Unpacking the basket of deplorables: a reply on Trump voters, myths and myth-making

Contrary to popular belief, not all American workers look like this.

Contrary to popular belief, not all American workers actually look like this.

The Workers Solidarity Movement recently published a piece by Andrew Flood analysing the make-up of the Trump vote. The article’s specifically intended as an intervention into a particular debate on the left, one that Flood characterises as being between “the Nostalgic Left” on the other hand, and “the Intersectional Left” on the other, with the idea that “the left needs to reach out, and listen to the concerns of” Trump voters cast as a symptom of people “dreaming of a mostly fictional past when a united (white male) working class was not distracted by what they term ‘identity politics’”.

I’m not convinced that the two poles Flood sets up are the most useful ones to be using here. In an equally polemical move, I would say that an equally useful distinction could be made between a Shouty Left, who start out from the proposition that they already possess the Correct Ideas and all that’s needed is to repeat them often enough and loud enough, and a Listening Left*, who accept that we don’t have all the answers, and that listening to others around us, even those we strongly disagree with, is vital if we’re to come up with an adequate understanding of the world around us, let alone to find appropriate ways of communicating that understanding to others.

Of course, part of the problem with using these kinds of deliberately loaded labels is that no-one actually self-identifies as “nostalgic” or “shouty”, so it’s important to be clear who exactly we’re talking about, which can be difficult in a social media age where we often come across opinions and worldviews in brief individual posts rather than in fully developed, easily-referenced, essays. So to be clear: even if Flood and the WSM aren’t starting out from an arrogant position of all-encompassing correctness, I think that running a piece that argues so strongly against the idea of even listening to the concerns of working-class Trump voters is definitely something that gives comfort and encouragement to people who want to think that they’re doing everything right already and have no need to listen to other perspectives.

The question of who, precisely, makes up the “nostalgic left” that Flood’s so keen to criticise, is left quite open: for a piece so heavily dedicated to arguing against a particular position, he doesn’t cite the people making the argument he wants to refute much. As far as I can tell, he mentions two specific examples of “nostalgic leftism”: one piece by Joan C. Williams, which to be fair does make the kind of argument he wants to criticise, although it does come from a fairly mainstream Democrat perspective, so its relevance to the class struggle left is arguable, and then later on he promises “an example that will make you cringe” of the nostalgic left argument for “turning a blind eye to white supremacy, misogyny and homophobia” , and then links to an argument about terminology by someone who doesn’t think the term “white supremacy” is used in a particularly helpful way. We can argue back and forth about whether or not that particular phrase is a effective way of conveying the meaning that it’s meant to, but either way it’s a bit of stretch to use an article that explicitly states “If something is racist, call it racist” as an example of people wanting to turn “a blind eye to white supremacy, misogyny and homophobia”.

So, all we know about the nostalgic left – what we could call “the subject supposed to want to appease racists” – comes from two articles, one of which doesn’t come anywhere close to making the argument Flood ascribes to it. This doesn’t feel like much of a basis for understanding the positions of what Flood describes as “a growing cacophony of voices [who insist] that in order to win [white working-class Trump voters] over the rest of the left has to abandon any major focus on other sections of the working class”.

So, for these reasons, I’m not sure exactly where the nostalgic left position on Trump begins and ends, so it’s possible there’s no overlap between the “nostalgic left” Flood attacks and the “listening left” I want to defend. But as I understand it, Flood’s insistence that “the position advanced by the nostalgic left that we have to focus on the concerns of ‘the neglected white working class’ has to be rejected… because it in no way can build class solidarity when it’s historic role is to destroy it” feels like a serious mischaracterisation of various pieces I’ve read that argue for engaging with the concerns of Trump voters, while not in any way making concessions to racism.

So, in the interest of clarity, a quick sketch of what I’d describe as some “listening left” positions, from people whose actual politics range from Sanders-supporting leftism to revolutionary anarchism, via however the IWCA describe themselves nowadays:

“What powered Trump to victory was a maintenance of the Republican coalition, and a hundred thousand voters in several economically depressed northern and midwestern states that had previously gone for Obama. There were racists, there were nascent fascists, there were diseased rich fucks — but, I am sorry to tell you, there were also people who’d have chosen a better option were it presented. If you can’t understand that, you risk two terms of this insanity.

These are the facts of Trump’s narrow electoral victory. He did not win the popular vote. He won where it mattered, among people who don’t feel they matter…

Some media hacks may cover themselves by saying all Trump supporters are racists, comfortably deferring some uncomfortable questions about the situation we face. But the hardcore white nationalists nesting in the Trump camp certainly do not think that to be the case. They fear the day Trump is found out to be a fraud, who will not be bringing any factories back — but by then, they hope the window will have been cracked enough for their beliefs to have slithered into the White House, respectable and airbrushed…

No more of this narrow view of either wooing or abandoning “the white working class,” either. The zero-sum, emotionally bankrupt thinking on race that has dominated this country — one in which African-Americans see their voting rights stolen, while white Americans are incited against “welfare cheats” and other euphemistic scapegoats while further immiserated themselves — must be smashed. It is time to defend and support the entire working class — the black working class, the Latino working class, indigenous Americans, and the white working class.

There is no need to pick and choose between helping one group to the detriment of another; an alternative vision will answer Trump’s bigotry with an abiding antiracism, a radical compassion capable of freeing all Americans from the indignities of life today in this country.” (Dan O’Sullivan)

“But it is the very refusal to compete for the lost that allows a con man to take them. Rage is a consequence of a depraved world. Rage harnessed uncontested in the service of evil is a failure of our politics. Donald Trump has turned a significant number of Americans to against their own interests, against fellow citizens even more vulnerable than they are. He did it in part because his opponents did not make a serious effort to turn them back the proper away against their masters, in part because his opponents were themselves of that master class, as responsible as anyone for the depravity that Donald Trump exploited. This is the political reality…

To merely wish away this rage is the politics of oughts. To merely condemn its most vulgar elements is the politics of failure. Either we can affirm the dignity of all people or we can leave them to the seduction of demagoguery. We must tell them that they have been misled, been turned against their brothers and sisters by those who would rather see us fight amongst ourselves than fight against the powerful, or we must consign ourselves to the barbarism that Donald Trump has brought us.

…The task before us is to create it even though it will be difficult and despite the fact that it would involve fighting for those who have abandoned themselves to the primal satisfaction of hatred. This is not rewarding racism. It is not indulging it—no left can make such a concession without profoundly betraying its commitment to the dignity of the oppressed. It is only the willingness to say to the behemoth that there is another way, a better enemy to fight. It is the commitment to organize all comers, to recruit them into the cause of their own liberation, even if they are not the allies we would like to choose. We ought not have to, but we know that the world demands it. The only alternative is failure. The only alternative is to allow the rot of bigotry to plant itself even deeper in their souls, uncontested, and mobilized in the name of evil.” (Emmett Rensin)

“…unlike traditional conservatives, Trump’s rhetoric has actually appealed directly to the white working class. He claims that he opposes free trade agreements like the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) and has said that NAFTA was a mistake. But beneath this populist rhetoric lies a bleak reality – Trump, like all politicians, is just one more opportunist intentionally playing towards the worst elements in our society. He makes appeals to the concerns of white working folks, by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “criminals”, and threatening to make a registry of Muslims in this country. But we have seen where those policies take us and we do not want to even begin to go down that road!

…This is an open call to all pissed off white working people. This is an open call to ignore the rhetoric of the alt-right, to ignore the false allegiances that the rich whites try to get us to buy into, to ignore the illogical and ridiculous race-baiting from the ignorant among us! This is a call to reject the IDEA of whiteness; that is, to reject the idea that our allegiance is somehow determined by what skin we have, even when our real living situations are so different. This is an open call to no longer ignore the fact that our real allies are not determined by skin color, but by our social conditions. Our real enemies are mostly white English speaking Christians. Our allies are folks of all colors who are forced to work for a living, to provide for their families and keep a roof over their heads.” (Redneck Revolt)

“for someone to be able to offer a scapegoat for a problem, there has to be a real problem. My white coworkers know that for white working class people, our incomes are stagnating, our drug addiction is rising, and our life expectancy is declining- as they are for working class people of color. We know that industries that once defined the character and culture of the blue collar American worker are phasing out, and taking the towns built around those industries with them. We know that the discourse around rural and working class whites is a discourse about ‘white trash’, ‘rednecks’, and ‘hicks’, the deplorables who represent everything ugly and backwards about America- often spoken by wealthier whites from metro areas whose racism is more polite but also carries the clout of greater economic and political power, the ability to lock people of color out of housing and jobs while touting the benefits of a shallowly defined ‘multiculturalism’. When Trump comes along and offers a solution, even a false one, even a racist one, people in places like the Rust Belt and Appalachia bite. It’s wrong- but who else is offering a solution? The Democrats offer more ‘free trade’ deals, and the Left isn’t strong enough to offer much of anything.

… When poor white folk start realizing that our interests aren’t with a racist, capitalist power structure, and are with people of color who we work and live alongside, and when we stop acting as attack dogs and start acting in solidarity, that’s when we can be part of making something great. That’s why I’m going to keep listening to, and talking to, and helping and relying on, these coworkers- because if people hadn’t listened to and talked to and worked with me, I’d probably think exactly like they think today.” (Patrick O’Donoghue, First of May Anarchist Alliance)

“Once the ‘white working class’ is deemed a distinct political entity apart from the working class, you’re already on deeply dangerous ground. If the left designates that entity as the enemy, the road to fascism – de-globalised capitalism and racial tribalism – is effectively built” (The Independent Working Class Association)

All these perspectives share an emphasis on the ideas of listening to Trump voters and taking their concerns seriously, in the way that Flood seems to regard as inherently dangerous, but I don’t think any of them really fit his depiction of the “nostalgic left”. Even the IWCA piece, by far the most polemically opposed to “identity politics”, is very clear that the answer has to be a return to working-class politics, not treating the white working class as a separate entity.

So much for the preamble, now onto the actual argument. One of the first things to note is that Flood slides from saying that nostalgic leftists see the Trump vote as expressing some kind of “working class anti-establishment rebellion” – which I think is a broadly fair characterisation – to saying there’s a narrative of “masses of otherwise progressive working class voters opting for Trump on economic grounds” – which would be a daft claim, and I don’t think I’ve seen anyone making it. Saying someone is anti-establishment, or that they’re not so inherently and irredeemably racist that they can never be won to any form of progressive politics ever, is not the same as saying they’re currently conscious progressives (whatever that term even means); but Flood seems to think it’s important to spend a great deal of time responding to this particular point.

Flood offers the observation that “[i]t’s certainly not the case that the ‘white working class’ is the section of the working class hardest hit by neoliberalism”, which is true, but again it’s a rebuttal of a case I’m not convinced anyone (other than actual serious white nationalists) was making. The point is not that white working-class folk are uniquely devastated, or that they’re suffering more than anyone else: the point is that they are suffering, and Trump made a pitch to alleviate that. Other sections of the working class may well be suffering more, but, in the absence of a real radical challenge to the status quo, no one is or was making a serious effort to mobilise those sections.

The main part of Flood’s article is an extended statistical analysis based on exit polls, aiming to show that Trump voters hold right-wing views. There are a few problems with this – for one, it seems to be based on a fairly static view of consciousness. If there was that simple a correspondence between what people say now, what they do, and what they might think or say in the future, we could simply conduct one big poll, note that about 99% of people would indicate their view of anarchist communism as being unfavourable or highly unfavourable, and then just write the whole thing off as a bad job, because everyone is a hopeless reactionary who doesn’t agree with us.

It’s worth recalling the work of the great US Marxist Martin Glaberman here:

“When the ballots were counted, the membership of the UAW had voted two to one to reaffirm the no-strike pledge. It was rather reasonable to draw the conclusion that the consciousness of auto workers was that they placed patriotism before class interest; that in a major war workers should not strike; no matter what the provocation, war production had to continue.

There was, however, a slight problem. Before the vote, during the vote, and after the vote, the majority of auto workers wildcatted. What then, was the consciousness of the auto workers? Were they for or against the no-strike pledge?

…Were they patriotic or class conscious? It seems necessary to say, as a start, that what workers do is at least as important as what workers say. But much more than that is involved. The whole idea of consciousness is more complex and is a much larger totality than simply formal statements of belief, which would be sufficiently dealt with by having a survey, or that postcard ballot, or whatever…

It is also true that many workers have very reactionary views on a whole range of subjects, like race, sex, age, skills, and soon. Workers are not the noble savage, all pure and honest and forthright and revolutionary. But reality, which is a 36 second job for the rest of your life, reality, which is sabotage recorded every single day in the Chrysler plants in Windsor, Ontario, is a reality which forces workers to behave in contradiction to their own stated beliefs. Unless that behavior is included in the under-standing of their consciousness, there is no sense of what the working class is capable of doing, or the ways in which it explodes, or the ways in which strike waves or wildcat strikes appear. And it is that reality which sustains the belief that the working class is a viable force for social change.”

It’s also the case that a lot of Flood’s statistics could be used to make exactly the opposite argument – it’s easy to imagine someone going through the same numbers and coming out saying “look! 27 million Trump voters were bothered by his treatment of women, 35% of them don’t want to see the wall built, the majority of them don’t want to see undocumented migrants deported and 12 million of them admit the criminal justice system does not treat black people fairly – this is not a homogeneous reactionary mass, it’s a complex coalition with real fault lines, so let’s set about breaking it apart.”

Flood also raises the question “why focus on the 22% of the working class that voted Trump rather than the 78% of the working class who did not?”, which honestly feels like one of those questions that kind of answers itself: if you feel that people being mobilised in support of divisive reactionary politics is a problem, then that tends to lead to a focus on those people who are being mobilised in support of divisive reactionary politics, more than on those who aren’t. Or to put it another way: the wheel that squeaks gets the grease, shy bairns get nowt.

Creating a massive problem for someone has traditionally been a reliable means of getting their attention: this is why employers are usually more willing to bargain with strike-prone workforces than well-behaved ones, why striking workers in turn tend to focus their attention on scabs more than on those who respect the picket line, and why a party host might focus on the one guest who’s being sick all over the carpet, no matter how much of a statistical anomaly they might be when compared to the vast majority of entirely well-behaved guests who aren’t vomiting anywhere.

EDIT: There was a bit here where I thought Flood got some numbers wrong, but it turns out I got the wrong end of the stick. I’ve edited it out because the point I was making was wrong, but thought it’d be more honest to leave this note in than to pretend I don’t get stuff wrong.

Approaching the end of his statistical analysis, Flood restates the claim that “a growing cacophony of voices on what I’ve called the Nostalgic Left insists that in order to win this section over the rest of the left has to abandon any major focus on other sections of the working class”. It would be good to see where exactly this claim is being made, and by who – the arguments I’ve seen have tended to be less about wanting to focus on reactionary white voters (let alone imaginary liberal Trump voters) over workers of colour, but more about favouring material class politics over a symbolic politics of representation, or even over anti-working class neoliberalism.

This is especially confusing as Flood himself writes that “the calculated gamble that the orientation the Democratic Party once had to industrial workers could be dropped and replaced by appeals for an identity plus ‘decency’ based vote didn’t work out. But to a large extent this wasn’t a tactical decision, Clinton’s neoliberalism was at the center of her politics and the central plank of neoliberalism in the US was the sacrifice of relatively well paid blue collar jobs” – an argument that seems very close to the case I’ve seen made by various sources I’d class as “listening left”, but that I suspect Flood would view as “nostalgic”. If people argue for a break with the disastrous combination of neoliberalism plus appeals to identity and want a revival of something like the old orientation to industrial workers, is that inherently nostalgic (leaving aside the question of whether it’d be remotely desirable to do this via the Democrats)?

Flood also says “[i]t’s a minor aside, but the Trump voting segment of the working class… are also not in the cities. Only 16 million of Trumps voters lived in the cities as against 14 million in rural areas even though twice as many people live in the cities in the US.” I think this isn’t a minor point, it’s actually quite crucial. If Trump voters just consisted of the worst 22% of dickheads found in any given social situation, then the argument for writing them off would be fairly sound (and they also wouldn’t be much of an electoral force); looking at the actual geographical breakdown of the vote, we see that to reject the idea of trying to win Trump voters over means to write off huge areas of the country. The classic example of what happens when radical workers in the big cities take action in a context where there’s a huge gulf between them and the rural population was France 1871; I’m not sure that a strategy of ignoring rural areas would work out that much better today.

Flood also argues against the idea that significant numbers of white working-class Obama voters switched to Trump, repeatedly stating that this apparent phenomenon was more likely to be a result of Obama voters staying home while “Trump energised a set of racists who didn’t vote last time around… energised racists and misogynists who hadn’t voted last time… got out to vote this time”. This point is worth picking up: accepting that Trump enthused voters who don’t normally vote, the question has to be asked: is it their racism, their misogyny, or their opposition to free trade that drove them?

This question is hard to answer in the abstract (and, of course, there’s never one simple answer to these things), but I find it hard to imagine too many bigots looking at the record of the GOP up to 2008, or 2012, and thinking “nope, this party is not nearly racist or sexist enough for me, I’m going to stay at home until someone really racist comes along”. As much as the Republican establishment might like to insist otherwise, out of his racial bigotry, his horrific attitudes to women, and his preference for protectionist economics over free trade, it’s only the latter that marks Trump as being meaningfully outside the mainstream Republican consensus.

Rounding off this section, Flood reminds us that “having voted once for a black man isn’t a magic ‘not a racist’ card” and compares it to the clichéd “I’m not a racist but…”. At this point it’s crucial to work out what we’re actually talking about here: if the question is “do I want to invite this person round my house for tea”, “would they make a good and productive member of a Marx reading group” or “are they likely to be among the 144,000 blameless ones mentioned in Revelation 14” then sure, having voted for Obama in 2012 is not really enough to make the cut.

But if we’re talking about strategy, then the difference between “ideologically motivated racists who will always act in a racist way in pretty much any given situation” – who, to be clear, definitely do make up a chunk of the Trump vote – and “people who will act in a racist way in some situations, and then not in others” is quite an important one, even if the latter still don’t get their official “not a racist” cards.

The strategy of the Steven Bannons and their ilk has to depend on finding ways to bind together the waverers – the sometime Democratic voters, those who aren’t that keen on building a wall – with the hardcore white nationalists, solidifying this loose coalition into a coherent social and political force. If we want to block and disrupt that strategy, we can’t afford to start off by treating these differences as if they don’t matter.

Flood does also warn against the “headline bias” of attention-grabbing, unusual cases, pointing out that stories of people who always vote Republican voting Republican are less newsworthy than stories of people who usually vote Democrat voting Republican. There’s a lot of truth to this, but it is also the case that if we’re even marginally concerned with explaining the election result, then stories of people acting the same way as they always do have less relevance than stories of people acting differently to how they did in 2008 and 2012.

Later on, Flood asserts that he doesn’t think it’s worth trying to win over Trump voters, or even particularly “listening to their concerns”, and then confusingly reminds us that “white supremacy coupled with a ‘red-scare’ has been very successful at smashing working class organisation which hadn’t inoculated itself against the reassertion of white privilege”. This is, of course, entirely the point: if we want to build lasting organisation that’s not destroyed in this way, we need to inoculate against the reassertion of white privilege, and we can only do that by engaging with the people it seeks to mobilise. Convincing undocumented migrants, or urban black workers, that white supremacy is a bad thing may be a lot easier than making the same case to rural white workers, but if we want to prevent reactionary formations like the Klan or the militias from recruiting, then there’s no alternative to engaging with the base they want to mobilise.

Flood looks at how highpoints of struggle like the 1984-5 miners’ strike can change consciousness, and then asks how “those on the left advocating ‘take the concerns white working class Trump voters seriously’ see it working out” outside this kind of situation. This is the big, important question, and without some kind of answer this whole discussion’s pretty pointless. I think there are quite a few examples that are a lot more relevant than Flood’s suggestions of hoping something like the miners’ strike happens again or “sending college students from the cities to the rural areas to leaflet the houses of the workers in their 50’s and 60’s who voted for Trump”.

From what I’ve seen, the best worked-out appeal to rural white workers has been in the form of Redneck Revolt and their John Brown Gun Club project, which includes having a presence at the kind of gun shows where anti-immigrant militias try to recruit; their general orientation is summed up in their “To Other Working Americans” piece mentioned above. As a historical guide, I think the memory of the Young Patriots who worked alongside the Panthers and Young Lords is another useful reference point.

For a relatively contemporary example, I think there’s a huge amount to be learned from the activity of the (now sadly defunct) Phoenix Class War Council around the start of this decade, who set about trying to fracture the anti-immigrant movement in Arizona. Taking up the contradiction of right-wing libertarians who fancied themselves as government-hating freedom-lovers, but were also prepared to back repressive state action against migrants, they pushed hard on the ideological divergences between the patriotic libertarians and the more openly fascist elements of the anti-immigrant movement, encouraging people to choose between their belief in freedom and their commitments to white supremacy. The result of this was that some right-libertarians who’d started off as part of the anti-migrant movement were prepared to join in with anti-fascist actions called by anarchists and indigenous people and took up defence of migrants against state repression as part of their ideology, while fascists were driven off from events where they’d previously been welcomed.

In the time between starting this piece and finishing it off, It’s Going Down have put up a new interview with the Pacific North-West Antifascist Workers Collective, a group who are organising against racism and fascism partly within the unions (mainly in construction), but also by trying to counter the recruitment of white supremacist prison gangs, and encouraging people to leave these organisations: supporting prisoners in hosting study groups for those who want to question racist ideas, and providing networks of material support for recently-released inmates, as a way of undercutting the white racist gangs who recruit by doing the same thing.

Admittedly, due to the laws barring felons from voting, members of nazi prison gangs are unlikely to actually be Trump voters, but the work of trying to undermine white supremacist gangs and support members who leave could definitely be ridiculed using precisely the arguments Flood uses: after all, statistics show that the vast majority of American workers are not members of white supremacist prison gangs, and when polled those who are tend to display undesirable attitudes on a whole range of issues.

Flood stresses that “a Trump voter outreach strategy would be very very vulnerable to making compromises that would re-enforce the very problem of white supremacy and misogyny that helped him win the election in the first place… a left that puts that section of the working class in the centre of its messaging will rightly lose everyone else.” I’m not convinced that this is at all a fair characterisation of the arguments put forward in, say, the M1AA or Redneck Revolt pieces. Of course it’s possible that Flood’s been reading different, and much worse, stuff than I have, but unless he’s completely oblivious to the perspectives being put across by those comrades then it seems odd to just ignore them.

Flood stresses that “a Trump voter outreach strategy would be very very vulnerable to making compromises that would re-enforce the very problem of white supremacy and misogyny that helped him win the election in the first place… a left that puts that section of the working class in the centre of its messaging will rightly lose everyone else.” I’m not convinced that this is at all a fair characterisation of the arguments put forward in, say, the M1AA or Redneck Revolt pieces. Of course it’s possible that Flood’s been reading different, and much worse, stuff than I have, but unless he’s completely oblivious to the perspectives being put across by those comrades then it seems odd to just ignore them.

It would be really helpful to have a few more citations here so we can get a better understanding of who exactly Flood is arguing against, but all this section provides is the outright nonsense of mentioning an article arguing about the usefulness of the term “white supremacy” when applied to Bernie Sanders – an article that explicitly states “[i]f something is racist, call it racist”, and, for that matter, does not mention Trump or Trump voters at any point – as proof that people want to “turn… a blind eye to white supremacy, misogyny and homophobia” in order to court Trump voters.

Flood again reiterates his opposition to “[f]ocusing on the particular grievances of white workers”, but, unless we’ve been reading completely different stuff, that doesn’t seem to be an argument that anyone is making. I’ve been reading a lot more people saying things like “It is time to defend and support the entire working class — the black working class, the Latino working class, indigenous Americans, and the white working class” and “This is a call to reject the IDEA of whiteness; that is, to reject the idea that our allegiance is somehow determined by what skin we have, even when our real living situations are so different. This is an open call to no longer ignore the fact that our real allies are not determined by skin color, but by our social conditions. Our real enemies are mostly white English speaking Christians. Our allies are folks of all colors who are forced to work for a living, to provide for their families and keep a roof over their heads” and “When poor white folk start realizing that our interests aren’t with a racist, capitalist power structure, and are with people of color who we work and live alongside, and when we stop acting as attack dogs and start acting in solidarity, that’s when we can be part of making something great” and “working class people of all colours must unite against the exploitative, oppressive ruling class… our fight is a class struggle not a race struggle”.

It seems odd that Flood, in his mission to debunk the supposed myth of progressive Trump voters, can provide so much detailed statistical evidence, but so little evidence of people making the arguments he wants to demolish. His analysis of the polls may demolish some myths, but it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the lengthy evidence-free sections of his argument may be building up a few other ones.

*which is a really horrible term and I’m sorry for using it, but I couldn’t think of a better term to describe the position I’m trying to talk about – Quiet Bat-Left, anyone?

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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."
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6 Responses to Unpacking the basket of deplorables: a reply on Trump voters, myths and myth-making

  1. Thanks for the long reply, a few quick points
    1. On the building the wall percentage you’ve misread what I wrote (possibly my fault for not expressing it clearer). The 64.7% of the percentage of Trump voters who were working class, not a percentage in favour of building the wall.
    2. In general on the exit poll questions you’ve missed the point being made which is the number of Trump votes who are possibly working class and don’t have terrible options on these questions is very small. That matters when you want to talk about where the left should put its effort, see ‘primary’ below
    3. I’ve a link to what I mean by Nostalgic Left when I first mention the term, essentially its old school social democrats and stalinists – at its most fashionable its Jacobian. Of the groups you mention only the IWCA approach what I’d consider to be the Nostalgic Left (and really they are the fringes of it).
    4. I’ve nothing against listening. My concern is making it the primary focus (I use the word primary in the piece delibretly) This would be a mistake both because of its size but also because it sends a message that you consider that section central which particularly in the US context of a long developed and deep white supremacy is pretty disastrous. I explicitly say there are circumstances in which it makes sense as a focus. This is all about resources which is why ‘primary’ is the key term.
    5. We have been reading different stuff, I mostly like the stuff you’ve quoted with your implication that I would’t like it. Most of it doesn’t put forward the ‘colour blind’ approach of the Nostalgic Left but quite the opposite so from a scan would be more like something I’d advocate rather than hate.

    • Fair enough, and I hold my hands up to misreading those stats on the wall. Will reply properly to your points when I get a chance, but won’t be online much until at least Sunday night.

    • OK, got round to a proper reply (which also turned out to be pretty long).
      At this point it might be worth raising three caveats that I thought of including in the main text above, but couldn’t work out how to fit in.

      The first is that, with this kind of argument on the left, the parts of an argument or position that are most problematic are usually not explicitly spelled out or stated. To put it another way, I don’t know of any group that’s ever adopted a formal position saying that meetings should be dominated by a small number of loudmouthed men, and yet… Similarly, with this case, Flood’s unlikely to find anyone explicitly stating “women and people of colour should be ignored”, and I’m unlikely to find anyone actually saying in so many words “people living outside big metropolitan areas should be ignored”, and I recognise this can make it hard to cite the things you want to argue against. But I still think that, if you think people are saying things which imply these problematic positions, it’s worth finding specific examples of who’s saying what and showing how you read the problems into them – there’s not really any other way of telling a fair criticism from a totally unjustified one.

      Secondly, I think this kind of argument, based around electoral analysis, is particularly difficult for anarchists to engage in. Whether we like it or not, in discussing the results of this election we are inevitably at least touching on the subject of “where the Democrats went wrong”. For Democrat-leaning leftists, this is quite a simple area – what went wrong is that not enough people voted Democrat, and “winning over” Trump voters would mean convincing them to vote Democrat next time. For further left, but still electorally-minded socialists, it’s a bit more complex, but still relatively straightforward – roughly speaking, what went wrong is that there wasn’t a prominent major candidate expressing left positions, and what should happen in future is that that candidate should exist and people (including Trump voters) should vote for them. For anarchists, this whole area is considerably fuzzier – what went wrong is ????? and instead of voting Trump, we want to convince people that they should (join an AFL-CIO union? Join the IWW? Just not be so racist? Riot and set up workers’ councils or the Commune?) instead. When having this kind of conversation, it’s easy to unthinkingly slide between “us” and “the Democrats” or “Clinton” – indeed, I think the whole electoral system is set up to promote this kind of automatic identification, and that should be one of the main points of our critique of it.

      Thirdly, I tend to be very suspicious of any talk of strategy or priorities not immediately linked to an actual body capable of carrying them out. It’s perfectly reasonable for, say, the WSM or IWW or Black Rose to discuss and agree a strategy and priorities, but without some kind of organisational structure, the idea of discussing what an idea as amorphous as “the British left” or “the US left” should prioritise feels a bit pointless – especially as, as mentioned above, some participants will read such a discussion as “what the Democrats should do”, others will read it as “what the New Workers’ Party should do”, and others still will interpret it as “what autonomous social movements should do”.

      Anyway, bearing in mind the points above about why this discussion is difficult and possibly pointless, a few responses:

      1) On the wall thing – I hold my hands up to having misread that, and have edited accordingly. In my defence, it is a relatively complex statistical distinction.

      2) On numbers (assuming you meant “terrible opinions”, since under capitalism we all have terrible options) – I think my point about how this assumes a relatively static model of consciousness still stands. Workers don’t come into conflict with capital because they’re woke but because the interests of capital are fundamentally opposed to our material interests, and if Trump can find a way to sort that contradiction out I’ll eat my hat.

      Over the last year, I’ve learned a lot about US prison struggles, and one of the high water marks of proletarian resistance to the prison-industrial complex in the last few decades was the Lucasville Uprising in Ohio, where a conflict that was initially sparked by a religious issue affecting Muslim prisoners led to an uprising that brought together an alliance of religious Muslims, Gangster Disciples and the Aryan Brotherhood. I don’t think much polling has been done on the social attitudes of Aryan Brotherhood members, but I think it’s safe to say their opinions would tend to skew quite heavily in a reactionary direction. The point of this is not to say that every white power bigot just needs a hug to turn them into a fully conscious intersectional comrade, but just that unexpected things can and do happen, and we write people off at our peril.

      Also on numbers: I agree that 62 million isolated individuals, or 40 million isolated individual workers, may not amount to a hill of beans in the grand scheme of things, but 62 million or 40 million, or even a small proportion of those numbers, organised as part of a conscious, coherent reactionary movement is an absolutely terrifying proposition. If there’s anything we can do to prevent that prospect, to undermine the unity or coherence of that potential movement, then I think it’s fair to say that that should be considered a fairly urgent task. Insofar as it makes sense to talk about priorities, then I think there’s a strong case that it should be seen as a priority.

      3) Who are the nostalgic left – I did actually read that piece you link to when it was first written, and thought it seemed pretty sound at the time, although going back and revisiting now I note that it’s still pretty light on actual citations. But acknowledging that a label is a useful one in some contexts isn’t the same as saying whether or not it’s a fair one to apply to a specific analysis in a specific situation – see all the left arguments about whether or not a specific take on things is “reformist”, “ultra-left”, or whatever.

      On the IWCA, I don’t want to hold them up as flawless or anything – I think we’d both disagree with their line on immigration control – but I think it is worth stressing that their opposition to a thing they call “identity politics” very explicitly extends to the identity politics of “the white working class”, so I don’t think the “nostalgic” label quite fits here. Likewise, on Jacobin, I may very well be viewing them through rose-tinted glasses because I only read the articles that look like they might have something interesting to say and generally skip the ones that sound like they’re going to be a waste of time; they are very clearly social democrats, and so their strategic prescriptions are of limited interest to anarchists, but I don’t think the stuff I’ve been reading of theirs tends toward a defence of patriarchy or white privilege – which, again, isn’t to say that they might not have published other, worse, stuff that I’ve avoided reading.

      4) Primary focus – as above, I’m not convinced that talking about a primary focus for something as nebulous as “the left” is at all useful . If I’d been given a vote on whether UK leftists should focus lots of their attention over the last year on getting Corbyn re-elected, or on getting out the vote for one side or another of the EU referendum, I’d certainly have voted against that motion, and yet here we are. But, accepting those terms for the sake of the argument, I think there are two big points here.

      Firstly, it definitely seems to be the case that a lot of US comrades are going to be – quite understably, IMO – prioritising anti-fascist work in the months to come. Now, it may well be possible to offer robust physical resistance to every individual member, or at least a reasonable proportion of, tiny sects like National Action, Identity Ireland or the Traditionalist Workers’ Party, but when we talk about the 62 million Trump voters, or even the 40 million W/C ones, that’s not really an option, so the new wave of antifascism will need to have a political as well as a physical edge. Even if that doesn’t mean trying to win Trump voters over, but just trying to drive deep wedges between the hardcore anti-Semites and those who admire Israel for success at keeping the “Muslim hordes” at bay, or those who want to prove America’s greatness through a big showdown with the evil Russkie empire and those who think Putin cuts an admirable figure of a white Christian authoritarian leader, I think that still inevitably means paying close attention to what such people are saying and thinking.

      Secondly, I think that, insofar as it makes sense to talk about strategic priorities, I do think that there’s a serious case to be made for prioritising those areas, both social and geographical, where we don’t currently have much of a presence, over those areas where there are already relatively self-sustaining radical communities – so, broadly speaking, this means just about everywhere beyond big cities with large subcultural scenes and a steady turnover of students and ex-students.

      This doesn’t necessarily mean engaging with Trump voters per se, but it does definitely mean engaging with Trump country, and I tend to worry that arguments that tend toward writing off Trump voters will have the consequence of also writing off people who just happen to live in areas with high geographical concentrations of Trump voters.

      By way of a parallel, I would agree that the left in the UK needs to get better at supporting workers who aren’t idealised burly white men (tbh, I’m not sure we’re even that up to the task of supporting workers who are idealised burly white men), and I think one specific sign of how much improvement is possible and needed is the minimal left support – especially from what we might call the decent, or intersectional, or libertarian, or whatever, left – for the (100% female) workers striking at Kinsley Academy or the (mainly female) teaching assistants who struck and won in County Durham. I think that we’ll never be up to the task of providing adequate support for these struggles if we don’t build up a base of support for (intersectional/libertarian/whatever) left ideas in places like Wakefield and County Durham, both of which are quite heavily Brexity – not too far from a UK equivalent of the rust belt. Insofar as your arguments can be used as justification for neglecting these places, I think they point in an unhelpful direction.

      5) Reading different stuff – oh, fair enough if that’s what’s happened. I promise I wasn’t trying to dig out obscure stuff to catch you out though, I would’ve thought the arguments made in the pieces I cited would’ve been fairly standard responses in class-struggle circles – particularly the M1AA one, which comes from an organisation whose politics are very close to those of the WSM. For the sake of completeness, I’ll add that the other influences that were in the back of my head while I was writing that reply were the post-election editorial from Viewpoint ( https://viewpointmag.com/2016/11/09/logging-out/ ) and the Insurgent Notes response to the election ( http://insurgentnotes.com/ ), but that reply (and this one!) was long enough, and took long enough to write, without including them.

  2. Its probably clearest in relation to what you say in point 5 but I think perhaps there is a misreading of who the article is aimed at. It’s not aimed at the anarchist movement in the US or elsewhere who from what I’ve seen mostly got it right. It’s aimed at the more liberal/progressive/stalinist end of the left for whom electoralism is a huge component. It’s relevancy to anarchists is limited to people (and there are some) influenced by the way that sections of the left covered things.

    It actually started off as a Facebook reply to an anarchist who shared one of the progressive ‘left’ pieces I cite in the text but I decided a FB discussion was pointless and I should blog it instead. Things then got out of hand as I vanished down a rather deep rabbit hole of information. Probably if I’d sat down to write an article about the elections I wouldn’t have written this one (way too much time spent on it), it more came about by the way I use writing to investigate as it forces you to pay a lot more attention while reading and understanding. TBH I think the existing US anarchist movement would have a much better idea of what anarchists should say and do locally, my words from afar are very much more directed at a much more general left but also explaining some concepts, in particular white supremacy to readers in Ireland.

    BTW I explicitly say struggle is the space where workers with reactionary ideas can be won over, that isn’t an unusual experience. But generally we can’t magic up struggle in order to do that. Likewise I say that we should support organisers who happen to be in areas where there is already a concentration of Trump voters. My issue was with people who were saying we had to focus on Trump voters even when the reality was this meant using resources to get to where they were located in a context where there wasn’t actually any struggle leaving them open to convincing. There is also the fact his voters were older which is why I suggest that this ‘strategy’ if implemented seriously might well translate into sending young student lefties into rural areas with no plan other than leafletting, something that might well be counterproductive.

    On the ability to quote people on the left saying such things. There is a problem that if part of the left is making an argument for entering the white working class or ignoring women or whatever its hardly daft enough to say so directly at this point in history. That sort of talk instead gets coded as not raising ‘divisive issues’ and a way of talking about class that in effect means ‘white male workers’. It also gets coded in completely uncritical reproduction of the languages of the right in attacking ‘political correctness’, ‘socials justice warriors’ and of course ‘identity politics wrecking the left’. That said I think I’d probably have got some pretty terrible quotations if I’d been collecting them as I went along, A more recent one at http://www.commondreams.org/views/2016/12/18/its-not-racism-vs-anti-racism-its-capitalism-vs-socialism

    • Yeah, this is definitely feeling like one of those discussions where the longer it goes the more common ground is revealed. Gonna leave things here because if I wrote another reply it’d probably end up spiraling out of control the way these things do and take days to write – I can definitely relate to the thing of starting out writing a reaction to a facebook comment and then realising around the fifth paragraph that you’re writing an essay/article instead.

  3. dorsetiww says:

    Reblogged this on Industrial Workers of the World Dorset and commented:
    There’s a lot of reading here, and it would seem only fair to read the original article first. This is a Dorset Wobbly commenting in a personal capacity without a branch mandate, and my reason for doing so is the use of the old IWW graphic showing the ubiquitous white, male manual worker.

    The IWW arose in the USA during a period of mass migration, at a time when unions were little more than extensions of the craft guilds of former times. They were segregated along strict trade and ethnic lines. It became obvious that this structure was ill-suited to the class war that raged in the early years of the 20th Century.

    It’s worth pointing out that the IWW was the first union to attempt to organise African American, Hispanic and Chinese workers alongside ‘white’ workers. Its members also included Italian, Irish, Scottish, Germanic, Scandinavian and Jewish Diaspora, reflecting the makeup of the exploited class at the time. This had never been done before.

    It just about expended its considerable energies and resources opposing the First World War on the simple premise that Fellow Workers shall not kill each other for their bosses. This brought down ferocious state repression, what was left over went down the plughole that is the Communist Party, the fate of the vigorous South African syndicalist movement was similar.

    Today the IWW is a painstakingly inclusive organisation, but still rejects liberalism. I’m not sure we’re part of the ‘left’, but we are of the Working Class; since we decline to participate in party politics it seems churlish to devote too much attention to the outcome of elections, but I believe a pile of dog shit could have defeated Hilary Clinton had it achieved a party nomination. The arrogance of the political class in assuming workers were going to vote for a sneering elitist warmonger just because the other candidate is a village idiot beggars belief. But then I don’t vote, and I don’t live in the US. If the office of President were important could it have been filled by the likes of Nixon, Johnson, Gerald Ford (!) – remember him?

    The power of the Working Class is expressed at the point of production, when it declines to work, or occupies space and refuses to relinquish it, that has not changed, and never will. I’m a little nostalgic myself, for a time when the Working Class, however constituted, was ready to fight; when scabs needed armed guards to pass armed pickets, when Wobblies from all over flocked to a small town to fill up the jails so a public meeting could take place. If that spirit has been depleted over the last century or so it’s by the political ‘left’ with its shady manoeuvrings and self-defeating power struggles.

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