by Ravi Bali
This essay is based on the author’s presentation at a June 18, 2019 meeting, “Donald Trump–An Extraordinary Danger to the World. What We Can Do,” at Birkbeck College in London.
I am going to discuss
1. Different conceptions of internationalism
a. bourgeois internationalism
b. working-class internationalism
2. How this relates to anti-Trump work outside the US
When people think of a solidarity campaign here in Britain with people abroad, they normally think of a country in the developing world. So Palestine, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Syria, Kurdistan, and Colombia––all of which would previously been called part of “the third world”––have solidarity campaigns here.
The other thing that all these countries have in common is that, if you were to ask which power has been most responsible for dominating these countries and stifling their freedom and development, most people would identify the United States as the major problem. This is perhaps unsurprising, since the US is the world’s largest economy, has the biggest military and is the leading imperialist power having the most influence on international institutions like the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, NATO, the G7, the WTO, etc.
America used to be called the world’s policeman. And there is a lot of hostility towards America and by extension Americans. The American people are in many parts of the world regarded with suspicion, if not outright hatred, for the policies of their government. This is problematic, because what is true of our country––that our government doesn’t really speak for or act for the British people as a whole––is also true of America. The US government does not speak or act for most American people, either.
It is an old internationalist principle that workers have no country. Or as Marxist-Humanists have been saying for decades, to make this even more explicit, is that “there are two worlds within every country.” What is meant by this is that there are the masses of people on one side and those that rule over them on another. Now, in the abstract, that might seem obvious to anyone of a left-wing persuasion. However, there is a certain blindness when it comes to America. We often think of American people as particularly arrogant, loud, obnoxious and full of patriotic bluster; “USA, USA, USA” is not a chant you would normally hear in any equivalent way from the people of any other country, except in a sporting context. And while that imperial swagger, which goes along with being the most powerful country in the world, is displayed by some Americans, it is not true of most Americans.
America is an incredibly diverse country. Its coastal cities in particular are the most internationalised places on earth, with people from every part of the globe.
Even though Trump won the election in 2016, this was only by means of the archaic Electoral College system, in which the votes of people in Wyoming or Nebraska (sparsely populated states) count for more than the votes of people in California or New York (densely populated states). Even when you factor in only those who bothered to vote (and ignore those who thought nobody standing was worth supporting), Trump did not have majority support.
And when you look at how divisive and discriminatory he has been towards women, people of colour, migrants, LGBTQ, Muslims and Jews, it is obvious that he is not even trying to act for the whole country. And the reactionary forces represented by Trumpism in the US have become a stronger force across the world.
Different Conceptions of Internationalism
Bourgeois internationalism can be understood as a perspective in which the capitalist states are left intact and cooperation between these states is encouraged. An example of bourgeois internationalism here in the UK is a group called Veterans for Europe, which is an anti-Brexit group of ex-armed services personnel. In a recent letter, to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings at the end of World War II, this group stated:
As former members of the armed forces and veterans of more recent conflicts, we have served alongside soldiers from other European nations, supporting each other while under fire or facing danger.
We have learnt that war stinks, that peace is the natural goal for civilisation, and that Europeans are our brothers in arms. But that peace and friendship is now threatened by Brexit.
NATO does not keep the peace in Europe––it keeps peace FOR Europe. It is the EU that keeps peace IN Europe, because when you trade, you do not fight.
This conception, of peace being underwritten by the continuation of trading, is a logical confusion. While it is true that countries that go to war will stop economic trade with one another, it is not true that countries that trade do not go to war. What actually tends to happen is that intensified economic competition or “economic wars,” as in tit-for-tat tariff retaliations between countries, do often lead to war. Increased protectionism and economic nationalism, such as that taking place between the US and China now, is a recognised precursor to war. So, as with many things, Trump’s declaration that “trade wars are good, and easy to win” is completely false.
It is also the explicit ideology of the European Union (EU)––the ideology of neoliberalism–– that removing barriers to trade and having frictionless borders for the movement of goods and services between countries is what furthers the maintenance of peace. But one of the contradictions of maintaining a capitalist system is that, when you subordinate people’s fortunes to the movement of capital, it will result in their conditions being worsened, as the intensity of competition on a world scale pushes the speed-up of work processes and squeezes the amount that workers are paid.
The truth is that, if you cannot maintain social peace and economic stability within countries, then you cannot have peace and stability between countries. History has shown (and it would be foolish to expect things to be different now) that when a developed country has lots of internal problems of stability, those in charge will try to “externalise” their problems in an effort to hold onto power. Peaceful trading arrangements, while desirable, will be sacrificed during these periods of crisis.
In short, bourgeois internationalism is not really a guaranteed check against war, in the long term. Economic crises are built into how capitalism works, and even temporarily dealing with those problems has to be done at the expense either of your own population––austerity, wage restraint and authoritarianism––or at the expense of somebody else’s population––through economic wars and real wars. The greater internal resistance within a country, the stronger the drive to war.
The EU is not, as many seem to think and as is often presented by Remainers, a free-trade bloc. The purpose of the EU is to be a preferential bloc, in which EU members enjoy privileged access to each other’s markets compared to non-EU members. It is a form of protectionism in a world where stacking the rules to best favour your own economy is already practiced by all countries. This is true even when nations operate as part of international cartel such as the EU or NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), which is a bloc of the US, Canada and Mexico.
Trump’s attacks on Mexico are in part a manoeuvre to gain yet more advantage for the US, as the senior partner within the NAFTA bloc. Incidentally, I believe that Brexit is an attempt by Britain to try for national advantage in a situation in which Germany, not Britain, is the EU’s biggest economy and influencer. This is why renegotiation on terms favourable to Britain is more difficult than America’s effort to renegotiate NAFTA.
If you don’t see that conflicting interests are inherent in the relations between capitalist nations, you will cling to the illusion of a lasting bourgeois internationalism.
Having dealt with the limitations of the kind of internationalism, that most anti-Brexit/pro-EU advocates express, I want to now deal with a different idea of internationalism
Governments under capitalism exist primarily to use their influence for the advantage the economy of their own country. The state under capitalism has 3 main functions:
1. to maintain stable conditions and general infrastructure for businesses within a country;
2. to help domestic capitals against foreign competitors;
and, most importantly,
3. to frustrate any challenges to the system from below.
When these things can be done by peaceful means, that will generally be the preferred option. As we often see, however, that is not always possible; more coercive means often become necessary.
Direct cooperation between the peoples of different nations––that is, proletarian or working- class internationalism, means not relying on state institutions to foster those links, in other words separating ourselves from capitalist interests. This is part of seeing two worlds within every country––that of ordinary people and that of their rulers.
It also means recognising that each of us has to contend with the rulers of our own country. One maxim of working-class internationalism is that the main enemy is always at home. This does not mean that we concern ourselves only with resisting the attacks from our own ruling class. There has to be a positive aspect to internationalism as well, where we build solidarity networks between workers of different countries.
As I said in my opening remarks, when most people think of a solidarity campaign, it is usually a campaign to solidarize with a poorer country. The idea that we might show solidarity with the American people fighting against Trump might still seem a little counterintuitive. So why do they need our help, you might ask?
Here is my answer.
You have a massive opposition inside the US against Trumpism––it is not just lefties and liberals who are against Trump; even many old-style one-nation conservatives are, too. It is estimated that 30 million people are active in the anti-Trump resistance.
However, there is a base of support for Trump which, even after everything he has done, represents more than one third of the electorate. Between 35% and 43% of those polled who approve of his performance as president (it presently stands at 42.6% approval). That is a sizable enough minority that, if the majority does not thwart the direction things are moving in, Trumpist reaction could be further consolidated in its rule over the majority that does not want it.
Trump’s power is concentrated in the institutions of the state and, although the opposition to him is huge, it has been, up to now, far more disparate.
Here are some reasons Trumpism may be consolidated.
There is a very real problem of voter suppression. The placing of polling stations outside of town, in poor areas, when there is no public transportation to allow people to get to them, is a blatant form of voter suppression. Requiring voters to have very specific forms of i.d. to be able to vote in certain majority-black districts is a way of suppressing the vote of black people, who heavily lean towards the Democrats in their voting preference. And the way that voting areas are structured gives an in-built advantage to Republicans; I already mentioned the Electoral College that makes Republican-supporting states count for more than Democratic-supporting states in the final tally.
Then you have Trump’s stacking of the Supreme Court with conservatives. It is likely to go further in that direction, as an elderly liberal like Ruth Bader-Ginsberg, who is now 86 years old, and a moderate like Stephen Breyer, who is 81 years old, are very likely to be replaced by reactionary Trump appointees.
Without assistance to the Resistance from outside the US, there is the real possibility that Trumpism will result in the erosion and then even suspension of democracy in America, and if that happens the world is a far more dangerous place.
I want again to emphasise that with the base of support for Trump remaining so solid, there is a strong chance for authoritarianism to grow inside the US.
It is not a majority of the whole population or, even more narrowly, just the voting population that supports this, but the desire for strong-man politics is a growing trend not just in the US but right across the world. Some will label this trend as far right, xenophobic or even fascist––but I don’t want to get too hung up on what to call it, so much as to recognise what it represents. It represents a threat to democratic governance and the rule of law. It does not matter that Trump was elected under a flawed democratic system, if he then is able to wield his power in a way that undermines the foundations of democracy itself.
And the reason all of this matters to those of us outside the US is the pivotal role that America plays in international affairs. If America does succumb to full authoritarian rule, then democracy and freedom are in greater danger across the world. There were already links between far-right groups and political figures before the election of Trump but, since Trump became president, these networks have expanded and the far right are far more influential in many places. And Trump is an inspiration to these reactionaries; many racist authoritarians model themselves on Trump.
Here are just three examples of Trump’s authoritarian behaviour domestically, quite apart from him cosying up to dictators or would-be dictators around the world.
Trump has attacked the independence of the press, such as trying to undermine those who persistently ask him tough questions. Trump has continually branded anything critical of him, that he doesn’t like, as the “Fake News” media, and his team have come up with the bizarre idea of “alternative facts” to avoid inconvenient truths. “Alternative facts” is a scary idea because it literally opens up the possibility of avoiding any scrutiny. This is not merely offering a different interpretation of the significance of what is known, but insisting that what is known is less important than something else that is offered as an alternative. This is done, not as a way of asking for a more balanced assessment, but as a substitution, and to communicate that known facts have no importance if they don’t fit one’s agenda. Trump and his staff often indulge in “whataboutism” to deflect from specific examples of their malpractice.
He has turned the judiciary into an openly partisan branch of government. Trump pushed for the promotion of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court precisely because they had openly stated that the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia to steal the election, even if proved, was not an impeachable offence.
The misrepresentation of the findings of the Mueller report by his new attorney general, William Barr, has turned the Justice Department into part of his team rather than an independent part of the government. Trump has removed anyone who shows any independent judgement and who is not prepared to serve him personally.
Trump refused to appear before Congress to answer questions about the report’s findings, as he is required to do by both law and historical precedent––both of which Trump has ignored, arguing that the Democrats get no “do-overs.” In other words, they have no further chance to catch him out in his lying about stealing the election. Most recently, just last week, Trump admitted in a televised interview that if, in the future, he were offered dirt on an opponent by a foreign power, he “would take a look at it.” That is agreeing to something that Robert Mueller spent two-and-a half-years trying to prove that Trump had already done in the 2016 election.
The words “Constitutional crisis” have been used so many times to describe what has happened under Trump––i.e. basic things are not working as they should in a constitutional democracy––and yet Trump is still president. He has no shame and will try to cling to power no matter what.
How This Relates to Anti-Trump Work Outside the US
Even if you are not someone who believes in the need for a new society beyond capitalism, it is clear that Trump represents a clear threat to democracy itself, not just in the US but in the world more widely. If you are a socialist, then the defence of liberal democracy and the thwarting of arbitrary rule by an authoritarian is important, not just in its own terms but as the necessary condition for us to be able to have the space to argue and organize for a new society. To have a free and open society, even one as limited as it is by the imperatives of a capitalist system, is essential for the mass of people to self-develop in conditions where a viable alternative to capitalism can be conceived and created.
In the 1930s, when the international brigades went to Spain to join the resistance to the dictator Franco, it was recognised as an act of internationalism to defend democracy for the very reasons I have just outlined. If Spain succumbed to authoritarian rule, the whole of Europe in economic crisis could go the same way. What was true of Spain then is even more true of America today. We might not be yet at the stage where we need to send armed fighters, but there is a lot we can do to counter the threat of authoritarianism in the US.