The US election results have brought out aggression and hostility from supporters of both the right and the left. In particular, the left seems to be contentiously repeating one question:
“Why did so many people feel safer putting their trust in Trump rather than in Clinton? “
Many people are quick to blame racism and bigotry, but there are deeper reasons. Simon Winlow, Steve Hall and James Treadwell, authors of The rise of the right, discuss the ways in which the left has failed to capture the trust of much of the electorate.
The mainstream liberal media outlets are outraged. For the liberal commentariat, Trump is the embodiment of all that ails the world. A racist, homophobic and misogynistic billionaire, a climate change denier, a man who apparently inspires loathing throughout the free world, a cocky and self-confident, tax-avoiding bigot whose election suggests the end of progressive liberal multiculturalism and dawning of a new Dark Age.
How could a man such as this win a clear mandate to govern the world’s most powerful nation?
Already our mainstream liberal media elites are asking what it all means. Political activists on the left look crestfallen as they call for a new solidarity in the face of adversity.
Now we need to ask why
Initial analyses tend to suggest that Trump has been voted into office by tens of millions of racist, homophobic and misogynistic white men who are angry about the erasure of their traditional power. Such analyses, fuelled by justifiable ire and shock, offer us only simplistic and predictable cultural reductionism.
What we need are careful empirical and theoretical analyses of the forces that appear set to carry us all into a new era of right-wing nationalism. Why are so many people angry at our established political elites? Why has fear come to play such an important role in the new politics? Why is there such a popular desire to move beyond the established parameters of marketised liberal democracy? What is it that inspires such open hostility towards minorities? These are important questions that demand a clear and objective response shorn of sentimentality and free from the usual academic constraints and injunctions.
“What we see at EDL protests, and what we see with Brexit and the election of Trump, is an inverted and distorted mirror-image of our own ideological failure.”
The US Election result and Brexit Britain
The parallels between the situation in the United States and Brexit Britain are obvious. In the The rise of the right, published this month, we investigated the gradual evolution of working class politics and the rise of a new English nationalism. During the years of empirical research among a new generation of working-class English nationalists, we spent a lot of time in the company of men who support the English Defence League. It’s been a salutary experience, to say the least.
We were exposed to a lot of racism, but this was to be expected. What bothered us was the sense of sadness, anger and loss that clouded the research project. Many of our contacts believed that, for them, the best days were gone. Things were getting worse. Their neighbourhoods were falling apart. Long-established families were moving out and immigrants were moving in. Their jobs were insecure and their lifestyles were declining. The older men displayed an entirely understandable nostalgic attachment to times past. They believed that they had been raised in well-organised communities composed of good, honest people who could be relied upon when times were tough. Now all of that was gone.
Everything good was breaking apart, disappearing or moving further from their grasp. And for them, they were absolutely sure, things would continue to get worse.
“They felt abandoned by politics, vilified by the middle-class left and set apart from the world.”
These men were angry that so much had been taken away from them, and they were worried that what remained would soon disappear. They felt assailed by powerful and relentless forces dedicated to their destruction. They felt abandoned by politics, vilified by the middle-class left and set apart from the world. They couldn’t see how or where they fitted in. Their skills were redundant, and they worried greatly about what lay in store for the next generation.
Who would speak up for the white working class?
Who would demand the return of meaningful jobs? Who would fight to protect their neighbourhoods? Certainly not the Labour Party. For these men, the Labour Party was simply a party dedicated to defending the interests of minorities. It was composed of drippy metropolitan liberals and pacifists who hated them, their history and everything they represented. It was clear to our contacts that the Labour Party had become the enemy of the white working class. Our contacts imagined that all politicians were middle-class liberal multiculturalists who championed diversity. However, these liberal multiculturalists appeared to find the cultures of the white working class regressive and distasteful. The white working class were for them an unpleasant reminder of simpler times.
“For these men, the Labour Party was simply a party dedicated to defending the interests of minorities.”
We grew to feel considerable sympathy towards these men. Their sense of redundancy and loss, and their fear of the future, is entirely reasonable. The global flows of production and consumption will not change in the foreseeable future. There will be no return to industrialism. A new productivist era capable of equipping these men with real jobs will not materialise anytime soon, and they will continue to be without a steadfast advocate on the field of politics.
Misidentifying the enemy
Of course, these men have misidentified their true enemy. It saddened us greatly that they have returned to politics brandishing the flag of nationalism. They have fallen under the spell of a scapegoating narrative that encourages them to direct their righteous indignation at a minority population who have had nothing whatsoever to do with the collapse of traditional working-class labour markets, the disintegration of community life or the disappearance of reasonably robust political representation.
What made this project so hard for us was the sense that it didn’t have to be this way. Things could’ve been so much better, for all of us. There once existed a steadfast vanguard on the political left utterly dedicated to incorporating the anger of the proletarian class and directing it at its true cause. Once there existed a genuine sense that we could intervene politically in the fundamental workings of the system and force it to change. Now, to speak of challenging the supremacy of markets is to invite popular derision. The left today is in utter disarray and has repeatedly failed to challenge the dominance of the neoliberal right.
Walter Benjamin once said that every fascism bears witness to a failed revolution. We should keep this in mind as we move further into the twenty-first century, and as we watch new nationalisms grow. Nationalism is beginning to enter the mainstream, and this trend looks set to continue. But as the fragmented forces of the left pick themselves off the floor and begin to mobilise against the new nationalist right, we must ask why so many of the working class have been incorporated into its regressive ideologies. Why do they not join the socialist fight to defeat, or at least contain, free market capitalism?
Failure to defend working-class interests
The Labour Party and the cultural liberals who dominate it capitulated to the logic of neoliberalism. They cut themselves adrift from the working class and failed to defend its interests. The EDL and movements like it are the result of these processes. Nationalism is an eternal idea that can arise to fill the void created by the disappearance of the left from the lifeworlds of the working class. It is forever capable of equipping anxious communities with the symbolism they need to (mis)identify a culprit who can then be blamed and sacrificed. Can’t find a job? Angry that your community is falling apart? Worried about what lies in store for your kids? Blame Muslims and immigrants. It’s not a complex ideological operation.
“The left has failed to fulfil its role of ideologically incorporating the working class.”
It’s quite easy for us to imagine our contacts using the symbols of the traditional left as a means of coming to terms with their anger and anxiety. We’re sure they would’ve once got behind working-class labourist politicians who promised to expand rights and redistribute wealth. But they see nothing on the left that’s of any value to them. They have learnt to hate the left, but the left that they hate is the dominant liberal left that discarded the traditional politics of class only to become immobilised by cultural politics and identitarianism. The left they hate is the left that tells them to embrace the gradual diminishment of their cultures and their traditional ways of life. The left they hate is the left that abandoned political economy, and who offer them only pious middle-class philanthropism as compensation for everything they’ve lost.
When we turn up to protest against the EDL we should keep in mind that these working-class men and women might have once been recruited to the cause of equality and social justice. They have misidentified their true enemy because the left has failed to fulfil its role of ideologically incorporating the working class and using its anger to drive forward a politics of significant structural change. We have failed to direct the contemporary working class towards the true cause of their anger and dissatisfaction.
What we see at EDL protests, and what we see with Brexit and the election of Trump, is an inverted and distorted mirror-image of our own ideological failure.
Remember that Policy Press newsletter subscribers receive a 35% discount – sign up here.
The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.