Make America Great? Again?

trump rally

In its classic form Great Power Nationalism (GPN) was enthusiastically expansionist. It was an ideology which served the needs of the ruling elites in Britain, Germany, France and latterly the United States, it also provided a useful tool for mobilising mass support. Most members of these societies had some sort of stake in economically dominating smaller countries and in projecting military power around the world as an auxiliary arm of trade growth. The contrasting ideology of internationalism was the project of socialists and idealists who posited worldwide human communities as an alternative to patterns of national dominance, colonialism, rivalry and war.

Outside of China, however, modern GPN is of a very different kind. It manifests variously as the Trump campaign in America, the movement to withdraw Britain from the European Union and the French Front National. It is vehemently opposed by the ruling elites and is predominately defensive rather than expansionist (at least while it does not yet wield state power anywhere.) In this context the use by Trump of the word “Again” is unintentionally revealing. It represents a nostalgia for a time when a section of society which now feels alienated from the economic and social mainstream then felt integrated. Partly, no doubt, this is a reaction by white, English-speaking, heterosexual males to their being edged out of centre-stage by other elements in society but it would be inadequate to dismiss the phenomenon so glibly.

I think what is of real significance here is the movement, some considerable time ago, of the elites away from nationalism and into the internationalist camp. The epoch of physical expansion is ended. Globalisation allows for penetration of markets around the world and, crucially, for the switching of manufacturing, assembling and other economic functions from one country or continent to another with little or no disruption to shareholder dividends whatever the impact might be on workers, communities or nations. Among other things this means that a much smaller proportion of the population feels integrated into and secure amidst the economic activity of their country, the threat that they might be closed down and the whole operation moved several time-zones away is a real one to many, even quite highly educated and well paid workers. Combined with this is the increasing monopolisation of Capital as fewer and fewer hands hold more and more of the worlds resources.

The way which manifestly unequal systems combat the danger of alienation is through the prospect of social mobility and the widespread secure ownership of meaningful amounts of private property. The international economic system we now have offers these things to very few people. Most of us are salaried employees whose salaries are by no means guaranteed and whose best future, for ourselves and our children, is more of the same including permanent insecurity. Only those with huge shareholdings or a place atop one of the shambling bureaucracies which have come into being to administer the new system have any security and, thanks to nepotism, good future prospects for self and family.

Faced with this the new-form Great Power Nationalism appeals to those who were once included but are now excluded (as opposed to the new Left which appeals to the always excluded.) It feeds upon an alienation which the current status quo cannot prevent itself from creating. But what does it offer? Very little to be sure. There seems to be a kind of nihilist notion that if we give the powers that be a bloody nose then as they reel away somehow property-owning, manufacturing, security and power can be repatriated from the elitists and the bureaucrats. A Great America or an independent United Kingdom will more or less automatically command the kind of profitable trade and respect that they had in the days before China, India and Brazil became modern economies. Moreover their armed forces will command the same respect they did before Pakistan became a nuclear power and before the West realised that nothing short of direct colonisation will keep the Middle East calm for any length of time.

Alienation is a problem confronting much of the advanced world and now showing itself increasingly in a rejection of or impatience with established political institutions and parties. The West has not, I think, faced a challenge on such a scale since 1968. It was robust enough to survive then because, at least in part, it was able to offer a significant swathe of the population many of the things for which new GPN is nostalgic- security, private property and social mobility. It seems to me that the new world order is structurally incapable of offering anything of the kind and, moreover, the political elites in the post-Iraq war era lack the courage and energy to do anything with the zest and fervour of a Tony Blair (which is no bad thing.) Lenin once suggested that the three factors necessary for a revolution were a population unwilling to be ruled in the old way, a ruling class unable to rule in the old way and a clear sighted revolutionary leadership able to grasp the opportunities presented to it. On those grounds it would seem that we are two thirds of the way towards one of these great world-changing revolutionary moments in history. For better or for worse.

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