World

OP-ED

Storming the Capitol: It’s the end of a flatulent presidency, but not of anti-democratic politics

Storming the Capitol: It’s the end of a flatulent presidency, but not of anti-democratic politics
Supporters of US President Donald Trump and his baseless claims of voter fraud run through the Rotunda of the US Capitol after breaching Capitol security during their protest against Congress certifying Joe Biden as the next president, 6 January 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE / JIM LO SCALZO)

The rise of Donald Trump and the massive support he enjoys in the US are the inevitable result of decades of neoliberal thought. This credo of distrust for any collective entity, such as society or the state, has guided neoliberal political philosophy and economic action for more than 40 years.

Donald Trump should never have won the US presidential election of 2016. But he did. And the Republican Party elite, after doing little to prevent him from doing so, fell all over themselves to provide a coherent policy agenda he so obviously lacked. Reverse anything Barack Obama might have done and obliterate any semblance of the idea that the state and its government will do anything for the citizens.

And sow doubt about anything that the government and state might do, from police work to climate change to economic policy to healthcare efforts. Nothing was sacred – not even government scientists who desperately tried to maintain some form of rationality. Trump and his minions knew better – so much so that they would have peddled Clorox to deal with Covid-19 had they been given a chance.

Trump mobilised an ever-increasing fascist movement cobbled together from racists in the Deep South to the Armageddon doomsday preppers to white supremacists in paramilitary organisations to internet groupings such as QAnon. A curious alliance of Bigfoot believers, conspiracy theorists, neofascists, Christian fundamentalists and supporters of a Republican establishment that only believes in making money hand over fist lined up neatly behind a man who cares most about his own self-interest, how his hair looks and where the next grope might come from.

That this is a large coalition and not just a loose conglomeration of irrationalists should be clear from the election result – more than 74 million Americans voted for this circus of chaos. The idea that Trump appeals only to the disgruntled, white working class is wrong. His base is broad and includes people from all sorts of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. What unites them is a fundamental mistrust of the US government and the state.

Wendy Brown, a political theorist at the University of California at Berkeley, recently published a thorough study of the rise of anti-democratic politics in the West (Wendy Brown (2019) In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West, New York: Columbia University Press). Her analysis begins with the neoliberal project that has its origins in the economic philosophy of economists such as Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. Sometimes referred to as the Austrian School of Economics, Hayek and Von Mises founded the Mont Pelerin Society shortly after World War 2. This society included economists such as Milton Friedman and saw itself as a champion of liberal economic thought and policy.

Initially intended as a think-tank devoted to opposition to totalitarian regimes (both communist and fascist), the neoliberals advocated a critique of the idea that any government could know what a “public good” might be – markets should be left to sort that out. In fact, apart from markets sorting out what people want and need, the basic notion of “society” was seen as fundamentally flawed. Individuals and their families form the core of human life. Margaret Thatcher expressed this idea in her statement that “there is no society – only individuals and their families”.

This credo of distrust for any collective entity, such as society or the state, has guided neoliberal political philosophy and economic action for more than 40 years.

Let us not underestimate the task before Biden – he will need to strengthen social trust among strangers in the US through meaningful government action.

Brown argues that the first neoliberal experiment occurred in Chile after the overthrow of the Allende regime when Friedman’s “Chicago Boys” were given carte blanche to introduce neoliberal economics. The neoliberal virus spread from the Global South, where the IMF and World Bank practised it through “structural adjustment programmes” in indebted countries, to the North through the Reagan-Thatcher revolution.

Global neoliberalism undermines any notion of state action as inspired by the pursuit of either collective but partial civil society interest groups or self-interested politicians. Neoliberalism demonises any aspect of the social and political in government policy by insisting that market solutions are preferable to state intervention. And it has kicked off a wave of crony capitalism (South Africa being a prime example), a global financial oligarchy of immense wealth and the rebirth of the radical right.

And here is the rub – originally intended to depoliticise economics and protect markets from totalitarian regimes, neoliberalism has kicked off a ferocious explosion of hitherto repressed political forces.

Brown characterises the problem by referring to what she calls an “enraged form of majoritarianism” (or populism), where citizens express nihilism, despair and fatalism about their existence. They demand protection from outsiders and victimise those whose claims for government support are seen as undeserved. As neoliberalism undermines any notion of the public good, all ideas of public trust, it leaves a political landscape denuded and bereft of hope.

Brown suggests that what is left are “morals that are marketised and markets that are moral”. Financial elites undermine the neoliberal idea of competitive markets and are able to walk away with the lion’s share of the economic benefits of capitalism, while the bulk of the population falls increasingly prey to precariousness and indebtedness. In this kind of environment, the rise of anti-democratic forces is to be expected.

The Democratic Party faces a major task, as do most other progressive movements. It now has two years in which to do what Bernie Sanders has been calling for – develop a policy agenda that will truly assist the ordinary US citizen. This raises the issue of healthcare yet again – but it goes much further than that. Precariousness in the “gig economy”, unemployment, an unending number of “shit jobs”, badly paid and without benefits, grossly unequal access to quality education, mounting debts and stagnant incomes – these problems are not new. They have been in the making for 50 years or more, but they are now reaching a zenith and the actions of the Joe Biden presidency will determine whether the US sinks into an abyss or emerges from this Trumpista catastrophe with renewed vigour.

Let us not underestimate the task before Biden – he will need to strengthen social trust among strangers in the US through meaningful government action. And this is the task at hand for other progressive movements as Brown so vividly illustrates in her prose.

The act of storming Congress might have been the end of the Trump presidency, but it is not the end of the rise of anti-democratic politics. DM

Thomas A Koelble is Professor of Business Administration in Political Science at the Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town.

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options