Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
The Edwardian cartoon imagines society as a malevolent wedding cake. Atop is the elite: they “rule you”, below them priests who “fool you”, beneath the forces of order who “shoot you”, and at the bottom, the trampled ordinary working man who “works for all”.
It was a staple of industrial anti-capitalist propaganda, but with just a little updating – a metropolitan elite offshoring jobs and underpaying immigrants at the top; the mainstream media in the middle, jihadi terrorists doing the shooting, and the ordinary folk at the bottom – it could grace a Trump infographic. Trump, with his international hotel chain, might be a hypocrite, but no more than Engels, heir to a Manchester Factory. In any case, personal morality didn’t count, argued Marx, one’s role in the economic system was decisive.
That system, as university students are still taught today, was rigged against the workers, economic and political power concentrated against them, until in the end the owners of capital would devour each other, send the respectable middle class down to penury until too few were left to defend themselves, and they would be overwhelmed by revolution.
It finds its echo in populists’ assertion that wealthy city dwellers receive the benefits of immigration: the hard-working staff, the cheap dry-cleaners, nail salons and other services and the neighbourhoods nearby which the elite enjoy describing as “vibrant”. All the while the ordinary people suffer the overcrowded schools and hospitals, surges in house prices and rising taxes to pay for benefits bills, and whose neighbourhoods are changed out of all recognition by mass immigration.
One could, like virtually every economist, point out these fears are misplaced, but one will no more be listened to than the Alfred Marshall (who explained why the labour theory of value, on which Marx’s contention that the capitalists stole value contributed by the workers depended, was false).
That it’s not really true that immigrants cause these problems – bear with me, sceptical reader – is not the point at issue. Internal migration, after all, is much greater in volume and someone arriving from Kettering puts as much pressure on housing, health and education services as they would if they came from Krakow or Karachi. Yes there’s the question of the education of children whose first language isn’t English, but that ought to be within the ability of the world’s most advanced economies to address. And it’s still the case that immigrants are unpopular chiefly in areas where there are relatively few (indeed for Trump’s supporters we might fairly add “recent immigrants”: the controversial UKIP poster bearing the slogan “He didn’t care about immigration/Now he lives on a reservation” benefited, in that case, from being a true if rather partial description of the effects of, ahem, British immigration to North America).
The economic fissure isn’t principally about immigration but globalisation. Immigrants, along with people working in globally oriented industries: investment banks, commercial English law, and people lucky enough to buy houses in London in the 1990s are its main beneficiaries. By contrast, relatively uneducated white men – for whom the benefits of globalisation in the form of cheap holidays and consumer goods come nowhere near to compensating them for their loss of social position; and mid-level public sector workers, journalists and academics whose access to good schools, safe neighbourhoods and the other attributes of a British middle class lifestyle has been put at risk by their fast rising prices, are the losers. Though who you choose to blame – the bankers or the immigrants – is a matter of political colour, Trump and Sanders, Farage and Corbyn, even Grillo and Salvini in Italy all play to the proletarians of this new class division: between the winners and losers in the new global economy.
The policies the populists advocate: restrictions on immigration, a return to labour-intensive manufacturing, hostility to foreign investment, and according to taste, raising the temperature of anti-Muslim or anti-capitalist incitement, will harm the people on whose behalf they would be enacted. But it is a mistake to think their popularity results from their reasoned endorsement of their premises. Globalisation’s losers see other people do better than them; worry that their children are ill-equipped for the competition they have to face and that they won’t be able to find a secure job or ever own a house. They rightly perceive that the establishment’s solution for their economic malaise, cheap debt in the form of student loans or “help to buy” at best delays the inevitable; and at worst will crush their children if interest rates go up or that university degree doesn’t turn out to be as lucrative as promised. They are right to be scared and not a little angry.
Today’s populists, like the Marxists of the industrial age mix resentment at the injustice of the economic system with economically illiterate prophesies of its transformation. Trump will no more make America great again than the dictatorship of the proletariat would emancipate the workers. Nonetheless, the attractiveness of Trumpism should serve as a warning. In Britain, Germany, and the United States the left- and right-wing populist constituencies have been split by the culture wars, but when they unite, as they have done in Poland and Greece, they can seize power. Once in charge they threaten to reduce liberal democracy to the majoritarian maladministration that has proven so disastrous in Argentina and Venezuela.
The original Marxists were defeated not by adopting their self-defeating policy programme but by improving the economic conditions and opportuninties of the working class. From the 1870s onward, revolutionary socialism was defeated across the West by decades of effort to elevate the condition of the working people in industrialising society. Doing so in a globalising society will take just as much effort and ingenuity.