This is beyond analysis

We must learn from the US election and Brexit. The left needs to get on board with popular desire for change, and present an alternative that is as appealing, organic and forceful as what is offered by the right. 

Katie Ebner-Landy
22 November 2016

A man walks past a graffiti mural of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson kissing in Bristol, shortly before the EU referendum. Ben Birchall PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved. For a long time we have known the power of economists in contemporary American society. Economists are the only social scientists to have an office in the White House – the Council of Economic Advisors – and through the Federal Reserve they are uniquely able to manage a major part of US government policy. Economists have indirect as well as direct influence – through the authority the public gives to their profession and the way their tools of reasoning and analysis have filtered into policy-making. The powers that be choose their economic advisors – so even when there are voices crying out against current economic policy, they aren’t being listened to at a policy level. 

We need to understand [Trump's] "unexpected" and "unpredictable" rise to power as a reaction against a very powerful, all-encompassing way of doing things.

This is one of the many backgrounds we need to understand Trump. We need to understand his "unexpected" and "unpredictable" rise to power as a reaction against a very powerful, all-encompassing way of doing things. This way of doing things sees politics from the framework of classical economics. Politics becomes something that can be quantified, analysed and predicted. It is an arena where people in their demographic blocs move accordingly and rationally. Where there are tried and tested ways to win. Where there are rules.

The most revealing moment of the UK's Brexit campaign was when Conservative politician Michael Gove threw out the experts. The Remain campaign fought back with the argument that all the top economic institutes warned against leaving. They did not know another way to rebuke this appeal. But this was precisely the wrong way: the last time the majority of the British public had come into contact with the arms of financial and economic power was the 2008 crisis. These experts did not connote stability, reason or intelligence to the nation, but to the privileged few. 

Across the Atlantic, Hillary Clinton's campaign suffered a similar problem, by adopting a strategic position akin to saying that we can just convince people to do the rational and the right thing. “Her resume is better than Trump’s!” “No one from the trusted establishment supports Trump!” This discourse is misguided. But how else should she have argued?

The votes for Trump and Brexit may well represent a break from the negative outcomes of neoliberal hegemony.

I think this is the principal question the left needs to ask itself. To ask it genuinely, they will have to concede that all Trump and Brexit supporters have real grievances with a broken system. The only fix seems to be right-wing populism. But this need not be the only avenue.

What the votes for Trump and Brexit may well represent is a break from the negative outcomes of neoliberal hegemony: the uneven spoils of globalisation, an enormous hike in income inequality and an attempt to use one mode of analysis to understand the world. Both victories demonstrated the powerlessness of our most trusted tools – the statisticians, the economists and the markets. These tools belong to neither political tribe, but rather to anyone and anything powerful in America: from the Ivy League's political science departments, to mainstream journalism, to both polarised parties. For the UK Labour party's Jeremy Corbyn, this latest “global wakeup call” shows us that the need for a new economic and political system is urgent and clear.

But we have no reason to think that UK prime minister Theresa May and president-elect Donald Trump will be the people to deliver this agenda. Indeed, the markets have stabilised and Trump is a highly capitalist real-estate tycoon. We will have to see which of his electoral statements end up coming to fruition, and where his ideology lies. Do we trust the talk of bridges, infrastructure and jobs for the working class? The repealing of trade deals, the curbing of Wall Street’s power, the protectionism? Is he the one to deliver a Keynesian, New Deal style reform? Does this reactionism pave the way for revolution? Or is it just reactionism?

It is essential that we are very clear about the most frightening aspects of this. We do not yet know just how much of Trump's misogyny, racism and anti-immigration rhetoric was an attempt to show the Republican Party that if they needed to win, they had to play Trump’s game. Or, whether those campaign comments are previews of what will be a very nasty, hateful and terrifying place to live. They are unforgivable, either way. But, we must reserve our fear for when it is indispensable. 

The left needs to get on board with the popular desire for change.

With Brexit, the malignant rhetoric that animated the Leave campaign has died down, but it has certainly stirred up hate in the population and it may well materialise in concrete policies after the enactment of Article 50. 

Until then, our fear should be concentrated on what may become the third partner in this rejectionist triumvirate: Marine Le Pen in France. We have more to fear from a proven, strategic fascist, and we must do all we can to stop her from taking office. We must be aware that Jeremy Corbyn's statement meets its mirror image in the Front National's Florian Philippot: "Leur monde s'effrondre. Le notre se construit" (Their world is crumbling. Ours is being built.) 

 We must learn the lessons of both this election and Brexit.

To prevent this from happening we must learn the lessons of both this election and Brexit in June. The left must find a way to deal with populism that isn't through the neoliberal elite agenda. The left needs to get on board with the popular desire for change, and present an alternative that is as appealing, organic and forceful as what is being offered on the right. Butwe need to do this without stooping to the lows we have seen from the Leave campaign and Donald Trump.

Hilary Clinton was opposed by a "movement" with a slogan and a uniform (did you see the bird's-eye view of the Hilton, with all those red-capped heads?). It was a campaign that rested on old, tried tools of the right – borders, the nation, citizenship – paired with the tools of the outsider. This became conservatism with revolutionary force. In a globalised world where borders and the nation are diminished, revolutionary force is the only way to bring back these values. So, rather than asking for tougher border controls, Donald Trump said he would build a wall. 

We must think long and hard about what these equivalent left values are, and how we can harness them to have the same effect. We must consider why and how Bernie Sanders failed, and put this understanding into practice in the building of a new left. The first step would be a developed and coherent critique of the economic vision that neoliberal elites recommend and ride on. From there we can begin a politics of the new left – with a multiculturalism that doesn’t depend on globalised free trade, that is a site for both the disenfranchised worker and the upwardly mobile new arrival. If we start here, we can build our own movement. Out of the ashes a phoenix can rise. 

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