Bouie: Should wealthy and powerful again put trust in Trump

They stepped away after Jan. 6, but — ignoring their own need for democratic norms — are drawn to autocracy.

By Jamelle Bouie / The New York Times

Among the features that distinguish capitalist society from its predecessors, political theorist Ellen Meiksins Wood once observed, is “the differentiation of the economic and the political.”

The state, Wood pointed out, “stands apart from the economy even though it intervenes in it,” so that everyone — owner and worker, boss and bossed — can claim ownership in it “without usurping the exploitative power of the appropriator.”

Or as philosopher Nancy Fraser puts it, “the power to organize production is privatized and devolved to capital” while the “task of governing ‘noneconomic’ orders, including those that supply the external conditions for accumulation, falls to public power, which alone may utilize the ‘political’ media of law and ‘legitimate’ state violence.”

The upshot of this dynamic is that democracy under capitalism is necessarily of limited scope. We have the power and capacity to regulate and structure the market, but the fundamental questions — of production and surplus, of ownership and social reproduction — are beyond the reach of democratic decision-making as presently constituted.

But even the weak grasp of capitalist democracy is too strong for, well, capitalists. “Capital,” Fraser writes, “tries to have it both ways.” On one hand, “it freeloads off of public power, availing itself of the legal regimes, repressive forces, infrastructures, and regulatory agencies that are indispensable to accumulation.” On the other, “the thirst for profit periodically tempts some fractions of the capitalist class to rebel against public power, to bad-mouth it as inferior to markets, and to scheme to weaken it. In such cases, when short-term interests trump long-term survival, capital once again threatens to destroy the very political conditions of its own possibility.”

We can see this phenomenon during key junctures in American history. The Great Depression saw some sections of the business and corporate class contemplate dictatorial rule in an effort to save capitalism from a “socialist” or “communistic” New Deal. There was, in the view of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “an impulse among a good many ‘strong’ men, men used to having their way, mostly industrialists who directed affairs without being questioned, a feeling that democracy had run its course and that the totalitarians had grasped the necessities of the time.”

Examples abound, as well, when we turn our eyes abroad.

Among the strongest supporters of the American-backed military overthrow in 1973 of Salvador Allende, Chile’s democratically elected socialist president, were conservative business leaders who feared Allende’s program of nationalization and egalitarian redistribution. What followed, in the next decade of Chilean politics, was a crash-course in neoliberal governance that placed economic life beyond the reach of popular institutions.

That some capitalists will turn on democracy, or at least show indifference to its fate, when it seems that democracy might impede the accumulation of wealth is useful context for recent developments in the 2024 presidential election.

According to Sam Sutton, writing in Politico, several Wall Street executives and Silicon Valley venture capitalists who backed President Donald Trump and then spurned him after the Jan. 6 insurrection have now returned to the fold, with open arms and open wallets. They are, he writes, “looking past qualms about his personality and willingness to bulldoze institutional norms and focusing instead on issues closer to the heart: how he might ease regulations, cut their taxes or flex U.S. power on the global stage.”

For these donors, President Joe Biden’s efforts to enforce antitrust law and “tighten rules around markets and mergers” are such a threat to their financial interests that they’ve abandoned the misgivings they entertained in the wake of Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election. One must also imagine that there is some unhappiness with Biden’s efforts to create and preserve a tight labor market that puts more income into the hands of ordinary workers. Whatever their grievance, these business leaders have come to believe that “the threat to capitalism from the Democrats is more concerning than the threat to democracy from Trump.”

Of course, this idea is nonsense. There is no way in which the Democratic Party constitutes a threat to capitalism. At most, the party’s program of regulation, redistribution and higher taxes may shrink, ever so slightly, the profit rate for some of the nation’s wealthiest shareholders. But when compared with Trump’s promise to destroy the regulatory state and siphon the public coffers into the accounts of his billionaire friends and allies, even modest intervention on behalf of consumers and labor looks like the harbinger of a dictatorship of the proletariat.

The truth is that regimes of corrupt, personalist rule — in which authoritarians wield the state to reward friends, punish enemies and secure their fortunes — are much less prosperous than the alternative. It’s not as if Viktor Orban’s Hungary, a shining city on the hill for the MAGA right, can claim to possess anything like a dynamic, growing economy. And the big ticket items on Trump’s supposed second-term agenda — large tariffs on most goods entering the United States, the total politicization of the federal bureaucracy, including the Federal Reserve, and a plan to systematically deport what he says are tens of millions of immigrants in the country illegally — would plunge the country into turmoil and economic disarray.

As Anthony Scaramucci, one-time communication director for the former president, told Politico in a striking critique of Trump’s billionaire supporters: “You need a democracy to have effective capitalism. If you don’t, you get cronyism. You get oligarchy. You get crony capitalism. You get arbitrary and capricious administration to the law, which reduces people’s tendency to invest in your country.”

The irony of capitalist discontent with democracy is that capitalist democracy has been a very good deal for capitalists. Roosevelt understood, as he spearheaded his defense of the constitutional order, that a measure of modest egalitarianism — facilitated through the formal institutions of democracy — is a small price to pay for stability and the rule of law.

There was a poem, of sorts, that Trump liked to recite during the 2016 presidential campaign. It was “The Snake,” an Al Wilson song from the 1960s that was a retelling of the fable of the scorpion and the frog. In the song, a woman saves a half-frozen snake from death only to be bitten.

“I saved you,” cried that woman. “And you’ve bit me even, why? You know your bite is poisonous and now I’m going to die”

“Oh shut up, silly woman,” said the reptile with a grin. “You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.”

For Trump, this was an anti-immigrant parable: a dark warning that migrants and refugees are, as he now says, “poisoning the blood of our country.” But it could just as easily be a warning about the former president and the capitalists who hope to bring him back to power. They’ll carry him, he’ll bite and his poison will flow through the body politic, to their ruin as well as ours.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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