Sunday, December 18, 2016

Trump and the crisis of liberalism

by Frank Brenner

It is tempting to say that 2016 marks the death of liberalism, but that's probably wishful thinking. What is dead, though, is the old 'centrist' political consensus, i.e. the pendulum swings from centre-left to centre-right that made mainstream politics in the West about as predictable (and stable) as an old grandfather clock. Now the swings are much more extreme - or rather the swings to the right are. (One might add that what led up to this was a major shift rightward of the 'center' itself from Reagan/Thatcher on – what Tariq Ali rightly dubbed the “extreme center”.)

On the left, whenever the pendulum swings beyond the centre, it hits a buffer: Syriza, Podemos, Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn. I imagine more names will eventually be added to this list, from Italy, Germany, France for example. The reason is that it is MUCH HARDER to swing to the extreme left than to the extreme right. On the right you never swing OUTSIDE THE SYSTEM, no matter how extreme your politics. But on the left you can only be extreme by shattering the system. Any left wing agenda that accommodates capitalism is a buffer AGAINST extremism, no matter the rhetoric. The self-styled 'radical' Syriza couldn't even tolerate giving up the Euro, let alone capitalism.

These buffers are not just 'bad' politicians. Though personal corruption undoubtedly plays a role, as does being in a relatively privileged class position, these are only contributing factors, not the essential cause. The essential cause is pragmatism, which is to say the defining of politics as the art of the possible. Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras caved in to Eurozone blackmail – why? “I chose my country over my party,” he declared, a banality which made no sense given that most of his country had just voted to reject the blackmail. Bernie Sanders caved in to the DNC and the Clintons – why? Because the most important task was to stop the election of Donald Trump – except that Clinton turned out to be the ideal candidate for Trump to run against.

The art of the possible turns out to be a prescription for disaster – precisely because we now live in an era of extremes, and this overturns the expectations of what is or isn't possible. The possible is not just a category bound up with objective factors like the state of the economy, it is also bound up with the state of mass consciousness. It is relatively straightforward to know what the masses need, it is another matter to know what they want or at least are willing to accept, harder still to create the conditions where what they need becomes what they want. It is just this 'subjective side' of political life that is now in turmoil. Nearly a decade after the Wall Street financial meltdown, mass consciousness is finally catching up, which is to say, it is becoming as extreme as the underlying economic situation. What was possible for the entire postwar period isn't so any longer, and what was impossible no longer is.

To say that mass consciousness is extreme does not mean it is revolutionary. All it means is that the masses are open to embracing extreme change – which could be revolutionary but equally could be reactionary. For now at least, the latter possibility seems more likely, but that outcome is no more inevitable than a revolutionary one. Brecht had it right when he called his play about Hitler, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.

A familiar line of thought has it that the left dealing in facts, the right in emotions. This misses the mark. The masses who voted for Trump or Brexit were not just responding to emotional appeals (racism, xenophobia etc.). They were responding to real conditions of economic inequality and insecurity. The choices on offer were the status quo (which Clinton personified) or a leap in the dark – and for 60 million people the leap seemed the better way to go. But the 'change' option didn't have to be Trump, it could also have been Sanders. The extremism of the masses remains open-ended.

(One example of this open-endedness is worth citing. The historian Jill Lepore reported that many Trump voters she met during the campaign compared Trump to Lincoln: they saw him as an emancipator. This may boggle the mind – mind-boggling being a recurring feature of extreme eras – but it also doesn't take a lot of imagination to see how the Great Emancipator's halo can quickly turn into a curse for Trump.)

Something Hannah Arendt once said bears thinking about: “What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.” Put this another way, you have to have A CONVINCING NARRATIVE to sway mass consciousness. The right has such a narrative: it offers a choice of scapegoats and also a social project – make America great again. The left has at best a patchy narrative since its anti-Wall Street rhetoric is often co-opted by the populist right, and it has no convincing goal, since it either isn't socialist or pretends that socialism is just a nebulous term, synonymous with feel-good phrases like social justice.

Occupy exemplified this problem: it offered a statistic – the 1 percent – and little else. Sanders was open about calling himself a socialist but said nothing about what socialism would look like in America. Occupy wanted unity of the 99 percent; Sanders wanted unity with the Democrats. But unity that isn't tied to clarity of purpose is just the old pragmatism – and that no longer works in an era of extremes.

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Liberalism may not be dead but it is in deep crisis. One feature of that crisis is the way many liberal and left intellectuals and artists have responded to the election. Overwhelmingly, this layer backed Clinton and are shocked and bitter about the outcome. Blaming 'whitelash' is a familiar refrain in these circles. To be sure, Trump's appeals to racism played a role in the election, but 'whitelash' doesn't begin to explain the many white workers in rust belt states who had voted for Obama twice and who now voted for Trump. The eagerness of the liberal left to buy into 'whitelash' shows that while prejudices about race or sex are beyond the pale, prejudices about class – as in 'white trash' – are still acceptable. What is striking about this is the absence of critical thought from the very people who make their living by thinking.

Jill Lepore makes an important point about liberalism in a recent radio interview. She contends that there is a major difference between 'progressives' in our time and those of the Gilded Age of the 1890s. Back then, as now, there was a vast group of underprivileged who felt 'left behind' by major economic, social and cultural change: the onset of industrialization  then, globalization today. But there was a big difference in the reaction of progressives: many of them embraced the cause of the underprivileged, from muckracking journalists pillorying the Robber Barons to movements for social reform to alleviate poverty and inequality. The results of those efforts were mixed, but the social sympathy of progressives was markedly on the side of the underdogs.

Not so today. 'Progressives' have little sympathy for those left behind by globalization. The reaction of most liberals to the ravages of deindustrialization is a shrug: those jobs are gone and it's just too bad. (See for instance the post-election columns of Paul Krugman in the NY Times.) Of course Trump's promises to revive the smokestack economy are empty rhetoric but at least he acknowledged there was a problem and appeared to give a damn about it. Modern-day 'progressives' don't spend much time worrying about what happens in the 'flyover states'. And unlike their predecessors they are much enamoured of today's Robber Barons who reside in Silicon Valley. The canonization of a venal figure like Steve Jobs is typical of this mindset.

I would add to Lepore's point by noting a similarly stark contrast between today's progressives and those of the two major radicalizations of the last century, in the Thirties and the Sixties. In both those radicalizations, there was a viable socialist left (and a viable labor movement) that kept the issue of class front and center. This was of course much truer in the Thirties than the Sixties, and as the Sixties gave way to a very long Big Chill, class largely disappeared from consciousness in the welter of identity politics. The disappearance of class from left wing discourse coincides with the disappearance of utopia, of socialism as THE alternative to capitalism. Liberalism and even much of the left bought into the There Is No Alternative line of Thatcher. Identity politics is how progressives make a virtue of accommodating themselves to capitalism. And so now we have the great irony that class makes a comeback, not from the left but from the populist right.

I would also add that this non-progressive character of today's 'progressives' is evident in the fawning of many prominent artists and intellectuals over Obama. There has been a strenuous effort to refashion Obama, to make him out to be a heroic icon of liberalism that the reality of his politics doesn't even come close to matching. There was the Nobel Peace Prize (for what – drone strikes and kill lists?), there was Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner's film about Lincoln as an Obama ancestor, this year there is even a Hollywood biopic about the Obamas' first date with all the dramatic appeal of a Sunday school lesson.

Since the election this fawning has continued, with an added sense of ruefulness. Dave Eggars, a talented writer, feels compelled to declare that with Obama's departure, “the days of decency are gone.” I wonder if Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden would agree that the last eight years have been “days of decency”. Or how about the 8 or 9 million families that lost their homes post 2008 while watching the big banks get bailed out? Zadie Smith, another talented writer, gave a talk in Berlin a couple of days after the US election and offered her audience the following considered opinion: “As my dear, soon-departing president well understood, in this world there is only incremental progress.” This is said without a trace of irony. The sense you get from such remarks is that Obama is 'one of us', one of the 'decent' people – literate, thoughtful, hip, a good man trying his best. To spell this out is to make plain the appalling lack of critical thought that the fawning over Obama expresses. It's also to make evident that artists bereft of an allegiance to the dispossessed become bereft of their moral compass.

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The crisis of liberalism is also the crisis of liberal democracy. The incoming Trump administration will be fundamentally different from its predecessors: it will be an authoritarian government, rule by a strong man. To that end, Trump has stacked his cabinet with military men and billionaires. The Secretary of State is now Exxon Mobil, the Treasury is now (as it has been under Clinton, Bush and Obama) Goldman, Sachs, Amway runs the Education Department, Texas oil runs the energy department etc. This is not just an extremely right-wing government, it is quantity turned into quality. As the Italian academic Ugo Mattei argues, the role of the public and private have been reversed. The economic base of private capital has reshaped the political superstructure in its own image, so that politics is now run like a corporation, and it is run by corporate executives. The liberal democratic ideal of the government as a counterweight to corporate interests was always more illusion than reality, but now it has ceased to be even an illusion. This is the inevitable outcome of 2008. The cancer of social inequality has eaten up liberal democracy. This doesn't mean that Trump is omnipotent, quite the contrary. It's easy to foresee many and varied crises that will afflict the new administration and possibly even lead to Trump's impeachment. But whatever happens personally to Trump, there will be no going back to “the days of decency”. Either the system will continue its descent into authoritarianism and worse, or a new, social, democracy will emerge from the ruins of its liberal predecessor.


Thursday, November 10, 2016

After the Trumphant: What Next?

Note: We are reprinting below a question we received from Thomas Cain to our post “Vote for Nobody”.

The comment is followed by a response from Frank Brenner.


This post expresses most of my own feelings on bourgeois elections in general, though I admit that I have never bothered to even register to vote. But despite your assertion that there will be a great opportunity for revolutionary socialism, I feel a sort of despair emanating from your piece, or maybe I'm only projecting. Trump's election, contrary to our expectations, raises questions that I can't find the answers to: Should we re-evaluate our assessment of events thus far? Should we have a discussion on Fromm and Reich (not that I'm an expert on either)? And most of all, what should we do now? I know that we're just individuals and that we can't wage the revolution or just wish a party into existence.

Thousands protest in front of Trump headquarters in New York


It's understandable to feel down at this moment. Only sectarian idiots have no doubts. But ask yourself this: would you be just as nonplussed if Clinton had won? And if not, why not? Is there not in this let-down feeling a little hankering for things to go back to being normal? It's a conservative feeling, and one that ought to be resisted. Reality has thrown up something radically new, we need a theory that can be as radical as reality.

Of course Freud and Reich are relevant, but not in a mechanical way. They can help elucidate the attraction of a figure like Trump, the charisma of the authoritarian leader. To liberals Trump seemed a buffoon, as did Hitler back in the day. But to fearful, angry middle class and working class people, he seemed very different, the man who would straighten out the mess in Washington and in the country. His role on reality TV created this image, and Fox News constantly pushed it. Trump's main mentor, besides his father, was Roy Cohn, who taught him the basics of a demagogue: Lie, lie, lie, deny, deny, deny. So Trump's political lineage is from Cohn to McCarthy and thence back to the fascism of the 1930s.

But the analogy to Hitler is a limited one: Trump is - or rather aspires to be - a Bonapartist. This is not yet fascism. The distinction is especially important now, to avoid confusion and even despair. All that's happened is an election. The country is split but the winners haven't been mobilized - yet - into a fascist force and the losers haven't been crushed. The worst thing about throwing up one's hands is that you become a party to your own victimization. Demagogues like Trump depend on that. Here we need to be guided by Marx and Trotsky as well as by Freud, and not allow ourselves to become overly impressed by power. Which isn't to deny there are big dangers in this situation, it's rather to insist that our enemies aren't omnipotent, though they would very much like us to believe they are.

The rise of Trump means the end of the old norms of bourgeois democracy. The 2000 election and the aftermath of 9/11 already foreshadowed this. Obama, as it turns out, was just a passing interlude. The fate of Obama's 'legacy' – which Trump and the Republicans are set to wipe out in their first months in office – is in striking contrast to Roosevelt's New Deal, which survived largely intact for half a century, until Reagan. Along with Clinton's defeat – despite her overwhelming support from the establishment – this shows that liberalism is at a complete impasse. The next time some 'pragmatic' political hack starts talking about 'electability' – who's going to believe her/him? From the standpoint of socialist politics, this is all to the good. And so, by the way, will be the repeal of Obamacare – a ridiculous patchwork made to order for private insurers and big pharma. Trump and his minions can't make the need for medical care go away: they will reap a whirlwind of anger that will stoke a movement for free Medicare for all.

There have already been demonstrations against Trump. This will only grow as he and the Republicans take over and start wreaking havoc. The big question is: who will dominate this movement? Will it be the Democrats, who will inevitably destroy it? Or the anarchists and identity politics crowd, who will inevitably disorient and fragment it? One thing is sure: left-wing voices will have a chance to be heard – assuming they have something relevant to say.

Frank Brenner

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Vote for Nobody

When Odysseus told the one-eyed Cyclops he had just blinded that his name was “Nobody”, he momentarily confused the giant and his brothers, allowing him and his men to escape.  Is there not a lesson here for the 2016 election?  Can we not register our disgust with the two party system by voting for “Nobody” and could this not cause some disarray in the ranks of the capitalist class who have rigged this election from the start? I only make this suggestion half in jest because in fact there is no one to vote for in this election.

The 2016 election campaign is noteworthy for exposing the fundamentally anti-democratic nature of American political life.   This is open and obvious with the demagogy and bullying of Trump. With Clinton it is mostly behind the scenes, but occasionally we can see a glimpse of her contempt for ordinary people through the leaks of her speeches at Goldman Sachs.  She says one thing on the campaign trail where she claims to speak for working people and quite another when she addresses the billionaires who back her candidacy.  One can of course say that this two-faced  posture is the norm for successful American political leaders, but rarely has it been exposed so blatantly.

We see on the one hand the rise of a right wing populist movement coalescing around Donald Trump, who has captured the Republican Party and turned it against the patrician establishment that has dominated it for over a century. Trump was able to do this because he was able to channel the anger that a significant section of the working class felt toward the status quo.  His opponents in the Republican primary were a collection of criminals, sociopaths, religious reactionaries, peppered with a few representatives of the old guard who were so obviously out of touch with their constituency that no one took them seriously except the professional pundits. (Remember when Jeb Bush was the clear favorite to win the Republican nomination?) Trump, was able to connect to this constituency of the forgotten white working class, not in spite of his boorishness and bullying, narcissistic personality, but very much because of it. [1] His promise to “Make America Great Again” touched the collective myth of the American Dream, a myth as we have argued, that serves as a substitute for socialism in American political life. [2]

At the same time we saw the rise of a left populism within the Democratic Party with the Sanders campaign.  The Sanders campaign had wide popular support, but the corrupt Democratic Party establishment, solidly behind Clinton as the Wiki-Leaks emails have revealed, conspired to steal the nomination away from Sanders. Despite Sanders’ shameful capitulation to Clinton and the Democratic Party establishment he was for a moment able to articulate policies hearkening back to the New Deal era of the Democratic Party that galvanized tremendous support. His campaign also showed that socialism can now be a popular slogan. Were there a viable revolutionary socialist movement in this country this wave of left populism could have been harnessed for the project of building an independent mass socialist party rooted in the working class. But alas no such movement exists in the United States.  

Instead what we have, with  few exceptions, are sectarian grouplets who are hopelessly isolated from and hostile to the working class on the one hand, and radicals influenced by the remnants of the New Left, who are hopelessly dismissive of theoretical clarity.   Insofar as the “Left” has any presence, it is through the radicals who have absorbed anarchist theories in recent years, theories that make a virtue of an absence of a program and a party.  Their disdain for theoretical clarity is of a piece with their disdain for program and organization.  This explains why, despite their enormous impact on the public imagination, absolutely nothing of lasting political significance came out of either the Occupy Wall Street movement or the Sanders campaign.

In contrast to Trump and Sanders, the Clinton campaign, which from the beginning was identified with the status quo and a continuation of the Obama Administration, never generated any enthusiasm. Her base of support comes from the 10 - 15% of the population who are more or less comfortable. Along with the strata of bourgeois feminists and media flaks from the New York Times, Clinton finds wide support among those middle class layers whose personal assets have grown in the last few years. Also working in her favor are a host of constituencies who are motivated more by their repulsion with Trump than any love for her. She will thus be the beneficiary of Trump’s screeds against Hispanics, Muslims, African-Americans and women.

So voters are now left with a choice - either the reactionary Populism of Donald Trump, a form of populism entangled with an economic policy that supports the wealthy, racism, xenophobia and the rise of fascist armed vigilantes – or support the favorite of Wall Street and the neo-cons, Hillary Clinton, who promises more wars and more attacks on whatever is left of the social safety net despite her phony adoption of some of Sanders policy positions. The 2016 election demonstrates like nothing previously, the bankruptcy of the logic of “lesser-evilism”. Even if one thought that voting for the “lesser-evil” of these two widely hated candidates for President was a viable strategy, it is not at all clear who the “lesser-evil” is in this election.  It is indeed, to hearken back to the Odyssey, a case of being caught between the twin evils of Scylla and Charybdis.  We will leave it to the likes of Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky to explain to us why voting for Hillary Clinton is the “lesser evil” in this election.[3]  Their logical gymnastics in support of the candidate of Wall Street and the military industrial establishment should once and for all put an end to their reputation as radicals of any sort. [4]

One thing this election has done is write the epitaph of the two party system and that is a positive outcome. These putrid political formations are overripe for extinction. The Republican Party is now hopelessly fractured, with many prominent Republicans refusing to support their own Presidential candidate. In fact, Clinton is the Republican candidate in this election in all but name whereas Trump is in effect running as a Third Party candidate.  The remnants of Sanders supporters will not likely find a home in the Democratic Party which has been exposed as being even more anti-democratic than the Republican Party.  What we have now is an enormous potential for the rise of a new party representing the working class.  Whether that happens depends to a great extent on whether the left can learn the lessons behind the dissolution of Sanders’ “political revolution” and the Occupy movement.

Insofar as this election is concerned, one is still left with the question, “If not Trump or Clinton, why not vote for one of the other candidates?” While none of the other candidates stands a chance of winning could a vote for them advance the cause of socialism?  It’s a legitimate question. But an examination of third party candidates provides few reasons for optimism.  The obvious alternative to Clinton or Trump is the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein.  Stein has gained some support by articulating policies supporting social equality and opposing U.S. imperialism.  But the Green Party is not a working class party in any sense and has never adopted an explicitly socialist program. Insofar as Stein and her supporters think her policy proposals can be achieved within the profit system – a more humane form of capitalism – they are subscribing to a dangerous illusion.  Furthermore, Stein has selected for her running mate, Ajamu Baraka, a person who is at home attending conferences of Holocaust deniers.[5]  This alone should disqualify her from consideration.

In New York State, with its arcane election laws designed to keep third party candidates off the ballot, the only candidate on the ballot besides Clinton, Trump and Stein running for President is the reactionary nincompoop Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party.  New York State does have a procedure for registering as an official “write-in” candidate however.  If you register as an official candidate then your vote must be counted whereas if you are not registered a write in vote for you is simply tossed out. The procedure for registering as an official write-in candidate is not very difficult, consisting of little more than filling out an application obtainable online. There are 32 official write-in candidates for President in New York State. The only name I recognized in the list was that of Gloria la Riva, from the Party for Socialism and Liberation, a break off from the Workers World Party. Neither the Socialist Workers Party’s candidate, Alyson Kennedy, nor the Socialist Equality Party candidate, Jerry White, was included in the list of registered write-in candidates. It is clear that if they could not even be bothered to submit an application to be a write-in candidate that their campaigns are not at all serious but a Potemkin village production designed to impress their membership and bolster morale.

In years past, I voted for the candidate that came closest to the socialist policies I support. On those occasions when no candidate was even close to my political orientation, I would vote for whatever party was running that had the word “Socialist” in its label just to make a symbolic statement. Unfortunately, although there are official write-in candidates on the ballot in New York, their party affiliation is not registered. So you cannot even vote for a party this year in New York that says it is “socialist” despite the fact that the “socialist” label became popular among millions through the Sanders campaign.

Given the paucity of even a making a symbolic statement in this election, my conclusion is that the lesser evil is to vote for Nobody. 

According to the New York Times polling information, Hillary Clinton is all but assured of winning the election as she has the necessary votes in the Electoral College already locked up. However the popular vote according to the latest polls is very close and it is conceivable that Clinton could win the Electoral College vote but lose the popular vote. If that happens it would embolden the authoritarian elements not only in the Republican Party, but in the military and police apparatus of the national security state to openly sabotage a Clinton Presidency from the start. Trump and his right wing enablers are already, even before the election, threatening to impeach Clinton. And reports that elements within the FBI have been leaking false information to the press in an attempt to undermine Clinton’s candidacy indicate that significant sections of the ruling class are prepared to do away with the fig leaves of democracy in favor of an openly authoritarian state. Even if Clinton wins by an overwhelming margin Trump and his supporters within the state apparatus will not recognize her legitimacy. The United States will become ungovernable. There is no going back to “normal” times. We are entering a period with no parallel in our history with the exception of the period leading up to the Civil War.  Ahead lies great dangers but also great opportunities for the emergence of a revolutionary socialist alternative.

[1] One political scientist has shown that an identification with authoritarian ideas is a good indication of a preference for Trump:
This discovery was anticipated more than 80 years ago by the pioneering study of the authoritarian personality in Weimar Germany by the Left Freudian psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm, whose research was supported by the Frankfurt School.
[3] Both Chomsky and Moore have have made what they consider serious arguments for supporting Clinton as the “lesser evil”. See for instance,
[4] Some left commentators have argued that it is really  Trump who is the “lesser evil”. See for instance,
[5] See . After his relations with Holocaust deniers were publicized, Baraka denied that he supported Holocaust denialism, claiming he was unaware of Kevin Barrett’s connections to anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. It defies credibility that Baraka was ignorant of the background of a person on whose radio show he has appeared twice and for whose anthology he contributed an essay.