100 years ago, Rosa Luxemburg wrote that society stood at a crossroads: socialism or barbarism. Today, it feels like we face a similar choice and not only in this country, with the Brexit vote surprising many on both sides of the Atlantic. Pundits pen polemics about how we may face a future of either “cosmopolitan finance capitalism” or “ethno-nationalist backlash.” This is a time of urgency, inflected with the recent murder of Jo Cox, attacks on Muslims and immigrants, and the murder of 49 people on Latin night at a gay club in Orlando.
In light of so much violence, it’s right for us to be unforgiving toward our political opponents. But as the Los Angeles Times’s Vincent Brevins put it, “Both Brexit and Trumpism are the very, very, wrong answers to legitimate questions that urban elites have refused to ask for thirty years.” Such a nuanced view doesn’t do well in the media, which favors the inflammatory formulations that drive clicks, not to mention its bias toward the status quo. But when the stakes are so high, we can’t leave political analysis to “the experts” – after all, democracy is premised on the ability of us amateurs to understand the world too. That means acknowledging the relatedness of economic anxiety and the racist, xenophobic explanations people are turning to if we’re to offer a socialist alternative to either the continued administration of austerity by liberals or the reactionary nationalism of Trump or Farage.
Our crisis stems from a decrease in the standards of living for working class people that started with the onset of neoliberalism in the late-1970s. While we often associate redistribution with the left, neoliberalism is a redistributive project too. A pro-market ideology that minimizes the welfare state while expanding the state’s repressive forces, it redistributes wealth upward and from the public commons to private ownership. It reinforces globalization, which is less the borderless world implied by its name and more an order that eases restrictions on the movement of capital while reinforcing restrictions on the movement of people, as evidenced by the growth in border patrols and deportations in the US and EU.
These twin projects contribute to the immiseration of the many to the benefit of the few, creating a feeling of suffocation, the basis for today’s racist right-wing resurgence. “Economic suffering and xenophobia/racism are not mutually exclusive,” explains The Intercept‘s Glenn Greenwald. Rather, he adds, “the opposite is true: The former fuels the latter, as sustained economic misery makes people more receptive to tribalistic scapegoating.” Responsibility for this suffering rests squarely with the neoliberal elite, be it Barack Obama, David Cameron, or Hillary Clinton, who have chosen to administer these policies even as they insist on their status as lesser evils to the monsters they’ve created.
But this only goes so far in explaining the gains won by Trump or his British counterparts. The other side of the picture is the sustained attack on the left that began not-coincidentally with neoliberalism’s early champions: Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Both figures began their tenure at the helm of the state with attacks on unions – air traffic controllers in the US and miners in Britain. Paired with the anti-Communism that permeates the United States, this created a contemporary situation where many working class white people see the cynical racist populism of Trump as the only alternative to the status quo. Which is not to say there aren’t Trump supporters primarily and irrevocably driven by racism – there are and I think their numbers are large. To them, we should never address our arguments, not when we have millions of Sanders supporters and liberals to win over. But unfortunately for the rest of their base, Trump, Brexit, or any other white supremacist fever dreams are false saviors. The left’s is the only vision that can address inequality in the long term.
Labour MP Diane Abbott touched on this in a response to Brexit published in The Guardian, and it’s worth quoting at length:
“If only the false promise that Britain’s malaise of disenfranchisement, voicelessness and an economic system that rewards the rich at the expense of the poor could be fixed by leaving the EU. The idea that migrants or politicians in Brussels are the problem with modern, unequal Britain was the canard at the core of the referendum debate.
Britain’s problems come from a place much closer to home. They come from successive government policies that have promoted the financialisation of our economies and public services, thereby valuing profit over people. They come from a Tory government slashing public services and widening inequality under the dubious banner of austerity. And they come from a prime minister who was passionate about nothing but his own political survival.
These problems are so systemic today that fixing them will take a radical change to the structure of both our economy and political class. Returning to the past will not resolve the very real and interconnected global issues of our time: vast and rising wealth inequality, climate change and a foreign policy trapped in a cycle of destruction.”
Whether the context is Britain or the United States, “returning to the past” cannot address the cause of distress. While one Trump supporter recently told me immigrants are “an existential threat” to society, the true culprit is domestic: capitalism.
As Kim Moody argues in a recent piece for Jacobin, trade is only responsible for 20% of the losses in manufacturing jobs in this country. And despite a real trend toward offshoring, 85-90% of US manufacturing occurs domestically, far above the global average of 72%. Instead, it is productivity gains achieved through the intensification of labor and application of new technologies that are to blame for a decrease in manufacturing jobs, none of which would be possible were there a strong labor movement fighting to ensure livable working conditions and wages.
Rebuilding the labor movement then becomes a priority. Combating the intensification of work and application of new technologies can be done with an eye toward reversing the amount of income captured by capital, which increased its portion of the pie from 18.8 percent in 1979 to 26.2 percent in 2010. In a society coming undone by inequality, it’s workers, not capitalists, that should get more of the societal income.
Alongside demands for more of the value we produce going back into our wallets, today’s labor movement should argue unequivocally for a strong welfare state, whether in the form of a universal basic income or universal health care and social security, as well as bring back the old demands of “40 hours pay for 30 hours work” and full employment. These latter demands offer a means to incorporate those locked out of employment opportunities, both the urban and rural poor, offering an alternative to under-the-table employment and desperation. These demands are particularly urgent as most jobs created since the Great Recession are low-wage service work, sectors not under immediate threat by globalization but made unlivable by the perilous working conditions and pitiful remuneration they offer. This agenda grapples with technological advances that currently serve to discipline the labor force by posing a threat to jobs across industries. In a truly democratic society, where the working class majority has a say in how we distribute wealth and income, technological advances can be beneficial to all, decreasing the hours we work in a week and increasing the time available for leisure, creativity, and family.
I’ve been in Pittsburgh all month. The city’s experiencing a tech boom led by Google and Uber. The latter’s a particular source of anxiety: the company’s testing self-driving cars here and it’s created a panicked murmur about how technology may render workers redundant, a sore spot for a city devastated by the collapse of the steel industry. It’s these concerns – of getting left out, of declining futures and an undemocratic elite benefiting from our misery – that made Bernie Sanders’s social democratic message resonate, a development that aids the left in having reacquainted millions of people with the existence of a left beyond liberalism. Having seen the numbers of people open to this alternative, we need to get moving. This is not an academic debate – these are the questions animating the day. Our success in advancing left-wing answers and implementing them in practice will determine which road we take: socialism, or barbarism.