U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Post-Trump Teach-In, Week Five: Stephen Maher on What Came Before And What Comes Next

This week, I propose we continue to build the critical archive. I would like to focus upon one article, this excellent piece by my friend Stephen Maher. It is both deeply historical and politically programmatic, and I think offers a host of Marxist insights at close, medium, and long range.

(Discussion, as always, in the comments).

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Esp. at the end Maher puts the choice between pressuring/ working through the Dems and “building a socialist movement from the ground up” as an either/or. Better, I think, to see it as both/and, i.e. more pragmatically: in some cases working to support progressive Dems or having progressives take over local Dem Party organizations will make more sense and yield more results than pursuing the building of a socialist movement completely independent of the existing political/party structures. At best the latter’s a long-term process that will not bring concrete results for, well, a long time.

    Maher argues that “the function” (in the singular) of the U.S. state has been to organize capitalists who were too concerned with their individual advancement to organize themselves effectively as a political force. But he also says the state is “relatively autonomous.” (n.b. I’ve pretty much forgotten what the Miliband-Poulantzas debate was about, but for purposes of this column it would seem not to matter a lot since their names are dropped but their disagreements not mentioned. Of course I understand it’s a column, not an academic article.)

    Anyway, I got the sense that Maher somewhat wants to have it both ways: the state is an instrument of capitalist hegemony, but it’s also “relatively autonomous”; liberal democracy in any kind of even vaguely ideal-typical pluralist form never existed, but neoliberalism has eroded “liberal democratic institutions” (I believe he uses that phrase). This may not matter that much if his analysis of Trumpism is persuasive, but at this point I’ve overdosed on analyses of Trumpism so I slid past that. Which, yes, I admit is unfair to the author and I will have to go back at some point and read those graphs that I skipped.

  2. I am going to try to diagram Maher’s major premises and arguments?. Louis–perhaps that will clear some things up?

    But, to address two of the points you raised: I take it as a given that left parties will not supplant or replace the Democratic Party any time soon. The Dems are driven by their own internal momentum, and––while they call on support from labor and social justice blocs at election time–-their drive or conatus is autonomous from the energies of the left, broadly speaking. And I think that the question of the US state as capitalist state that you raise is excellent. But the broad point–– that there is no way that Trump could usher in a “capitalist coup,” because the “capitalist coup” happened in the late 1890s––stands, I think.

    On to Maher’s main claims.

    1) The framing of the current political situation as a “betrayal of democracy” that can be reversed by forcing the Democratic Party to “break loose from its corporate establishment ties, and, once again, become a grass-roots party of working people, the elderly, and the poor” is ahistorical and at odds with reality; as such, political initiatives that begin with such a vision are likely to fail.

    2) At the same time, Trump is not a “normal Republican,” and certainly not a neoliberal of any recognizable type.

    3) Trump’s victory speaks to a crisis of the capitalist state–and, in particular, to profound contradictions between the capitalist part of the capitalist state and the state part of the capitalist state. Thus, “Trump’s far-right nationalist chauvinism could present capital with a far-right path to cope with the crisis of neoliberalism.”

    4) The Trump base *is* motivated by “economic anxiety” (however much this line of interpretation is mocked by progressives)… Even the relatively comfortable have lost out over the past half-century, and (though Maher doesn’t pursue this point), these losses may be acutely felt because the racial bargain of herrenvolk democracy is that poor non-whites should bear the brunt of economic change.

    5) The “economic anxiety” felt by Trump voters might have been addressed by a political left doing the traditional work of a political left, but the organized response to neoliberal devastation on the part of progressives has been pitiful;

    6) Trumpian nostalgia must not be countered by left idylls of a romanticized past (here, I am not sure if Maher is in “is” or “ought” mode, and one might say that “is”/”ought” confusion is in fact a hallmark of the form “the Jacobin essay”).

    7) “The American state is a capitalist state whose function is and has been to organize the political hegemony of the capitalist class. Since individual capitalists are motivated by the pressures of competition rather than broad class-wide concerns, a relatively autonomous state is needed to secure the long-term interests of the system as a whole.”

    Here we have an expert articulation of the vision of the capitalist state that I find most convincing–the synthesis here strikes me as an integration of Poulantzas and Miliband via Leo Panitch, though US historians might recognize a variant of it in the work of Martin Sklar and the early essays of Theda Skocpol. The main takeaway is that one can never posit capitalist fractions and their lobbying organs as just another set of competing interest groups–they are organized by the state, for the benefit of capital as a whole, doing work that individual capitalists can never figure out how to do for themselves.

    8) Neoliberalism is one more variation on the capitalist state theme, not a radical departure from or corruption of the US state form;

    9) Multiculturalist pluralism is functionally integrated within neoliberalism, and commitments to it are real; the GOP and corporate elites preferred Hillary Clinton because they do see overt racism, sexism, and homophobia as barriers to maintaining managerial hegemony (this is a point that approaches the analysis of Adolph Reed and Walter Benn Michaels, which I reject); the politics of superficial egalitarianism works hand in glove with the “erosion of liberal democratic institutions, the concentration of state power in the executive, increasing precarity and middle-class decline, and the delegitimization of the media system and state mechanisms of political representation.”

    10) Electing Trump (and, to a degree, falling for his appeal to “political incorrectness”) served as a raised middle finger to neoliberalism itself, however confused and, ultimately, suicidal;

    11) Since Occupy Wall Street, the writing has been on the wall for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, but they have refused to take seriously public fury with the state of contemporary governance;

    12) The Trumpian partial solution to the legitimation crisis has temporarily papered over some of the contradictions, but that won’t last for long, and we are likely to see a raging intra-class struggle among the fractions of the ruling class (one that might be relatively isolated from top-down interclass struggle);

    13) This provides an opening for socialist organizing. The Republicans may be uniquely powerful, for now, but capitalism is in very weird shape, and none of the Trump agenda can be implemented without the resolution of real antagonisms; even in the event that, say, Silicon Valley decides in favor of extra profits over (weak) commitments to liberal egalitarian politics, that will mean that the Left will have an opportunity to forcefully claim the mantle of democratic inclusiveness that properly belongs to it…
    (Here I turn from Maher’s argument to my own thoughts)

    Thus: we need socialism. I agree. A forward-looking socialism. I agree with that too. Does anyone disagree? Yes. (Obviously, the entire Democratic establishment disagrees, to say nothing of everyone to the right of that, and that amounts to quite a lot of people). On the left? Chris Hedges, to be sure, and Bernie Sanders, apparently. So does Jacobin magazine (and much of the US historical profession) with its nostalgia for the 1930s, the Popular Front, and the New Deal (order). Does this nostalgia matter? Are we back to the tedium of debates regarding the useable past? Is there any hope? At even the grimmest of times, the left has always had a particularly effective strategy: plan and study. I am sure that plenty of people have started to work on the former. I hope we also remember to do the latter.

  3. Kurt,
    Thanks for this helpful restatement of his points; I agree, at least to some extent, with some of them.

    A few thoughts, more topical than theoretical. Certain of Trump’s picks for positions (e.g., Sec. of Labor, Sec. of Energy, head of EPA transition team, Sec. of HHS, Sec. of HUD; I’m going to leave aside the foreign-policy appointments) suggest that a Trump admin will head into very harmful reactionary territory. Whatever the Obama admin’s shortcomings, and it certainly had them, this seems to represent, in conjunction w Repub control of all branches, a swing to policies that will end up hurting some of the very people who voted for Trump (as well as others, of course). So the immediate political task is to build resistance to many of these coming attempted policy changes.

    Though it needn’t entail nostalgia for an idealized past that never existed, resistance is much more of a negative or reactive stance than a forward-looking one. W/r/t the latter, I must confess to not having much of a concrete idea of what socialism, at the least in the U.S., would look like, despite having been v. sporadically interested in the question, in a highly amateurish way, and despite having joined DSOC (one of the DSA predecessor organizations) as a high-school student in circa 1974. My political self-identification I guess has blurred a bit, for lack of a better phrase, over the years, not that I was ever all that comfortable with Marxist vocabulary and categories to begin with.

    When I see wealthy businessman (some of whom apparently share an admiration for Ayn Rand) populating the Trump cabinet (a Sec of Labor-designate opposed to overtime pay extension and minimum wage rise, the head of ExxonMobil as Sec of State-designate, an Atty Gen-designate whose attitudes are basically straight out of the Jim Crow era, etc.), it seems to me the U.S. is about as far now from anything resembling socialism as it has been in a v. long time. I accept Maher’s point that this is not a corporate coup or a capitalist coup since that happened in the late 1890s (or whenever), but it does seem to represent, arguably, a ripping away of any pretense that there is some separation, however porous, between the corporate class(es) and the state apparatus.

    As for the possibility of “intra-class struggle among the fractions of the ruling class” giving “an opening for socialist organizing,” I don’t know. I’m conscious that there are a v. large number of people who are both smarter and more politically active/activist than I am, and I hope they come up with something; I’ll stop on that unsatisfactory note.

    • Louis, thanks for these stimulating notes and reflections. I admit that I share your reservations about the readiness of any formation in the US to build socialism, now.

      And I think that most would agree that we are as far from socialism now as at any point since the election of FDR. Some, like Sklar, would argue that the macroeconomic centrality of transfer payments from the government to businesses and individuals means that the US *is* some kind of socialist state (an argument I don’t buy, but that isn’t as dumb as it initially sounds); others would point to Steve Bannon’s “socialism for whites only” as counter-evidence. What I most want to know is this: where are Americans on the question of a robust role for the government in economic planning, on the wisdom of the free market, on trade, on the state’s role in ensuring equal access to the rights of economic citizenship? I don’t think they are in a classically socialist frame of mind–but I don’t think they are committed (in any consistent way) to supply side econ or neoliberal technocracy. If there is an opening, it is in relation to the widespread confusion––the readiness to veer from Jack Kemp to Bernie Sanders, depending on the time of day and persuasiveness of the presentation––that has seized the body politic?

  4. Kurt,

    Thanks so much for your comments, and for posting the piece. Really very excellent summary & restatement of the key themes of the essay. Naturally I agree 🙂

    Just a quick response to the first commenter (Louis), who questions how it can be that:

    “the state is an instrument of capitalist hegemony, but it’s also “relatively autonomous”; liberal democracy in any kind of even vaguely ideal-typical pluralist form never existed, but neoliberalism has eroded “liberal democratic institutions”

    What this misses is that I am emphatically *NOT* arguing that the state is the “instrument” of capitalist class hegemony. I’m claiming the exact opposite: that capitalist class political hegemony is the *OUTCOME* of state policymaking processes, which organize capital at the political level. In fact, far from state policy being simply the result of capitalist lobbying (what Poulantzas called an “unstable equilibrium of compromise” among conflicting factions with “objective” interests), I am claiming it is the STATE that takes the lead in “lobbying” capital behind political strategies it devises–and that these “fractions” (if we can even speak in such terms) may not even be aware of their interests, which historically are developed in the process of negotiation and contestation within institutional spaces the state organizes.

    So it is the state that is the dynamic political element. It can certainly fail to effectively organize the political hegemony of the ruling class–this is in fact what is currently happening, felt especially within the mechanisms of political representation. When the state fails to fulfill its role or “function”, political crisis and institutional breakdown ensues–as well as a potential fragmentation within the capitalist class, as Kurt pointed out. The failure of a political regime to achieve a sufficiently broad base within the capitalist class can also reinforce the centripetal forces that can threaten the (always complex and contradictory) internal unity of the state, which we may also be observing now.

    Cheers, and thanks for the discussion!


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