Authoritarian rule, the implosion of class understanding, and other loose ends
June 13, 2017
1. I have come to realize that the rule of law should never be taken in a cavalier way. It isn’t simply a superstructural phenomenon that obediently dances to the tune of the economic base and assiduously follows the dictates of the dominant class in a social structure. Nor by the same token does it enjoy full autonomy from the economic and class relations that shape society.
The rule of law is, instead, a contested terrain. On the one hand, it can, and usually does, sanction awful practices. Evidence of this reality abounds in our country’s history as well as the histories of other countries, capitalist and socialist alike. But, on the other hand, it can protect individuals and people from arbitrary power from above as well as expand and deepen the formal and real boundaries of freedom. Both sides of this phenomenon should figure into our thinking and practice.
2. The testimony last week by former FBI Director James Comey was a dramatic and chilling piece of evidence that Trump and gang are a clear and present danger to the rule of law and the institutional structures of our democracy. It is easy at such moments of high drama to either become an onlooker parsing every twist and turn in Washington politics or to consider all of it a distraction from current battles on the streets — over income inequality and wage stagnation, immigrant roundups and deportations, health care legislation, racist police brutality, and the like.
But we have to resist this temptation. The battle to defend democracy and its institutional structures against an authoritarian president is of overarching importance. It doesn’t eclipse other democratic and class struggles, but, by the same token, how it is settled will either expand or narrow down the parameters that will frame them. Imagine, for example, if Trump were able at his whim to replace sitting judges. Or delay elections. Or declare Washington a protest free zone. Or revoke voting rights for whole sections of people. Or suspend investigations of White House wrongdoing, as he attempted to do in his meeting with Comey.
Thus, Trump’s attack on democratic governance isn’t an issue for Washington insiders alone. It bites us all. And it requires no less than an aroused and massive movement to resist any efforts – even the smallest — to hollow out our democracy and its institutional structures.
3. Movements in an authoritarian direction are far easier to resist and reverse in their early stages than later on when they gather steam and momentum, sometimes as a result of an invented crisis or sudden shock. Our job, therefore, is to keep Trump and his motley crew on the defensive, while being prepared at the same time to respond quickly and demonstrably to any power grab by them. And, hopefully, the support of people in high places, the corridors of power, and the mass media will do likewise.
4. Comey is against Trump, and I’m happy about that. While Comey is a member of the “deep state,” as I’m frequently reminded by commentators of the right as well as the left, he is also a patriot, as he understands that term, and a defender of bourgeois democratic governance and institutions. Both put him at loggerheads with Trump and his authoritarian brand of politics. Sometimes we forget that politics is messy and full of contradictions – a place of peculiar and impermanent bedfellows who find common cause, even if they don’t share the same motivations and aims. An opponent one day can become a friend the next.
In fact, during periods of progressive advance in the 20th century, social movements utilized such contradictions and temporary alliances to good effect. If we are smart, we will do much the same in these perilous times.
4. A recent article in the Washington Post returned to the much discussed subject of the makeup of Trump’s voters. The authors in their analysis stitch together statistical evidence to make the case that the majority of Trump supporters in last year’s primary and general election were other than working class.
“In short,” they write, “the narrative that attributes Trump’s victory to a ‘coalition of mostly blue-collar white and working-class voters’ just doesn’t square with the 2016 election data. According to the election study, white non-Hispanic voters without college degrees making below the median household income made up only 25 percent of Trump voters. That’s a far cry from the working-class-fueled victory many journalists have imagined.”
What I found interesting here is that even if their analysis is spot on, (and one could quarrel with their methodology), what goes unaddressed is the qualitative dimension of white workers’ voting decisions, that is, what accounts for the fact that a substantial section of white workers across income and education lines cast their ballot for Trump?
Not since the arch-segregationist George Wallace ran in the Democratic presidential primary in 1968 has a presidential candidate – now president – been so outspokenly, brazenly, and defiantly racist, misogynist, and anti-immigrant. So much so that to suggest that Trump’s message of in your face, unfiltered hate didn’t figure into the voting calculus of white workers who supported Trump bends credulity.
Some of these voters, I’m sure, agreed with every word that Trump uttered; others only with some of the hateful notes that he struck in his speeches; and still others, while not signing on to Trump’s vile message of hate, liked what he said on other matters. What stands out here isn’t a class in revolt, but an implosion of class understanding and retreat into white, nativist, masculinist identity and thinking. Even among the group who were motivated to vote for Trump for reasons other than his rhetoric of hate and division, they were still objectively throwing significant numbers of their class brothers and sisters under the bus.
In doing so, they, along with the other white workers who hitched themselves to Trump, violated an elementary maxim of the labor movement: An Injury to One is an Injury to All.
Or to put it a little differently, if we understand that class consciousness isn’t some ill defined anger at “elites” in high places, but rather is a mode of thinking that at its center includes, among other things, a keen awareness of the organic interlocking of class and democratic struggles (against racism, sexism, nativism, homophobia, and more), one thing seems obvious: the class understanding of this group of white workers was nowhere to be found in their political and voting calculus. No supporter of labor should attempt to sugar coat this in the name of a specious partisanship.
Moreover, it is wrongheaded to argue that Hillary and the Democratic Party are singularly responsible for this turn of events. Such a posture is of little help, eliding as it does such things as the rise of the right and its reshaping of public discourse in a backward direction, the atomizing and disaggregating role at the mass level of neoliberal financialization and globalization, and the decline of working class collectivities — robust democratically driven unions in the first place.
Nor does such an analysis factor in the impact of relative advantage of white, male, and U.S. born workers in the workplace and society over workers of color, women workers, and immigrants, the intractability of segregation — especially in housing and education, the backlash to the breaking of long standing racial, gender, and sexual barriers, and the migration of workers and their families from the Global South in search of a livelihood to the core countries of capitalism.
Finally, consideration has to be given to the long term marginalization — partly self-imposed — of the left since the 1970s.
I would add that any hope of escaping the nightmare of Trump’s presidency and resuming the forward march of the working class and progressive movement will turn in no small measure on squarely facing the reality of the rise of retrogressive thinking among too many white workers and the confluence of factors that explain it.
5. The latest terrorist attack in London should be a reminder that the broad democratic and progressive movement (from Democrats to the radical left) can’t yield the issue of terrorism and its interpretation to Trump and the right in general. It must offer its own analysis and practical solutions. To cede this ground to the far right, who have turned the exploitation of senseless human tragedy and people’s understandable fears into an art form to promote their backward, inhumane agenda, would be a huge mistake. Terrorism isn’t likely to go away soon.
6. Left-center unity is a key strategic concept of STRUGGLE. It isn’t a final destination or a resting point. To the contrary, it is a dynamic vehicle to turn broad popular and working class unity from a wish into reality.
7. I have said before that fascism isn’t around the corner. In fact, the journey down that path isn’t easy, smooth, or inevitable. A lot of ducks have to be in a row at the level of the state and society. And it carries great risks and consequences. But this hasn’t stopped loose talk about the fascist (or neo-fascist) danger being imminent. This wouldn’t bother me too much were it not for the fact that it removes from the public conversation what is a more likely, that is, a push toward some intermediate position between where we are now and full-blown fascist government. It is this danger and the ways to prevent it that should preoccupy us.