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.