Can’t Go to America

Syrians are prohibited from entering the US under President Trump's Muslim ban. Berlin, June 2018.

The SCOTUS has now affirmed the legality of Mr. Trump’s travel ban.  The ban itself is odious. It is unapologetically racist and erodes the standing of the United States in the world without, it must be said, standing the slightest chance of preventing actual acts of terrorism.

As with most measures emitted by the Trump Administration, the travel ban is clearly meant, in the first instance, to play to the sympathies of the most troglodytic quarter of the electorate that constitutes the core of his base. What is unclear is whether anyone inside the White House actually believes that the measure can have the advertised effects, but the difference is academic at this point?

The announcement of the Supreme Court’s decision prompted the usual paroxysms of rage and despair from the civilised left. Leftist outrage has been in full effect since Mr. Trump was “elected” so 20 months ago, so at this point, it is rather a matter of degree. There is nothing wrong with this. People should be upset about a measure that bans only Muslims not fortunate enough to live in states (such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) in which Mr. Trump has an economic stake. Still, it is worth noting that the willingness of a large proportion of those on the left side of the political spectrum to dump their hopes for justice in the hands of a group of unelected jurists is symptomatic of a larger crisis.

Other symptoms could be seen in the weeks and months leading up to the election. One did not have to spend much time amidst the left of centre public sphere to find pious admonitions about the immorality of voting for Hillary Clinton. These were generally accompanied by recitations of the (numerous) bad acts undertaken by Mrs. Clinton in her time in public life and the claim that one bourgeois politician was functionally the same as another. Anyone who dissented from this view was liberal, pure and simple, which is, as it turns out, the worst term of abuse available in the leftist lexicon.

The vanity of such arguments has been clearly demonstrated by the last year and a half of the Trump regime. Whatever Mrs. Clinton’s ethical failings, it is hard to believe that the United States would be in the position of operating concentration camps for children under her administration. To be sure, the United States operates detention centres and black sites around the world, but that would be irrespective of which of the two major party candidates had won the election.

There is such a thing as a tactical vote, and it is worth noting that one does not have the luxury of freely choosing the objective consequences of one’s decisions. Can we be certain that the decisions of the Supreme Court in this term would be significantly more humane than they have been with a Clinton appointee on the bench? By no means. But there is every reason to believe that it would be an improvement over Neil Gorsuch for the next three decades.

Casting votes for marginal candidates, or withholding one’s vote entirely, are strategies cast by those who employ them as reflecting full ethical engagement. More often than not, the view is expressed with that peculiar passion that bespeaks bad conscience. The proposition that one should not cast a vote for someone who is bad even to forestall the rise of someone considerably worse can only be maintained under two conditions: a thoroughgoing failure of critical analysis or the recognition that the left in the postwar industrialised world is a desiccated remnant of what it once was.

The Second World War represented a watershed of sorts. Rising militancy and rates of participation in the first half of the century, combined with a series of relatively favourable court decisions to put organized labour in a particularly advantageous position. But the nature of the movement had changed fundamentally in the decade leading up to the war. To an even greater extent than contemporary European labour organisations, the leadership of US labour organisations was committed to so-called bread and butter unionism. Having won benefits, seniority rights, and regular pay increases, the US labour movement abandoned any claim or aspiration to effect systemic change.

This approach worked reasonably we in the quarter-century between 1945 and 1970. With the world economy booming and US industry in a position of global leadership, relative peace and stability reigned between capital and labour. The pursuit of militant politics was limited to small cells of isolated intellectuals and students, whose connections to the industrial proletariat were aspirational rather than real. Indeed, the intensity of the McCarthyite witch hunts of the 1950s appears particularly ironic given the frailty of the actually existing left.

Firmly ensconced (or so it seemed) in a comfortable collaborative relationship with employers, the US labour movement failed to come to terms with the racial and gender suppositions that underlay their position. As such, the rise of identity-based liberation movements in the 1960s and 1970s found US labour still clinging to the values and mores of the white patriarchy. The intellectual left similarly failed to address the necessity of addressing other forms of oppression beyond class and tended to respond to movements for black liberation, women’s liberation, and the like with the threadbare claim that eliminating capitalism was the primary, perhaps the only, means of political advancement.

The failings and divisiveness of the left generally became increasingly clear as the postwar boom petered out in the 1970s. Shorn of the organisational and intellectual resources for counter-systemic action, labour and the left struggled to turn the institutions of the bourgeois state to its purposes. The result is that, although some important gains have been made in the last half-century, generally these have been won through the courts, and often quite tenuously. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, important though it was, was predicated on a rather tendentious reading of the section on interstate commerce in Article 1 of the Constitution. Similarly, Roe v. Wade was decided on the basis of arguments about the right to privacy, many put forward by Anthony Kennedy, whose impending resignation from the court almost certainly means Roe will go the way of the dodo.

The current state of the left in the United States is one of domestication. The labour movement seems to have entered a spiral of decline, and the courts have increasingly chipped away that the measures that allowed it to subsist in strength (see for instance the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Janus v. AFSCME). The radicalism of the civil rights movement of the 1960s has been submerged into the institutional channels of organisations like the NAACP, although BLM has injected an element of fire that has long been lacking. The mainstream feminist movement too has, in the main, become channelled into a sort of academicised, middle class existence that is hardly threatening to anyone. Most importantly, the necessary work of synthesising class, race, and gender-based critiques of capitalism remains in a very rudimentary condition, making solidarity across the sectors of the anti-capitalist left difficult to achieve.

In light of this, the insistence of some on the left of adopting ideologically rigid maximalist positions seems particularly unproductive. The insistence that casting a tactical vote for the lesser of two evils implies some sort of moral or political deficiency is, more often than not, a sort of rhetorical deflection away from the larger issue of the failure of the postwar left to build a mass movement for anything of consequence. Until the left recovers its radicalism and sorts out its theoretical issues, it will be constantly thrown back on ersatz solutions such as the vicissitudes of the SCOTUS or the hope that the deep state will come to the rescue.

It is now clear that Mr. Trump is going to be appointing a second Supreme Court justice. The Democratic Party’s pathetic showing in the most recent elections has left them essentially legislatively powerless in the face of an administration that has discovered that there are no negative consequences for abandoning the traditional niceties of American politics and hoisting the Jolly Roger. The institutions of the liberal democratic state are burning like Nero’s Rome. Absent a more comprehensive and radical response from the left, there may not be much left to save before long.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.