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Salvage Perspectives #5: Contractions
We have said that there has not for decades been so good a moment to be a fascist. We have said that this is an epoch of unprecedented social sadism, that it is too late to ‘save’ the world, particularly in the face of climate catastrophe, and that we struggle instead because even rubble is worth fighting over. We have said we need a strategy for ruination. This we still hold. However, it would be a dereliction not to register the scale of recent shifts, the opening of possibilities. For a long time, if politics was ‘polarising’, as the Left incanted nervously, it seemed to be with only one pole. No more.
Having been honest about our political pessimism, Salvage was quick to express our surprise and delight at having been wrong about the scale and speed of the transformative Corbyn Event. On stopped-clock grounds, it was, of course, no vindication of those for whom across-the-board optimism is a political duty. But we were, and remain, joyful that history gave us so vivid a reminder of the truth that, formally, we knew: that change can come with startling abruptness. In the face of long-entrenched power of reaction, this rise of a left with growing cultural, political and mass traction, particularly but not only in the UK, is at last polarisation worthy of the term.
That the left can take nothing for granted, that its momentum can be checked and reversed, that it faces implacable enemies on a war footing, that things may get worse before, or rather than, better, is not in doubt. Even so, this is a moment when salvage, the project from which we take our name, seems less impossible.
In our editorial following the UK general election, we wrote that we lived suddenly in a new country. Perhaps, per Gramsci, the old is dying. Perhaps the new may yet be born.
The Epoch of the Failure to Hold
The ‘populism’ invoked by a melancholy punditry in the face of things not going to script is too vacuous to explain anything, but it does advert to a reality. Which is that almost all recent political outcomes in Europe and North America, from Brexit to Corbynmania, from Trump to the PSOE crisis in Spain, continue to verify the Yeatsian maxim: the centre cannot hold. These are the early days of an epoch of that failure.
Even where its decline was seemingly being most sedately managed, in Germany, Merkel’s victory in the German elections was not, as the New York Times yearningly admitted in advance of the vote, as ‘reassuringly boring’ as they might have wished. The entry into the Parliament of fascists, Alternative für Deutchland, for the first time in half a century and with 13 per cent of the vote in a climate of moral panic about refugees and Muslims, is a symptom of a rightward shift of German politics tout court. The AfD took an estimated 1.05m votes from the Christian Democrats, 470,000 votes from the Social Democrats and – following a campaign in which leader Sahra Wagenknecht tried to ‘empathise’ with anti-immigrant sentiment, rather than radicalising on class issues – 400,000 votes from the left Die Linke. This is a compelling reminder that the collapse of the centre will take others down with it, if they fail to rise to the occasion.
There are, of course, various projects to revive centrisms of various flavours: the dreams of a new pro-EU party in the UK, for, as one anonymous MP told the BBC, ‘militant, muscular moderates’: the victory of Tom Perez over Keith Ellison for the chair of the US Democratic Party; Yuriko Koike’s nascent Party of Hope in Japan. And there has been one notable seeming triumph, an exception to the general crisis of the centre: France. There, in a much more deeply polarised and knife-edge society than Britain, where the state of emergency has been in force for a year and a half, Emmanuel Macron carried off a significant political bail-out, taking the presidency with 65 per cent of the vote in the second round of the presidential elections.
Of course, in the second round of the presidential election, there were over 4 million spoiled or blank ballots and over 12 million abstentions. This anti-vote was 50 per cent larger than that of Le Pen, Macron’s routed far-right opponent, against whom, what’s more, large numbers of people held their noses to vote, whoever the non-fascist candidate. And Macron secured the ‘landslide’ of his party in the legislature on the basis of 32 per cent of first-round votes and 49 per cent of second-round votes in the later legislative elections, with depressed turnouts. These deflating truths of psephology notwithstanding, Macron’s achievement is very real. The En Marche movement, cunningly given his initials, exalted to heaven by giddy state broadcasters and left- and right-wing press alike, emanated from the technocratic right-liberal wing of the Socialists. It is led by a man fully implicated in the disastrous Socialist administration, and in the policies that led to its auto-combustion, a man practically born into what Bourdieu called ‘state nobility’, a functionary in the finance ministry as soon as he graduated from the École Nationale d’Administration, an investment banker with close ties to the financial and political nerve centres of the French ruling class. Blairite in style and substance, Macron and team should be yesterday’s men. And yet for the duration of a media bubble, he, and his ‘shock therapy’ capitalist allies, successfully positioned themselves as political outsiders. Due, substantially, to the nadir-states of the existing parties, En Marche was able to come seemingly from nowhere and build momentum.
Where the centre parties were collapsing – the Socialists giving in to pasokification, Les Républicains succumbing to their own termites of corruption and struggling to snatch votes from the Front National – Macron and his allies invented a new vehicle wholesale, and exploited the very instability of politics to fleetingly engineer a buzz-driven pseudo-populist breakthrough for the centrist establishment itself.
A hastily improvised medium of ruling-class struggle, the materials with which it was constructed are exceedingly light: a combination of media hype on one side, and demoralisation on the other. Its programme of economic ‘reform’, including Thatcherite recomposition of the country’s labour laws – promulgated with what voters have called Macron’s ‘authoritarian’ personal style – is deeply unpopular. Macron’s ‘entry in the atmosphere’ of French politics, as Jerome Fourquet, the head of Ifop opinion polls, recently put it, ‘is brutal’: his approval ratings pitched almost from the moment he took power, at a rate unseen in France for twenty years, and they continue to decline. All this casts doubt on his project’s longevity – but, ominously, En Marche is committed to maintaining the ‘state of emergency’, giving the state extra latitude for repression in the coming years. Recently a slogan has appeared on Paris walls: ‘Macron 2017 = Le Pen 2022’. Aspiration or warning?
Either way, the scenario is all too plausible: not only because of the toxic sump of social misery that Macron’s agenda will engender if successfully implemented, but because of the concomitant normalisation of statist authoritarianism and ‘exceptional’ racist repression. The Macron phenomenon can be nothing more than a temporary expedient in the ruling-class attempt to restore normality and the coordinates of capitalist realism. The tide is against it.
Elsewhere, the ruling class has had to cope with its declining political efficacy, and with anti-status-quo forces of right and left, by various other means. The economic blackmail of Greece and the surrender into complicity of a defeated socialist Syriza government with the austerity programmes it had been elected to resist, showed what overwhelming force and demoralisation could achieve. In the US, the encirclement of Trump by the American state, and the neutralisation of his more adventurist hard-right appointees, above all Steve Bannon and General Michael Flynn, is a case of a degree of co-option of the right.
But only a degree.
Death Drive Versus Disavowal
In line with his mandate, but against the wishes not only of the US public but also capitalist America – including, notably, fossil-fuel corporations – Donald Trump has withdrawn from the Paris Accords. There are signs that he may reverse the decision if changes are made to the Accords to the advantage of US energy producers, but at present these are only media reports. This followed his early executive order cancelling Obama’s Clean Power Plan, his appointment of former Exxon boss Rex Tillerson to Secretary of State, and his appointment of climate-change deniers Scott Pruit and Jeff Holmstead to head the Environment Protection Agency.
Such actions have been cast as a war on science. There are elements of truth to this: the EPA is having its budget slashed, as is the National Institutes of Health, and official websites detailing climate science have been deleted. But such war is only on representative agencies of the ‘wet’ sciences, those concerned with human and ecological welfare. NASA, traditionally something of a partner of US imperialism, is getting a budget bump despite having backed the scientific consensus on climate change.
Trump channelled the most unreal wing of petty bourgeois reaction in a campaign resembling his Twitter-feed, denouncing the Paris deal as a ‘global warming hoax’, ‘very expensive … bullshit’, designed to benefit only the Chinese at the expense of Americans. ‘Trump Digs Coal’, a famous campaign placard read: in fact, the only thing Trump was digging was bullshit, and that by the imperial tonne.
Why were fossil-fuel companies, not to mention Exxon itself, firmly against Trump’s position, lobbying him to stick with the Paris Agreement? These firms are not interested in reducing their contribution to climate change, nor in meeting the targets set by the Paris Accords. The deal reached in Paris last April nominally committed signatories to keeping global temperatures at or below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. But numerous studies have demonstrated that the specific measures prescribed under the rubric of Paris would still lead to global temperatures rising up to 3.7 degrees, very close to the current projected estimate of 4 degrees by 2050. This, moreover, is an average estimate: at the extreme, global temperatures could go as high as 8 degrees above pre-industrial levels, with incalculable consequences. As the journal Nature Climate Change, among many others, points out, the climate-change-mitigating policies actually introduced under Obama wouldn’t even come close to their supposed, stated goal.
For Vice’s tech website, Motherboard, the environment journalist Sarah Emerson wrote that the oil firms backing Paris are ‘gambling on energy scenarios that climate scientists insist we cannot afford if we want Earth to remain habitable.’ As for the coal industry, a report by Climate Analytics shows that Obama-era plans ‘would lock-in the energy infrastructure on a carbon-intensive pathway for the next forty years’. Evidently, those firms’ hope was that the Paris Accords – though inadequate in terms of averting climate catastrophe, and around any concrete measures of which they considered inconvenient these companies would in any case unhesitatingly swerve – would secure a system of global governmentality that would protect their profit margins until well beyond the point at which they irreparably damaged the habitable planet. It is doubtless an exasperation to Big Energy that Trump’s eco-poujadist bullshit threatens, through its arrogant destructiveness, to re-politicise the whole question.
The Vicissitudes of Empire
How far has Trump broken with Obama’s methods of imperial management, especially in the Middle Eastern theatre? There are clear signs not only that there is a shift, but that that shift – and this must be said without a scintilla of nostalgia or political support for the cynical, death-dealing realpolitik of that earlier approach – appears to be accelerating overt and dangerous conflicts in ominous fashion. Consider the shooting down of a Syrian regime plane in the skies around the Daesh redoubt of Raqqa. ‘This’, intoned one piece on Foreign Policy, ‘is how Great Power wars get started’. Indeed, which is all the more reason to demand that ‘Great’ – or as Salvage prefers to style them, imperialist – powers remove themselves and their influence from the region. The questions remain, what are they doing there, and how are they doing it, in the first place?
So far – in keeping with his mercurial tergiversations in apparently all areas – there appears to be no consistent ‘Trump doctrine’ in the international arena, beyond a generalised enthusiasm for the omnidirectional use of force to assert and maintain American ‘credibility’. This is, in any case, not so great an exaggeration of a perfectly mainstream view in the US imperial establishment. Amid the Trumpian incoherence, however – and mindful not to exaggerate the contradictionlessness of the Obama government’s approach to the region, which always showed the traces of its committee nature, the unresolved competing immediate priorities in the context of a rapidly shifting situation – certain aims appear to be clarifying. These imply increasing conflict with a buoyant Iran and its Russian ally.
For the US, the order of priorities of preferred outcomes seems to be: 1) defeat Daesh (ISIS); 2) contain Iran; 3) avoid deep entanglement in the conflict with Assad. For Russia, they are: 1) support Assad and eradicate his enemies; 2) strengthen Iran; 3) provide a pole of attraction for Turkey, increasingly alienated from NATO due to US support for the Kurdish YPG. Contrary to the fantasies of the pro-Assad Left, clashes between US- and Iranian-backed pro-Assad forces have nothing to do with the denuded and degraded rebellion now left largely helpless in the face of the regime’s foreign-backed counterrevolution. None of the chaotic potential lines of conflict are fundamentally concerned with whether Assad should rule: rather, they are a result of these conflicting priorities over the control of the territory evacuated by Daesh.
The collapse of Daesh’s monstrous self-proclaimed Caliphate has appeared imminent for some time now: indeed with Mosul fallen and Raqqa under unrelenting bombardment, it even seems to be taking longer than expected. The consequent vacuum will be dangerous, and not just because of the increase in number and savagery of the terror attacks Daesh mounts abroad as it retreats from its heartland. In the Iraqi arena, the retaking of Mosul was achieved by the central state, but in Syria two fronts make possible open clashes amongst the victors. In the North, the US’s Kurdish allies the YPG, moulded into a notionally multi-ethnic force known as the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) is thrusting towards Raqqa while Turkey bombs its bases in the rear. The US shooting-down of the Syrian-regime jet came after Syrian regime forces advanced on SDF positions, not on any anti-Assad militias. In the south-east of Syria, where Jordan and the US demobilised the fight against Assad and instead founded an anti-ISIS battalion called the ‘New Syrian Army’ (now known as the ‘Revolutionary Commando Army’), open conflict between the US and Russia-Iran-Syria is an even greater risk. US forces are embedded in Tanf airforce base in the east of the district. In May of 2017 US airstrikes destroyed a convoy of Iranian-led militias and regime troops heading for the base, presumably to demonstrate a geographical red line. As Iran seeks to establish a corridor between Iraq and its allies in the Syrian regime and Lebanese Hizballah, further clashes are likely. Much of the Anglophone Left has been obsessed with an imaginary ‘proxy war’ in Syria for years: now that their favoured outcome, Assad victory, and their preemptively diagnosed Western co-option of the YPG, have come to pass, such a conflict is actually breaking out . The crowing of campists notwithstanding, this does not mean any diminution in the anti-imperialism of those of us who stand and stood in solidarity with the Syrian revolution. Opposing Assad does not imply any softening of our condemnation of Trumpian intervention, nor does that latter necessitate blunting the former.
The carnage of ‘Syraq’ cannot be separated from the unsettling manoeuvres in the Gulf, which likewise reflect the fallout of victorious counterrevolution. The extraordinary bluster against Qatar by its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE represents an act of revenge by one counterrevolutionary axis in the region. The uprisings of 2011–12 sorted out the anciens regimes broadly into three camps; the hard petro-reactionaries, linking Saudi Arabia and the GCC majority with the Egyptian military and at times, the US; a contrary but equally counterrevolutionary entente consisting of Iran, Hizballah and the Assad regime with Russia in the background; and a third camp willing to tack somewhat, to cynically ride the revolutionary wave, at least to elect Islamist politicians, consisting of Qatar, Turkey, the Muslim Brotherhood, leavened with infrequent American support. The ultimatum issued to Doha represents the revenge of the first group on the third, having as its precondition a hard swing by Trump behind the Saudi axis.
This is, as Adam Hanieh has pointed out in Jacobin, yet another of the proliferating modern contexts in which – shades of Syria – ‘simplistic readings of the Middle East, especially those based on the notion that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” are profoundly unhelpful’ . Qatar finds itself on the wrong side of Saudi Arabia, with the shadow of the US behind it. That does not mean it would not be ‘utterly foolish to consider Qatar, Turkey, or Iran as representative of some progressive realignment’. There is no major player here to support. The hankering on the Left for one is not an itch to be scratched but a condition to be diagnosed.
Trumped up Imperialism and Democrat Dreams
Judging from the dispatches of the histrionic anti-Trump Democrat #theresistance, Trump is constantly one step away from being unmasked as an agent of Russian global intrigue, not to mention a dupe of North Korea, a pawn of Daesh, and a puppet of Assad. All this despite the fact that a few months into his presidency, Trump has escalated the ‘war on terror’, ratcheted up the sabre-rattling against North Korea, and struck a Syrian airfield at least ostensibly in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Idlib. In fairness, Trump had given some grounds for this paranoia. At various points in his freewheeling monologue, he had suggested that Russia and Assad were allies against Daesh, and hadn’t been particularly enthusiastic about a US presence in the Korean peninsula. (And given the, at best, remarkable stupidity and incompetence of various of his allies in making easily falsifiable and falsified claims about their Russian contacts or lack thereof, it is not beyond possibility that Robert Mueller, in charge of the FBI’s ‘Russia investigation’, might yet find something beyond various predictable fiddlings and jostlings for position of the kind to which the US is hardly a stranger, despite its dogged refusal to manifest so far.)
The major foreign-policy priority vis-à-vis which Trump sounded especially hawkish was the war against Daesh, declaring that he would ‘bomb the shit out of them’, and whose families he declared himself ready to blow up, in a series of war crimes. He claimed to have an ‘absolutely fool-proof plan’ for winning the war on terror. As it transpired, his big idea, apart from attempting to ban Muslims from entering the US, was to go to the Pentagon, and to give them thirty days to come up with a plan. They duly presented to him the outlines for escalation left behind by the previous administration: on these The Donald enthusiastically signed off. What this meant was a 20 per cent tilt toward more violence, changed rules of engagement, the slackening of restrictions on targeting and the opening of new fronts. Trump declared parts of Somalia an ‘area of active hostility’, allowing for more flexibility in targeting, and increased the firepower available for raids. Restrictions on drone strikes, already responsible for mass deaths under Obama, were loosened. The total effect of these actions was to give the CIA and the military a much freer hand in prosecuting the war, relieving it of the micro-managing style of the previous administration.
The changes have resulted in a spate of massacres, in Raqqa, Mosul and rural Yemen. Nearly 60 per cent of the total number of civilian deaths reported by US Central Command (Centcom) from the air war on Daesh and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula come from this year. Centcom admits to 484 such deaths to the end of April: Airwars, the website whose raison d’etre is to keep track, puts the estimate at 3800. These are the people out of whom the shit has been bombed.
The politics of Trump’s shift are also evident in his meet-and-greet tour of various dictatorships. General Sisi of Egypt, for example, he declared just a ‘fantastic guy’. This was not a fundamental breach from the Obama doctrine: it was two years ago, under Obama’s administration, that the US had resumed funding the Egyptian dictatorship at a rate of $1.3 billion per year. There is, though, a difference of emphasis. Obama had foregrounded his government’s criticisms of Sisi’s human-rights record; Trump is very understanding about Sisi’s need to shed blood.
Trump’s next step was to decisively repudiate those who had dismissed him as a Pyongyang pawn. The scaremongering of the liberal press over the necessity for US bases in South Korea, even as President Moon-Jae sought to reverse the US-coddling policy of his corrupt predecessors, had not been in vain. Pyongyang, came the alert, was embarking on a new phase of nuclear proliferation that could see it develop the ability to target Washington DC. Trump, Vice-President Pence, and Secretary of State Tillerson let it be known that the Syria strike was intended as a message to Kim Jong-un. Chairman Trump began issuing stern warnings that the US could have a ‘major, major conflict with North Korea’, and sent a naval fleet toward the northern part of the peninsula: ‘an armada, very powerful’. Alongside such sabre-rattling, Trump has tried to amplify the Obama-era policy of ‘strategic patience’, using sanctions to punish the regime and wait it out. Thus, Trump leans on China, as so many US presidents have done, to use its trade links with the North Korean state to bring it to heel on its nuclear programme.
According to Graham Allison, a defence specialist at Harvard, the US is pushing North Korea toward a ‘Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion’, while the South Korean leadership is pleading for other interlocutors to help restore the Sunshine Policy of cooperation with the North. This is not, Allison writes, just a product or matter of Trump’s belligerence, but of the slow-burning logic of US strategy since Marines partitioned the island in 1945: this has been to keep the south as a protectorate under a web of US military bases and anti-missile systems. The only thing that could begin to reverse Pyongyang’s policy would be for the US to accept that it has no legitimate claims in the Korean pensinsula and draw down its military presence. Nor would this necessarily alarm the South Korean state, which is becoming an increasingly reluctant partner in US dominance. Its government did not consent to the latest anti-missile system, developed by Lockheed Martin, being brought into the country, and it is anxious to distance itself from Trump. But the very idea of US withdrawal horrifies the US establishment press and political class, and on this point Trump’s conversion – to the extent that any of his whims can be so dignified – has been welcomed.
Predictably, #theresistance has been rather disarmed by Trump’s break with the Bannonite wing of his base. Rarely was this more evident than in the reaction to Trump’s speech at a Joint Session of Congress glorying in a particularly bloody strike in Yemen, when, murmured a visibly moved Van Jones, he ‘became President of the United States in that moment, period’. (The irony is redoubled by the fact that Trump was claiming credit for a strike that had been planned under the previous administration.) The bombing of a Syrian airfield earned praise from liberal paladins, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and Justin Trudeau. ‘On Syria attack, Trump’s heart came first’, the New York Times sighed. (China Miéville expands on this in his essay in this issue.) In response to the massacre in Mosul, the same newspaper excoriated Congress for ducking their ‘constitutional responsibility’ to pass laws authorising Trump’s war. On North Korea, the media has tended to vacillate between condemning Trump for a lack of nuance, and for being too soft on China in his efforts to lean on Pyongyang, but the idea of a principled disagreement was moot as soon as the White House began to threaten conflict.
As well as seeing their own victories in these hawkish lurches, in more general terms, in the cravings of the Democrats for ‘relevance’, for the power they believe is a birthright denied them by history’s caprice, in Trump’s very erraticness lies hope. ‘He likes us,’ Chuck Schumer can be heard saying on a C-Span microphone, after the president’s abrupt and unlikely collaboration with Schumer and Pelosi on ‘Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals’ immigration policy (to his own party’s rage). ‘Oh, it’s going to work out.’ Rarely have the illusions of a bankrupt centrism been so vividly and so pitifully visible.
All of this has produced some head-scratching. ‘What happened to Putin’s puppet?’ asked a Slate correspondent with weary sarcasm. What has happened is that state managers have proven less deluded than the intelligentsia. They recognised in Trump a metastasising of the culture of imperialism, its essence and its excrescences, a hypostasis of the original formula, not an antidote. The endless sloganising about ‘winning!’ was not sloganising; it is the essence of Trump’s doctrine. And the Pentagon has successfully harnessed this bombastic product of imperialist victory culture to its own extant objectives. That these are themselves earth-threatening doesn’t burden the Keith Olbermann wing of progressivism: they continue their search for Russian dolls.
On the military front, the full political collapse of the centre may have been averted or delayed, but the institutions of neoliberal globalisation are faltering. The Brexit crisis is one aspect of a general politicisation of the global economy and the breakdown of a supposed and once-heralded convergence toward a liberal world order. This is signalled in Trump’s rejection of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) – at the cost of some hundreds of billions in future revenue for US corporations. There is a growing general recognition that ‘globalisation’ is not, in Timothy Morton’s terms, a ‘hyperobject’ exceeding the ability of mere mortals to apprehend it in its totality, and manifesting only in its effects: as much as a description or diagnosis it is, and always has been, an ideology, a project, and a set of distinctive institutional relationships through which the impediments to extracting surplus-value, not just trading barriers but above all various non-commodified sectors of national economies, are progressively rolled back.
In its actually-existing form, it is also, crucially, an imperialist project, organising under the tutelage of the US Treasury Department, Wall Street and the IMF, a set of arrangements in which surplus is not just extracted but circulated through the increasingly byzantine mechanisms of ownership known as the world’s major stock markets. Surplus-values flow from labour to capital everywhere, but the major concentrations of capital to benefit from these global flows are located in the ‘advanced’ economies. The fact that this is not uncomplicatedly true, and that the US-led imperium is increasingly modified by the rise of the BRICS, among others, not to mention Putin’s growing assertiveness, and the internal political weaknesses of the US ruling class, does not mean it is not broadly still the case. Currently the problems for US dominance are primarily political, in terms of the ability of its ruling class to maintain a grip on the system’s management. These problems are now feeding through into the rupture in the US geopolitical strategy that has been in place since World War II.
The crisis of US military efficacy, and the effects of the credit crunch, which exposed the dysfunctions of this system, had been managed by the Obama administration reasonably effectively. Having moved to protect the US financial sector with bailouts, it implemented mild regulatory reforms which, in effect, shored up the political power of the banks. It re-pivoted US military commitments to southern Asia, and invested heavily in expanding technologies of ‘risk-transfer’ war, such as those notorious drone strikes. Economically, having caulked the institutions of global economic liberalism, it focused on its trade war with China by preparing a series of trade, property and investors’ rights agreements between south-east Asian, Australian and North American economies – the Trans Pacific Partnership – and a similar set of agreements between the United States and the European Union, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Some snafus and crises aside, this was looking broadly successful.
The Trump project, in this context, is worse than a setback for the US ruling class. It is the first major breach within the US with global liberalism. Prior to Trump’s reversion to Pentagon orthodoxy, this breach also included threatened military retrenchments beyond the frontiers of the ‘war on terror’. Notwithstanding his reversals on NAFTA and TTIP, he continues to oppose US involvement in the TPP, and his programme still includes elements of national protectionism in an economy whose leading capitalist sectors have nothing to gain from such policies. Meanwhile, the other TPP signatories are pressing ahead, China has accelerated its plans for a regional trade deal, and the EU has, with much fanfare, signed its own more limited trade pact with Japan. At the G20 summit in Hamburg, Trump found himself isolated as Merkel and allies worked to outflank him on the Paris Agreement and global trade. He was excoriated in print by co-architects of the Washington Consensus like Jeffrey Sachs and Larry Summers. The right-wing Australian journalist Chris Uhlman summed up the mood of those nostalgic for US global dominance when he complained that Trump had ‘no desire and no capacity to lead the world’, and that he was ceding ‘power to Russia and China … Some will cheer the decline of America, but I think we’ll miss it when it’s gone. And that’s the biggest threat to the values of the West’. Of course, the biggest capital will continue to attempt to divert Trump’s agenda, and if it cannot, to make the best of it: this is not the same, however, as claiming (as do some on the left) that Trumpism is a mere continuation of the norm, let alone a ‘corporate coup’.
Trump’s main compensatory offer to the American bourgeoisie, though he is struggling to get most of the programme passed by Congress, is a raid on the public sector — accumulation-by-dispossession. It is strongly supported by small businesses which feel crushed by ‘big government’ and the more adventurist wings of capital, and it is absolutely certain to compound the already grotesque dysfunctions and infrastructure failures in the US economy. This project was greeted with cheers on the part of America’s petty bourgeoisie: the National Federation of Independent Businesses reported soaring ‘optimism’ in the early months of the Trump era, only for demoralisation to ensue as the Senate obstructed Trump’s rollback of Obamacare, a key desideratum of the grifting, low profit-margin employers.
This is a tentative experiment in administering petty-bourgeois reaction within a still bourgeois state, and it is a pathology of unacknowledged imperial decline.
Excrescences of Accumulation
The global economy has been showing modest signs of growth over the last year. But this covers great unevenness, as the ‘emerging and developing economies’ are growing rapidly, while the ‘advanced economies’ actually saw their growth-rate decline. What is more, this comes after years in which the IMF has been forced to repeatedly downgrade its growth predictions. Such growth as is being experienced is cyclical. Over the last decade, the global economy has been wracked by three major shocks: the credit crunch; the eurozone crisis; and the global slump in commodity prices. For the last two or three years, with governments pursuing expansionary monetary policies there has been a degree of stabilisation. And yet, the ‘advanced economies’ are stabilising at a much lower level. Not only that: even certain somewhat helpful (to their ruling-class beneficiaries) factors, such as the surprisingly low rate of US inflation, are mysterious to them (the sluggish inflation is clearly predicated on insecure labour and pitiful wage growth, and/but, as the Financial Times puts it, it has ‘genuinely flummoxed’ central bankers), and are potential forces for instability. Jon Faust, an ex-advisor to the head of the Federal Reserve, has understatedly described the ‘added uncertainty’ of this ‘confusing economic picture’ as ‘not a good thing’.
What is more, signs of capitalist investment are weak. The decline in gross fixed-capital formation, the investment in new physical assets by firms, has not been reversed, suggesting that such investment as is taking place is through non-physical assets in the financial sector. New trading, property and investors’-rights agreements are supposed, by rolling back public ownership, workers’ rights and other barriers, to kick-start a new wave of investment by Making Capitalism Profitable Again. Thus far, that simply hasn’t happened: and this stagnation is taking place at a time when the polarising effects of economic decline are still being metabolised by the political systems of Europe and North America. Global trade growth continues to be much lower than global GDP growth. As the World Trade Organisation complains: ‘since the financial crisis, the ratio of trade growth to GDP growth has fallen to around 1:1. Last year marked the first time since 2001 that this ratio has dropped below 1, to a ratio of 0.6:1.’ The WTO also estimates that protectionism is on the rise, with G20 economies implementing 1,583 new trade restricting measures and removing just 387. Globalisation is in crisis.
How does this feed back into the European Union? The eurozone crisis has, for now, been resolved to the benefit of the German ruling class. The tightening up of the Stability and Growth Pact, making penalties for breaching spending rules more severe, was accompanied by a centralisation of power in the hands of the European Central Bank. State-inflected ordoliberalism, which underpins the European institutions from the eurozone to the single market, is for the time being strengthened in power, not weakened. Greece has been pummelled into submission, its demoralised Left in office but decisively out of power.
And yet, the effects of the crisis and its austerian resolution continue to be metabolised in the form of a growing political polarisation. This has been most visible on the right (Marine Le Pen in France, Orban in Hungary, the leading Brexit campaigns in Britain), but also on the Left, in the form of Podemos, La France insoumise, Corbyn’s Labour, and as even evidenced by tentative left captures of the leaderships in the French and Spanish Socialists.
The Trials of Opposition
In the aftermath of the British general election, the axis on which a battered Labour centre and its social-media snark-dogs have sought to reconstitute themselves has been the question of Brexit. Corbyn, goes the line from The Economist to the Spectator’s Blairite Stephen Daisley, is a nostalgist forcing a hard Brexit, one which will do no favours to his young supporters, and which betrays their socially liberal values. Alternatively, as other Labour critics such as Tom Watson and Gloria de Piero have had it, he is a trendy Islington vicar who doesn’t understand the need to woo the working class – by menacing immigrants.
Certainly, the election result has changed the terrain on which this argument is had. No longer a matter of revisiting immediate post-Brexit vote arguments about ‘Lexit’ or ‘Lemain,’ the issue is now what a left-wing government should do about the single market, and free movement. Salvage has, from a position of committed solidarity with Corbyn, allowed that he has not always been clear in his pronouncements on these issues, particularly with regard to the former, and that even if what has presumably been a deliberate ‘creative ambiguity’ has not always been un-useful, nor has it failed to create unnecessary difficulties. That moment, however, appears to be over, not least as part of a move to capitalise on the ongoing catastrophic split in the Tories on these issues – the most overt symptom of their own secular crisis – over which they are decreasingly able to paper.
Most importantly, Salvage is unapologetically and militantly in favour of open borders. This doesn’t just mean ‘free movement’ in the Schengenian – racist – sense, with its Fortress of border controls, illegal pushbacks and Frontex harassment of refugee boats. Proof of the reality of that version of ‘free movement’ is the constant washing-up of drowned refugees on European shores. This necessitates radical opposition to the border and its race-making practices, opposition to the besieged, tear-gassed shanty prison in Calais, opposition to detention centres and border raids on workers whose visa has lapsed.
This approach, of course, is in contrast to the EU’s Tory apologists, such as Ken Clarke, who stood in the Houses of Parliament in the afterglow of the Grenfell fire and explained that the ‘real problem’ was illegal immigration, which he illustrated by the fact that some Grenfell residents were without documentation. But it is also, perhaps counterintuitively, starkly opposed to the record of the Blairites and Labour Firsters who berate Corbyn for – wrongly, certainly, though our criticism comes from a very different starting point than does that his Labour EU-phile critics – declaring an end to ‘free movement’. Their own record is quite shameful. It was a Labour government, that of ‘their’ Labour, which introduced detention camps for migrants and asylum seekers – even those who, on the British state’s own terms, are lawful – and who introduced the policy of breaking up families. It was under the rule of their lost king Tony Blair that the government systematically sought to reduce non-European migration, in deference to a reactionary press consensus. Refugees from Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan were deported on the basis of official rationales in stony contrast to the lachrymose rhetoric of ‘humanitarian intervention’. It was Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett who bragged that asylum applications ‘dropped like a stone’ by the time he left the Home Office.
Indeed, one of the ironies of this present concern is that, while Corbyn marked his first day as Labour leader by attending a pro-refugee rally in central London, and displeased lobby journalists by focusing on the refugee crisis in his first months of leader, it was the Blairite and centre-left commentariat who faulted Corbyn for being out of touch on the issue of immigration. Polly Toynbee (still making the Left reel with cognitive dissonance by continuing to sing Corbyn’s praises) insisted that any viable leadership must be willing to move to the right on immigration. It was Owen Smith, Corbyn’s leadership opponent, the Normal Bloke, who floated the idea that ‘there are too many immigrants’ in parts of Britain.
The justificatory technique for this relentless recourse to racism has been a poisonous, disingenuous elision embedded in the category of Labour supporters’ ‘legitimate concerns’. That many Labour voters have concerns about immigration is not in doubt: that they are ‘legitimate’ certainly is. Such ‘concerns’ (over numbers, over pressure on wages, over ‘way of life’, etc) are and can be shown to be overwhelmingly and flatly false, and it is the task of the Left precisely to make that case – unstintingly, as patiently as necessary – not to kowtow to fallacies. (It is for this reason that any Labour figure who floats the ‘concerns’, let alone the ‘legitimate concerns’, of Labour voters, should immediately be asked to clarify whether they agree with those concerns.)
During the general election campaign, Corbyn refused to set a figure for reduction and stuck to his position that immigration is not ‘too high’ – though he did uncomfortably suggest that immigration would ‘probably’ come down under a Labour government, which smuggled ideological bait in with a claim of fact. Still, this was all very far from the defensive posturing and performative ‘toughness’ in which any other Labour leadership would have engaged. Which is why anonymous figures on the Labour Right briefed the press that Corbyn needed to ‘toughen up’ the message on immigration in order to meet the mood ‘on the doorstep’. Not only did Corbyn refuse to do so, he also consistently refuted the right-wing arguments blaming immigrants for low wages and austerity, instead offering left-wing solutions to any potential difficulties, such as stronger unions, workers’ rights and public investment.
All the more distressing then, that Corbyn, having achieved a magnificent reversal of the odds in a general election precisely by presenting an alternative to bourgeois common sense, has conceded rhetorical ground to that common sense on immigration: referring, even leavened with sincere anti-racist rhetoric, to the ‘wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions’ in construction. Such language represents in part a compromise between his principles and a parliamentary party and management team well to his right, and it is both wrong from the standpoint of working-class solidarity – capitalists destroy conditions, not our fellow workers born in other places – and politically, strategically wrong-headed. The general election outcome has proven the prevailing assumptions of his Labour critics about the necessity of pandering to electoral racism wrong.
There is a way forward for a Corbynite anti-racist immigration policy, one which expands border freedoms rather than reducing them. If Labour is to be elected on a radical manifesto in 1945-style sweep, it should draw attention to the preconditions for 1945-style reforms and investment: a sharp increase in the labour supply mostly coming, then, from the New Commonwealth. National reconstruction, and the development of universally popular institutions such as the National Health Service, depended on immigration. Nigel Farage spent a lot of time before Brexit engaged in an argument about how and why a UKIP immigration policy would in fact be less racist than Schengenian ‘free movement’, since immigration from Commonwealth countries like India could increase. This was in staggeringly bad faith, but Labour could, in fact, take him on in this arena. Whether or not Schengenian free movement is adhered to – and at an absolute minimum, and critically, it should be – Labour could, and should, break with the doctrine of Fortress Europe, and roll back border restrictions on migrants from outside Europe.
If Schengenian free movement is racist, the single market is a Thatcherite achievement. The ‘four freedoms’, barring free movement of people, are freedoms for capital, which can be and will be asserted against government restrictions. This has implications for any Corbyn-led Labour government, whose agenda includes blocking privatisation in the NHS and renationalisation of the railway, the Royal Mail, energy firms and water companies. While the polemics of the Lexiters overstated the impediments to nationalisation policies represented in single-market laws favouring free movement of capital, and European Court of Justice rulings interpreting those laws, such laws are nonetheless an impediment, and represent a much greater asset for capital than they do for its opponents.
As things stand, however, it looks increasingly improbable that Corbyn would be able to escape from these restraints while preserving the advantages to British businesses of single market membership. Even if the holy grail of ‘tariff-free access’ was obtained – which the EU appears to have ruled out – there would inevitably be non-tariff barriers. This wouldn’t intrinsically have to be a problem for a left-wing government to overcome. Some potential non-tariff barriers to trade, for example, include: environmental protections; workers’ rights; social protections; public ownership; a financial transactions tax. However, if a Labour government wished to take any opportunities to increase such barriers, it would need a radical new growth model for capitalism – the capitalism it would hardly have overthrown, and which, in the short term, it would therefore be attempting to manage in as radical reformist a fashion as possible – one going far beyond the £250 billion stimulus programme plus mild redistribution and expansion of the social wage currently being offered. And it would need to exploit, wherever the opportunity arises (and it most probably will arise) the weakening of the Washington Consensus to expand its own domain of freedom to act.
Their Hope and Ours
As sketched here, this alternative model is, of course, highly general and speculative. But we have reached a point where it is a task of the left, including the far and extra-parliamentary left, to attempt to flesh out such proposals. Our politics will and must remain based on a fundamental No to the totality that Trotsky calls the ‘social lie’. But we must go further. Even in so traditionally fallow a ground as the US, one of the few good things to emerge out of the Trumpocene has been a startling increase in political debate, activism and action, including at the grassroots.
Not of course, that all such mobilisation is on our side. At a most ugly level, the confidence of the fascist right – their new utopianism – has reached levels not seen in a political lifetime, culminating in the shocking mass march, confrontations, beatings and murder in Charlottesville. The level of this danger is obvious, clear and present. That the US far right is currently tearing itself apart with post-Charlottesville infighting is a small comfort, if not one that we can count on to continue; the militant response of activists on the ground is far greater.
Closer to the mainstream of US politics – though of course the Trump regime is distinguished by the unusually obvious permeability of the membrane between it and gutter fascism – issues such as free tuition at public universities and single-payer healthcare have gained unprecedented political traction. Of course the Left must and will fight militantly for a shift towards what would be, in the US-context, progressive political earthquake. And also, crucially, to shame the Democratic establishment which remains implacably opposed to such structural shifts. In the Senate in September 2017, all but four Democratic senators – deep in the era of #theresistance and much-touted opposition to the Trump White House – joined the overwhelming majority of Republicans and approved an $80 billion increase in military spending, $26 billion more than Trump himself asked for , and $33 billion more than the estimated cost of Bernie Sanders’ tuition proposals that Hillary Clinton dismissed as an impossibility tantamount to him saying ‘America should get a pony.’
There are among Salvage’s friends and comrades those striving to take over the desiccating carapace of the Democratic Party from within, to push it to the left. We are glad to debate such methods, but moments such as this vote underline why we are profoundly sceptical of this strategy. That party’s hope for business as usual is both despicable and doomed.
Which is not to say that the political crisis does not demand a political, left response including at an institutional level, even in the US. Elsewhere – certainly in the UK – we are, unexpectedly, at a point where, in the short- and medium-term, for all that odds remain stacked against them, groups committed to variably radical reformism might soon come to sit at the reins of institutional, even state, power. Real change comes from below, of course, and grassroots activism remains paramount and indispensable; its influence on the institutions, of course, is not one way. The radical left has to continue with the hard task of mooting concrete reformist proposals – for strategic reasons, certainly (given the ubiquity of the attack that we are ‘only interested in opposing’ things), but also because we have a chance of implementing them.
It should be stressed that all our comradely criticisms of Corbyn above come in the context of the ongoing political earthquake of the growing power of the left within the Labour Party. The recent 2017 Labour Conference was characterised by the despondency of the Blairite right, utterly bereft of ideas or strategy, and the consolidation of the Corbyn project’s institutional power within the party. The activist Michael Walker has described how the left has come, quickly, to have power at the base of the party and at its top, with its internal opponents now a layer of mid-ranking bureaucrats and activists. From this position, of course, they can still do considerable damage, but the mood of the left with regard to these in-party shifts is not one of triumphalism but, justifiedly, of cautious triumph.
A year ago, the Corbynite movement Momentum seemed in split-ridden crisis. Since then, as Corbyn’s star has ascended, it has solidified its base and achieved genuinely astonishing things in a short space of time, winning over some critics, and gaining the grudging respect of others. One of the greatest sources of power and hope in the organisation is the diminution of rote optimism. In distinction to the sometimes breathless rah-rah tone of its 2016 ‘The World Transformed’ conference, the vastly more confident 2017 gathering was characterised by repeated stress on difficulties to come, on the fact that Corbyn’s greatest challenges will face him if he comes to power. This awareness has provoked not despondency but the appropriate and necessary wargaming (such as John McDonnell’s sensible preparation for a possible run on the pound). It is absolutely a sign of growing strength. These will be good problems to have.
All of this is a transformative first step. Any solutions to these problems, any triumphs, will not, of course, mean the defeat of capitalism. Which is precisely why, to a return to a recurrent Salvage theme, it is so crucial that the revolutionary Left, the Left committed to moving beyond the wage and value forms, must take on the hard task of this thinking for the immediate term. We strive to reform the system and to push beyond it, and positions designed for such a project demand specifics and subtleties: it is in the delineation of such that we hope Salvage can play a part. Unlike even the most sincere and radical reformist who sees no such prospect, we fight for policies not only to ameliorate the day-to-day for workers and the oppressed, but with an eye to the rupture without which emancipation will not come.