Trump and Brexit: what’s the alternative?

Sometimes when you suffer trauma, you have to look elsewhere to seek out radically new ways of framing things in order to recover. This year we’ve suffered two major traumas – Brexit and the US elections. Who would have believed our world would have been radically reshaped in the space of a few short months?

But the other day, I had the privilege of attending a conference on Rojava, the region of northern Syria that is undergoing a transformatory democratic revolution. Drawing on the insights from the late Murray Bookchin, and his ideas of democratic confederalism, jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan has reinterpreted such ideas for a society rooted in a new form of emancipatory democracy, based on principles of gender equality, ecology and participation.

We were lucky enough to have Debbie Bookchin at the conference who has been doing a fabulous job of reinterpreting her father’s work and linking it further to the Kurdish context.  In the context of attacks from Syria, Turkey and ISIS, such transformations – in a place I know embarrassingly little about – seems unbelievable. But in the space created by war, new experiments are emerging, and many are documented in a great new book, Revolution in Rojava, that was launched at the event. These experiments in new forms of democracy and economy are of course inevitably flawed, fragile and sometimes, as some of the research reported at the conference showed, not quite as the advocates suggest. But they are most definitely inspiring and exciting and perhaps show opportunities for those of us thinking about transformations in other contexts.

For the global traumas of this year have shown the failings of western-styled contemporary democracies. Populist resentment of elites and the effects of neoliberal globalisation have been channelled through narrow, exclusionary, isolationist and protectionist narratives, tinged often with racism, misogyny, and violence against minorities. It is a scary prospect, but one with real, material root causes.  As the brilliant Guardian commentator Gary Younge put it, reflecting on the day after the US election result, ”A new normal has been established literally overnight; divisive in its rhetoric, authoritarian in its impulses, untethered in its ideology, it wears its vulgarity and ignorance as a badge of honour.”

Those on the left did not expect the challenge to neoliberal globalisation to emerge from such quarters. Led by a populist business mogul and a band of anti-immigration advocates, the new venal, regressive, right-wing transformations in the US and UK, and also sweeping the world in other guises (think Narendra Modi, for example). They will of course not benefit the poor, disenfranchised (former) working class who were central to these electoral revolts. We know enough about the political economy of capitalism to know that populist responses have severe limits. But this change has unleashed a set of views, attitudes and threats that have remained suppressed in what we mistakenly thought was a new set of stable social norms.

Learning from transformations

So how to rebuild, and seek an alternative, that taps into the real concerns of those who have been disempowered, forgotten and impoverished by recent waves and  globalised neoliberalism? There has been lots of hand-wringing in liberal commentary, focusing on ‘reconnecting’ beyond the metropolitan elite. But, as Paul Mason notes, there is little imagination of how. The mobilisations of Momentum in the UK, Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece are often pointed to. But can Rojava offer lessons too?

While contexts are radically different, and transformations forged in the context of war, and with the use of violence, may be peculiar, I wondered at our conference about how transformations do happen, and through what politics. ‘Transformation’, ‘inclusion’, sustainability’ and the rest are the buzzwords of the contemporary era – at least in the cosy liberal circles of environment and development research. They are words that can be attached to virtually everything; but to make sense of them, they have to be located in a politics of change that sees them not just as window-dressing but signalling more fundamental shifts, and challenges to the status quo. The recent insurgencies in the West – and I would predict more to come in 2017 – are rooted in real challenges to the distribution of power and resources.

These are reflected sometimes in rather inward-looking, bigoted, isolationist reactions around immigration and nationalism, but at root this is about who gains and who loses. To my mind, a new politics of redistribution is needed, one that challenges the incumbencies of the elites – the bankers and financiers, the metropolitan politicians, the massive land owners and elite multinational businesses that can escape any tax or regulatory regime – head on. As Nancy Fraser argued way back, with a politics of redistribution must come a politics of recognition, so trampled on by recent electoral rhetoric. And a theorisation of transformation must also address a more fundamental regalvanisation of political practice – and here the democratic confederalism of Rojava may have a role in contributing to collective thinking.

The negotiation of new forms of highly decentralised democratic authority – which in other contexts must recognise a central state with a new role – is a challenge and requires relearning political practices, cultures and roles for citizen participation. But as in Rojava, it needs to go beyond lots of meetings and time-consuming interactions, as these are inevitably most burdensome to the poor and marginalised. It needs to provide the basis for an economic programme of empowerment and redistribution, where a wider group are given access to basic assets and opportunities. In some settings this may be land reform; in others active job creation; in others the channelling new sources of finance. But whatever the focus, a new politics of redistribution must be central.

A move of this sort was vital to the emergence of the great transformations of the twentieth century, creating for example the welfare state in the UK. In this century, a state-led transformation in the aftermath of war is unlikely to happen, but transformations must connect states, markets and citizens, galvanised by new technologies, around the fundamental challenges of our time – addressing inequalities and enhancing sustainability. This was the lesson from our thinking at the STEPS Centre in the book The Politics of Green Transformations, and reflected in a recent wide-ranging literature review article of mine on the politics of sustainability and development.

With the traumas of the last year to make sense of, and the Rojava experience to draw inspiration from, I think we can and must go further than these analyses, defining a more acutely political agenda for mobilising for transformations centred on redistribution. For me there is no more important project for us collectively today; and it is as relevant in the US and the UK as it is throughout the world.

Image: Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore on Flickr (cc by-sa 2.0)


  1. I appreciate the parallels drawn here as well as the recognition of the need to explore validity underlying recent upheavals in the West through understanding the experience of those behind the ballots. I agree that the essential cry of these populist upsets is the call for recognition of the way in which current systems (economic, political, and social) favor a small elite group and that a solution could be a turn towards an increasingly decentralized democratic authority. My question is who do you see as driving this politics of redistribution? Will it be those who have voted against the status quo? Or those who now (at least in the U.S.) feel that they have been marginalized by the recent changes? Which groups are the ones who must be effectively mobilized in order to enact these shifts?

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