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You are here: Platypus /Returning to Marxism in the Age of Trump in 2020

Returning to Marxism in the Age of Trump in 2020

Efraim Carlebach

Platypus Review 131 | November 2020

“The people who lived in such an atmosphere imagined that the impossibility of ever inviting an ‘opportunist’ - still, more a ‘horrid radical’ – was something that would endure forever, like oil-lamps and horse drawn omnibuses. But, like a kaleidoscope which is every now and then given a turn, society arranges successively in different orders elements which one would have supposed immutable, and composes a new pattern… the kaleidoscope once more reversed its coloured lozenges.”

– Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, “Within a Budding Grove” (1919)

“[In capitalism] our economic relations are subject to continual change, not only by the rapid dissolution of the old but by the continuous creation of the new. The idea of the old… becomes synonymous with the imperfect and the outgrown. This idea is transplanted from the economic life into the field of… politics… And the time which is necessary in order to make a machine, an institution, a theory outgrown becomes ever shorter… So that the creation of to-day is within a short time not simply unfashionable but also useless. The new is, however, just that thing that one observes, criticizes and investigates the most closely.”

 – Karl Kautsky, The Social Revolution (1902)

“That political crisis [of neoliberalism] was expressed by SYRIZA's election in Greece, Jeremy Corbyn's rise to leadership of the Labour Party, the Brexit referendum, and Bernie Sanders's as well as Donald Trump’s campaign for President of the U.S. Now Trump's election is the most dramatic expression of this political crisis of neoliberalism. The heritage of 20th century “Marxism”—that of both the Old Left of the 1930s and the New Left of the 1960s—does not facilitate a good approach to the present crisis and possibilities for change. Worse still is the legacy of the 1980s post-New Left of the era of neoliberalism, which has scrambled to chase after events ever since Thatcher and Reagan's election.”

– Chris Cutrone, introduction to Marxism in the Age of Trump (2018)

I

Change is difficult to understand for several reasons.[1] But those who have even a cursory knowledge of Marxism will know of Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

The point, with Marxism, was to grasp capitalism as a dynamic pointing to new potential beyond it. Specifically, this dynamic and potential for change was understood to be politically mediated and therefore requiring a particular and peculiar form of political theory and practice adequate to realizing this potential.

Today there is no Marxist politics or socialist politics that could even attempt to grasp the potential expressed politically and socially by capitalism.

Moreover, as Sparticist League founder James Robertson once observed, without the ability to change the world, our ability to understand and interpret the world diminishes. The two were once intimately related and neither can survive in rigid separation. Theory was liquidated, as Theodor Adorno put it, “by dogmatization and thought taboos.”[2]

Obstructing the reconstruction of the Left is a series of thought taboos compounded by each generation’s failed attempt to revive it. These thought taboos obscure reality from the Left and thus, as Adorno put it, “contribute to the bad practice.”

Furthermore, since 2016, the Left has defended the status quo against political change, which it finds scary and calls “fascism”, because it has become accustomed to inane “resistance” to neoliberalism.

This triple whammy has been the fate of the Left already for several generations, but it has been repeated for the millennial generation via opposition to the candidacy and presidency of Donald Trump, i.e. anti-Trumpism, and its attendant integration into the Democrats.

Anti-Trumpism has been the thought taboo, the obstacle, to thinking soberly about Trump’s politics and the transformation in world capitalist politics, and whatever lessons that might hold for the potential within capitalism for reviving socialist politics.

If we are interested in the possibility of such a political project – a big ‘if’ – we must face the hard fact that, as Chris Cutrone argued in “Why not Trump?”, “Anti-Trumpism is the problem and obstacle, not Trump.”[3]

II

From the moment Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination in 2015, there was a recognition on the Left and in mainstream liberal discourse that their prevailing mode of understanding the world was inadequate to this phenomenon.

At first this uneasiness was swatted away with what Tad Tietze – an early astute commentator on Trump and the Left – called the “schizophrenic response”, oscillating between treating Trump as a reality TV joke and a “fascist”.[4] As Trump’s challenge against the Republican establishment accelerated and his support grew, the appellate “fascist” became more common along with the usual string of epithets – racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. – that Hilary would later use to dismiss “the deplorables”.

Tietze noted that what was remarkable about this was how relatively moderate Trump was on major issues compared to his Republican rivals. Trump himself had formerly been a Democrat. Ted Cruz called him “a New York liberal”. Glenn Beck criticized Trump for being more like FDR on state spending. Trump’s law-and-order conservatism would not have been alien to many Clinton-era Democrats, for instance the legislator of the infamous 1994 Crime Bill, Joe Biden.

One of Trump’s major planks was his opposition the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, criticizing Bush and Obama alike, and earning him the hatred of neocon hawks and Pentagon insiders, Republican and Democrat. At the GOP debate in December 2015, Trump said:

“We have done a tremendous disservice not only to the Middle East — we’ve done a tremendous disservice to humanity. The people that have been killed, the people that have been wiped away — and for what? It’s not like we had victory. It’s a mess. The Middle East is totally destabilized, a total and complete mess. I wish we had the $4 trillion or $5 trillion [spent trying to topple regimes]. I wish it were spent right here in the United States on schools, hospitals, roads, airports, and everything else that are all falling apart!”

In order to achieve this politically, Trump sought to lead discontents with neoliberalism, including working-class voters of the “left behind” rust belt, who had suffered the blows of deindustrialization and the financial crisis hardest, whose children had died in the “endless wars”, and who had previously voted for Obama. Trump sought to lead them into the Republican party thus transforming it and its existing constituencies and coalitions in the process. He also sought to win over black and Latino voters from the Democrats – enough so he might win. This was “fascism”? As for drone strikes, surveillance of Muslim immigrants and children kept in cages at the Mexican border, all of this already existed under Obama.

What Tietze called the “schizophrenic response” to Trump was preventing the Left from thinking politically about the change he represented. This wasn’t the first time. On the panel Platypus hosted in Vienna in 2017, “The Crisis of Neoliberalism”, Chris Cutrone noted:

“The “Left”—the Communist Party—initially called FDR a “fascist,” just as the New Left called Reagan a “fascist” when he was elected, as if liberal democracy were collapsing rather than experiencing a political transformation. Such hysteria amounts to thinly veiled wishful thinking. The problem with the ‘Left’ is that its hysterics are less about society than about itself. The ‘Left’ cries foul when mainstream politics steals its thunder—when change happens from the Right rather than through the Left’s own ‘revolutionary politics’.”[5]

A similar point was made by the musician Brian Eno, who told The Guardian in a 2017 interview: “My feeling about Brexit was not anger at anybody else, it was anger at myself for not realising what was going on. I thought that all those UKIP [UK Independence Party] people and those National Fronty people were in a little bubble. Then I thought: ‘Fuck, it was us, we were in the bubble, we didn’t notice it.’ There was a revolution brewing and we didn’t spot it because we didn’t make it. We expected we were going to be the revolution.’”[6]

For Eno, Trump and Brexit presented “a chance to really rethink.” Well, after four years of Trump, as we enter the final stretch of his campaign for a second term, has the Left taken Brian Eno’s advice – to recognize that their anger is not with others but themselves, and to rethink?

III

For a representative position on the Left today I turned to the latest issue of International Socialism, the theoretical journal of the British SWP. How do they understand the Trump phenomenon, probably the most important political shift in my lifetime, on the eve of the 2020 election?

Sure enough, there was an article titled “The Trump Phenomenon” by John Newsinger.[7] Here one finds exactly the “schizophrenic” response Tietze parodied four years ago, replete with the usual epithets:

“[Trump] is quite openly and unashamedly a corrupt, lying, bullying, whining, racist, xenophobic, sexist, misogynistic, profoundly ignorant, narcissistic conman, convinced of his own genius.”

What is worse, the article provides no political analysis of its own. Rather, it reviews anti-Trump books written by Washington establishment insiders – Anonymous, A Warning, and Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, A Very Stable Genius: Donald J Trump’s Testing of America – and simply reproduces without comment their denunciation of Trump, from the Right, for being incompetent and not understanding the interests of American imperialism, along with the long debunked claims of Russian collusion and associated crimes.

Newsinger pauses for a moment to realize that he is here on the same side as “the safe state”, i.e. the entrenched neoliberal bureaucracy which insists that Trump’s attempt to withdraw troops from the Middle East is dangerous if not impossible. But, ultimately, he prefers this to the danger – as reported by these Washington insiders – posed by Trump, despite the anti-war activism the SWP once led.

I don’t mean to caricature the Left’s anti-Trumpism with this one example – for there have been more circumspect and more or less sophisticated responses elsewhere. But I think the SWP is an important bellwether. They may be shrinking organizationally after several crises since their peak in the anti-war movement, but their political sensibility – protest movement plus social justice – developed in the 1980s and 90s, is so widespread that it feels like the whole Left is inveterate “Cliffites”. This is compounded by the literal collapse of their US sister org, the ISO, last year, whose members will partly shape whatever the future of the DSA may be after Bernie. This sensibility is widely assumed but rarely recognized.

Where there is a moment of analysis independent of the books under review, Newsinger shows how beholden he is in his Leftism to the (anti-)neoliberal framework. He argues that Trump represents the Tea Party and Christian Fundamentalism in the Republicans. By any standards, this is an obfuscation of the basics of Trump’s politics and how he ran against those priorities in the Republican party. Trump is not assimilable to the Left’s ingrained mode of thinking in terms of neoliberalism and anti-neoliberalism – for the change in capitalist politics signaled by Brexit and Trump points to an emerging post-neoliberalism that is not well understood in terms inherited from the past 40 years of Left “resistance” to neoliberalism.

This problem is found not only in hysterical denunciations of Trump like Newsinger’s, but also in those more sophisticated “Marxist” approaches, for instance Hillel Ticktin’s writings on the changes in capitalism for the Weekly Worker. While Ticktin argued that “Trump is doing a good job in forcing people to think politically”, he takes Trump and Brexit to represent a return by the “ruling class” to “nationalism” and the interests of “small business” against big business and finance.[8] This fails to grasp how Trump’s trade policies, perhaps similarly to Brexit, cannot be reduced to such matter as protectionism vs free trade – as if there were not protective barriers under multilateral agreements like the EU, or TTIP, from which Trump withdrew, and as if Trump isn’t seeking to advance global trade through renegotiation – after all, he is always boasting about the great increases in Chinese purchases of corn and soy crops from US farmers and how well the stock market is doing.

Analyses like Ticktin’s express an ambivalence about changes in global capitalism, which really reflects his commitment to a Left social-democratic politics, after all Corbyn has similarities with Trump to an extent here, as Ticktin has recognized. But Newsinger’s analysis is clear that the Left should defend neoliberalism against any such changes.

IV

The fact that Newsinger so uncritically reproduces two Washington Post journalists indicates a further problem of anti-Trumpism, which is the collapse of the Left into the Democrats and the collapse of the Left press into the mainstream press – are we reading Jacobin or the New York Times? – which itself has experienced a severe crisis and collapse of journalistic integrity, well documented by the likes of Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald.

This was already noted in 2017 in Robert Parry’s article, “The Danger of Excessive Trump Bashing”, in which he observed how, out of opposition to Trump’s relatively modest proposals for rethinking US-Russian relations, partially due to the Ukraine crisis (now mostly forgotten) presided over by Obama and Biden, “the principle of objectivity has long since been abandoned as the mainstream US media transformed itself into little more than an outlet for US government foreign policy narratives, no matter how dishonest.”[9] This has only reached new lows in the various scandals, too many to mention, that have engulfed the media since.

Speaking on “The crisis of neoliberalism” in Vienna in 2017, Boris Kagarlitsky noted how this hysteria covered for an absence of thought:

“When I read Left-liberal American discussions about Trump, it was just full of crying and horror. The world is collapsing! Everything is terrible. Trump’s terrible and so on. Okay. Great. Where is the analysis? What is terrible? I am not sure. That is definitely a starting point: life is terrible. Fine. But where do we go from there?”[10]

There has since been a further retreat from sober analysis of Trump into this angsty teenage sulk pervasive in the general culture – life is terrible – signaled by the turn to anarchist-ish occupations and rioting over the summer.[11]

V

But the perspective Kagarlitsky parodies here was present even in some of the more sophisticated attempts to process Trump’s election back in 2016. One example of this is Adam Curtis’ October 2016 documentary HyperNormalisation, in which Trump is presented as the end of the world in the striking introductory voiceover:

“We live in a strange time. Extraordinary events keep happening that undermine the stability of our world: suicide bombs, waves of refugees, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, even Brexit. Yet those in control seem unable to deal with it… over the past 40 years politicians, financiers and technological utopians, rather than face up to the real complexities of the world, retreated. Instead they constructed a simpler version of the world in order to hang on to power. And as this fake world grew, all of us went along with it, because the simplicity was reassuring. Even those who thought they were attacking the system, the radicals… and our whole counterculture actually became part of the trickery, because they too had retreated into the make-believe world, which is why their opposition has no effect and nothing ever changes. This retreat in to a dream world allowed dark and destructive forces to fester and grow outside, forces that are now returning to pierce the fragile surface of our carefully constructed fake world.”[12]

It is remarkable that even before he was elected, Donald Trump was already compared to a suicide bomb – his candidacy alone was an event that “undermines the stability of our world”. It is important to note Curtis’ point about the complicity of the Left as “part of the trickery” in neoliberalism precisely through opposition to it, and thus it is struggling to catch up now with the change to post-neoliberalism.

On the one hand, I agree with Curtis. The crisis of neoliberalism, which Trump and Brexit represent, has undermined not only the stability of the political parties whose carefully constructed coalitions Trump and Brexit tore apart, but also major institutions of political and public life, from journalism to the judiciary (not to mention academia), which have been more or less in a state of meltdown over the past four years. Perhaps these changes were perhaps already underway and simply accelerated by Trump and Brexit. Nonetheless, the full implications of the crisis of these public institutions will only become clear several years from now. Save to say, I think we can see now how highly politically mediated our social reality is.

On the other hand, however, Curtis’ presentation of Trump as the apotheosis of the neoliberal order and his insistence that “nothing ever changes” misses the point of the change that Trump represents: the realignment of global capitalist politics towards some kind of post-neoliberalism. Curtis’ image of “dark forces… returning to pierce the fragile surface of our carefully constructed fake world” sounds like something picked out of an undergraduate guidebook to the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan explaining the eruption of the “Real” into the “symbolic order”.

This is actually a bad way of thinking about change in history, which the Left has inherited from Lacan via the French Stalinist Louis Althusser, who was a big influence on the New Left, as well as the postmodern philosophy that pervades contemporary academia.

This was exemplified on the panel “Marxism in the Age of Trump”, held by Platypus at the University of Chicago in 2017, by panelist Greg Lucero, a Maoist activist. Lucero said that, in Lacanian terms, “Trump is a ‘Real’ that has emerged and disrupted neoliberalism”. Lucero then argued that the Left “must be psychotic in the sense that we must abandon the symbolic order”, and began chanting: “NO TRUMP! NO KKK! NO FASCIST USA!”[13]

Aside from the fact that Lucero’s chanting and command to act psychotically seemed more like a fascist agitator than any Trump supporter I’ve seen, the actual function of his slogans, chanted on many anti-Trump rallies since 2016, is not in relation to Trump, but to the Left itself. It functions to “reintegrate”, to use Lucero’s Lacanianism, the Left into the Democratic Party, from which it only momentarily begged to differ. For at the level of politics it is indistinguishable from the hysterical denunciation against Trump one reads in places like the New York Times. Hilary and Obama both called Trump fascist, as well neoliberal Republican never-Trumpists.  

Here the heritage of vintage ’60s Maoism, Lacan via Althusser, is actually an obstacle to thinking about change. As Jan Schroeder has written on “Althusser’s Marxism”, the Left is thus counselled to “stand indifferent to the content of change and draw its hope from a one-dimensional form, the chaos of breaks and fractures. [Thus] Stoicism is declared a political task.”[14]

On the panel in question, Lucero’s Lacanianism was immediately rejected by his co-panelist, Catherine Liu, who told him, “I’m not going to be a fucking Lacanian”, because “Lacanianism is an esotericism that separates us from the vernacular.” She had this kind of cathartic experience finally coming out against all the postmodernism she had had to deal with in the academy, but also the depressing recognition that the younger generation of activists in Lucero were just repeating what had come before.

Instead, Liu wanted to talk less about Trump and more about “populism” and the working-class voters who swung his campaign to victory in key states like Wisconsin and Minnesota. When Adam Curtis talks about dark forces festering on the outside of our dream world, he doesn’t really mean Trump, he means those voters. Perhaps that’s why the image shown when his voiceover mentions Brexit was a white man in a “Fuck Islam” t-shirt – as if that’s what Brexit was about! Here Curtis betrays the ambivalence about democracy that has been common across Left and liberal responses to the crisis of neoliberalism. Terms like populism, which are actually quite vague, express this ambivalence.

Thus Curtis, and Lucero, don’t take Trump’s supporters or Trump seriously enough – or rather, they treat them as an expression of irrationality, rather than asking what the rationality of the phenomenon is in relation to the historical moment. Even Curtis, who tries to unpack the historical context for Trump, ultimately treats him as a spectacle, all surface and no substance, analogizing Trump to his casinos that were not really profitable but financed off of debt in the early 90s.

VI

One of the most common way of avoiding the problem of the rationality of Trump and his supporters – or Brexit for that matter – is to call him a liar. Hence the farcical descent of journalism into giving Trump “Pinocchio” ratings in the Washington Post. I suppose then that the explanation for his political success is that people are easily duped and lied to, or willfully ignorant and “hate science” – but these are not political arguments.

This point was taken up by Chris Cutrone in his essay “Why not Trump?”, in perhaps the most controversial claim in the essay:

“When Trump lies, still, his lies tell the truth. When Trump’s opponents tell the truth they still lie.

“When Trump appears ignorant of the ways of the world, he expresses a wisdom about the status quo. The apparent “wisdom” of the status quo by contrast is the most pernicious form of ignorance.

“For example, Trump says that the official current unemployment rate of 5% is a lie: there are more than 20% out of work, most of whom have stopped seeking employment altogether. It is a permanent and not fluctuating condition. Trump points out that this is unacceptable. Mainstream economists say that Trump’s comments about this are not false but “unhelpful” because nothing can be done about it.

“The neoliberal combination of capitalist austerity with post-1960s identity politics of ‘race, gender and sexuality’ that is the corporate status quo means allowing greater profits — necessitated by lower capitalist growth overall since the 1970s — while including more minorities and women in the workforce and management. Trump is attacking this not out of "racism" or "misogyny" but against the lowered expectations of the ‘new normal.’

“When Trump says that he will provide jobs for “all Americans” this is not a lie but bourgeois ideology, which is different.

“The mendacity of the status quo is the deeper problem.”[15]

A very similar point was made in a profile on Trump’s campaign published in The Atlantic, also in September 2016, by Salena Zito. She wrote about how Trump addressed the economic concerns of black workers in Pittsburgh:

“[Trump] hammered at the importance of better opportunities in black communities as a remedy to quell today’s unrest: ‘We have to have education and jobs in the inner cities or they are going to explode like we have never seen before. You already see signs of that already all over the country.’

The best way, he says, is to provide good education and good jobs in these areas. ‘Fifty-eight percent of black youth cannot get a job, cannot work,’ he says. ‘Fifty-eight percent. If you are not going to bring jobs back, it is just going to continue to get worse and worse.’

“It’s a claim that drives fact-checkers to distraction. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the unemployment rate for blacks between the ages of 16 and 24 at 20.6 percent. Trump prefers to use its employment-population ratio, a figure that shows only 41.5 percent of blacks in that age bracket are working. But that means he includes full time high-school and college students among the jobless.

“It’s a familiar split. When he makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”[16]

In a footnote to his argument that the mendacity of the status quo is the deeper problem, Cutrone cites Hannah Arendt’s 1971 essay “Lying in politics”, which was written as a response to the publishing of the Pentagon papers detailing the lies told around the conducting of the Vietnam war by the US Government.[17]

Arendt argues that “Lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings”, and that this stems from the deep relationship between lying and action in our freedom to imagine that the world might be different from the way that it is. Furthermore, she insists, without this ability, “no action would be possible; and action is of course the very stuff politics are made of.” Because of this relationship between lying and action, which is the stuff of politics, Arendt argues, “Moral outrage… is not likely to make it disappear”. True, still, today.

VII

Arendt highlights how difficult it is to adequately grasp change in politics – and lying in politics, for that matter – because politics is not a natural science but an art of judgment, in which facts can be changed by action—the stuff of politics. Politics is part of the historical and social object it seeks to transform, which is different from the usual scientific or practical interaction of subject and object.

Arendt’s contemporary, the political scientist and biographer of Rosa Luxemburg, J. P. Nettl, posed the same problem at the end of his essay, “The German Social Democratic Party 1890-1914 as a Political Model”. Citing the philosopher Henri Bergson, Nettl argued that “most pictures of change are ‘moving pictures’ which means that they are no more than ‘a composition of immobilities . . . a position, and then a new position etc. ad infinitum.’”[18]

Nettl’s essay, and his related longer biography of Rosa Luxemburg, sought to recover how Luxemburg and Lenin, and the broader Second International in which they were trained politically as Marxists, attempted to grasp change in politics through social and political action – to go beyond a mere “composition of immobilities”. That is, how they attempted to grasp the dynamic of capitalism and its potential that pointed beyond it to socialism.

This point about Marxism seeking to grasp the potential for change within capitalism at the political level was emphasized by Georg Lukács in his short book on Lenin:

“‘You must,’ said Lenin, ‘be able at each particular moment to find the particular link in the chain which you must grasp with all your might in order to hold the whole chain and to prepare firmly for the transition to the next link; the order of the links, their form, the manner in which they are linked together, the way they differ from each other in the historical chain of events, are not as simple and not as meaningless as those in an ordinary chain made by a smith.’

“Only the Marxist dialectic [Lukacs comments] by the concrete analysis of the concrete situation, can establish what fact at a given moment of social life acquires this significance. Its leitmotif is the revolutionary concept of society as a continuously developing totality.”[19]

Now, Hannah Arendt was no Marxist. She was by all accounts a conservative thinker.  It may be fashionable to cite her as a “radical” thinker in Lefty academic circles, but this is just another example of how illegible the political self-understanding of the 20th century has become in our postmodern times when everything is consummate with everything else.

One can smell out Arendt’s mid-20th century conservatism in her ambivalence towards those who act politically, and thus, in her view, make facts conform to their theories – again, a necessary form of lying in politics; she cites Hegel as the “father of grandiose history schemes”, and against this she poses the “contingency” of reality – a rather unsatisfactory schema, at least from the standpoint of the historical “Marxist dialectic” just cited. I am sure Adorno would consider her category of “action” to be undialectical! This excurses into Arendt’s thought on change in politics speaks to the absence of any Marxist politics, certainly since Arendt was writing in the late 1960s but really going all the way back to the 1920s.

This poses the problem of the meaning of the 20th century for the task of reconstituting the Left in the present.[20] The centrality of 1917 and its aftermath for Arendt – who concludes with a point on the impossibility of erasing Trotsky’s memory! – seems almost quaint today. One of the difficulties with understanding post-neoliberalism is that it is not directly guided by a response to the events of 1917, as even neoliberalism was via the history of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom.

However, Arendt had a better grasp of politics than we might today and she was registering a regression in political thought in her own time that still affects us. So, I want to draw out one other concept from her piece which I think will help us to think about Trump and the obstacles to thinking about change in the present.

VIII

Arendt says that in the 1960s there was a new form of lying in politics that had to be accounted for. She called this the “public-relations manager”. This new generation, she says, were trained in advertising and thought of politics in much the same way. They “were taught that half of politics is ‘image-making’ and the other half the art of making people believe in the imagery”.

The problem, Arendt noted, is that this divorced them from understanding action as the stuff of politics:

“The trouble with the mentality of the public-relations man is that he deals only in opinions and ‘good will’, the readiness to buy, that is, in intangibles whose concrete reality is at a minimum. This means that for his inventions it may indeed look as though the sky is the limit, for he lacks the politician’s power to act, to ‘create’ facts, and, thus, that simple everyday reality that sets limits to power and brings the forces of imagination down to earth.”

They reach their limit in confrontation with political reality, which, Arendt notes, “has the disconcerting habit of confronting us with the unexpected.” For it soon becomes clear that people who can be manipulated to buy a certain soap “cannot be manipulated… to ‘buy’ opinions and political views. Thus, the psychological premise of human manipulability has become one of the chief wares that are sold on the market of common and learned opinion. But such doctrines do not change the way people form opinions or prevent them from acting according to their own lights.”

The new generation Arendt is critiquing here confused public-relations images for politics, and they would get a rude shock when it turns out that the masses have other ideas – “acting according to their own lights”. 

The public-relations image idea of politics went on to become dominant in the neoliberal era that emerged not long after Arendt was writing, in which politics was masked by technocratic management of policy and the Left became more focused on the image of corporate diversity through identity politics and political correctness than seizing the potential for change within capitalism by taking social and political action.

The Left’s confusion of public-relations images for politics is seen in the way that it takes Trump to be cynically manipulating his own PR media image for personal profit – reflecting the real lesson they took away from Barack Obama, the president who changed nothing while looking good. It is also seen in the way people think about Trump’s relationship to his supporters, for instance that the problem is simply being associated with people who hold views that are unacceptable in the mainstream of politics, because it’s a bad image. They were used to the model of politics of Labour MP Emily Thornberry, whose snapshot of a house draped in England flags and a white van parked outside told her all she needed to know.[21] The Left are shocked, then, when Trump views it as a political problem of winning people over to lead them politically. The Left is unable to ask the who-whom question, who is leading whom and where. Hence, they were more interested in denouncing the working class as racist than organizing them politically.

This was also the way in which the millennials thought about their “socialism” in the Corbyn and Sanders campaigns. I met many Corbynistas who told me that the problem socialists faced was one of branding and advertising. Momentum was a contact database to get people to vote, not a political organization. The World Transformed was less a school of political education for the working class and more like a tech start-up hub serving IPAs at brainstorming sessions. This was combined with the goal, not of socialism, but of progressive capitalist policies like “the green new deal” or “free broadband”.

Thus, the millennial Left perpetuated a conception of socialism inherited from the New Left and the post-political Left of policies plus activism, or movementism and electoralism – an antinomy going all the back to the liquidation of socialist and communist parties in the 1930s Popular Front – which is really quite different from and not continuous with the attempt to organize the working class independently for socialism in the Second International.

One of the salutary things about Brexit and Trump has been the re-emergence of politics from under the kind of polite management of neoliberal technocracy – or, rather, the reposing of political questions as political questions, for they were always there, just obfuscated. The crisis of established coalitions and voting patterns meant that people could be moved to new positions and were looking for leadership.

One example of this is Trump’s appeal to African-American voters, among whom the Democrats have had a solid monopoly of votes since the post-civil-rights neoliberal era. Previously, since the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Republicans had been the party of blacks and the Democrats had been the party of Jim Crow and the KKK. In 2016, Trump did better among African-Americans than previous Republican presidential candidates. And he is attempting to do even better this November, promising jobs and prison reform. His call to African-Americans disappointed with steadily lowering living standards under successive Obama administrations – “What do you have to lose?” – induces fear in Democrats who rely on that vote to get re-elected every four years. 

The crisis of neoliberalism is a crisis of its politics and therefore a crisis of democracy. But this doesn’t mean democracy’s collapse into fascism, but its reconstitution through change.

The Left is like Arendt’s public-relations managers, who are shocked to discover that their doctrines of “the psychological premise of human manipulability” – which is how they have understood Trump and his supporters – “do not change the way people form opinions or prevent them from acting according to their own lights.” | P


[1] This article is based on a teach-in given for the London School of Economics chapter of the Platypus Affiliated Society on 15 October 2020. It draws on several of the articles and panel transcripts collected in Marxism in the Age of Trump (Platypus Publishing, 2018), which is available on Amazon in print and e-book formats.

[2] Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007; 1966), 143.

[3] Chris Cutrone, “Why Not Trump,” Platypus Review (September 2016), <https://platypus1917.org/2016/09/06/why-not-trump/>.

[4] Ted Tietze, “The Trump paradox: A rough guide for the Left,” Left Flank (January 2016), https://left-flank.org/2016/01/25/the-trump-paradox-a-rough-guide-for-the-left/

[5] Chris Cutrone, John Milios, Emmanuel Tomaselli, and Boris Kagarlitsky, “The crisis of neoliberalism,” Platypus Review (May 2017), https://platypus1917.org/2017/05/03/the-crisis-of-neoliberalism/

[6] Simon Hattenstone, “Brian Eno: We’ve been in decline for 40 years – Trump is a chance to rethink” The Guardian (January 2017), <https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/jan/23/brian-eno-not-interested-in-talking-about-me-reflection>.

[7] John Newsinger, “International Socialism,” International Socialism (July 2020), <https://isj.org.uk/the-trump-phenomenon/>.

[8] Hillel Ticktin, “Process of decomposition,” Weekly Worker (January 2018), <https://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1186/process-of-decomposition/>; Hillel Ticktin, “The ruling class turns?” Weekly Worker (December 2016), <https://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1134/the-ruling-class-turns/>.

[9] Robert Perry, “The Danger of Excessive Trump Bashing,” Common Dreams (August 2016), <https://www.commondreams.org/views/2016/08/04/danger-excessive-trump-bashing>.

[10] Chris Cutrone, John Milios, Emmanuel Tomaselli, and Boris Kagarlitsky, op. cit.

[11] Chris Cutrone, “Republicans and Riots,” Platypus Review (July 2020) <https://platypus1917.org/2020/07/01/republicans-and-riots/>.

[12] Adam Curtis, “HyperNormalisation”, BBC, (October 2016).

[13] Chris Cutrone, Catherine Liu, and Greg Lucero. Platypus Review (July 2017), <https://platypus1917.org/2017/07/21/marxism-age-trump/>.

[14] Jan Schroeder, “Althusser’s Marxism” Platypus Review (July 2019), <https://platypus1917.org/2019/07/02/althussers-marxism/> (Emphasis added by author).

[15] Chris Cutrone (September 2016).

[16] Salena Zito, “Taking Trump Seriously, Not Literally,” The Atlantic (September 2016), <https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/09/trump-makes-his-case-in-pittsburgh/501335/>.

[17] Hannah Arendt, “Lying in Politics”, collected in Crises in the Republic (San Diego: Harcout Brace & Company, 1972), 1-48.

[18] J.P. Nettl, “The German Social Democratic Party 1890-1914 as a Political Model,” Past and Present, No. 30. (April 1965), 95.

[19] Georg Lukács, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of his Thought, trans. Nicholas Jacobs (London: Verso, 2009; 1924), 81-82.

[20] Chris Cutrone, “Redeeming the 20th Century: Statism and anarchy today” Platypus Review (May 2019), <https://platypus1917.org/2019/05/01/redeeming-the-20th-century-statism-and-anarchy-today/>.

[21] James Walsh, “A British politician lost her job over a tweet: how to explain it to someone outside the UK,” The Guardian (November 2014), <https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/nov/21/emily-thornberry-resignation-explain-outside-britain>.

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