In Multipolarity

By Bill Martin, Counterpunch, March 28, 2016

(Note: the following is a very lengthy commentary, on the U.S. presidential nomination races in the Republican and Democratic parties)

As I write this, in mid-late March 2016, things are generally going the way that I have hoped for–but of course this sort of analysis is in danger of being overtaken by events at any moment. Still, I think the basic principles and analysis will remain sound.

There is every reason to think that electoral “politics” in the United States (and most places) is bullshit. For people who yearn for a very different world to get involved in this “process”–which is almost entirely scripted by people who absolutely do not yearn for a very different world–is a big waste of energy and commitment. The arguments here are addressed to the yearners, who I will call “radicals”–people who recognize that the only real solution to the many problems facing humanity today is a qualitative, even epoch-making, change. When I say “we,” I mean those of us who yearn for and work for such a change.

Perhaps there are rare exceptions, and in each case, each “election,” certainly the question of whether this is one of the exceptions should be explored. At the same time, have we really not learned by now to recognize that at least ninety-percent of what keeps the Democratic Party puffed up is the hot air of negative hype about the Republican Party? –that “if so-and-so somehow becomes president, the consequences are too horrible to even contemplate!” The rare exception has to be more than this.

By placing “politics” and other terms in scare-quotes, I am simply pointing to the fact that real politics is of the people and their conscious and engaged work to create and shape a social form in light of principles, and, in some measure, in response to material pressures that threaten survival and viability. This conception requires further discussion and development, obviously (I am a philosopher, and the sources of this general description range from Plato to Kant, and from Marx to Sartre and from Mao to Badiou, and from Buddhism), but the point is that, even with many variations, what is advanced as “politics” in mainstream, and even much of the “fringe,” of the United States is not really politics. Instead it is the calculation of interests under the imperatives faced by the capitalist/global imperialist ruling class of the United States. When Marx talked about “class dictatorship” so long ago, what people seem to miss, and that needs to be driven home once again, is that there is a ruling class, and this class operates according to certain imperatives. Simply put, and on one level it is just this simple, in the United States and for pretty much the whole world, capital decides. To bring in a little complexity: 1) In other words, G. W. Bush, or even Dick Cheney, or Bill Clinton, etc., don’t decide, capital, as a social process rooted in (but not confined to) socialized production and reproduction (and, sure, its accumulated wealth and power), decides, the basic social decisions in a capitalist society are made by what is necessary for this process to continue to advance; again, to simplify, the accumulation of profit decides; 2) This is the case unless there is some truly countervailing force. And the point is that pretty much nothing, with perhaps some rare exception and not to be dogmatic about this, that works within the acceptable bounds of “politics” comes to anything like a countervailing force.

For instance, consider what Hillary has proposed as the alternative to Bernie Sander’s supposedly one-sided campaign, her “realism,” her supposed ability to “get things done.” In actuality, what she has gotten done is very little, and most of what she’s gotten done and what she aims to get done is bad stuff. If Hillary Clinton’s installation as president will mean for women what Barack Obama’s presidency has meant in the actual lives of African-Americans, then I worry for women in the United States. On the other hand, liberal feminism has worked out better for middle-class women, and some women in academia, as primarily a career strategy aimed at getting a larger piece of the imperialist pie (and of course I say this regarding purely systemic questions, and not in a personal way, and recognizing that I myself am in the previously and presently entitled group–but that’s not what this is about), than any movement has worked for African-Americans, whether of a more radical or a more reformist sort. Even so, whatever there is of Hillary Clinton’s ambitions or agenda that could be called “feminist,” it is so clearly class-bound that it is hard to see it helping working-class women, and quite possibly it will hurt them. This is to say nothing of all the girls and women around the world who have been hurt by the militarism Clinton advanced from the White House, the Senate, or the State Department. That she recently called in Madeline Albright, who was referred to in the article I read as a “feminist icon,” to help her attack Bernie speaks volumes all by itself. Needless to say, Clinton’s liberal feminist and other “progressive” supporters care as much for the victims of U.S. imperialism, the majority of whom are probably women, as secretary Albright did when she said that all the deaths caused by U.S. sanctions in Iran were “worth it.”

Is there perhaps something else to be hoped for in the system’s own means of confirmation, not a countervailing force, but at least something that shakes things up, perhaps to the point of opening some doors? Put differently, are there moments when the system itself exemplifies its own contradictions in a revealing way, wherein the inner workings of the system are exposed as such? Certainly it is the case that we see in the present electoral process the machinations of something that is once again being called “the establishment,” in the camps of that steering mechanism of power called “the two-party system.”

This itself is not a countervailing force, and that is a big, big problem. Lenin talked about one aspect of the crisis of capital being that the ruling class can’t rule in the way that it has previously. It seems clear that we are not there yet, and it is not clear that we can get there, when the very idea of a “crisis of legitimacy” is a somewhat outmoded idea. This is another long discussion, but I would argue that what we can call “postmodern capitalism,” as a sort of “half-stage” that takes place within the imperialist mode of production, is that moment when the ideological apparatuses that previously served capital are now a fully-integrated part of capital, and that this integration grows even greater in our digitized, mediatized times. It is hard to know what would count as legitimacy when Sean Hannity or Sarah Palin count as legitimate voices in the political sphere, or when most people could tell you absolutely nothing about countries that they are absolutely in favor of invading, and so on. Still, there is something going on, some kind of shake-up that the ruling class itself is obviously not happy with, something that boils down for me to wishing that there would be a Trump-Sanders election.

Right now the Republicans have more problems than the Democrats. Bernie Sanders has already pledged to support the Democratic nominee, and it appears that he will sheepishly go along with being schlonged by the Democratic establishment. Although Sanders has done plenty well in the primaries and caucuses so far, basically in a tie with Hillary or perhaps even standing a little better, still, already at the end of February, Hillary has many more delegates than Bernie. As Sanders has said in terms of economics, certainly the United States has a “rigged system,” but he is living proof that it is a rigged system in the electoral arena as well.

Clearly, the hope on the part of the Democratic Party establishment, and the Wall Street establishment for that matter, is that with “Super Tuesday” [March 1] and with more of the “super delegates” piling up on the side of Hillary, it will soon be bedtime for Bernie. Not only is the whole electoral system bullshit, but there are numerous layers of bullshit within the bullshit, much of it without even the slightest veneer of anything that could remotely be called “democratic”. Even so, perhaps things will not go so easily for the establishment. Certainly in the establishment’s other wing things are not going easily.

Bernie Sanders campaign for Democratic nomination

In some ways it is remarkable that Sanders can do relatively well in the current political climate, and this can be taken as some kind of bellwether. A case could be made for saying that Bernie is qualitatively less horrible than anyone else out there. Reading his interview in Rolling Stone (Nov. 18, 2015), there’s some good stuff; if most of it could actually happen, on the whole that would be a good thing. Even where Bernie’s views and votes on “foreign policy”–that is, the global machinations of U.S. imperialism–are concerned, at least it’s somewhat better than everyone else. And perhaps it is really the case that Sanders is not completely owned the way most candidates are (with the notable exception to whom we’ll turn in a moment). How can anyone think, however, after the dashed “hopey-changey things” from Obama that, even if Sanders were allowed to become president, he would be able to bring to fruition any of his proposals?

The real questions that matter here are: 1) Despite the fact that the president serves at the pleasure of the U.S. ruling class, is there some way to “force,” on the basis of a movement that stays within parliamentary lines, a substantive change in the direction of U.S. society? 2) Given that no one who has actually studied the question of socialism thinks of Bernie Sanders as a “real socialist,” or perhaps, at best, it might be conceded that he is a “socialist” of the “Swedish” sort (for example, where people work in relatively good conditions for good wages, with all kinds of nice perks such as daycare and good health insurance, while building fighter jets that will be used to drop cluster bombs on Palestinians; most people don’t seem to realize that even this sort of “Swedish socialism” hasn’t existed in Sweden for some time now), if by some almost unimaginable set of circumstances he were to become president, would this actually be good or bad for “real socialism”?

On the first question, we could instead simply ask something like, “Is it possible to send the kind of message to the ruling class that results in some beneficial change for some oppressed and exploited people, without resulting in harm for those who are already (probably more) oppressed and exploited?” We live in a time when demonstrations and civil disobedience have been rendered largely ineffective. Either they are simply normalized as another part of the ongoing spectacle, or they don’t even get that far. The exception is actions on the far right, but these obviously serve various ruling class imperatives.

As for “sending a message” through the electoral system, there may be some possibility for this at the local level in smaller cities and towns, but there is absolutely no evidence that anything like this has any effect at the national level. Again, the presidency of Barack Obama ought to stand as the last example of this so-called strategy, which in the end is simply a strategy of the system itself to channel (and negate) energy that needs to be applied to a real alternative.

What about a slightly different kind of message, one that might have been sent by voting for John Kerry in 2004? Was it worth voting for Kerry simply to show that not everyone was not on board with the post-911 agenda of Bush, Cheney, et. al.? Was it possible to “register something,” as vague as that sounds and as vague as it indeed was? There are arguments on either side, one of which is that anything that could throw any kind of wrench into the machinations of the Bush government was worth a try. But this is not 2004. In that time, too, there might have been a good reason to try to send a message to the rest of the world, that not everyone was behind Bush and gang. Really, though, the rest of the world simply looks with fear or, at best, bemusement, at the silliness of the “political” spectacle in the U.S.–though this varies from region to region and country to country.

One thing that the “you’ve got to vote”-people hate to hear is that, especially when it comes to militarism and imperialism, the rest of the world might have been better off with Bob Dole or even the isolationist Pat Buchanan.

Regarding whatever there is of “socialism” in Bernie Sanders’ program, it is interesting that he uses the term “political revolution.” My familiarity with this term comes from how it has been used by Trotskyists to talk about what needed to happen in “deformed workers’ states” of the “Stalinist” type. The idea is that there is socialism in the economic base, but an entrenched bureaucracy in the political superstructure. In such societies, so the Trotskyist theory goes, a “revolution” is needed to bring about truly socialist forms of leadership, forms that are often identified with something like “real democracy.” Whatever the merits of this argument (there aren’t any states in the world where it would apply anymore in any case), of course Bernie Sanders does not think that the United States has a socialist economic base. How, then, would a “political revolution” guided by his conception of “democratic socialism” function on the basis of a capitalist system of production relations? The answer is the classic “socialist” (or “Eurosocialist”) orientation toward redistribution, and the key to such redistribution is higher tax rates for the wealthy and super-wealthy.

Clearly the inequality in the United States has reached obscene proportions, just as the inequality in the world has been beyond obscene more or less forever, but it becomes a question of global social relations in the eras of colonialism and imperialism. What does the effort to redistribute wealth within an imperialist country mean in this context? Two things. First, as a question of “socialism,” it means that the internationalist dimension of socialist revolution, and the idea that the proletariat forms a single, international class (or, at least, that there is some large part of humanity that is such a class that transcends nation-states) that must ultimately transform the world in a liberatory way, is set aside. And, indeed, Sanders explicitly represents that kind of socialism. So, the question becomes, what good is accomplished by advancing that sort of socialism?

Second, precisely because the form of capitalism remains imperialist, in Lenin’s analysis whereby capitalism becomes a fully-global mode of production (and perhaps, even so, “ever-more fully,” with never-ending marketization entering every sphere of life and continually creating new spheres that have always-already been marketized–what can be called “postmodern capitalism”), there cannot even be much in the way of redistribution without the kind of major restructuring of economic and social (and legal and property) relations that would require far more than whatever Sanders means by “political revolution.”

And yet, even so, would it still be good if Sanders’s efforts were pressed forward, simply as an object lesson in the limits of what can happen and what cannot happen within the citadel of imperialism? Or will we see instead that “Americans were given the opportunity to vote for socialism, but they overwhelmingly rejected it”?

Or, who knows?–certainly it would not hurt if there was greater awareness in the United States of the vast amounts of wealth that go to little more than the enormous vanities and pleasures of people who are already disgustingly engorged. That Jeb Bush could spend $100 million for his little hobby-horse of a campaign, that never broke through five-percent support in the initial primaries and caucuses, can stand as a solid symbol of what I hereby dub “obscenely-engorged entitlement,” or OEE for short.

Hardly anyone thought that the election of the first African-American president would mean more problems for African-Americans. Would the election of a socialist mean a setback for socialism? There are many good reasons to think so. Then again, even if whatever gains are represented by having a black president are largely “symbolic,” such symbolic gains are not meaningless. It could even be said that the reaction to the symbolic dimension alone has provoked a crisis of race in the United States, or that it has brought the longstanding crisis into the open. Would the election of a socialist to the presidency provoke a crisis of class, or at least bring awareness of class more out into the open?

Some sharpening of terms is needed, and a little Marxism 101 (and even Lenin’s analysis of Imperialism 101) would help here. The problem is not the “billionaire class,” but instead the de facto and de jure ownership of the means of production by the imperialist-capitalist ruling class. And the problem is not “greed,” but instead the way the capitalist system works, to channel all productive efforts into the creation of surplus value, called “profit” by capitalists. One of Marx’s great discoveries is that this process is guided by the social relations (including the property relations) that are the heart of capital, and not by the subjective desires, avaricious or otherwise, of individual capitalists. In other words, the problem is capitalism, not greed. The solution is to create a real break with capitalism.

There is an additional problem, related to the previous one, in that the “means of production” in the imperialist countries, and the United States first of all, have been concentrated in the form of finance capital. What does finance capital “produce”? This is a large and difficult question, but two things can be said. First, finance capital produces the means by which every particle of the world and every particle of life is ever-more monetized. Second, despite the fact that this monetization creates on a vast scale the equal quantization of commodities (that is, as commodity, there is no difference between a sum of money and, say, a house that people can live in), but in such a way that, to put it simply, the wealth of goods that have meaning in ordinary life (food, shelter, clothing, and so on) is destroyed. The process by which capitalism regenerates circuits of commodity production is inherently destructive (it exploits people, undermines and fragments their lives, sometimes destroys entire societies), but also, as with every social form, also “creative”–of more of what makes the social form work in the first place, namely commodity production based on the commodification of the ability to labor itself. In other words, capital is compelled by its inner workings (and not first of all by its inner subjectivities, which themselves are products of these inner workings) to quantify and accumulate.

(Not to get too technical here, but perhaps a couple extra notes will be helpful. First, another of Marx’s great discoveries is that, once “labor power” itself is a matter of commodification, “all bets are off,” so to speak. In other words, if what, for Marx–and Hegel, Locke, Aquinas, and Aristotle before him–is the essential human activity, the ability to transform nature through labor processes–can be rendered as a mere quantity expressed in monetary form, then the door is opened to the commodification of anything and everything. Finance capital is the forward edge of this process. Second, to repeat, Marx demonstrated that the subjectivities of capitalists–and everyone else–are rooted in social processes, though nothing deterministic can be said about this. Perhaps some capitalists are “nice, caring people,” or whatever. On the other hand, in what they participate in, capitalists are indeed bad people to a one, so let it not go without saying. They need to be dealt with, as part of breaking with capitalism. On a slightly bizarre note, as I am writing this, sitting in Xiamen, China, listening to streaming radio from PRI, there is a longish story on what is called the “quantitative self movement.”)

What this has to do with the candidacy of Bernie Sanders is that, in attempting to extend the welfare state again, he is not just up against “greedy billionaires,” he is up against the compulsion of the U.S. capitalist ruling class to compete in a vast and ever-articulating global market. There will be tremendous resistance, and certainly with no “ethical” barriers, to any fiddling with this compulsion; any attempt to at least channel this compulsion toward any other outcome other than profit accumulation will be met with capitalist resistance “by any means necessary.” This will be the case even with relatively mild reforms, or in the case of at least trying to make corporations and capitalists simply pay taxes at the low rate they are already charged.

But of course our times could be very interesting if things were allowed to get to this point! Even short of an all-out crisis, there might at least be the opportunity for people to see at least the outlines of American society divided into two distinct and opposing camps, the one side having little to say for itself other than that it owns everything and that it will use every means in its disposal to hold on to the ownership of everything. On the other side one can only hope that ordinary people will begin to question and challenge this “ownership,” and how it could conceivably be that a relative handful of people own everything and exert tremendous control over the lives of billions.

Of course it is the job of those of us who have some sense of these things to provide critical tools and terms for dissecting this situation.

A nice place to start would be a joke that was told to me some years ago by one of my British friends. A miner is walking home after a long day at the mines. Being very tired, he decides to take a short cut and walk across a field he had previously not traversed. Soon enough, he is approached by a squire on his horse. With an annoyed harrumph, the squire announces, “You are trespassing on private land, this land belongs to me.” Gathering his wits, the miner responds, “So, how did you come by this land?” “My great-grandfather won it in a battle,” says the squire, speaking with pride and authority. “Get down off your horse,” responds the miner, “and I’ll fight you for it right now!”

If only things were so simple, and in fact the world is immensely more complicated, and capitalism has become almost immeasurably more obscurantist, than when Marx first wrote about the division of society into two camps. But perhaps there still might be a moment when the essential difference between two different worlds, two different ways of living, opens up.

Hannah Arendt famously noted that the old Chinese saying, “May you live in interesting times,” is in fact meant as a curse. For sure, when society is in crisis, it is hard for all classes concerned. The people who really believe in Bernie Sanders think there is an easier way. Certainly, in purely moral terms, thinking in terms similar to what business-ethics philosophers call “stakeholder” theory, there ought to be an easier way. In the world of pure theory there is indeed a way to see that modern production is entirely socialized, and that this stands in contradiction to private forms of wealth accumulation. As Marx demonstrated very well, and on multiple levels, “ethics” is not capable in its own terms of achieving the ethical; the idea of the ethical relation among people stands as a powerful critique of, but without the material means of overturning, the relationship among people that Marx called the “brutal cash nexus.”

And yet Arendt did not go far enough. Of course we cannot be blithe about the idea of precipitating a crisis. Neither will even the sharpest critique provoke a crisis in and of itself, if the underlying social conditions of crisis are not present. However, when “interesting times” do occur, not only are there difficulties for all classes of people, there are also openings for real change.

Therefore we might ask what it is in the underlying social conditions that creates the possibility of Bernie Sanders having gotten as far as he has thus far.

Most likely what we are seeing is a little trinket being dangled in front of everyone’s eyes before things settle down behind the “realism” of Hillary Clinton. But even to dangle this trinket entails a risk on the part of the ruling class and its media arm, it represents some way in which the ruling class understands on some level that many people are sick of “politics”-as-usual, and we also should not let ourselves be lulled into the idea that the ruling class has absolute control over absolutely every aspect of even their own activities.

A “political revolution” with the U.S. system of governance has a bit of the air of a shake-up inside an organized-crime consortium. However, this is indeed the ruling system, and we should be pleased for whatever fracturing might occur. And, as with other big-time criminals, the capitalist class of the United States (and all capitalist classes of the world) can never be fully united; indeed, the very workings of capital insure that capitalists are always divided against themselves. (Indeed, this is where Hobbes’s notion of a “war of all against all,” and the need for a social contract to channel and contain this war, really comes into play.) A capitalist class, defined in purely structural terms (as a relationship to the means of production), can never be fully “for itself,” to use Sartrean terms. If even the U.S. capitalist class is experiencing division such that it is dangling the alternative of a supposedly “socialist alternative” in front of the public, something must be going on–even if the main strategy here is, in the end, bait and switch.

As Mao used to put it, certainly the bourgeoisie is capable of picking up a rock only to drop it on its own foot.

There is good reason to hope, then, that fragmentation goes further on this, the so-called “left,” side of things.

To take a page from Alexander Cockburn, the silver lining is that the stopping point of the fragmentation on this side of the system is simply “gridlock.” Cockburn said many times that this is the best thing one could hope for within the terms of the system itself.

The Republican Party mess

One might wonder if things will settle down so easily if the “other side” wins the presidency. While I very much enjoy the commentary of Matt Taibbi and others who show the “Republican clown car” for the sick joke that it is, there is a large element of “picking low-hanging fruit” in such journalism. The larger problem is that, simply showing how ridiculous and “extreme” some of the Republican candidates and some of their social base have become, too easily leads to apocalyptic “You’ve got to vote for whoever the Democratic candidate is” rhetoric. This, while Hillary supporters for the most part blithely glide past the extension of the Bush-Cheney years and the continuance and sometimes even deepening of its crimes during the Obama period. Marking the present moment, let us note the complicity of Hillary Clinton and her State Department in the 2009 coup in Honduras, which just now has resulted in the assassination of the environmental activist Berta Caceras.

Do we not have to reach the point where we say that, whatever the “other party” is doing, even if they really are horrible, what the Democrats do, and what they have done for a long time (it was a Democrat who used nuclear weapons against Japan–and, in reality, against the Soviet Union as well; it was a Democrat who dramatically expanded the war in Vietnam; indeed, it was a Democrat–named Bill Clinton–who broke the back of the welfare system) is unforgivable?

In other words, so what if the Republicans are perhaps beyond unforgivable? This is a comparison that is beyond untenable, in terms of what decent people should get involved in. Arguments about the lesser of two evils or the best being the enemy of the better do not apply here; these so-called “political parties” are simply steering media of capital, where capital decides, and where, unless you actually are a capitalist, there is no meaning to your supposed “choice.”

There are limits to the analogy, of course, but what is this continued appeal to the marginally less-abusive father? There are numerous reasons why I choose here the figure of the father, but that’s a different discussion. Whatever the figure chosen, the real question is that of risking freedom in every affirmative sense, every sense of a true alternative–indeed, the sense in which the only real alternative is a “new truth.”

Just to restate what I am after here, then, the point is that it could represent something good, a possible opening, if there could be a Trump-Sanders election–but I don’t really have anything to do with this, in any direct sense, and neither do you. What would be good is if this social system at least starts to come apart at the edges, exposing what are already deeper cracks, points of contention–but the actual contentions will have to take place in other arenas, not the electoral arena.

Having said all this, the Republican Party has some real problems, and it is hard to not enjoy the wild and weird circumnavigations the party establishment has pursued in order to deal with its problems, most of which are concentrated in the person of Donald Trump. It is not hard to see that the Repubs are coming apart around the cultural contradictions of capitalism, especially the supposed “values” of “conservatives” (the very term, “conservative,” is now a largely incoherent category, including as it does people with no sense or knowledge of culture whatsoever) and those who support a “market solution” to every problem–when, of course, the market is indifferent to whether it makes its money from selling cars or houses or heroin or pornography, or, for that matter, from trading in money itself, which always leads to a financial meltdown at some point.

Let’s face it: the phenomenon of Donald Trump may be some kind of “danger” to humanity as a whole, but he’s also something else, something pretty interesting! Sure, on the level of his character (which would not matter much except for his being a billionaire), he’s a world-class jerk, a racist, a misogynist, a “lookist” (having too much fun making judgments of people on the basis of appearance), and a class warrior who belongs to the ruling class. (The oft-used term, “classist,” doesn’t really capture what the class system and class dynamics are all about.) He played a major role, which of course he claims as positive and constructive (literally), in creating contemporary New York City, in the context of the “FIRE” economy of the 1980s and after–Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate. (The classic text is Robert Fitch, The Assassination of New York [1996]; to sum up the argument of this book, in attempting to make New York a city where only rich people could live well, the FIRE “development program” transformed New York from “the richest city in the world to one of the poorest in North America.”) I never watched an episode of “The Apprentice,” I wouldn’t be able to take that, any more than I could listen to Rush Limbaugh for more than a few minutes, but when I saw excerpts for the show, including the iconic “You’re fired” gesture from Trump, I thought, “There can be no good ending to this show other than one involving a disgruntled worker and a gun.”

That now a similar ending is undoubtedly being contemplated by the head honchos of the Republican Party is a remarkable thing, an extraordinary thing–and I mean this last without hyperbole, there really does seem to be something going on right now that is quite out of the ordinary. What is going on in the U.S. ruling class when it finds itself pitted against one of its own? Let’s not forget here that capitalists are always divided against each other, because discrete units of capital each have their own interests. Capitalists use the state and all of its ideological, political, and police apparatuses, and of course all kinds of “private” mechanisms and institutions (especially the media) to compete, for the most part, within an alignment that significantly defines the modern nation-state.

A significant part of this work is also to keep the population within the ideological confines of this alignment, and not having “dreams” that things could truly be different.

Sometimes, though, some institution of capital brings forth an innovation that at the same time threatens the functioning of the system, or some significant part of it–this is what’s going on in the current case with Apple and its methods of encryption. In general, there are many difficulties for private accumulation when it comes to digital media.

And sometimes the institutions of capital provoke resistance and the attempt to truly embrace a dream–but none of this happens within the electoral arena, even if something that happens within this carefully-controlled arena might create an opening for true resistance and real transformation.

Sometimes a capitalist or a high-level servant of capital–from John F. Kennedy to General David Petraeus–crosses some line, and they are brought down (or left in a vulnerable position).

Whatever was or is going on in these other cases, Donald Trump is something different. The carefully-controlled electoral arena appears to not be as tightly clamped-down as the powers-that-be would like. Like Ross Perot before him, but much more so, Trump is a character out of Robert Heinlein. No doubt that Heinlein wanted his essentially rich, dirty-old-man-type characters to have a certain nobility about them, and perhaps a certain amount of learning and culture to go with their supposedly-awesome libertarian intelligence. It is unlikely that the man who brought us the Two Corinthians can quite measure up. Perhaps no one can, and probably no one who is a billionaire and a libertarian libertine at the same time. Heinlein, for all of his Goldwater-capitalist proclivities, clearly had a soft spot for a kind of communism, or at least communitarianism–even if mostly involving nudity and one old man and perhaps a few young men, but of course a preponderance of young women, floating in a warm pool. And yet, even if Trump represents something a bit more sordid, in a way he groks something of Heinlein’s vision, and he represents well what it means to “make America great again” for certain segments of the population.

So now I feel about Trump a little bit the way I felt some years ago about the Confederate flag. There came a point when even Strom Thurmond said the flag should come down. What the hell was up with that? This has nothing to do with any gesture toward recompense for Thurmond’s long career as a rabid racist. Instead, the issue was that South Carolina was the state most penetrated by foreign capital. In particular, in 1992 BMW set up a large car-manufacturing facility in Greer, part of the greater Spartanburg area. The Germans who own and run this plant, understandably, would prefer to stay away from associations with racism, white supremacy, and slavery. Hence, a revelation to Strom Thurmond and some other die-hards. When I first heard of this, my reaction was, “Well, maybe they ought to just leave the damn thing up there a little longer.” This is not to say that the flag and what it symbolizes hasn’t always been a travesty.

By the same token, it’s kind of hard to not like Trump a little for the problem he represents for the Republican Party–even if, of course, everything he is about is a travesty. It is very clear that the GOP recognizes that if Trump is not stopped on the way to the nomination, the consequences will be far greater than the likelihood that the Repubs won’t capture the presidency. Even as we speak, the Republican Party is on the verge of being torn apart by the shocks and aftershocks of Trump’s campaign. Even if this is not the whole ball game that we dreamers of a different world hope for and work for, it’s still pretty good! I find it hard to not appreciate Trump a little bit for this gift.

What is perhaps most fascinating in all of this is that the Republican establishment is not being especially subtle or clever in how it is dealing with its Trump problem. Indeed, in floating out the idea of a “brokered convention” in the case that Trump comes into Cleveland with the majority of delegates, the head honchos are making it very clear who is really in charge. And, rolling out Mitt Romney to denounce Trump? What a weird move! The brazen clumsiness of these machinations almost makes me want to abandon my thesis, given that these unsubtle ploys almost seem designed to fail and backfire–more than almost. It completely strains credulity, for instance, that anyone inclined to support Trump, or to support whoever the nominee is, with the assumption that it could well be Trump, is going to care that Romney calls Trump “a fraud and a phony.” Coming from a world-class finance-capital parasite like Romney, that’s a badge of honor. It’s also very weird because neither the Republican elite nor the rank-and-file liked Mitt Romney very much as their candidate in 2012. This didn’t keep the usual liberals from running out their usual apocalyptic rhetoric, but there was really no chance that Romney was going to become president. So, one feels that some plot might be afoot, to lose in the general election with Trump rather than risk the possibility–which might actually justify some apocalyptic rhetoric–of winning with Cruz, no matter how remote that possibility is.

Which is it, then? Is the Republican side of the ruling class power-steering mechanism truly in desperate straits? Or do their machinations instead represent a decision that has been made at a higher lever, that the Republican Party is simply in too much disarray to be trusted with the executive branch at this time? The “trust problem” is that a Donald Trump or a Ted Cruz will try to act autonomously of the ruling class consensus.

I really don’t know the answer to this question. It may be that the top Republicans don’t know, either–the reason being that the contradictions of capitalism, including the cultural contradictions (or the contradictions expressed in culture and ideology), and the anarchy of capital, are real. My somewhat educated guess is that the Republican side of the ruling-class power mechanism is indeed in disarray.

Either way, is it not fascinating the degree to which the Republican establishment is willing to pull back the curtain and put its own power on display? At the same time, this establishment is also exposing the whole system for the sham that it is. Forget about just the term “democracy”; these machinations demonstrate well that even the charade of “popular government” cannot be allowed under certain circumstances.

Conflicts in the Republican Party

A recent story on the CBC radio program Day Six discussed the comparison of Donald Trump with Benito Mussolini. It was decided that Silvio Berlusconi made for a more apt comparison. Still, the f-word has been tossed around a bit in the vicinity of Trump. Perhaps there’s something to it, in that Hitler was at first regarded as a buffoon. Certainly what Trump has said about Muslims and Mexicans is in line with fascism, as are his attitudes toward women. The whole business of “protecting Christianity,” especially from someone who doesn’t look much like a Christian (as Hitler did not either), has a fascist ring about it, too. There’s more, but let’s get to the real issue.

Even though fascism, as a social system, is quasi-coherent and requires a certain amount of incoherence, there is more to fascism than the fact that certain individuals who are in a place to gain leadership and power hold to many of the classic tenets of fascist ideology. There is the matter of a mass, extreme, right-wing movement. Well, the makings of such a movement are indeed present in the U.S., and they have been for a long time. But the turn to fascism also involves a decision and a consensus among the ruling class. A moment ago I mentioned the questions of desperation and trust; the question of fascism involves what might be called the “desperation to trust.”

For the administration of the capitalist system to take a fascist form, there has to be a ruling-class consensus that the system is in a deep crisis, to the point where the best solution is to take the desperate step of concentrating authority in a small cabal; this ruling group, fronted by a charismatic demagogue, will exercise political power in a largely militaristic and militarized way, a “permanent” state (for as long as it lasts, whether for a thousand years or twelve) of martial law.

The desperate situation is in the Republican Party, expressed essentially in the heightened conflict between libertarian, “in all cases, let the market decide”-types, and so-called “social conservatives,” and this is not a desperate situation for the ruling class as a whole.

The capitalist class of the United States, which operates globally as an imperialist class, is “above” this conflict, and only concerns itself with this conflict to the extent that it either facilitates or inhibits its own imperatives. On the one side, the role of the State (using now the European convention of capitalizing the term) and such mechanisms as “economic regulation,” are integral aspects of the way that big capital rules.

As Andrew Levine put it in a recent CounterPunch article, when it comes to “party loyalty,” “Plutocrats are the most fickle of all. They are the true “bipartisans,” going wherever their bottom lines lead them. Donald Trump explains this phenomenon every chance he gets; it is one of the few useful things he does” (“Party Loyalty in an Election Year Gone Mad,” March 4, 2016).

There is something here that those of libertarian sympathies need to learn. A very important and concentrated aspect of the rule of the U.S. ruling class can be seen in the “advertisement” for the U.S. Navy that has been running on television (especially late-night) in recent years. I don’t know what else to call this TV spot other than an advertisement; perhaps there is a better term–obviously this is a piece of propaganda, though this is not a “television term.” In the piece, we see an expanse of water and we hear the sound of engines. As the piece proceeds we see the bow of a ship emerging from the right side of the screen. A narrator tells us: “Seventy-five percent of the world’s surface is covered by water … eighty-percent of the world’s people live by water … ninety-percent of all trade travels by water.” Meanwhile, the ship has come fully into view; it is an aircraft carrier. The narrator concludes: “The American Navy, a global force for good.” The implication of the gathering percentages is that the U.S. Navy is all good, everywhere. This is actually true, when one considers a certain definition of “good.” I call this the “Confucian” definition: order is by far the most important thing.

The important point here is that the U.S. Navy is, when push comes to shove, the most important keeper of the global social order. To libertarian lovers of the “market,” it needs to be said: this is the market, this is the global market in which all other markets have their ultimate subsistence. And, to drive the point home: market “freedom isn’t free, there’s a heavy f#@*ing fee.”

Some of the values of “ordinary libertarians” aren’t so bad, necessarily. When you get into the nuts and bolts of the real market as it functions in the world today, however, libertarianism looks pretty silly. The way the big capitalists and the major capitalist classes of the world (those of the G8 or G20 or whatever it is on any given day) operate has absolutely nothing to do with this generally petty-bourgeois notion of the market, other than that, even at the largest levels, the anarchy of capital cannot ultimately be contained or channeled into non-self-destructive forms of development.

As for “social conservatism,” the capitalist classes could not care less–again, except insomuch as particular issues in this sphere may play into or against the schemes of capital. Some of these are so transparent that one is tempted to say that ordinary conservatives who buy into the bullshit spouted by a Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, or Sean Hannity are simply stupid. I mean, for instance, the idea that climate change and global warming are part of some pointy-headed intellectual left-wing plot (to do what, exactly, it is hard to say). I do not like to think that most ordinary people are actually stupid, and I don’t actually believe this, but for sure the waves of stupidification that have emanated with great ferocity from right-wing politicians, media, and institutions since the ascendency of the neo-conservative movement in the Reagan period have taken a tremendous toll.

(Not to pursue this question here, but let us mention the hand of Leo Strauss in all of this, and, in particular his interpretation of Plato’s Republic. Counterposed to this is the work of Alain Badiou, which has been at the center of my own work in the last ten years. Could the future depend on how we understand Plato?)

Would it be any surprise that members of capitalist classes want abortion services for their daughters–and to protect their often wayward sons, as well as their own property? As with all things working at the level of those who literally own the social system, questions of legality are of no importance to these classes. On a purely personal level, they will have what they want, whether this is abortions or whatever else they need/want to do.

The preponderance of guns could be a problem for the American ruling class, except that guns are useful in the capitalist imperative to keep people tearing each other apart instead of getting to the bottom of the real problem, which is that a capitalist society is organized not only on the basis of “competition” (which big capitalists avoid whenever possible), but even violent and destructive antagonism. There is more to race and racism than simply what serves capitalist interests, but the capitalist system has been no slouch, for sure, in mobilizing race to both keep people divided and to keep people from thinking very deeply (if at all) about the class structure of society. Add to this that in recent decades the National Rifle Association has become more the representative of gun manufacturers than ordinary gun owners, and you have an actual unit of capital that has a strong interest in selling more and more guns to an already gun-saturated society.

Just to complete the trinity of gametes, guns, and … God: While some anti-Trump conservatives are trying to revive the supposedly wonderful years of Reaganism, let’s remind ourselves that, among other abridgments of “family values,” Reagan was at most an agnostic who never showed any interest in religion or religious questions. But of course Reagan, like most every ruling class member or representative, wanted people to be religious for the usual reason, that it tends to be on the side of social pacification and control. When people get out of line out of religious conviction, as with liberation-theology inspired nuns in Central America, then the powers-that-be have no issue whatsoever terminating them with extreme prejudice. Generally, though, not only does religious conviction have to be of the “right kind,” but also the right kind of religion for the masses is much too tawdry for the genteel sensibilities of the ruling class.

The stupidification campaigns of recent decades do mean that we have plenty of ruling class figures and representatives who are hardly “genteel”–George W. Bush is emblematic here. That doesn’t mean that Christian “conservatives” (whose real religion is just U.S. imperialism for the most part, and they are rarely seen doing anything that looks very “Christian”–hence pope Francis’s comments on Trump, which could just as well apply to Cruz) will find themselves in some kind of “Christian fellowship” with supposedly “Christian” members of the ruling class.

The foregoing is simply meant to put the internal conflicts of the Republican Party in perspective. In and of themselves, these conflicts are not much of a problem for the ruling class, and thus it does not seem as if desperate measures are in order for resolving them.

Republicans tearing their party apart

However, none of this is to say that having the Republican Party tear itself apart is not a problem for the ruling class. It is a problem. And that’s a good thing. There are two aspects to this. First, it is a problem for the ruling class if one of its two facades for how political power really works in this society is ripping itself apart and showing itself to in fact be a mere facade. Second, it is a problem for the ruling class if one of its own is capable of pulling away and becoming an autonomous, rogue agent. It could be said that, just as capitalists are the “living representatives of capital” (as Marx put it), Trump is a living representative specifically of the anarchy of capital, or, to give things a slightly different characterization, those convulsive movements that are the leading edge of the most “lawless” elements of capital. In this way, Trump is truly a superlative example of the global market as it exists today. And, just as the ruling class does not like to expose its farcical political institutions, it also does not like to expose the way that material success in life has very little to do with hard work, intelligence, or other vaunted values of capitalist “meritocracy.”

The great irony is that the second problem is an even bigger problem especially in the case that the ruling class is not so desperate that it feels the need to reach for a fascist solution at this time. If the ruling class was ready and felt the need to go forward with straight-up fascism, the path would be clear. Instead, the ruling class has a Trump problem that it doesn’t really know how to handle.

Both of these problems for the ruling class are good things for the broad masses, and where these problems may lead is not something that can be fully controlled by the ruling class.

Why then are the usual liberals and so-called “progressives” going into apocalyptic contusions over the “dangers of Trump”? I will say a few things about this here, and then come back to the question at the end–the question, “What are liberals, “progressives,” Sanders-“socialists,” etc., really afraid of?”

To be sure, some of the rhetoric is just the usual stuff the Democratic Party people whip up to make their own candidate look good. And, to be sure, that has become not a very hard thing to do in recent years–it’s easy-pickings among the cast of lunatics and morons the Republican Party has rolled out in the last twenty years. When it comes to representatives, or their own children for that matter, the ruling class has to work with the actual human material that God, in His infinite wisdom, delivers. And, boy, has God given the Republicans some interesting cases in the last while.

Ronald Reagan was not the brightest star in the firmament, and also not the greatest talent to pass through Hollywood, but he was actually a bit more intelligent than his well-crafted “folksy” image would have led some to believe. Twenty years after Reagan first became president, and George W. Bush was, shall we say, “sub-folksy.” Bush exemplified the worst of anti-intellectualism in America, the overprivileged frat boy who has everything handed to him, who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, and who could not care less. Bush, of course, had a team of evil geniuses who weren’t only behind him, but who installed him as the titular head of government in the first place.

So, what is especially ridiculous about the apocalyptic rhetoric of Democrats is that they essentially sat idly by when George W. Bush and his fascist/neo-con/theocratic retinue were installed by what amounted to a coup. The mainstream media went on about how wonderful things are in America, because the Supreme Court could cancel the election and make a purely and obviously “partisan” decision, “but there were no tanks in front of the White House or the Supreme Court,” or in the streets, and no riots or uprisings. Certainly, oh frabjous day, that people in America are so completely depoliticized that they will put up with whatever the system puts out there. Or is it instead that, in fact, many of the people who Democrats so smugly call “apathetic” are instead aware that the Bush-Cheney coup was only marginally more a load of crap than the electoral system is in more “normal” circumstances?

And, with all that apocalyptic rhetoric about how horrible whichever Republican will be, Al Gore and John Kerry cannot win debates with George W. Bush? How is that even possible? I’ll come back to how it is possible, and this goes to what progressives and Sanders-style socialists are ultimately all about. It really has to do with what these people, and the Clinton supporters and liberals in general really fear, and how unwilling they are to really pull back the curtain. Indeed, it turns out that they are a good deal less willing to pull back the curtain than Trump.

(One could imagine, quite easily, a scenario in which Cruz is installed as president and people can only wish they had “chosen” the lesser evil, Trump.)

But is the danger of fascism real, and is it this that Democrats are really worried about? I am sure that some “ordinary-people” who support Bernie or Hillary are sincerely worried about this, but their view of fascism is not only liberal, it’s the view of the liberal imperialism that is the core of Democratic Party functioning. The Democratic Party is the party of tossing a few more crumbs to the middle classes and (though less and less) the better-off (especially the unionized, which again is less and less) working class, crumbs derived from the “normal” functioning of the imperialist world order, atop which sits the United States. Sanders’s form of social democracy is predicated upon an expansion of these efforts–which in itself is not a reason to completely reject it, perhaps, but the amorality of the Democratic Party, when it comes to where the wealth comes from, is disgusting.

Here again there is something to be said for Trump and his bullying ways–he doesn’t really pretend that there’s a moral case to be made, it’s just a matter of power.

Also concealed by this “fear of fascism” rhetoric and the supposed Democratic alternative is that, for many parts of the U.S. population, their ordinary conditions in “ordinary” times are not so different from fascism. Add to this the fact that, since the Patriot Act was first put into law in fall 2011, there are many aspects of a martial law regime in place, and essentially the Patriot Act contravenes the U.S. constitution. All of this was only extended and deepened during the Obama years, along with various other new powers for the surveillance state. Also add to this the way that the university system has taken leaps in marketization in the last ten years, such that the days in which there is a professoriat that feels it can speak and write freely appear to be numbered.

Expecting the Democratic Party to protect people from fascism seems like a losing proposition. Consider the update on the state of African-American life, The Covenant with Black America: Ten Years Later, edited by Tavis Smiley. As the volume shows, in every single index, black people are worse off than they were ten years ago.

Connie Willis remarked on the Tavis Smiley show (for March 12, 2016) that she is angry with the black middle class on many of these questions, and particular on the question of mass incarceration. This raises the important point that there is a class structure in “black America,” too, and that, in general, middle-class people of whatever color reach for the “simple,” “just lock them up” solution when it comes to certain behaviors.

That the police and the “justice system” generally do not notice class when they are shooting or beating the life out of black individuals, very often young black males, is also a part of this picture that should not be forgotten.   Since the founding of the American republic, and since its (stunted) re-founding through the U.S. Civil War and its aftermath, there has never been a moment when race and class were not deeply intertwined. It is possible and necessary for some purposes to separate these categories, but in practice there will remain many difficulties for a long time to come. This intertwining is true for all “enlightened European” cultures, in which the promise of universalism is carved into new forms of oppression. In the case of the United States, there was only “kind of a revolution” (to borrow Howard Zinn’s characterization) to begin with, and the ruling class of the U.S. has had a very potent way of dividing people throughout the history of the American polity.

Without any intention whatsoever of leaving behind or setting aside the question of race, or of gender for that matter, we need a new way to talk about the “working people” of the world, a basis for a new collectivity. Can anyone honestly believe that anything within the electoral system of the U.S. leads in this direction or even anything remotely like it?

The point for present purposes–beyond marking the atrocity of mass incarceration, which should be marked at every possible opportunity–is that the Clintons were right at the center of this atrocity. Hillary Clinton has “apologized” and backpedaled somewhat on mass incarceration, which is good, I guess, but why would we then say to such an individual, “Okay, cool, you can be president”?

In this respect, Sanders should wear the accusation from Hillary Clinton that he is “not a real Democrat” as a badge of honor–but it appears he has cut himself off at the knees on this point. Why has he done this? I will come back to this question in the conclusion.

Some Republican leaders and thinkers have already thrown their support behind Hillary. (Expecting them to support Sanders is a bit much–though this makes the idea of a Trump-Sanders election even more enticing.) Bruce Bartlett, an historian who was part of the administrations of Reagan and Bush I, has spoken forthrightly on the current state of the Republican Party. As he puts it, the GOP “right now is just a coalition of cranks, and racists and bigots and religious kooks” (, March 3, 2016).

Ironically, Trump is probably less any of the epithets mentioned by Bartlett than most Republicans. Even the bigoted, racist things said by Trump are almost certainly just a matter of Trump’s not inconsiderable sense of putting together a “deal.” That Trump is an unprincipled opportunist doesn’t make him any better, but, on the other hand, it also doesn’t make him so much different from a significant number of the remaining Republican politicians who are not in the categories mentioned by Bartlett.

Bartlett’s strategy is to support Trump, because, as he says, “My goal is to destroy the Republican Party.” By this he means the existing Republican Party which, he says, will have to hit “rock bottom,” so that “responsible Republicans [can] once again come back and make it a reasonable governing party.”

My guess, which I think is a pretty good one, is that many of us remember the period of Ronald Reagan’s “responsible Republican reasonable governing party,” a little differently. The rhetoric was already pretty jacked up, the dismantling of the New Deal and LBJ’s “Great Society” had already begun in the Carter years, and good old anti-intellectual know-nothingism was the order of the day. In other words, the roots of much that is common and dominant today, which some of the “reasonable Reaganites” ascribe to the vice-presidency of J. Danforth Quayle (which indeed is the beginning of a string of presidents or would-be presidents whose relationship with the Vietnam-era military is, shall we say, fraught), can be found in that period, which could be called “the anti-60s.” Bill Clinton’s contribution to this ideology was to use certain elements of Sixties rhetoric, mostly feel-good psychobabble, to cover the evacuation of any radical content. Clinton’s administration did represent in some aspects a disruption of the most “urgent” of neo-conservative plans, especially to take advantage of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc, hence Clinton’s impeachment for the sort of thing that Newt Gingrich and many other Republicans pursue on a regular basis. In general, though, the shift toward the present state of things has moved in a fairly smooth way.

(Bill Clinton should also be given credit for doing a number on the radical women’s movement that came out of the Sixties and second-wave, post-Beauvoirian feminism.)

Nevertheless, we could say that the transformation of the Republican Party into an organization that can only find largely clueless (and completely uncultured) dolts to run for president represents a qualitative leap–at least for Bruce Bartlett. This itself is significant, when the only strategy that makes sense is to just get on with it and head as directly as possible to the “bottom,” and hope that things take a turn from there.

Where is the “bottom,” though, and not just the bottom for Republicans? Theodor Adorno talked about the “completely administered society,” with the “culture industry” playing a key role in replacing any ideal of citizenship and civic life oriented toward the ideal of a good society with mere consumerism. Unfortunately, we have seen that the process of creating such a society, which might be characterized as an always evermore commodified society/culture/form of life, seems to go on and on, with the process of commodity production itself creating new forms of life that can be further commodified. This does not mean that capitalism, in its imperialist, postmodern, or what-have-you forms, can go on forever–but it does mean that most everything that Marx said about the “limits of capital” is wrong.

On another level, a ruling class decision for the fascist administration of its power would certainly represent some kind of “bottom.” However, there are three things to be said about this. First, as has been said, it seems unlikely that, at the present time, the ruling class is going to enter into a fascist consensus. Second, there are ways in which fascism, certainly in the forms in which it has been known historically, is obsolete. There are better and more effective ways to do what capitalism needs to do, ways that do not require politicizing, even if in an extremely reactionary way, the general population. Consequently, and third, perhaps fascism isn’t the only “bottom.”

In all of this discussion of fascism and Donald Trump I have repeatedly mentioned the “ruling class.” One could certainly say that class categories are in flux today, and certainly class categories were never so well-defined in Marx-inspired practices of class struggle as they were in Marx’s texts. Regardless, however, of how we understand terms such as the “working class,” “proletariat,” or even the broad idea of the “working people,” we seem to have a special difficulty when it comes to recognizing forthrightly that there is a ruling class, and that it represents the ruling system–that the ruling class is made up of people who are the “living representatives of capital.” Why we have such a hard time with this, I don’t know–is it a concern that, if we use such a term, we will sound like dogmatic Marxists? Let’s just get over this by reminding ourselves that you don’t have to be any kind of Marxist to know there is a ruling class; the ruling class itself certainly knows there is a ruling class, and it seems unlikely that any of them are Marxists.

One would think that the fact that there is an American ruling class would be abundantly clear after the experience of George W. Bush’s installation as president in 2000. Or, for that matter, after Barack Obama and his retinue immediately dismantled the popular movement that supported him before the election, right after he was elected. What else are the “Wall Street connections” of Hillary Clinton than ruling class connections? And, sure, there are different interests among the ruling class, and the ruling class cannot so easily pull all the strings to get absolutely everything it wants at all times; even so, what is the difficulty with seeing that, in general, and despite and through these things, capital decides?

Certainly there are components of fascism, even in the sense of something like a “popular movement,” to be found around Donald Trump, but also around Ted Cruz. But those elements are now deeply in the fabric of the Republican Party, and, what’s more important, they are always a part of the repressive arsenal of any modern capitalist system.

However, as for “popular fascism,” for this to really get moving there also has to be broad enthusiasm for living in a martial law regime and for living in a state of what can be called “militarized comportment.” It is very clear that, such enthusiasm as there is for this sort of life, which requires a good deal more commitment than just “getting all flagged up” and repeating jingoistic cliches and other bits of bullshit, as people did in the wake of September 11, 2001, does not run deep in our thoroughly consumerist society. There are not really what might be called “citizen commitments” that can operate very well in such a society, and certainly not at the sustained, manic pitch required for real fascism.

Furthermore, the “popular movement” that has played the most important role in pushing candidates such as Trump and Cruz forward is the Tea Party, which we know is largely a creation of the Koch brothers. However, it has to be recognized that the actual ordinary people who make up the Tea Party movement (whatever “membership” in the movement means) have gotten somewhat out of control of the Kochs–which is again an example of where the ruling class never has the perfect control that it craves, especially when discrete units of capital have to navigate in difficult waters (the waters ultimately being global). Really what this comes down to is that the billionaire Koch brothers, and the rest of the ruling class, were not prepared for the idea of “a billionaire against the establishment.”

Who was? Perhaps Robert Heinlein. Perhaps Ayn Rand, but Donald Trump is no John Galt. Whether Rand could have wrapped her fantastically-doctrinaire brain around Trump, I don’t know–we do know that, despite her dogmatic attachment to her mostly poorly thought-out ideas, Rand could sometimes work around her principles. While we’re playing around with a literary theory of the Trump phenomenon, it would help to bring Philip K. Dick into play as well, not so much for the element of paranoia, but more for his brilliant portrayal of a “libertarian” world where one pays for life more or less by the minute.

When it comes to paranoia, there is just as much, if not more, to worry about from a Clinton administration, as one of the “achievements” of the Obama administration has been to expand the surveillance state in a relatively quiet way. If anything, the libertarian impulse behind support for Trump could act as some sort of counterbalance on this point–though, again, no one is asking you or me or the ordinary people who support Trump, Clinton, etc. Still, as for fascism, even while libertarianism can be a very thin philosophical support, there is some hope that at least its anti-state commitments would not so easily fold themselves into what is, after all, an absolutism of the state.

Lastly, on the question of fascism, even though I think the arguments demonstrate that fascism, in the forms that we have known it before, is rendered obsolete by the form that capitalism presently takes, and that, whatever bad stuff would be in store if Trump were to be president, the name for this bad stuff is not “fascism,” I don’t mean to be dogmatic here or to claim that reality is determined to follow “good arguments.”

Just because “classical fascism” does not appear to be on the agenda for the ruling class at this time, does not mean that there might not be a new form of fascism that is appropriate to postmodern capitalism and imperialism–call it “postmodern fascism.” But here my argument is that we have been living with this fascism at least since the Patriot Act contravened the Constitution, if not already when George W. Bush was installed by five votes of the Supreme Court. Barack Obama did the ruling class the tremendous favor of extending and deepening some of the underlying mechanisms of this postmodern fascism, without making so much noise about it, and while tossing a few crumbs to a few causes popular among liberals and progressives–and, please understand, I am not saying that these crumbs were unimportant. Of course the extension of basic civil rights to people regardless of sexual orientation is very important and a real achievement. However, there is always a flip side to any reform in a capitalist society, and I would say this goes even more for the assimilating power of postmodern capitalism: inclusion requires certain shifts in the social order that are uncomfortable for some people (though again, purely as an ethical or political question, the ruling class could not care less), but then the social order also reaps the benefit of extending the range of people who feel that the system is working for them.

This sort of thing works well for the Democrats especially in the case when the Republican candidate is a so-called “extremist.” At that point, about all they have to offer is something along the lines of, “Hillary Clinton: Because who else are you going to vote for?”

It goes without saying that Donald Trump has advanced some obnoxiously-noxious proposals. At the same time, he has said some things that the Democrats would not dare say. In just straight out calling George W. Bush a liar, he has performed a greater service in challenging American militarism than anything Obama or Clinton has done–or even come close to doing.

My one criticism of Trump here is that he could have been a little quicker on his feet when Jeb Bush whimpered that he was tired of people attacking his family. This is where some of that good-old Trump vulgarity would have been most welcome. For the sake of decorum I’ll state the response without the vulgarity, but you can imagine what Trump could have done with it: “Just respond to the charge; and the world has had enough of you and your awful family.”

Meanwhile, Hillary is making nice with Henry Kissinger. So what’s the alternative here?

Where is an alternative?

Trump (and, to be fair, some other Republicans) opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, on the basis that it leads to losing more jobs and industry from the U.S., while Obama and the Clintons have proposed and supported one trade agreement after another. Again, we have a very interesting situation, one where Hillary has to serve the capitalists, whereas the rogue billionaire perhaps does not. So what is the alternative?

It is no secret that the New Democrat Clintons and Obamas have deserted working people. The large percentage of working people who are people of color are treated as chumps, who should just be happy with whatever rhetorical support is tossed their way, and, unfortunately many of them go along with this, because what else is on offer? When working people in general are mainly watching their jobs shipped off because of New Democrat trade deals, or when “job growth” under the New Democrats means low-paying, precarious, service jobs, with a health plan that is mostly just a windfall for the insurance companies, then people of color also suffer disproportionately. An election season in which Sanders at least stays in the game for awhile, and where Trump is doing his part to stir things up on the other fringe, at least raises the possibility that people of color will think more about being continually played for suckers by the Democrats.

And, to take one very important issue for people of color, especially African-Americans, let’s return to mass incarceration, police brutality and murder, and the general atrocity that is called the “system of justice” in the U.S. One cannot expect enlightenment, exactly, from Trump on these issues, but we might find that he at least has some sense that this “internal imperialism” has in common with “external imperialism” that more money is spent to wreck lives and populations than it would take to actually address a problem.

Of course I am not saying any of this to support Trump, but only to say that the present season of political charades does not represent any more of a real or clear cut alternative than previous editions.

As for Trump, as of this writing it appears that the Republican establishment is not going to be able to stop him. Much has been made of that fact that many of Trump’s supporters are from the white/Anglo part of the working class. This is used on a regular basis as a way of dismissing Trump’s supporters, as rednecks and yahoos, as stupid. This dismissal comes from both mainline Democrats and mainline Republicans. The upshot is quite different from what these establishment-types (even those who advocate for diversity) think. Yes, there are strains of very obnoxious and wrong viewpoints within the white part of the working class, and perhaps especially among that part of the working class that no long finds even token representation within the Democratic Party. But this does not change the fact that there is a working class, that some forty-million white people in the United States belong to it, and that life for these people is not quite the bowl of cherries that both rich Republicans and identity-politics Democrats would like to think. If there is resentment among this population that sometimes expresses itself in terms of racism–and there is–the Democratic Party is far more to blame for this than Donald Trump, and this goes especially for the New Democrats, such as the Clintons and Obamas. Coming from this crew, and this truly needs to be taken to heart, “redneck” is really no different from a racial epithet.

In yet another brilliantly self-destructive move, the mainstream of the Republican Party (whatever this means anymore) and the Republican elite are repudiating the working-class constituency that they began to take over from the Democrats during the “Silent Majority” and then Reagan years. Here are a couple of paragraphs from a National Review article by Kevin D. Williamson, expressing well the disdain in which mainstream Republicans–and, I daresay, quite a few Democrats, especially of the academic, identity-politics variety–hold white members of the working class:

Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America. So the gypsum business in Garbutt ain’t what it used to be. There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down.

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.

If you want to live, get out of Garbutt.” (“Chaos in the Family, Chaos in the State: The White Working Class’s Dysfunction,”, March 17, 2016)

Such writing, dripping with so much contempt, is certainly an indication that we are at least at the edge of living in interesting times: For there is indeed a deep race-class connection in America, and it is rare to see, in public rhetoric from conservative political writers, white working people simply thrown under the bus. In reality, of course, this is a constant for all working people, regardless of color.

Williamson writes in the service of what has become the core mission of the National Review: to stop Trump–another indication of interesting times. A quick read of headlines and articles at the National Review website seems to show that the magazine is not yet ready to follow Bruce Bartlett; for now, the hope is that Ted Cruz can stop the Donald. The day after Williamson’s article ran in the online edition, an article by David Harsanyi was posted with the headline, “The GOP Should Steal the Nomination from Trump.” As Harsanyi writes, however, “there’s no soft landing in this scenario … There is only going to be a crackup, no matter who captures the nomination.”

There is also in this article a reference to Trump’s campaign as a “hostile takeover.” I haven’t read deeply enough in National Review in recent years to see if so-called “conservatives” these days have trouble with hostile takeovers and other maneuverings of finance capital (naked short-selling and the like) when they are supposedly contained within the economic sphere such that the only ones who are really hurt are working people (of all strata, races, genders, sexualities, etc.). This is hard to imagine. Leading figures of both parties have to ride that wave, the wave generated by the ruling class, with finance capital in the lead.

Therefore, again, clearly it is interesting times when the one who doesn’t have to ride that wave is the rogue billionaire, who can therefore also appeal to a large section of the working class and working people in general.

So, bring on the crackup, and let’s hope that things go even further than rock bottom for just the Republicans. Interesting times for the ruling class are also interesting times for the people–and hard times for the ruling class also bring on hard times for the people–and yet these hard times also bring on the only real openings that could lead to definitively better times for the people.

The last direct thing, therefore, I will say about Donald Trump is that he better have some good bodyguards to watch his back. And, I hope his followers, especially his present working-class followers, will educate themselves and not be so ready to fall for the ruse when the ruling class (or some section of it) uses a Muslim or a Mexican to do its dirty work.

To return to the hopes and activism who know that it is the whole system, and not just one wing of its steering mechanisms, that has to go, the far harder pill to swallow is that there has to be fierce resistance to the present and certain to be far more intensifying claims that only Hillary can defeat Trump and only Hillary can save us from Trump. The building up of Hillary Clinton as a savior has only just begun, and I have the feeling that we are in for a level of apocalyptic rhetoric rarely seen before, at least as far as electoral politics and parliamentary cretinism are concerned.

What if, against all odds, there is a Trump-Sanders election? For reasons already discussed, I do hope that Sanders will hang in for as long as possible. It is unlikely that Hillary will falter, or that the many strikes against her will be allowed to take her down, but you never know. In high-level chess, a player will usually resign when defeat looks close to certain, even if another ten to fifteen moves could be played. Occasionally, though, there is the player who does not resign the game at that point, because, you never know–perhaps the player who is “supposed to win” will make a fatal mistake in the endgame. I hope that Sanders will take that approach.

Where things will be, what will be the state of the situation, in the case that a Trump-Sanders election comes about, I don’t think we can say at this point. In terms of the big picture, there are two possibilities, that are really two sides of the same coin: The ruling class is in a place where it has reached a consensus on letting some really funky-looking stuff happen, and this may present some sort of real opening. If this comes about, there may be some possibility for something real within the system’s electoral arena, but, as always, the real possibilities will have to break the bounds of this arena. I don’t think anything less vague than this sort of thing can be–or should be–said at the moment.

Finally, what is the real fear that motivates everything here, whether it be challenges faced by the ruling class, or the anti-working people attitudes of mainstream Democrats and establishment Republicans?

My brilliant life-partner, Kathleen League, is also a philosopher. Coming from the lower working-class (in other words, the proletariat, a category that Sanders socialists, identity-politics types, mainstream Democrats, and even most of what calls itself “the left,” have little affirmative interest in), I have often benefited from her insights–and I wish more would benefit from them. Living in Xiamen, China, this school year, while Kathleen remains for the most part in Salina, Kansas, we exchange emails every day (neither of us really likes talking on the phone or Skyping). We have been discussing the question of class in the current election period, and recently Kathleen wrote to me with some thoughts spurred by an article by Thomas Frank:

[A friend of ours] posted [on Facebook] an interesting piece by Thomas Frank on the Guardian website, an insightful piece that tries to sympathetically explain the justified economic fear blue collar workers have, and how Trump’s message on trade resonates with that, since, as Frank says, Trump’s position on trade could be arguably viewed as leftist as opposed to neoliberal.

Frank quotes a study that shows that the top concern for blue collar people is the economy; immigration is third down the list; and the conclusion of the surveyors is that working-class people are not bigots, they are just economically frightened.  It’s funny how people know the economy has been bad, but still think the blue collar and proletariat as such are to be blamed for having fear.

I see that [another friend] tried to express an appreciation for the article, but hastened to still shake her finger at people being led by fear and blaming the “other.” We all are mandated to go to that finger-shaking position in haste, even though the point of the article is that bigotry isn’t the motive force for the working class.  I mean, the ironic thing, I think, is that in a sense, under capitalism, the proletariat is the ultimate “other” that everyone is afraid of, in externalized and internalized ways. The system is built on and based on that “other” and then has to invest so much energy into grinding down and making fun of and blaming that “other” for where it is.  Everything becomes so twisted when a system requires an “other” and then blames that “other” for the othering the system is based on and churns out.  As in, ‘Oh those stupid proletarians, they don’t know their own interests, and they are wrong to fear our neoliberal trade platforms that will take all their jobs away from them!  Why do they fear our rational plans? Why do they fear the “other”?’ (The Frank article is titled, “Millions of ordinary Americans support Donald Trump. Here’s why.”, March 7, 2016.)

Around that time, Kathleen had also commented on a statement apparently made by Bernie Sanders, that “White people don’t know poverty.” While I could imagine Sanders saying something like this in the hopes of winning more African-Americans to his campaign, I doubted that he would say something so foolish and also transparently false.

Oh, I see there’s a meme going around now that claims that Fox News took the Bernie Sanders’ line on ‘white people don’t know poverty’ out of context, that supposedly he was quoting a black girl he met. But the meme itself misrepresented the situation, since what it claimed he really said isn’t the full story either.  He did refer to meeting black people and summing up their views, but then on his behalf he fully made the claim that ‘white people don’t know what it’s like to live in a ghetto, white people don’t know what it’s like to be poor.’  So, in that case, the Sanders supporters or liberals were spreading false memes too.

Snopes tries to soft-pedal the situation by acting like both sides misrepresented the situation, but sort of also acting like the naysayers took Sanders out of context and were more to blame; but in fact, Sanders really did make on his own behalf that observation about white people.  Perhaps a slip of words, but still something screwy in its ideological basis for a self-proclaimed socialist, plus pointing to the kinds of political pressures to eliminate class from the picture.

Yes, something screwy, indeed, and factually quite wrong. What white workers and other poor people might not know about is the murderously-racist treatment to which African-Americans are subjected on a regular basis, and that is not some “secondary” feature of the U.S. social system. It is also the case that the poor are disproportionately made up of women, of all colors. Apart then, from the obviously screwy, apparently opportunistic tactical decision Sanders made, perhaps unintentionally, what one might wonder at is the failure on the part of a supposed “socialist,” or even of a “progressive” Democrat, to build solidarity based on class, race, and gender–the supposedly hallowed trinity of intersectional politics, but where class never really makes an appearance.

And so this is what I wrote to Kathleen:

I think the sum of both things you were talking about is fear of the proletariat, and fear of the enormous changes that are needed, whether that fear is expressed on the “left” or the “right.”  And, in a way, Trump recognizes better than the Democrats that something has to be done to address neoliberalism, to take some of the pressure off.  Of course, he panders to a certain section of the working class, mostly white, in racist ways, just as Sanders and Clinton pander to people of color (working and middle class) and the middle-middle class.  The latter finds comfort in having their own laziness displaced onto the working class.

To me, the way things are shaking out so far in the election is pretty good!  Typical liberals will just hold to their crazy “hopes,” which are really just desperate middle-class hopes and aspirations, pretty much come what may.  Thus their high level of investment in some candidates and fear of others.  And these liberals remain convinced that what happens will somehow depend on them, like their view of things matters to the ruling class, and like, through Bernie or Hillary, they can somehow get in on the game.  In reality, nothing can change until all these people let go of these delusions.

So, yes, like you say, in capitalism the proletariat is the ultimate other–Badiou calls it the “void” of capitalism–and it is hard to look into the void and to embrace it, because it means embracing complete uncertainty and contingency.  But, again, the delusion is that people think they can avoid these things by deciding which roller coaster to ride on, so to speak.

Perhaps there is a better metaphor, I’m open to suggestions.

More can be said about class today, for sure, and also about the relationship between class as a category of political economy and sociology and “void” as a category of philosophy and mathematics. More can be said about the sort of conditions under which the relationship becomes “operative,” whereby there is an opening toward something new, different, and unprecedented. It is the job of everyone to struggle toward an Idea, of a different world–a world that seems (and in some sense is) impossible in terms of the present situation, but that is possible in the fracturing of this situation. When the void speaks, the nothing becomes all.

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Bill Martin is a professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago; at present he is also Distinguished Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Huaqiao University in Xiamen, People’s Republic of China. His most recent book is Ethical Marxism: The Categorical Imperative of Liberation.


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