Two seemingly monumental and world-historic events occurred in two of the most powerful imperialist countries this past year. On 23 June, the United Kingdom held a referendum on its membership in the European Union, resulting in a “leave” vote. On the other side of the Atlantic, Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for President of the United States, was victorious in his electoral campaign against Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. The Leave Campaign won the “Brexit” referendum with 17.4 million ballots, or 51.9 percent of the votes, whereas Donald Trump won the US presidency with 62.9 million votes, amounting to 46.1 percent of the ballots cast (note that Clinton won the popular vote with 65.8 million ballots cast in her name, or 48.2 percent, though she failed to secure enough electoral votes for a win, with Trump gaining 304 to her 227). In both cases, the results led to widespread protests. In Britain, pro-European Union and “remain” voters clamored for a recount. Some in London went so far as to propose an asinine plan for the capital to remain as part of the EU whilst the remainder of Britain would extricate itself from the inter-imperialist bloc. Similarly, in the United States, disaffected voters across the country joined protests against the nearly assured ascendancy of Trump to the office of the Presidency.
Many commentators from varied political perspectives have claimed either one or both the processes as paradigm shifts for the extant world political order. While Brexit and the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the United States presidency are indeed substantive political changes for both the United Kingdom and the United States, they do not represent a reorganization of the world capitalist order. Rather, the phenomena of these electoral results are part of a liberal political trajectory and the logical conclusion of liberal politics. Said another way, Brexit and Trump’s victory are not ruptures, they are perpetuations of the existing political order albeit through different means. Specifically, both Brexit and Trump’s rise are political deviations within the same socio-economic structure which produced the possibilities and subsequent realization of each. While Trump and the leaders of the Leave Campaign in the United Kingdom are neither classically nor in contemporary terms defined as liberal, it was liberal politics which led to their triumph.
To say that Trump and Brexit are the logical outgrowth of liberal politics may seem confounding on the surface. When one examines the processes of each of these events, however, it becomes clear that the results are not the result of a global rise of some fascistic tendency. And while such victories represent a rightward shift for the stewards of western capitalism and imperialism, the acrimony flaunted by centrist and liberal sectors of both British and American society amount to crocodile tears for all but the most politically myopic and those lacking any sort of social consciousness. That both the US presidential race and the Brexit referendum were predicated on xenophobic, and at times overtly racist politics, should be clear to anyone who was paying attention. The answer to these contestations of political power by liberal currents was nonetheless entirely within the framework set forth by the seemingly more unsavory political forces, Trump’s campaign in the United States, and the Leave Campaign in Britain.
What then did liberal ideology and politics offer the vast majority of people affected by these historic outcomes, and what does it offer in the wake of these ostensibly shocking victories? Such politics proffer very little in the way of ameliorating extant social reality, evidence of this abounds when one considers Obama’s presidency in the United States or the Labour Party’s leadership under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown over the preceding decade in the United Kingdom. The success of the Brexit referendum, and likewise Trump’s electoral victory, should in fact not come as a shock to anyone with a modicum of political understanding or aptitude. These “shock” victories did not come to pass as a matter of some new politics which is anathema and alien to the status quo. Rather, these victories were set in motion by a variety of forces, most notably the poverty of liberal politics and ideology, to present a viable solution to the endemic socio-economic crises which are not only a facet of imperialist capitalist society, but integral to its very functionality.
Fallacies of Liberal Democracy in the USA and Britain
So what then is liberalism as politics and as ideology? It is a nebulous term, no doubt, with varied definitions contingent upon temporal and spatial realities. What is meant by liberalism as it relates to Brexit and Trump’s electoral success is the organizing socio-political philosophies which have largely governed the western world, and Britain and the United States more specifically. These philosophies – and it’s important to note that there are multiple, liberalism is not a singular ideology or political formation – stress freedom from tyranny and despotism on the one hand, and unfettered economic exchange on the other. The dictionary definition of this typology would be summed us as follows: liberalism favors individual liberties and freedoms, laissez-faire economics and is open to modest amounts of socio-political reform. It is through this understanding of liberalism that one can begin to see how and why such seemingly socially regressive processes as the election of Donald Trump and the success of the Leave campaign have taken place.
But before one can examine how liberal politics and ideology not only failed to stem the tide of right-wing populism but ushered it in, it is imperative to understand the origins of liberalism. Liberal politics have not degenerated overtime, rather, their very origins in the cauldron of slavery juxtaposed with freedom demonstrate the grotesque and contorted birth of an ideology which so many so-called progressives champion in today’s times. Where then lie the origins of liberal ideologies and politics? This is a massive historical-cum-political question devoid of any singular or concise answer. Be that as it may, an understanding of these origins, albeit in a truncated and piecemeal form, are vital not only to understanding how such politics are rooted not in freedom but oppression, and why liberal politics from its geneses to its more contemporaneous formulations fail to remedy the crises associated with bourgeois class rule in western society.
A sound point of departure to interrogate the historical fallacies of liberalism are the liberal revolutions in each of the countries in question, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in Britain, and the American War of Independence (1776-1783). The former saw William of Orange (of the Dutch Republic) in alliance with English parliamentarians oust James II, effectively ending absolutist rule in the British Isles and instituting a constitutional monarchy. The American War of Independence took the struggle of liberalism – that is, a struggle for liberty and freedom against tyrannical political rule – to a new level, doing away with the monarchy all together and establishing a bourgeois republic. Thus, both these political processes resulted in a reformulation of the political status quo. It is important to realize, however, that both the Glorious Revolution and the American War of Independence were not social revolutions in that they did not alter the material basis of society and merely proffered novel political solutions.
Central to both these revolutions was the issue of slavery, both chattel and political. The former was allowed to persist, and was in fact championed and defended by the majority of intellectuals and governmental elites (there were of course outliers). We need to only consider Hugo Grotius’ thinking on slavery and political freedom. Grotius, a Dutch jurist, produced various philosophical works on the problem of political freedom which were used as the ideological drapery for William of Orange’s seizure of the throne in England some decades after Grotius’ death. Political slavery, in this instantiation, was represented by the absolutist regime in England, hence the alliance between William of Orange and English parliamentarians to bring into existence a constitutional monarchy. Chattel slavery, on the other hand, was for Grotius perfectly permissible, and was warranted for those he considered of lesser stock, namely non-Europeans. Likewise, as it relates to the British colonies in North America, John Locke’s philosophical musings were later used by the “founding fathers” of the United States to simultaneously point to the problem of political slavery – no representation in British parliament – and expound on the ostensible “naturalness” of chattel slavery. Granted, there are a plethora of other thinkers who motivated liberal thought and politics. Locke and Grotius, however, represent the lineages of thought which initially won over political revolutionaries in Colonial America, and earlier, in the British Isles
The dual birth of liberal thought and subsequent politics – a vociferous opposition to political subjugation of the individual in one aspect, and a staunch support of chattel slavery – can thus be understood as Janus-faced. Contradictory in its origin, and consequently, contradictory in its political application. This origin is part of the reason why liberal politics have ebbed and flowed, not just over long expanses of time, but at acute moments of political difference. For it was liberalism which initially offered the ideological bulwark upon which the rationality of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was established. And in the British context, throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, when the slave trade was made illicit in 1807 and slavery (officially) abolished in 1834, it was the most stalwart of liberal politicians who advanced the cause of abolition. And in the aftermath of abolition, it was the heirs of the abolitionists who sought to colonize the African continent wholesale under the pretext of propping up so-called “legitimate trade” as counter to internal slave trading amongst African polities and social groups. Therefore, this abolitionist paradigm, the origins of which are deeply rooted in liberalism, was the central ideological cog which fit into the machinery of late-nineteenth century British imperialism
The contradictions of liberalism are also evident in American political history. Granted the Second American Revolution (the US Civil War) and the subsequent era of Radical Reconstruction was a social revolution, the culmination of the American bourgeois revolution, but liberalism eventually triumphed with the defeat of Radical Reconstruction in 1877 and has continued to this day in rebooting a system of racialized and gendered oppression. And much like the outgrowth of British imperialism after slavery, American imperial ventures too began in earnest after the liberal regime had ossified and secured its place at the forefront of the bourgeois social order. The histories of Britain and the United States demonstrate that since the eighteenth century and up to this present moment, liberal governance has dominated socio-political life. The varied dislocations and deviations which have occurred over time are merely the vagaries of divergent political currents, all under the auspices of liberal ideology.
While it is important to maintain a nuanced understanding of the differences between US and British politics (both historically and contemporaneously), the central thread that binds the political experiences of both places is that of liberalism. What then do we make of the current political moment? Given the aforementioned definition of liberalism, Donald Trump and the acolytes to the British withdrawal from the European Union can, and must, be construed as part of the problem inherent to liberalism. Their counterparts in Hillary Clinton and the Remain Campaign, respectively, are likewise part of this political malignancy which needs excising. In both cases the option of the lesser evil was what motivated the politics at hand. The lesser evil in each case, as espoused by the epigones of liberal politics and ideology, were Hillary Clinton and the Remain camp in the US and Britain, respectively. This “lesser evilism” was posited in a way that stressed, in the case of the United States, that in spite of Clinton’s abhorrent record as a Senator, Secretary of State, and as First Lady alongside Bill Clinton, she was still a markedly better candidate than Trump. She is less overtly racist for sure, but to think that she isn’t part and parcel to the maintenance of racialized and gendered oppression in the United States is a deeply troubling position.
Like her Republican counterpart, Clinton too represents a sector of the ruling elite, and her role as president would not have been to serve any nebulous conceptualization of “the people,” but rather, as is Trump’s role, to be an agent for proprietary interests domestically and to expand access to markets internationally, likely via imperialist ventures. Therefore, whereas Trump alleges he will deport all so-called “illegal” immigrants, Clinton could only offer tepid rebuffs to Trump’s platform of mass deportation with a more managed immigration policy. In other words, Clinton would likely have continued the policy of deportations practiced under the current regime of Barack Obama. Given Trump’s xenophobic and truly draconian immigration platform, Clinton may have very well seemed like a lesser evil. To present her as such, however, is erroneous, as she represents an equally malevolent social process which is cut from the same cloth as Trump. If we recall that under Obama, more undocumented workers have been deported than under the previous Bush administration, and furthermore, under the auspices of Obama and the Democratic Party, more undocumented migrants have been deported than the entirety of deportations from the preceding century (Immigration and Customs Enforcement estimates approximately 2.5 million deportations under Obama from 2008-2015, though other estimates reach as high as 5 million). It would be foolish to think that a Clinton presidency would have seen the cessation of such policies. Neither candidate calls for the wholesale granting of citizenship rights to all immigrants “legal” or otherwise, and neither can, for their roles as the stewards of US capital is to ensure there exists a reserve army of labor, one which can be tapped into during times of crisis and discarded once economic stabilization is achieved.
Trump’s political platform stressed the building of a border wall along the United States’ southern border with Mexico. Clinton’s pious claims that “we need bridges, not walls” is pure political gamesmanship. The wall already exists, and has been expanded since the presidency of Bill Clinton, and has continued under the subsequent administrations of George Bush and Barack Obama. Trump wants to “complete” the wall, adding to the nearly six-hundred miles already in place. Clinton does not want the wall removed but intact as it is. Her and Trump’s plans regarding immigration are not contrasting options, but two divergent methods to the same end, that of creating an immigration policy wherein only certain “types” of migrants would be welcome, those who are needed for US capitalism to flourish unabated. The vacuity of Clinton’s political principles is further evidenced when one scrutinizes her conduct abroad. Examples abound from the Clinton Foundation siphoning earthquake relief funds in Haiti to set up sweatshops in “free trade” zones outside of Port-au-Prince to the blatant disregard for national self-determination for the peoples of Libya. Clinton’s liberalism is not only noxious and unsavory, its material manifestations result in death, destruction, and oppression. The laundry list of dirty deeds doesn’t stop with the exploitation of Haitian workers (most of whom are women) or the arbitrary ousting of Mummar Gaddafi, these are simply two of the most egregious. One may make the claim that despite all these negatives, Clinton still supports a woman’s right to choose abortion. This is true. What she doesn’t support, however, is free abortion, on demand and in a hospital. And she never will, for it isn’t in her, or her socio-political backers’ interest. It would also be apt to remember that the current intensification of the “war on women” and both the physical and rhetorical attacks on Planned Parenthood have only escalated with a Democratic president, and it would have persisted with a Clinton presidency as it will with Trump’s
So, when Trump labeled Clinton with the moniker “Crooked Hillary,” he wasn’t wrong. She is indeed crooked, just not in the ways articulated by the Trump campaign. And it must be noted, Trump too is a liberal. Yes, he is a disgusting right-wing populist, but his liberalism is easily discerned. He is supportive of transgender individuals using whichever bathroom they feel comfortable with. He is also less likely to commit ground troops abroad, whereas Clinton has proven she has no qualms about such undertakings (rest assured that Trump will continue and intensify Obama’s tactics of drone strikes and Special Forces operations). Trump likely isn’t as opposed to abortion as his oscillations on the question may lead one to believe; he frankly doesn’t care and only advocated for jailing those women who seek abortions in order to pander to a certain voting bloc. His tax plan was the most progressive out of any US presidential candidate, with the exception of the pseudo-socialist Bernie Sanders, and while he wants to gut “Obamacare,” he still maintains that he wants a public option for health insurance for all American citizens (however opaque it may currently be). All this is not to defend Trump, but rather to demonstrate that in spite of his more horrifying politics and rhetoric, he can be construed as a liberal, just the other side of the coin to Clinton’s liberalism.
So, as it concerns the US presidential election, the contest boiled down to a choice between a misogynistic, openly racist, xenophobic, demagogic, sexual predator and an unabashedly pro-imperialist, bellicose, covert racist whose only desire is to maintain the status quo. The dichotomy presumed between these two “choices” is largely fallacious, they are merely two different heads on the same hydra. The false dichotomy of the lesser evil was not unique to the American political sphere, and was evident during the Brexit referendum as well, albeit with the lines a bit more nuanced. The Leave Campaign was represented by a faction of the Conservative Party, embodied by now Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and then Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove. Additionally, the United Kingdom Independence Party, headed by the incipient fascist Nigel Farage, threw its full weight behind the campaign. Quite a few far-left parties also endorsed the Leave Campaign. The Remain campaign was led by a separate faction of the Tories, but primarily by Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party (and to a much less visible extent, the Liberal Democrats headed by Nick Clegg in a political alliance with then Tory Prime Minister David Cameron). At this juncture, it is important to note that if there exists a qualitative difference between US and British politics, it is the existence of the Labour Party. The Labour party is a working-class party, albeit extremely reformist and capitulatory in nature. The existence of a party based in the working class as opposed to the US paradigm in which both major parties represent different factions of the proprietary elite, is not a minor difference (even in light of the trend towards more traditional bourgeois politics under the premierships of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the first decade of this century). With this caveat in mind, if we consider that the entire referendum was predicated on xenophobia and racism, not to mention the problematic existence of an inter-imperialist bloc such as the EU, it becomes clear that both sides, Leave as well as Remain, did not present viable solutions to the migrant crisis in particular and the problem of the European Union more generally.
The “evil” faction, that of Leave, harangued the electorate about what they dubbed “project fear.” Project fear was the apparent position of the lesser evil, that of the Remain camp, which was, according to some Tories such as Boris Johnson, and UKIP more generally, that the Remain camp proposed that the passing of the referendum would precipitate a calamitous economic event. In reality, the architects of any such “project fear” were the mainstream Leave campaigners themselves. Basing the entire referendum upon xenophobia, the specter of unrestrained masses of migrants “flooding” Britain was mobilized by these demagogues to convince voters to cast their ballot in favor of leaving the European Union. Nigel Farage smugly standing in front of a truck with text reading “Breaking Point” alongside the image of migrants fleeing the imperialist carnage in the Middle East emblazoned upon its side is just one example of this. Boris Johnson’s campaign bus dubiously claimed that the hundreds of millions of pound sterling paid into the coffers in Brussels would be redirected to the National Health Service if a Leave vote was successful (unsurprisingly, both he and Farage backtracked on this once the victory had been secured). The “fear” of Turkey joining the EU was also used to sway voters, as was the scapegoating of immigrants, particularly those from Eastern Europe.
These scare tactics do not absolve the lesser evil – the Remain camp – in this case. For on the one hand, a substantial number of Tories, including the current Prime Minister, Theresa May, who superseded Cameron after his resignation in the wake of the vote, supported remaining within the EU. This was largely due to the fact the Britain was not part of the Schengen Area (EU states which allow freedom of movement without passports) and the “problem” of immigration could be managed under the auspices of the EU. Additionally, various sectors of the financial oligarchs in London wanted to remain to preserve and allow for the continuation of capital exports. And for all the “socially progressive” credentials the Tories claim unto themselves (having the only women prime ministers in British history in May and Margaret Thatcher as well as legalizing wedlock between homosexual couples), any thinking individual would see through this to their decidedly backwards politics, demonstrated by the bedroom tax, migrant taxes, and the closing down of centers for the survivors of domestic abuse, to name but a few, the latter two having been part of Labour’s program as well.
Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, while presenting a public image that they wanted to protect immigrants from the xenophobic assaults waged by the Leave camp, were themselves embroiled in the racist demagoguery of the whole referendum vote. Rather than express solidarity with migrants, Labour put forth a plan of management, one which would allow, much like in the United States, for the selective admittance of certain types of immigrants. Furthermore, their “critical” stance on the EU was facile and impotent. Remain campaigners offered not a single iota of criticism of the bloc which allows German, French, and British imperialism to lord over weaker states via austerity – Spain, Greece, and Portugal for example – but rather proffered lukewarm reproaches about how the European Union is problematic but could be reformed under British influence. It really doesn’t matter if British imperialism exists onto itself, or if it exists in conjunction with German and French imperialism. The EU is not some panacea which it is often trumpeted as. It is a bloc which attempts to more efficiently organize capitalist competition and cooperation. And its dissolution would be a good thing for the vast majority who live under threat of austerity measures emanating from Brussels. However, playing into the claptrap of bourgeois parliamentarian politics only subjugates any and all social forces opposed to capitalist society to the vagaries of mainstream political solutions, all of which are stale if not outright rotten.
The only politically cogent action in regards to the Brexit vote was to divest. And not out of apathy, but in conjunction with action. Actions such as solidarizing with the then ongoing transit strikes against austerity measures – imposed by a “socialist” government – across the channel in France (going on strike as well), or taking over the tunnel and allowing through migrants who are effectively jailed in the disgustingly nicknamed “Jungle” migrant camp in Calais. These options were never put forward because like the Democrats, the Labour Party, despite its divergent social base, is fettered by the liberal politics of reformism. They offer nothing in the way of ending the avarice and oppression bred by capitalism, and only feign to assuage the negative social externalities foisted upon workers and other oppressed social groups under this socio-economic system. How then did liberalism fail to forestall both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump? Simply enough, in the British case, it offered nothing by way of diverting those opposed to such racist and xenophobic attacks to actions which could have directly confronted the social forces motivating such a process. In the United States, as mentioned before, liberalism put forth two equally despicable candidates. But none of this should come as a surprise, as such seemingly backwards politics can and will continue to arise from and in opposition to the more “progressive” elements within liberal ideology. But where does support for this apparent backwardness stem from?
The Success of Brexit and the Rise of Trump: A Working-Class Revolt?
Myriad political pundits and news outlets have articulated both the triumph of Brexit and Trump as some evidence of a working-class revolt. In the British situation, this is very much the case for a number of far-left political organizations and parties, as it was for some of the more traditional right-wing forces. In the United States, the election of Trump has either been hailed as a working-class revolt by some of his supporters, or decried by liberals as the result of a white working-class backlash to eight years of Democratic Party rule. All of these interpretations are systematically flawed in their logic, and are rebuffed by extant data. In neither case did the working class, white or otherwise, constitute the social force which afforded the opportunity for such electoral victories. It is also important to consider the question of voter turnout. In Britain, 72.2 percent of the eligible voters cast a ballot during the referendum. This means that some 20 million people did not vote, with the bulk of them likely coming from working-class backgrounds, as is the case in the overwhelming majority of countries which have a marked lack of voter participation. Additionally, approximately 2 million EU immigrants, again mainly from the working class, were barred from voting (though Irish and Commonwealth residents in the United Kingdom were allowed to cast ballots). During the US Presidential Election, only 55 percent of the electorate voted, or said another way, over 100 million eligible voters did not vote, and again, these people are more often than not in the ranks of the working class. The anti-democratic nature of bourgeois republicanism aside, it is at the very least suggestive that the recent electoral processes in Britain and the United States do not represent the will and desire of the working classes of those countries.
To be clear, the most politically backward workers on both sides of the Atlantic voted for Brexit or Trump. This was evident in the industrial cities of Newcastle and Sunderland in the North of England, as workers who traditionally voted Tory were won over by UKIP, and in some of the so-called “rust belt” states in the United States which have had historically strong ties to the Democratic Party. In spite of this, it wasn’t the working class which heralded in the eventuality of a Brexit or Donald Trump Presidency, but rather the disaffected petty-bourgeoisie. Exit polls in Britain suggest that while some workers in the areas mentioned above did vote leave, many in other urban areas voted to remain. Approximately 64 percent of Labour voters chose to remain (though this did little to stave off Corbyn’s more right-wing challengers for leadership of the party in the aftermath of the vote). According to some analyses (by the British elite, no less), the final tally of working-class voters who opted to leave the EU is 24 percent. Whereas middle-class Leave voters constituted nearly 60 percent of the 17.4 million who voted leave.
Likewise, in the United States if one looks at data relative to income, it is clear that it was the white petty-bourgeoisie where Trump found his base of support, not in the white working class. Exit polls suggest that of the most economically oppressed – those making less than $30k USD per year – the trend was towards voting for Clinton (53 percent versus Trump’s 40 percent). And the same with the next wage bracket of $30k-49,999 USD per annum (52 percent to 41 percent). It is with the middling layers that Trump did best, with those making $50k-99,999 USD (46 percent for Clinton against 49 percent for Trump) and those making between $100k and $199,999 USD (47 percent to 48 percent). The mainstream candidates were largely even amongst those making over $250,000 USD (46 percent each) whereas Clinton had a three-percentage point victory for those making $200k-249,999 USD. Boiled down even further, those making under $50k USD tended towards Clinton, those whose income was between $50k and $100k USD tended towards Trump, and it was a fairly even contest for those raking in over $100k USD per year. Thus, the social group that did herald the victories of Trump and Brexit was the middle class. Scared of being absorbed into the working class below and unable to see a way upward, the election of Trump and the Brexit referendum were not in fact proletarian revolts, but a mutiny of the estranged and disenchanted petty-bourgeoisie.
Those members of the working class who did vote for Brexit and Trump did so out of a combination of nationalist appeal, fear mongering, and the fact that more traditional avenues of liberalism have seen them consistently under the jackboot of capitalist cupidity. The Barack Obama administration did nothing to ameliorate the deteriorating conditions for workers and oppressed peoples in the United States. His presidential terms were effectively a continuity of the George W. Bush era with slightly different methodologies for achieving the same goal, that of propping up business interests at the expense of labor and the socially oppressed and ostracized. Even his hallmark legislation, the Affordable Care Act, played into the hands of insurance companies and fomented deleterious effects upon those without the means to purchase health insurance. Similarly, in Britain, both Labour and Tory governments have offered little in the way of remedying the decaying and decrepit material realities of large sections of the population. Rather, their interests lie with maintaining the business interests preferential to British capital.
The Left and the Future of Liberalism
As mentioned before, a spate of leftist organizations in Britain supported Brexit on the grounds that the European Union is a nefarious imperialist project and should be abandoned. This is certainly true. The problem with their support for Brexit is that the entire referendum campaign, on both the Leave and Remain sides, was predicated on racism and xenophobia, not the inherent problems with an inter-imperialist bloc. Many were actually won over by this drivel of “British jobs for British workers,” very much akin to the right-wing populism of Donald Trump, as well as the left-leaning populism of former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. In one formulation or another, the more visible left-wing organizations in Britian which advocated to Leave fell into the political blind alley of a decidedly liberal program of bourgeois electoralism. Of course, those left groups which advanced a political line to remain are even more compromised and would have done well to bare in mind Karl Kautsky’s theory of “Ultra Imperialism,” which has consistently and roundly been proven to be a pipe dream.
The Socialist Workers Party (UK) stated that a vote to leave was a vote against NATO, against the IMF, against the EU more generally, and against the ruling elite. The last part of this formulation is deeply flawed. Now that the elite faction agitating for the leave vote has won, Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Minister Boris Johnson are set to begin Brexit by March 2017 (and while they still face opposition from Labour and the Liberal-Democrats, Brexit will likely go ahead as planned). A vote to leave was not a vote against the domestic ruling class, it was a vote against an ill-defined European elite. The national chauvinist character of the referendum was not only a non-issue for many left organizations in Britain, but they advanced their politics on the coattails of such venomous and divisive rhetoric. The Socialist Party of England and Wales went so far as to advocate leaving the EU on the basis that the few social benefits British labor has gotten capital to concede (the NHS for example, which incidentally is under attack by rampant privatization) would be diverted away from (white) British workers. SPEW went even further along this grotesque line, arguing that if Eastern Europeans were to be barred from entering Britain, then the capitalist class in those countries would have a much stronger working class to deal with. Is this not national chauvinism at the expense of internationalist solidarity?
Similarly, the British section of the International Communist League railed against the capitalists in Brussels, as they very well should and must, but like the majority of other left organizations, the domestic capitalist class remained unchallenged and foreign workers not brought into the fold. And how could they, what with political considerations being routed through the dominant discourse of leaving the EU based on xenophobia? These politics are the result of collusion with and subservience to liberal bourgeois politics, that of the vote as a means of politics. As in Britain, the US elections and US left-wing politics more generally are imbued with idea that the liberal project of voting will result in social transformation. This is a myth, save unless one is willing to wait decades if not centuries for social transformations. It is only a revolutionary politics – which would under certain circumstances advocate for voting, but not as the sole or most important method of political engagement – that can bring alternative social relations into fruition.
In the United States, the liberal paradigm is so strong that some have argued, as the old maxim goes, when one does not vote they have no right to complain or criticize. This sentiment truly is the zenith of liberal idiocy. And during the recent election, it was put forth by some that to not vote for Hillary Clinton constituted some sort of privileged status in society. The identity politics behind this rehashing of an old adage is not only nauseating, it is a liberal fiction, one which can only be swallowed wholeheartedly if one truly believes that this is indeed the end of history, that only voting matters as a form of politics. Liberalism serves to not only obfuscate how an individual as repugnant as Donald Trump could conceivably become head-of-state but effectively inhibits any form of acute struggle against such forces. This is seen in the varied support for the so-called non-establishment candidates (Trump being one of them, of course).
Left-wing support of Jill Stein, and to a much greater extent, Bernie Sanders, helped in part to pave the way to Trump’s victory. Stein, seemingly the perennial presidential candidate for the Green Party, campaigned on the slogan of a “Green New Deal.” The central platform alone leads one to the conclusion that the Green Party isn’t anything but an offshoot of the Democrats. It exists not as a space for independent politics, but is rather very much subsumed by the liberalism of American politics. It operates as a pressure group on the Democrats (they are effectively the left-wing of the Democratic Party, so very centrist in nature) and offers a home to disillusioned and capitulatory radicals. So instead of combating the neoliberal variant of capitalism, Greens seek to reform capitalism in such a way that the natural environment and human relations to it are the central concern. The stewardship of nature, if the negative effects of climate change are to be overcome and reversed, must fall to the working class. Carbon offsetting (speculation of fictitious capital related to how much carbon a given country emits) and the propping of “green” business models may provide a mediocre solution to the environmental problem, but does nil in regard to the socio-economic dislocation and division caused by capitalism. In essence, the Green Party would retool capitalism to be less aggressive, they would not do away with it, nor do they want to.
Various left groups in the United States backed Stein, particularly after Bernie Sanders failed to secure the Democratic nomination – at a convention where chants of “USA, USA, USA!” and the glorification of the imperialist military were commonplace. Most notable of the groups who supported Stein after were Socialist Alternative and the International Socialist Organization, both of which had previously backed Sanders to varying degrees, with the former very much integrated into his campaign and the latter bemoaning the fact that he opted to run as a Democrat (which he very much is, despite his personal positioning as an independent and a “socialist”). From the outset, both these candidates presented incontrovertible evidence that they were merely bourgeois candidates of different flavor. Yes they challenged the status quo in Washington, but not in any social or material sense. Rather, their mildly divergent politics were presented as ostensible evidence of a radical break from the current socio-economic system. This was simply a veneer which these left organizations willfully failed to consider. And as predicted, once Sanders lost, for all the biting attacks he waged on Clinton, he ultimately funneled his voters right into the Democratic Party, a party of big business and oppression at “home” as well as abroad. SA and the ISO, as two of the most prominent left-wing political organizations in the United States, utterly failed to stay out of the political death trap that is electoralism. The capitulation to liberalism by these organizations therefore forecloses any possibility of charting an independent political course in opposition to capitalism and in the interest of the vast majority of workers, small farmers, oppressed nationalities and genders, and so on. In the final analysis, they halfheartedly attempted to stay outside the politics of lesser evilism, but ended up on the field of play nonetheless.
At the very least, one can credit SA and the ISO for not supporting the war hawk, Hillary Clinton. Though these organizations didn’t, many self-professed radicals did, a significant number of who were funneled towards her via the faux socialism of Bernie Sanders. The backing of Hillary Clinton by many was the most distilled formulation of lesser evilism in recent American history. The logic that even though Clinton is a poor choice of candidate, she is markedly better than Trump is not only untrue, its deadly to believe as such. Clinton, whose response to Trump’s slogan of “Make America Great Again,” was that “America already is great.” This should’ve been enough to suggest to anyone supporting Clinton, willfully or as the lesser evil, that her politics and her potential role as president would have resulted in the continuity of oppression and social subjugation as it has under Obama, indeed as it has since the founding of the United States. Did Obama preside over a post-racial America? Most certainly not. So it baffles the mind when people advance the line that Clinton would represent some sort of advancement for women. Just like it was a historic event that a black man was elected president in a deeply racist country, so too would it have been a monumental historic event had Clinton won the election. Unfortunately, Obama is not the right type of black person, and Clinton the wrong woman. The liberal politics of identity played deeply into the support of Clinton, she was widely being voted for because she was a woman and not due to her actual politics. The former is largely inconsequential at this level of politics – at least for those of us outside of it – and the latter is what actually matters. Her ideas and political positions, at least on the left, were not being as nearly scrutinized as Trump’s, and when one votes (or engages in any political activity for that matter) based along the fault line of identity, the fallacy of doing so becomes relatively apparent in short order. This was the case with Obama, particularly in regards to race, and it would have been the case with Clinton had she won, specifically in regards to gender rights.
This uncritical and unthinking support for Clinton is the direct outgrowth of the recent resurgence in identity politics. That is, that one’s socio-cultural identity inherently places them on some plane along the political spectrum. This is evident in the growth of political correctness, not only amongst traditional liberals, but those who identify as radicals as well. No wonder Trump’s victory was so shocking to so many. A wide range of politically active people operate in an echo chamber where their own facile views are reinforced by likeminded people. The days of polemics has given way to “safe spaces” where to challenge a prevailing view or to vociferously dissent against normative left politics is not only uncouth but actively shunned. This is yet another example of liberalism’s hold over many supposed leftists. It only serves to obscure reality in order to make individuals feel better that they are on some sort of righteous political path. This divorcing of reality from politics was all too evident in the aftermath of Trump’s election. The massive protests – and it’s a good thing there were massive protests – largely amounted to anti-Trump Pro-Clinton orgies of acrimony. One cannot forget that equally stringent protests would not have been waged had Clinton won, as they should have if she did. With utterly pacifistic and reformist slogans such as “Love Trumps Hate” and “Not My President” – the latter of which was deployed by organized racists against Obama – these post-election protests amounted to nothing more than alienated liberals voicing their discontent. Trump and Clinton deserve the same level of rhetorical attack, as does the entire socio-economic apparatus in the United States, but because of the liberal paradigm which holds sway over US politics, this is not possible at this juncture in history.
So which way forward? The simple answer is a divestment from the politics of liberalism and all that it entails – a reliance on the ballot as a means of politics, class collaboration and capitulatory political culture, a focus on identity as a primary political signifier rather than that of class position, to name but a few. The more complicated answer to this query entails a rethinking and revaluation of what sort of world we want to inhabit. If it is one where there are small spaces carved out for oppressed and marginalized peoples, then nothing needs to change. Under liberalism such spaces are allowed to exist, even if they are whittled away slowly or brought into the increasingly manifold halls of elite power. The other option is not reformist in nature but revolutionary. Liberalism tolerates such small spaces of tepid opposition, but to unreservedly do away with the world which liberal ideologies and politics have created, these sparse socio-cultural spaces offer little by the way of wielding social power. A complete rupture from liberal bourgeois politics is what is needed. This necessitates dispelling the liberal myths swallowed gleefully by a wide array of leftists and organizing not to make piecemeal reforms, but to turn the social pyramid on its head, making the most oppressed and marginalized the curators of a new social order. In sum, the way out of the liberal claptrap which led to the election of Trump in the United States and the involvement in a referendum predicated on racism and xenophobia in the United Kingdom, is either through the longue durée or via revolutionary action geared towards immediate social emancipation as well as the destruction of capitalist civilization and the bringing about of a drastically different social order.
Lastly, it should also be noted that the rise of Trump and the Brexit vote, while predicated on racism and xenophobia, are largely economic in their character. Notwithstanding the so-called “Alt-Right” movement, and out-and-out fascist and white nationalist support for Trump (and to a lesser extent Brexit), the majority of people who voted for them did so out of lack of viable alternatives to an already wretched economic situation. The status-quo of bourgeois politics has certainly shifted, but Brexit and Trumps ascendancy do not signify the death knell of bourgeois democracy, but simply a shifting liberalism.
“Brexit Plus, Plus, Plus”: What Brexit and Trump’s Victories Signify
When Nigel Farage made a stop at a Trump rally preceding the election, the latter predicted his election to be “Brexit plus, plus, plus.” Indeed, it seems that this has come to pass. The breakup of the EU seems possible – which, devoid of the concomitant politics, is a positive – and the next global inter-imperialist war is plausible within the next century. On the other side of the Atlantic, the United States has not necessarily become more xenophobic or repressive, but these malicious forces are now more clearly articulated and presented with little or no political subterfuge. Revolutionarily minded people must continue to organize and mobilize, not in the fashion of liberalism, but militantly, to combat the new alignment of political forces, all whilst bearing in mind that it is not just the traditional liberal right-wing which needs to be defeated, but the entire capitalist social and economic system, which in the West more generally, and Britain and the United States specifically, is permeated with liberal politics and ideology. These victories, which amount to defeats for anyone opposed to capitalism (as would a Clinton presidency or a Britain nominally committed to the European Union), are yet the next obstacle facing the oppressed and toiling majority.
Given the decrepit state of both the British and American left, infected and deformed by years of pandering to the whims of liberal politics, where does that leave the imperialist world in the aftermath of Brexit and Trump’s soon-to-be presidency? Materially, the status quo (i.e. the social order) will persist for some time. Politically, it is clearly quite different. Racist and xenophobic attacks have been on the rise in both countries since the votes have come in, and the reactionary right, including actual fascists, now feel they have more room to operate and more of a voice. But it is not as if Trump or the architects of Brexit will allow fascists to come to power. The bourgeoisie only turns to fascism when the left is powerful enough or on the cusp of seizing power (as evinced by the histories of Germany, Spain, and Portugal). Endorsements of Trump by the Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazi groups as well as a host of others from the white nationalist milieu changes very little as to who Trump represents. Likewise, in Britain, fascism in the form of the British National Party, the National Front, and English Defence League (and to a lesser extend UKIP) have been emboldened, but they are a long way off from the halls of power. This is true even for the American case, where Trump has appointed an open racist and white supremacist in Stephen Bannon as his counselor. If anything, the sheer audacity of his appointment (as opposed to Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater’s “Southern Strategy”) just further proves that white supremacy is alive and well in the United States, it hasn’t been resuscitated but has always been an integral component. Though, it is also important to note the near immediate rapprochement between the Trump campaign and his detractors in the Democratic and Republican Parties.
Rather than a new world order or tocsin preceding fascism, Brexit and Trump represent a shifting liberalism, one which is more deadly for more people. In neither case did the rhetoric foment any sort of reactionary movement but these forces have always existed on the fringes of liberal bourgeois democracy. It’s just that now they have been reinvigorated. The task of the left is to defeat not just these enemies but the political organizations which allow them to exist. Eschewing and disavowing liberalism in politics and ideology is fundamental to achieving this.
Gordon Barnes is a doctoral candidate and Presidential MAGNET Fellow in the History Program at The Graduate Center, CUNY. His dissertation, “The Crisis of Freedom: Violence and Elite Ideology in the Post-Emancipation British Empire, 1810-1870,” examines the ways in which organized slave and subaltern violence influenced elite politics and ideology around questions of labor regimentation, immigration, and social formation in Jamaica and Mauritius. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @grb_jr.