Against the Politics of the Bogey Man

Fair is Foul, Foul is Fair

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the United States military, under Commander in Chief Barak Obama, dropped 26 171 bombs on seven countries in 2016:  Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan.  All of these countries are in the Middle East  or Africa, all have been de-stabilized by direct or indirect American military intervention, all are amongst the poorest in the world, none is capable of defending itself from American military might.  Since World War Two, the CIA has been involved in  57 interventions to destabilize and overthrow other governments.  Yet today, laughingly, embarrasingly, cringingly hypocritically, Democrats invoke the CIA as the protector of democracy and scold the Russians for “destablising the world.”  The blood of the millions of people killed by American interventions cries out in protest from the grave.

The CIA serves the American imperium, not democracy, and if Americans want to blame someone for the election of Donald Trump they should blame:  their own anti-democratic electoral college system, the near total disconnection between the leaders of the Democratic Party and white, middle America, and their own machinations against Bernie Sanders, as revealed by the emails leaked by Wikileaks but written by John Podesta, not Vladimir Putin.

The Democrats felt certain that Sanders could not win, and so worked against the millions of young people and workers mobilized by Sanders to ensure that Clinton won. Well, she did not win, and that is not a bad thing (although Trump winning is a bad thing).  Sometimes in politics there are no good short term alternatives.

People worried about Trump also need to remember what Hilary Clinton actually stood for while Secretary of State.  It certainly was not for educating the poor, huddled masses of the Global South, but violently forcing them into line with American priorities.  There was no war in the Middle East or North Africa in which she (and her fellow travellers like Samantha Power who cloak their imperialism in human right platitudes) did not want to intervene.  Have people already forgotten her psychotic grin as she crowed over the death of Muammar Gaddafi:  “We came, we saw, he died,”  she laughed.  Like Meursault in The Stranger, killing an arab was nothing to be troubled about.  One might think a feminist would be more troubled by the anal rape (with a steel rod) and summary execution of a fellow human being, even if he was a “terrorist.”(Watch the video and see if you think it is funny, and whether you think differently about someone, Clinton, who did).

In the West, Gaddafi was demonized as an oppressor and terrorist.  In Africa there was another side to his rule, the side that was more vexing to Western interests:  Gaddafi’s willingness to put his money where his mouth was to fund an African Central Bank and an African Investment Bank were far more troubling than his authoritarianism.  If either of those two institutions had been successful, African economies would have been able to free themselves from debt-bondage to America and Europe.

One might have thought the first black president would have been more in tune with African socio-economic realities.  Yet, despite the historical importance of the election of the first Black president in a nation founded on slavery, despite his talent for transporting rhetoric, despite the mild reforms he was able to make, (Obamacare was a real victory but it did not end the stranglehold of private insurance companies over the American health care system), the world carried on as before his election.  America conspired with Egyptian generals and Saudi monarchs to destroy the Arab Spring, (isn’t it funny how the Islamist opponents of your enemy (Assad) are your friends (in Syria) while the Islamist opponents of your friends, (the Egyptian generals), are your enemy, who must be toppled after winning a democratic election)? Domestically, Obama did not cause the Great Recession, but inequality continued to  rise.  He commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning and let 330 people incarcerated for drug offenses free, but left America’s two most prominent political prisoners, Mumia Abu Jamal and Leonard Peltier in prison. In all, more than 2.3 million people are imprisoned in the United States.

These are not just anecdotes, they help establish a political point of general significance. The world under Obama was not at all safe for Arabs, Africans, black and poor Americans.  Prior to Obama, under George Bush II, the world was not safe for Arabs, Africans, or black and poor Americans.  And before that, under Bill Clinton, the same points were true, as they would have been under Hilary Clinton.  Neither Clinton, nor Bush, nor Obama created these problems through acts of sovereign will. They were elected to a lead a system which has, historically, relied upon exploited and alienated labour, super-exploited slave and colonial labour, has been patriarchal, racist, and homophobic, has been colossally crass, ignorant, and violent.

Today, Donald Trump will take the helm, and to hear too many liberals tell the tale, we are leaving utopia for hell.  The Obama years were utopic only for people who live on symbols and half measures: none of the major problems facing America or the world were addressed in a systematic way to the short term advantage of the disadvantaged or the long-term interests of a democratic polity, society, and economy, a pluralistic, creative, and dynamic culture, or peaceful, just international relationships.

Might Trump make things worse?  Indeed.  But that which he will make worse is already bad for a majority of the world’s people, and has been so through many presidencies, some which inspired hope (Kennedy, Clinton, Obama), and some which inspired fear (Nixon, Bush II, Trump).  Somehow, problems were able to survive beneath the changes of administration.  Why?  Because the problems are structural and systematic, and presidents are elected to preserve, not radically transform, the structure.

Fight Dem Back

But what about the “alt-right”  that has helped propel Trump to victory? What about them?  Are they racists, vile, and violent?  Indeed they are.  But there is an unnoticed irony in their  name.  “Alt-right” is supposed to make us think that there is something new, something trendy or avant-garde about them.  If, however, we read “alt”  as the German word “alt,” it translates as “old.”  And really, that is a more appropriate term, for there is absolutely nothing new or avant garde about the ideas of so called “white-nationalists.”  They are nothing more than white supremacists that have always formed a troublingly large segment of the American population.  They may dress differently from the cliche image of the southern racist with his car oil stained t-shirt and confederate flag baseball hat, but the politics, at a deep level, are the same.  Has the Tea Party already been forgotten?

My point is not to dismiss the threat of the white nationalist elements amongst Trump’s supporters, but rather to note that those politics have been around in different forms since the American Civil War.  They are no more or less frightening now than they ever were.  Let us not forget that the legal racial violence of Jim Crow laws were administered mostly by democrats (the so-called Dixiecrats).  Donald Trump has skillfully played the racial card available to every white American politician, but he did not invent that trick (remember Willie Horton, whose demonization allowed George Bush I to beat Michael Dukakis)?

The sad lesson of the history of political struggle is that it rarely advances through rational debate between two sides one of which is willing to cede to the force of the better argument.  Rather, the struggle for an egalitarian and positively free society will bring you into contact with people who think that only a select few should have power, and they will violently resist anyone’s attempt to democratize the system.  They will demonize, mock, slander, shame, insult, beat up, imprison and even kill opponents.

This history cannot be avoided and it cannot be defeated by asking the authorities to silence the slanderers and bigots.  As Linton Kwesi Johnson said in his powerful dub poem written in defiance of the racist violence of the National Front in England:  “Fascists on the attack we not gonna worry ’bout dat, fascists on de attack we gonna fight dem back.”  All the movements that have made for a more democratic, egalitarian, and culturally diverse and dynamic world have been movements of self-emancipation in the service of self-determination.  The level of protest activity has picked up significantly since Trump’s election and will culminate with the Women’s March the day after Trump takes office.  But structural change will take more than marches, which are powerful testimony, but their effects are ephemeral.

Credit Where Due

In a recent book Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams argue that the left has retreated to books and slogans and sniping at each other over language and micro-aggressions while the right has seized control of almost every major institution in the Western world and used that social power to inflict macro damage (see above).   While I disagree with some elements of their program and some of the principles on which it rests, they are absolutely correct to argue that if the left is serious about solving fundamental social problems then we need to re-define and re-build our organizations.    “Any strategy requires an active social force, mobilised into a collective formation, acting upon the world.  But while putting a counter-hegemonic staregy into practice will require the use of power, the left has been both overwhelmed by and systematically averse to the use of power.”(Inventing the Future, p. 155).  The left has been reduced to a series of protests without a unifying program.  Facebook postings and trying to censor opponents’ views on university campuses is not enough.

Our weakness is in stark contrast to the Right.  In the 1960s, the Right seemed to have been completely defeated by the new social movements.  They retreated, for a time, built think tanks and strategized about how to build a counter-movement, and– most importantly– they did it.  The neo-liberal counter-revolution was the result.

But neoliberalism is just one way of managing capitalism.  One part of that strategy– free trade– has engendered resistance amongst one section of the ruling class, represented by Trump in the United States and the Brexit faction in the UK.  Their critiques of free trade are not the same as critiques of capitalism (which was still exploitative and alienating and oppressive in nationalist-Keynesian times).  Nevertheless,  if there is going to be an official movement against existing trade agreements, that is one opening that the left could exploit as a space in which to begin the long task of re-building.  If Trump opens the door to renegotiate NAFTA, for example, the Canadian and American and Mexican working classes need to step in, together, and articulate a trade policy that actually works for working people.

Except:  we know that is not going to happen.  Mexican workers were the primary target of Trump’s racist demagoguery and his promises to repatriate American manufacturing jobs will, at least in the short term, bind a large section of private sector union leaders and their members to that aspect of his agenda.  Yet, already the betrayal is setting in.  The Trump boast that he saved 1000 American jobs at Carierre air conditioning is already being undermined by the usual reality (for workers) of layoffs.

Trump will be inaugurated today and the world will keep turning, but the task of the left will press upon us with more insistence. The task is long term, and involves ideological and political work towards building new types of socialist parties.  Ideologically, we need to develop a program that resonates with workers and oppressed groups, that, at a minimum:  a) coherently articulates how problems of class, race, gender, sexuality, can be addressed by a unified left; b) spells out a credible economic alternative to free market capitalism, which begins with; c) mundane issues like progressive taxation and re-funding public institutions and works up to; d)more fundamental changes like democratizing work and radically shortening the working day; and e) brings Greens into the fold by explicating a new vision of the relationship between human beings and the biosphere and a new set of life-affirmative values to replace the values of world-destructive ego-centric greed.

Politically, the task involves coming up with a coherent account of a) how a new socialist party can work within, in order to b) transform the existing institutions of liberal-democracy; that c) spells out a coherent socialist interpretation of the values and limitations of civil and human rights; that d) re-thinks the historical antipathy for the left to political pluralism, and which; e) exorcises the romantic ghost of insurrectionary politics and revolution as a one off cataclysmic overthrow of power.  These tasks will require patience, long-term, deep-organizing in unions and social movements, a willingness to re-think politics in light of fundamental values, but above all, an end to in-fighting and sloganeering in favour of working together in solidarity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *