Note: The following is a slightly expanded and amended version of a talk given by Frank Brenner at the Locomotiva Cafe in Athens Greece on July 5, 2016. An enthusiastic capacity crowd of around 70 people were in attendance. In addition to Brenner’s remarks, Alex Steiner also gave a talk on the topic of "The American Political Landscape in 2016: A Marxist interpretation”. We previously published Steiner’s talk here. The meeting was chaired by Savas Michael-Matsas, the Secretary of the Workers Revolutionary Party of Greece (EEK). Savas also made a presentation on the significance of the vote for Brexit.
by Frank Brenner
I don’t know what the Greek word for populism is, but in English it carries the sense of politics that appeals directly to the people against the established political parties and economic elites.
From the definition, it would seem that populism is naturally a politics of the left, but this turns out to be an illusion. Appealing to the people can be just as effective for right-wing politics, best known in the extreme form of fascism. It all depends on what you are appealing FOR.
2. Right-wing populism is a huge political fact of life in North America and Europe. One especially striking example of this is the presidential election in Austria. There the candidate of the neo-fascist Freedom Party got nearly 50% of the vote in the run-off election in May (after leading in the first round of the election). But even more troubling is that this fascist, Norbert Hofer, got 81% of the votes of manual workers. And this happened in a country with a century of working class allegiance to social democracy. (And Hofer may well end up winning the election since the constitutional court in Austria has now invalidated the May result and ordered the election be rerun.)
3. Austria is a small country but its current politics are symptomatic. Donald Trump in America, Brexit and the rise of UKIP in Britain, the Front National of Marine Le Pen in France are the best known examples of this surge of populist politics. And in all these case you find the same phenomenon of workers – typically the remnants of what is now a mostly de-industrialized working class – supporting parties of the populist right.
4. This is something new in the political landscape. The fascism of the 1920s and 1930s, as the Marxists of that era understood it, was a movement with its political base in the middle classes, a movement whose reason for existence was to terrorize and annihilate the organized working class in the trade unions and the parties of the left.
Today the organized working class is a shadow of its former self. In the US, unions represent a small fraction of the working class, about 10%, and discounting the public sector, it is only 7%. Which means that in the daily life of most workers, unions play no role at all, they are invisible. The US is the most extreme case but similar trends are evident in other countries. Let me add that in Greece this may look different for now, but the complete failure of the unions to resist austerity in any effective way means the same process is at work. In Greece you have many strikes that achieve nothing; this is no better than having no strikes at all.
All of which is to say: there is no longer the need for a fascism that can knock the teeth out of the labor movement because the labor movement is already mostly toothless. Even Donald Trump, whose ideas about politics are very crude, understands this. Recently, when the American union federation, the AFL-CIO, announced its support for Hillary Clinton, Trump laughed at them and said that he represents more workers than they do.
5. But if organized labor is no longer a threat to capitalism, the anger and desperation of millions of people are potentially a great threat.
It is now not the middle classes, though, who provide the main social base for right-wing populism (though there are certainly many middle class people involved in these movements).
Rather that base comes primarily from the working class. Especially those low skilled workers who used to fill the factories making cars, steel, furniture, televisions, clothes etc etc. Millions of these jobs have been wiped out by technological change and transferring jobs to factories in countries where the cost of labor power is much cheaper.
A typical example is Apple, the most profitable company in the world. Not a single iPhone (or anything else) is made in America by this supposedly American company. All the productive work is done in countries like China by workers making less than 2 euros for a 12-hour working day. Apple’s American workers only do sales and marketing, typically for little more than minimum wage. In this sense the iPhone bears comparison to the art works of ancient Greece – beautiful objects created out of slavery.
It is workers in countries like America and Britain that are the big losers in the relentless competitive struggle of capitalist globalization. In the US in particular they have suffered staggeringly high levels of drug and alcohol abuse and suicides over the last 20 years, resulting in an unprecedented rise in mortality rates, what one magazine article on the subject dubbed an epidemic of “death by despair.”
But a great many more of these workers have turned their anger outwards, against the mainstream politics of both big American political parties with their empty promises and cynical lies.
6. Which means that the rise of populism is the rise of a new class politics. A nice illustration of this was a quote in the Guardian newspaper from a worker in the north of England about Brexit: “If you’ve got money, you vote in. If you haven’t got money, you vote out.” This explains far better that most mainstream press commentary the many thousands of working class votes for Brexit.
But this re-emergence of class politics is unlike anything socialists have expected.
The main political forces that for now are capitalizing on this working class anger are reactionary. The kind of class consciousness they promote directs class anger downwards rather than upwards – against immigrants, the poor, religious and racial minorities, unions – and not against the real social criminals running the banks and multinational corporations.
It would be wrong to ignore these dangers, wrong too for us on the revolutionary left not to do everything we can to fight this backwardness, this poison of racism. But it would be equally wrong to be overwhelmed by these dangers and simply write off these workers as “angry old white men”, as many liberals do.
A couple of facts: a year ago Britain had an election in which UKIP got 4 million votes. This year the Leave side in the Brexit referendum got 17 million votes. Even if we concede that that UKIP voters are xenophobic 'little Englanders', this is still a minority position within the British working class. The big majority were not saying YES to UKIP ideas, they were saying NO to the EU and the political elites.
Similar contradictions are evident in the Trump campaign. A lot of the workers who vote for Trump could also vote for Bernie Sanders. Undoubtedly in Trump’s case, fomenting hatred of immigrants and racism are crucial parts of his political pitch, but it is also clear that his base is a confused mass of contradictions. They may be voting for Trump’s Mexican Wall but they also feel that they are voting against Wall Street, against the liars in Washington, against a rigged economy.
I want to end with a couple of ideas about what this means for the revolutionary left.
First, it needs to be said that the success of right-wing populism is a direct consequence of the failure of the mainstream left – the old Labour, Socialist and Communist Parties, who have all betrayed their working class supporters by becoming parties of austerity, like their Greek cousins Pasok and Syriza.
But it’s remarkable how little the radical left has been able to fill the vacuum created by the degeneration of the mainstream left. Of course for a while there was hope among many workers and young people that Syriza or a similar party in Spain like Podemos might be the radical left answer to austerity. Now everyone knows, especially in Greece, how false that hope was. It would seem that for Mr. Tsipras, it's only possible to radical so long as it doesn't cost you a Euro.
Why is it that the right, not the left, is mobilizing working class anger? The plain truth is that the right has an answer – nationalism. It is a simple and effective answer, if also a terrible one. The left has no answers. To the extent that the radical left in America has any impact on mass consciousness, it is usually through identity politics, which is often openly contemptuous of the very same workers voting for Trump and Sanders.
Of course this is a broad generalization but I think it has a lot of truth to it. For a long time socialism wasn’t even much talked about on the left. The slogan you’d often hear at marches and demonstrations was, Another World is Possible. Which world, though? Nobody had much to say about that: you could make up any world you want.
Then there is the word, progressive. At least in North America everybody on the left is now a progressive. Progressive come from progress, which means movement toward some objective, some goal. What objective? What goal? These questions are deliberately left unanswered, so that even Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are happy to call themselves progressives.
Or here’s another one of these empty phrases – social justice. What does that mean? Can you have social justice in a society based on wage slavery? Apparently, many on the radical left think that you can.
These are not just a few misplaced phrases – they express a deep malaise on the left. A few years back we had the Occupy movement, and even though it attracted widespread attention, it achieved nothing because it was filled with such empty phrases and empty ideas – so empty that on principle it was opposed to having any program. Imagine that – a principle of fighting for nothing. Which meant that all the good intentions aroused by Occupy ended up going nowhere.
I should say that the Sanders campaign in the US and Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader of the Labour Party in Britain are of course signs that populism can take left wing forms and I don't want to underestimate their importance. Still it is striking that like Occupy, both these developments seem notably ephemeral, passing moments rather than major political shifts.
Sanders has already given his allegiance to Hillary Clinton, a shameful betrayal of the aspirations his campaign aroused among so many young people yearning for a political revolution. Sanders claims that his political hero is Eugene Debs, yet Debs spent his career resisting the deadly logic of lesser-evilism that Sanders has now capitulated to. Debs would never have stood on the same platform as Queen Hillary of Wall Street.
And in Britain, it looks as if Corbyn's Labour Party is breaking apart. If Corbyn remains the leader, he will have almost no parliamentary caucus, and if he is ousted the Labour Party will lose the big bulk of its membership. Whichever way it goes, this will no longer be the Labour Party as we have known it.
In both cases, these left-wing populist stirrings seem like the first halting steps of a movement that still hasn't figured out how to get off its knees.
We need to rethink our politics in the revolutionary left. The working class is saying no to mainstream politics but we need to offer it something to say yes to, something that can counter the poison of the radical right. And we need to offer it in the language and images of our time, not of the now long-forgotten social struggles of the 1930s.
I’ll finish with a quote from the German writer Goethe: “Few people have the imagination for reality.” That is a deep piece of truth beautifully expressed, and it applies not only to art but also to the art of politics.
Some photos from the event at the Locomotiva Cafe
Some photos from the event at the Locomotiva Cafe