By ANANYA BORDOLOI
Special to Pulse News Mexico
The Brexit choice by British voters to leave the European Union and the electoral victory of U.S. President Donald J. Trump both demonstrate a drastic incongruity with Karl Marx’s prediction of a “proletariat revolution” that would “destroy all previous insecurities for, and insurance of, individual property.” Clearly, Marx stands corrected on the notion that the bourgeoisie “creates a world in its own image” through the inevitable expansion of capitalism globally.
Nonetheless, there are points in which Marx has been proven right by history – the creation and expansion of a world market and periodical commercial crises that “threaten the existence of bourgeois property (and society)”– which are factors that provide some explanation for the Brexit and Trump vote.
What Marx failed to acknowledge in his conception of a proletariat revolution was the concept of “populist nationalism.”
Marx argued that capitalism is cosmopolitan in nature due to its constant need for an expanding market for its products. The bourgeoisie, who are the rulers of a capitalist society, achieve this market expansion by rapidly improving all instruments of production and facilitating a means of communication that eventually force nations and populations to “adopt bourgeois modes of production.”
This has been the exact trajectory of modern capitalist society with rapid expansion of the bourgeois ideology through establishments such as the World Trade Organisation, International Monetary Fund and the World Bank that promote neo-liberal policies, such as market deregulation, exchange rate management and free trade, making what Marx called “nations of peasants,” i.e. developing nations dependent on “nations of bourgeois,” that is. developed nations.
This cosmopolitan nature of capitalism that allows cross border economic activity between nations in distinct stages of development brings about “economic insecurity” among the working class, or proletariat, who do not own the means of production as the bourgeois do. They are regarded as a commodity and are therefore exposed to market competition and fluctuation.
The Brexit and Trump vote can be understood to an extent through this framework of economic insecurity faced by the proletariat in both the United Kingdom and the United States due to expansion of a world market. The Brexit voters were those “without jobs or retired.”A 2016 report by NatCen shows that 59 percent of the Leave voters belonged to the working class, and 84 percent of those who voted to exit the EU believed that the economy will be better off after Brexit. Similarly, Trump voters were in their majority from the “industrial working class,” which included low-waged, unskilled workers, poorer white populations, the long-term unemployed and households dependent on shrinking social benefits. Both set of voters were “economic losers” of the world market and their votes gave them “political victories over the economic winners for the first time since the Second World War.”
The capitalist system is periodically hit by commercial crises that result in an “epidemic of overproduction,” which threatens the existence of bourgeois society. The 2008 financial crisis is a recent example of such a commercial crisis faced by capitalist society. Bourgeois institutions like large multinational banks produced debt that threatened bourgeois property and society as well as the proletariat. While proletariat jobs were lost, and their communities drowned in debt created by these bourgeois institutions, the institutions themselves were rewarded for their greed and failure by the bourgeois state through expensive bailouts, the cost of which was incurred by proletariat taxpayers in Britain and the United States. British banks received a staggering 850 billion pounds from the government with the eventual cost to taxpayers not yet known. The U.S. government, on the other hand, committed $16.8 trillion toward the bailout, with $4.6 trillion already paid out.
Furthermore, Marx argues that the bourgeoisie overcome these periodical crises by “the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones.” The fact that the bourgeois mode of production continues to conquest new markets and exploit old ones regardless of the 2008 financial crisis, that indebted the proletariat drastically and cushioned the failure of the bourgeoisie, proves Marx right. Brexit and Trump can be understood as the collective frustration of an economically dispossessed proletariat of both nations who have put their foot down as a class against “free-market fundamentalism” promoted by the bourgeoisie. Thus, there appears a “national struggle (in the United States and Britain) between classes,” and since “every class struggle is a political struggle” the phenomena of Brexit and Trump emerged.
An expanding world market has spread the bourgeois ideology worldwide and created a capitalist society which produced economic losers (Brexit and Trump voters) that were exploited by the economic winners (the professional elite). In terms of economic crises, Marx was proven right in predicting that they would occurt.
But while these factors explain why the Brexit and Trump vote occurred, they do not fully encapsulate the nuances in both phenomena. Although it seems that the status quo of capitalist society has been shaken due to the Brexit and Trump vote, it is nowhere close to the proletariat revolution that Marx had predicted.
The “revolutionary class” was to “alter the system of class rule.” However, what has occurred due to both phenomena is a political revolution that only changed the form of government while keeping the bourgeois society intact. This is because Marx failed to acknowledge the crucial factor and powerful rhetoric of populist nationalism.
Nationalism played a pivotal role in the vote for Brexit and Trump. The similarities between reasons supported by both set of voters is uncanny and distinctly demonstrates how nationalism is an extremely powerful ideology that can override class allegiances and sway the proletariat, the losers in an expanding world market, to make emotive decisions based on national solidarity that achieve little in dismantling the bourgeois state and society.
In his luminary work “Future of Europe,” Austrian professor Anis H. Bajrektarevic of Vienna’s International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies points out that: “The over-financialization and hyper-deregulations of the global(-ized) markets has brought the low-waged Chinese (peasant converted into a) worker into the spotlight of industrialized nations … That’s how the world’s last cosmopolitan – Europe departed from the world of work, and that’s why the Continent today cannot orient itself (both needed to identify a challenge, as well as to calibrate and jointly redefine the EU path). To orient, one need to center itself: Without left and right, there is no center.”
Another dimension to the ideology of nationalism that is pertinent to the Brexit and Trump vote is the concept of populism. Populist movements inherently carry an “anti-elitist” tone as they pit common people against the privileged elite and are often led by “strong and charismatic leaders.” Furthermore, populists promote their agenda as the “will of the majority.” although they can exclude the disadvantaged minority along with the privileged. Thus, populist movements do not necessarily align along economic terms, but tend to be “antagonistic to cultural, linguistic, religious and racial minorities.” In sum, the “common people’” for populists are homogenous in cultural and economic terms and therefore populist movements include as much as they exclude.
Populist nationalism, a factor that has emerged within the Brexit and Trump phenomena, then is a populist movement based on sentiments of the people who subscribe to the ideology of British or U.S. nationalism, while vehemently excluding the privileged minority who have benefited from an expanding world market as well as the disadvantaged minority.
Anti-elite sentiments can be seen in both the Brexit and Trump vote. The Leave campaigners were mobilized largely against the political and economic elites, who were seemingly uncaring about those that had been “bypassed by globalization” and Trump similarly aggravated working-class America against the “out-of-touch elite,” of which he is very much a part of.
Moreover, the exclusion of immigrants (the disadvantaged minority) and extreme xenophobia was largely seen in these populist movements that brought about Brexit and Trump. The Brexit vote was a vote rejecting foreigners which included economic migrants as well as refugees. Trump’s entire campaign was xenophobic in predating people of color, people from Muslim and Hispanic backgrounds. Lastly, while the Leave campaign did not have a charismatic leader behind which the movement grew, it was already brewing on Euroscepticism advanced by the UK Independence Party that led to the referendum, and working-class America had Trump, who championed racist rhetoric as a means to his political end.
Thus, nationalism and populism played a massive role in the vote for Brexit and Trump. Nationalism essentially flourished because working class Britain and America felt threatened by international forces and populism thrived because the same people felt betrayed by the political and economic elite. Rather than a proletariat revolution that would destroy bourgeois property and society, the vote for Brexit and Trump was a political revolution carried out by the proletariat of both nations that changed the form of government while failing to dismantle the system of class rule due to a surge in populist nationalism.
The failure of a proletariat revolution can be accounted to the state of false consciousness which disables the proletariat from seeing the “deep structures of exploitation.” Such a state exists because the base of the social totality model, where relations of production reside, express the political and ideological relations in the superstructure, leading to a social totality that is run by the capitalist ideology of the bourgeoisie.
Although the Brexit and Trump vote was a result of the proletariat acknowledging its exploitation by the bourgeois society, it was not because they recognized the real exploitation of their means of production but because they recognized with the strong bourgeois ideology of populist nationalism under a state of false consciousness.
Hence, the Brexit and Trump vote did little to change the status quo – governments were changed, but bourgeois society survived.
Thus, Marx was proven right in conceptualizing an expanding world market and periodical economic crises, two factors which explain the Brexit and Trump vote to a certain extent, but proven wrong in undermining the power of bourgeois ideologies, such as the one of nationalist populism.
Ananya Bordoloi is a Malaysia-based researcher in the fields of international relations, global governance and human rights. She has previously worked with Amnesty International in research and data collection capacity, and for a publishing company as a pre- editor.