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Or What’s a Hell For?: Salvage Perspectives #3
‘An atmosphere of deep unease is building’ in what ‘is likely to remain a bleak landscape’. The words are not those of Salvage – though we concur – but of a report into the British manufacturing sector from Markit Economics and the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply. The sector is in contraction for the first time since 2013, falling from a low base to 49.2. This occurs as UK construction sees its weakest expansion since 2013, and the Office for National Statistics reports a fall in UK GDP growth to 0.4 per cent in the first quarter of 2016, from 0.6 per cent in the previous quarter. ‘[T]he outlook’, according to HSBC, ‘is getting worse, not better’.
The government blames the slump and this baleful vista on Brexit fears, on which even mainstream economists have politely called bullshit: ‘It is hard,’ demurs Pantheon Macroeconomics, ‘… to attribute the decline in consumer goods demand solely to Brexit risk.’ In addition to problems of sterling appreciation and weak foreign demand, is a domestic problem: ‘We think that weaker demand for consumer goods reflects a fundamental slowdown in households’ real income growth. Inflation is slowly picking up, employment growth has faded markedly, and welfare spending cuts intensified in April.’
Yet again, within its own stated terms of ‘fixing the economy’, austerity is failing: it will persist, however, as has been repeatedly pointed out, because its real purpose is one of economic, political and social reconfiguration.
Salvage’s third perspectives are completed just after two sets of results: the shocking manufacturing figures; and the local and mayoral elections across the UK, a ‘test’ for Corbyn that his enemies, particularly in his own party, were eager for him to lose.
The Testing Times of British Politics
A central issue facing Britain as Salvage went to press is the forthcoming referendum over membership of the European Union, on the topic of which a fissure runs right through the heart of the Conservative Party – and to a much lesser extent, the Labour Party. For an extended consideration of this issue by Salvage’s editors, and our position with regard to it, see the article ‘Neither Westminster nor Brussels’ in this issue. Spoiler alert: on this, whichever side wins, the Left lost some time ago.
If the British Left has already given up the initiative on the issue of Europe, the Tory split on the subject has had a few welcome side-effects, spilling over into other policy areas and seriously undermining the government’s coherence.
Recently symptomatic of this fragility was the resignation of Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, from the cabinet, ostensibly over a pang of conscience induced by chancellor Osborne’s cuts to disability benefits in the most recent budget. Few believed Duncan Smith’s explanation for his resignation, since he had previously happily implemented ruthless measures against the disabled: he is seen as a leader of the Eurosceptic faction congealing around Boris Johnson’s challenge to the Cameron-Osborne leadership. Nonetheless in resigning as he did, on the issue that he did, he attacked the Tory leadership on its weakest point. For unlike most of this government’s austerity budgets, this one has proven to be overwhelmingly unpopular. The faint attempt at a quasi-Blairite paternalism with the headline-grabbing ‘sugar tax’ did little to obscure the class character of the budget, in which corporation tax cuts were coterminous with disability benefit cuts.
In this circumstance, Corbyn’s virtues came to the fore. Rather than attempt to steal Tory clothes – or indeed, to put on a proper suit, straighten his tie, and sing the national anthem – he went on the attack. Rather than shaming the disabled, he sought to shame the government. This should be standard fare for a Labour opposition. The fact that it isn’t, and hasn’t been for a long time, is a sign of how far to the right the Blairites pushed the boundaries of debate. Nonetheless, this episode gave Corbyn an opportunity to demonstrate a sharpness that leadership has often blunted in him. Not for the first time, he has demonstrated that a Labour opposition which is actually prepared to oppose can score surprisingly easy victories against the Tories – winning policy reversals and beginning to subtly alter the ideological tone of national debates. Within twenty-four hours of the budget, worried about the Labour opposition being joined by backbench rebels, Osborne began to execute a reversal on the cuts to personal independence payments for the disabled, announcing that their implementation was pending consultation. If Corbyn can ensure Labour holds the line – a big if, on which more below – this could prove more significant for his leadership than the government’s previous backtracks, first on a major prisons contract with Saudi Arabia, then on cuts to working families tax credits.
Now, for the first time since Corbyn took the leadership, Labour has seen leads in consecutive polls. Since these follow a run of generally poor polling for Labour, in which the Tories lead by anything between five and ten percentage points, there are good reasons to be cautious about them. Extrapolating from a slight lead, where it exists, to any general-electoral outcome is a vexed business, given that it is unclear how Labour’s added support would be distributed in terms of seats. Thus far, in local-election results, the pattern has been for Labour to do well in traditionally strong areas, and to lose votes badly in Tory areas and among swing voters. Corbyn is rebuilding the core vote, as indeed he must if Labour’s long-term decline is to be reversed, but that isn’t necessarily compatible with racking up the kinds of results that would get his enemies off his back in the shorter- to medium-term.
The perspective outlined in the first, pre-Corbyn, issue of Salvage – that of the crisis of electoral organisations severed from their class base – retains relevance even after the welcome re-politicisation spurred by his victory. The electoral race between Labour and the Tories will ultimately be decided by whose crisis is greater. Labour has lost Scotland for the foreseeable future, while a sizeable chunk of the Tory base has seceded to UKIP. The salience of the EU is currently exacerbating the Tories’ crisis, but it is not yet clear that the referendum will have anything like as enduring and geographically concentrated an impact as the Scottish indyref outcome was for Labour. There is also plenty of time between the outcome of the referendum and the next election for the government to ride out the crisis, or crises, reconstitute its support and pump-prime the economy to make just enough people feel just secure enough for just long enough to carry a plurality. It has, of course, been done before: our pre-millenial readers will recall the extraordinary, sere Major government waiting almost its entire term for merciful dispatch. Nonetheless, for the time being, Corbyn’s strategy has started to bear some fruit.
All of this, until recently, had left Labour’s right-wing ultras, worn-out algorithms set to the politics of the turn of the century, feeling somewhat out of the loop. One vehicle for the coup they hoped to mount against Corbyn is a group of MPs calling themselves Labour’s ‘first eleven’, who exist ostensibly to offer a ‘voter-friendly’ response to Tory economic policy, and establish Labour’s ‘credibility’ on this axis.
On budget day, we were subjected to the truly rage-inducing spectacle of the recalcitrant Labour backbenches remaining stiffly silent or sullenly fucking about on their smartphones behind Corbyn as he competently attacked tax cuts for business and the rich, and benefits cuts for the disabled, choosing to humiliate him with their sulks and lack of support as he attacked a right-wing austerian government and forced it onto the back foot. They, instead, formulated questions about whether Osborne had unnecessarily squandered the £27bn tax windfall predicted by the Office of Budgetary Responsibility. The combination of spite and useless bluster from this cohort makes one wish that Corbyn’s enforcers were as ruthless as Mandelson and Campbell back in the day, with pagers and knuckle-dusters to keep MPs on-message.
We at Salvage have long felt that Corbyn’s efforts toward a ‘kinder politics’ lean too heavily on the prefigurative, and that there is a case for targeted brutality. In the absence of such a strategy within the Labour party, it is the extra-parliamentary Left which must excoriate these lost and sulking Blairite sheep, and let them know their perfidy is not unnoticed.
The non-relevation that Corbyn and MacDonell keep lists of hostile and negative right-wing MPs is a good start: we only wish for better lists and more action on their basis. What else are parliamentary whips for?
For a Red Terror on the back benches. For a Malcolm Tucker of the Left.
Unfortunately, under considerable pressure from right-wing Labour MPs, it is the left who are being whipped into line, in the context of a largely contrived controversy about allegations of antisemitism in the party. Without question, Naz Shah MP’s reference to ‘the Jews’ in an old Facebook post was a specimen of antisemitism. No doubt offhand references to ‘the Jewish Lobby’ are racist. Not every accusation of antisemitism is false. But the handful of accurate claims are not only leavened with bullshit, in which fair comment on Israel is maligned as racism, but also inflated to gigantic proportions in order to justify mobilising the apparatus of suspension, investigations pending exclusion, and party-wide inquest. This has all the contours of a classic witch-hunt driven by moral panic. Unfortunately Corbyn, under enormous pressure and perhaps not sufficiently wary of who the pitch-forks are really aimed at, has acquiesced in this.
This concession was no doubt driven in part by the urgent need to draw the sting out of the issue before the recent local elections. The attempt by the Labour Right, some of whom had been hammering at this issue for months before it found legs, to throw this election has been astonishing. And this sabotage by the faction John Prescott has labelled the ‘Bitterites’ has been accompanied by dire warnings coming from every authority including senior Labour strategists, of catastrophe on election day. Corbyn was supposed to be leading Labour into unelectable oblivion. The results on 6 May 2016 did not match these prognoses, being largely respectable outside of Scotland. Indeed, Sadiq Khan’s victory in London was won with a margin of over ten per cent despite his bland campaign and the sabotage of anonymous Labour MPs.
Nonetheless, while Corbyn’s results are good enough to see off the coup-merchants for now, they still leave Labour weak in England and Wales, and postmortem in Scotland. Corbyn’s aim of fixing Labour’s crisis from the left is a long way from fulfilment, and there is little sign yet that he has persuaded people beyond the core vote of his prospectus for an anti-austerity government.
The Bellies of the Beasts: Elephants
The dark carnival of the US presidential election season is upon us. In considering it, we must start by admitting sheer surprise.
Any online archaeologist of the left social-media-sphere will find, scant months ago, a plethora of long-standing radicals echoing liberals, exhorting more excitable and alarmist comrades to calm down; explaining, with the Olympian patience of the socialist know-all, that it is impossible that Donald Trump will secure the Republican Presidential nomination.
Salvage has repeatedly insisted that a Left in dire need of reconstruction must learn humility. So we start by acknowledging the shock of Trump. His ascent to becoming the nominee requires us to rethink nostrums. Those who denied the possibility were not stupid: they were deploying outdated certainties in a new time. As the Financial Times has put it, ‘If the normal rules of politics applied this [the certainty of Trump’s failure in his own party, among other things] would be true. They do not.’
The FT goes on maliciously to link the rise of Trump – and Marine Le Pen – with that of Jeremy Corbyn, to ‘explain’ these phenomena as part of the ‘story of modern democracies [which] is one of an insurgency against the elites’. This response, directed against a tenebrous ‘populism’, has become the preferred one of ruling classes in the face of the collapse of twentieth-century political order. Such ahistorical abstractions elide distinctions between left and right – to pathologise the former. It is no wonder the mainstream media is so titillated by the imaginary Trump/Sanders swing voter, a poor white man in thrall to some nebulous fury, only secondarily concerned with the differentia specifica of his chosen candidate – most obviously overt racism versus overt anti-racism (see for example Gerald Seib in the Wall Street Journal, ‘Angry White Males Propel Donald Trump – and Bernie Sanders’, or the Guardian’s ‘The Bernie Sanders voters who would choose Trump over Clinton’). The apotheosis of this ‘analysis’ is to be found in Kevin Williamson’s National Review article that, contrary to the homogenising impulse common to White nationalists and the worst internet ‘radicals’, laid bare the view of America’s White ruling class towards its white workers: ‘downscale communities … that deserve to die’. There are such communities in the US, but they are to be found on Wall Street, not in Appalachia. Salvage welcomes the glimmer of a movement of the angry, of colour and of pallor, that might stand a chance of putting US plutocracy out of our misery.
For, notwithstanding a few outliers, the elision of ‘angry populisms’ is bogus: Sanders’s supporters tend to be young, working class, left-liberal to left, and (to a small but significant and growing degree) multiracial. Trump’s supporters don’t correlate with any particular income group, are overwhelmingly white, older, and are radically authoritarian. Of which more below.
It is true that, as we have previously discussed, these disparate movements – including the embattled rise of Corbyn – are due to the decay of the institutions of representative democracy, in the context of austerian authoritarianism in a limp and beleaguered recovery, increasing and entrenching inequality, and a more and more brazen – sadistic – ruling class; and, especially in the case of the American right, the cynically stoked racism and ressentiment of white supremacy. The reason it was supposedly certain that Trump would not get the nomination is that the machine does not work that way. But there has not in generations been a time when institutional certainties are less certain. We live in a moment when the machine no longer works properly at all. The fracturing of each party’s base is producing a similar, though mediated, crack in a previously relatively coherent, well-managed political leadership. The normally seamless circulation of power is subject to crippling deadlocks. Trump is merely one symptom of this crisis, though an exceptionally morbid one.
There were earlier, protean signs of this instability in the rise of the Tea Party (a movement overlapping with later Trumpism). And with that rise came early evidence, too, of the recalcitrance and inadequacy of left analysis in changing times, in the all-too-common insistence that this was an ‘astroturf’ movement, an artificial creation of the party’s machinery, subservient to it. The GOP’s various efforts to culvert Tea Party’s energies notwithstanding, this was never simply the case.
Of course it’s sensible to start from an assumption of the rationality, Machiavellian rigour and strength of our enemies, and their power to push forward their (sometimes conflictual) agenda(s). But Trump is not part of grand Republican strategy. Nor is he precisely a pathology of it. He is an unintended consequence, no ex-nihilo Event but the culmination of a trend. He is an excr/ essence thereof – essence and excressence in superposition.
It’s a sign of the severity of the breakdown that all of the options recently facing the aghast Republican establishment were bad. Now Ted Cruz and John Kasich have conceded: even those unappetising options are no more.
Presented with a fait accompli, the institutions of the party will likely accommodate, surrender to, try and/or even be able to domesticate Trump. ‘A lot of donors are trying to figure their way into Trump’s orbit,’ in the words of Spender Zwick, Mitt Romney’s national finance chairman in 2012. ‘There is a growing feeling among many that he may be the guy, so people are certainly seeing if they can find a home over there.’
The GOP establishment’s mood, according to Rich Lowry of the National Review, is ‘moving from fear/loathing to resignation/rationalisation’. Motivated by personal ambition as much as by strategy, such accommodation reached a bizarre zenith in the endorsement of Trump by the governor of New Jersey Chris Christie, cravenly selling his previously touted credentials as a ‘moderate’, as well as any last rags of dignity, for a mess of pottage. The problems here are obvious: Trump is still considered unlikely to defeat Clinton, and his unprecedented strain of brutal, charismatic, vulgarian swagger may stain the party brand for years.
There is also talk of a #NeverTrump crew. It is possible that a few Republicans might declare, for this election, for Hillary Clinton. Eliot Cohen, a former Bush State Department official, has called her ‘the lesser of two evils’ in this context. This may be the choice of some neoconservative intellectuals more committed to their project than their party, certainly when it acts out in this fashion, but it will only ever be a minoritarian position.
More likely, for the disgusted Republican, is abstention for this cycle. And indeed, many Republicans, whatever they claim, have written off the 2016 election – some, including high-profile figures like Bushes 1, 2a and 2b, have refused to endorse their party’s candidate.
There is enjoyment to be had in the right’s miserable autocannibalism. But from none of this breakdown is there is any certainty that the Left will benefit. This is an opportunity too, in most cases one easier to grasp, for the hard, far and fascist right (see Poland, Sweden, France, inter various alia). As David Broder has noted in an astute article on Trump and fascism – one that takes a different view to that of Salvage, on which more below – the outcome may resemble France in particular: a deracinated assembly of establishment parties facing an insurgent, racist hard right flattered by the contrast. Even where the Left is able to use such cleavages to its advantage, whatever toehold it gains will be instantly assailed, as the experience of Corbyn – hemmed in, ridiculed, blocked and undermined from all sides, caught between compromise and coup – shows.
The ahistorical and evacuated ‘rage’ by which liberals ‘explain’ Trump- and Sanders- and Corbyn- and much-else-ism does nothing of the kind. It is true, however, that we need to engage seriously with the politics of anger – or, better, angers – concretely theorised, in class and historical terms. Rakeem Jones, a protestor at a Trump rally, may be as angry as John McGraw who sucker-punched him, but their furies are differently derived, doing different things, and contain different potentialities.
This brings us back to that other key question: that of the nature of Trump’s campaign. Anger plus resentment plus populism, after all, is closely associated with fascism. And whether or not Trump’s can be considered a fascist campaign has become a key political question.
Our position is that rather than Trump being just another bombastic right-winger or some strange anomaly of this moment, Trumpism is (potentially) nascent fascism. And that both theorising and organising should proceed on that basis.
The claim that Trump is a fascist is becoming a mainstay of an appalled liberalism. The characterisation, of course, is not disinterested: it serves as a rallying call demanding liberals and the left fall into line with the Democratic Party. To hold their noses if they will, but to acknowledge that in the face of the Greater, None-Greater-Than, Evil of Fascism, not to come out for Clinton would be an unconscionable political indulgence. All that is necessary for evil to triumph, etc.
Unsurprising, then, that so many on the Left, rightly refusing to be so corralled, have been deeply sceptical of claims that Trump’s politics are fascist. It is not, after all, as if these are the first times such analogies have been made: though less exuberantly (and much less plausibly), the ‘fascism’ of Bush was asserted by those eager to recruit Leftists for Obama in 2008, for example. In their admirable refusal to give political succour or quarter to the Democrats, whose politics are as much part of the problem that has got us here as are those of the Republicans, many Leftists are dismissive of the references to fascism, seeing them merely as scare tactics for the erecting of the Big Democrat Tent.
In the words of one activist in a recent symposium in Jacobin entitled ‘Is Donald Trump a Fascist?’: ’For these establishment figures, charges of fascism are a cynical ploy to distance their own rhetoric and policies from Trump’s open displays of racism and bigotry. … [I]f our side succumbs to panic about Trump, we miss the greater dangers we face.’ Another contributor agreed: ‘[W]e should reject absolutely the hysterical lesser-evilism implicit in calling him “fascist” … because it plays into the logic of supporting whomever emerges from the Democratic Party primary’.
But this is a logical fallacy: right-liberalism calls Trump a fascist; we are against right-liberalism; ergo Trump is not a fascist. It might be reasonably argued that Donald Trump’s is not a fascist campaign, of course, but not in this fashion. There is no contradiction between non-dogmatically and seriously investigating Trump’s politics – which cannot a priori preclude their proximity to fascism – and opposing the ‘lesser-evilist’ mainstream politics that motivates liberal descriptions of Trump as a fascist.
In its editorial on why Trump is not a fascist – in which it attacks attempts to deploy the label in order to rally radicals for the Democrat ‘lesser evil’ – another prominent US socialist publication cites as an authority a 1968 article by Hal Draper arguing for the tragic results of ‘lesser evilism’ in Germany in 1932, in the face of Hitler… who as the editorial cheerfully grants, was indeed a fascist. Draper’s argument, then, is directly contrary to that of the editors who cite it: his is that actually-existing-fascism does not justify surrendering to the lesser evil; theirs is that to oppose the lesser evil, we cannot give ground to the claim that we face fascism. Salvage claims, with Draper, that we can walk and chew gum at the same time.
Too many on the Left are driven by their opposition to this blackmail to rely on the comforts of outdated theoretical givens on this question, usually as post-facto justification. Especially in the chaotic political context of today, the procrustean bed of ‘classical Marxist’ categories by reference to which the existence or otherwise of some ideal-type ‘classical Fascism’ can be ascertained is decreasingly useful, if indeed it ever was.
In the Jacobin discussion, one contributor insists with startling formalism that, ‘Fascism arose in countries that had mass militant left parties aiming at the transcendence of capitalism, were excluded from the spoils of imperialism, had very large backward agrarian sectors, and possessed very weakly developed capitalist states. Out of this context arose mass party formations of the far right that displayed some organisation and tactical similarities to parties of the far left. None of these features obtain in the US today.’
The problems with this startling methodology of checklist-reference should be clear. First, these characteristics only apply with complete stringency to those countries in which fascism took power. Second, if the relevant period of comparison is the Twenties and Thirties, then the example to look to is the Second Ku Klux Klan, a mass organisation with five million members at its height. Combining paramilitarist terror with middle-class civil-society mobilisation, it did not expressly seek the overthrow of bourgeois democracy so much as its transformation on a nativist, racist and authoritarian basis (much as Breivik’s manifesto favoured the adoption of a ‘managed democracy’). With links to the repressive apparatuses of the state and ties to the main bourgeois parties, it broke the boundaries of ordinary legality and parliamentary politics. There clearly was a fascist potential in such a movement, whose origin and social basis are by no means identical to that of European interwar fascisms. Third, if those listed social factors are ‘necessary’ for fascism, it is not just that Donald Trump is a priori defined as not-fascist, but that there can be no fascism in the US – or indeed Britain, among many other countries. This will presumably come as news to the Aryan Nation and the British National Party.
A satisfactory definition of fascism, rather than fixating on the social bases it could not have in the twenty-first century, would have to account for the social bases that it could have, and would have to outline the nature of fasco-genetic crisis now rather than that of near a century ago. Consider this a promisory note, and/or a plea.
If the distinction intended is one between fascist mass movements and fascism as (perhaps marginal) ideology and politics, and the claims of those in Jacobin is that the former is not present in the US, or in Trump’s campaign, well and good, but i) that was not the question, ii) it would be extremely complacent not to acknowledge a permeable membrane between the two.
‘Unlike in Italy or Germany in the 1920s and 1930s,’ one contributor argues, ‘the US ruling class doesn’t face the kind of political crisis that would lead a section of it to abandon its “democratic” forms and resort to fascism.’ This is to imply that ‘fascism’, meaningfully so-called, can only be born as a strategy of a significant wing of the ruling class – this bowdlerises the real history of fascism, and also remains in thrall to the ‘political machine’ theory of politics that we have argued is at best outdated. And it casually exempts from possibility a reversed causation: what if, rather than ‘resorting’ to fascism, a section of the ruling class may feel compelled to ‘accommodate’ it after its arrival? Might not the agonies of the Republicans reflect exactly that debate?
And even on the checklist’s specifics, this approach can obscure more than it illuminates. Though ‘Trump has given confidence to some of the most right-wing elements in society’ and though ‘they do pose a real threat’, one of the writers insists, ‘these elements are not organised into anything like a disciplined fighting force that could serve as the basis for a fascist movement’. Though there is no official Trumpian blackshirt movement, it seems too sanguine and formalist not to consider the role of Trump-encouraged violence against the left at rallies, and the armed militias which are explicitly supporting him, such as ‘the Oath Keepers’, as potentially nascent forms of such organised violence. In this context, we should not be at all surprised by the announcement of the formation of ‘The Lion’s Guard’ – the name itself redolent of inter-war kitsch – a militia ‘to provide security protection to innocent people who are subject to harassment and assault by far-left agitators’ at Trump’s rallies.
Salvage’s analysis of Trumpism has provoked sharp disagreement (of varying light and heat) among some comrades on the Left. To repeat, it is perfectly possible to argue that Trump is not a fascist, or that his is not a fascist campaign. But thus far, left attempts so to do have been hamstrung by theoretical nostalgia and by cart-before-horse tactical defensiveness. The stakes here are general, as well as particular: our position is at least as concerned to plead for a more sophisticated analysis of fascism as it is to conclusively taxonomise Trump himself.
Salvage maintains that ‘Fascism’ and its qualities cannot be pickled in aspic, nor is it useful to consider fascism a discrete condition. The extremes may be reasonably simple to categorise, but politics are motion. For reasons both of analytical rigour and political strategy we must take into account groupings’ dynamics and potentials, and be open to considering them not only ‘not- fascist’ but ‘not-(yet?-)fascist’.
If Trumpism is not fascist, it is clearly not not-fascist in the same way that mainstream Republicanism is not-fascist. Given its insurgent nativism, its overt racism and performative misogyny, its spectacular glorification of violence, including racist violence – as when Trump described as ‘very passionate’ a Boston supporter who severely beat a Hispanic man with an iron bar – its refusal to condemn overt white supremacist support, its sadistic and resentful authoritarianism, its populist denunciations of ‘big finance’ and ‘the system’, its willingness to suspend constitutional-legal norms in the interests of resolving a supposed emergency, and given our hard- and painfully-won perspective that things, particularly in these bad times, can get worse, Salvage is not complacent about the trajectory of this movement.
We see little point in engaging with the fervent claims of leftists who insist, according to Holy Writ, that Trumpism cannot be the F-Word. We simply argue that there is an unusual fascist potential in Trump’s campaign, and that the traditional political dominance of the big bourgeoisie is by no means as assured as left-realists assume.
And, per Draper, acknowledging this need involve no accommodation with the Democratic Party machine. To which extent we celebrate unstintingly the demonstrators who have shut Trump down – and we strongly criticise the Sanders campaign’s recent advice to supporters to avoid such confrontations.
The Bellies of the Beasts: Donkeys
Hillary Clinton, we are repeatedly told, is all that stands between Trump and the White House. ‘Sanders’ utopian visions of affordable healthcare, education and housing would be nice’, goes the extruded wisdom of the ideological apparatuses, ‘but do you really think us dreaming Democrats are representative of America? Do you really think the swing voters are more likely to vote for Sanders’ unrealistic nonsense than Trump’s walls? It’s nice that the young people have hope, but they’re wrong’.
Pessimism is a sensible starting point for any left analysis in the current moment, but the Democrats needling Sandernistas aren’t pessimistic at all. Their ‘realism’ is bad faith, and they are fully invested in the project for a hegemonic centre. To this end, they display a condescension that flows from power, or alignment thereto. They are confident that they can scare young enthusiasts out of their aspirations, and in many cases they will be right.
But if, when, Sanders loses the candidacy, substantial numbers who have been inspired by his campaign are likely to abstain in disgust rather than to rally to Clinton as instructed. (How many is not yet clear or decided.) However one judges it, that reaction demands careful analysis: such Sanders-only-ism is not lesser-evilism, and should not be collapsed into it. If the Left ‘responds’ to this key milieu merely by ‘sharpening its arguments against lesser-evilism’ it will be missing the point.
Certainly and sadly, given poor primary results in February and March, and notwithstanding thrilling upsets such as victories in Michigan and Indiana, and his recent good run and encouraging polling, it remains vastly more likely than not that the Sanders campaign is near its end. Many Clinton supporters thank Bernie for his work in pulling the debate left. They assure us that they went to plenty of demonstrations in their time, that they defer to no one in their activism. But they are progressives melancholically committed above all to keeping out the Republicans – cue the references to the Supreme Court, to Roe versus Wade, to, yes, the ‘fascist’ Trump. And they are motivated, they say, by ‘realism’ – and thus the time has come to get in line behind the Lizard Queen.
As Salvage went to press the polling data of Clinton versus Trump looks set – currently – to result in a Clinton victory by 3.4 points. In a hypothetical Sanders run against Trump, on the other hand, Sanders wins by more than double that – eight points.
So the question is, as The Intercept has acidly put it, will the Democrats take a chance on the unelectable Clinton?
Either the Clintonians are ignorant of such polls; or they are taking a wager that they ‘know’ by some sniff-test that Sanders numbers will precipitously fall off against Trump; or they are committed, at the possible cost of a Republican victory, to Clinton’s cocktail of right-wing, authoritarian neoliberalism and unvarnished geopolitical hawkishness. Or, indeed, some combination.
A consummate operator, Clinton has leavened her traditional positions with requisite sops to the left inspired by Sanders, and has, with chilling and dead-eyed ease, assimilated certain activists and suitably vague calls for something called ‘social justice’, metabolising buzzwords and Twitter memes to throw out for the easily-pleased – even, if you please, committing to solutions to ‘intersectional’ challenges.
Hillary is despised by great swathes of the electorate, for varied and contradictory reasons – ranging from entirely correct hatred for her complicity in the lockdown-politics of the 90s and her support for the Iraq war, to contempt for her repeated tactical vacillation on issues of principle such as gay marriage, through to hard-right paranoia about her notional ‘liberalism’, and straightforward toxic misogyny.
When she takes the nomination, the question of whether her undoubted skills in performative politics will be enough to overcome this reservoir of loathing remains to be seen. The odds remain that she will beat Trump: but i) they are significantly lower than they would be were the candidate Sanders, and ii) they are in no way strong enough that we should not brace ourselves for the possibility of President Trump.
While Sanders continues in the race, it is imperative to work with the people his ‘revolution’ – partial and easy to pick holes at as it is, and pick those holes as we must – has energised into politics. This is not at all the same as being uncritical, nor of folding over into his campaign. ‘Progressive’ in the US context, Sanders’ politics are to the right – by some way – of those of, say, Corbyn, his supposed transatlantic soul mate. His tardy and initially sluggish engagement with race, his previous repeated ultimate surrenders to the Democrat machinery, and his past history of deplorable concessions to Zionist oppression of Palestinians preclude a surfeit of excitement about his agenda.
But it would be mere sneer to deny that his run has had a salutary impact of unexpected magnitude. His politics have engaged many young voters who have felt previously disenfranchised, and dragged the discussion to the left. And it would be churlish to claim that the response of Sanders and his campaign to the leftward pressure on them in turn, from grassroots activists who have found in him an outlet, hasn’t been, for a mainstream politician, pleasantly surprising. On more than one occasion, and more than one issue, this Larry David of US social democracy has somewhat undermined Salvage’s pre-emptive scepticism.
Though undeniably slow to start, he has responded to the #BlackLivesMatter movement and radicals of colour who have repeatedly challenged him with a serious engagement which has begun to make inroads into Clinton’s lead among Black Americans. He has been far to the left of the public conversation on issues of Islamophobia in particular. And even on Israel there are signs of movement; in a genuinely surprising move, Sanders turned down an invitation to speak before the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the powerful Zionist organisation before whom the respectful appearance of all candidates of all parties is a formality. True, he cited scheduling conflicts for his no-show. But his statement was notably bereft of overt support for Israel, and his excuse for not appearing was quite unconvincing. It was a quiet snub, and was known to be. His criticism of Israel’s ‘disproportionate’ use of force in 2014 was utterly anodyne by any sane terms, but remarkable enough in the US context that Salon described it as ‘changing the discourse’.
Salvage is delighted by the successes of his campaign – notwithstanding its obvious limitations, both politically and electorally – by its potential to destabilise a complacent and complicit Democratic Party, and by what we see among its activists as the potential beginnings of the formation of a longer-term network of socialists to the left of that party.
We hold out hope that once Clinton wins the candidacy, Sanders and, more importantly, his supporters continue to put pressure on her and on her party from the left; that, rather than entering the big Democrat tent, those supporters form a movement that can remain a pole of attraction beyond it.
And if the choice for president were Sanders versus Trump? Then notwithstanding our remorseless suspicion of the Democratic Party, against which we remain implacably opposed and for which, importantly, we would never campaign, if this UK quarterly could vote, Salvage would seriously consider doing so for Sanders.
It would be a wager, of course, and a risk, and the admission earned Salvage rebukes from some comrades. But these should be tactical and strategic, rather than principled, questions, and such a moment would seem an instance when the best available choice to ameliorate the effects of racialised and gendered capitalism for the working class and oppressed would dovetail with the best chance available of opening up a radical reformist space, and – potentially – of accelerating the social contradictions both between left and right tout court, and between the Democrat machinery and the radicalising milieu behind Candidate Sanders. We share, then, the insistence on the necessity of undermining the two-party system, and the Democratic Party’s stranglehold, but we believe it a mistake to believe prima facie that disruptions necessary for this end could only ever be generated from outside that party. Salvage holds that in the case of a Sanders candidacy – depending, certainly, on the trajectory of the campaign to that moment – there would at least be a reasonable chance that such pressure might come from within that movement.
This, however, will not be our choice. So what of Clinton versus Trump? Ours is certainly not the position of another mythic figure of some prurient fascination to the Guardian: the ‘Leftist for Trump’.
‘I began plotting to vote Republican in hopes that the party would send the country so far in the direction of complete unrestricted neoliberalism and libertarian free market superstition that Americans would come to recognise the dangers of these ideologies and eventually reject them’, one anonymous informant declared to it. Trump’s ‘candidacy is a happy accident that is currently ripping the soul of America apart, which is something that I think we desperately need (and deserve)’. Such ultraleft swagger is very badly misplaced, on at least three counts:
Behind the seeming apocalypticism of such a strategy of tension lies an unreconstructed optimism, a theory of radical reform as crude as that of the German Stalinists in the 1930s. ‘After Trump, Us’. It is as likely that After Trump would come more Trump, or worse.
It is predicated on the thoroughly unconvincing and elitist model according to which if only the ‘sheeple’ can be persuaded to ‘wake up’, they will rise. Millions of people are awake, and know the truth only too well: the problem is that they feel, not without reason, that they can do little about it.
To pursue this nihilo-chiliastic strategy means to actually try to usher in the world of legitimated violent racism of President Trump. There is getting one’s hands dirty in the pursuit of freedom, but all the perfumes of Arabia would not cover that particular stench.
Nor, of course, would Salvage ever declare or vote for Clinton, nose held or not. Trumpism, rather than being the nemesis of Clintonite triangulation, is its symptom and culmination. The long-term, structural complicity between these two political formations is what is missed both by those corralling progressive votes into the centrist fold, and those foolhardily hoping for Trump to make the system bleed.
The toxic political landscape that the two-party system has wrought in the US makes its destruction the pressing political concern for any radical concerned not only with the conditions the day after the election, but two, five, ten years after that. The lesser evil may be lesser on day two: but if that lesser evil enables and maintains the system of evil itself, a system that also feeds the power of the greater evil, then the costs of supporting it outweigh the pros by far.
To vote for Clinton – for the Democratic establishment – is to vote for the candidate who actively sought a formal role in ‘welfare reform’ in the 1990s; who was instrumental to the rise of carceral politics and race-scapegoating in that decade; whose description of young black men as ‘superpredators’ was a powerful ideologeme of American racism and the self-same resentful white supremacy that now declares that Blue Lives Matter, and rallies to The Donald’s speeches; who is committed to Obama’s policies of drone warfare and the ‘War on Terror’ (and indeed, considers Obama a foreign policy wimp); who favours ‘triangulation’ on Islamophobia, trade treaties, and inequality-accelerating bank bailouts; and who is an experienced ally and defender of Wall Street. These have been key components in the recent toxic and abyssal politics from which Trump has risen. Hillary Clinton is a politician whose politics, poisonous in themselves, will also maintain the system that has given us Trump.
Neither Chappaqua nor Trump Tower.
Imperialisms: The Fogs of War
In our previous perspectives documents we made the argument that the bloody vortices of the contemporary Middle East reflect not the US ‘hyper-power’ of the turn of the century but rather an emerging, violently polyvalent, kind of imperialism. This is, to be clear, not to excuse – nor to cease to oppose – the American variety but to recognise that a sure anti-imperialist footing can only be based on a recognition of this shift. When Karl Liebknecht said ‘the main enemy is at home’, he did not mean there were only allies abroad.
Nowhere, regrettably, has our thesis been more strongly borne out than in Russia’s recent colonial war in Syria. The muted response to this war amongst a Left usually more attuned to the destruction of brown bodies by imperial bombs is a dereliction.
The Russian campaign used drones to survey and punish the rebellious areas of Syria, and pulverised the hospitals and social services of areas liberated from the regime, in apparent emulation of the tactic of ‘de-development’ with which Palestinians are only too dreadfully familiar. The victims were then described as being, or harbouring, Islamist terrorists – their resistance simply a sign of the inherent unruliness of the (Sunni) Muslim, which must be preempted with the smack of firm government. The partial withdrawal of Russian forces appears to presage another round of the Geneva ‘peace process’, as interminable as it is ineffective: a process aimed not at ‘peace’, but the pacification of the Syrian populace. The parallels with the regional wars of another late late capitalist power and its proxies should be clear, yet they go startlingly unmade.
The partial withdrawal, Putin claimed, reflected the achievement of Russia’s objectives in Syria – ‘mission accomplished’, to use the language of George Bush Jr circa 2003. The official objective was to fight the Islamic State, yet a cursory glance at the battlefield should render any idea that Russia has been ‘really fighting ISIS’ beyond credibility. The Russian assault focused on re-taking, or destroying, the liberated part of the city of Aleppo. This makes no sense as part of a strategy to destroy Daesh, who were driven – at great cost in lives, money and equipment – from the city by an alliance of FSA and Islamist militias in 2014. However, if the Russian goal was to stave off the losses of the regime in the summer of 2015 and to cement Assad’s position further, its assault on Aleppo makes perfect sense, and ‘mission accomplished’ is no idle boast. Even where Russian bombers have struck Daesh targets, as it has recently in Palmyra, or previously in areas around Homs, this has been done in such a way as to consolidate the regime’s territorial dominion and allow it to more effectively encircle the opposition.
The accompanying conflict between Turkey and Kurdish forces north of Aleppo has been a source of great analytical confusion for the Left. This confusion reflects the merging of Syria’s post-revolutionary civil wars with the crisis of the Turkish state. On one side of the border Erdoğan’s increasingly erratic and authoritarian quasi-Islamist government have responded to the renewed campaign of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, with a cruel counter-insurgency campaign of the kind at which the Turkish deep state excels and which any leftist worth their salt ought to oppose. To extrapolate from this position, however, to excuse the opportunism of the Kurdish PKK’s Syrian sister organisation the PYD, with its military wing, the YPG, in mounting an offensive cutting off Aleppo from its supply lines, in tandem with the Russian air offensive, and retaining the ability to call in US airstrikes, is a mistake of the first order.
How did it come to this, that an old school Nat-Lib armed organisation (latterly turned to the model of Zapatismo self-governance) finds itself, in effect, allied with both major imperial powers in the region? Not only this, but in conflict with other notional allies of the US, in the Northern brigades of the FSA? One must first note the history, and objectives of the PYD. Much as Assad père indulged in Arab chauvinist oppression of Syria’s somewhat scattered Kurdish population – depriving them of citizenship, settling Arab colonists among their lands – his regime sought to use Kurdish organisations as bargaining chips against Turkey and Iraq. Until 1998, the leadership of the PKK was located in Syria and permitted to operate against Turkey: the abrupt volte face of the regime in that year, handing over the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to Turkey, nonetheless left a political infrastructure in place – the PYD. Unlike in other areas of Syria, when the regime withdrew from the primarily Kurdish Northern cantons, there was an ideologically coherent and politically tested organisation ready to offer a form of governance. The regime was not defeated by the PYD: Assad’s forces withdrew in mid-2012 to defend Damascus, and essentially left the cantons of Cezire (Jazira), Kobani (‘Ain al-‘Arab) and Afrin (‘Ifrin) to the Kurdish forces dominated by the PYD. It is these cantons that make up Rojava, and in which the much-discussed system of democratic confederalism has been implemented.
The achievements of autonomous Rojava are not to be gainsaid. However, nor should the ambiguous position of the PYD towards the Assad regime and the wider Syrian revolution be ignored. The PYD has stated that its aim is for democratic confederalism to cover the whole of Syria. This would be far from a bad thing, although the PYD’s record towards other parties and independent activists under its rule – opening fire on demonstrators in Amuda in 2013, for example – warrants further scrutiny. Yet the strategic aim of the PYD has been to preserve the autonomy of the three cantons, not to overthrow the Assad regime. It took a stance of effective neutrality towards the struggle in the rest of the country, albeit with frequent local clashes between YPG forces and FSA or Islamist units. The YPG has, largely, avoided fighting the regime, and the regime in turn has spared Rojava the murderous aerial bombardment to which the rest of the country is subject. The objective and method of the PYD is exemplified in the ‘Rojava and Northern Syria Unified Democratic System Document’ of March 2016, declaring a federal system for all the areas under the control. In principle a highly attractive idea, the declaration was issued following two days of discussion and included no reference to the Syrian revolution. (For more information, readers should consult the article by Kurdish journalist Shiar Nayo on the Syria Freedom Forever blog.)
The roots of the present clashes lie in the ISIS offensive of 2014. As for Assad, so for the YPG, Daesh have proved a most fortuitous enemy. The defeat of the Takfirists at Kobani was, it goes without saying, a highly welcome one, but also a strategic move that allowed the YPG to present itself, including to the US – inaccurately, given the longer and bloodier history of ISIS-FSA clashes – as ‘the only force that can defeat ISIS’. With encouraging signs of cooperation, the YPG and certain FSA brigades (especially the ‘Euphrates Volcano’ and ‘Raqqa revolutionaries’) were coaxed with US support into forming a unit called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), directed against ISIS and not the regime. From this point stems the ability of the YPG to call in US air strikes, and the confidence to take advantage of the Russian-Iranian-regime offensive at the start of this year to link up the three non-contiguous cantons of Rojava. The Arab/FSA parts of the SDF have diminished greatly. In some cases this is for local reasons, but was always a danger given the difference in strategic priorities (fighting ISIS versus fighting ISIS and the regime). The YPG’s thrust to link up the cantons, directed against its main enemy Turkey, has thereby brought the YPG into deadly conflict with FSA and Islamist factions reliant on supply lines and support from Turkey, and holding the (usually majority Arab) towns in between the Rojava cantons.
Reactionary Arab chauvinism has been very far from absent in the mainstream Syrian opposition, even extending to the refusal to countenance dropping the ‘Arab’ from the official title of the ‘Syrian Arab Republic’, and this none on the Left should gloss over or excuse. It is also a mistake to make the condition of Kurdish liberation, through linking the three autonomous cantons of Rojava, the subjugation of the Arab majority – as has occurred by the YPG’s taking advantage of the siege of Aleppo to establish territorial contiguity against Turkey. Anyone who imagines that the Assad regime’s tolerance of Kurdish autonomy will long outlast its temporary need to crush a more threatening enemy is indulging in worse than wishful thinking. Much has been written about the system of governance in Rojava – often by people steadfastly ignorant of the more numerous instances of autonomous self-organisation in the Arab areas (see Burning Country by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami for extensive history of the hundreds of such bodies), which would surely form the bedrock of any genuine federalism – but one thing is certain: if socialism in one country is impossible, how much more so is ’democratic confederalism’ in three cantons?
The survival, much less expansion, of any such system would rely on at least accommodation with the Arabic-speaking Sunni majority. This prospect is rendered most unlikely by the YPG’s thrust to join the siege of Aleppo while the Russian (and indeed, American) air forces bombed ahead of them. As in the case of the FSA, it would be sterile abstraction to decry the YPG for sourcing armed support from wherever they can – the point is the opportunist political use to which that support has been put, undermining the proclaimed aim of federal equality with the rest of the country.
The Russian bombing campaign, and the advances of the regime and the YPG against enemies they falsely accuse of universally belonging to Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIS, have exacerbated an unfortunate tendency on the Anglophone Left. A method of politics by exaggerated supported is proffered to any force deemed ‘secular’, or at least in conflict with a Sunni Islamist enemy, has spread beyond its normal confines of renegades, Eustonites and Antideutsch. At a time when Islamophobia has become the lubricant of reaction in the continent, leftists’ time is surely better used challenging the dominant idea that all Syrian opposition groups are variants of al-Qaeda, than promoting it. Salvage does not expect Muslims to forfeit their religious beliefs – or even politics based on those beliefs – before their resistance to, for example, Israeli occupation or British state repression is considered worthy of support. We see no reason why Syria should be an exception.
Syrian opposition-Sunni-Islamist-Jihadist-ISIS, goes the chain of equivalence. But any still clinging to it must look closely at their investment in such a misrepresentation, given the re-emergence of Syrian revolutionary demonstrations almost the very instant Russian bombs ceased to drop on their heads.
On the two Fridays following the ‘cessation’ of bombing, more than one hundred demonstrations took place across Syria – in Ma’arat Naman, Qalaboun, Jobar, Douma Arbeen in and around Damascus, Kafr Hamra, Marea, Atareb and Al-Malek in Aleppo, Jisr al-Shughour, Talbeiseh, and Dara’a – carrying not the black flags of either of the post-Al Qaeda groups but the revolutionary flag. In the town of Ma’arat Naman, the surviving population took to the streets to demonstrate against Nusra’s repression, attacking and burning down the headquarters of the Takfirists. We will not insult these people by calling them ‘moderates’. They are, thankfully, extremists in the cause of the Syrian revolution.
Not only this: the circumstances of the renewed protest movement in Syria calls for the greatest attention from the Left, because it most closely resembles that of any late Anthropocene revolutionary crisis that we may live to see. Starving, exhausted, bombed and mourning, Syrians still pledge fidelity to their revolution. If you seek hope – or whatever might replace hope – for the future, look to Syria first, not last.
An understanding of Syria is also vital given the central place the country occupies in the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ – or, as it might be better known, Europe’s border war. An analysis that sees all Syrian Sunnis as dupes or fanatics is ill-equipped to learn from or offer solidarity to the new social movement in which they form the largest phalanx: a social movement laying justified siege to the physical and political architecture of xenophobia erected by the European Union. We deal elsewhere with Britain’s EU referendum – here we simply note that one look at EU border policy should be enough to cure anyone of the delusion that this could be a progressive institution.
When last Salvage went to press, we were buoyed by the success of demonstrations welcoming refugees throughout the continent. The intervening months have brought a turn for the far worse. Triangulating to the resurgent far-right of Alternativ Fur Deutschland, Angela Merkel has led the efforts of EU states essentially to condemn the refugees to return to their country of origin or die at sea. This policy – one that our scepticism about international law does not preclude us noting comes more than close to infringing the UN convention on refugees – forms the cornerstone of the agreement between the EU and Turkey. The migration agreement stipulates that in return for €6bn, visas for Turkish nationals and a renewal of negotiations on EU accession, Turkey agrees to accept refugees being sent back to Turkey, effectively en masse. It was reached, we are told, unanimously.
That should be enough to know that neither the EU, nor the government of Erdoğan and Davutoglu in Turkey, deserve to survive.
Opening the Ration Book
The political pessimism that Salvage has expressed has – contrary to our critics’ canards – never been mere pose or branding: it is an optic reached through wrenching political defeats. We have insisted that it ought lead to rigour and humility, and be bracing and motivating of action. None of which is to say that we do not yearn to believe that history might turn our way – let alone to find it doing so.
To that extent, we find delight in the unlikely successes of Sanders, the dogged tenacity of Corbyn, let alone in the astounding bravery of the Syrian revolutionaries. Hope, we have said, must be rationed. The point, of course, of a rationed delicacy is not that one can never partake: but that one must choose one’s moments with caution, the better to enjoy the delectation. Perhaps these are moments of hope.
But if so, the Left bears an immense responsibility. It is not enough to want: we must understand. We have argued repeatedly that the application of familiar algorithms to novel situations – the thumbing through of tattered old standards to derive our strategies and tactics and analysis – can be at best unhelpful, at worst actively harmful. We defer to none in our admiration for the political giants on whose shoulders we stand, and we are not so arrogant as to suggest that we cannot learn from them, and keep learning.
But the Left reflex to translate all situations into familiar terms is to fail the very spirit of radical enquiry that helped those giants grow. In the pages that follow, as well as in this document, we do not aspire to present conclusive answers so much as questions that we think need to be asked – and in rumination on which the nostrums we have inherited fall short.
‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,’ said Browning, ‘Or what’s a heaven for?’ Our reach repeatedly fails our grasp. About all that can be said for such a hellish situation is that one can learn from it. Or what is a hell for?