It is now a week since I trudged through the snow to deliver a lecture with sleep and disbelief in my eyes after staying up much of the night watching the US election results come in. That morning, my thoughts revolved around the election of Trump and how to explain this as part of my lecture on Neo-Marxist approaches to International Relations. I hope I did a reasonable job in the circumstances and in the days that followed I gave various media interviews, wrote blogs and gave a public presentation on the topic.
In the immediate aftermath of political ‘convulsions’ it is perhaps inevitable that we explain them using the tools we have immediately to hand. To a significant extent the New Politics of Inequality thesis that I have been working with does help to understand these political convulsions, and suggests that more will occur in the years to come.
However, both Brexit and the Trump elections are convulsions whose internal dimensions require more detailed and careful examination. It seems to me that some of the questions that many of us have been asking in the post-convulsion period, in both cases, are not fully answered using the existing analytical tools at our disposal.
For example, why did so many women vote for a man who appears to openly admit to sexual assault and incredibly sexist views? Similarly, why did some Latino voters support a man who wanted to curtail the opportunities to move to the United States for people like them? Perhaps a bigger question which applies to both the Brexit and Trump convulsions is: why is it that challenges associated with globalisation and the effects of competitiveness are popularly understandable via a regressive politics of seeking out past securities and xenophobia, in the face of the paucity of evidence that such politics can pose a solution for the problems?
In the wake of the Trump election it has been commonplace to suggest that in combination with Brexit, the rise of populism elsewhere and challenging geo-politics involving Russia threaten to unravel the global liberal order. Many have suggested that there are parallels with the circumstances of the inter-war period. The worry is that these circumstances mirror those that created the fertile ground for extremism and conflictual nationalisms to develop. The parallels are certainly there and these concerns are apposite: Nazism didn’t start with gas chambers and concentration camps, it started with poverty, insecurity and widespread anxiety about how to resolve these problems, which was then exploited by opportunist populist leaders via regressive ideology.
Another – more intellectual – parallel is perhaps also appropriate. In comparable yet different terms both Antonio Gramsci and the early members of the so called ‘Frankfurt’ school both struggled to come to terms with the rightward shift in popular opinion which saw Fascist leaders gain widespread support. Both camps sought to explain why the development of an alienating industrial capitalism that Marx had predicted accurately in economic terms, did not lead to the types of solidaristic and internationally oriented working class consciousness he anticipated, and instead led to nationalism and fascism. Both stressed the role of ideology, the ways in which collective and individual psychologies obscured the material reality from being popularly understood.
Perhaps both Gramscian and Frankfurt school ideas offer us a way of understanding the present. Hegemonic institutions of the extended state, the culture industry and so on embed the power relations of the status quo in our common sense, produce ‘false consciousness’ and create the conditions for simplistic and regressive understandings of our collective insecurities.
But, if these tools are able to help us understand the current conjecture then we are surely in need of new and detailed applications of them. Such applications must be central to the development of a progressive counter-movement to the rise of right-wing populism, with any chance of success. It clearly is not enough to fall back on a defence of the post-war liberal settlement that got us to where we are. Instead, it is surely better to try to understand why the popular consensus in support of that settlement has fallen apart.
My sense is that the New Politics of Inequality thesis takes us some way along that path. It helps understand the causes of poverty, inequality and insecurity and that this may realise a popular backlash to globalisation or European integration. It helps to understand why in conditions of precarity and precarious lives, there is fertile ground for regressive political ideologies in relation to immigration, race, gender and so on.
But it does not explain why and how regressive ideas take hold in terms that Gramscian notions of hegemony or Frankfurt school understandings of collective psychology would identify. Further, it doesn’t help us understand the terms on which an alternative progressive ideology might be constructed, beyond the rather trite observation that progressive and effective political leadership and more complex popular understandings are necessary.
In other words, to recall many of the debates between academic colleagues that I have seen on social media over the last week: while the working class vote for Trump or Brexit might be explained via some kind of notion of ‘false consciousness’ or women voting for Trump might be the product of patriarchy and internalised misogyny, neither explanation seems on its own sufficient or wholly effective.
It is necessary to better understand now, how and why people comprehend their circumstances in ways that are supportive of regressive political ideas. Current research on these issues is necessary because it is surely the case that the detailed ways they work is dynamic over time and space. So if Frankfurt school research on the Nazi period did help to understand that, we need new research now to focus on how and why regressive, xenophobic and divisive political agendas are taking hold. Colleagues like Owen Worth, Stuart Shields, David Bailey and Ian Bruff I know have begun to tackle these issues in different contexts, but I am sure that they themselves would agree that more detailed understanding is still required.
I don’t immediately have the answers to these challenges. So perhaps to advance our thinking we need to marry some of the very well developed tools of public opinion research (albeit recognising the problems of atomisation and aggregation) with the critical theoretical perspective outlined by Horkheimer (and later derived from Gramsci’s work by Robert Cox) and material analysis of the production and reproduction of inequality in different national and local contexts subject to world market integration.
It is these things that will shape my thinking as I continue to try to make sense of contemporary political convulsions. I might even be able to put them into practice. If anyone reading has any ideas on how best to do this, then please do get in touch!