The bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation… appeals to its “native folk” and begins to shout about the “fatherland,’; claiming that its own cause is the cause of the nation as a whole. It recruits itself an army from among its “countrymen” in the interests of … the “fatherland.” Nor do the “folk” always remain unresponsive to its appeals; they rally around its banner: the repression from above affects them too and provokes their discontent.
Thus the national movement begins. – Josef Stalin Marxism and the National Question
In a previous post, I pointed to Boris Kagalitsky’s attempt at a Marxist analysis of the Clinton-Trump contest and his presentation of this as a struggle between the dominant financial sector (Clinton) and the manufacturing and construction sectors (Trump) of the ruling class.
While Kagarlitsky’s effort is to be appreciated, especially when compared to the vacuous “nervous hyperventilation”(1) that characterizes the commentary of the vast bulk of the left, it misses a more accurate characterization of Trump. Rather than seeing him as a representative of this or that industry sector of the capitalist class, it is more correct to see him as an expression of the traditional American nation’s “National Bourgeoisie” – as a voice of the (relatively) small and medium capitalists still rooted in the national soil and increasing pressured by globalist/post-national capital, whether financial or manufacturing.
Capitalism and the Nation
In a 1913 essay, Critical Remarks on the National Question, Lenin described the relationship between capitalist development and the nation in the advanced world:
Developing capitalism knows two historical tendencies in the national question. The first is the awakening of national life and national movements, the struggle against all national oppression, and the creation of national states. The second is the development and growing frequency of international intercourse in every form, the breakdown of national barriers, the creation of the international unity of capital, of economic life in general, of politics, science, etc.
Both tendencies are a universal law of capitalism. The former predominates in the beginning of its development, the latter characterizes a mature capitalism that is moving towards its transformation into socialist society.
What he obviously got wrong, however, was that “moving toward its transformation into socialist society” part. Instead, as we hardly need to point out, no socialist transformation occurred, at least not in those countries with a “mature capitalism”.
Instead, for a time, capital shared (in a large part because it was compelled to do so) its bounty with workers and the middle strata, in particular in the period from the New Deal until the 1970s. Past decades, however, with the rise of the global neoliberal order, have seen a fundamental change. Capital, having burst its national boundaries, no longer privileges its original homelands and instead wages war on what was formerly “its own people” in an effort to maximize profits and remove all limits on its horizontal and vertical expansion.
As Slavoj Zizak pointed out in his New Left Review article Multiculturalism, or, The Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism(2)
What relationship exists between the world of capital and the national state in this era of global capitalism? Maybe this relationship could be defined better as “auto-colonisation”: in the direct activity of multinational capital we no longer have anything to do with the opposing standards between metropolises and colonised countries, the global company in some way severs the umbilical cord with its nation of origin and treats its own country as a mere sphere of action, which it needs to colonise…. [T]he fact is that the new multinationals behave with the French or American citizens in exactly the same way as they behave with Mexicans, Brazilians or the Taiwanese….
Zizek then updates Lenin’s schema:
At the beginning (ideally, of course), there is capitalism within the confines of a Nation-State, with the accompanying international trade (exchange between sovereign Nation-States); what follows is the relationship of colonization in which the colonizing country subordinates and exploits (economically, politically, culturally) the colonized country; the final moment of this process is the paradox of colonization in which there are only colonies, no colonizing countries—the colonizing power is no longer a Nation-State but directly the global company.
Obviously, such changes do not take place without resistance and the elites need to mobilize foot soldiers for its war on the popular classes while dividing the potential sources of opposition. In his article Who is Afraid of Donald Trump?, Kagarlitsky points out:
It is no coincidence that the crisis of the West’s labor movement and class politics is happening together with the celebration of multiculturalism and political correctness.
In Paralysis of the Will he further develops this line:
In fact, “white males” is a notion invented by liberals specifically to undermine class solidarity and discredit the labor movement… The goal of this politics is not to protect minorities, but to fragment society, while allowing the liberal elite to re-distribute resources among the minorities.(3)
And so the globalist ruling class has embraced the ideology of multiculturalism and diversity, in particular turning the black and latino elites into reliable clients via a spoils system involving affirmative action/racial preferences, the diversity industry, and various public and private pork barrel projects aimed at funneling money and jobs to this these sectors. For their part, these comprador elements keep the black and latino masses in line with appeals to ethnic solidarity and racial resentment, lip service to equality and a few crumbs from the table, while mobilizing them in the service of the trans-national neoliberal elites.
Key to this is the ideology of “anti-racism” and notions of “white privilege” which treat ordinary whites as the main enemy, rather than the elites responsible for the de-industrialization which has turned so much of urban American into a wasteland.(4)
Thus, while “racism” may have at one time served as a means of dividing the popular classes, now “anti-racism” serves the same function, preventing the formation of multi-racial/national alliances.
At the same time, what better way to attack the gains and living standards of middle America than with the notion that the hard-fought gains of this people are really just the illegitimate fruits of “unearned white privilege,” while any effort to resist the flooding of the labor market with masses of low-wage immigrants is denounced as racism and xenophobia?
Efforts to prevent the transformation of the United States from a nation-state into a multi-national, merely political entity via the same flood of third world immigrants have been similarly demonized and in fact any attempt to undo this process is doomed to failure at this point.
Instead, middle American whites are coming to understand that they are now just one of several peoples making up this country and that the neoliberal/neo-imperialist elites who run it are profoundly hostile to them. Under these circumstances it is naive to think that sooner or later a national movement in defense of this group’s interests would not arise.
In spite of the efforts of the virtually the entire political/cultural establishment to prevent such a development, the Trump campaign represents the first real step in that direction, qualitatively surpassing such implicitly white but politically empty movements as the Tea Party in its critique of the existing order.
This is the importance of the Trump movement, rather than the almost certainly vain hope that he will actually get elected. However unpleasant the prospect of a Clinton presidency, from a movement-building perspective it is probably better that Trump lose, since it is unlikely that he could actually accomplish much as president and would be forced to moderate his message while in office – and as the Goldwater campaign showed, seemingly catastrophic defeat in the short term does not prevent victory later.
The coming years promise to be a new “time for choosing.” The bulk of the left and most of the “right” seem to have chosen to defend the existing order in one way or another – a positive thing, really, since it serves to clarify where they actually stand. For the rest of us, the challenge is not the elections, but what comes after.
(1) Chris Cutrone’s description in Why Not Trump?
(2) The entire text of this article is available behind the NLR’s subscriber firewall. The link cited above is only an excerpt.
(3) In fact, Kagarlitsky is unfair in blaming “liberals” for this development. The left has been profoundly implicated in this process, developing a discourse since the 1960s which identifies ordinary (mainly working and middle class) whites as the enemy. Although I don’t agree with much of its analysis, Candace Cohn’s Privilege and the Working Class has a useful summary of the historic roots of this position.
(4) A small sector of the left has critiqued the anti-racist/anti-“whiteness” (and related) ideologies and movements which are hegemonic within the left and, in a lite version, across society as a whole, recognizing that, far from challenging the current system, they actually serve to advance its interests. Two of the most important proponents of this approach are Walter Benn Michaels (see, for example, Against Diversity) and Adolph Reed, Jr, who in his recent piece How Racial Disparity Does Not Help Make Sense of Patterns of Police Violence tells us “…despite its proponents’ assertions, antiracism is not a different sort of egalitarian alternative to a class politics but is a class politics itself: the politics of a strain of the professional-managerial class whose worldview and material interests are rooted within a political economy of race and ascriptive identity-group relations.”