What Of The Centre-left? A Brief History Of ‘trumpism’

Wolfgang Streeck
September 27, 2017
"Trump's portraits" by Svetik Petushkova, Andrew Sharapov is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Strange personalities arise in the cracks  of disintegrating institutions. They are often marked by extravagant  dress, inflated rhetoric, and a show of sexual power. The first Trumper  of the postwar era was the Danish tax rebel, Mogens Glistrup, the  founder of the nationalist Progress Party, who, having put his  principles into practice, went to prison for tax evasion. Geert Wilders  in the Netherlands and Boris Johnson in England are hairstyle Trumpers.  Pim Fortuyn and Jörg Haider were both dandies. They died in their  finery. Beppe Grillo, Nigel Farage, and Jean-Marie Le Pen, are each one  third of a full Trump.

Trumpers generate their populist charisma among Trumpists by defying  convention; they appear extraordinary to those who are intimidated but  not impressed by society’s machinery of social control.1With  hindsight, it seems as though the capitalist democracies have been  waiting for their Trumpers, men and women eager to liberate public  speech from its commitment to the unbelievable. Donald Trump’s promise  to make America great again is an acknowledgement that the United States  is a power in decline, embarrassingly unable since Vietnam to win, or  even to finish, any of the wars that it started. When Trumpers ask about  NATO, they are asking why NATO should continue to exist a quarter  century after the end of the Soviet Union. Calls for economic  protectionism raise the question, long taboo among liberal  internationalists, of whether new free trade agreements are really to  everyone’s benefit, and why, in particular, the government of the United  States should have let its country deindustrialize. The United States  has an elaborate immigration policy, and yet there are eleven million  illegal immigrants in its territory.2 Trumpers say this is odd, and Trumpists agree with them.


In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx  recounted the coup d’état of 1851 by which the nephew of Napoleon I,  Louis Bonaparte, seized power, ruling France first as its president, and  a year later as its emperor.3  He governed as Napoleon III until 1871, when the Prussian army under  Helmuth von Moltke put an end to his administration, along with his amour-propre.  Marx described Bonapartism as a popular form of government by personal  rule. It arose, he argued, in stalemated European societies, with the  capitalist class too divided, and the working class too disorganized, to  instruct or inform the government. The result was a degree of relative  state autonomy, one expressing, even as it masked, a deadlock between  social classes.4

Bonapartist politics is driven by the idiosyncrasies of its Bonaparte.5 This  is not a recipe for effective rule. Since a capitalist society under  Bonapartism lacks the power to control, or contain, market forces,  capitalists can afford to let their Bonaparte stage spectacles of  political bravado; behind the scenes, markets do what markets do. In  reflecting on the two Napoleons, Marx remarked that the first was a  tragedy, but the second, a farce.

No one wishes to see too many farces play on the international  political stage. The slow breakdown of state-administered capitalism in  the 1970s was followed by the catastrophic collapse of its neoliberal  successor in 2008, an event, or series of events, that destroyed the  credibility of neoliberalism as an economic doctrine (Jonathan Ostry, Prakash Loungani, and Davide Furceri, “Neoliberalism: Oversold?Finance & Development 53, no. 2 (2016): 38–41.)) and left the governors of global capitalism clueless.6  There are today profound disagreements about whether the proper  location of government should be at the national or international level.  There is also the worldwide demise of centre-left politics; the  fragmentation of national party systems, often making government  formation difficult if not impossible; and the simultaneous increase of  inequality and indebtedness across the developed capitalist economies.  Trump won the United States presidential election with the support of a  disorganized declining class, the industrial workers of middle America,  who are comparable in their own way to Marx’s smallholding peasants of  mid-eighteenth century France.7 Hillary  Clinton proved unable to forge a coalition between Wall Street and Main  Street, or between the big and petite bourgeoisie, or between Silicon  Valley and industrial workers, or between the forces of finance and  Bernie Sanders. On the opposite side of a political system in decay, the  Republican party proved unable to bridge the gap between old  Republicanism and the tea party, or between social modernizers and  religious fundamentalists, or between urban hedonists and rural  puritans, or between international interventionists and national  protectionists.

Fissures grew into cracks, and an accumulating system of cracks  opened a path for an outsider like Trump to capture the Republican  nomination. Had the Democratic establishment defended itself as weakly  as the Republican establishment,8 Trump might have been defeated by Sanders.

Death of the Centre-Left

Over the past quarter century, the centre-left made a historic  commitment to internationalism, a movement both promoting and requiring  economic and social modernization. Now it is declining into desuetude.  It is against this background that Trump and Trumpism must be  understood. In the 1990s, the centre-left placed its hopes for restoring  growth and consolidating public finance on liberalized international  markets. A worldwide effort at industrial and social restructuring  followed. International competition put pressure on national economies  to become more efficient. Economic losers were punished by ever-lower  wages and reduced social security benefits. Economic winners were  rewarded by higher profits and lower taxes. Policies to this effect were  hard to sell to centre-left voters, so they were attributed to the  irresistible natural force of globalization. In this way, the  centre-left hoped to escape responsibility for the pain inflicted on its  constituents. The bitter medicine did not work; nor was the centre-left  granted political immunity. In all countries of the developed  capitalist world, the number of losers increased until political  entrepreneurs sensed their opportunity and entered the public scene.

The rise of the Trumpists was made possible by the decline of the  centre-left in the United States, Italy, France, the UK, Austria, the  Netherlands, and even Germany, where the losers in the former GDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik), were among the earliest supporters of the new right-wing party, the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland). Those  aggrieved by the accelerated internationalization of their societies  felt abandoned by their national state. Elites in charge of public  affairs were judged guilty of having handed national sovereignty to  international organizations. These charges were largely true. Global  neoliberalism has enfeebled the nation state, and with it,  national democracy. Citizens most affected by these events had only  their votes to express their displeasure. Trumpism took off, fueled as  much in the United States as elsewhere by popular irritation at the vast  public celebration of internationalization. Economic and cultural  elites entered an international space rich in their rights, at ease both  in and out of national states. If democracy is understood as the  possibility of establishing social obligations toward those luckless in  the marketplace, the global elites had entered into, or created, a world  in which there was a great deal of lucklessness and not many  obligations. For those plotting to take advantage of growing discontent,  nationalism appeared as an obvious formula both for social  reconstruction and political success. The winners and the losers of  globalism found themselves reflected in a conflict between  cosmopolitanism and nationalism. The old left having withdrawn into  stateless internationalism, the new right offered the nation-state to  fill the ensuing political vacuum. Liberal disgust at Trumpian rhetoric  served to justify the withdrawal of the left from its constituents, and  to explain its failure to help them express their grievances in  civilized public language. Discontent grew fast.

The Trump presidency is both the outcome and the end of the American  version of neo-liberalism. Having commenced crumbling in the era of  George W. Bush, the neo-liberal regime managed to regain an appearance  of vitality under Barack Obama. With his departure, it was bound to  collapse under the weight of its contradictions, and, indeed,  absurdities. Clinton’s daring attempt to present herself as advocate of  those Americans “working hard and playing by the rules,” while  collecting a fortune in speaker’s fees from Goldman Sachs, was destined  to fail. So, too, was Clinton’s insistence that it was the historical  duty of American voters to elect her as their first female president.  Transgendered restrooms infuriated everyone except those seeking access  to them, no matter the Obama administration’s attempt to depict bathroom  access as a civil right.9Deep down, no one cared.

Class, Status, Party

Almost a century ago, Max Weber drew a distinction between class and status.10 Classes  are constituted by the market; status groups by a particular way of  life and a specific claim to social respect. Status groups are  home-grown social communities; classes become classes only through  organization. The Trumpist electoral machine mobilizes its supporters as  a status group. It appeals to their shared sense of honor more than to their material interests.11 In  this, Trumpism follows New Labour and New Democrat neo-liberalism,  which deleted class from their political vocabulary. In its stead, they  redefined the struggle for social equality as one over identity, that  is, over the symbolic recognition and collective dignity of an  indefinite number of ever narrower status groups. Neoliberalism had  failed to anticipate that the discovery by experts and politicians of  ever new minorities may make the demobilized working class feel  abandoned in favor of special interests. Their discovery and celebration  inevitably demoted the interests of the working class. As the United  States was transformed into a polity of status groups, the working class  lost its sense of identification with the country as a whole, if only  because it is this class, reduced to one identity and interest among  others, that is now blamed for a rich variety of social malignancies,  from racism and sexism to gun violence and educational and industrial  decline.12

Whereupon the takeoff of Trumpist propaganda. The centre-left took  satisfaction in informing Americans deprived of an accessible identity  that they were shortly to become “a minority in their own land.” They  found their predicted irrelevance galling; its celebration, intolerable.  Trumpism promised them a restauration of their honor. The country would  be reconstituted as a united status group, one defending its integrity  against both immigrants and urban elites. Exactly like the centre-left  politics of identity, Trumpism is all about collective honor. Unlike the  centre-left, it speaks to the silenced majority of a disorganized class. A class that is resentful about its relegation to the status of a moral minority, one less worthy of respect than other minorities due to past offenses against the new spirit of openness and diversity.

The electoral dynamics of Trump’s victory in the United States are  now well understood. The election was as much about Clinton losing as  Trump winning. Unlike other Trumpists, Trump did not have to bring about  an increase in voter turnout in order to win.13 Having  insulted Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” Clinton placed  her bets on a collection of status groups defined by color, gender,  national origin, sexual identification, and the like. She early on  conceded Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Clinton also  relied on her financial backing by Wall Street and Silicon Valley, as  well as a hoped-for glamour infusion from her supporters in the  entertainment business, such as Meryl Streep and Beyoncé. As a champion  of those average Americans who worked hard and played by the rules,  Clinton was embarrassed by her wealth and the suspicious ways in which  she had earned it.14 Trump received the lion’s share of his votes from the victims of deindustrialization in the centre of the country.15

The result was an almost perfect division of the political landscape  between Trump majorities in the centre and Clinton majorities along the  coasts. Clinton having focused on status rather than class, class was  left to Trump, who in an act of instinctive political genius, made of  class another, forgotten, dishonored status group. This enabled him to  attract voters in still relatively comfortable economic circumstances  who no longer felt sufficiently respected by the forces of cultural  modernization. Trump’s foulmouthed public persona and his outrageous  appearance did not deter them, apparently because what he said was  closer to their heart than conventional public speech. Nor were his  voters deterred by the fact that he was no policy expert. Supporting him  was an expression of their lost faith in the problem-solving capacity  of conventional politics.16 While Trump’s appeal was about respect, Clinton’s rejection was about class. White working class women voted for Trump 62:34,17 and compared to Obama, Clinton lost among blacks and Latinos, as well as among Asians.18

Cities versus Hinterlands

Among the structural cracks in contemporary societies in which  Trumpism flourishes is a rapidly growing cleavage between cities and  their deindustrialized, more or less rural, hinterland. Cities are the  growth pole of postindustrial societies. They are international,  cosmopolitan, and politically pro-immigration, in part because their  success in global competition depends on their ability to attract talent  from all over the world. Cities also require a supply of low-skilled  and low-paid service workers, who clean offices, provide for security,  prepare meals in restaurants, deliver parcels, and take care of the  children of dual career families.19 The  white middle class can no longer afford ever-rising urban rents; they  find themselves living in growing communities of immigrants, or they  leave and move to the small-town provinces.20)

Geographical separation has deeply divisive cultural and political  consequences. Urban elites can easily imagine themselves moving from one  global city to another; moving from New York to Ames, Iowa is another  matter. National borders are less salient to urban elites than the  informal borders between urban and rural communities. As urban labor  markets turn global, job applicants from the national hinterlands must  compete with talent from all over the world. Globalization creates an  incentive for governments and employers not to invest too much in  education. Why bother? They can always poach skilled labor from other  countries. This is how the United States combines one of the worst  school systems in the world with the world’s best universities and  research centres.

There is an almost insuperable cultural barrier between the city and  the country, something long known to city and country dwellers alike.  City dwellers develop a multicultural, cosmopolitan outlook. As their  values converge on their interests, what used to be social liberalism  edges into free-market liberalism. Seen from the perspective of the  provinces, of course, elite cosmopolitanism serves the material  interests of a new class of global winners. Mutual contempt is  reinforced by self-imposed isolation, both sides speaking only to and  within their camps, one through the media, located in the cities, the  other through self-constructed private internet channels.

The Politics of Resentment

Neoliberal modernisation comes with a cultural reeducation program.  The liberal war against tradition, undertaken by metropolitan elites,  and neoliberal economic reforms are related. The first serves as a cover  for second. It crowds political economy from public attention. But both  are about a redefinition of social solidarity and economic  egalitarianism. Social communities based on a shared sense of obligation  are always at risk of harboring or relapsing into an attitude inimical  to capitalist progress. Neoliberalism champions individual achievement  over collective solidarity. In terms of T. H. Marshall’s seminal  analysis of the European welfare state, this amounts to a reversal of  the move from social rights of collective protection based on  citizenship in a (national) political community, to civil rights of  equal participation in (supranational) markets.21

Nations are imagined communities.22 Nation  building entailed the creation of formal institutions extending  previously informal, communal bonds of solidarity to all co-nationals.  Globalization favors the equal access of everyone to worldwide markets.  It has no use for national citizenship or national citizens. Another  moral system is at work.23 Cultural  reeducation is required to erase traditional solidarity and replace it  with a morality of equal access and equal opportunity regardless of  status (such as “race, creed, and national origin”). Justice is served  as soon as market access is equalized. The replacement of class  solidarity by status rights demands flexible adjustment to changing  market conditions. The morality of marketization entails a categoric  delegitimization of distinctions. Empathy and benevolence become moral  duties with respect to everyone, rather than one’s neighbor. Social  rights are displaced by civil rights, a process which, as Hannah Arendt  saw clearly in 1948, inevitably dilutes to near-invisibility any system  of effective social protection.

For the domestic politics of a nation-state undergoing neoliberal  redefinition, this has profound consequences. Classes struggling over  the correction of markets give way to status groups struggling over  access to them. At issue are not the terms of exchange and cooperation  between conflicting class interests, or the limits of exploitation of  one class by another, but status groups with established market access  excluding status groups without it from competition. Political morality  lies in opening up competition by removing barriers to entry, not in  containing it through institutionalized limits to commodification. For  groups that already have market access, this means a moral duty, in the  name of equality, to allow themselves to be challenged by newcomers,  whoever they may be—fellow citizens, immigrants, or residents of other  countries—at the risk of being outcompeted and having their lives  disrupted as a result.

The shift from class to status has left the remnants of the traditional working class deeply resentful.24 Trumpism  is the belated political eruption of this resentment. In the United  States, the UK, France, Sweden, and Germany, the old working class,  gathered in declining regions and cut off from glimmering global cities,  has for some time felt sidelined by what it perceives as a new politics  of entitlement by victimhood.25 Their  moral and economic isolation was exacerbated by the media and their  reeducation campaigns. Arlie Russell Hochschild has described the deep  divisions between traditional American communities and a hegemonic urban  culture declaring it a moral duty for citizens to extend communitarian  feelings of compassion, solidarity, and brotherhood from neighbors and  friends to everybody, from kind to mankind and indeed humankind.26 Those  unable to comply with the demand for conspicuous compassion are widely  regarded as morally defective. Better to stay silent.27  Resistance is punished by cultural marginalization, which in an  especially delicate exercise in social irony, is itself becoming a form  of victimization.

To the extent that Trumpism is a cultural movement, it represents a  backlash against the degradation of a disorganized class; and it  celebrates, and often sanctions, a smoldering desire for symbolic  rehabilitation. Trump’s ascendency, in particular, coincides with a  dramatic national loss of status in the larger international arena. The  American working class has strongly supported the wars undertaken by the  United States, and it can see that by never winning them, the United  States has always lost them. The American heartland has always been  emotionally invested in global power.28  Successive defeats in war left deep wounds in its collective  consciousness, as did the indifferent respect paid to veterans returning  from the battlefields. That the country with the world’s most powerful  military had so often been unable to prevail over its enemies, the  heartland attributed to faint-hearted and feckless leadership. Hurt  pride resulted in simultaneous calls for a complete withdrawal from  foreign adventures, and for an unrestrained use of military force.  Trumps seem to emerge easily in countries with a colonial past—the  United States, France, the UK, the Netherlands, and also Russia.  Collective memories of being at the centre of the world, or at least of a  world of one’s own, seem to make it more difficult to accept relegation  to the status of one country among others.

O wie ist alles fern und lange vergangen is a sentiment that an entire people can share.

On the Governing Capacity of Trumpism

Can Trump govern? Could Le Pen? Or Grillo? In a system of personal  rule, personal defects matter: narcissism, fickleness, a short attention  span. It remains to be seen if Trump has the time, and, indeed, the  will, to study dossiers or even to listen to advice.29  Trump’s performance during his first weeks in office has been erratic,  messy, and incompetent. Early in his presidency, it seemed conceivable  that he might resign during his first term, perhaps undermined by the  intelligence community he had insulted during the campaign. He could  also be forced to resign over conflicts of interest, or be declared  unfit to serve, under the 25th Amendment.30  His cabinet appointments, on the other hand, indicate an attempted  reconciliation with both the military and the national security  establishment, buying stabilization in office with concessions on  policy, especially on NATO, Russia, and global affairs generally.

An elected president can stray far from his campaign rhetoric without  popular punishment. In this, Trump might learn from his predecessor.  But even if Trump learns how to govern, there is no reason to believe  that he will be better than his predecessors at dealing with the crises  of global capitalism and the international state system that have  brought him to power. Increasing inequality, rising debt, and low growth  are not easily cured. Trumpism is, after all, an expression of the  crisis, not its solution. If Trumpists feel bound by their electoral  promises, they must put an end to neoliberal reform. This will not end  the impasse between capitalism and society. In the absence of a stable  class compromise between capital and labor, policy is doomed to become  capricious. Perhaps Trumpism will make its departure from neoliberalism  and free trade palatable to capital by increasing credit, debt, and  inflation—another policy intended to buy time and little else. Nobody  knows what Trumpists will do to shore up their political support if  economic nationalism fails to produce the promised results.


Intellectually, morally, and stylistically, Wolfgang Streeck’s is an  indispensable voice. The account he provides here of Trumpism and of  Trump’s election victory is exemplary in its lucidity. His arguments  are, however, importantly incomplete and some of his claims, most  notably on the question of class, are debatable. The following remarks  are offered as corrective supplements, along three key axes:  descriptive, analytical, and explanatory.

Streeck correctly asserts that “Trump won the United States  presidential election with the support of a disorganized, declining  class, the industrial workers of middle America.” He also draws an  analogy with the “smallholding peasants of mid-eighteenth-century  France” in Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire. There is a mistake here, but only as a slip: he means of course nineteenth-century peasants, as part of the support base of Napoléon III’s coup d’état,  the point being to run an analogy between the manipulative trickster  politics of both the Emperor and the President. Apart from some very  generalized similarities, as historical analogies go, this one is weak.  However, I propose to put this question to one side. Others might like  to expand on it, but, in any case, it is not vital to the essential  points.

The latter crucially include the claim that the Trump election  campaign took place against the background of a social transformation,  which the campaign actively exploited: the splintering of class  formations into what—following the canonical distinction of Max Weber  between class and status—Streeck calls status groups of a type that  compel allegiances by way of group-specific codes  and values rooted in  forms of identity politics, and, in this particular case, a subsoil of  racism and xenophobia:

The Trumpist electoral machine mobilizes its supporters as a status group.  It appeals to their shared sense of honor more than to their material  interests. In this, Trumpism follows New Labour and New Democrat, which  deleted class from their political vocabulary. In its stead they  redefined the struggle for social inequality as one over identity…

There is a mix of the true and the false in this characterization.  Trump and his people certainly played a version of the identity card  (alt-right, white supremacist, coded lines from the Bannon playbook).  But he also appealed to material interests. He lied about his commitment  to them, but of them he certainly spoke; the pitch was for America  first, and America first was represented as jobs coming back to the rust  belt and elsewhere, as the reparation of a devastated class. In his  memorably awful inauguration address, Trump spoke, expressly and  pointedly, of the “American workers” and “the rusted-out factories  scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” These are  class terms, and part of grasping why Trump, as Streeck says, “received  the lion’s share of his votes from the victims of deindustrialization  in the centre of the country.” I do not recall the inventor of New  Labour, Tony Blair, ever talking like this. In his chaotic, brutal, and  opportunistic way, Trump played the class card over and over. The  tendency in Streeck’s piece to cleave to an either/or logic of binaries  (class or group, but not both) fails to account for Trump’s incoherent yet powerful mélange of  a language of group and a language of class. It is not that the  language of class was abandoned and replaced by another, more that, in a  kind of parody of the Hegelian Aufhebung, it was confiscated, incorporated, and then traduced in order to be put to other uses.

Those uses are reflected in one of Trump’s two favorite words,  “movement.” The other is “beautiful,” a curiously Gothic deployment of  the aesthetic term. Throughout the campaign, in the inauguration speech,  and in rallies since, Trump has invariably spoken of “the movement.”  Or, “the historic movement,” as he put it in his inauguration speech.  This too of course has a class lineage, rooted in labor movements and  left politics, but here has another, ominous resonance: the mass  movements of 1930s demagoguery, now widely echoed in the  neo-authoritarian discourses of our own time. The other keyword is the  “people” and its scriptural embodiment as “the will of the people.”  Trump is not, of course, a reincarnation of the Führer; he is too much  of a chaotic fantasist to be anything other than an ersatz version, as  Thomas Meaney put it in the London Review of Books. But the  attempt to make sense of Trump, or more exactly of Trumpism, has to go  by way of this ragbag collage of discursive fragments, and the complex  long-haul discursive histories from which the fragments are taken.

These, then, are some of the respects in which we might want to  rearrange, analytically, Streeck’s otherwise compelling binary  description. Similar considerations arise on the explanatory axis, the  historical explanation offered by Streeck for Trump’s success. This, he  claims, turns essentially on a crisis of capitalist democracies,  specified as the “slow breakdown of state-administered capitalism in the  1970s” that was “followed by the catastrophic collapse of its  neoliberal successor in 2008, an event, or series of events, that  destroyed the credibility of neoliberalism as an economic doctrine and  left the governors of global capitalism clueless.” As a historical  timeline, this is both familiar and credible; there can certainly be  little doubt as to the cluelessness. However, yet again it suffers from  simplification induced by recourse to binaries, above all the antimony  of state-administered capitalism and the neoliberal global free-for-all.  This misses much, centrally, in its understandings of the nature of  neoliberalism.

The crux here concerns Streeck’s invocations of nation and  nation-state in relation to democracy. His principal thesis—unremarkable  in itself—is that the great wave of globalization has swept across  national political geographies, uprooting in more senses than one:  “Global neoliberalism has enfeebled the nation state and, with  it, national democracy… Trumpism took off, fueled as much in the United  States as elsewhere by popular irritation at the vast public celebration  of internationalization.” The displacement of the national by the  internationalized has a particular form: the creation of a wealthy  transnational elite, without allegiance to, and increasingly resented  by, local communities; the great disjunction of our time is the conflict  between cosmopolitanism and nationalism. It is from that conflict or  tension that the Trump victory is explained: “The Trump presidency is  both the outcome and the end of the American version of neoliberalism.”

This explanatory thesis is unlikely to withstand serious scrutiny for  very long. The binaries that structure the argument can work only at  the cost of suppressing complexity. Crucially, it involves a  misunderstanding of what is called neoliberalism. The corporate world of  the neoliberal settlement is internationalist only in certain forms:  executive elites jet-set; money flows hourly in vast quantities across  national borders; production is outsourced to where labor costs are low;  jurisdictions are sought as tax havens. Yet American corporations are  first and foremost committed to a version of America first. These are  not of course the interests of all Americans, and certainly not the  interests of unemployed workers in the industrial sector. But at the  level that counts for them, the bottom line, the international  corporations are as nationalist as it gets, and no less so under the  neoliberal dispensation. That is why they have a lobbying machine  furiously at work in connection with the drafting of trade treaties by  the federal government and other measures that involve the legislative  branch. It is simply a category mistake to construe neoliberalism in  terms of its own self-image as a global free market of autonomous  players. It is not that the national and the state-administered  disappeared in the neoliberal capitalist (dis)order. On the contrary,  both remained ever-present, but in new guises, as different ways of  interfering in the market. This was the case, above all, in connection  with the credit boom, above all the expansion of the subprime mortgage  phenomenon in the American property market that resulted in the 2008  financial crash. This had the government’s finger prints all over it.  All the fancy structured bets looked like one-way bets because all the  loans ultimately looked like loans to what could never default, the U.S.  government. One has only to look at the exponential growth of the  balance-sheets of the government-backed agencies, Fannie Mae and Freddie  Mac, at the time, to see why the nation-state had done the very  opposite of withdraw from the market. Monetary policy and  too-big-to-fail implicit guarantees are what kept the casino afloat  until the plug was pulled.

As big business incarnate, Trump belongs in this nexus of the  national and international, and there is no reason to believe that, to  the extent that he has any coherent plans at all, his presidency will  seek to secure anything other than the continued rebuilding and  strengthening of that nexus. It will indeed be America first. Meanwhile,  the American workers, victims of the great carnage, will be  continuously confronted with the hopelessness of their condition. The  only piece of legislation Trump has gotten through Congress so far is  the repeal of Obamacare, which of course has the consequence of  depriving millions of American workers of basic protections while  providing, in Warren Buffet’s frank summary, “a huge tax cut for guys  like me.” This is what Bannon-style economic nationalism looks like and  will continue to look like.

Streeck asks if Trump can govern, adding, can “Le Pen, or Grillo”?  But he might as well have added “anyone”: Merkel, May, Macron, e tutti quanti.  Streeck is right to say that without an end to neoliberal reform,  nothing can be achieved. But nothing can be achieved on that front  without also an understanding of neoliberalism that does not reduce it  to being simply a reflection of the internationalized order of  globally-mobile capital.

As for finding what Streeck refers to as “a stable class compromise  between capital and labor,” Trump obviously is not our man even as he  speaks the language of class. But beyond all the inchoate sound and  fury, there is the larger question of where it is to be found by anyone,  or even if it is findable at all. Globalization is a term that  adequately describes some of causes of the crisis, most notably the  creation of surplus industrial capacity. It is reasonable to think that,  unless something comes along that proves to be a game-changer on such a  scale that even vested interests are blown out of the water, the rape  of the earth will continue until natural resources are exhausted and  very possibly the climate uninhabitable. Short of these ultimate  outcomes, finite resources eventually mean scarcity. For now, however,  surplus is the name of the game in the sphere of productive capacity.  The front-page cause célèbre example right now is steel. The  world produces too much of it. A mercantilist China pumps billions into  domestic steel factories for which there are no markets other than  abroad. But terms of trade are only part of this story, and arguably the  lesser part. There is also something else coming down the track: the  replacement of labor by automation, the world of the robot and  algorithm-driven production.

An example: there is already talk of how, in the U.K., agriculture  will manage after the putative post-Brexit loss of seasonal labor from  Europe. The answer: robots will do the picking. Generalize this out  across many other sectors of production and then ask what a compromise  formation might look like. Some are asking the question. In the French  presidential election, the Socialist Party candidate, Benoît Hamon,  talked about it intelligently, but no one was listening. He got a meager  six percent of the vote in the first round. In a recent article in the Financial Times,  Sarah O’Connor has traced some of the likely implications and  consequences for post-Brexit Britain, most notably the erroneous belief  that with the departure of cheap labor from Eastern Europe, wages will  increase and inequality lessen. That, she maintains, is self-deluding.  The compact of capitalism and nation, now cemented by technology, will  ensure the opposite. It will be a mirror image of what happened in  American agriculture, with the ending in 1964—the heyday of  state-administered capitalism—of the so-called Bracero Program that  allowed farmers to import cheap seasonal workers from Mexico. The  express aim of the program was to raise indigenous wages. It failed;  farmers simply changed “production techniques where that was possible…  and production levels where it was not.” What will happen if/when  Trump’s beautiful wall goes up?

In the last interview he gave shortly before his death, Eric  Hobsbawm, surveying possibilities for the future, remarked grimly yet  presciently that the commodity that will be least in demand in the  future is human labor. Trump is merely a superficial, transient, and in  some ways dangerous symptom of that great conundrum. He can have as many  rallies as he like, and carry on tweeting about the American  worker—though, significantly, we have lately heard less of the latter  from him. Maureen Dowd got him right when, in the New York Times,  she reinvented the John Lennon tag for Trump as Working-Class Zero. He  is simply fluff on the political landscape, here today, gone tomorrow.  Hobsbawm’s forecast, however, and the questions that go with it, will  remain.

As for the death of neoliberalism, reports thereof resemble those of  Mark Twain’s death—premature. Streeck speaks of its catastrophic  collapse in 2008. This is one way of describing a crisis, but the term  is careless. It has not collapsed. Courtesy of state interventions,  backed by taxpayers, and sustained by national and consumer debt, it  has, as Philip Mirowski shows, if somewhat raggedly, in his book, Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste,  in fact, emerged relatively unscathed. It remains shaky, of course,  and, once the unprecedentedly huge state-administered  intervention—central bank manipulations of monetary policy and other  measures associated with quantitative easing—has fully run its course in  fueling debt and propping up asset prices, the next crisis beckons. But  neoliberalism is a regime that is still very much with us. Trump of  course will make no difference on that front—he may indeed be gone by  the time this letter is published. The real question is whether someone  like Macron will. Surely the only sensible predictive answer is no. How  could someone of his technocratic outlook possibly be the answer to the  guises the neoliberal world order is likely to assume? Technology, along  with private property, is intrinsically anti-egalitarian, as Rousseau  argued in his Second Discourse. It expands and refines systems  of the division of labor, and it now looks as if might spell the end of  forms of human labor on an unimaginable scale, while producing a  relatively small cadre of highly-paid experts servicing automated modes  of production owned and controlled by large corporations, start-up  entrepreneurs and venture capital. It is very difficult, and perhaps  impossible, to see what a compromise between capital and labor might  look like in a world where the latter has more or less ceased to exist.

— Christopher Prendergast

Wolfgang Streeck replies:

I feel proud and humbled and grateful, all at the same time, for the  quality of the comments that my paper has elicited. I have learned  enormously from all of them. There is very little that I have to add to  Prendergast’s remarks, except that all his points—and I count three  major ones—usefully complement, develop further, clarify, improve, and  correct what I have written. First, on class, I was sloppy in not making  explicit that, in my terminology, political mobilization by class  implies specifying a class enemy, and working-class political  mobilization means specifying capital as the enemy to be defeated.  Second, and much more importantly, on nation, I learn, and will  henceforth take to heart, that the internationalism of global  neoliberalism is in fact American nationalism cum statism, and  needs to be explicitly conceptualized in this way. Third, yes, if labor  markets and production systems develop the way they might—as sketched  out in Prendergast’s comment—any idea of a stable class compromise  between capital and labor will finally become outdated. The consequences  for our theories about the world and our practice in it would be truly  awe inspiring. Up to now I have tried to think around them, excusing my  timidity by alluding to my experience as an industrial sociologist in  the 1980s. At that time, CNC technology was predicted to replace skilled  metal-working and to produce an army of unemployed, who had formerly  been well-paid skilled workers. In some places this was so. In others,  shop-floor programming and decentralized debugging, corresponding to  shorter production runs of more complex products, brought an upgrading of skills and an increase in  employment. I now feel that the time is past when this experience could  be drawn upon for reassurance about the threat—long hovering on the  capitalist horizon—of the fully automated, unmanned (or un-person-ed?)  factory and office.

Note: We are publishing here Wolfgang Streeck’s essay ‘Trump and Trumpism’ from the Inference Review, as well as Christopher  Prendergast’s reply to the same journal.


1. ↑ This  Essay Is Not On Populism In General But Only On A Subtype Of It, Which I  Call Trumpism. Populism Has A Long And Often Dignified History,  Reaching Back To The Progressive Era In The United States With The  Minnesota Farmer–labor Party And ‘fighting Bob’ La Follette’s  Progressive Party—and In Any Case There Is Left As Well As Right  Populism. Today Populism Has Become A Dirty Word, Used By The  Established Parties Of Postwar Capitalist Democracy To Discredit Their  New Challengers, From Both Sides Of The Political Spectrum.

2. ↑ Similarly,  European Trumpists Insist, Increasingly With Success, On The Questions  Of What Exactly The ‘ever Closer Union Of The People Of Europe’ As  Envisaged By The European Union Treaties Is To Mean, And What The Status  Of Associated Nation-states Within That Union Is Supposed To Be—an  Issue That Is Strictly Avoided In Official Europe.

3. ↑ Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire Of Louis Bonaparte (New York: Mondial, 2005). The Eighteenth Brumaire Is Also Available Online.

4. ↑ Within  Orthodox Marxism, The Concept Of Bonapartism Represents Its Most  Significant Departure From Its Fundamental Base–superstructure Paradigm.

5. ↑ As Marx Writes On Bonaparte: “Just Because He Was Nothing, He Could Signify Anything.” Quoted In Francis Wheen, Karl Marx: A Life (London: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001), 157.

6. ↑ See Wolfgang Streeck, Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis Of Democratic Capitalism(London: Verso Books, 2014); Mervyn King, The End Of Alchemy: Money, Banking, And The Future Of The Global Economy (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016).

7. ↑ The Concept Of Social Disorganization Is Illustrated In Chapter 7 Of The Eighteenth Brumaire Where  Marx Explains Why The French Peasants, Louis Napoleon’s Main Source Of  Support, Were Unable To Rule As A Class Although They Were The Vast  Majority Of The French Citizenry: ‘each Individual Peasant Family Is  Almost Self-sufficient, Directly Produces Most Of Its Consumer Needs,  And Thus Acquires Its Means Of Life More Through An Exchange With Nature  Than In Intercourse With Society… Thus The Great Mass Of The French  Nation Is Formed By The Simple Addition Of Homologous Magnitudes, Much  As Potatoes In A Sack Form A Sack Of Potatoes.’ Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire Of Louis Bonaparte, Chap. Vii.

8. ↑ Which,  Given The Disorder In Its Own Camp, Might Have Been Happy With Clinton  Winning The Presidency And Then Doing The Bidding Of The Republican Core  Constituency, Financial Capitalism. 9. ↑ For  A Fascinating Eyewitness Account Of How Obama Experienced And Reacted  To The Defeat Of The Centre-left Neoliberal Project Is Provided See  David Remnick, “It Happened Here: A President Confronts An Election That  Changes Everything—and Imperils His Legacy,” The New Yorker, November 28, 2016, 54–65.

10. ↑ Max Weber, Economy And Society: An Outline Of Interpretive Sociology, Ed. Günther Roth And Claus Wittich, 2 Vols. (Berkeley: University Of California Press, 1978).

11. ↑ This  Is Why Trumpist Leaders Can Be And Often Are Of Great Wealth Even  Though Their Followers May Be Poor; See Louis Bonaparte And His Peasant  Supporters. On The One Hand, While Trump-like Leaders Can Be Rich, They  Are Typically Considered Upstarts By Families Of Old Money.

12. ↑ Trumpist  Politics Of Honor And Respect Plays Out Differently In Different  National Environments. One Reason Why East Germans, Generously Endowed  With Subsidies By The Federal Government, So Often Vote For Die Linke Or For Afd Seems To Be That They Find What They Call Their Biographies Not Adequately Appreciated In The United Country.

13. ↑ In 2012, 90 Million Voters Out Of 220 Million Stayed Home (41%), In 2016 It Was 93 Million Out Of 230 Million (40%).

14. ↑ The  Clinton Family Wealth Is Reported To Have Increased From Minus Eight  Million Dollars In 2000 To About 110 Million Dollars In 2016 (Tom  Gerencer, “Hillary Clinton Net Worth,” Money Nation,  November 1, 2016.). Disentangling The Family Assets From Those Of The  Clinton Foundation Seems Difficult—which Undoubtedly Contributed To  Widespread Suspicions Of Corruption As Raised By The Private Email  Server Used By Clinton As Secretary Of State, And Clinton’s Goldman  Sachs Fees For Speeches (Us$675,000 For Three Appearances) The Contents  Of Which She Refused To Disclose. That Trump Is A Lot Richer Than  Clinton Didn’t Apparently Matter To His Voters Because He Made His  Fortune, To The Extent That He Didn’t Inherit It, As A Businessman  Rather Than As A Politician—the Former Being Considered Legitimate, The  Latter Not. 15. ↑ On  The Devastations Visited On The American Working Class By  De-industrialization, See Most Recently Anne Case And Angus Deaton, “Mortality And Morbidity In The 21st Century,” Brookings Papers On Economic Activity, March 17, 2017.

16. ↑ As David Paul Kuhn, Drawing On Survey Data, Wrote In The New York Times On  December 26, 2016: Bluntly Put, Much Of The White Working Class Decided  That Mr. Trump Could Be A Jerk. Absent Any Other Champion, They  Supported The Jerk They Thought Was More On Their Side—that Is, On The  Issues That Most Concerned Them. David Paul Kuhn, “Sorry, Liberals. Bigotry Didn’t Elect Donald Trump,” The New York Times, December 26, 2016.

17. ↑ Indicating  That The Attempt To Forge A Politically United Status Group Out Of  Women From Different Classes Had Failed. Black (And Immigrant) Women May  Have Noticed That Their Low Wages As Care Workers Were Instrumental For  White Women’s Progress In Their Careers.

18. ↑ Relative  To This, The Impact Of The So-called Fake News Can Only Have Been  Miniscule. The Fake News Theory Of Trumpism Assumes That Lies Are Today  More Important In Politics Than In The Past; That Real Facts Are Easily  Distinguished From Fake Facts; And That More Civilized Political  Leaders, Such As Bill Clinton, George W. Bush And Barack Obama, Have  Done Without Lies. There Are Reasons To Believe That Truth As A  Political Currency Has Been Debased By The Political Mainstream To Such  An Extent That Lies By Outsiders Like Mr. Trump Are No Longer A Problem  To Most Voters. In Any Case, If There Was Anything Fake In The 2016  Campaign, It Clearly Included Clinton’s Self-presentation As A  Representative Member Of The Hard-working American Working Class, As  Opposed To A Self-enriching Political Class.

19. ↑ For  A Participant Observer’s Description Of The Lives Of Legal And Illegal  Immigrants In One Of The Biggest Global Cities Of Today, See Ben Judah, This Is London: Life And Death In The World City (London: Picador, 2016).

20. ↑ Where  They Remain Spatially And Socially Segregated, Just As Immigrant Groups  In Their New Country. For France, This—and Its Effect On Political And  Voting Behavior—is Impressively Described In Christophe Guilluy, Le Crépuscule De La France D’en Haut (Paris: Flammarion, 2016

21. ↑ T. H. Marshall, “Citizenship And Social Class,” In Class, Citizenship And Social Development: Essays By T. H. Marshall (Garden City, Ny: Doubleday, 1964), 71–134. 22. ↑ Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections On The Origin And Spread Of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2006). 23. ↑ In  Effect This Overlaps With Contemporary Urban Cosmopolitanism In That It  Rejects Nationalism And Indeed Any Other Communitarianism Not Just As  Outdated But As Morally Reprehensible.

24. ↑ For The Us See Katherine Cramer, The Politics Of Resentment: Rural Consciousness In Wisconsin And The Rise Of Scott Walker (Chicago:  University Of Chicago Press, 2016). Cramer’s Book Depicts In Masterful  Detail The Rural Consciousness Of Small-town Residents In Wisconsin Who  In 2016 Became Trump Supporters. The Concept Of Resentment Goes Back To  Friedrich Nietzsche, For Whom It Refers To Wrathful Fantasies Of Revenge  And Restored Justice Among Utterly Defeated And Forever Powerless  Losers.

25. ↑ The  Contrast Between Identity Politics And Class Struggle In The Widest  Sense, Be It Through Trade Unions Or At The Ballot Box, Is That In Class  Struggle Solidarity Is Mobilized In The Service Of Your Own Interests  Whereas In Identity Politics It Means Sacrificing For The Interests Of  Groups Of Others. Identity-political Altruism May Therefore Come More  Easily To The Economically Better Placed. To Those Not Belonging To  Their Group, It May Appear Like Egoistic Interests Camouflaged As  Charity—for Example If The Urban Middle Classes, Economically Dependent  On A Rich Supply Of Cheap Service Labor, Favor Open Borders For  Immigration.

26. ↑ Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger And Mourning On The American Right (New York: The New Press, 2016).

27. ↑ In  The German Case, Recipients Of Social Security Benefits Of Whatever  Kind Are Prone To Compare Their Entitlements To Those Of Refugees And  Asylum Seekers, Which Are Often Much Higher, Making Them Feel Abandoned  By Their Government In Favor Of Strangers.

28. ↑ It  Appears That Here Were The Roots Of The Militia Movement Of The 1990s,  Stirred Up Unintentionally By George H. W. Bush’s Talk About A New World  Order After The Demise Of Communism. Rumors Spread That United Nations  Troops Were About To Disarm The “Well-ordered Militia” Of American  Citizens. The Movement Culminated In A Bomb Attack On The Federal  Building In Oklahoma City In 1995 That Killed 161 People. It Is  Conceivable That American Trumpism Draws In Part On Similar Sentiments  As The Militia Movement Of The 1990s.

29. ↑ But  Then, Did Obama? Remember That During His Presidency He Found The Time  To Play No Less Than 38 Rounds Of Golf Every Year. Sam Weinman, “We’ve Crunched The Numbers, And It’s Official: President Obama Played A Lot Of Golf While In Office,” Golf Digest, January 19, 2017.

30. ↑ According To Section 4:  Whenever The Vice President And A Majority Of Either The Principal  Officers Of The Executive Departments Or Of Such Other Body As Congress  May By Law Provide, Transmit To The President Pro Tempore Of The Senate  And The Speaker Of The House Of Representatives Their Written  Declaration That The President Is Unable To Discharge The Powers And  Duties Of His Office, The Vice President Shall Immediately Assume The  Powers And Duties Of The Office As Acting President.

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Wolfgang Streeck