It should have come as no surprise that when Senator John McCain died on August 25, media coverage would be replete with paeans to his legacy, his statesmanship, his status as a war hero. Reading these, one would think that instead of the fiery and often unpredictable ‘maverick’ of the Senate, the man who repeatedly exercised poor political judgment — from opposing a federal MLK holiday to picking Sarah Palin as his VP running mate, from the Keating Five savings and loan scandal to his consistent appeal for ever-expanding war, from calling his wife a c*nt to insisting he was going to help build that border wall — was a modern-day Abraham Lincoln, bridging partisan divides and embodying a spirit of patriotic service, even in death. These pieces all note the pointed absence of the current resident of the White House from McCain’s funeral proceedings, juxtaposing the supposed death of civility and selflessness in American political discourse represented by Trump against the poignant repose of the senator’s body in the Capitol and the “sweet moment” of bipartisan love when George W. Bush slipped Michelle Obama a piece of candy at McCain’s funeral service. The New Yorker went so far as to call the senator’s funeral the biggest “#Resistance” meeting held to date.
This is, of course, total horseshit.
In my last post, I argued that the Trump moment cannot exist without, and seeks to extend, the authoritarianism of the border, the prison, and the workplace, reasserting the rights and power of capital in the face of contradiction and crisis. In the current political conjuncture, opportunists call forth, tap into, and then restrain economic populism to serve the interests of economic nationalism, potentially realigning longstanding geopolitical and geoeconomic narratives and strategies. What is the “Resistance” embodied by the likes of the late John McCain, the Clintons, Bushes, and Obamas, and lauded by mainstream media outlets, but the neoliberal consensus of the past three decades? With Trump, the effort at rebranding has dressed all this up in calls for “civility” in political discourse while doubling down on the ideological convictions and associated policies that created the conditions for Trump in the first place. Drone warfare and extralegal killings, an extensive system of immigrant detention and deterrence at the border, steady erosion of work conditions and social safety nets while real wages stagnate, an explosion in incarceration rates, especially for non-violent and minor drug offenses, corporate welfare and bailouts while millions of homeowners suffer foreclosure and loss of homes: all this started well before Trump, and were features, not bugs, of the last several presidential administrations and congressional cohorts. Trump has put some of this into overdrive while strongly challenging other components of the neoliberal order, most notably trade liberalization efforts and agreements like NAFTA. Clearly this has shaken many in the Beltway who have become comfortable with wielding power and the recital of taken-for-granted political formulae and positions on everything from taxes and deficits to terrorism and trade. On September 6, the New York Times published an anonymous op-ed penned by a “senior official in the Trump administration” in which the author also claimed to be part of the ‘resistance,’ or more accurately, a so-called “quiet resistance” among White House staff that aims to push Trump’s agenda while blunting him and his more erratic impulses. The unnamed author also invoked McCain, suggesting that “we will always have his example — a lodestar for restoring honor to public life and our national dialogue.” In other words, ‘resistance’ in official DC has lost all meaning as the ossifying structure of partisan gamesmanship sloughs forward within the narrow range of acceptable neoliberal paths, which are becoming fewer and more difficult as they have to contend with the unpredictability of Trump himself, the distaste many voters feel for elected officials generally, and a more pointedly racist, sexist, and xenophobic rehashing of the culture wars of the 1990s. If this is the civility to which we should aspire, I am happy enough to bury it.
But what comes next? Surely the chaotic nature of the Trump White House does not offer a viable long-term model for political governance. While much media coverage of the Trump administration tends to concentrate heavily on the inner workings and failings of the executive branch, this is, as I said in the last post, important but insufficient to make political generalizations. It barely makes for interesting reading at this point in the president’s tenure — who can remember all the soap opera details? — though it does appear to accurately reflect and directly channel Trump’s reality tv background and management style. The authoritarian tendencies, blatant racism, and economic nationalism of this approach to governance, all strategically vital but impetuously and often disastrously deployed, seem more likely as a basis for something beyond the current shaky neoliberal common sense, though that future remains to be written. More on that below.
The Democratic Party establishment, for its part, seems terrified of the crop of young, diverse candidates that aim to drag the party leftward, are not shy about talking about socialism, and are seeking ways to expand the party’s base into new territory, both demographically and geographically. This is not something that could happen overnight, even without pushback from the party’s old guard, and when such projects stem from popular social movements — the kind of ‘resistance’ that might actually promote radical change, as opposed to the branded kind for which Democratic elites and anonymous administration officials pat themselves on the back — they are dangerously prone to co-option and dissipation. Look no further than the Wisconsin protests of 2011 for a shining example. A broad coalition of unions and students occupied the state legislature building over massive budget cuts and curtailment of collective bargaining rights, but had their energies and political momentum squashed, first by the state courts and then by an ill-advised attempt to recall Republican Governor Scott Walker organized by the Democratic establishment in the state. Even current shooting star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old first-time candidate who defeated powerful Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th House district primary, has already earned detractors on her left for falling into normal mainstream Democratic talking points on Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and, like so many others, for lauding McCain’s decency and service on his passing. Fair enough, she is not a political neophyte in any case, having worked for the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016 and before that as an intern in Senator Ted Kennedy’s office. But has she been co-opted, is she a sellout? That’s a lot to put on one young woman’s shoulders, especially given that she has not yet even won the general election or served a day in government. So it’s hard to know what selling out means at this point, and equally difficult to discern how a broader coalition of left Democrats and democratic socialists will or will not work within and against their party and for what kind of agenda if elected. Again, the future remains to be written.
Meanwhile, the sun does not rise and set only on the US and Donald Trump. Far right groups and political parties are having a field day across Europe, winning seats at local, national, and EU-wide scales in growing numbers, organizing brazen rallies at which fascists openly recruit and mobilize, and attacking immigrants and refugees in an escalating cycle of violent rhetoric and action. When up to 8000 right wing activists, extremists, and thugs took to the streets of the eastern German city of Chemnitz at the end of August, hunting immigrants, flashing Hitler salutes, and vastly outnumbering police in response to the murder of a German man, allegedly by two refugees from Syria and Iraq, it was a wakeup call (another one, as if so many had not yet been heard) that the far right is active, engaged, and numerous. More potently, the debate around these riots has, on one level, morphed into one that questions the legitimacy of parliamentary and representative democracy itself. The New York Times interviewed the 32-year-old leader of the far-right nationalist and anti-immigrant group Pro-Chemnitz, who compared the scene in Chemnitz to the collapse of East German state socialism in 1989: “‘People were sick of the system then and now they are sick of the system again,’ … adding that he had never voted and did not believe in parliamentary democracy.” Counter-demonstrations in the following days have included anti-racist vigils organized around religious institutions, also harkening back to the 1989 collapse of the SED in East Germany, and a free concert attended by tens of thousands. Those interviewed for the German daily news program Tagesschau also pointed to the increasingly stark terms of the political moment in Germany, posing hate and racism against democracy itself. While this ignores the long and comfortable relationship between liberal democracy and illiberal forms of oppression, things do seem to be closing in on some kind of tipping point: the EU threatens to splinter and fall apart, South America’s Bolivarian revolutions hit a wall and face backlashes or collapse, Australia speeds rightward with some of the most virulently anti-immigrant sentiment and policy of any developed state, Israel doubles down on settlements in the occupied territories while arming neo-Nazi militias in Ukraine, Hindu fascism remains alive and well in the world’s largest democracy, and even Canada flirts with Trump-style economic populism in Ontario while failed Conservative Party leadership hopeful Maxime Bernier looks to whip up an emboldened bevy of Quebecois racists.
For those on the left, there is little to latch onto at the moment, as even many of these conservative, right-wing, and fascist movements are themselves often wary of capitalism’s excesses. Those that are now building atop and around the slowly crumbling foundation of global neoliberalism have to contend with the baggage of this version of conservatism, with its disdain for taxes and government and almost religious belief in the liberty of markets. Once upon a time, neoliberalism too was a revolutionary movement, gaining power through physical violence and the coercion of massive debt in some places (many parts of the developing world), and electoral success in others (the US, Britain, Western Europe). As both an ideology and a political agenda, it possessed a respected intellectual foundation, a line of thinkers and theorists that gave it heft and resonance in a previous period of crisis. This is not to say that this tradition is or ever was correct or coherent, or that it could avoid contending with, absorbing, and bending to other ideological traditions and political systems. It did and does. Margaret Thatcher’s famous quote that “there is no such thing as society” is, for example, incompletely presented in most cases. In a more complete rendering of the statement, from an interview she did with Woman’s Own magazine in September 1987, Thatcher said (emphasis mine):
I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.
The nationalist bravado of the Falklands war in 1982, when Thatcher’s credibility and government were near collapse, seems hard to square with the idea that there are individuals and families, they look out for number one first and foremost, and well, the end. Governments work to meet the needs of individuals and families, or the purposefully ambiguous “people” that Thatcher references (or at least, the needs of the most important, since money talks), or they don’t work at all, in this view. Yet people want more than the efficiency of markets and cheap credit. Right wing movements and parties offer a sense of belonging, purpose, community, but base this on exclusionary principles and a siege mentality, of external and domestic threats that require lashing outward, constantly reaffirming cultural homogeneity, and, at their core, the authoritarianism of the workplace, the prison, and the border. The slowly decaying neoliberal order achieved this in particular ways. Those ways are quickly lapsing, no longer effective. Trump has shown they can be challenged within the US and with electoral success, while the current iteration of the GOP-led Congress demonstrates further that the majority party is bereft of any kind of coherent, long-term, forward-facing legislative agenda, wallowing in its 30-year ideological victory like a pig in shit. The neoliberal mindset Thatcher detailed so bluntly remains alive but jammed through the prism of chauvinist nationalism, partly digested, partly spit back out by a new right that has a related but different intellectual tradition, one that embraces inequalities based not on market action and resource allocation but on supposedly essential racial and ethnic differences, and that pays lip service to democracy but makes clear that this – democratic participation in civil life – is for some and most definitely not for others. The border, the prison, and the workplace are all sites where these movements and their agents articulate these forms of inequality, building them into and from capitalist dynamics. Money still talks, after all.
No wonder then that the Trump moment is such a mess, the taken-for-granted normalcy of neoliberal governance upended and scrambled, low taxes, financial deregulation, and free trade unable to answer calls from the right for the expulsion of immigrants and reaffirmation of racial, sexual, and social hierarchies, or from the left for climate and social justice and more truly democratic control over economic and political systems. For the former, I have no use. These are exclusionary, maintained by multiple forms of coercion, and destructive of the rights and lives of individuals and communities, which should be allowed to flourish through democratic participation in decision-making and a more equitable distribution of resources, responsibilities, and benefits. Yet there is currently no counter-movement from the left of significant coherence, cohesion, and vision; the right pushes and the center moves. Maybe the new upsurge in democratic socialists within the Democratic Party will plant the seed of something more, but that’s the long haul. Trump and the revanchism that follows neoliberalism’s high tide is right now, and not just in the US. The Trump moment has counterparts and compatriots in Canada, across Europe, in Britain, Australia, Latin America, and so on.
What can be done if one opposes this? You could always join the #Resistance, and pine for a return to the halcyon days of bipartisan dealmaking amid congressional gridlock, of Bush-style euphemisms (‘compassionate conservatism’), of liberal handwringing over whether Joe and Stacy from Dayton are going to think the Dems are reasonable if they add only $50 billion to the military budget instead of $75 billion. You could sit back and wait for the legal and political troubles Trump has made for himself to close in, but I think you might be waiting a long time, and with an uncertain outcome. Dreams of impeachment depend not just an electoral shift in November but on the political will to impeach the President, and political will is in short supply generally. And what if this did come to pass? Does the Trump moment need Trump? The social forces that propelled him to office have already been unleashed, and won’t go away simply because he’s not there. It’s hard for me to imagine ways forward that involve anything other than multiple years of painstaking, ground-level work aimed at rebuilding the union movement for the modern age. For over a century, labor unions were the vehicle for broadening prosperity, improving work conditions, providing political education and organization, and invigorating social life for the masses. While successes were mixed and sometimes came via political and social compromises that purchased labor peace in the workplace at the cost of reproducing racist, sexist, and anti-immigrant sentiments, on balance labor unions advanced democracy and bolstered the lives of members, while passing on benefits to society as a whole. No wonder then that one major continuity between the neoliberal order of the last few decades and the Trump moment is the dictatorship of the boss in the capitalist workplace. Unions have a hard road back to relevance though, having thrown their lot in with the Democrats for a very long time, unsuccessfully fought off the perception that they are a ‘special interest,’ and fought (and often lost) constant rearguard action, narrowing the range of their focus to wages and little more, in the process regularly agreeing to two-tier systems of pay, pensions, and benefits and a range of other concessions while bleeding members. A new and more vibrant left labor movement for the 21st century must, like the right wing movements that have the momentum today, find ways to build up and out of the playbook they’ve used for the last 30 to 40 years of neoliberal rollback and trade liberalization.
Look, for example, at how teachers’ unions have become, relatively speaking, radical organizations, even in deeply conservative parts of the US, such as Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, and West Virginia. One thing that ties the politicization of educational work and workers, and the strikes and victories that follow, is that they focus on specific policy issues (public pensions, workplace rights, educational spending per student, and salary and benefits for teachers) at the state level. Similarly, Missouri voters overwhelmingly rejected a right-to-work law this summer. It is often said in the US that the states are the ‘laboratories of democracy,’ where policy and social experimentation can occur and elected leaders and bureaucrats must be more responsible to the public, who are never that far away. The states also have constitutionally-defined powers in the US federal system (i.e., rights and duties not expressly enumerated for the federal government are reserved for the states), and each has a constitution and legislative, judicial, and executive branches itself. That presents a lot of room for political variability and organization, and for tangible, direct, and successful interaction with policymakers. The urban, municipal level offers similar opportunities, but cities are, generally speaking, creatures of state government. The same is true for Canada as well, though one of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s first acts in office was to slash the size of Toronto’s city council, ostensibly to make urban government more efficient, but also to play out his revenge fantasy against the city councillors that mocked him and his late brother during their (brief) time in municipal office. In the US, many state legislatures have pursued aggressive strategies to gerrymander state and federal electoral districts (and not just to favor the GOP, though that is more common than Democrats doing it, at least in recent history), but demographic and economic shifts mean the electoral landscape could remain dynamic. And candidates, even those on the margins with less money to spend and less of a party machine on which to draw, can more easily win at the local and state levels, affecting policymaking at these levels much more readily. There is a reason the religious right targeted school boards and other local level elections when they entered the political arena more fully in the late 1970s and 1980s. And this success could be repeated today, on the left, where viable national and international strategies to resist (to really, truly resist) and rollback the authoritarianism of the border, the prison, and the workplace must begin somewhere more mundane, more practical, and less distant, where networks and institutions and political knowledge and experience can be built and shared, and solidarity forged. Beyond the electoral arena, the massive prison strike across the US and into Canada, running from August 21 to September 9 (the anniversary of the 1971 Attica riots) provides an impressive and sophisticated model of organizing and resistance in the face of authoritarian conditions, and the strikers have made strong connections between today’s penal system and the slave systems of the not-too-distant past. The prisoners’ demands are clear and direct, and directed at both federal and state prison systems; their strategies and tactics build on nuanced understandings of the authoritarian system under which they live. There is no branded #Resistance here, but the real thing. And such movements are existential threats to the Trump moment, as they require a kind of solidarity and organization and rhetoric that puts the lie to the toxic combination of nostalgia and brutality on which Trump, his enablers, and his followers rely.