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.

*     *     *     *     *

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.

*      *      *      *      *

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.