In London and New York the great liberal newspapers and magazines are awash with the salt of lament. What appeared to have been won in perpetuity after the Cold War, to be the common sense of a bold new age, now seems fragile, perhaps even lost. Obituaries have been written for the Enlightenment, for cosmopolitanism, for liberalism and even for reason itself.
We have often been taken back to the 1930s — to Hitler, Mussolini and Europe’s fascist shadow. Theodor Adorno’s theorisation of the psychology of fascism, of the libidinal investment in a shared bond incited by charismatic leaders who resemble “ham actors and asocial psychopaths”, is now being read as all too contemporary.
These obituaries, often as erudite as they are elegiac, have an obvious and urgent point. Buffoonery is not to be dismissed when it wins, holds and wields real power. There is every reason to fear Donald Trump’s presidency. Fox News is equally alarming. The same is true of the scale and rate at which fabrication, often malicious, metastasises online.
It is one thing to note, as we always must, that the agora is rent by lines of exclusion. It is another thing to see it give way to a man such as Trump, a swindler, an abuser and a brazen liar who has risen to power by inciting and exploiting chauvinism. Even for those who take the view that the long arc of the moral universe does indeed bend towards justice, it is clear that we are in the presence of an organised attempt to bend the arc of history back against justice — against, in fact, the very idea of a moral universe.
The public abuse to which people now marked as being outside of the true nation were subjected after Brexit, and again after the election of Trump, is an ominous warning of a grim future to come in Britain and the United States. And when the world beyond Europe and the US is considered — and Narendra Modi (India), Vladimir Putin (Russia), Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Turkey), Michel Temer (Brazil) and Jacob Zuma (South Africa) are brought into the equations with which we assess the moment — it is clear that aspirations for a democratic and egalitarian resolution of the crisis of capital have, on the global stage, been subject to a decisive rout.
When the cruder forms of the left, sometimes little more than political cargo cults, declare that Brexit was a popular revolt against capital, or that there is no real difference between Barack Obama and Trump, we are in the presence of a debilitating delusion. The salient fact is that in both England and the US electorates have turned to charlatans peddling a set of poisons as medication with the toxic allure of whiteness at the centre. The restoration of the racial contract, a contract that offered all whites, including the working class, some stake in a system built on global regimes of dispossession, exploitation and exclusion, has been successfully presented as the national answer to the global devastation wracked by capital.
Elsewhere in the world nationalism, often constituted around chauvinism rather than any aspiration for emancipation, has surged to the fore. It has often allowed predatory elites to incite and mobilise horizontal social antagonisms to advance and sustain their imbrication with the most rapacious forms of capital. It is not entirely unusual for the modes of accumulation enabled under these regimes to include outright gangsterism. The left, as Richard Calland noted in these pages last week, has failed.
Demonstrators protest against Trump in front of Trump Tower in New York on November 12. (Kena Betancur, AFP)
Writing in The Guardian Pankaj Mishra refers to what Albert Camus described as “an autointoxication — the evil secretion, in a sealed vessel, of prolonged impotence”. He returns to Nietzsche and his concept of ressentiment — “a whole tremulous realm of subterranean revenge, inexhaustible and insatiable in outbursts”. For Mishra, “It was this gangrenous ressentiment, festering for so long in places such as the Daily Mail and Fox News, that erupted volcanically with Trump’s victory.”
He concludes: “The stunning events of our age of anger, and our perplexity before them, make it imperative that we anchor thought in the sphere of emotions; these upheavals demand nothing less than a radically enlarged understanding of what it means for human beings to pursue the contradictory ideals of freedom, equality and prosperity.”
In the text of a talk published in the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith arrives, via a very different route, at a similar pessimism about the prospect for a permanent or complete transcendence of the potentially malevolent dimension of human being. She insists that those “who believe in fundamental and irreversible changes in human nature are themselves ahistorical and naive”.
Smith concludes: “If novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioural possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting. At this moment, all over the world — and most recently in America — the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind.”
These lines of argument — grounded in an apprehension of human imperfection but committed to finding a way to speak to people in a way that encourages and nurtures possibilities for solidarity rather than organised collective rancour — have real value. The left can produce brilliant analysis and still lose, at every turn, to fake news, bogus analysis and appeals to chauvinism by demagogues who evoke “ham actors and asocial psychopaths” because that is, precisely, what they are.
To win, or at least attain some sort of real influence, the left has to, like all the sustained popular movements that have emerged across the global South, find a way to offer meaning, belonging and dignity in struggle rather than, as often happens, solely as the end result of successful struggle.
But when the obituaries for liberalism don’t take full measure, or any measure, of the reality that, as this column noted in October, liberalism has never been for everyone, their nostalgia is not for a fading epoch in which reason and equality were cherished. On the contrary, their nostalgia is for a time when the consistently brutal and authoritarian underside of liberalism, a constitutive structural feature of its now fading hegemony, was exercised at a spatial and racial remove from the circuits of enlightened opinion in metropolitan Europe and North America.
Mishra quotes Michael Ignatieff’s recent claim that “Enlightenment humanism and rationalism” can no longer adequately “explain the world we’re living in”. But Enlightenment humanism didn’t count most people as human, or as capable of reason. It was never an adequate explanation of the world for most people. What has appeared as liberal — as humane, enlightened and rational — in London or New York has frequently appeared as organised brutality for people elsewhere in the world, or those subject to racialised oppression in the metropole.
The catastrophic fascist eruption in Europe in the 1930s was enabled by economic crisis and it was incited via an appeal to a libidinal investment in collective political intoxication. But it was also a very deliberate project, clearly laid out by Hitler, to do in Europe what Europe, liberal Europe, had done in the colonised world. Fascism cannot be understood in solely economic or psychological terms. It must also be understood, as Aimé Césaire famously insisted, in terms of the return to Europe of colonial forms of domination.
Austerity did not emerge in Europe after the financial crisis in 2008. Structural adjustment, previously only imposed on the once colonised and still subordinated parts of the world, started to return to Europe after 2008. The turn to open racism by electorates in Britain and the US hardly marked the emergence of a new social pathology. On the contrary, racism was the foundation on which both the US, and later capitalism, were constructed.
There is much to lament in the state of the world. The election of Trump is a political disaster that will have global ramifications. Every liberal freedom, every entry into the realm of rights won by past struggles, will have to be vigorously protected if it comes under attack. But we cannot make adequate sense of this moment if we do not grasp that it is not solely consequent to human frailty in a time of economic adversity. If there is a way out of the gathering crisis it will require the affirmation of forms of solidarity that are illiberal in so far as they insist on the subordination of capital to society.
The liberal consensus that has, since the French Revolution, consistently affirmed, in practice, freedom for some and despotism for others will have to be undone if there is to be any prospect of a global peace. And because both capital and the distribution of who, in reality, is taken as being worthy of rights and who is not, has always been acutely raced, the forms of solidarity required to build an effective international movement to subject capital to democratic authority will have to be decidedly contrary to the actually existing practices of liberalism in another respect: they will have to put anti-racism at their centre.
Richard Pithouse’s new book, Writing the Decline: On the Struggle for South Africa’s Democracy, is published by Jacana.