The era of neonationalism has just begun. -Mark Blyth, Global Trumpism
In a recent lecture at Brown University’s Watson Center, economist Mark Blyth goes through a step-by-step analysis of the worldwide nationalist trend that he calls Global Trumpism. It is essential viewing because it gives a detailed and nuanced view of what is to come as contrasted to a recent column in the New York Times, What the Alt-Right Really Means, which has all the usefulness of an in-grown toenail owing to the self-deluding tendency within that publication still after all these months regarding how they helped elect Trump.
Nationalism, as with all phenomena, has three major components, an ideological, economic, and political program that combines to create the manifestation in our collective experience. For totally logical, if not all useful, reasons, the economic meaning of nationalism has been forgotten. Instead, the word is associated with notions such as “white nationalism” (KKK, Nazis) or “Black nationalism” (Black Panthers, Malcolm X).
But from an economic standpoint, what is a nationalist other than one who nationalizes the means of production? Blyth points out in his lecture that Mussolini’s son was the most frequent visitor to the White House in 1934 as Roosevelt cartelized American industry, modeled on the fascist program, in order to roll out the first New Deal legislation, the National Industrial Recovery Act. And in turn Mussolini’s entire way of thinking was owed in part to his heritage as a syndicalist, that near-apocalyptic vision of class warfare climaxing in a social organization with a vertically-integrated nationalized economy.
Nationalism was for many years a very left wing idea when used as part of a dialectic with its antithesis of internationalism. Left wing nationalists work to nationalize their means of production for the benefit of workers while simultaneously upholding their belief that such an effort should have no borders and eventually it should contribute to a worldwide workers movement. Lenin grasped this factor in his revolutionary program by calling for a worldwide proletarian revolution while simultaneously nationalizing the means of production for the use of all the nationalities within what became the USSR. Of course the major Bolshevik thinker on the national question, Joseph Stalin, really was not the best man for that job, but that is another story.
A return to left nationalism is vital for these times because, as Blyth indicates, the nature of the globalized economy means the model that upheld the American welfare state after World War II is simply gone. While Trump promises to “bring back the jobs”, the fact is that the largest corporations today are not brick-and-mortar presences in the landscape. The largest vendor of books in America, Amazon, has no stores. The largest taxi service, Uber, doesn’t own a vehicle. The largest video rental system, Netflix, actually is the reason that traditional video stores no longer exist. The entire economy in the past twenty years has converted into one based on a desktop screen as opposed to a storefront. American capital has not so much off-shored as much as uploaded itself to the web. As such, the only logical place to go next is nationalization of the means of production.
But alongside this economic factor must come an ideological program that will synthesize into the political. And this is where the question becomes especially important. The twentieth century model of internationalism, centered in Eurasia, was mistaken for reasons not worth reviewing.
I would argue that instead such an ideology must be sourced to one place, Africa. From a purely scientific point of view, it is now beyond a doubt that humanity comes from a single wellspring on that continent. That basic observation creates a much more organic notion of internationalism that transcends all the false ones of blood and soil created by right wing nationalists. By making the internationalist beacon Africa, one engages in a discourse that accounts for and properly memorializes the legacy of colonialism and slavery on that continent.
The central challenge for any analysis of the national question is of course that of self-determination. What makes white nationalism ontologically different from any other in America is two-fold. First, the claim that there is a white nation is simply false. Stalin writes in his 1913 pamphlet “A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.” He deals specifically with the issue of why the British and Americans are not a singular nation despite a common tongue and heritage by writing
But why, for instance, do the English and the Americans not constitute one nation in spite of their common language? Firstly, because they do not live together, but inhabit different territories. A nation is formed only as a result of lengthy and systematic intercourse, as a result of people living together generation after generation. But people cannot live together, for lengthy periods unless they have a common territory. Englishmen and Americans originally inhabited the same territory, England, and constituted one nation. Later, one section of the English emigrated from England to a new territory, America, and there, in the new territory, in the course of time, came to form the new American nation. Difference of territory led to the formation of different nations.
Ergo there is no singular white polity in the way there can be a singular Black or Latinx one. All nations in the world are also historically defined by the impact of colonialism upon their trajectories, meaning Blacks and Latinx peoples in part derive their existence from the fact that European colonialism fundamentally and undeniably impacted the creation of said nation in contemporary contexts. One can even go as far and say that, based on scholarship of antiquity and comparative slave systems, that these national identities perhaps would not even have come into existence in the fashion they did if it had not been for colonialism. Representations of Africans in ancient texts were far less onerous in comparison with those generated at the time of the so-called Age of Discovery. Until such a time when Europe began to recognize the merits of labor value derived from Africans through coercion and enslavement, their writers and artists did not render them with connotations of diabolism and foreboding. Putting it another way, until the advent of colonialism, Africans were referred to as Africans. It was only when slavery became a tenable system of commerce that European media shifted to the use of a “black” paradigm loaded with overtones of evil.
This in turn speaks to the other false element of white nationalism. Almost all the nations of the world are defined by a history broken into two parts, a BCE and ACE (Before Colonial Era and After Colonial Era). Their struggle for self-determination is explicitly one that is a struggle against colonialism. By contrast, whites were never colonized, they were the colonizers. As such there is no white struggle for self-determination because whites have already achieved that and we call that victory white supremacy. Noel Ignatiev wrote:
Whiteness has nothing to do with culture and everything to do with social position. It is nothing but a reflection of privilege, and exists for no reason other than to defend it. Without the privileges attached to it, the white race would not exist, and the white skin would have no more social significance than big feet… We hold that so-called whites must cease to exist as whites in order to realize themselves as something else; to put it another way: white people must commit suicide as whites in order to come alive as workers, or youth, or women, or whatever other identity can induce them to change from the miserable, petulant, subordinated creatures they now are into freely associated, fully developed human subjects.
In more clear terms, the notion of whiteness is a fantastic construct, as real as being a Muggle or mutant. It is created as part of a system, a matrix, that deludes people about the true nature of our reality. The act of removing oneself from this matrix is a painful one but is also essential. To “take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes” means that you recognize that whiteness is the Agent Smith that is keeping you from reaching your full potential as not just the One but part of a larger resistance.
And from here comes also a grasp of political economy that is more robust than its predecessors. My own analysis has always been premised on the idea that the globalized capitalist system came into being through the chattel slave trade and that the first route of globalization was shaped like a triangle. This is the excess of the liberal capitalist revolution against feudalism that ended the rentier economy of the Middle Ages. What I describe here is not Black nationalism per se, although that is encompassed by this theory, as much as an African nationalism that was enshrined in the Freedom Charter by the African National Congress. It is an effort that works to abolish the notion of whiteness and race and replace it with an egalitarian, universalist vision of all nationalities being as one and equal within the global family. This is the only humane counter to the globalized neoliberal order that desires to create a worldwide economic apartheid system utilizing class rather than caste or ethnicity.
Within this ideological matrix is centered a view of the Black radical tradition as the socialist alternative. The volume that defines the ideological coordinates of America remains after many decades not Das Kapital, although that is a useful one, but Black Reconstruction in America by W.E.B. Du Bois. Ignatiev, who notes that Du Bois equates Reconstruction with the Russian revolution celebrating its centenary this year, wrote of that title:
…Du Bois wrote “an essay toward a history of the part which black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America, 1860-1880.” (subtitle) It is the story of the striving of a group of laborers, taking advantage of conflicts among the propertied classes, to advance their own interests… Du Bois, as we have seen, considered the black worker, during and after slavery, the vanguard of the working class… White labour, notwithstanding its increasing awareness of its distinct interests, was unable to sever its ties with capital; whereas black labour, in pursuit of the American dream of every man his own master, steered a course which led it into collision with all sectors of wealth. Here is the solution to the famous problem, why no socialism in America? The labour radicals of that time, like their counterparts in later generations, were unable to recognize labour’s struggle when it appeared in a dark face. As Du Bois noted, “The main activity of the International was in the North; they seemed to have no dream that the place for its most successful rooting was in the new political power of the Southern worker.”… “When white laborers were convinced that the degradation of Negro Labor was more fundamental than the uplift of white labor, the end was in sight.” (347) Let that stand as Reconstruction’s epitaph.
As supplements to that masterpiece are volumes like The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James, the biography of John Brown written by Du Bois several decades prior to his history of Reconstruction, and some others.
Perhaps meriting particular revisiting in the times of Trump would be the works of Edward Bellamy. His novel Looking Backward From 2000 to 1887 is of course remembered as the first utopian time travel novel, a variation on Washington Irving’s Rip van Winkle. What is not as well recalled, however, is that the fans of that tome created 165 Nationalist Clubs across America that spawned newsletters and magazines and became a significant constituent element in the American Socialist Party led by Eugene Debs. The individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker jestingly wrote in 1888 “In this country the parties that uphold it are known as the Socialistic Labor Party, which pretends to follow Karl Marx; the Nationalists, who follow Karl Marx filtered through Edward Bellamy; and the Christian Socialists, who follow Karl Marx filtered through Jesus Christ.”
Bellamy and his followers, like all of the Debs-era Socialists, failed to properly grasp and articulate a critique of racism. Looking through the 1897 sequel to his bestseller, titled Equality, one finds a paternalistic, condescending tone towards people of color that suggests the vanguard of Bellamy’s world will refine the Black workers, the complete opposite of what Du Bois articulated. No wonder the Wobblies and Communists were able to find a space in America, here on display for all to see was a mistaken and wrong-headed analysis of the color line that hindered the success of any left wing political movement upholding nationalism for another generation. The tragedy of course was that the man who did help articulate a more correct analysis for American workers, Stalin, allowed his paranoia and cruelty to forever sully the positive things he did for the left wing analysis of the national question. As a result, still today some branches of Trotskyism rely on an inversion of right nationalism, denying any validity to the discourse at all in the name of an essentialist view of class. It was of course the aforementioned C.L.R. James who brought to that current a grasp of Black nationalism that remains vital.
Part of a Left wing nationalism would have to entail acknowledging and understanding a serious failing of the American Left in the past century. If one looks at the history of the Communist Party, it is clear that their victories almost consistently took place in locales where they were agitating in rentier communities, meaning their base lived in housing that they paid rent for. Home ownership was scorned as a petit bourgeois luxury and thus such members of the working class were excommunicated. However, this is a serious mistake that stems from a major failing in the political economy of Marxism. As a philosophy that was formulated in Victorian England, Marx was living in a culture where the proletariat would pay rent to a lord regularly. By contrast, since the beginning American law has made it tenable for any tax paying citizen to purchase and live on a plot of land they own freely. American history in the past 240 years has been made up in this sense of a series of populist uprisings and revolts that sought to expand the definition of who could be a tax paying citizen while resisting the efforts of the American bourgeoisie to take on the role and function of a land-owning aristocracy. From the Dorr rebellion to the Civil War to World War II and the Civil Rights struggles it birthed, these uprisings were fought to expand the definition of citizenship to include the poor, the uneducated, and those of various minorities. The Communists inadvertently and despite not recognizing this had their greatest victories precisely when they participated and supported the base of such movements. It was the African socialist tradition, exemplified by the Freedom Charter, that articulated the struggle as being that located on the land as opposed at work and it is worthwhile to adapt ideas from that political economy for a Left nationalist program.
A strong opposition to Donald Trump must walk proudly as left nationalists who aspire to smash imperial capital. To shrink away from such a challenge and reply with a feel-good Keynesian-branded Our Revolution (TM), as Bernie Sanders does, or even a last-ditch effort neoliberalism flavored with a cloying sort of identity politics, is to welcome nothing less than disaster. The catastrophic nature of the impending ecological disasters we face requires fighting right wing nationalism with nothing less than left wing nationalism, a force that would enact white genocide and abolish the white race.