All posts by Stephen Elsberry

The Great State of Confusion Over ‘the State’

When writing my last piece, I knew there was a good chance that I might have been misguided in my conclusion about Marx possibly being something other than a socialist. I knew there were libertarian Marxists out there but I thought they arrived at libertarianism through Marx’s works by making a stretch that would tax the elasticity of Mr. Fantastic. Libertarian socialism is stateless, and Marx advocated a workers’ state; you can’t just fuse the two. Still, I was inquisitive as to how the libertarian Marxists did it and I soon stumbled upon an eye-opening video by Youtuber ProSocialism entitled “A Marxist Video for Anarchists” and began to get a sense of how Marxism could be libertarian:

“Anarchists define the state as a hierarchical and centralized, undemocratic institution run by a minority who posseess monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.  Marxism on the other hand defines the state as an organ of class rule that can take various different forms depending on the particular class that holds political power. A state in the Marxist view doesn’t have to be overwhelmingly democratic or undemocratic, centralized or decentralized, hierarchical or horizontal. The state is simply an instrument of repression used by one class to enact its will on another and since all states thus far have existed to preserve the rule of exploiting classes, the state thus far has always met the anarchist definition though it doesn’t have to meet this definition in the Marxist view…Going by the Marxist definition it’s impossible to abolish the state so long as class society remains intact because the state will inevitably arise to enforce the power of the dominant class. Anarchists might seek to abolish the state in accordance with their definition but nevertheless seek to create a workers’ state in accordance with the Marxist definition. Therefore, the debate surrounding this issue is–more or less–a product of confusion over semantics. Now, if as an anarchist watching this you agree that your aim is to establish a state in the Marxist sense although it doesn’t meet the anarchist definition, I’d implore you to simply become a Marxist. If you recognize now that in the Marxist view the existence of the state is inevitable so long as classes continue to exist, there’s nothing stopping you from simply becoming a Marxist and advocating the same level of decentralization as you already do–just realizing that what you advocate meets the Marxist definition of the state.”

This was pretty intriguing seeing as I assumed that the Marxist conception of the workers’ state was a political organization that had all the trappings of the anarchist definition of the state instead of a vision of society identical to anarchism’s, which Prosocialism outlines in various Youtube comments:

“Given that workers’ councils are directly democratic the new workers’ state would not be hierarchical and undemocratic like the old bourgeois state…Democracy and accountability are rightly central to anarchist theory, which drew me to it to begin with. But as time went I came to realise that anarchist arguments against Marxism are often at best confused and at worse straw men. So, I later became a Marxist, advocating the same level as democracy and accountability as I did when I was an anarchist. In fact, I came to realise that democracy and accountability are just as central to Marxist theory as they are to anarchism…The “worker state” is the “organized councils”. There aren’t two separate entities (a state as well as workers’ councils); the “organized councils” and the workers’ militia are the state (organs of class rule) …You’re creating a false dichotomy between ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ councils. Marxist workers’ councils do not govern from the ‘top’ down; they’re very much an all-encompassing state apparatus which flows from the bottom upwards.”

After digesting this, all that remained was to confirm if all of this is explicit in Marx’s writings and, sure enough, it is. As this excerpt from David Adam’s essay ‘Karl Marx and the State’ plainly demonstrates, there can be no mistake that Marx was opposed to the state in the anarchist definition and favors the anarchist principle of swiftly revocable delegates who have to adhere to a strict mandate from the people:

“The separation of the political state from civil society takes the form of a separation of the deputies from their electors. Society simply deputes elements of itself to become its political existence. There is a twofold contradiction: (1) A formal contradiction. The deputies of civil society are a society which is not connected to its electors by any ‘instruction’ or commission. They have a formal authorization but as soon as this becomes real they cease to be authorized. They should be deputies but they are not” [Marx] …Even from a formal point of view, the deputies recognized as deriving their mandate solely from the popular masses, become, once elected, independent of their electors, and are free to make political decisions on their behalf. This is distinct from Marx’s vision of a society that “administers its own universal interests.” As Marx put it, “The efforts of civil society to transform itself into a political society, or to make the political society into the real one, manifest themselves in the attempt to achieve as general a participation as possible in the legislature…The political state leads an existence divorced from civil society. For its part, civil society would cease to exist if everyone became a legislator.” There is an important point here: the separation of the state from civil society depends on limiting popular participation in government…“Only when real, individual man resumes the abstract citizen into himself and as an individual man has become a species-being in his empirical life, his individual work and his individual relationships, only when man has recognized and organized his forces propres [own forces] as social forces so that social force is no longer separated from him in the form of political force, only then will human emancipation be completed.”… Another example: when quoting Bakunin’s critique, Marx inserts a revealing parenthetical comment: “The dilemma in the theory of the Marxists is easily resolved. By people’s government they (i.e. Bakunin) understand the government of the people by a small number of representatives chosen (elected) by the people.” Here Marx is very clearly implying that he does not understand “people’s government” or workers’ government, as the government of the people by a small number of representatives elected by the people. This is a rather clear indication that Marx is still faithful to his 1843 critique of bourgeois democracy. Clearly, this conception of “proletarian” government is distinct from the bourgeois state, or from any previous form of state power. As Marx makes clear in the above statements, he is referring to a proletarian “government” only in the sense that the working class uses general means of coercion to enforce its aims. Proletarian government is not used by Marx to mean that some elite group (assumedly the intellectuals, as Bakunin argued) would use general means of coercion over the whole proletariat, for that would rule out working class “self-government.” …The method of political organization adopted by the Paris Commune is also described as “the reabsorption of the State power by society as its own living forces instead of as forces controlling and subduing it.” This “reabsorption” was accomplished when the Commune did away with “the state hierarchy altogether” and replaced “the haughteous masters of the people” by “always removable servants” acting “continuously under public supervision.”  …The rural communes of every district were to administer their common affairs by an assembly of delegates in the central town, and these district assemblies were again to send deputies to the National Delegation in Paris, each delegate to be at any time revocable and bound by the mandat impératif (formal instructions) of his constituents. The few but important functions which still would remain for a central government were not to be suppressed, as has been intentionally misstated, but were to be discharged by Communal, and therefore strictly responsible agents…As we have seen, Marx in fact foresaw a fundamental change occurring when the workers reabsorb their alienated political powers, and the state becomes servant instead of master of society…Building a new society is for Marx a process of self-emancipation. The wielding of political power is an important part of this: the workers must take charge, re-organize society, and exercise the social power previously denied them. This is why Lassalle’s socialism-from-above is totally inadequate.”

There’s no way anyone could deem Marx as anything but a libertarian socialist after reading that, so I am hereby revising my conclusion from the previous post. Perhaps one of the most unfortunate missed opportunities in history was that Marx did not make clearer his opposition to alienated political power. Although orthodox Marxists and anarchists do indeed agree on the shape of post-revolution society, I still wouldn’t take Prosocialism’s advice to convert to Marxism because there remain some things about Marxism for anarchists to disagree with (like capitalism being a necessary step to socialism, for example) but these differences are very minor (and more philosophical) compared to the false divide about the state that defines the separation between the two socialist sects. If this commonality—unintentionally concealed for so long—was ever brought to their attention, if it is communicated to the point where we all find ourselves no longer encased in a great state of confusion about the State but now on the same page, then Otto von Bismarck’s prediction that “Crowned heads, wealth and privilege may well tremble should ever again the Black and Red unite!” would surely come to pass.

Marxism–Socialism or Faux-cialism?

In the process of questioning the socialist credentials of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, I implied that Karl Marx might have not been socialist either and I think there’s something to that. First, Marx believed in the unnecessary stage where the state is still retained following the revolution until it will simply wither away at some very, very distant date:

“Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat…What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.”

So why does there need to be a state? Marx doesn’t truly explain this. Sure, he writes in ‘Conspectus of Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy’ that “so long as the other classes, especially the capitalist class, still exists, so long as the proletariat struggles with it (for when it attains government power its enemies and the old organization of society have not yet vanished), it must employ forcible means, hence governmental means. It is itself still a class and the economic conditions from which the class struggle and the existence of classes derive have still not disappeared and must forcibly be either removed out of the way or transformed, this transformation process being forcibly hastened”; but this isn’t very convincing since he never addressed libertarian socialist critics who argued that this type of organization could be accomplished without using a state. Vladimir Lenin goes a bit more in-depth and provides a dubious rationale for the state that Marx might have agreed with—namely, the people aren’t ready to govern themselves:

“Socialism means the abolition of classes. The dictatorship of the proletariat has done all it could to abolish classes. But classes cannot be abolished at one stroke. And classes still remain and will remain in the era of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The dictatorship will become unnecessary when classes disappear. Without the dictatorship of the proletariat they will not disappear…by overthrowing the bourgeoisie the proletariat takes the most decisive step towards the abolition of classes, and that in order to complete the process the proletariat must continue its class struggle, making use of the apparatus of state power and employing various methods of combating, influencing and bringing pressure to bear on the overthrown bourgeoisie and the vacillating petty bourgeoisie.”

Leon Trotsky tersely concurs, writing “the necessity for state power arises from an insufficient cultural level of the masses and their heterogeneity.” Yet these same masses were admitted by Trotsky to be “incomparably more revolutionary” than the vanguard party, which was allegedly of a lofty cultural level that justified their minority rule. Upholding the state because the people aren’t revolutionary enough to run society doesn’t wash so is there another reason for retaining the state?

Friedrich Engels favored the state nationalizing the means of production, writing “State ownership of the productive forces is not the solution to the conflict, but concealed within it are the technical conditions that form the elements of that solution” and this economic system “shows itself the way to accomplishing this [socialist] revolution” But this is bunk because authoritarian socialists have never been able to find those tools within state capitalism because the Bolsheviks were never able to discover the means of controlling this peculiar capitalism (it’s an impossible task and I bet all the authoritarian socialists knew this and were in on a grand deception) as Lenin confessed:

“Our society is one which has left the rails of capitalism, but has not yet got on to new rails…State capitalism is capitalism which we shall be able to restrain, and the limits of which we shall be able to fix…State capitalism is capitalism that we must confine within certain bounds; but we have not yet learned to confine it within those bounds. That is the whole point. And it rests with us to determine what this state capitalism is to be. We have sufficient, quite sufficient political power; we also have sufficient economic resources at our command, but the vanguard of the working class which has been brought to the forefront to directly supervise, to determine the boundaries, to demarcate, to subordinate and not be subordinated itself, lacks sufficient ability for it. All that is needed here is ability, and that is what we do not have.”

I doubt the Bolsheviks really tried to curb capitalism, but they couldn’t even if they wanted to. At any rate, Engels was being mendacious by asserting that state capitalism will blaze the trail to socialism because it’s impossible to conjure up the alchemy that will build socialism from capitalism. So, if statist ‘scientific socialists’ aren’t socialists what is their ideology? Well, we get a different view from footnote 21 of the Wikipedia entry for state capitalism–“[Alvin W.] Gouldner argues that Bakunin formulated an original critique of Marxism as “the ideology, not of the working class, but of a new class of scientific intelligentsia—who would corrupt socialism, make themselves a new elite, and impose their rule on the majority”–and from the entry proper there’s “Jan Waclav Machajski’s argument in The Intellectual Worker (1905) that socialism was a movement of the intelligentsia as a class, resulting in a new type of society he termed state capitalism.

Marx could have set out to create an ideology designed for the intelligentsia that he called socialism but wasn’t. Was his ‘scientific socialism’ created to be different from the older conception of socialism (which he derided and dismissed as utopian) so as to co-opt it? A great reason to think it was co-option is because Marx suspiciously avoided the issue of the state as an actor that can be independent of economic power and did not spend much ink on describing how the transition from the statist dictatorship of the proletariat to socialism would come about (would another revolution be needed, etc). Further, it’s pretty sketchy when you have Engels acknowledging that the state is indeed an independent entity and nevertheless advocated for the state to get even more powerful for the supposed sake of socialism:

“the key thing is that Engels recognised that the state was “endowed with relative independence.” Rather than being a simple expression of economic classes and their interests, this “new independent power, while having in the main to follow the movement of production, reacts in its turn, by virtue of its inherent relative independence–that is, the relative independence once transferred to it and gradually further developed–upon the conditions and course of production. It is the interaction of two unequal forces: on the one hand, the economic movement, on the other, the new political power, which strives for as much independence as possible, and which, having once been established, is endowed with a movement of its own.” There were three types of “reaction of the state power upon economic development.” The state can act “in the same direction” and then it is “more rapid” or it can “oppose” it and “can do great damage to the economic development.” Finally, it can “prevent the economic development proceeding along certain lines, and prescribe other lines.” Finally, he stated “why do we fight for the political dictatorship of the proletariat if political power is economically impotent? Force (that is, state power) is also an economic power!” Conversely, anarchists reply, why fight for “the political dictatorship of the proletariat” when you yourself admit that the state can become “independent” of the classes you claim it represents? Particularly when you increase its potential for becoming independent by centralising it even more and giving it economic powers to complement its political ones!” [AFAQ H3.9]

Even more evidence that Marx and Engels weren’t socialists, but state capitalists is that Engels thought the development of the nation state was a progressive thing (despite him writing elsewhere that the state was “at best an evil”): “There is no country in Europe which does not have in some corner or other one or several ruined fragments of peoples (Völkerruinen), the remnant of a former population that was suppressed and held in bondage by the nation which later became the main vehicle of historical development. These relics of a nation mercilessly trampled under foot in the course of history, as Hegel says, these residual fragments of peoples (Völkerabfälle) always become fanatical standard-bearers of counter-revolution and remain so until their complete extirpation or loss of their national character, just as their whole existence in general is itself a protest against a great historical revolution.” In all, I think they were enamored of the state and wanted to get rid of capitalism so that the state could be the dominant force in society once more. They probably felt like Lenin* did that their ‘socialism’ will unleash the state’s fullest potential; that socialism is the state reaching its true form.

*“And this can be done by utilizing the achievements already made by large-scale capitalism (in the same way as the proletarian revolution can, in general, reach its goal only by utilizing these achievements) …The big banks are the ‘state apparatus’ which we need to bring about socialism, and which we take ready-made from capitalism; our task here is merely to lop off what capitalistically mutilates this excellent apparatus, to make it even bigger, even more democratic, even more comprehensive. We can “lay hold of” and “set in motion” this “state apparatus” (which is not fully a state apparatus under capitalism, but which will be so with us under socialism) at one stroke.”

The October Revolution: A Classic Case of Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

As the world marks the centenary of the October Revolution, it is crucial for the creation of a better world that everyone be disabused of what Alexander Berkman coined the Bolshevik Myth—that is, the notion that the Bolshevik takeover of Russia constituted a shining success for socialism which would serve as the template for every other revolution. “It is imperative,” wrote Berkman, “to unmask the great delusion, which otherwise might lead the Western workers to the same abyss as their brothers in Russia.” In addition to this, I’d contend that the most pernicious and insidious aspect of this myth is the generally accepted convention that the Bolsheviks were even socialists. Karl Marx said we must judge people not by what they say but by their actions and the Bolsheviks’ actions were perplexing and counter-productive for so-called socialists who supposedly sought a society run by the workers. They managed to dismantle all the socialist institutions that had been developing since the February Revolution of earlier that year, as Noam Chomsky sums up in Understanding Power:

“In the stages leading up to the Bolshevik coup in October 1917, there were incipient socialist institutions developing in Russia–workers’ councils, collectives, things like that. And they survived to an extent once the Bolsheviks took over–but not for very long; Lenin and Trotsky pretty much eliminated them as they consolidated their power. I mean, you can argue about the justification for eliminating them, but the fact is that the socialist initiatives were pretty quickly eliminated.”

Now why on earth would any socialist worth their salt destroy all the authentically socialist work done by the people and replace it with an economic system that fused capitalism with the state? The Bolshevik rationalization for their blatantly anti-socialist deeds was because, as Vladimir Lenin wrote, “State capitalism is a complete material preparation for socialism, the threshold of socialism, a rung on the ladder of history between which and the rung called socialism there are no gaps” and socialism “is nothing but the next step forward from state capitalist monopoly.” But why can there be no gaps? Why exactly can’t this stage be skipped over? A stateless, classless society can be reached immediately so the Bolsheviks better have a sound, cogent explanation for undoing socialist progress.

It wasn’t for reasons of inadequate economic development or for security concerns—the handy, standard excuses trotted out by modern-day Bolshevik apologists—that the jump to socialism couldn’t be made, as Lenin candidly admitted “The economic power in the hands of the proletarian state of Russia is quite adequate to ensure the transition to communism” and that the abolition of antagonistic classes—“ousting the landowners and the capitalists”–was “something we accomplished with comparative ease.” Lenin’s grand excuse to not build actual socialism was because the Bolsheviks needed to win the peasants to their side (as if peasants weren’t already socialist in their predilections) and have a socialist culture instilled within them because they (for some inexplicable reason) had to be weaned off the capitalism to which they were supposedly traditionally accustomed, and have it demonstrated to them that state capitalism is superior.

“Our aim is to restore the link, to prove to the peasant by deeds that we are beginning with what is intelligible, familiar and immediately accessible to him, in spite of his poverty, and not with some thing remote and fantastic from the peasant’s point of view. We must prove that we can help him and that in this period, when the small peasant is in a state of appalling ruin, impoverishment and starvation, the Communists are really helping him. Either we prove that, or he will send us to the devil. That is absolutely inevitable…We must organise things in such a way as to make possible the customary operation of capitalist economy and capitalist exchange, because this is essential for the people. Without it, existence is impossible…Cast off the tinsel, the festive communist garments, learn a simple thing simply, and we shall beat the private capitalist. We possess political power; we possess a host of economic weapons. If we beat capitalism and create a link with peasant farming we shall become an absolutely invincible power. Then the building of socialism will not be the task of that drop in the ocean, called the Communist Party, but the task of the entire mass of the working people. Then the rank-and-file peasants will see that we are helping them and they will follow our lead. …The chief thing the people, all the working people, want today is nothing but help in their desperate hunger and need; they want to be shown that the improvement needed by the peasants is really taking place in the form they are accustomed to. The peasant knows and is accustomed to the market and trade. We were unable to introduce direct communist distribution. We lacked the factories and their equipment for this. That being the case, we must provide the peasants with what they need through the medium of trade, and provide it as well as the capitalist did, otherwise the people will not tolerate such an administration.”

And Lenin got all this from Marx himself: “or the proletariat…must as government take measures through which the peasant finds his condition immediately improved, so as to win him for the revolution; measures which will at least provide the possibility of easing the transition from private ownership of land to collective ownership, so that the peasant arrives at this of his own accord, from economic reasons.”

Strange that Marx and Lenin believed that peasants had to be enticed into socialism when peasants had revolted in the past for egalitarianism and their communalist traditions. Didn’t Engels rave about Thomas Muntzer and the Peasant War in Germany? It was a glaring error (and perhaps a deliberately malicious one) by them to assume that peasants were wedded to capitalism. Peasants were resisting the encroachment of capitalism as late as the early Twentieth Century. In footnote 77 of chapter 1 of David Szatmary’s Shay’s Rebellion, we are given this example: “Similarly Daniel Chriot and Charles Ragin, “The Market, Tradition, and Peasant Rebellion; The Case of Romania in 1907,” locate the roots of the 1907 Romanian peasant uprising in the reaction of “the strong residual peasant traditionalism” against the “rapid penetration of market forces.” So why did socialism have to wait until they were “transformed and re-educated only by means of very prolonged, slow, and cautious organizational work”? What could the ‘vanguard’ Bolsheviks possibly have had to teach them? The refinement of their socialist instincts would not have taken very long at all, much less a protracted process of indefinite length. There was no need to postpone socialism and arguing that it had to be on these deeply mistaken grounds is all the evidence I need to aver that the Bolsheviks–and all proponents of ‘socialism from above’–are not socialists.

Large Societies Are No Barrier To Egalitarianism

Since Professor Peter Turchin’s stance on hierarchical organization actually approximates anarchism’s, I didn’t address his critique of anarchism but will do so now as I feel it to be a fruitful exercise. So here’s why he believes that the anarchist goal “that our societies should dispense with the state and the ruling elites, and then everything will be right in the world”  amounts to no more than “a pipe dream”:

“The most productive way to think about hierarchy is that, first, it’s a general social law (sometimes known as the Iron Law of Oligarchy). Complex societies inevitably acquire hierarchies and elites (remember, the elites are the small proportion of population who concentrate the social power in their hands). But second, although we are stuck with hierarchies, they come in all kinds of flavors. There are good hierarchies, and there are bad hierarchies. The elites can behave either in a pro-social way, which benefits broad segments of the population. Or they can act in ways that only advance their own selfish interests. We, the 99 percent, collectively have a say in what kinds of elites we are going to have. At least, in principle. In practice, it may be difficult to generate concerted political action that could restrain elites to behave in pro-social ways. New developments in information and communication technologies may give us better tools for organizing and getting things done.” [Good Hierarchy, Bad Hierarchy]

“There are no known large-scale (say, a million or more members) society today or in history, which was not organized hierarchically. Think about it this way. There is no large-scale society that doesn’t have full-time administrators devoted to make it run smoothly. We all hate bureaucrats, but the truth is that we cannot live without a bureaucracy. The same is true for the elites. So, is it possible to dispense with the hierarchy (and bureaucracy) by going back to small-societies? In theory, yes. But, as I pointed out in my BBC interview, think of the consequences. Let’s say that we somehow manage to get a society of a few thousand to work on a purely egalitarian basis. Theoretically this is possible. But there are more than 7 billion people on this Earth. So dividing them into small-scale societies of a few thousand will produce at least a million of such societies! What’s going to happen next? One of them will decide to use violence to achieve its goals. Warfare will spread and eventually all societies will become warlike, because pacifist societies will be selected out (in other words, destroyed in competition with warlike neighbors). So, in the absence of an overarching political authority capable of restraining and punishing aggressors, we will inevitably end up with a war of all small-scale societies against all others.” [The Pipe Dream of Anarcho-Populism]

There can be no complex society without bureaucracy or elites? History doesn’t bear out this contention, as Peter Gelderloos’ writes in Worshiping Power:

Before colonization, the [Iroqouis] confederation was “characterized by a complicated and efficient system of organization of the society which functioned, however, without any bureaucratic government institutions, retaining its egalitarian traditions and having no pronounced hierarchies” … At its height (between 2600 and 1900 BCE), the civilization had a population of some five million people living in half a dozen cities—such as Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro—and over a thousand towns and villages. It made up a world system together with its trading partner, ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Of these, the Indus Valley civilization was the largest. And in contrast to the other two, it was probably stateless. No solid evidence has been found of kings, priests, armies, temples, or palaces…If this is indeed a case of an anarchic society with a high population density, it might be possible that collectively (and violently) enforced social norms were in place, leading to a decentralized practice of killing authoritarian would-be leaders as well as people engaging in behaviors perceived as anti-social such as murder, rape, or theft…Constituting another achievement for statelessness, the Indus Valley civilization was in many ways the most technologically advanced of the ancient world, they distributed their wealth in a relatively equal manner, and evidently they did not resort to slavery, religion, or aggressive warfare.”

As for Turchin pointing out that decentralization would create scads of societies, well, aren’t there already millions of cities and towns? Don’t these already constitute small-scale societies? They are currently joined together artificially to make a colossal social network by states but such a union could and would remain under anarchism—just reconstructed from the bottom-up. Communities would freely federate with one another because the whole point of political decentralization is autonomy, not isolation. Also, who said anarchist societies would be pacifist or tolerate any resurgence of archism? Errico Malatesta found it risible for opponents of anarchist to think “that anarchists, in the name of their principles, would wish to see that strange freedom respected which violates and destroys the freedom and life of others. They seem almost to believe that after having brought down government and private property we would allow both to be quietly built up again, because of respect for the freedom of those who might feel the need to be rulers and property owners. A truly curious way of interpreting our ideas.” You wouldn’t need coercive political authority to suppress any aspiring authoritarians within a society or defeat external, archist aggressors but rather a culture of anarchist egalitarianism—i.e. an even stronger version of the hunter-gatherer’s culture of egalitarianism. In all, I’d say it’s completely feasible for societies to have both complex, large-scale societies and egalitarianism if there is a culture of what anthropologist Christopher Boehm labeled “reverse dominance.”

Make ‘Hierarchy’ Neutral Again

Nick Hanauer–more jittery than ever about the fate of plutocrats in the aftermath of Trump’s election since this means “now the pitchforks are coming for us, my friends, from both the right and the left”–is again peddling minimum wage hikes to begin curing the disease of “radical, rising economic inequality” that is eating away at the U.S.’s social cohesion. He warns us that, if left untreated, this breakdown will inescapably lead to a repeat of the War Between the States:

“My own ideas about the effect of inequality on social instability align with the work of social scientist Peter Turchin. He and his collaborators use mathematical models to study the rise and fall of societies—an analysis that postulates a new American civil war arriving as soon as 2021.”

Turchin, in a response to Hanauer’s piece, agrees with him but doesn’t think higher minimum wage will fully eradicate the pathogens that afflict us:

“First, I’d use the term “immiseration” rather than “inequality.” Most Americans, including myself and (I am sure) Nick, don’t want radical egalitarianism. Some degree of inequality is fair. Of course, the level of inequality in the US is way, way above what the great majority of Americans consider as fair. But it’s worse than that. As Nick says later in the article, the growing inequality is resulting in declining well-being of large swaths of American population–in absolute terms. The technical term for this is immiseration. Second, as our historical research shows, popular immiseration is only of the general factors that drive political instability. The other, and in many ways more important one, is intra-elite conflict… What it all means is that the main threat to the American elites are not the “miserables”, but frustrated elite aspirants, who have always been the primary moving force behind revolutions and civil wars. It will be not peasants with pitchforks, but the Revolutionary Tribunal commissars with Mausers… This [minimum wage rising] is a great start, but it’s not enough. The fundamental social process that drives both immiseration and intra-elite conflict is the massive oversupply of labor that developed in the United States over the past 30–40 years…Something must be done about recovering the balance between the number of people who want jobs and the number of jobs available for them. And then there is the second problem of elite overproduction. These are all massive problems and I don’t have ready answers or solutions. Yet there are things that a group of researchers and policy experts can do—and the American elites can help fund it.”

But there is an obvious solution to intra-elite competition–one that Turchin refuses to contemplate because he takes “radical egalitarianism” off the table—and that is to get rid of the elites or, in other words, anarchism. Turchin and his proposed Foundation-ish conclave of stuffy academicians could study Structural-Demographic Theory for a thousand years and still not discover an alternate remedy to the cycle of conflict caused by class systems. The ironic thing is that although Turchin has criticized anarchism, elsewhere in his work he’s favorably expressed ideas that mesh well with anarchism:

“The group size grows by adding additional hierarchical levels. So far so good, but the great downside of hierarchical organization is that it inevitably leads to inequality. Once you allow a leader to order everybody around, he will use the power to feather his nest. This is sometimes known as the iron law of oligarchy…Thus, although highly effective on the battlefield, a centralized military hierarchy has several drawbacks as a general way of organizing societies. [Z-Curve]  …“This is a hierarchical organization in its neutral, informational (or, as my father would say, cybernetic) sense, which should not be confused with ‘hierarchy’ in its negative sense, that is, unequal distribution of power…The problem, of course, is that as soon as you put someone in a central position of a decision-making network, you give them a lot of structural power, and they can, and often will, attempt to convert it into more malignant forms of power: ability to order others around, and acquisition of a disproportionate amount of resources. If there are no effective checks on leaders, then hierarchy breeds inequality…Hierarchy (in its neutral sense) is the only way to organize large-scale societies. In itself, it’s not a bad thing. Abuse of power and gross inequality are unquestionably a bad thing. Evolution has been working to eliminate the worst excesses, but we need to help it along…So, what we need is not less hierarchy, but more control over our leaders to ensure that they govern for the collective good, rather than for selfish needs of themselves and their cronies. How we achieve this end is a big question, to which I don’t have a ready answer” [The Evolution of Hierarchy]

Opposing “gross inequality” and power disparities? Effective checks on leaders so they can only reflect the interest of the people they represent? With positions like these, how can Turchin have any issues with anarchism? It could stem a misconception Turchin has about anarchism–i.e. that it is opposed to all organization—or it could be that the differences he has with anarchism boils down to a matter of semantics. Anarchists wouldn’t object to neutral hierarchy, which sounds very similar—if not identical–to the bottom-up federations which they advocate but they’d never call such an arrangement a hierarchy. I, too, would agree that neutral hierarchy ought to be called something else because the etymology of the word ‘hierarchy’ implies sacred rule but, again, semantics. As for how to guard against negative hierarchy and snuff out the pretensions of would-be rulers, I think the ready answer here would be a revival of the “culture of egalitarianism” that was practiced by hunter-gatherer societies—updated and strengthened by anarchist thought. If we’re ever going to have truly stable societies–ones that aren’t trapped in an endless ‘rise-fall’ pattern–this is the direction we have to go.

Are You a Liberal? You Have an Inner Trump

In The Empire Strikes Back, part of Luke Skywalker’s training to become a Jedi involved a trial where he had to go into a cave imbued with the dark side of the Force. While there he fights a mirage of Darth Vader, decapitates it, and the fallen helmet explodes revealing Luke’s own face. Luke was taken aback and it must have been a sobering moment for him as he realized that his failure in this test of his mettle meant that until he could control the Force properly–and not give in to anger, fear, and aggression, which are manifestations of its dark side–he was deep down the same as the foe he hated. I was reminded of that scene and its larger lesson when perusing articles about Steve Bannon’s worldview and realized that his position on immigration is of a piece with the intolerance of Lockean liberalism for the “unnatural man.” It’s ironic since liberalism is typically lampooned as being tolerant to the point of lunacy but that’s far from true. As William Appleman Williams explains in Contours of American History, liberalism was formulated by John Locke as an intolerant, close-minded, and authoritarian ideology:

“Locke’s broad defense of the existing state as a trustee for society and his harsh judgment on those who did not behave as natural men served to justify the status quo and invest its defenders with an enthusiasm which often transformed them into righteous crusaders against social innovation and new ideas … Locke undercut the very individualism he proclaimed so loudly. He defined the relationship between the state and the individual in such a way that the individual was in reality charged with justifying his resistance to the state instead of the state being held strictly accountable to the individual according to a corporate value system. This was nothing new, for Hobbes and others had advanced similar arguments before the Revolution, but Locke sustained the tradition while clothing it in liberal rhetoric. Going even further in this direction, Locke defined the natural man as one who did not cause trouble by asserting and acting on different standards. This axiom extensively reinforced the authoritarian bias of his philosophy. For by this reasoning it became unnatural to exercise one’s individuality in a manner or for a purpose which conflicted with the accepted norms. While it is true that these limits may be broad, and may even be extended under the circumstances of an expanding or secure empire, it is also true that they became progressively narrower under less permissive conditions. And at that point, unfortunately, conformity becomes, with Locke’s philosophy, the only acceptable form that responsibility can assume… Men were justified, said Locke, in criticizing the existing state of affairs in the name of this individualism but when they did so from any other point of view they became unnatural men and hence beyond the pale… “God gave the world to men in common,” Locke admitted, “[but] He gave it to the use of the industrious and rational, not to the fancy or covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious.” … For Locke, therefore, individualism was a right and a liberty reserved for those who accepted a status quo defined by a certain set of natural truths agreed upon by a majority. Within such a framework, and it is a far narrower set of limits than it appears at first glance, the natural laws of property and labor were deemed sufficient to guide men’s pursuit of happiness.”

That Steve Bannon is faithfully following in Locke’s footsteps can be easily seen here:

“People who do not sign off on this set of shared values [Judeo-Christian nationalism] should not be welcome in the US. This logic forms the basis of Bannon’s opposition to immigrants, whose lack of democratic “DNA,” he believes, will harm society. “These are not Jeffersonian democrats,” Bannon said last year, referring to immigrants heading from Muslim majority countries to Europe, USA Today reported. “These are not people with thousands of years of democracy in their DNA coming up here.”

So Bannon is well within the liberal tradition in his aversion to allowing into the country certain immigrants who won’t accept the American status quo. This means that former CIA director Micahel Morell was also wrong when he asserted that President Donald Trump’s attempt to restrict immigration from Muslim nations is an action “which so clearly contradicts the foundational values of our nation” when Lockean liberalism was the ideology of the Founding Fathers. Trump’s ban might be imprudent or unnecessary but it would in no way contravene liberalism.

To finish off with another film analogy, Bannon and Trump (and other right-wing liberals like them) are like Colonel Jessup in A Few Good Men only instead of saying “You want me on that wall! You need me on that wall!” they would change this to “You want me preserving the United States as a capitalist republic! You need me protecting liberalism from the illiberal, unnatural men!” and liberals would have no choice but to yield to this reasoning. They couldn’t disavow Bannon and Trump without disavowing Locke. At that point, liberals would realize that–like how Luke Skywalker had an inner Darth Vader–they have an inner Donald Trump

Bannon and Trump Joined in Mercantilism

When Steve Bannon was in President Trump’s crosshairs a couple months ago and it looked as if he was going to receive the Apprentice reject treatment the question was how different would Trump’s agenda become if Bannon was kicked to the curb. It was generally agreed that not much would change because, as Perry Bacon Jr. pointed out, Trump was the way he was before Bannon climbed aboard the campaign. Indeed, Trump and Bannon have a shared mercantilist view of capitalism and that’s why they hit it off and have meshed so well. In a 2014 speech at the Vatican, Bannon described the “enlightened capitalism” he espouses, which echoes the mercantilist concern with the sense of mutual obligation and responsibility between countrymen and, consequently, the distribution of wealth for the general welfare:

“I want to talk about wealth creation and what wealth creation really can achieve and maybe take it in a slightly different direction, because I believe the world, and particularly the Judeo-Christian West, is in a crisis… This will be looked at almost as a new Dark Age. But the thing that got us out of it, the organizing principle that met this, was not just the heroism of our people…that fought this great war… The underlying principle is an enlightened form of capitalism, that capitalism really gave us the wherewithal. It kind of organized and built the materials needed to support, whether it’s the Soviet Union, England, the United States, and eventually to take back continental Europe and to beat back a barbaric empire in the Far East. That capitalism really generated tremendous wealth. And that wealth was really distributed among a middle class, a rising middle class, people who come from really working-class environments and created what we really call a Pax Americana… And I believe we’ve come partly offtrack in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union and we’re starting now in the 21st century, which I believe, strongly, is a crisis both of our church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, a crisis of capitalism… Now, what I mean by that specifically: I think that you’re seeing three kinds of converging tendencies: One is a form of capitalism that is taken away from the underlying spiritual and moral foundations of Christianity and, really, Judeo-Christian belief. I see that every day. I’m a very practical, pragmatic capitalist… I was as hard-nosed a capitalist as you get…But there’s a strand of capitalism today—two strands of it, that are very disturbing. One is state-sponsored capitalism… where you have this kind of crony capitalism of people that are involved with these military powers-that-be in the government, and it forms a brutal form of capitalism that is really about creating wealth and creating value for a very small subset of people. And it doesn’t spread the tremendous value creation throughout broader distribution patterns that were seen really in the 20th century… However, that [Randian Objectivist] form of capitalism is quite different when you really look at it to what I call the “enlightened capitalism” of the Judeo-Christian West. It is a capitalism that really looks to make people commodities, and to objectify people, and to use them almost—as many of the precepts of Marx… I think it really behooves all of us to really take a hard look and make sure that we are reinvesting that [wealth] back into positive things.”

Bannon was right to think that capitalism went off the rails after the dissolution of the Soviet Union because, as David Graeber points out, the generous post-war era capitalism that Bannon lauds shared the wealth as much as it did due to the ideological Cold War challenge of Bolshevism:

“The period when capitalism seemed capable of providing broad and spreading prosperity was also, precisely, the period when capitalists felt they were not the only game in town: when they faced a global rival in the Soviet bloc, revolutionary anti-capitalist movements from Uruguay to China, and at least the possibility of workers’ uprisings at home. In other words, rather than high rates of growth allowing greater wealth for capitalists to spread around, the fact that capitalists felt the need to buy off at least some portion of the working classes placed more money in ordinary people’s hands, creating increasing consumer demand that was itself largely responsible for the remarkable rates of economic growth that marked capitalism’s “golden age”. Since the 1970s, as any significant political threat has receded, things have gone back to their normal state: that is, to savage inequalities, with a miserly 1% presiding over a social order marked by increasing social, economic and even technological stagnation.”

So the only guaranteed way to get capitalism back on track—where there is a voluntary sharing of wealth to minify the natural, savage inequalities of capitalism—is for there to be an atmosphere where the capitalist class has to battle with antagonists that present economic alternatives. This could explain why Washington has been seeking a replacement ideological Great Power enemy and why Bannon is fixated on hyping up radical Islam as the titanic threat of our time. But such a helpful foe is still nowhere in sight and may never be for, as Graeber notes, “Since no one in their right mind would wish to revive anything like the Soviet Union, we are not going to see anything like the mid-century social democracy created to combat it either.” Bannon’s clarion call for a return to “enlightened capitalism” will hit another snag. Take for example Nick Hanauer’s argument–addressed to his fellow plutocrats–on the benefits of a higher minimum wage to both them and society. While his colleagues in corporate America would agree that Hanauer is technically correct in the short-term, they also know paying their employees more will end up being bad for capitalism in the long run as the working class, enjoying their rising riches, begins to demand more and more. Errico Malatesta summed up the phenomenon thus: “If [workers] succeed in getting what they demand, they will be better off: they will earn more, work fewer hours and will have more time and energy to reflect on things that matter to them, and will immediately make greater demands and have greater needs.” It wouldn’t be long at all before they started demanding the full value of the product of their labor and workplace democracy.

In all, it looks like bad news for Bannon’s dream of reviving “enlightened capitalism” but it’s a grand opportunity—though a nightmarish one in Bannon’s eyes—for us to go beyond capitalism altogether. “If we want an alternative to stagnation, impoverishment and ecological devastation,” concludes Graeber, “we’re just going to have to figure out a way to unplug the machine and start again,” instead of doing what Piketty and Bannon hopes will work—that is, “try to build a slightly smaller vacuum cleaner sucking in the opposite direction” to ineffectively counter a “gigantic vacuum cleaner sucking wealth into the hands of a tiny elite.”

President Trump the Mercantilist?

President Donald Trump’s shtick—during the campaign and now in his presidency–is that he’s all about going to the mat for the Forgotten Americans and to him the marrow of that mission entails tangling with the outsourcing U.S. corporations whose business decisions have left millions with the short, shitty end of the economic stick. To his credit, he has kept his word, utilizing his bully pulpit to condemn and berate domestic companies that hurt the American worker as unpatriotic. Trump’s tongue-lashings have been done with such effectiveness that he has made corporate leaderships uneasy about proceeding with business as usual, as Reuters reported right before his inauguration:

Some U.S. companies are reviewing potential mergers while others are rethinking job cuts or looking at their manufacturing operations in China for fear of being cast as “anti-American” by President-elect Donald Trump, according to Wall Street bankers, company executives and crisis management consultants. Having seen some of America’s largest companies, including General Motors Co, Lockheed Martin Corp and United Technologies Corp, bluntly and publicly rebuked by Trump on Twitter, many others are worried they may be his next target–especially if they have significant overseas manufacturing, have had U.S. job cuts or price increases for consumers. “Any business that leaves our country for another country, fires its employees, builds a new factory or plant in the other country, and then thinks it will sell its product back into the U.S. without retribution or consequence is WRONG!” Trump tweeted in December… Government relations and public relations advisers say they have received a number of calls from companies wanting help in assessing if they have any red flags that could draw Trump’s ire. Advisers say these potentially include outsourcing of manufacturing, consumer price increases and lower tax rates than peer companies… Corporate leaders, say the advisers, can no longer focus only on maximizing shareholder value; they must now also weigh national interest. “CEOs are talking to their boards saying we’ve got to be viewed pro-America. If something is more on the margin–like layoffs, or moving manufacturing, then they are not going to do it,” said one Fortune 500 CEO, who said he had spoken with other U.S. companies…”You never want to be against the president–especially not one as vocal as (Trump),” the Fortune 500 CEO said.

Many must wonder at Trump–a billionaire businessman who has himself been guilty of the business practices he now attacks passionately–becoming the punisher of corporate America but it’s understandable when one considers that Trump takes a wide-ranging view of capitalism. Thanks to financial capitalists being the predominant capitalist faction and taking the wheel of the U.S. economy for decades, Trump’s thinking likely goes, the capitalist system as a whole became badly out of whack and by restoring his capitalist sect to its proper place he will reorient it and prudent, responsible capitalists will take the reins once more. He knows, as OECD Chief Economist Pier Carlo Padoan said at Davos back in 2012, that “Rising inequality is one of the major risks to our future prosperity and security,” and consequently that “The main challenge facing governments today is implementing reforms that get growth back on track, put people to work and reduce the widening income gap.” He knows that, according to an opinion poll Former White House aide Larry Summers once cited, “40 percent of Americans no longer have a positive opinion of capitalism” and he believes, like Summers, that “the crisis of confidence in the system could be addressed with sufficient fiscal and monetary stimulus to kick-start growth.”

Trump’s strategy for pumping the sorely needed money back into the U.S. economy is to browbeat his elite peers and be the boot in the ass that they need to recognize the same truths he does, which will spur them to voluntarily re-invest their wealth here at home and accept tax hikes that will give the middle class a helping hand. It’s not like the money for the public betterment can’t be easily obtained—the elite could simply dip into their fund of trillions that they have squirreled away through tax evasion.

Given that Trump’s modus operandi is to balance interests of particular groups so as to ensure the stability of the entire economy, I asked myself–does President Trump fit the description of a mercantilist? Mercantilism is an older form of capitalism that was understood by mercantilists themselves as transcending economics and embracing a social order that is ever striving to achieve the common good.* We can judge by this passage from William Appleman Willliams’ Contours of American History [Page 35] if mercantilism is comparable to Trump’s outlook:

“Should the merchants be allowed to run unchecked with no effort being made to control and balance the economic changes and the social consequences which followed in the wake of their activities? From almost every point of view, the answer supplied by England’s existing traditions was negative…he [the king] could neither risk unlimited power in the hands of the merchants per se nor the probability of their excesses provoking rebellion in the lower classes (and in the old agrarian aristocracy). From the economic angle, untrammeled freedom for the merchants did not produce general economic improvement. Food production, for example, was sadly neglected in the rush to wool-raising and mining. Finally, even the merchants came to realize that they had to have a more unified and balanced society in order to attract other segments of society to support the Crown in undertakings that would help them to expand their overseas operations. It should be apparent, therefore, that mercantilism was anything but the narrow ideology of the commercial interest, for while it stressed the need for trade and was supported by the merchants, it defined the problem as one of directing such activity so as to produce the common good.”

Personally, I think Trump being a mercantilist checks out and would unriddle the worldview of a man so baffling to so many analysts.

* “Both men [John Quincy Adams and James Monroe] realized that there was more to mercantilism than economics. Monroe persisted in his conviction that “one system” of interrelated and balanced parts would accomplish “great national purposes” and “promote the welfare of the whole people.” Contours, 209

Donald Trump and the Clash of Capitalists

The LA Times, in part two of its six-part series of articles pummeling President Trump, seems to echo my point that he is the Figurehead-in-Chief, a conduit through which others can work their agendas and that contributes no input of its own: “Trump’s easy embrace of untruth can sometimes be entertaining…But he is not merely amusing. He is dangerous. His choice of falsehoods and his method of spewing them…are a clue to Trump’s thought processes and perhaps his lack of agency. He gives every indication that he is as much the gullible tool of liars as he is the liar in chief. He has made himself the stooge, the mark, for every crazy blogger, political quack, racial theorist, foreign leader or nutcase peddling a story that he might repackage to his benefit as a tweet, an appointment, an executive order or a policy.” Saying that Trump lacks agency is largely true but it would be a bit uncharitable, however, to claim that he’s a totally blank slate because he did, after all, have both a paramount political strategy and an economic worldview that motivated him enough to hop into politics.

His political goal was to become the Populist Pied Piper, using the credibility he gained from his campaign’s supporters to become a highly-influential pundit who winds up taking the wind out of populism’s sails. That he still sees himself as playing this role as President helps make even more sense of why Trump oddly dropped the ball on the rollout of his agenda. By trying to ram his policies through Washington the way a true uncompromising outsider populist would, Trump’s intention was to provide the ultimate teachable moment for his followers. He would then point to the ineffectiveness of the hasty, haphazard, and thoroughly anti-establishment method of enacting his campaign platform along with how disastrous the fallout from those failed attempts was and conclude that these ideas were crude, ill-considered, and should be either watered-down or abandoned. Changing to a centrist tack after this initial flubbing (which Trump has done) would be a subliminal admission that populism doesn’t work and that making America great again would have to be done through the art of the deal, negotiating with the unsavory D.C. swamp creatures.

In addition to derailing populism, Trump is also using populism to help restore a particular sect of capitalists to their former prominence, as Benjamin Waterhouse illustrates:

“Trumponomics presents a conundrum: One of the wealthiest human beings on earth seems to be cribbing from the Occupy Wall Street playbook… How can we make sense of this populist mogul? Is the consummate one-percenter a new kind of Republican? History suggests no. Trump is not a new kind of conservative. But he is a specific type of one-percenter. (Really, 1 percent of 1 percent of 1 percent) From where the rest of us sit, all billionaires tend to look alike. But now, as in the past, divisions within the economic elite can be fierce, with enormous political consequences. As a real-estate developer, Trump has a different set of material interests than, for example, the Wall Street investors he maligns with such glee. To understand his economic populism, we have to grapple with the long history of the fractious business elite. The myth of a unified business community is a powerful one in American history. But it is also largely false. More often than not, competing economic interests have clashed fiercely over the vital issues of the day—from Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson’s ferocious battles over imposing protective tariffs to the tumultuous fights over airline industry deregulation in the 1970s. (The big carriers fought for the regulations!) The history of capitalism suggests that sector-on-sector political fighting has been most pronounced when the economy underwent profound structural changes. The rise of industrial capitalism created just such a destabilizing moment. Early factory owners cast themselves as virtuous “producers”—unlike the usurious entrenched wealth of the merchant, banking and slave-holding classes. In the 1830s, President Andrew Jackson declared war on the Bank of the United States because, as the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., put it, “no institution played a more important role in transferring wealth from the producing class to accumulators.” As industrial capitalism expanded, its practitioners grew bolder in challenging the old order… In the past 40 years or so, the mass consumption industrial economy of the post-World War II era has given way to something new—often called “financialization.” Today, investment and financial speculation generate greater profits than manufacturing, natural resource extraction or service provision. Financial institutions and the elites who run them have become the faces of Big Business, replacing the once-mighty CEOs of U.S. Steel, DuPont and General Motors, who dominated at mid-century. As early as the 1980s, old-guard industrial executives noted the perils of this transition. In 1987, the Business Roundtable—a consortium of Fortune 500 firms—spoke out loudly against corporate raiders, leveraged buy-outs and short-term stock price manipulation, which have now become the mainstays of the modern economy. Many members of the Business Roundtable banded together in the “Coalition to Stop the Raid on America,” a bipartisan campaign for tougher regulations of hostile takeovers. Financialization is the capitalist disruption of our era, and it is the root of Trump’s economic message. Just as his position on immigration recalls an idealized, earlier (and whiter) America, so too does his attack on Wall Street and global corporations reflect a deeply conservative longing for a bygone epoch in American capitalism. An era when the United States dominated global manufacturing as Europe and Asia dug out from the rubble of war. An era when Big Business didn’t mean investment banks and hedge funds. When it meant domestic production—of steel to make buildings with and airplanes to fly. When business looked…more like him … His economic identity may make him an unlikely champion of a pre-financialized mode of capitalism. But since luxury hotel construction can’t be easily outsourced—and Trump can invoke the classic manufacturer’s claim of “making,” not “taking”—he has nothing to lose by calling out the hedge fund managers. Trump’s anti-elitism is neither crass pandering nor a betrayal of his class. Instead, his politics are of a piece with a long history of in-fighting among business elites as well as a nostalgic campaign to revive an older economy, to “make America great again.”

Trump has long been awake to the dangers of this shift to the primacy of finance capitalism and of neoliberal globalism run amok and wishes to reverse this trend, not just so his type of businessmen get their status back and get wealthier to boot, but because, if it’s not checked, the economic status quo poses an existential threat to capitalism as a whole. I can imagine that the 2008 financial crisis was the final straw for a man who has had presidential ambitions for decades. So, Trump is out to try to make capitalism responsible again–an eternal struggle because it’s impossible for capitalists to be responsible when capitalism relies on constant growth no matter what. Saving capitalism from itself usually requires an external force–like the state–to rein it in but Trump must believe that the solution can come from within the capitalist class. In this manner, Trump can be thought of as a pragmatic plutocrat like Nick Hanuer who advocate policies where the upper class voluntarily sacrifices slightly to stave off the rabble grabbing their torches and pitchforks. All told, I’d still agree that Trump is mostly a figurehead but he nonetheless has an ambitious vision that he will cling to and strive towards even if he isn’t quite sure how to get there yet.

The President Has No Clothes

The 2016 presidential election boasted the two most unpopular candidates in U.S. history and I’m sure many disgusted voters wished they could both lose. Well, in a sense, they have because Trump will not be fulfilling the role of Chief Executive. Instead, he will be content to play the part of America’s first figurehead president, as was his intention all along. The New York Times reported that during Trump’s search for a running mate, his son, Donald Trump Jr., allegedly made the offer to a senior advisor of dropped-out presidential candidate John Kasich by asking if Kasich had “any interest in being the most powerful vice president in history.” When the advisor sought clarification about what exactly that meant, Trump Jr. replied that “his father’s vice president would be in charge of domestic and foreign policy” while Trump himself would have the sinecure-sounding job of “Making America great again.” Naturally, Trump Jr. denied this exchange took place but, from what I’ve seen of the Trump presidency, I’d say there’s good reason to believe it was true.

But now, one might ask, doesn’t Trump’s burst of activity since his swearing in refute the notion that he’s an empty suit? I’d counter that by noting how Trump has actually accomplished little and that his status quo-shifting policies have yet to become reality. Anyone who doubts this will be disabused by Zack Karabell’s piece “President Trump has done almost nothing”, the following excerpt of which sums up the case nicely:

“There is a wide gap, a chasm even, between what the administration has said and what it has done. There have been 45 executive orders or presidential memoranda signed, which may seem like a lot but lags President Barack Obama’s pace. More crucially, with the notable exception of the travel ban, almost none of these orders have mandated much action or clear change of current regulations. So far, Trump has behaved exactly like he has throughout his previous career: He has generated intense attention and sold himself as a man of action while doing little other than promote an image of himself as someone who gets things done. It is the illusion of a presidency, not the real thing… Trump can issue as many documents called executive orders and presidential memoranda as he wants. As the fate of the travel ban shows, however, that doesn’t mean that even the more meaningful ones are actionable, and the preponderance of the orders to date would in any other administration have been news releases stating broad policy goals that may or may not ever become actual policy.”

The illusion of a presidency—that’s just what Trump needs to sustain if he wants to escape his term without having to implement populist policies that, as a globalist, he never had any intention of delivering on. Every move that the White House has made–and will make–can therefore be best explained by the Trumpian tightrope act where because he branded himself as a fiery outsider–utterly unlike the typical insincere politician–who would shake up Washington for the sake of the forgotten Americans he cannot simply ditch his populist campaign promises but nor does he want to fulfill them and do harm to globalization. But President Trump has found how to maintain the balance and not alienate either side—i.e. he can appear to be trying to make good on his campaign promises but do so in a consciously clumsy and madcap manner that will see these attempts fail in the end. The most conspicuous instance of this was the travel ban and the recklessness with which it was rolled out—almost as if President Trump, in an act of self-sabotage, went out of his way to botch it so that it would become both widely unpopular and legally untenable. Then there’s the added bonus of Trump seeming to adhere to his campaign platform spooking the Democrats and spurring them into becoming obstructionists, as Edward-Isaac Dovere writes:

“Trump’s executive order banning immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries—one of his most controversial and widely dismissed campaign promises—has sparked a panic among his critics about what else President Trump might actually do: create a Muslim registry, deport undocumented immigrant children, try to take oil from ISIS or kill terrorists’ families. Those campaign promises were all laughed off and dismissed by many, just like when he tweeted about sending federal enforcement into Chicago or stripping flag burners of their citizenship—or even changing libel laws to sue reporters or throwing Hillary Clinton in jail. “I was one of the folks that had hoped that he was just saying things to get elected and that he didn’t really believe in them,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), who after the election sent an email to his supporters urging them to move past the election and be proud of a peaceful transfer of power. “I’m now convinced that I was wrong. We should not give him a chance to govern. I believe he is a danger to the republic.”

Getting the Democrats to rally together and block most of Trump’s agenda would suit him perfectly, especially if all these executive orders re-energize the Democrats to the point where they win the Congressional midterms in 2018.

In all, I think it can be confidently asserted that President Trump, like the emperor in the fable, has no clothes and, moreover, that he knows it and isn’t inwardly bothered by being in the (figurative) buff. As I wrote before, Trump never wanted the presidency and so he likely wants to coast through his time in office, do nothing that rocks the ship of state, and wind up with an okay rating of his performance by historians.