The Presidential election victory of Donald Trump – against all the wishes of the social democratic establishment – confirms that the intellectual hold of this section of the liberal establishment is weakening. Practically all the major socially liberal political figures in the USA and Europe, ably aided by the global mass media, openly (and often hypocritically) vilified and distorted practically everything Donald Trump said and did. Yet this middle-class liberal politically-correct onslaught, whether valid or not, was no longer effective. This fact proves, that as was the case with the Brexit vote in the UK, and the rise of right- wing nationalist movements in Europe, that the times really are changing. Not in exactly the same way as envisioned by Bob Dylan in a song with the same title as this article, but changing they are.
The fact that two or three crudely charismatic individuals such as Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump could shoulder aside the desires of dominant sections of the global, economic, financial and political elite has come as a distressing shock to some liberal sensibilities. Yet despite appearances, these defeats have not been inflicted upon the liberal, social democratic establishment by these political opponents – who they variously described as, racists and sexist buffoons. These establishment defeats are the result of large numbers of disaffected, disgusted and determined blue and white-collar working class voters, refusing to be hoodwinked yet again by left liberal and social-democratic rhetoric. With no sufficiently radical working class alternative, large numbers of working people in the US and Europe have chosen to vote for those who appear to be the most anti-establishment, whether politically correct or not. They clearly want a radical change in their economic and social circumstances .
As was the case in the Brexit vote, large numbers of blue and white-collar workers, also seeing no acceptable radical alternative, have for the moment continued to vote for neo-liberal establishment figures. Many of them in the US, particularly the young voters, would have undoubtedly preferred Bernie Sanders, but this option was sabataged by the pro-Clinton political establishment. Of course some of these voters and advocates of the social-democratic establishment represented by Clinton, and others, are definately benefiting from the current neo-liberal phase of the capitalist mode of production. They have a vested interest in conserving the status quo. However, not all those who voted for Hilary Clinton were of the same mind.
It would be wrong to assume that everyone in this Clinton voting (or Brexit remaining) section of the white-collar and blue-collar working class are happy with the current economic and social conditions facing them and their communities or with the current social-democratic political class. These particular sections just do not want a right-wing racist/sexist leaning radical alternative to the current social-democratic neo-liberal mess the world is in. It is highly unlikely that many voting for Clinton, wanted a continuation of the same corrupt and indifferent practices. In this sense both sides are right. The Trump camp is not going to usher in a new positive way forward for humanity; but neither is the Clinton dynasty. Both are simply different faces of the same neo-liberal capitalist reality in the 21st century. It is to suffer from illusions to think otherwise. Corruption and hypocricy would continue (and disappointment would follow) no matter who had won this latest electoral theatre of the absurd.
This current political bifurcation of working class opinion is a product of two important factors. First, the extreme nature of the economic crisis; and second, the pathetic nature of the liberal middle-classes. Elsewhere on this blog I have dealt with the economic crisis and other related aspects in a number of articles (ie. ‘Capital and Crisis’, ‘The Five-fold Crisis of Capitalism’, ‘What triggered the crisis’, ‘Productive and Unproductive Labour’, ‘Workers and others in the 21st century’.). Stated generally, the capitalist mode of production is now in a compound form of crisis, comprising of economic, financial, ecological, social and moral dimensions. So in this article I will consider the economic and social nature of the modern social-democratic middle-classes and suggest the underlying factors which have contributed to the ongoing atrophy of their political dominance.
The enlargement of the petite-bourgeoisie.
The economic base of the modern, middle-classes has changed from being dominated by the small business person in alliance with the legal and religious establishment and supplemented by a hereditory civil service profession. Its economic base, particularly among the political sectors, is now predominantly drawn from within the financial, legal middle class and University educated working class sectors of societies. Nevertheless, despite its heterogeneous nature this group occupies an economic and social position which lies between, the working classes and the capitalist class. The economic base of this new middle class, therefore, still remains within the unproductive levels of the capitalist mode of production even though these unproductive categories have changed.
Production has always comprised of two aspects. Production for immediate consumption (necessary production) and production for other forms of consumption (surplus production). Under the capitalist mode of production, necessary production and surplus production are produced by the working classes. Once monetised as surplus-value, surplus production becomes the revenue fund from which all other classes draw their salaries, rents, interest and profits. With the introduction of machinery and industrial and now automated production methods, the surplus value created by the working classes, has enabled the feeding, clothing and housing of increasing numbers of those who do not provide these essentials of life for themselves. This is not a recent development, but it does have novel characteristics. For example, Marx whilst reading Malthus and others in the 19th century noted that;
“…the constantly growing number of the middle classes, those who stand between the workman on the one hand and the capitalist and the landlord on the other. The middle-classes maintain themselves to an ever increasing extent directly out of revenue, they are a burden weighing heavily on the working base and increase the social security and power of the upper ten thousand.” (Marx. ‘Theories of Surplus Value’. Volume 2. page 573.)
This same advance in productive variety and efficiency also allows the reduced numbers of workers to supply a greater number and range of non essential commodities and services (art and entertainments) to those already in a privileged position. In this way the economic, social and political gulf between the productive working class and the other classes continually grows. On a local, national and global scale, the privileged become more privileged and the lives of the underprivileged become less so. These two negative characteristics of the middle-classes; the economic burden upon the working classes and their social support for the capitalist system still exist today. Their burden on the working classes, is the necessity under the capitalist system, for workers to continue to work long hours at a high intensity for most of their lives on necessary and surplus production. They are required to do so in order to support not only the capitalist class but the growing numbers of people engaged in other forms of social, financial and political activity. Under this system, improvements in economic productivity do not lead to working people working less hours per day and fewer years of their lives, but merely goes to fund more and more of those who live off this increased production but also take this privileged position for granted.
The enfeebling of the petite-bourgeoisie.
The political sections of the new middle-classes are particular, (but not exclusive) examples of those who take their exalted positions for granted. Given the complexity of the capitalist socio-economic system, it appears to the political class (and others) that they play a necessary and positive role within it. In fact, as with many others within the non-surplus producing middle-classes, politicians are parasitic upon their surplus-value producing working communities. They could not live their lives if the working classes were not producing and transporting the extra food, water, fuel, energy, housing, clothing, education and the cleansing needs of our advanced form of society. By taking the capitalist mode of production and their position within it for granted and necessary, they act as a ideological and practical support network for the capitalist mode of production. This is one aspect of their lives which enfeebles their role in any progressive development for humanity.
They seem to think that the state system which pays them ample salaries and pensions produces this value out of thin air rather than out of the combined productive efforts of the global working classes. Even the most well educated of them have failed to understand the fundamental contradictions of the capitalist mode of production. This is another aspect (intellectual constipation) which enfeebles any historical role they might have otherwise played. The most humane of these middle-class politicians – along with those elevated from within the working class – patronisingly think it only necessary to slightly ease the burden of exploitation placed upon the working classes, not remove it. Since before the Second World War, they have all made promise after promise to improve the condition of workers and the poor. Prior to numerous elections they have consistently peddled (door to door) their social-democratic rhetoric of concern for the poor only to feather their own nests when in office and watch working class conditions deteriorate.
It is this latter section of the left-leaning, social democratic petite-bourgeoisie, who say they wish to help the working classes but have failed to do so, which millions of voters are now rejecting in Europe and the USA as the examples of Brexit and Trump’s election reveal. Revealing also is the fact that this same socio-economic mileu has failed to produce any radical critics of the capitalist mode of production, let alone any who seriously challenge the capitalist system. The labour aristocracy embedded within the trade union and labour movements are little better. They have accomodated themselves intellectually and practically to the capitalist mode of production which as long as it continues, ensures their full time occupations and post employment pensions. These two elements of the petite-bourgeoisie (left social democrats and full time trade union officials) have the time and training necessary to understand and publicise the fundamental exploitation at the heart of the capitalist mode of production, but they do not have the inclination or the desire.
Political vacuums will be filled.
The representatives of the neo-liberal phase of capitalism, which demands the subordination of nations, peoples, ecology and climate to the needs of big business capital in finance, commerce and production, are also supporting the impoverishment of billions of working people. It is inevitable that sooner or later there would be a ‘despicables‘ push-back by those effected by unemployment, precarious employment, austerity, high prices, high taxes and usurous lending terms. Only those who have failed to understand the frustrations and the lack of positive alternatives facing working people can be surprised or shocked that this push-back has taken the present forms – Brexit, the growth of Nationalist parties, and the election of Donald Trump. As is frequently the case, the neo-liberal spectrum of elites (the perpetrators) and their supporters invariably blame their victims rather than themselves and the system they admininster. In the circumstances of economic crisis and decline of welfare capitalism, this feebleness of the ‘left’ and centrist social-democratic elite leaves a vacuum into which may step any number of radical-sounding charismatic chancers.
In addition, only those who have failed to learn the lessons from the 1920 – 1930 severe crisis of the capitalist mode of production, can be surprised that such working class push-back can take counterproductive forms. (See ‘Nazis; a double lesson from history’, on this blog.) Rejection of the social-democratic political elite is a necessary stage in any process of liberating humanity from the cancerous grip of capitalism, but there is yet more to do. If a revolutionary-humanist anti-capitalist movement which identifies the real problem for the bulk of humanity and the ecological aspects of life, does not emerge, then it is only to be expected that alternatives sources of blame will be targeted. Those who avoid helping to build such a movement and see the main problem as those who do not vote in the way they think best, will only have themselves to blame when post election disappointment and divisive scapegoating becomes unstoppable and societies continue to plunge further and further into the present dystopian abyss.
Roy Ratcliffe (November 2016)