Navigating the Spectacle

My criticisms of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (and George Bush and Bill Clinton before them) treat these politicians as personifications of the establishment, which, theorized in greater detail below, is the prevailing network of elites and offices managing global capitalism. Capitalist globalization is the great evil of our day. It is the primary cause of resource depletion, environmental destruction, falling standards of living, and failing welfare states, and plays a major role in the spread of Islam, an ideology destructive to democracy and human rights. Skeptical of multiculturalism, immigration, transnational trade and blocs, and interventionist foreign policy, the presidency of Donald Trump is a disruptive, albeit probably steerable element in the globalist project. Anxiety among elites helps motivate public hostility towards the Trump presidency, concerns disguised as popular appeal and effectively conveyed to the masses through the corporate media, a mechanism the success of which rests on a broad-based conditioned response.

These points are not an endorsement of the Trump presidency. Although not the fascist many would liken the public to believe, Trump is authoritarian (a result of his business style, and, in this way, he is no different than most business leaders), a nationalist, racially prejudiced, and a sexist. To be sure, his conservatism is moderated by some long-held liberal opinions, but opportunism makes liberal attitudes expendable. He is loathsome person and far from an ideal political figure, or even a practical one, for those committed to left-wing politics. The points I make here aim to elucidate the underpinnings of the culture of outrage that has grown up around Trump and explain why impeaching Trump, aligning the Trump administration with establishment goals, or electing the next Democratic Party nominee are not paths to a lesser evil, but, on the contrary, serve to further entrench and legitimize the establishment project. Instead of seeing the Trump phenomenon as an opportunity to reinforce the hegemony of the two-party system, it should be seen as a moment to theorize the problem of global capitalism and build a mass-based alternative to the status quo, one that eschews identitarianism and puts class politics central to the struggle for justice and liberation. The future of humanity depends on an effective anti-capitalist movement. Anti-Trumpism does not in itself advance the cause of the democratic socialist project (not to be confused with the politics peddled by Bernie Sanders).

The interpretation of establishment behavior presented here is informed by several theoretical insights, primarily Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, which elaborates Marx’s observation that “the ruling ideas of any age are the ideas of the ruling class.” Gramsci conceptualizes hegemony not merely as an exercise in the coercive control of the opposition, but the perpetual manufacture of consent and cultural management of the masses, supporters, and opponents. In Gramsci’s view, the state, in its stable form, is not reducible to government, but is an apparatus that incorporates elements of “political society” – i.e. legislative, executive (bureaucracy), and judicial powers – and “civil society,” or what has traditionally been defined as that network of private institutions, with economic structures, the prevailing mode of production, constituting the network’s foundation. In modern capitalist states, consensus is manufactured primarily in the civil societal region, which distinguishes it from historical (and a handful of present-day) state-managed propaganda systems. Crucially, a Gramscian analysis resists the reification of political economic reality that the analytical distinction between political and civil society risks; which is to say that, in the concrete, political and civil societal dynamics converge and must be analyzed in terms of their intrinsic relations and activities carried out to secure and advance these arrangements. This includes corporate management of political activities (hence the two-party system in the United States).

What the ruling class under capitalism has long recognized is that efficient and comprehensive management of populations requires the manufacturing of the consent of the masses, obtained by permitting limited sharing of the social surplus and participation in political decisions sufficient to convince the majority that they have a stake in conformity and perform a substantive role in the political life of modern bourgeois society.

In theorizing hegemonic power in Western capitalist states, world systems theorist Immanuel Wallerstein reminds us that liberalism and democracy are not twins, but opposites, with liberal democracy facilitating capitalist hegemony by simultaneously extending and managing popular participation in decision making. In an essay published in Peace, Stability, and Legitimacy (1994), he writes that “democracy and liberalism are not twins, but for the most part opposites.  Liberalism was invented to counter democracy  The problem that gave birth to liberalism was how to contain the dangerous classes.” He explains: “The liberal solution was to grant limited access to political power and limited sharing of the economic surplus-value, both at levels that would not threaten the process of the ceaseless accumulation of capital and the state-system that sustains it.”

In contrast to limited democracy, or republicanism, popular democracy, to use C. Wright Mills’ conceptualization, exists when every person has a meaningful say in the decisions that affect them. “Democracy means the power and the freedom of those controlled by the law to change the law, according to agreed-upon rules—and even to change those rules,” writes Mills in The Sociological Imagination; “but more than that, it means some kind of collective self-control over the structural mechanics of history itself.” “In essence,” he continues, “democracy implies that those vitally affected by any decision men make have an effective voice in that decision.”

Capitalism depends on this never being the prevailing state of affairs and thus its agents emphasize the republican problematic (see the Federalist Papers). When the democratic element begins to disrupt the capitalist imperative, the state becomes more restrictive, a condition marked, in part, by an increase of surveillance and police powers. To convey this dynamic, Gramsci famously used the metaphor of an iron fist in a velvet glove: when the soft touch doesn’t work, the gloves come off. Fascism and Nazism are the most extreme forms of the capitalism with its gloves off. It is crucial to recognize that the presidency of Donald Trump does not represent a moment where the gloves have come off. The gloves came off a long time ago with the expansion and militarization of the police, mass incarceration, and the surveillance state that emerged from the 1960s. However, capitalist states also, and more frequently, disempower opposition through reformism (with obvious benefits to the working class and the poor) and control over labor through segmentation of work and scientific management (Gramsci spends considerable time analyzing Fordism and Taylorism as effective strategies for controlling, and more efficiently exploiting workers).

The other methods of control are propaganda and ideology. In late capitalism, the corporate media plays the major role in engineering consent around establishment ambition. The propaganda apparatus legitimizes capitalist hegemony by, in the United States for example, drawing the political gaze to the two major parties and marginalizing alternatives that may represent the interests of working people (the Green Party, for example). Another approach focuses on organizing what French Situationist Guy DeBord calls the “Society of the Spectacle” or, to borrow language from the Frankfurt School and critical theory, the “Culture Industry.” The Culture Industry keeps the masses occupied with virtual reality activities and away from class consciousness and serious political work, hence the emphasis on the politics of entertainment, consumerism, and debt. The industry atomizes the working class at a new level of alienation and cooptation. The ideology of capitalism obscures the problems caused by the system by attributing them to the moral failings and poor choices of individuals. Poverty, street crime, and interpersonal violence are portrayed as the work of the poor and minorities, not the result of a exploitative system that impoverishes a significant portion of the population and pits individuals against each other under conditions of artificial scarcity and status seeking. In this way the prison-industrial complex and the welfare state do the ideological work of blaming the victims of capitalism.

For whom and for what is consent being engineered? C. Wright Mills usefully labels the US establishment “the Power Elite.” The Power Elite is the intersection of corporate, executive, and military power, embodied in what Mills calls the military-industrial complex. Cold War liberalism reigned in Mills’ time. The prevailing ideology advancing the interests of the Power Elite today is neoliberalism and neoconservativsm, marked by the progressive privatization of the social democratic apparatus, or what Gramsci called the “regulated society” and capitalist power projection globally justified by a rearticulated Cold War liberalism. Neoliberalism represents a new enclosure movement, incorporating public functions in the private sphere, extracting public wealth for private benefit without significant weakening of their control function, deepening Adorno’s “administered world.” Neoliberalism is the private capture of public revenue streams while maintaining the outward appearance of a commitment to public services. Abroad, the ideology of the dominant capitalist class fraction takes the form of advocating permanent war-time footing marked by aggressive military interventionism and adventurism around the world. These alignment of both major parties with these approaches mark the existence of what Gramsci called a “historic bloc.”

The Power Elite remains relatively stable despite occupants of executive and legislative offices. Stability is achieved through ideological consistency, shared class position/sensibilities, elite grooming of personnel, and the existence of the “deep state,” an enduring network of government employees pursuing long-range goals of the capitalist state independent of democratically-elected officials. Mike Lofgren is largely responsible for putting the concept of the deep state into the mainstream. In an essay distributed by Bill Moyers, Lofgren writes,

There is the visible government situated around the Mall in Washington, and then there is another, more shadowy, more indefinable government that is not explained in Civics 101 or observable to tourists at the White House or the Capitol. The former is traditional Washington partisan politics: the tip of the iceberg that a public watching C-SPAN sees daily and which is theoretically controllable via elections. The subsurface part of the iceberg I shall call the Deep State, which operates according to its own compass heading regardless of who is formally in power.

The deep state is the network of national security, including the defense and intelligence services, both private and public, most obviously the Pentagon, the NSA, and the CIA; law enforcement agencies, primarily the FBI, the Justice Department, and the Department of Homeland Security; and Commerce and Treasury, with its linkages to the Federal Reserve and other financial institutions, public, quasi-public/private, and private. It is through the financial and military apparatus that the deep state connects to the transnational system of global capitalism.

Operating with this theory in mind, the culture of outrage that has developed around Donald Trump, a television personality who is himself a spectacular product of the Culture Industry, can be understood as a moment in the control of popular consciousness, an exercise in reestablishing the limits of the politically possible after several years of alternative, albeit politically immature action threatening to break through the partisan ideological barricades into the popular mainstream, counterhegemonic action unfortunately deformed by impoverished and distorted understanding of the nature and state of late capitalism (e.g. Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter). The Trump phenomenon represents an unpredictable element in modern bourgeois politics, his popular support part of a series of disruptive waves across the surface of mass control. Thus one may not wish to see Trump as president, but at the same time recognize the establishment is committed to delegitimizing his presidency for reasons that serve the desire of the Power Elite over against the interests of the working class.

To understand why the establishment seeks to delegitimize Trump, consider three things that the president has done that those sharing to popular democratic values should in principle applaud:

  • Pulling the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and revisiting the North American Free Trade Agreement. Capitalist globalization has harmed US workers, disrupted the ways of life for billions of people around the planet, stifled democratic social movements, especially in the capitalist core, and harmed the natural environment. In addition to questioning the trade agreements that enable the entrenchment of globalization, Trump sympathizes with Brexit and the dismantling of the European Union, which will weaken transnational capital and global finance. Successful socialist revolutions occurred in the context of interstate capitalism (and were undermined by globalization). Because of the mobility of capital and cooperation of states under transnational capitalist arrangements, globalization is disruptive to proletarian movements. Marx and Engels write in The Community Manifesto, “the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle. The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie.” Capitalist globalization at once means the unification of the world’s bourgeoisie and the fracturing of the world’s proletariat. Thus the world has witnessed the balkanization of national communities with the expansion and entrenchment of globalization. Multiculturalism, discussed next, further enhances proletarian fracturing through the spread of identitarian politics.
  • Raising consciousness concerning the threat of Islamic terrorism by giving permission to people to accurately describe the danger of Islam without having charges of “Islamophobia” taken as seriously as they have been in recent years. By calling on elites to call it what it is, Trump has struck a blow to the multiculturalist campaign to sell Islam as a harmless cultural difference that Western society should embrace. As Christopher Hitchens and others emphasize, Islam is a totalitarian patriarchal movement that threatens the secular arrangements of the West, arrangements essential for preserving individual liberty and rights and an open society that are in turn essential for moving the democratic project forward. However much one may disagree with the specifics of the executive order restricting immigration from a handful of Muslim-majority countries, without an aggressive program to assimilate Muslims into Western society, reduction of Muslims immigration into the United States allows the country to avoid many of the problems Europe is experiencing. The positive situation in the United States is, in turn, emboldening efforts in Europe to restrict immigration and do something about the burden placed on the welfare state, the fragmenting of community, and crime and violence. Understanding the benefits of suppressing Islamization requires understanding multiculturalism in light of the hegemonic needs of the ruling class (more on this in a moment).
  • Rethinking US permanent war footing. Trump has made it clear that the US invasion and occupation of Iraq was wrong and that US action in Syria is misguided. Indeed, his constant attack on Bush’s foreign policy during the Republican primary debates served to weaken not only the consensus manufactured around that policy, and not only harm the party identified with the policy, but by extension weaken the appeal of Democrats, who carried the policy forward. Trump has sought to ratchet down tensions with Russia, a nuclear power, possibly pulling the United States back from the brink of a new cold war. To be sure, Trump’s foreign policy has been inconsistent where he has acted to please the establishment (his actions in Syria, for example), but this brings us to the reasons why the establishment is so aggressive in the campaign to delegitimize Trump.

Each of these accomplishments/directions is antithetical to the goals of the globalists. The so-called “free trade” systems are designed to reap bigger profits by reducing labor costs in the West (never mind the contradiction that leads to realization crises as these amount to moments of creative destruction). Trump wants to reconfigure global trade, shifting from integration of national economies driven by maximizing profits among transnational corporations to (primarily) bilateral negotiations based on national economic interests. Globalists desire multiculturalism and open borders because it functions to weaken the working class and increase access to cheap pools of labor. Muslim immigration is particularly beneficial to elite ends; Muslims are encouraged by dogma to proselytize while resisting assimilation with the West, and many on the identitarian left consider Muslims to be a persecuted minority thus choosing “protecting” them over defending and advancing working class interests. Characterizing resistance to immigration as “bigotry” and “xenophobia” facilitates the maintenance of a super-exploitable labor supply and the undermining of popular community by ordering authorities and shaming workers into silence. Permanent war footing intends to keep the world safe for corporations. Military spending compels subsidies from taxpayers, as well as mops up redundant workers (approximately 2.5 million in the US, matching the approximate number of redundant workers in the prison-industrial complex), guaranteeing profits to corporations while controlling populations at home and abroad. Islamic terrorism is functional to the maintenance of a vast surveillance and police apparatus (as well as a ready force for destabilizing Third World governments). Ostensively designed as an apparatus to defend against terrorism, the surveillance state is used to monitor the range of left-wing groups struggling to advance working class economic interests, weaken the imperialist war machine, and defend the biosphere.

Thus we see in Trump over against Clinton and her ilk the personification of the fractional division in the class and social structure of the United States resulting from the transnationalization of not only economics but of law and politics and control. The incorporation of the United States in an integrated global economic system has differentiated the bourgeoisie into nationally-oriented elites, who have traditionally emphasized economic policies benefitting domestic firms, and globally-oriented elites, who push for deeper transnational integration of government, law, and economics, which benefit transnational corporations. These differences entail different political rhetorics, with nationally-oriented elites emphasizing nationalism, patriotism, and protectionism, while the transnational elites emphasize internationalism, multiculturalism, and free trade. Trump is representative of nationally-oriented elites, which is why he speaks about reawakening industrialization, limiting immigration, realigning foreign policy in a more traditional international system over against transnationalism. Although nationalist rhetoric is not the end socialists seek, it is nonetheless disruptive to the transnational project, thus creating an opening – a disjunctural moment, if you will – for alternative politics. However distasteful one finds nationally-oriented sentiments, opposition to them in a manner that advances the globalist agenda is detrimental to democratic socialist politics.

The establishment wanted Clinton to be the Democratic Party nominee and president of the United States because of her vocal support for neoconservative policy and desire to ramp up tensions with Russia. They also wanted her because of her support for a Grand Bargain on entitlements. Despite his support for war, Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy commitments are too uncertain, and he is too staunch a defender or social democracy, so the elite engineered the Democratic primary to put forward a Clinton candidacy. The Power Elite sought a continuation of the Obama Administration, whose function was to entrench the globalist order by projecting a multi-racialist/multi-cultural personality onto US imperialism. Clinton allowed elite planners to leverage identity politics to advance the globalist agenda. Her campaign was built on identitarian (“I’m with her”) and anti-Trump sentiment. Clinton was the perfect politician for the globalist order.

Trump is an imperfect politician for the globalist order. He was never groomed for leadership and potentially threatens the stability of capitalist hegemony. Indeed, his campaign and presidency, despite his unpopularity, have already troubled establishment aims. Trump’s bombing of Syria is a case in point. The establishment has been worried since the campaign that he would not take up the neoconservative approach to the Middle East and Central Asia. To be sure, when Trump was pressured into “doing something about Assad,” he was immediately praised for his behavior. And there were other scattered moves that caused the press to announce that “Trump became president today” – words of encouragement. But he has been stubborn on the question of Russia. The establishment’s attempt to make Trump appear as a puppet of Russian leader Vladimir Putin has harmed its credibility.

The US presidential election of 2016 was never as simple as Clinton being an imperfect candidate, Trump’s obnoxious rhetoric, hyperbole about fascism, the persona of the Republican Party, or the lesser of two evils. To be sure, Trump’s tone unsettles, but given everything that has transpired so far, it is far from clear that Trump is the greater evil. Politics depend on a theory of prevailing macro-social, political, and cultural dynamics. Clinton ran on advancing the agenda of transnational elites, whose methods are extending capitalist logic into every human system and creating a seamless system of mass control. Clinton was the choice of the establishment. The effect of false and fragmented consciousness about establishment goals means that popular protests against Trump undermine resistance to globalism by either expressing a desire to see Trump align with globalist goals or effectively seeking his replacement with career politician Mike Pence, a man with no independent thoughts, ready and eager to do the bidding of the establishment.

What the left should be doing is withdrawing consent from the two-party system and building a unified socialist politics against the prevailing hegemony. The effort requires resisting spectacular politics and developing a sense of political realism. That means, among other things, trading the world of outrage over offensive tweets, awkward handshakes, and boorish comments for serious political engagement. This is why my approach to the daily outrage over something Trump said or did is to mock it. Avoiding the freak-out is not a defense of Trump, but a recognition of the fact that the reason we’re supposed to be outraged is to get the masses in line with the establishment agenda. My refusal to freak-out is a refusal to get in line. I hope you don’t get in line, either.

Note 9.13.2018: Since writing this, the Trump administration has aligned with establishment goals in Syria, Russia, and North Korea. It has been revealed that those around him are deceiving him in order to shape decisions that advance the establishment agenda. What was a disruptive force is being reduced to a distracting twitter feed, under the cover of which the United States working class is being fleeced. 

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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