Mar 28, 2019

Trump’s election and capitalist power – an exchange

In February 2019, Three Way Fight published the essay “Trump’s shaky capitalist support: Business conflict and the 2016 election,” by Matthew N. Lyons. In this exchange with Matthew, Don Hamerquist explores some of the larger issues raised in that essay regarding the dynamics of capitalist power.

Don Hamerquist comment
I agree with Matthew’s emphasis on the “shaky” character of Trump’s capitalist support. He points out that, “…Trump has been forced to bring many establishment figures into his administration, and to implement elements of both neoliberalism and nationalist populism, or at least oscillate between them… [However] neoliberalism (and the related internationalist/interventionist foreign policy stance) still enjoys majority support within the U.S. ruling class and among political elites in both major parties … the situation seems likely to feed, not a calculated march toward dictatorship, but a sharpening mix of repression and instability.” This is quite distinct from the prevailing narrative on the North American left. Consider for example, Henry Giroux’s version of the “fascist creep” thesis, that pictures Trump as “…a fusion of the worst dimensions and excesses of gangster capitalism with the fascist ideals of white nationalism and racial supremacy.”

However, while accepting most of Matthew’s political conclusions, I have reservations about the Ferguson “investment theory of party competition” that is incorporated in his argument. In my opinion such approaches are useful – but only within clear limits. (I would make similar criticisms of Page and Gillen’s argument supporting their conception of oligarchy.) Ferguson’s campaign contribution metrics can roughly measure the efforts of particular capitalists to gain access to and influence on government, but they gloss over important contradictions that underlie alternative ruling class approaches to the strategic direction of society. To adequately understand the organizational cohesion and the political “will” of the ruling class fractions that support and/or oppose “Trump,” it’s important to avoid reducing class politics to financial and technical self-interest within an essentially “given” national framework.

U.S. capitalism is part of a developing transnational system with an institutional and ideological trajectory and momentum that transcends national politics. The changing relationship between class profit and class power in the global capitalist system overdetermines the political, economic, and ideological posture of particular capitalist fractions– at times transforming them dramatically. This leads to the hollowing of capitalist state institutions and to growing challenges to capitalist hegemonic ideology – to a broad range of popular grievances and a heightened and more generalized instability. While capitalist fractions will continue to pursue narrow national and corporative interests through the parliamentary process, the more significant strategic elements of the ruling class response to the problems confronting capital increasingly will be shaped in global economic and political institutions and processes outside this framework – where the left challenge should be located as well.

In 2008, at the depths of the global financial crisis, the factors setting the politics of capitalist fractions in this country were quite different from 2116 when Trump had his improbable triumph in the late stage of a capitalist recovery. These factors are likely to be very different again in 2020. In 2008, the destabilizing risks of concessions to nationalist populism – even concessions that were mainly symbolic or rhetorical – would have been overwhelming. In 2016, nearly a decade after capital had responded to its existential crisis with generalized austerity and mammoth institutional bailouts, a very different set of potential risks and responses had emerged. The overall system was no longer enmeshed in crisis – although there were warnings on the horizon – and the limited elements of nativist populism hinted by Trump posed minimal risks for capital. Concessions in this direction might provide something of a release valve for mass discontent – a ruling class feint with potentials to pre-empt more disruptive oppositions before the business cycle took its next dive.

In this view “Trump” appears as something of an accident, like Brexit, but that also doesn’t adequately explain the dynamics at work. The elements of “populism” in “Trump” have been almost totally eclipsed by the embrace of neo-liberal economics and garden variety capitalist reaction. The MAGA nationalism is likely to wilt if it is confronted with any indication of major problems in the global economy. Despite this, the most noteworthy feature of current politics is the frantic way a major sector of capital and much of the institutional weight of capitalist state power is organizing against Trump, notwithstanding his remarkably incompetent “populism” and his routine vanilla conservatism. Certainly this indicates a ruling class fear of major pending dislocations in the global system, including an expectation of more substantive populist challenges. This dictates an accelerated need for a transnational ruling class perspective that can enforce a capitalist consensus on competitive sectors of the ruling elites and develop some better tools to incorporate and diffuse potential mass oppositions from both left and right. Trump is a distracting infection in the emergence of a global ruling class. The over-reaction of ruling elites to the Trump phenomena is an element of the birth pangs of a capitalist new world order.

Head shot of David Koch
David H. Koch, right-wing businessman.
He and his brother Charles Koch oppose
Donald Trump on immigration and trade.
Matthew Lyons reply
I appreciate Don’s comment and I think his criticism is very helpful. I agree that Ferguson’s “investment theory” is not an adequate framework for analyzing ruling-class politics and internal conflict, and agree in particular that we need to bring in the international dimension. Still, I want to offer a couple of caveats. First, while Ferguson’s quantitative analysis is limited, to me it’s a welcome contribution in a context where so many leftist analyses of capital are based only on selective use of anecdotal evidence, or on out-and-out distortion. (I’m thinking for example of Floris D’Aalst’s recent piece in Insurgent Notes, where he claims that the Koch brothers are Donald Trump’s allies, although in fact they have consistently and very publicly opposed Trump on both immigration and trade issues.)

My other caveat is that while Ferguson’s framework here is indeed national, it would be a mistake to see his investment theory as just “reducing class politics to financial and technical self-interest.” Ferguson and his co-authors combine the data from electoral campaigns with other evidence to develop larger analytic themes. For example, in their article about the 2012 presidential election, they draw a connection between Obama’s cordial relationship with high-tech firms and his active continuation of the “national surveillance state” policies he inherited from George W. Bush. And one of the main reasons I got interested in Ferguson to begin with is because of his work from the 1980s on intra-capitalist debates around FDR’s New Deal. Ferguson argued that firms and sectors that had relatively low labor costs (and thus had more flexibility to negotiate with organized labor) and/or were oriented toward international markets formed the core of a new historical bloc that backed FDR, restabilized U.S. capitalism, and created a new hegemonic set of policies that persisted for forty years. This analysis is far better than anything else I’ve seen on the subject.

Again, I think we need to look beyond Ferguson’s approach – to examine, for example, how “the changing relationship between class profit and class power in the global capitalist system overdetermine the political, economic, and ideological posture of particular capitalist fractions,” as Don puts it. One of the questions that Ferguson et al. pose – and by their own admission aren’t really equipped to answer – is why Trump's (and Sanders’s) politics captured mass support in 2016 and not earlier. I’m partly sympathetic to Don’s suggestion that “in 2008, the destabilizing risks of concessions to nationalist populism...would have been overwhelming,” whereas in 2016 the system had restabilized to the point that it could allow and benefit from “a release valve for mass discontent.” However, to me this raises a question: what is the mechanism whereby “the system” makes these choices? Do they reflect conscious strategic decisions by sections of the ruling class, and if so where do these happen and what evidence do we have for them? Or is there some other “objective” mechanism at work? Either way, I’m wary of ascribing too much rationality to the system. I think the system has a tremendous capacity to adapt to unexpected pressures, and this seems like one of those times that the ruling class was blind-sided and had to scramble to adapt. On this question, I would ask Don if he could elaborate on his somewhat cryptic comment that “‘Trump’ appears as something of an accident...but that also doesn’t adequately explain the dynamics at work.”

Don Hamerquist added comment
I wouldn’t speak of “mechanisms,” “system,” and “rationality” in this context. The U.S. nation state is a rapidly changing complex entity that is impacted by a range of conflicting and contradictory interests and forces; some essentially internal and some not so much, many of which aren’t clearly delineated or competently advanced. These are expressed within an array of structures that have their own weight and momentum, and they are mediated through a range of ideologies with their histories, fans and fanatics.

Rather than “conscious strategic decisions by sections of the ruling class,” political outcomes and policy stances in capitalist states are the resultants of a variety of different factors that interact at various levels and in different ways. Financial and commodities markets both determine and are determined by changing state policies – at times via conscious ruling class intervention and at times in spite of it. A definite inertia and momentum is provided by the internal state and quasi-state bureaucracies and apparatuses that have developed to implement capital’s control, but that increasingly fail to reflect interests of particular capitalist fractions in a stable and continuing fashion. The increasing weight of transnational capitalist institutions and policies that deal with trade, finance, countercyclical policy, and various accumulated social costs of capitalist development provide another set of causal factors that have real effects on internal politics, independently of the relative political strengths of domestic capitalist fractions – generally overriding them in most countries – sometimes even here.

As you point out U.S. capitalism has a well-demonstrated capacity to adapt – or to say it differently, it is a system fortunate to have produced oppositions with demonstrated capacities to self-destruct. But despite its good fortune in enemies, U.S. capital has no clear adaptive path. Its various efforts will “work” in places and at times, but usually at the cost of worsening problems elsewhere or, perhaps, later. This leads to a daunting multitude of unavoidable problems and adds to the difficult gestation of a legitimate transnational capitalist elite.

Nevertheless, the process is not all chaos and confusion. There are certain strands of policy that are clearly embraced and enforced by the dominant sectors of transnational capital. The most important of these is their organized opposition to any of the destabilizing populisms of either the right or the left that threaten to emerge from the dilemmas of global capital. These policies are developed at Davos and Valdai, and in the think-tanks of Washington, Brussels and London, and we will shortly see, I think, from Moscow and Peking also. These are shared visions of a capitalist global order with common ideas about what forces and tendencies would be problematic for that order and a common concern with maintaining both the power and the legitimacy of transnational capital. I recognize the importance of differences over the significance of sovereignty and between visions of a uni-polar or multi-polar structure for the global system, however these have strategic importance mainly for relatively weaker capitalist interests that are more reliant on access to specific elements of state power.

It’s possible to discern the potential elements of a global strategy for capital in this framework. In the first place it includes developing viable transnational institutions and understandings to deal with the predictable effects of the reversal of the business cycle and, more important, to deal with the increasingly critical aspects of secular crisis in capitalist production and bourgeois civilization. In the second place it requires developing some basis of “consent” from among the masses that will not be among the beneficiaries of any global capitalist order. I’ve dealt with these issues elsewhere and won’t go into further detail here.

The imperatives of this strategy underlie ruling class attitudes towards Trump, towards Brexit, towards Bolsonaro. You say about Trump, “I think this was one of those times that the ruling class was blind-sided and had to scramble to adapt.” I agree for the most part, but what I think is most important is the content that the “adapting” scramble assumed. Perhaps we will have to argue this point elsewhere, but, beginning with the presidential primary and continuing through the first half of Trump’s term I think that it has taken the form of a thinly disguised attempted coup that risks the viability of the party system and parliamentary structure in this country. It’s difficult to explain the magnitude and urgency of the organized ruling class effort to displace Trump who was swiftly neutralized into an ordinary reactionary – if he was ever something more. What calculation explains this effort against Trump, more of a comic figure than a populist demagogue.

Photo credit:
Photo by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons.