Just in case anyone wondered where I’ve been this week, here’s a favourite singer with a clue:
In his new film, director Raoul Peck envisions the book James Baldwin never finished – a radical narration about race in America, using the writer’s original words. He draws upon James Baldwin’s notes on the lives and assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. to explore and bring a fresh and radical perspective to the current racial narrative in America.
“One of the best movies you are likely to see this year.”
– Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
- Peter Bradshaw’s Guardian review here
By Carrie Evans (this piece also appears on the Workers Liberty website and in the present issue of Solidarity):
On 10 March 1997 something was created that changed my world forever. This is not using hyperbole to illustrate a point. Buffy the Vampire Slayer shaped my world. Unfortunately for me (or fortunately depending on context) I’m not the only person who feels this way. Which is why Buffy has launched a thousand think-pieces.
But Buffy’s originality still stands up today because it took every cliché and trope and turned them on their heads. To the people who still think Buffy is exclusively for hormonal teenage girls who long for the “bite” of a vampire and basement-dwelling neck-beards — where have you been for the last 20 years?
The first time I saw Buffy I was seven years old and BBC 2 just happened to be on. There was this new American show with a stupid name, but the title sequence caught my attention… Episode One opens as a horror genre show would open. A beautiful blonde, with a petite frame and soft voice, wearing a Catholic school uniform, is being talked into breaking into school by her bad boyfriend.
The boyfriend is an archetypal creep who is simultaneously trying to impress a girl with his badness and bully her into “making out” with him. I remember the rush of fear and excitement I had knowing she was about to die. “I’m scared. I think I can hear something outside” says Darla. (“Owww, she’s definitely about to get it”, thinks me.) “Baby, there’s nothing out there” says creepy boyfriend. Then in a plot twist that my seven-year-old mind could barely comprehend, Darla says “Good”, transforms into a vampire and sinks her teeth into creepy boyfriend’s neck. “OMFG! She was the monster!”
From then on I was completely and utterly hooked. I was a Whedonite (fan of Jess Whedon, the show’s writer). I wasn’t disappointed by the rest of the show. Whedon purposefully makes the opening scene a microcosm of what is to come.
Buffy started out simply. Firstly, what if a young woman walks down a dark ally at night and gets attacked by a monster. But instead of dying as she would in a horror show, she kicks that monster’s arse. Secondly, growing up and going to secondary school is hell for most of us. But what if your school was built on the mouth of hell?
Buffy is a typical teenage girl in every respect apart from the fact she is the vampire slayer. The one girl on earth with the supernatural strength and skill to fight the forces of darkness. Horror is a brilliant medium through which to represent society’s fears. It is why “penny dreadfuls” and Dracula became widely popular during the 19th century’s industrial upheaval and intense urbanisation. Buffy is simply the last and in my opinion best example of this tradition. On the surface it a show about vampires, demons and the forces of darkness. However the demons are metaphors for our own demons. They allow us to safely process and analyse our own deepest fears.
For instance, Angel, the love of Buffy’s life, is a vampire cursed with a soul. In the buffyverse the demon takes your body when you’re “turned” and the soul quits you, unharmed. All that’s left should be a remorseless killing machine with no empathy or morality. However Angel is thought to have killed the most beloved daughter of a gipsy clan. They exacted the perfect revenge by putting his soul back into his body to spend the rest of eternity fighting with his demon.
Angel has a conscience. Angel has to be suffering all the time. If he feels even one moment of true happiness the curse will be broken and his soul will be freed. Here’s the real kicker though, guess what makes Angel happier than anything else? You’ve got it, Buffy. Or more specifically, sex with Buffy. In the episode Surprise Buffy turns 17 and loses her virginity to Angel. Only to wake up the next day with a boyfriend that’s a monster. The story is fantastical yet completely truthful at the same time. Many women experience this phenomenon of going to bed with one person and waking up with someone else. The phrase “He wasn’t like this when I first met him” is a cliché for a reason.
Demons and magic also act as devices through which to analyse wider society. Sometimes this takes the form of long overarching narratives, as with the dark and brilliant Season Six, with three separate but intertwining story lines painting a grim pictures of what it’s like to be a twenty-something woman in the modern world. A lot of this season focuses on Buffy trying to reconnect with humanity.
The Scooby Gang (Buffy’s friends) accidentally bring Buffy back from heaven, thinking that they were saving her from a hell dimension. Only her mother has died, so she’s pulled out only to face being the primary carer to her kid sister, having medical debts her mother’s brain tumour incurred and having no prospects except menial jobs and poverty wages. The season is a great big metaphor for the depression you face in your mid-twenties. Buffy is directionless and lacking inspiration. She isolating herself, alienating her friends and engaging in risky sexual behaviour. Meanwhile two “big bads” are developing right under her nose in the forms of Dark Willow and The Trio.
Dark Willow is the storyline in which Buffy’s best friend becomes addicted to magic. She transforms from being everyone’s favourite shy geek into the world’s most powerful and out-of-control dark witch. Buffy is unable to stop this from happening or even recognise it because she is so lost herself.
The Trio is a group of super villains who are in fact just three misogynistic men, who can’t cope with not being popular, athletic or sexy and decide to turned their frustrations on the Scooby Gang. The Trio start out as comedy villains — typical sad, hapless, kind of pathetic, misogynists, but morph into something a lot more sinister. By the middle of the series, one of the Trio has bewitched his ex-girlfriend into being his sex slave. Fortunately for her his spell goes wrong; she wakes from the spell, confronts him with the reality of what he did, telling him that this isn’t just some sick fantasy but that he has repeatedly raped her. He freaks out and murders her.
Whedon and his gang of merry writers often analysed society’s ills in a single episode, often directly critical of capitalism. In the episode Double Meat Palace, Buffy is forced to take a job in a fast food restaurant but soon realises that her co-workers are disappearing at an alarming rate. At first we think the secret ingredient in the double meat medley is in fact human meat, but there is actually a demon who is picking the workers off one at time. In our culture, workers are just disposable pieces of meat; they come, they go and no one notices. Buffy: “Wow they’re all so identical”. Boss: “Yeah they all start to look the same to me too.” Buffy: “No, not the employees. The chicken slices”.
Similarly in the episode Life Cereal, Buffy takes a job in retail and gets caught in a time loop, forcing her to live the same day over and over again. This is a pretty obvious (even heavy handed) metaphor for the monotony of working life. In the same episode Buffy gets a job in construction but is fired because the men can’t cope with her being stronger than them. In The Wish, the vampires work out how to mass-produce and start factory farming humans. They reflect on their activities: “Undeniably we are the world’s superior race. Yet we have always been too parochial, too bound by the mindless routine of the predator. Hunt and kill, hunt and kill. Titillating? Yes. Practical. Hardly. Meanwhile, the humans, with their plebeian minds, have brought us a truly demonic concept: mass production!”
Marx delved into the world of gothic horror when explaining capitalism and often (quite poetically) compared it to Vampirism: “Capital is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.”
Another favourite episode was Anne. Here Buffy runs away to LA and takes a job in a diner. Again, she notices young runaways are disappearing with no trace. She follows the trail and it eventually leads her to a church group that are doing outreach work with the young and homeless. But free meals come at a cost. If you allow the group to baptise you, you get sucked into a parallel hell dimension where you are forced to slave in a factory until you die, for a boss class of demons. As a final cherry on the cake for communist buffy fans, when Buffy does lead the factory rebellion, she picks up two tools to fight with — a Hammer and Sickle. Buffy literally destroys the exploitative class and frees the slaves using a Hammer and Sickle!
I don’t think every staff writer on Buffy was a Bolshevik; I think they saw the opportunity for a joke and ran with it. But there were a lot more thoughtful criticisms of capitalism, state power and modern culture in Buffy than in most popular TV.
Buffy was one of the first shows to treat TV as a complex art form, rather than just cheap entertainment. It established a reputation for innovation, experimentation, witty dialogue and meta humour. It broke new ground in what a prime time TV show could do. When Whedon was accused of using witty, pithy dialogue as a crutch for the show, he decided to do a whole episode, The Gentleman, in silence. It is still one of the funniest and scariest things I’ve ever seen. Here, The Gentlemen come into town and steal everyone’s voices in order to help them harvest organs. When they rip out your heart no one will hear you scream.
There is also a musical episode, a few episodes set entirely inside dreams and an art house episode called The Body which has absolutely no score — a first for television. Another stand-out arty episode is Normal Again. In this episode we find out (or do we? no we don’t. Wait, maybe we do? No. Fuck, I have no idea what is going on…) that the whole Buffyverse is actually just the complex delusion of an institutionalised girl. By doing this, the writers were able to tear down the fourth wall and critique their own work without being obnoxious. Psychiatrist: “But Buffy, it all fell apart when you introduced this sister character into your delusions didn’t it? You can’t just invent a sister out of nowhere.”
Breaking new ground was very apparent in the way the show dealt with gender and sexuality. Buffy isn’t just one super-woman in a man’s world. The whole show centres around amazing women. Women who are powerful, intellectual, magical, caring and sexual. Some of them butch, some of them fem, some of them gay, some of them straight. Most of them are a mixture of both bad and good. All of them however, are belittled, talked down to and held back and physically abused by men who couldn’t even dream of being in the same league as them.
Then when you think you’ve seen it all, Buffy goes and pulls the ultimate socialist feminist move by giving her super powers away to every woman in the world. She is no longer the chosen one, nor is she the burdened one. We all share the power and work together. Buffy: “What if you could have that power now? In every generation a slayer is born because a bunch of old men made up that rule. Those were powerful men. This woman is more powerful than all of those men combined. So I say we change the rule… From now on, every girl in the world who might be a slayer, will be a slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Can stand up, will stand up. Slayers everyone of us. So make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?”
So yes, Buffy may look like a show about vampires and high school, with cheap production and a painfully outdated wardrobe, but there’s a reason it consistently features in “best TV ever made” lists. It is camp, complex, beautifully moving and never patronising. It inspired women and girls all over the world to stand up and be strong. It got a generation of writers to treat TV as art and push the boundaries on what is acceptable.
Forever a Whedonite.
Republished, with permission, from Jacobin; a very important piece, I think, about race, guilt, and class politics (albeit from a US perspective):
Guilt is a sad, passive emotion — and it won’t help us build a more diverse left.
On the rare occasion that this query is accompanied by a positive proposal, it is abstract, likely no more than a call for reflection. When the speaker is white, it often functions to absolve them of the need to actually do something about it.
Sometimes, on its face, the question is reasonable. Any political collectivity in the age of Trump which consists only of white people is an example of an abject failure — a failure of outreach, at the simplest level, but also a political failure, a failure to challenge the white supremacy which is threaded through American history.
But sometimes the question reveals nothing more than sanctimonious ignorance. It would be hard for me to count how many times I have sat in a meeting, often right next to several other people of color, and watched as someone righteously declared, “Everyone here is white.”
In the moment, it makes my blood boil. As a Muslim American, I have been detained at airports and verbally abused in public places. When I heard the news of Trump’s Muslim ban, I wondered whether I would be able to see my parents again. And I am one of the lucky ones.
Given the opportunity to cool down, I have to reflect on the strange psychology of these statements. Could it be simply the racist assumption that anyone who attends a political meeting and can speak English well must necessarily be white? It is hard for me to read it otherwise, and it is disturbing to imagine the potential consequences of this white practice of speaking for others. We should hope that this does not become a self-fulfilling prophesy, alienating and driving away people of color whose presence is erased by guilty whites.
The question is itself exclusionary, in its reliance on the empty abstraction of “people of color.” In your city, wherever it is, there is likely a young white male who is addicted to Vicodin, struggles to support his children on fast-food wages, and is on the verge of eviction. Where is he during this political meeting?
Middle-class activists are adept at deluding themselves with complicated explanations. But it is not a difficult question to answer. Like many people of color and many other whites, he is doing what he can to make it to the next day.
As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes, “the privileges of white skin run very thin in a country where nineteen million white people languish in poverty.” Every day in a capitalist society is a struggle for the poor. Attending a meeting called by some unknown organization — and we all know how excruciating these meetings can be — will not put food on the table for your children. It will not help you recover from long hours of monotonous, draining work. It will not compel your landlord to fix your broken toilet. It will not stop the collection agency from calling.
This is not an appeal to holding up some mythical “white working class” as the abandoned core of the American masses. It is a simple recognition of lived reality of the working class, which contains white people and people of color, people of all genders and sexualities, the employed and the unemployed — a multitude of people irreducible to any single description.
Many socialists argue that across these differences, all of these people have a common interest — a point easily skewered by the identitarian liberal who asks how the young woman seeking an abortion and the evangelical protester, the undocumented immigrant and the salaried worker, can possibly have the same interest.
But this challenge is afflicted by the same condition it claims to diagnose. It mistakes the casual description of a shared trait with a claim about identity. We all have numerous interests, which are related to our identities but also where we work and where we live. To say that these different spheres of life interact and intersect is a banal truism which neither explains how our society is structured and reproduced, nor how we might formulate a strategy to change this structure.
A meaningful common interest does not somehow exist by default. We cannot reduce any group of people and the multitudes they contain to a single common interest, as though we were reducing a fraction. A common interest is constituted by the composition of these multitudes into a group. And this is a process of political practice.
White supremacy is the phenomenon whereby the plurality of interests of a group of people is reorganized into the fiction of a white race, whose very existence is predicated on the violent and genocidal history of the oppression of people of color. The self-organized struggles of oppressed people against white supremacy managed to significantly undermine, though not eliminate, this kind of organization. The likes of Trump, Steve Bannon, Richard Spencer, and Milo Yiannopoulos now attempt to restore its earlier strength.
Those of us who seek to change the world will have to fight against this effort, and this will require us to put forward an organization of resistance — one which collectively constitutes a common interest.
This common interest is beginning to take shape as the opposition to Trump. But it must be built further than that, to an opposition to the whole capitalist system. Because it is the structure of the capitalist system which prevents all people who are dispossessed of the means of production, regardless of their identities, from having control over their own lives, and thus from pursuing whatever interests they may have in all their particularity. Monsters like Trump only bring this ongoing tyranny of capital to the surface.
To merely criticize the composition of a political meeting is a defeatist practice. Yes, any anti-capitalist organization must reach out to the most disenfranchised and marginalized of our population. Yes, it is unacceptable if they are unable to speak for themselves.
But what is most important of all is that you are there, whoever you are. What is important is that in a society which steals our free time, leeches our energy, and crushes any hope for an alternative, you have decided to commit yourself to the revolutionary possibility of that alternative.
Guilt is a sad, passive emotion. Its foundation is the wish that the past was different, and the failure to recognize the possibility of acting to change the future.
It is crucial for all socialist organizations, which today find themselves experiencing rapid growth, to formulate means of incorporating the excluded, in all their forms. The current composition of many of our organizations is a result of our lack of a social base — it’s a problem that we must overcome through organizing. But this will mean going beyond guilt and constructing ways to meet the needs unfulfilled in capitalist society, and the means of asserting popular power.
You showed up. You are at a meeting. Your presence is an indication that it is possible to initiate the process of change. Do not allow yourself to be intimidated by guilt. Instead, sharpen your analysis and enhance your organization, until your ranks grow so large as to include everyone.
It was fortunate for both jazz and the phonograph industry that the emergence of both co-incided: the improvisational music that is jazz was caught in its early days by the phonograph, and jazz repaid the industry a million times over in sales of music that owed its existence to early jazz.
It is generally accepted that the first jazz records were laid down in New York on February 26 , 1917. The band was the Original Dixieland Jazz (or “Jass”) Band from New Orleans, and the records were Livery Stable Blues and Dixie Jass Band One-Step, which were released as the two sides of a 78 rpm record on April 17, 1917 which became a top-seller (and maybe an early million-seller). So far, so good. But at this point, race enters the story and makes matters difficult.
Because the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (or ODJB, as they are known in jazz history) were, indeed, from New Orleans – the recognised birthplace of jazz — but were white and achieved their success in New York. Jazz is, in its origins at least, primarily Afro-American, so surely the fact that the first jazz records were made by five white guys is a practical demonstration of racism, even in the foremost art-form developed by Afro Americans?
Well, maybe: but even disregarding the (unsubstantiated) legend that the black/creole trumpeter Freddy Keppard turned down a recording deal (on the grounds that rivals would steal his stuff) in 1916, before the ODJB recorded, there is no evidence that the Victor Talking Machine Company was motivated by racism when it recorded the ODJB, rather than a black band, for the first time. Where racism does come into the story is the reason the ODJB was such a sensation in New York in the first place. After all, James Reese Europe’s (black) orchestrated ragtime group and Bill Johnson’s Original Creole Band (featuring Keppard), which by all accounts was playing very similar music to the ODJB’s, had both already played New York but not achieved the success that came the way of the ODJB. Gunther Schuller, in his book Early Jazz, offers various explanations before concluding: “Finally, the color lines were undoubtedly still drawn so clearly as to make similar success for a comparable Negro group impossible.”
The spurious race issue has been further exacerbated by preposterous rants over the years from the ODJB leader and trumpet/cornetist Nick La Rocca, claiming that he and the ODJB had “invented” jazz and that black musicians had stolen from them: La Rocca’s racism (or, maybe, to be charitable, bitterness from a Sicilian who was himself the victim of prejudice), has antagonised jazz lovers ever since, and contributed to a general consensus in which the ODJB are down-graded as little more than a novelty act who struck lucky (mainly by dint of being white) and happened to make the first (supposed) jazz records.
Philip Larkin, not often cited as an anti-racist, wrote this about La Rocca’s claims (as repeated uncritically in The Story Of The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, by H.O.Brunn): “Mr Brunn’s thesis that the ODJB ‘invented’ jazz out of a kind of instrumental ragtime is put forward mainly by the staggering trick of completely omitting all reference to contemporary Negro New Orleansperformers such as Bolden, Oliver, Bunk Johnson or Keppard. No reader of this book would suspect that the Negroes had anything to do with jazz at all. Can this be the official Southern view?”
So was the ODJB actually any good, and are its records (still widely available on LP and CD) worth listening to? I have to admit that I can only listen to the ODJB as an exercise in musical archaeology – something that I wouldn’t say about King Oliver’s Creole Band, Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens, or, indeed, the white New Orleans Rhythm Kings who started recording in 1923 – all these early bands sound fresh and exciting in a way that the novelty-effects and stiff rhythm of the ODJB simply does not (though the Victor records they made in the course of a brief 1936 re-union are a considerable improvement).
And yet … the ODJB was made up of good musicians. Clarinettist Larry Shields was a fine and surprisingly sensitive player, who influenced Benny Goodman and was respected by black and creole contemporaries, while drummer Tony Sparbaro (later Spargo) was a top-rank percussionist who could hold his own alongside the best black drummers of the day (he was also the only member of the original ODJB lineup to say active in jazz after the demise of the group in 1924: he was still playing and recording in the late 50’s). Even the much-scorned La Rocca can lay claim to having influenced the great Bix Beiderbeck; as Richard M. Sudhalter (in his monumental account of white jazz, Lost Chords) writes: “Visiting Bix in 1931, his old friend Dick Turner found him bitter and disillusioned, complaining that life had passed him by, that there was no one on whom he could depend – and that hot music held no further charms for him. ‘Hell,’ he told Turner, ‘there are only two musicians I’d go across the road to hear now, that’s Louis and La Rocca’.”
And talking of the great Armstrong, it’s worth remembering that his early record collection included discs by Caruso, Al Jolson … and the ODJB, whose Tiger Rag made a lasting impression on the young man and was part of his repertoire throughout his career. Louis even went so far as to state (in his first real autobiography Satchmo): “Between you and me it’s still the best” (ie the ODJB version of the tune).
Probably the fairest assessment of the ODJB comes from Gunther Schuller, in Early Jazz: “Still, in a balanced assessment of the ODJB, its best recordings, like Sensation Rag, Clarinet Marmalade, Dixie Jazz Band One Step and Livery Stable Blues, were an infuriating mixture of bad and good, of tasteless vulgarity and good musical intuitions. But beyond the music the ODJB left behind, it held, for better or worse, a crucial place in the formative period of jazz. It fulfilled the role in a manner that was not altogether unworthy.”
Surviving ODJB members Spargo and Edwards on a TV show in Sept 1960
DONALD TRUMP likes to think that he has not only won an election, but “built a movement.” And to judge by his first week in the White House, he has–just not in the way he thinks.
One day after the smallest public attendance at a presidential inauguration that anyone can remember, roughly a half million people turned out for the Women’s March on Washington to denounce Trump’s agenda of immigrant-bashing, misogyny and attacks on reproductive rights. It was perhaps the largest protest since the antiwar rallies during George W. Bush’s second term, and a number of speakers expressed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement against racist police violence. On the same day as the march, hundreds of “sister” events were held at the same time in cities throughout the U.S. and around the world (including Berlin, Munich and Frankfurt) with estimates of up to 3 million participants in total.
In short, Donald Trump may well be on the way to inspiring a new mass radicalization on a scale that American leftists have only dreamt of in recent decades. In 2016, millions of first-time voters came out in support of Bernie Sanders, a Democratic Party candidate who identifies himself as a socialist and has called for “political revolution”–a concept left vaguely defined, to be sure, but one that resonates with a generation that has grown up with no reason to think that either the world’s economy or its environment can take much more of capitalism’s “invisible hand.”
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
JUST TWO months ago, the movement most associated with Trump’s name was the so-called “alt-right” of extreme reactionaries, including the neo-fascists who joined Richard Spencer in chanting “Hail Trump!” during a meeting of the National Policy Institute, a white supremacist “think tank.” Another leading alt-right figure, Trump’s campaign manager Steve Bannon, now serves as the president’s chief strategist and senior counselor, and has undoubtedly been the adviser urging Trump to think of his electoral success as proof that he is at the leader of a mass movement.
It is something Trump himself quite desperately wants to believe. Anyone paying attention to his campaign could see how deeply he craved the adulation of crowds that laughed, cheered and expressed rage in time to his moods. Someone once called politics “show business for ugly people.” By that standard, Trump is a star ne plus ultra.
But he is far from knowledgeable about affairs of state, much less about the complex ideological terrain of American conservatism. He enters office with a Congress dominated by a Republican Party that–as one of its leading strategists put it–only needs the president to have enough fingers to sign the legislation it gives him. Trump qualifies in that regard, so the Republican establishment thinks it can work with him. They can all agree on dismantling Obama’s health-care reform, cutting taxes, privatizing public education, restricting the rights of women and LGBT people and removing or preventing government regulation of the economy (especially of anything based on a recognition of man-made climate change), for example.
Most of this has been central to the Republican agenda for decades, along with support for military spending and an aggressive imperialist foreign policy. Carefully avoided, for the most part, is any explicit reference to race. The late Lee Atwater, an influential Republican figure, once explained that the old-fashioned race-baiting had become unpopular and ineffective, so the trick was to be more subtle. “So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff,” he told a political scientist, “and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, Blacks get hurt worse than whites…’We want to cut this’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.'”
Trump’s political ascent began with a variant on this tactic: he promoted the idea that Barack Obama could not prove that he was actually a U.S. citizen. But his campaign rhetoric against Mexican and Muslim immigrants was less “abstract” (to borrow Atwater’s term) about appealing to racist sentiments. This proved embarrassing to Republican leaders, but they were hardly in the position of taking a principled stand against it. At the same time, a tension within the American right had intensified under the impact of the world economic crisis: Republican propaganda might celebrate the wealthy as “job creators,” proclaim the virtues of small business ownership, and declare rural towns to be “the real America.” But the policies they actually advanced (and that the Democratic party under Clinton and Obama largely supported) have heightened economic uncertainty and inequality to extremes not seen since the Great Depression.
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SPENCER, BANNON and other alt-rightists understand their role as building up mechanisms of political and social authority over a population that will only grow more ethnically and cultural heterogeneous in the next two decades–while also being unlikely to recover its standard of living through the pure magic of the free market. They reject both neoliberalism and Atwater-style coyness about channeling racial hostilities.
Insofar as the conservative establishment has a body of ideas to shore it up, the influences come from a blend of Ayn Rand’s celebration of “the virtue of selfishness” with a belief that God dictated the Constitution, or at least had a hand in the outline. By contrast, the more sophisticated of the alt-right strategists are acquainted with Alain de Benoist’s ethnic communitarianism and Carl Schmitt’s understanding of politics as defined by the sovereign’s combat with an enemy. And they see most of the Republican leadership as being an enemy.
Donald Trump is no doubt entirely innocent of such esoteric concepts. He spent his first week in a simmering rage over slights by the media and fuming from an awareness that he entered office with the lowest level of public confidence of any incoming president (only to lose another three points since then). But he sits astride the fault line between members of Congress who see themselves as Ronald Reagan’s political heirs, on the one side, and those who share Bannon’s aspiration to destroy the Republican Party and replace it with something more vicious and brutal.
It is, in other words, a precarious and unstable conjuncture and one that can only grow more volatile as far-right campaigns mobilize elsewhere in the world. One thing that Marxists bring to the situation is an understanding that capitalism’s crises are always international–throwing down to us the challenge of finding ways to learn from and unify the forces from below that resist them. Millions of people in the United States are thinking about how to shut down Trump’s assaults on vulnerable segments of the population. And seeing millions more around the world take to the street in solidarity can only help as we relearn the truth of the old Wobbly slogan: An Injury to One is an Injury to All.
First published in German at Marx21 and in English at New Politics.
From the US SocialistWorker.org website (nothing to do with the UK SWP):
Trump has won some support among workers and even unions with his proposals around trade, but is this billionaire really on their side?explains why not.
PERHAPS IT’S foolish to take anything Donald Trump says as an articulation of core principles or beliefs. But this passage from his inaugural address hit many like a bolt of lightning:
From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.
Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.
I will fight for you with every breath in my body–and I will never, ever let you down. America will start winning again, winning like never before.
This appeal to economic nationalism is very much in line with his “Make America great again” campaign theme. But for those whose political memory goes back a little ways, “America First” means something very specific and very problematic.
In the late 1930s, the Roosevelt administration was increasing its support for an interventionist foreign policy that would assert the U.S. on a world level. After the Second World War started in 1939, the administration lent massive amounts of military aid to Britain, with the intention of drawing the U.S. into the conflict.
From the late 1930s up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941, a substantial sentiment against U.S. intervention in the European war developed. While on the whole sincerely opposed to a repeat of the imperialist slaughter of the First World War, the anti-intervention mood also intersected with an isolationist, rather than internationalist, approach to the coming conflict.
So when a number of college students–including future Republican President Gerald Ford, future Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and future Democratic vice presidential candidate Sargent Shriver–along with leading capitalists issued a call to form an “America First” committee to keep the U.S. out of the European war, hundreds of thousands responded.
America First also called for a U.S. military buildup to defend the continental U.S.–a policy that came to be known as “Fortress America.”
The banner of “America First” was also embraced by supporters of the anti-Semitic “radio priest” Father Charles Coughlin, along with fascists and sympathizers with the Nazi regime in Germany. In speeches for the America First committee, the aviator Charles Lindbergh contended that Britain and Jews were the main advocates for U.S. intervention in the war, and that the interventionists’ main aim was to defeat Germany.
Other mainstream political figures–like Joseph Kennedy, ambassador to Britain and father of future U.S. President John F. Kennedy–shared the “America First” outlook. He contended that Germany was too strong, and that Britain and U.S. should make peace with the Nazis.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent U.S. intervention, America First organizations collapsed. The U.S. emergence from the war as a global superpower marginalized support for the “American First” outlook of staying out of foreign entanglements while building a “Fortress America.”
In the 1990s and 2000s, far right, anti-Semitic pundit and presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan carried the “America First” torch for a while. Then Trump came along.
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THIS BRIEF history of “America First” politics provides a context for Trump’s rhetoric. It also shows that, far from being a common sense advocacy for ordinary people in the U.S. versus global elite, the slogan drags along more than its share of historical baggage. It wasn’t accidental that Trump’s presidential proclamation on Holocaust Remembrance Day failed to mention the genocide of European Jewry.
Trump’s America First policy asserts that “[e]very decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”
That rhetoric sounds radical, especially when compared to that of the last generation’s status quo, when most decisions on trade and foreign affairs did little for U.S. workers and their families. For most of the last generation, politicians–both Democratic and Republican–have told us that global trade is like a force of nature, which the U.S. economy can only adapt to, not control.
This notion of globalization operating outside the influence of the world’s most powerful government was always false. U.S. state policy undergirded the bipartisan regime of free trade and the U.S. global military projection. As that purveyor of “flat-world” banalities Thomas Friedman once put it, “McDonalds cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas.”
If Trump’s tumultuous first week showed anything, it showed just how much governmental action can shift the terms of engagement and debate on these questions.
Given that decades of corporate, governmental and institutional practices are invested in the neoliberal regime, it remains to be seen whether any or all of Trump’s actions will be sustained as new policies for the long run. But in the immediate term, they present our side with a tremendous set of challenges.
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THE FIRST of these is assessing whether they are reality-based or not. Millions of people–among them supporters of Bernie Sanders–would agree with the sentiment of protecting “our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs,” whether or not they agree with Trump’s rhetoric.
Yet the empirical evidence that trade arrangements–like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) or China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO)–are the main culprits in the decline of U.S. manufacturing jobs and workers’ standards of living is thin.
The liberal University of California-Berkeley economist J. Bradford DeLong calculates that of the decline in U.S. manufacturing employment since 1971 that is greater than that experienced by other industrial powers undergoing similar structural economic shifts, only one-tenth of even this extra amount can be attributed to NAFTA and trade with China.
Nevertheless, we know that during the same period, living standards for workers in the U.S.–and not just those in manufacturing–stagnated. In real terms, the median U.S. household income is no higher than it was in the early 1970s.
Clearly something is wrong in the U.S. economy, and no amount of statistical modeling is going to convince people that they should just accept it. So when figures as diverse as Trump and Sanders point to global trade deals as the culprit for declining living standards, they at least have the merit of relating to people who know–unlike the Friedmans and the Clintons–that not all is right with the neoliberal world.
Trump promotes the notion that other countries are “ripping off” the U.S. through unfair trade deals. But this inverts reality.
One drastic effect of NAFTA has been the destruction of small farming in Mexico when that sector was forced into unfair competition with U.S. agribusiness. By some estimates, more than 1 million farmers have been driven from the land. Many of the victims moved to Mexican cities or crossed the border into the U.S. without documents to find work.
“Free trade” agreements like NAFTA are engineered for the benefit of U.S. business, as levers to pry open sectors of other countries’ economies to investment and services in the first instance.
Second, they allow for the free movement of capital across borders, but not the free movement of labor. In fact, the era of NAFTA coincided with a huge increase in “border security” and repression that produced a record number of deportations–more than 2 million–under the Democratic Obama administration.
That aspect of “Fortress America”–repression at the border–is already in place. Trump proposes to increase it. But the record should show that free trade policies didn’t put out a welcome mat to immigrants, either.
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OUR SIDE will continue to analyze the economic ramifications of Trump’s policies, but we’re faced today with what to do about the political challenges they represent.
In this case, there is a more complicated test for the left. Trump’s protectionism and rhetoric about bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. have already won praise from union leaders like Teamsters President James Hoffa. Hoffa and other labor officials likewise hailed Trump’s executive order aimed at restarting the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipeline projects that activism forced the Obama administration to shelve.
After a White House meeting with Trump, North American Building Union President Sean McGarvey declared, “We have a common bond with the president” and that “We come from the same industry. He understands the value of driving development, moving people to the middle class.”
In speaking to reporters, McGarvey and Laborers President Terry Sullivan–whose unions both endorsed Hillary Clinton for president–pointed out that they had never been invited to a White House meeting in the eight years of Obama’s presidency.
But there’s something else besides the Democrats’ neglect behind the labor leaders’ cozying up to Trump and his America First program: It gives them an alibi for their failures to do much of anything to reverse the long-term decline of their organizations and to protect their members from worsening conditions.
Those problems stem from anti-union U.S. employers and anti-labor U.S. politicians, not overseas competitors or immigrants.
Hoffa, for example, has a long record of cooperating with employers while bargaining away the rights and benefits of rank-and-file Teamsters.
For the likes of Hoffa, it’s much more convenient to blame international competition or Mexican truckers for eroding wages and conditions than to confront U.S. employers–even ones, like UPS, making record profits. Joining with Trump under the banner of “America First” won’t change Hoffa’s behavior at all.
Labor leaders like Hoffa give Trump the cover to paint his economic program–which in reality is based on tax cuts for the rich, allowing corporations free reign, and selling the U.S. as a low-wage economy–as “populist” and pro-worker. And they lend legitimacy to an administration intent on attacking whole sections of the working class, including immigrants and the undocumented.
Any labor union or worker who signs up with Trump’s “America First” program will find out that–rhetoric aside–Trump will put them last.
Thanks to Joe Allen for help with this article.
Above: Steve Bell, Guardian
Also published on the Workers Liberty website and in the current issue of Solidarity:
Organise, on the streets and in the labour movement! Argue for socialist, democratic, internationalist ideas which offer a real answer both to Trump’s rancid, right-wing, regression, and to the discredited status quo. That is how we can block Trump.
Trump’s “executive order” of 27 January has stirred up protests across the world. Trump’s “Muslim ban” halted the entire US refugee programme for 120 days, and indefinitely banned Syrian refugees fleeing Assad’s butchery and the sectarian Islamist militias. All travellers who have nationality or dual nationality of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen are not permitted to enter the US for 90 days, or be issued an immigrant or non-immigrant visa. Customs and Border Protection agents have defied the orders of federal judges halting deportations.
Besides this outrageous act of anti-Muslim and racist discrimination, Trump has also signed executive decisions:
• To build a wall along the US-Mexico border
• To withdraw US federal grant money from “sanctuary cities” in the USA which refuse to deport undocumented immigrants
• To advance construction of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines
• To order the commerce secretary to develop a plan (likely to breach WTO rules) requiring US-made steel for the pipelines
• To order public agencies to “waive, defer, grant exemptions from, or delay” all portions of Obama’s Affordable [Health] Care Act that create financial burdens on states, individuals, or healthcare companies
• To ban federal money to international groups that perform or provide information on abortions
• To withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks. Trump has suggested that South Korea and Japan develop nuclear weapons and US forces withdraw from those countries.
He has courted Russian president Vladimir Putin, but talked of rescinding the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, in which Russia was an interested participant. He has favoured the use of torture, but suggested for now he will defer to Defense Secretary James Mattis on that. He has promised to build up US militarism. He has given a green light for more-or-less unlimited Israeli settlement and creeping annexation in the West Bank.
On 27 January, too, the Holocaust Memorial Day statement from Trump’s White House, unlike previous such US presidential statements, omitted Jews and antisemitism. Trump’s chief of staff defended the omission: “I mean, everyone suffering in the Holocaust including, obviously, all of the Jewish people affected… is something that we consider to be extraordinarily sad”.
Trump’s style is often fascistic: authoritarian, demagogic, militaristic, nationalist. The analytic difference between this and full-fledged fascism has importance. As Trotsky explained in the 1930s, when the Stalinists had the habit of describing all they disliked as “fascist”, fascism requires a street-fighting “movement of large masses, with new leaders from the rank and file… a plebeian movement in origin… from the petty bourgeoisie, the lumpenproletariat, and even to a certain extent from the proletarian masses… with its leaders employing a great deal of socialistic demagogy”.
The reactionary mass movement gives fascism the facility, which ordinary decree from above lacks, to crush the labour movement, civil society, and civil liberties, and to impose demagogic, nationalist, racist, protectionist, militaristic policies which even the majority of the bourgeoisie dislikes. “Such a government does not cease being the clerk of the property-owners. Yet the clerk sits on the back of the boss, rubs his neck raw and does not hesitate at times to dig his boots into his face”. In return:
“From fascism the bourgeoisie demands a thorough job; once it has resorted to methods of civil war, it insists on having peace for a period of years”.
To declare a right-wing government “fascist” before time amounts to declaring that social civil war has been lost in advance. Trump’s turn, however, can do great damage, and build conditions for actual fascism after the next great economic crisis. Already it shatters complacencies. Already it breaks up the comforting assumption that even if things get worse under neoliberalism, not all of them do, and worsening is slow, so if you have an established citizenship and good jobs you can keep ahead.
The globalised neoliberal world order has resilience. It has negotiated and absorbed many shocks. A great swathe of top-level opinion considers Trump maverick and dangerous. Within a few days of Trump’s “Muslim ban”, over 9,000 US academics, including 50 Nobel prize-winners and 82 winners of Fields medals or similar, had signed a protest, and they included the doyens of neoliberal economics, Eugene Fama and Robert Lucas. Yet, as the conservative writer Jonathan Rauch pointed out last year, the system of political mediations, consultations, information-flows, safeguards for continuity and coherence, in the USA, had substantially fractured even before Trump, replaced by a chaos of demagogues negotiating an atomised and disinformed electorate and a welter of wealthy lobbyists. In this fracturing, and with the confidence of orthodox bourgeois leaders shaken by the crash of 2008 and the disarray since then, a militant and cohesive bourgeois minority — and Trump may be able to assemble that — can take the initiative. The rest will mostly adapt (as Theresa May and Boris Johnson are doing) or shrug ineffectually.
In the USA’s State Department (equivalent of the Foreign Office), top officials had, as a conventional formality, submitted resignation letters on the arrival of a new president. Usually new presidents ignore most such letters and maintain some continuity of management. Trump has accepted all the resignation letters and made a clean sweep.
Against a determined push by Trump, the liberal bourgeoisie will not safeguard the moderate extensions of women’s and LGBT equality, the modest opening of opportunities to ethnic minorities, the relative freedom of movement for some across some borders, the mild cosmopolitanism, on which it prides itself. Having already let so many civil rights be swallowed by the “war on terror” and the drive for “labour flexibility”, it will be no bulwark for the rest. The liberal bourgeoisie may not even safeguard the achievement of which it boasts most, the reduction of economic barriers between countries.
Before the USA’s Smoot-Hawley tariff law of 1930, which started a catastrophic spiral of protectionism and shrinking world trade, “economics faculties [in the USA]… were practically at one in their belief that the Hawley-Smoot bill was an iniquitous piece of legislation”. Over a thousand economists petitioned the US administration against it. It went through, and its effects spiralled. It falls to the labour movement to defend even the limited bourgeois ameliorations.
The labour movement cannot do that unless it mobilises; unless it cleanses itself of the accommodations to nationalism now so common over Brexit; and unless it spells out socialist answers which can convince and rally the millions of the economically marginalised and disillusioned. It falls to the left to make the labour movement fit for those tasks.
Illustration: Martin Rowson (Guardian)
By John Rogan
It amazes me that there are many Labour MPs who say there is a “Tory Brexit” and a “Labour Brexit”. The implication is that the present Govt can somehow choose and implement whatever Brexit conditions they want with the EU27. This helps feed the delusion, on both the Left (Corbyn) and Right (Watson), that Labour could, somehow, negotiate a Soft Brexit. That the EU27 would be much kinder to a Labour government for some reason.
A Soft Brexit is just not going to happen. The leadership of EU27 have enough internal headaches (Le Pen, AfD and Freedom Party) this year to ensure that, if they wish to hold the line against the eurosceptic Far Right, there will be no concessions to the UK. Brexit means Brexit means Hard Brexit.
Now we have Trump whose possible EU Ambassador, Ted Malloch, seems to gleefully want to see the EU finished. After all, a much weakened EU (or no EU) would help the “America First” agenda of Trump.
This would also help the agenda of Putin who wishes to exert greater control in Eastern Europe.
The Trump-Putin Pact (wanting to split, weaken and carve up Europe) is another perfectly good reason for EU27 sticking to a Hard Brexit – especially a need for the defence of Eastern Europe.
Theresa May is actually correct in her sucking up to Trump and Erdogan. If we leave the EU on a Hard Brexit (which we will) then grovelling for some crumbs at their tables is all we will be good for.
And that is the question Corbyn, Watson and McDonnell have to answer. After a Hard Brexit, who should the UK deal with in trying to get good trade deals? How will we be able to do it?
If you oppose Trump, you have to oppose Brexit.
30 January action against Trump and his anti-migrant and anti-Muslim “executive order”
Leicester: meet at the Clock Tower, 5.30 20:41 https://www.facebook.com/events/163409027485279/
4 February, London: Assemble 11am Saturday 4th February at the US Embassy 24 Grosvenor Square, London W1A 2LQ followed by a march to Downing St. https://www.facebook.com/events/1761835547477556/
Academics in the USA have launched an online protest which, as of Sunday evening UK time, had nearly 5000 signatures including 35 Nobel Laureates and 34 winners of Fields/Dirac/Clark/Turing/Poincare Medals, Breakthrough Prize, Pulitzer Prize, MacArthur Fellowship.