Mixed up about the system

November 30, 2016

John Monroe argues that a Marxist analysis can help us make sense of an election where millions of workers voted for a candidate who is opposed to their interests.

REELING WITH the shock of an impending President Donald Trump, many in the U.S. and throughout the world are asking a simple question: How could this happen?

Despite countless revelations that Trump is a shameless con artist, racist provocateur and unapologetic sexist, he was able to squeak out a victory in the Electoral College, if not the general election itself. And now he is assembling a perverse team of white supremacists and leading neo-conservatives for his cabinet, while congressional Republicans prepare to ram through anti-worker legislation.

Within days after Trump's election, Muslims, Blacks and Latinos reported getting harassed and threatened by bigots emboldened by Trump's victory and his hateful rhetoric about building a wall on the border to keep out Mexican immigrants and "extreme vetting" for Muslims, if not a registry.

Against this looming social disaster, people who oppose Trump's agenda have also turned out to protest. This is crucial, especially in the face of the smears against demonstrators by Republicans, Democrats and the media alike.

Trump supporters wait for their candidate to speak at a Michigan rally
Trump supporters wait for their candidate to speak at a Michigan rally

But it is also crucial to go beyond what the political establishment says about the Trump victory and strive to understand how he got millions of votes from working people who have nothing to gain from a Trump presidency.

CAPITALISM IS a system in which an elite few at the top of society exploit the majority. Because capitalism is based on extreme inequality, the system relies on tools like racism and sexism to divide the working class and keep it from uniting.

The masses of working people who are exploited day in and out have what the Marxist tradition has called "mixed consciousness" about how that exploitation operates.

On the one hand, the ruling class through its various institutions, and the media in particular, projects its ideas about why the world is the way it is. This ideology furthers prejudices such as whites deserve to be better off, men are stronger and smarter than woman, and heterosexuals are more moral, for example.

When white workers see the poor living conditions of many Blacks and Latinos, or when men see that women make lower wages, or when workers of all kinds see so many LGBTQ youth living on the streets, these ideas perpetuated by the ruling institutions of society provide an easy explanation for injustice. The divisiveness they represent is repeated endlessly, in both liberal and conservative forms, and in both coded and direct ways.

On the other hand, workers experience firsthand the falseness of the ruling-class narrative. In workplaces, schools and neighborhoods, whites working with people of color, men studying with women or straight people living next to LGBTQ folks see the prejudices are false--and that they have far more in common than differences.

Working-class people, regardless of race, gender or sexuality, are exploited and oppressed in common ways. Their enemies are the bosses--and the leading politicians that represent them in government--not their fellow workers. The only effective way to fight these enemies is build unity across racial, gender, sexual and national lines.

It is also the case that specific groups of workers face further special forms of oppression under capitalism because of the racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-immigrant discrimination built into capitalism. Poverty, police violence, lack of health care--these problems that affect the whole working class are typically more extreme among workers who are people of color, women or LGBTQ.

The term "mixed consciousness" refers to the result of these two contradictory ways of explaining the world existing at the same time--the ideas of the ruling class perpetuated by the main institutions of society and the lived experiences of exploitation and oppression.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor summarized the question in a Socialist Worker article:

If it isn't in the interest of white workers to be racist, then why do they accept racist ideas? But the same question could be asked of any group of workers. Why do men accept sexist ideas? Why do Black workers accept racist anti-immigrant ideas? Why do many Black Caribbean and African immigrant workers think that Black Americans are lazy? Why do American workers of all races accept many racist ideas about Arabs and Muslims? If most people agree that it would be in the interest of any group of workers to be more united than divided, then why do workers accept reactionary ideas?

IT'S NOT enough for the ruling class to spread divisive ideas for them to take hold in minds of working-class people. They are also motivated in the day-to-day lives of workers.

Capitalism generates competition among workers for jobs, which further divides them and makes them weaker. Thus, anti-immigrant sentiment is mobilized through the slogan of "They're taking our jobs." By using this slogan, the real fear of unemployment is directed toward a section of oppressed workers--and away from the bosses who profit from their misery.

The anger that Donald Trump tapped into was at least partly legitimate discontent among those whose lives have been drastically affected by neoliberal policies. But neoliberalism also further intensifies racist, sexist and nationalist ideas. The propaganda of the ruling class misdirects legitimate anger away from the bosses and onto the most oppressed members of society.

In addition to using long-standing conservative tactics of scapegoating Blacks and Latinos, Trump was also able to capitalize on the Islamophobia propagated by the "war on terror."

But the "war on terror" is not the domain of Republicans and right-wingers alone. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have both worked diligently to expand and normalize this never-ending war, which has destroyed the lives of so many Muslims oversees, while subjecting them to police surveillance here in the U.S.

Obama greatly strengthened the security apparatus by appealing to the need for national security. Trump only had to take the rhetoric of the "war on terror," repackage it in a more malicious, overtly racist manner, and then call for the most disgusting "policy solutions."

In order to challenge these divisive and dangerous ideas, those who want to see working class unity have to fight against all forms of oppression. Part of doing this is acknowledging and fighting against the racist, sexist, homophobic and nationalist ideas that have been fueled by the Trump victory.

But we should recognize that masses of workers are capable of changing their ideas very quickly. Consciousness is fluid and subject to rapid shifts from one pole of the political spectrum to another. This can be seen in some of the analyses of the election results.

According to the Washington Post, in four of the major swing states, late-deciding voters went overwhelmingly to Trump.

In fact, if you look at the four closest states where Clinton lost...exit polls show late-deciding voters in each of them went strongly for Trump in the final days. In Florida and Pennsylvania, late-deciders favored Trump by 17 points. In Michigan, they went for Trump by 11 points. In Wisconsin, they broke for Trump by a whopping 29 points, 59-30...

Trump's likely electoral vote margin, assuming he wins Michigan, is looking like it'll be 306-232. Without those four states, he loses to Clinton by almost the exact same margin, 307-231. Even if he just lost Florida and any of the other three states, he would have lost. If he won Florida but lost the other three, he would have lost. We're only talking a shift of 1 percentage point or a little more. It was that close.

THE OUTCOME of this election will be dissected and interpreted for years to come, but it's clear for now that among a significant part of the electorate that Clinton needed to win the Electoral College along with the popular vote, they saw a vote for Clinton as a vote for a status quo that is degrading and intolerable, while Trump was at least offering something different, even if it was something destructive and nihilistic.

The actual shift of votes wasn't necessarily former Obama voters going for Trump, though there were some of those. More commonly, people who voted for the Democratic candidate in past elections stayed home, while more conservative-minded voters who weren't inspired to go to the polls in 2008 and 2012 came out for Trump.

It's no exaggeration to say that those who may have been inspired by Obama's campaign of "hope and change" felt betrayed by a system that has bailed out Wall Street, but done nothing to revitalize former industrial centers. This shift isn't isolated to white workers either. As Lance Selfa pointed out at SocialistWorker.org:

[I]n 2012, Obama won more than 70 percent of the votes of Latinos and Asians, compared to only 65 percent in each category for Clinton. Meanwhile, compared to Mitt Romney in 2012, the Trump campaign improved its vote among Latinos by 8 percent and among African Americans by 7 percent.

The shift in votes between 2012 and 2016 isn't wholly the result of "ignorance" or "bigotry," though Trump's whipped-up nationalism and racism did motivate a part of the Republicans' right-wing base to come out to vote. There is also the betrayals that Obama, Clinton and the Democrats presided over.

Again, they aren't confined to white workers. Obama presided over the largest loss of Black wealth and greatest number of deportations in U.S. history. He has continued U.S. imperialist wars, while doing nothing to protect Muslim Americans from racist violence. His administration helped Democratic mayors to crush the Occupy movement, and it had no answers for the questions of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Obama supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pro-corporate trade agreement shrouded in secrecy, but recognized by workers of all races as a disaster in the making. Plus, the Democrats oversaw ongoing "educational reform" that attacks teachers and steals students' futures.

THE DANGERS ahead in a Trump presidency can't be underestimated. The fears that so many Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, women and LGBTQ people have right now are completely legitimate--if anyone needs any evidence, look at the increase in hate crimes since Trump's election.

But to challenge this ignorance and bigotry, we have to fight not only the outward expressions, but the root cause.

The mass of U.S. working-class people have every reason to be disgusted and angered. But in this election, it was Trump who was able to seize on that anger. Millions of working-class people voted for Clinton, but not out of a sense of hope that conditions would change.

We need to fight the right and all its outrages, but we also need to fight the capitalist system that produces the false choice of "the status quo is great vs. the status quo is bad because (fill in the scapegoat) made it that way."

Every fight against the right and against the system can help working people see that their power lies in collective action and solidarity. But in order to increase collective action, left-wing organization is necessary. As Paul D'Amato explains:

A struggle can teach a worker the meaning of solidarity. But he or she may still hold negative ideas about the rights of gays and lesbians. The struggle creates the conditions in which racist, sexist or homophobic ideas that keep workers divided can be broken down.

An organization that unites the most radical elements--those whose experience has led them to reject capitalism and want to fight for an alternative--facilitates the process whereby the workers who have not yet been won to these ideas can be more easily convinced (in the course of struggle) to become champions of the rights of the oppressed, the most consistent advocates of complete solidarity and the most convinced supporters of a socialist alternative.

The point is to begin to gather together isolated and local militants and connect them with others across the country. Such an organization becomes a place to compare notes on the struggle, to learn from different struggles, and to generalize from them about what works and what doesn't.

The country is polarizing, and in a period of social crisis and instability, the consciousness of large numbers of people can move very quickly, though the direction it moves can't be known in advance.

We need to fight the right, and to do so, we need to win over the masses of workers--white, Black, Brown, men and women, straight and gay, U.S. citizen or undocumented, Christian, Muslim or atheist. We have the capacity to do so, but we have to begin now.

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