Trump’s election is not just a separate random episode of current politics. It is also not an indicator of American exceptionalism. It rather suggests that similar processes are under way in the US and in Western Europe. And is it just the West that is affected?
The vote of the United States Electoral College has finally put an end to the 2016 presidential campaign. Attempts to prevent Donald Trump from becoming the US president continued until the last moment: the electors were called upon to ignore the will of their states and voters; however none of these attempts have succeeded.
It is important; nevertheless, to understand why the liberal part of the American society reacts so hysterically to the Trump victory. President-elect did not even assume the office, but a fierce propaganda campaign, unprecedented in recent American history keeps raging; mass protests against his policies which are not only not being implemented, but also have not been formulated yet, are being organised. A grotesque and demonic figure of Trump haunts the consciousness of the liberal public, the evaluation of his words and actions is based on the presumption of guilt. This includes the words he never said, but could have said, and actions that he did not carry out, but according to the liberals, would certainly have to perform. In other words, the president-elect is being criticised not for what he has done, and even not for what he plans to do, but largely for what he is supposed to do according to the ideas of American liberals on how the absolute evil should behave.
In other words, the president-elect is being criticised not for what he has done, and even not for what he plans to do, but largely for what he is supposed to do according to the ideas of American liberals on how the absolute evil should behave.
Does it mean that the attacks on Trump are absolutely baseless and without merit? Certainly not. However, they simply reflect an unconscious fear by part of an American (and not only American) society of spontaneous objective processes, which are unfolding in the country and in the world, and which are beyond their comprehension and control. Trump’s victory is only one of the multiple symptoms of these processes, but this is the fact, which lies on the surface. As people often do, they confuse the cause with the consequence.
The panic reaction to Trump’s success is caused by the fact that the liberal circles have no grasp of the colossal tectonic shift currently under way in the world economy. There is also no understanding of the irreversibility of this shift. But there is a completely justified perception of its catastrophic nature: we are talking about the end of a social-economic order, which persisted for more than a quarter of a century, about destruction of the institutional base of neoliberal capitalism, which was systematically and consistently being constructed throughout this time.
Trump’s election is not just a separate random episode of current politics. It is also not an indicator of American exceptionalism. It rather suggests that similar processes are under way in the US and in Western Europe. And is it just the West that is affected?
British vote to exit European Union, similar vote in Italy against the government, referendum in Holland rejecting Ukraine association with EU, and many other political facts, which hit us almost every week, are interpreted, at best, as a rebellion of mistreated and uneducated lower classes discarded by the system. But why did the rebellion start now? Why is it becoming more and more successful, and, most importantly, why does it grow, inspiring millions of people, who, according to the establishment ideologues, should not get involved? Marginalised ideas suddenly became mainstream.
The ideological control, which, in the framework of Western democracy, is conducted through a meaningful consensus of all main parties, suggested a formal diversity of opinion accompanied by a compulsory uniformity of conclusions. In other words, you can support or oppose capitalism, have different opinions on the historical roles of de Gaulle and Stalin, but when thinking about specific issues, regardless of the starting point of your argument, you are obliged to conclude that there is no alternative to the policies of the European central bank, to the Eurozone membership and fiscal discipline.
As a result of these differences, the European Union entered the stage of institutional breakdown without going through the phase of “perestroika”, as did the USSR, which means that the psychological effects of this transition are even more traumatic and brutal. Everything started to crumble not “fast”, but “at once”, leaving people completely at a loss, especially those who still hope for the preservation of the existing order.
Such turn of events boggles their minds and causes panic. But the scope of the transition is not the only problem. The transition is accompanied by a collapse of an unprecedented ideological hegemony inherent to the western society of the past dozens of years. Neoliberal politics in its right, conservative, as well as the left, politically correct version, always relied on the small part of the society. No, this is not the notorious 1%, which entered the public consciousness thanks to the “Occupy Wall Street”. These are quite a few people who are part of the system in different ways, and who benefit from this system (including, by the way, a significant portion of the young radicals, whose symbolic protest was a kind of shadow of the official ideology).
This part of the society, who in Western Europe receives benefits from the clientele programs of Brussels bureaucracy, and in the US works to promote various politically correct practices, in a large part relies on the re-distribution of resources from the real sector of the economy. Nobody likes the Wall Street bankers or European Central Bank functionaries, but it is the symbiosis of the liberal public institutions and creative class with the financial capital that is the pillar of the current model of capitalism.
At the same time as the real sector (including not only the industry, but also science, public education, and social infrastructure) was degrading, jobs were disappearing, and workers were losing their livelihoods, the liberal class which earns their living from sharing profits of the financial capital under the guise of participation in “creative economy” and “civil society” was formed. This, mostly parasitic minority lived with a comfortable confidence that they were the majority, moreover, they were the core and the most progressive part of the society, while people holding viewpoints which differed from theirs were a tiny marginal minority, which should not be taken into account. This group spontaneously reproduced the dominating ideology in its different varieties, including the one of the radical left kind. In all versions of this ideology the problems of the economical structure and real politics were overshadowed by the cultural issues, making tolerance more important than the wages; protectionism and jobs were excluded from a serious discussion, and ecology became a quasi-religious symbol of faith. In this approach it is only important that you believe in climate change: the discourse left the framework of political pragmatism, and turned into a semblance of a religious dispute. What is important is not how you propose to solve the problem, but if your symbolic interpretation is the “correct” one, and if you are ready to repeat the correct words.
The absence of practical alternative guaranteed preservation of status quo, in the framework of which both the critics of the system and the conservatives played their roles, as if they were dancing a never-ending dance in one place.
The politics of targeted help, oriented towards the support of specific “minorities”, advocated by the left liberals, was a quite conscious and consistent attempt to split the society and undermine solidarity, not only the class solidarity, but any solidarity – professional, corporate, or regional. Clientelism became a substitute for the solidarity. Horizontal bonds between people belonging to the same social groups were blurred and weakened, while ties to the community leaders who are part of the liberal elite, were systematically strengthened.
The rhetoric of “justice” and even “resistance” was duly reproduced, but it became completely separated from the real social processes. Separate acts of solidarity with different “struggles” calmed the humanistic conscience of the left liberals, allowing them not to think about the complex strategy of the transformation of the society. This approach resulted in abandonment of not only class politics, but politics in general (if you understand it as an activity aimed at transformation of social institutions and relations).
All the talk about the privilege of the white males – workers, farmers, bureaucrats, small business owners, barely making the ends meet – was to substitute and stop all questions about the interests of the ruling class.
A myth about “white males” who allegedly were the main privileged group of the society, who stayed in the way of the progressive changes, and oppressed the minorities, became the key ideological rationale for this approach. It didn’t matter that the myth was constructed by the representatives of the liberal elite, who are predominantly white, and are mainly male. Their main goal was to substitute social and class criteria by gender and ethnicity, analysis of the economic contradictions – by discussion of cultural differences. All the talk about the privilege of the white males – workers, farmers, bureaucrats, small business owners, barely making the ends meet – was to substitute and stop all questions about the interests of the ruling class. On the other hand, the role of the main victim of the system was assigned to immigrants. They were seen not as active participants of the labour market, but exclusively as passive victims. The discussion about the direct connection between the encouragement of illegal immigration and systematic oppression of the migrants by the employers, which are two sides of the same coin, was an absolute taboo. The fact that these are the earlier arrivals who are interested in the limits on the flow of immigration the most, because it undermines their position on the labour market, was never discussed.
Thus the liberal left criticism of the system was in fact an essential ancillary of the conservative social and economic policy pursued by the ruling class.
However, the system still has slipped into a crisis, simply because it completely exhausted its capabilities for development. The endless growth of the global market, accompanied by increasingly depressed conditions of national markets and the weakening of societies on the national level, turned out to be impossible. The financial expansion does not only generate bursting bubbles, but also leads to an objective necessity for debt relief, and nationalisation of financial institutions. The era of free market naturally prepares the conditions for the onset of protectionism, while dismantling of the welfare state breeds conflicts on the scale and in the forms long forgotten, returning us not even into the first half of the 20th century, but in the beginning of the 19th century, when socialist parties or trade unions which could help to normalise the class struggle, and give it a sensible ideological perspective, did not exist. The protest of the masses really assumes the form of a riot, in the words of Pushkin, “senseless and merciless”, but it cannot be any different, because the ideological field is completely occupied by the supporters of the established order, while the order itself is crumbling, not under the assault from its opponents, but from its own contradictions.
In such situation only radical forces, which are not afraid of dramatic and unpredictable turn of events, have a chance to succeed. Catastrophic consequences will arrive everywhere regardless of who takes the power in the next one or two years. In this sense, Donald Trump with his indifferent readiness to achieve his goals through the scandals, crises and shocks, is psychologically much more adequate in the role of the president of the United States than any of his allies or critics. It is quite a different question if his recipes will be helpful to find a solution to the unfolding crisis.
The desire of conservatives to preserve things the way they are at any cost, to maintain the status quo, remains the main motive of their actions, moreover, there is no difference between conservative Republicans, liberal establishment and their critics for that matter. Some are happy with the existing system, others – with their role in the system. In fact, the West has worked out a very comfortable and convenient division of labour between the respectable right-wing and respectable left-wing. The former conducted their economic policies dismantling the welfare state, and state regulations, unlocking the markets of goods and capital for transnational corporations and banks. The latter advocated for multiculturalism, political correctness, affirmative action, positive discrimination, the rights of minorities, while understanding perfectly that they do not offer an alternative to the existing neoliberal economic order, but rather work to complement it. Economic policies of the right and cultural and social policies of the left together are two sides of a single logic and a single strategy aimed at fragmenting of the society. That is why the seeming paradox often mentioned by the liberal intellectuals who write for The Nation and The Guardian, has become possible: the decades before Trump’s victory were not only the years of neoliberal economic reforms – deregulation, privatisation, and redistribution of resources from the real sector to the financial capital, but also the time when many progressive victories were won: from passing medical marijuana legislation to gay marriage bills to putting ever increasing number of women and minorities in positions of power, and, finally, electing the first black president. This, however, is not just a coincidence, there is a direct link between these two processes. The ideology of political correctness served and supported the economic practice of neoliberalism.
Alas, the situation started to change drastically once the economic crisis kicked in. The measures that the ruling class were undertaking to stabilise the situation (regardless of which party occupied the White House) only created new problems, making the situation even worse. Since nobody offered a systemic alternative, the crisis only deepened as the time passed. The economic problems, in turn, inevitably led to the exacerbation of social contradictions, not the imagined ones, the constructed differences between identities, but the real ones, perceived on the level of everyday social life.
An awakening, revealing the harsh reality, which had nothing to do with the beautiful dreams, finally came. The minority, which perceived itself as a majority, found out how the things really are. But it was the suddenness and the harshness of the awakening that predetermined the reaction: instead of attempts to find a solution we see panic and determination to defend their positions from the “aggressive majority”, which all of a sudden stopped being “obedient”.
The liberal public already started to realise that it found itself in an opposition to the majority of the society, or, at least, to the lower classes. But it does not realise that it is in a conflict with the objective logic of the economic development and with the course of history.
This moment gave a chance for the revival of the left movement in the developed industrial countries. A sudden ascendance of the politicians and organisations which yesterday appeared to be too radical for the majority of the society speaks for itself: Jeremy Corbyn becomes a leader of the Labor Party in Great Britain, Alexis Tsipras, the head of a radical left party SYRIZA becomes a prime-minister of Greece, while in the United States a little known provincial senator, a self-proclaimed socialist, Bernie Sanders becomes a serious contender for the White House.
However, this success of the Left was short lived, and it was their fault. None of the leaders who have risen to the top, thanks to the sudden wave of public unrest, had courage to break away from the liberal establishment. The burden of these ties drowned them. Tsipras capitulated in the face of the demands of the EU and European Central bank leadership, and imposed on Greek people a much more harsh and dishonourable agreement than anything ever signed by the right-wing governments. Jeremy Corbyn made concessions to the right-wing of his own party, and refused to support the demand for the seceding of Britain from the EU, supported by the majority of the British people. Finally, Bernie Sanders, refused to fight for the presidential nomination despite the fact that many of his supporters were convinced that the primaries were unfair and rigged by the party establishment who favoured Hillary Clinton. He refused to run as an independent as well, arguing that such a move would benefit Trump.
These actions made Trump’s victory inevitable.
And it’s not just about the number of votes. Trump turned out to be the only candidate who went against the establishment, the only one who represented the objective and urgent need to get out of the framework of crumbling system. When Sanders left the stage he created a situation in which there was no alternative to Trump. Not because Trump is good, but because all other political forces are stubbornly unwilling to accept the idea that the old world, the old way of life, and the old rules of the game are gone, and that the attempts to preserve them will inevitably result in political losses.
Trump turned out to be the only candidate who went against the establishment, the only one who represented the objective and urgent need to get out of the framework of crumbling system.
In the meantime, a new anti-liberal majority is forming in America and Europe. It is based on corporate solidarity, not class solidarity. On one hand, the workers and the lower classes are quite ready to unite with the real sector entrepreneurs to confront not only financial oligarchy, but also cultural and political establishment. On the other hand the politics of breaking society into competing minorities does not work anymore, because liberal policies carried out in the last quarter century has led to the stratification inside ethnic, religious, cultural and other minorities where small privileged groups receiving various benefits, are more and more clearly in an opposition to the rest who are suffering from the economic policies, and are indifferent to the issues of political correctness, affirmative action and positive discrimination. The role of loyal sub-elites, integrated into the establishment is to ensure support of the current economic system by the corresponding communities. but they are losing control little by little. Social contradictions within the communities not only have become more important than the opposition to the mythical “white males”, but also are being realised by the masses of people. Solidarity begins to transcend communal barriers.
It seems that the eight years of an African American president in the Oval Office became a turning point: they showed that the success of a black politician from Illinois did not help millions of black workers and unemployed all over the United States. Moreover, while his success was celebrated, African American middle class suffered a setback.
People have come to realise, little by little, that the economic and social interests of the majority of African Americans as well as “white males” are quite the same: they need jobs, security and confidence in the future. Of course, the political machine of the Democratic Party insured support for Clinton by the majority of African Americans and Latinos, still Trump received a record number of votes from these groups when compared to other Republicans who ran for presidency in the recent years. It was this shift that predetermined Trump’s success in the swing states.
Finally, a considerable share of the vote came from Sanders’ voters, who were angry with the apparatus of the Democratic Party who actually stole the victory from their candidate. Bernie himself, as well as the rest of the left political elite capitulated and called on their supporters to vote for Clinton. But this capitulation only demonstrated how limited the capabilities of the intellectuals are: the majority of left rank-and-file did not follow them. They stayed at home, voted for Trump, or gave their vote to the Green candidate Jill Stein.
A new anti-liberal majority is a political fact in the United States and Western Europe. Aggressive campaign against Trump launched by the liberal circles in the US only works to consolidate this majority. Even if Trump’s policies won’t work, he will just strengthen his position in this situation, since his confrontation with the establishment and the efforts of his opponents to block his agenda are too obvious. How this majority will evolve is still an open question. Liberal propaganda, which makes every effort to present this huge mass of people who oppose the current order as uneducated and vicious racists, eventually plays in the hands of the right, leaving them to be the sole force that offers ideological forms, which allow the expression of the accumulated discontent.
The lamentable experience of the Clinton campaign has shown the consequences of cooperation of the Left with the liberals. Despite the diligent refusal of Bernie Sanders and intellectuals around him to mount an independent political struggle after the end of the primaries, despite their desperate calls to support the former first lady, it all ended in failure. Clinton’s campaign drowned, pulling all those who joined her down to the bottom. And as long as this lesson is not learned, it will be repeated again and again.
If the Left really wants to stop sliding of the US and Western Europe to the right they should not support the liberal regime as a “lesser evil”, but, on the contrary, they should take an active part in its dismantling. They should start a dialogue with the disaffected protesting masses, support their legitimate demands and work to form a new culture of solidarity, overcoming the barriers of political correctness and multiculturalism.
Unfortunately, what we currently see in reality is the triumph of the opposite tendencies. The Left turned itself into pawns of the liberal-conservative establishment. More over, in the global strategy of the elite they received a role of a strike force which has to be mobilised to destabilise Trump’s administration. However, the more successful these efforts will be, the faster they will lead to a direct confrontation between the liberal middle class and the working class.
The Left should not play the game offered by the establishment and make every effort to block the attempts of Trump to get the society out of the impasse. Instead, they should demand more reasonable, and more socially oriented policies, which the new president and his team are not likely to deliver. Bernie Sanders partially demonstrated a correct approach when he announced that he was ready to collaborate with the new president on certain conditions for the goal of improving the lives of working families. However, he was not consistent, did not make logical conclusions, and did not formulate an integral political strategy. The main goal should not be the defense of the minority rights, but overcoming of fragmentation of the society. When the society is completely integrated, and minorities become an organic part of the majority, when the principles of equality are carried out consistently and rigorously, then any discrimination, including positive discrimination, becomes impossible.
The main goal should not be the defense of the minority rights, but overcoming of fragmentation of the society.
To make this a reality, instead of counteracting Trump, the Left should demand that he fulfils his own promises, push him toward more radical, deep and extensive change based on a new historical perspective of development.
Will the Trump administration be able to fulfil these demands? It is unlikely. But this will create preconditions for the transition to a new stage of change, when all outstanding issues and unmet needs will be put on the agenda understood by society. The work on the dismantling of neoliberal order which will inevitably start during the term of the 45th president of the United States is necessary in order to pull the society out of impasse. Trump himself will be unable to accomplish it due to his class, cultural and ideological limitations. He is just preparing conditions for more serious changes, which are inevitable in the unfolding situation of confrontation. Only the new social forces which will take shape in the nearest few years will be able to complete this process.
This is a second chance for the Left. After their indecisiveness and readiness to support the “lesser evil” led to the interception of initiative by the right populists, they might be able to return to the political arena. But a complete, open, and demonstrative beak up with the liberal establishment is the necessary precondition. Ideologues and leaders of the contemporary Left in the US and Western Europe, with a rare exception, are unlikely to be able to do it. They are too integrated into the current political order. But this is the only possible platform for the consolidation of the left movement.
All of this is relevant not only for the United States, but also for the majority of the European countries, including Russia. The growing discontent everywhere takes form of populist movements, which have a potential to be led by the right and left alike, but in both cases they are aimed at the dismantling of liberal institutions and politics in the form they have developed in the last three decades. The changes in the United States open unprecedented opportunities for change in other countries: the more US is busy solving its own problems, the less they interfere in the affairs of other countries, the more opportunities for the people of the world to solve their problems independently. It was the liberal America with its hypocritical interventionism who served as the global conservative force blocking the natural needs of social evolution in other countries. This was the politics, which paralysed the grass-roots growth of social movements and democratic initiatives, and bore the radical Islamism and other movements which substitute social mobilisation by violent reprisals against those who are perceived as the culprit of current troubles and problems. Rejection of interventionism by US will not put an end to conflicts and wars, but these problems will be solved by local forces, based on the balance of local and regional interests.
As for Russia, Trump’s victory does not bring good news for her ruling circles. The attitude of Donald Trump towards Vladimir Putin does not matter, the protectionist agenda of the new leadership in Washington nullifies the economic strategy of Kremlin, which continues to believe that the flow of cheap money from the US and the flow of Chinese goods to the US market will help to maintain the price of oil at the level which allows them to avoid any internal political reforms. Alas, this time is over. US sanctions and aggressive hysteria of Obama and Clinton helped to stabilise current Kremlin regime, maybe even prolonging its existence for a few years. But this is coming to an end, too.
The victory of Trump in the US presidential elections marks the point of no return for the history of the world. Saving the old order becomes impossible. And, most likely, even the American president is not aware of how large-scale the transformation process will be, the process he has started by the very fact of his arrival into the White House. But very soon everyone will feel it. Not only in America but also in Western Europe, in China and in Russia.
Boris Kagarlitsky is a sociologist living and working in Moscow. He served as an adviser to the chair of Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia in 1992-1994 and later worked for Russian Academy of Sciences at the Institute for Comparative Political Studies and is currently the director of the Institute for Globalization and Social Movements (IGSO) and a professor at Moscow School for Social and Economic Sciences. His recent books in English are Empire of the periphery: Russia and the World-System (Pluto, 2008) and From Empires to Imperialism: States and the Rise of Bourgeois Civilization (Routledge, 2014).