Tag Archives: left

The dangers of the myth of Trump’s white working class support

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The myth of the white working class support for Trump is animating post-election debates at alarming speed with misleading interpretations of often partial and incomplete data. It is being used from certain sectors of the Euro-American left to try to minimise the biggest single factor that emerges from the US presidential election results: most whites, across gender and income groups, voted for Trump, somebody who has not hidden his white supremacist views, condones sexual assault, and built his campaign on openly anti-immigration, anti-Latino and anti-Muslim themes.

It is quite likely that some sectors of the white working classes have switched from Democrat to Republican. Much better analysis and comparison are required than what is circulating to support the “working class thesis” – as examples of misleading early analysis of voter data see Nate Cohn’s piece in the New York Times; a much better analysis on the Washington Post dismissing Cohn’s interpretation is here. What is problematic is the attempt to blow this factor out of proportion and say that Trump’s victory was supported by some kind of popular revolt, that we should give attention to the anti-establishment narrative and policies proposed by Trump, so that we can produce better alternatives without the “awful racist rhetoric”.

Many on the left, including Jeremy Corbyn, are liquidating the Trump phenomenon as just that, reducing it to the presence of racist and divisive “rhetoric”. This erases the fact that the vast majority of people of colour who voted, supported Clinton – clearly an “establishment” candidate, which doesn’t mean that those who voted supported an establishment agenda of course. And it ultimately dismisses the plight and suffering of groups who have experienced for centuries structural discrimination and marginalisation, both in the US and abroad, thus reinforcing racial and ethnic divisions, and undermining the possibility for broader solidarities across the various groups and communities that have been at the receiving end of the devastating effects of the current world order.

The issue is not so much with restating the fact that the establishment is in crisis, and something has to change. It seems that these narratives are accepted in certain quarters when the decline affects white Americans and Europeans. One gets the sense that it is only when we focus the attention on the plight of the “white working class”, that some people are able to fully grasp the damage that a discriminatory exploitative system has on people. This way of thinking does not allow for a radical restructuring of the world that will make space for all humans, and actively work against the privilege of certain groups – whiteness and maleness remain unmistakably two of the most dominant forms of privilege today. Knowingly or not, the “popular revolt” thesis plays in the hands of xenophobic and racist movements calling for “anti-establishment” politics that favours white nationals at the expense of everybody else.

One powerful reminder comes from South African history. The “poor white problem” emerged as a political category in the early 20th Century, when the white government became worried about the widespread poverty of Boer communities who had been dispossessed and turned into cheap labour after the Anglo-Boer war. Of course the worry was motivated by widespread revolts of that sector of the population, which was absorbed into mining labour, but was also driven by a racial concern for “fellow whites” who had fallen from grace. That formed the basis for the rise to power of Afrikaner nationalism and the establishment of apartheid on an ideology that supposedly provided welfare and protection for the “dispossessed” whites, at the expense of blacks and all other racial groups. Apartheid was a welfare state for whites only, supported by the cheap labour of black people and other discriminated racial groups, built on the brutal repression of any dissent and wars waged against black liberation movements across the African continent.

If we simplistically frame Trump’s victory and the Brexit vote as a revolt of the dispossessed and the disenfranchised white working classes – based on a partial and biased reading of the actual data – there is a real risk that the solutions we come up with will contribute to reinforce various forms of white nationalisms and xenophobic alliances, rather than providing a clear and uncompromising alternative to them. The attention has to shift to the whole system, with its myriads of levels of discrimination and oppression. Doing that will easily put into perspective the dissent by some sectors of the white working classes. While there is no doubt that we should attend to all forms of exploitation and dispossession, an intersectional approach means that we cannot privilege one dimension of exclusion over others. Race, class and gender need to be understood in interaction, rather than in mutually exclusive terms.

Sadly some of the analysis that has been produced recently by leftist commentators tends to produce stark dichotomies privileging a reading of class that disregards race and gender dynamics. These analyses tend to be driven by a narrow understanding of race and racism. Racism is not seen as a structural factor that orders and articulates the distribution of economic, social, educational and other resources and forms of capital, but as some left-over of Jim Crow or colonial imperialism that reappears as a rhetorical baggage to mislead the working classes in the wrong direction, providing the wrong response to the right concerns.

What is left out here is that many whites – the majority of whom are not impoverished working class – now feel under attack as “whites” and their perception of diminishing wealth and privilege are rooted in a racial view of a world that is perceived as hostile to their very existence, where other discriminated groups and some conspiratorial multi-billionaires have supposedly allied to marginalise the “common white folk”. The term “white” might be less present in European discourse, but there British, Italian, Swedish, German, and so on, are used as proxy for white nationals. In South Africa, we are seeing similar dynamics among the white communities. The problem then, in America and elsewhere, is not that racism is high among the white working class, rather it is widespread among all sectors of the white population.

We need to move beyond narrow readings of race. For instance, the analysis by Nate Kohn for the NYT claims, based on partial data from the Rust Belt, that many white working class voters switched from Obama to Trump, and this was the main reason for Trump’s victory. It is a simplistic conclusion based on the the fact that some states that voted strongly for Obama in 2012, saw a Trump victory this week. This “fact” is doing the rounds in social media, but has not been supported by solid evidence, because we need to properly evaluate how much of the victory is due to Clinton’s collapse in support more than a switch from Democrat to Republican.

Looking at percentages doesn’t help, we need to look at actual voters in 2012 and 2016. Nate Cohn’s analysis is lacking in this respect, and ignores the fact that in some of these states, for instance in Wisconsin, Trump did not get more actual voters than Romney in 2012, while Clinton lost significant support compared to Obama. Overall, Cohn’s analysis does not contextualise the extent to which the white working classes would supposedly constitute the decisive factor in Trump’s victory – it does not look at trends across the country and various income classes, to see whether Trump made significant rises there too compared to 2012. Christopher Ingraham for the Washington Post looks at a much broader set of national data across and concludes that, with the exception of southeast Ohio, most of the counties that experienced huge shifts from Obama to Trump are outside the Rust Belt. Cohn’s bias is also clear from a tweet where he classifies people earning between $50,000 and $99,999 per year to justify his mistaken claim that low-income white voters have supported Trump more than affluent white voters. We will have to wait for all the votes to be counted in this election to provide solid comparative analysis on this, but for now we can say that the evidence provided by Cohn is at best scant, and at worst incomplete and biased.

It is possible that some white voters across income groups have switched from Obama to Trump. What is worrying is the way this has been used to support the idea that if white voters have previously voted for a black president, then they can’t be implicated in racism. Obama’s first election was met with much clamour by many whites in America, who felt that this was a momentous event that would finally help America heal its deep racial divisions. It was seen as a sign of hope. Yet, throughout the two Obama presidencies we have seen a rise of racist rhetoric and arguments thrown against Obama that tried to dismiss pretty much everything he did, from the Affordable Care Act to state intervention in the financial crisis and foreign policy.  These views were often racialised and indicated that the alleged failures were the making of an incompetent black man not suited for office. Explicit racist rhetoric was often replaced by a coded way to talk about race that characterises much liberal racism today.

The fact that some of the same people who voted for him could join the ranks of those who attacked him as unfit for office and even unAmerican, is not contradictory. We see this all the time when black professionals are hired in workplaces dominated by white colleagues. Often, many of the same colleagues that support the need to diversify the workplace and make it representative of wider societal demographics, are quick to dismiss and undermine their black colleagues with a myriad of overt and less overt aggressions. It is evident that on the whole, white people are still very uncomfortable with having people of colour in positions that were traditionally occupied by whites and constitute up to now the core of white privilege. The basic hierarchy that puts whites on top is put in question, and hence the backlash. A possible switch of some white voters from Obama to Trump does not make the arguments about “popular revolt” any more valid. It can be easily explained by a more nuanced approach to race that recognises how widespread various forms of white racism are today.

In the same way, to gloss over the fact that Trump’s victory has a strong gender component would also be wrong – this too is often downplayed by some left commentators, to stress once again the dominant narrative the only reason for Clinton’s lack of popularity was her establishment credentials. The fact that people supported an unashamed chauvinist who says that groping women is not sexual assault is not something that can be minimised as a “character flaw”. Trump did gain most of the vote of white women, but in significantly lesser proportion than white men. Women of colour voted for Clinton in bigger numbers than men of colour. The vitriolic arguments against Clinton during the campaign suggested that gender was a factor.

When men are confronted with the possibility of women becoming their equals, there too there is a backlash. It’s not just about biological sex or the pigmentation of one’s skin. It is about having individuals who are not willing to mould their persona and behaviour to fit the accepted racial and gender stereotypes in a world dominated by whites and men. Sarah Palin, who is an enthusiastic Trump supporter, poses no threat to the toxic masculinity of the president-elect. Hillary Clinton does. To minimise misogyny as an important factor in Clinton’s defeat – as a post-election piece by Adaner Usmani in Jacobin magazine does – because 42% of women voted for Trump, is to offer a poor and narrow understanding of gender and sexism, and how they intersect with issues of race and class.

The same piece ends on a note that highlights many of problems with the linear class narrative that I am criticising:

Yet if the Left writes off Trump’s base, we too have no answer. All the socialist POC in the country can’t fill a football stadium, much less put Humpty Dumpty back together again. In the main, we live in universities and/or in blue-state bastions. If organizing means nothing more than doubling down, we are in trouble.

The role of the left should not be to focus the bulk of its efforts on negotiating and allying with the – often misrepresented – concerns of one sector of the working classes. It is to mobilise a broader alliance against the system that can effectively tackle various forms of discrimination, acknowledge the differential levels of discrimination and exclusion experienced by various groups, and make proposals that do not gloss over white and male privilege at the expense of everybody else simply because “that’s our base”. Framing the Trump phenomenon as driven by legitimate concerns expressed with the wrong rhetoric goes in the opposite direction.

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US presidential elections: nothing to celebrate

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I do sincerely hope that we won’t wake up tomorrow morning with the terrible news of a Trump presidency. Having said that, the world is already an awful place, a Clinton presidency won’t change that and will likely make it worse, but having Trump there would be a disaster, for Americans and everybody else.

As for third parties, they are just as bankrupt as the main choices. We have Gary Johnson, a libertarian who tells fairy tales about the virtues of the “free market” and supports the gun lobbies. And Jill Stein, a faux green who invests her significant savings into fossil fuels and the defense industry, and wants us to believe that she offers an anti-capitalist, pacifist and environmentalist alternative to Trump and Clinton.

My hope is that, from tomorrow, people in the States will continue the work to build a progressive political formation around principled and visionary leaders like Bernie Sanders, that takes seriously the demands for social justice that come from grassroots movements like Black Lives Matter and the Standing Rock protests. The goal is to have a viable alternative to the corrupt centrism of the current Democratic establishment, with no overtures or “strategic” arguments justifying the return of white supremacy and militant racism and xenophobia, and with a clear anti-war and green agenda. Sadly, none of the four main presidential candidates offers this. Whatever happens tonight, we’ll have no reason to cheer or celebrate.

UK should Remain in the EU to stop the global advance of the far right

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Tomorrow the British will go to the polls to decide whether UK should stay within the European Union or not. I truly hope that the majority will vote to Remain.

Whatever the final result, the referendum debate has shown there is a worrying rise of xenophobia across all sectors of British society, in a country where migrants have always been welcomed and that has featured among the most cosmopolitan in the world. Many on the Leave side have openly campaigned against migrants and for national chauvinism, spreading incorrect information and unfounded arguments to fuel hate and resentment.

Even more worrying, the debate on immigration around the EU referendum saw many on the left opening the way for the legitimisation of the widespread resentment against migrants. Several prominent figures – including union leaders, intellectuals and Labour party members – have stressed the need for “controlled immigration” and the protection of British workers vis-a-vis all other workers.

Admirably, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has stuck to his principles and insisted on his pro-immigration stance. The priority should be solidarity across all those hit by the crisis to fight the devastations of neoliberalism and austerity. Migrants are a convenient scapegoat to divert the public’s attention from the real cause of their plight: the drastic reduction of state welfare, widespread privatisations and a wholesale attack on workers’ rights.

Other sectors of the radical left have maintained their commitment to internationalism and inclusion, but campaigned for Leave, hoping that a Leave victory would open a crisis within the Tories from which the left might emerge victorious. Like sectors of the Sanders’ base in the US, and leftists across Europe, they are unwittingly paving the way for the rise of the far right, in the hope that this pragmatic short-term convergence of interests will topple neoliberal technocracy and lead to systemic change.

The reality is that the Tory right and the far right UKIP are much better positioned to capitalise on UK exiting the EU, and they have been the real protagonists of the Leave campaign. Brexit would be one major step towards a global advance of far right populism. It could be followed by a Trump victory in the US presidential election in November, a Le Pen victory in the 2017 French presidential elections, and a victory of the left/right populist 5 Star movement in Italy in 2018.

The EU is in deep crisis and British PM Cameron’s EU deal means that if Britain votes to Remain, the way will be opened for a technocratic curtailing of freedom of movement – all member countries would be allowed to put a temporary break on migration from other EU countries, if they can prove that their state budgets are under substantial pressure. This would be no victory either. But handing the UK to a right-wing alliance that thrives on hate and xenophobia is undoubtedly far worse.

A left vision for basic income

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Today Swiss people are voting in a referendum that will determine whether to include a universal basic income in the federal constitution. The constitutional amendment proposes the institution of a basic income to be given for life to the whole population unconditionally, that is, without any specific requirement like income assessment or job status. The basic income should be set at a level that guarantees human dignity and meaningful participation in public life.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, it is a major achievement that the discussion has gone so far in a country like Switzerland that is at the centre of global capitalism.

It is also time however to reflect more critically about the wave of interest basic income has spurred around the world. We need to avoid the misuse of basic income as a tool to dismantle the welfare state in the global North, and legitimise the advance of austerity and free market capitalism. In the global South, the danger is that previous pilots have set basic income at very low levels, reinforcing double standards about what a decent livelihood should be for Southern citizens vis-a-vis people in the North. Here too, the danger is that a low payment that does not cover the basics would be used as a way to avoid building strong states that deliver decent public services to their citizens.

These risks are real. We need more engagement from the left, to make sure that we push for a basic income that complements a strong welfare state. This also means that we can’t uncritically endorse any move towards basic income just on the basis that “it is good for the movement”. Let’s keep our critical minds switched on, and contribute constructively to make sure that basic income works for people, and not against them.

The original vision of the concept stresses the need for a safety net that guarantees a decent living to all. Pushing for a modest cash check as a substitute for welfare provisions and labour rights would work in the opposite direction.

Varoufakis announces pan-European movement to “democratise the EU”

In a recent interview for the Italian magazine L’Espresso, former finance minister of Greece Yanis Varoufakis announces the formation of a new Pan-European movement in February 2016, with the aim to democratise the EU, rather than working for its dissolution.

“Without a doubt, if we continue along the lines of present policies, that have failed so spectacularly, the centrifugal forces will get so strong that the Eurozone first, and then the EU, will fragment. … No one can tell where the rupture will take place. Maybe in Greece, maybe in Italy, maybe somewhere else. Like in the case of the Soviet Union, where it was impossible to predict how its end would come … we know that the present course is catastrophic for the EU even if ignorant of what will trigger it.”

More instability expected in Spain after indecisive election

More political instability looms in another southern European country. No clear majority emerged from the ballot box in Spain yesterday, and the two-party system seems to be a thing of the past. Neither a centre-right coalition between the PP (28.7%) and the young party Ciudadanos (13.9%), nor a centre-left one between the Socialists (22%) and the new left formation Podemos (20.7%), can form a majority government.

There are other options, including a minority government, or a grand coalition between Socialists and PP. It’s clear that the old parties are rapidly losing ground. But are the new arrivals really that enticing?

As far as the left is concerned, Podemos did very well and above expectations, but its close alliance with another failed attempt at real change, Tsipras’ new incarnation of Syriza, casts more than one doubt. Before you hail another victory of the left against the “bad guys” of technocracy, be reassured that Podemos has no real intention to contest the euro, reject all that is old in politics, or reverse austerity. All these desirable goals run the risk of becoming empty slogans appropriated by certain sections of the rising new left to rally votes without a real plan to deliver.

Slavoj Žižek and problematic “left” arguments about refugees

I have great respect for Slavoj Žižek’s work, and I think that, despite all the criticisms that come with his celebrity status, he has made an important contribution to scholarly and public debates on a number of topics – not least the ever recurring issue of “global capitalism in crisis”. I have been feeling though lately, reading some of his long commentaries on Greece, that he is somewhat losing his shine – his rhetorically sharp, but substantively empty, defense of Syriza’s u-turn on the bailout comes to mind.

Reading his latest piece in the London Review of Books on refugees has unfortunately confirmed to me that I think it is time to let fresh blood on the scene, and new arguments and theories take the spotlight. In this piece, he uses his well known, if not somewhat overused, rhetorical arguments against left liberalism to package what seem to me the thoughts of a disillusioned radical going down a dangerous path of reactionary self-preservation.

In his sophisticated analysis of the root causes of the refugee crisis – nothing to object there – he inserts some really problematic statements, which have little to do with his generally relevant analysis of the world system.

He claims that “we must abandon the notion that it is inherently racist or proto-fascist for host populations to talk of protecting their ‘way of life’. If we don’t, the way will be clear for the forward march of anti-immigration sentiment in Europe.” It’s not clear from his piece, however, what kind of alternative reaction to such problematic positions he is suggesting. His elusive language fuels suspicion that if he were pushed to speak more frankly, nothing positive would come out of it.

Žižek then wholeheartedly embraces the “European way” – that very way he has been critiquing here and elsewhere. He goes on about how refugees should follow the rules of the host countries and avoid engaging in “religious, sexist or ethnic violence” – somewhat implying they are more at risk of doing so than other groups.

Sadly, Žižek’s piece is representative of a wave of problematic arguments about refugees dressed up in left language that is rapidly spreading throughout Europe. This is certainly true in Italy and Greece, especially when apparently humanitarian concerns for the well-being and “choice” of refugees are coupled with quick calls for refugees to leave Italy and Greece asap to reach their “desired” Northern destinations. As an example, just two days ago in the Greek election TV debate, Lafazanis, the leader of the new radical left party Popular Unity, cynically used the metaphor “refugees” to refer to Greek youths leaving the country in search of work, in response to questions and answers on refugees and immigration – this was not a slip, as he used the same metaphor in a press conference some days before. He knows that the metaphor speaks to the feeling of frustration and despair experienced by Greeks living through one of the worst economic crises in Western history, and has no qualms about manipulating those feelings with inappropriate parallels – to feel the full weight of austerity measures in a European country cannot be compared to running away from war.

Žižek’s call for a radical transformation of the workings of capitalism to avoid such crises in the future cannot be taken too seriously in this context. It is used as propaganda to justify dangerous reactionary popular sentiments that intellectual and political leaders are often quick to engage with – for their own short-term political gain or even just to impress their audience.