In response to “Trump and the Trumpists” (Vol. 3, No. 1).
To the editors:
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 center 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.
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.
Christopher Prendergast is professor emeritus of French literature at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of King's College and the British Academy.
Wolfgang Streeck is Director Emeritus and Professor at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne.