Brexit Should Have Told Us This Was Coming

Like virtually all progressive and left/ social justice-oriented folks, I sit in shell shock at the election results. There are many “technical” explanations — disenfranchisement, the existence of a horrifically undemocratic electoral college, Comey’s intervention on the emails and more. But these are sideshows. What is central is the race/class/gender/ethnic paradigm that has dominated left and progressive thinking for decades.

People on the left must face the fact that white people — including the white middle class, the white working class and rich white people — made this happen. This is a vote driven by white supremacist consciousness, a mentality that places the decline in the living standards of “middle-class” white people as primary, as more central and a more crucial blow against humanity than all the racialized attacks and policies that target Black, Brown and Native American folks and drag many poor whites into the penitentiaries, into the ranks of the homeless and into self-medication.

I can begin with the obvious: The mainstream media was key to this outcome. The monopolies that run major networks were willing to chase sensational stories, willing to give voter fraud more attention than disenfranchisement, willing to frame fascism as quaint, entertaining and not really anything to worry about. The wall, the banning of Muslims, the mocking of the disabled and LGBTQ folks became “entertainment.” In the name of “covering” the story of Donald Trump, mainstream media became complicit in the dehumanization of people of color, the exaltation of climate change denial and police repression and the refusal to ask where poverty and inequality come from. While most youth rely on social media for news, the major networks still connect to much of the middle-aged ranks of the white enraged.

Apart from the media’s role, three things less frequently noted jump out at me in the immediate wake. The first is that Brexit should have told us that this was coming. But people in the United States, including the left, are so immersed in this notion of “American exceptionalism” that we often can’t see what happens in this country as a reflection of the racialized neoliberal paradigm that has dominated the world since the early 1980s. People in the US consistently wear blinkers when it comes to giving any weight to events in Europe, let alone in the Global South. While parroting critiques of globalization and trumpeting that the “global is local,” we fail to realize what global really means. We ignore that the students of South Africa or the social movements of India and Latin America are decades ahead of the US in terms of connecting the dots of the global system of oppression and the need for new organizational forms and paradigms.

Secondly, it is time that we realize the emptiness of the structures that constitute the labor movement in this country and beyond. The traditional labor unions, once champions of social justice and key vehicles for building solidarity across racial and national divides in the working class, have largely proven incapable of effective action in the neoliberal moment. Many have become partners with corporate capital, architects of sellout compromises and apologists for deals that roll back living standards. Most have also pushed issues like mass incarceration off the working class agenda. Their style of operation and salary structures are every bit as corporate as the companies and government structures with which they bargain on behalf of increasingly immiserated workers. They have been caught completely off guard by the rise of precarious work and poverty wages that are the dominant reality for the global working class.

Lastly, the intersection of race and gender is essential to understanding Trump’s win. The victorious campaign was a toxic mix of white and male supremacy — one that resonated with white working class people whose conservative social values and economic security have been undermined by political rebellions and the demise of workplace security. The campaign has re-legitimized racist and sexist values and behavior, encouraging white people to imagine a return to the “good old days” when a man was a man and people of color “knew their place.” A nostalgia-induced backward turning of the clock drove the voters to the right, to territory which they think will be familiar to them, will put them back in the driver’s seat. In the end they will find this change still holds no answers to the political, economic, racial and gender conundrums that plague their collective psyche. How long it will take them to discover this painfully obvious truth and what price their “enemies” must pay during that learning process remains to be discovered. In Germany, when Hitler won the elections, the left adopted the slogan, “After Hitler, Our Turn.” Let us hope that the turn of a different politics in the US is not nearly as long and painful as that of the German people and their victims. The determination and strategic nous of opposition social movements will play the key role in what that historical course ultimately looks like.

There are no quick fixes, no obvious solutions. We need a new paradigm for a new moment. That paradigm will emerge through struggle but other than the absolute need for intersectionality at a global level, there is no obvious starting point. We will have to make the path by walking.