The last 15 months mark a quickening breakdown of a decades-long political consensus. Neoliberal globalisation, already a damaged brand among large sections of the population, is facing a globalised right wing populist challenge – still at this point neoliberal, but not so openly and with a shifting base of support and political orientation. Within the broader social polarisation, a clear left alternative has also appeared.
First was Jeremy Corbyn’s elevation to leader of the British Labour Party last September – a stunning rebuke by party members to Labour’s Third Way pro-war orthodoxy. Then, in the world’s largest imperialist power, a self-described democratic socialist, senator Bernie Sanders, surged from 4 percent in early polling to win 43 percent of the vote in the Democratic primaries. In the other race came a right wing challenge. Donald Trump mauled his opponents, the party hierarchy, and long-standing policy positions and rules of engagement, on his way to a decisive victory, securing more votes than any Republican candidate in history.
During the US contests, the UK referendum on leaving the European Union was held. Almost the entire ruling class, the leaderships of the two major parties and the leaders of the big trade unions urged a vote to remain. Yet the result was Brexit, sending panic through political establishments across Europe and North America. The grand strategy of the European elite for political and economic integration, pursued for more than 50 years, suddenly was thrown into question. (And the resignation of Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi in early December has brought the issue back to the fore, as the anti-euro Five Star Movement challenges the ruling Democratic Party in the polls.)
Hillary Clinton’s loss in the November US presidential elections proved the biggest earthquake of all for establishment politics. That Trump won in the face of opposition from the ruling class, from the Bush-era neocons, and from his own party leadership – many of whom disavowed and refused to campaign for him – is remarkable. This Trumpian Moment will shape global politics for years to come.
Long in the making
While 2016 has been a stunning year, the political tremors have been developing for some time. Over the last four decades, the programs of the parties historically associated with the labour movement have become indistinguishable in many respects from those of the conservative parties of the rich. And governments have either ceded power to or had their democratic mandate undermined by unelected capitalist institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the World Economic Forum, central banks etc.
The political-economic consensus of neoliberalism ossified official politics through greater institutional checks against popular policies, ever tighter restrictions on labour organising, reductions in and privatisation of social security, reduced corporate taxes, the promotion of productivity growth above full employment etc. As traditional parties became less and less receptive to the needs of the mass of the population, more and more people turned their backs on them.
In Europe, as the late political scientist Peter Mair wrote a decade ago, “extreme lows in voter turnout … have been recorded since 1990 in almost all of the long-established … democracies”. He calculated that party affiliation was one-third of what it was in the 1960s, declining by 66 percent in Britain, 56 percent in France, 47 percent in Sweden, 40 percent in Denmark, 35 percent in Italy and 27 percent in Germany.
According to the Pew Research Center in the US, the proportion of people identifying as independents increased from around 20 percent in the early 1960s to nearly 40 percent today. In Australia, the once powerful structures of the ALP have atrophied. Former party leader Mark Latham wrote in his Diaries in 2005: “Face the facts: Labor is stuffed. Its branches are rorted and its membership base is a joke … Despair on all fronts. Party democracy, policy debates and knock-around types – we are bankrupt at every turn. Time to call in the receivers”. On releasing the party’s 2010 national review, former federal senate leader John Faulkner admitted, “Our local branches are closing across the country on a monthly basis”.
This broad disengagement across Western countries also needs to be situated within the prolonged downturn in workers’ struggles. Between 1970 and 2004, industrial action decreased by 80-90 percent. In the first decade of the 21st century, in nearly all countries strike levels were the lowest in the post-World War Two period. Trade union decline has been almost universal. In the 30 years to 2008, membership density in Germany fell from 36 percent to 19 percent, in France from 21 percent to 8 percent, in the UK from 48 percent to 27 percent and in Greece from 34 percent in 1990 to 24 percent. In the US, unionisation dropped from 20 percent in 1983 to 11 percent in 2015. In Australia, it went from about 40 percent in 1992 to 15 percent in 2014.
If the centre ground of politics – the established parties trusted by the ruling elite to carry out the neoliberal transformation of society – was coming under increasing pressure as income inequality soared, working class confidence declined and disaffection grew, the North Atlantic financial collapse and long recession from 2008 have dramatically intensified the tension. The grinding tectonic plates of economic crisis and severe austerity have produced rage and demoralisation across parts of Europe and North America. The old order of smart spin and civility pushing the same old dogmas now looks feckless. Greater political volatility and polarisation are the logical result.
Early political recomposition and regroupment often tended left: Communist Refoundation in Italy, the Left Bloc in Portugal, the Scottish Socialist Party, followed by Die Linke in Germany, for example. After the economic crisis came the rise of the radical left Syriza and the destruction of Pasok, in Greece; the success of left-populist Podemos in Spain; and the victory of Corbyn.
But more recently, the right has made most of the running. In the US, there was the rise of the right wing Tea Party in response to the historic election of Barack Obama. In Europe, far right parties are surging – the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands is leading in the polls and the Freedom Party in Austria only narrowly lost the presidency; the National Front in France is running second to the Republicans. In Hungary, the fascist Jobbik has the support of one in five voters; in Germany, the far right AfD has also gained ground.
In Australia also, the strain on the neoliberal consensus is evident. The federal minor party vote has steadily climbed from the 1970s. In this year’s election, a record high 23 percent of lower house and 35 percent of Senate votes were cast for non-Labor/Coalition candidates – “a seismic structural shift in Australian politics”, wrote Andrew Charlton and Lachlan Harris in the Monthly. Along with that expression of dissatisfaction, the informal vote has risen, and voter turnout has declined. The revival of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation in the July federal election, its subsequent rise in the polls, and the prospect of it making large gains in the 2017 Queensland state election are a significant echo of developments in the rest of the world.
Left politics in the polarisation
None of this means that today’s political developments are simple reflexes of economic processes. The binding agent of the far right, the thing that unites its most fervent supporters, is not economic dislocation; from Trump to the National Front, the bases of support are diverse but often affluent and middle class. The glue is bigotry – anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and chauvinist. There is no indication, for example, not a single public anecdote of which I am aware, of any conflict at a Trump event between Trump supporters; no fight between down-and-outs drawn to the economic message and those drawn to the racism.
Nor is it true that the prejudices on display, particularly Islamophobia, originate with the far right. They have been promoted primarily through persistent, confected panics in the media and by the so-called political centre, which now cynically denounces how naked it has all become.
Australia is perhaps the best illustration of these realities. Here, the “miracle economy”, while exaggerated, delivered rising incomes for most sections of the population over two decades. No economic cataclysm was required to build a political majority in favour of the vile anti-Muslim and anti-refugee policies that the neo-Nazis in Europe now hold up as a model of what they’d like to see implemented on the continent. It was built through relentless campaigning by establishment media and politicians.
This is particularly important to recognise in the wake of Trump’s victory. It is beyond reasonable doubt, for anyone who cares to look at the actual county and district results, that the New York billionaire won a section of the white working class across the rust belt of the northern United States. But this was no US-wide worker rebellion; the election was won on the margins. And it is folly to conflate all the people who voted for Trump with his core base of support. Most of his votes did not come from that. They came from a diverse coalition that was, with a few qualifications, bog standard Republican – western plains evangelicals, big money reactionaries, rural and regional middle classes, traditional affluent conservatives from the suburbs who lambasted him as a charlatan, people who voted reluctantly, people who voted despite, not because of his bigotry, people who voted just to stick the finger to liberal Washington, as well as his diehard far right supporters.
In fact, according to one August Quinnipiac poll, 64 percent of Trump “supporters” said that they were voting primarily against Clinton. Only 25 percent said that they were pro-Trump (so around 15-16 million people out of a voting-age population of 235 million). Now the election is over, those diehard far right supporters – a majority of whom are middle class, well resourced and locally connected – not down and out rust belt workers with mixed consciousness – are the ones attempting to organise and reshape US politics to their advantage.
In this calamity there is cause for a little optimism. The future of politics will be decided by the youth and the working class in all its diversity. All around the world, students and the multiracial working class are overwhelmingly concentrated in the big cities, where the potential for social transformation resides. And it is in these areas that the right is weakest.
For example, the National Front in France won almost seven million votes in the 2015 regional elections. But only 500,000 came from the Paris area. Its strongholds are regional: Languedoc-Roussillon, Provence-Alpes-Côte d Azur, Nord-Pas-de- Calais, Picardie, Haute-Normandie, Champagne-Ardenne and Lorraine. It’s a similar story in Britain for the UK Independence Party and in Austria for the Freedom Party. In Australia, Hanson’s vote is minuscule in urban areas.
In the US, Trump carried Texas, Florida, Georgia and Pennsylvania. But he was killed in almost all the major urban centres of those states: El Paso, San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, Austin, Miami, Tampa, Orlando, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. He lost every major city in Ohio. The pattern was the same across most of the country. Even in some of the “reddest” states, Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama, he was flogged, losing Nashville, Memphis, Louisville and Birmingham.
There is a universal lesson in these political geographies: the new rise of the right will not be challenged by “listening to the concerns” of those sections of the regional white working class and downwardly mobile middle classes that have voted or will vote for reactionaries. The left must be able to sympathise with people thrown to the margins, even when they hold political views that are a block to their own advance, and the advance of the rest of their class. But we have to focus on those who reject and are prepared to fight against the bosses and the right, not those who will simply rebel any which way at the ballot box. More important than the election results in contests between capitalist parties is whether or not those sections of the population that reject the bourgeois political circus can be organised in their workplaces, campuses and on the streets in the major cities.
That task is international. The only things that can stop right wing politics drawing more people to its project is, first, that the purveyors of such politics – Trump, Hanson, Le Pen as well as the run of the mill establishment politicians – are challenged at each opportunity, and, second, that the left focuses on where it can grow and grows to a degree that it can pose an alternative that seems viable. That will require dedicated and detailed organising and a politics that seeks to unify the working class in all its diversity – not retreating from issues of social equality, racial justice etc., but showing that these are integral to a united fight against the ruling class that daily rips off the vast majority of people.
In 2017 and beyond, we have to build the resistance to build the alternative.