Tag Archives: crisis

Morbid Symptoms: The Downward Spiral

The following post is the second part in our notes on Trump. Part one can be found here. We’ll look at the limits and potentials of the forces arrayed against Trump in part three.

In our last post, we located the Trump regime within a global right wing resurgence enabled by capitalist crisis and the failures of social democracy. Now we can examine how this resurgence developed in the U.S. context. In this piece, we will explore how conservative hegemony emerged from the crisis of the 1970s, developed through the Reagan years and exhausted itself in the Obama era. We will then trace how Trump builds on the history of conservative hegemony even as he rends it in two, and outline the degree to which the incoming Trump regime stands to deepen authoritarianism.

For decades, the U.S. neoliberal elite legitimated falling wages and living standards by keeping the economy afloat with successive credit-fueled bubbles and playing on white racialist resentments. But this strategy began to collapse with the onset of the Great Recession, after years of erosion. Now the the content of conservative hegemony is turning against itself, and Trumpism is the result. On one side are neoliberal efforts to contract social reproduction, and thereby struggle to renew the profitability of capitalism. On the other side are appeals to white populist nationalism, which increasingly undermine the norms of the bourgeois state and civil society. Both elements have been integral to neoliberal rule, but they can also become contradictory. As they contend in productive tension, they threaten a spiraling descent into authoritarianism and deepening capitalist retrogression.

Trump’s election signals that the turbulent waters of social contradiction have begun to spin faster. To grasp the dangers of this dynamic and how to overcome them, we have to trace their emergence from our own history, starting with the current capitalist crisis.

A New Hegemony from the Wreckage

In the late 1970s the U.S. capitalist class faced economic stagnation, rising inflation, and working class revolt in the streets and on the assembly line. In a bid to renew investment, they turned to attacking the costs of labor power, creating a new kind of working class in the process and detonating the Keynesian consensus that had stood for forty years. The 1970s crisis did not lead – as many had hoped – to a revolutionary challenge to capitalism, but to the emergence of a conservative hegemony that would expand and deepen for four decades.

Since the Great Depression, the trade unions, and later the civil rights leadership, has been steadily incorporated into capitalist production and the state. In exchange for labor peace and increased productivity, they were promised expanded democratic rights, racial integration into civil society, and rising real wages. This period marked the definitive transition to the real domination of capital: the incorporation and reorganization of the whole of society according to the needs of capitalist value production. It resulted in a reduction of labor power, not only in terms of the gap between wage levels and the immense surpluses created at the time, but also through labor’s subjugation as an appendage of automation and the remaking of everyday life. The gap between the condition of workers and the enormous productive forces of capitalism continued to widen, sharpening a key contradiction of capitalism. Living standards in the postwar period rose for many layers of the working class, thanks to the growing number of cheap consumer goods. But this trend could only continue as long as the worker generated surpluses rose even faster. With economic stagnation in the 1970s–a combination of falling growth and soaring inflation–the material basis for the Keynesian regime dissolved. The capitalist class had to find a new way to rule.
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Morbid Symptoms: The Rise of Trump

The following series attempts to understand the rise of Donald Trump, particularly in the context of capitalist crisis and the emerging power of the populist and far right. Part one is below. Part two is here.

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The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.
– Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

The election of Donald Trump––despite his losing the popular vote––has come as a shock to many Americans. While most recognized that the campaign had tightened after the intervention of the FBI, it was assumed that Clinton would edge out Trump on election day. But even if the Democratic Party had narrowly won the presidential election, it would have told us nothing about the development of mass rightwing populism and white nationalism in the U.S. This force represents both an immediate threat and a long-term strategic challenge to those of us seeking liberation. How can we understand what has happened? And what can be done?

Capitalist Crisis and the Rise of Trump

Trump’s rise is a consequence of the ongoing and deepening crisis of global capitalism. Since the 1970s capital has faced the problem of falling profits, and the resulting crises have made it difficult for the political and economic order to reproduce itself in a reliable way. For decades capitalists confronted this problem by cutting costs, especially the cost of labor power: slashing wages, benefits, health care, education, and housing. In the former Third World this entailed gutting the developmentalist regimes that took power after decolonization. In the capitalist core (like the U.S. and Europe) it required dismantling social democracy.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, capital sought to remove any roadblocks to profitability, starting with institutions such as unions and labor parties, and the rights won through a century of worker, civil rights, women’s, and queer struggles. The great concentrations of industry and proletarian power were broken apart through globalization. Labor parties and nationalist governments were incorporated into the management of capital, and made partners in exploitation. In many countries, new technocratic politicians and managers came to control national governments, state bureaucracies, and major institutions like schools. This was the “neoliberal” elite.

The neoliberals operated on a consensus that cut across the political spectrum: the economy would only be sustained through capitalist globalization abroad and austerity at home. In the capitalist core, this meant abandoning sections of the working class that had previously enjoyed some political representation and economic benefits, largely through the inclusion of unions and social democratic voting blocs. The elites carrying out this program united former “progressives” alongside conservatives. Bill Clinton––who signed NAFTA in 1993, expanded mass incarceration in 1994, and gutted welfare in 1996––is a great example.
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Women and Children First…But the First Shall Be Last

(Note:  this is an updated version of an article originally posted on We’re Hir We’re Queer here.)

In the wake of a five day hunger strike over conditions of confinement at Karnes family detention center in South Texas, many are beginning to look critically at family detention.  But this practice, and the struggle against it, is nothing new. Groups in the southwest, including Grassroots Leadership and Texans United for Families have been struggling to end family detention for almost a decade.  Most recently, these groups are struggling around a new facility in Dilley, Texas, the largest family detention project since Japanese internment.  In developing a strategy against immigration detention, we must consider how capital and the working class is composed and why there is a renewed emphasis on women’s and family immigration detention.

Immigration detention has been steadily climbing over the past few decades.  Some cite the prison boom as a 1980s-90s phenomenon, since the U.S. saw massive rates of incarceration of primarily black men due to draconian drug laws, mandatory minimum sentencing, and other strategies for criminalizing the black working class.

Incarceration Rates

At a certain point in the early 2000s, prison rates tapered off.  However, this is also around the time that immigration detention as a national phenomenon began to dramatically increase.  While Grassroots Leadership, and many other advocacy and community groups will argue that this shift toward detention expansion is parallel to the expansion of the private prison industry, I believe this is only one side of the story.  Why, in the middle of the deepest economic crisis in the U.S. since the Great Depression, is the federal government expanding the immigration detention system, and why are women and children being particularly targeted in this effort?  I will attempt to answer this question; but first, some background info.

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