The Trump election and the crumbling of capitalist world order
What can the world expect from the new Trump Administration in the USA? Whereas the traditional political elites across the globe are full of anxiety, the Russian government and the right-wing populists in America and throughout Europe see history on their side. And while big world-wide operating companies (such as in the car industry) fear reprisals now if they do not produce in the United States, the stock exchanges and economic institutes were initially confident, expecting increased growth for the US and even the world economy under Trump. As for Mr. President himself, he regularly contradicts not only his own new administration, but also himself. Thus NATO, free trade or the European Union can in one sentence be “essential” and in the next “obsolete”.
Instead of joining in with this crystal ball gazing about the near future of American state policy, we will try here first of all to analyse why Trump was elected president, although the traditional established political elites did not want him. Out of this contradiction between what Trump represents, and the interests of the US ruling class as a whole, we hope to win firmer ground for giving some first indications of what can be expected from his presidency, without falling into too much speculation.
The dilemma of the Republican Party
It is no secret that Donald Trump is looked on as a foreign body in the Republican Party which nominated him for election to the White House. He is neither religious nor conservative enough for the Christian fundamentalists who play such an important role in that party. His economic policy proposals, such as a state organised infrastructural programme, protectionism, or the replacement of “Obamacare” by a state-backed social insurance for everyone – are anathema to the neo-liberals who still play a central role in Republican circles, as they do in the Democratic Pparty. His plans for a rapprochement with Putin's Russia pit him against the military and intelligence lobby which is so strong both in the Republican and Democratic parties.
The presidential candidature of Trump was made possible by an unprecedented revolt of the Republican membership and supporters against their leaders. The other candidates, whether they came from the Bush clan, the Christian evangelists, the neo-libs or the Tea Party movement, had all been discredited by their participation in or support for the George W Bush administration which preceded that of Obama. The fact that, in the face of the economic and financial crisis of 2007/08, a Republican president had done nothing to help millions of small property owners and aspiring small property owners – who in many cases lost job, home and savings at one go – while bailing out banks with government money, was unforgivable to traditional Republican voters. Moreover, none of the other candidates had anything else to propose, at the economic level, than more of the same of what had not prevented the 2008 disaster.
Indeed, the rebellion of the traditional Republican voters directed itself not only against their leadership, but against some of the traditional “values” of the party. In this way, the candidature of Trump was not only made possible, it was virtually imposed on the party leadership. Of course, the latter could have prevented it – but only at the risk of estranging themselves from their mass basis and even of dividing the party. This explains why the attempts to foil Trump were but half-hearted and ineffective. In the end the “Grand Old Party” was obliged to try and make a “deal” with the intruder from the East Coast.
The dilemma of the Democratic Party
A similar revolt took place within the Democratic Party. After eight years of Obama, belief in the famous “yes we can” (“yes we can” improve the lives of the population at large) had seriously waned. The leader of this rebellion was Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed “socialist”. Like Trump on the Republican side, Sanders was a new phenomenon in the modern history of the Democrats. Not that “socialists” as such are a foreign body within that party. But they belong to it as one minority among many, who underline the claim to multi-cultural plurality within that party. They are considered a foreign element when they stake a claim for candidature to the Oval Office. Whether under Bill Clinton or Barak Obama, contemporary Democratic presidents combine a social welfare touch with fundamentally neo-liberal economic policies. A direct interventionist state economic policy of a strong “Keynesian” character (such as that of FD Roosevelt before and during World War II) is as much anathema to the Democratic as to the Republican leadership today. This explains why Sanders never made a secret of the fact that on some issues his policies are closer to those of Trump than they are to those of Hillary Clinton. After the Trump election, Sanders immediately offered him his support in the implementation of his “insurance for all” scheme.
However, as opposed to what happened to the Republicans, the revolt in the Democratic Party was successfully crushed, and Clinton safely nominated instead of Sanders. This succeeded, not only because the DP is the better organised and controlled of the two parties, but also because the elite of this party had been less discredited than its Republican counterpart.
But paradoxically, this success of the party leadership only paved the way for its defeat at the presidential elections. By eliminating Sanders, the Democrats set aside the only candidate who had a good chance of defeating Trump. The DP realised too late that Trump would be the adversary, and that they were underestimating his electoral potential. They also underestimated the degree to which Hillary Clinton herself was discredited. This was above all due to her image as representative of “Wall Street”, of the “East Coast financial oligarchies” - popularly seen as a major “culprit” and at the same time major beneficiary of the financial crisis. In fact, she had become almost as much identified with the catastrophe of 2008 as the Republican leadership itself. The arrogant complacency of the Democratic elite and their blindness towards mounting popular fury and resentment was to characterise the whole of Clinton's electoral campaign. One example of this was her one-sided reliance on the more traditional mass media, whereas Trump's campaign team was using the possibilities of the new media to the hilt.
Because they did not want Sanders, they got Trump instead. Even for those within the US bourgeoisie with a strong dislike for a phase of neo-Keynesian economic experimentation, Sanders would undoubtedly have been the lesser evil. Sanders, not unlike Trump, wanted to slow down the process of what is called “globalisation”. But he would have done so moderately and with a much greater sense of responsibility. With Trump, the ruling class of the world's leading power cannot even be sure what it is getting.
The dilemma of the established political parties
The United States is a country founded by settlers and populated by waves of immigration. The integration of the different ethnic and religious groups and interests into a single nation is the historically evolving task of the existing constitutional and political system. A particular challenge for this system is the involvement of the leaders of the different immigrant communities in government, since each new immigrant wave begins at the bottom of the social ladder and has to “work its way up”. The alleged American melting pot is in reality a highly complicated system of (not always) peaceful co-existence between different groups.
Historically, alongside institutions such as the religious organisations, the formation of criminal organisations has been a proven means for excluded groups to gain access to power. The American bourgeoisie has a long experience with the integration of the best rackets from the underworld into the upper echelons. This is an oft-repeated family saga: the father a gangster, the son a lawyer or a politician, the grandson or granddaughter a philanthropist and patron of the arts. The advantage of this system was that the violence it relied on was not overtly political. This made them compatible with the existing two party state system. To which side the Italian, Irish or Jewish vote went depended on the given constellation and what Trump would call the “deals” Republicans and Democrats were offering the different communities and vested interests. In America, these constellations between communities constantly have to be dealt with, not only those between different industries or branches of the economy for instance.
But this essentially non-party political integration process, compatible with the stability of the party apparatus, began to fail for the first time in the face of the demands of the black Americans. The latter had come to America originally, not as settlers, but as slaves. They had from the onset to bear the full brunt of modern capitalist racism. To gain access to bourgeois equality before the law, and to power and privileges for a black elite, overtly political movements had to be created. Without Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights Movement, but also a violence of a new kind – the riots in the black ghettoes in the 1960s and the Black Panthers – there could not have been the Obama presidency. The established ruling elite succeeded in meeting this challenge by attaching the Civil Rights Movement to the Democratic Party. But in this manner, the existing distinction between the different ethnic groups and the political parties was put in question. The black vote goes regularly to the Democratic Party. At first, the Republicans were able to develop a counterweight to this by gaining a more or less stable part of the Latino vote (first and foremost the Cuban exile community). As for the “white” vote, that continued to go to one side or other depending on what was on offer.
Until the 2016 elections. One of the factors which brought Trump into the White House was the electoral alliance he made with different groups of “white supremacists”. Unlike the old-style racism of the Klu Klux Klan with its nostalgia for the slave system which reigned in the southern states until the American Civil War, the hatred of these new currents directs itself against the urban and rural black but also Latino poor, condemned as criminals and social parasites. Although Trump himself may not be a racist of this type, these modern white supremacists created a kind of voting bloc in his favour. For the first time, millions of white voters cast their vote, not according to the recommendation of “their” different communities, and not for one or the other party, but for someone they saw as the representative of a larger “white” community. The underlying process is one of increasing “communitarisation” of American bourgeois politics. A further step in the segregation of the so-called melting pot.
The dilemma of the American ruling class and Trump’s “Make America Great Again”
The problem of all the Republican candidates who tried to oppose Trump, and then of Hillary Clinton, was not only that they were not convincing, but also that they did seem convinced themselves. All they could propose were different varieties of “business as usual”. Above all, they had no alternatives to Trump's “making America great again”. Behind this slogan there is not just a new version of the old nationalism. Trump's Americanism is of a new kind. It contains the clear admission that America is no longer as “great” as it used to be. Economically it has been unable to prevent the rise of China. Militarily it has suffered a series of more or less humiliating reversals: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria. America is a power in decline, even if it remains economically and above all militarily and technologically by far the leading country. But not only this. America is not an exception in an otherwise flourishing world. Its decline has come to symbolise that of capitalism as a whole. The vacuum created by the absence of any alternatives coming from the established elites has helped to give Trump his chance.
Not that America has not already attempted to react in the face of its historical decline. Some of the changes announced by Trump already began beforehand, in particular under Obama. They include a greater priority for the Pacific zone, economically and above all militarily, so that the European NATO “partners” are asked to bear a heavier brunt than before; or at the economic level a more state-directed economic policy in dealing with the 2008 crisis and its aftermath. But this can only slow down the present decline, whereas Trump claims to be able to reverse it.
In the face of this decline, and also of growing class, racial, religious and ethnic divisions, Trump wants to unite the capitalist nation behind its ruling class in the name of a new Americanism. The United States, according to Trump, has become the main victim of the rest of the world. He claims that, while the US has been exhausting itself and its resources maintaining world order, all the rest have been profiting from this order at the expense of “God’s own country”. The Trumpistas are thinking here not only of the Europeans or the East Asians who have been flooding the American market with their products. One of the main “exploiters” of the United States, according to Trump, is Mexico, which he accuses of exporting its surplus population into the American social welfare system, while at the same time developing its own industry to such an extent that its automobile production is overtaking that of its northern neighbour.
This amounts to a new and virulent form of nationalism, reminiscent of “underdog” German nationalism after World War I and the Treaty of Versailles. The orientation of this form of nationalism is no longer to justify the imposing of a world order by America. Its orientation is to itself put in question the existing world order.
Trump’s Russian roulette
But the question the world is asking itself is whether Trump has a real political offer in response to America's decline. If not, if his alternative is purely ideological, he is not likely to last for very long. Certainly Trump has no coherent programme for his national capital. Nobody is clearer about this than Trump himself. His policy, he repeatedly declares, is to make “great deals” for America (and for himself) whenever the opportunity presents itself. The new programme for American capital is, it would seem, Trump himself: a risk-loving, several times bankrupt businessman as head of state.
But this does not necessarily mean that Trump has no chance of at least slowing down the decline of America. He MIGHT at least partly succeed – but only if he is lucky. Here we are approaching the crux of Trumpism. The new president, who wants to run the world's leading state as if it were a capitalist enterprise, is ready, in the pursuit of his goals, to take incalculable risks – risks which no “conventional” bourgeois politician in his position would want to take. If they work, they can turn out to be to the benefit of American capitalism at the expense of its rivals, but without too much damage to the system as a whole. But if they go wrong, the consequences can be catastrophic for American and for world capitalism.
We can already give three examples of the kind of Va Banque policies Trump wants to launch into. One of them is his protectionist blackmailing policy. His goal is not to put an end to the present world economic order (“globalisation”) but to get a better deal for America within that order. The USA is the only country whose internal market is so big that it can threaten its rivals with protectionist measures on such a scale. The summit of the rationality of the policy of Trump is his calculation that the political leaders of his main rivals are less crazy than he is, i.e. that they will not risk a protectionist trade war. But should his measures unleash a chain reaction that gets out of control, the result can be a fragmentation of the world market comparable to what happened during the Great Depression.
The second example is NATO. Already the Obama administration had begun to pressure the European “partners” to bear a greater brunt of the alliance in Europe and beyond. The difference now is that Trump is ready to threaten the discarding or side-lining of NATO if Washington's will is not followed. Here again, Trump is playing with fire, since NATO is first and foremost an instrument to secure the presence of US imperialism in Europe.
Our last example here is Trump's project of a “great deal” with Putin's Russia. One of the main problems of the Russian economy today is that it has not really completed the transformation from a Stalinist command regime to a properly functioning capitalist order. This transformation was, during a first phase, hampered by the priority of the Putin regime of preventing strategically important raw materials or the armaments industry being bought up by foreign capital. The necessary process of privatisation was done half-heartedly, so that a large part of Russian industry still functions on the basis of an administrative allocation of resources. During a second phase, the plan of Putin was to tackle the privatisation and modernisation of the economy in collaboration with the European bourgeoisie, first and foremost with Germany. But this plan was successfully foiled by Washington, essentially through its policy of economic sanctions against Russia. Although the occasion of these sanctions was Moscow's annexation policy towards the Ukraine, it additionally aimed at preventing a strengthening of the economies both of Russia and of Germany.
But this success – perhaps the main achievement of the Obama presidency towards Europe – has negative consequences for the world economy as a whole. The establishment of more classical private property in Russia would create a cluster of new credit-worthy economic players who can vouch for the loans they take with land, raw materials etc. In view of the economic difficulties of the world economy today, where even in Chin growth is slowing down, can capitalism afford to renounce such “deals”?
No, according to Trump. His idea is that not Germany and Europe, but America itself should become Putin's “partner in transformation”. According to Trump (who of course also hopes for lucrative deals for himself), the Russian bourgeoisie, which is obviously unable to tackle its modernisation on its own, can choose between three possible partners, the third being the Chinese. Since the latter are the biggest threat to America, it is vital that Washington and not Peking assume this role.
However, none of Trump's projects have provoked such bitter resistance within the US ruling class as this one. The whole phase between the election of Trump and his arrival in office was dominated by the joint attempts of the “intelligence community”, the mainstream media and the Obama administration to sabotage the envisaged rapprochement with Moscow. Here they all think that the risks Trump wants to take are too high. Even if it is true that the main challenger today is China, a modernised Russia would constitute a considerable additional danger to the USA. After all, Russia is (also) a European power, and Europe still the heart of the world economy. And Russia still has the second largest nuclear arsenal after the US. Another possible problem is that, if the economic sanctions against Russia were lifted, the sphinx in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin, is considered perfectly capable of outwitting Trump by re-introducing the Europeans into his plans (in order to limit his dependence on America). The French bourgeoisie, for instance, is already getting ready for this eventuality: two of the main candidates for the coming presidential elections there (Fillon and Le Pen) have made no secret of their sympathies for Russia.
For the moment, the outcome of this latter conflict within the American bourgeoisie remains open. Meanwhile, Trump’s argument remains one-sidedly economic (although it is not at all excluded that he can extend his adventurism to a policy of military provocation against Peking). But what is true is that an effective long term response to the Chinese challenge must have a strong economic component, and cannot take place solely at the military level. There are two areas in particular where the US economy has to bear a much heavier burden than China does, and which Trump would have to try to “rationalise”. One of them is the enormous military budget. Concerning this aspect, the policy towards Russia also has an ideological dimension, since, in recent years, the idea that Putin wants to re-establish the Soviet Union has been one of the main justifications given for the persistence of astronomic “defence” spending.
The other budget Trump wants to significantly reduce is the social welfare budget. Here, in attacking the working class, he can however count on the support of the ruling class as a whole.
Trump’s promise of violence
Alongside an attitude of irresponsible adventurism, the other major feature of Trumpism is the threat of violence. One of his specialities is to threaten internationally operating companies with reprisals if they do not do what he wants. What he wants, he says, are “jobs for American workers”. His way of harassing big business by tweet is also aimed at impressing all those who live in constant fear because their existences depend on the whims of such giant companies. These workers are invited to identify with his strength, which is allegedly at their service because they are good obedient honest Americans who want to work hard for their country.
During his electoral campaign, Trump told his challenger Hillary Clinton he wanted to “lock her up”. Later he declared we would show clemency towards her – as if the question of when other politicians land in prison depended on his own personal whims. No such clemency is foreseen for illegal immigrants. Already Obama deported more of them than any American president before him. Trump wants to jail them for two years before evicting them. The promise of bloodshed is the aura through which he attracts the growing multitude of those in this society whoare unable to defend themselves but who thirst for revenge. People who come to his meetings to protest he has beaten up under the eyes of the TV nation. Women, outsiders, so-called misfits are made to understand that they should count themselves lucky if it is only his verbal violence they are exposed to. Not only does he want to have a wall built to keep the Mexicans out – he promises to make them pay for it themselves. To exclusion is added humiliation.
These threats have obviously been a calculated part of Trump’s demagogic election campaign, but on assuming office he lost no time pushing through a number of ‘accomplished facts’ aimed at proving that he, unlike other politicians, is going to do what he says. The most spectacular expression of this - one which has caused enormous conflict both within the bourgeoisie and within the population as a whole – has been his “Muslim ban”, suspending the right of travellers from a selected number of Muslim-majority countries to enter or re-enter the US. This is above all a statement of intent, a sign of his willingness to target minorities and associate Islam in general with terrorism, however much he denies that this measure is aimed specifically at Muslims.
What America needs, Trump tells the world, is more guns and more torture. Our modern bourgeois civilisation produces no shortage of such bragging thugs and bullies, just as it admires and acclaims those who take for themselves whatever they can get at the expense of others. What’s new is that millions of people in one of the world's most modern countries want such a thug as head of state. Trump, like his model and would-be friend Putin, are popular not in spite of but because of their thuggery.
In capitalism there are always two possible alternatives, either equivalent exchange or non-equivalent exchange (robbery). You can either give someone else an equivalent for what you get, or you don't. In order for the market to function, its subjects have to renounce violence in economic life. They do so under threat of reprisals, such as prison, but also on the promise that their renunciation will pay off for them in the long run in terms of securing their existence. However, it remains the case that the basis of economic life in capitalism is indeed robbery: the surplus value the capitalists gain from the unpaid surplus labour of the wage workers. This robbery has been legalised in the form of capitalist private property of the means of production; it is enforced every day by the state, which is the state apparatus of the ruling class. Capitalist economy requires a taboo on violence at the market place. Buying and selling are supposed to be peaceful actions – including the buying and selling of labour power: workers are not slaves. Under “normal” circumstances, working people are ready to live more or less peacefully under such conditions, despite realising that there is a minority which refuses to do the same. This minority is composed of the criminal milieu, which lives from robbery, and the state, which is the biggest robber of all, both in relation to its “own” population (taxation), and in relation to other states (war). And although the state represses the criminals in defence of private property, at the upper echelons the top gangsters and the robber state tend to collaborate rather than oppose each other. But when capitalism can no longer credibly offer even the illusion of a possible improvement of the living conditions for society as a whole, the compliance of society to be revoked.
Today we have entered a period (not unlike that of the 1930s) where large sectors of society feel cheated and no longer believe their renunciation of violence pays off. But they remain intimidated by the threat of repression, by the illegal status of the criminal world. This is when the longing to be part of those who can rob without fear becomes political. The essence of their “populism” is the demand that violence against certain groups be legalised, or at least unofficially tolerated. In Hitler-Germany, for example, the course towards world war was a “normal” manifestation of the “robber state” which it shared with Stalin-Russia, Roosevelt-America etc. What was new in National Socialism was the systematic robbery, organised by the state, against part of its own population. Scapegoating and pogroms were legalised. The Holocaust was not first and foremost the product of the history of anti-Semitism or of Nazism. It was a product of modern capitalism. Robbery becomes the alternative economic perspective for sectors of the population sinking into barbarism. But this barbarism is that of the capitalist system itself. Criminality is as much part of bourgeois society as the stock exchange. Robbery and buying-selling are the two poles of advanced modern society based on private property. The profession of the robber can only be abolished by abolishing class society. When robbery starts to replace buying and selling, this is at once the self-realisation and self-destruction of bourgeois civilisation. In the absence of an alternative, of a revolutionary communist perspective, the longing to exercise violence against others grows.
The fish stinks from the head downwards
What happens when parts of the ruling class itself, followed by some of the intermediary layers of society, start to lose confidence in the possibility of sustained growth for the world economy? Or when they start to lose hope that they themselves can benefit from whatever growth still takes place? On no account will they want to give uptheir aspirations to a (greater) share of wealth and power. Should the wealth available no longer increase, they can still fight for a bigger share at the expense of the rest. Here lies the connection between the economic situation and the growing thirst for violence. The perspective of growth starts to be replaced by the perspective of robbery and pillage. If millions of illegal workers were to be expelled, so the calculation goes, there would be more jobs, housing, social care for those who remain. The same goes for all those who live from the system of social benefits without paying into it. As for ethnic minorities, some of them have businesses which could pass into the hands of others. This kind of thinking seeps up from the very depths of bourgeois “civil society”.
However, according to an old expression, the fish begins to stink from the head downwards. It is first and foremost the state and economic apparatus of the ruling class itself which produces this putrefaction. The diagnosis made by the capitalist media is that the Trump presidency, the victory of the Brexiteers in Britain, the rise of right wing “populism” in Europe, are the result of a protest against “globalisation”. But this is only true if violence is understood as the essence of this protest, and if globalisation is understood, not only as an economic option among others, but as a label for the extremely violent means through which a declining capitalism has, in recent decades, kept itself alive. The result of this gigantic economic and political offensive of the bourgeoisie (a kind of war of the capitalist class against the rest of humanity and against nature) was the production of millions of victims, not only among the working populations of the whole planet, but even within the apparatus of the ruling class itself. It is this not least this latter aspect which, in its dimensions, is absolutely unprecedented in modern history. Unprecedented also is the degree to which parts of the American bourgeoisie and its state apparatus itself fell victim to this devastation. And this is true even though the United States was the main instigator of that policy. It is as if the ruling class was obliged to lop off parts of its own body in order to save the rest. Whole sectors of the national industry were closed down because their products could be produced more cheaply elsewhere. Not only these industries themselves had to shut down – whole parts of the country were laid waste in the process: regions and administrations, local consumer, retail and credit branches, providers of parts, the local building industry etc. were all shattered. Not only workers, but big and small businesses, civil servants and local dignitaries were among its victims. Unlike the workers, who lost their livelihoods, these bourgeois and petty bourgeois victims lost their power, privileges and social status.
This process took place, more or less radically, in all the old industrial countries over the past three decades. But in the US there has been, in addition, a kind of earthquake within the military and so-called intelligence apparatus. Under Bush Jr. and Rumsfeld, parts of the armed and security forces and even of the intelligence services were “privatised” - measures which cost many high-ranking leaders their jobs. In addition, intelligence had to face the competition of modern media concerns such as Google or Facebook which in some ways are as well informed, and as important for the state, as the CIA or FBI. In the course of this process, the balance of forces within the ruling class itself has shifted, including at the economic level, where the credit and finance sectors (“Wall Street”) and the new technologies (“Silicon Valley”) are not only among the main beneficiaries of “globalisation” but also among its main protagonists.
As opposed to these sectors, who supported the candidature of Hillary Clinton, the supporters of Donald Trump are not to be located within specific economic fractions, although his strongest supporters are to be found among the captains of the old industries which have declined so much in recent decades. Rather, they are to be found here and there throughout the state and economic apparatus of power. These were the snipers producing the crossfire from behind the scenes against Clinton as the alleged candidate of “Wall Street”. They included business tycoons, frustrated publicists and leaders of the FBI. For those among them who have lost hope of making themselves “great again”, their support for Trump was above all a kind of political vandalism, blind revenge on the ruling elite.
This vandalism can also be seen in the willingness of important factions of the ruling class – above all those linked to the oil, coal and gas industries – to back Trump’s wholesale rejection of the science explaining climate change, which he has famously dismissed as a hoax invented by the Chinese. This is a further manifestation of the fact that significant parts of the bourgeoisie have so lost any vision of any future for humanity that they are openly prepared to put their (“national”) profit margins above any considerations for the natural world, and thus risk undermining the fundamental basis for all human social life. The war against nature which was vastly intensified by the “neo-liberal” world order will be waged even more ruthlessly by Trump and his fellow vandals.
What has happened is very grave. Whereas the leading fractions of the American bourgeoisie still adhere to the existing economic world order, and want to engage in its maintenance, the consensus about this within the ruling class as a whole has started to crumble. This is firstly because a growing part of it no longer seems to care about this world order. It is secondly because the ruling fractions were unable to prevent the arrival of a candidate of these desperadoes into the White House. The erosion both of the cohesion of the ruling class, and of its control over its own political apparatus, could hardly have manifested itself more clearly. Ever since, with its victory in World War II, the American bourgeoisie took over from its British counterpart the leading role in the running of the world economy as a whole, it has continuously assumed this responsibility. In general the bourgeoisie of the leading national capital is best placed to assume this role. All the more so when, like the United States, it disposes of the military might to lend its leadership additional authority. It is remarkable that today neither the USA nor its predecessor Britain are able to assume this role – and basically for the same reason. This is the weight of political populism, which is taking London outside the European economic institutions. It was a sign of something close to desperation when, at the beginning of the new year the Financial Times, one of the important voices of the City of London, called on the German chancellor Angela Merkel to assume world leadership. Trump, at all events, seems unwilling and unable to assume this role, and there is no other world leader for the moment who could replace him. A dangerous phase lies ahead for the capitalist system and for humanity.
The weakening of working class resistance
The weakening of the principle of solidarity clearly indicates that the victory of Trump is not only result of a loss of perspective by the capitalist class, but also by the working class. As a result, many more workers than otherwise would be the case are negatively influenced by what is called populism. It is significant, for instance, that along with millions of white workers, many Latinos also seem to have voted for Trump, despite his diatribes against them. Many among those who were among the last to gain access to “God’s own country” - precisely because they are afraid of being among the first to be evicted - were lured into thinking that they would be safer if the gate were closed firmly behind them.
What has happened to the working class, to its revolutionary perspective, to its class identity and its traditions of solidarity? Over half a century ago, there was a comeback of the working class on the stage of history, above all in Europe (May 1968 in France, Autumn 1969 in Italy, 1970 in Poland etc.) but also more globally. In the “New World” this renaissance of the class struggle manifested itself in Latin America (above all 1969 in Argentina), but also in North America, in particular in the United States. There were two main expressions of this resurgence. One was a whole development of often large scale wildcat strikes and other, often radical struggles on an economic terrain, for working class demands. The other was the reappearance of politicised minorities among the new generation, attracted towards revolutionary proletarian politics. Particularly important was the tendency to develop a communist perspective against Stalinism, which was more or less clearly recognised as counter-revolutionary. The return to centre stage of the workers’ struggles, class identity and solidarity, and a proletarian revolutionary perspective, went hand in hand. During the 1960s and 70s probably several million young people in the old industrial countries were politicised in this manner – a hope and strength of humanity.
Apart from the suffering of the working class, the two most burning issues at the time in the United States were the Vietnam War (the American government, moreover, had introduced universal conscription) and the racist exclusion of and violence against black people. Originally, these issues were at least partly additional factors of politicisation and radicalisation. However, lacking any political experience of their own, lacking the guidance of an older generation politicised in any proletarian sense, the new activists harboured enormous illusions about the possibilities of a rapid social transformation. In particular, the class movements of the time were still much too weak either to oblige the government to end the Vietnam War, or to protect blacks and other minorities against racism and discrimination (unlike the 1905 revolutionary movement in Russia, for instance, which included the revolt against the Japanese-Russian war as well as the protection of the Jews in Russia against pogroms). Since fractions developed within the American bourgeoisie which, in its own class interest, wanted to end its engagement in Vietnam, and to allow a black American bourgeoisie to share in power, many of these young militants got drawn into bourgeois politics, turning their backs on the working class. Others, while wanting to remain committed to the cause of the workers, because they were overwhelmed by impatience, stood as left candidates for state elections, or engaged themselves in the trade unions in the hope of achieving something immediate and tangible for those they claimed to represent. Hopes which were invariably disappointed. The workers developed a more and more open hostility towards these leftists, who moreover often discredited themselves and the reputation of the revolution by their identification with brutal, counter-revolutionary, essentially Stalinist regimes, and by their bourgeois manipulative approach to politics. As for these militants themselves, they in turn developed a hostility towards the working class, which refused to follow them – a hostility which often turned into hatred. All of this amounted to a large-scale destruction of political revolutionary class energy. It was a tragedy of almost a whole generation of the working class which had begun so promisingly. What followed was the collapse of Stalinism 1989 (misunderstood and misrepresented as the collapse of communism and of marxism) and the closing down of whole traditional industries in the old capitalist countries (misunderstood and misrepresented as the disappearance of the working class in that part of the world). In this context (as for instance the French sociologist Didier Eribon has pointed out) the political left (which, according to the ICC, is the left of capital, part of the ruling apparatus) were among the first to declare the disappearance of the working class. It is revealing that, during the recent electoral campaign in the USA, the candidate of the Democrats (who used to claim to represent “organised labour”) never referred to anything like a working class, whereas the multi-millionaire Donald Trump constantly did. In fact, one of his main electoral promises was to prevent the disappearance of the American working class (understood only as blue collar workers) from “extinction”. His working class is an essential part of the American nation, and is the one capitalists dream of: patriotic, hard-working, obedient.
The disappearance, for the moment, of working class identity and solidarity from the forefront of the scene is a catastrophe for the proletariat and for humanity. In face of the present incapacity of either of the two main classes of modern society to put forward a credible perspective of their own, the very essence of bourgeois society comes more clearly to the light of day: de-solidarisation. The principle of solidarity which was the safety net, more or less, of all pre-capitalist societies based on natural rather than “market” economy, is replaced by the safety net of private property – for those who have it. In bourgeois society, you have to be able to help yourself, and the means to this end are not solidarity, but credit-worthiness and insurance. For many decades, in the main industrial countries, the welfare state – although an integral part of the credit and insurance economy – was used to hide this elimination of solidarity from the social “agenda”. Today the rejection of solidarity is not only not hidden, but gaining ground.
The challenge to the working class
The demonstration of millions of people, mainly women, all over the United States, against the new president the day after his inauguration, made it clear that large parts of the working population of America support neither Trump nor the tendency he stands for. However, far from succeeding in opposing Trump's nationalism, these demonstrations tended to answer Trump on his own ground by claiming: “We are the true America”.
These demonstrations show in fact that the populist policy of exclusion and scapegoating is not the only danger for the working class. This young generation which is expressing its protest, while not falling for Trump, is in danger of falling for the trap of defending “democratic” and “liberal” bourgeois society instead. The ruling fractions of the bourgeoisie would be delighted to enlist the support of the most intelligent and generous sectors of the working class in the defence of the present version of an exploitation system which – even without “populism” - has long become a menace to the existence of our species, and which moreover is itself the producer of the “populism” it wants to keep in check. It is undeniable that today, to many workers, in the absence of a revolutionary alternative they can have confidence in, an Obama, Sanders or Angela Merkel can appear as a lesser evil compared to a Trump, Farage, Le Pen or the “Alternative für Deutschland”. But at the same time, these workers also feel indignant about what “liberal society” has done to humanity in the past decades. The class antagonism remains.
It should also be pointed out that the resistance within the working class to populism is not in itself a proof that these workers follow the bourgeois liberals and are ready to sacrifice their own class interests. Millions of workers at the heart of the globalised system of production are above all very much aware that their material existence depends on a world-wide system of production and exchange, and that there can be no reverting to a more local division of labour. They are also aware that what Marx called the “socialisation” of production (the replacement of individual by associated labour) teaches them to collaborate with each other on a world scale, and that only on such a scale can the present problems of humanity be surmounted. In the present historical situation, in the absence of class identity and a perspective of a struggle for a classless society, the revolutionary potential of contemporary society takes refuge, for the moment, in the “objective” conditions: the persistence of the class antagonisms; the irreconcilable nature of class interests; the world wide collaboration of the proletarians in the production and reproduction of social life. Only the proletariat has an objective interest in and capacity to resolve the contradiction between world-wide production and private and nation-state appropriation of wealth. Since humanity cannot go back to local market production, it can only go forward by abolishing private property, by putting the international production process at the disposal of the whole of humanity.
On this objective basis, the subjective conditions for revolution can still recover, in particular through the return of the economic struggle of the proletariat on an important scale, and through the development of a new generation of revolutionary political minorities with the necessary daring to take up now more than ever the cause of the working class, and to do so with the profundity needed to convince the proletariat of its own revolutionary mission.
Steinklopfer Late January, 2017