This text is, in part, a reply to the previous one on this site.
During the last four years the crisis of capitalism has steadfastly worsened. The climate disturbances created by its growth addiction and environmental rape have intensified, the spurt of growth and booming stock markets could not hide the growing sickness of the economy, social inequality and class conflicts increased, as well as international frictions. A general sense of dread and insecurity spread around the globe. The pandemic brought the simmering tensions to the surface, exposed the weaknesses of the capitalist global social order.
This would have happened, regardless who the leaders are. This doesn’t mean that there are no choices for the bourgeoisie, only that their choices are bound by those conditions. They can do nothing to solve the crisis, so their choices are essentially limited to how to manage it, how to deal with the tensions it creates. On this, the ruling class is divided. Trump represents a management style that is increasingly popular in the capitalist class around the world. Giving the population enemies to blame and a “he talks like us” strongman to follow, is a proven method of dealing with rising frustration and anxiety. Trump had something to offer to his class and as long as it worked, he stood a fair chance of being re-elected. But in 2020 it did not work so well anymore.
The pandemic gave him the opportunity to blame the crisis on outside factor (China) and to unite the nation behind the ‘cool-headed leader’ a la Churchill, but he blew it in many spectacular ways. Then came the protests ignited by the murder of George Floyd. Trump used them to fan fear and division, but when you look at the reactions of the capitalist class broadly, the big companies, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, the cultural institutions, the unions and so on, they went overwhelmingly in the other direction , towards appeasement and recuperation, lauding the goal of racial equality while leaving the social order intact. They figured that there is more hope than hate in America and that this makes Trump’s management style inadequate for these times. That is what the majority of the capitalist class seems to think. At least for now. When he loses, Trump will not disappear, he will continue to peddle his hate ware, hoping for propitious conditions to return.
His policies were short-term driven, always with the Dow Jones as barometer for success. And in the midst of a depressed economy, it’s still rising! What is there to complain about! This “Apres nous la deluge” focus on short term profit, requires a narrative, a myth based on denial. Denial of climate change, denial of infrastructural collapse, denial of the growing indebtedness of the economy, denial of systemic racism (while using it), denial of the pandemic’s deadliness, denial of reality. It’s madness, but there is a method to it, contrary to what Marlowe thinks.
Did he hijack the party?
Marlowe writes that Trump hi-jacked the Republican party. That’s not quite what happened. Stuart Stevens, who used to be a Republican political consultant, writes in his recent book “It was all a lie: How the Republican party became Donald Trump” that the current president isn’t “a freak product of the system” but “a logical conclusion of what the Republican party became over the last 50 or so years.” Trump did not hijack the Republican party, rather, the party created him.
It’s true that this party now looks like a cult, bound together by its adoration of the great leader. At the party convention, debate on the platform was scrapped to make more time to praise Trump. It was deemed sufficient to re-affirm the previous platform, the one of four years earlier. For Marlowe, this signifies that the party no longer has a program except to follow Trump. It has lost its conservative soul. But the platform of the previous party convention was not much debated either. It was basically the same as the platform of the convention before that, which was the same as the platform of the earlier convention and so on, at least to the platform on which Reagan was elected in 1980 and the so-called neo-liberal turn of capitalism began. The main points of these platforms have remained: lower taxes on capital, scrap cost-increasing regulations, cut social spending and increase spending on the military and the police, project American power internationally, criminalize the poor, outlaw abortion.
And on these main points, Trump did quite well. True, abortion isn’t outlawed yet, but he still may succeed in tilting the supreme court against it while losing the election. He made considerable “progress” on all the other, more important fundamentals of the GOP. He was useful for his class, until 2020.
According to Marlowe, the Republican party under Trump has abandoned its traditional conservatism. But that is more appearance than fact. What was its conservatism? Small government and fiscal restraint? It never practiced them. As Stevens writes, Republicans never cared about balanced budgets , except when a Democrat was in the White House. The use of racism? The party of Lincoln has a patent on it. Think of Nixon’s “southern strategy”, Reagan’s use of “the welfare queen” myth, Bush’s infamous Willie Horton-ad, of which his campaign manager Lee Atwater later admitted that it was pure race-baiting. It’s true that on immigration policy, Trump represents a shift compared to previous presidents. But not an incoherent one, it is an essential ingredient of his scapegoating ideology. Anti-immigrant sentiment was growing in the GOP before Trump came along. He didn’t invent anything. In the past too, immigrant scapegoating was used many times by the American capitalist class to divide the working class.
Meanwhile, despite Trump’s wall, of which comically small portions have been erected along the southern border, beginning and ending in the midst of nowhere, shoddily built by short time-profit driven companies, their foundations already eaten away by the floodwaters of the Rio Bravo and some of their steel pillars being sold as scrap metal in Mexico, in practice, very little has changed, except that the undocumented workers are terrified and thus willing to accept bad conditions. Much work in the US is still done by undocumented workers. Trump’s companies themselves employed some, until this embarrassing fact came to light. There are no less immigrant workers in the country but they are less mobile, they stay put, they go underground. The threat of deportation, which Trump hung so demonstratively over the heads of the millions of undocumented workers, many of which are in the “essential worker” category, is a potent weapon against the common struggle of workers of all races. That, and the fact that this fear puts a downward pressure on wages, is welcomed by the bourgeoisie.
The fight over foreign policy
Much of Marlowe’s argument on Trump’s incoherence is based on his foreign policy. I will not argue that his policies were the best possible for the capitalist class, only that there is a coherence to them, which is often obscured by Trump’s theatrics. Yes, he has bullied his European allies, he bromanced Putin and Kim Jong-un, his words and actions were sometimes contradictory, his tariff wars were not in the interests of US capital.
But much of what he has done, has been symbolic rather than transformative in practice. He has disparaged NATO but has taken no action to distance the US from it. He rages against globalism in words but not in deeds. Even his aggressive tariffs must be put in perspective. They had little influence on the trade patterns: the US trade deficit is larger than ever and the biggest deficit is still with China. The tariffs were a camouflaged tax increase on consumers and, to a lesser degree, on foreign producers (some of which had to lower their prices). But the US remained under Trump a nation very much devoted to globalization and more than ever dependent on it.
This symbolism is a very important aspect of Trump’s ideology. The working class feels cheated, mistreated, disrespected and with his combative words and symbolic actions Trump tells them whom to blame.
That includes the European nations who, Trumps keeps repeating, “for too long, have taken advantage of us”. Previous presidents too have pressured the Europeans to increase their military spending (and thus their purchases of American weaponry), but Trump increased the pinch. Naturally, that is not to the liking of Angela Merkel and co. They have another reason to be unhappy with Trump’s leadership. Eastern Europe, the countries bordering Russia, remains the theater of inter-imperialist tension between Moscow and Europe. The Europeans want more support from their American big brother to pressure Moscow but they’re not getting it from Trump.
The Obama administration already opted for a “pivot to Asia” in US foreign policy, but found it difficult to accomplish, mainly because it could not extricate itself from the turmoil in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. But the Trump administration has continued the pivot. Its focus is on confronting its main rival, China. China is not only a useful scapegoat in Trump’s myth-based ideology, it is also in reality the only power with the economic and military capacity to potentially threaten the predominant position of the US in the global order, on which the role of the dollar as international currency, so beneficial to US capital, depends.
One way to counter China’s growing influence was to try to pull allies and potential allies away from Beijing. Hence Trump’s embrace of Duterte and Modi, his love-affair with Kim Jong-un. But more importantly, Russia could be a crucial ally. Its economic base is way too small (its GDP is the size of Italy’s) to become a global rival to the US, but with its formidable military power, as an ally, it could tilt the rapport de forces decisevely in the US’ s favor. Conversely, an alliance between Russia and China could become the biggest threat to the US’ dominance. Russia too, has reasons to fear China’s growing power. As a foreign policy goal, an alliance between the US and Russia against China is not unreasonable, no more than the alliance between the US and Russia against Germany and Japan was in 1941, as McIntosh recently pointed out.
But that strategy ran into strong opposition, not only from the Europeans but also from within the state, including from within the Republican party. Trump might have wanted to give Putin absolution on the Krim, eastern Ukraine and Syria in exchange for common pressure on Iran and China, but he couldn’t. Which shows that the party, while willing to give Trump much leeway as long as he was useful, still could rein him in, was not reduced to a mere personality-cult. Russia, after all, has been the traditional enemy for so long, and, under Putin, it has begun to throw its (military) weight around, making US’s allies nervous. Within the state apparatus there was a lot of resistance, which lead to infights and lots of departures and incriminations, disruptive to the functioning of US diplomacy, as Marlowe emphasizes.
The contradictions in Trump’s foreign policy reflect the fight that is going on about it within the US state, within the capitalist class. It’s a complicated story, in which economic interests and military interests conflict with each other, in which Trump’s hubris conflicts with reality and domestic propaganda value can trump foreign policy gains. This fight is not over. Trump did not have full control over foreign policy, he had to compromise. This, rather than his capricious character, is likely the main cause of his inconsistencies.
He has little to show for after four years. Many in the ruling class’s political establishment think, like Marlowe, that “he is effectively undermining, and perhaps unravelling, the West’s economic and political order built up since 1945.” They want him gone and look to Biden to repair the damage he has done. But that would only be a start, Marlowe writes. Much more has to be done. A return to the state of affairs before Trump is impossible. The crisis is grave, but, in his opinion, something can be done about it.
A new lease on life?
Although he does not explicitely say so in this article, Marlowe, like all of us in IP, opposes the Democrats as much as the Republicans, both of them being integral parts of the web of the capitalist state. Their priorites are the same: defend the profits and global power of US capitalism. When I wrote earlier about the fundamental goals of the Republican Party, it was not to suggest that the goals of the Democratic Party are all that different. Just look at Biden himself as evidence: often he has voted for lower taxes on capital, increased spending on the military and the police, projecting American power internationally, criminalizing the poor (mass incarceration). Not to outlaw abortion, we’ll give him that.
Nevertheless, the present crisis has “novel features” that could be dealt with “in novel ways”, according to Marlowe. The present government couldn’t do it, but Biden might. “In a world of cheap finance and new technological opportunities, the American bourgeoisie may try something new”, he thinks. “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”. Bretton Woods and the Marshall plan were part of the reorganization of the world economy after world war II, but it was the war itself which created the conditions for regeneration (in the victor’s interests of course), conditions which, fortunately, do not exist today. The New Deal was a success for the capitalist class in regard to the containment of class conflict but it was a failure in regard to the regeneration of the economy. Only the war accomplished the latter.
Marlowe believes the ruling class could come up with “something new” because it “is living in a period of cheap money offering low-cost investment”, because labor power is abundant and new green technologies open a vast target for accumulation. I won’t respond to the last claim, because I have written about it extensively on this site, see https://internationalistperspective.org/hope-or-hoax/ Obviously, Marlowe has a different view of the potential of new tech to regenerate the economy, but that argument is not much developed in his article. I invite him to respond to my text, which goes into this in greater detail and debunks the illusions on which these false hopes are based.
Stating that “the ruling class is living in a period of cheap money” seems to suggest that cheap money is somehow a condition external to the ruling class, like a wind that blows in its sails. But in fact, there is a period of cheap money whenever the ruling clas decides that there is. It’s never cheap money for everybody, it’s mostly cheap money for the moneyed. Still, when too much of it circulates without a corresponding rise in circulating value, increasing inflation is the result. That reins in easy money policies aimed at a general regeneration of the economy. But the bulk of the easy money created since the “great recession” of 2008 did not enter general circulation but was directly handed over to capital, to assure that it maintained its value. The total amount of money is increased, it still represents the total amount of value, but because capital’s share of the total has increased, the share of all those who don’t own capital, their claims on value, has decreased. Inequality sharply rises but inflation doesn’t, because all those trillions do not enter into circulation, they prop up the value of the hoard, of inactive, treasured capital. Were all that money to be invested, in green technology or any other field, its fictitious nature would be revealed and inflation would shoot upwards, speculative bubbles would swell; it would be just a different road to disaster.
Capitalism now is more hooked on cheap money than a junkie on heroin. It needs ever more injections, it cannot stop without collapsing. If this was an era of rising profit rates, it would not need it. Despite the giant profits of some, the lack of capitalism’s overall profitability threatens to devaluate capital today. Near zero interest rates and quantitative easing prevent this. They make it easy to make money just by owning it, so all is well for capital. Until it isn’t.
Cheap money doesn’t adress the cause of the crisis, it can only alter its manifestations.
It’s true that the US is in a unique position because of the dollar’s role as international money. That gives it more space than other nations have to create money beyond value without feeling adverse effects. But to keep king dollar on his throne, the US must stay powerful and profitable. Owning American debt must remain a sound investment.
Consider the situation that confronts the next president, whether Biden or Trump. The extraction of surplus value (the source of profit) has steeply fallen. Massive money creation has for now checked the devaluation of capital and the contraction of the market. The Fed will continue its low interest rates and QE (the assets it bought to prop up their value now exceed 50% of the GDP) but the government too needs to continue to spend more beyond its income, to compensate for the vanishing profits, to prevent a chain of collapses.
Whether Biden wins or Trump, the president will have to adopt a new stimulus program. More deficit spending is in order, for the economic reasons mentioned above, but also for social ones. The impoverishment of the working class fuels class struggle and rebellion. It affects all parts of the class and has the potential to unite them in common struggle, the nightmare of the bourgeoisie.
So more debt must be created. But the budget deficit now already tops 20 % of the GNP, the public debt is at a level not seen since world war II and corporate and private debt too, have risen to unprecedented heights. So together with the tendency to increase debts, rises the tendency to curtail them, to maintain the credibility of their value. But where to cut? Not in military spending, that is more than ever essential for the projection of American power, for the value of the dollar. And don’t count on Biden to “defund the police”; it too will be more than necessary, with or without sensitivity training. State governments are in the red and have to lay off tens of thousands, so their cut of the pie can’t be reduced either. Tax the rich? Only those making more than 400.000 dollars will have to pay a little bit more, Biden says. He can’t afford to scare capital away. So where will the ax fall? Who will have to sacrifice “for the good of the nation”? Expect the working class to be attacked, whether Trump is president or Biden. One will shake his iron fist, the other will cover it with a velvet glove. Many will vote for Biden for no other reason than that Trump disgusts them. That’s a good reason, for he is truly disgusting. But it won’t save us. It will be cold consolation, when the velvet fist comes down, to hear Biden fans sigh: “Well, at least he’s not Trump…”
All our rulers can do, is to kick the can down the road. Whether their talk is about renewable energy or tough tariffs, there will be no regeneration, there will only be more misery, from which we can liberate ourselves only if we abandon the hope that this or that party will make things better and refuse to play by their rules.
Yes, there is a method to Trump’s madness. And yes, that method can be changed. But only the collective worker can stop the madness.
October 15, 2020