I completed my Masters Thesis on Apartheid some months before Nelson Mandela was released from prison by FW De Klerk in 1989. In it I predicted the imminent demise of apartheid based on changes in the South African economy which were happening at the time. I did so despite the fact that the relatively newly installed South African President, FW De Klerk, was widely regarded as a hard liner from within the ranks of the most reactionary parts of the South African Nationalist party at the time. Sometimes past policies and positions are a poor predictor of how someone will act once in power. For me, economic circumstances could sometimes trump the personal characteristics of those in ower.
I got everything right in my predictions bar one notable exception. I didn’t foresee that the transition to a post-Apartheid society could happen so relatively peacefully. I expected there could be considerable violence and perhaps a need for an outside guarantor such as the US or UN to guarantee the security of the state and most of its citizens. I didn’t foresee the quality of Mandela’s leadership and the inspirational and transformative effect he could have on the political landscape, both black and white.
It was not that I was a pure economic determinist in my analysis of the likely evolution of the South African political landscape. South Africa had defied economic logic many times before, and there were simply too many people with a strong vested interest in the maintenance of apartheid for any transition away from Apartheid to be anything but extremely difficult. Neither was I a follower of “great men” theories of history: the notion that the course of history can be largely determined by forceful individuals like Hitler, Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt. I always looked at the economic circumstances which led to and enabled their rise to power. I simply didn’t know enough about Mandela’s character and vision to make an accurate estimate of the effect his re-emergence could have on the evolution of South African politics and Society.
I feel somewhat similarly about Trump’s largely unheralded rise to power in the USA. I fully understand the changes in the US economy and society which have led to his emergence from almost nowhere on the political landscape. I do not underestimate the enormous impact he could have, for good or ill, on the future development on the US economy, politics and society. But like Mandela, I didn’t see him coming into such a prominent position of power quite so suddenly and completely. No doubt FW De Klerk thought he could control and manipulate Mandela and use him to his advantage. No doubt many in the US conservative movement now think they have an enormous opportunity to do so with Trump, especially as they now control both Houses of Congress and the Supreme Court as well.
They may be in for a surprise.
My political education as a teenage student had been largely influenced by a number of black and white political refugees from Apartheid who had found their way to Ireland by often difficult and circuitous routes. Some had been banned, arrested, and brutalised by the Apartheid regime. Their position seemed almost hopeless, and yet I was inspired by their strength, perseverance, faith in humanity, and hope. Most eschewed violence, some had a strong Christian faith, but all were committed to continuing political action. Basil Moore, Eva Strauss, and Bishop Colin Winter were among them.
I switched from Natural Science to economic and social studies, and studied International Law under Kadar Asmal, then leader of the Irish anti-Apartheid Movement, and later Minister of Water and then Education in Nelson Mandela’s governments. There was a lot of idealised thinking in the air, but I always focused on the economic circumstances which had brought Apartheid about and which might yet force a change from that system. Yes the devastating wars against Cuban forces in Angola and Mozambique were important. Sanctions and international disinvestment and the changes they forced in the ownership structure of South African industry perhaps even more so. But it was the changes in the structure of South African capitalism from one primarily dependent on cheap labour for the mining and farming industries to one requiring skilled labour for a mechanised and diversified economy requiring access to international markets which seemed to me to be crucial. Ten years later in 1988-89, when doing a Master’s in Peace Studies, I chose that as the topic for my thesis.
So what are the changes in the structure of US capitalism which may have given rise to Trump? The economic and social impacts of globalisation, mechanisation, automation, computerisation, financialisation, and monopolization have been well documented. Smaller communities have been gutted; Their local banks, shops, services and industries have been replaced by global behemoths like Walmark, too big to fail banks, globally branded consumer goods and internet provided services. Family farms have been replaced by huge agri-businesses dependent on genetically modified, Monsanto owned seeds for their survival.
Manufacturing jobs have been outsourced to the third world. Middle class white collar book-keeping, accounting and administrative jobs have been centralised, computerized, and then automated. Savings have been gutted by the financial crisis and the costs of education. Pension funds have earned meagre returns while the financial services providers have made billions for themselves and their senior management. Anti-trust legislation has been gutted so smaller players can be wiped out. Real wages have hardly risen while almost all incremental growth generated wealth over the last 35 years has accrued to the richest 1%. Debt for the less well off is ever growing, be it for mortgages, educational loans or just day to day survival.
It matters little that the primary political enablers for these changes have been Reagan and his successors in the Republican party. The Clintons were also complicit, and Obama has been barely able to contain the trend, thanks in large measure to the financial crisis he inherited and to continued Republican domination of a gerrymandered congress and local State administrations. Most voters do not have the conceptual tools to analyse who is really responsible. Corporate propaganda is all-encompassing.
But it would be a mistake to regard all capitalism and capitalists as one undifferentiated mass. Capitalists like Trump have largely restricted their investments to within the USA. They have comparatively little opportunity to off-shore their profits and avoid taxes like the Apples of this world. They are dependent on a buoyant consumer market in the USA to maintain their margins and their growth. They like to employ illegal immigrants where possible and resent regulations and “red tape” which makes it difficult for them to do so. But they are also aware of how much resentment this stokes up in their US employees. In some ways they are “old school” capitalists sinking their resources into bricks and morter. They resent the fact that the real money is increasingly being made elsewhere.
Trump may have embarked on his campaign in part because of his repeated humiliations by Obama and New York high society and a desire to build his brand. But there were also real grievances against the banks who bankrupted him on occasions and the bankers who imposed all risks on entrepreneurs like him. In his mind he did the real work while they were parasites living off his efforts. hence the nakedly anti-Semitic tone of his closing argument.
So what does all this tell us about the kind of administration he is likely to lead? For the first time in many years Republicans control the Presidency, both Houses of Congress, the Supreme Court and most state houses as well. Partisan gridlock shouldn’t be the problem that handicapped both the Clintons and Obama in the past. But it would be a mistake to regard many Republicans in the Conservative movement as being on the same page as Trump. He has little in common with social conservatives, evangelicals, fiscal conservatives, deficit scolds, neo-conservatives, and the corporate lobbyists from the globalised and financialised sectors of the economy.
He may, of course, have to make alliances with some or all of them in order to get his own agenda through. His own lack of interest in policy details will hand much of this task to more traditional conservatives like Mike Pence, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie and a plethora of “friends” from the corporate world. Trump is the marketeer, the arch salesman, the front man for the whole operation, able to convince many that the polluted water they are drinking is really fine wine.
And it is remarkable how loyal many people are once they have been taken in. They don’t want to admit to themselves and others they may have made a poor choice. Many were so desperate anything which discommoded “the establishment” would have given them at least some temporary satisfaction. And the joy they experienced at their success may become a drug. They will need the fix of continued Trump atrocities to maintain their pleasure at seeing their MAN enrage their opponents.
So we may see a continuation of the Trump circus just to keep his supporters both enraged at their opponents and over-joyed at their apparent success. The fact that the Trump team will be doing little to alleviate their material circumstances may simply become the focus of denial. There will be no shortage of illegal immigrants, high finance conspiracies, depraved minorities, and nefarious opponents to blame for any lack of material success.
But Trump can also game the system. It is quite possible to create a temporary boom by reducing taxes and increasing highly publicised infrastructural spending – all the while claiming that these will ultimately be self-financing, long after his term of office expires. A reduction in the headline corporate tax rate will benefit his companies more than the global corporates, but can also be sold as helping smaller, struggling, home town businesses. Economists who were deficit scold will suddenly come to realise, like Reagan and Dick Cheny, that deficits don’t really matter. And when they do come to roost Democrats can be blamed for failing to gut Medicare and social security programs. Unfunded wars and tax cuts are always a problem for the other party many years later.
But perhaps the most damaging legacy of Trump’s election will be as much social as political or economic. It is now officially ok to be a narcissistic, dictatorial, even violent husband; to grope women without their consent; to demonise immigrants and the weakest in society; to target pregnant women and sexual minorities; to be openly racist and discriminatory against religious minorities. To encourage violence against those you disagree with. Expect a huge upsurge in such incidents throughout society.
If the freeing and rise to power of Nelson Mandela demonstrated the inspirational and transformative effect one good leader can have on politics and society, Trumps rise may well demonstrate the reverse: you can capitalise on the worst of peoples fears and prejudices and make even a bad situation considerably worse. One of the things one heard most often during the campaign was that Trump and Hillary were equally bad candidates, but at least he represented a change from the establishment being in control. Those people may be about to learn that in fact things can get considerably worse, and indeed as Europe found out to its cost in the 1930’s and 40’s, there is no bottom to just how bad things can get.