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“The Bonaparte dynasty represents not the revolutionary, but the conservative peasant; not the peasant who strikes out beyond the condition of his social existence, the small holding, but rather one who wants to consolidate his holding; not the countryfolk who in alliance with the towns want to overthrow the old order through their own energies, but on the contrary those who, in solid seclusion within this old order, want to see themselves and their small holdings saved and favored by the ghost of the Empire. It represents not the enlightenment but the superstition of the peasant; not his judgment but his prejudice; not his future but his past…”
-Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon
There is a certain sense of smallness, as well as meanness at the heart of American life. It typically gets projected onto the villain of the day, and for the last two years, it has happened to be Donald Trump. The president’s vile beliefs and behavior are not in question, but what is more interesting to me is just how much Trump has become a convenient scapegoat. There are millions of Trumps in this country, as seen by his approval ratings hovering around 40% through his entire presidency.
The undercurrents of seething rage, anger, racism and sexism are not exclusively a Republican or conservative trait. Millions turned out for Clinton either in spite of, or ignorance of, her bellicosity towards Iran, Russia, and Syria. Clinton’s resentment of the “basket of deplorables” is nothing new, either. Obama admitted as much when referring to voters clinging to their guns and religion. Thus, the polarization of US politics and culture continues, framed as a binary between coastal liberals and heartland conservatives.
This narrative, set by mainstream media, is very convenient for capital. Wealth has skyrocketed for elites yet most people’s economic status has become increasingly precarious. The restructuring of the economy towards the service sector, the internet, and finance, insurance, and real estate corporations has hollowed out the middle classes. Urban cores have gentrified and the rich see or hear little of ordinary people’s problems. As real estate prices rise the working class must commute longer and longer from the suburbs to downtown, increasing traffic, stress, and reliance on cars.
Therefore the petit-bourgeois and white working class have seen either a stagnation or loss in their salaries and wages. Relatively speaking many are well-off (the average Trump voter was above the median income) but many deluded citizens see their conditions as deteriorating and react hysterically. In many ways the Baby Boomers were the original participation-trophy generation: free college from the GI bill, super-affordable housing, the highest relative incomes in US history, and both liberals and conservatives now act like cry-babies when asked to pay higher taxes for universal health care, free higher education, more investment in childhood education, and initiatives for climate change.
Economic prosperity in the US is not linked to “American exceptionalism”: white Americans lied, cheated, stole, murdered, conned, and legislated their way to the top of the global hierarchy. Economic protectionism via high tariffs on imports helped grow domestic companies in industry, agriculture, and other fields. The devastation of Europe, Japan, China, and many other nations during WWII gave a huge advantage to US corporations, with nearly 50% of world heavy industry and manufacturing occurring in the US in the late 1940s through the 1950s, despite America only having about 5% of the world’s population.
These undercurrents of resentment and privilege are not going away. They are the remnants of a white supremacist narrative which either ignores or disputes the impact of how whites have gained economic hegemony on a continent stolen by genocide, its populations fed and clothed by chattel slaves, a land pillaged of resources, its natural beauty desecrated.
The school shooters and mass killers exemplify these sorts of delusions, along with terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh or, in Norway, Anders Breivik. All of these violent thugs see themselves as victims, outsiders, saviors in a world devolving into multiculturalism and hedonism. Just as the poverty-stricken banlieues of France and outside Brussels bred the conditions for the Paris terrorists in 2015, the emptiness and social alienation of life in suburban America creates a backdrop for the attacker’s dehumanization of their victims.
Of course, this rage and hatred of the “other” by no means is confined to America. It is a sort of virulent contagion that has mutated and spread across Europe due to the migrant crisis caused by the US and NATO allies, infecting the minds of such people and parties like: Marine Le Pen; Nigel Farage; Norbert Hofer, the German AfD, Polish Law & Justice Party, Viktor Orban, etc. The creep of conservative nationalism into fascism is also seen in Turkey’s AKP under Erdogan, India’s Modi using the BJP and RSS as his tools to wage war on Muslims, Dalits, and minorities via Hindutva, and the mobster mentality of leaders such as Duterte, Putin, and Xi.
Capitalism has picked up where the feudal system died out, cementing social hierarchies with myths of meritocracy and the invisible hand of the market. Whereas centuries ago feudalism saw petty fiefdoms war with neighbors, now both dictatorships and “liberal democracies” lord over the globe using media brainwashing, gaslighting, lobbying and outright bribery, as well as increasingly coercive and violent police and military forces.
A comprehensive list of people, parties, proxy terrorists and death squads, and social justice groups killed, infiltrated by FBI or overseas by CIA, would fill volumes; and the evidence is in top secret files in the bowels of the J. Edgar Hoover Building and Langley, whatever is left that has not been burned or destroyed, that is.
Insofar as pre-capitalist societies were allowed to choose the duration and time of day when labor was to be performed, now our jobs are surveilled by legions of corporate stooge middle management, over-zealous bureaucrats, and micro-managing business school know-nothings. Both Yanis Varoufakis and Ajamu Baraka have dubbed our system “liberal totalitarianism” for good reason.
This breeds alienation, inequality, and poverty on a scale never seen before. The ruling classes around the world use an updated form of Gilded Age Social Darwinism to maintain and strengthen their own wealth and power. Despite advances in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, the US and EU combined maintain approximately 47% of global GDP and own 57% of the Fortune 500 companies, despite the US plus EU total of 11.1% of global population.
This digital and service-oriented rentier economy, along with the militarization of the globe, leaves US citizens increasingly atomized and yet arrogant regarding their privileged position. The middle classes in the US complain about taxes or the inability to own a second home yet cannot understand that capitalism is leading towards a leveling which is underway, a proletariatization of the world. They cannot do the simple math where under capitalism 7.5 billion people must compete or die for the 75 trillion in global annual GDP, which translates to $10,000 per person per year.
This system of artificial scarcity pits each other as enemies, whether by race, gender, ethnicity, region, or nation, just as modern education forces children into a war for access to higher education and fair-paying jobs. Where Keynes, Gorz and others foresaw a 21th century with shortened work weeks and an end to the drudgery of soul-crushing labor, today the high priests of finance and internet technology subscribe to the ideology of neoliberalism, with a dash of Ayn Rand here, a pinch of Milton Friedman there.
You could feel the seething rage when Reagan spoke of welfare queens, when Hillary Clinton spoke of young black men as “superpredators”, and today, when Trump talks about anyone, well, not white or rich. Trump, like many Americans, loathes any and everyone who is deemed as “weak”, any ethnic groups that resists and protests our immoral foreign policy, our addiction to fossil fuels, endemic police brutality, and our structurally racist criminal justice system.
I have no paeans to offer to any real resistance in the US anytime soon. Dissidents and leftists have been unceremoniously kicked out of any say in determining policy or influencing a mass base. Political paradigm shifts may occur just as in science, where Max Planck noted that: “A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”