Reflections by George Caffentzis on Trump, Capital, and Proletarian Animal Spirits
At one of the many demonstrations sparking off the city in recent weeks, this time outside Senator Schumer’s Brooklyn’s residence, after the usual “One-Two-Three...Donald Trump has got to go!” a new chant came from the podium that I could not join: “This is Not Normal! “This was a novelty as far as activists’ slogans go, and a puzzling one. Why should we call for a return to the ‘normal’ politics of Obama and Clinton? Is ‘normal capitalism’ the horizon of this movement that, up to now, has so effectively blocked Trump’s Agenda? And is Trump’s course of action truly out of the ruling class political norm? These questions must be asked because they confront us with the problematic state of the class struggle in the US on a number of levels.
The chant condemns Trump’s open sponsorship of an imperialist program as expressed in the call for “America First.” The condemnation is appropriate, but to imagine that imperialism is ‘abnormal’ in US politics is mind boggling. What may be abnormal is such open acknowledgment of what other presidents have carried on under the pretense of defending human rights. But otherwise waving the sword is in perfect tune with capital’s historical trend. Capitalism no doubt is facing internationally a profit decline - a phase of slow growth, stagnation, even recession in the case of some national economies. Shaking up the drying capitalist tree and defeating proletarian struggles requires drastic measures and this is where Trump comes into place with his mesmerizing promise of an America exercising unconditional world power. Appropriately his agenda combines the two faces of contemporary capitalism: the neoliberal and the imperialist one, often erroneously depicted as antagonistic, their mating signaled by his choice of Generals and Billionaires for his cabinet, and the appointment of Rex Tillerson, long-time CEO of ExxonMobil (the most “international” of US corporations), as Secretary of State.
Far from being abnormal Trump continues a long, honored capitalist tradition of gun-boat neo-liberalism, breaking down protectionist walls with military force. Fascism too in the 1930s recognized that “free” markets do not guarantee profitability and border-less trade even in the Nazi-controlled areas required formidable means of repression.Even Trump’s histrionics are typical of these periods, when politicians view their tasks as stimulating capital’s flagging animal spirits, [in Keynes’ words, “a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction..”] and mobilizing part of the working class by offering a racist deal.
However, when we examine the record we find deep continuities between the Obama and Trump Administrations (as there was between Carter’s Administration and Reagan’s) that should be recognized once we clear away the bluster inevitably surrounding Trump’s election.
*On immigration. Deportation of undocumented immigrants during the Obama period was more than 2.5 million. This is similar to Trump’s estimate of who will be deported.
*On war. The US military is now openly involved in civil wars in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia as a result of Obama’s policy decisions. Trump is calling for “a war of civilizations” (dusting off Samuel Huntington’s trope) against more or less the same list of Moslem-majority countries.
*On military force. Obama’s military legacy was his reliance on assassination by drone, with all the ethical implications such a use of drones entails. As Micah Zenko wrote, “Obama has authorized 506 strikes that have killed 3,040 terrorists and 391 civilians” (NYT, Jan, 12, 2016.), by far the largest use of drones in the history of warfare. Trump, following Obama, has called for a widespread use of drones. The massive sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, under the Obama administration, at a time when Saudi Arabia is bombing Yemen, and the silence of all democrats during the electoral campaign concerning the Pentagon’s plan to revamp all nuclear weapons, for a cost of a trillion dollar again indicate as far as the use of military force the distance between the two administrations is less it may appear.
*On capital’s control of the economy. Obama explicitly recognized that capital has equal power as the state through his sponsorship of the TPP and TTIP and their institution of “investor-state dispute settlement panel” provisions. Trump has eliminated these ritual panels and made the Administration the direct negotiator with capital. But his “All power to capital” program is not more bold than the substance of Obama’s proposed free trade agreements, which give an absolute power to international capital, allowing companies to block any initiative, at any state level, “limiting free trade,” i.e. cutting into their profits, and the power as well to force the offenders to pay hefty compensations to them.
*On police killings of black people. In the face of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson Obama said he had "no sympathy at all for those destroying their own communities." Trump counters Black Lives Matter with Blue Lives Matter.
*On infrastructure investment by the Federal Government. The Obama Administration devised the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that invested more than $800 billion in infrastructure. Trump is “promising” another $1 trillion in infrastructure.
On all these issues, though Obama’s rhetorical approach was subtle and low-key while Trump’s is boisterous and bellicose, results are similar, if not identical.
There are notoriously aspects of Trump politics that justify the label of ‘abnormal.’ His misogynous stand, his encouragement to white supremacist groups, his instigation to racist violence have long been rejected as acceptable in political speech. On the other hand, Trump is bringing to our shores the treatment so far reserved to the people in the countries -Iraq and Afghanistan for a start - that the US government in the last decades has conquered and colonized - those it has tortured, incarcerated, placed on rendition flights, separated from their families through deportation raids, placed in privately-run border prisons. Isn’t calling Trump’s behavior ‘abnormal’ signaling that the immense suffering and degradation these practices have caused are within the norm?
An ‘Abnormal’ working class response?
We would like to believe that if there is something ‘abnormal’ in the Trump phenomenon this is that many white workers voted for him. But here too we are in muddy waters. Clearly much support for Trump came from the deep-seated historical tendency among white workers summarized in the slogan the “wages of whiteness.” It is also true, however, that the vote was partly a contingent response to the neo-liberal political economy of the Obama Administration that has pauperized white workers as well, through continuing falling wages, unemployment and foreclosures. This economic factor in Trump’s electoral victory should not be disregarded. Loss of economic power, fear for the future, life at the edge of disaster are common features of the proletarian condition today. This was depicted in a recent survey asking a large pool of people if in an emergency they could cover a necessary expense of $400. Surprisingly up to 63% of those in the pool said “No.” This ‘Normal.’ Although the press made much of Clinton’s email troubles, more important for the outcome of the election was the announcement, just a few weeks before, of steep increases in the premiums for Obamacare insurance policies. Yes, racism was a factor in Trump’s victory, but it was not the only on -after all, many proletarians who voted for Trump in 2016 voted for Obama four years before.
It is, however, extraordinary that in time of economic trouble and genuine despair white workers vote for a billionaire. Trump’s victory reveals a deep crisis in the white working class, for it seems that it cannot mobilize itself except for a race war.
Trump promises a brutal, imperialist politics. He is not a “protectionist of the old school,” who wants commerce to retreat to the continental US, nor is he an anti-globalization proponent, for his personal wealth is located in regions across the globe. His agenda is to make “American Capital First”, in a capitalist system facing a profit collapse, by freeing it from regulations (environmental, labor rights, health, international treaties, human rights), by providing a state-financed infrastructure, by imposing favorable terms of trade through bilateral agreements and the threat of military force. He wants the main branches of capitalist production to get a state-sponsored boost, wants to revive manufacturing through the imposition of selective tariffs on companies moving their capital out of the US, calls for a relentless support of extractivism (both by financing and a regulatory relief, as we now see it in Standing Rock), supports financial speculation, wants the Federal Government give a free hand to real estate developers. These are commons steps in the economic policies of recent administrations, though expressed in an uncommon way.
As he openly stated on national TV, in 2011, referring to Iraqi oil: “In the old days, you know when you had a war, to the victor belong the spoils. You go in. You win the war, and you take it.”
Since then he has often repeated it. But, then, that was the Bush Administration’s major objective. For the war in Iraq was to privatize the oil fields immediately after the defeat of Saadam Hussain and open up the Constitution in ways that would make it possible to return the oil to the large global oil companies. Obama realized that the privatization of the oil fields would not happen any time soon and began bringing the troops out. Trump seems committed to reversing this course, behaving in the way patriarchal nationalists do in periods of profit crisis such as the one we are experiencing today.
* Brooklyn, February 2017.