Two core western liberal countries, the UK and USA, are experiencing electoral events which problematize the values that those electoral processes are ostensibly based on. Liberalism is meant to uphold electoral democracy, plurality, and universal values like tolerance and equality.
However, in the 2016 US presidential election and the UK Brexit referendum, very large segments of society are expressing non-liberal inclinations via the liberal democratic institutions. In the US, a large enough segment of the Democratic party rank and file supported Sanders at the national congress to cast serious concerns of fraud over H. R. Clinton’s selection. Support for Sanders is an expression of progressive leftist discontent with the status quo. On its own, mass support for Sanders would be notable, but it pales in comparison to the rise of populist Trump and the discontent with the status-quo which this represents. This discontent resembles that which led to the vote for Brexit. Mass discontent with the status-quo an resultant support for Trump and Bernie in the US reflects support for Brexit and Corbyn in Britain, Corbyn’s left-of-the-Overton-window policies making him a pariah even for ‘liberal progressives.’
But why is this trend erupting now not only simultaneously in the USA and UK, but with populist parallels in Continental Europe from Poland to Turkey? Both H. R. Clinton and the Brexit stay campaign uncharismatically advocating the status quo, and characterized any opponent as an ignorant, uneducated bigots. It’s easy to dismiss the discontents this way. Too easy. Especially for privileged , educated people who fail to even try to understand that discontent, probably because it problematizes their emotionally-charged identification as carriers of “the most highly evolved social order.”
This reminds me of the 2011 Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver. mobs burnt cars and broke into shops to steal iPhones. Vancouverites where scandalized and rationalized this away saying it was all people from redneck Abbotsford and the like, barbarian outsiders, this wasn’t who we are, we’re civil and polite. Such rationalization protected their self righteous identity. Vancouver is often listed as the best or one of the best cities in the world to live in. It’s surrounded by natural beauty and unrivaled recreational opportunities. The motto of the province, probably thought up by real estate developers, is “the best place on earth.” Vancouver is also extremely expensive. This idea that they’re living the dream, this lotus eating lifestyle day in and day out shakes its ass in the face of many who simply can’t reach it across a mountain of bills and oligopolistic price fixing. It’s one thing to be struggling to get by, its another to do so in a playground of the rich and famous being constantly told you’re living the dream.
So this is the problem in the US and UK. People are being told things are great but very many, maybe a majority, just not feeling it. They don’t have an alternative narrative to articulate this, real leftism, which addresses systemic economic disadvantage, having been swept away, leaving only harmless centrist identity politics to masquerade as progressive. So they express their discontent crudely in tribal populist terms, allowing the relatively privileged, middle class and the liberal intellectual and media elite, in both the US and UK to belittle and discredit them. Their discontent is illegitimate, they simply don’t understand how wonderful the status-quo is. The few who are reasonably well placed and have hope for advancement under the current liberal dominance hierarchy, the educated and well-off, can’t bear the thought that this order of things may be systemically flawed, relying on false narratives of itself and unsustainable sovereign and personal debt levels in the economy. Incapable of admitting to themselves that there are flaws in the social order that need addressing, that the discontent could be legitimate and requires attention, the middle class and intellectual elite self-righteously dismiss the discontent as ignorant, increasing resentment and facilitating the leave vote and the rise of Trump. Deplorables. Liberalism is not a magic bean or a foundation of stone on which stable progress is guaranteed.
Victory in a battle of Discrete Ideologies?
Liberalism “won” the battle of ideologies because the Soviet Union defeated 80% of the Nazi forces on their behalf at the cost of almost 30 million lives, and 50 years later the Soviet elite decided it would be more rewarding to become liberal oligarchs than austere cadres. Communism was never really the coherent ideology it’s made out to be. Marx predicted that Capitalism would reach inherent limits and collapse in a crisis of overproduction in the most advanced industrialised countries, Britain, Germany and/or the Benelux. Then a revolution could be held by violent organized labour to institute direct-democratic control of wealth creation and rational economic planning. All governments engage in economic planning, not all establish centralized state ownership and control of the means of wealth creation as the soviets eventually did after the stages of Civil-War era War Communism and the capitalistic New Economic Policy which ended in 1928. While Luxembourg’s Orthodox Marxist followers believed in direct-democratic workers’ councils and some degree of centralized planning, they didn’t believe in centralized war-cabinet-style total control and dictat, and therefore called the Soviet Union “state capitalist” from very early on. Such rigid, orthodox Marxists like Rosa Luxemburg were mocked by Lenin as “infantile leftists.” Lenin thought, like Marx admitably, that the ideology had to adapt to changing conditions, but Rosa thought his adaptations, the vanguard party guided by democratic centralism- internal debate, but absolute adherence to any decision made, would lead to a bureaucracy so unwieldy that it would eventually collapse under its own weight. Marx had pondered some marginal ‘what ifs’ that have been flimsily used to justify the Bolsheviks’ revolution in barely industrialized Russia. Namely, Russia’s traditional cooperative land management system, the mir, was communistic enough that Russia may be able to leapfrog the stage of capitalism, but only if drawn in by revolution into socialism by a revolution in advanced industrial countries. That argument is obviously a red herring.
The Bolsheviks were originally internationalists who believed that the main revolution would break out in the most advanced industrial country with the most organized labour movement, Germany, and would spread around the world from there, they just had to hold on to power till then. The German revolution failed, as did Bolshevik attempts to prod it along, like the invasion of Poland. The Bolsheviks had held a vote shortly after their coup d’etat, came second, but clung to power anyway. The winner by twice the votes was Chernov’s Socialist Revolutionaries, which had split and divided between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks while the election was ongoing. It enjoyed greatest support among the peasantry, notably in what we now call Ukraine. Bolshevik support came from the tiny urban working class but mainly from the military. The Bolshevik ethos was as much formed by the martial culture of its supporters, the brutalizing context of the ongoing first world war, and the perceived need to meet Tsarist martial-brutal suppression in like kind. Their governing structure, introduced above, resembles a permanent war cabinet with permanent martial law more than the network of democratic workers’ councils espoused by the rigidly orthodox Marxists like Luxembourg. Many supporters of socialist revolution in Russia quickly became disillusioned with Bolshevik divergence from orthodoxy and the emancipatory ideal, staging various uprisings, most notably the Kronstadt rebellion which was brutally crushed, raising some of the earliest doubts about the nature of Bolshevik rule. Like the liberals today who self-righteously refuse to see flaws in their self-narrative, many socialists, desperate to count the Russian ‘revolution’ as a success ignore Rosa and Kronstadt, cling to the delusion that if only Trotsky had come to power everything would be fine.
But the power vacuum created more by the February revolution than the Bolshevik one was inevitably filled by the most ruthless contender available, it’s practically a law of nature. Stalin was not a rigid orthodox internationalist and did not hold to the Marxist line that the working class has no nation. As commissioner for nationalities he was responsible for the early Soviet project of national delimitation, drawing lines on the map, standardizing national languages and cataloging folk stories. As General Secretary he instituted “Socialism in one country,” which had nothing to do with Marx & Engels, whose works were edited and censored in the USSR to make them fit the fluxuating party line. It came with the Great Purges against the Old Bolsheviks loyal to Lenin’s adaptations of Internationalist Marxist Orthodoxy. During the Second World War, Stalin fell back on traditional modes of Russian nationalism and loosened control on religion to inspire people to fight. The Personality cult that Stalin formed around himself and Lenin had no foundation in Marxism. It was not entirely unsuccessful in uniting society. But Krushchyov dismantled it, again requiring an adjustment of narrative, values and loyalties. Was the highest value and locus of loyalty- the proletariat’s historical mission? World revolution? the State? Stalin’s leadership? Friendship of Nations? How do you grapple with the issues of forced labour and mass repressions? Was it just Stalin and Beria? Was it somehow justified? Could it happen again? Practically every decade the Soviet people were told their previous principles and loyalties were wrong and had to be adjusted. “Communism” was characterized not by a failed utopian experiment but by the failure to formulate any ideology or hierarchy of ideals that could last more than a decade or two. By the eighties economic reforms were necessary, and possible, they had overcome far greater challenges before. Gorbachyov set out to realise them. But his naive idea of loyalty to an old social democratic ideal and trust toward liberal ideals and intentions wasn’t shared by state security elites, who retained loyalty to the war cabinet model, state security and deep mistrust of the US. Meanwhile, corruption and dysfunction led others in the management structure to abandon loyalty to anything but self enrichment. Of the three groups, they were the most pragmatic and steered the reforms and subsequent collapse to their own obscene gain.
So where is a monolithic “communism?” Only in the minds of western intellectuals, on both sides of the political spectrum. The Soviet Union had co-opted and bought out the global labour movement as an instrument for its own geopolitical ends. Orthodox Marxists were marginalized or persecuted. This isn’t to say that without the results of the Bolshevik coup d’etat a pure and true Marxism would have emerged and flourished. Who knows what would have happened, I’m not interested in counter-factuals. Socialism wasn’t invented by Marx, it was attempted in Christian utopian societies in various western countries and advanced by certain participants in the French Revolution. Marx drew ideas from all of them, among others. Various pre-Bolshevik socialist movements like the Paris Commune had led to social democratic concessions from western governments, most notably that of Bismarck. Mass socialist movements and unrest even in the US, like the Knights of Labour and Chicago Haymarket Riot (among many other riots and strikes) are integral to the development of the rights and benefits any wage earner enjoys today. It’s a long and eventful history not much taught or heard of today. After the Bolshevik revolution socialists in the west could largely be divided into communists and social democrats, that is, revolutionaries and those for gradual progress. Both were deeply involved with the organization of mass labour unions and both were beholden to the myth that the Bolshevik revolution represented some emancipatory potential. The active participation of organized labour in demanding concessions such as the 8 hour work day, the weekend, and universal suffrage, gave humanity to what had been a Classical liberalism of slavery and Dickensian conditions. The myth of the Bolshevik revolution as a repeatable, righteous, emancipatory violent overthrow, while pure myth, gave teeth to their demands and greatly helped ensure that the social democratic concessions we enjoy today were granted.
This complex struggle which we look back on with obcene reductionism as a struggle between grand, coherent ideologies took place in a context in which traditional values and loyalties were being irreparably broken down by science and technological progress; there was no clear answer to what they would be replaced by. Liberalism used beautiful language, “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity,” “All men are created equal,” but these pronouncements had been made by slave owners consolidating a slave economy rather than absolving it. Western ‘liberal’ colonial empire continued well after the Bolshevik revolution. We’ve heard about the Nazi death camps and the Gulag, and we’ve probably heard some figure for the number of victims. But how many were the victims of the Scramble for Africa, 1881 to 1914? How many millions of Native Americans and African Americans were killed in the US after the noble proclamation that “All men are created equal?” Some black servicemen returned to the US after the Second World War only to be legally lynched upon arrival. How many were the victims of workhouses and debtors’ prisons? The Irish under British Rule? More people died in British India through famines caused by British policy than all deaths attributed to Stalin, including the 32-33 famine (only half of whose victims lived in the Ukraine SSR, though nationalists there use it as a foundational victimhood myth). Socialists also liked to decry the cost in life of western ‘inter-imperialist wars.’
Chinese statesman Zhou Enlai, who held the country together through the psychotic rule of Mao (incidentally, the brutality and loss of life in 20th Century China surpasses anything else mentioned here) once answered a question on whether the French Revolution was a good idea with “it’s too early to tell.” He actually misunderstood the question, but his comment resonates because we intuit it to be valid. The point is that in the early to mid twentieth century there was no clear answer to how post-judeo-christian-monarchical value systems and societies should be organized. The 20th century conflict of ideologies is a reductionistic mischaracterization, as neither Communism or Liberalism was ever a rigid, stable, mutually exclusive answer to this question. Nevertheless, this reductionistic mythical struggle is ostensibly over. Now we live in a liberalism repressing memory of its atrocities and claiming full credit for social achievements realized only in tandem with its severed and murdered Siamese twin, radical leftism. The twins had agreed on the omnipotence of human reason and technology and their capacity for constant progress. But without the counterbalance of his twin’s imaginative, inspiring promises for the future, liberalism is stumbling toward the familiarity of Classical neoliberal debt slavery and Dickensian conditions. He is proud and rational, he will use technology to solve his problems, no more tiresome arguing with that dead nag over value systems, over the post-judeo-christian moral universe and social order. But that nag was part of him, and murder left the debate absolutely unresolved.
Where that leaves us Today
But if you’re among the majority who isn’t satisfied with that, you lack convincing inspiring narratives of a better future, then you fall back on base tribalism and vote Trump or Brexit, in mass. Maybe H. R. Clinton will get elected and Parliament will vote down Brexit. Problems solved? You still have huge segments of society in deep discontent, add Trump and Bernie supporters (fair weather “socialists” impotent without a faction willing to fight and sacrifice to present a real threat to vested interest) together and you probably have a majority in the US, as with Brexit plus Corbin supporters in the UK. These societies are becoming dangerously polarized.
Zbigniew Brzezinski notes “The nation-state as a fundamental unit of man’s organized life has ceased to be the principal creative force: International banks and multinational corporations are acting and planning in terms that are far in advance of the political concepts of the nation-state.” I would add that this comes with a post-industrial society which focuses on the manipulation and creation of meaning rather than of material, in turn closely tied to the age of public relations/perception management. Corporate and state media, even with the internet, define and dominate the Overton window and drown out voices with less resources behind them. But even without a coherent alternative narrative to that put forward by the corporate media, something like a majority are no longer buying it. If Brexit gets voted down in Parliament and Clinton wins the election, comfortable middle class liberals will tell themselves everything is ok again, but society will still be dangerously divided. In fact probably more so as many will probably claim fraud or betrayal in each election respectively.
What do elites do when social tensions rise too high? Start a war. This is how the Franco-Prussian war started. All it takes is demonization of an enemy and a false pretext. While the Vietnam war, Afghan war or the 2nd Iraq war didn’t start to mollify a divided society, they were willfully initiated through demonization and false pretexts. The Domino effect and the Taliban’s or Saddam’s misrule respectively demonized the opponent (all three of which the US had previously helped create). The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, 9/11 and mythical weapons of mass destruction provided the false pretext to engage militarily, respectively. Rectifying social disunity and discontent won’t be the only reason, Top US officials and neocons from Wolfowitz (see the Wolfowitz doctrine), Brzezinski and other old cold warriors have continued to see it as necessary to break up Russia to prevent any rival to US hegemony. These are more or less the same forces pushing “free trade” agreements on the EU under which corporations can sue governments for any legislation which costs them profits.
The Corporate media is currently on overdrive demonizing Russia and its president, very reminiscent of their treatment of Saddam, while massively building up US and NATO forces in the Baltic and Poland. This should be very alarming. Russia didn’t start the Ukraine conflict or the Georgian war. Look up Nuland appointing Yatsenyuk PM weeks before Yanukovich fled and the Estonian PM pointing out that it wasn’t Yanukovich’s police that shot protesters. Among regions involved, Donbass, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Crimea, it only incorporated the latter, which had been Russian until 1954 and had petitioned multiple times in the post-Soviet era to return. Russia comprehensively defeated Georgia in 2008 and could have incorporated it had it chosen to. I’ve been to Transnistria, Abkhazia, Nagorny Karabakh and Russian Crimea. Locals in each place fought for their independence. Those people have agency, not everything is a Kremlin conspiracy. Maybe three or four people will read this blog and maybe I haven’t made my argument well. But there is as strong possibility that soon some hazy, unprovable pretext of Russian aggression will appear for conflict between nuclear armed powers. Think hard before buying into demonization of ‘the other’ and rationale for war. Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine and Libya are wastelands of US intervention, but none of them were Nuclear powers covering an 8th of the world’s surface and 150 million people. There is reason to be existentially terrified, particularly if you live in the Baltics, Poland, Ukraine or Russia. Though through the democratic magic of nuclear fallout, everyone is equally doomed. 🙂