Saturday, 3 December 2016

Narrating The Current Crisis - What Trump May Mean

The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States is a fact on the ground. Even if Jill Stein somehow succeeded in overturning the result through recounts, it is to be doubted that the populist movement would accept the revision. A Hillary Clinton Presidency would be a wounded beast, facing an angry Republican Congress and probable civil strife and under vicious and continuous internet attack. The world beyond the United States, having congratulated Trump once, will be embarrassed to have to become partisan by subsequently congratulating Clinton. The deeper truth is that Trump has won even if he loses a recount. He has destabilised liberal America and mobilised populist America. That clock cannot be turned back. Nor is Trump's victory is an isolated event. A number of similar political events across the West suggest that a radical change affecting international relations is under way and that the process has not yet concluded. Let us provide a new narrative of contemporary history and see where it leads us.

We can start by saying that the neo-liberal model and its ameliorative liberal internationalist and post-Cold War international socialist variants have improved conditions for many millions outside the West but they have arguably also enriched up to half of domestic Western populations at the expense of the condition, security and identity of the other half as well as created oligarchical minorities elsewhere. Neo-liberalism and its variants have also not brought peace. On the contrary, a forward expansion of liberal values by force has destabilised many countries, leading to mass movement of peoples (which brings free movement of peoples into disrepute amongst those who have not benefited from globalisation), has created new security threats, has forced non-Western sovereign states into defensive militaristic postures and has even recreated the conditions for superpower competition and confrontation only a quarter of a century after the ending of the Cold War.

There have been benefits from quasi-socialist and liberal ameliorative strategies operating at a global level, especially in terms of the mobilisation of progressive forces outside the West and the engagement of young activists in progressive politics within it but regulatory regimes have tended to pay only lip service to democracy and to have preferred corporatist structures in which activist minorities collaborate with corporate CSR departments and government agencies to impose legal and regulatory solutions to global problems without consultation with or the political education of those in the West left behind. They also tend to treat emerging country populations as ‘subjects’ of action rather than as independent actors engaged in their own liberatory struggle.

The role of the United States has been ambiguous. The promotion of a progressive liberal agenda has often operated alongside a militaristic and expansionist agenda. This has created a class of international NGO activists ‘who mean well’ but it has also created alliances with faith-based obscurantists who feign democracy and, in turn, also created its own obscurantist and reactionary oppositionism prepared to engage in armed struggle to defend identity against what they see as cultural imperialism. National liberation has moved from the progressive Left to the reactionary Right, the United Nations has been diminished and, at its worst, the reaction to Western ideological expansionism has created cause for new threats of asymmetric warfare operated by terrorists allied with organised crime.

Globalisation, in collapsing borders, has also permitted massive capital accumulation by organised crime, free riding the increase in international trade, in facilitating illegal economic migration (often willing but sometimes enslaved), piracy, online fraud and the trade in narcotics and banned substances as well as in armaments and illicit untaxed funds. The liberal internationalist regulatory strategy has scarcely made a dent in this expansion of non-state activity which may be classed as criminal by state moralists but, in some areas, represents the developing world’s own rational exploitation of globalisation.

The negative response to this situation was originally restricted to two distinct movements. The first was the rise of a domestic Western anti-war movement which split progressive forces into those who supported liberal values expansion and those who saw it as imperialistic. The second saw the co-emergence of neo-nationalist resistance to the claims of the West. Both appeared in the wake of Western intervention in Central Asia and the Middle East. During this period, the Liberal Establishment of the West was in a strong enough position to ignore the anti-war movements and to place continued pressure on non-Western nations, not excluding attempts at regime change by stealth, often indirect through 'Foundations'. The prospect of a global hegemony for the West, based on market economics, oligarchical democracy and rights ideology, was considered real by the liberal’ hawks’. At this time, right wing national populist forces in the West were largely marginal.

In 2008, a major economic crisis transformed the situation. The capitalist system teetered briefly on the edge but proved resilient. However, its resilience was purchased at the price of a strategy of domestic austerity which continues to this day. This coincided with growing acceptance that liberal interventionism using force had been a disaster that had not achieved its ends although the full fruits of that disaster would still not be seen for some time (exemplified by the Syrian tragedy). Confidence in the elite was shaken but the solution of the voters was, at this stage, to grumble but change the captains of the fleet, not the direction of the navy.

The Coalition Government of 2010 in the UK and the Obama Administration which came to office as the recession of 2008’s effects were unfolding continued governance much as before but a series of developments shook confidence in the elite: above all, the economic crisis itself and the associated fact that, though economies were stabilised, growth did not return. The self-identifying middle classes (actually the middling and lower middle classes and upper working class) were disproportionately hit by the consequences. The rich appeared to get richer. Austerity measures were increasingly judged to be applied unfairly to keep elected officials in power by appealing to the half of the population fearful of taxation. Elected officials were increasingly seen as self-interested and even corrupt or certainly beholden to the economic interests who had caused the crash. In foreign affairs, incapable of winning wars, democratic states proved perfectly capable of war crimes and out of touch with public distaste for foreign adventurism. Since progressive governments had either presided over the conditions that led to the crash or were presiding over the failure to deal with the consequence of the crash, public discontent tended to move to the right rather than the left (although populist movements appeared of both types). This was compounded by a new factor - the pressure of mass migration as 'free movement of peoples' turned from a dream into a nightmare that liberal ideologues failed to recognise as such.

The failure of the Arab Spring and other democracy movements saw a hardening of state power across the emerging world and in the communist and former communist states. These latter states also took a more neo-nationalist stance, fully aware of the role of Western elites in attempted regime destabilisation. Noting Russia’s successful incursion into Georgia, they began the process of resisting liberal Western incursion and then turning back the tide of Western expansion, a process in which Russia took the lead with its acquisition of Crimea and its own intervention in defence of the existing order in Syria. If the liberal internationalists continued to pursue their strategy either directly or indirectly through ‘philanthropic’ foundations, these not only made little headway but created further instabilities which neo-nationalists could exploit. A huge class, an 'industry', of otherwise unemployable graduates created a special interest bloc in the West of 'activists' and 'campaigners', appealing to that part of the electorate with a deontological view of international affairs where the exclamation of a 'should' would be sufficient to demand an action that would then become an 'is' - life is rarely so simple! This was faith-based and not evidence-based politics. While the Left began to split into its liberal left and socialist components with increasingly bitter recriminations between the two over austerity, identity politics, liberal economics and foreign policy, the real beneficiary of this break down in the liberal Western paradigm was the neo-nationalist and populist Right which now began to grow rapidly within the West.

The negative populist reaction to liberal elite failure was both a Left and a Right phenomenon but it was the Right that was enabled to remain united in its opposition. Most of the establishment Left were implicated in the failures and errors of the current regime. This has been symbolised well in the last week by the unprecedented decision of an incumbent French Socialist President of France not to put himself forward as the candidate of his Party in next year's Presidential Election. Liberal elements on the Left had refused to compromise with public anger because of liberal ideology and so saw their side split into factions and their acceptability diminish except among special interest groups who had nowhere else to go (such as public sector white collar employees and NGO workers). Meanwhile the populist Right, taking overt inspiration from the effective opposition to liberal hegemony of Putin (Russia), created an alliance of the lower middle class with national trading and financial interests and discontented working class people whose economic interests had been ignored and whose culture had been disrespected by urban liberals. These latter created a network of interconnected national populist movements that claimed democracy and freedom (not without reason in some cases), seizing power quite quickly in Hungary and Poland but increasingly setting the terms of debate elsewhere and posing material threats to the established order in countries as different as the UK, France and Italy.

The first major breakthrough for populism against the elite was not on the Right but on the Left with the surprise election of a marginal figure (Jeremy Corbyn) to the Leadership of the Labour Party, Instead of accepting the result, the liberal wing of the party undertook a war of attrition against their new Leader. This halted any chance of Labour becoming the voice for British populism instead of UKIP. By the time he was established firmly as Leader (even then clearly being undermined despite that), the initiative had long since passed to UKIP and thence to the Leave Campaign for Brexit. This same opportunity was lost more recently in the US when the DNC conspired to halt the rise to power of the avowed socialist Bernie Sanders, confident that their preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton would have the confidence of the American people. This split on the Left and widespread economic discontent presents us with weak versions of Lenin’s famous three pre-conditions for revolution. All that were missing were the cadres to seize power. These were provided by ruthless well-funded populist machines, wholly dedicated to achieving power, in successively the Brexit Vote and the 2016 Presidential Election and strong enough to push aside even the mainstream media which had been arbiter of politics for the bulk of post-industrial history.

The victory of these forces is truly revolutionary for the following reasons:-
  1. They have forced conservative forces to accommodate the key populist demands of the neo-nationalists – we see this in the strategic commitment of the May Government to Brexit and the degree to which previously negative conservative Republicans have offered their full support to the incoming President
  2. They have given encouragement strategically and tactically to national populists elsewhere, most notably in Europe where there are real fears amongst liberals that their last major stronghold (the European Union) may fall to neo-nationalism or implode under pressure from neo-nationalism
  3. They have not merely out-manoeuvred the progressive Left but have forced it into a crisis with the two factions (the socialists and the liberal) now engaged in a bitter existential struggle for dominance as the primary opposition force – a process that may take many months or even years to result in victory for one side. It is just as likely that these forces will split into separate ‘parties’, dividing the Left for a generation.
  4. Moreover, they have managed to ‘detourne’ the liberal left so that it appears to be increasingly anti-democratic and irrational as well as arrogant and narcissistic, the historical attributes of the Right. This latter may be the populists’ greatest achievement in the long run.
  5. They have introduced other apparently left-wing strategic policies – including variants of Keynesianism and anti-imperialism/peace – into populist discourse leaving the liberal (rather than the democratic socialist) Left as justificatory spokespeople for austerity, corporatism and even war (which in itself fuels the civil war within the Left).
  6. They have adopted a paradoxical inter-nationalism in which strong nation states collaborate as they compete, concentrating on trade relations and deal-making rather than war – again, this is a ’detournement’ of traditional Left positions which have abandoned inter-nationalism and national liberation for supra-nationalism and trans-nationalism.
  7. Above all, they have appealed over the heads of the Left beyond their traditional lower middle class base to the non-public sector working class (at least in the Anglo-Saxon countries), adopting their values, respecting their culture and (at least superficially) supporting their economic interests. This has split the working class from the Left in a decisive historical shift that saw a third of working class votes go for Brexit despite Labour backing for Remain and the Democrat’s white working class support dramatically hollowing out on November 8th.
The importance of the Trump phenomenon is that whoever commands the United States of America commands the general thrust of international relations policy. It is now clear that a national populist agenda is in charge of that thrust, directly or indirectly (in the event of a disputed result) for at least four and probably eight years and maybe twelve years That is sufficient time (as Reagan showed) to transform the condition of the world for good or ill. It is likely that a more moderate but allied Conservative Government will be in office in the UK for at least four years and possibly nearly a decade and that the European Union will see a major transfer of power to the national populist right in several major nations and possibly the implosion of the liberal model for the Union as a whole.

This is as strategically important as the arrival of communism and fascism in the 1920s. Even if states were not communist or fascist by the 1930s, they often adapted their politics not merely to challenge these forces but to appropriate aspects of them in order better to challenge them. National populism in a number of variants, including liberal and Left variants, are likely to become the hegemonic form of international relations discourse for at least the next decade and probably much longer This does not mean the Left does not represent a challenge to the new Right. Neither of national populism’s great victories (the US Election and Brexit) were overwhelming – the Democrats still (barely) won a majority of the popular vote and we have noted the theoretical possibility of the result being overturned by recounts. Similarly, Brexit is accepted by both major parties but the debate over whether the UK is to have a 'soft' or 'hard' Brexit permits Remainers to believe they can overturn the mandate through stealth or attrition. But the Left now has a major problem of credibility – it is associated with arrogance, incompetence, corruption and hypocrisy and, increasingly, with a rather dubious attitude to democracy.

Another problem the Left has is one of division – there are now two major competing visions for defeating neo-nationalism, the liberal and the socialist, which are fundamentally incompatible. The former will not adapt, compromise and let go of power while the latter sees the former as equally if not more problematic than the populists (who inconveniently will not go all the way to being fascists or official racists or xenophobes despite intense attempts by liberal propagandists to make these connections). Moreover, many socialists have more in common with Trump on key aspects of foreign and economic policy than they do with their own liberal ‘allies’ while many liberals are clearly highly emotional about single and identity issues that socialists see as part of the problem and not part of the solution. Given that Jill Stein only got 1% of the vote and 40% of women voted for Trump, the environmentalist and feminist commitments that lead Left thinking are also probable barriers to recapturing working class support.

To all intents and purposes, November 8th was a devastating blow to the liberal internationalist project. Funding will continue from European (at least until 2018) and from Liberal Foundation sources but US and UK Government sources are likely to dry up quite rapidly in the coming months. More to the point, the US and UK Governments are no longer going to be available to promote many liberal causes with emerging world Governments even if the British Government appears to remain committed to some important international rights-related treaties. UK Government action will be redirected at trade deals forcing European countries to follow suit. Major international agencies will have their role questioned with expectations that policy be in accordance with national populist values. The Business & Human Rights Treaty is unlikely to make progress until the current cycle is over - unless it is made more business-friendly.  The balance of power has shifted.

Corporate reactions fall into various special interest categories with many welcoming the new populism, others (with large urban liberal customer bases) nervous of boycotts and politicisation and others concerned about the collapse of the existing liberal internationalist order. One likely result is that all but the bravest corporation will start to withdraw funding from social liberal projects that might be classed as political where once they were simply classed as CSR (corporate social responsibility). Public affairs departments are reeling under the shock because they tend to be staffed by ‘urban liberals and liberal conservatives’, people who have had a stake in the preceding order and a career path that might include political office. Now, they have to consider their options as business splits into camps according to their relationship to various factions in the culture wars. However we look at it, independent funding is likely to decrease or shift into obviously charitable projects where those charities are not engaged in political lobbying. Radical capitalists like Soros and Branson are swimming against the tide. They are also not getting any younger.

Culturally, the liberal internationalists are faced with the problem that they are no longer ‘hegemonic’ within the West. Half the population rejects their hegemony. A significant part of the leadership of the 'hegemonic half' is questioning the strategy of arrogance towards the working and lower middle classes. Globalisation is in question intellectually. Liberal internationalists no longer hold all the commanding heights of power (and may not recover ground until 2020 or even 2024 or 2028) and, if they do recapture them, it will be a much weakened position - Weimar or Leon Blum's Popular Front to all intents and purposes. Their funding is about to fall except from highly politicised Foundations who are now in a confrontational relationship with the sources of power that can deliver what liberal NGOs want. Soros, for example, has openly declared war on the Trump Administration which places the Trump Administration alongside every 'regime' that Soros wants to overturn - their enemies' enemy is Trump. Every attempt to assert radical liberal values now has a countervailing, often cogent and aggressively positioned, alt-right argument. As liberal social media platforms try to cut out the alt-right, new platforms appear to serve it.

Two cultural opponents within the West are now evenly matched for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union and this has happened in under a year. As in all such struggles in the past, it will be hard for anyone to stay out of the fight and stay in public life. The old Right/Left conflict is changing into a conflict between democratic nationalism and inter-nationalism on the one side and supra-nationalism and liberal internationalism on the other. A third of the Left, mostly working class, will find itself moving into what will be positioned as the New Right and a third of the Right, mostly managerial business and white collar professionals, will find themselves moving into the Liberal Left. The former have the old media, the universities, the 'intellectuals' and the scribblers. The latter may have the most innovative parts of the new media, the public meetings, the bulk of social media sharers and the people who discuss public affairs in the pubs rather tham the wine bars. And we are only at the beginning ...