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Thu. October 18, 2018
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Populist Nationalism, Brexit and Trump: Where Marx went wrong
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The Brexit and Trump vote demonstrates a drastic incongruity with Marx’s prediction of a ‘proletariat revolution’ (Marx & Engels, 1964, p. 76) that would ‘destroy all previous insecurities for, and insurance of, individual property’ (Marx & Engels, 1964, p. 76). However, he stands corrected in the notion that the bourgeoisie ‘creates a world in its own image’ (Marx & Engels, 1964, p. 65) through the inevitable expansion of capitalism globally. This is essentially the argument of this paper. Firstly, this paper discusses the points in which Marx is proven right – creation and expansion of a world market and periodical commercial crises that ‘threaten the existence of bourgeois property [and society]’ (Marx & Engels, 1964, p. 68) – which this paper argues as factors that provide some explanation for the Brexit and Trump vote. Secondly, it concentrates on the concept of ‘populist nationalism’ (Calhoun, 2016, p. 54) that Marx had failed to acknowledge in his conception of a proletariat revolution. Finally, this paper concludes by shedding light on Marx’s concept of ‘false consciousness’ (Barker, 2012, p. 63) based on the model of ‘social totality’ (Marx, 1964, p. 74) to reconcile Marx’s failure.  

Brexit and Trump through Marxist Theory

Creation and expansion of a world market

Marx (1964) argues that capitalism is cosmopolitan in nature due to its constant need of an expanding market for its products. The bourgeoisie, who are the rulers of a capitalist society, achieve this market expansion by rapidly improving all instruments of production and facilitating means of communication (Marx & Engels, 1964, p. 64) that eventually force nations and populations to ‘adopt bourgeois mode of production’ (Marx & Engels, 1964, p. 64). This has been the exact trajectory of modern capitalist society with rapid expansion of bourgeois ideology through establishments such as the World Trade Organisation, International Monetary Fund and the World Bank that promote neoliberal policies, such as market deregulation, exchange rate management and free trade, making what Marx calls ‘nations of peasants’, i.e. developing nations dependent on ‘nations of bourgeois’ (Marx & Engels, 1964, p. 65), i.e. developed nations.

This cosmopolitan nature of capitalism that allows cross border economic activity between nations in distinct stages of development brings about ‘economic insecurity’ (Inglehart & Norris, 2016, p. 3) amongst the working class, i.e. the proletariat, who do not own the means of production as the bourgeois do, are regarded as a ‘commodity’ and are therefore exposed to market competition and fluctuation (Marx & Engels, 1964, p. 69). Brexit and Trump vote can be understood to an extent through this framework of economic insecurity faced by the proletariat in both the UK and the US due to expansion of a world market. Brexit voters were those ‘without jobs, or retired’ (Calhoun,  2016, p. 51) A report by NatCen (2016) shows that 59% of Leave voters belonged to the working class, i.e. the proletariat, and 84% of those who voted to Leave believe that the economy will be better off after Brexit. Similarly, Trump voters were America’s ‘industrial working class’ (Pabst,  2016b, p. 192) which included low-waged unskilled workers, poorer white populations, the long-term unemployed and households dependent on shrinking social benefits (Inglehart & Norris, 2016, p. 2). Both set of voters were ‘economic losers’ of the world market and their votes gave them ‘political victories over the economic winners for the first time since the Second World War’ (Pabst, 2016a, para. 3).

Periodical commercial crises that threaten bourgeois society

The capitalist system is periodically hit by commercial crises that result in an ‘epidemic of overproduction’ (Marx & Engels, 1964, p. 67) which threatens the existence of bourgeois society. The 2008 financial crisis is a recent example of a commercial crisis faced by capitalist society that threatened its existence. Bourgeois institutions such as large multinational banks produced debt that threatened bourgeois property and society overall as well as the proletariat. While proletariat jobs were lost, and their communities drowned in debt created by these bourgeois institutions (Pabst, 2016b, p. 193), the institutions themselves were rewarded for their greed and failure by the ‘bourgeois state’ (Marx & Engels, 1964, p. 70) through expensive bail outs (Pabst, 2016a, para.4), the cost of which was incurred by proletariat taxpayers in the UK and the US. British banks received a staggering 850 billion pounds from the government with the eventual cost to taxpayers not yet known (Grice, 2009, para. 1).  US government on the other hand committed 16.8 trillion dollars towards the bailout with 4.6 trillion already paid out (Collins, 2015, para. 1).

Furthermore, Marx argues that the bourgeoisie overcome these periodical crises by ‘the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones’ (Marx & Engels, 1964, p. 68). The fact that the bourgeois mode of production continues to conquest new markets and exploit old ones regardless of the 2008 financial crisis, that indebted the proletariat drastically and cushioned the bourgeoisie failure, proves Marx right. Brexit and Trump can be understood as the collective frustration of an economically dispossessed proletariat of both nations who have put their foot down as a class against ‘free-market fundamentalism’ (Pabst, 2016a, para. 4) promoted by the bourgeoisie. Thus, there appears a ‘national struggle [in the US and the UK] between classes’ and since ‘every class struggle is a political struggle’ (Marx & Engels, 1964, p. 73) the phenomena of Brexit and Trump has emerged.

The above analysis of Marx’s arguments regarding creation and expansion of a world market and periodical economic crises demonstrate that these were factors that played a key role in the Brexit and Trump vote. An expanding world market spread the bourgeois ideology worldwide and created a capitalist society which produced economic losers (Brexit and Trump voters) that were exploited by the economic winners (the professional elite of the UK and the US). In terms of economic crises, Marx was proven right in predicting that they would occur, i.e. the 2008 financial crisis, as well as be overcome through further exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie and its institution, i.e. the bailout and its cost that was incurred by the proletariat.

While these factors explain why the Brexit and Trump vote occurred, they do not fully encapsulate the nuances in both phenomena. Although it seems that the status quo of capitalist society has been shaken due to the Brexit and Trump vote, it is nowhere close to the proletariat revolution that Marx had predicted.

Brexit and Trump through Populist Nationalism

The ‘revolutionary class’ (Marx & Engels, 1964, p. 75), which is the proletariat, was to ‘alter the system of class rule’ (Halliday, 1994, p. 65). However, what has occurred due to both phenomena is a political revolution which only changed the form of government (Halliday, 1994, p. 65) while keeping the bourgeois society intact. This is because Marx failed to acknowledge the crucial factor and powerful rhetoric of populist nationalism. 

Critics of Marx argue that he underestimated the bourgeois state which he believed would ‘wither away in its internal dimension, i.e. vis-à-vis society’ (Halliday, 1994, p. 70). An example of this underestimation of the state is nationalism – an ideology that has ‘persistently proved itself superior to class loyalties as a means of mobilising mass support, amongst oppressed and oppressor alike’ (Halliday, 1994, pp. 70-71). Nationalism played a pivotal role in the vote for Brexit and Trump – with Leave voters rejecting the branding of ‘cosmopolitan, creative and united Britain as a part of a happy vision of globalization’ in favour of ‘cultural cohesion’ and ‘old fashioned notion of sovereignty’ (Calhoun, 2016, pp. 52-53) and Trump supporters favouring national sovereignty and tradition over cosmopolitanism and modernisation (Pabst, 2016b, p. 193). The similarities between reasons supported by both set of voters is uncanny and distinctly demonstrates how nationalism is an extremely powerful ideology that can override class allegiances and sway the proletariat, who are the losers of an expanding world market, to make emotive decisions based on national solidarity that achieve little in dismantling the bourgeois state and society.

Another dimension to the ideology of nationalism that is pertinent to the Brexit and Trump vote is the concept of populism. Populism is defined as a ‘political movement that emphasizes the interests, cultural traits, and spontaneous feelings of the common people, as opposed to those of a privileged elite’ (Di Tella 1995, as cited in Plattner, 2010, p. 88). Populist movements inherently carry an ‘anti-elitist’ tone as they pit common people against the privileged elite and are often led by ‘strong and charismatic leaders’ (Eiermann, 2016, p. 32). Furthermore, populists promote their agenda as the ‘will of the majority’, i.e. democracy, and it is so in a ‘majoritarian sense’ as although they justify their agenda as the ‘embodiment of the people’ (Plattner, 2010, p. 88), they exclude the disadvantaged minority, i.e. racial and economical, along with the privileged. Thus, populist movements do not necessarily align along economic terms but tend to be ‘antagonistic to cultural, linguistic, religious and racial minorities’ (Plattner, 2010, p. 88). In sum, ‘the common people’ for populists are homogenous in cultural and economic terms and therefore populist movements include as much as they exclude (Eiermann, 2016, p. 33).

Populist nationalism, a factor that has emerged within the Brexit and Trump phenomena, then is a populist movement based on sentiments of the people who subscribe to the ideology of British or American nationalism, while vehemently excluding the privileged minority who have benefitted from an expanding world market as well as the disadvantaged minority such as immigrants and other racial minorities. Furthermore, anti-elite sentiments can be seen in both the Brexit and Trump vote. The Leave campaigners were mobilised largely against the political and economic elites (privileged elite) who were seemingly uncaring about those that had been ‘bypassed by globalization’ (Calhoun, 2016, p. 53) and Trump similarly aggravated working-class America against the ‘out-of-touch elite’, of which he is very much a part of (Pabst, 2016b, p. 194).

Moreover, exclusion of immigrants (the disadvantaged minority) and extreme xenophobia was largely seen in these populist movements that brought about Brexit and Trump. Brexit vote was a vote rejecting foreigners (Berman, 2016, p. 188) which included economic migrants as well as refugees. Trump’s entire campaign was xenophobic in predating people of colour, people from Muslim and Hispanic backgrounds who were American citizens and refugees. Lastly, while the Leave campaign did not have a charismatic leader behind which the movement grew, it was already brewing on Euroscepticism advanced by the UK Independence Party (Ahluwalia & Miller, 2016, pp. 453-454) that led to the referendum and working-class America had Trump who championed racist rhetoric as means to his political end.

Thus, nationalism and populism played a massive role in the vote for Brexit and Trump.  Nationalism essentially flourished because working class Britain and America felt threatened by international forces (world market) and populism thrived because the same people felt betrayed by political and economic elites (Calhoun, 2016, p. 54). Rather than a proletariat revolution that would destroy bourgeois property and society, the vote for Brexit and Trump was a political revolution carried out by the proletariat of both nations that changed the form of government while failing to dismantle the system of class rule due to a surge in populist nationalism.


The failure of a proletariat revolution can be accounted to the state of false consciousness which disables the proletariat from seeing the ‘deep structures of exploitation’ (Barker, 2012, p. 63). Such a state exists because the base of the social totality model, where relations of production reside, express the political and ideological relations in the superstructure, leading to a social totality that is run by the capitalist ideology of the bourgeoisie (Marx, 1964, p. 74). Although the Brexit and Trump vote was a result of the proletariat acknowledging its exploitation by the bourgeois society, it was not because they recognised the real exploitation of their means of production but because they recognised with the strong bourgeois ideology of populist nationalism under a false state of consciousness.

Hence, the Brexit and Trump vote did little to change the status quo – governments were changed but bourgeois society survived. Thus, Marx was proven right in conceptualising an expanding world market and periodical economic crises, two factors which explain the Brexit and Trump vote to a certain extent, however, proven wrong in undermining the power of bourgeois ideologies, such as the one of nationalist populism, which would hamper the occurrence of a proletariat revolution due to the proletariat being stuck in a state of false consciousness.  

Ananya Bordoloi is a B.A graduate from Monash University Malaysia where she majored in Global Studies and gained a High Achiever scholarship. She holds an International Baccalaureate Diploma from Calcutta International School. Her research interests are in the fields of international relations, global governance and human rights. Ms. Bordoloi has previously worked with Amnesty International (Malaysia) in research and data collection capacity, and for a publishing company as a preliminary editor. She is due to start work at Public Affairs Centre (think-tank) in India.



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Comments in Chronological order (2 total comments)

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Mon, February 12, 2018 02:20 AM (about 5961 hours ago)
Ms. Ananaya has done a very good analysis on Marx economics and prevailing economic trend worldwide
Tue, February 20, 2018 06:59 AM (about 5765 hours ago)
brilliant, we would like to repost it, please contact us for approval under dessa@ifimes.org
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