What does the Trump election mean for neoliberalism as a doctrine? Adam Kotsko over at An und für sich has some interesting thoughts on the matter; what follows is intended as a constructive engagement. As I posted last week, I think Trump’s victory is inseparable from what Foucault calls state racism, and the appointment of Steve Bannon and nomination of Jeff Sessions certainly adds evidence to the theory that his will be a government of White Supremacy (I am not going to engage in the parlor game of distinguishing “white nationalism,” “white supremacy,” and so on. It’s a parlor game that requires white privilege even to play, and all the iterations mean the same basic thing: white people should be in charge). One of my points there is that the system is structurally rigged against cities and other places where non-Trump voters live. At current count, Clinton - garden variety neoliberal - is up by nearly 1.7 million votes in the popular vote count, and that number is growing. This means that more people who voted want neoliberalism than want Trumpism, for what that’s worth. At the very least, it means that we need to think about neoliberalism as a dispositif of biopolitics, and how that intersects with the 1930s version that Foucault’s remarks on state racism address and that Trump seems to channel.
Kotsko thinks that we should grant that Trump isn’t a neoliberal, and think about the ramifications for neoliberalism. All of this is thus necessarily a speculative exercise. Still, I think a couple of points are worth noting, beyond the more general one that if neoliberalism can survive the financial crisis intact, then we should always be skeptical about reports of its death. Here are two reasons I’m not convinced that Trump and Trumpism aren’t neoliberal in a fundamental way.
The first is the importance of branding. Trump has no product: his business is his brand. I floated this thesis some time ago, and I still think it’s sound. Others build things, and then pay him to put the word “Trump” on it. I won’t go through a litany of cites here, but I’ve done some work on branding in a different context, and will just point to a piece this morning in Salon by Heather Digby Parton that indicates pretty clearly that the Trump brand is going to do well, since it’s now a Presidential BrandTM. There are an infinite number of conflicts of interest here, as towers in places like Mumbai suddenly become more valuable, but that mainly serves to underscore the brand issue.
But the point about branding isn’t just about Trump and his family. It’s about how he characterized the U.S. as a damaged brand: we are losers, getting beaten by foreigners, nobody respects us, etc. “Great” is probably an empty signifier - as brands often are - but for that reason functions admirably well to generate affective attachments to it. Does anyone literally think he’s going to build the wall? Probably not. But as an image spun from the brand of White American Greatness, it fits the bill. The entire campaign, then, could be viewed as a promise of a brand rescue for Trump and for the U.S. Certainly this would be one way of reading the white supremacist vote: whiteness as a property was losing its value, because whiteness was no longer perceived as favorably. It would also be a way of reading the votes of those who had good jobs and now don’t (the “hard working white people.” As if people of color do not work hard!). The focus on brand is tied closely to financialization, another key feature of neoliberalism: the value of a brand is a function of the affective attachments people form toward it. In that sense, when Trump said his estimates of his net worth are somewhat a reflection of his mood, he wasn’t entirely wrong. So too, this is how the market capitalization of Silicon Valley companies with no actual product revenue is so high. And of course there is Trump’s well-documented use of financial regulations like bankruptcy law to improve his own finances.
The second point is about competition. As Foucault emphasized, neoliberal economics views everything as both economy and, within that, as competition. Trump’s rhetoric blurring of government and economy (right down to his utter confusion about the power of a President vs. that of a CEO) is clear enough. But what about the essential point that many of Trump’s voters want to be insulated from competition. As Kotsko puts it:
"[Trump supporters] are not asserting a desire to be part of something bigger than themselves in an individualistic culture. They are contesting the way that specifically economic benefits are parceled out on racial and national grounds. The figure of the immigrant — who is both racially other (from a white perspective) and foreign competition (from a US perspective) — helpfully congeals both complaints into one. Trump supporters do not want the state to preserve the level playing field within its own economy and be open to international competition from without. They want the state to directly pick economic winners and losers on racial and national grounds."
I think this is right. I also do not think it is necessarily incompatible with neoliberalism, because one of the key thinkers behind neoliberalism (one who is inexplicably neglected in philosophical circles), Ronald Coase, in his landmark (1937) “Nature of the Firm” suggested that sometimes, trading on the market is not efficient due to various transaction costs, and so individuals will form hierarchical firms, because those firms then compete better on the market as a single entity. Neoclassical economics, in other words, can afford to be nominalist as to what constitutes an “individual” that competes on the market. If that is right, then one plausible read is that Trumpism treats countries (or segments of them) as firms, and firms as the fundamental actors in international trade. The transaction costs of certain global trade deals are too high for American citizens, particularly white ones (though I’m not sure I believe he thinks that at all, but let’s assume it for argument). Trump’s complaint then becomes that other countries, like China, figured this out before we did, and are taking us to the cleaners over it.
So we get America as a white firm. Firms make production decisions based on the cost of producing their inputs and outputs: if it’s cheaper to get corn from Mexico than Iowa, you would expect a rational firm to get corn from Mexico. If voters in Iowa kick up enough of a fuss, the state can meddle in the market to change the efficiency calculus and make Iowa corn cheaper again. In which case the firm will get its corn from Iowa. Neoliberals have no problems in creating and manipulating markets, especially when the goal is to produce more/better competition, and I’m not sure how different this is from what Trump is proposing. In other words, Trumpism might be viewed as an effort to push the U.S. in the direction of a firm, with government behaving like a corporate actor in that sense.
This is not Hillary’s neoliberalism. But, like Deleuze and Guattari remind us about capitalism, neoliberalism is a flexible doctrine. I’m genuinely unsure how to integrate the obvious 30’s style state racism into neoliberalism. But Trump’s entire appeal is brand, and one way of reading his message is that America needs to coalesce around a (very specific) hierarchical structure in order to compete better and enhance its brand value. Good brands win. To the point that, “you’ll be tired of all the winning.”