SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 206 March 2017

Trump, Brexit and politics now

Trump’s victory has further exposed the systemic problems facing capitalism today. It has widened the splits in establishment parties and between nation states. It is fuelling rising anger against the existing order. At the same time, as HANNAH SELL explains, we are beginning to see the kind of collective action needed to provide an alternative.

The election of Donald Trump has caused international outrage. The biggest demonstrations in US history have been combined with a global wave of protests. While the multi-millioned masses are the driving force of the opposition, they are not alone. Big sections of the capitalist elite and its parties are also expressing their fear at the consequences of a Trump presidency. From German Chancellor Angela Merkel to John Bercow, Tory speaker of the House of Commons, there have been numerous statements critical of Trump from capitalist politicians around the world.

Nor was he the choice of the majority of the US ruling class. Polling suggested that 44% of US millionaires supported Hillary Clinton, compared to only 31% for Trump. The picture was even more pronounced among the representatives of big capital – billionaire funding for Clinton was 20 times greater than for Trump. Her backers included a number of traditional Republican supporters, such as Hewlett-Packard executive Meg Whitman, who had stood for governor of California as a Republican in 2010.

Of course, big business and Wall Street’s disquiet will not prevent every opportunity being taken to make profits from his presidency. As the surges on Wall Street have shown the financial markets are hopeful of gaining from his rule. Nonetheless, the majority of the capitalist class in the US and worldwide are anxious to try and contain him. They fear the destabilising effect he can have on the world economy, the increased national tensions he will cause and, above all, the mass protests he will provoke. If he cannot be tamed it is not at all excluded that there will be serious moves to impeach him at a certain point, if that seemed to offer a chance to stabilise the situation. Nonetheless, for the millions of working class, middle class and young people who have taken to the streets it would be a mistake to believe that the road to victory lies in uniting around the programme of the capitalist opposition to Trump.

In Britain, Trump’s enthusiastic support for Brexit and hostility to the European Union (EU) has given confidence to the reactionary ‘little Englander’ wing of the Tory party who want a ‘hard Brexit’. They harbour utopian dreams that a capitalist Britain, free of the EU, could somehow return to being a first-rate imperialist power that really does have a ‘special relationship’ with the US. This is ruled out; Britain is a third-rate power. Its productivity has long lagged behind other major economies, but the gap has now reached Grand Canyon proportions. The gap with the G7 average is 18%, with Germany 35% and the US 30%. Outside of the EU, Britain is likely to be less attractive to multinational corporations and less useful to US imperialism.

Brexit, Grexit and EU tensions

However, this does not mean that the movement against Trump should adopt the programme of the pro-EU wing of the Tory party or, come to that, of the Liberal Democrats or Labour right-wingers. They represent the outlook of the majority of the capitalist class in Britain who want to remain in the EU as the best way to maximise their profits. Before the referendum, 80% of Confederation of British Industry members said they supported Remain. Now they and their political representatives in all parties are scrambling around to find a way to ‘step back’ Brexit, without seriously undermining the institutions of capitalism. Tony Blair, George Osborne, Hilary Benn and others are meeting regularly to try and work towards this aim. They face an uphill struggle which has been made harder for them by the election of Trump.

Trump’s presidency is both a symptom of, and a catalyst for, increasing regional and national tensions. This includes the tensions between the US and the EU, and the centrifugal forces within the EU. Trump and his advisors have made no secret of his hostility to the EU, and to its dominant power, Germany, in particular. Peter Navarro, the head of the US president’s new National Trade Council, brazenly told the Financial Times that Germany "continues to exploit other countries in the EU as well as the US with an ‘implicit Deutschemark’ that is grossly undervalued". There is no question that German capitalism has benefited from the much lower level of the euro compared to its previous Deutschemark. Nonetheless, for a representative of US imperialism to point it out is a blatant escalation of hostilities.

Trump’s first choice for US ambassador to the EU is Ted Malloch. When asked why he wanted the post this right-wing Brexiteer declared: "I had in a previous career a diplomatic post where I helped bring down the Soviet Union. So maybe there’s another union that needs a little taming". The centrifugal forces within the EU are already accelerating. Greece is once again locked in emergency talks which have the potential to lead to Grexit even without Malloch’s comment that Greece should have left the euro four years ago. It is not only Brexit and Grexit that could be on the agenda but the possibility of the Netherlands, France or even Germany itself deciding to at least abandon the single currency. It is quite possible that, by the time Brexit negotiations are complete, the EU will not exist, at least in its current form.

From its inception, the EU has been, in essence, a coming together of the capitalist classes in Europe in order to better be able to compete against the other major world economic and political powers. It has always remained, however, a collection of nation states huddling together for their capitalist classes’ mutual advantage rather than a European nation. Measures like a banking union, or a European defence force, much mooted as necessary steps to further integration, have never come into being, despite decades of discussion. Nonetheless, the EU has been a rival as well as an ally of US imperialism. A section of US capitalism – represented, it seems, by Trump – would like to weaken it, despite the potentially seriously destabilising effect this could have on global capitalism.

Nationalism and protectionism

Trump’s election marks the death knell of the era of globalisation. For decades the increased integration of the world economy was the overwhelmingly dominant trend. Many capitalist commentators predicted the demise of the nation state. We explained that, while the productive forces had massively outgrown national and to some degree even continental boundaries, capitalism remained based on the political, social and economic entities of nations.

In a time of economic crisis we predicted that globalisation would recoil in the opposite direction with an increase in regional and national tensions between the different capitalist powers. This is exacerbated by the decline of US imperialism which, while still the most powerful country, is no longer able to dominate the globe and determine ‘the rules’. The recoil against globalisation has been accelerating since the start of the 2007/08 global economic crisis but will be given further fuel by Trump’s victory.

The increase in nationalism has been fuelled by sections of the ruling class in different countries, searching for some means to increase the social basis from which they can defend their rotten system. While this trend has been developing over years it has now reached a qualitative new stage. Right-wing populists and far-right politicians – from Geert Wilders in the Netherlands to Marine Le Pen in France – have been given confidence by the election of Trump and his openly nationalist rhetoric.

It is the defenders of capitalist globalisation who are the wing of the capitalist class most vehemently opposed to Trump and to his blatantly nationalist declarations. But, however much they dress themselves in the clothes of internationalism, they have all pursued globalisation in order to maximise the profits of their own national capitalist classes. The EU is not a humanitarian anti-racist entity but ‘Fortress Europe’ which has left countless thousands of refugees to drown off its shores and has driven the peoples of Greece, Spain and Portugal into the dirt.

Nor did globalisation prevent conflicts between different capitalist nations and regional blocs. The EU fined Microsoft for abusing its Windows Operating System in 2007, for example, leading to claims in the US of ‘a new form of protectionism’. In 2015, it was the US that exposed the German car manufacturer, Volkswagen, for cheating on its diesel emissions tests. It later became clear that the EU regulators had been aware of this, but had turned a blind eye so as not to disadvantage a major German corporation.

Meanwhile, the supposed moral outrage of the Blairites and Osbornites at Trump’s friendly approach to Vladimir Putin does not stand up to even five minutes scrutiny. After all, Britain under New Labour and the Tories was a major exporter of arms to Russia, and now sells more arms to Saudi Arabia than any other country. Last October, when Labour moved a motion in parliament to withdraw UK support for Saudi Arabia in protest at its war against Yemen, more than 100 right-wing Labour MPs failed to turn up or abstained. It is not the repressive character of Putin’s regime that they object to but that it is a rival to the western imperialist powers.

The establishment undermined

Capitalist globalisation of recent decades led to an enormous increase in inequality. In Britain, the proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) that goes on wages has been shrinking for 30 years. If the share was the same today as it was in 1978, workers would be taking home £60 billion more (in today’s money). The situation is the same in the US, where in July 2011 wages accounted for the smallest share of GDP since 1955 – 54.9%. Meanwhile, corporate profits had the highest share since 1950 – 12.6%. Globally, inequality has reached unprecedented levels. As Oxfam reported, just eight billionaires own as much wealth as 3.6 billion people.

Globalisation did develop the productive forces, but in an extremely contradictory fashion. This was laid bare by the economic crisis of 2007/08. Although aided by new technology, it developed primarily as a consequence of the relative decline of industrial production in the economically advanced capitalist countries. Searching for new, more profitable fields of investment, capitalism turned to gambling on the world finance markets creating huge speculative bubbles, completely out of touch with underlying economic reality. At the same time, multinational companies increasingly relocated industry in countries with lower wages and super-exploited migrant workers in a ‘race to the bottom’.

Even prior to the economic crisis, wage stagnation and cuts in public services had led to a build-up of resentment against the existing order. The crisis in 2007/08 has led to the biggest squeeze on wages in Britain and many other countries since the 19th century, and the authority and social base of the institutions of capitalism – above all, its political parties – have been dramatically undermined. From New Labour to the US Democrats, and New Democracy to PASOK in Greece, parties that have pursued the austerity agenda of the globalisers have been thrown from office and even destroyed.

The despair of the Blairites reflects the undermining of their social base and their complete inability to find a pro-capitalist programme around which they can successfully mobilise against Jeremy Corbyn. Arch-Blairite Tristram Hunt summed it up when, according to Observer journalist Andrew Rawnsley, he declared that he was leaving politics because, "having devoted a lot of time to thinking about how to renew social democracy for the 21st century, he had grown increasingly fearful that he hadn’t got the answers to Labour’s predicament". (15 January)

Neither do any of his co-thinkers! The crisis of the Parti Socialiste in France and PSOE in Spain reflects the same process. In Britain, if Corbyn is forced out it will not be as a result of the strength of the right wing, but the failure of the left to mobilise the hundreds of thousands who have backed him into a movement to transform Labour into an anti-austerity socialist party.

Our collective power

The increased discrediting of establishment capitalist politicians, of both an ex-social democratic and traditional character, has left a huge vacuum. In Britain, the focus of the capitalist media has been on the splits in the Labour Party but, despite the temporary façade of unity, the Tories are equally divided if not more so. As the Brexit negotiations get underway the open civil war in the Tory party is bound to flare up again. The worst split in their ranks is posed since they divided over the Corn Laws in 1846. That saw them out of power for almost three decades.

It is not preordained which forces will step into the vacuum. Despite the pessimism of many on the left there is nothing automatic about right-wing forces doing so. The UK Independence Party, at this stage, is still on a lower level in the opinion polls than before the EU referendum.

Corbyn has had repeated opportunities to win the support of millions of angry, working class people. He made a serious mistake when he dropped his historic opposition to the EU as a neoliberal capitalist project, under pressure from Labour’s right, agreeing to campaign (albeit reluctantly) in favour of Remain. This meant that the left, internationalist case for exit was not heard by the majority of the population. Corbyn missed an important opportunity to raise the confidence and consciousness of the working class and to demonstrate that he represented a break with the pro-capitalist leaders of New Labour.

He can still recover the lost ground, however, if he stops retreating in the face of the Blairites. That means not giving in to their pressure to support a Brexit deal which is in the interests of big business, rather than the working class majority. He needs to campaign clearly for a workers’ Brexit which is socialist and internationalist around a programme to defend and improve the lives of the majority. This would include a £10 an hour minimum wage, mass council house building, and the democratic nationalisation of key industries. This should be combined with trenchant campaigning against racism and defending the rights of migrants and refugees, including that all EU citizens currently in Britain who wish to remain can do so with full rights.

In a world of increasing instability, national conflict and even war, what force can act to undermine and defeat right-wing nationalist forces? The answer is the majority: a united movement of the working class and radicalised middle class armed with a socialist programme. We have already had a glimpse of our collective power. It is the mass movement on the streets, in the US and globally, which is responsible for curtailing Trump’s ability to act. No doubt if Le Pen was to win the French presidential election, for example, it would act as a thunderclap igniting a mass movement of young people and workers in opposition.

The present epoch is not analogous to the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s. The relationship of class forces is still decisively in favour of the working class, even though its organisations have been weakened. Out of the movements against Trump and his ilk the possibility will be posed of creating new mass parties which are genuinely internationalist and anti-racist because they are fighting for a socialist world where humanity is freed from all the filth of capitalism.

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