At the end of my last post, I started to build an argument that the politics advanced by and through the Trump administration are in part a fulfillment of his campaign’s economic populism and nationalism. At this point, a year and a half into Trump’s (first?) term as President of the US, it is somewhat unorthodox to argue that Trump’s populist promise is being fulfilled. Liberal commentators are wont to point out the hypocrisy of a billionaire touting his bona fides as a champion of the (white) working class, and to indicate how weakly Trump’s administration has pursued goals that might help working people, such as strengthening health care, public services, and wage legislation. So how deep does economic populism run, and where does it overlap and conflict with economic nationalism? These are different things but both seem to be in action here, if we can get past the two primary foci of most coverage of the Trump administration, which is narrowly concentrated on the “Russiagate” complex of scandals and investigations, and the dysfunctional inner workings of the Trump White House. The latter is important to the extent that it demonstrates the political and ideological fractures within the top echelons of the executive branch, and more broadly within the conservative ecosystem in which the Republican Party is rooted. But it also looks like a very unpleasant workplace populated by sycophants and people might otherwise be sidelined by conflicts of interest (i.e., Betsy DeVos, Ryan Zinke), political limitations (i.e., Gina Haspel, Rick Perry), or sheer incompetence (Ben Carson, most glaringly). Meanwhile, the Russia issue serves as a good entry for getting into the geopolitics and geoeconomics of the Trump administration, and by extension the difference and intersection between populism and nationalism I pointed out above, and what is new and what is the same in this political landscape. I will get a little jargony here, but I’ll try to bring it back to my main point from the end of the previous post, in two parts. First, as discussed in Trumpland 1, the Trump moment is one which aims at authoritarianism by reasserting the exclusionary violence of national borders, racial distinctions, and nationalist chauvinism, which happens at the US border and in daily interactions between state authority (including local and state police) and a civilian population fragmented by citizenship status, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and other forms of social difference. Beyond that, I think claims that Trump is a dictator and that he is undermining American democracy are lacking; his legislative agenda is practically non-existent, and his administration is beset by crippling levels of incompetence and incoherence, with more serious legal ramifications looming as Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen now face jail time.
But second, there is a related and more ubiquitous form of authoritarianism that serves as a foundation for the Trump moment, and that is the dictatorship of the workplace. Insidious because so little noted in mainstream readings of Trump, and because of its ubiquity. It is so commonplace — the boss is the boss, the workplace is not a democracy, and if you have a good job you should feel lucky to have it, so don’t complain — that it is often taken for granted. But the ideological and material substance of the modern capitalist economy, which is deeply undemocratic on the ‘shop floor’ (and the Gap and Starbuck’s and Google and the Amazon warehouse all have their versions of the ‘shop floor’), are the engine of Trump’s economic nationalism. I think this economic nationalism, the idea that the US should have economic dominance over other countries via trade surpluses, productivity, and other (often crude) statistical measures of economic health is actually more important in the long run than his economic populism, which appears more and more as an ongoing campaign strategy to activate a base of voters and articulate a mass appeal that covers the tracks of economic nationalism. Economic nationalism collapses and erases class, race, gender, and other distinctions, which matter in the workplace, in the segmentation of the labor market, and in the social and economic outcomes for workers, behind a wall of nationalist rhetoric, emphasizing competition with China or the EU or Mexico rather than the inequalities and unevenness of the global economy. This is not a new story, but in Trump’s reiteration of it, following years of a jobless recovery after a global financial crisis which came on top of 30 years of consistent rollback of workers’ rights, regulations and capital’s unmooring from social equity goals, it takes on a new urgency. The workplace (though some are more important than others in Trump’s rhetoric and actions, as seen in his recently introduced tariffs and comments on the campaign trail) is connected to a global system of economic investment and political jockeying, of fast policy transfer and uneven development, and of the slow unraveling of four decades of neoliberal promises. This is thus also strongly linked to foreign policy and competing visions of world order. Now, I will get down to the nitty gritty and explain what I mean by all these terms, starting with geopolitics and geoeconomics.
Geopolitics seems like a pretty straightforward idea in its common usage – how states compete with each other for power in the world, especially by strategic positioning and use of political and military resources – but I mean it as both this particular practice of statecraft and the exercise of state power in the international arena, and as the discursive framing and representation of state power in the international system as based in territorial control, border management, and formal inter-state relations. In other words, not just the thing itself – big militaries, conquest of territory and placement of strategic force, and state representatives pursuing their national interest in forums like the UN – but also how the language of international politics, the representation of places on maps and in strategic plans and everyday language, and the “common sense” notion that international politics is about states interacting with one another in very formal and often violent ways. Think US-Soviet relations in the cold war, or before that, the imperial rivalries that led into the two world wars. The practice and discourse of geopolitics is itself rooted in social relations, in the groups and institutions that see the world in this way because of the material organization of their power, and which attempt to make it so or pursue actions based on this worldview. Geoeconomics is a competing but also complementary worldview and set of practices, which sees international politics as not just based in the formal actions of states pursuing power and cooperation on a chessboard map of territorial gain or loss, military strength, and institutional control. Instead, power is also economic, the ability to command and control resources through financial acumen and reach, and with a focus on economic interdependence (for good and for ill), connectivity, and trade, and the commanding heights of local, regional, and global economies. This view and the groups who build their actions and strategic vision on it are found in some of the same institutions as those who see the world geopolitically. That is, if you head on down to the State Department or USAID (which I have written about – buy my book!) or different factions in Congress or dozens of corporate boardrooms around the world, you’re going to get a mix of both geopolitical and geoeconomic approaches; one doesn’t automatically displace the other, and they are tangled up together rather than mutually exclusive. This is why the material configuration of interests, social power, and the balance of political forces matter for determining what a state (or a big company, or a partisan faction, or a popular social movement) might do with these ideas and worldviews.
If all of this is utterly confusing, let me explain it with a clip from season 3 of the HBO show The Wire, in which drug kingpin Avon Barksdale, shortly after his release from prison, discusses strategy with his lieutenant Stringer Bell. Stringer has run their organization in Avon’s absence, and sought not just to control the street corners where the low level dealers who work for them — and the show portrays this as work, a job, and not really a good one, paid but just not part of the formal legal economy — but also to come to a business arrangement with his competitors and neutralize an insurgent new dealer by creating a kind of interdependent drug economy that can allow them to get into real estate and so on. No longer is conquering and holding corners through organized violence the way to achieve power; you work with competitors in a dynamic economic arrangement that ensures competition without the need for annihilating every competitor in a zero-sum game.
Of course, this remains built on certain kinds of labor and workplaces — the street corner, locally, and the drug lab or place of manufacture, often distant in another city or country — that remain governed by the dictatorship of the boss and hierarchical organization backed by violence. But that violence is contained in the organization. A drug ring is not some kind of organic food co-op, but then Whole Foods is also kind of a shitty place to work, isn’t it? In any case, this is, to me, a useful example of geopolitics, espoused by Avon Barksdale, who just wants his corners, entangled with geoeconomics, articulated by Stringer Bell, the aspiring businessman who wants to launder drug money and remove himself from the nitty gritty of the corner and, for lack of a better term, human resources management. Perhaps this is not a perfect analogy, but it demonstrates the internal logic and expression of two competing but co-existing, and sometimes complementary, ways of seeing territory and different kinds of power.
What’s that got to do with Trump? For decades, the US has been a superpower, in both geopolitical and geoeconomic terms. The US attempted, and often succeeded, in remaking large swaths of the world in its image after World War II. In geopolitical terms, the US had the world’s strongest military, even with competition from the Soviet Union during the cold war, global reach through a plethora of foreign bases and overwhelming air, naval, and nuclear power, and was able in many cases to exert its political will in the international arena through institutions such as NATO, the UN, and other strategic military and political alliances. It was armed with ideological and strategic coherence, though this in turn was tinged with fear of vulnerabilities and weak points that could be exploited by determined enemies and even by those who wished to remain non-aligned. Geoeconomically, the US was also dominant, with the economic strength to craft major international financial institutions to its preference, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, to facilitate a system of international aid and lending that mixed the public purse with private investment banking to ensure the US dollar was the world’s reserve currency, and to erect and then chip away at a system of preferential trade that benefited American companies and investors while building a competitive, dynamic, and crisis-prone capitalist global economy. I have argued elsewhere that the geopolitical vision of cold war containment and territorial administration, dominant from the end of World War II through the 1970s, nonetheless needed and worked in tandem with a geoeconomic vision that sought constant capitalist expansion led by the US and by US-based firms. By the crisis period of the late 1970s, the geoeconomic urge to open markets, find new investment opportunities, and fight off stagflation meant the two worldviews and the factions advancing them came into more direct contradiction with one another. The neoliberal turn of the 1980s-2000s, along with the cold war’s end, meant geopolitical strategy increasingly informed but took a back seat to geoeconomic visions and practices of world order, especially those built around ideals of free and open markets, an easing of border controls on investment, and the deepening of interdependence between states. Economic nationalism, which always lurked in the background or was called upon in the context of trade disputes or labor unrest, didn’t fare well under this version of geoeconomics. It’s hard to argue for free trade and a borderless world of smooth-functioning markets and low taxes if you’ve got your back up about whether your car has enough US-made parts to qualify as an “American car.” Increasingly this form of economic rhetoric looked like the residue of a different time, outdated and outmoded, deployed by workers and companies who could not compete in a new lean, mean, efficient world of fast moving trade and cutthroat competition. The terror attacks of 9/11 initiated a reconsideration of how geopolitical and geoeconomic thinking and strategies intersected and could be made to work together, but the financial, energy, and housing crisis of 2007-08 and the subsequent “jobless recovery” have strengthened this tendency and scrambled the political landscape. Geopolitical and geoeconomic thinking are being realigned in terms of their meaning, how they are expressed and pursued in various institutional contexts, and how they relate to one another. Trump and a whole range of economic populists, nationalists, and other parties and political candidates on the right and left (but especially the ascendant hard and far right), not just in the US but well beyond, are both products of this realignment, but also opportunists looking to direct it.
So what does Trump do for this realignment, and why do I center the workplace in it? It would seem that talking about foreign policy (and there have been a lot of takes, both hot and not, on the Trump foreign policy in media and academia; see here and here, for example) and the realm of inter-state relations has very little to do with what happens on the shop floor. That is, geopolitics and geoeconomics seems at first blush like what we’d call high politics, the lofty realm of statesmen and diplomats and financiers, far removed from the quotidian struggles of a laid-off steel worker, an underpaid public school teacher, a sorter in an Amazon warehouse, or a strawberry picker in a California farm field. And yet there is Donald Trump, winning the presidency on the back of, well, lots of things, ranging from voter apathy and widespread disenfranchisement to possible foreign financial support and misinformation campaigns, to the strangeness of the US Electoral College system, but also in part to what so many have identified as the “white working class” revolting against decades of liberal cultural erosion of their privileged place in American society and immigration and blah blah blah. There is perhaps some nugget of truth to this, that there is out there in America a “white working class” that is fundamentally racist, xenophobic, nationalist, and fed up. But it is also true that a lot of people who might fit into this group did not vote for Trump, or for anyone; that the “working class” is not a white monolith, but deeply diverse and often painfully fractured and segmented; and that “economic anxiety” is real and politically important in many different directions, even if some use and abuse the term to cover for some really potent strands of racism. American political discourse suffers from a stunted, inadequate language of class, and three decades or more of neoliberal orthodoxy and culture wars over social wedge issues have depoliticized the workplace and work, or at least severed (largely) the politics of work from the mainstream of partisan political campaigning and legislative battles, save for a range of empty platitudes about the middle class and American workers and economic mobility, none of which have spurred much effective legislative action to overcome the erosion of wages, benefits, opportunity, and mobility. As a recent editorial in the New York Times noted, most of the “white working class” in the US “live lives of quiet desperation mad at their white bosses … for abuses of privilege and people,” not resentful of their non-white neighbors and co-workers. Recent struggles over anti-union “right to work” legislation, battles over the rights, pensions, and salaries of public workers, debates about the minimum wage and living wages, all portend a different kind of politics of work and a potential reinvention of economic populism as focused on equity, solidarity, and opportunity rather than a fight for scraps fractured by race, age, and national identity. There is hope for that. But for now what we have is an economic populism stifled by nationalist rhetoric, rooted in geopolitical visions of zero-sum international competition (“China will beat us!”) and geoeconomically bound to an interdependent world economy that has reshaped labor markets and capital movement in fundamental ways.
And here there is a conflict embodied by Trump, whose rhetoric and actions have sought to reinforce American competitiveness by disciplining workers and disciplining some elements of capital. None of this should imply that it’s a coherent, long-term, strategic vision Trump advances. But these are tumultuous times, and a media-savvy but impetuous doofus who fancies himself a genius with world-beating business acumen sure has room to move in this political environment. That Trump’s geoeconomic vision is short-sighted, focused on restoring the economic dominance of American industry, but in sectors and products that are globally integrated and competitive in ways that make it difficult for a single country’s firms to dominate the market. Tariffs on steel and aluminum imports to the US, for example, affect a huge range of consumer goods, from cars to beer, as well as the construction industry and infrastructure repair and development. While American (and European and Canadian) politicians have for years helped facilitate the movement of manufacturing and heavy industry capital and jobs to cheaper locales while lamenting the fate of the “white working class” and promising to make things better, the steady tide of trade liberalization and capital mobility kept rising. Trump’s attempt to recapture American dominance in these sectors as a path to restoring and buttressing US power more broadly runs headlong into the fact that for 30-plus years, plants have closed, a generation of the labor force has shifted gears, unions that helped ensure strong wages and benefits have faced relentless attacks and rollbacks, and the geographies of manufacturing, finance, retail, and transportation have changed via globalization processes and shifts in political and economic contexts. Yet Trump’s geoeconomic vision, rhetoric, and strategy remain firmly tied to the mythos of a massive but beleaguered white working class desirous of closing borders and restoring some past glory.
This is coupled with a weakly articulated geopolitical vision that centers American military strength while lamenting the mistakes of previous administrations. His own foreign policy emphases, linked perhaps to Russian financiers and focused on helping his economic interlocutors, are remarkably different from those pursued by the US state in the post-cold war and post-9/11 periods. I don’t mean this in some ham-fisted historically ignorant way, in which the statement “Trump supports dictators!” readily, even willfully, forgets the long history of US support for and engagement in coups, regime change, proxy wars, and material support for unelected and anti-democratic leaders and governments. I mean something more material and more personal, perhaps; Trump’s foreign policy is based on a combination of his individual economic interests coupled with what a sheltered young man with too much money who was sent to a military-style boarding school thinks makes a strong country. But official US foreign policy remains on a relatively steady path, identifying well-known threats and potential enemies and following a similar playbook as always in responding to them. This has made for some sharp contradictions, such as Trump’s support for Chinese telecom company ZTE, fought off by the Senate for now, his reluctant imposition of sanctions on Russia that Congress passed in 2017, and his toadying meeting and press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in July, which sparked fierce debate about whether to subpoena the American interpreter.
What does tie Trump’s geopolitical and geoeconomic visions and strategies together, for now at least, is the underlying dictatorship of the capitalist workplace. The economic populism that promises the return of high-paying blue collar jobs is woven into the economic nationalism that says the US should and must reclaim its position as hegemonic superpower in a hierarchical world economic system. This is turn is linked to geopolitical fears of falling behind rival powers such as China in the quest for power, of longstanding alliances and trade relationships no longer fulfilling American interests, and of invasion from without by radicals and terrorists. Hardening the border and enforcing economic nationalism through tariffs and other retaliatory economic policies serves both geoeconomic and geopolitical purposes, though this comes at a cost. US-based companies face the burden of adjusting to volatile economic conditions stemming not from global competition but from political posturing, but also the scorn of a twitter-based presidency that relies on half-truths, outright falsehoods, and public callouts to bluntly shape corporate decision making (though honestly, this is done poorly and ineffectively unless your goal is to smash unions, suppress wage growth, and discipline workers). Economic nationalism of the sort the Trump administration has pushed demands that economic populism limit its claims to and attempts at equity or redistribution of resources, that it bend itself to anti-immigrant political movements, and that it subsume social conflict in the workplace into a broader international conflict between national economic units. There is no Trump without the authoritarianism of the border, the prison, and the workplace. I will (eventually) try to discuss what that means for ways forward and for alternative political outcomes and movements in a third and final “Trumpland” post… eventually.