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Life is a lemon (And I want my money back): The failure of the Left

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on: 11 February 2017, 5:47 IST

'No one saw it coming'. It's a convenient phrase of the Aftermath. The millions who voted for Brexit and for Donald Trump certainly saw it. They actively helped bring it on. So who didn't see it coming?

The Left-liberal elites who ran the Remain and Clinton campaigns didn't see it coming. Why?-for they refused to listen to their own people, ordinary people, dismissed as 'a basket of deplorables.'

Both with Brexit and with Trump's victory, the subsequent response of the liberals was disbelief, anger and denial. 'Who are these people?' 'What have they done?!' 'It isn't my country anymore.' Apocalypse is around the corner. Flee the land.

The attention of CNN, for example, was focussed on anti-Trump protests. Even after Trump's victory, no one seemed to be listening to the Trump voters, or ask them what they thought and felt. The liberals said: 'Oh, but what will I tell my children?' Trump supporters didn't have any such anxieties. They felt the opposite. They told their children: 'Everything's gonna be fine, we've put the right man in the driver's seat. America will be great again.'

Also read - This is the age of nativism. Brexit, Trump & Hindutva are just symptoms

This shutting out of the working class, even when they have delivered their verdict, is repeating the oversight of the campaign. These are the people you should have been listening to and you are continuing with that mistake of not listening even now.

So the focus in the liberal press continues to remain on stories that are about Americans coping with Trump stress. 'Take it one day at a time. You will beat the Trump blues.' According to them, Trump's win can be blamed on a rise of post-truth politics. You can't wish away reality by inventing new words. It took Obama to acknowledge the need to listen: "The lesson I draw is that we have to deal with issues like inequality, economic dislocation, people's fears that their children will not do as well as they have."

A billboard-in-neon-letters warning

No one saw it coming.

Brexit was a warning. A billboard-in-neon-letters warning.

The Clinton campaign team didn't think Brexit had any relevance to them. But it did. Now look what you have done. Take some blame. Don't blame the contemptible voter all over again.

Now look what you have done. Take some blame. Don't blame the contemptible voter all over again

Michael Moore saw it coming. Moore repeatedly made clear that while he didn't support Trump he could see where the supporters were coming from. He didn't agree with their solution - Trump - but he listened to them. Just days before the election, he said: "Trump's election is going to be the biggest 'f*ck you' ever recorded in human history - and it will feel good. Whether Trump means it or not is kind of irrelevant because he's saying the things to people who are hurting, and that's why every beaten-down, nameless, forgotten working stiff who used to be part of what was called the middle class loves Trump. He is the human Molotov cocktail that they've been waiting for, the human hand grenade that they can legally throw into the system that stole their lives from them."

The anger and resentment of the non-metropolitan class is captured in American singer Meatloaf's song 'Life is a lemon and I want my money back'. The song is from a different era but it does well to hold a mirror/lend a voice to the very people Trump wooed so successfully, as well as those who voted for Brexit:

It's a never ending attack

Ev'rything's a lie and that's a fact

Life is a lemon and I want my money back

And all the morons

And all the stooges with their coins

They're the ones who make the rules, it's not a game it's just a rout

There's desperation

There's desperation in the air

It leaves a stain on all your clothes and no detergent gets it out

And we're always slipping through the cracks

Then the movie's over, fade to black

Life is a lemon and I want my money back

Also read - What might a Trump presidency mean for Muslims and the Muslim world?

The song goes on to highlight the fading certainties of everyday life, a constantly-eroding status quo:

What about hope?

It's defective! It's corroded and decayed

What about faith?

It's defective! It's tattered and it's frayed

What about your gods?

They're defective! They forgot the warranty

What about your town?

It's defective! It's a dead-end street to me

What about your school?

It's defective! It's a pack of useless lies

What about your work?

It's defective! It's a crock and then you die

Why weren't the Clinton campaign managers tuned into this outpouring of hostile bitterness?

The question we need to ask is: why weren't the Clinton campaign managers tuned into this outpouring of hostile bitterness? They advised her not to waste time on White Catholics. The Times reports that while Bill Clinton was eager she address the group, her campaign leaders felt that it wasn't the audience they were looking for.

Hilary's campaign largely ignored disgruntled White voters in states like Ohio, Iowa, the Florida panhandle, Michigan and Wisconsin, all of which Trump eventually would win.

The censorship of the cozy elite

What we are seeing here, both with Brexit and the rise of Trump, is a failure of the Left. It's a basic failure to engage with people, a closing off into cosy elites that are bewildered by those who don't share their liberal multi-cultural values. As author Jeanette Winterson tweeted on the morning of the Brexit result: '7am and woken up to UKIP England. Never cried for my country before. But it isn't my country anymore. Now we have to build a new Left'.

But the elite do worse than being bewildered. They censor and exclude opinions they don't like - and as we have learnt, you do this at your own peril.

The elite do worse than being bewildered. They censor and exclude opinions they don't like

The anti-Wall Street sentiment needed politicians who could channel this anger, and be seen doing something to fix the inequalities. Clinton was too close to the establishment, having delivered paid speeches to elite financial institutions. Post the 2008 global crash, Labour too was seen as doing little more than propping up the interests of late capitalism as opposed to those of ordinary people.

Right-wing politicians have understood and exploited the anger. Their solutions might be divisive, even destructive, but at least they had their ear to the ground. The liberals had earplugs and shades on. The Left was playing an enhanced virtual reality video game. Everything, it felt, was under control. Now that the virtual goggles are off, reality has hit hard. The punch in the face is hurting and will continue to do so for a long time.

Fashionable Leftism

So what has gone wrong with the Left? After all, the working class and its concerns ought to be its natural constituency. Sometime during Cool Britannia and the Blair era the liberal started getting too trendy for his own good. Those who lived in cities like London and New York lived in a world removed. In the words of Newsweek's Stryker Mcguire:

"As London prospered it drew closer and closer to New York. Money, people and ideas flowed back and forth between the two great world cities. Wall Street salaries, bonuses and even dress codes began to shape City life: in some instances London law firms had to double what they paid newly qualified lawyers because of pressure from the New York competition; City boys began wearing chinos and shirts open at the neck. It was not uncommon for those who could afford it to own homes in both cities. Then, as now, more money was churning through London and New York than through all the rest of the world's financial centres combined. Out of all this grew NY-LON, a single city separated by an ocean."

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No better place to look for a critique of New Labour and Leftism than in the pop culture of Cool Britannia

There's no better place to look for a critique of New Labour and fashionable Leftism than in the pop culture of Cool Britannia itself. Sheffield-born Jarvis Cocker, lead singer of the British band Pulp, is an astute social commentator. He achieves a fine balance in his lyrics where he feels compassion for the working class, looks at the world through an immigrant's perspective, and gently pokes fun at trendy liberals. As a singer/songwriter he stands outside of any political affiliation but examines his surroundings with empathetic detachment.

The xenophobic working class and the immigrant might be at odds with each other in the fight for economic resources, and yet Cocker shows us how the two have much in common. Both are outliers in society; the white working class in their own, while the immigrant is so in a foreign one, having Left her own behind:

We came across the North Sea with our carriers on our knees

Wound up in some holding camp somewhere outside Leeds

Because we do not care to fight, my friends - we are the weeds

Because we got no homes they call us smelly refugees.

Both - the white working class, and the immigrant, are at odds with the metropolitan elite.

The relationship between the metropolitan elite on the one hand and immigrants is a mixed one

The relationship between the metropolitan elite on the one hand and immigrants is a mixed one. In the song 'Weeds', which I quote from above, Jarvis Cocker sings about this elite, the espouser of fashionable green causes, exploiting the immigrant for sex and drugs:

This cut-price dairy produce that turns our bones to dust

You want some entertainment?

Go on, shove it up me - if you must

Make believe you're so turned on by planting trees & shrubs

But you come round to visit us when you fancy booze 'n' drugs.

As Zadie Smith writes in her piece 'Fences: A Brexit Diary' (LRB 18 August):

"For many people in London right now the supposedly multicultural and cross-class aspects of their lives are actually represented by their staff-nannies, cleaners-by the people who pour their coffees and drive their cabs, or else the handful of ubiquitous Nigerian princes you meet in the private schools.' And a little later in the same piece: 'The first instinct of many Remain voters on the Left was that this was only about immigration. When the numbers came in and the class and age breakdown became known, a working-class populist revolution came more clearly into view, although of the kind that always perplexes middle-class liberals who tend to be both politically naive and sentimental about the working classes."

No connect with the little man

This sentimentality about the working classes was something Jarvis Cocker was raging against in 1995, on the cult album Different Class (and which the metropolitan elite loved and made No.1). In 'Common People', a working class protagonist meets a wealthy girl who wants him to show her how the other half lives:

I said pretend you've got no money,

She just laughed and said,

"Oh you're so funny"

I said "Yeah?

Well I can't see anyone else smiling in here.

You'll never live like common people,

You'll never do whatever common people do,

You'll never fail like common people,

You'll never watch your life slide out of view,

And then dance, and drink, and screw--

Because there's nothing else to do

On a track called 'Glory Days', Cocker talks about the ruined hopes of the working class (as also fading national glory):

Oh we were brought up on the space race

Now they expect you to clean toilets

When you've seen how big the world is

How can you make do with this?

The song is an accusatory warning, a call to revolution which will not be violent

But it's on 'Misshapes' that he really captures working class angst on the boil; the song is an accusatory warning, a call to revolution which will not be violent. (As Moore said, voting for Trump is a legal way of registering your anger and protest, just like Brexit was.) The song, in many ways, predicts the politics of England and America in 2016:

Misshapes, mistakes, misfits

Raised on a diet of broken biscuits, oh

We don't look the same as you

And we don't do the things you do

But we live around here too, oh really

Brothers, sisters, can't you see?

The future's owned by you and me

There won't be fighting in the street

They think they've got us beat, but revenge is going to be so sweet, oh-oh-oh

We're making a move, we're making it now

We're coming out of the side-lines

Just put your hands up, it's a raid yeah.

We won't use guns, we won't use bombs

We'll use the one thing we've got more of, that's our minds.

By the time Cocker wrote 'Cocaine Socialism', hip New Labour was wooing him into becoming their poster boy. It was 1997 and elections were round the corner. After all, didn't he have a connect with 'Common People' and the 'Misshapes' of society? The song can now be read as a cynical indictment of what happened to New Labour and how its promise evaporated quickly. A fictional Labour politician is trying to convince Cocker to switch over to his side; the song is addressed to the politician:

Well you sing about "common people" and the "mis-shapes

and the misfits", so can you bring them to my party and get

them all to sniff this?

All I'm really saying is "Come on and rock the vote for me."

All I'm really saying is, "Come on, roll up that note for me..."

And we've waited such a long time for the chance to help our own kind,

so now please come on and tow the party line...

A pushback against political correctness

So where did the Left go wrong in the last fifteen years or so? It ignored the fact that people lived in communities beyond the glitter of NY-LON. Its core focus changed too. Instead of analysing and addressing the modes, means and relations of globalised production, the Left became far too obsessed with the identity politics of race and gender, the environment, and generally being the behaviour policewoman of the world, enforcing such an acute regime of political correctness that all fun went out of language. Words could land you in prison. Or get you fired from a job.

The Left was drifting away from economics and into comparatively frivolous territory. Instead of swimming against the tide, it was content floating paper boats in a circular canal.

The Left kept talking to its own kind. It excluded the other. It was seduced by its own bullet-like jargon

It kept talking to its own kind. It excluded the other. It was seduced by its own bullet-like jargon: 'misogyny', 'xenophobia', 'bigot' and 'sexist'. These words have been used so often and so loosely they've lost their meaning. Using these words now is like shooting blanks.

The working white Catholic families weren't interested. Hispanics weren't interested. Blacks weren't interested. Trump continued to speak 'offensively' but his supporters were not taking offence. Clinton's campaign managers thought that by constantly calling Trump sexist and highlighting his inappropriate behaviour with women was going to do the job for them. As Amy Chozhick wrote in the Times: "The campaign also appeared to overestimate how offended Trump's female supporters would be by a recording in which Trump was heard bragging about grabbing women by the genitals. Trump lost among women by 12 percentage points, about the same deficit Mitt Romney had in 2012."

In many ways Trump's victory was a reaction to the regime of political correctness

In many ways Trump's victory was a reaction to the regime of political correctness.

The Clinton camp showed all the hallmarks of the tyranny of neo-Left totalitarianism. As David Bromwich says: "Probably an inbred trait of human nature renders the attraction of censorship perennial. Most people (the highly literate are among the worst) believe that what is good for them will be good for others."

The Clinton libs forgot they were in an election. This wasn't the media or a house party in a posh metropolitan drawing room, where you can shut out and exclude people who you feel are repugnant or deplorable because they don't agree with your ideas. Instead of indulging in a conversation with them about their problems and concerns, they stopped listening, they stopped talking to them. This was true of the Remain camp as well. Zadie Smith speaks of 'the strange tendency of the younger Lefty generation to censor or silence speech or opinions they consider in some way wrong: no-platforming, safe spaces, and the rest of it.'

David Bromwich again:

"In this new regime of manners, it is impossible to overrate the part played by the soft despotism of social media. Our verbal surroundings online are created by affinity; and each day a hundred small choices close the circle more tightly. You don't say wrong things: the sort of things that will startle your friends. Or rather, your friends by definition are the people who won't be startled by anything you are likely to say.

A new keenness of censorious distrust has come from a built-in suspicion of the outliers in public discussion

But a new keenness of censorious distrust has come from a built-in suspicion of the outliers in public discussion. Social media refer to these people as 'trolls' and sometimes as 'stalkers'; any flicker of curiosity about their ideas is pre-empted by a question that is not a question: 'What's wrong with them?' (emphasis mine). Meanwhile, those inside a given group have their settled audience of friends and followers, to adopt the revealing jargon of Facebook and Twitter: a self-sufficient collectivity and happy to stay that way. To be 'friended' in the Facebook world is to be safe - walled-up and wadded-in by chosen and familiar connections."

The Clinton supporters and Trump-bashers are still asking themselves 'What's wrong with them!' Now, post his victory, the Left is saying 'Don't normalise Trump.' They are yet to come to terms with the truth that there's a real world outside of the social media and its closed circles. The 'trolls' have a vote.

A Left that doesn't listen

These are real fractured communities. They are demanding solutions. Just to take one example: between 2004 and 2005 alone more than 600, 000 immigrants poured into the U.K., mostly from Eastern Europe. This wave was the largest in the country's history. Political correctness doesn't help here because people have lost jobs; there's actual inequality and economic and cultural dislocation on the ground.

In fact, political correctness prevents liberals from having an open debate about authentic undercurrents; there is a blanket unwillingness to discuss these undercurrents.

Also read - President Trump - The media's Frankenstein moment the world has to deal with

In an interview to Quartz, Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek, talking about his new book Refugees, Terror and trouble with the Neighbours says: "The Left tries to ignore the problem-for example they try to underreport problems with immigrants. My book is simply a great desperate call for not keeping silent about this." In Zizek's view, the Left's refusal to confront differences between refugees and Europeans promotes intolerance: "The only one[s] talking about it openly are these anti-immigrant right-wingers, and we are leaving this field to them."

In the new paranoid regime of political correctness, any critique of Islam is dismissed as Islamophobia

Similarly, in the new paranoid regime of political correctness, any critique of Islam is dismissed as Islamophobia. Zizek argues that the European Left should instead have the courage to openly discuss the differences in different sets of values. The biggest challenge for liberals is to get over liberal anxiety.

Trump's supporters and Brexiteers might not be as racist or the many other 'ists' that they are accused of being. Their decisions, unpalatable to metropolitan elites, could be read as cries for help. Or a slap in the face of rulers who won't listen. Or as Obama said recently: "At times of significant stress, people are going to be looking for something and they may opt for change even if they are not entirely confident what that change will bring."

I agree with Jeanette Winterson that 'the Left can tell it better and do it better' but it looks unlikely to happen any time soon. Until then, the right will harness the disaffection to the service of its own twisted goals.

The Left can keep on talking to itself.

First published: 19 November 2016, 6:58 IST