From Reagan to Trump
Culture war and class war
by Ingo Schmidt
[This article published in February 2021 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.sozonline.de/2021/02/von-reagan-bis-trump/]
"Reconcile instead of divide," Johannes Rau's old campaign slogan - Ronald Reagan ruled the U.S. when Rau ran for chancellor in 1987 - is haunting newsrooms.
After the Reagan admirer Trump has divided the country, Biden is supposed to restore the unity of the American people, the neoliberal normal state with its rational administration of economic laws may return. This will not happen.
Reagan's ever-friendly smile accompanied the rise of neoliberalism; Trump's hate speech symbolizes its decline. The echo that these tirades are generating in broad sections of the population clearly shows that markets are no longer perceived as an opportunity, but as a threat. The state, which should stay out of the markets, is now perceived only as the patron saint of the rich.
This assessment is likely to be shared by many Biden voters. They wanted to get rid of Trump, but not necessarily a return to the policies of his predecessors. They have, from Reagan to Obama, albeit in very different ways, contributed to the rise of a new right. The fact that their temporary leader had to vacate the White House for the time being does not mean that the right no longer has any political influence. Born out of the decline of neoliberalism, its very existence is one of the reasons why there will be no return to the days of stars-and-stripes-flagged market euphoria.
Reinterpreting the concept of class
Culture wars that so marked Trump's presidency were also fought in Reagan's time. At the center of these was the reinterpretation of the concept of class. The neoliberal right has won this culture war so convincingly that today it is possible to argue about gender, ethnic or cultural identities as if classes no longer existed at all. It was different in Reagan's time.
The protest and strike movements of the 1960s and 1970s had given arguing in class terms access to a broad public after years of institutionalized class warfare. Of course, Reagan could ill-afford to respond to the newly inflamed class struggles from below with the slogan "All power to the banks and corporations," even though his policies were aimed precisely at that. The opposition between wage labor and capital was replaced by complaints about the paternalism and exploitation of hard-working Americans by union bosses, social workers and their clientele of drug-addicted, group-sex bums. The moral majority should rid itself of this troublesome minority. After that, their members would have the chance, embedded in the family and backed by the fatherland, to assert their abilities in fair competition. Entrepreneurship was replaced in this narrative by the promise that anyone could become an entrepreneur.
The message resonated. Reagan won the 1980 and 1984 presidential elections with clear majorities. Without a majority of the vote, his 2016 revenant Trump could only become president because of an archaic electoral system. Four years later, not even that was enough to win re-election, despite an anything but rousing challenger.
Four decades after Reagan, many families are devastated by debt, poverty and drugs. And the homeland is as over-indebted as private households, unable to impose a political regime of its choosing on militarily defeated countries, and unsure how to deal with the Chinese challenge. It is not out of conviction that the Stars & Stripes are held high, but out of defiance and desperation.
But there is no longer a class that could bundle the rampant discontent into a social movement. In addition to reinterpreting the concept of class, Reagan and the elites who support him have pursued a reconstruction of capitalism that has marginalized previously existing institutions and the culture of the American working class.
Capitalist restructuring included sectoral shifts from manufacturing industries to personal services, information technology, finance, and logistics. This was accompanied by the creation of rust and sun belts as new industries were often built in previously less industrialized regions. In addition, old industries were relocated from regions where unions were strongly anchored in the workplace and politically, mostly at the municipal level, to union-free zones in the former Confederate states, but also in the American Southwest. The media mainly reported on relocations to neighboring Mexico or overseas; in fact, the majority of such relocations took place within the United States.
The capitalist transformation was accompanied by automation and reorganization of work processes, especially the spin-off of certain production sections, the creation of profit centers within companies and just-in-time management along the value chain.
It was also accompanied by a massive increase in immigration from Mexico and other Latin American countries. The majority of the newcomers moved to the Sun Belt from California to Virginia. In exchange, many blacks who hoped to catch up with white Americans' income growth after the upsurge of the civil rights movement remained in the further impoverished ghettos of the rust belt. During the oil price boom from the early 2000s to the mid-2010s, there was even a temporary upswing in employment in some sparsely populated and otherwise long economically disconnected Midwestern states. Rather insignificant in numbers, this upswing unleashed enormous symbolic power. To it was attached the hope of fossil fuel prosperity, notwithstanding the fact that the prosperity of the postwar decades was based on the availability of cheap, not expensive, oil.
Marginalization of the working class
A paradox: The 1960s, when incomes rose for almost all workers, ended with a massive wave of strikes. Since the 1980s, the incomes of most Americans have fallen, working hours have risen massively, and job security has become a foreign word. But strikes have been extremely rare since then. Waves of protest come and go, but leave little visible trace. And the parliament, where the concerns of different population groups were supposed to be represented and lead to the negotiation of resolutions that could command a majority?
The Republicans used their majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives to distort pretty much all of Obama's plans beyond recognition, such as the introduction of health insurance accessible to all Americans, or to block them altogether. Clinton had already suffered a similar fate. Instead of taking up the gauntlet and fighting for their campaign promises as vigorously as Trump was later to fight for his lies, they bowed to the pressure of organized capital and thereby undermined the already limited trust in the parliamentary establishment. Not only that, but the combination of neoliberal economic policies and cosmopolitan appeal, naturally colored Red, White & Blue, transformed the concerns of women's and civil rights movements into a lifestyle of the better-off. Diversity became purchasable. If you could afford it.
Problems of representation
The marginalization of the working class through capitalist restructuring caused class to disappear from the intersectional equation. Race and gender became means of identification without tying the individual back to the social division of labor. Many who could not compete in capitalist competition gladly accepted the offer. Racism and sexism will not solve their problems, but they temporarily console them over a situation perceived as unbearable but also unchangeable.
The Republicans' united stand against Obama and their equally united support of Trump, whose candidacy many veteran political pros long thought was a joke, should not obscure the fact that the party is fraying to the right. In the center, there is some overlap with the Democrats; on the right fringe, there are significant intersections with Protestant fundamentalists, Klu Klux Klan, remnants of the Tea Party and neo-Nazis.
Mirroring this, there are prominent leftists among the Democrats, namely Bernie Sanders, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, whose election campaigns have overlapped with the protests of various movements. For this, they are isolated from the neoliberal Democratic mainstream.
The complexity of the political landscape is only partially represented by Republicans and Democrats. The majority is not represented by the U.S. political system. That a not insignificant portion of this majority laments its powerlessness and then runs after politicians who further fortify that powerlessness shows how little democratic content there is in democratic institutions. Powerlessness leads to the idolization of power represented by a strength-asserting, national flag-waving leader. The challenge for the left is to encourage those among the powerless who are not yet addicted to the cult of the leader and the fatherland, or who are excluded from it because of skin color, faith, or sexual preference, to engage in democracy.
Unlike the ideas of the much-vaunted Founding Fathers of the United States, all slaveholders who devised a system of negotiating compromises among the propertied classes, this democracy must be social. It must allow participation in the common affairs not only regardless of skin color, gender, and personal preferences, but also regardless of private wealth. Participation means more than filling out ballots. It means deciding together what is produced, where and how, and how the product is shared among each other. In such a democracy, no one needs to be represented anymore. There is also no longer a need to organize for class struggle, because there are no longer any classes. Admittedly, it is not easy to imagine such a world when one follows the current events in the USA.
Fourth Industrial Revolution
Labor and the struggle for technological leadership
by Ingo Schmidt
[This article published in December 2020 is translated from the German on the Internet, SoZ – Sozialistische Zeitung » Vierte industrielle Revolution.]
COVID-19 has given digitization a powerful boost. Since the first lockdown in March, sales and profits of online retailers, led by Amazon, have skyrocketed. IT stock prices are reaching record highs.
Computer skeptics have defected in droves to the Zoomers and Teamsters. The aspirations of economic and political elites for a fourth industrial revolution driven by artificial intelligence are fueling mass fantasies of technological liberation of man from mundane problems - but also leading to fears of job loss and total control. No coincidence that COVID-19 deniers view Bill Gates as an evil conspirator. Artificial intelligence, supposed triumph of a rational development, is at the same time a driving force of irrationality.
Man-Machine: Déjà vu
The idea that reason makes it possible to escape from self-inflicted immaturity and liberate people from an oppressive workload is not new. In the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, intellectual workers gave it scientific and artistic expression. But it was not until the Industrial Revolution in England in the late 18th century that the replacement of human labor by machines became possible on a significant scale. The small number of people who could afford the cost of producing these machines became industrial capitalists in the course of the 19th century. They ruled over the simultaneously emerging industrial proletariat in Western Europe, North America and Japan, as well as over sales markets and sources of raw materials overseas. An increasing number of those whose livelihood as farmers, craftsmen or merchants had been ruined by industrial capitalist competition also emigrated there. Many of them hoped to escape their existence as industrial proletarians by emigrating. In the end, the ranks of the latter were replenished again and again solely by the gradual replacement of human labor by machines.
For many, the promise of liberation from oppressive workloads turned into existential angst and new forms of workload. If many human movements were also taken over by machines, the more effort was expected from the remaining workers in the remaining activities - at the lowest possible wages. The threat of losing one's job in the next wave of rationalization lent weight to the expectations of capitalist bosses.
The pattern in rationalization was always the same: breaking down complex work processes into small steps, which were often repeated by individual workers, but could eventually be taken over by machines. When propagandists of a fourth industrial revolution emphasize learning machines as one of their characteristics, they are wrong. Machines have always embodied what people have learned about their work processes and gradually left to machines to carry out. Their design, initially accomplished mostly by manual tinkerers, was increasingly taken over by professional researchers, engineers and technicians. No one embodied the, and sang the high song of technical progress as loudly as they. From individual machines and their interconnection by central drive systems to the introduction of the first industrial robots in the 1980s, they analyzed work processes and reorganized them using new technologies - first on factory floors, then in offices as well.
The endless repetition of standardized activities of the hand and, since the introduction of the computer, of the head were the basic principle of the first, second and third industrial revolutions. In the course of these revolutions, the human workforce first became an appendage of the machines and, in part, a controller of more or less automated manufacturing and transport processes. The fourth industrial revolution, according to its propagandists, is different because humans no longer produce and program machines, but both are taken over by machines themselves. Machines will become self-programmers and self-supervisors. This is the promising message.
Bots* and jobs
So far, every industrial revolution has eaten its inventors and children. First, tinkerers were replaced by researchers and engineers. These used the knowledge of production workers about details of their handling of existing machines to develop new technologies. Each innovation needed specialists to monitor and maintain it, but it also made many production workers redundant. In the 1980s and 1990s, the media hyped the return of the tinkerers: garage entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. However, economic researchers soon found that these media heroes operated in the environment of government-sponsored basic research and needed significant amounts of money themselves from government pots and large private investors to propel their companies to market leadership. Along the way, they have beaten down countless startups.
Whether artificial intelligence will get to the point where adapting its algorithms to new incoming data will lead to the machine's independence from controlling human intervention remains to be seen. Excessive imagination is part of every wave of innovation and rationalization. After all, there are now sewing or textile bots. Cotton and wool provided the raw materials for the first industrial revolution, but the further processing of industrially produced textiles remained manual work. Considered unskilled by the male world, it was left to women - even at a time when workers in the automotive industry had to give up their jobs to the first generations of robots.
Only recently has it been possible to produce self-controlling robots that, like the human hand, can constantly adjust their movements to shifts and folds in the fabrics to be processed. Whether the use of textile bots on a large scale will pay off is still uncertain. But the fear that it might pay off will certainly be used by textile companies around the globe to keep the wages of female textile workers at their usual low level.
The combination of the latest information technology and low wages has long since become the digital capitalist norm. The rise of Amazon, Uber & Co. is inextricably linked to the expansion of a pre-existing service proletariat. The legal preconditions for work on call, short-term temporary work, completely or partially outside labor and social law protection were created during the time when the personal computer was considered the last cry of information technology. Moreover, the drastic cheapening of data processing and the simultaneous increase in corresponding capacities allow Amazon, Uber & Co. to monitor their employees in a way that earlier generations of control-minded capitalists could only dream of. The dream of today's e-capitalists, however, is not seamless surveillance, but the replacement of human drivers by computer-controlled self-drivers. The media are full of reports about self-driving cars. In the boardrooms of online, but also traditional commerce, they hope for corresponding trucks.
Made in China, Sweden or Finland
Self-driving vehicles are still a long way from mass production. But one thing is certain for the companies working on their development, as well as for all other companies more or less involved in e-business: the capacity requirements for data acquisition, transmission and processing continue to rise. The data highway must therefore be expanded. The technology standard envisaged for this is 5G.
Three companies offer the hardware and software needed to operate 5G networks in a single package: Ericsson, Nokia and Huawei. Ericsson and Huawei remind us that the small Scandinavian countries were home to internationally operating corporations early on. And thus showed that economic globalization and the expansion of the welfare state do not have to be contradictory. This was the argument of the neoliberal globalizers, who saw the progress of information technology as the second great equalizer alongside world market competition. Together, they would grind down disparate social standards, incarnations of protectionism in the neoliberal view, and create a world of freedom and equality.
In fact, the world is more unequal today than ever before. E-business has contributed its share to this, see the working conditions at Amazon, Uber & Co. Not to mention the conditions under which the raw materials needed to run these companies are mined and processed into the corresponding hardware. For this, China, which is mostly considered a mixture of early capitalism and one-party communism, has become a high-tech challenge. China supplies more than two-thirds of the rare earths needed to build IT components and accounts for one-third of global IT equipment production, but it has also become a technology leader in some areas. U.S. companies are still ahead in the development of computer chips, and they can contribute parts to 5G networks, but have had to cede pole position for the overall system to Chinese and Scandinavian competitors.
Ericsson and Nokia have to operate under the global market conditions that determine the world's big players. It's different for Chinese tech companies. Just like their U.S. competitors, Huawei, as well as online retailers and financial service providers like Alibaba and Ant, combine the power of corporations with that of the state.
Contrary to the high-tech and globalization fantasies of neoliberals, the power of states and monopolies has not been broken by world market competition and replaced by the free development of innovative garage entrepreneurs. Rather, innovations more or less directly promoted by the state have become the crystallization nuclei of new monopolies. New players have emerged with the Chinese competition, but the game has not changed significantly so far.
*A bot is a computer program that performs repetitive tasks largely automatically without depending on interaction with a human user.