Orange-haired id

Want to understand the rise of Trump? Read Gramsci

Raj Patel on a dangerous moment in U.S. politics and why movements like Black Lives Matter keep him hopeful
Photo: Riccardo Cuppini

Writer and activist Raj Patel gave the 2016 Hari Sharma Memorial Lecture in Vancouver on Sept. 16 on the topic of “World Ecology and the Future of Food.” Widely known for his critical analysis of corporate globalization and the political economy of food, Patel is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Democracy and Redefine Democracy. During his short visit to the city, he took time to sit down with Ricochet. In Part 1 of this two-part feature, Patel comments on Black Lives Matter, Gramsci’s writings on the rise of fascism, and the looming threat of an “orange-haired id” winning the presidency.

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Between the climate news we’re getting in 2016 and the Trump phenomenon in the presidential election, it’s starting to feel like the last days of the Republic, or maybe even more ominous than that for the world. What is it like living in the United States right now, and what does it say about the political culture that Trump even has a chance to win?

It says that there is a profound crisis in left liberalism, that they don’t understand what Trump is about. But, as somebody who’s studied Marxist history, we’ve seen this before with the rise of fascism. And the theorist who is helpful here is Antonio Gramsci, who ended up in jail puzzling about why it is that the Italian working class was behaving so obviously against their own interests and aligning with some strong-jawed dictator, someone who offered the greatness of the country again.

There’s an almost libidinous relationship between leader and led.

Gramsci understood that the way hegemony operates is through coercion and consent and that there are crises that the right can speak to very articulately and where the left is outmaneuvered. I think the liberal left in the United States just is not getting the crisis of the working class, and they’re not understanding whiteness either.

Trump is a lyrical poet of hate. He can speak and understand a language of disenfranchisement, even though he himself will never experience the kinds of things that white working-class people in the United States do. He can fan the fears and offer a theory. It’s not a rational theory, because often he doesn’t speak in rational sentences. But he offers a poetics of why it is that things are crappy right now. He offers a sort of misty past, a reboot of America — all of a sudden it was way better back then at some unspecified date. And his exclusive power is that he can make America great again, but you have to have faith in him as a leader. There’s an almost libidinous relationship between leader and led, as various theorists have pointed out.

It’s a very strange moment in politics, but it’s one which you can sort of understand if you look to history.

Hillary Clinton has come to embody the establishment, and it appears she does have the support of a big majority of corporate America. What will the U.S. establishment do if Trump actually does win?

Well, they’ll be quite happy with Donald Trump, who is going to essentially delegate everything to the Republican establishment. He will occasionally take postures and veto things. And he will engage in a kind of cultural politics that will be filled with white supremacy, in a particularly bilious way. It’s going to be a very unpleasant place to live as a person of colour. In a sense, of course, all Trump has done is give voice to the kind of white supremacy on which the nation was founded. But particularly now that there’s been this myth of progress — surely now, after a Black president, racism is over in the U.S., when clearly it’s not.

You have these two proletariats at each other’s throats.

What Trump is doing is giving an understanding of whiteness and a political valence to it for people who have been cast off by the left establishment. You know, the Clintons brought in NAFTA and the reign of the free trade agreement, and who is it that gets screwed by that? The American working class. And who is it that is also screwed by that? The Mexican working class and the Mexican peasantry, who then come across the border to work in the food industry, for example, that depends on migrant labour and underpaid labour.

Then you have these two proletariats at each other’s throats, fanned by the strange poetry of right-wing hatred.

What in the U.S. political landscape gives you hope?

I think Black Lives Matter is tremendously important, in terms of energizing politics and understanding the possibilities of politics, alongside Bernie Sanders and democratic socialism. It offers hope that a new generation can actually see through the lies that capitalism has been successfully spinning for generations. I’m very optimistic about that in the United States. There’s a sort of confluence between Occupy, the Wildfire Project — which is a terrific organization that people should look up — the movement for Black lives, and the grassroots nature of Sanders’ political revolution. All of these are, I think, moments of great hope in the United States, even if we have the orange-haired id looming over us.

Part 2 of this feature interview with Raj Patel includes his views on agroecology, climate change, and the prospects for the announced merger of corporate pharmaceutical and agribusiness giants Bayer and Monsanto.

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