Dictators, Hustling, Neoliberalism and Guarantees

There area few towering intellects whose work has been utterly intertwined with this blog project. Often I refer to them over and over without even thinking about their impact. They include the living such as Michael Hudson, Steve Keen, Chris Ryan, Ran Prieur, Morris Berman, Mark Blyth, Nate Hagens, Blair Fix and countless others.

They include the departed such as Karl Polanyi, Thorstein Veblen, Marvin Harris, Lewis Mumford, and many others.

Now, David Graeber is among the departed. If you search through the archives, you will see just how profound an influence he was.

Graeber understood the real value of anthropology: as lens through which we could see our society as something fundamentally constructed and malleable, and how it was always a choice on how it operated.

“We’re all already communists when working on a common projects, all already anarchists when we solve problems without recourse to lawyers or police, all revolutionaries when we make something genuinely new.”

“There’s no better way to justify relations founded on violence, to make such relations seem moral, than by reframing them in the language of debt – above all, because it immediately makes it seem that it’s the victim who’s doing something wrong.”

“The ultimate, hidden truth of the world, is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”

***

I’m sick of writing about current events. I don’t often like to do it, but I felt compelled by the events unfolding on my doorstep. I’m going to move on, but before I do, I’ll mention a few things I noticed this week.

I thought this was interesting. Both of these things happened this week, in fact, on the very same day! (September 3):

The Venezuelan government of President Nicolas Maduro said Wednesday it had invited the leaders of the United Nations and European Union to send observers to monitor parliamentary elections in December.

Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said on Twitter that a letter had been sent to UN chief Antonio Guterres and EU top diplomat Josep Borrell, outlining “the broad electoral guarantees agreed for the upcoming parliamentary elections,” and inviting them to send observers.

Venezuela’s Maduro invites UN, EU observers to December elections (France 24)

Meanwhile, in the the United States, the so-called “leader of the free world”:

President Donald Trump on Wednesday appeared to encourage people in North Carolina to vote twice — once by mail and once in person — during the November general election to purportedly double check that their initial vote was counted, which is already receiving push back from state election officials.

Americans can only vote once per election.

When Trump was asked by local news station WECT in Wilmington, North Carolina, whether he was confident in the state’s absentee voting system, the President launched into a somewhat rambling answer.

“Well, they’ll go out and they’ll go vote, and they’re going to have to go and check their vote by going to the poll and voting that way, because if it tabulates, then they won’t be able to do that,” Trump said on the tarmac in front of Air Force One. “So, let them send it in, and let them go vote, and if the system is as good as they say it is, then obviously they won’t be able to vote. If it isn’t tabulated, they won’t be able to vote. So that’s the way it is. And that’s what they should do.”

The President later told people to send in their ballots, saying, “Send them in strong, whether it’s solicited or unsolicited. The absentees are fine. You have to work to get them, you know.”

“And you send them in, but you go to vote. And if they haven’t counted it, you can vote. So that’s the way I feel,” he said.
Trump essentially encouraged voters to test the state’s voting system…

Trump appears to encourage North Carolinians to vote twice to test the system (CNN)

Now, I’m sure readers will pick up on the supreme irony here. We’re in the U.S. are constantly told that Nicolas Maduro is a dictator, and that the regime in Venezuela is illegitimate. Yet the above stories speak for themselves. The President of Venezuela is encouraging outside observers to come and monitor the elections in his country, which take place in December. Meanwhile, the President of the United States is actively encouraging his supporters to commit vote fraud, in addition to persistently raising doubts about the validity of the upcoming elections, which take place in November, at every opportunity. They even did this on the exact same day.

The differences couldn’t be more stark.

And yet the media did not report this. Why? Interestingly, the only mention I found of Maduro inviting U.N election observers in was the article listed above. It wasn’t in any other stories in either the U.S. or European media as far as I could tell. It’s like a total blackout, which ought to tell you something. In addition, the Twitter account Venezualanaysis was removed by Twitter, apparently for no reason whatsoever (it has since been restored).

Why is one country considered to be a democracy, and one a dictatorship? Based on the above stories, which, I ask you, is the real dictatorship? Which regime has more legitimacy? And you needn’t be a fan of the Maduro government to note the striking difference, either. I’m not defending it, just pointing out the hypocrisy and media bias. If you listen to the opponents of the Maduro government, which includes the majority of the Western press, you might see the following argument:

“If these elections take place, then President Nicolas Maduro will get the majority he wants in the National Assembly,” Sabine Kurtenbach, from the German Institute for Global and Area Studies in Hamburg, told DW. “He has changed the rules to favor candidates and parties that are loyal to his regime,” she said. “They are more likely to get seats. The opposition, which wants a change of government, doesn’t have a chance of winning.”

Venezuela’s opposition sees a ‘trap’ in Maduro’s preelection pardons (DW)

But, of course, this is exactly the same situation in the United States! Why isn’t DW pointing that out? The Republican party has behaved exactly—and I do mean exactly—the way Maduro is accused of behaving in Venezuela. They’re invalidated elections, stacked the court system, instituted one party rule, and stripped the opposition of their powers. Yet only one of these government is described as authoritarian or illegitimate.

The following graphic tells the story:

Wisconsin Republicans vote to curb incoming Democratic governor’s power (Axios)

Yet many are okay with this permanent minority rule, even while denouncing Venezuela. Why? Could it be (and I’m just asking the question here) that capitalist regimes are, by definition, legitimate, regardless of whether they are chosen by the people or not, while socialist regimes are always, by definition, illegitimate, no matter the will of the people?

***

I thought of a perfect thought experiment to illustrate the differences between the Democratic and Republican Parties today in the U.S. Here’s the experiment:

Imagine if President Trump walked outside to give a press conference one day and a seagull pooped on his shoulder.

Because of this grievous “insult” that made him look bad on TV, the president goes on a rant against seagulls. He demands that all seagulls must be killed and calls on his followers to eradicate seagulls wherever they may be found. He issues Tweets denouncing seagulls. All for the “crime” of making him look bad. Anyone who doesn’t hate seagulls is a “Leftist” or “Marxist” he declares.

Within minutes, all across the country, people are posting pictures of them killing seagulls. Videos are posted to TikTok of people bashing seagulls with baseball bats. People in red states pose with mountains of dead seagulls. Gun injuries would increase as Trump followers in the heartland unload on every seagull they find. The more all the non-Republicans denounce this behavior as absurd, the more enthusiastically seagulls are killed to “own the libs.”  “Dead seagulls bring leftist tears,” becomes a meme on Facebook, and pickup trucks become festooned with seagull corpses. Anyone who rightly sees such behavior as insane is branded as a “snowflake” or “politically correct.”

Be honest, can you imagine the above scenario actually taking place? I know I can.

Now, try to imagine Joe Biden doing the exact same thing. Can anyone imagine him doing that, or imagine Democrats or Democratic-leaning voters engaging in the exact same behavior en masse?

I’m sorry, I simply can’t.

The fact that you can seriously imagine such a ridiculous scenario taking place in America today tells you all you need to know about the current incarnation of the Republican Party.

Look, I’m not especially fond of Biden or the Democratic Party. In many ways they’re awful. But the above scenario illustrates a critical difference in the parties today, one that should not be overlooked or taken lightly.

***

I saw a tweet the other day. It said that the Democrats would have argued that the solution for slavery would be for the slave owners to be more diverse and include more people of color.

It’s a clever dig. But I think it’s a teachable moment for what neoliberalism is, and how it’s different than other approaches to governance.

If chattel slavery had been legal during the neoliberal era (i.e. today), the current incarnation of the Democratic Party would have advocated for market-based solutions. That is, the issue of slavery should be solved within the confines of the Market. What they would vigorously oppose would be making the practice illegal. Yes, slavery is certainly detestable, they would argue, but banning it would cause too much economic dislocation, they would say. It would end up actually harming the people you would be trying to help. We need to work within the Market framework.

The Republicans, presumably, would be totally on board with slavery.

So the Democrats would propose things like regulations that would curb the worst excesses of slavery, as long as the slave owners didn’t object too much. No more beatings and whippings. Decent food and shelter. Some “common sense” regulations for slave markets—things like that.

Their main argument would be that the Market itself will bring an end to slavery through the workings of natural market forces. No intervention is required! The natural working of free markets would make slavery obsolete without any messy government intervention, they would argue. They would point out that “impersonal market forces” would eventually bring about an end to the practice by making slavery uncompetitive with “efficient” wage labor. They would argue that increasing machine automation would eventually make slavery uneconomical, because slaves would eventually be replaced with machines like cotton combine harvesters. Or, they might suggest, how about a voluntary slave buyback program? That might move the process along without putting too much hardship on slave owners, or hurting the economy. Steven Pinker would be writing articles and giving TED talks about it.

That would have been the Democratic Party’s approach to slavery.

In a pettifogging sense, they’re not entirely wrong, of course. Wage labor was indeed becoming more economically competitive than plantation slavery for most industries back then. It’s a lot easier to just hire people and pay them a wage and fire them when no longer needed than having to take care of people from cradle to grave. And machines did effectively put an end to the labor-intensive nature of cotton farming, but not until after World War Two (where it effectively put an end to sharecropping as opposed to chattel slavery). Ending slavery did indeed cause economic dislocation, including hardship for ex-slaves, who were not compensated for their previous labor (the forty acres and a mule that they expected).

But by using this example, we can illustrate the moral bankruptcy of neoliberalism. We didn’t let “impersonal market forces” work their magic to put an end to slavery. We fucking banned slavery! And then we fought a war over it. Why? Because it’s wrong. Full stop. It’s an economic practice that is morally wrong, regardless of its economic “effectiveness” or lack thereof. And, besides, if we hadn’t banned it, it’s not like the market would have just removed 100 percent of it of its own accord. Slavery is still a tragic feature of modern life, especially in domestic labor, agriculture, and sex work situations (there are more slaves today than anytime in history worldwide). But by making it illegal, however, we at least have the legal tools at our disposal to stamp it out wherever it rears its ugly head—tools we wouldn’t have had we not “interfered” and just let the market take its natural course.

So this might illustrate the differences between the neoliberal world view and those of us who find this world view abhorrent. I still occasionally see opinions like “neoliberalism doesn’t exist” and “there are no neoliberals.” Bullshit.

And we can see this mentality at work in the way that supposedly “leftist” parties approach many issues today, especially in the United States. For example, let’s not guarantee healthcare to every citizen. Instead, just let the market do its thing, and maybe pass a few regulations to curb the worst excesses (i.e. the ACA approach). Don’t ban fossil fuels, just wait until renewable energy becomes “competitive” with fossil fuels and the market will naturally phase them out via the invisible hand. Maybe pass a subsidy here and there to help move this process along—wouldn’t want to inconvenience polluters now, would we? And the continued celebration of exploitative third-world sweatshops is one of the ugliest manifestation of this mentality.

***

Matt Taibbi has written the ultimate description of Donald Trump’s world view:

The question, “What is Trump thinking?” is the wrong one. He’s not thinking, he’s selling. What’s he selling? Whatever pops into his head. The beauty of politics from his point of view, compared to every other damn thing he’s sold in his life — steaks, ties, pillows, college degrees, chandeliers, hotels, condominiums, wine, eyeglasses, deodorant, perfume (SUCCESS by Trump!), mattresses, etc. — is that there’s no product. The pitch is the product, and you can give different pitches to different people and they all buy.

In 2016 Trump reeled in the nativist loons and rage cases with his opening rants about walls and mass deportations, then slowly clawed his numbers up with the rest of the party with his “softening” routine. Each demographic probably came away convinced he was lying to the other, while the truth was probably more that he was lying to all of them. Obviously there are real-world consequences to courting the lowest common denominator instincts in people, but to Trump speeches aren’t moral acts in themselves, they’re just “words that he is saying,” as long-ago spokesperson Katrina Pierson put it.

In this sense the Republican Party’s 2020 platform is genius: there isn’t one, just a commitment to “enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda,” meaning whatever Trump says at any given moment. If one can pull back enough from the fact that this impacts our actual lives, it’s hard not to admire the breathtaking amorality of this, as one might admire a simple malevolent organism like a virus or liver fluke…

The Trump Era Sucks and Needs to Be Over

Reading this, I’m reminded of Morris Berman’s take in Why America Failed. The United States, Berman argued, is a nation of hustlers permanently on the make. It’s a “fragment culture,” one that preserves only one aspect of its founding culture (in this case, England), while discarding all of the other aspects, becoming one-dimensional—in this case England’s money-grubbing hustling culture. England’s hustling culture crossed the Atlantic, while all of its other many cultural features—from intellectualism to noblesse oblige to fellowship—which would temper the hustling life were left behind. Furthermore, he argues, this was baked into the culture of what would become the United States from the time the very first Europeans set foot on the continent. Even Alexis de Tocqueville noted America’s obsession with making money and getting rich as far back as the early 1800s. He remarked even back then that it was the most toxic aspect of the budding New World culture he saw developing here (coming from an aristocratic family before the Revolution; he was raised with a very different set of values).

So it’s logical that such a monstrous, one-dimensional culture would elect such a monstrous one-dimensional person to lead it. Trump is the ultimate validation of Berman’s thesis, in my opinion.

An example that comes to mind is Napoleon Hill. Hill wrote books about how to become rich and be successful (“Think and Grow Rich” is his most famous). But he did more than that. He claimed that these were almost spiritual practices, and claimed that they were passed down to him directly through Andrew Carnegie, who specifically chose him to dispense this gospel to the masses. Later, he claimed to have been consulted by President Woodrow Wilson to help with help convince Americans to enter World War One.

Of course it was all 100 percent false. He never met Andrew Carnegie. He was never consulted by any politician, much less the President. He simply made it all up. And that’s the same set of ethics Trump brings to the job.

When Trump first hit the campaign trail in 2015-2016, reporters were staggered by the outrageous promises Trump would toss out, like that he’d slap a 45% tariff on all Chinese products, build a “high” wall across the Mexican isthmus, or deport all 11.3 million undocumented immigrants (“They have to go,” he told Chuck Todd).

Those of us with liberal arts educations and professional-class jobs often have trouble processing this sort of thing. If you work in a hospital and someone asks you a patient’s hematocrit level, no one expects you to open with fifteen times the real number. But this is a huge part of Trump’s M.O.

By the end of the 2016 race, some of us in media were struggling with what to tell readers about Trump’s intentions, given that he would frequently offer contradictory proposals (with matching impassioned explanations) within minutes of each other, sometimes even within the same sentence. He would tell one crowd to whoops and hollers that he couldn’t wait to throw all them illegals back over the river, then go on Hannity that same night and say he was open to a “softening” on immigration:

“Everybody agrees we get the bad ones out… But when I meet thousands and thousands of people on this subject…they’ve said, ‘Mr. Trump, I love you, but to take a person that has been here for 15 or 20 years and throw them and the family out, it’s so tough, Mr. Trump.’”

Read what sales books have to say about morality or belief systems and Trump starts to make even more sense. What did Cialdini notice about John Lennon’s idealistic clarion call, Imagine? That Lennon increased his chances of selling political change with the line, “But I’m not the only one…” It turns out you can increase demand for anything from government policies to items on a Chinese menu simply by asserting, as Trump constantly does, that “everybody’s talking about it.” Ask students to draw long and short lines on a piece of paper, and when asked, the people drawing long ones think the Mississippi River is longer. Trump’s constant invocations about a future of “so much winning” worked, even with people who tried consciously to dismiss it as bullshit.

There used to be distinction between business and politics, even if was more in theory than in actual practice. Politicians, especially ones who led an entire country, were expected to be “statesmen.” They were expected to be exemplars and representative of their country’s citizens and to act a certain way—according to protocol. Salesman, by contrast, were expected to lie and cheat to make the sale. And Americans were okay with this because, deep down, they’re all hustlers at heart.

So if you’re a CEO running a business, not a statesman, of course you tell everyone what they want to hear. Of course you just say whatever will raise the stock price, no matter how ridiculous it is (just ask Elon Musk). Of course you punish your enemies and reward your friends. After all, in private businesses, anything goes. You give the prime positions to family members and other people you know personally. Hard work is for suckers and doesn’t get you anywhere, unless you golf with the boss on weekends.

And so, people who have this same kind of mentality—the people who golf with the boss and get promoted to professional lunch eaters lording over the suckers who sustain the business while making ten times their salary—love this kind of politician. The hustlers. They eat it up. They are the Republicans’ core constituency. They, and the people who really believe that they’re just waiting for “their ship to come in.” The people who really, truly believe in “The American Dream.” The suckers.

They selected for suckers when they pushed trickle down economics. They selected for suckers when they claimed global warming was a multi-decade global hoax by climate scientists designed to get more grant funding. They selected for suckers when they courted the rabid zealots of the religious right—the same demographic targeted by televangelists who use pretty much the exact same techniques on their “flock”

The ads on right-wing media tell you everything you need to know without even knowing the content of the actual broadcasts. Get-rich quick schemes. “Secret” Investment oppotunities. Dick pills made from secret Oriental herbs. Cures for baldness Things “they” don’t want you to know. All targeted to the American “get rich quick” hustling mentality.

The Republican Party has been selecting for hustlers and suckers for decades. They are symbiotic; one feeds on the other. The gullible. The angry. The deluded. The pompous and self-important. There are no longer any ideals for being a Republican or a conservative, it is simply an identity politics based around personalty traits rather than race or actual socioeconomic status (although, race, too, LoL).

The apogee came with the neoliberal idea that government should be run “like a business.” Furthermore, under neoliberalism, government is expected to “make a profit,” just like a business. In practice this meant balanced budgets and austerity if the the government was spending “too much money” on its citizens. And the leader was seen as just another CEO focused on “efficiency” and making a profit, whatever the social cost.

These ideas are, of course, absurd. The whole point of government is that it’s not a business. It sits outside the market and establishes the playing field for business operating in the market. Its purpose is to serve the citizens, not to make a profit. Yet millions bought into these horrible ideas, and continue to believe in them today.

Again, this is an outgrowth of the American hustling mindset: business over everything. Trump is simply a manifestation of these ideals held dear by so many Americans.

Just like people, nations have a character. You can predict the course of person’s life by their character. So it stands to reason that you can predict the course of a nation by its character. And just like we all know people whose characters condemn them to dysfunctional behavior and self-sabotage, so too does the fundamental character of the United States condemn it to its fate, which we are witnessing unfold before our eyes. Trump is not an aberration. Trump is the inevitable manifestation of America’s bankrupt and morally empty hustling soul, something set in motion from the very founding of the country.

Neoliberalism justified and promoted the introduction of purely economic and hierarchical principles in the political life. While it maintained the pretence of equality (one-person one-vote), it eroded it through the ability of the rich to select, fund, and make elect the politicians friendly to their interests. The number of books and articles which document the increasing political power of the rich is enormous: there is hardly any doubt that this was happening in the United States and many other countries around the world over the past 40 years.

The introduction of the rules of behaviour taken from the corporate sector into politics means that politicians no longer see people whom they rule as co-citizens but as employees. Employees can be hired and fired, humiliated and dismissed, ripped off, cheated or ignored.

Until Trump came to power the invasion of the political space by economic rules of behaviour was concealed. There was a pretence that politicians treated people as citizens. The bubble was burst by Trump who, unschooled in the subtleties of democratic dialectics, could not see how anything could be wrong with the application of business rules to politics. Coming from the private sector, and from its most piracy-oriented segment dealing with the real estate, gambling and Miss Universe, he rightly thought—supported by the neoliberal ideology—that the political space is merely an extension of economics.

Many accuse Trump of ignorance. But this is I think a wrong way to look at things. He may not be interested in the US constitution and complex rules that regulate politics in a democratic society because he, whether consciously or intuitively, thinks that they should not matter or even exist. The rules with which he is familiar are the rules of companies: “You are fired!”: a purely hierarchical decision, based on power consecrated by wealth, and unchecked by any other consideration.

Trump as the Ultimate Triumph of Neoliberalism (Branko Milanović)

***

Odd Lots continues to have some good podcasts. They had one with Pavlina Tcherneva a few months ago. I thought this quote was particularly interesting:

[28:19] “Guarantees are everywhere. The government puts in place all sorts of guarantees. Think of deposit insurance. That’s a government guarantee, right? Think of interest on short-term securities. That’s a government guarantee—in fact, it an unemployment program for bonds. We buy and sell bonds on demand to hit that price. So we do this for bonds. Think of the gold standard. That’s a guarantee. That’s a guarantee for the price of gold. It’s a price on the currency in the form of gold, but if you look at it the other way around, we buy and sell to hit the right price. It’s a full employment program for gold. We have buffer stocks—we’ve got all sorts of guarantees for commodities. We have loan guarantees. In Covid, the loan guarantees are the lifeline for all of these businesses. If they can get the loan they can be assured that the government will wipe it off if they preserve payroll. So guarantees are everywhere! It’s just we don’t have guarantees for employment, and employment basically functions in this same way—to provide a basic floor, a basic price in the labor market.”

How The Government Can Guarantee Jobs For All (Odd Losts Podcast)

It goes into another point I keep trying to make: government is always there on the spot to help out the capitalists. At the same time, it tells workers that they “deserve” nothing except what they can claw free from the impersonal market. As I noted, the parts of government that serve the rich continue to work well, while the parts that help the average citizen are disparaged, defunded, and stripped bare. The governor of Florida recently admitted that the unemployment system was deliberately designed to not pay out benefits. But I’m sure Florida businesses can always expect generous loans and subsidies to help them out with just a phone call. “Interference” in the market is always defined as that which helps workers, but not which helps out rich capitalists. Remember that the next time someone tries to sneeringly disparage the government’s promises to its own citizens as “entitlements.” Who is really “entitled” in this system?

2 thoughts on “Dictators, Hustling, Neoliberalism and Guarantees

  1. RIP David Graeber. It’s so unfair.

    “[anthropology is] the only discipline in a position to make generalizations about humanity as a whole—since it is the only discipline that actually takes all of humanity into account, and is familiar with all the anomalous cases”

  2. > Of course you just say whatever will raise the stock price …

    IF you’re under the illusion that that’s the purpose of business. I incline more towards the idea that the purpose of business is productive employment.

    When I browse for suppliers at work, I notice that US corporations sometimes list the stock price on the front page. As a customer, this is helpful! It immediately tells me that they don’t give a flying fish about the product, and I go elsewhere.

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