Karl Marx Is The Only Dead Person Who Stopped Trump

Mural by Diego Rivera showing Karl Marx, in the National Palace in Mexico City – Photograph by Wolfgang Sauber – CC BY-SA 3.0

I keep writing the same anti-populism piece in a different way. Until the disdain for the American people changes I think I should keep writing it. There’s talk about dead people electing Joe Biden. It’s fake news and anyone who peddles such nonsense should be ashamed. The only dead person who propelled Joe Biden into office was Karl Marx. Like Donald Trump, Joe Biden will be forgotten. Just as Trump is a means to stop Marxism, Biden is a means to stop Trumpism. They will be used and discarded, and rightfully so. Both men have egos disproportionate to their worth.

Despite his frequent denials of being a Marxist, Joe Biden was constantly called one. Biden is a career dud on a national scale. Biden only became a winner once he started to get compared to Karl Marx. Any person should deny a comparison to Marx, but only out of humility. Biden denied Marxism because he hated it. Still that didn’t stop the association being extremely positive for him, including an offbeat assertion from Bernie Sanders that Biden would be the next FDR.

By the way how about an election analysis that actually makes sense? Ralph Nader said that this election was a big loss for the left because Sanders and Warren types were boxed out completely of Biden’s election. Why? Because these people bowed to the Democratic Party. Most on the left did actually. It might be worth it to rid ourselves of Trump. But I don’t think so. Biden is damn lucky a man named Karl Marx lived a life worth remembering many years ago. Biden and Trump may be old demented men but they just got beat by a dead man.

Like it or not the idea of abolishing property isn’t a radical idea. I thought I was more or less cancelled from the left when I defended looting. Many “anti-racists” said people of color could never loot (a fairly obvious point about Black Lives Matter, a peaceful organization for many years prior). But my point was simply that a theoretical looting by poor people should be defended even if it’s only a thought exercise. Abolish property and house the homeless.

The number of people in the Twin Cities boarding up their property with Black Lives Matter signs was frankly disgusting. These same people who said people of color could never burn down buildings (yes it was white supremacists who did the destruction) also made the assumption that Black Lives Matter must be the ones during the looting and therefore to protect property they should pretend not to be racist.

They completely missed the point. So did the Minneapolis City Council who just voted to bring in out of town police for a half million dollars. The council said they were going to defund the police during mass demonstrations. But liberals and lefties (this is why I contested there was no left) insisted that the demonstrators were either not Marxist (absurd given their supposed attitude towards property) or not left (the alternative being theoretical rather than direct action). Let’s face it. Most people opposed to these protests didn’t want to be shot or get a criminal record that would endanger their ability to make a living. Just admit that and stop this racist bullshit embedded in white guilt. Being a human being in all its complexity is courageous. If you want to do more, great, but don’t undermine others if you don’t.

If you are against racism, but don’t support the riots against white supremacy, then you are living in contradiction. I think this is a key point. We can certainly debate the tactics but I do think if someone says systematic racism or whatever is bad but doesn’t support the movement against it then they simply don’t want change. Or at least this person is not willing to undergo the painful loss or the unsettling risk of real change. In any real rebellion things are lost and things could get worse. To oppose a rebellion is to support the status quo. To substitute the present rebellion for a theoretical “peaceful”’one also supports the status quo.

I don’t really buy into the whole “what would MLK have done” question. That was a different time. So much has changed in our economies, our technology and the way we relate with each other, it just seems silly to compare historical moments. Looking for our new King, or worse still denouncing anything that falls short, will bring us nowhere. What is going on now? When King was alive, everyone was wrong about him. After he died, he’s a hero. But he never gets to respond to the false characterization of his message. Let’s not make that same mistake.

It is here where I wonder if a comparison to Dr. King actually works in the favor of the present day. What was the basic rationale of an organized bus boycott, for example. It aimed at the entire money making system and it took away a means of making money. Once there was more money to be made in having equality, who would segregate save a sincere ideologue? Likewise, I would argue that the mass protests has been very effective at incentivizing the local government in the Twin Cities and beyond to take Black Lives seriously. The city wants to host big companies. Fine. But do it on our terms.

Now the criticism that comes at this movement must not be as reactionary as “looting is bad”. Generations of the rich looting from the poor and now the poor loot a little. Who cares. Seriously. If anything it makes our society more equal and therefore more safe. From a moral perspective a poor person should always be allowed to steal from someone richer than them. Always. Nobody makes money ethically or without blood on their hands. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. If you have money, fine. But as long as there is one person who lacks what they need, any excess money should be taken from the rich person.

It brings up broader questions about the law and property itself. How do some people have things and others don’t? It’s not right and we should never commit violence but we should change the law to one where we abolish all forms of suffering caused by ownership and inequality. Everyone wants this. How couldn’t everyone want this?

Let’s end homelessness, hunger, thirst, violence of all kinds. Do I really have to listen to another minute about what Jesus would have thought about Q? He didn’t talk a lot about pedophiles actually. More focused on poverty.

Anytime I hit Q (QAnon) I know I have gone off topic. If only everyone agreed on that. Ok what was my original point? It was that I am going to keep saying the same thing until the end of time: Trump is not working class. Trump is not working class. Trump is not working class.

Why do we have to keep saying it? I listened to Thomas Frank’s appearance on Useful Idiots. I confess I did it out of a “hate listen”, I had an itch that needed to be scratched. Why was this idea of Trump as populist repeating itself and why was it annoying me so much?

Perhaps it was just personal experience. Poor people I know hate Trump. Rich people I know like him. It seemed so cruel this narrative of blaming poor people. This narrative of people “voting against their interest”. It is so condescending to the intelligence of poor people and so backwards to blame people for their own oppression. It’s dangerous in a couple of ways.

Let’s break it down. The first implication is that the people, when left to their own devices, vote for Trump, and therefore should be controlled. The second implication is that Trump is of the people and therefore he should not be controlled. Both willfully deny data about voter turnout and voter suppression. Take Juan Gonzalez at Democracy Now making an excellent case that it was actually historic Latinx turnout that sent Trump packing. I also am beyond disgusted with this scapegoating of white women as Trump loving agents of the police state while the left refuses to address the epidemic of domestic violence taking place in right wing (and left wing too of course) homes. The hate for poor people is appalling.

Thomas Frank brought something more to the table. He made the argument that populism isn’t right wing and that the mainstream media distorts it. This is a refreshing argument and more than I expected from the Useful Idiots podcast. However it doesn’t quite go far enough.

Just as we must abolish fossil fuels, borders, etc. we must also abolish the use of the term populism.

Unfortunately all analysis under neoliberalism runs far away from Marx while at the same time always invoking him. Marx is relevant today because he cuts through the massive amounts of information, true and false. Rather than vaguely criticize the mainstream we should explicitly embrace Marx. Too often this anti establishment criticism misses its target and ends up accepting things that are false just to confirm its own alienation.

For Marx, ideology was born out of class. For today’s critics class itself is merely an ideology. There is nothing real about the relationship one has to class in America because the question is always about desire, not class. As long as people can have their own personal interests channeled through Trump, who cares about their class interest? For the rich personal interests may appear to hide class interests but it’s never the case. The rich endorse Trump because of class. They may believe they have another reason but Marx teaches us the class status itself produced the reason they think they support Trump. It’s not that people don’t know what they’re feeling or what they want it’s just that Marx was the one who could tell us why we wanted what we wanted.

Noam Chomsky hits it on the head when he describes the scapegoating by the ruling class: “Since the actual causes are hidden in obscurity, it must be the fault of the undeserving poor, or ethnic minorities, or immigrants, or other vulnerable sectors. In such circumstances people grasp at straws. In the US many working people voted for Obama, believing his message of “hope” and “change”, and when they were quickly disillusioned, sought something else. This is fertile soil for demagogues like Trump, who pretends to be the voice of working people while undermining them at every turn by the brutal anti-labor policies of his administration, which represents the most savage wing of the Republican Party.

It has nothing to do with “populism”, a concept with a mixed history, often quite respectable.”

The Marxist term often used for this “voting against your own interest” is ‘false consciousness’ but this again implies a certain freedom that is not accessible to poor people. The cost of resistance is always high. Risking arrest, violence from the state, deportation, eviction or loss of job/benefits is simply not available to most people. Many are courageous and resist anyways, many have other commitments to family or local causes that prevent explicit political resistance. Needless to say the coronavirus pandemic has made things more precarious.

The other almost contradictory claim made by most people who use the word populism is that the Democrats are intelligent and therefore the Republicans are more working class because they’ll get a beer with you or whatever. I struggle with both those assumptions. The Democrats give a bad name to the Ivy Leagues and the Republicans are on something far harder than beer.

Structurally as unions are squashed and safety nets outside of employment are cut there is more risk to risk. Marshall Pomer’s argument regarding upward mobility also misses the mark. The idea that the poor falsely believe in upward mobility and therefore don’t resist is almost the opposite, once again. The more upward mobility is a possibility the easier it is to resist.

Antonio Gramsci had a more Marxist analysis of ideology itself with his theory of cultural hegemony arguing that the ruling class had a dominant ideology just as they were the dominant class economically. Ideology more or less was like civilization in that it is an alternative to more brutal class war but with the same winners and losers. It’s a similar argument that Steven Pinker makes in his argument about the decline of violence in civilized society. Peace, while welcome, is not synonymous with justice. This may be something we need to remind Joe Biden of as he attempts to heal a divided nation without any plans for restorative justice.

Louis Althusser pinpointed the institutions behind this propaganda and Althusser is pretty sound because he focuses on how people are disempowered as subjects, not just in the strictly material relation in production. I’m open to any conversation about power, whether it’s ideology or material is a good debate.

Is it as simple as the Marxist divide between those who control the means of production and those who labor for it? Maybe not but the appealing thing about Marx is that he develops a real reason that people are having conflict. And more importantly a real solution, that is the inevitable rise of socialism as more and more finance capital alienated from labor emerges.

The argument by some on the left is that since Bill Clinton the Democrats have become the party tied to finance capital while Republicans remain tied to the capital of labor, however unequally they let those companies run. While it is true that different industries finance different parties and politicians and that in some ways Democrats are uniquely tied to finance I still don’t think that says much for the Republicans as a working people’s party. What’s the difference when both represent the owners of production rather than labor?

For better or worse Democrats remain the lesser evil as far as human beings and the planet is concerned. The relationship with labor is worthy of scorn but labor itself under this stage of capitalism has no guarantees of providing for the poor. We need to expand our definition of people from working people to poor people. How do we provide for the poor? Work is one way but Marxism’s inevitable socialism arose out of this crisis within labor and a system arising outside of it, not just a return to good jobs.

Perhaps this is part of the crisis in defining populism is that pundits are scared of people not forming coalitions around work. This is bad for labor itself as workers have little to no rights to negotiate. This crisis in labor creates a possibility for programs like Medicare For All that isn’t necessarily tied to work. However in the absence of such transformative programs we are left with catastrophe.

I don’t think it’s as simple as some leftists do for the Democrats to return to labor. The Democrats made the decision to bolt from organized labor because they could win elections with the other side of production. The challenge then is not just how to form a coalition around work but how to get workers and others involved politically to solve inequality and democracy. To me the left’s singular Neo-Marxist focus on labor has had the twin effect of labeling poor people as dumb because they pit labor against consciousness as well as a hostility to coalitions outside of of labor which led to some garbage takes on police unions, polluting industries, and sexual abuse in the workplace.

Beyond this the cut and dry issue is that there simply is too much of of a surplus workforce under globalization to really gain leverage as a worker without a union. Marx predicted the global economy problem. The solution of course is more unions, if possible. But that moderate goal seems about just as realistic as a far more radical one of massive government programs for all, ownership of profits for workers and trade policy in the interests of nations and people not global corporations. Let’s not return to FDR or LBJ, let’s move forward with Marx.

This to me has been exposed especially by COVID. A society where no one really has the capability to survive for even a month without a job where they could get COVID begs the question about what populism actually is. Is it really that people are being fooled into working during a pandemic for the chance to become a CEO? People don’t have that much of a choice here. It’s not that the Democrats need to start talking down to people and abandon all these smart people things like technology and science as the populists claim.

The Democrats or whatever can replace them should be talking policy. That works. What are we going to do to keep up with this changing world? The way forward isn’t this nostalgic Trumpish nationalism. It’s a serious engagement with the challenges ahead caused by climate catastrophe among other obstacles. No one needs to be hand held. What’s the plan here? Some of it will involve radical transformation but some won’t. Is there anything the primarily centrist Democrats have planned outside of slogans? The problem is they think people are just as stupid as the populists do and merely land on on the other side of platitudes.

The left should follow Nader and company into a people’s party but we can’t go forward until we know where we’re going and if this idea of Trump as populism continues to spread I fear anti-establishment energy could make things worse (always a possibility) rather than better.

What is clear and what is dangerously being denied is that the ideology of the ruling class is not working. To replace a convincing argument inequality and cruelty are turned up. The consciousness needed is not about who the enemy is but about what we the people can do to stop them.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com