At war with fourth estate
The left needs more weapons in its armoury than street demonstrations, argues Paul Demarty
Opposed by Holywood, the mainstream press ... and the FBI
Donald Trump continues to lurch from crisis to crisis; and there can surely remain no lingering doubt, not only after the last month or so, but the last two years, that he gets off on it.
His latest provocations are again directed at the media at large: he barred journalists from niche media outlets like CNN and the New York Times from his White House press briefings and announced that he would refuse his first opportunity to attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner - an event which traditionally involves the sitting president catching a roasting from a major comedian, before doing a little routine himself.
Trump, who previously suffered a spectacular sense of humour failure at the event in 2011, does not appear to be the type to enjoy that kind of treatment; but, even if he were, he might think twice. For the dinner is a matter for the ordinary affairs of the American ship of state - everybody blows off some steam, but the presidency and media use it as a kind of bonding exercise, affirming their underlying solidarity in service to the national cause and the American religion of liberty. It is those bonds so spectacularly under strain just now - between the Oval Office and the fourth estate, and indeed with sections of the capitalist class proper and the ‘deep’ state core.
The response of the American left is conditioned inevitably by the response of mainstream American liberalism - by far the dominant oppositional force, and a force for whom a sudden and fortuitous concordance of interests with the Federal Bureau of Investigation is nothing very much to worry about. It is, ironically, on the fringes of liberalism that the most sense (in strictly relative terms) is being talked - in The Baffler and Jacobin, house journals of the Sandernistas, one can read reasonable commentary about the shallowness of liberal anti-Trumpism.1
On the far left proper, there is very little of this kind available; thus the paradox that those in principle closer to a serious left response to the present bizarre world situation have the least worthwhile things to say about it. Socialist Worker, the house journal of the post-Cliffite US International Socialist Organization, published a basically reasonable article by Brian Sullivan warning against placing too much faith in American judges to rein in Trump’s excesses: “Social movements and public opinion, for better or worse, have the power to set the limits of what’s considered legitimate and illegitimate,” writes comrade Sullivan.2 Indeed so. But what does he have in mind? It is not immediately clear; but the relentless and breathless wall-to-wall coverage of every last anti-Trump protest elsewhere in the paper and on its website might give you a clue.
On this point, the ISO’s editorial policy is indistinguishable from the quasi-Stalinist Party for Socialism and Liberation; while the Revolutionary Communist Party - Bob Avakian’s Maoist cult - differs only in explicitly and repeatedly designating the new government “fascist”; Socialist Alternative, the American offshoot of our own Socialist Party in England and Wales, has gone so far as to change the masthead image of its website to a stylised photo of an anti-Trump protest. That is what the SA comrades want you to know about them, before anything else: they are anti-Trump; they can hold their placards real high. Where do I sign?
American politics is an international thing, and no shortage of British leftwingers may be found singing the same tune as the American comrades. We pick on the ISO’s former sister organisation, the Socialist Workers Party: a particular item grabs us in a recent issue of Party Notes, the weekly members’ bulletin whose brief tenure (in redacted form) as a public document ended mid-last year. We quote from the February 13 issue, where the immediate news agenda was the backlash against Trump’s travel ban, John Bercow’s ‘disinvitation’. Our author, one “Kevin B”, writes:
There is much speculation about the time and shape of Trump’s state visit - the suggestion that he should be confined to speaking only in the Midlands and not come to London is a sign that politicians and others are worried about the level of protest he will face. They are right to be worried.3
Really, words fail; but this is an article, so words, alas, will have to do. The ruling class is “worried” - worried, indeed! - that Trump’s state visit will be met with protests. The most immediate indications to the contrary are, of course, that very large sections of the ruling class are utterly jubilant at the scale and spirit of ant-Trump demonstrations heretofore, including the very ones comrade Kevin demanded his charges attend. Worried, they are - so very worried that every op-ed outside the most rightwing press outlets exhorts Americans to stand up for the values that made their country great, in defiance of the Oval Office’s orange interloper; so “worried” that these demonstrations are as star-studded as the Oscars red carpet and, unlike at the Oscars, everyone (including the SWP!) is bang on message.
The ruling class is not worried at all, of course, about the demonstrations currently going on. But that was not the claim of Kevin - he said rather that they were worried about the ones that will greet the visit itself, that these would be a whole other kettle of fish. This is, if anything, a more fantastical claim - which we will revisit later.
The SWP makes for a particularly degenerate example because of the sheer cynicism of its current political orientation. In this week’s Party Notes, comrade Kevin states that “the question of racism remains the framing narrative to all issues”.4 Blairites like to accuse the Labour left of wallowing in their ‘comfort zone’, but nobody has ever been more comfortable anywhere than the SWP in doing anti-racist work today. Shouting about racism being bad has several salutary advantages for the SWP. It is, first of all, unlikely that the sentiment will be disputed as such - that somebody will ask if you had not considered the possibility that racism may in fact not be bad, but good.
If somebody does, of course, they can be denounced with zero intellectual exertion due to the second advantage - anti-racism is official state ideology, and thus the halo around the anti-racist activist’s head has an objective as well as subjective character, nullifying somewhat the residual hostility left behind by the SWP’s 2013 crisis.
Third - and perhaps most important - is that it requires no complex arguments among one’s own members. If they even bothered to apply to join an organisation called the Socialist Workers Party, they are probably anti-racist. Job done! We raise, by way of contrast, the question of the Labour Party and specifically of fighting within it for a democratic political regime and explicitly socialist and internationalist programme - against which the SWP has for the last 18 months been most vigorously counterposing the need for more anti-racist street demonstrations, and which in reality is also the primary cause of its current anti-Trump mania.
In reality, what is paradoxically obvious about the SWP is in fact true of all the protestomaniacs mentioned thus far. They all work from the first principle that there is something fundamentally revolutionary about the street demonstration as such. But this has the consequence that pretty much any political sacrifice is acceptable in the interest of getting people out on the street - which in turn tends to rob the demonstration of educational value, for it hands over the political substance of the event to some element or another of the elite, whose ideas are - all things being equal - the ruling ideas in society at large.
Let us revisit comrade Kevin, at SWP head office, and say for the sake of argument that his hypothesis - that the Trump state visit will be the occasion of a wave of protest truly worrisome to the establishment - is actually true. For this to happen, it would be necessary for anti-Trump anger to spread from him to other, how to put it, less heterodox members of his class: the City pin-stripe, the state bureaucrat, the very journalists who boosted the earlier demos ...
Such things are hardly inconceivable as such; Father Gapon could tell you a thing or two about protests getting out of control, had events not put a Narodnik noose around his own neck in the end. Yet he had to reckon with several influential trends in the working class and socialist underground of 1900s Russia, which each had their own developed world views and strategic orientations. Who is going to lead the spirited protestors of New York, California and London to the correct identification of the great mass of their enemies, those same people who have until now been false friends? Is it the SWP or the ISO, which only repeat the slogans of the false friends more stridently?
Not at all, for their contribution is to try to trap people within those political limits.
1. See, for example, Connor Kilpatrick’s entertaining take-down of Trumpite ‘new deal’ rhetoric, whose context is precisely the rightward trajectory of actually-existing liberalism: www.jacobinmag.com/2017/02/steve-bannons-autobahn.