Sunday, 7 October 2018

The US State After Trump

In the strange stasis that characterises US domestic politics, it can often seem that nothing really changes. There may be  changes in personnel, but none that threaten the state’s higher, imperial purpose. Yet, some things have changed in the wake of the Trump ascendancy. The tone of US politics has irrevocably shifted. There is now an unavoidable intensification of political competition, even if establishment Democrats would like to fight on the old, more technocratic terms. Insurgents on the left, in multi-ethnic urban centres, are having a genuine electoral impact, while the dinosaurs of the old Right are having their way with the judiciary. Trump is less the manager of this process than a peculiarly omniscient observer, maintaining a constant, hyperventilating stream of consciousness whose effect is not to assert control, but merely to nudge the colossus this way or that.

Still, there has been little evidence of a legislative drive behind the bluster. No major new laws have been passed. No grand authoritarian initiatives have begun to restructure the state apparatus. There is no visible loss of civil liberties (unlike the Bush era), nor any large restructuring of welfare to make it more coercive and punitive (unlike the Clinton era), nor any marked intensification of technological warfare (unlike the Obama years). If Trump is more openly authoritarian than his predecessors, he is largely reliant on a state structure inherited from them. 

Take the case of Brett Kavanaugh. Distinguished only by his extreme odiousness, Kavanaugh is an exemplar of the princeling status of the US capital class. From an elite all-boys prep to law at Yale, Kavanaugh appears to have left a trail of sexual abuse and personal trauma on his way to the pinnacle of conservative lawmaking. His appointment to the Supreme Court in the face of extraordinary civil opposition marks a turning point for conservative politics. As with so much in US politics, the initiative is not in the traditional legislative centres - the House of Representatives and the Senate - but in the complex web of interlocking state institutions. The Supreme Court is where the real initiative lies: a lifetime seat endows its members with power over the most contentious constitutional and social issues in the US. Now with a conservative majority, abortion rights, LGBT rights, and environmental rights are all under severe threat.

It is being heralded as a rare victory for Trump, but this project to overturn hard won social rights stretches back long before him. Indeed, US conservatism has long recognised the de facto discretionary power of the US legal system and made it - rather than Congress - the focus of its activities. This may be canny strategising by the right, but it highlights the extent to which the US diverges from the norm of a functioning congressional democracy. For those who care about such things (and they may be few), it is increasingly difficult to argue that the future decisions of the Supreme Court will be in any sense democratic. In what sense is its composition representative? How do its decisions command consent? What is the mechanism by which they can be held to account? Mouldy US constitutionalists will talk of the division of powers, but this is - now more than ever - a shibboleth. There is no effective division of powers if the legislature ceases to function and power is concentrated in an unaccountable judiciary with a job for life. 

It must by now be clear to all but his most fervent supporters that there will be no draining of any swamps under Trump’s watch. Only, at best, a stirring up of its fetid contents. What goes too often unacknowledged is the broader lineage of the US state that led to Trump. There has been for a long time a general retreat of US democracy. Although there has always been a marked degree of corporatism - of binding big interests into a cumbersome, bipartisan stasis - the transfer of power between the two parties meant real alterations to policy. There was a genuine, if attenuated representative link at work: Democrats for organised labour, liberal capitalists, urbanites, universities and civil liberty interest groups; Republicans for big capital, the military, the petty bourgeoisie, and all forms of white, religious conservatism. Republican strategy was, from the 1960s, the more dynamic: the Southern Strategy saw poor whites move over to political conservatism in the face of civil rights victories. The relocation of capital from the high-wage, unionised north to the non-unionised, low-skilled, low-paid and still largely racially segregated South created fresh, exploitative opportunities for US domestic capital. Although technically a demographic minority, the Republican coalition has benefited from progressive disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, and demobilisation. 

It shouldn’t be thought that the increasing prominence of non-democratic bodies like the Supreme Court or, in monetary policy, the Federal Reserve is simply an effect of the famous ‘partisan gridlock’ that afflicts Congress. As if alternative, technocratic or legalistic state institutions merely compensate for the failures of the more overtly politico-representative state. Such a functionalist view would merely oppose the ‘political’ state to the ‘administrative’ state. There is no such real distinction. Rather, the state itself has been adapted so as to administer an altered economy. It is the state’s job to manage the reproduction of the distinctive social relations of particular phases of the development of capitalism. To do this, the whole edifice of the state must be converted so it is fit for the task.

If this is all very abstract, what it means in the current case is that congressional democracy as it existed in the US was not a suitable political form of the state for the type of neoliberal economy that emerged there. The irony of neoliberalism was that the implementation of a superficially ‘small state’ ideology by a motley cast of Mont Pellerin Society survivors, Chicago School ex-Keynesians, anti-communist cranks and failed actors, actually necessitated the growth of every coercive aspect of the state. Neoliberalism responded to the successive shocks of the 70s (the end of Bretton Woods, the oil price shock, the fiscal drag of Vietnam and the Great Society) by embarking on a project to restructure the relationship of the state to the individual. It would do so of course by fundamentally statist means: the expansion of state-subsidised outsourcing; the semi-privatisation of the government-sponsored enterprises which managed mortgage credit; the implementation of central bank independence; the massive expansion of administrative oversiggt entailed by a financialised economy; the growth of the punitive and carcarel functions of the state; the emergence of spiralling public sector fiscal deficits through endless tax cuts, military spending and clientelism. All this supposedly in the name of ensuring that individuals were not reliant on state patronage and that government would not patronise minority interests.

Congressional democracy of the type that openly advocated for certain social interests - minorities, unionised workers, small businesses - was not a useful system for such a project. But more than this, a certain ‘independence’ from popular pressures was necessary to secure the expansion and reproduction of this system. Neoliberalism in international relations theory (as distinct from the actual economic project of the 1980s and 1990s) advocates a system of institutional managerialism. So-called ‘public choice theory’ reduced political economy to a theory of the unreliability of democratically elected politicians who were biased in favour of a short-termist public. This was an academic fluff job for the complete privatisation of political decision making.  

Although there have been legislative achievements in the last decades - Clinton’s demolition of the welfare system and the increase in policing of insubordinate populations; Bush’s implementation of the Patriot Act, with its erasure of civil liberties and expansion of mass surveillance - these have been developed entirely from above, lacking any popular mandate or initiative, and have swum with rather than against the tide. For much of the activity of the US state, not even this shallow assent has been necessary. The massive project of drone warfare undertaken by Obama received scant public scrutiny. If the migrant deportation regime has intensified in brutality under Trump, it has done so from an already high base. In foreign policy, the tradition of unanimity around the President has continued. 

Trump himself may mark a sea change in the public role of President. Now a vocal, stridently partial commentator on events within the state from which he seems strangely detached, the current President only makes explicit these longer term post-democratic trends. Trump is quite literally beside his own administration, reduced to the same impotent social media carping that one finds among his millions of supporters. But if many who work within the state - including many conservatives - will not miss his verbal incoherence, in substance he has not proved harmful to the conservative project. Trump may ultimately prove little more than the enduring effectiveness of this project. Certainly, institutionalised conservatism will finish his presidency in a stronger position than when it began. But the weakened elite hold over the two parties - as grassroots right and left insurgents grasp onto the hollowed out party structures - could yet lead to future challenges. 

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