This has been rattling around my head for the last few days, and I think the recent events — the decision by President Donald J. Trump, billionaire (he owns a mansion and a yacht), to attack forces belonging to the Syrian government — confirm something troubling. At least to me.
I’m no fan of Steve Bannon. His is a third-baked understanding of the world, Houston Stewart Chamberlain without the intellectual gravitas. And he now appears to be out of the National Security Council, and it seems more conventional advisors are pushing him aside.
To most members of the Washington foreign-policy establishment, regardless of party affiliation, that will come as an immense relief. It suggests that business as usual—Atlanticism, free trade, American economic and military engagement across the globe—will ultimately prevail. Bannon has embraced an alternative vision, which he calls “economic nationalism.” Many of his critics have identified it as a desire to upend the international order that was established after the Second World War, and to replace it with a protectionist, ethnocentric model—one in which the United States, Russia, and nationalist-led European countries join together to fight Islam and confront a rising China. During the campaign, and even during the transition, Trump sometimes seemed to be leaning in Bannon’s direction. But since he has taken office, the actions of his Administration have indicated otherwise.
On the one hand, it means that Bannon’s racial and “civilizational” [sic] understanding of the world is not likely to prevail. This is a relief, given the past track record of such views. However, it was not likely to prevail anyway, given that Bannon was more against the administrative state than he was for a racial redrawing of the West. Bannon may hate neoliberalism and globalism, but everything he wants to do will only further empower neoliberal globalism’s ability to immiserate people like Bannon’s father.
And Trump’s fiercest supporters.
Because the racial order Bannon appears to want demands a strong welfare state, at least for white people — all white people, rich, middle class, and poor. And Bannon is too committed to knocking down the administrative and regulatory state to see that.
What disappoints me about all this, as objectionable as Bannon’s worldview is, is that is hinted at something akin to an alternative to neoliberal globalism.
I’m no fan of the current order of the world. It is sclerotic and incompetent. Its elites can no longer think clearly about themselves or the world they govern, they no longer see themselves as having real obligations to those they govern, cannot see the difference between their own flourishing and the flourishing of the people they govern. The neoliberal elites are overweening in their assessment of themselves. They are far too confident of their wisdom, their knowledge, their intentions, and their goodness. They have failed. I believe this failure is a natural and inevitable occurrence — no system of governance or order can be percent, or can permanently sustain itself without crises to renew it (or destroy it and produce a new order). Donald J. Trump’s rise is both symptom of this and consequence.
We modern look for alternative systems. But I’ve come to think the Hegelian notion of systems or worldview or ideologies in conflict was an aberration. History is not the conflict of competing ideas, but rather, the story of clashing human personalities and passions. So neoliberalism will likely not be replaced by a competing way of trying to organize the world, but rather will simply collapse into various different national and regional and specific “neoliberalisms.”
I opposed the election of Hillary Clinton for two reasons. First, she and her campaign were careless, thoughtless, and even reckless in their approach to conflict with Russia. Sadly, Trump is slouching that direction too, now, and I fear the consequences of needlessly provoking the only nation with large number of hydrogen bombs aimed our general direction.
But I also opposed Hillary Clinton because she was the product of this sclerotic and incompetent neoliberal world order. She would attempt to strengthen and harden an order no longer capable of effectively ruling the world. Sadly, it seems Trump is slouching this way too, given how he embraced missile strikes on Syria, though given how quixotic and capricious Trump is, it will be impossible to really know.
Truth is, Trump is likely to be a regular Republican — one whose policies will continue to immiserate his most devoted working class followers. Which is a pity. I didn’t like his alternative to neoliberal globalism, but it was an alternative. And we have no alternative to unaccountable and incompetent elites. Except the misery that will come from the slow collapse of the order.
I’m so glad Hillary Clinton was elected president.