Sad New Year’s Greeting

In guise of New Year’s greetings an old friend sent the following link to a piece in Truthdig by Neil Gabler:  https://www.truthdig.com/articles/trump-era-wont-pass-without-serious-damage-america/.  Here is what I replied to him (revised for publication here).
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Thanks for sharing this piece, and of course best wishes for 2018.

Yes, there is a lot of truth in what Gabler says, not just about the racial, gender and generational dimensions of the right wing ascendency, but the religious or quasi-religious social psychology behind it.

Yet I find him overly optimistic about the future of progressive politics in the US. To some extent, Gabler himself is contaminated by the American religiosity he describes. There may well be such a thing as “good” ethically-oriented religion, but I see religion as being generally on the wrong side of the proverbial long arc of which many progressives have spoken, sometimes with but a wing and a prayer. Religion has never been about compassion and ethics; on the rare occasions it moved beyond the primal reaction to fear and the subsequent tribalistic belief in being in some way a chosen people, religious ethics were at best a mitigating overlay, a cover. Marx had it right: religion is the opium of the people. Roughly 40% of the US people are addicted to it, and the rest still fall under its sway.

So I shall not be acting as if I believe that compassionate ethics will serve as a base for the mass movement required to reverse the capitalist order of things, or even the much more modest goal of social democratic movements to improve the lives of those who have only marginal, non-liquid capital, often the paltry pensions and home “equity” acquired via mortgages, those who are paid wages, those who pay rent and are not paid it.  Plus those not paid at all.

Indeed, this crisis may be marking the return of hard-line socialist, indeed communist alternatives to capitalism, or at least renewed consideration of them. Unfortunately, Americans, with their base-line religiosity and jerk-knee belief in (their own) human good have been ideologically innoculated against coherent materialist visions which would drive such a serious “class” struggle.

In other words, we are returning to the nineteenth century political logic in which Marxism and other socialist ideologies were understood by a minority as the sole way to resist capitalism. That will further exacerbate the conflict, especially since the plutocrats are already in power and will ruthlessly try to quash any prospects of change.

All this is say: I don’t like our chances, in 2018 or beyond.

Soothsaying for 2017

The 29 December Financial Times published its annual round of predictions for the New Year and invited readers to chime in with their own. Here are mine. I have omitted a few of their questions as being of local interest (e.g. the future of Jacob Zuma as president of South Africa), as inherently unpredictable (the precise points of the growth rates, the US Fed fund rate and the S&P index a year from now), as well as banal CEO gossip (the fates of Blankenfein, Dimon and the like). I have added a few questions of my own, marked with an asterisk. See you in twelve months.

Will Article 50 be triggered in the first quarter of 2017?

Yes, unless it is delayed by either the Supreme Court or last minute political manoeuvers, which would buy time for compromises on all sides to seek softer conditions for Brexit. Once it is triggered, the grounds will definitely be set for a hard Brexit with consequences which are unpredictable but will likely bear no good for Britain or Europe, though beneficial to both the US and Russia if they can avoid coming to conflict over the morsels spread out between them.

Marine Le Pen win the French presidency?

No. Enough of the left-centre vote will shift to François Fillon’s “poujadiste” candidacy to defeat her in round two, compensating for the votes Le Pen will attract from the disaffected and unemployed working class. If she were to prevail, France would likely leave the Euro and seal a bargain with Russia and the US, creating a pseudo-Vichy state in the heart of a disintegrating Europe. Brexit would become even harder than before, as historical Anglo-French animosity rises again.

Angela Merkel win re-election in Germany?

Yes. She will have shifted enough to the right to forestall the AfD, but will still need to devise a motley parliamentary coalition, one including the SDP and the FDP, who will return to the Bundestag. Even supposing major terrorist attacks, the AfD will not gather enough support to rule without a coalition for which there would be no potential partners.

The Iran nuclear deal collapse?

No. Whatever Trump and the Republican hawks might like to believe, the JCPA is an international treaty with six signatories. The US can of course withdraw, but doing so would put it at odds with its potential partner Russia, whose interest is to maintain the nuclear club as is and who will, up to a point, continue to protect the Iranian position. With the exception of Germany, the continental Europeans will drift towards Russia, in the case of France no matter who wins the presidentials. In any event, the Iranians have cards of their own to play.

Trump and Putin do a Syria deal?

Yes, though this deal will be just one stage in the ongoing Great Game now turning around the Middle East. The Assad regime will be enscounced in a rump state while the interests of the Kurds will be sacrificed to those of other powers, which are all, let us note, non-Arab: Turkey, Iran, Russia and, yes, Israeli. This in no way means the end of slaughter and mayhem.

ISIS be destroyed as a significant global force?

No, if “global force” means to support and direct sporadic terrorism outside of the retrenched territory it will control even after the lost of Mosul and Raqqa. The division of labour in the alliance behind Assad (land forces and militia supported by Iran, air force courtesy of Russia) will be insufficient to root out ISIS, which will derive sustained legitimacy and hence attract adherents as the sole armed defender of Sunni ultra-orthodoxy. Expect Turkey, whose primary concern is the Kurdish threat to its unity, to be nominally involved but no more. Neither Russia nor rump Syria nor Turkey would want to see a strong US force with boots on the ground.

* There be progress on a two-state solution in Palestine?

No. A two-state solution is already beyond reach. Part of any Russian-US Syrian deal will be to confirm Israel as the sole governing power in “historical Zion”, an arrangement to which Russia can readily agree in exchange for its bolstered presence in historical Mesopotamia and on the Mediterranean. The presence of an nuclear-armed Jewish state sitting between Egypt and the Shia crescent running from Iran through Iraq and to the Bakaa Valley, conforms to Trump’s bruited model of allied nuclear-armed states. His “defense” of Israel will score him considerable domestic points.

* Cyberwar break out between the US and Russia?

No. Global cyberwar began full-time in the Naughts but is still at the stage of incremental experiment and deployment. We should not imagine a bi-polar conflict, since China will be seeking cyber advantages of its own. This is the future of warfare, since even physical combat is controlled by algorithm and AI.

* China accept containment?

No. Moreover, why should it?  The Chinese will continue to create faits accomplis within the maritime zone defined by the Nine-Dash-Line and, albeit slowly, pursue their territorial ambitions to the West along the so-called New Silk Road. They will promote and stabilize the reminbi insofar as they can while they slowly begin to disengage from their US paper holdings, though these remain potential pressure points in retaliation against American provocations. The demise of the TPP was an unexpected windfall for Xi Jingping, making it even less likely than before that the rise of China can be stymied. All Asian states including those as far away as Afghanistan and Australia need to readjust their strategy in terms of China’s power. This process will continue in 2017.

North Korea successfully test a nuclear-capable missile?

No, though sooner or later they will, unless Kim Jong-un cuts a deal with the US. China would be ambiguous to say the least about the privileged rapprochement such a deal would imply, since, as the conflict between China and the US heats up, a nuclear North Korea could serve as a useful pawn the former can play against both South Korea and Japan. The latter have no choice but to shelter under the US umbrella, paying more for it.

Trump build the Mexican border wall?

Yes, if by “wall” we mean more partial barriers along the border, not necessarily a unbroken structure resembling the Great Wall of China. The growing damage to the Mexican economy and collaterally to US businesses sectors and consumers dependent on low cost immigrant labour will, on the other hand, exacerbate undocumented migration to the US. Mass deportations are not feasible but we should expect considerable bluster on this issue over the next year.

* Trump “tear up” NAFTA?

No, but it will be re-negociated, at least in part. In general, the demise of the TPP and the TTIP will seriously damage world trade, setting off a geopolitical recession and possibly a new age of protectionist merchantilism. With its large internal market, the US has perhaps less to lose than countries more dependent on exports. In the intermediate and long range though, the largest internal market in the world is China’s, India’s next. Trump’s economic chickens will not be coming home in 2017, though four years down the road the Federal government will fiscally devastated, as least the non-military sectors of it. This will fulfill the wish of the many on the right who want government out of their lives, including in health care, the environment and the regulation of the marketplace and banking for common social good.

* Registry of Muslims?

No. Expect, however, stricter, racially determined immigration rules and regulations, plus even more exacting and arbitrary US border point checks in which profiling will play an egregious role.

* Trump stuff the Supreme Court?

Yes. This is one issue Trump and recalcitrant Republicans can agree on. The Supreme Court will be reactionary for the whole next generation, ruling in favour of the privileges and the values of the shrinking white minority.

* Finally, is there anything good to look forward to in 2017?

No, alas.

Trump’s No Bug

I don’t really understand the shock at his victory. This is what … capitalists have been working toward for the past century. The corporations which have been running our country one step removed were clearly going to cut out the middlemen eventually, and it seems 2016 is the year public apathy was at a high enough level for them to properly capitalize on it. Leaders like Trump are a feature of capitalism, not a bug.

— Anonymous interviewee in The Guardian, 17 Dec, 2016

[see Is the Sky Falling? in which I write, “[Trump] is an agent of creative destruction, the essence of capitalism according to the Austrian economist Schumpeter, who saw this inner dynamic as the principal contradiction which would led to its collapse. Others are not so sure. Like a virus which mutates to ensue its survival and proliferation, the economic system based on capital may well have a long future ahead.

Towards a European Confederation of Vichy States?

The unsettling report that Breitbart News will be expanding its operations from London and Jerusalem to Paris raises a number of questions about what kind of alt-right Europe it has in mind.

We don’t know if next year France first and then Germany will be able to withstand the rise of Marine Le Pen’s Front national or Frauke Petry’s Alternative für Deutschland, to say nothing of the other national chauvinist parties across Europe. In fact, another date with destiny is coming even sooner. The defeat of the December 4th constitutional referendum called by PM Matteo Renzi could trigger Italexit, the Italian equivalent of Brexit, and the withdrawal of the continent’s third largest economy from the Euro, likely a fatal blow. [Update 5 Dec: Renzi lost the Italian referendum and will be resigning]

What we can say with certainty is that forces are aligning against EU unity. The goal of Donald Trump’s “chief strategist” Stephen Bannon, who will be resigning as CEO of Breitbart, is without question to promote fracture of the post-war European project of unification.

What would Europe look like if Brussels and Berlin lose control and a swarm of xenophobic protectionist governments take over? For one thing, there will be increased inter-national conflict among them. The initial shape these frictions and clashes might take is already visible as the prospect of a hard Brexit grows.

There are many signs that some accomodation between the incoming Trump regime and Putin’s Russia is in the works, a new Yalta. Like the old one, this one will boil down to who gets what (Yalta is, ironically, in Crimea). Let us not make the mistake, however, of taking US isolationists, who now have considerable influence in the Republican Party, at their word. The US will not withdraw from the world stage any more than it did after Yalta. Instead, it is mutating in order to impose itself anew in different ways.

“Making America Great Again” entails the dismemberment of the rival centers of European political power established after WW2. As power vested in European unity dissolves, the antagonism between European law and rights on the one hand and US corporations on the other will be resolved in the favor of the latter, including social media giants like Google and Facebook. That is just the beginning.

Classic European imperialism was defined as the highest stage of capitalism, this as conceived against the background of WW1. Marxists of that time were optimistic. They imagined that capitalism had reached its acme. So let us not call the emergent form of imperialism before us now the “highest” let alone a “late” phase of capitalism. That it is driven by the dynamics of capital accumulation should not be doubted, though.

We have seen before what patriotic but militarily and economically subservient populist nation-states look like. The collapse of France before the onslaught of Germany led to the establishment of Vichy France, which served the interests of the German rulers of Europe but found nationalist ideological salve to justify its submission to them. We can already detect the outlines of this capitulation to US interests in the abject fawning of European Far Right leaders before the new American tyrant.

Is the fate of Western Europe to become a confederation of Vichy-like nationalist regimes allied with and subservient to the US? This is an increasingly real possibility upon which I shall comment in the weeks and months to come.

Is the Sky Falling?

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and shortly thereafter the Soviet Union collapsed only a few political scientists, they like to call themselves, could claim they saw it coming. Not just our hearts but our minds are fixed –  “fixated” it might be better to say – on continuity, stability, notions of what is already known. Change, however, is not only constant, it sometimes proceeds abruptly, swinging from one state to another in unforeseeable ways.

Last week we entered one of those chaotic state changes. We experienced a bifurcation within a system we had been thinking of as linear. The outcome cannot be predicted.

In the case of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the “West” was able retrospectively to justify what was an extraordinary transformation that virtually no one had foreseen by putting this great Wendung down to the normal and expected victory of (capitalist) human values, life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, etc, etc, over an alien tyranny. [On this point, see this 5 Dec piece in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/05/soviet-union-collapsed-overnight-western-democracy-liberal-order-ussr-russia}

Behind such self-satisfied, chauvinistic reactions lies a larger dynamic. One crutch to which our minds cling is moral precept, which we imagine helps guide us through the chaos of our lives. Arguments people raise in political dispute are often ineffective because they come across like someone else’s moral precepts got up in the drag of reason.

I am no more exempt from these forms of blindness than anyone else. But a few weeks ago, like a cat who feels an earthquake in advance, I began battening down my mental hatches. I turned back in memory and then in inspiration to the political beliefs of my youth. I ended up voting Peace and Freedom as if grasping onto a raft after the wreck of a ship I had had forebodings about but boarded anyway. If you’ve got to go down, at least go down honorably in terms of your beliefs, preferably those you held when younger, when you still really cared.

If I knew how to bring capitalism to an end, a deep wish for most of my adult life, I might have tried harder or more systematically to do so. (On this point those who read French might enjoy Les thèses de décembre, the manifesto I co-wrote in Montreal when I was active in the socialist movement there forty years ago.)

I barely slept Tuesday night. When dawn came on Wednesday I felt I had been cast up by the vagaries of this storm onto a shore I had once sailed forth from. There was closure, of a sort, and in this closure itself a new beginning, at least for me.

Is Trump’s election one of those triggers which sets off chaos and eventually carnage around the world? We don’t know yet, but he is on record proposing a large number of policies destructive of world order as presently constituted. He is obviously an agent of creative destruction, the essence of capitalism according to the Austrian economist Schumpeter, who saw this inner dynamic as the principal contradiction which would led to its collapse. Others are not so sure. Like a virus which mutates to ensue its survival and proliferation, the economic system based on capital may well have a long future ahead.

So, yes, the sky may be falling, as chicken little warned. But the sky falls differentially depending on where and who you are. This is a corollary not only of chaos theory but of capitalism itself.