Joseph Stiglitz provides a summary of just how bad the democratic collapse in America actually is in an article entitled “How to Survive the Trump Era”, on Project Syndicate.
The paragraph that leapt out at me says this:
…the importance of the rule of law, once an abstract concept to many Americans, has become concrete. Under the rule of law, if the government wants to prevent firms from outsourcing and offshoring, it enacts legislation and adopts regulations to create the appropriate incentives and discourage undesirable behavior. It does not bully or threaten particular firms or portray traumatized refugees as a security threat.
In a Guardian comment I posted when I could still stand to read that bloated, Blairite organ, I said that Obama’s main project as president was to re-establish the rule of law in American politics and, particularly, in relation to foreign and military policy. It is clear now that he failed in that task: Guantanamo remains open, NATO, acting as an organ of the American military-industrial complex, is pushing confrontation wherever its whims incline it, and the Calvinist hardcore of the Pentagon have adapted with equanimity to the election of a fascist.
Now, it appears that the contempt for its own laws that has bedevilled America from its Military-industrial complex has slipped into its broader domestic economy. The rot has spread, as it was always likely to.
David Bromwich has a fascinating article in the LRB in which he identifies the attitude that underlies Trump’s contempt for both law and politics. It is not that he has any ideological hatred for the institutions of civil democracy, but that he sees them as of minimal importance: what matters is freedom for the rich to do what they will.
In a radio interview in 2015, he recalled his visit to Russia in 2013, in an unsuccessful attempt to close a deal on apartment complexes. ‘I was with the top-level people,’ he said, ‘both oligarchs and generals, and top of the government people … I met the top people, and the relationship was extraordinary.’ Though it may seem a tiny slip, one notices the distinction between top-level people and the top people in government. Oligarchs and generals come first and rank highest in Trump’s estimation; top government people are worth knowing, but secondary. Trump likes the relationship of money to power in Russia – and specifically of financial power to government authority – more than he admires anything special about Putin, whom he has never met and about whom he knows little. Evidence of a vaguer affinity can be tracked in his appointment of four billionaires and three generals to senior advisory or cabinet positions: in his US government the ‘top-level people’ will be identical with the ‘top of the government people’.
I have not posted much about the president, or, really, put my thoughts in order about him. It is time I did. I, like anyone who wishes to believe that the death eaters will not win, must come to some understanding of what it is we face and what we must do save our civilisation. Assuming that you are awake enough to understand that Facebook, Twitter and even WordPress will not unsettle the power of the neo-fascist new dawn, you, like me, will be trying to make sense of this collapsing era, and trying to decide what issues you care enough about to engage with and to uphold, as all decency comes under energetic, hateful attack.
The first shock, as both Stiglitz and Bromwich say, has now passed. It is time to shake off despair and begin to construct some sort of plan, as individuals, and as members of our polities.
I can’t say that I have any clear answers, but I am beginning to try. I can recommend a look at the short list of behaviours written by Timothy Snyder to which I linked back in December. It has practical and moral suggestions: the need for courage being primary amongst them. I have also been moved by Bromwhich’s article. Chiming with Snyder’s eighth lesson, ‘Believe in Truth’, he explains Trump’s almost magical gift for lies thus:
In Leviathan Hobbes said that what we call the ‘deliberation’ of the will is nothing but ‘the last appetite, or aversion, immediately adhering to’ an action. Whatever the general truth of the analysis, Trump’s process of thought works like that. If Obama often seemed an image of deliberation without appetite, Trump has always been the reverse. For him, there is no time to linger: from the first thought to the first motion is a matter of seconds; the last aversion or appetite triggers the jump to the deed. And if along the way he speaks false words? Well, words are of limited consequence. What people want is a spectacle; they will attend to what you do, not what you say; and to the extent that words themselves are a spectacle, they add to the show. The great thing about words, Trump believes, is that they are disposable.
It is pointless to study what Trump says day-by-day. It is necessary to take a step back and see which of his manic ejaculations he repeats; which become themes. Here in Britain, it is necessary to see which are taken up by the people who would ape him: not UKIP, the hapless farce who will not do anything other than represent the dying wishes of the greediest, most selfish generation in modern British history, but the real carriers of reactive nationalism; the political parties who see as ‘political realism’ the need to ape populist nationalism in order to ‘achieve power’. Nationalism as it now manifests has been a long time in the making, and it would make a good doctoral thesis to study it. Murdoch and his imitators (the deeply odious, surprisingly influential pornographer, Richard Desmond being chief among them) have played a seminal part, but it is not entirely, I think, a creation of a malign press. As Bromwhich says:
Neoliberals have spent a quarter of a century arranging the ingredients for the catastrophe. Lenin said of Stalin that ‘this cook will give us peppery dishes,’ and for all the talk of nation-building, democracy promotion, multiculturalism and tribal recognition, globalisation à la Nato has been a peppery dish. There were several chefs involved: Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and their exemplar Tony Blair. They all wanted to convert the populace to an enlightened internationalism, but along the way they forgot to talk us out of nationalism. The military operations that dismantled Yugoslavia and overthrew the undemocratic governments of those artificial entities Iraq and Libya were meant to be an earnest of the goodwill of the global improvers. The trouble is that wars tend to reinforce nationalism, and unnecessary wars, where the fighting is drawn out and the result chaotic, leave people doubtful and suspicious.
Sometime last year, before the Democratic primaries were over, but when it looked as though Hillary had swung it, I wrote on my (now deleted) Facebook account, “I do not want Hillary Clinton to be president.” There is a narrative, amongst the voices who see the past thirty years of ‘left(ish)’ or ‘progressive’ politics as, fundamentally unproblematic, in both this country and in the States; that opposition to a continuation of Blairite, Clintonesque pseudo-opposition to the neo-liberal, capitalist rise of oligarchy is rooted in the sort of intolerance against which they feel they are the only bastion. As Rebecca Solnit sees it, Hillary Clinton lost because of misogyny; not because of her record as a major architect of the Obama administration’s embedding of commercialised, continuous war, or her championing of support for tyrants, or her husband’s disastrous capitulation to capital, or the fact that, in office, she and her husband made themselves super-rich.
This narrative,-that only the established politics could safeguard against the new nationalism, and that any voice, from left or right, that dares to criticise the social-democratic surrender to the super-rich, is not only responsible for Brexit, the rise of Trump and the declining popularity of the X-factor, but also motivated by sexism, anti-semitism and a love of conflict,-is, patently, a lie. However, I know people, good people, who are convinced of it. They feel that the Blair government wasn’t so bad really, despite ASBOs, PFIs, Iraq, and the final enthronement of Murdoch as king of Britain, because it kept their property values rising for a decade and kept conflict nice and far away, mostly. What I think they love about the New Labour era is that it was sleek, professional and, to their eyes, cool. That aspect of Blairism largely passed me by: I saw New Labour as a coup against messy, committed politics by the sort of people who couldn’t ever manage cool, however much they valued it. Personally, I like my politicians resolutely uncool. They tend not to believe they can get away with things.
So, what to do? I so want to just tend my garden, and be good at my job, and write my novel, brew my beer, love my wife, but this is a time for those of us who care to try to make an impact. I attended a Labour Party meeting last week, for the first time in a while, and will be campaigning for our council candidates, in the hope that, at local level at least, some opposition to the ongoing monstrosity of austerity economics funding billionaire parasitism of our economy can be constructed. I learnt there that the council funding for my job had been cancelled the night before: we bring in some national funding, from a government quango, but how long that will last under a rabid Tory government is debatable.
Meanwhile, I see the support for the people who are my clients being run into the ground, by death eaters who are not even really trying to make excuses for their corruption any more. The Isle of Wight Council has been ceded to a Tory/UKIP coalition of the most miserable, unimaginative graspingness: their only solution to our misery is to build an industrial estate: an opportunity, no doubt, for bribes and in-dealing that mirrors the orgy of corruption enjoyed at national level between politicians and privatisation parasites like Branson, Murdoch and the Prime Minister’s husband.
The rule must be, do not despair. Do what you can, but it is hard. Nevertheless, it must be done.