Long

What of the centre-left? A brief history of ‘Trumpism’

spooneybarger @ reuters

 

Strange personalities arise in the cracks of disintegrating institutions. They are often marked by extravagant dress, inflated rhetoric, and a show of sexual power. The first Trumper of the postwar era was the Danish tax rebel, Mogens Glistrup, the founder of the nationalist Progress Party, who, having put his principles into practice, went to prison for tax evasion. Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Boris Johnson in England are hairstyle Trumpers. Pim Fortuyn and Jörg Haider were both dandies. They died in their finery. Beppe Grillo, Nigel Farage, and Jean-Marie Le Pen, are each one third of a full Trump.

Trumpers generate their populist charisma among Trumpists by defying convention; they appear extraordinary to those who are intimidated but not impressed by society’s machinery of social control.1This essay is not on populism in general but only on a subtype of it, which I call Trumpism. Populism has a long and often dignified history, reaching back to the progressive era in the United States with the Minnesota Farmer–Labor Party and ‘Fighting Bob’ La Follette’s Progressive Party—and in any case there is left as well as right populism. Today populism has become a dirty word, used by the established parties of postwar capitalist democracy to discredit their new challengers, from both sides of the political spectrum.With hindsight, it seems as though the capitalist democracies have been waiting for their Trumpers, men and women eager to liberate public speech from its commitment to the unbelievable. Donald Trump’s promise to make America great again is an acknowledgement that the United States is a power in decline, embarrassingly unable since Vietnam to win, or even to finish, any of the wars that it started. When Trumpers ask about NATO, they are asking why NATO should continue to exist a quarter century after the end of the Soviet Union. Calls for economic protectionism raise the question, long taboo among liberal internationalists, of whether new free trade agreements are really to everyone’s benefit, and why, in particular, the government of the United States should have let its country deindustrialize. The United States has an elaborate immigration policy, and yet there are eleven million illegal immigrants in its territory.2Similarly, European Trumpists insist, increasingly with success, on the questions of what exactly the ‘ever closer union of the people of Europe’ as envisaged by the European Union treaties is to mean, and what the status of associated nation-states within that union is supposed to be—an issue that is strictly avoided in official Europe. Trumpers say this is odd, and Trumpists agree with them.

Bonapartism

In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx recounted the coup d’état of 1851 by which the nephew of Napoleon I, Louis Bonaparte, seized power, ruling France first as its president, and a year later as its emperor.3Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: Mondial, 2005). The Eighteenth Brumaire is also available online. He governed as Napoleon III until 1871, when the Prussian army under Helmuth von Moltke put an end to his administration, along with his amour-propre. Marx described Bonapartism as a popular form of government by personal rule. It arose, he argued, in stalemated European societies, with the capitalist class too divided, and the working class too disorganized, to instruct or inform the government. The result was a degree of relative state autonomy, one expressing, even as it masked, a deadlock between social classes.4Within orthodox Marxism, the concept of Bonapartism represents its most significant departure from its fundamental base–superstructure paradigm.

Bonapartist politics is driven by the idiosyncrasies of its Bonaparte.5As Marx writes on Bonaparte: “Just because he was nothing, he could signify anything.” Quoted in Francis Wheen, Karl Marx: A Life (London: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001), 157. This is not a recipe for effective rule. Since a capitalist society under Bonapartism lacks the power to control, or contain, market forces, capitalists can afford to let their Bonaparte stage spectacles of political bravado; behind the scenes, markets do what markets do. In reflecting on the two Napoleons, Marx remarked that the first was a tragedy, but the second, a farce.

No one wishes to see too many farces play on the international political stage. The slow breakdown of state-administered capitalism in the 1970s was followed by the catastrophic collapse of its neoliberal successor in 2008, an event, or series of events, that destroyed the credibility of neoliberalism as an economic doctrine (Jonathan Ostry, Prakash Loungani, and Davide Furceri, “Neoliberalism: Oversold?” Finance & Development 53, no. 2 (2016): 38–41.)) and left the governors of global capitalism clueless.6See Wolfgang Streeck, Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism(London: Verso Books, 2014); Mervyn King, The End of Alchemy: Money, Banking, and the Future of the Global Economy (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016). There are today profound disagreements about whether the proper location of government should be at the national or international level. There is also the worldwide demise of centre-left politics; the fragmentation of national party systems, often making government formation difficult if not impossible; and the simultaneous increase of inequality and indebtedness across the developed capitalist economies. Trump won the United States presidential election with the support of a disorganized declining class, the industrial workers of middle America, who are comparable in their own way to Marx’s smallholding peasants of mid-eighteenth century France.7The concept of social disorganization is illustrated in Chapter 7 of The Eighteenth Brumaire where Marx explains why the French peasants, Louis Napoleon’s main source of support, were unable to rule as a class although they were the vast majority of the French citizenry: ‘Each individual peasant family is almost self-sufficient, directly produces most of its consumer needs, and thus acquires its means of life more through an exchange with nature than in intercourse with society… Thus the great mass of the French nation is formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes.’ Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonapartechap. VII. Hillary Clinton proved unable to forge a coalition between Wall Street and Main Street, or between the big and petite bourgeoisie, or between Silicon Valley and industrial workers, or between the forces of finance and Bernie Sanders. On the opposite side of a political system in decay, the Republican party proved unable to bridge the gap between old Republicanism and the tea party, or between social modernizers and religious fundamentalists, or between urban hedonists and rural puritans, or between international interventionists and national protectionists.

Fissures grew into cracks, and an accumulating system of cracks opened a path for an outsider like Trump to capture the Republican nomination. Had the Democratic establishment defended itself as weakly as the Republican establishment,8Which, given the disorder in its own camp, might have been happy with Clinton winning the Presidency and then doing the bidding of the Republican core constituency, financial capitalism. Trump might have been defeated by Sanders.

Death of the Centre-Left

Over the past quarter century, the centre-left made a historic commitment to internationalism, a movement both promoting and requiring economic and social modernization. Now it is declining into desuetude. It is against this background that Trump and Trumpism must be understood. In the 1990s, the centre-left placed its hopes for restoring growth and consolidating public finance on liberalized international markets. A worldwide effort at industrial and social restructuring followed. International competition put pressure on national economies to become more efficient. Economic losers were punished by ever-lower wages and reduced social security benefits. Economic winners were rewarded by higher profits and lower taxes. Policies to this effect were hard to sell to centre-left voters, so they were attributed to the irresistible natural force of globalization. In this way, the centre-left hoped to escape responsibility for the pain inflicted on its constituents. The bitter medicine did not work; nor was the centre-left granted political immunity. In all countries of the developed capitalist world, the number of losers increased until political entrepreneurs sensed their opportunity and entered the public scene.

The rise of the Trumpists was made possible by the decline of the centre-left in the United States, Italy, France, the UK, Austria, the Netherlands, and even Germany, where the losers in the former GDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik), were among the earliest supporters of the new right-wing party, the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland). Those aggrieved by the accelerated internationalization of their societies felt abandoned by their national state. Elites in charge of public affairs were judged guilty of having handed national sovereignty to international organizations. These charges were largely true. Global neoliberalism has enfeebled the nation state, and with it, national democracy. Citizens most affected by these events had only their votes to express their displeasure. Trumpism took off, fueled as much in the United States as elsewhere by popular irritation at the vast public celebration of internationalization. Economic and cultural elites entered an international space rich in their rights, at ease both in and out of national states. If democracy is understood as the possibility of establishing social obligations toward those luckless in the marketplace, the global elites had entered into, or created, a world in which there was a great deal of lucklessness and not many obligations. For those plotting to take advantage of growing discontent, nationalism appeared as an obvious formula both for social reconstruction and political success. The winners and the losers of globalism found themselves reflected in a conflict between cosmopolitanism and nationalism. The old left having withdrawn into stateless internationalism, the new right offered the nation-state to fill the ensuing political vacuum. Liberal disgust at Trumpian rhetoric served to justify the withdrawal of the left from its constituents, and to explain its failure to help them express their grievances in civilized public language. Discontent grew fast.

The Trump presidency is both the outcome and the end of the American version of neo-liberalism. Having commenced crumbling in the era of George W. Bush, the neo-liberal regime managed to regain an appearance of vitality under Barack Obama. With his departure, it was bound to collapse under the weight of its contradictions, and, indeed, absurdities. Clinton’s daring attempt to present herself as advocate of those Americans “working hard and playing by the rules,” while collecting a fortune in speaker’s fees from Goldman Sachs, was destined to fail. So, too, was Clinton’s insistence that it was the historical duty of American voters to elect her as their first female president. Transgendered restrooms infuriated everyone except those seeking access to them, no matter the Obama administration’s attempt to depict bathroom access as a civil right.9For a fascinating eyewitness account of how Obama experienced and reacted to the defeat of the centre-left neoliberal project is provided see David Remnick, “It Happened Here: A President Confronts an Election that Changes Everything—and Imperils his Legacy,” The New Yorker, November 28, 2016, 54–65.Deep down, no one cared.

Class, Status, Party

Almost a century ago, Max Weber drew a distinction between class and status.10Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, ed. Günther Roth and Claus Wittich, 2 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978). Classes are constituted by the market; status groups by a particular way of life and a specific claim to social respect. Status groups are home-grown social communities; classes become classes only through organization. The Trumpist electoral machine mobilizes its supporters as a status group. It appeals to their shared sense of honor more than to their material interests.11This is why Trumpist leaders can be and often are of great wealth even though their followers may be poor; see Louis Bonaparte and his peasant supporters. On the one hand, while Trump-like leaders can be rich, they are typically considered upstarts by families of old money. In this, Trumpism follows New Labour and New Democrat neo-liberalism, which deleted class from their political vocabulary. In its stead, they redefined the struggle for social equality as one over identity, that is, over the symbolic recognition and collective dignity of an indefinite number of ever narrower status groups. Neoliberalism had failed to anticipate that the discovery by experts and politicians of ever new minorities may make the demobilized working class feel abandoned in favor of special interests. Their discovery and celebration inevitably demoted the interests of the working class. As the United States was transformed into a polity of status groups, the working class lost its sense of identification with the country as a whole, if only because it is this class, reduced to one identity and interest among others, that is now blamed for a rich variety of social malignancies, from racism and sexism to gun violence and educational and industrial decline.12Trumpist politics of honor and respect plays out differently in different national environments. One reason why East Germans, generously endowed with subsidies by the federal government, so often vote for Die Linke or for AfD seems to be that they find what they call their biographies not adequately appreciated in the united country.

Whereupon the takeoff of Trumpist propaganda. The centre-left took satisfaction in informing Americans deprived of an accessible identity that they were shortly to become “a minority in their own land.” They found their predicted irrelevance galling; its celebration, intolerable. Trumpism promised them a restauration of their honor. The country would be reconstituted as a united status group, one defending its integrity against both immigrants and urban elites. Exactly like the centre-left politics of identity, Trumpism is all about collective honor. Unlike the centre-left, it speaks to the silenced majority of a disorganized class. A class that is resentful about its relegation to the status of a moral minority, one less worthy of respect than other minorities due to past offenses against the new spirit of openness and diversity.

The electoral dynamics of Trump’s victory in the United States are now well understood. The election was as much about Clinton losing as Trump winning. Unlike other Trumpists, Trump did not have to bring about an increase in voter turnout in order to win.13In 2012, 90 million voters out of 220 million stayed home (41%), in 2016 it was 93 million out of 230 million (40%). Having insulted Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” Clinton placed her bets on a collection of status groups defined by color, gender, national origin, sexual identification, and the like. She early on conceded Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Clinton also relied on her financial backing by Wall Street and Silicon Valley, as well as a hoped-for glamour infusion from her supporters in the entertainment business, such as Meryl Streep and Beyoncé. As a champion of those average Americans who worked hard and played by the rules, Clinton was embarrassed by her wealth and the suspicious ways in which she had earned it.14The Clinton family wealth is reported to have increased from minus eight million dollars in 2000 to about 110 million dollars in 2016 (Tom Gerencer, “Hillary Clinton Net Worth,” Money Nation, November 1, 2016.). Disentangling the family assets from those of the Clinton Foundation seems difficult—which undoubtedly contributed to widespread suspicions of corruption as raised by the private email server used by Clinton as Secretary of State, and Clinton’s Goldman Sachs fees for speeches (US$675,000 for three appearances) the contents of which she refused to disclose. That Trump is a lot richer than Clinton didn’t apparently matter to his voters because he made his fortune, to the extent that he didn’t inherit it, as a businessman rather than as a politician—the former being considered legitimate, the latter not. Trump received the lion’s share of his votes from the victims of deindustrialization in the centre of the country.15On the devastations visited on the American working class by de-industrialization, see most recently Anne Case and Angus Deaton, “Mortality and morbidity in the 21st Century,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, March 17, 2017. 

The result was an almost perfect division of the political landscape between Trump majorities in the centre and Clinton majorities along the coasts. Clinton having focused on status rather than class, class was left to Trump, who in an act of instinctive political genius, made of class another, forgotten, dishonored status group. This enabled him to attract voters in still relatively comfortable economic circumstances who no longer felt sufficiently respected by the forces of cultural modernization. Trump’s foulmouthed public persona and his outrageous appearance did not deter them, apparently because what he said was closer to their heart than conventional public speech. Nor were his voters deterred by the fact that he was no policy expert. Supporting him was an expression of their lost faith in the problem-solving capacity of conventional politics.16As David Paul Kuhn, drawing on survey data, wrote in The New York Times on December 26, 2016: Bluntly put, much of the white working class decided that Mr. Trump could be a jerk. Absent any other champion, they supported the jerk they thought was more on their side—that is, on the issues that most concerned them. David Paul Kuhn, “Sorry, Liberals. Bigotry Didn’t Elect Donald Trump,” The New York Times, December 26, 2016. While Trump’s appeal was about respect, Clinton’s rejection was about class. White working class women voted for Trump 62:34,17Indicating that the attempt to forge a politically united status group out of women from different classes had failed. Black (and immigrant) women may have noticed that their low wages as care workers were instrumental for white women’s progress in their careers. and compared to Obama, Clinton lost among blacks and Latinos, as well as among Asians.18Relative to this, the impact of the so-called fake news can only have been miniscule. The fake news theory of Trumpism assumes that lies are today more important in politics than in the past; that real facts are easily distinguished from fake facts; and that more civilized political leaders, such as Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have done without lies. There are reasons to believe that truth as a political currency has been debased by the political mainstream to such an extent that lies by outsiders like Mr. Trump are no longer a problem to most voters. In any case, if there was anything fake in the 2016 campaign, it clearly included Clinton’s self-presentation as a representative member of the hard-working American working class, as opposed to a self-enriching political class.

Cities versus Hinterlands

Among the structural cracks in contemporary societies in which Trumpism flourishes is a rapidly growing cleavage between cities and their deindustrialized, more or less rural, hinterland. Cities are the growth pole of postindustrial societies. They are international, cosmopolitan, and politically pro-immigration, in part because their success in global competition depends on their ability to attract talent from all over the world. Cities also require a supply of low-skilled and low-paid service workers, who clean offices, provide for security, prepare meals in restaurants, deliver parcels, and take care of the children of dual career families.19For a participant observer’s description of the lives of legal and illegal immigrants in one of the biggest global cities of today, see Ben Judah, This is London: Life and Death in the World City (London: Picador, 2016). The white middle class can no longer afford ever-rising urban rents; they find themselves living in growing communities of immigrants, or they leave and move to the small-town provinces.20Where they remain spatially and socially segregated, just as immigrant groups in their new country. For France, this—and its effect on political and voting behavior—is impressively described in Christophe Guilluy, Le Crépuscule de la France d’en haut (Paris: Flammarion, 2016)

Geographical separation has deeply divisive cultural and political consequences. Urban elites can easily imagine themselves moving from one global city to another; moving from New York to Ames, Iowa is another matter. National borders are less salient to urban elites than the informal borders between urban and rural communities. As urban labor markets turn global, job applicants from the national hinterlands must compete with talent from all over the world. Globalization creates an incentive for governments and employers not to invest too much in education. Why bother? They can always poach skilled labor from other countries. This is how the United States combines one of the worst school systems in the world with the world’s best universities and research centres.

There is an almost insuperable cultural barrier between the city and the country, something long known to city and country dwellers alike. City dwellers develop a multicultural, cosmopolitan outlook. As their values converge on their interests, what used to be social liberalism edges into free-market liberalism. Seen from the perspective of the provinces, of course, elite cosmopolitanism serves the material interests of a new class of global winners. Mutual contempt is reinforced by self-imposed isolation, both sides speaking only to and within their camps, one through the media, located in the cities, the other through self-constructed private internet channels.

The Politics of Resentment

Neoliberal modernisation comes with a cultural reeducation program. The liberal war against tradition, undertaken by metropolitan elites, and neoliberal economic reforms are related. The first serves as a cover for second. It crowds political economy from public attention. But both are about a redefinition of social solidarity and economic egalitarianism. Social communities based on a shared sense of obligation are always at risk of harboring or relapsing into an attitude inimical to capitalist progress. Neoliberalism champions individual achievement over collective solidarity. In terms of T. H. Marshall’s seminal analysis of the European welfare state, this amounts to a reversal of the move from social rights of collective protection based on citizenship in a (national) political community, to civil rights of equal participation in (supranational) markets.21T. H. Marshall, “Citizenship and Social Class,” in Class, Citizenship and Social Development: Essays by T. H. Marshall (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), 71–134.

Nations are imagined communities.22Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2006). Nation building entailed the creation of formal institutions extending previously informal, communal bonds of solidarity to all co-nationals. Globalization favors the equal access of everyone to worldwide markets. It has no use for national citizenship or national citizens. Another moral system is at work.23In effect this overlaps with contemporary urban cosmopolitanism in that it rejects nationalism and indeed any other communitarianism not just as outdated but as morally reprehensible. Cultural reeducation is required to erase traditional solidarity and replace it with a morality of equal access and equal opportunity regardless of status (such as “race, creed, and national origin”). Justice is served as soon as market access is equalized. The replacement of class solidarity by status rights demands flexible adjustment to changing market conditions. The morality of marketization entails a categoric delegitimization of distinctions. Empathy and benevolence become moral duties with respect to everyone, rather than one’s neighbor. Social rights are displaced by civil rights, a process which, as Hannah Arendt saw clearly in 1948, inevitably dilutes to near-invisibility any system of effective social protection.

For the domestic politics of a nation-state undergoing neoliberal redefinition, this has profound consequences. Classes struggling over the correction of markets give way to status groups struggling over access to them. At issue are not the terms of exchange and cooperation between conflicting class interests, or the limits of exploitation of one class by another, but status groups with established market access excluding status groups without it from competition. Political morality lies in opening up competition by removing barriers to entry, not in containing it through institutionalized limits to commodification. For groups that already have market access, this means a moral duty, in the name of equality, to allow themselves to be challenged by newcomers, whoever they may be—fellow citizens, immigrants, or residents of other countries—at the risk of being outcompeted and having their lives disrupted as a result.

The shift from class to status has left the remnants of the traditional working class deeply resentful.24For the US see Katherine Cramer, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016). Cramer’s book depicts in masterful detail the rural consciousness of small-town residents in Wisconsin who in 2016 became Trump supporters. The concept of resentment goes back to Friedrich Nietzsche, for whom it refers to wrathful fantasies of revenge and restored justice among utterly defeated and forever powerless losers. Trumpism is the belated political eruption of this resentment. In the United States, the UK, France, Sweden, and Germany, the old working class, gathered in declining regions and cut off from glimmering global cities, has for some time felt sidelined by what it perceives as a new politics of entitlement by victimhood.25The contrast between identity politics and class struggle in the widest sense, be it through trade unions or at the ballot box, is that in class struggle solidarity is mobilized in the service of your own interests whereas in identity politics it means sacrificing for the interests of groups of others. Identity-political altruism may therefore come more easily to the economically better placed. To those not belonging to their group, it may appear like egoistic interests camouflaged as charity—for example if the urban middle classes, economically dependent on a rich supply of cheap service labor, favor open borders for immigration. Their moral and economic isolation was exacerbated by the media and their reeducation campaigns. Arlie Russell Hochschild has described the deep divisions between traditional American communities and a hegemonic urban culture declaring it a moral duty for citizens to extend communitarian feelings of compassion, solidarity, and brotherhood from neighbors and friends to everybody, from kind to mankind and indeed humankind.26Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New York: The New Press, 2016). Those unable to comply with the demand for conspicuous compassion are widely regarded as morally defective. Better to stay silent.27In the German case, recipients of social security benefits of whatever kind are prone to compare their entitlements to those of refugees and asylum seekers, which are often much higher, making them feel abandoned by their government in favor of strangers. Resistance is punished by cultural marginalization, which in an especially delicate exercise in social irony, is itself becoming a form of victimization.

To the extent that Trumpism is a cultural movement, it represents a backlash against the degradation of a disorganized class; and it celebrates, and often sanctions, a smoldering desire for symbolic rehabilitation. Trump’s ascendency, in particular, coincides with a dramatic national loss of status in the larger international arena. The American working class has strongly supported the wars undertaken by the United States, and it can see that by never winning them, the United States has always lost them. The American heartland has always been emotionally invested in global power.28It appears that here were the roots of the militia movement of the 1990s, stirred up unintentionally by George H. W. Bush’s talk about a new world order after the demise of communism. Rumors spread that United Nations troops were about to disarm the “well-ordered militia” of American citizens. The movement culminated in a bomb attack on the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 that killed 161 people. It is conceivable that American Trumpism draws in part on similar sentiments as the militia movement of the 1990s. Successive defeats in war left deep wounds in its collective consciousness, as did the indifferent respect paid to veterans returning from the battlefields. That the country with the world’s most powerful military had so often been unable to prevail over its enemies, the heartland attributed to faint-hearted and feckless leadership. Hurt pride resulted in simultaneous calls for a complete withdrawal from foreign adventures, and for an unrestrained use of military force. Trumps seem to emerge easily in countries with a colonial past—the United States, France, the UK, the Netherlands, and also Russia. Collective memories of being at the centre of the world, or at least of a world of one’s own, seem to make it more difficult to accept relegation to the status of one country among others.

O wie ist alles fern und lange vergangen is a sentiment that an entire people can share.

On the Governing Capacity of Trumpism

Can Trump govern? Could Le Pen? Or Grillo? In a system of personal rule, personal defects matter: narcissism, fickleness, a short attention span. It remains to be seen if Trump has the time, and, indeed, the will, to study dossiers or even to listen to advice.29But then, did Obama? Remember that during his presidency he found the time to play no less than 38 rounds of golf every year. Sam Weinman, “We’ve Crunched the Numbers, and It’s Official: President Obama Played a Lot of Golf While in Office,” Golf Digest, January 19, 2017. Trump’s performance during his first weeks in office has been erratic, messy, and incompetent. Early in his presidency, it seemed conceivable that he might resign during his first term, perhaps undermined by the intelligence community he had insulted during the campaign. He could also be forced to resign over conflicts of interest, or be declared unfit to serve, under the 25th Amendment.30According to Section 4: Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President. His cabinet appointments, on the other hand, indicate an attempted reconciliation with both the military and the national security establishment, buying stabilization in office with concessions on policy, especially on NATO, Russia, and global affairs generally.

An elected president can stray far from his campaign rhetoric without popular punishment. In this, Trump might learn from his predecessor. But even if Trump learns how to govern, there is no reason to believe that he will be better than his predecessors at dealing with the crises of global capitalism and the international state system that have brought him to power. Increasing inequality, rising debt, and low growth are not easily cured. Trumpism is, after all, an expression of the crisis, not its solution. If Trumpists feel bound by their electoral promises, they must put an end to neoliberal reform. This will not end the impasse between capitalism and society. In the absence of a stable class compromise between capital and labor, policy is doomed to become capricious. Perhaps Trumpism will make its departure from neoliberalism and free trade palatable to capital by increasing credit, debt, and inflation—another policy intended to buy time and little else. Nobody knows what Trumpists will do to shore up their political support if economic nationalism fails to produce the promised results.

 

A Response by Christopher Prendergast: On Class, Nationalism, and Labor

 

Intellectually, morally, and stylistically, Wolfgang Streeck’s is an indispensable voice. The account he provides here of Trumpism and of Trump’s election victory is exemplary in its lucidity. His arguments are, however, importantly incomplete and some of his claims, most notably on the question of class, are debatable. The following remarks are offered as corrective supplements, along three key axes: descriptive, analytical, and explanatory.

Streeck correctly asserts that “Trump won the United States presidential election with the support of a disorganized, declining class, the industrial workers of middle America.” He also draws an analogy with the “smallholding peasants of mid-eighteenth-century France” in Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire. There is a mistake here, but only as a slip: he means of course nineteenth-century peasants, as part of the support base of Napoléon III’s coup d’état, the point being to run an analogy between the manipulative trickster politics of both the Emperor and the President. Apart from some very generalized similarities, as historical analogies go, this one is weak. However, I propose to put this question to one side. Others might like to expand on it, but, in any case, it is not vital to the essential points.

The latter crucially include the claim that the Trump election campaign took place against the background of a social transformation, which the campaign actively exploited: the splintering of class formations into what—following the canonical distinction of Max Weber between class and status—Streeck calls status groups of a type that compel allegiances by way of group-specific codes  and values rooted in forms of identity politics, and, in this particular case, a subsoil of racism and xenophobia:

The Trumpist electoral machine mobilizes its supporters as a status group. It appeals to their shared sense of honor more than to their material interests. In this, Trumpism follows New Labour and New Democrat, which deleted class from their political vocabulary. In its stead they redefined the struggle for social inequality as one over identity…

There is a mix of the true and the false in this characterization. Trump and his people certainly played a version of the identity card (alt-right, white supremacist, coded lines from the Bannon playbook). But he also appealed to material interests. He lied about his commitment to them, but of them he certainly spoke; the pitch was for America first, and America first was represented as jobs coming back to the rust belt and elsewhere, as the reparation of a devastated class. In his memorably awful inauguration address, Trump spoke, expressly and pointedly, of the “American workers” and “the rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” These are class terms, and part of grasping why Trump, as Streeck says, “received the lion’s share of his votes from the victims of deindustrialization in the centre of the country.” I do not recall the inventor of New Labour, Tony Blair, ever talking like this. In his chaotic, brutal, and opportunistic way, Trump played the class card over and over. The tendency in Streeck’s piece to cleave to an either/or logic of binaries (class or group, but not both) fails to account for Trump’s incoherent yet powerful mélange of a language of group and a language of class. It is not that the language of class was abandoned and replaced by another, more that, in a kind of parody of the Hegelian Aufhebung, it was confiscated, incorporated, and then traduced in order to be put to other uses.

Those uses are reflected in one of Trump’s two favorite words, “movement.” The other is “beautiful,” a curiously Gothic deployment of the aesthetic term. Throughout the campaign, in the inauguration speech, and in rallies since, Trump has invariably spoken of “the movement.” Or, “the historic movement,” as he put it in his inauguration speech. This too of course has a class lineage, rooted in labor movements and left politics, but here has another, ominous resonance: the mass movements of 1930s demagoguery, now widely echoed in the neo-authoritarian discourses of our own time. The other keyword is the “people” and its scriptural embodiment as “the will of the people.” Trump is not, of course, a reincarnation of the Führer; he is too much of a chaotic fantasist to be anything other than an ersatz version, as Thomas Meaney put it in the London Review of Books. But the attempt to make sense of Trump, or more exactly of Trumpism, has to go by way of this ragbag collage of discursive fragments, and the complex long-haul discursive histories from which the fragments are taken.

These, then, are some of the respects in which we might want to rearrange, analytically, Streeck’s otherwise compelling binary description. Similar considerations arise on the explanatory axis, the historical explanation offered by Streeck for Trump’s success. This, he claims, turns essentially on a crisis of capitalist democracies, specified as the “slow breakdown of state-administered capitalism in the 1970s” that was “followed by the catastrophic collapse of its neoliberal successor in 2008, an event, or series of events, that destroyed the credibility of neoliberalism as an economic doctrine and left the governors of global capitalism clueless.” As a historical timeline, this is both familiar and credible; there can certainly be little doubt as to the cluelessness. However, yet again it suffers from simplification induced by recourse to binaries, above all the antimony of state-administered capitalism and the neoliberal global free-for-all. This misses much, centrally, in its understandings of the nature of neoliberalism.

The crux here concerns Streeck’s invocations of nation and nation-state in relation to democracy. His principal thesis—unremarkable in itself—is that the great wave of globalization has swept across national political geographies, uprooting in more senses than one: “Global neoliberalism has enfeebled the nation state and, with it, national democracy… Trumpism took off, fueled as much in the United States as elsewhere by popular irritation at the vast public celebration of internationalization.” The displacement of the national by the internationalized has a particular form: the creation of a wealthy transnational elite, without allegiance to, and increasingly resented by, local communities; the great disjunction of our time is the conflict between cosmopolitanism and nationalism. It is from that conflict or tension that the Trump victory is explained: “The Trump presidency is both the outcome and the end of the American version of neoliberalism.”

This explanatory thesis is unlikely to withstand serious scrutiny for very long. The binaries that structure the argument can work only at the cost of suppressing complexity. Crucially, it involves a misunderstanding of what is called neoliberalism. The corporate world of the neoliberal settlement is internationalist only in certain forms: executive elites jet-set; money flows hourly in vast quantities across national borders; production is outsourced to where labor costs are low; jurisdictions are sought as tax havens. Yet American corporations are first and foremost committed to a version of America first. These are not of course the interests of all Americans, and certainly not the interests of unemployed workers in the industrial sector. But at the level that counts for them, the bottom line, the international corporations are as nationalist as it gets, and no less so under the neoliberal dispensation. That is why they have a lobbying machine furiously at work in connection with the drafting of trade treaties by the federal government and other measures that involve the legislative branch. It is simply a category mistake to construe neoliberalism in terms of its own self-image as a global free market of autonomous players. It is not that the national and the state-administered disappeared in the neoliberal capitalist (dis)order. On the contrary, both remained ever-present, but in new guises, as different ways of interfering in the market. This was the case, above all, in connection with the credit boom, above all the expansion of the subprime mortgage phenomenon in the American property market that resulted in the 2008 financial crash. This had the government’s finger prints all over it. All the fancy structured bets looked like one-way bets because all the loans ultimately looked like loans to what could never default, the U.S. government. One has only to look at the exponential growth of the balance-sheets of the government-backed agencies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, at the time, to see why the nation-state had done the very opposite of withdraw from the market. Monetary policy and too-big-to-fail implicit guarantees are what kept the casino afloat until the plug was pulled.

As big business incarnate, Trump belongs in this nexus of the national and international, and there is no reason to believe that, to the extent that he has any coherent plans at all, his presidency will seek to secure anything other than the continued rebuilding and strengthening of that nexus. It will indeed be America first. Meanwhile, the American workers, victims of the great carnage, will be continuously confronted with the hopelessness of their condition. The only piece of legislation Trump has gotten through Congress so far is the repeal of Obamacare, which of course has the consequence of depriving millions of American workers of basic protections while providing, in Warren Buffet’s frank summary, “a huge tax cut for guys like me.” This is what Bannon-style economic nationalism looks like and will continue to look like.

Streeck asks if Trump can govern, adding, can “Le Pen, or Grillo”? But he might as well have added “anyone”: Merkel, May, Macron, e tutti quanti. Streeck is right to say that without an end to neoliberal reform, nothing can be achieved. But nothing can be achieved on that front without also an understanding of neoliberalism that does not reduce it to being simply a reflection of the internationalized order of globally-mobile capital.

As for finding what Streeck refers to as “a stable class compromise between capital and labor,” Trump obviously is not our man even as he speaks the language of class. But beyond all the inchoate sound and fury, there is the larger question of where it is to be found by anyone, or even if it is findable at all. Globalization is a term that adequately describes some of causes of the crisis, most notably the creation of surplus industrial capacity. It is reasonable to think that, unless something comes along that proves to be a game-changer on such a scale that even vested interests are blown out of the water, the rape of the earth will continue until natural resources are exhausted and very possibly the climate uninhabitable. Short of these ultimate outcomes, finite resources eventually mean scarcity. For now, however, surplus is the name of the game in the sphere of productive capacity. The front-page cause célèbre example right now is steel. The world produces too much of it. A mercantilist China pumps billions into domestic steel factories for which there are no markets other than abroad. But terms of trade are only part of this story, and arguably the lesser part. There is also something else coming down the track: the replacement of labor by automation, the world of the robot and algorithm-driven production.

An example: there is already talk of how, in the U.K., agriculture will manage after the putative post-Brexit loss of seasonal labor from Europe. The answer: robots will do the picking. Generalize this out across many other sectors of production and then ask what a compromise formation might look like. Some are asking the question. In the French presidential election, the Socialist Party candidate, Benoît Hamon, talked about it intelligently, but no one was listening. He got a meager six percent of the vote in the first round. In a recent article in the Financial Times, Sarah O’Connor has traced some of the likely implications and consequences for post-Brexit Britain, most notably the erroneous belief that with the departure of cheap labor from Eastern Europe, wages will increase and inequality lessen. That, she maintains, is self-deluding. The compact of capitalism and nation, now cemented by technology, will ensure the opposite. It will be a mirror image of what happened in American agriculture, with the ending in 1964—the heyday of state-administered capitalism—of the so-called Bracero Program that allowed farmers to import cheap seasonal workers from Mexico. The express aim of the program was to raise indigenous wages. It failed; farmers simply changed “production techniques where that was possible… and production levels where it was not.” What will happen if/when Trump’s beautiful wall goes up?

In the last interview he gave shortly before his death, Eric Hobsbawm, surveying possibilities for the future, remarked grimly yet presciently that the commodity that will be least in demand in the future is human labor. Trump is merely a superficial, transient, and in some ways dangerous symptom of that great conundrum. He can have as many rallies as he like, and carry on tweeting about the American worker—though, significantly, we have lately heard less of the latter from him. Maureen Dowd got him right when, in the New York Times, she reinvented the John Lennon tag for Trump as Working-Class Zero. He is simply fluff on the political landscape, here today, gone tomorrow. Hobsbawm’s forecast, however, and the questions that go with it, will remain.

As for the death of neoliberalism, reports thereof resemble those of Mark Twain’s death—premature. Streeck speaks of its catastrophic collapse in 2008. This is one way of describing a crisis, but the term is careless. It has not collapsed. Courtesy of state interventions, backed by taxpayers, and sustained by national and consumer debt, it has, as Philip Mirowski shows, if somewhat raggedly, in his book, Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste, in fact, emerged relatively unscathed. It remains shaky, of course, and, once the unprecedentedly huge state-administered intervention—central bank manipulations of monetary policy and other measures associated with quantitative easing—has fully run its course in fueling debt and propping up asset prices, the next crisis beckons. But neoliberalism is a regime that is still very much with us. Trump of course will make no difference on that front—he may indeed be gone by the time this letter is published. The real question is whether someone like Macron will. Surely the only sensible predictive answer is no. How could someone of his technocratic outlook possibly be the answer to the guises the neoliberal world order is likely to assume? Technology, along with private property, is intrinsically anti-egalitarian, as Rousseau argued in his Second Discourse. It expands and refines systems of the division of labor, and it now looks as if might spell the end of forms of human labor on an unimaginable scale, while producing a relatively small cadre of highly-paid experts servicing automated modes of production owned and controlled by large corporations, start-up entrepreneurs and venture capital. It is very difficult, and perhaps impossible, to see what a compromise between capital and labor might look like in a world where the latter has more or less ceased to exist.

— Christopher Prendergast

Wolfgang Streeck replies:

I feel proud and humbled and grateful, all at the same time, for the quality of the comments that my paper has elicited. I have learned enormously from all of them. There is very little that I have to add to Prendergast’s remarks, except that all his points—and I count three major ones—usefully complement, develop further, clarify, improve, and correct what I have written. First, on class, I was sloppy in not making explicit that, in my terminology, political mobilization by class implies specifying a class enemy, and working-class political mobilization means specifying capital as the enemy to be defeated. Second, and much more importantly, on nation, I learn, and will henceforth take to heart, that the internationalism of global neoliberalism is in fact American nationalism cum statism, and needs to be explicitly conceptualized in this way. Third, yes, if labor markets and production systems develop the way they might—as sketched out in Prendergast’s comment—any idea of a stable class compromise between capital and labor will finally become outdated. The consequences for our theories about the world and our practice in it would be truly awe inspiring. Up to now I have tried to think around them, excusing my timidity by alluding to my experience as an industrial sociologist in the 1980s. At that time, CNC technology was predicted to replace skilled metal-working and to produce an army of unemployed, who had formerly been well-paid skilled workers. In some places this was so. In others, shop-floor programming and decentralized debugging, corresponding to shorter production runs of more complex products, brought an upgrading of skills and an increase in employment. I now feel that the time is past when this experience could be drawn upon for reassurance about the threat—long hovering on the capitalist horizon—of the fully automated, unmanned (or un-person-ed?) factory and office.

 

Note: We are publishing here Wolfgang Streecks essay Trump and Trumpism from the Inference Review, as well as Christopher  Prendergasts reply to the same journal.

 

References   [ + ]

1. This essay is not on populism in general but only on a subtype of it, which I call Trumpism. Populism has a long and often dignified history, reaching back to the progressive era in the United States with the Minnesota Farmer–Labor Party and ‘Fighting Bob’ La Follette’s Progressive Party—and in any case there is left as well as right populism. Today populism has become a dirty word, used by the established parties of postwar capitalist democracy to discredit their new challengers, from both sides of the political spectrum.
2. Similarly, European Trumpists insist, increasingly with success, on the questions of what exactly the ‘ever closer union of the people of Europe’ as envisaged by the European Union treaties is to mean, and what the status of associated nation-states within that union is supposed to be—an issue that is strictly avoided in official Europe.
3. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: Mondial, 2005). The Eighteenth Brumaire is also available online.
4. Within orthodox Marxism, the concept of Bonapartism represents its most significant departure from its fundamental base–superstructure paradigm.
5. As Marx writes on Bonaparte: “Just because he was nothing, he could signify anything.” Quoted in Francis Wheen, Karl Marx: A Life (London: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001), 157.
6. See Wolfgang Streeck, Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism(London: Verso Books, 2014); Mervyn King, The End of Alchemy: Money, Banking, and the Future of the Global Economy (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016).
7. The concept of social disorganization is illustrated in Chapter 7 of The Eighteenth Brumaire where Marx explains why the French peasants, Louis Napoleon’s main source of support, were unable to rule as a class although they were the vast majority of the French citizenry: ‘Each individual peasant family is almost self-sufficient, directly produces most of its consumer needs, and thus acquires its means of life more through an exchange with nature than in intercourse with society… Thus the great mass of the French nation is formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes.’ Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonapartechap. VII.
8. Which, given the disorder in its own camp, might have been happy with Clinton winning the Presidency and then doing the bidding of the Republican core constituency, financial capitalism.
9. For a fascinating eyewitness account of how Obama experienced and reacted to the defeat of the centre-left neoliberal project is provided see David Remnick, “It Happened Here: A President Confronts an Election that Changes Everything—and Imperils his Legacy,” The New Yorker, November 28, 2016, 54–65.
10. Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, ed. Günther Roth and Claus Wittich, 2 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).
11. This is why Trumpist leaders can be and often are of great wealth even though their followers may be poor; see Louis Bonaparte and his peasant supporters. On the one hand, while Trump-like leaders can be rich, they are typically considered upstarts by families of old money.
12. Trumpist politics of honor and respect plays out differently in different national environments. One reason why East Germans, generously endowed with subsidies by the federal government, so often vote for Die Linke or for AfD seems to be that they find what they call their biographies not adequately appreciated in the united country.
13. In 2012, 90 million voters out of 220 million stayed home (41%), in 2016 it was 93 million out of 230 million (40%).
14. The Clinton family wealth is reported to have increased from minus eight million dollars in 2000 to about 110 million dollars in 2016 (Tom Gerencer, “Hillary Clinton Net Worth,” Money Nation, November 1, 2016.). Disentangling the family assets from those of the Clinton Foundation seems difficult—which undoubtedly contributed to widespread suspicions of corruption as raised by the private email server used by Clinton as Secretary of State, and Clinton’s Goldman Sachs fees for speeches (US$675,000 for three appearances) the contents of which she refused to disclose. That Trump is a lot richer than Clinton didn’t apparently matter to his voters because he made his fortune, to the extent that he didn’t inherit it, as a businessman rather than as a politician—the former being considered legitimate, the latter not.
15. On the devastations visited on the American working class by de-industrialization, see most recently Anne Case and Angus Deaton, “Mortality and morbidity in the 21st Century,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, March 17, 2017. 
16. As David Paul Kuhn, drawing on survey data, wrote in The New York Times on December 26, 2016: Bluntly put, much of the white working class decided that Mr. Trump could be a jerk. Absent any other champion, they supported the jerk they thought was more on their side—that is, on the issues that most concerned them. David Paul Kuhn, “Sorry, Liberals. Bigotry Didn’t Elect Donald Trump,” The New York Times, December 26, 2016.
17. Indicating that the attempt to forge a politically united status group out of women from different classes had failed. Black (and immigrant) women may have noticed that their low wages as care workers were instrumental for white women’s progress in their careers.
18. Relative to this, the impact of the so-called fake news can only have been miniscule. The fake news theory of Trumpism assumes that lies are today more important in politics than in the past; that real facts are easily distinguished from fake facts; and that more civilized political leaders, such as Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have done without lies. There are reasons to believe that truth as a political currency has been debased by the political mainstream to such an extent that lies by outsiders like Mr. Trump are no longer a problem to most voters. In any case, if there was anything fake in the 2016 campaign, it clearly included Clinton’s self-presentation as a representative member of the hard-working American working class, as opposed to a self-enriching political class.
19. For a participant observer’s description of the lives of legal and illegal immigrants in one of the biggest global cities of today, see Ben Judah, This is London: Life and Death in the World City (London: Picador, 2016).
20. Where they remain spatially and socially segregated, just as immigrant groups in their new country. For France, this—and its effect on political and voting behavior—is impressively described in Christophe Guilluy, Le Crépuscule de la France d’en haut (Paris: Flammarion, 2016
21. T. H. Marshall, “Citizenship and Social Class,” in Class, Citizenship and Social Development: Essays by T. H. Marshall (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), 71–134.
22. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2006).
23. In effect this overlaps with contemporary urban cosmopolitanism in that it rejects nationalism and indeed any other communitarianism not just as outdated but as morally reprehensible.
24. For the US see Katherine Cramer, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016). Cramer’s book depicts in masterful detail the rural consciousness of small-town residents in Wisconsin who in 2016 became Trump supporters. The concept of resentment goes back to Friedrich Nietzsche, for whom it refers to wrathful fantasies of revenge and restored justice among utterly defeated and forever powerless losers.
25. The contrast between identity politics and class struggle in the widest sense, be it through trade unions or at the ballot box, is that in class struggle solidarity is mobilized in the service of your own interests whereas in identity politics it means sacrificing for the interests of groups of others. Identity-political altruism may therefore come more easily to the economically better placed. To those not belonging to their group, it may appear like egoistic interests camouflaged as charity—for example if the urban middle classes, economically dependent on a rich supply of cheap service labor, favor open borders for immigration.
26. Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New York: The New Press, 2016).
27. In the German case, recipients of social security benefits of whatever kind are prone to compare their entitlements to those of refugees and asylum seekers, which are often much higher, making them feel abandoned by their government in favor of strangers.
28. It appears that here were the roots of the militia movement of the 1990s, stirred up unintentionally by George H. W. Bush’s talk about a new world order after the demise of communism. Rumors spread that United Nations troops were about to disarm the “well-ordered militia” of American citizens. The movement culminated in a bomb attack on the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 that killed 161 people. It is conceivable that American Trumpism draws in part on similar sentiments as the militia movement of the 1990s.
29. But then, did Obama? Remember that during his presidency he found the time to play no less than 38 rounds of golf every year. Sam Weinman, “We’ve Crunched the Numbers, and It’s Official: President Obama Played a Lot of Golf While in Office,” Golf Digest, January 19, 2017.
30. According to Section 4: Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

Wolfgang Streeck is Director Emeritus and Professor at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne.

Christopher Prendergast is a fellow in French at King's College, Cambridge and on the editorial team of King's review. Currently, he has just completed a major exhibition on Samuel Beckett in connection with the 500th anniversary of the completion of King's College Chapel. He writes regularly for the London Review of Books and New Left Review.