After the successful election of Donald Trump the liberal establishment is still trying to figure out what happened. While it is important to note that Hillary Clinton leads by over half a million votes in the popular vote, the 18th century institution of the Electoral College means Trump will be the next leader of the so-called “free world.”
For many liberal activists, commentators, and pundits there appears to be only one explanation: the white working class is as racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-immigrant, and authoritarian as the man they voted for. For these bewildered souls, the left had to hold its nose and vote for a candidate they may not have liked, but was the lesser evil; whereas those who voted for Trump did so because they fully support every policy proposal.
This notion has no merit. Though polls have shown themselves to be basically without much value or explanatory power, the exit polling shows that, along with fears of terrorism, immigration, and tax policy, economic hardship was one cross-cutting explanation. But how does economic hardship translate into voting for capitalism’s poster boy?
A similar debate rages among those trying to understand ISIS and those fighting for it in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere. The same fault line appears: while some want to deflect the influence of Islamic ideology, others lay the blame only with it. For the former, it is the lack of economic opportunity and war which serve as the catalyst for terrorism, where the latter claim that the teachings of Islam, 5th century as they are, can fully explain the root of modern terrorism.
When looking at Trump’s victory and the growth and spread of Islamic ideology both of these sides fail. This isn’t because either side lacks merit, but because both sides contain part of the truth. There are two constants at play which bring about Islamic and Trumpist ideologies: capitalist failure and false consciousness.
The first part of this equation, the failure of capitalism, is fairly obvious. While there has been a marked decrease in overall poverty due to industrialization in the Far East, the Middle East has become little more than a hinterland for imperial powers to seek out resources to extract and, where possible, exploit cheap pools of labor. In America, the neo-liberal push for globalization has meant that for the average American worker, little prospect for a job in their field, or going back to school with the inevitable five-to-seven figure debt without the guarantee of work at the end. For both groups, capitalism has simply failed them. But both sides don’t blame capitalism really, but rather seek to find some other explanation of their situation.
When looking for a cause to one’s suffering some explanation is better than none, and the easiest is usually preferred, as lengthy and complex arguments either bore or fail to speak truth to power in any effective way. Though Occam’s Razor would indicate that the simplest explanation tends to be the truth, political-economy is not physics, and the truth is usually nuanced and complex.
That is why the false ideologies of ISIS and Trump have so much power. They are simple and play off divisions in society. For ISIS, the false consciousness comes both in its critique – western capitalism fails because it is impious, decadent, and leads to death, particularly of Muslims – and its solution – dismantle the western social order entirely and revert back to 5th century social and economic order. For Trumpists, it is also their critique – the government creates the conditions for “crony-capitalism” that hurts small and medium businesses and allows immigrants to take American jobs – and their solution – let the rich take more in taxes and kick out the immigrants.
This notion of false consciousness isn’t new. As Engles wrote, for ideologies like ISIS and Trumpists, the central notion of each depends on the:
appearance of an independent history of state constitutions, of systems of law, of ideological conceptions in every separate domain, which dazzles most people.
This bewilderment comes from the simplicity of the basic idea. Understanding the nature, social relations, and inevitable results of capitalist production takes time and careful study, and isn’t – by and large – taught in public or private schools. Rather, students in America are taught that it isn’t fundamental problems with capitalism that are at issue, but rather problems of public policy. For ISIS, America is a decadent superpower, hell bent on killing every last Muslim it can find.
These “justifications” are simple and do not contest the power that perpetuates them. In fact, it is power itself, held by the ruling classes in each society, which benefit from these “critiques” precisely because they don’t contest the basis of the ruling elite’s power. This how cultural hegemony, a theory outlined and explored by Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, functions. Since the ruling class controls the means of information dissemination in the schools, media, church, political system, and other cultural institutions, it creates and perpetuates the memes in society. In short, the ruling class uses its dominance to continue its dominance. As Chomsky explored in “Manufacturing Consent” in relatively free societies, this is done primarily by propaganda. Anyone alive during and after the cold war saw this principle in action.
In less free societies, like those in the Middle East, it’s less about propaganda, which necessitates the need for hiding behind or inside “free and independent” institutions, and more about naked domination. The spread of Wahhabi schools and information dissemination outlets, namely by Saudi Arabia, has allowed the ISIS memes to perpetuate across the region. But it spreads this message for the same reason the ruling class in every society does, because it serves their interests.
The great value of Marxism is that it focuses primarily on the material conditions of a society. It presupposes that when conditions are ripe, socialist organizations can be created and push for, ultimately, revolution against the capitalist system. This has led some to consider the transition from capitalism to socialism to be an inevitability, that when the conditions are right, the working class will, on its own, organize and revolt.
However, the 20th century proved this thesis incorrect. Rather, as Gramsci noted, in situations of cultural hegemony, you also have to present a counter narrative to that of the prevailing and elite-serving narrative ubiquitous in elite-dominated societies.
Today, this process is daunting. Not only is the working class at a low point in labor organization, but the elite have a nearly unchecked ability to perpetuate whatever memes it wishes. The internet, though, like so much else that capitalism creates, provides new ground to make alternative narratives more abundant. However, the decentralized nature of social media and the blogosphere serve to make difficult a united message to deliver to an alienated and angry working class.
Still, unlike the prognostication of the liberal elite that “the deplorables” are beyond the pale. But the anger and resentment of the working class, sometimes expressed and understood through the prism of xenophobia or racism, makes them ripe for a new message. History has shown that when presented with a left alternative, like in the 1930s, the working class turns in that direction.
Why? Because Marxists have an advantage in their messaging. While the ruling class has to rely on falsehoods and misrepresentation, it produces “facts” only by repetition and the destruction or discrediting of other voices, we are able to use the truth, an understanding of the issue based on material conditions and actual relations of production. Though difficult in necessitating a deconstruction of the false consciousness produced by the cultural hegemony, the truth can act as a battering ram that, in a short while and with some effort, can smash the false notions carried by workers from Mosul to Montgomery and arm them with the means to smash the state.