The year 2016 not only saw the deaths of a considerable number of music, film and sport celebrity millionaires, but it could also be the year when decades of neo-liberal politics finally expired. Two outstanding examples of this probable demise in the west took place during 2016. They were Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Let’s start with the US election – more of Brexit later. If anyone needed to grasp what was really motivating Trump supporters and voters, in rejecting the US version of the neo-liberal political agenda, it was only necessary to listen to the boo’s and cheers at any one of Donald Trump’s celebratory speeches across the USA. Complicated questionaires and intensive debates about the results of opinion polls or speculations over alleged Russian election involvement couldn’t have revealed anything clearer than the numerous audience outbursts during Mr Trump’s various thank you speeches.
The audiences to at least three of these high profile events were clearly partisan supporters and as a consequence they remained respectfully quiet during most of the President elects delivery. However, when some areas of elevated interest or intense concern were mentioned then the audience responded with either loud boo’s and jeers or enthusiastic cheers and applause. To illustrate the concerns that have led to the collapse and possible extinction of the neo-liberal political concensus in the USA, during 2016 it is worth considering those which prompted both negative and positive responses to Donald Trump’s speeches. Doing this should also reveal whether these responses might be more representative than just these conference hall participants and whether they bear a similarity with what has been happening elsewhere in the world.
Boo’s and jeers.
During his address, the US President elect, pointing to the press at the back of the hall, implied that they were hostile, untruthful, one-sided and had deliberately mis-represented his views. This mention of the media brought forth boo’s and hisses. There was an obvious recognition by the audience that by implication, the press also misrepresented the Trump voters views of why they were voting for him. The ‘basket of despicables’ jibe by Hilary Clinton which had been broadcast widely by the media, was clearly still fresh in many minds. This connection was reinforced, when he actually named the rival Democratic candidate, for his reference to her was also met with more boo’s and jeers. Even when he declared that she had eventually congratulated him by phone, this did not produce silence or any signs of approval. A similarly response occurred when he referred to Obama and Obama Care until he declared the latter would be dismantled. When he mentioned drug culture and illegal immigration these issues were also met with vocal disapproval as was his reference to ISIS, Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism.
Despite media depictions of Trump being the mouthpiece for white male racists and sexists, the audiences in at least three of the venues I saw on television, were not exclusively white or male. There were representatives of the black, Asian and Hispanic communities visible within the limiting framework of the camera lens. Women were also sat there with placards supporting Trump as were young and old participants. This display of diversity within the camera’s field of view may or may not have been deliberately set up, but nonetheless they were there and presumably there voluntarily. It makes little sense therefore to pretend that before, during and after the election Donald Trump was speaking for and to an elderly white group of working class voters. Similarly it does not aid the understanding of what is taking place within the USA to right off all Trump voters as racist bigots who are simply not capable of thinking things through. I think it far more accurate to suggest that the evidence of these boo’s and jeers of 2016, by a mixed audience, represents the prelude to an almost universal dancing on grave of neo-liberal politics.
Cheers and applause.
The issues or concerns addressed by Mr Trump which produced cheers and applause are also instructive in understanding what is taking place within the USA. When he said he would penalised firms who took jobs from American workers this brought forth loud cheers and applause. When he said he would encourage the reopening and deregulation of coal and steel industries in order to create well paid jobs, in currently devastated communities, this too was met with loud cheers and sustained applause. His promises to destroy ISIS, defeat Islamic terrorism, end illegal immigration and prevent the importation of drugs were also met with cheers and applause. His reiteration of the intention to build a wall at the Mexican border and to improve the crumbling infrastructure of US cities were also met with more cheers and applause.
Similarly his promise to look after what he described as the neglected military veterans provoked enthusiastic responses, as did his promise to supply the armed forces with up to date equipment in order to defend American interests. Another area which engendered applause was his declaration that the police forces across the country would be strengthened so that people could go about their daily lives in safety. Mr Trump and his advisors obviously understood the anger, frustration, hopes and fears of ordinary working people and he was promising to strengthen the state and make radical changes to address them positively.
From this vocal and visual evidence it appears that what substantially motivated Mr Trumps audience (and probably many working class US voters) was the promise of more well-paid jobs, sufficient housing, quality education, dignity, security and apropriate health and social welfare. These are basic civil society requirements which to the disgust of many voters had all but disappeared during the period of neo-liberal political domination in the US and elsewhere. Clearly, not all working people had been convinced by Donald Trump’s rhetoric or approved of his off-the-cuff un-PC references during the electioneering process, hence the support by many voters for the neo-liberal Hilary Clinton as the hoped for lesser of two evils. But in 2016, there was undoubtedly a strong and persistent economic motive to the political push back against neo-liberalism from ordinary working voters – and not just in America. So it could easily be the case that these various conference responses – along with Brexit in the UK – do represent the death of the neo-liberal political agenda in these two countries and are part of a global trend.
For several decades in the USA, South America, the UK, much of Europe and the Middle East, there has been a simmering resentment and growing anger over neo-liberal ‘globalisation’. Its effects, if not it’s intentions, had been to reduce living standards, increase job insecurity, privatise everything possible and spread corporate and financial corruption. This international resentment and anger during the last few decades of the 20th century had burst out sporadically in largely unsuccessful strikes and demonstrations in country after country. Nevertheless until the 21st century it had recieved no consistent wider public support in most countries. However, in the Middle East this pent up resentment and anger with neo-liberal induced socio-economic conditions eventually exploded in the Arab Spring Uprisings. There too there had been Boo’s and hisses aimed at the various establishments and (in this region) often accompanied with throwing shoes.
Earlier, in South American countries, the pattern of economic and social discontent with its pots and pans along with banging on the doors of failed banks and anti-privatisation demonstrations had been similarly guided into well worn political channels before arriving at the impasse they have reached today. Yet again, and on another side of the world, this politicisation of the struggle for basic human rights did not resolve the situation to the satisfaction of the working classes in these southern hemisphere countries despite the immense wealth and resources available there. During their struggles, they found that politics of all shades – sucks.
Later still, in Europe the increasing anger and frustration there became extremely hightened within Greece. There too the public and reaction against neo-liberal policies caused the collapse of the vote for the neo-liberal political establishment. As already mentioned, for the two countries which spearheaded the ‘new’ economic agenda of free trade, privatisations and de-regulation of industrial and finance capital, (the USA and the UK), the wider political focus of discontent, albeit in different forms, arrived in 2016. The referendum on European membership was the catalyst in the UK and resulted in a ‘shock’ majority there for Brexit. It was a further ‘shock’ when against all expectations, the US Presidential elections, resulted in the election of Donald Trump.
In other words, the workers in the advanced capitalist countries of Europe and North America are starting to catch up with global opposition movements against neo-liberalism. For millions of ordinary people across the globe their accumulated resentments of the neo-liberal decades have surfaced in various social and political forms of expression – all with economic discontent as their foundation and so far with politics as their expression. In the Middle East the political expression of discontent was aimed at the removal of dictators and the establishment of more democratic forms of government. But in each of these middle eastern cases, the limited political means the masses set themselves only frustrated their socio-economic aspirations.
Before further mention of the probem with politics we should recall that the initial socio-economic aspirations of those in the Middle East, South America were modest by any standards. They were for decent jobs, sufficient housing, quality education, dignity, security and adequate social welfare. Unsurprisingly these aspirations are almost exactly the same as those looked for, fought for and defended by the ordinary working people of the USA, UK, and Europe. Undoubtedly, throughout the world realisation has progressively dawned upon growing numbers of blue and white-collar workers that neo-liberal politicians of all countries will not or cannot sustain such basic living standards to all its citizens. Hence the progressive difficulties for this version of bourgeois politics. Nevertheless, a word of warning. Although neo-liberalism may be awaiting an official death certificate from humanity, the study of history shows that the politics of exploitation can take many different forms.
Surely it has now become obvious that in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Yemen, among others, that after their uprisings, the political route chosen by the majority to achieve their modest economic goals only led to political deadends. These political avenues and their frustrations inevitably transformed themselves first into divisions along party and religious lines and then to the suppression of dissent, the outbreak of civil wars and sectarian strife. Once launched in that political direction the fractured momentum of protest started a process in the Middle East which has led to internicine brutality, rapid demoralisation, and subsequent defeats for the oppressed. Yet in spite of all these examples, it is also the case that in the advanced countries of North America and Europe the political path is still being chosen and consequently a similar disappointment lies in store.
This disappointment with political solutions to economic needs is certain because politics is nothing more than a shifting surface layer of society which from generation to generation has rested upon the combined economic activity of each countries citizens. Despite surface appearances, politics is dependant upon economics and it is a fundamental crisis in the active economic circuits of the capitalist mode of production which is primarily driving the problems now facing humanity. Neo-liberal politics, as with previous (and future) brands of politics, was just a different way of overseeing the exploitation of working people and exploitation in all its forms is a corrosive and corrupting process. So simply rejecting neo-liberal politics will not end exploitation and hardship, for capitalism is based upon extreme forms of exploitation. As such it is a disfunctional economic system which has routinely caused the deprivations, frustrations, and physical exhaustions that are once again disrupting all aspects of social and even biological life.
In fact it was previous systemic contradictions maturing within the capitalist mode of production that several decades ago gave rise to the neo-liberal agenda in the first place. The Reagan and Thatcher inspired and sponsored political agenda of economic and financial de-regulation was designed to shake capital out of the stagnation it’s contradictions had already produced in the 1970’s and 80’s. Despite this financial ‘shake-up’ these self-same economic contradictions have intensified further and are again causing agravated economic hardship along with instability and fracture in the political establishment. This negative view of politics is nothing new. For example, a studied comment by the revolutionary-humanist Karl Marx in the 19th century, long ago made this clear.
“The political mind is a political mind precisely because it thinks within the framework of politics. The keener and more lively it is, the more incapable it is of understanding social ills.” (Karl Marx. Critical marginal notes on the Article by a Prussian.)
Deficiencies of the political mindset.
Nowhere was the deficiency of the political mindset more clearly demonstrated than in the activities of the politically skilled Leninists, Stalinists and Trotskyists during the last systemic crisis of the capitalist system during the 20th century. They thought their brand of elite left-wing ‘vanguard’ politics could be a means to supersede the domination of capital and it’s related economic and social injustices. They couldn’t have been more mistaken, for in actual fact it is the motive for, and type of, economic production which needs changing not simply the type, number, gender or ethnicity of the parasites (dressed up as saviours ) who control or oversee it. Every such left (or right) political ‘vanguard’ attempt to introduce purely political changes to the capitalist mode of production resulted in new structures of oppression and exploitation before finally collapsing. This is because it is the entire mode of production which needs a revolutionary change not a change in the quantity or quality of the people who use politics as a means of carving out privileged positions for themselves.
Until this realisation sufficiently enters the consciousness of large numbers of similarly motivated people, then it is inevitable that in response to economic hardship and social insecurity political solutions will be tried again and again and with similar negative results. The continued pursuit of political or religious solutions to economic problems will either result in sterile religious or sectarian civil wars, as currently in the Middle East, or the emergence of radical nationalist parties and tendencies with dubious (left or right wing) promises of salvation from above, delivered by charismatic leaders. This latter is what has happened throughout South America during the last few decades (Chavez etc.) and more recently in Greece with Syriza and Tsipras; in the UK with UKIP and Farage, and with Tea Party republicanism and Donald Trump in the USA. Analogous symptoms (mainly right-wing) are emerging in other countries of Europe and the rest of the world.
In the present circumstances this counterproductive ritual of voting or otherwise backing a strong leader (male or female) to many people ‘seems’ the obvious, (not to mention the easy), way forward. Yet past experience (Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, Castro, Sadam, Gadafi, Mubarak, Assad etc., and even Thatcher and Obama) has shown, and future experience will undoubtedly confirm, that politics and the political classes are themselves ultimately under the control of, and fully integrated with, exploititive modes of production and not the other way around. Seriously challenged to change, they will kill, torture and even bomb their own citizens rather than change the mode of production.
Despite all the rhetoric and promises they direct towards the voters – whose votes they nearly always require – once in power they will not, for they cannot, deliver what the people and the planet really need. Putting an end to production for productions (and profits) sake, with all the inequalities and pollution that competitive private (or state) capitalist production creates, is just simply beyond their abilities and comprehension. Politicians are simply the well paid and well rewarded dupes and to some extent also the stunted victims of capital’s internal contradictions. In 2016, we may well have witnessed the final demise of neo-liberal politics, but beware – what replaces it politically may be just as bad. So be prepared and let us hope that sooner rather than later we will not have to conclude that for the majority;
“….their political understanding concealed from them the roots of social distress, thus it falsified their insight into the real aim, thus their political understanding deceived their social instinct.” (Marx ibid)
Roy Ratcliffe (January 2017)