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10 Talking Points Towards A General Theory of Trump

by Cameron Smith on February 20, 2017
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On Monday 6 February 2017, the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney convened a postgraduate workshop with Paul Mason – British journalist, broadcaster, and author of Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. The workshop was titled ‘Towards A General Theory of Trump’, and the lively and critical debates therein focused on various questions thrown up by the ascension of Trump to the Oval Office. To provoke further discussion and reflection on these critical questions, we are publishing ten talking points from the workshop’s participants, which are grouped thematically. A response by Paul Mason will soon follow.

  1. Whither capitalism?

Misunderstood by most journalists, you cannot understand the phenomenon of Trump and Trump-ism without asking questions such as: is neoliberalism in crisis? What is neoliberalism, anyway? And what is the nature of historical change in general? Unlike his peers, Mason puts these questions front and centre – indeed, they were the focus of our seminar.

One of the very first themes discussed in our seminar was the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and how our understanding of this historical process might inform our analysis of the tumultuous times of today. Mason, building on the seminal work of Perry Anderson and others of the New Left movement in the 1970s, emphasised how there was no clean break between feudalism and capitalism. These two systems coexisted in some form for centuries; there were small pockets of capitalist relations emerging from within existing feudal relations. Some of these ‘pockets’ of capitalism died off. Others, however, began to reproduce in an expanding manner, likely in ways unforeseen at the time – a key example here being the process of ‘enclosures’.

This nuanced (if contested) historiography holds important messages for today. When speaking of ‘post-capitalism’, Mason is not arguing that ‘capitalism is over’ – if he was, I scoff much the same as a banker seeing the title of his new book in an airport. He is also not being determinist: this change will occur without human action. But, if we understand that 1) capitalism is not transhistorical, 2) the current system is in crisis, and 3) changes in the mode of production happen slowly, emerging among existing relations, then we can see that post-capitalism is possible, even likely. The question remains, however, whether that future will be emancipatory or not – it is in this context that Trump must be considered. Matthew Ryan

  1. Neoliberal (dis)continuities

What internationalist post-capitalist arguments can be made against nationalist anti-neoliberalism? I arrived at this question by looking at how neoliberalism dis/continues under Trump. In one vital sense, neoliberalism continues. Trump will keep ‘actually-existing neoliberalism’, for example, through the continued war on organised labour and working conditions (“right to work” for less); regressive taxation; contracting out through public-private partnerships; shrinking the public sector; removing compliance requirements for business and other impediments to capital flows. But there are several senses in which neoliberalism is disrupted:

  1. The US electorate withdrew consent to submit to the consequences of economic orthodoxy, the public idea of neoliberalism. The hegemonic economic explanation of free markets as the common interest is being replaced by the nation as the common interest. Many trade unionists advocate this view;
  1. The political establishment’s repertoire of anti-crisis measures is exhausted, creating a crisis in macroeconomic orthodoxy behind neoliberal state management of the economy.  Trump (who has no idea even of the consequences of fluctuations in the value of the $US) could truly revert to 19th century liberalism;
  1. Trump shaped public opinion, betrayed by neoliberalism, promising instead actual American economic nationalism, cutting immigration, raising tariffs, ending multilateral trade agreements, and cooling relations with China, despite the US being the net beneficiary of trade.  This would disrupt (if implemented) actually-existing globalisation – possibly to be replaced by trade wars, slump, energised racism and nationalism, and even hot war.

Could Trump’s disdain for the law lead to an extension of neoliberalism, rather than a break? His disregard for human rights law could resemble so-called “market deregulation” of earlier neoliberal ideology, without in any way undermining the law as it applies to protecting business, property and employer power. Janet Burstall

  1. Postcapitalism at what price?

When I read Postcapitalism, I was struck by Mason’s ability to capture the way in which different parts of the economic system are out of sync; how the growing presence of technology in production techniques threatens to undermine the capacity of an economy to consume what it produces; and how printing money is only a momentarily effective medicine for propping up failing levels of aggregate demand. Indeed, many of his insights were brilliantly articulated examples of the contradiction at the heart of Karl Marx’s thought: the contradiction between the production and realisation of surplus value.

In our workshop, Mason argued that the cracks in our economic system have also produced severe aberrations in the political fabric of capitalism, exemplified by the rise of Donald Trump. Trump’s proposed retreat away from the ‘globalised’ model of development is mirrored in Europe where regional and global integration is increasingly viewed as a constraint on national sovereignty and as responsible for a raft of economic evils. Mason sees this as a key moment because it represents a potential breakdown in the political order as well as the economic institutions that comprise our inequitable, racially divisive and ecologically criminal system.

This question remains: in light of these developments, is ‘the nation’ the best arena through which to advocate for and implement ‘post-capitalist’ reforms such as a universal basic income, a circular economy and significantly higher levels of wealth and corporate tax rates? And if so, is there a future for internationalism? Isla Pawson

  1. Crisis of neoliberalism in the U.S.?

According to Paul Mason, neoliberalism, a world system based on the legacy of the Washington Consensus, is in crisis. And the important question for a ‘general theory of Trump’ is in which ways Trumpism does/does not fit into the crisis of neoliberalism. In their discussion of neoliberalism, Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad-Filho recently claim that: ‘although neoliberalism has an identifiable material and ideational core, and neoliberal policies share readily recognisable features, neoliberal experiences take a wide variety of forms in different countries over time’. One of the reasons behind the existence of variegated forms of neoliberalism, for Fine and Saad-Filho, is the fact that ‘neoliberalism can be associated with significant differences in the forms, degrees, and impact of financialisation, the depth and modalities of the internationalisation of production and dependence of external trade, societal changes, ideology, and structures of political representation’. Considering the wide variety of forms neoliberalism has taken in different countries over time, Mason’s question of the relation between the crisis of neoliberalism as a world system and the emergence of Trumpism might be broadened by adding a second, but equally important question: does Trumpism echo the crisis of neoliberalism as a global system, or are we talking about the crisis of neoliberalism in the U.S.? Sirma Altun Kucukarslan

  1. Theorising alternative futures

“Neoliberalism is broken,” argues Mason. For Mason, “neoliberalism” refers to the whole capitalist world system: the corporations, markets, states, institutions, cash crops, consumer culture, winners, losers, all of it.  While on the immediate world stage neoliberalism appears to be thriving, from a broader perspective its foundations are crumbling.

For Mason, Trump signals the end of neoliberalism in the United States, and Brexit its end in Britain. If these leading players of globalisation pack up shop, what next? One possible scenario Mason envisions is “neo-feudalism”, with a continuation and extension of elite rule. An alternative scenario that Mason hopes for involves the automation of jobs, universal basic income, treating externalities as public goods, attacking “rent seeking”, and a zero-carbon circular economy. Tied to such ideas are an alternative set of assumptions and an alternative theory of the world. The building of alternative theories, then, is crucial: Mason argues, from Paul Romer, that “macroeconomics has gone backward for 30 years” due to its “addiction to abstract models”. Economics, he claims, is “missing a theory of the world.” Breaking the world up into measurable, isolated units that act out of a knowable self-interest may be useful—but only if this analysis is informed by and understood in the context of a far more complex reality. As ecological economists, process philosophers, and many others point out: what our models treat as separate, static entities are in fact relationships-in-process. Entities reflect emerging intersections of communities of communities, historically informed and constantly changing.

How would international institutions, laws, money, culture and so on change if based on this contextualised understanding of the world? Mason’s Postcapitalism is a valuable starting point for that discussion. Juliet Bennett

  1. Recalibrating received ‘truths’ against neoliberalisation

In line with Jamie Peck, I contend that neoliberalisation is a mutating force; never starting from a clean slate and perpetually in motion. Across multiple US administrations neoliberalisation has interwoven with swings to what is ostensibly right or left, but in practice amounts to hard or soft application of the same principles. Whether Trump succeeds in truly breaking from neoliberalism, or the neoliberalisation of his reactive and internally incoherent package of protectionism and free market fundamentalism, remains to be seen. Regardless, he certainly represents a hitherto underestimated discontent with the economic status quo from a significant proportion of the population.

Two lessons for the left arise immediately from this. First, Trump has exploited a glitch in the seemingly impenetrable economic rationality of neoliberalism, though it is clear that he has played to people’s worst impulses in doing so. This is a demonstration that severe disruption of institutions and prevailing power relations is possible. Second, the public’s willingness to retreat into ideological enclaves signals a break from an accepted, common understanding of the world, or the idea of ‘objective truth’ (although it is acknowledged that this break has been occurring in slow motion for some time). Crafting an alternative economics that may incorporate such wide-ranging changes as inevitable technological shifts, universal basic incomes, and value systems more adequately conceptualising humanity in nature and as social beings will require a move away from mathematical formalism, toward new conceptual tools. A break from ‘accepted, common understanding’ represents a chance to recalibrate accepted premises for economics and, more importantly, examine the idea of ‘objective truth’ and its construction. Anna Sturman

  1. The U.S. military-industrial complex today

For all the uncertainty that surrounds Trump’s leadership, including migration, the role of big business in government, US foreign policy, and foreign trade, perhaps the most predictable manoeuvre that Trump and his billionaire cronies will pull off is the reinvigoration of the U.S. military industrial complex (as if the world’s strongest military force was in some decrepit state in need of dire repair). After all, war is big business, and as a businessman rather than a politician, the prospect of big returns just may be too enticing to ignore.  It has already been reported that “plans for increasing the defense budget by more than $30 billion to acquire new jet fighters, armoured vehicles, improved training and more” have gone to the U.S. Congress, while stocks in high-tech defense and aerospace manufacturers such as Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Lockheed Martin are on the rise. The questions remain whether and where these resources will be used. However, if nothing else involving his future presidential actions can be described with certainty, it is a matter of near certainty that if a good businessman sees an opportunity to capitalise, he will do everything in his power to do so. Alison Fenech

  1. Militarism as a province of accumulation

‘We’re going to war in the South China Sea . . . no doubt’, declared the now Chief Strategist for the White House Steve Bannon back in March 2016. Subsequently, in his dissatisfaction with the Lockheed F-35 program, then president-elect Donald Trump, in December 2016 on Twitter, asked rival Boeing to “price-out” Lockheed-Martin because of spiralling costs that have reached an estimated $379 billion. Trump’s tweet sliced some $1.2 billion off Lockheed-Martin’s value and was the second hit taken for the company as a result of Trump’s hurried recourse to social media. Meanwhile, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis has railed against NATO allies that are not meeting the mandatory target of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence, matched by a similarly robust statement from vice-president Mike Pence. In deliberating Trumpism in our workshop, then, one of my overriding concerns, formulated as a question, was how will militarism as a province of accumulation now proceed within the U.S. form of state? The administration of Nobel Peace Prize-winner and former President Barack Obama dropped a bomb every 20 minutes in 2016 on Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. Yet it was Rosa Luxemburg who argued that militarism is a province of accumulation that can help to explain the geographical extension of capitalism. I have outlined Luxemburg’s arguments in a joint article here that traces capital’s past and present blustering violence. Equally, I have argued here (with Andreas Bieler) that the Iraq War was a clear example of the re-ordering of the built environment through a policy we term bomb-and-build, linked to specific fractions of capital within the U.S. state form. Militarism offers capital new opportunities for realising surplus value (bomb) while the creation of physical infrastructure through the construction and reconstruction industries (build) provides a temporary fix to open up fresh room for accumulation and stave off capitalist crisis. How the Trump administration will be shaped by competing fractions of capital in defining the conditions of geopolitics and the extension of global war across the Middle East and now possibly in the South China Sea will therefore be a crucial question as the next phase in the policy of bomb-and-build unfolds on a world scale. Adam David Morton

  1. Infrastructure under Trump: a shot in the arm for neoliberalism?

President Trump has promised to rebuild America’s bridges, railways, roads, airports to create ‘thousands of US jobs’. The expected investment is estimated to number trillions, financed mainly by public-private partnerships and tax credits with minimal funds from government. It is being discussed that US companies could bring offshore funds (more than US$2 trillion per Bloomberg) back to the US and receive a tax credit if some of these funds are invested in infrastructure. Not to be left out, there are recent reports that the China Investment Corporation and Japan’s Government Pension Investment Fund, the world’s largest pension fund, are also seeking to invest in these relatively low financial return, infrastructure projects. This infrastructure renewal, extensively financed by private funds, would result in the further privatisation of significant US infrastructure.

This project could result in increased globalisation – funds flowing for US jobs, but also jobs in China and Japan for rail technologies, to name one example. Also, if history is any guide, consumers end up paying for these privatised services. It is interesting to consider whether this project could lead to a further extension of neoliberalism, rather than its end.

However, apart from the unknown effects of US corporate funds leaving their current locations – with trillions to be financed and arranged, the inventiveness of the financial sector should not be underestimated. Look what resulted from securitising home mortgages. Combined with the roll back of the Dodd-Frank Act which is currently being discussed by the Trump Administration, even larger “financial weapons of mass destruction”, as termed by Warren Buffett, could be unleashed compared to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. What could possibly go wrong for neoliberalism if this were to occur? Lee Ridge

  1. Towards a political economy of racism

Trump’s activities since his formal inauguration bring up important questions for those interested in the intersections between racism, migration, and neoliberal capitalism. On the face of it, the most notable development in this regard, post-inauguration, has been Trump’s ham-fisted pursuit of a ‘Muslim ban’ via executive order on the entry of nationals from nine Muslim-majority countries into the United States (an injunction against this order had been upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals at the time of writing).

It is obvious enough that there is a clear constituency in Trump’s mind when trying to make good on his campaign promise to ban Muslim immigration: that rump of the much-vaunted ‘white working class’ that have found it expedient to project their neoliberal anxieties onto a racialised ‘Other’. Up to this point, two interpretations of this phenomenon reign supreme: some stress the primacy of economic factors and dismiss racism (and misogyny) as epiphenomenal, whereas others dismiss economic factors and stress the inherent racist of the white population.

Both interpretations miss crucial facets of Trump’s rise, and thus only offer partial explanations for it. It could not have happened without the grim inequality that is entrenched (and growing) in the contemporary U.S.; equally, however, his mobilisation of racism in his political platform speaks to an enduring and altogether more specific set of unequal power relations: the subordination of women and people of colour under white men. So, we must resist oversimplifying narratives and trouble the tough questions: for example, will the extensive use of undocumented immigrants as cheap labour by corporations continue alongside Trump’s promise to ‘bring jobs back to America’ and to ‘keep Muslims out’? Complex questions like these should be core to a political economy of racism under Trump. Cameron Smith

Cameron Smith

Cameron Smith is a writer, musician, and doctoral researcher at Macquarie University, Sydney. His research interests centre around political economy, race and racism, and multiculturalism. He tweets at @cmrnsmth and more of his work can be found on his website: http://www.cmrnsmth.com

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