U.S. politics

The seeds of Trump were planted by the centre-left

The monstrous legacy of the neoliberal Washington Consensus
Photo: outtacontext

How do those of us on the social movement left make sense of Donald Trump’s victory in the American election? How can we explain the ascent of an openly racist, misogynist, and xenophobic political movement to power in the United States?

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What are the causes of a historical moment so severe that those of us who took to the streets in Seattle, Quebec City, Genoa, and cities across the world to oppose the ascent of a financialized, global capitalism actually found ourselves clinging to the hope that a neoliberal Democratic candidate approved by Wall Street might be elected as the lesser of two evils?

Just as we warned in the 1990s, free trade agreements have been a disaster for most working people.

There is little question that Donald Trump’s election is the culmination of forty years of neoliberal rule. The deregulated, free market system that was imposed upon the world beginning in the 1970s may not have been dealt a death blow yesterday, but it is facing its most severe challenge yet. Its legitimacy lies largely in tatters, as the Brexit vote warned and as yesterday’s results confirmed.

So who should we blame for getting us to this point? Centre-left political parties.

Neoliberalism caused this crisis

Those of us in labour, social justice, and environmental movements warned that the neoliberal version of globalization was going to be disastrous both for people in the deindustrialized American Rust Belt and those in the maquiladoras on the U.S.-Mexican border.

We made the case that “free trade” and privatization policies were an obvious resource grab by elite groups, and that neoliberalism would expand inequality by its very design. We repeated that message for a couple of decades to anyone who would listen, through the independent media outlets we developed, through the popular education initiatives we founded, and through the courses we taught in our (defunded and increasingly privatized) universities. We organized global meetings in cities like Sao Paolo and Mumbai to collectively design humane economic alternatives to the socially destructive, winner-takes-all market that was being shoved down the throats of everyone from students to peasants to school teachers to nurses.

It may be that we could have done better, and in the soul-searching that occurs after the ascent of Donald Trump to power (and the likely eventuality of a ratcheted-up American security state) we will need to ask ourselves what mistakes were made. But the clearest culprit in Trump’s ascent and the xenophobic wave rising from Europe to North America is the collection of political parties we have referred to in recent decades as the “centre-left.” Beginning in the 1990s, the upper echelons of the political parties that were heirs to the democratic communist and socialist mass movements of the twentieth century quietly turned their backs on a commitment to equality and social justice.

Failed free market policies and the pain caused

The Democratic administrations of Bill Clinton in the United States, the New Labour government of Tony Blair in Britain, the Liberals under Jean Chrétien in Canada, and others soon became essential players in the expansion and intensification of neoliberal globalization, the good cops to the neo-conservative bad cops. These governments tear-gassed us in the streets as they busily laid the political and economic architecture of the so-called Washington Consensus — secretly negotiated free trade deals featuring privatization, deregulation, cuts in social spending, flexible employment, and measures limiting public control over the economy.

That these measures have failed is now admitted by senior economists in the very global institutions which propagated them.

But it’s far too late for that now, isn’t it? The free market version of capitalism these institutions and politicians like Hillary Clinton pushed on us for four decades is in tatters. From Britain to France to the United States, neoliberalism is being torn apart by a (predominantly white, male, and belligerent) portion of the social groups which lost out in the shift to a post-industrial economy.

Donald Trump won because, as Paul Kingsnorth has pointed out, the man “progressives” like Hillary Clinton derided as a buffoon simply spoke the truth about neoliberal globalization. Just as we warned in the 1990s, free trade agreements have been a disaster for most working people. Jobs have been lost, wages depressed, unions eradicated, and social safety nets have been cut to boot. Trump won because he (correctly) pointed out that the “centre-left” Democratic candidate was a Wall Street-anointed member of the establishment, and that for decades her and her cronies had pursued policies that had eviscerated middle America.

While the causes of our situation are undoubtedly complex, we most certainly have a quarter century of neoliberal, centre-left governments to thank for the disaster we now find ourselves in. Liberal-democratic politicians like Blair and Chrétien condescendingly parroted the mantras of the Thatcher, Reagan and Mulroney governments they claimed to oppose: there is no economic alternative to neoliberalism, we can’t afford to address expanding social inequality, the benefits of free markets would “trickle down” to those that had lost everything, and workers in deindustrialized areas would have to suck it, retrain, and adjust to the new economic reality. It is cold comfort that Hillary Clinton and her political class are now in crisis. They have prepared the ground for an ugliness the likes of which we haven't seen in a century, and which we are all now forced to live through.

Enda Brophy teaches political economy, communication and labour in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University.

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