Home > Uncategorized > Trump, denial and the end of normal

Trump, denial and the end of normal

from Peter Radford

Shocking is an understatement. Donald Trump is unfit for public office, be it town clerk or president of the US. He’s an unbalanced egomaniac. He’s a racist. He’s an immature misogynist. He’s many other awful things. Presidential, he is not.

How did we get here?

Failure. But a particular kind of failure. Failure dressed as success. A success so sweeping and deep that we hardly recognize the extent of the change that it wrought. Naturally I am speaking of the victory of neoliberal thought. Perhaps you were thinking of something else.

For a brief moment after World War II, for a generation and a bit, the western world basked in a quiescence of steady growth, political solidarity, industrial calm, and rising living standards. That much of this was an illusion, or rather a reflection of the prior chaos of the spasmodic ending of the elongated nineteenth century, we ignored. Instead we imagined that a new normal had emerged. Economic depressions had been defeated. Western Europe had settled its ancient scores. And America had emerged as a beacon of democratic freedom, albeit one willing to exert quasi-imperial tendencies in its foreign dealings. Compared with the authoritarian alternative of the Marxist east, America’s heavy hand was tolerable for a generation able to recall the terrors of 1914 through 1945.

This period, though, was bound to end. Within its fabric was an unrest bound to tear at the fragility of the apparent unity.

That unrest was the desire of many to return to the chaos of a more unfettered way of life. They disliked the growing tendency of post-war governments to intrude into spheres of life and activities that previously had been private domains. They especially regarded such intrusions as obstacles to personal enrichment.

They questioned social democracy as if it were Marxist authoritarianism. They asked: Where was the private incentive? Where was the opportunity? What was the intellectual footing upon which those intrusions stood? And: were those footings not insecure against the tide of uncertainty best dealt with by private initiative?

The rebellion, when it finally burst into open life, swept away the temporary stability of that generation and a bit. And like all movements recapturing some imagined version of a glorious past it was even more radical than the original. It preached ideas producing an ever growing insecurity, constantly accelerating change, wrenching social re-aligments, and loss of opportunity for anyone incapable of being the kind of calculating insensitive and morally ambiguous trooper in its corporate divisions.

At its core the rebellion has one theme: liberty. A return to an idealized version of liberty such as that taught by the likes of Hayek and his most potent student Milton Friedman. Others, like von Mises, Peter Drucker, as well as Hayek were members of what the essayist Tony Judt so eloquently called the Austrian cabal. They all grew up within the fetid declining years of the old Hapsburg Empire. They all misunderstood the causes of that decline. They all witnessed the horror of demagoguery of Hitler. They all feared the repression of Marxism, Lenin and Stalin. So they all overcompensated.

Their error, as they built the intellectual features of neoliberalism, was to mistake democracy as a form of socialism. In this they echoed the fears of their intellectual ancestors. The founders of the American republic were just as fearful of the people. The phrase “we the people” refers to a select few: those entitled to participate. It does not refer to the vast mass who were thought unfit to participate.

By making this error Hayek and his ilk debauched liberalism. No: they tore it in two. They ripped away any references to equality or the dignity of community, leaving only the much rawer individuality to stand alone as a beacon of freedom. This primitive liberalism was then packaged as economic and political theory to stand against any attempts to leaven it with those lost, yet appropriate, features of mature liberalism.

So that’s how we arrived here.

The consequences of the neoliberal rebellion are all around us. Trump. Brett. La Pen. Haider. Berlusconi. The people’s reaction to insecurity, austerity, globalization, deregulation, and the decay of social cohesion wrought by the single minded pursuit of the individual ideal.

With respect to Brexit, let me quote at length from Jonathan Freedland’s essay in the New York review of Books:

“There is an overlap here with those white working-class voters in the US who are backing Donald Trump. In both cases, they are often people who once enjoyed secure, relatively well-paid work and who have seen their jobs, and their factories, shipped eastward. Working low-status jobs on zero-hours contracts, they live in places that have been hollowed out and left behind … While London and other major cities gleam and sparkle with investment and regeneration, many of these English towns — post-mining, post-industrial, post-their-best — are still reeling from the Thatcher-era policy of privatization, which saw the state shut down industries it had once propped up. They have grown derelict. In each wave of change — Thatcherism, globalization, automatization [sic] — they have lost out.

It meant that the Remain campaign’s central argument — that Brexit risked Britain’s prosperity — cut no ice with these voters, because they had no prosperity to risk.”

A little later Freedland quotes a Conservative minister, Michael Gove, as saying:

“I think people in this country have had enough of experts.”

And that’s also why we are where we are.

The experts blew it.

The elite. The center. The experts.

They are the people who brought us rising inequality, globalization, shareholder value, austerity, infrastructure neglect, rotting schools, dilapidated cities, insecurity in retirement, health, and personal finances, stagnant wages, and all the other ailments of an economy and society run solely in the name of private profit.

Worse still: those experts are scarcely attached to democracy because they, like Hayek and his confreres, believe that popular will is akin to a chaos imposed by an unwashed undereducated mob. Those experts believe that they alone understand the so-called “national interest”.

But why is it in the national interest for almost half the population to live perilously close to poverty?

As it turns out, that fleeting glimpse of normal back in the immediate post-war years was no illusion. It was simply a threat to the old establishment and to big business. It was a democratic moment that had to be ended not extended. It had to be ended so profits could be made as they had back in the Golden Era. So ended it was.

Which is why we are where we are.

  1. jlegge
    August 11, 2016 at 12:43 pm

    How did Peter Drucker get dragged into this? He was a management educator very much in tune with the fifties and sixties; as the Thatcher/Reagan revolution worked its way into management education Drucker was slighted as not understanding economics and his concept of managing was replaced by a purely financial perspective.

    • Larry Motuz
      August 11, 2016 at 3:42 pm

      The only thing Drucker had in common with the others is his having been born in Austria. His thoughts about social responsibility, community, the importance of workers, and a narrow economics focused on prices rather than upon people and outcomes upon them cannot be reconciled with the thought of Hayek, von Mises, and certainly not with Friedman.

  2. Mustsign topost
    August 11, 2016 at 4:38 pm

    To understand Drucker’s role read his “Innovation and Entrepeneurship” and notice it’s an updated version of the Gospel of Wealth

    • jlegge
      August 13, 2016 at 6:34 am

      Innovation (as Marx noted) is the only claim capitalism has to moral justification. Innovation needs entrepreneurs; some entrepreneurs are primarily motivated by money but most, including most of the best, see a challenge to overcome. All entrepreneurs need money to grow their enterprise; only some of them gain and keep obscene wealth.

  3. August 12, 2016 at 1:46 am

    Excellent and very pithy piece.

  4. August 13, 2016 at 5:40 am

    Until about 10,000 BCE humans (Homo sapiens) lived in small communities and were foragers. The leadership structure was loose and no formal politics or economy existed. Prior to 70,000 BCE humans did not stand out among other Sapiens. Even though their brains were the same size as modern humans they demonstrated no exceptional creativity and their inventions were not remarkable. But that all began to change around 70,000 BCE. They moved around the world, drove the Neanderthals into extinction, and invented such things as boats, oil lamps, bows and arrows, and needles, and they harnessed fire. This is often called the “Cognitive Revolution.” Most anthropologists and evolutionary biologists attribute it to inner changes in the Home sapiens brain. About 10,000 BCE the surviving humans invented agriculture – tilling the land and keeping domesticated animals (cattle, sheep, pigs, etc.). This sort of life required more fixed structure and more fixed leadership. This translated into kings, queens, and monarchies, and aristocrats. Since agriculture produced fixed and larger wealth in terms of land, crops, and animals this change also lead to greater concerns with security and protection. Stronger and stronger monarchs and their armies evolved to meet these needs. But these also maintained the status and wealth of the monarchs. And this pattern continued. Capitalism is merely the latest version of this struggle between powerful elites (rulers, monarchs) to maintain their wealth and position against threats from the “masses.” Democracy tempered and for a time reversed this pattern. But democracy is not invulnerable either to internal corruption or external attack. Right now democracy is collapsing. Economics and the social sciences are a late comers to the party. Mostly they’ve changed nothing, documented even less, and often offered more defense of tyranny than democracy. Worst case is, I hope a return to the heyday of British capitalism in the 19th century – “With no benefits system in place, destitute people were either left to starve on the streets or forced to submit themselves to the harsh conditions of the workhouse where they worked ten hours a day doing menial tasks ….” Or, maybe the movie “Alien” got it right – two or three corporations in charge of everything on Earth and several other parts of the galaxy. The struggle is 10,000 years old. No reason to think it will end anytime soon.

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