Hate, and its antidote

A few decades ago an elderly Jewish friend and I walked down a spacious avenue located in a multi-ethnic Brooklyn neighborhood. We passed a Hasidic Synagogue as we neared out destination. I never learned the name of the sect that used an inconspicuous Brooklyn home for their house of devotion, but I knew I did not care much for them because they prominently placed a sign in the yard that commanded: “Women must enter in the rear.” I often wondered for whom the sign was meant. After all, sect members would know which door they were to use to enter the building. But why would Sheila, a hypothetical mail lady, or Joyce, a hypothetical EMT, care a damn for their belligerent demands? I remembered the paradoxes of tolerance the sign always brought to my attention.

It was around the moment we passed the Synagogue that my friend said something to this effect:

Friend: “You just do not understand. Because you are not Jewish. They [the Goyim] will always hate us. It can happen here.”

“It,” of course, was a Holocaust. My friend’s fear of another catastrophe originated in his having been a young Jewish refugee who fled pre-war Poland and his knowing that his extended family had perished during the Holocaust. Encountering anti-Semites over his long life not only magnified his fears, these experiences turned them into something that could be called an unshakable belief in the fearful risks that went along with being a Jew. These risks reflected his belief in a recurring anti-Semitism. It may be surprising that these elements combined to redoubled his commitment to revolutionary socialism, a family preoccupation that lasted generations. But Zionism was not his thing. Besting anti-Semitism, on the other hand, was part of his being.

Friend: “Only a classless society will save the Jews from mass murder.”

My reply was measured and calmly stated:

Me: “While it is true that Anti-Semites can be found across the world, that some live in the United States and that a Holocaust occurred in and around Germany, I am nearly certain that ‘The Jewish Question’ is not an issue here. The ‘Black Question,’ on the other hand, drives and has long driven American reactionary politics. If we were to see anything like the Holocaust in the United States, it would likely feature a Black final solution as an animating goal.”

My friend replied: “You just do not understand.”

As we neared the falafel shop that was our destination, a mentally deranged black man carrying a large portable toy phone approached us and began spewing anti-Semitic rants about the shop (it was owned and operated by Sephardic Jews) and its mostly Jewish patrons. My friend, who considered himself a tough guy even though he was then old and partly disabled, looked a bit stunned by and scared of the crazy man with his phone and sadistic tirade. I, on the other hand, found the him annoying if only because he had undermined the point I had made a few moments before.

So, when his phone rang, I blurted out: “That’s for you. It’s Hell calling.” My friend looked relieved by my response or, perhaps, because a Goy had defended him against this kind of nonsense. We then walked towards the shop, a place where, as a Goy, I sometimes had personally experienced bias. Our lunch was uneventful.

If we can thank Donald Trump for anything, it might be this: The Trump campaign and election spurred the bigoted elements in the United States to emerge en masse and to assert themselves boldly with pride. Shameless anti-Semites, Islamophobes, Homophobes, White Nationalists, religious fundamentalists, etc. appear to believe it is their time to be seen and heard. Trump, briefly put, cleared a public space in which they can be who they are, where their aspirations appear legitimate, in which their presence can be known. Trump’s victory even inspired some to act without restraint. Crime and murder, hatred and war circulate in the air we breathe. Self and other, us and them, friend and foe, purity and filth — these are terms in which the bigots express themselves. Within such an environment the violence of the few clarify and expose the aspirations of the many. (What might be the goal of exclusionary violence but genocidal cleansing or purification of the land?) Although America’s hate-addled monsters are a minority and the energetic popular response to Trump’s prejudices should encourage everyone with more than a bit of good will in their souls, the United States still contains the social resources needed to mount collective expressions of hate. We need only to recall the potential violence on display during the Tea Party’s moment to glean the truth of this claim. Likewise, the many death threats directed towards Barack Obama and the First Family. So too the use Trump made of his followers to harass and intimidate his opponents. These individuals and groups intended to draw boundaries, and would use the blood of their opponents to do so. They wished to exclude others from White America. Moreover, we have also seen that American’s institutions can use these popular mentalities as a basis for attacks on the presence of human diversity within the country, to justify its imperial politics abroad and to suppress dissent at home. This situation is both disturbing and unsurprising. For what is Trump’s America but an enraged Uncle Sam with a loaded pistol and a nearly empty bottle. We Americans have been in this situation before. We know Uncle Sam has never been mentally fit or morally respectable. He has long had innocent blood on his hands.

My friend firmly believed that a (Marxian) revolution was the only feasible solution to the anti-Semite problem that once vexed Europe, that a classless society provided the only durable haven for the Jews. He believed no one would molest the Jews once the world had neither Yids nor Goyim, that is, once it had only human beings, liberated, free and happy. An inclusive solidarity would make these hatreds all but impossible, their condition of possibility being the assertion of those differences which efface our common humanity, differences that, in his mind, reflected the conflict of the contending classes.

He might have been right about this. (I, on the other hand, do not believe antagonistic class relations are the first cause of every form of oppression and misery.) Of course, our world remains polluted by hate and fury as well as class cleavages. It does not feature an inclusive solidarity. Nor institutions that promote such. Oppression and exploitation, conflict and war are our overbearing realities. A common humanity that affirms difference is thus a socio-political project, not an undeniable presence in the world. My friend’s implicit belief in an inevitable and pervasive anti-Semitism, one so stubborn that it survives every attempt to shame it into oblivion, may be more ‘realistic’ than not. Who is to say otherwise when we know Trump’s ascent includes many anti-Semitic episodes as obvious by-products? Nevertheless, even if we are fated to confront anti-Semites along with the race-haters, Islamophobes, etc., we know that many will oppose bigotry because bigots of every stripe are barely tolerable impediments to realizing the good life. The project, to be sure, makes our common humanity a living presence in an inhospitable world. Solidarity is always an antidote to hate.

The chaos

Some assert that Donald Trump is a fascist. Although his personal inclinations as revealed to the public show a person with the personality a fascist leader would have, and his identity and class biases affirm this description, it is an obvious fact that Donald Trump was too lazy to have built the movement, party and related institutional forms needed to be considered an actual fascist leader. What, then, is Donald Trump? I believe he is a vile opportunist who found himself the executive of the world’s Superpower while tenuously leading the mostly disorganized far right public in the United States. For them, Trump is their latest celebrity-hero, an accidental Robespierre of the counter-revolution they desire. As such, he provides a frame through which they can locate their aspirations and interpret their political opportunities. He is a Reagan who no long speaks in code, a Buchanan to whom they can relate. That said, it is also a fact that the Trump administration lacks democratic legitimacy. He lacks democratic legitimacy because the demos did not vote him into office. The demos chose Hillary Clinton. The Constitution gave us Trump. Donald Trump, despite his democratic legitimacy deficit, possesses the powers specific to his office. He will hold these powers until he leaves office. But it is because Trump lacks democratic legitimacy that he also lacks the authority (power amplified because it is recognized as legitimate) always found in a leader who enjoys the broad and deep consent of those he would govern.

Briefly put, Trump is dangerously powerful because he is the President of the United States, holder of an office that controls an immense arsenal of violent tools. But he is politically weak because he lacks the authority a democratic consensus provides to an office holder and because he cannot let a day pass without creating new and powerful enemies at home and abroad. At best, he can impose his will on the society and state he leads with his executive orders (decrees). But even his rule by decree founders on his incapacities. The events of his first week in office made this point obvious.

If, then, Trump is a fascist, he is largely hated and politically weak. This combination does not auger well for his political future.

Others assert that Trump oftensometimes furthers the policies, programs and goals of his recent predecessors. This claim is frequently true. It is made because the claim and its truth are meant to diminish Trump’s predecessors while normalizing Trump’s barbarism. There is irony in this gambit, for the normal and barbaric can merge into one disturbing image.

First, for instance, we know Trump wants to ban prospective immigrants and deport actual immigrants, even legally protected immigrants. Yet, we also know that Barack Obama did restrict immigration and deport some of those who made it into the United States. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also advanced border control policies. Their support for these policies are not too surprising given the fact that setting and consolidating borders is an elemental competency of any modern state. It is also unsurprising because globalization (American-led imperial expansion) produces migration problems as a matter of course. We should expect migration problems because successful imperial aggression results in accumulation by dispossession, as David Harvey (2003, 145-182) notes. Of course, placeless people need somewhere to go. Nevertheless, a freely flowing movement of migrants from one state to another reveals the presence of an incapacitated or failed state. Accordingly, no state or political leader promotes or long-tolerates an un- or under-restricted movement of groups or individuals across its borders. This claim does not absolve Trump, though. What distinguishes Trump’s immigration rhetoric from that of his recent predecessors and what makes it objectionable per se is the overt hatred he consistently expresses through his proclamations and policies. His recent immigration ban only exposes his barbarism for what it is. Trump seemingly feels justified in making his decrees and imposing his bans because he considers some actual and potential immigrants to be monsters or sub-human criminals. He uses these outliers to define whole population categories, massive groups that must be dealt with as collective entities, as others. This is inhumane and unrealistic. It is because of Trump’s hatreds that I believe his policies are not akin to border control policies as practiced by states not enthralled to atavistic impulses. It reflects another, related project: Identity construction. Trump seeks to promote a cramped and corrupt unity among his followers in the United States and even abroad. It is a reactionary identity politics. It is cramped and corrupt because the United States is already a multi-ethnic and -religious society. (Muslim, Hispanics, Gays, Oh My!) Its many and diverse peoples cannot be forced into a system of categorical domination led by one distinct identity category without the use of an appalling degree of violence. It cannot because the United States is slowly moving towards instituting an ethos of tolerance and mutual recognition that will make White America obsolete. Seen in this light, Trump’s hatreds reveal the existential anxiety of a social category that is watching its moment pass before its eyes, namely, the augmented WASPish America that appeared as an ideological sign after the Second World War. These anxieties, along with Trump’s immigration politics, have nothing to do with a credible and morally defensible immigration program. They reflect instead the death of the White American dream.

Second, Trump wants to prosecute what remains of the Great War on Terror by destroying ISIS and, perhaps, Iran. In this he follows the repetitive and reckless program set by George W. Bush, Barack Obama, the Clintons and much of the Washington establishment since 9.11. This path extends back further to the Gulf War of 1990-1 as well as to the genocidal sanctions regime promoted by Third-Way ‘leftists’ like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair once Operation Desert Shield turned modern Iraq into a non-modern wasteland. Although the details of this compulsive war-making may differ between the various administrations, the Islamophobia and disrespect for human life, the imperial arrogance and militarism which marked the original invasion remain intact. These vices also reflected in the relations the United States has with Brazil, Russia, India and China as well as the lesser members of the world economy. From these relations, we know that the United States does not provide humanitarian goods to the world as expressions of its essential goodness. It takes wealth when it can, promotes its clients and extends its sphere of influence. It fights wars and spreads its war-making capacity around the world in order to achieve its imperial goals. In this regard, Trump now occupies a place and furthers a project that already existed, one created by the costly and fruitless imperial programs of the past, by a political culture that believes America is exceptional, an Empire of Liberty. Trump’s America First and Make America Great Again slogans reflect his imperial mindset. They are not novel interventions into American public discourse. Likewise, destroying or attempting to destroy ISIS or Iran provide just two additional data points in the American Presidents are fools slot. The slogans and war-making are all-to-typical of the country.

Third, Trump also looks well on his way to implementing an austere pro-corporate economic agenda. Once again, Trump’s inclinations in this matter do not mark him as different from the Bushes and Clintons, from Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan and even Jimmy Carter. Despite his populist campaign rhetoric, which promised job creation, living wages and cost controls, goals that an economically beleaguered population would gladly support, Trump and his cabinet picks seem prepared to promote a capital- and oligarchy-friendly agenda. This is unsurprising given the role played by the Heritage Foundation in the formation of that agenda. (“Free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense — these are the values that we fight for every single day.“) It is also unsurprising given that the Empire of Liberty exists to further the ends of capital, not the demos. The business of America is business, as the pithy slogan puts it. Neoliberal dogma, the current expression of this economic impulse, provides the air Washington, New York, Chicago, London, Brussels, etc. breath. It is the American ideology writ large, to which alternatives are neither conceivable nor tolerable.

If Newton saw more than others because he stood on the shoulder of giants, we may expect Trump to make the colossal messes he will make because he will merely disturb or extend the social and political wasteland created by his mediocre and compromised predecessors. This amounts to saying that the disorder of the moment is not specific to Trump, his program and administration. The risk and uncertainty many Americans experience every day expresses the creeping institutional decay of the current American system, the system disintegration specific to post-Golden Age democratic capitalism. The 2008 crisis merely exacerbated these problems. In the United States, this decay takes the form of a permanently stagnating economy; the prevalence of debt bondage within the lower classes; the use of finance capital by America’s oligarchy to confiscate the wealth of the many; the consolidation of the predatory state; the intractable insignificance of the democratic mechanism in the effort to generate solutions to common and pressing problems; the present and future dangers of a bloated security-surveillance apparatus only able to consume scarce resources, commit crimes and produce chaos with notable effectiveness; and the slow decay of those institutions meant to realize a common good, an inclusive form of solidarity, replacing them with militarized police forces, prisons and internment camps. Trump has nothing relevant to say about these matters, and Americans will wait in vain if they expect him to correct them just like they waited for Obama to deliver change they can believe in.

I believe that very little a reasonable person would consider desirable can come from these oppressive and exploitative conditions. Altering them to make them significantly better would require a reform program the likes of which the world has yet to see. A program of this sort would necessarily be a radical reform program. If it were successful in achieving its ends, one might consider it another instance of a velvet revolution. The Green New Deal would be one good place to look for the makings of this radical reform program. Or, it would be if it were not for the fact that implementing a radical reform program with this character would require achieving contestable secondary goals. It would require dismantling America’s really existing Empire of Liberty and replacing the Federal Reserve and Wall Street. In their place, we would see a Department of State devoted to achieving world peace and a financial system dedicated to promoting human flourishing. A rational political economy would devote trillions of dollars to clean energy, to green transportation and commodity production. A radical reform program would promote the rehabilitation of democracy in America. It would rescue it from the severe constraints imposed by money, class and history. This is a utopia, and we would expect America’s oligarchy, its capitalist class in general, its political elite, members of the security-surveillance apparatus and even many of its citizens to oppose any effort to implement this program. Radical change is inconvenient as it is risky. The benefits it produces might not appear for years or even generations in the future. They may even appear impossible at any given moment. Both the powerful and weak can find reasons to opt out. Nevertheless, a program this radical stands as the historic demand of the moment. We know this because the world will not always endure the scourges of neoliberalism, American militarism and remorseless carbon consumption. Climate chaos changes everything, as Naomi Kline put it. It demands of humanity that it put its house in order. This demand is most compelling in the United States.

Donald Trump, crypto- or accidental-fascist as he may be, stands as an impediment to any radical reform program. He is an impediment because he is a bundle of dirt, lies and crime, but also because he has many violent institutions in his back pocket. He may lack democratic legitimacy, but he does not lack popular support. He is, as it were, a Son of America. On the other hand, the Trump regime provides us with an opportunity, namely, the chance to gain clarity about and insight into the predicaments of the day and to struggle to rectify the damage that has already be done. From chaos we can create form.

On the forgetting of our human nature

Wendell Berry once wrote:

We Americans are not usually thought to be a submissive people, but of course we are. Why else would we allow our country to be destroyed? Why else would we be rewarding its destroyers? Why else would we all — by proxies we have given to greedy corporations and corrupt politicians — be participating in its destruction? Most of us are still too sane to piss in our own cistern, but we allow others to do so and we reward them for it. We reward them so well, in fact, that those who piss in our cistern are wealthier than the rest of us.

How do we submit? By not being radical enough. Or by not being thorough enough, which is the same thing.

The essay from which I pulled this quote addresses the destruction of the land in America and around the world. Berry’s thought: If human beings destroy the land on which they live, they will have committed collective suicide and, ironically, genocide. If human beings lack habitable land upon which to create a life, our species, one of many, will become extinct.

For Berry’s land one could substitute the idea of a world that can sustain both human and a diverse abundance of non-human life. Human beings have known the ‘civilized’ version of this generic world since about 8,000 to 12,000 BC, from the time when our ancestors began to develop an agricultural economy. Although this habitable world is both necessary and irreplaceable, over the last one-hundred years it has become possible to imagine its destruction. About a century ago, the advent of total and world war brought about the age of catastrophe, the age in which we live, an epoch of holocausts and apocalypses, of the subjugation of the human world to globalizing economic and political systems. Nuclear weapons exemplify the destructiveness now in the hands of some of the most belligerent war-making modern states. But it is modern industrial production and consumption, now encompassing the globe, which mortally threaten those species attuned to the mechanisms and rhythms of a first nature billions of years in the making.

Civilized human beings believe themselves to reasonable, pragmatic and thus adaptable. They believe themselves to be masters of and responsible for their destinies. Yet it is the most powerful members of this lot that have shown themselves to be incapable of learning from the situation we all now confront. What must they learn? This: A civilization that requires the hyper exploitation of finite resources will not last forever.

The endgame of the human project has already appeared. These are reactionary times, a moment during which capital is at its apex, and, as such, they thus call for a radical response: Social and political revolution. “If not now, then when?”

From austerity to rebellion?

Robert Skidelsky, a Keynesian political economist, thus addressed the scourge of deficit mania:

This, the official doctrine of most developed countries today, contains at least five major fallacies, which pass largely unnoticed, because the narrative is so plausible.

First, governments, unlike private individuals, do not have to “repay” their debts. A government of a country with its own central bank and its own currency can simply continue to borrow by printing the money which is lent to it. This is not true of countries in the eurozone. But their governments do not have to repay their debts, either. If their (foreign) creditors put too much pressure on them, they simply default. Default is bad. But life after default goes on much as before.

Second, deliberately cutting the deficit is not the best way for a government to balance its books. Deficit reduction in a depressed economy is the road not to recovery, but to contraction, because it means cutting the national income on which the government’s revenues depend. This will make it harder, not easier, for it to cut the deficit. The British government already must borrow £112 billion ($172 billion) more than it had planned when it announced its deficit-reduction plan in June 2010.

Third, the national debt is not a net burden on future generations. Even if it gives rise to future tax liabilities (and some of it will), these will be transfers from taxpayers to bond holders. This may have disagreeable distributional consequences. But trying to reduce it now will be a net burden on future generations: income will be lowered immediately, profits will fall, pension funds will be diminished, investment projects will be canceled or postponed, and houses, hospitals, and schools will not be built. Future generations will be worse off, having been deprived of assets that they might otherwise have had.

Fourth, there is no connection between the size of national debt and the price that a government must pay to finance it. The interest rates that Japan, the United States, the UK, and Germany pay on their national debt are equally low, despite vast differences in their debt levels and fiscal policies.

Finally, low borrowing costs for governments do not automatically reduce the cost of capital for the private sector. After all, corporate borrowers do not borrow at the “risk-free” yield of, say, US Treasury bonds, and evidence shows that monetary expansion can push down the interest rate on government debt, but have hardly any effect on new bank lending to firms or households. In fact, the causality is the reverse: the reason why government interest rates in the UK and elsewhere are so low is that interest rates for private-sector loans are so high.

As with “the specter of Communism” that haunted Europe in Karl Marx’s famous manifesto, so today “[a]ll the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise” the specter of national debt. But statesmen who aim to liquidate the debt should recall another famous specter — the specter of revolution.