In this post, I am going to try to achieve some clarity of mind on a matter of very great urgency, particularly for those of us on the left. This effort is going to be difficult or me [and perhaps for others who share my political opinions] because it calls on me to think in ways at least orthogonal to, if not entirely the reverse of, my usual mode of political analysis. For many, I imagine, what I have to say will seem so obvious as to require no comment at all, but others may find me offensively naïve.
All of you, I am sure, are thoroughly familiar with the notion so often repeated that democratic forms of politics depend not merely on formal arrangements of governmental institutions and laws but also on a civic culture, a network of shared and respected norms of discourse and behavior that place constraints on what powerful actors will allow themselves to do. This is the stuff of endless university courses on Democracy, of pretentiously middle-brow self-congratulatory books about the superiority of our political practices in contrast with those of “Third World Dictatorships,” and of editorials in the upper reaches of the print media.
For a century and a half now, if not more, left-wing critics of Capitalism have been condemning these discourses as rationalizations for the domestic exploitation of workers and the imperial projects of the state carried out by and in the interest of Capital. We have developed and deployed powerful conceptual critiques of those ideological mystifications of state, church, and academy which serve the purpose of concealing from view the reality underlying the surface appearance of what Marx famously called the realm of “Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham.”
However, to a degree that I at least have not allowed myself to acknowledge, we have in our critiques of this false consciousness relied implicitly to a considerable extent on those very norms of civil society and democracy whose deceits and mystifications we have labored to expose. No one who has read Marx seriously and deeply, as I have over many years, can deny that every word of his writings is instinct with a respect for facts, for reasoned arguments, and for the standards of honesty and responsibility whose distortion and corruption he excoriates.
Marx himself writes surprisingly little about socialism as a functioning economic and political system [even less if we exclude what was written by his colleague Friedrich Engels], but many, including myself, who have been inspired by his writings have insisted that a socialist society, based on collective ownership of the means of production, must be thoroughgoingly democratic in its politics. I do not know about others, but a Dictatorship of the Proletariat ruled by Democratic Centralism holds no attraction for me.
Which brings me to the real subject of this post, Donald Trump. In recent days, we have seen Trump assault and undertake to destroy virtually all of the norms of behavior and discourse that Americans have relied on to serve as checks on those whom they place in positions of power. I shall not rehearse the litany of these assaults – all of you are familiar with them. What frightens me – I do not think that is too strong a word – is the danger that these norms, once allowed to be defied without punishment, will disappear from our public life. If Trump can fire with impunity one after another the individuals – U. S. Attorney, Acting Attorney General, Director of the FBI – charged with investigating his possibly criminal acts, will there ever again be a time when the political class closes ranks and puts a stop to such acts? If Trump and his family are allowed to use the presidency to enrich themselves, will American politics thereafter be a naked kleptocracy?
Some of you, I am sure, will reply that I am being hopelessly naïve, that the American ruling class has been robbing the people for several hundred years, that there is no difference between Trump and George W. Bush or Barack Obama or Jimmy Carter or Dwight Eisenhower. You will say that Trump is no worse than any of his predecessors, simply more open in his power grabs and self-enrichment.
I think you would be wrong to say that. I can recall what American politics was like when J. Edgar Hoover ran the FBI. Things have been better since, especially for those of us on the left, and if Trump chooses another Hoover to run the FBI, I do not think it is out of the question, to speak personally, that blogs like this will be closed down.
I honestly believe we are at a truly dangerous moment in modern American history, and the dangers are greatest for those of us on the left.