacious manner, there can be no doubt that a significant portion of both major candidates’ votes was proletarian.
Even if working class voters were not decisive in handing Trump the White House, they were certainly a major factor in denying it to Clinton. In a largely rust-belt corridor stretching from Pennsylvania to Iowa, six states that had broken for Obama twice swung this time to Trump. Doubtless some working class former Obama voters helped seal Clinton’s fate either by voting for her opponent or by staying home. These votes, which can hardly be ascribed to racism, may not have outnumbered Trump’s wealthier or more bigoted supporters, but their number seems to have been enough to sway the outcome. Progressives ignore or dismiss these people at their peril.
Predominantly working-class ethnic minorities were not a reliable constituency for the Democrats: Black voter turnout was low, and almost one-third of Latino voters went for Trump. There are of course multiple factors behind the voting habits of any of these groups; for example, some Latinos vote as culturally conservative Catholics, small-businesspeople or members of specific national communities rather than as ethnic relatives of the undocumented. That they would do so this time, given Trump’s many insults, bespeaks a lack of trust in his main opponent.
The same goes for reluctant Black voters, especially the younger generation whose mistrust of Clinton attracted mainstream media attention. Across the southern states, Clinton’s campaign finished far behind its standing in the pre-election polls, and in North Carolina, where low Black turnout was visible already among early voters, this deep discrepancy cost it the state. It may be tempting for Democrats to ascribe this drop-off to Republican-led vote suppression, but there is no evidence that that was its primary cause.
Not buying it
A more likely explanation for the weakness of all of these groups at the polls was their assessment that they had no one to vote for. For long stretches of Barack Obama’s two terms, wages stagnated even while the stock market soared. In spite of rosy official statistics, real unemployment remains high, with the labor-force participation rate close to its lowest point in decades.
Measured against the wealth of the median white household, Black household wealth has not grown appreciably since the Civil Rights movement; it has declined steeply under Obama. Since Black household wealth is concentrated disproportionately in real estate, the collapse of the housing market in 2007-8 affected Black people harder than anyone else. Yet Obama’s response to the collapse of the real estate bubble focused overwhelmingly on rescuing the banks.
Between 2008-2010 when the Democrats had the White House and both Houses of Congress, the budget committee convened by Obama and his congressional allies proposed budget cuts that the GOP hadn’t even asked for. Their signature achievement during that period was a modest, market-based change to the health care system, currently beset by steeply rising premiums. The plan’s most immediate effect was to make the insurance industry one of Obama’s biggest fundraisers in the 2012 election, in accord with the long-term transformation of the US economy beginning in the late 1970’s and characterized by the increasing predominance of the FIRE industries (finance, insurance and real estate), which do not produce use values. Obamacare fits perfectly into the long arc of neoliberalism.
The Obama Administration helped local police departments suppress Occupy Wall Street. It declined to speak up for public sector unions under attack by state governments. It supported neoliberal education “reform” both nationally and, through close associates such as Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, locally. It set records for both deportations and the pursuit of whistleblowers within the security state. It enshrined the extrajudicial execution of both citizens and foreigners in official policy. Neither Congressional Republican “obstruction” nor the lingering aura of George W. Bush forced any of this on Obama.
On the whole, Democrats in power made things worse for their own base. Why should people whose condition has worsened come out en masse to defend the status quo? In a country that already makes it difficult to vote by holding elections on a weekday, the vague threat that the opponent will be worse does not sufficiently motivate many who feel that they have little left to lose.
Reasons for hope
While Clintonite liberalism has proven a loser, we should not be pessimistic about the prospects of a class-conscious politics in the USA. Since Trump’s election, membership in the Democratic Socialists of America has increased substantially, and subscriptions to In These Times have risen greatly throughout the election cycle. Now, on the heels of the first US election since the days of Henry Wallace in which the word “socialism” aroused widespread popular appeal, interest in egalitarian ideas is on the rise. The left needs to use this state of affairs to push genuine socialism—beyond the social democratic imaginary of Bernie Sanders—further into the mainstream.
We must position ourselves both to benefit from the disillusionment of non-elite Trump voters who come to find their hero a more typical Republican than they expected, and to convince those who sat out the election that there is a political force to which they can turn for a response to their perpetually ignored grievances with hyper-capitalist America. The time for such a left turn is now, because only now have the scolds of bourgeois liberalism been so thoroughly discredited. The American left is not alone in facing this constellation of challenges. As Foti Benlisoy has insightfully argued, in Turkey the AKP has managed to make the transition from neoliberalism with pluralist rhetoric to paranoid authoritarian nationalism, making the leap from Clinton to Trump without ceding power. In countries whose ruling factions have proven less rhetorically adept and less able to concentrate media power in their own hands, globalist liberal leaders have fallen, or appear about to fall, to forces of nationalist backlash.
Across the western world, the ethic of globalization with a liberal pluralist face is dead. As the growth of international trade grinds to a halt and further free-trade agreements fall by the wayside, the prime beneficiary of neoliberalism in crisis has tended to be the neo-nationalist right, but there is nothing inevitable about this outcome. We need to get out ahead of the discontent with the status quo rather than lament the fact that we no longer have liberal-tongued professionals managing it.
The next four years are certain to see a rollback of the already meager attempts of federal and state governments to protect workers and the environment. Yet with the neoliberal Clintonites in retreat, the left has the opportunity to present, for the first time in recent US history, a program of social reconstruction as the only viable alternative to the right-wing policies emanating from the White House and Congress. Unlike Turks, Kurds and Arabs under Ankara’s rule, we Americans do not (yet) live in a country where high-circulation newspapers write headlines under dictation by state officials and academics face prison terms for signing a petition. We may feel discouraged by Trump’s election, but much of what happens next is still up to us.