The hucksters of discontent

Naomi Klein has a piece in the Guardian which is fairly indicative of an argument being made by various socialists and social democrats in moments such as this. Her argument, put simply, is that while racism and misogyny were indeed factors in Trump’s election, it is really ‘neoliberalism’ – the ‘rise of the Davos class’ – which sealed America’s fate. This is white nationalist mythology.

This is how Klein begins the piece, distinguishing between factors and decisive factors:

“They will blame James Comey and the FBI. They will blame voter suppression and racism. They will blame Bernie or bust and misogyny. They will blame third parties and independent candidates. They will blame the corporate media for giving him the platform, social media for being a bullhorn, and WikiLeaks for airing the laundry.”

As Klein would have it, “the force most responsible for creating the nightmare” of a Trump Presidency was the Democratic convention’s decision to endorse Hillary Clinton, whom she depicts as the “embodiment” of the neoliberal “machine,” against “Trump-style extremism” for which Clinton was “no match.” And, she adds, “If we learn nothing else, can we please learn from that mistake?”

I don’t know if “Trump-style extremism” is a euphemism for ‘fascism.’ But let’s for a moment pretend that it is. So, Klein’s argument, in short, is that a machine woman who embodies neoliberalism is no match for fascism but Sanders would have been, had Sanders not (as she has to admit) failed “to connect with older black and Latino voters who are the demographic most abused by our current economic model.

And right there is where the wheels come off the claim ‘it’s neoliberalism’. As Klein sees it, Black and Latinx people are to blame for Trump’s presidency. Not because they voted against Trump. Which they definitively did, but for this they get no credit whatsoever from Klein. But because they voted for Clinton rather than Sanders.

Sure, let’s not blame racism and misogyny for Trump’s election. Certainly not those white people whom she cites, many of whom actually voted for and actively supported Trump, and for whom not even the presence of the KKK was sufficiently repellent. Let’s not blame Wikileaks and Assange hiding out from rape charges, who, years before Trump’s nomination, directed voting preferences to neo-Nazis in the Australian federal election and for some inexplicable reason only targeted Clinton from the moment when the Trump tapes were released. Let’s instead blame those who voted against Trump and who bear the biggest brunt of ‘our current economic model’ but also, for some reason that eludes Klein, did not “connect” with Sanders. This is Klein having a tantrum at Black and Brown people for not sharing her white, familial affections. That’s all that’s going on here. Poor Grandpa Bernie. It’s certainly not an analysis of capitalism or finance or much of anything else, let alone the US elections.

Here’s an idea: if a group of people bear the worst brunt of something, perhaps they know something about it that you, Klein, do not. That Klein never pauses for long enough to ask why Black and Brown people did not “connect” with Sanders is not really surprising. But it is arrogance verging on outright racism. It would mean, among other things, having to admit that social democracy has always been a form of white protectionism, particularly in settler colonies such as the US, and that the use of terms like ‘neoliberalism’ is all about lamenting the loss of that protection for white people. It would mean having to admit, in other words, that Black and Latinx people are not mistaken so much as really quite reasonable in not ‘connecting’ to a Sanderesque white American nostalgia. Sanders’ view that ‘open borders’ and immigration are a Koch brothers conspiracy is hardly a secret, so it’s no secret why immigrants would disconnect from someone who believed that just as they did from Trump.

To be honest, I am unsure what part of this article is worse. The way Klein gives credence to the fantasy of white (male) pain. The way Klein tries to lend credence to this fantasy by both plundering and erasing the experiences of Black and Brown women, who did in fact bear the brunt of the financial crisis in foreclosures and debts but who, at the same time, took what advantage they could of whatever loans they could get so as to own a house or get a college education for the first time in any generation – only to be later themselves blamed by neoconservative economists for causing the financial crisis and, in that very way, converted into a ghostly synonym for ‘neoliberalism’ for white people everywhere ever since. The way Klein’s first and only instinct is to repeat the denigration of a woman as machine-like, rather than, I don’t know, how about not perpetuating gender norms, even in connection with women whose politics you might hate? The way Klein explains the history of capitalism and finance as a conspiratorial meeting of bankers in the Swiss mountains – the very same way that the alt-Right does, as it happens. The way Klein insists on separating out racism and misogyny and these from capitalism or finance. This is not the first time I’ve argued that ‘neoliberalism’ is a term used by clerical fascists, conservatives and social democrats alike to mean ‘capitalism is bad when or because it destroys the natural order and traditional families, which we should restore through state regulation.’ But it might be the first time I’ve seen it used so obviously as a way of avoiding talking about racism and misogyny.

Though I’m not surprised to see it accompanied by reference to the “Occupy alumni who took the Bernie campaign supernova.” Occupy is not the only or latest movement and struggle around, but unlike the more recent Black Lives Matter, NoDAPL and the prison strike, it is the last larger movement in the United States where white people were both out the front and centered, and which faltered precisely on that limitation.

It’s difficult to see how Klein’s article isn’t just a pitch to the lower ranks of the alt-Right and the alt-Left Bernie bros who also voted for Trump, one made at the cost of blaming Black and Latinx people for their ‘mistake’ of not supporting the restoration of white power through methods less ‘extreme’ than those Trump has promised to enact. So when she concludes it with a call to “set aside what is keeping us apart,” I expect Klein is talking about white nationalists joining hands across the Left-Right parliamentary divide in their shared enjoyment of some overheated fiction about ‘global finance’ and accompanied by the bonding ritual of throwing people of colour, immigrants and queers under the bus. If you can’t beat them, join them, and worry later about the degree of extremism.

The problem with these appeals to nationalism is that they vector a familial white affection without thought or challenge, uninterested in reflecting seriously about what did and did not happen and what needs to be changed. Let’s put it in some perspective. Clinton won the popular vote by around 200,000 638,750 1,752,893. The legacy of the electoral college, derived from the post-slavery weighting which eliminated the one person-one vote principle, converted Clinton’s win into Trump’s win. Arguments which take ‘democracy’ as some virtuous rule are always inclined to forget that for the racist all problems of democracy will be resolved by shifting the border – and that this has been an intense conflict ever since the franchise was extended beyond property-owning white men. The rates of imprisonment of Black and Brown people, accompanied by prisoner disenfranchisement and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act and voter suppression tactics in some states which wiped an estimated 300,000 voters out (in Wisconsin), all did in fact contribute to Trump’s election. All up, estimates of 7 million votes were wiped out. This is the racism encoded into the procedures of the election, and it will be that much more difficult to change once the Republicans and Trump and Pence stack the Supreme Court and its rulings for the next decade or so. These are not nothing. Ignoring these means being forced to appeal to people who are invested in whiteness and racism and misogyny unless those investments are challenged or the demographics make that unnecessary.

But right at this moment, it has to be abundantly clear that a majority of white people overwhelmingly voted for Trump, across all income brackets. This was not about working class anger, as if only white people are working class – and it is beyond offensive to suggest otherwise. Listening to those who would excuse people who voted for Trump, only white people are coded as working class or poor; Black and Brown people are instead never working class, barely poor. So we should be clear: the election of Trump was about white people voting to restore the power and value of whiteness. Calling it a ‘mistake’ when Black and Brown people – indeed almost every Black woman who voted – did not ensure that it was a contest between two white men is contemptible.

Those who stood firm and voted against Trump, who have taken to the streets, who have refused to admit the legitimacy of his election, who have committed to defending the most vulnerable against attacks, harassment and deportations, building and sustaining infrastructures of care and support, blocking the Republicans at every turn, and having difficult conversations about how to challenge white authority and revanchism, they have my respect. Klein does not.

8 thoughts on “The hucksters of discontent

  1. Pertinent enough points. By the same token, ‘neoliberalism’ as Klein uses it can also be interpreted to mean ‘capitalism per se up to and including the variety that also hurts traditional families and that liberals argue we should treat with state regulation.’ That’s how I read it. Remember the Guardian is the medium too; listen to her Edward Said Memorial Lecture via the LRB site and try to argue that she’s blind to the effects of racism. Newspapers do sanitise points of view they kind of like; I don’t judge Chomsky from the article reprinted in The Age that I have pinned to the fridge.

  2. I know that some people use ‘neoliberalism’ as a euphemism for ‘capitalism.’ Had it been used without an accompanying argument and implication that ‘we’ have to choose between fighting racism/misogyny or fighting neoliberalism/capitalism then it would not come down to meaning ‘those things which concern white men who don’t want to think about racism and sexism’ There’s a reason why Occupy was replaced by NoDAPL and BLM, and both of those I would argue still have everything to do with capitalism, but not if we still think about capitalism as separate from questions of racism and misogyny however. I would like to think that Klein is not blind to the effects of racism (I’ve not listened to the lecture), but I struggle to see that in this article. For instance, I think fascists have a ‘critique’ of capitalism, one that conflated ‘rootless, Jewish cosmopolitanism’ and finance, and raged against the ‘Jewish conspiracy’ which undermined the productive ethno-nation – and my own criticism of US Occupy had a lot to do with their unwillingness to confront the instances of this kind of nationalist discourse in their own ranks and in their own understanding of capitalism, Wall St, finance and debt. The whole Davos conspiracy theory is part of that. I like it as a potted history of a meeting and changes to policy at best, but a history of meetings between small if powerful groups of men is not a good theory about how capitalism works or how to organise against it.

  3. Made me think. Insofar as electoral politics in the US can’t escape from having to appeal to the white rural working class, I don’t think there’s anything wrong per se with pointing out that Sanders would have held more appeal. This is in part due to misogyny and in part, as you point out, because national social democracy and the alt-right share elements of their critique of trade liberalisation.

  4. There is everything wrong with this, including the assumption that the embrace of economic nationalism (and the racism that it implies, given that is the only thing that this has ever delivered – shout out to the ineffectual machismo and bluster of SYRIZA), will not at the same time repel people of colour. But I do love how the phrase ‘working class’ is magically inserted into these discussions for pathos value – white people overwhelmingly voted for Trump, same with white people in rural areas. There’s nothing to suggest that working class was remotely a variable.

    The only way out of this mess is for white people to challenge their attachment to racism. This is the only real option. eta: It is bewildering to me how many people don’t (want) to see the obvious connection between economic nationalism and racism – economic nationalism means using the violence of the state to protect the value and power of white property against foreign competition. It is not a critique of exploitation, which is why Sanders uses phrases like “working families” – because he’s talking about productive household units which function like a small business.

  5. Absolutely economic nationalism has a racist dimension, but does trade liberalisation confront or change this? The opposite, it’s used by captial to evade the costs imposed by the success of organised labour and in turn to wind back those successes.

    ‘Working class’ isn’t inserted for pathos, it’s inserted because of the now well worn truism that the decline in real wages and job security of the American rural working class has created the conditions in which organised racism thrives. If not this, then why the resurgence?

  6. You’re conflating a whole lot of things under the heading of ‘trade liberalisation,’ such as mechanisation, import-export systems, and global licensing and trademark rules. Machines rush to where there are strikes. But borders are constructed for the purposes of arbitrage. Might I recommend Harcourt’s The Illusion of Free Markets? Also pretty much anything I’ve written. Borders are not a means of protecting workers, they are the means by which markets function. Calling this all trade liberalisation persuades people that the solution lies in strong borders enacted by a strong state. That’s been the mainstream union argument for decades, so it should come as no surprise I think that, under pressure, those workers laid off or retired due to mechanisation and small businesses owners in Wisconsin came to the bogus conclusion that Trump’s wall was a great idea.

    eta: Btw, I’ve written quite a lot on precarious work which you might find interesting – but more importantly, it’s relevance in this discussion is that if this explanation of impoverishment and insecurity were true, then women and people of colour would be the ones rushing to embrace fascism.

  7. Had Clinton won, i suspect there would have been fewer attempts to explain it than there have been to explain Trump’s victory. That is immediately a weakness of the left-liberal commentariat – the victory of one’s own side is more ‘natural’ than that of the other side. But that said, why can’t people, instead of looking for the one definitive account, emphasise important factors as they see fit? There was surely a lot of racism involved in people simply not wanting to have a brace president ever again, but the charges of corruption and nepotism directed at Clinton were not totally wide of the mark either. There is also the rhythm of the campaign itself, the way certain considerations came together for people at one moment (the prognostications for bills for Obamacare played a role too). But it is also true that loads of people have no idea how they will vote until they enter the polling station.

  8. If your “it’s the robots wot dunnit’ argument regarding job losses in developed countries holds, shouldn’t every toy, pair of shoes, packet of biscuits etc.on sale be labelled “Made in Australia by Robots” not “Made in China?” The automation argument is a a recent pivot by free traders who used to tell us don’t worry, their system will provide loads of well paid jobs in advanced manufacturing, services, now they say “you can’t blame trade, you’d have lost your job anyway.”
    As we all now, protectionism, industry policy, Keynesianism, social democracy etc. have never worked, except in those times and places where they have.

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