On the Left and 2016 (Part 2)

…when Trump lies, still, his lies tell the truth. When Trump’s opponents tell the truth they still lie.” – Chris Cutrone

For the elite, if blocking Trump’s domestic economic agenda requires a financial crash to defend ‘globalization’, serial wars and the 0.1%, then tighten your belts!” – James Petras

(Click here for Part 1)

At first glance, the left seems united in its demonization of Donald Trump. Calls for critical support for Hillary Clinton have come not only from the usual center-leftists but also from the likes of Noam Chomsky and Angela Davis. While any number of commentators have at least acknowledged the populist core of Trump’s message and called on their movement to attempt to win back the white plebes(1), discussion of the 2016 elections has been marked by what John Walsh in a recent Counterpunch article called a “uniformity of thought amongst progressives, a rigid groupthink…” regarding Trump as the ultimate evil.

However, a courageous few on the left have questioned this approach and, as Walsh pointed out in a June article, Trump as the ‘Relative Peace Candidate’ some have even argued, or at least come close to arguing, that it is actually Trump who is the lesser evil, rather than Hillary.

For most of the not-so-anti-Trump leftists, including Walsh, the major issue is Clinton’s extreme interventionist foreign policy. Particularly emphatic on this question has been the well-known anti-imperialist scholar James Petras who in camparing the candidates’ flaws contrasts Trump’s probable inability to realize his populist platform in the face of elite opposition with the “strong chance that the election of ultra-militarist Hillary Clinton will drive the world into catastrophic global nuclear war.”

In Petras’s view, outlined in Clinton and Trump: Nuclearized or Lobotomized? Trump’s major liability seems to be the naivete of his “belief that he has the ability to transform the US from an empire to a republic.”

According to Petras, Trump’s populist, protectionist and non-interventionist policies are either doomed to failure or, if enacted, will lead to economic crisis:

As President of the United States, his protectionist policies will come into direct confrontation with US and global ‘finance and monopoly capitalism’ and will likely lead to systematic disinvestment and a disastrous economic collapse or, more likely, the Businessman-President’s capitulation to the status quo….

Without political independence to implement his domestic economic agenda, Trump will have to face a massive investment and lending revolt from capitalists and bankers who would be very willing to drive the fragile economy into a major recession – threatening a kind of ‘domestic economic sabotage’.

Thus, Petras labels a possible Trump Presidency “the Peaceful Road to Recession”.(2)  In contrast, however, Petras’s dissection of Clinton and her “hyper-militarism” is merciless:

Repeatedly threatening global war and actually making aggressive regional war should clearly have marked Mme. Hillary Clinton as unfit for the Presidency of the United States. She is politically, intellectually and emotionally unable to deal realistically with an independent Russia and any other independent power, including China and Iran. Her monomania is a course of violent ‘regime changes’, unable to evaluate any of the catastrophes her policy making has in fact already produced….

No US presidential contender, past or present, has engaged in more offensive wars, in a shorter time, uttering greater nuclear threats than Mme. Hillary Clinton. That she has not yet set off the nuclear holocaust is probably a result of the Administrative constraints imposed on the Mme. Secretary of State by the less blood-thirsty President Obama. These limitations will end if and when Mme. Hillary Clinton is ‘elected’ President of the United States in a process that the electorate increasingly knows is ‘rigged’ toward that outcome.

And so, without explicitly endorsing one or the other, Petras weighs the possibilities, implying, however, what seems to me at least to be a clear choice:

This November, the country will face the disagreeable choice between a proven nuclear warmonger and a captive of Wall Street. I will try to keep warm, roast chestnuts and avoid thinking about Mme. President’s Looming Mushroom Cloud.

Beyond Foreign Policy

It is not uncommon, of course, particularly on the far left, to see the dismissal of both Clinton and Trump as candidates of the ruling class. Indeed, this is typical of various Trotskyists, anarchists, etc who routinely reject both “bourgeois parties”, sometimes in favor of a 3rd party option and sometimes in favor of abstention. (Granted, the ranks of this group have been swelled in this election cycle by the combination of Hillary’s noxious politics and her bruising treatment of the Sanders movement.)

What is also different in the case of the current contest is that some few on the left have moved beyond this historic knee-jerk rejection of both major parties, recognizing that Clinton is by far the preferred candidate of the ruling class. As Jeffrey St. Clair points out at Counterpunch

“While she’s lost the white blue collar workers, she’s decisively won over the billionaire class. Campaign contributions from white billionaires have favored Hillary by a 20-to-1 margin over Trump.”

Elsewhere, Arun Gupta, writing in the historic organ of American third campism, New Politics acknowledges:

The elites are aware that the Democrats are more capable managers of capitalist globalization, diplomacy, and war than the Republicans. It’s why Clinton is attracting a bipartisan cast of Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, the mainstream media, and the military and foreign policy establishment.

Still, to Gupta and many others Trump remains the quasi-fascist devil incarnate and, even as he (Gupta) tells the left to do nothing for Hillary, he implicitly apologizes, assuring us that it doesn’t matter anyway:

“If Clinton can’t beat Trump with the combined might of capital and labor, then a tiny, disorganized, threadbare left is not going to make any difference.”

More interestingly, some others have recognized in the elections a fundamental conflict between a neoliberal order in crisis and an authentic revolt against it.  Chris Cutrone of the Trotskyish Platypus Affiliated Society(3) has examined the Trump phenomenon several times in this light.  In a “P.P.S. on Trump and the crisis of the Republican Party” attached to his article The Sandernistas, Cutrone first dismisses the typical left hysteria over Trump’s candidacy:

Trump is no “fascist,” nor even really a “populist,” but is precisely what the Republicans accuse him of being: a New York-style Democrat — like the socially and economically liberal but blowhard “law-and-order” conservative former 1980s New York City Mayor Ed Koch.

In comparing Bernie and Donald, he emphasizes that “Trump has succeeded precisely where Sanders has failed in marshaling the discontents with neoliberalism and demand for change” and chides Sanders failure to challenge “the ruling Democratic neoliberal combination of capitalist austerity with New Left identity politics of ‘race, gender and sexuality’ that is the corporate status quo.”

Cutrone concludes:

Of course the change Trump represents is insufficient and perhaps unworkable, but it is nonetheless necessary. Things must change; they will change. As Marx said, “All that is solid melts into air.” The future of any potential struggle for socialism in the U.S. will be on a basis among not only those who have voted for Sanders but also those who have and will vote for Trump.

In a subsequent piece, Cutrone challenged his readers with the question:  Why Not Trump?

Finding Trump acceptable is not outrageous. But the outrageous anti-Trump-ism — the relentless spinning and lying of the status quo defending itself — is actually not acceptable. Not if any political change whatsoever is desired.

In all the nervous hyperventilation of the complacent status quo under threat, there is the obvious question that is avoided but must be asked by anyone not too frightened to think — by anyone trying to think seriously about politics, especially possibilities for change:

Why not Trump?

For which the only answer is: To preserve the status quo.

In fact, however, it turns out that Cutrone’s later piece is really just a provocation.  While his coyness in asking but never answering his question has been interpreted by some as a Trump endorsement of sorts, his one-man “teach-in” on the subject makes clear that it is really just a critique of the anti- camp.  In fact, as expressed at the teach-in, Cutrone’s opposition to Trump seems disappointingly conventional.

By far the most original contribution on the topic, however, has come from Russian Marxist Boris Kagarlitsky. In two articles – Paralysis of the Will and Who is Afraid of Donald Trump? – Kagarlitsky makes an attempt rarely seen on the left these days –  a traditional Marxist analysis.   He depicts the reigning neoliberal social order which arose the the late 20th century as dominated by

…the “financialization” of the economy, in other words a massive redistribution of resources in favour of the banking sector. On the one hand, capital won over labor, robbing it of a significant part of the 20th century’s social gains. But on the other hand, the capitalist class has undergone its own redistribution of wealth, with the financial elite appropriating nearly all its fruits.

This social order, however, has entered a profound crisis:

The neoliberal system, which the likes of Hillary Clinton and Francois Hollande are trying to preserve, is already so dysfunctional, so implicated in the processes of natural decay, that every day of its survival undermines the basic mechanisms of reproduction of society.

Kagarlitsky argues that the two candidates represent different ruling class sectors, with Hillary the voice of the now-dominant sector – finance capital – and Trump representing the industrial and construction sectors.

While Kagarlitsky laments the capitulation of the Sanders movement and with it the failure to create what he sees as “horizontal (class) solidarity“, contrasting this to the Trump movement’s cross-class “corporate (vertical) solidarity [emphasis in original]” he acknowledges the fact that it reflects the interests of working people as well:

This situation is natural for the working class, which not only has common social interests, but is embedded in the system of vocational and industrial relations, which in certain situations, leads it to support certain groups of the bourgeoisie, which are related to the working class via production and markets. [Who is Afraid of Donald Trump?]

In Paralysis of the Will he further develops the argument that Trump’s economic politics are more consistent with the interests of working people, not only in the US, but internationally as well:

The connection of the historical perspective to class interests is determined by the answers to simple pressing questions: will jobs, which make possible not just survival, but also the cultural, professional and moral development of workers, be created? Will the unions and other organizations of workers be strengthened?… in the conditions of capitalism only protectionism leads to strengthening of workers’ positions in the labour market, to strengthening of labour unions and the political organizations based on them…

Without a transitioning of the old industrial countries to protectionism, a consolidation of the labour movement in the countries of the global South, which also need to protect their own markets and their own industry, is similarly impossible. Democratic control and the welfare state are similarly impossible without protectionism. Bernie’s campaign raised these issues but when the question arose of what is worse – Trump’s protectionist program with its anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican flavor or Hillary’s anti-social agenda packed into an impeccable politically correct lexicon, the choice was made [by Sanders & co.] in favour of the latter.

Kagarlitsky predicts, however, that workers may see things otherwise:

By voting for Trump they will be responding not to his scandalous rhetoric, even if they like it, but rather making an intelligent decision based on their interests as labourers in the conditions of capitalism.

Thus, in Who is Afraid of Donald Trump? Kagarlitsky argues,

The defeat of financial capital, no matter who brings it about, would open a new era in the development of Western society, inevitably strengthening the working class, and reviving its organizations. It is Clinton who embodies the most reactionary project in terms of modern capitalist development.

Kagarlitsky remains a man of the left and so does not, of course, actually support Trump:

The main problem with Trump is not that he is a misogynist, but that he is a capitalist. To be sure, his victory may be a necessary step in order to overcome neoliberalism and dismantle the corrupt political system, but it will not lead to a positive social program. This can only happen with a consciously built progressive organization in the true historic meaning of this word. [Paralysis of the Will]

In spite of this, however, Kagarlitsky concludes Who is Afraid of Donald Trump? with a denunciation of the left’s surrender and a recognition that the real future of the anti-system movement may well lie on the right:

The change is under way, not only because of the political and social logic, but also due to the fact that all possibilities of maintaining the current neoliberal model of capitalism have been exhausted. If the left is unwilling or unable to fight, it will be the right-wing populists like Trump in the US or Marine Le Pen in France who strike the fatal blow against it. Some people will be outraged at the “prejudice” and “irresponsibility” of the working class, but the real moral responsibility would still lie with the leftist intellectuals, who, in times of crisis, will have demonstrated their class position by advocating and defending the interests of financial capital.

Unfortunately for Kagarlitsky (and for any authentic left which may remain) his seems to be a very lonely voice.(4)

Notes:

(1) A good example of this is an article at Dissent Magazine by Jedediah Purdy Trumpism: The Fight Ahead. For a liberal take on the same topic, see E. J. Dionne’s rather patronizing We Have to Stop Demeaning or Ignoring Trump Voters—Elitism Won’t Defeat Trumpism.
(2) It seems that Petras’s analysis of the probable outcome of a Trump victory would apply equally well to that of a Sanders or any other reformer of the left.
(3) “The principal influences for Platypus are the Marxist political tradition exemplified by Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, and the critical theoretical tradition of the Frankfurt School…” – Chris Cutrone – Platypus is one of the most interesting formations in the Marxist movement and it’s website is an excellent source of articles, audio and video on the history and practice of the left.  For a critical but not entirely unfriendly appreciation of the organization from the CPGB, see Dissecting the Platypus. For the Marxistpedia overview, see here.
(4) Platypus also published both of Kagarlitsky’s articles in the Platypus Review, #s 88 and 89.

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