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Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 16/09/2020 - 2:33am in




I just want to draw some attention to this post on Naked Capitalism that I thought was an excellent analysis of the dilemma of left-wing electoral politics.

They have done so mainly by convincing a layer of affluent, middle-aged professionals that the Left ultimately represents a threat to their most cherished social values: meritocratic, individualistic, cosmopolitan liberalism. In the US, this perceived threat has mainly taken the form of a repeated insistence (against absolutely all psephological evidence) that a Sanders candidacy would inevitably lose to Trump, thereby extending the life of his cartoonishly villainous regime. This same threat was used to convince older Black Democratic voters in the South that the defence of centrist liberalism was the only alternative to a perpetuation of Trumpian white supremacism. In the UK, the same effect was achieved by convincing a small but strategically crucial section of middle-class voters that Jeremy Corbyn was an advocate for Brexit and an antisemite, and that voters should instead lend support to the Liberal Democrats or the Greens (or abstain).

Secondly, again in each case, a nationalist, and increasingly irrationalist, populism on the Right has attracted enough support from some of the social constituencies who we might have hoped would unite around a radical social democratic agenda to make it impossible for that programme to win a majority. In the UK this was the constituency which voted for Johnson to ‘get Brexit done’. In the US, Trump’s economic nationalism and nativist populism mobilised lots of his base.

His failure to deliver on any of his promises (either to build a wall on the Mexican border or to bring jobs back to the rust belt) has undermined much of his credibility with that section, which is partly why increasingly deranged conspiracy theories are circulating among his die-hard supporters. There isn’t much reason left to vote for Trump, if you didn’t benefit from his tax cuts, or don’t believe he’s engaged in a secret war with the ‘deep state’.

This is exactly right, but I would cast it in another way.  There is still a large segment of opinion on the left that wants to engage in electoral politics but without taking into account voter subjectivity.  Well, of the votes meaningfully available to the left (construed as generously as possible) in Western countries, they do not conceive of the universe in the way that many people, particularly on the economic and environmental left, want them to.  If you are interested in exerting power via electoral politics, you must seriously engage with the subjective reality that these voters live in.  In the USA, one large group views Trump and all his supporters to be a critical values threat (what I’ve been calling the “dire aesthetic emergency” — keep in mind that I do not use “aesthetic” in a derogatory and trivializing way), another group (black voters) exist in a state of justified mistrust towards the rest of the electorate, and another group wants economic improvement but only if it is obtained through an aggressive posture towards those they view as an outgroup.  How these groups formed is a matter of a complex social history that is not fully amenable to class politics via “vulgar Marxism”.

Perhaps because it is, ultimately, the expression of inchoate and malleable emotional forces, nationalism can become attached to various political projects and tendencies. Its most extreme manifestation may have been in the murderous modernity of mid-twentieth century fascism, but the New Right of Thatcher and Reagan also managed to convince xenophobes and nationalists that they were on their side, willing to endorse racist and militarist projects as long as they also got to sell off public utilities and slash taxes for the rich. So the discourse of nationalist authoritarianism has proven remarkably flexible over the years, being used to justify everything from imperialist war to the destruction of the British coal industry. But the purpose that conservative nationalism always serves is to provide alternative explanations for historical events to those that would inform a progressive response: blaming unemployment on immigration; blaming union unrest on unpatriotic militant workers; blaming crime on the supposed moral degeneracy of ethnic minorities.

In the UK, the most recent and powerful iteration of this narrative was the Right-wing argument for Brexit. The Brexit story offers a compelling and plausible account of almost all of the cultural, social, political and economic changes of recent decades that many UK citizens have cause to regret, while promising an easy remedy to them. The weakening of our democratic institutions, the collapse of manufacturing industry and the consequent loss of secure employment in many places, the changing cultural composition of our cities and other communities: all could be laid at the door of EU membership. Of course a few of the people who voted Leave did so out of a hard-headed Left-wing understanding of the EU as an institution committed to the implementation of neoliberalism. Of course almost everyone who took such a view was a committed supporter of lifelong anti-racist Jeremy Corbyn. But absolutely every relevant survey suggests that the proportion of leavers who were motivated by this view, free from any nationalist fantasies of ‘recovering sovereignty’ or restoring cultural purity, was statistically negligible. A certain section of the American Left loves the idea that Brexit was in fact a vote against neoliberal policy rather than the reactionary form taken by dismay at some of its effect. The truth is, for most of its supporters and opponents, a vote for or against Brexit was the precise symbolic equivalent of a vote for or against Trump’s border wall.

There is a strong temptation, again especially among economic leftists, to see favorite leftist bugbears (e.g., the construction of European institutions while neoliberalism still seemed to bear the Mandate of Heaven) as the “real” thing that underlies the false consciousness of nationalist resentment.  Arguing this requires the kind of psychologizing that typically heralds weak armchair sociological reasoning.  Perhaps if one were already in power, one could use economic policy or withdrawal from neoliberal globalization to abate the underlying impulses that motivate proto-fascist ideation in the population.  This is putting the cart before the horse.  There is no evidence that catering to those impulses before attaining power enables you to create a cadre of voters that is more motivated by economic policy than by latent cultural resentments.

There are therefore two overall options:

  1. Accept the electorate as it is (yes, fully understanding the power of capitalist media to shape public opinion without overestimating it or imputing omnipotence to it). Then make a decision as to what are the palatable compromises in order to exert power.
  2. Set aside electoral politics as the center of available political progress and do the hard work, outside the question of elections, of raising public consciousness and reshaping the attitudes of the electorate.

This is, of course, not a complete dichotomy, since a combination of the two is possible.  The option that has not been available at this present time, however, is running on a platform that centers economic and environmental improvement, given the constraints of the electoral system and its social history to date.  This is not a circle you can square.  The prospects for this have improved (the fact that Corbyn and Sanders got as far as they did is a relevant indicator), but the world is not “there” yet.