The Predictable Trump – Part I: A New Era of Neoliberalism

In the synchronous rise of Donald Trump and nativist movements around the world we are dealing not with a crisis of neoliberalism but with neoliberalism’s changing venues and appearances – a mutation of neoliberalism. The likes of Trump aim to temper with the biggest threat to neoliberalism at this juncture, that is the immediate and internal danger of popular domestic revolts emerging behind figures and parties as such Bernie Sanders and Podemos. For these popular movements threaten the very role of the neoliberal state as the guardian and administrator of the free market economy. Gayatri Spivak once said, “we [the left] need the State” in resistance against capitalism. It is time to add: Neoliberalism needs the state. Trump’s nativist and protectionist agenda should not be viewed as an emergent threat to the neoliberal order, therefore, but as a means to consolidating the territorial, racial, and class divisions fundamental to a thriving global market economy. This agenda aims to divert the growing anti-establishment sentiments away from support for politics detrimental to the contiguity of the neoliberal state and order, and to redirect these sentiments toward support for policies that protect and guarantee the status of the state within the global neoliberal order. To achieve this purpose Trump must pacify the domestic scene through a combination of measures aimed at wealth creation and manufacturing of consent. The former measures will be tailored to making the American economy competitive in a changing world market, as I will show, and the latter measures designed to tame and suppress the inevitable backlash to the heavy-handed manner of implementing the former.

In view of this claim the central realpolitik dilemma consists in analyzing the growing division within the neoliberal establishment, one between its older and newer folds and exemplified by the presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. In other words, if Hillary’s (a la Obama’s) globalizing paths of the TTP and TTIP treaties [1] exemplified the ‘been there and done that’ route of the old establishment, what does the Trump (a la UKIP) agenda promise to the kingmakers that rallied behind him – and to the GOP’s revocation of support for TTP and TTIP, or the Tories’ impending withdrawal of the UK from the EU? To label Trump an authentic enemy of neoliberalism is commonplace, but to attribute his seemingly anomalous agenda to his ‘rogue’ character is a mistake. Analysts and pundits continue to underestimate Donald Trump and the global political event he spearheads, even though he surprised them once by winning the Republican primaries and once again in defeating the Democratic establishment behind Hillary Clinton. In fact, the prevailing underestimation of Trump and his politics, which appears at times in the guise of lauding him as ‘unpredictable’ and at other times as ‘authoritarian,’ ignores and erases the concrete network of geopolitical, economical, and ideological relations that underlay the foundations and reach of his power in and outside the U.S.

Instead, it is to be noted that neoliberalism has outgrown its current form and limitations – particularly within the Western hemisphere. The uneven accumulation (and gap) of economic development and military technology that once justified (and made possible) the logic of the free market is no longer decisive or sustainable in and for the West. Moreover, China’s efficient state capitalism – which necessitated the West’s resorting to the TTP and TTIP in the first place – has proven itself as the alternative route for entry and thriving stay within the neoliberal order. This is because the Chinese model ‘delivers’ and ‘develops’ without threatening to undermine the predominant class, racial, and cultural hierarchies of developing countries. Moreover, a tested transitional path to the free market, this model also safeguards the political status and interests of the elite overseeing the transition. But this alternative route is plausible, most importantly, because of growing disbelief and distaste, all around the world, for the liberal values of Western modernity; an ideological crisis that finds itself at the culmination of a historical backlash against economic and military wars waged for the free market and in the name of its liberal values. In a changing world with shifting political and economic dynamics, the Western capitalist model and its liberal ideology are no longer competent.

In the context of this epistemological shift and crisis, seemingly protectionist administrations promise not only to make national economies competent once more but also to underline the necessity of the neoliberal state to survival in a shifting market dynamic. This renewed competence is the leitmotif of Trump’s protectionist proposal of “wealth creation” for all Americans. It is a tested and certified populist plan that comes with a political surplus. Obama’s now abandoned path (of expansion via economic blocks) could not entirely account for the adverse response of Americans to further globalization, austerity, and deregulations. To be more precise, Obama’s plan aimed at pacifying growing internal antagonisms through piecemeal implementing and furthering of welfare state policies and programs (such as the increase in the minimum wage, or the universal healthcare program). Trump, on the other hand, employs a nativist-protectionist narrative to leverage the inevitable backlash to the policies and measures he must execute to make America ‘great’ again. This is because the shortest and safest route to trimming (and reversing) the flow of investments and jobs is through purging laws, rights, and insurances that make American labor expensive in the first place. [2] In other words, the Trump administration will embody the executive branch of a forceful push to abandon all manner of labor, gender, racial, and environmental protections in favor of a domestic drive for ‘competence.’ The nativist supplement aims to suture the antagonisms that will ensue from this protectionist purge. [3] Indeed, Trump and the new neoliberal order must increasingly rely on ideological narratives as the essential supplement to inevitably authoritarian protectionist agendas. And the beneficiary of this protectionist drive is global capital, of course: the free flow of capital and labor will not be significantly hindered, only their flow – of labor in particular – will be redirected to the extent necessary to protecting and legitimizing the neoliberal state’s political mandate.

As I will show in Parts II, III, IV & V, in Trump’s plan we are ultimately dealing with the total project of the Wall Street’s transition into direct control over state power. And this increasingly authoritarian transition does not spell the end of the American democracy but rather inaugurates the process of its metamorphosis into a total political spectacle in which democratic representation, political and economic hegemony, and manufacturing of consent come legitimately together. I will sketch outs an array of deep historical forces that inform Trump’s elite and common base in power and herald the shape of things to come under his administration. Indeed, I will demonstrate how the Trump administration could execute a program of “regime change” in the U.S. – and across the world – if it follows through with a series of interrelated economic and political strategies on the domestic and foreign policy fronts. In this context “regime change” does not refer to an overnight power grab and overthrow of the republic, but to Trump’s realizable path to gradual expansion and extension of his support base and political mandate in and outside the U.S. Along the way, I analyze the radical nature of Trump’s (and his base’s) resilience to traditional forms of critique. My aim is to underscore the need for new forms of resistance against his populist breed of strategy and rhetoric, against the fascination with Trump’s spectacular play on politics. As Bertolt Brecht once wrote in his journal, “to present Hitler as particularly incompetent, as an aberration, a perversion, humbug, a peculiar pathological case, while setting up other bourgeois politicians as models, models of something he has failed to attain, seems to me no way to combat Hitler.” ‘Trump’ is only a name for the political interests he represents.

[1] Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

[2] Per capita, the wage gap between the Americans and the Chinese has shrunk by close to 70% from the early years of the new millennium. I also maintain that the importance attributed to “automation” as the main factor behind job loses is significantly exaggerated. Cheap labor renders the investment logic of automation easily redundant.

[3] For example, it is important to recall that with the aid of this narrative Trump has already delivered the votes of many American women, in spite of his blatant sexism and, more importantly, in spite of his anti-abortion and women’s rights agenda.

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