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Divided and Conquered

The US celebrates Labour Day in September. This year’s celebration will be unusual because of the many factory and office workers — especially white men — thronging to Donald Trump’s rallies. The Republican presidential candidate cultivates their support by criticising the free trade agreements that have precipitated the decline of former strongholds of US manufacturing industry, and brought loss of status, bitterness and despair to the working class. The ‘law and order’ that Trump promises to restore is that of the 1960s, when — if you were white — you didn’t need a university degree to have a good salary, two cars, and a few days’ paid vacation.

For a New York billionaire whose fiscal programme is even more regressive than Ronald Reagan’s — and whose practices go against what he preaches (the products he sells are manufactured in Bangladesh and China, he employs illegal immigrants in his luxury hotels) — to become the voice of working-class resentment would have been harder if trade unionism had not been weakened. And if progressive parties in the West had not for nearly 40 years steadily been replacing working-class activists and leaders with professional politicians, public relations executives, senior civil servants and journalists, all safely enveloped in a bubble of privilege.

In the past, the left and the unions worked steadily to educate, build local networks and provide intellectual ‘guidance’ for the working class. They mobilised members politically, made sure they voted when it concerned their destiny, and provided social welfare when their economic future was threatened. They reminded members of the benefits of class solidarity, the history of the gains made by labour, and the dangers of division, xenophobia and racism. They no longer do this work, or do it less well (1). It’s clear who benefits. Without political representation, social movements get bogged down in identity polemics when they lose momentum. ISIS murders have made the working class lose their bearings so much that it has, in effect, become the far right’s most influential election agent in the West.

A single detail is sometimes enough to sketch an ideological picture. The death of Georges Séguy, a leading figure in France’s trade union movement, on 13 August got only a few seconds or a few lines in the French media — who were too busy chasing down women wearing burkinis. It’s possible that many journalists — whose knowledge of history is limited to the latest tweets — didn’t know he led France’s largest union, the CGT (Conféderation Générale du Travail) for 15 years. They will soon be sounding the alarm, urging us to join in the struggle to defend democracy. That democracy would be much safer if people didn’t see it as an ornament of the privileged class who sneer at them.

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Serge Halimi is president of Le Monde diplomatique

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