Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Alternative Universes in American Politics?

The so-called mainstream media, obsessing about its own concerns with 'what is truth?', seems to have given up on the job of reporting what is actually happening in Washington as the Trump administration gets into gear. One of the best short accounts comes from the personal economics blog of John Maudlin and I refer you to that posting as a starting point. Here I want to look at the 'what is truth?' debate with as little rancour as possible towards a global media system that is part infotainment and half partisan advocate for its own fixed positions.

Looking at events from the United Kingdom, you get a distilled view of the situation in which the BBC offers snippets from American politicians - the classic 'sound bite' - and interviews with people who happen to be in town promoting a book or passing through. It is not a true picture of events. These can only be properly understood by someone in Washington with some access to Administration officials. Nevertheless, if I cannot comment as Maudlin comments, I can see how things are going pear-shaped on the cultural level. I listened to what Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway said about 'inauguration numbers' in their sound bites and then to Thomas Friedman promoting his book on BBC Radio 4 yesterday and came to some conclusions.

First, the Trump camp are surprisingly inarticulate under close questioning, seem appallingly ill-prepared (the incorrect facts that tumble out are gifts to their opponents who give no quarter) but not necessarily entirely wrong. Before he started throwing out ill-researched claims, Spicer was clearly referring to the global internet and broadcast viewing figures of the Inauguration rather than the numbers who actually turned out on the day in Washington. Partisan commentators refused to recognise that claim and decided to concentrate not on all the facts that might apply (that is, that global interest in the Trump Inauguration was probably unprecedented) but one set of fact - the lesser numbers on the ground at the Inauguration - in part because Spicer allowed himself to be moved on to that territory himself. The commentators were not actually interested in the interpretative wider truth which is that, while Trump had less people on the ground than Obama, there were fair reasons for that fact (which was a demonstrable fact) and internet and global media interest was probably higher than in any previous election. Commentators were only interested in weaponised facts where they had the advantage and in demonstrating that truth was to be defined only on their terms.

Something similar is going on in the UK with May's blunder over not revealing a failed missile test to Parliament before a vote on the extension of the nuclear deterrent. It was a fact that was inconvenient that she should have presented factually and then argued her case as to why this fact was not relevant to the decision before the House. Her opponents are now able to avoid a discussion on that decision and simply concentrate on a partisan piece of 'amour propre' because of her blunder and her continuing inability to admit the facts for entirely spurious 'national security reasons'. She dug a hole and keeps on digging as we write but that does not stop her opponents being self-serving partisans. Neither is actually interested in the truth and so it is with the American case.

When you consider that Washington is a City that lives off Government, that it has a large poor black community (possibly disproportionate to all other cities) and that Trump's support was largely based outside the East Coast and in States where significant cost and effort would be required to travel to Washington in the working week - especially for lower middle class and working class supporters - then it is reasonable that the numbers on the ground should be significantly different between the Obama and Trump administrations. Spicer was right that the media and elements in the administration were trying to use the 'fact' to delegitimise the President even if, like Prime Minister May, he blundered badly in his handling of the situation.

Spicer seemed unable to make his points clearly and articulately to the point where one really does have to ask whether he is the right person for the job and that is what is interesting, not so much which facts are true and which are not. Conway's contribution on TV was much the same - when she said 'alternative facts', she should have said (according to the articulacy standards of the mainstream media) 'alternative interpretation of the facts' (see above) or that there were facts (see above related to global reach) that the mainstream media wilfully ignored in order to offer an interpretation that suited its narrative (which would be true).

This is part of the frustration of the Trumpers. They are both wrong and not wrong. Things are more complicated than the attack dogs of the mainstream media allow. The mainstream media's methodology is to select facts but then fail to add further facts that would indicate complexity and suggest alternate interpretations. This creates a partisan and self-serving editorial narrative that is designed to de-legitimise what has now become an enemy, an enemy that they largely created for themselves in the second half of 2016. By systematically concentrating on specific 'facts', ignoring other facts and then expressing a partisan and manufactured outrage when inarticulate responses seem to question the facts they have decided to make significant, the mainstream media is often playing a sly game that is deeply embedded in their way of doing business.

The Trumpers, meanwhile, are contesting the media interpretation and the lack of fair presentation of all facts as well as the obvious purpose behind the selection of facts. This is ground that cannot be conceded by the media in case it raises questions about their right to act as intermediaries between power and the people. This methodology on the part of the media is not specific to the Trump case: it is how the media works normally. Politicians before the populists arrived always understood this. They adapted with their own techniques in return and both parties (politician and journalist), in playing a confrontational game with rules accepted by both, created the widespread distrust that both professions suffer from today. Both sides fought over interpretation according to rules set by the media but where the media did not always inquire too deeply into the facts that underpinned the politicians' position. The partial politicisation of the executive has brought civil servants into the frame of distrust as well - the Rogers case in London earlier this month demonstrated this. In effect, the public was 'informed' with half truths in a contest of competing 'weasels' and its model of the world shaped by what 'weaseldom' decided was the shape of the world. Now that game is over.

A journalist guest commentator on British TV was (unusually) corrected by the BBC presenter last night when he referred to Trump as a 'monster', No one rational who disagreed with Trump has any justification for calling him a monster and yet the Twitter feeds of journalists and academics and the comment columns are filled with similar aggressive claims without real substance other than personal prejudice or arederived from particular ideological judgments that should have nothing to do with straight news gathering. One can disagree with a man without having to call him a monster and agree with him without deludedly expecting him to be a saint.

What we have here is the arrival of inarticulate populists in high office trained on 'heuristic' thinking where everything is connected. This is at its worst when poor connections are made so that conspiracy theory results but it is at its best in giving a more realistic picture of the complexity of the world to a person than he or she can get from theory of book-larnin'. They are facing off 'rational' intellectuals, all operating within a framework of pre-set rules that have the double effect of containing them within a social structure and allowing them privileged status within that structure. The intellectuals are actually highly selective and partisan in their fact collection procedures because they see the world in terms of competition between ideas and persons. They competed in order to get a position within the game and so they see those outside the game offensively as risks to their hegemony. Part of their mythos is that a 'fact is a fact' rather than a fact in relation to other facts. Friedman unintentionally grasped the problem this morning when he said that this was a matter of an 'alternative universe'.

Friedman certainly intended the notion of Trump's people being in an 'alternate universe' as an insult at their expense but the accusation could be turned on its head. We have two alternative universes neither of which is entirely real. One is based on complexity and life actually lived in which two incompatible thoughts are possible before breakfast because that is how the world actually works and where leadership is making judgments that parse dialectical tensions. It also happens to be anxious, occasionally paranoid and certainly defensive. It sees itself as protecting itself from the world.

The other universe is based on absolute and simple notions of fact and non-fact that fail to understand how facts are selected for interpretation, how inconvenient facts are omitted to effect change and how facts can offer us multiple interpretations. Facts are accumulated within unspoken paradigms where inconvenient facts can be sidelined until their insistent knocking at the door of reality forces them back into the game - by which time 'rationalisation' has found a way to incorporate them into the model without affecting the essential structure of reality - or rather what passes for real amongst those with the power to define reality. It is also a universe based on the 'logos', the connectedness of words rather the connectedness of experiences and things. It takes emotion or sentiment and rationalises these into strings of words that may be perfectly coherent but may well be a map that is not accurate to the territory. It sees itself as being co-terminous with the world.

This clash of universes is profound because it is a clash between the ways that minds work as profound as the difference between the ways men and women think. It is not a case of one being right or one being wrong but simply one of of difference. Men and women can get along just fine in the good society through norms that respect difference but, here too, recent political conditions have created conflict through confrontation and identity politics (also associated with 'logos'-type thinking). In the good society the 'heuristic' and intellectual approaches can also get along through the medium of the effective politician but Trump has arisen (as have other national populists) precisely because the intellectual has not only despised the heuristic but has demonstrated publicly that they despised the heuristic.

The national populists have thus not caused 'reaction', they have arisen as a reaction to the long term effects of having society run from a position of aggressive intellectualism. Why is this? The massive increase in the graduate class, in regulatory capitalism and in the scale and reach of government has created a mass base for the intellectual stance which never existed before. Until this period in history, intellectuals were either servitors of power or manipulators of the levers of power. They are now power itself - or thought they were until 2016. The loss of leverage (literally) has de-intellectualised the intellectuals and turned many of them into ravening wolves seeking the blood of those who unexpectedly removed them from hegemonic power whether democratically (UK) or merely constitutionally (US). The loss of control of democracy and of constitutional forms is part of the agony of this class.

Until the post-internet era, the 'logos' political system could command and control through relying on limited information and communications systems in society. The agents of information were of the same broad social origin. The adaptability of politicians in finding the right rhetoric could defuse the bomb of populist resentment. FDR and Reagan are perhaps the models of how the American political system found the right person at the right time to defuse political discontent by conceding just what was required to salvage the system. The arrival of the internet at the same time as the unresolved economic issues arising out of 2008 combined with the inability of the liberal side of the equation to 'get' what Bernie Sanders was perhaps trying to tell them - that the old politics was creating its own opposition, its own nemesis, through hubris. We should note here that Trump has been careful to invite labor union leaders to his first meeting on manufacturing today and that many trades unionists were not happy with the liberal espousal of NAFTA which Trump has vowed to renegotiate. A million marching women may find that the heuristics of increasing job security are as or more important than their cultural politics.

The heuristic approach does not rely on interconnected and carefully calibrated coalitional politics and the dumping of single issues into packages of measures demanding loyalty but tends to see life as a process of constant negotiation and even struggle. It also places much emphasis on promise keeping whereas the logocratic approach is not interested in promises but only in shared values and the law. Judicial activism is the final position of the logocrat just as the 'movement' is the final fall-back position of the heurist. Trump symbolically epitomised that sense of life as a set of deals just as Hillary Clinton symbolically epitomised the other form of thinking which has become culturally dominant - order being imposed through fiat by regulation based on theory. Her slight popular victory reflected that cultural dominance (ironically, the conservative desire for the maintenance of order) but Trump won the formal victory which was based on the carefully balanced prejudice for a form of heuristics implicit in the original but now perhaps partly dysfunctional Constitution.

Where does this lead us? Possibly to disaster? The absolute incompatibility of slave owner values and non-slaveowner values by 1860 did not lead to a civilised separation and a different form of struggle for freedom from slavery in the South but into a vicious war. Its lack of resolution gave us the current race problem that is America's most serious continuing internal crisis of social cohesion on which a lid is kept simply because black Americans are not a majority, are concentrated geographically and America has the rule of law to fall back on. The incompatibility of populist heuristics (shared in fact by many libertarian and advanced thinkers on the East Coast as well) with ideological rationalism built on the 'logos' is now absolute - as incompatible as the differences of opinion between states in 1860.

There is now no effective dialogue between the two universes. One represents vast and well paid special interests embedded in the State and the Academy as well as the Media. It certainly means well and has noble values but it did not deliver what it promised to many people while its own elite members got richer. It is important to note that the black American vote did not surge for Hillary and that this was not because she was not black. As many have pointed out, inequality between whites and blacks certainly did not improve and probably worsened under Obama, a mixed race wealthy (by their standards) lawyer.

The other universe of Trumpers, however, seems unable to develop a language for articulating its own complexity just as the first is blind to the limits of rationalism and the extremely weak philosophical base for its Kantian 'pragmatism'. There are palaeo-conservatives, libertarians, identitarians, Judaeo-Christian communitarians and all sorts of essentialist dreamer floating around the nether regions of the Trump movement but it really is a case of a 'thousand flowers blooming' with no clear core. This may be a good thing for a heuristic way of dealing with reality but it also means that we cannot expect coherence any time soon. The mainstream media (outside Fox and RT and sections of the British right-wing media) is wholly trapped within one universe and the centres of power in Washington, increasingly in London and possibly elsewhere later this year, are now either in or being drawn into the other universe by necessity.

The problem gets more difficult for the intelligent citizen who understands that the heuristic approach to the world is intellectually correct (though it need not come up with the analyses of Trump by any means) but that both universes are spinning towards a clash that will not result in war yet might well result in a collapse in internal cohesion, political violence and attempts to change the Constitution ... perhaps worse. At best, it may mean a cultural war in which one or other has to win or die, leaving the loser in a state of simmering resentment like the Confederacy after 1866.

This is an international problem not confined to the US by any means. Our putative intelligent citizen has a difficult choice whether to assist the heuristic universe to articulate its position more effectively (that is, to adopt the technology of the 'logos' without its ideology or special interest aspects) and so bring it to some sort of compromise with the rational - but will it or cannot listen? Alternatively, he or she could try to introduce a more informed heuristic understanding to the other universe, the one which has become self-serving in its use of the 'logos' to drive ideology. The inhabitants of the latter universe have already weaponised language and the Trump camp are right to see this weaponisation, making use of the mainstream media, as a threat for which they have developed little protection. Perhaps they feel like an insurgent liberation army facing a ramshackle but well armed state military that won't admit defeat after losing control of its capital and is now inclined to warlordism.

The protection that the Trump camp may employ (since human beings are adept at survival) is likely to be asymmetric and culturally subversive. The lack of respect for the new Presidency may become something that the 'educated' but not necessarily always 'intelligent' preceding elite may come to regret since the one thing that the incomers have which they do not command is the internet under the conditions of the First Amendment. The battle for control of the social media platforms comes next. Already, the German logocrats are trying to intervene to manage and control Facebook and other media in anticipation of their own trial of strength in the Autumn. The most probable outcome of all this, much further down the line, is a dialectical one in which both sides exhaust themselves into something new, perhaps a younger generation adopting heuristics as a way of life but directed towards more liberal ends and less intolerant of difference. Perhaps that is just wishful thinking. Perhaps history will look on 2017-2018 as America's bloodless (we hope) Cultural Civil War because that is what it is shaping up to be.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Narrating The Current Crisis - What Trump May Mean

The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States is a fact on the ground. Even if Jill Stein somehow succeeded in overturning the result through recounts, it is to be doubted that the populist movement would accept the revision. A Hillary Clinton Presidency would be a wounded beast, facing an angry Republican Congress and probable civil strife and under vicious and continuous internet attack. The world beyond the United States, having congratulated Trump once, will be embarrassed to have to become partisan by subsequently congratulating Clinton. The deeper truth is that Trump has won even if he loses a recount. He has destabilised liberal America and mobilised populist America. That clock cannot be turned back. Nor is Trump's victory is an isolated event. A number of similar political events across the West suggest that a radical change affecting international relations is under way and that the process has not yet concluded. Let us provide a new narrative of contemporary history and see where it leads us.

We can start by saying that the neo-liberal model and its ameliorative liberal internationalist and post-Cold War international socialist variants have improved conditions for many millions outside the West but they have arguably also enriched up to half of domestic Western populations at the expense of the condition, security and identity of the other half as well as created oligarchical minorities elsewhere. Neo-liberalism and its variants have also not brought peace. On the contrary, a forward expansion of liberal values by force has destabilised many countries, leading to mass movement of peoples (which brings free movement of peoples into disrepute amongst those who have not benefited from globalisation), has created new security threats, has forced non-Western sovereign states into defensive militaristic postures and has even recreated the conditions for superpower competition and confrontation only a quarter of a century after the ending of the Cold War.

There have been benefits from quasi-socialist and liberal ameliorative strategies operating at a global level, especially in terms of the mobilisation of progressive forces outside the West and the engagement of young activists in progressive politics within it but regulatory regimes have tended to pay only lip service to democracy and to have preferred corporatist structures in which activist minorities collaborate with corporate CSR departments and government agencies to impose legal and regulatory solutions to global problems without consultation with or the political education of those in the West left behind. They also tend to treat emerging country populations as ‘subjects’ of action rather than as independent actors engaged in their own liberatory struggle.

The role of the United States has been ambiguous. The promotion of a progressive liberal agenda has often operated alongside a militaristic and expansionist agenda. This has created a class of international NGO activists ‘who mean well’ but it has also created alliances with faith-based obscurantists who feign democracy and, in turn, also created its own obscurantist and reactionary oppositionism prepared to engage in armed struggle to defend identity against what they see as cultural imperialism. National liberation has moved from the progressive Left to the reactionary Right, the United Nations has been diminished and, at its worst, the reaction to Western ideological expansionism has created cause for new threats of asymmetric warfare operated by terrorists allied with organised crime.

Globalisation, in collapsing borders, has also permitted massive capital accumulation by organised crime, free riding the increase in international trade, in facilitating illegal economic migration (often willing but sometimes enslaved), piracy, online fraud and the trade in narcotics and banned substances as well as in armaments and illicit untaxed funds. The liberal internationalist regulatory strategy has scarcely made a dent in this expansion of non-state activity which may be classed as criminal by state moralists but, in some areas, represents the developing world’s own rational exploitation of globalisation.

The negative response to this situation was originally restricted to two distinct movements. The first was the rise of a domestic Western anti-war movement which split progressive forces into those who supported liberal values expansion and those who saw it as imperialistic. The second saw the co-emergence of neo-nationalist resistance to the claims of the West. Both appeared in the wake of Western intervention in Central Asia and the Middle East. During this period, the Liberal Establishment of the West was in a strong enough position to ignore the anti-war movements and to place continued pressure on non-Western nations, not excluding attempts at regime change by stealth, often indirect through 'Foundations'. The prospect of a global hegemony for the West, based on market economics, oligarchical democracy and rights ideology, was considered real by the liberal’ hawks’. At this time, right wing national populist forces in the West were largely marginal.

In 2008, a major economic crisis transformed the situation. The capitalist system teetered briefly on the edge but proved resilient. However, its resilience was purchased at the price of a strategy of domestic austerity which continues to this day. This coincided with growing acceptance that liberal interventionism using force had been a disaster that had not achieved its ends although the full fruits of that disaster would still not be seen for some time (exemplified by the Syrian tragedy). Confidence in the elite was shaken but the solution of the voters was, at this stage, to grumble but change the captains of the fleet, not the direction of the navy.

The Coalition Government of 2010 in the UK and the Obama Administration which came to office as the recession of 2008’s effects were unfolding continued governance much as before but a series of developments shook confidence in the elite: above all, the economic crisis itself and the associated fact that, though economies were stabilised, growth did not return. The self-identifying middle classes (actually the middling and lower middle classes and upper working class) were disproportionately hit by the consequences. The rich appeared to get richer. Austerity measures were increasingly judged to be applied unfairly to keep elected officials in power by appealing to the half of the population fearful of taxation. Elected officials were increasingly seen as self-interested and even corrupt or certainly beholden to the economic interests who had caused the crash. In foreign affairs, incapable of winning wars, democratic states proved perfectly capable of war crimes and out of touch with public distaste for foreign adventurism. Since progressive governments had either presided over the conditions that led to the crash or were presiding over the failure to deal with the consequence of the crash, public discontent tended to move to the right rather than the left (although populist movements appeared of both types). This was compounded by a new factor - the pressure of mass migration as 'free movement of peoples' turned from a dream into a nightmare that liberal ideologues failed to recognise as such.

The failure of the Arab Spring and other democracy movements saw a hardening of state power across the emerging world and in the communist and former communist states. These latter states also took a more neo-nationalist stance, fully aware of the role of Western elites in attempted regime destabilisation. Noting Russia’s successful incursion into Georgia, they began the process of resisting liberal Western incursion and then turning back the tide of Western expansion, a process in which Russia took the lead with its acquisition of Crimea and its own intervention in defence of the existing order in Syria. If the liberal internationalists continued to pursue their strategy either directly or indirectly through ‘philanthropic’ foundations, these not only made little headway but created further instabilities which neo-nationalists could exploit. A huge class, an 'industry', of otherwise unemployable graduates created a special interest bloc in the West of 'activists' and 'campaigners', appealing to that part of the electorate with a deontological view of international affairs where the exclamation of a 'should' would be sufficient to demand an action that would then become an 'is' - life is rarely so simple! This was faith-based and not evidence-based politics. While the Left began to split into its liberal left and socialist components with increasingly bitter recriminations between the two over austerity, identity politics, liberal economics and foreign policy, the real beneficiary of this break down in the liberal Western paradigm was the neo-nationalist and populist Right which now began to grow rapidly within the West.

The negative populist reaction to liberal elite failure was both a Left and a Right phenomenon but it was the Right that was enabled to remain united in its opposition. Most of the establishment Left were implicated in the failures and errors of the current regime. This has been symbolised well in the last week by the unprecedented decision of an incumbent French Socialist President of France not to put himself forward as the candidate of his Party in next year's Presidential Election. Liberal elements on the Left had refused to compromise with public anger because of liberal ideology and so saw their side split into factions and their acceptability diminish except among special interest groups who had nowhere else to go (such as public sector white collar employees and NGO workers). Meanwhile the populist Right, taking overt inspiration from the effective opposition to liberal hegemony of Putin (Russia), created an alliance of the lower middle class with national trading and financial interests and discontented working class people whose economic interests had been ignored and whose culture had been disrespected by urban liberals. These latter created a network of interconnected national populist movements that claimed democracy and freedom (not without reason in some cases), seizing power quite quickly in Hungary and Poland but increasingly setting the terms of debate elsewhere and posing material threats to the established order in countries as different as the UK, France and Italy.

The first major breakthrough for populism against the elite was not on the Right but on the Left with the surprise election of a marginal figure (Jeremy Corbyn) to the Leadership of the Labour Party, Instead of accepting the result, the liberal wing of the party undertook a war of attrition against their new Leader. This halted any chance of Labour becoming the voice for British populism instead of UKIP. By the time he was established firmly as Leader (even then clearly being undermined despite that), the initiative had long since passed to UKIP and thence to the Leave Campaign for Brexit. This same opportunity was lost more recently in the US when the DNC conspired to halt the rise to power of the avowed socialist Bernie Sanders, confident that their preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton would have the confidence of the American people. This split on the Left and widespread economic discontent presents us with weak versions of Lenin’s famous three pre-conditions for revolution. All that were missing were the cadres to seize power. These were provided by ruthless well-funded populist machines, wholly dedicated to achieving power, in successively the Brexit Vote and the 2016 Presidential Election and strong enough to push aside even the mainstream media which had been arbiter of politics for the bulk of post-industrial history.

The victory of these forces is truly revolutionary for the following reasons:-
  1. They have forced conservative forces to accommodate the key populist demands of the neo-nationalists – we see this in the strategic commitment of the May Government to Brexit and the degree to which previously negative conservative Republicans have offered their full support to the incoming President
  2. They have given encouragement strategically and tactically to national populists elsewhere, most notably in Europe where there are real fears amongst liberals that their last major stronghold (the European Union) may fall to neo-nationalism or implode under pressure from neo-nationalism
  3. They have not merely out-manoeuvred the progressive Left but have forced it into a crisis with the two factions (the socialists and the liberal) now engaged in a bitter existential struggle for dominance as the primary opposition force – a process that may take many months or even years to result in victory for one side. It is just as likely that these forces will split into separate ‘parties’, dividing the Left for a generation.
  4. Moreover, they have managed to ‘detourne’ the liberal left so that it appears to be increasingly anti-democratic and irrational as well as arrogant and narcissistic, the historical attributes of the Right. This latter may be the populists’ greatest achievement in the long run.
  5. They have introduced other apparently left-wing strategic policies – including variants of Keynesianism and anti-imperialism/peace – into populist discourse leaving the liberal (rather than the democratic socialist) Left as justificatory spokespeople for austerity, corporatism and even war (which in itself fuels the civil war within the Left).
  6. They have adopted a paradoxical inter-nationalism in which strong nation states collaborate as they compete, concentrating on trade relations and deal-making rather than war – again, this is a ’detournement’ of traditional Left positions which have abandoned inter-nationalism and national liberation for supra-nationalism and trans-nationalism.
  7. Above all, they have appealed over the heads of the Left beyond their traditional lower middle class base to the non-public sector working class (at least in the Anglo-Saxon countries), adopting their values, respecting their culture and (at least superficially) supporting their economic interests. This has split the working class from the Left in a decisive historical shift that saw a third of working class votes go for Brexit despite Labour backing for Remain and the Democrat’s white working class support dramatically hollowing out on November 8th.
The importance of the Trump phenomenon is that whoever commands the United States of America commands the general thrust of international relations policy. It is now clear that a national populist agenda is in charge of that thrust, directly or indirectly (in the event of a disputed result) for at least four and probably eight years and maybe twelve years That is sufficient time (as Reagan showed) to transform the condition of the world for good or ill. It is likely that a more moderate but allied Conservative Government will be in office in the UK for at least four years and possibly nearly a decade and that the European Union will see a major transfer of power to the national populist right in several major nations and possibly the implosion of the liberal model for the Union as a whole.

This is as strategically important as the arrival of communism and fascism in the 1920s. Even if states were not communist or fascist by the 1930s, they often adapted their politics not merely to challenge these forces but to appropriate aspects of them in order better to challenge them. National populism in a number of variants, including liberal and Left variants, are likely to become the hegemonic form of international relations discourse for at least the next decade and probably much longer This does not mean the Left does not represent a challenge to the new Right. Neither of national populism’s great victories (the US Election and Brexit) were overwhelming – the Democrats still (barely) won a majority of the popular vote and we have noted the theoretical possibility of the result being overturned by recounts. Similarly, Brexit is accepted by both major parties but the debate over whether the UK is to have a 'soft' or 'hard' Brexit permits Remainers to believe they can overturn the mandate through stealth or attrition. But the Left now has a major problem of credibility – it is associated with arrogance, incompetence, corruption and hypocrisy and, increasingly, with a rather dubious attitude to democracy.

Another problem the Left has is one of division – there are now two major competing visions for defeating neo-nationalism, the liberal and the socialist, which are fundamentally incompatible. The former will not adapt, compromise and let go of power while the latter sees the former as equally if not more problematic than the populists (who inconveniently will not go all the way to being fascists or official racists or xenophobes despite intense attempts by liberal propagandists to make these connections). Moreover, many socialists have more in common with Trump on key aspects of foreign and economic policy than they do with their own liberal ‘allies’ while many liberals are clearly highly emotional about single and identity issues that socialists see as part of the problem and not part of the solution. Given that Jill Stein only got 1% of the vote and 40% of women voted for Trump, the environmentalist and feminist commitments that lead Left thinking are also probable barriers to recapturing working class support.

To all intents and purposes, November 8th was a devastating blow to the liberal internationalist project. Funding will continue from European (at least until 2018) and from Liberal Foundation sources but US and UK Government sources are likely to dry up quite rapidly in the coming months. More to the point, the US and UK Governments are no longer going to be available to promote many liberal causes with emerging world Governments even if the British Government appears to remain committed to some important international rights-related treaties. UK Government action will be redirected at trade deals forcing European countries to follow suit. Major international agencies will have their role questioned with expectations that policy be in accordance with national populist values. The Business & Human Rights Treaty is unlikely to make progress until the current cycle is over - unless it is made more business-friendly.  The balance of power has shifted.

Corporate reactions fall into various special interest categories with many welcoming the new populism, others (with large urban liberal customer bases) nervous of boycotts and politicisation and others concerned about the collapse of the existing liberal internationalist order. One likely result is that all but the bravest corporation will start to withdraw funding from social liberal projects that might be classed as political where once they were simply classed as CSR (corporate social responsibility). Public affairs departments are reeling under the shock because they tend to be staffed by ‘urban liberals and liberal conservatives’, people who have had a stake in the preceding order and a career path that might include political office. Now, they have to consider their options as business splits into camps according to their relationship to various factions in the culture wars. However we look at it, independent funding is likely to decrease or shift into obviously charitable projects where those charities are not engaged in political lobbying. Radical capitalists like Soros and Branson are swimming against the tide. They are also not getting any younger.

Culturally, the liberal internationalists are faced with the problem that they are no longer ‘hegemonic’ within the West. Half the population rejects their hegemony. A significant part of the leadership of the 'hegemonic half' is questioning the strategy of arrogance towards the working and lower middle classes. Globalisation is in question intellectually. Liberal internationalists no longer hold all the commanding heights of power (and may not recover ground until 2020 or even 2024 or 2028) and, if they do recapture them, it will be a much weakened position - Weimar or Leon Blum's Popular Front to all intents and purposes. Their funding is about to fall except from highly politicised Foundations who are now in a confrontational relationship with the sources of power that can deliver what liberal NGOs want. Soros, for example, has openly declared war on the Trump Administration which places the Trump Administration alongside every 'regime' that Soros wants to overturn - their enemies' enemy is Trump. Every attempt to assert radical liberal values now has a countervailing, often cogent and aggressively positioned, alt-right argument. As liberal social media platforms try to cut out the alt-right, new platforms appear to serve it.

Two cultural opponents within the West are now evenly matched for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union and this has happened in under a year. As in all such struggles in the past, it will be hard for anyone to stay out of the fight and stay in public life. The old Right/Left conflict is changing into a conflict between democratic nationalism and inter-nationalism on the one side and supra-nationalism and liberal internationalism on the other. A third of the Left, mostly working class, will find itself moving into what will be positioned as the New Right and a third of the Right, mostly managerial business and white collar professionals, will find themselves moving into the Liberal Left. The former have the old media, the universities, the 'intellectuals' and the scribblers. The latter may have the most innovative parts of the new media, the public meetings, the bulk of social media sharers and the people who discuss public affairs in the pubs rather tham the wine bars. And we are only at the beginning ...

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Critiquing Steve Bannon

A great deal of attention is being paid to Steve Bannon, Donald Trump's new head of strategy. I suspect there is some misunderstanding about the amount of power that an ideologue like Bannon can have in Trump's administration and an exaggeration of the link that can be made between the past views of Bannon and the opinions of the President-Elect, let alone the views of those to be found expressed on Bannon's vehicle, Breitbart.

The liberal cultural wing of the 'American oligarchy' are having a bit of a hissy-fit at the moment and any straw is being grasped at to demonstrate that Trump is a 'fascist' or worse. Eventually cooler heads will prevail. In the meantime here are three things to note before we look at what Bannon may actually think.

Bannon as Employee and Populist

The first is that his job as chief strategist is a 'corporate' one - he no longer speaks for himself and now loans his talents to the President. He has been bought. If he fails to deliver or blunders, he will be disposed of. His job is now to support the President not because he believes in him but because he is paid to perform a function and that function is political. He has to think about practical outcomes - increasing the President's rating sufficiently to get him re-elected in 2020, assisting in building a coalition that will get the President's programme through Congress and maintaining the momentum of the movement that put Trump into power.

Instead of shouting agit-prop aimed at the slightly over half the population required to get into White House, he is now dealing with the structures of power and with a struggle for control of information flow and interpretation against a mainstream media ['MSM'] that must, out of class interest, aim to destroy him. His ownership of Breitbart represents a direct challenge to MSM authority and revenues, especially if Breitbart becomes the main means by which the Trump administration communicates to the mass of the population.

The second is that he comes into office not as part of the closed competing network of networks that makes up late liberal democratic representative democracy but because he controls a means of communicating with and maintaining contact with a populist movement. This is his strength but also his weakness. The strength is obvious - he can reach millions of Americans with a policy line faster than any political rival and he can help form their opinion and actions in a way that may be unprecedented.

Perhaps only Father Coughlan's radio broadcasts in the 1930s come close to this but Breitbart is providing data in real time and continuously. Of course, Bannon will be delegating control of this medium but it would be naive not to see this as part of his armoury even if indirectly. He has a reserve power that, if he is dismissed, lies in the possibility that this machinery may become a thorn in the side of the President that it has helped to elect.

The Paradox of Bannon's Populism

The third thing to note is that the claims of 'fascism' miss some very central non-fascist aspects of American populism. The confusion of populism and fascism is sending liberal critics down a blind alley, stopping them from developing an appropriate critique and strategy for countering it. By propagandistically using inappropriate terms, liberals are creating the very culture of resentment that partly led to their defeat in the first place, opening up territory for Bannon's Alt Right to conquer. One key difference from fascism, a difference also to be found in European right-wing populisms, is the approach to democracy and free speech.

Both are viewed as positive and dynamic forces whereas liberals are being caught out being anti-democratic (questioning the 'deplorables', intellectuals questioning democracy itself and, in the UK, maintaining a resistance against the majority vote in the Brexit vote) and opposed to free speech (promoting increasingly onerous anti-hate laws, limiting freedoms on the campus and often downright bullying of non-liberal dissidents). This is a complete detournement of conventional thinking about what it means to be right and left. It is central to the drift of many social libertarians from one side to the other despite the conservatism underpinning Alt Right culture.

Bannon's robust and aggressive populism might be framed as 'hate speech' amongst liberals but it is framed as 'free speech' amongst conservatives with some plausibility. The liberal MSM has tried to counter with the framing device of 'fake news' (extended from genuine abuses to cover political opponents who are often merely  providing information that would be pre-censored as inappropriate or inconvenient by the MSM). The MSM's somewhat sinister interest in trying to place rival social platforms under pressure is obvious. Twitter has taken the bait (aware of the sympathy for liberalism of large consumer-driven corporations with products aimed at urban liberals and minorities) by removing 'hate' accounts although many of these accounts equally class themselves as 'free speech' opportunities.

In the pre-Trump world, the control of the total system under a liberal hegemony would have instantly marginalised the critics of liberalism but Bannon has contributed to the creation of an entire alternative information and communications political ecology whose success can be seen in the election of a President despite the massive post-nomination assault on his candidacy by every element within the hegemonic system. The cultural power of this parallel system has thrown the dominant structure into something close to panic. Almost every idea emanating from it stands against the assumptions and values of oligarchical liberalism.

What Liberals Might Like To Do

This is where it gets interesting. In any other period of history or under any other hegemonic system, the solution would be simple - authoritarian repression. When faced with an existential threat, the system forgets any 'rules of war' and suppresses free speech, jails opponents, if necessary tortures and kills. But the West no longer has these tools at its command - not only because of its own claimed values (though we wonder if this would be restraint enough) but because the rule of law cannot be deployed in this way (certainly not after January 20th and as Woodrow wilson deployed it) and because the infrastructure of the State cannot be relied upon to comply with such orders.

Trump is faced with his own problem in that it is clear state level law enforcement in some key states may resist some of his policy measures. Any push to survival by the hegemonic regime through repression would probably mean civil war and certainly extensive political violence. In other words, the liberal hegemony of the US has fallen into the same position as the communist hegemony did in the Soviet Union in 1991 without even the tools at the disposal of the reactionaries. Anti-liberal forces have seized control of the State using liberal methods and are now in command of Presidential power for at least four years and possibly eight or twelve.

Bannon, who has cited Lenin, appears to understand his position and that of Trump. Through sheer energy and exploitation of the undoubted failures of liberalism (which are not the subject of this posting), they have surged forward in under nine months from nowhere to capture control of supreme executive power with reluctant and nervous allies controlling the legislature and a real opportunity to set a conservative tone within the judiciary. This cannot be called a political revolution because the forms and substance of the American 'regime' remain the same. There are also many points of resistance from centres of power still controlled by the liberals (in the very broadest sense) which can slow down the Presidency and destroy his credibility with the centre-ground.

However what Bannon, Trump and others have achieved is the possibility of a cultural revolution in which they set the tone for American politics and society on terms to which liberals have to adjust to survive. It cannot be Leninist - in other words, it cannot be the imposition of one ideology on the rest of society by a minority - but it can be significant if it forces conservatives to take on the concerns of the population at large and if it forces the liberals to begin a self-critical appraisal of how they lost power (which they currently seem reluctant to do) and if they transform themselves to include the concerns of the voters who switched sides out of frustration with their neglect. How liberalism might transform itself post-Trump is for another time.

So, with these caveats and comments, that Bannon is not the President but the servant of the President, that he is only part of a movement which he guides but to which he does not dictate terms and that his room for manouevre is limited in any path to replacing liberal hegemony, what is it that Bannon believes? We don't have timer for an exhaustive analysis of his views or trying to work out what what views on Breitbart are his and what are those of his contributors. 

We will take an analysis of his opinions to just one audience (a conservative religious group) in the summer of 2014 and see what it reveals. Of course, being a politician, Bannon is tailoring his opinions to the audience - the Human Dignity Institute at the Vatican - and that has to be taken into account. Yet we can see what values underlie his views and so what beliefs are going to be influential in advising the President (whose views may be different) and in squaring various political circles - appointments, deals with Congress, speeches and policies.

The Problem of Capitalism

Bannon's world view is fundamentally communitarian. This creates the space for a critique of capitalism that is not socialist but belongs to a parallel right-wing tradition. This originated with petit-bourgeois anarchism but became central to the corporatism of fascism and national socialism as ideologies. But it is also an ideological position held widely within the Catholic Church as a critique of the dehumanising aspects of treating persons as not souls but mere units of production within large-scale combines that are disruptive of social bonds, duties and obligations. It is this critique that matters to Bannon in his Vatican talk. This critique is not interested in liberal capitalism's undoubted achievements in driving progress and innovation because progress and innovation are not seen as good things in themselves - as they tend to be seen by most liberals (though not increasingly by the eco-conservatives within the ranks of liberalism).

Where capitalism is criticised from the Left (as it used to be until the 1990s), it is as an anti-progressive force that fails to make best use of human talents and is wasteful. Innovation is seen as something just as easily and better done by the collective. Marx had his own critique of the de-humanisation involved in capitalism but, unlike Heidegger whose critique is of technology, science and so technology are positive factors which socialists will be better able to understand and make use of. If Bannon quotes Marx it is to point up the dehumanising aspects (in his view) of capitalism and not to share his socialism. No more than the Vatican and the Proudhonists, Bannon is not remotely a national socialist, a very different hybrid of socialism and communitarianism presented as anti-Marxism, nor a fascist, a corporatism without a moral base.

Naturally, I do not share this view of Bannon's since I see all human development as being broadly enhanced by scientific understanding and technology. I would go further and say that the objectification and allegedly dehumanising aspects of capitalism are positive rather than negative precisely because they break apart social binds that are repressive (indeed oppressive) and permit new social forms to emerge in their place, forms that are more suited to individual freedom and to human progress as technology develops.

The criticism I would have late capitalist liberalism is that it has compromised far too much with conservative forces - historically-based identity politics, regressive environmentalism (rather than sustainability as strategy) and faith-based approaches to values - and that, while communism as a political system became sclerotic and inefficient as well as cruel, some form of scientific materialism is central to the forward-looking Left Project. In other words, the rise of the Alt Right has been partly predicated on liberalism's compromises with conservative forces because ground had already been conceded by Clinton and Blair for short term electoral reasons in favour of identity, sentiment and faith.

Cronyism & Fairness

Many Leftists will share Bannon's views on 'crony capitalism', the capitalism of the few creating wealth and value for themselves and not for the people. This is classic populism but it not only represents an ideal shared with the Left but liberals are now on the defensive because, whether under Blair or Clinton, they have bought into the spurious global trickle-down theory of development and have allied themselves with corporations and oligarchs on terms that seem to enrich leading liberal politicians more than those who elect them.

This is where Bannon, appealing to the moralism of faith-based communities, has probably scored his greatest political victories in the last year - in the comparison of the insecurity and anxieties of struggling families with the wealth and comfort of a liberal elite who seemed to care more about people in faraway places than their 'ain folk'. Framed as 'racism' or 'white nationalism', it was nothing of the kind. It was merely filling the yawning chasm left by liberal abandonment of the respectable working classes and lower middle classes who had failed to fall into a pre-set liberal identity category and who did not give a stuff about liberalism's cultural politics.

There is a 'fairness' in Bannon's critique both that is it is a fair criticism but also that fairness (a very ordinary sentiment) is a value. He sees liberals as being at the apex of an unfair system and this clearly makes him angry. In another age and time perhaps he would have been a socialist. Perhaps not. American liberals have not made generalised fairness an existential value but have particularised it within identity politics. Perhaps this is why they are now licking their wounds.

Fairness is important as a social value. It is something imbued in children during their own battle to be recognised when power lies elsewhere. They do not object to power so long as it is fairly applied. The child-like resentment at unfairness may be at the very heart of the Trump 'revolution' - it is not resentment at people with darker skins or who like the same sex but resentment at the unfair privileging of other people at their expense. And, yes, this is what liberals have done, often without realising they have been doing it.  They have been 'unfair' at multiple levels towards many Americans in the political home and the political playground. Some of Bannon's anger is justified.

Securitisation & Moral Value

Bannon's attack on securitisation is perhaps the most interesting aspect of his critique of liberal capitalism. Let us take the ideological base in Judaeo-Christianity for granted (more of that in a moment). His analysis is questionable - almost sub-Tawney - but let it stand. When he complains about securitisation, he is doing two things. The first is to give us a theory of commoditisation that could have come straight out of the late Marxist Frankfurt School - another of many detournements of left-wing thinking to meet right-wing objectives.

But it is the moral underpinning of the critique that matters. The Frankfort School (though their arguments were often specious) were claiming to describe reality and moral responses only emerged out of the hysteria of the liberal Academy - you might call this a displaced morality or valuation in which belief uses intellect cover up its own sentiment. Bannon will have none of that. He goes straight to valuation. He observes what he thinks is a fact on the ground and then sees it through the prism of morality from the very beginning.

Jump back to the causes of 2008 and you see securitisation at the very heart of the crisis. Bannon takes something that is intrinsically immoral from his perspective - the commodification of humans, their deepest needs and attributes - and shows, in a religious morality tale, to people who can put two and two together that the collapsing nature of capitalism is essentially a problem of moral failure. It means that if we change our morals (or rather imbue a certain morality in the State and economic system), prosperity and order will return.

This is a classically populist argument. It is, of course, nonsense but it sentimentally works for many working and middle class Americans who have no alternative 'scientific' narrative, who are accustomed to framing difficult questions in terms of good and evil and who desperately want change. This attack on Wall Street is definitely not a progressive or socialist one but, since progressives are ineffective and socialists marginalised, the liberal acceptance of Wall Street and liberal lack of interest in commodification in economics (oh, the irony! - the interest seems only to be in persecuting sex workers and getting better jobs for urban middle class women), it is the most effective one, the last interpretation left standing for relatively poorly educated people under real pressure who liberals refuse to accept or help.

'The World Burns' & Freedom

Bannon adopts one aspect of fascism that is really no more than an emotional stance - the desire to tear things down and destroy the Establishment. I have some sympathy with this since this so-called Establishment (a system of interconnecting networks with its own shared ideology) has failed to solve so many real world problems, indeed compounded them. Such an emotional stance can be a productive one in creating the motivation for change under conditions of sclerosis. But do we take this seriously? I don't take seriously my own emotional impulses in this direction which I express more as approval for 'shocks to the system'. Only 'shocks' seem to capable of forcing liberals to change their ways and they may remove the older generation of failed liberals and put in a new generation with a better understanding of the situation. In Bannon's case, yes, I think we must take him seriously.

Whereas for a Leftist like me, the liberal project simply took a wrong turning just as the Russian Revolution was a wrong turning, things are not black and white. Our failed liberalism has still produced a more tolerant and open society which the best efforts of Bannon and the Alt Right cannot reverse, just as Sovietism provided some genuine advances for the Russian people and offered a valuable experiment in the achievements and limitations of socialism. In other words, I can attack late liberal capitalist democracy on its failures because I see it as blocking the forward advance of humanity but I would want to reform and control it rather than want to destroy it completely. It irritates the hell out of me but it is still part of the human condition that has to be accommodated. Bannon on the other hand wants, like Lenin, to replace one system entirely with another - he wants to reverse progress and re-stabilise humanity on conservative-communitarian lines.

And will he achieve this? Of course he will not. It is rhetoric. The resilience of the American Constitution, the resistance of 50% of the American population, the fact that there is no means for enforcing a 'gleichshaltung' on the many different centres of power within modern liberal democracies and the reality that most people actually want more freedom rather than less work against his revolutionary romanticism. Furthermore, he may have to come to terms with the fact that his President is an instinctive social libertarian and he is only a part of a mass movement whose key word is Freedom just as that of the liberals is Justice (when perhaps it should be Peace, Justice & Freedom).

For the leading edge of European populism and, we believe, for Trump, Freedom means economic freedom as conservatives view it but only more so. It is not just that - 'freedom populists'  have determinative concepts of national or state freedom and individual freedom presented as private rights over public claims. This is not the ideology of Judaeo-Christian communitarianism which we will see is central to Bannon's position. We have here internal contradictions within populism - between communitarianism and libertarianism where the former is actually on the defensive. The unhappiness of Christian Evangelical conservatives at Trump's lack of enthusiasm for some of their views as he gets closer to the Oval Office is an expression that this is not a Christian conservative regime.

Bannon & Communitarianism

Bannon regards libertarianism (in the US this is nearly always seen in economic terms) as an ally within populism but contrasts it with his brand of Judaeo-Christian 'enlightened capitalism', creating the core of that primary internal contradiction within American populism between Freedom and Fairness. It is an internal contradiction that creates a point of potential conflict with Trump himself who is clearly not a man of faith and who equally clearly rather gets on very well with a typical European proponent of the Freedom agenda like Nigel Farage. Although we might suspect Bannon playing up to his audience at this point since he clearly likes and admires Farage, I think Bannon is serious and not playing to the crowd here. His belief in Fairness draws him to a particular view of economic relations that is not scientific but comes from Biblical revelation (ultimately).

This does not require some deep-seated faith in God but only a belief that the code of values created in Judaea in the Iron Age and adapted by Christianity provides a template for an economic and social order that sees integrity in a community as something to be preserved. For the West, Judaeo-Christian ideology is what Confucianism is for the East (though he does not mention China) - a text-based wisdom ideology that is fair but tough-minded, constraining human desire and ensuring the weak are protected by moral leadership. He is far from alone in this - there is an extensive network of Judaeo-Christian (and, interestingly, Islamic) conservative critiques of liberal capitalism that seek to preserve the market but on terms that permit the community to dictate the conditions under which it operates in the community interest.

Needless to say, as an atheist existentialist, the idea that some Iron Age text, let alone some Eighteenth Century constitutionalist text, is an adequate guide to the maintenance of justice, freedom and security in an age of rapid technological change, strikes me as absurd. The reality is that such texts simply become, and have done so since Constantine in the public sphere, cover for the political hegemony of whatever class happens to hold the levers of power at any one time. However, he is right that contemporary neo-liberalism, whose ideology of unfair and untrammelled power relies ultimately on economic libertarianism, does not protect the weak and vulnerable.

Neo-liberalism does destabilise societies. American liberals seem to have been unable to develop strategies adequate to the task of creating a strong society in which the weak and vulnerable are protected and in which the ordinary man or woman is not threatened with insecurity and anxiety. Naturally my answer is different from his - the radical democrat control of capitalism through reason and science - but I can understand why, having been failed by the Left and with historical cultures that emphasise the Bible, millions of anxious and insecure people have looked backwards to the past rather than forward to the future. If there is a failure in American liberalism, it is its constant living in its own present, denying the identities of those clinging to past forms but also unable to offer any grand vision of the future.


The idea that Bannon is a racist or white nationalist is convenient for liberal critics but not merely is it unproven, it is clear that Bannon has no interest in such ideologies. This would fit with his mainstream Judaeo-Christian ideology. What he is accepting is the fellow-travelling of such ideologies within the broad populist movement. Liberals can neither understand not forgive this. But the response implicit from Bannon is two-fold - everyone has a right to a voice ('Freedom') and these people don't really matter in the long run.

Both are actually cogent positions. The first points up the authoritarian instincts of liberals who like to ban things they do not like under the banner of 'Right Conduct, Right Speech, Right Thought'. There is yet another irony in this. The Left has adopted Iron Age Judaeo-Christian attitudes and it is Bannon who is offering Voltairean freedom. This really is beyond the mental capacity of many liberals to comprehend.

Whether these extremists matter is another story. We tend to agree with Bannon. Their existence boxes him in a bit and allows liberals some easy propaganda wins in the less sophisticated centreground but it could equally be argued that free speech is a value and that the minorities have now sufficient political force to defend themselves. The weeping hysteria over the rise of fascism has been over done.

Nevertheless, the fact that Trump has such fellow travellers (though there is no evidence of racism on his part) is as potentially damaging to him as having Communists as fellow travellers were to candidates of the Centre-Left in earlier periods. On the other hand, the cultural war on the Confederate flag was probably, in retrospect, a major blunder by liberals, mobilising a legitimate and not necessarily racist 'white identity' that had scarcely existed before. The rise of Trump can be told as a succession of own goals by arrogant and presumptuous liberals.

Islamic Fascism

All this perhaps helps to explain one of the more absurd psychological turns of the New Right, its obsession with Islam. To the 'real' Leftist, Radical Islam is easily explained. I think rightly so. It is the partial creation of a long period of self-serving Western imperialism and is, in itself, obscurantist and has become dangerous: however, it is powerful in our lives only because we have panicked and made it powerful through our continuous interventions and the ease with which its atrocities trigger our own insecurity and anxiety.

Liberals have both indulged it by trying to accommodate faith-based views into their own political strategy and been panicked into illiberal measures by fear and special interests. The Alt Right fear and distaste for Islam, meanwhile, operates at many levels - in Europe, a xenophobia which has its roots in the reality of growing ghettos of poor people with a completely alien culture, amongst European intellectuals as a feared threat to free speech and the accommodation with that threat of liberals and, more in the US, an exaggerated fear of political violence (admittedly in an always potentially violent country where gun ownership is normal) from an enemy within.

These are all simplistic responses that reify Islam and often fail to pinpoint the real policy failures - in the handling of colonialism (by France in particular), the absurd early adoption for ideological reasons of free movement of peoples in Europe and the interventionism of liberal internationalists in the Middle East (although many liberals have become vociferous in their own right against this last) - but Bannon is going deeper, seeing Islam in almost medieval terms as a cultural rival to Judaeo-Christianity instead of (as we would see it) the third arm of three equally obscurantist but mostly benign Abrahamanic religions.

The Manichean view of religion can only take place if the critic takes religion seriously. Now, self-evidently, Bannon is speaking to an audience in the Vatican and so he may just talking his book to a particular audience but I do not think so. Everything I have written before this point hangs together to give us the picture of a man who may or may not believe in God but does believe in Judaeo-Christian communitarianism whether his boss does or not. In fact, it might be argued that the internal contradiction outlined above in populism is partially resolved by having a libertarian President with a communitarian ideologue in his ear whispering truths about half his country base and guiding his language to hold the movement together.


We are painting a picture of a highly intelligent man, who in the tradition of de Maistre, is not interested in creating a reasoned political philosophy but in expressing a more or less coherent and very flexible philosophy of political sentiments. In this regard he is a throw-back to the right-wing response to the French Revolution yet one where the radical has now adopted the central tenets of the Revolution - democracy and free speech - to overturn its values which (I think rightly) he sees as having, in any case, degenerated and given him his opportunity for his politics of sentiment. However, each sentiment is not just simple brute emotion.

Each relates to the other and each, on closer investigation, has 'just cause' - the anger and resentment are based on justifiable concerns about household and personal security and at the overweening sense of entitlement of the liberal elite. But part of the personality type involved - a testosterone and energetic male type of a certain age - requires an habitual gloomy apocalypticism, that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. It isn't, of course, (the Cold War was scarier and so were the 1930s) but it feels as if it is because lots of men of a certain age have seen no progress since 2008 and feel insecure. This means they get to feel apocalyptic. Once a word for women trapped into certain behaviours by their condition, hysteria now transfers easily to early and late middle aged men in the West as well as liberal snowflakes in the universities who send each other into paroxyms at the drop of a Tweet.

Bannon's apocalypticism (which he seems to enjoy) centres on two beliefs - that capitalism is in crisis and that we are at the beginning of a global war against Political Islam (which he calls Islamic fascism as most neo-cons and Israelis do). The first is partly true although it is not capitalism in crisis but the prevailing neo-liberal form of it: all that is happening is a challenge by national capitalisms to globalised regulatory capitalism on one side and a challenge to liberal accommodation with neo-liberalism (by both Right and Left) on the other. Looked at more closely, even a Trotsky-inspired radical like Shadow Chancellor McDonnell in the UK is not reviving any form of state socialism but doing little more than offering us his own brand of National Keynesianism that will probably have more in common with Trump's programme (insofar as we know it) than either neo-liberalism or state socialism.

The war with Islamic fascism is, however, pure hysteria since Political Islam presents serious threats to Europe in terms of incidents but little more than that - crush IS and you have no place where it holds sufficient state power to threaten any other State existentially. Any State it did seize control of (and Saudi Arabia is not an example of it) would be surrounded and pummelled if it did prove a serious threat. Only Pakistan with its nuclear arsenal is a country to be truly scared of in this context and a war on Political Islam in Islamabad is as likely to create the problem for us as resolve it. What it is about really is Israel but not quite in the way we may think. We have to go back to the ideology of Judaeo-Christian communitarianism to see why Israel is so important to Bannon. His Jews are not the cosmopolitan intellectuals so distrusted by Stalin or the combination of those and poor refugees and shtetl dwellers hated as the enemy within by Hitler but Judaic communitarian heroes of the Book who built a land of settled immigrants (ironically). Protecting Israel is protecting a strong global communitarian ally and so the communitarian transformation of the West.

The Putin Problem

The internal contradiction we have identified within populism represented by Trump's libertarianism and Bannon's communitarianism is exemplified by the different attitudes to Putin. I suspect Trump really does not care over much about Israel and only looks at it through the lens of political expedience. But Trump sees Putin as a deal-maker would see a rival businessman with whom he can co-operate on a major development.

Trump rationally sees that IS is the real threat to America insofar as Islamic radicals have already declared war on the country and that the only people fighting IS in Syria (as opposed to Iraq) are the Syrians and the Russians. He has a 'sphere of influence' view of international relations and, like any good businessman, weighs up the profit and loss of whether to be in one theatre or another. He probably sees the American Empire as over-extended and that it is time to dump some loss-making subsidiaries. That does not make him weak. It makes him pragmatic, rational and non-ideological.

Bannon however is idealistic, sentimental and ideological. He acknowledges Putin as a social conservative and traditionalist who appeals to many populist communitarians but he resists his charms (this evidence, of course, comes from the period before the current phase of the Syrian crisis and well before Trump announced his nomination). He sees Russia as expansionary (probably falsely since Russia is really only protecting a sphere of influence that is existentially threatened by Western expansion) and as an example of the crony capitalism that he excoriates at the centre of his ideology. He probably has limited understanding of Russia and fails to see that the 'kleptocracy' is a creation in part of the way Yeltsin responded to events, backed by the West.

After all, an American executive said in my hearing in 1992 in Moscow that the right strategy for Russia was to drive it into a robber baron phase in order to ensure capitalist development - Putin has been cleaning up stage by stage ever since. Nevertheless, from an absolutist point of view, Russia epitomises the sort of crony capitalism Bannon sees as a global problem that is destroying the basis for a legitimate or 'enlightened' capitalism that would be beholden to Judaeo-Christian moral values. The point is not whether he is 'for' or 'against' Putin at any one point in history but why he is critical - and it comes down to a less informed but wholly consistent critique that derives from his observation of American conditions. In the talk, Bannon admits his lack of knowledge of foreign affairs and it is to be doubted whether he has had time to become more sophisticated since then.

Where We Are

Bannon is important but he is probably not quite as important as liberals fear. Having said that, what he has done is bring Judaeo-Christian communitarian thinking into the inner counsels of the most powerful military and economic leader on the planet and we should take this seriously. Although his President undoubtedly has different values, that President is a pragmatist and the maintenance of his movement requires respect for Bannon's ideology even as he is challenged, in turn, by alternative visions from radical nationalists, economic libertarians and social conservatives of a more elite type.

Bannon's ideology is emotional, sentimental and ignorant in key areas (especially foreign affairs) but coherent and based on some political realities - that American liberalism has become corrupted, that capitalism is failing and in the hands of unaccountable elites and that the deep anxieties and insecurities of perhaps half the American population have been ignored at best and treated with contempt at worst.

As for responses to him, calling him a fascist is just plain ignorant and counter-productive. He sits within a Western right-wing tradition that may be said to include fascism but he is better described as the radical democratisation of traditional right-wing authoritarianism. It is that radical democratisation in substance and in method that has knocked liberals sideways.

Only weeks after the vote, most liberals still do not know what they are dealing with - that identity politics can be turned against them, that conservative religious interpretations of the decline of capitalism have force because Left critiques of capitalism were fully marginalised in the 1990s and that the new populism has proved more adept than liberals, not at campaigning per se (Clinton still got the majority of the popular vote) but at creating a sustainable movement during a technological revolution in the means of communication. Campaigns come and go but movements tend to stick.

But perhaps most interesting is that at the end of the Q&A in his talk to the Human Dignity Institute, he positioned his struggle as primarily (in 2014) one against the 'crony capitalist' conservatives in the Republican Party. If one was looking at the response of the Left in 2017, it would have to echo that of Bannon - the struggle is primarily against the 'crony neoliberals' in the Labour and Democrat Parties. If Bannon could do what he did for the Right, democratic socialists could do the same for the Left by the next round of critical elections in both the UK and US (2018-2020).