Taking an independent stand
The election of Donald Trump has torn up the political rulebook - a reality that protestors must confront, argues Jim Grant
One could view 2016 as, among other things, the year celebrity advocacy went into crisis.
What pop star wanted Brexit? Which luvvies? Nobody whatsoever - the ‘remain’ campaign had a bottomless supply of notables to draw on, as it argued for strict adherence to the status quo. Alas - the support of David Beckham and JK Rowling was not enough, and the vote narrowly went against them. Likewise, who the hell was in Trump’s corner? Kanye West, sort of, and a few meatheads like Kid Rock. Towards the end of the campaign, Hillary Clinton’s public appearances started to look like the Oscars and the Grammys had mated to produce the smuggest offspring in history. But all for naught.
The relative prominence of ’slebs in the vanquished campaigns of moribund establishment politics is interesting. After all, it is clear that both the Clintonites and the remainers knew that having the backing of the great and the good more generally was not quite the advantage it might once have been in rosier days. The almost total silence of big business, in both cases, reflected both the capitalists’ unwillingness to alienate potential customers and their recognition that, among the general population, there was an increasingly dominant strain of hatred for Wall Street and the City, and open advocacy of one vote or another might actually have backfired. Celebrities, it was assumed, had a far more cordial relationship with the wider public; perhaps it is even true, but writing a catchy tune, or acting in an enjoyable film, is plainly not enough to be other than ‘one of them’ in the eyes of the alienated enragés of the rustbelt.
The celebrities, of course, have not gone away, and in the last week or two have been busily marching about in major cities throughout America, and indeed across the world. Robert de Niro, who livened up the Hillary campaign by confessing that he wanted to punch Donald Trump in the face, was a star speaker at a huge rally in New York, where he was joined by Alicia Keys, Ashley Judd, Madonna, Michael Moore, Marisa Tomei, Meryl Streep, etc. The stars of stage and screen were also to be found on the Mall, and in San Francisco, Los Angeles and wherever else you like. Hell, Shia LaBoeuf has even started a ham-fisted conceptual art installation in response to it. (In London, we had to make do with Sandi Toksvig, but there you go.)
They were not the only ones. Millions of people have taken part in anti-Trump protests. The controversy around his victory has not abated - indeed, with the Christopher Steele dossier, it has rapidly intensified in the last two weeks. Trump has the lowest inauguration day approval rating since records began.
Among those excited by the demonstrations are ... those excited by more or less all demonstrations: the radical left. The American and British papers called Socialist Worker are no longer aligned internationally, but have more or less the same attitude to such affairs - let this be the start of the fightback, against the reign of a racist plutocrat! We seize on an op-ed on the American paper’s website, by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, chiding persons unknown for standing aloof from the protests, alarmed by their non-radicalism:
Were liberals on the march? Yes! And thank god. The movement to resist Trump will have to be a mass movement, and mass movements aren’t homogeneous - they are, pretty much by definition, politically heterogeneous. And there is not a single radical or revolutionary on earth who did not begin their political journey holding liberal ideas.1
Discussing things in terms of ‘liberalism’, however, rather understates the ‘heterogeneity’ of this emerging movement. Though many have reconciled themselves to the opportunities of the new regime, or allowed themselves to be neutered by the sniff of cabinet positions (hello, Mitt!), there remain more than a few anti-Trumpite Republicans. Indeed, it was John McCain, not Nancy Pelosi, who brought Steele’s dossier into the public realm, which brings us to the related matter of the obvious discomfort of many in the American state core - generals and securocrats - at Trump’s foreign policy.
From realists to neoconservatives, there are plenty of imperial functionaries concerned at the apparent move to embrace the Russian bear. It takes two to tango, however, and Trump himself has taken the (perhaps unwise) step of becoming the first president since Richard Nixon to refuse daily briefings by the Central Intelligence Agency, which he has also lambasted from his social media accounts and plainly despises, despite the occasional conciliatory move.
All of which rather leaves the left in an awkward position - for we can hardly not oppose a US president whose opening salvo included tearing strips out of the meagre achievements of Obamacare and an ominous attack on funding for pro-choice organisations, yet we must somehow avoid being used by people who are unambiguously our enemies, while also potentially enemies of Trump.
If the Democrats, securocrats and neocons succeed in fashioning Steele’s dossier (or something else, for that matter) into impeachment proceedings, we can hardly expect liberals to do other than applaud and breathe a sigh of relief. What would the International Socialist Organization have to say about it, I wonder? Who knows? - but some of the historical precedents are less than encouraging. Another leaf of the Cliffite family tree, the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists, managed to support both the candidacy of Mohammed Morsi for president against the army, and the army’s later coup against Morsi, both in the name of keeping the revolutionary process alive. If RS can convince themselves that a coup is actually a popular uprising, then an overexcited American left can certainly misattribute an impeachment to ‘mass resistance’.
We have ended up here by a circuitous route, which is in the end a matter of US history and secondarily the history of the American sphere of influence. Primitive accumulation in the American colonies and then the infant republic was achieved on the back of coerced labour, initially of indentured servants and later of African slaves. The uneven development of American society led ultimately to war on the question of black slavery, between an industrialised north looking to rival England economically and an agrarian south whose existence and political power effectively held the US in subordination to the former colonial master.
Slavery was abolished as a result, but not the political subordination of blacks, which remained acute until the civil rights movement began to achieve major success in the 1960s. At the outset, support for civil rights was a high-cost endeavour: the extant arrangements of political power depended upon the subordination of blacks, and to attempt to overturn the latter was by definition to make enemies. Communists and other American radicals threw themselves into the fray, both appalled at the racism and sensing a fault line in the political regime.
In the 1970s, the American ruling elite began to change tack; at the same time as living standards began to stagnate, human rights became the watchword at home and abroad; black individuals began to appear further up the social hierarchy, and the pursuit of individual empowerment and ‘role models’ became the dominant theme of post-civil rights black politics. This process was more or less complete by the new millennium; the odious rightwing administration of George W Bush included not one, but two black secretaries of state, and he himself was replaced by Barack Obama.
The left is in a pickle because it all but fails to acknowledge that any of this has happened at all. A firm and strident commitment to anti-racism is thus still treated as if it is subversive, when in truth it is now the official ideology of the party that once enforced segregation across the south, and indeed of the HR department of every federal agency and significant corporation the length and breadth of the country. The continued social disadvantages of black communities in the US - greater rates of poverty, incarceration and so on - are clear enough, but are in no way the same thing as explicit political exclusion; nor are they incompatible with there being an official doctrine of anti-racism at the level of the state.
The latter combines with the neoliberal class offensive of the past 30-plus years in a peculiar toxic way; for it provides an easy way to dismiss outrage at offshoring and the like as essentially a matter of white workers attempting to keep their privileges. Without a serious leftwing response, sections of the working class become cynical about ‘racism’ accusations, and open to the approaches of demagogues like Trump.
We quoted Taylor earlier to the effect that “there is not a single radical or revolutionary on earth who did not begin their political journey holding liberal ideas”. It is a dangerous thing to deal in such absolutes, and I personally know more than a handful of people who have travelled a lot further to get to left radicalism - from conservative or even far-right politics. Yet it is a telling error; for it shows that some on the left cannot imagine recruiting from among those who are not liberals; in other words, from among people who do not share the proper bona fides about anti-racism, anti-sexism, etc. Now, of all times, this ‘liberalism turned up to 11’ business is a woefully deficient view of politics.
But in the end this is an effect of the purely negative political method at work here. Put simply: if we restrict ourselves to being anti-whatever, we can either be anti-offshoring and turn a blind eye to our bigoted allies, or be anti-racist and tolerate our neoliberal allies. An independent stand is unachievable without a positive vision of an alternative society. Otherwise, we are doomed to be identified as agents of a corrupt establishment - and we would deserve no better, if we are so easily held hostage by the official ideology of the state, our placards blurry in the background of a photo of Robert de Niro.