Trump, Xi, Putin, Kim, Johnson, Assad, Erdogan, Netanyahu, bin Salman, Duterte, Bolsonaro, Maduro, Lukashenko, …. this is only the start of the list of today’s global kakistocracy: the government of the worst, the most unscrupulous national leaders. Their military, economic and political interactions drive the direction of today’s global capitalism. The most pivotal at present is Trump.
The US President’s behaviour can be stupefying; but we must not be mesmerised by his repugnant personality and miss what is going on in the American bourgeoisie as a whole. Despite a minority popular vote, he entered the White House through the electoral college vote. His campaign had rubbished the Democratic Party in its entirety and the Republican Party elite, and to this he added an exhibition of an astonishing level of narcissism, buffoonery and indifference to the usual norms of behaviour of his class, Trump has been able to thwart the customary functioning of the institutions of state, political parties and the media – and maintain to a considerable degree the affection of his core electoral constituency.
Domestically, his first three years built on his predecessor’s economic policies, the bringing home of a considerable amount of American investment capital through which he hoped for significant job creation. He maintained his campaign rhetoric regarding race, immigrants and Democrats and showed how much he valued social division for ramping up the hate message. However, the shocking events of 2020 – the extra-judicial murders, the protests against racism and the brutal backlash, the Covid-19 pandemic and the crisis in the economy have already eclipsed everything that went before in Trump’s presidency. Add the wildfires running on the West coast and the hurricanes on the East and we get a metaphorical apocalypse.
While there is no ‘method in his madness’, his adopted role of disruptor has shaken up much received wisdom in the American ruling class about multi-lateral trade arrangements, immigration and, perhaps most of all, foreign policy. And, given that the US has the largest economy and the most powerful military capability, his actions have spread turbulence across the world – not only economically and militarily but also politically and culturally.
With 32 days to go before the 3 November American presidential election, it is timely to consider in a broad way what Trump’s presidency has meant so far, and what might lie ahead.
Trump as Attractor
How did Trump get his constituency?
In bourgeois democracies, the notion that ‘one person, one vote’ is what it’s about is a nonsense. Gerrymandering, negotiation between the parties, funding from powerful interest groups, manipulations of electoral colleges, propaganda – direct and via broadcast and print media – and bribery all have roles. Additionally, rulers take risks by giving votes to what might be fickle electorates. The 2016 presidential election result astonished everyone: parties, pollsters and Trump. But to understand how it came about we have to look back to how the electorate was primed for just such a candidate.
Trump had long been a national, household name in the US because of his reality TV persona. A crooked real estate operator, Trump’s possibilities were recognised by Mark Burnett, a reality TV producer who made him the lynchpin in his urban ‘survival’ programme, The Apprentice. His political following, however, was created for him elsewhere –by the shock-jock programmes. For decades, nationally syndicated right-wing radio and TV hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Alex Jones had been disparaging the Democratic elite who they said were protecting those who they often targeted (albeit coded for welfare recipients and racial minorities). The radio commentators in particular got huge numbers of calls and feedback from their listeners so they knew their audience well over many years – they understood the widespread disillusionment of many of those ‘left behind’ and knew how to amplify it. They also saw that many ideologies in American society were focussed into groupings of Christian nationalists, white supremacists, pro-lifers and Second Amendment partisans. Trump was smart enough to see the possible use of these slices of American society as his base; differences in the drivers animating the various tranches of supporters were no problem – he just aggregated them, and ignored inconsistencies. His campaign-rally style built on the work of these hosts, adding the tricks of American professional wrestlers (which he knew well) such as their classic wind-up tactic of creating a hostile adversary in the audience; for Trump, the media presence at his campaign rallies was a gift which he morphed into Fake News, the Enemy of the People. (As if to acknowledge his debt to this right-wing media cohort, Trump awarded Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom during his 2020 State of the Union speech in the Capitol.)
The outturn effect has been an amplification of the worst of racist, anti-immigrant bar-room rhetoric together with traditional Christian nationalist and anti-abortion conservatism.
How Did Trump Get Elected?
But Trump was no ‘third party’ presidential candidate; he effectively hi-jacked the Republican Party. The early stages of the campaign for the GOP nomination fielded 17 candidates and through the process to nomination Trump was able to thoroughly disparage all his rivals, making considerable use of his reality TV persona. (He also built on Tea Party vestiges and on the behaviour of Newt Gingrich’s earlier role as Speaker of the House.)
As late as mid-2016, Trump’s chances of success were considered to be low. But after the Brexit referendum result, Nigel Farage (the UK Independence Party leader) went to the US to support Trump, having earlier persuaded Rupert Murdoch, the head of News Corporation and 21st Century Fox of the attractions of supporting Brexit in the UK. Murdoch and Trump came to a shared view on American politics in the period ahead and that summer Murdoch’s Fox News gave its corporate support to the Trump campaign.
The Trump campaign also made use of social media – mainly Facebook and Twitter – to spread disinformation and propaganda, fine-tuned by Big Data consultants. Other agents were also at work: some within the state apparatus were making life difficult for Clinton and from the outside there was also Russian interference on behalf of Trump, hacking the Democratic National Committee computers and exposing Clinton’s emails via Wikileaks. Trump was also helped by disaffected Democrats changing sides or not bothering to vote. Whatever the contribution of the various factors in support of Trump, Clinton still won the popular vote. Nonetheless, she lost the Electoral College vote and so lost the election. (Not for the first time did the vagaries of the electoral system translate a minority vote to victory. In the 2000 Bush/Gore run-off, Gore won the popular vote; but the electoral college process brought it down to who was going to take Florida. The recount got to the point of legal determinations as to how to allocate ‘hanging chad’ on the ballot papers; the Supreme Court finally put a stop to further recounts. The episode showed the value of having the Supreme Court stacked appropriately)
Thus was Trump elected, against (almost) all expectations and forecasts in 2016. Flushed by success his presidential style has continued that of his campaign – broadly, to the delight of his core support and to the despair of everyone else.
Trump as Disruptor
What has happened to the Republican Party?
The political cohorts of the bourgeoisie have long had a history of self-serving; indeed, that is in the very nature of being the bourgeoisie. However, this has generally been interwoven, however cynically, with other characteristics, like patriotism or devotion to public service – at least insofar as was useful in projecting these to the population as a whole. In recent years, for the global class as a whole, the pretences have thinned. In the Republican party, little veneer is left. Recent policies concerning health insurance, DACA and even the politicisation of wearing facemasks during a pandemic have shown this; so, too, has been the attitude of the party to questions of racism and Christian nationalism. More to the core is the abandonment of conservativism, as traditionally associated (ideologically, if not in practice) with small government, fiscal restraint and global leadership. They’ve all gone. There are no more McCains or Ryans in the party who adhered to certain conservative ideologies; almost the only high-profile Republican senator currently defying Trump is Romney! Today, ideologies have been replaced by capricious tweets.
In these changes, the party has ingratiated itself with Trump by following his agenda like bootlickers. Patriotism has been cast aside with respect to Russia or Israel or Saudi Arabia; Although, as Mueller pointed out and the Senate Intelligence Committee has recently affirmed, there were contacts between Trump’s campaign and the Russian state, searching for dirt on Clinton before the 2016 election. And even before Trump’s inauguration, Flynn, his then National Security Advisor designate, was making overtures to Russia. After that, Giuliani led the effort to bribe Ukraine to undermine Biden. The whole Republican Party has discarded any pretence at even-handedness on these events; when impeached by the Democratic-dominated House, the Republican-dominated Senate would not call witnesses, one of the basics for even the pretence of a trial.
Almost all members of the Republican Party standing in the 2018 mid-term elections sought Trump’s endorsement, a clear indicator of the assessment they made as to the values of the Republican constituency across the country. To get it, they had to follow his lead on so many issues – on racial issues, immigration, climate change, health care, foreign policy and what-have-you. And many did. Nonetheless, the Republicans lost the House and many state governments too. Several Republican senators and representatives declined to run for offices, effectively cleansing the party of anti-Trump congressmen.
And now, in the run-up to the 2020 election they have continued to follow his policy of politicising the Coronavirus pandemic. Reality has forced them to backpedal slightly on this, but not in time to avoid propelling the US to the worst position in the world’s nations in dealing with the pandemic. How deep will the partisan politicisation go?
Trump personally sees political profit in his incendiary rhetoric, but it is difficult to see what the bourgeoisie as a whole gets from intensifying social division and creating domestic conflict. We can describe the outlines of what has happened, but the big question, to which we’ll return, is why have the Republicans behaved this way?
What has Trump done to the American state apparatus?
Although, like all American presidents, Trump has sworn to defend the Constitution he has more than most played fast and loose with it; of course, the formal split of powers between the presidency, the legislature and the judiciary makes the Constitution ripe for gaming. And, on many occasions during his reign, Trump has claimed absolute presidential authority and power over state governors in unconstitutional ways.
Trump has generated huge uncertainties among the American political class and state institutions. The State Department has been emasculated; the intelligence services denigrated. One of his chronic resentments has been over the requirement for confirmation hearings for his choices for senior posts in his administration. To get round this, he has openly professed his preference for appointing his people to cabinet rank in acting roles. The most senior positions are filled, but there are many unfilled roles at senior (sub-Cabinet) levels.
Trump has installed a cohort of officials right across his administration who either line up with his orientations and whims or get fired. But underneath the top levels there is a growing skills void that has had the effect of removing any tempering of the Republican Party’s embrace of Trump’s governance. This has been accompanied with the denigration of expertise, especially scientific, and its replacement with sycophancy. As well as gouging out some of the innards of the body of the state, the administration consequently undermined its ability to handle the major health and social threats posed by the Covid-19 pandemic – to the detriment of the whole population.
Where is US foreign policy now?
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US ruling class looked forward to a uni-polar world in which it would be unchallengeable. Its hubris was punctured by the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks on the US mainland; its response was to launch enormous military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq both of which initiated a backlash still with us today. And while the US remained incontrovertibly the world’s most powerful military force, lesser imperialisms were able to regroup, adopt new postures and together created an environment in which the US did not have absolute control. There has developed a war-fest of conflicts around the world.
Under the Bush administration, the War on Terror was the rubric for extending American military reach; although its aspiration was global, it focussed on West and South-West Asia. Under Obama, American policy was irresolute. The underlying reason was that his administration recognised the substantial and growing threat of China to American interests and wanted to tilt away from the Middle East and focus more on the East Asia and the Pacific. It also recognised that a large swathe of the American population was tired of these never-ending wars. However, the volatility of the Middle East and the escalation of wars precluded his administration from making a definitive shift. Pulled by competing priorities his administration vacillated – particularly over Syria and Libya – and still the troops were not being brought home. This latter factor gave an in to Trump who then integrated into his 2016 campaigning a call for no more foreign wars. Yet, the prioritisation has still not been resolved.
Trump has never had anything sufficiently coherent to be described as a foreign policy. But he does have certain orientations and preferences on which he tries to act: among these are a distaste for multilateralism and a desire for bilateralism; hence pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord, defunding the World Health Organisation, and encouragement for the Brexit process to fracture the European Union. He has pushed for offshore balancing in military deployments, and has shown a strong affinity for and a desire to emulate authoritarians and despots. As his orientations met the strictures of the real world, so his actions have been marked by inconsistency.
However, one man does not a whole national posture make, so how did he get away with it? Traditionally, the American foreign policy establishment has been collegial with flexible boundaries: collegial in the sense that it has structure, a means of discourse across the piece and agreed processes of decision-making; flexible boundaries in that others from academia and business could be called on to share in these processes when additional expertise was thought to be needed. This tradition has been gutted under Trump and was clearly evidenced in the House Impeachment hearings. In its place – and indeed this applies right across his administration – Trump installed a cohort of officials who either lined up with his orientations or got fired. Sycophancy is all. But, again, why has the rest of the ruling class not reined him in?
What has Trump done to Geopolitics?
In Trump’s non-multilateral world, the biggest counterparties are China, Russia and the EU. Each of these is its own case. At the next level are Turkey, Israel, the Arab world, Iran and North Korea. His reaction to events, and his imitation of many of them, have been characterised by vacillation between hard treatment and ingratiation.
China is the single biggest challenge. The US’s largest trading rival, China not only trades across the world but is also developing (through its Belt and Road Initiative) a global infrastructure of investments interests and additional influence. Extension of its military reach is accelerating. While Trump has made most noise on matters that are dear to tranches of his base, he uses tariff increases to do battle with Xi (which, as well as hurting Chinese producers, are paid for by American consumers). He is also invoking national security needs to attack Huawei. And yet, arguing they are too expensive and ignoring how militarily essential they are, Trump has curtailed military exercises with South Korea and Japan – a move that must have pleased Xi (as well as Kim).
Trump’s attitude towards Putin and Russia has been the subject of much discussion. Besides overlooking Russia’s role in Georgia (South Ossetia) and the Ukraine (Crimea) and the Novichok poisonings in the UK, he has tried to get Russia re-admitted to the G8. Yet Russia is pushing against the US – from Venezuela to Syria to Belarus, as well as in cyberspace. With an economy the size of Italy’s, Russia does not have capability to confront the US directly, but it can make life very difficult for its much larger foe. And even if Putin does not have kompromat on Trump, Trump has consistently behaved as if he has.
In South-West Asia – in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, and especially against Iran – his actions have been characterised by frustration and impetuosity. At the start of 2020 he looked ready to start two new wars; pulling back from them he went on to kill the Iranian General Soleimani in a drone attack. Declaring Daesh defeated, he abandoned the American allies – the Kurds – to Erdogan’s tender mercies, ignoring all advice concerning the regroupment histories of such jihadist forces.
It’s not just adversaries: against the policy determination of many past administrations (Republican and Democrat) that it was in US interests to have the UK in the EU, he has encouraged Brexit to weaken the EU relative to American economic advantage. He misses no opportunity to fulminate against European countries not paying their dues to NATO – though he’s by no means the first US president to make that point – his impetuosity keeps them on edge. Trump has inserted new levels of unpredictability and instability into what was already a dangerous geopolitical game. At a deeper level, he is effectively undermining, and perhaps unravelling, the West’s economic and political order built up since 1945
And what has he done to the American working class?
Trump’s campaign offer to American workers was to build a strong economy which would give them jobs. This tied in with his theme that China had been stealing them. In any case, sectors of American capital had been moving homewards because of difficulties of trading in China, and there being more profit in the US where certain manufactures could benefit being close to the more profitable markets. All in all, during 2017 prospects looked to be in keeping with his promises.
His big stimulus to the economy was much less for the working class than advertised. The 2017 tax law was a windfall tax to the wealthy at the expense of the poorer, without enhancing the productivity that the economy needed. In this, he continued a financial syphoning that had been going on for decades.
The threatened repeal of Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) has to date proved out of Trump’s reach – mainly because the Republicans have not been able to agree what should replace it. However, as well as pursuing a massive and sustained campaign to discredit the ACA, Trump and the Republicans have been able to reduce access and change tax benefits to disfavour it. At the same time, his effort to demolish it is relentless.
His racist denunciations of Mexican immigrants gave justification to the building of his wall on the southern border. To pressure Congress for the wall funding, he took the US through the longest government shutdown ever, over December 2018 and January 2019, and furloughing or suspending pay for many hundreds of thousands of federal workers. To deflect criticism, his Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, advised workers that they should have taken out bank loans to avoid going to food banks.
In an ongoing way Trump has beat the racist drum throughout his presidency: as well as the wall, travel restrictions on Muslims and denunciations of Black Lives Matter protests continued relentlessly. but reached a whole new intensity following protests over the murder of George Floyd. His ‘law and order’ rhetoric is pitched against black Americans and Democrats whom he amalgamates or separates as convenient using selections from the litany of code words and phrases in current use – such as ‘thugs’, ‘the suburbs’, ‘inner city’, ‘middle class’, ‘welfare queens’, etc. His messages are clear to all Americans.
His contempt for the working class, however, was at its clearest in reaction to the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic that began early this year. His own administration had already carried out a simulation exercise – Crimson Contagion – (uncannily presciently based on a threat scenario of a respiratory virus being imported from China); the report detailed the state of unreadiness of the US to deal with such a threat – and no remedial action was taken. This was to lead to chronic equipment shortages (especially of Personal Protective Equipment) and grotesque bidding wars (inside the US and globally) to get it. Despite knowing how dangerous it would prove to be, Trump systematically underplayed the seriousness of the virus and explicitly promoted dangerous social practices, politicising everything he could – from quack remedies to social distancing to face masks. The administration’s contradictory messaging undermined any coherent social response and contributed hugely to the massive case numbers and the more than two hundred thousand deaths (so far).
A Side Trip: The Johnson Government – An Epigone in the UK
The power balance held between the institutions of executive, legislature and judiciary in the UK has undergone profound shifts recently. Through the anti-European Union campaign, the minority Brexiteer faction (the European Research Group) followed up the 2016 referendum (having surreptitiously redefined its authority) by manoeuvring control over the rest of the Conservative Party and succeeded in emasculating the Remainers (those wanting to stay in the EU). After effectively paralysing the May government, Johnson was elected leader by under a hundred thousand members of the Conservative Party, mainly elderly white males in the South East of England. As Prime Minister, he then illegally prorogued Parliament: this latter manoeuvre was struck down by the UK Supreme Court – which attracted the open hostility of the government. Johnson’s crushing success in the December 2019 election – leading a party of MPs who had had to pledge loyalty to his Brexit programme as a condition of being official Party candidates – gave him a currently unassailable majority in Parliament and without rival in government. He also aims to rein in the powers of the Supreme Court.
The Labour Party imploded at the election, having been hijacked by the Momentum movement – led by a coterie of anti-Blairite, anti-Semitic and self-deluded Stalinists – who put forward an ineffectual position on Brexit – and hence immigration – that alienated much of the party’s base in the north of England. The so-called ‘red wall’ of Labour constituencies that ran from the west to east coast then voted for the Conservative Party for the first time in a century. The parliamentary left, having helped trigger the election, gifted the Conservative Party a crushing victory.
The UK is now ruled from Downing Street and already a purging of senior levels of the Civil Service (who, in the British system, are not the administration’s political appointees) is underway. This purge is unusual in the UK. In the US the bulk of the civil service officers are legally appointees of the incoming president’s administration, although direct appointments are usually confined to the higher echelons of the state apparatus. Trump has used this power to clear out what he terms the ‘deep state’ in the state apparatus: that is to say, Democrats.
In Trump’s case, he has also been able to take the opportunities presented (and helped by a supportive Republican Senate) to appoint conservative judges to the Supreme Court. Likewise, he could rely on the Senate not to convict him following the House’s impeachment. As already noted, at Cabinet level, he has openly said that he enjoys the flexibility of appointing acting Secretaries so that he can avoid confirmation hearings.
Parallels between the Trump and Johnson administrations are striking and pose the possibility of shared underlying processes at work. If so, why?
After the How – Why?
In the above sections, several issues concerning Trump’s actions – rotting the state apparatus, the fickleness of American foreign policy, the bootlickers of the Republican Party, the toxic ideological onslaught on much of the American population, the expanded use of the US racist forces of repression – have been commented upon. I have described in several areas how situations unfolded. That’s the how of it. The big questions concern the why of it all. And to several of those questions there are, at present, only partial answers or speculations.
In the immediate future, the 2020 US presidential election will be a watershed in the development of the American situation – and by extension its impact on the world. At present, Covid possibilities notwithstanding, the two contenders for the next administration are Trump/Pence and Biden/Harris. In past elections, policy differences might have been to the fore in discussions about the political, economic and military directions ahead. Trump’s propositions are that the economic crisis was caused by the pandemic, the social unrest in the US is caused by the Democrats who imported domestic terrorists (such as antifa) into the target zones and who want America destroyed, and who are supporting mail-in voting which he claims is fraudulent to the point that he will not accept a Biden/Harris win; his opponents’ campaign is based primarily on their being not-Trump.
Trump’s entire campaign since 2015 (has it ever paused?) has been based on overtly intensifying social – especially racial – divisions in American society with copious inflammatory, toxic and vicious misdirection; in a word, he promotes hatred. Trump clearly thinks that this behaviour benefits him personally but it is difficult to see how it benefits the interests of the rest of the American ruling class. The bourgeoisie as a whole wants a well-functioning and profitable economy and there is little in Trump’s politics to facilitate that; his politics were built on the assumption that that economy would already be there. But the road that this policy choice has opened up – though understandable in Trump’s own calculus – is one that the bulk of the Republican Party has followed to the point where its National Convention decided that it didn’t need a programme or manifesto for the election: in other words, the Republican Party has become gung-ho for more of the same – this is utterly self-serving for them and those close to them, like pigs at the trough. This is unusual; while bourgeois politicians look for personal benefit in most situations it is uncommon for an entire party to do this without regard to the national bourgeois interest. Is the Republican Party ideologically imploding?
Some may argue that it is always in the interests of the bourgeoisie to have the working class divided and thus easier to dominate. However, this year’s events – overt extra-judicial murders, protests and the use of police and military supported by Trump’s hate-pronouncements – all took place in the absence of a mass working class offensive. Here we have to differentiate between what was actually used in the streets to attack demonstrators, and what was a Hate Twitter-storm aimed at the rest of the country. For much of American society, the police are the ‘thin blue line’ defending Order from Chaos, and Trump plays on this existential fear of a swathe of his supporters.
At the height of the demonstrations, Trump took to the White House basement for an ‘inspection’. Broadly speaking, the police did not confront the protestors until the movement had started to wane; this gave opportunities to the police, especially in Portland where the demonstrations carried on for a month after those in the rest of the country had pretty well finished. This should be a lesson for protestors – and workers: seizing the moment when the tide is surging and leaving it when the tide ebbs so as not to be caught high and dry.
Trump’s ‘Law and Order’ calls show more his envy of the Tsarist and Maoist states of Russia and China rather than of the bourgeois democracies of, say, Western Europe who put a higher value on the use of social shock absorbers before committing brutal force against social protest. It appears that the Democratic Party would like to use such shock absorbers. They want social peace and collaboration; this is a more insidious strategy and definitely more advantageous for the bourgeoisie.
Tear, Repair or Reconstruct
The more far-sighted of American ideologues see that dealing with the resistance to the racism of the state apparatus, unemployment and the Covid-19 pandemic are all of a piece. And underlying those are the management of the economic crisis, dealing with China, and putting coherence back into its foreign policy.
The Trump administration has not shown much policy action beyond deregulation moves, and tax breaks for the wealthy and corporates. It has also been foot-dragging on stimulus programmes and support for the unemployed in the face of this year’s crisis. So far this year, the government has spent over $3 trillion in four major financial bills; the bulk of the money has gone to business with only about a fifth going to working class families. The money to business did not go to develop the US economy or its productivity; the lack of audit provision meant that companies given money to protect their workforces often just kept it or passed it on to shareholders, laying off workers where possible. Behaviour like this in a country in Eastern Europe, or South America or South-East Asia would be denounced by the US as corruption – though not if it’s at home. The fact that this syphoning can take place shows that debt levels don’t make the bourgeoisie as anxious as they used to, and that they believe there is still slack in the system.
In the period ahead, some factions of the bourgeoisie will certainly argue for traditional austerity programmes, paid for by the working class with the aim of paying off the state’s borrowing so far in the traditional way – as they did after the 2008 financial crisis. But this economic crisis has novel features that have also to be factored in – after all, the American (and the world) economy is still in crisis, the pandemic is still raging and the social divisions in the country mean that there is no going back to some status quo ante Trump, however strong the desire in the population – and in some sections of the bourgeoisie – for a ‘return to normalcy’ at many levels, even some competence by members of the government would be welcomed. But the actual situation will not permit a simple rewind out of the chaos of the Trump regime.
The past six months has shown some sections of the ruling class the need and opportunity for substantial restructuration in the American economy. Indeed, the nature of this year’s crisis is already imposing some of that restructuration. The Covid-19 lockdowns has shown that, with the technology available even to individuals, the working environment for many occupations can change considerable at lower cost to employers. Particularly in the US, there is generally recognised a huge and growing need for substantial infrastructural refurbishment. The ruling class is living in a period of cheap money offering low-cost investment; and unemployment has generated a great availability of labour. This coincides with the appearance of drivers for change from elsewhere. Looking across the international stage, there are indications of possible actions based on technological and economic changes that various factions have aired over recent years.
Rich oil-producing countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE have announced proposals to diversify their economies so as to reduce their dependency on the traditional petrochemical industries and are looking to invest substantially in renewable energy technologies. Oil majors like BP and Shell say they will commit to being carbon-neutral in a few decades. Some of this is just fluff for glossy company brochures, but not all of it. Historically, the bourgeoisie has at times made huge changes in reliance on what were once irreplaceable technologies – wind, water and horse to coal; coal to oil. We are now in the midst of a substantial change to electrical power from renewables – to an as yet unknown extent and unknown rate. In recent years there have been substantial developments in solar energy and in battery technology and several related industries (such as Elon Musk’s) claim to be on the verge of major cost changes in these technologies; their boasting apart, there is credible substance to such claims.
In a world of cheap finance and new technological opportunities, the American bourgeoisie may try something new. They have surprised us before: the New Deal, the Bretton Woods Agreements and the Marshall Plan were all launched in circumstances where the bourgeoisie was able to take longer-term views on regeneration in ways previously thought impossible. Not that such leaps would seem likely in the immediate future. A Trump administration wouldn’t go there. Biden has so far put forward an unsurprising Democratic style of tax and spend proposals that have been received positively by the likes of Moody’s Analytics and Goldman Sachs. (His ability to pursue these will, of course, be in large measure determined by the election results for the House and the Senate.) But the full force of the crisis is yet to be felt and will impose further exigencies on the ruling class not so far factored in.
But, note well: we are not talking of solutions for the bourgeoisie, but orientations.
Friends and Foes
The economic problems for capitalism go way beyond the US. The interconnectedness of the world economy drives a degree of international coordination to deal with the problems of climate change, pandemics and trade wars. All countries are so interdependent and so porous to infection, economic and epidemiological, that, however they choose to confront these problems, to have any measure of success they will have do it with some concertedness. But the bourgeois order is made up of nation states, national interests, national factional power struggles and what-have-you, all in competition with each other, You can see this clearly in the search for a Covid-19 vaccine; cooperation up to a point, then competition takes over.
While in the US, ‘America First’ has been a useful ideological slogan to address the quasi-isolationist sensibilities of some of Trump’s base, the past seven decades has convinced generations of American state bureaucrats and powerful capitalists that ‘America First’ is best enacted in the context of maintaining alliances involving economic, military and political networks across the globe. We can surmise that a faction of the American foreign policy establishment is alarmed at the turn taken by the Trump administration (as was clearly evidenced during the House impeachment hearings). It is likely therefore that this faction would want to repair the tears in the American web of alliances; this would be consistent with past Democratic policies which Biden represents.
Who Supports Whom?
There are signs that the Biden campaign is getting increasing support from the big bourgeoisie. His fund-raising hit an all-time monthly record ($364 million) in August which seems to be divided roughly 50-50 between large and small donors. His campaign funding has been far larger than Trump’s which indicates some weakening of his support. But where is the balance of support from the big bourgeoisie between the two candidates?
The American economy had shown many signs of growth following on from the Obama administration and levels of employment grew to all-time highs, the core of Trump’s economic policies in his early years gave big capital huge financial benefits. But now?
Many of the biggest companies in the bourgeois democracies have been loosening ties to the political cohorts that rule the state institutions in their native nation states; all these companies use offshore financing and tax jurisdictions that puts them into tension with those states while they are obliged to accommodate the state apparatus so as to operate; likewise, the states have to accommodate themselves to the global companies. This contrasts with China where this imperative has never weakened, and to Russia where Putin’s siloviki continue to tighten their control after the Yeltsin period.
In the US some companies are still tied tightly to the state apparatus – Boeing, General Dynamics, General Electric, although these are mainly connected to the military. Big Pharma is also close to the state, especially so as to defend its Intellectual Property Rights. The big tech companies – Amazon, Alphabet, Apple, Microsoft – are less so: You don’t hear maxims like that of Charles Wilson along the lines of “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country” in order to proclaim an identity of interests. You don’t get a “what’s good for Amazon or Facebook is good for America” from Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg.
In the US there is an ongoing tussle between big capital and the state apparatus – the state wanting to keep their allegiance and the companies wanting to gear the economic policies of the state to their interests. This tension is not new and past experience indicates that the state apparatus always prevails – and state capitalism is, above all other considerations, national.
And the Why?
Several times in this article I have pointed to how? events have unfolded without answering why? There are many processes going on under the surface – economic, political and social – and in considering them we are often restricted to looking at epiphenomena and from these constructing a picture of what is going on covertly. I tried to touch on some of these in my recent article, entitled Resurgence. I won’t repeat what is said there, but I’ll make some further suggestions here.
• Capitalist profit generation is based on the production of more. This is less and less compatible with the restrictions imposed by planet Earth and the effect of capitalism on its climate and ecology. Even the most bigoted deniers, such as Trump, sense it but continue to plough the same old furrows. Some of the deniers may simply be lying because they find it economically advantageous to do so; others may feel an ‘end’ approach – so, ‘après moi, le deluge’.
• Capitalism’s continuation is based on the production of surplus value from a proletariat whose level of exploitation has become extreme to the point of unbearable. And those who cannot be exploited profitably are discarded from production, and when their existence become too onerous, exterminated.
• Competition between capitalist nations has become hugely intense in trading relationships; yet they need each other (such as with their supply chains) in a tighter way than ever before. This produces great tensions, and exacerbates inter-imperialist antagonisms since, for the bourgeoisie, competition trumps co-operation. This is shown in many contexts especially with the US and China. The bourgeoisie is becoming conscious, as a class if not individually, of these contradictions.
• Capitalism is now producing orders of magnitude more fiction – financial products that represent intangibles such as risk, for example – in its economy. It would not be surprising if this is affecting the bourgeoisie’s confidence; this especially since the world’s reserve currency is the US dollar, a fiat currency that relies on the self-confidence of its bourgeoisie.
As I showed in Resurgence, the working class globally is resisting its exploitation and oppression; this must make the bourgeoisie uneasy. The bourgeoisie’s response is to be even more repressive and to worry about its own security. There are many expressions of that repression around the world, from Hong Kong to Belarus. Trump personifies that in the US. In addition to furthering the economic impoverishment of the working class, Trump’s overt oppression is built into the web of everyday capitalist life: the food deserts, the pollution, overcrowding, constant fear of homelessness, no medical care, education out of reach, all the detritus of discrimination, all the no-futures for children. His policies have only amplified the oppression.
This seventeenth century word says it all: government by the worst, least qualified, and/or most unscrupulous citizens. The list in the first paragraph of this article is a sample. For each one displaced there are plenty more to take their place; and it can get worse. In today’s world that government is the bourgeoisie. And over-riding everything is the fact is that whatever the bourgeoisie will be prepared to do to meet future challenges will be done in its own interest, not in the interest of humanity; there is no solution for humanity in this society. And even if the kakistocracy were replaced with the best minds in the world, there would be no way to save capitalism and the planet and humanity at the same time. Sooner or later it will be a choice.
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I hope that others in the revolutionary Marxist milieu will contribute to further development of this analysis.
2 October 2020
I have just heard that Trump has tested positive for the Covid virus. You couldn’t make it up.
NOTE: A different viewpoint will be posted shortly. Readers are invited to join the discussion.