Donald Trump, who becomes US president on 20 January, threatens to push the USA, and maybe more of the world, back decades on women’s rights, ethnic minority rights, migrant rights, and civil liberties. He threatens to batter and marginalise the long-beleaguered US trade-union movement.
With his swagger and desire to throw the USA’s weight around, he threatens to set off a surge of trade wars and maybe shooting wars. Even the most moderate liberals are horrified. But a bland, moderate, liberal defence of the status quo will not defeat Trump and the other politicians of his type, Le Pen and Wilders, Grillo and Putin, Erdogan and Duterte, Modi and Sisi. Only a resurgent labour movement, fighting for a different world-view, and a different world, of co-operation and solidarity, can do that.
Back in the year 2000, the historian and essayist Perry Anderson declared: “neoliberalism as a set of principles rules undivided across the globe: the most successful ideology in world history”. The 2008 crash and its grinding aftermath showed neoliberalism as not so successful at guiding an economic system. Yet the left was too fragmented, too timid at the time to seize the initiative. Soon the neoliberals were strident again, demanding more cuts, more privatisations, more labour “flexibility”.
But their ability to fill the whole sky of social thought had cracked. There have been surges on the left: Corbyn, Sanders. And on the right, an eruption of xenophobes and demagogues. Trump and his type are more the acme of neoliberalism than a negation of it. They strip off the cosmopolitan, liberal-ish, consensus-management, mildly “social” trimmings that neoliberalism developed, especially with Clinton and Blair. They strip it down to the hard metal. They want their states to act in the world arena, not as staid and moderate negotiators of long-term alliances and frameworks, but in the same sort of “post-modern”, supposedly “creative-chaos”, way that corporations act economically: eye-gouging rivalry mediated and alternated with a whirl of deals, consortia, joint ventures, contracting-out arrangements.
Whether Trump will persist with trying to run state-to-state relations on that model, and whether Trump’s bluster will generate a spiral of protectionism and trade wars, is scarily uncertain. Around their nationalist drive, the new demagogues build new padding for neoliberalism: nationalist ideologies to appeal to the millions disillusioned with established neoliberalism. Neoliberalism boasts about eroding glass ceilings, and glass walls between countries, but for millions it has meant glassy floors — insecurity, difficulty finding a stable job, difficulty finding and keeping a home, difficulty dealing with ever-harsher demands for more “flexibility” and “continuous improvement” at work. ground Trump and his like do not promise to change economic fundamentals. But they offer a story about making the ground beneath people’s feet firmer, a promise of government which puts “its own” country and “its own” people first.
Thus we have, as political economist Leo Panitch puts it, the rise of a “xenophobic right which claims to represent the national interest in cultural and ethnic terms.... Their main thrust is to define the nation again in xenophobic terms, which also combines with protection of old cultural values that would restore hierarchies of race, gender, and sexual orientation”. Their appeal is first to older people who feel more marginalised. The Brexit and Ukip votes are heavily weighted towards older males.
The demographic variables most correlated with Trump-voting last November were ill-health and alcohol consumption: people in poorer health and people who drank more voted for Trump. The xenophobic right is strengthened by low electoral registration and voter turnout among younger people: in France, for example, only 25% of voters are under 36. But in France, too, the far-right Front National has been able to build from an initial base among older males in small towns to win large support, now, from young people in big cities.
Although Trump and his like play on the theme of “taking control” and security, as against the bewildering and uncontrolled swings of the capitalist world markets which established neoliberals worship, they paradoxically also cultivate personal unpredictability. It’s one of the “48 Laws of Power” according to an influential American pop-psych book. “Keep Others in Suspended Terror: Cultivate an Air of Unpredictability. Your predictability gives them a sense of control. Turn the tables: Be deliberately unpredictable. Behaviour that seems to have no consistency or purpose will keep them off-balance and they will wear themselves out trying to explain your moves. Taken to an extreme, this strategy can intimidate and terrorise... Appear to have no clear strategy... Scramble old patterns...”
A “moderate”, or “centre-ground”, or “centre-left”, response, which offers only bland and geeky tweaks to give a little more social padding to neoliberalism, cannot win over the disillusioned working-class and plebeian millions who have drifted to Trump, or Brexit, or Ukip, or Le Pen. They have not drifted as the outcome of detailed economic calculations which convince them that Trump, or Brexit, or Ukip, or Le Pen, offer them x% higher income. They have drifted on issues of world view. They have drifted because they resent and fear the world of neoliberalism, and because the right-wing demagogues offer them, not really a different world, but a niche within that slippery, elusive world within which they can at least have some anchoring, within which they can be really “American” or “British” or “French”. Only a resurgent labour movement, fighting boldly and unequivocally for a different world-view, and a different world, of co-operation and solidarity, can turn the tables.
A Trump primer
By Junco Ashow
The return of Bush-era tax cuts are to be Trump’s opening act, but these it has been said will be accompanied by an increase in infrastructure spending. Already, the capitalists are reacting well to this, with the International Monetary Fund predicting 2.3% growth in 2017, above that predicted before the election. On the world stage, Trump has promised to introduce tariffs on imports from China and Mexico, with the object of bringing jobs back to America, as well as paying for the proposed border wall with Mexico. Trump’s opposition to free trade is further demonstrated through his promise to not pursue Obama’s policy of TPP and TTIP.
This is confounded, however, by Trump’s recently announced support for a free trade deal with the UK — perhaps angling for support in the coming trade disputes with China. Trump has further promised to renounce other major Obama treaties, most notably the Paris Climate Agreement, which is the UN’s last ditch attempt to achieve a slowdown in global warming. Reneging on the Iran nuclear deal also has featured in Trump’s campaigning.
Back at home, the Republicans have already laid the foundations for repealing Obamacare, which mandated that Americans buy health insurance. It is unclear what, if anything, the Trump administration plans to replace this with. Interestingly, Trump has vowed to enforce stronger bidding for pharmaceutical products and to use federal powers to “penalise unjustified prices” — this was a policy Clinton proposed in her campaign. Who are some of the people tasked with bringing these policies about? Rex Tillerson is the nominee for Secretary of State.
Until recently the Exxon Mobil CEO, he gave $2 million in the election to various candidates, mostly to Republicans but also $90,000 to Clinton, in addition to millions more on lobbying. Tillerson has strong ties to the Putin regime in Russia and strongly opposes sanctions for their invasion of the Ukraine. Mike Pompeo is to be CIA Director. He strongly opposed the Iran deal, but also opposes Trump’s extreme calls to bring back waterboarding and further disagrees with Trump on Russia’s hacking in the election, which Trump has publicly doubted. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is already being called one of the most powerful men in America and has acted as Trump’s senior advisor for the past year.
Like Trump, he is a real estate mogul, with dealings in the US and in China. He is seen as a moderating influence on Trump. Former Wall Street lawyer Jay Clayton is to head the Securities and Exchange Commission, tasked with the objective of tearing up regulation, freeing up the corporations to exploit more. Clayton has been very vocal in his plans to target the anti-bribery laws, which he claims give the US an international trade disadvantage.