One of the curious concepts in a crisis is the way in which the ‘old rules’ don’t so much not apply, as seem actively turned upon their head.
We’ve seen this, just these past few days, in the European Union – wherein Germany’s pirouetted from being the most trenchant possible supporter of the (Common) Market Uber Alles for much of the past decade, and particularly as applies Mediterranean members of the Union and the borderless movement of peoples within the Schengen area … through to its more recent enthusiasm for locking down its borders and endeavouring to prohibit German private enterprise from exporting vitally needed medical products to Italy.
Yet European Union hypocrisy is nothing new nor especially remarkable. An escalating crisis was always going to place some considerable strain upon the ideological adherence to principles which didn’t make sense for many member nations and their populaces even in the ‘peace-time’ of relative calm.
What’s rather more interesting are recent happenings within American politics – wherein we’ve witnessed an almost lightning-speed enactment of that famed maxim so often misattributed to Gandhi : “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”.
Consider the case of Andrew Yang. A year ago, he was virtually unknown even inside politihack/beltway circles. He’d gathered a small but enthusiastic following in the memeosphere thanks in no small part to his UBI concept – the so-called “Bag” of a thousand dollars a month to every ordinary American adult.
For the first year and a half of his candidacy (he filed to run on the 6th of November 2017), both he and his signature policy were either ignored or just flat-out derided. As he made his way further into the secondary-shade of the side-of-stage spotlight, the mockery only intensified. It didn’t matter that he’d put together a frankly impressive case for his vision in book form or via a string of alt-media appearances. What he was selling was too far outside the ‘acceptable’ and the reasoning for his cause – while intellectually understandable by anybody capable of thinking a few decades into the future – seemed too remote, so far abstract in concept as to basically be science-fantasy for many.
A situation deliberately not helped by various political commentators and candidates going out of their way to vocally disparage or more subtly insinuate against him and his Bag as he gradually began to gain more prominence.
In fact, he wasn’t even just derided as an also-ran by a number of his fellow Democrats. He began to be presented as almost actively dangerous in a not entirely dissimilar manner to the DNC Establishment’s take on Bernie Sanders – somebody pushing an ideological platform that the Republicans would rip apart come November as barely-reconstructed post-Soviet “socialism”. Or something.
But, like I say – in a crisis, the ‘old rules’ don’t so much cease to apply as they quite rapidly appear to be turned outright upon their collective head.
It was therefore only slightly surprising to hear that some on the American right wing of politics had started to see the sense in Yang’s UBI proposal once the threat of Covid-19 became more pronouncedly apparent. To be fair, they were simply picking up upon something that Democratic Congresswoman (and fellow Democratic Presidential aspirant) Tulsi Gabbard had put into her proposal for a Corona virus response package – a UBI to assist ordinary Americans through the crisis, rather than simply shoveling money into top-down stockbroker-caste oriented ‘stimulus’ in the vague hopes that the rising tide of customary platitudes would somehow lift all boats.
That didn’t necessarily mean that the entire spectrum of American politics had suddenly shifted upon the issue, however – and it was frankly astonishing to see GoP guys like Mitt Romney come out in favour of the full-scale UBI proposal (at least for the duration of the crisis), and find themselves effectively opposed by Democratic darlings like Kamala Harris (who belatedly wound up engaged in a bidding-war of a sort, attempting to argue DOWN the level of the benefit should it be put through).
Yet the real head-turning was still to come.
Donald Trump, the same man who just a few days before had been castigating Bernie Sanders as ‘crazy’ for being a “socialist” [or, in rest-of-the-world terms, a relatively moderate social democrat] put forward his support for … well, let me put it this way. He hasn’t just supported the rollout of a short-term UBI (something I’m suspecting even a few weeks ago many Republicans would have castigated as “far left” “failed economics” “welfare dependency” or something had anyone else done it), a suspension of housing evictions and foreclosures, or a notable expansion in leave entitlements and other workers’ rights as a result of the crisis …
… he’s actively invoked the Defense Production Act, a piece of Korean War era legislation itself consciously enacted as a resurrection/continuation of the FDR-era full-scale Government-directed mobilization of the American economy and society in order to establish and maintain a war footing. As in, a total-war footing, not the general war-for-fun-and-profit skirmish-level stuff by comparison that America treats, quite literally, as “business as usual”.
What does this mean? To put it quite simply, the President is now in Command of the U.S. Economy.
As in, subject to the conditions of the Act, the President now has the legal power (and, in fact, legal duty) to direct the allocation of resources in relevant sectors, and under terms dictated by the state. To be sure, the bits which would enable the institution of price and wage controls are rather less available for use than they were in 1950 (as they’re no longer a Presidential auto-power under the Act, but require Congressional approval); and similar legislative lapsing has meant that the previous ability to nationalize businesses and even entire industries, is now commuted down to the mere ability to make them offers they are literally (with the exception of the production of biological or chemical weaponry, except if the President specifically demands it) not allowed to refuse.
Or, phrased another way … all of that “crazy” “Socialism” which the Republicans have been up in arms about all these years, has just in legal principle come back out of the Cold [storage].
If you were being coy about it, slash you were in the unenviable position of being a Trump-associated or Fox-appearing spin-doctor, you’d counter-claim that the state having the ability to command (not just regulate – command) economic activity and dictate to private enterprise isn’t “socialism”, with the maintenance of contract and private exchange meaning that capitalism is still in force in Corporate America. And this is not incorrect, in much the same way that notionally private enterprise in post-Deng People’s Republic of China makes it a somewhat pantomime market economy.
Although given the way the Trump Administration’s taken to using the word “China” over the past few years, they’d probably not appreciate that as a talking point.
In any case, in their hearts of hearts (insofar as they may have them – probably in jars on shelves in their crypts/offices somewhere), the right-wingers of America who’re fundamentally OK with what’s just happened because it’s Trump doing it rather than an openly centre, centre-left, or *gasp* self-declared “socialist” … are probably psychologically adjusting to it because they never really believed in the downright libertarian “free markets and free men” claptrap anyway. [I’ve often, as an aside, noted that that’s exactly the wrong way around as a statement of priority – free markets and then, almost as an after-thought, free men; but, then, with some Hannah Arendt in head and positive freedom as a concept in mind, I’d probably argue that “free markets and free men” is a contradiction in terms anyway. But then I digress]
Instead, the same mouths which so aggressively decry the American equivalent to the “Nanny-state”, are actually quite enthused about all manner of social and economic control elsewhere. They’d like to think of it, no doubt, as the Stern Father State instead.
Although the typology for most of them that instead comes to mind – for me, anyway – is what somebody once declared to be the “Rich Uncle State” [as in, more removed and less compassionate or caring than a direct parent, and mostly concerned with moralizing at you except where it benefits them personally. The example given being regulating and shaming the sexual conduct of young women via a combination of direct laws and related constraint of funding for medical elements that might be thought of as relating to same … except when said Rich Uncle State-eers are the personal beneficiaries of the conduct in question, of course].
So how does this pertain to Trump? Well, while he’d previously seemed at least vaguely amenable to Steve Bannon’s proposition to recongeal the Republican Party as a Workers’ Party (seriously – that was his vision. Maybe Republicans as gun-toting “socialists” isn’t just something from the Spanish Civil War after all), following the latter’s ouster, a lot of that seemed to be on the back-slide; sacrificed ‘pon the altar of “progress” for measures more popular with the business class.
That created something of an ‘opening’ over on the relative (and I stress the relative) left of the American political spectrum, for the Democrats to try and reconnect with the ordinary people they theoretically already represent; which was largely, predictably, squandered in earnest in favour of chasing after other priorities – but nevertheless DID manage to further empower a formerly fringe candidate by the name of Bernie Sanders, amongst others.
This may or may not have amounted to anything come November, but then this sudden onset of Crisis emerged; and Trump found himself in the ineluctable position of having spent the past few weeks conspiciously talking down as a non-issue and non-event, something that had just swallowed most of the stock market gains made during the course of his presidency in a matter of hours, and devoured a $1.5 trillion dollar directly-aimed Wall St rescue package for a between-courses additional-appetizer.
What could he do? What should he do? Avoid at all costs being known as a Herbert Hoover in the early phases of the Depression, or more pointedly perhaps – a Nero at the Fire of Rome.
Net result? We now have Trump taking the concept of the “Imperial Presidency” to a whole ‘nother level and openly pushing policy-planks that the Democratic establishment (ever mind the Republicans) would have (in fact, were) attacked as absurdly left, just a week or two ago.
And being actively cheered for it by much of ‘right wing’ America, because at the end of the day, everything in their (and most other) politics is made up and only the sports-team branding actually seems to matter. It’s probably not even a case of “only Nixon could go to China” anymore.
It has been suggested that for many a key narrative player in public life – you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. In Trump’s case, pending how well the rest of the Corona / Covid-19 response goes of course, it’s possible that he’s avoided (politically) dying a Nero – and may yet see himself live long enough to become a Patrician.
And who knows. I’m a little surprised to find myself saying this – but if it leads to a genuine and maintained shift away from the neoliberal economic perversity of modern American socio-financial life, particularly as applies the beginnings of a genuine UBI … maybe that’s not an entirely terrible thing. Certainly, his continuing to do worse-than-nothing could hardly be something to be welcomed.
Oh, and speaking of “heroes” and complexly curving narrative arcs … where is Andrew Yang now?
Being requested by the White House to go along and help them with the rollout of their UBI effort.
It’s not how he intended to get there, of course; yet less than six weeks after he suspended his Presidential campaign, Yang might yet find himself and his concept the ‘hero we need’ right now, all the same.