Is Donald Trump an aberration in US history? Is it simply a matter of defeating him with fact, reason and reform (either less reform, as exemplified by Biden, Buttigieg, Harris and others; or more reform, as exemplified by Sanders and Warren)? Is it even a matter first and foremost of the fact that “the billionaire class” has too much and everybody else has too little and that the billionaires are controlling politics through their political donations? Or are we seeing the end of a whole era in world capitalist history while a new one is opening up? If so, what is the nature and the basis of both the old world order and the new one?
Today, when we see a renewal of working class struggles around the world – as well as very beginnings of a youth-led global climate rebellion – it is more important than ever to consider these questions. Without some clarification, we cannot understand what we are confronting and without that we cannot succeed.
European Union and Germany
Consider what is happening in the world’s second largest economic unit – the European Union (exceeded only by China) – and, in particular consider the dominant power in the EU – Germany. That country is fundamentally different from the US in some ways, including in the fact that unlike the US it is surrounded by capitalist powers. But it also has some things in common. Like the US, Germany is actually a very new country. It was only unified as one united whole under Bismarck in 1871, through the process of “blood and iron”. (Sound familiar?) And Germany has swung from liberal capitalist democracy to militarism and extreme reaction and back again over those years.
An article called The New German Question published in the online magazine foreign affairs.com helps shed some light on these questions. Foreign Affairs is published by the Council on Foreign Relations, which is probably the premier think tank for the US capitalist class. The author, Robert Kagan (a fellow at the also influential Brookings Institute) explains that there were four conditions that led to German liberal democracy in the post WW II period: “the U.S. security guarantee, the international free-trade regime, the democratic wave [in Western Europe], and the suppression of nationalism.”
It was these conditions that enabled German capitalism to forego rearming itself and asserting not only economic but also military dominance throughout the region and throughout the world. But as Kagan points out: “It was always a question how long Germany [meaning the German capitalist class] would be willing to remain an abnormal nation, denying itself normal geopolitical ambitions, normal selfish interests, and normal nationalist pride.” In other words, every capitalist class tends to assert and defend its economic power through military power, and it must build a base of support for militarism within its own population through “normal nationalist pride”.
Both the European Union and NATO are products of the liberal capitalist world order, and both are starting to fray. Take the EU and related nations. We see the rise of nationalist forces in Italy, France, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Britain.
“Each of the four elements of the postwar order that have contained the German question is now up in the air. Nationalism is on the rise across Europe,” Kagan writes; “democracy is receding in some parts of the continent and is under pressure everywhere; the international free-trade regime is under attack, chiefly by the United States; and the American security guarantee has been cast in doubt by the U.S president himself. Given Europe’s history, and Germany’s, might not these changing circumstances once again bring about a change in the behavior of Europeans, including the Germans? …. In the coming years, Germans may find themselves living in a largely renationalized Europe, with blood-and-soil parties of one type or another in charge of all the major powers. Could the Germans under those circumstances resist a return to a nationalism of their own?”
Kagan, writing as a capitalist strategist, doesn’t touch on the role of the different classes, including the capitalist class, but we can. The conclusion is that at least a layer of the German capitalist class can and will continue to move towards German nationalism and militarism. Today, among the majority of Germans, there is abhorrence of German nationalism due to the memory of where it led – Nazism. But memories fade.
A wing of German capitalism is taking advantage of that to advance its program. As with any political development, they are using the tools at hand to build support for that program. Those tools are the resurgence of nationalism related to the increase of immigrants, as reflected in the rise of the “Alternative for Germany (“Deutschland”) or AfD. In the October, 2019, regional election in the eastern province of Thuringia, the AfD won almost 25% of the vote, putting it in second place. According to one report The leader of the AfD in Thuringia, Bjorn Höcke, ‘has notably criticized the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, describing it as a “memorial of shame” and called for a “reversal” of Germany’s culture of remembrance.”’ While the majority of the German capitalist class may resist the AfD and wish to keep going in the old way, surely some must be starting to recognize that the old way is based on the old and now dying objective situation.
Something similar is at work in the United States (although there are also major differences). Here, the majority of the US capitalist class supported Hillary Clinton in 2016. They believed that the old way was still preferable and possible. Among other things, that old way involved keeping racism and nationalism simmering on the back burner without bringing it to a boil. But there were some exceptions. While almost all the major capitalists in the tech sector opposed Trump, there were two exceptions. One was the Mercer family, leaders in the field of artificial intelligence and owners of the far-right Breitbart web site. Another exception is one of the leading Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel, co-founder of Paypal.
Among other things, this wing of the US capitalist class is encouraged by the extreme organizational weakness and resulting confusion of the US working class. They simply don’t see the working class as playing any role in society. To them, a return to the pre-1930 days is possible. As an article in Wired reports: ‘Thiel names the 1920s as “the last decade in American history during which one could be genuinely optimistic about politics…”’
A recent study of capitalist donations to Republicans and Democrats shows that the majority, including
the all-important financial sector, still support the Democrats. The only sector that supports the Republicans/Trump is the gambling sector, but that is apparently based on Trump’s policy regarding Israel. Two of the three capitalists listed in that sector are the Adelson family and Moscowitz – both of whom are supporters of the most aggressive, expansionist policies of the State of Israel.
Mainstream of US capitalist class
Overall, though, these donations are more evidence that the mainstream of the US capitalist class still hopes to return to a more stable political situation. These donations reinforce the evidence based on the writings in the main journals of the US capitalist class. The editorial boards of two of the three most important newspapers (the NY Times and the Washington Post) strongly oppose Trump as do the writers for the Council on Foreign Relations. They stand in opposition to the editors of the Wall St. Journal.
In one sense, that wing that is represented by the Wall St. Journal editors are the most narrow minded and short sighted. Their concern is limited to next quarter’s balance sheet – immediate profits, in other words, regardless of the political instability that Trump is stirring up.
Minority wing of US capitalist class
However, it could be argued that the minority wing of the capitalist class – including the Adelsons, Peter Thiel and the Koch family – are actually the more far-sighted. Liberal capitalism and the liberal capitalist order – including more or less open world trade – have been based on economic, social and political stability and a system of world capitalist alliances. Does the pro-Trump wing see that this stability cannot survive in the longer term?
Into this equation enters another huge factor: The destabilizing effect of global climate disruption. Some time back, Trump had said in relation to immigration that “We can’t take you anymore…. Our country is full.” Trump’s lizard brain was simply spouting out something that he instinctively felt would resonate with his base, but in fact in another sense this comment was peering into the more distant future. That is the future when tens of millions of environmental immigrants will be forced to flee their home countries, driven by drought and rising sea levels among other things. At one point, there will tend to be a strong feeling along exactly the lines that Trump was expressing. “Our country is full.”
Trump has won support from much of the oil, mineral and ranching industry due to his denial of global warming. That denial is necessary in order to justify his opening up of public lands to nearly unchecked exploitation by these sectors. Now, in Europe, the same denialism is being developed, including by Germany’s AfD.
Capitalist near paralysis over global warming
The mainstream of the US capitalist class is nearly paralyzed over this issue. They are caught between the realization that, if allowed to continue unchecked, global climate disaster will destroy their profits vs. their opposition to any state intervention into the economy. This near paralysis also occurs regarding other issues, including the issue of distribution of wealth.
Representatives of theirs such as Ro Khanna, US House of Representative member who represents the Silicon Valley capitalists (and is also a co-chair of Bernie Sanders presidential campaign), understand that this extreme polarization of wealth cannot continue unchecked. It is building up too much anger. But their problem is that their class won’t give up their wealth voluntarily. They might spend some money on charities, but those donations are under their control. Higher taxes, though? That is strictly a no-no.
International developments important
As Kagan has pointed out in his Foreign Affairs article, international developments were an important factor in both the creation of liberal Germany and in its weakening and possible demise. The same is true for the United States, although in a different way. Here, the end of US imperialism as the only global power is an important aspect of support for Trump’s “make America great again” mantra. But America will never return to those old days. It is just as much of a fantasy as is his global warming denialism.
What is the US capitalist class to do? They know that both global free trade and the system of global alliances as expressed by NATO have benefited them enormously. These two are interdependent; if one breaks down, the other must also. But this whole liberal world order is starting to fray around the edges. As with both the immigration issue and global warming, so with this in one sense Trump’s lizard brain is seeing further into the future than is the mainstream of the US capitalist class! [In general, though, the capitalist class reacts pragmatically; they tend to simply look for the nearest and apparently simplest solution to any problem. Let the more distant future take care of itself, is their mode of thinking.)
Weakness of US capitalists’ base
The semi-paralysis of the mainstream of the US capitalist class is compounded by their lack of credibility within major sectors of the US population. That lack of credibility is shown by the fact that whenever some damning fact about Trump is revealed, he simply replies “fake news” and tens of millions of his supporters uncritically lap it up.
Compounding it all is the fact that any president who is partially out of control of the mainstream of her or his own class will inevitably use this semi-independence to advance their own personal interests. Oaklandsocialist has repeatedly explained that Trump built his career through laundering money for the Russian mafia capitalist class. This role has led Trump to ally himself with Putin. Lost in all the outcry over Trump’s delaying of aid to Ukraine in relationship to Biden, etc. is the fact that according to former US diplomat William Taylor,Trump apparently never wanted to send the aid in the first place. That can only be explained, again, by his closeness to Putin. As with his withdrawal of troops from Northeast Syria, this once again puts Trump at odds with nearly the entire US capitalist class, including almost all of those who in general support him. But also, as with the other issues (immigration, global warming, etc.) we have to ask whether a new series of alliances is in the offing, one which allies US and Russian imperialism?
Such a new system of alliances cannot develop without major conflict both internationally as well as domestic political conflict.
Implications for upcoming US elections
This fundamental shift in world capitalist relations has some implications regarding the upcoming US elections. The majority of Americans want to see Trump voted out. Many also want to see some serious reforms through the election of Sanders or Warren as part of that. Leaving aside the fact that the Democrats will help the Republicans ensure that major reforms will not pass, and that neither Sanders nor Warren has any plan to deal with this fact, we also have to deal with the underlying developments, those which are generating the right wing drive in the US, just as they are in Germany and elsewhere. Reforms passed by a capitalist party under pressure will not stop that right wing drive; at best it will only temporarily slow it down. The first step in dealing with the underlying crisis is to help the development of clear class consciousness – the clear understanding that “the working class and the employing class have nothing in common” as the old Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) put it. We cannot clearly explain that view while we are supporting one of the two parties of the employing class at the same time.
To put it more concretely: The question is how can a movement develop that can lead to the US working class consolidating itself with its own independent role in society. This can only be done building a mass working class party. Oaklandsocialist has discussed how that could develop in this article.
Without that… Well, we leave it to Kagan to have the last word: “Across Germany, there are still thousands of unexploded bombs dropped by the Allies during World War II. One blew up in Göttingen a few years ago, killing the three men trying to defuse it. Think of Europe today as an unexploded bomb, its detonator intact and functional, its explosives still live. If this is an apt analogy, then Trump is a child with a hammer, gleefully and heedlessly pounding away. What could go wrong?”