No end in sight
Will a Biden victory break the far-right wave? Paul Demarty thinks the Covid-19 economic downturn will fuel irrationality
Dare they believe?
A little over a week ahead of the US general election, liberals and establishment figures see all the signs of a victory for Joe Biden, and perhaps a thumping one. His national polling lead bobs around nine to 10 points, and his lead in the battleground states fluctuates between five and eight. Assuming, then, that there has not been another catastrophic polling error akin to 2016, and that the election goes ahead smoothly as planned (two rather big assumptions, admittedly), it is likely that the White House will turn blue, and very possible that the Democrats might emerge with the trifecta of control over the presidency and both houses of Congress.
So it is not surprising to find rather upbeat assessments of what such an outcome might mean. Nick Cohen, the liberal-imperialist columnist, wrote in The Observer that “we’re endlessly told why populism works. Now see how it might fail”:
When liberals treat their enemies as evil geniuses, they bestow a backhanded compliment. They imply that, however wicked it may be, the right has a supernatural power to manipulate the electorate and rig the system ... [But] one day, their obituaries may record that Trump and Johnson destroyed the base of their support without realising they were doing it; that they no more understood the forces that brought them to power than plastic sheeting blowing down a street understands the wind.1
The implication is that the likely defeat of Donald Trump and the flailing underperformance of Boris Johnson’s government is a sign of the times - of the right-populist insurgency now being ‘on the turn’. Steve Bannon, after his exit from the White House under Trump, still had great hopes for his far-right projects in the near future; “It’s going to be wild as shit,” he told Michael Wolff in the first of the great ‘inside the Trump presidency’ books, Fire and fury. His near future is, however, now our recent past; for a ghoulish character like Cohen there is a chance that the recapture of the White House will mean a stabilisation of the world under the American global leadership he once loved so much.
It is not uninteresting, then, that the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty - that crew of ‘Trotskyist’ Nick Cohens - is sharply divided on the question of the presidential election. The AWL’s official advice is a vote for the Green candidate, Howie Hawkins, which is problematic (the Greens are a pretty inert petty bourgeois party in the US), but not completely nonsensical, given that Hawkins himself is an openly socialist trade union militant, and in fact was endorsed by the Socialist Party USA and Solidarity before the Greens (Hawkins’ candidacy is, in short, a classic popular front, albeit on a miniscule scale). But there is a great flurry of correspondence on the question, which clearly divides the AWL’s cadre: the minority, which favours a critical no-illusions Biden vote, includes Martin Thomas, the semi-official ‘heavyweight intellectual’ of the group, and old-timers like Jim Denham.
The two phenomena are in fact the same: the anxiety of left lesser-evilism and the tentative hopes of the liberal establishment both characterise Trump and similar would-be Bonapartes as basically aberrant. The liberal slur of ‘populism’ allows rightwing demagogues and leftwing critics of the liberals to be hurled into the same amalgam. It is more common to see the left throwing the word ‘fascist’ around, and in the AWL debate Trump is called fascist, pre-fascist, proto-fascist and whatever else; but Martin Thomas is perfectly capable of dismissing such terminology as basically woolly and imprecise, while still taking the same position: that Trumpism is qualitatively worse than ‘ordinary’ bourgeois politics and thus it is incumbent on the left to defend the latter: or, in Thomas’s remarkably clumsy phrase, “create a socialist, democratic, critical profile within the rallying of left-minded, anti-racist and pro-union voters to stop Trump by voting Biden”.2 Thus the leftwing version also makes an amalgam - of ourselves and Nick Cohen (easily enough done for the AWL, of course), as the ‘decent’ people against the demonic fascists.
The question of what exactly is in prospect following a Biden victory is, however, rather different, according to which version you adopt. For the liberals, the objective is the re-establishment of a stable rule-of-law regime, the marginalisation of those - on left and right - who have a radical (or radical-reactionary) critique of capitalist ‘good governance’ and the reassertion of America’s power as the linchpin of the world system.
For the left, defeating Trump will energise various social movements; Thomas asserts that the success of his ‘critical profile’ tactic will “energise people round the urgency of defending and extending democratic rights and round working class and socialist ideas. Not as well as a campaign by a socialist party, but that’s not available.”
These two prospects cannot both be fulfilled, of course. But there is no reason to suppose that either should be fulfilled. It will perhaps be easier to take the leftwing case first, since it is more obviously a fantasy. In 2008, let it be remembered, many left organisations called for critical support for Barack Obama in that year’s presidential election, on similar grounds (that there was a mass movement behind him and it was important to reach out to them and so on). So were the next eight years characterised by energy and urgency around working class and socialist ideas? Not a bit of it: Bernie Sanders’ first presidential bid was at least in part a recognition by some long-time adherents to that strategy that it had left us at risk of catastrophe, which duly arrived. Of course, one could go further back, and talk about the 1964 election that Lyndon Johnson won - in part by claiming that his opponent, Barry Goldwater, was a threat to all life on earth. Johnson did not even run for re-election in 1968, so demoralised were American progressives by the Vietnam war, and the result was Richard Nixon. In fact, the examples pile up in many countries. It just does not work like that.
So far as the liberals go, their perspective is not so radically disproved by experience; there were, after all, periods of time when the United States built its reputation on civil liberties and the rule of law, though always spuriously; the cold war was spent busily gardening the alliances of the ‘free world’, and indeed that mission persisted after 1991, in both liberal, neo-conservative and conservative-realist forms. Against that background, Trump really does look like an aberration. What escapes here is the fact that Trump is not a fragment of a meteorite that happened to land on Pennsylvania Avenue four years ago. The question is merely pushed back - how could such an aberrant candidate have won? On this point, establishment liberals have nothing to offer but foolish conspiracy theories about Vladimir Putin.
The reality of the matter is exactly the reason why we should not expect the fall of Trump, should it so transpire, to occasion a lasting global body-blow against anti-liberal rightism. The audience for Trump has been ripening for decades. The peaceful transfer of power, on which America so prides itself, and which is feared for so mightily at the present time, came at a certain cost: politics in bourgeois ‘democracies’ must be characterised by corruption, in order to ensure the ‘good behaviour’ of the career politicians. The occasional ‘populist’ outsider promising to drain the swamp is quite as inevitable a result as the army of careerist clones happily wallowing there until the fatal moment.
Of course, such outsiders are not quite so occasional in the era of Trump, Johnson, Putin, Netanyahu, Bolsonaro, Abe, Orbán, Modi ... The structures of political consent that support liberal-constitutional regimes dominated by firmly constitutionalist parties - and such dominance was never fully established in some of those countries - decay over time, again necessarily, because they claim to be in the interests of the majority of citizens, but in fact are not. The choice, for those ‘redpilled’ (in online Trumpite terms), is between the two poles who claim to offer a way out of such moribund, corrupt constitutionalism, the two poles collapsed in liberal opprobrium - the far left and the far right. If there is a powerful left pole - which is to say an openly constitutionally disloyalist, working class party, which organises serious forces - then there is a fighting chance of the left coming out on top in the crisis; otherwise, people will make their ‘choice’ from a position of acute atomisation and alienation - fertile soil for Trumpism and the like.
Martin Thomas urges the left to propagandise for a Biden victory, which will leave us on the hook for the reality of such a regime - the wars, the sharp austerity that must follow the pandemic largesse (especially with the presidency in the hands of this balanced-budget-obsessive). There is a clear logic to it in Thomas’s case, since for Thomas liberal-constitutional regimes are in fact a sort of prerequisite for class politics (hence his and the AWL’s de facto support for US military action against so-called sub- and paleo-imperialist countries like Ba’athist Iraq, on the basis that a functional ‘bourgeois democracy’ might result).
It is however inexplicitly there in all other cases of people calling for a Biden vote to get rid of Trump, however much better their anti-imperialist bona fides. We are prevented from getting that socialist party that Thomas mordantly reminds us is not available.
The result is the same - the liberal bourgeoisie is still in the driving seat; and the car is already tumbling off the cliff.