A common and mistaken assumption among radicals is that right wing parties win because of ideological trickery and lies. In other words, that the electorate does not understand their own class interests, and are bamboozled by smooth talking politicians. For example, a popular idea about american politics is that poor whites tend to vote against their own interests, as there is the preconception that they are part of the electorate of Trump and the GOP. Just recently in Ontario, Doug Ford, a millionaire, won the provincial elections under a very vague platform that included lowering taxes and “anti-elitist” rhetoric, very similar to Trump’s “drain the swamp” antics. Some pointed out the contradiction of the wealthy Ford running under an anti-elitist platform – seeing it as a form of ideological articulation and nothing else.
In general, there’s been a rise of the right wing in elections across the the developed West. A couple of high profile examples are Trump, Brexit, and the recent German elections. Furthermore, fascistoid parties that took power recently in some european countries, like Hungary and Poland. Superficially it may seem that these parties are the “will of the people”, since they won by an algorithmic majority in democratic countries. For leftists this may seem hopeless, as it could be interpreted that we lost the ideological battle, and that much of the Left’s traditional demographic (e.g. workers) have fallen into reaction.
I find that these sentiments begin with the wrong (and liberal) idea, that the body of citizens are an amorphous, classless set of individuals that must be “won over” so that they do not turn right wing. Another iteration of the same argument is that many voters are going against their “own interest” by voting for the right wing. For example, the common archetype of the poor rural white that votes Republican.
The worst aspects of these assumptions are in the mainstream of the Left, especially social democratic parties and “center left” parties. Since the electorate at first glance seems to swing conservative, many social-democratic parties have swung to the right to win back some of that electorate. An interesting example is the rise of the center-left NDP (New Democratic Party) in Alberta, one of the most conservative provinces of Canada. Many of the militants in the federal NDP are against the construction of new oil pipelines, for fiscal and environmental reasons; yet the Albertan NDP has taken a pro-big oil stance in order to appease the seemingly conservative Albertan electorate. I am sure that the shift towards austerity politics of many of the mainstream social democratic parties is also related to the tailing of a supposedly conservative electorate.
However, once we start looking with nuance at hard data, rather than simply taking a phenomenological algorithmic majority for granted, we will find that the rise of the right wing isn’t really just a matter of false consciousness or ideology, but has a real class basis. In other words, today’s electoral choices fully emerge from the class interests of much of the voting base. This is simply because many of whom fit the marxist definition of proletarian, that is someone that owns nothing except their own labor, are not voting. It’s well known that lower income makes it more likely that someone will not vote. In fact, there is a correlation with income inequality and low political participation.
Another interesting trend is that voter turnout in the developed world is steadily declining. This correlates with the increase of income inequality, the rise of the right wing, and yes, the decline of the Left.
Let us look at the United States as a particularly dire but interesting example. The reason why voters choose politicians that want to cut social programs and enforce austerity, is that the same politicians often promise more tax cuts, a restructuring that would benefit people from higher tax brackets, who happen to be the people that vote. Surveys have found that nearly half of non voters in the US make less than 30k in income. If you zoom into the lifestyle of a large percentage of 60k+ households – a life that may include mortgages, workplace insurance, fat credit lines, and segregated neighborhoods were race and income cut along zip code lines, voting patterns make sense. I imagine that the last person that would benefit from rent control, centralized school funding, and welfare is going be an office manager that holds home equity and sends their kid to piano lessons.
These voting patterns are also interesting from a political economy perspective. Much of what passes as class analysis in the more popular iterations of marxism usually only looks at workplace relations, and whether someone collects a salary as opposed to being a capitalist. Yet, one of the ways the liberal democratic state culled working class militancy is through the introduction of cheap credit, which suddenly made much of the traditional working class into “property owners”, because they now own house equity. Specifically, the skilled layer of the working class and professionals became petit-bourgeosified (synonimous to small land holders). In other words, this middle class, even if some of them collect a salary, stop being proletarian in the marxist sense (a class that owns nothing except their labor power) and turn into small property owners. In the american case, this was also related to racial dynamics, where a white middle class entrenched itself in segregated zip-codes, with housing associations that monitor the evenness of lawns in order to mantain property values. Furthermore, zoning privilieges are also a way of gatekeeping resources for their childrens’ social mobility – for example, through public schools that are only attended by rich people.
The existence of a petit-bourgeosified middle class and upper middle class, who are isomorphic to small land holders, can only manifest in the era of finance capital, as their lifestyle is sustained by fragile debt that leads to financial fragility and secular decline. According to Minsky (who has been recently adapted to macroeconomic models), financial fragility emerges from banks and other financial institutions lending too much money in boom periods, which inevitably leads to financed enterprises that fail to be profitable. This generates a bubble that later on bursts, creating business cycles and dislocation between financial sector and the real economy. Furthermore, as mentioned in my previous post, the financialization of capital correlates with the decline of productivity across virtually almost all industries, so only finance capital instead of the “real economy” can sustain these small proprietors. So it is no surprise that there is almost a clientelistic link between these small proprietor, middle class whites and the most reactionary elements of capital, as the latter buys them off by giving them racialized financial leverage that is not available to poorer, racialized sectors.
No wonder why left wing tendencies and social democratic parties have declined, and the ones that survived, shifted rightwards. For they all aim to convince “likely voters” who tend to be petit-bourgeosified middle classes whose class interests are aligned with tax cuts and fiscal austerity, in contrast to lower income individuals that do not vote as much, and who would benefit from wealth redistribution programs.
Instead of aiming for likely voters, leftists should create a genuine socialist party that fights for the working class and the poor. The key for socialist hegemony is politically activating unlikely voters, e.g. racialized, working class and poor individuals, rather than trying to pull the heart strings of a middle class. This strategy will not yield easy wins in the ballot box, for the likely voters tend to be conservative. Instead it would require a strategy in the long run where socialist hegemony is created amongst unlikely, low income voters.
A minimum program for a party of the working class and the poor could contain some of the following policies: (i) nationalization of real estate (except the infrastructure built upon it), (ii) a job retraining program for the casualized, unemployed, or low wage workers, (iii) a robust public healthcare infrastructure, (iv) abolition of temporary “work visas” and instead full citizenship for all immigrants, and (v), restructuring of educational infrastructure so that funding depends on “head count” rather than zip codes, including free upper education and student stipends. These positions are only some tentative examples, and this minimum program should go hand in hand with the long term maximum program of a world workers’ republic, and the replacement of market mechanisms with world economic planning.
Much of the platform of a workers’ party will be opposed by the small proprietor middle class, since it is diametrically opposite to their interests – for example, real estate nationalization is in contradiction with home ownership. However, the large underclass that does not vote, and the segment of the working class that does go to the polls, should be able to be won over by a program that considers their immediate class interests.
The outlook for a workers’ party is moderately optimistic. As the pauperization of millennials, who are poorer than their parents, and the recent financial crisis have shown, the lifestyle of middle class small proprietors inflated by financial debt is unsustainable. Therefore, the base for a future workers’ party is secularly increasing.
If you liked this post so much that you want to buy me a drink, you can pitch in some bucks to my Patreon.