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“I earned capital in the campaign—political capital—and now I intend to spend it. It is my style. That’s what happened after the 2000 election: I earned some capital. I’ve earned capital in this election, and I’m going to spend it for what I told the people I’d spend it on.”
President Bush, November 4, 2004
“As a capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital.”
Marx, Capital, Chapter 10
President Bush is not known for his extensive vocabulary. But occasionally he employs a term outside the eighth-grade lexicon, like “historical revisionism,” although he always misuses that term. Or “contiguous borders,” but having said he wants a Palestinian state with such borders he appears to misunderstand the meaning of that term too. Bush’s latest favorite phrase is “political capital.” Maybe Dick Cheney, who keeps calling the victory a “mandate,” also told Bush it was political capital. Perhaps Karl Rove informed him, late on the night of the election. “You’ve won a great victory, sir, and earned a lot of political capital,” and that’s why a relieved and exuberant Dubya immediately announced this to the people.
A week later on November 12 Bush explained that he would spend his capital “to establish a Palestinian state.” In Santiago, on November 21, he assured the Mexican president he would use his “political capital” to grant guest-worker status to millions of Mexican immigrants to the U.S.. In Canada December 1 he assured the Canadians, too, that he had political capital relevant to their interests. The president likes that phrase.
What Is Capital?
Capital, of course, refers to money or other forms of wealth that are intended to make more wealth. Money assigned not to buy a shirt or a sandwich or a house but to make more money. Capital like everything has a history. The feudal lord in medieval Europe was content to bind his serfs to the land, force them to work his fields and fork over a share of their crops; the system wasn’t based upon money, investment and wage-labor, but on different principles that kept the nobles fat and happy through many generations. When the accumulation of capital, as opposed to the mere collection of tribute, became the driving force in economic life, capitalism was born. Karl Marx, the man who popularized this term, was the first to examine capitalism as a mode of production specific to the modern age.
Marx, who has influenced historical thought more than any other figure in the last 200 years, asked “when did capitalism start?” and concluded that whereas aspects of it occurred here and there from ancient times, it only took off from the sixteenth century in western Europe before spreading elsewhere. For capitalism to emerge there had to be, simultaneously, a class of people with money to invest (including persons born into wealthy families with a long history of brutal treatment of the common people), and people with no property willing and able to work for the wealthier for money wages, and a market for commodities that wage-earners could produce. There’d always been wealthy merchants of one kind or another, if only to service the needs of noble courts. But merchants whose income derives mainly from collecting and employing workers who produce goods or services for the general market are a particular feature of capitalism. Many members of those early workforces were uprooted peasants apprehended for “vagrancy” and “vagabondage” and forced into productive labor as an alternative to forfeiting an ear or nose. “If money,” Marx declares, ” . . . ‘comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,’ capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”
Bush as Capital Personified
The capitalist, Marx wrote over a century ago about men like Bush, “is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital” (Capital, Chapter 10). The capitalist must always think about how much money he can make from his connections to other people; the desire for profit distorts his human relationships. Capitalism has “pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors,’ andleft no other bond between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.'” Capital, wrote Marx in the Communist Manifesto, cheapens culture: it has “drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms has set up that single, unconscionable freedom-Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation. The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.”
Into this world of capital was the current president born, and he has always been comfortable with the power it has conferred on him, even through repeated business failures. His family name and capital assured him gentlemanly Cs from his father’s alma mater, Yale, where he majored in history. No doubt his understanding of the subject matter is accurately reflected in press conferences, debates and speeches. Dad’s busy, helpful friends gave him a non-demanding National Guard post during the Vietnam War, and shelter from scandal, while enrolling him in the Harvard Business School where one professor recalls him as “lazy” and “unprepared.” He told Professor Yoshi Tsurumi that he had avoided the draft through the efforts of “Dad’s friends.” He also told Tsurumi, “The government doesn’t have to help poor people— because they are lazy.” The soul of capital, indeed. After Harvard, of course, Bush became governor of Texas, presiding over 152 judicial executions. The next natural step was the White House.
How does Bush intend to use this latest capital to enhance his power? He wants to press on with his Christian right social agenda, using the halo-stripped preachers among his religious base, and lawyers and scientists embracing his “faith based” agenda, to promote even more “naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.” He also wants to build empire, and as his new cabinet appointments show, he remains committed to the neocons’ “regime change” program in Southwest Asia, and would like to leave office having established pro-U.S., Israel-friendly client states controlled by foreign capital throughout the region.
Bush’s nominations of Alberto Gonzalez, famous for his dismissal of the “obsolete” and “quaint” provisions of the Geneva Accords, as the nation’s top law officer; and of Bernard Kerik as Homeland Security director, suggest a preference for more thuggery as policy (although Kerik was forced to withdraw under the cover of another nannygate issue). None of the scandal-dogged neocons have been removed from power, and some (notably, diehard Ahmad Chalabi advocate Danielle Pletka) will likely be promoted. Donald Rumsfeld, criticized by some neocons for an inadequately vicious assault on the Iraqi insurgency, has been confirmed as Defense Secretary. Maybe this is because Congress wouldn’t likely confirm Paul Wolfowitz as Secretary of Defense. Maybe Rumsfeld’s argued that were the position pass to Wolfowitz, the “war on terror” might get out of hand and make a draft essential. Rumsfeld’s been an opponent of conscription (on practical and political rather than moral grounds) since the 1970s, and seems to hope for an end to the “all-volunteer” deployment in Iraq by 2008. In any case, it looks like Washington will continue to confront Syria and Iran as well as the bourgeoning Iraqi resistance in the expectation that all this will ultimately increase American capital in the New American Century.
Political Capital Might Run Out
But this means confronting other advanced capitalist nations, imperialist nations, whose interests may conflict with those of the Bush administration. Russia for one has not been happy with Washington’s colonization of Iraq, a former trade partner, and its demands that foreign creditors cancel Iraq’s outstanding debts. It’s even more unhappy about U.S. plans to expand NATO right up to Ukraine’s border with Russia. Let’s say President Putin, miffed by U.S. behavior and wooed by “Old Europe,” takes the perfectly legal measure of pricing Russian oil exports in euros rather than dollars, producing an immediate precipitous decline in the already plummeting dollar and a sudden withdrawal of Chinese and Japanese capital from U.S. banks. Let’s say this happens just as the Iraqi elections, disrupted by the Iraqi insurgents, aggravate the ongoing Iraqi crisis and lead to civil war. Meanwhile Israel, judging the time right, and arguing an “existential threat” to the Jewish state, lobs missiles at a dozen Iranian nuclear installations, causing Iran forces assuming U.S. complicity in the attack to engage U.S. troops in Iraq. President Bush appears on TV, announcing, “We were attacked, and now the U.S. and Iran are at war.” The sudden, unexpected, frightening circumstances cause Bush to declare, with a heavy heart, that a return to the draft is necessary to protect “our freedoms” against Iraqi and Iranian Islamic-terrorist foes. Public opinion polls immediately show the country divided, with a narrow majority favoring the president and conscription. Large-scale antiwar rallies, some violent, in major cities. Much discussion of the linkages between capital and imperialist war.
That’s just one possible scenario that might test the limits of the president’s political capital. You might think that no competent leader of an advanced imperialist country could allow such a scenario to unfold, but Bush’s record as a capitalist has been one of general ineptitude, not withstanding the assistance from his dad’s Texas and Saudi cronies. His handling of what he imagines to be his current political capital may be similarly incompetent, producing political bankruptcy, in which case the world, including the American people with no stake in imperialist war, might actually profit.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org