Donald Trump, Enoch Powell and Neoliberal Identity Politics

I want to offer perhaps what might be called an addendum to recent pieces by Diana Johnstone and Alycee Lane regarding the question of identity ‘neoliberal feminism’ and ‘neoliberal multiculturalism’. Both pieces are excellent and worth multiple reading but I also think a macro analysis is necessary.

As the onslaught of austerity has exerted greater and greater pressure on the 99% over the past eight years, it has entailed a repudiation of not just neoliberal multiculturalism or neoliberal feminism but indeed the entire project of what I would call neoliberal identity politics capitalism.

I would argue that identifying this trend is essential for the building of further working class unity in the aftermath of this election year.

By neoliberal I mean that it is an ideology that utilizes the vocabulary of liberation (-politics, -theology, -philosophy) but combines it with an embrace of neoclassical economic theory, an aggregate of notions about unregulated and untaxed monetary exchange that gives unhindered ascent to a type of monopoly tendency in the business sector unlike ever seen before.

By identity, I mean the construct created by capitalism that is used to sow division and hinder working class solidarity. This is something that is very different than ethnicity, sexuality, or sex, things which we are born with, and instead must be understood as that which can and is monetized by capital. I would go as far as arguing that identity carries its own value that can be capitalized on, a sort of antithesis of the notions discussed by Dr. Nancy Leong, and that identity is exchanged for higher or lower social regard on the basis of willingness to serve the whims of capital, case and point being Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. I would go as far as saying that it is a new iteration of the old psuedoscience of race and racism.

Capitalist politics are unquestionably different from the affairs of the polis, the people, because capitalism is itself the opposite of democracy. What we are dealing with here is the governing maneuvers of the 1%, the aristocratic order that has servants like Hillary Clinton utilize identity capital to bribe people through a guilt over chauvinism to accept further hegemony of capital. The defense of this system has gone under the name of “political correctness” for many years and has with arguable justification earned the scorn of white working class voters who feel disenfranchised by it. In other words, it is considered politically correct in this matrix to strip-mine our industrial core, allow wages to stagnate, crush unions, and shrink the middle class in the vice grip of FIRE sector debt as described by Michael Hudson. Political correctness here says that the neoliberal ObamaCare debacle is desirable and exemplary. Political correctness says that throwing single payer advocates under the bus to appease the medical industrial complex during the creation of that law was perfect. Political correctness says that right now it is a good idea to manipulate the consumer price index, the first step towards Social Security privatization.

It is essential from here to understand that, even if neoliberal identity politics capitalism uses the vocabulary and signifiers of liberation, it is the opposite of liberation and it needed to be smashed. This goes for the preliminary things like the projections of Obama or Clinton but also something much deeper and wicked. For example, consider Brown University, the finishing school of New England Democratic Party politicians dating back for two generations. As part of a reparations effort for the school’s role in the slave trade, they created a whole center to take on the topic of slavery and justice and their Africana program was beefed up. Yet for all the volumes of Du Bois and Cedric Robinson they assign students, they still strap grads down with neoliberal student debt, making the education fundamentally a compromised one that serves the very capitalist system these scholars sought to repudiate. How can anyone say anything other than it needed to be smashed?

And so what Trump’s off-color remarks about “political correctness” and slogans like “Make America Great Again” (totally unintentionally) articulate within their subtext is a repudiation of neoliberal identity politics capitalism and a desire to smash it. However, because neoliberal identity politics capitalism has been hegemonic for now more than four decades, the desire to be rid of it, to return to a time before this hegemony, is unable to separated from an argument to return to a time when white supremacy was much more blatant and obvious in its articulation of power, a time when segregation and Jim Crow were far more respectable. People are apt to forget that the last president to not participate in or allow for neoliberal policies was Nixon, Ford gave it a test run when he told New York to “drop dead” and Carter began its roll-out. Nixon was a slimy, vicious bigot whose Southern Strategy flipped the Democratic south to Republican overnight. There’s simply no way to get around that.

However, and this is key, the fact is that most people who yearn for yesteryear are not remembering fondly when their parents were marching through town proudly wearing Ku Klux Klan robes in a July Fourth parade. Indeed, most of the white Baby Boomers continue to live ensconced in a woeful cocoon of ignorance about economic depredations because of how neoliberalism has attacked first the parents and then the children and grandchildren of Baby Boomers through debt deflation. In simpler terms, they are quite literally in a time warp, created by a social contract with the Eisenhower administration that has not been assailed as those social contracts with later generations. As a result, they tell Millennials to “get a job” or “worry about Occupying work”. Those Boomers that follow Trump are yearning for a time when America was close to a social democracy, described as “guns and butter Keynesianism” by Michael Hudson in his excellent Killing the Host.

But they do not have the capacity to understand that it was only social democracy for white straight people and a ghastly horror for everyone else, a kind of fascism, to use the words of Dr. Tony Monteiro, particularly in the Eastern European ethnic enclaves of major metropolitan centers after World War II that became the homes of a few escaped Nazi collaborators. It is in this sense they are not yearning for overt blood and soil white supremacy, instead they want to return to a time when they were so deluded by the Matrix of ideology and its state apparatuses that they thought hell on earth was heaven.

I recently reviewed a BBC documentary about the British politician Enoch Powell and his infamous 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood‘ speech. For those who are unclear, the Tory MP, a well-groomed and learned English gentleman, gave a speech directly to the angst of working class white English men and women. With alliterations, panache, and apocalyptic imagery combined with the most refined delivery of disgusting racist verbiage, Powell made the first strike at the British social democratic project that Margaret Thatcher consolidated using neoliberal identity politics capitalism a decade later. Powell was the ultimate anti-Trump in every way. It is conceivable that he would have quite literally dropped dead if he were ever in the same room with Trump out of pure disgust and revulsion at such a petit bourgeois rube.

Throughout the year, I’ve watched Trump stumble through speeches that string together headlines from the Libertarian blog-o-sphere and been disgusted by his rude, crude bigotry. But I have also had Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech at the back of my mind and part of me continues to wonder if Trump has yet gotten to that level, partially because Powell’s speech was a defense of imperialism rather than repudiation of neoliberal identity politics capitalism. Here is what Powell said of a widowed constituent:

The telephone is her lifeline. Her family pay the bill, and help her out as best they can. Immigrants have offered to buy her house – at a price which the prospective landlord would be able to recover from his tenants in weeks, or at most a few months. She is becoming afraid to go out. Windows are broken. She finds excreta pushed through her letter box. When she goes to the shops, she is followed by children, charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies.
That is a statement that was calculated down to the very meter. Powell enunciated his words with that British gentleman’s calculation that goes to a much deeper, darker place than the vulgar, crass, “I don’t give a damn” attitude that has defined the entirety of Trump’s career. Powell was old money, Trump is new money. Powell spoke fondly of King and Country of the British Empire, Trump has always sought to merely mimic imperialism with his gaudy casinos and hotels in a fashion akin to a Disney World ride so to turn a buck. Powell was the first strike for neoliberalism, masked in speech about migration trends. Trump says awful things about migrants but also has a platform with some very anti-neoliberal planks, such as re-segregating investment and consumer banking.

If this segue seems like a defense of Trump, it is not. It is rather an attempt to articulate that the fault for the chauvinism he has tapped into lies at the feet of the Democratic Party. It was their decision to intentionally over the past quarter century hijack and utilize the language and signifiers of liberation so to enact further neoliberal policies. Both our first black presidents were responsible for the consolidation of the financial sector’s hegemony, the streamlining of the prison-industrial complex, public resource privatization, and so many more neoliberal assaults on the commons. The grievances of white working class people who have been burned by neoliberal identity politics capitalism are real and voluminous. To antagonize them further by giving a victory to the Clintons who did them harm is as problematic as just saying that the concerns of those who continue to seek liberation are false and from this angle becomes equally evil.

Powell spoke as though he thought himself prophetic in 1968. He said at one point in his wicked speech:

That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect. Indeed, it has all but come. In numerical terms, it will be of American proportions long before the end of the century.

And so we can say something of an antithesis of this has been born out, in reality Britain is not as much like the United States as we are much closer to the old British Empire. Part of this empire entails internal colonization but we also have external colonial outposts that are impacting our home country economy much as was the case under the rule of Victoria.

If I might respectfully make a counter to Johnstone and Lane, it would be that I prefer the notion of “identity politics” for two reasons. First, multiculturalism and feminism never were intended to be tools of empire, they were instead meant to do the opposite. Multiculturalism as a government policy was a program, promoted by the British Labor Party, that set a case against integration and instead said that postcolonial subjects (Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, West Indians, et. al.) had the right to have their government and workplaces adjust to them and not the other way around. It meant that Sikhs should not be required to shave their beards and take off their turbans to work for the transit system or that a government workplace should afford and respect an office clerical worker taking multiple breaks in the day to go fulfill their salat. Whether it was militant enough in its anti-racism as its older cousin in the Communist movement was is another discussion, I would contend it was not and that was the opening Enoch Powell took advantage of, but that is beside the point that neoliberalism is definitely integrationist and certainly imperial rather than postcolonial. This can also be said with some modification of feminism, which is by default anti-imperial when it is genuine and not an impersonation, a dose of artificial estrogen pills strapped on the Pentagon.

Second, going back to my earlier definition of identity, it is a project that promotes discord within the working class while allowing capitalist hegemony. Multiculturalism might have ultimately had a weak backbone and been easily utilized by Thatcher to implement neoliberal policies but such is the lot of social democratic as opposed to Communist governance worldwide. Identity has never had a progressive aim, it has always been an instance of capitalism co-opting the grammar of liberation to promote imperialism. We should not return the favor by associating a vile system like neoliberalism with our liberation efforts.

It is going to prove difficult to build a post-election united front from below due to the phenomenon I have described. In concrete terms, I have no idea how I can possibly encourage someone like Margaret Kimberly to trust Paul Craig Roberts, even if those two personalities actually know each other (Roberts reposts her content with much glee quite often) it will be quite a hurdle to tell black and brown people that have an ally in a former member of the Reagan Treasury and I have already been told this by Glen Ford regarding a potential Green-Libertarian alliance. The Reagan years are looked at as a holocaust for the black and brown community due to the crack and AIDS epidemics but a golden era for the Libertarians. Roberts has a nuanced view of the rise of the Friedmanite brand of monetarism within the Republican Party and articulates advocacy of Michael Polanyi’s synthesis of monetarism and Keynesianism in the book Full Employment and Free Trade, a forgotten volume that seemingly squared the circle of these two opposing views. What I allude to is a large number of hard, patient talks to overcome how neoliberal identity politics capitalism has become a hegemonic ideology in replacement of overt race and racism in the past century.

It is clear this year that neoliberal identity politics capitalism is on the defensive. The way Trump’s base expresses this unfortunately entails attacks on working class black and brown people who subscribe to liberation as opposed to this political ideology. Again the fault for that lies with the fact that neoliberal identity politics capitalism creates this confusion by mimicking liberation grammar. But I remain optimistic because of what the news is not telling us. A fracked gas power plant in Burrillville, Rhode Island is almost certainly on the chopping block now that the citizens have fought back. The proposed liquid natural gas station for Providence has just been denounced in strong terms by Mayor Jorge Elorza. The TPP is desperately trying to be passed and Obama’s roadshow on behalf of it is probably going to be the death knell for the Clinton campaign. The American Indian protests against the Bakken oil pipeline have led to the unity of major tribes not seen since the Battle of Greasy Grass according to some outlets (though I do not want to discount the era of Leonard Peltier and AIM). Jill Stein’s campaign saw donations multiply by massive amounts the day after Bernie Sanders sold his soul to the Clintons. The NAACP just denounced charter schools in the harshest language possible. The Common Core union busting school curriculum has been thoroughly rejected by everyone in America. Solidarity with the Palestinians is seeing a massive uptick. Black Lives Matter is now at the ideological point where the Black Panthers were a generation ago.

I don’t want to be discounting the obvious, there is chauvinism aplenty in the land. But unless I missed something it looks like we might actually be winning. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the identity of being winners?

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.