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Editorial: A centrist washout – liberal agony and the US election

HOW much evidence is needed before the collapse of centrism is evident to centrists?

The days of drawn-out ballot-counting that – despite President Donald Trump’s best efforts to stop it – have followed November 2’s vote amount to failure by the Democrats, even if their man manages to stagger over the finishing line first.

Trump’s record is abysmal. For the richest and most powerful country on the planet to suffer the highest numbers of Covid infections and deaths is a staggering indictment of his government. For all the bluster, Trump has not made good either on promises to rebuild US manufacturing or re-establish US economic supremacy. Trends showed the opposite even before coronavirus struck.

Yet Trump has received more votes than in 2016. The Democrats have also lost ground in congressional elections, showing that a still-hypothetical president Joe Biden may be chasing “an American middle that no longer seems to exist,” in the words of the Financial Times.

There are echoes here of the well-funded but futile bids to rebuild the “centre ground” in Britain between 2016 and19: the “independent group” that morphed into Change UK, an organisation designed to do the opposite of its name; the People’s Vote and associated pro-EU campaigns, and the efforts centred on the Liberal Democrats. 

If Biden makes it to the White House we will see some of the triumphalist hymns to a world turned right-side-up again that accompanied Emmanuel Macron’s election in France three years ago. 

The liberal euphoria over President Macron ignored inconvenient facts: this saviour of the centre got less than a quarter of the vote in a first round where only a few percentage points divided first from fourth place, and won the run-off — against a fascist — on the lowest turnout in modern French history. His privatising economic agenda has since only been upheld by the deployment of massive state violence against working-class and trade-union resistance.

For the rise of “populism,” as the liberal centre tends to define both the rhetorically anti-system hard right and the actually anti-system radical left, was not solved by Macron’s narrow win and would not be by Biden’s. 

To those who see the existing liberal capitalist order as essentially just, opposition to it is only explicable as the result of foreign manipulation – hence the fixation on evidence-free claims that Russia “fixed” Brexit or Trump’s 2016 win and on demands that the state and giant corporations do more to censor and suppress “fake news.” 

But socialists see liberalism’s crisis as connected to developments in the global capitalist economy — the accelerating concentration of wealth in fewer hands, the volatility of debt-driven economies whose “investors” demand such rapacious rewards that they hollow out the very companies that generate them, the proletarianisation of white-collar and skilled blue-collar workers as their job security and pay are attacked. There is no answer to these problems that does not require structural change.

Such change threatens the interests of the few who own and control the means of production. This is why when its own candidates fail, the “liberal” centre, loyal to capitalist property relations, rallies to the right, not the left: why the Democratic and Labour machines prioritised the destruction of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn over their ability to defeat Trump or Boris Johnson.

Having vanquished the left, it has nothing to offer but a “back to normal” that is utterly unattractive to an increasingly precarious majority. The gamble is that they will win office on the strength of their opponents’ failings. Events in the US show that is far from guaranteed. 

But even if it is pulled off, the dream of resetting politics to a renewed liberal normal is a fantasy disconnected from the lived reality of hundreds of millions of workers across the developed world, and from mounting scientific evidence that our economic system is as unsustainable as it is unjust.

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