I will reflect on the international shifts which have been the subject of so much analysis, even though they are only weakly expressed in Australia, and have only gained their drama by the stupidity of centre-right governments, before moving to more general prospects and the problem of identity politics versus distributive justice.
I accept the analysis given in “White riot. How racism and immigration gave us Trump, Brexit, and a whole new kind of politics,” by Zack Beauchamp, published on the day of Trump’s inauguration, namely, that all the right-wing political leaders currently making headway in Europe, Britain and the US are united by one thing: their hostility to immigration and they are all mobilising class resentment from sections of the population whose lives are being disrupted by the rapid changes taking place in the social and economic order, in particular the established capitalist countries which are accepting large numbers of immigrants from former colonies where colonialism and the effects of global capitalism have made life impossible.
Given this analysis, what can activists do to turn the political situation in a more productive direction, and what would be useful public policy responses by governments?
While the economic and social processes which have led to the current historical conjuncture are fascinating and complex, they are beside the point at the moment. The role played by export of manufacturing jobs or their eradication by automation and the resulting or impending relative economic hardship of certain groups, which figured in Trump’s program, or the alleged loss of sovereignty of Britain due to membership of the EU, which was supposedly the focus of the Brexit vote or the supposed affront to European culture caused by immigrants are no more than contributing factors. Whatever the processes which have disrupted the lives of those who voted for Brexit or Trump or any of the Neo-fascist leaders in Europe, they are all blaming immigrants. But the immigrants themselves are innocent parties and stopping immigration is not going to solve the problems faced by those voting for Le Pen, Wilders, Trump, Farage, Hanson & Co.
The political-economic context in which this outpouring of class resentment arose is economic inequality which has grown to unimaginable proportions. On 16 January 2017, Oxfam reported that “eight men owned as much wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity.” At the same time, there is a substantial portion of the population which have been relatively insulated from hardship and have in many ways benefited from the changes in the economic structure. Many professional people, those who Robert Reich called “symbolic analysts,” see themselves as benefiting from the porosity of national borders, the export of manufacturing from the old industrialised countries along with unceasing innovation. Even though workers in the service industries, such as health and education benefit from an increase in demand, they have tended to share in the resentment felt by workers in the disappearing manufacturing section of the old capitalist countries, for whom a switch to service industries is a kind of degradation. The legacy of the gender division of labour is a factor here: men’s work is disappearing and men are being forced to look for work in hospitality and the caring professions. Workers in manufacture and service industries do not constitute separate classes and generally work in the same labor market and belong to the same families.
Great changes have taken place, and some people have benefited and some who may have been poor but nonetheless had a stake in the former social set-up, have seen their lives ruined. Whatever the social-psychological basis for the process, the target of class resentment in such situations is generally the social stratum which has stepped up from the very bottom of the social order (African Americans, women, immigrants) to take the place of those poor people who used to have what they took to be a respectable place in the social order (white workers, men, natives) and not those whose privileged position in the social order means that they are in a position to determine to a great extent the overall social impact of the change.
The injustice of this is obvious enough, but the situation it responds to was just as unjust.
The justice of women’s emancipation is a settled matter for anyone reading this. Let us look back over the last 50 years during which women have forced their way into the paid workforce and taken an increasingly equal role in social and political life. Almost all men who were around when this process began must have felt resentment in some degree. They are now expected to do housework, compete with women in their career and in the job market and can no longer expect women to listen with quiet respect to everything they have to say. “Tough!” we say, “Get used to it,” because the justice of women’s cause is undeniable, women are strong enough and numerous enough to make it happen, and we all benefit from the better world that men and women make together. No-one wants to go back. But the balance sheet is not entirely blank in debit column. The movement of women out of domestic servitude into the economy has meant that labour formerly carried out by women within the sphere of the paternalistic family is now provided through the market. Rather than being determined by the needs of those in the household and whatever resources the wife/mother/daughter could muster, these functions are now determined by the needs of capital accumulation. Both partners now work to pay the bills; food purchased from supermarkets and fast food outlets has given us an obesity epidemic, neighbourhoods once held together by women’s networks have disintegrated socially – two in seven households are single persons living alone. The emancipation of women is far from being the sole driver of this process of course, as the underlying changes in technology have strengthened distal relations at the expense of proximal relations, broken up single-industry neighbourhoods and fragmented the working class into innumerable strata intermediate between employer and employee – each in themselves also welcome changes in the social structure. The above negative outcomes have not been caused by the emancipation of women, but rather happened only because women’s emancipation happened under capitalism. And this remains true even if it is also true that women’s emancipation was only ever going to happen under capitalism because it is capitalism which dissolves tradition and creates modern conditions.
A similar balance sheet can be made for Brexit and the immigration programs in Europe and the settler nations. Immigration programs free natives from the more menial work, increase productivity, enrich culture, but also lower wages, places pressure on infrastructure and weakens community solidarity, but increase profits. Let us accept that “overall” that balance sheet would be a positive one, but “overall” masks the fact that the benefits have accrued to certain social strata and the costs to other social strata, as determined by capitalist political economy. Is it any wonder that those who are bearing the cost resent that, and all the more so while they see that some sections of society (not the immigrants themselves, but the people who are organising the whole thing) are doing very nicely out of it, thank you.
The response has been an ugly racist response. It didn’t have to be but the right-wing bigots were the only ones who wanted to give voice to the resentment people were feeling. The bigots didn’t bother trying to redirect the resentment in a more productive direction. Unfortunately, “Blame the rich not the immigrants!” is not a slogan which has any traction firstly because it is abstract (that such upward resentment could be translated into a socialist movement is a vain hope. Class resentment demands an immediate visceral response and this is what bigotry provides). Equally, the North of England, Scotland and Wales will only free themselves from the domination of London by dissolving the power of the City of London in a European Union, and only then will a genuinely free union of peoples be one day attained. Secondly because the rich are in a position to actively deflect the resentment away from themselves and thirdly because it appeals to a vision of a world of rich and poor with which no-one identifies. No-one is proud of being poor or harbours an ambition to become poor, like people were once proud of being artisans or workers and aspired to being masters of their trade. Nonetheless, as hopeless as it may be as a political slogan it does succinctly sum up the task before us. Resenting the disruption of life brought about by mass immigration from impoverished countries does not have to be racist, but racism validates the racist’s superior social position relative to that of the despised group and gains its venom from the suggestion that that superiority may be under threat.
So what function do events like the women’s march in the US on 21 January 2017 serve? As a women’s march, responding to Trump’s misogyny it was good and necessary, but its expansion into an appeal for generalised tolerance and universal love was problematic. The expression of solidarity between the professional middle class and the “Minorities” did counter the feelings of persecution that the “Minorities” were feeling in the wake of Trump’s election and generally gave encouragement to the anti-Trump forces. But it also would have confirmed to those who supported Trump out of resentment at the deterioration of their social conditions everything that they believed, viz., that the elites were favouring the “Minorities” and working against the interests of ordinary folk. Everything opponents of Trump do to express ‘support’ for women and “Minorities” consolidates Trump’s support by reinforcing the racists’ view of the world as one based on us versus “Minorities.”
That emancipation is the task of the oppressed themselves is a universal truism; no subject is free except by its own efforts and sacrifice. This applies to the working class, it applies to women, it applies to African Americans and each of those social groups who have formed themselves into a subject and won self-consciousness and recognition of their needs. But “Minorities” are not such a subject; they are a construct of demographic analysis and electoral strategising. Building up the vote for the Democratic Party is not a strategy for the emancipation of women and “Minorities.” It is an expression of a Progressive identity which promises benefits for “Minorities,” but at the expense of dissolving each minority into a demographic category which will vote for the progressive party. That is, shared disempowerment.
To be liberal (in the best sense) is to be ready to extend solidarity to legitimate claims for emancipation. If you want to do something to help groups targeted for victimization by Trump, then you should exercise solidarity by placing yourself and whatever resources you command at the service of emancipatory projects run by any of these groups to further their own agenda. This means taking a back seat. If there is to be a ‘rainbow coalition’, this would be the outcome of a long drawn out project not a presupposition. The category of “Minorities,” which lumps all particular claims for recognition into the same despised basket is in itself oppressive.
Australia is not the US. After 20 years in Australian electoral politics, Pauline Hanson, has become a consummate parliamentary operator, and having received a boost from the victory of Donald Trump, she polls almost as well as the Greens. But whereas 25 years after its founding in 1992, the Greens have 23 elected representatives in state and territory parliaments, more than 100 local councillors, and more than 15,000 members in a stable branch structure across the country, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation is incapable of selecting a candidate who is not a flat-Earth, climate denying conspiracy theorist, with no education and a criminal record to boot. This is the big advantage that the Left has over the populist Right: the Right is incompetent at government in this very complex world we live in. It should be relatively easy to ensure that the conservatives prove to be ineffectual in any office they succeed in capturing on the basis of populist appeal. Coincidentally, the neo-liberal ideology around which the bourgeois has consolidated its hegemony has reached its own limits and is in the process of disintegrating.
Back in 2005, in a short article entitled “False Heroes and Villains,” I argued that no hero ever triumphed over two arch-enemies; in folklore we find only villains and false heroes. I want to re-emphasise this point now, at a time when Neo-Liberalism is not just vulnerable but cornered. Both the Neo-Liberal villain and the false hero of Conservatism (Right-wing Populism) deserve an equal measure of venom, but the quality of our rhetoric and our tactics are different.
In this article I argued that the Left must either:
The majority of the US Left seems to be firmly committed to attacking social conservatism, but denunciations of the neo-liberalism of the Democratic Party make little headway.
Trump’s opponents can promote the disintegration his administration by civil disobedience and noncooperation as well as by using the courts and arms of the state outside Trump’s control. To the extent that Trump’s government is ineffectual then its supporters will begin to doubt what he says, setting up a ‘death spiral’. And let’s have none of this tipping-toeing around with climate change: so-called 500-year floods and heatwaves every year is because of anthropomorphic climate change!
Why is authoritarianism associated with class resentment? I don’t believe that the authoritarian personality is a widespread feature of people suffering from class resentment but authoritarianism is the antidote to liberalism which suppresses the expression of class resentment. Political leadership in this space falls to authoritarian bigots because they are the only ones who will say what the resentful are thinking.
At risk of stating the obvious, class resentment directed against immigrants cannot be assuaged by concessions, such as limiting immigration, slowing down move to equal pay for women, giving exceptions for anti-discrimination laws, etc. But measures and actions which recognise and address the pain people are feeling and aim to meet the legitimate concerns of people who are suffering from loss of meaningful employment, cuts in their wages, degradation of infrastructure, loss of social support or weakening of community solidarity could bring real social gains and deflate resentment directed at “Minorities” and the professional classes who are benefiting from changes in the economic structure and are always speaking up for the “Minorities.”
Governments could do a lot: providing infrastructure and health and education services commensurate to the needs generated by large scale immigration, and providing good jobs in these industries and raising and enforcing minimum wages, subsidising start-up industries and a whole range of social policy initiatives which the right-wing bigots are incapable of offering and don’t necessarily improve the rate of profit. Activists can of course demand these things from government, but there is a limit on what can be achieved by mediating social change through demands on government because the problem lies deeper than that. The subjectivity which could be given expression in such demands is absent. Politicians or activists doing it ‘on behalf of’ people suffering from destruction of their lives does not achieve any of the desired results, but simply empower the bureaucracy.
The organised working class – the union movement, so long as it can keep racism and sexism out of its organisations – is a force which could combat this problem, but it has been so reduced.
The unions recruit immigrants in the process of ensuring that immigration is not used as a means of depressing wages. Working side-by-side with those who feel threatened by immigrants and furthering demands which genuinely meet the needs of people in their shared social position builds real solidarity. From the point of view of the union movement, racism is a divisive and altogether unwelcome sentiment and cannot be tolerated within its ranks. The same is true for other forms of illiberal prejudice and discrimination: the trade unions provide an arena in which both the struggle against capital and the struggle against all forms of status subordination can be secured.
But the union movement now makes up a minority of the population even while those eligible for union membership remain the vast majority.
It is a mistake to characterise the current political field as identity politics of various kinds having displaced concern for distributive justice and the fight against economic inequality. The counterposing of identity politics to the politics of redistribution is a false dichotomy, even while it is a dichotomy firmly impressed on contemporary politics. The labour movement, insofar as it pursues a socialist program is a fully developed identity politics much like the women’s movement at its zenith when activists envisioned a thoroughgoing transformation of patriarchal society, not just a better deal for women.
The ‘economic struggle’ was launched when the lowest stratum of workers in the industrialised countries joined the organised workers to form mass industrial unions, bringing about, in reality for the first time, a unity of the poorest workers and the socialist movement which had emerged in the 1840s. This confluence happened in the 1880s and ‘90s in Britain and Australia and in the 1930s in the US. The base of this identity group (the working class) was drawn together by political economy rather than race, gender, citizenship, occupation, education or sexuality, and could justifiably claim to be the ‘estate of liberation’ in the sense in which Marx used this expression:
For the revolution of a nation, and the emancipation of a particular class of civil society to coincide, for one estate to be acknowledged as the estate of the whole society, all the defects of society must conversely be concentrated in another class, a particular estate must be the estate of the general stumbling-block, the incorporation of the general limitation, a particular social sphere must be recognized as the notorious crime of the whole of society, so that liberation from that sphere appears as general self-liberation. For one estate to be par excellence the estate of liberation, another estate must conversely be the obvious estate of oppression. (Marx, 1843)
But that fact that the being of the working class was political economic and the aims universal, does not contradict the fact that its mobilisation as a class subject presupposed the sharing of a common identity.
As a result of the political economic turn of the later 19th century, the mass of organised blue collar workers formed the essential heart of the movement for distributive justice from these days up until the “historic compromise” in the Post-War Settlement and Keynesian programs largely satisfied its demands. The situation in Asia, Africa and Latin American took a different form, with the masses united in National Liberation Movements, but in many ways paralleled the situation in metropolis, although it launched itself just at the moment that the international workers’ movement entered into its historic compromise. Both these movements were self-emancipation projects of the poorest working masses. But they were not essentially movements for economic equality or distributive justice – these are abstractions, meaningful only to the administrative class. They were identity movements whose ideal was socialism and whose ethos was realised in the trade union and political activity of the labour movement – solidarity, collaboration, mutual aid, public services, etc., and who social base was a product of political economy, the working class.
The image of the artisan, the skilled worker organised in societies of various kinds, including trade unions, was a proud identity, and one which even unskilled labourers could identify; young people could aspire to such an identity, and the claim that their labour was under-valued was an indignant and righteous one, with not a skerrick of shame attached to it.
Whether this vision, this identity, is outmoded in the advanced capitalist countries is still an open question, because recent neo-liberal policies have again created a class of poor workers who, as in the 1890s, lack job security and all social rights and are paid very poorly, in economies where the cost of living (housing, utilities, etc.) is exceptionally high. It was such a class which rapidly coalesced into the great industrial unions and militant socialist parties in the 1890s and 1900s. But today’s social conditions seem to bar the formation of such an identity. The poor workers who formed the great industrial unions of the 1890s lived in neighbourhoods already sharing a strong communal consciousness. Today, poor workers are largely isolated from each other, notwithstanding (or perhaps because of) social media and so on. What is more, there is competition between taxi drivers and Uber drivers, between Post Office employees and subcontractors, between nurses, teachers, and so on, with permanent positions and the part-time and casual workers working alongside them via labour hire firms, agencies or outsourced companies. This is where ‘class resentment’ can arise.
The shop steward is the icon of the ‘worker’ identity, but the shop steward is a rare bird these days, outside the experience of the great majority of the population. A new identity, a new hero-figure is required. The Greens have a movement whose icon is the environmental activist, someone like Bob Brown, in fact. This is a more familiar figure. It is to be welcomed that the Australian incarnation of the Greens is also pro-union, and has from the beginning enjoyed close relations with both the progressive public services unions, like the Australia Education Union, and militant blue collar unions like the Electrical Trades Union. This offers the possibility of a kind of transitional identity which both the poorest strata of workers and young professionals can identify with. However, it is obvious that there are problems with this identity – there is a lingering feeling that the Greens represent a section of the elite, that they are dealing, so to speak, with ‘first world problems’, and the suburban middle class and rural masses are still reluctant to take up this identity.
Perhaps progress can be made through an alliance between this Red/Green identity realised by the Greens and the kind of Rural identity which the country independents have been able to tap into, people like the Lock-the-Gate movement? I don’t know the solution, but the fact is that if economic inequality is to be overcome, it will be overcome by a movement which proudly shares some identity which marks them out as victims of both distributive injustice and cultural denigration, while seeing themselves as ‘ordinary people’ who are also agents capable of resolving this injustice. What would unite such an alliance could be defence of the commons (including the natural conditions for human life) against the destructive greed of the wealthy, a return to public ownership of the social means of production, and a determination to share the benefits of the commons equitably.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that in the interim, progress can be made only by means of alliances, but not ‘rainbow alliances’ which stand for everything and nothing, but collaborations between two or three powerful identities which each have ideals which extend beyond the mundane scrapping for a larger share of the pie.
1. These remarks were composed in the wake of Trump’s election, and amended over the following months. They do not constitute a considered let alone a systematic view, but some ‘concluding remarks’, reflecting on the strange new terrain which has opened up before us.
2. http://www.vox.com/2016/9/19/12933072/far-right-white-riot-trump-brexit. I also thank Geoff Boucher for his analysis, which came to conclusions in many respects similar.
3. https://www.oxfam.org/en/pressroom/pressreleases/2017-01-16/just-8-men-own-same-wealth-half-world. Could Marx have imagined this when he wrote: “Centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” (Capital, v. 1, ch. 32)
4. I am reminded of how the colonial Australian working class responded to the use of Chinese as cheap labour. Instead of demanding that the Chinese join the union, they banned the Chinese from their unions. The racists were false heroes, the capitalists were villains.