Futures and pasts: a response to John Garvey on future politics and the present moment

John Garvey’s recent article in Insurgent Notes, Notes on a Future Politics—Part I, is an interesting piece, and well worth reading and thinking about. It’s written about the US and for a primarily US audience, but as he describes a landscape where working-class organisation and solidarity has been devastated by a merciless programme of de-industrialization that, over the last few decades, has deliberately torn apart the old centres of workers’ power, resulting in a situation of massive disenfranchisement with the centrist political establishment, a disenfranchisement that has been partly expressed through a revived interest in social-democratic electoral politics, but mainly through a vicious nationalist right-wing populism… well, the parallels to here are not that hard to spot.

Also, in the time since it’s been published, CrimethInc have also come out with “After the Elections, the Reaction”, a piece dealing with similar themes which is also well worth a read.

Unfortunately, the second part of Garvey’s article hasn’t been published yet, so it’s hard to say what the actual practical conclusions will be, but in the meantime, here’s a few notes on some of the points he raises.

When talking about the whiteness of the Trump movement, Garvey makes one of his most important points in a footnote: that “In spite of all evidence to the contrary, “white” is not a biological category; it’s a historical-political one.” This means that one potential strategy for moving groups out of their cross-class alliance with the state and a buffoonish real estate billionaire could be to suggest ways that they can be seen as not (simply) white.

This point may sound completely abstract, so to make it more practical: this is the kind of terrain where distinguishing between racial hierarchies and class stratification becomes difficult if not impossible, but a few recent commentators have drawn attention to the way that white Southerners, and particularly those from the Appalachian region, are presented in standard media discourses as being inherently Not Like Us, and as responsible for their own poverty due to their own innate flaws, in ways that feel very reminiscent of the ways that black communities are demonised.

On its own, this point might not lead anywhere particularly productive, so I’m indebted to the folks at It’s Going Down for their work in highlighting the stories of Chicago’s Young Patriots, migrants from white Southern backgrounds who, starting off from precisely this recognition of their “hillbilly” difference, found common cause with the likes of the Black Panthers and the Puerto Rican Young Lords. (For anyone who’s interested in this story but doesn’t fancy an 90-minute-long audio interview, Viewpoint Magazine also do a good job of recounting this fascinating piece of history, including the black Marxist writer Nelson Peery’s claim that poor Appalachian whites could be seen as an “Anglo-American minority” in the “Negro nation”.)

Could such a fracturing of the alliance between white elites and “backwards, redneck hillbillies” happen again today? These sorts of questions can only really be answered in practice, but looking at the sweeping levels of support for Sanders in West Virginia – a phenomenon that, again, was explained away as a product of Appalachian backwardness – as well as the perversely anti-establishment messaging of the Trump campaign, it would seem dangerous to bet against it.

Later in the article, Garvey assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the Sanders campaign, and points out Sanders’ avoidance of “any substantive engagement with the realities of the American empire” as a particular flaw. For a UK-based reader, this is an interesting point of divergence – the obvious similarities make it very tempting to amalgamate Bernie Corbyn into a big blob of “traditional social democracy of the kind we all thought was dead and gone, articulated by an old white guy who young people are surprisingly keen on”, so it’s instructive to be reminded of the differences (beyond the very obvious one about Sanders not actually beating Clinton).

While Garvey criticises Sanders for softness on the US empire, Corbyn’s more trad-Marxist associations with the likes of Seumas Milne and Stop the War mean he’s prone to be associated with the positions that Garvey criticises later on – the idea that “a defense of the Russian, Chinese or Iranian regimes is a good starting place for thinking about how to fight against the United States military monster”. As a result of this, it’s tempting for critical friends of Corbynism – and as much as we might like to reject this position, in the absence of an actual material and social force that could provide an autonomous alternative, we are essentially pushed back into this role for as long as we remain passive commentators reacting to the media – to think something along the lines of “ffs, can you not just keep quiet about this stuff you’re dodgy about, and just stick to the stuff, like welfare and working conditions, that you’re decent on?”

Trying to think of ways to back this point up, the most high-profile example that comes to mind is Paul Mason’s fondness for nuclear weapons, which unfortunately really does cross the line into a defence of the British state; I’m sure that a quick search would find a few examples of the AWL critiquing the foreign policy views of the Corbyn milieu, but then they have their own issues; anyway, hopefully people will believe me when I say that it’s definitely possible to be sympathetic to Corbyn’s domestic positions, but very dubious of the “anti-imperialism” associated with the Seumas Milne/Stop the War circles.

Related to this, of course, is the thorny issue of Israel and anti-Semitism. Garvey might well be tempted to wish that the US had more prominent left politicians willing to be outspoken in their criticisms of the US military and its client states around the world, but a quick review of Ken Livingstone’s bizarre waffle about Hitler would remind him that it’s best to be very careful what you wish for – and that’s without even mentioning George bloody Galloway.

The rest of the article is all interesting – including the idea of the “unneccessariat”, which made me think of the writings coming out of the Ultra crowd around surplus populations, decaying small towns, and particularly the idea of academia-related “bullshit jobs” as being one way to absorb one layer of those no longer required for production, but it’s the conclusion, or at least the conclusion of the first part, I really want to pay attention to.

Towards the end of the essay, Garvey sets out an interesting twist on the “three-way fight” perspective, with the contest between existing neoliberal elites, insurgent right authoritarian/populist forces and (hopefully) some kind of left radical opposition cast as globalists, nationalists and internationalists. I’d encountered the general idea of the three-way fight before, but not seen it cast in these precise terms; it’s an interesting approach, but I’m not sure exactly how neatly we can match up either the neoliberal centre with “globalism” or the insurgent right with “nationalism”.

To expand a bit on this: in the recent EU referendum, Cameron’s, and the UK establishment in general’s, backing for the Remain campaign would at first seem to be a clear-cut example of the “globalist” camp at work, as against the nationalism of the leave campaign (the internationalists, as we so often are, were effectively absent from that particular debate). But, if we consider the EU as a semi- or proto-state, it can also be seen as a straightforwardly nationalist project, comparable to, for instance, the “Better Together/No” campaign against Scottish independence. Certainly, as the brutality of Frontex and the other agencies patrolling the borders of Fortress Europe make clear, the European project is one that has a lot in common with the traditional nationalist aim of trying to secure a specific territorial area as the exclusive property of a certain people, and to repel all outsiders. In this perspective, things like the freedom of movement within the Schengen area don’t alter the nationalist character of the EU any more than the freedom of movement between England and Scotland, or California and Nevada.

The obvious counter-argument to this, that the EU can’t be a nationalist project because it’s a federation of states with their own law-making powers and distinct cultures, would, I imagine, sound distinctly odd to readers from the United States; as Scottish, Welsh, and regional English devolution progresses it may come to sound equally odd to inhabitants of the United Kingdom.

More broadly, and beyond the EU, I imagine that it’d be very hard to find a politician aligned with the Obama/Clinton/Cameron/May(?) “globalist” camp who doesn’t make heavy use of nationalist rhetoric on occasion.

When looking at the forces Garvey designates as “nationalist”, the picture is no clearer: the most obvious problem is the lumping in of the “the “fascist” Islamists” with nationalists. They may well be deeply objectionable reactionaries, and generally speaking our outright enemies, but it seems to be stretching a point to use “nationalist” to describe a group who see their loyalty as being to a worldwide ummah that’s not directly tied to any particular state. Dauve’s essay on religion put it best:

“Islam has the huge advantage of offering an immediate community, manifest in some intra-Muslim solidarity it organizes, and to present itself as opposed to money and frontiers… Wherever the national State is a bloody farce, one is inclined to look for shelter in a trans-national community: the ummah of the faithful. Islam remains the only force that is able to offer some paradise and to claim to realize it on Earth.”

With the development of the Islamic State, the defenders of the caliphate may seem to have moved closer to a straight nationalist position, but even IS-style “nationalism” would seem to be an odd beast indeed: at a time when nationalists all around the world are eagerly putting up more and more borders to keep people out of their territory, IS devote a huge amount of effort to inviting migrants to come and live in their state. To say that Islamists see themselves as fighting for an international community is not to say that they’re our friends, or that their internationalism has anything in common with the internationalism we want to see, but it is to say that looking at it through a “nationalist” lens will blind us to important features of this relatively new and distinctive enemy.

When looking at our more traditionalist foes on the white right, the “nationalist” label may seem to be an easier fit – surely the likes of the English Defence League, British National Party and Britain First can hardly be described as anything other than nationalists? But when we pay closer attention, this picture, too, becomes messier, as parts of the far-right have taken up defence of a “European” or “white” identity that’s not tied to a particular state or piece of land any more than the Islamist’s community of believers is. For examples of this, see the slogans about “white pride world wide” or “no more brother wars”, or the non-Ukranian, non-Russian fascists – people who, you might think, have no particular reason to be bothered about the territorial interests of Ukraine or the Donbass – who’ve flocked to associate themselves with one side or another of the conflict in the Ukraine, the bizarre sight of Polish migrant fascists attending British fascist anti-migrant rallies, or the vapourwave fascists of Identity Evropa, a bunch of Americans, many of whom have probably never even set foot on this continent, who spend their time going around pasting up pictures of Greek and Roman statues.

Perhaps the best example of this messy territory is the strange fate of the PEGIDA movement. To start off with, it’s worth taking note of the name – for much of history, the idea of a “patriotic European” would have been impossible to make sense of. It’s hard to say what a “patriotic European” would have done during WWI, for example, but perhaps they would have ended up not so far from Rosa Luxemburg’s position. But this isn’t just a case of German nationalists using weird rhetoric, as it inspired imitations like PEGIDA UK and PEGIDA Ireland – so British and Irish racists literally using a German acronym to describe themselves as “Patriotische Europäer” – and, weirder still, “patriotic Europeans” cropping up in Canada. Clearly, some organised far-right racists have an attachment to “Europeanness” to rival that of any soppy liberal Remain voter; compared to these cosmopolitan fascists, the interests and rhetoric of a “globalist” like Hillary Clinton look positively parochial.

Having been very critical of the first two categorisations Garvey gives, I’m broadly in agreement with how he describes the third group. In particular, I think the third sub-group he mentions, ““unvoiced” workers and others in the metropolitan countries and elsewhere who simply cannot imagine being against solidarity with their fellow human beings” is a very important one.

I’d add that, just as the likes of Clinton and May can switch between their “globalist” and “nationalist” faces, it’s equally possible for people to have abstract nationalist ideas about the big picture, but still behave with compassion and solidarity to actual migrants when they encounter them (or vice versa). Garvey cites a Mute magazine article about working-class Remain voters here, which I’ll admit is decent despite my strong suspicion of anything that can be seen to play into the narrative where all virtue is identified with the 48% who voted to maintain Fortress Europe, but he that voteth Leave is damned already. Anyway, for more consideration of this point, I’d recommend this Plan C article about migrant solidarity from last year and this surprisingly decent article that appeared in the Guardian recently.

I still think the basic model of a three-way fight is a sound one, but I’d suggest a more accurate (if messier) taxonomy would be:

1) neoliberal elites who are committed to the global free movement of capital and a supply of cheap migrant labour, but who keep that migrant workforce disciplined with systematic discrimination and harsh anti-migrant rhetoric that can make them sound eerily like:

2) anti-establishment, insurgent authoritarian right forces who decry the (very real) destruction of communities caused by the policies of group 1) above, and instead call for the restoration of an older, “real” community – a vision that may well be expressed through straightforward nationalism, but may equally be expressed as a kind of perverse internationalist, “culturalist” allegiance to an international community based on European heritage, shared religious faith or the like, and then

3) us.

As a conclusion, or at least the end of part I, Garvey states that we need “a comprehensive and long-term political strategy to break up the social blocs that constitute the working class grounded sub-groups of the nationalist movements”. I would broadly endorse this, but with the caveat that everything depends on what that strategy actually looks like.

In particular, I’d stress that it needs to be a genuinely materialist approach – that is to say, in place of abstract principles, no matter how fine-sounding, we need a strategy that actually looks at the material foundations of these social blocs and offers practical suggestions for how they can be taken apart.

For example, while white supremacy in the US is, for the most part, no longer explicitly written into law, there are a whole host of laws that disadvantage migrants (certainly in the UK, and I would imagine elsewhere) – or, to put it another way, that give a relative advantage to non-migrant workers. And, of course, one major effect of these laws is to create an easily terrorisable workforce – it’s hard enough to challenge the boss, or to convince others to stand with you, when you know they can fire you; how much harder does it get when you know they have the power to get you deported, or sent to an immigration detention centre?

Any anti-racist strategy in these conditions will have to start, not just from a moral condemnation of the evils of racism, but from an understanding of the real material differences between these sectors, and the competing interests that are seen to flow from these different material positions. How these can be broken down is a harder question – as hopeful examples, I would offer the amazing organising among migrant cleaners in London, who, one would imagine, are driving standards up for migrant and native cleaners alike, the struggles of migrant warehouse workers in Italy, and above all the strike at Fawley oil refinery where British and migrant workers acting together were able to defeat a system that underpaid the migrant workers. How we can generalise from these specific, limited examples is yet another question, but I’ve tried to give some suggestions here and here.

Too often, the internationalist position is reduced to a moral stance, while nationalists pitch their appeal on the grounds of self-interest, as in much of the debate around the refugee crisis. But if we really believe that our ideas can improve the lives of the vast majority of people, and we can provide practical examples of what that means, we shouldn’t have to abandon the terrain of self-interest, we should be able to occupy it more convincingly than our opponents.

Similarly, when Islamist reactionaries carry out terror attacks designed to spread fear and panic as widely as possible, and nationalists respond by promising to make people safer, no amount of statistical relativizing about how you’re more likely to get killed crossing the road, or finger-wagging about how the victims drew problematic cartoons, or even patient explanations of how the attacks are products of alienation and won’t be an issue any more once we have communism, will be an effective substitute for a real strategy to defeat these reactionary movements, one that’s not based around reaffirming national, cultural or “civilizational” divisions or increasing state harassment of marginalised groups.

All of these are daunting tasks, but they’re examples of the sort of obstacles that will have to be faced if we want to reaffirm international class solidarity as a real material force. Let’s make internationalism great again.

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About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
This entry was posted in Bit more thinky, Debate, Internationalism, Racism, The right and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Futures and pasts: a response to John Garvey on future politics and the present moment

  1. @pplswar says:

    Viewpoint Mag’s take on the long-term impact of the Sanders campaign in my view is the proper starting point for the U.S. end of this discussion:

    https://viewpointmag.com/2016/09/19/whats-left-of-bernies-revolution/

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