What does welfare activism have to do with Trump? – Quite a lot actually



In response to our well-read post about jobcentre abuse, someone pulled us up for neglecting the big issues assailing our world. While this was an extreme example, I suspect the tendency to pass over grassroots campaigns as a distraction from protesting the terrifying emergence of a reborn fascism is not that unusual, and not only by those newly awakened to political activity. Many of us are seasoned protesters over a range of issues and we were glad to be part of a large emergency protest in response to Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban, but we were disappointed that despite widespread publicity, very few people came on to our meeting on welfare activism, which chanced to be immediately afterwards. Conversely, I have heard people who are active in community politics dismiss agitation over Trump as a distraction. Both views can be dangerously myopic.

The rise of the far right, in the US but also in Europe, is a consequence not just of the inequalities resulting from decades of triumphant neoliberalism (a key Trump message is that he will provide jobs), but also of the failure of the left to provide a coherent and convincing alternative. Of course the left has been under attack from those in power in a way the far right never is, but it has also been undermined from within its own organisations – most notably in the British context, the Labour Party. In the US, the Democrats ensured that people were not given the option of voting for the leftish Bernie Sanders, but had to choose between Trump and the neoliberal Clinton. And they are still reluctant to come to terms with the fact that Trump did not so much win the election as Clinton lost it. Even within more ostensibly socialist organisations there has been a tendency to concentrate on individual rights at the expense of neglecting structural economic forces. But it is these economic forces that are the engine for inequality and want, and that also facilitate and thrive on all forms of oppression, domination and social division. We shouldn’t need the super-rich Warren Buffett to remind us that we are living through a class war that his side is winning.

Insecurity, especially economic insecurity, has made people desperate to chase any sign of hope – even when it comes as a false prophet in the unlikely form of a billionaire, racist, misogynist, climate-change-denying, war-mongering, reality TV star. We may mutter ‘turkeys voting for Christmas’, but these ‘turkeys’ had no genuine way out of their neoliberal predicament. Now they will be forced to watch deregulation and tax cuts hand even more power and wealth to the 1%, while the social security safety net is further eaten away. Any jobs that are created are likely to be low-paid, insecure, increasingly subject to automation, and dependent on hastening the world toward ecological destruction and war. And racism will cut across people’s ability to unite in resistance.

It is no coincidence that all this is happening when the left is weaker than it has been for a long while. We can stand up against Trump and say we don’t like this sort of thing, but that won’t change the underlying conditions that push desperate and neglected people towards a far right ‘solution’. We need to build up a credible left force that can put forward an alternative agenda that addresses inequalities of power and resources. That means not shying away from political and economic analysis, at the same time as building an engaged movement through social solidarity and grassroots work in our local areas; working together to address immediate problems, while analysing them as consequences of bigger forces.

As history continually demonstrates, there is no short cut to building a political movement. Those who are so dazzled by the headlights of Trumpism that they pass over people’s immediate problems risk being dismissed as irrelevant in return. In showing our support for those fighting Trump’s policies we need more than demonstrations, however morale boosting these can be. We can also demonstrate practically that another way is possible through building our own left movement and undercutting any potential attraction of right populism. That is why protests against Trump need to move beyond speeches calling for human decency, and address the uncomfortable truths of the underlying economic inequalities perpetrated by our neoliberal governments. That is also why the liberal fear of giving a platform to ‘angry white men’ – which I heard voiced in so many words at our local anti-Trump demo – is not only absurd and discriminatory, but also dangerous. The working class – still predominantly white and 50% male – has good reason to be angry and to demand to be heard. If these angry voices and their immediately pressing issues are not welcome on anti-fascist protests, protestors can’t complain if they are seen as elitist, or even disregarded in favour of the false friend of our own British populist right.

At the risk of over simplification, we are in danger of developing two separate political movements: an alliance of people demonstrating moral anger against Trump’s fascism – and especially his racism and misogyny – but afraid to engage in political discussion and address systemic inequalities lest it cause division; and salt of the earth community groups committed to class solidarity but with little time to give to wider analysis or ‘international’ issues. An effective left movement needs to bring together activists in both groups through uninhibited political analysis and debate that is not afraid to take on the structural inequalities of capitalism, alongside protest and practical action. If we want to change the world we need to understand it, and our actions need to be relevant to those who have been dealt the weakest hand.

(Picture by Karen Brownlee)

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