David McNally: from global slump to Trump

Long-time Canada-based activist and socialist David McNally is in New Zealand for both an academic conference and a socialist meeting at the University of Otago. Guy McCallum reports on McNally’s first New Zealand public talk:

The Global Financial Crisis in 2008, one of many crises under capitalism, has led to austerity for the working class, economic stagnation for the middle but, through no mystery, ever increasing wealth for a greedy few. Though recovery has been recorded in several countries, this has occurred along class lines as wages stagnate, public services are cut but the stream of wealth to the top few has increased rapidly. While developed countries make up the bulk of this recovery, some developing countries are slipping backward while others are rallying under the umbrella of Russia and China. Growing political instability across the globe is connected to the conditions of austerity, enforced by a powerful elite who wield massive influence in political systems everywhere.

David McNally, speaking at the 2017 New Zealand Political Studies Association – 50th Anniversary Conference held at University of Otago in Dunedin, places the origins of Donald Trump and the era he represents in the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. Saliently, McNally began his lecture by referring to Karl Marx’s 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, citing from its preface that conditions of austerity “created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part.” Neoliberalism’s prejudice against the working class and it’s empty platitudes to anti-oppression movements “shaped the range of possibilities” making Trump’s election a major possibility.

Trump, of course, is merely one of the possibilities that spreading poverty and increasing economic anxiety created following 2008. McNally pointed to the increasing xenophobia and racism elsewhere including Brexit in the United Kingdom, Front National’s surge in France’s presidential election, the seating of the far-right in Germany’s Bundestag, and the far-right in Greece. These are just a few samples of the volatility created by policies which made the working class, students, pensioners and beneficiaries pay for the financial errors of the ruling class.

All of this can lead to a misapprehension about where the violent tendencies on the right are coming from and are leading to. The dominant media refrain of the ‘white working class’ being behind the rise of the Trumpist right in the US is actually misleading in light of polls showing that Hillary Clinton trailed Trump among those earning over $50,000 a year. Much of the support that Trump received in 2016 also came from ‘super-white’ neighbourhoods, that is, the more homogeneously white communities who were seeing the arrival of non-white migration (from within and outside of the US) for the first time.

On the flipside, there has been a greater suspicion of capitalism by young voters who are recently more highly class conscious. There had also been a changing nature of protest including actions by indigenous communities, women, people of colour and a defence of Muslims (after Trump’s failed attempts to decree a travel ban).

These developments represent a shift away from the pragmatic liberalism of the 20th century towards a resurgence in populism that has gone in one of two directions: socialism to the left, and xenophobia to the right. McNally is from Canada, and looks across the Atlantic at Europe and southwards to the United States – so understandably he did not provide any analysis at how the reverse has happened in New Zealand where the right is generally open to immigration and the left has grown suspicious of it. There has yet to be a shift on the left here toward socialism, though the seeds of anti-capitalism have already been sown by xenophobic nationalist Winston Peters (recently appointed Deputy Prime Minister). Outside of New Zealand, we do see what McNally is describing in the allegedly rigged contest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. And the rise of Trump and America First in the Republican contest for their presidential nomination (a natural position for the Republicans before Ronald Reagan in 1980). Also this repeats in UK, France and Germany – a surge in social populism on the left and reactionary conservatism on the right.

Despite the radically different circumstances we are in compared to only a decade ago (or even half that), McNally predicts that the instability and volatility sparked by the GFC in 2008 is still developing and will continue to create novel situations in the near future.

The audience was given much to think about and the question and answers period reflected this. From these question, some insights for socialists in Aotearoa became apparent.

Numbers are vital. For this McNally compared Occupy to the Civil Rights struggle of 1950s-70s. The vitriolic reaction to the latter was because of the enormous numbers engaged in that struggle. The civil rights struggle also had the ability to capture the attention of the masses which also proved the importance of infrastructures of dissent. That is, the variety of ways that the masses join into the struggle through protest, art, public events, boycotts and so on; actions which made the ruling classes react. The point of the comparison was that Occupy did not end up similarly becoming a threat to neoliberalism, and thus it was overlooked and ignored into almost into oblivion.

McNally emphasised, lastly, that youth and humour play major parts in attracting attention and upgrading the struggle. The biggest point McNally made, in my view, is that there will be no new left without embracing anti-oppression and ecological contributions to revolutionary theory and that means embracing the younger generations which have discovered the world around them to be dangerously deteriorating. This created despair and depression among his students, he observes, and the ability to make light of Trump, the racists and even humorous forms of protest (he mentioned the Medieval Bloc in Quebec) are important if we are to keep our wits in this new political situation and convince the masses of the need for revolution.