The 2016 US election saw a man known mainly for crass displays of wealth present himself as the representative of the working person against the established elite. A period of massive wealth disparity, along with failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, should have been an opportunity for the left. Instead, the election of Donald Trump saw the right claim the mantle of radicalism and mobilise a populist reaction against progressive ideas.
Jeff Sparrow’s new book – Trigger Warnings: Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right – tells the story of this remarkable paradox in both Australia and the US. Central to this story is how the right changed the terms of the debate by launching ‘culture wars’ and campaigns against political correctness. The focus of the book, however, is not just the ideological and material victories of the right but also – crucially – how the responses by the left have facilitated these advances.
The Strength of Trigger Warnings derives in part from Sparrow’s sharp understanding of the history of both the right and the left. The genealogies he traces begin in the 1960s, when Mario Savio gave his famous speech as part of the Berkeley Free Speech movement. When then Governor of California Ronald Reagan sent the national guard to the Berkeley campus, he declared the conservative opposition to such a movement. Sparrow goes on to chronicle the education wars under the Reagan presidency, and later to the anti-PC campaigns by means of which the right successfully positioned itself as the bastion of free speech.
The success of progressive changes brought in since the 1960s required the moderation of overt racism or sexism in favour of arguments against equal opportunity and anti-discrimination measures – all in the name of freedom from a new authoritarianism. The publication of Allan Bloom’s very influential book The Closing of the American Mind was an important moment. Building on a tradition of conservative animus against the university that featured the likes of William F Buckley Jr and Irving Kristol, the book was distinctive for its elitist argument in defence of cultural freedom against the forces of diversity, social relevance and postmodernism. In the context of the debates about political correctness, this position morphed into an anti-elitist defence of ordinary common sense against the concerns of overeducated leftists.
Sparrow has emerged as strong voice on the left, first as Overland editor, then through his Guardian columns and numerous books, including the recent No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson. In Trigger Warnings, he argues that since the 1960s progressives have disabled themselves by abandoning ‘direct politics’ and its emphasis on drawing connections, structural change, and mobilisation from below. As the organisations of the left went into decline, activists moved into the universities or the public service, positioning themselves as representing the political interests of passive constituencies. This top-down ‘delegated politics’ was reliant on legal measures or university administrations, giving anti-PC campaigns the kind of traction hitherto not available when students were actively mobilising on campus.
The left’s connection with the working class is part of what was disastrously conceded. Sparrow notes how neoconservative ‘new class’ theories were used in the 1960s to condemn the New Left, positing the eclipse of the working class and the rise of college-educated, white collar elites. This new class was identified by its ideas rather than in the classical Marxist sense by its social position, creating a contrast between the supposed social conservatism of the working class and the radicalism of these new elites. This narrative contrasts with the much more complicated history of this period, involving the proletarianisation of white collar workers as well as a wave of strikes by blue collar ones.
New class theory came into its own with the culture wars of the 1990s. It is at this time that Republicans saw the utility of combining free-market advocacy with Pat Buchanan’s nativist rantings against equal marriage, pornography and environmentalism. Neoconservatives would launch skirmishes about patriotism or morality, drawing the left away from issues like economic inequality and into the safer realm of culture. Sparrow describes here a ’virtuous circle’ in which neoliberalism sheds jobs, followed by neoconservatives deflecting anger towards the delegated left, resulting in the election of more neoliberals. And so on.
While these arguments are rooted in American politics, Trigger Warnings draws constant parallels with the situation in Australia. In this part of the world, the rise of delegated politics under Hawke and Keating brought a wide range of progressives into mainstream politics. Sparrow doesn’t mention the Franklin Dam campaign, which arguably formed the direct politics backdrop to the election of Hawke and from there a new ‘delegated’ strain within green politics. However, he does examine the Accord, which gave union leaders the power to influence economic policy in return for a new consensus-based approach to industrial relations. Importantly, Hawke and Keating also oversaw the introduction of neoliberalism, which led to substantial restructuring and job losses. The simultaneous development of delegated politics and greater inequality would allow the right to blame the latter on the former.
Sparrow tracks the opening shots in Australia’s culture/history wars to John Howard’s first period as Liberal leader, in the late 1980s, when he targeted Asian immigration and rejected claims of past injustices against Indigenous people. At this time, Howard accused Labor of being beholden to (new-class) special interests. When he returned to the leadership, in 1995, he changed his strategy, accepting the disendorsement of right-wing candidate Pauline Hanson and attacking political correctness rather than Asian immigration. While Howard embraced neoliberalism, he also deflected anger at its consequences by blaming them on the delegated politics of the ALP.
Trigger Warnings also draws attention to the relationship between the insider anti-elitism of Howard and the outsider anti-elitism of Hanson. Howard left the bomb-throwing on history and identity to Hanson, hoping that the left would be drawn into the fight. Despite media narratives focused on the supposed bigotry of workers, most of Hanson’s support came from the lower middle classes, typically the base of right-wing populism. This group was wary of big-money interests but anxious about falling back into the working class. Derision of Hanson’s ‘please explain’ comment to a reporter’s question about ‘xenophobia’ focused the anxieties of her supporters on sneering elites.
The book acknowledges ongoing examples of direct politics alternatives such as the anti-corporate politics of the late 1990s. Such movements, mobilising against structural injustices, saw the influence of outsider anti-elitism diminish. Millions of people marched in opposition to the War in Iraq, including 300,000 in Melbourne. However, in contrast with previous anti-war movements, people participated as individuals rather than as part of representative organisations. Sparrow makes the important observation that the left’s weakness was evident in how this mobilisation was ignored.
Worse still, when the anti-war movement failed to maintain its momentum as the wars dragged on, there developed on the left a brand of smug politics that regarded ordinary people as backward and gullible. Straws in the wind here included Michael Moore’s very successful book Stupid White Men, whose central argument was that an idiot nation had voted for an idiot president. Media personalities like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert gained a new prominence at this time, employing a knowing savviness about the stupidity of political opponents. This may have amused and flattered their leftist audiences, but politically it converted nobody and fed the narrative of the right.
Sparrow surveys progressive politics during this period and sees squandered opportunities. He discusses Kevin Rudd’s an essay for The Monthly which highlighted the contradiction between neoliberalism and neoconservatism, but singularly failed to recognise the role of rage in squaring the circle. Barack Obama’s strategy of replacing rancour with moderation only fueled anger on the back of the global financial crisis. Both Rudd and Obama made big promises but were unwilling to fight for them. Rudd’s popularity plummetted not because of indifference to the abandoned Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, but because hope for action on this issue was widepread. Sparrow points out that right-wing firebrands like Glenn Beck may have not had the kind of traction they did without the tone deaf and small-target politics of progressives.
The book also scans the areas of identity politics, privilege, call-out culture and trigger warnings. It is questionable whether the separatism that developed from this kind of politics is only a problem of delegated politics as a reading of the book might suggest. Nevertheless, as radicalism moves from the streets to the university, identity politics does evolve from a way of relating experience to broader oppressions and becomes a political project in itself. Crucially, this project subsumes social and economic differences, further distancing proponents of delegated politics from their consituencies. Gillard delivery of her much-lauded speech against misogyny in the Australian Parliament on the very same day her government cut benefits to single parents was a telling moment.
Finally, we come to Trump, who Sparrow sees as the coming to power of outsider anti-elitism. Instinctively perhaps, Trump didn’t just play to the prejudices of a media platform like Infowars, but connected with its revolt against the status quo. Where Hillary Clinton was associated with structural adjustment and failed wars, Trump spoke to economic suffering and de-industrialisation. When she declared that America was already great, or that Trump didn’t abide by the normal standards of political behaviour, it did nothing but validate his narrative. Mobilising the politics of ‘border security’ and islamophobia allowed Trump to accuse his opponents of lacking courage.
Sparrow might have made reference here to what the late Mark Fisher called ‘capitalist realism’ – that is to say, the general acceptance of the lack of alternatives to capitalism – and how it has come under some pressure. He points instead to Bernie Sanders as an example of how a constituency can be mobilised around the income gap, corporate power and the fight for a new economic order. And yet, events like Brexit and Trump merely confirmed for the delegated left that democracy was dangerous. Sparrow observes that it is Trump’s populism as much as his supposed fascism that progressives view as threatening. The ‘Women’s March’ a few days after the election brought 500,000 people to the streets. Instead of using this show of power to fight back, the Democratic leadership focused on Russia and removing Trump through the courts.
Trigger Warnings is a brave book, best read as a call for the left to re-examine its strategies during a period of immense danger, to take stock of its key resources and to align itself with the experience of ordinary people without lessening its focus on sexism, racism or homophobia. The recent campaign for marriage equality – where activists mobilised a constituency against political elites – is a relevant example. Regarding people as part of the solution, campaigners organised meetings, marches and petitions to shift opinion and win the referendum.
At a forum in Trades Hall last year, Sparrow was asked whether he could have been more forthright in reclaiming the language of class struggle. He partly conceded the point, and it’s difficult not to agree – especially given that the book addresses itself to a future left. On the other hand, Sparrow is also aware of potential criticism regarding a return to direct politics, given that the institutions of the left have been hollowed out by decades of delegated politics.
The book’s response to this last question is to point to the persistence of resistance as an antidote to the wretchedness of injustice. Sparrow invokes here the early struggles for gay liberation, where activists remade themselves in the process of challenging the wider society to transform itself. He also discerns the growing sense that symbolic gestures, on climate change or Indigenous rights, are not convincing or inspiring anymore. Finally, in response to the actual utopianism of a ruling class offering on business as usual in the face of the prospect of planetary death, Sparrow returns to the words of the great Irish socialist revolutionary James Connolly:
For our demands most moderate are,
We only want the earth.
Triggers Warnings: Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right is published through Scribe.
Jeff Sparrow is a former editor of Overland.