Since Trump’s election, I keep hearing that we shouldn’t “normalize” him or his agenda. I believe that’s looking through the wrong end of the telescope. There’s nothing as “normal” in the U.S. as white supremacy. Sometimes it’s disguised by tokenism and obscured by “multiculturalism.” But in this country, white supremacy has always shown its true naked face at times of stress and transition.
Because white supremacy isn’t just a bunch of bad ideas inherited from ignorant elders. It’s a deeply-rooted institution through which the U.S. rules over many oppressed peoples. It’s the glue that keeps hundred of millions loyal to that very same program. It’s the central ideological, political, and physical system set up by white capital to rule the land and dominate its internal and external colonies. And therefore, white supremacy underpins all the wealth and power this country’s ruling class possesses. Without it, the U.S. falls.
2. Contradictions within white capitalism
White supremacy is constant, but it keeps changing form. For instance, African Americans have endured a variety of modes of white supremacy: slavery, Jim Crow, gentrification, and more. White capitalism welcomed Mexicans and Chinese as semi-slave laborers, then attacked and deported them when conditions changed. Native peoples faced extermination campaigns, phony treaties, forced assimilation, and confinement on reservations, depending on what mode of genocide seemed most effective for settler society at various times. White supremacy isn’t a single, one-dimensional attack by white society on people of color. The form can change, as long as whiteness is always valued; as long as white people are always on top.
U.S. white supremacy was modified in response to world anti-colonial struggles and, after the Cold War, to globalization. Together these developments generated significant contradictions for traditional forms of white supremacy.
By the late 1970s, the U.S.’s old-style white military colonialism had lost much of its power, beaten back by a phalanx of national liberation struggles. Out of necessity, U.S. imperialism rebooted, searching out non-white colonial partners and adopting new forms of “colorblind” financial blackmail to replace or supplement white military occupation. In this new political landscape, overt chauvinism was often counterproductive; it created friction for the imperial agenda.
In the 1990s, the world economy entered a period of particularly intense capitalist globalization. Economic borders became weaker, protectionist barriers to trade and investment fell, and monopoly capitalists everywhere embraced the transnational integration of markets and finance. U.S. capitalists profited massively from this wave of globalization. Some of the biggest U.S.-based corporations began to see themselves as global businesses, floating above national markets and politics. They eagerly sought out non-white overseas partners to initiate cross-border industries, investments and supply lines. They promoted multilateral trade deals with far-flung overseas allies. They sat side by side with Asians and Latin Americans on boards of directors, and decided major economic policies in integrated international forums. They debated how to create global political institutions to go along with a global economy. A whole stratum of corporate leaders, and their children, saw themselves as part of a transcultural elite. Open, blatant racism wasn’t helpful in this changing environment.
Gradually, the U.S. ruling class adapted white surpremacy to these new conditions and gave it a new look. In the revised, neocolonial order, some people of color were coopted into positions of wealth and authority. Racist violence and discrimination continued inside and outside the country. But at the same time, especially as globalization surged, U.S. high culture increasingly professed to celebrate the diversity of all nationalities and races (and genders too). This helped present U.S. imperialism to its colonies, its multinational business partners, and to the rest of the world, with a friendlier face. White supremacy continued, altered in form by neocolonialism and disguised by capitalist multiculturalism.
3. Multiculturalism challenged
Some white people embraced the concept of multiculturalism, sincerely hoping it could be the basis for a genuine progressive culture. But most white amerikans felt that this new incarnation of capitalism was a demotion. They didn’t like having people of color as their bosses. They didn’t like seeing “good jobs” and social bribery spread around the world, instead of being reserved for them. And they hated the “political correctness” of having to hide their racism. U.S. capitalism’s perceived “disloyalty” to its white home base during the rise of globalization fueled the current upsurge of right-wing populism, including eventually the campaign of Donald Trump.
But for quite a while the ruling class turned a deaf ear to its disgruntled white masses. The capitalists had global interests to tend to; global profits to bank. To be blunt, a willing Asian dictator or Latina judge or African American president was worth more to them than a thousand whining white people. The militia movement was repressed when it became too militant; the Tea Party was mocked by the global sophisticates. (Neither was destroyed, though; they each remained as a possibility, a fallback.)
As globalization continued to advance in the last few decades, white amerika was gradually forced and cajoled to accept modest changes in the hierarchy of imperial privilege. It seemed possible that monopoly capital, pushing white people to fall in line with multiculturalism, might continue forever along that path, backed and cheered by cohorts of optimistic and idealistic artists and intellectuals.
To a large extent, this is where the plaintive cry not to “normalize” Trump comes from. Cosmopolitan liberals, now accustomed to living under globalized capitalism, simply can’t believe that U.S. society will be allowed to go backward; can’t believe that a rich country could ever be permitted to trash multiculturalism; to turn back the clock on women’s rights and environmentalism and so much more. They have a hard time accepting that their bright dream of a blended world culture, a dream that had previously been tolerated and even encouraged by major sectors of monopoly capital, might be betrayed, and end in a surge of old-fashioned racist violence. Their disbelief echoes the disbelief among the liberal intelligentsia in England after Brexit, and in other countries where globalization is giving ground.
4. Timing is everything
It’s important to understand that populist opposition to globalization in the West is making breakthroughs not as globalization rises, but as it falters. In fact, the rise of these political movements is probably more a reflection of globalization’s decline than the cause of that decline. What’s coming into view, semi-hidden underneath the frenzied soap opera of reactionary populism, is that the tide of globalization has crested and started to recede. It wasn’t permanent after all.
It should be stipulated, right off the bat, that globalization has unleashed immense changes, many of which are irreversible. For example, the peasantry, once the largest class of all, isn’t coming back. Globalization broke it; sent it streaming out of the countryside by the hundreds of millions. Out of that broken peasantry, a giant new woman-centered proletariat and a sprawling lumpen-proletariat are still being formed around the world.
Yet globalization as a financially-integrated, transnational form of capitalism can’t advance without constant expansion, without constant profit growth. Since no global state exists to mediate among the world’s capitalists, shared growth is the only thing that restrains them from cut-throat competition. Growth is also what allows capitalists to at least partly mollify the displaced masses back home with cheap commodities and whatever jobs a rising world economy has to offer. But now, instead of growing, the world economy is slowing. In fact, globalized capitalism, having bulked up on steroidal injections of speculation and unsustainable leveraged debt, is teetering on the edge of disaster.
From the U.S. to China, from the Eurozone to Brazil, danger signs are flashing; massive globalized industries are shifting into reverse. International trade and investment are flat or falling. Capital that was formerly used for investment in “emerging economies” is now flowing backward into safe haven investments in the metropolis. Automation, renewable energy and other new technologies are starting to shorten supply chains, reducing the demand for imports from far away. Intractable economic and political crises, like those in the Middle East and Greece and Ukraine, are eroding cooperation and sapping confidence in already-weak globalist institutions. The internet, a key factor in globalization, is gradually becoming segmented, as governments and corporations privatize, censor, and manipulate parts of it. Migration is slowing. And underneath everything, the increased inequality caused by globalization itself is throttling the demand for commodities.
Multinational corporations aren’t abandoning world markets by any means. But leading monopoly capitalists are hedging their bets; reducing their reliance on complex, interdependent trade and finance. Facing what he calls a “protectionist global environment,” GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt is shifting his company’s production from a globalized to a “localized” model. “We used to have one site to make locomotives; now we have multiple global sites that give us market access. A localization strategy can’t be shut down by protectionist policies.” This is a defensive posture, anticipating a less globalized form of imperialism. Transnational supply lines, labor forces, and markets are the most profitable as long as globalization rules. But they are vulnerable to political disruption when globalization retreats.
Looking at recent history, one big indication of globalization’s exhaustion is its inability to “digest” Central Asia or the Middle East, blocked by armed struggle movements of Islamist fundamentalists. This failure comes as a shock to capitalists, shaking their confidence. It also emboldens opponents of globalization in the West. In a sense the Trump and Brexit movements are pale and privileged echoes of vanguard right-wing populists in the colonial world—reactionary rebels who demonstated globalization’s limitations with their bodies and weapons.
Once it appeared that global capitalist integration had unstoppable momentum. But now a retreat into the once-familiar zones of old-fashioned nation-based imperialism seems to be on the capitalist menu.
5. A previous wave of globalization
If the ongoing shift away from transnationalism and towards harsh national rivalry continues, it won’t be the first instance of “de-globalization” in modern history. It’s happened before.
From 1870 to 1913, fueled by the industrial revolution and the explosive rise of U.S. capitalism, there was a massive spike in international trade and market integration. It was centered in Western Europe and the U.S., but extended into Latin America and other parts of the world, too. Borders were opened, tariffs were lowered, and there was a rapid increase in cross-border investment and multinational financial cooperation. The world capitalist economy boomed. Just as during the current wave of globalization, this earlier period was marked by major innovations in transport and communications, as well as an unprecedented upsurge in transnational migration. (Including tens of millions of workers who migrated from Europe to the U.S.) Economists refer to this as the “first wave” of modern globalization.
But capitalism is at best an unstable and contradictory system, periodically riven by economic crisis. And a globalized form of capitalism, with its web of interdependencies, appears to be particularly vulnerable to those crises.
The globalization of 1870–1913 collapsed like a house of cards. Growing economic imbalances and stalled growth led many imperialist countries to impose tariffs and other protectionist measures, vainly striving to boost their own home economy at the expense of others. Inevitably, there was retaliation in kind. This cannibalistic inter-imperial competition only aggravated the already deteriorating economic conditions. Trade and global commodities became more and more expensive. There was a rapid downward spiral of economic depression and reactionary nationalism.
There was no pretense of multiculturalism in the U.S. back then, of course. Massive violence against people of color was already common during the boom years of globalization. So it’s hard to say if racism became worse in this country during the period of de-globalization. But in 1913, segregation was officially initiated in all federal offices, lunchrooms, and bathrooms. In the following decades there were dozens of vicious race riots against Black enclaves in cities North and South, causing many hundreds of deaths and thousands of people driven from their homes. Having been pushed down previously, the Klan was revived in 1915. Its peak was in the 1920s, with some 4 million members. In the 1930s, as the world economic crisis deepened, millions of Mexicans and Mexican Americans were deported.
The first wave of globalization imploded in a frenzy of national hatred and two brutal world wars, fought without quarter among the capitalist powers. Something we should keep in mind as we confront the current situation.
Today’s capitalist globalization isn’t failing because of political blows landed by Western anti-globalization movements, although those have had a real effect. Rather, the populist movements are reaching for real power just as factions of the ruling class globalist consensus are themselves breaking away and seeking alternate, nationalistic strategies.
Former globalizers are floating back toward the anchors of their old home economies and shifting the blame for economic crisis onto “foreigners” and social minorities. They’re muting their former advocacy of free trade while backing away from trade agreements. They’re rediscovering protectionism. They’re experimenting with cyber-attacks on other countries, building up their militaries, increasing their involvement in proxy wars, and manipulating their currencies to gain temporary advantage over trading partners. And as a natural part of this shift, they’re unleashing their most rabid “patriotic” social bases to sell their new/old program, control the streets, and set themselves up as potential cannon fodder down the road.
In every quarter of the globe, nationalistic xenophobia is on the rise, strangling the remaining globalists’ fading dreams about world government and a borderless economy. Right-wing populism is being released, and it’s rising out of its reservoirs, flowing like water filling dry river beds. In country after country, old social prejudices are being revived and intensified; former globalist capitalists are reaching out and mending fences with their most trusted national social bases.
That’s how it is here in the U.S., too. A return to the old white amerika is becoming a more and more practical program for U.S. capitalists—not just for the white masses. It offers the only “natural” form of capitalist regroupment in this country as globalization wanes. An option as amerikan as apple pie.
Neo-colonialism isn’t going away—it’s become a deep strategic necessity for modern imperialism. But mass multiculturalism is just a tactic for the capitalists, subject to revision or reversal. A wiser comrade once warned me, during the rise of globalization, that the ruling class would someday “give amerika back to white people.” That’s what seems to be happening with Trump. (Whether or not the capitalists can control the populists they are unleashing remains, as always, an open question.)
7. Capitalists shift gears
The recent wave of accelerated globalization that started in the 1990s was led by a bloc of Western capital, along with Japan and other close allies in Asia. There were two key geopolitical factors in its take-off. One was the formation of the EU, which consolidated European capital, including parts of the old Soviet empire. The EU also provided a model for what a globalized borderless world might look like, complete with transnational institutions and regulations.
The second factor was a tacit agreement between Western capital and China to collaborate on capitalist development. China supplied a low-wage labor force to produce cheap commodities, enabling enormous profits for investors. In return, the Chinese state and Party skimmed off some of those profits, retained significant control over investment decisions, built modern infrastructure and accumulated advanced technology. This “win-win” capitalist model, involving high-level financial integration and lowered trade barriers, was eventually expanded to other countries.
Both of these key factors of globalization appear to be disintegrating. When times were good in Europe, national jealousies were kept in check. But with the economic slowdown, and now with the refugee crisis originating in the Middle East, centrifugal forces are rising inside the EU. Brexit is only one example. As for the deal with China, that was always a marriage of convenience. The West never planned to let China become a serious imperial rival. While on the other hand, Chinese capitalists planned from the very beginning to use globalization as a springboard to empire.
Globalization has always encountered some opposition among capitalists. In many cases, that opposition comes from businesspeople based in a single country, who resent having to compete with the flood of cheap imports from abroad. It also comes from the more rabid proponents of national imperial power. They think military force and economic blackmail can be more profitable than friendly internationalism. When globalization starts to show weakness, these opponents see opportunity, and fight hard to shift the capitalist consensus.
For some time, a group of Republican lawmakers have been chomping at the bit to take China and Russia down a notch. They’ve fumed as foreign capital bought up businesses and property in the U.S., and issued dire warnings that imperial rivals were supplanting the U.S. in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. In a parallel political universe, a group of Democrats, egged on by the unions, demanded more tariffs, “local sourcing” regulations, and other protections from “free trade.”
Each of these forces represented a piece of the anti-globalist agenda. Each was in the minority. Neither cared for Trump because he was an outsider and a loose cannon. But Trump finds himself in a position to put the pieces together.
There was significant ruling class support for Trump’s campaign from the beginning—including Kenneth Langone of Home Depot, Peter Thiel of PayPal, David Green of Hobby Lobby, and plenty more. Now Republican politicians, manufacturers, tech billionaires, oil company executives, and Goldman Sachs bankers are lining up to apply for cabinet jobs and making pilgrimages to Trump Tower to “consult” with the anti-globalizer-in-chief.
Although most British capitalists initially opposed the Brexit campaign, many also backed it. The supporters saw it as an opportunity to “deregulate” and privatize the economy and to make trade deals specifically favoring England. In China, a country that was once the poster child for globalization, the ruling class has made the conscious decision to become less dependent on exports to the West. They want to build up their home market. Moreover, they are responding to a weakening economy by fomenting xenophobia and populist narratives of imperial glory to come. In Russia, patriotic fervor and expansionist dreams are the only thing keeping Putin’s corrupt authoritarian regime afloat. This trend of rising capitalist anti-globalization is general, worldwide.
As the U.S. starts to hunker down—starts to game-out possible trade wars and military conflicts with China and Russia; starts to think about closing borders and opening detention camps—white supremacy naturally comes fully back out into the open. That’s the default mode—always—for a country built on genocide, slavery, annexation, colonialism, and every form of parasitism on people of color. If inter-imperialist rivalry is to be the order of the day, the U.S. ruling class will need the militant loyalty of racist white people. Without that, the imperial center will not hold; the U.S. will be unable to wage cold wars, trade wars, or physical wars against its hungry rivals.
And so, it’s back to “normal” in amerika. We shouldn’t waste our energy wishing it wasn’t so. We should invest that energy in destroying any remaining illusions about a political system built from day one on oppressing non-white peoples and nations, here and all over the world. A system that must be uprooted, not reformed.
8. “Normalizing” Obama
And in the meantime, how about not “normalizing” Obama? Are the war crimes, assassinations, amnesty for torturers, mass incarceration, orwellian spy networks, out-of-control gangster cops, attacks on journalists and whistleblowers, and the vastly increased inequality that happened during his regime supposed to be some sort of baseline? Should we forget that he set a record for deportations? Are we going accept the bizarre narrative that Obama is really a well-meaning progressive “community organizer,” who was frustrated and stymied by Republicans?
Notice that while we are girding ourselves to fight Trump, Obama is not. Do we see him boldly attacking Trump’s racist, mysogynist plans, his reactionary appointments, his corruption, his militarism? Nope. He’s making nice with The Donald. His attention has already turned to more important things, like his exciting plans for an opulent presidential library to praise his “legacy.” Funded, of course, by the capitalists he has served so well.
We can project onto Obama that he’s a tortured soul, wishing he could have done more to help people. But actually he’s had a hugely successful career, and he’s solidly loyal to monopoly capitalism. When multiculturalism served that cause, he was multiculturalism’s very incarnation. Now, smart man that he is, he understands that his new job is to help manage a smooth transition from globalist multiculturalism to a system where open white supremacist nationalism can be mainstream again. And like a true professional, he’s putting his personal feelings aside and taking care of business.
Much is made of the fact that, as he left office, Obama commuted a few thousand harsh sentences inflicted on people jailed for non-violent drug convictions. And gave out a handful of pardons. But even staying within the limits of bourgeois legality, he could have done so much more, if he cared.
A president’s constitutional power to pardon people for federal offenses is practically unlimited. Pardon, not commute. When your sentence is commuted, you still have a criminal record. But when you are pardoned, your record is wiped clean. Even if you haven’t been prosecuted yet, you can still be pardoned. One revealing example is Richard Nixon, pardoned cheerfully by Gerald Ford for “any crimes he may have committed against the United States while president.” There are hundreds of thousands of victims of unjust, racist mass incarceration who could have been pardoned with a stroke of Obama’s pen. Obama could have pardoned Leonard Peltier and all the other political prisoners; he could have pardoned Edward Snowden, too. There’s nothing Trump could have done about it.
Why stop there? Millions of immigrants are directly threatened with deportation by the incoming regime. Trump has said he would start things off by deporting immigrant “criminals.” Actually, the only “crime” committed by most undocumented immigrants is that they crossed the border illegally or overstayed their visa. Obama could have pardoned all those people, blocking their deportation. Nevertheless, when some Democratic congresspeople asked Obama to use his pardon power to protect a group of immigrants (in this case, the 750,000 young “Dreamers” who came to the U.S. as children) he turned them down flat.
Obama isn’t Trump’s enemy, or his friend. He’s simply an operative working for a fundamentally reactionary, white supremacist system. As popular resistance to Trump builds, we have to struggle to turn it into a deeper mass understanding of that system, instead of normalizing Obama or his sponsors. And we must find and unite with those who, based on that deeper understanding, are moving toward revolution; towards actually overthrowing white supremacy and capitalism entirely.