Liberal Cynicism Is Crap — You Should Know It Is, and You Should Say It Is.

Dean Dettloff
May 27, 2016 · 8 min read

In a recent speech to SEIU workers in Detroit, Hillary Clinton referred to what she called “Trump Economics,” part of a campaign to combat Trump’s populism. Though Clinton admits Trump Economics are by definition obscure, at a campaign rally she highlighted Trump’s remarks made in a clip from 2006, with the then-speculative possibility of a housing bubble bursting, where Trump said he was “sort of hoping that happens.” Clinton went on to paint a picture of Trump as a heartless and ruthless profit-monger, cheering on the destruction of people’s livelihood in order to make a buck.

In short, this was Clinton’s thin version of class politics — Donald Trump, that 1% housing mogul, doesn’t care about you, the worker, the voter (or the voter who cares abstractly about workers). “And now [Trump] says he wants to roll back the financial regulations that we have imposed on Wall Street to let them run wild again,” Clinton continued. “Well I will tell you what — you and I together, we’re not going to let him.” And as she closed her talk with union workers in Detroit, a union that endorsed her candidacy, she affirmed “You are often unsung heroes. And I want you to know this: your fights are my fights.” Eligible voters of the US, unite!

The speech comes alongside an attack ad from Clinton, specifically targeting Trump’s anticipation of the housing crisis. In the 2006 remarks to which Clinton’s speech and ad refer, Trump says “Yeah, if it goes down I’m gonna buy … I’m a businessman, that’s what I’m supposed to do. If it goes down, it goes down. I feel badly for everybody. What am I going to do? It’s business!” Not missing an opportunity to strut his stuff, at an Albuquerque rally that was dramatically protested by opposition and more dramatically engaged by the police, Trump defended the comments saying “ I see this lowlife, she puts on an ad, did you know that Donald Trump was rooting against housing, because he wanted housing to go down, because he wanted to buy? And they have got some clip of me from many years ago where I’m saying, yes, if it goes down, I’m going to buy. I’m a businessman. That’s what I’m supposed to do. That’s what I’m supposed to do.”

Trump’s strategy was to remind Clinton that, yes, he is part of the capitalist class and, yes, this is how markets work. It might be sad, it might be troubling, but at the end of the day, if your wealth is in real estate and you’re in the right position, a housing bubble popping is a very exciting and welcome sound indeed. Trump doesn’t revel in the tragedy of the crisis. He simply recognizes it as a component in the game of speculative finance.

But while Trump wears his brutal capitalism on his sleeve, even fessing up to profiteering from suffering, Clinton keeps hers behind a cynical mask that obscures the extent to which she agrees with her capitalist competitor. What Clinton either doesn’t notice or fails to care about is that Trump was merely operating within the confines of the rules of a game that the neoliberal policies she advocates have framed.

Trump might have some perverse refusal to truly or deeply consider the fates of those whose losses will become his gains, but Trump doesn’t hide his practices (here, anyway) behind a campaign screen. Clinton, on the other hand, positions herself as a morally superior sensitive progressive, concerned about those who lost their homes — all the while refusing, herself, to truly or deeply consider the causes of those losses that became Trump’s gains. Premised as this latter refusal is on a message of care and solidarity, leading Clinton’s hearers to settle for the same ignorance as to the material conditions of the 2008 and other crises in capitalism, it could be that this is even more egregious than the refusal of Trump.

Ironically, Trump understands the situation much better than Clinton. When presented with an inevitable crisis in the market you might be participating in, you should seize that crisis — if you don’t, someone else will. And this is the profound danger of Clinton’s politics, namely, that it does nothing, really, to curb these habits, in fact ensuring that they continue, premised as they are on what David Harvey calls “flexible accumulation” in post-Ford capitalism.

The assumption of liberalism generally and Clinton in particular is that if capitalism is merely appropriately regulated, its worst abuses might be prevented while its best provision of opportunity retained. But this assumption fails to account for what Marx identified as the internal contradictions of capital accumulation, developed further by Harvey (transcript) with respect to the 2008 crisis.

As Harvey explains, the excessive power of capital (in contrast to the excessive power of labor vilified in the 70s by the Reagan-Thatcher wave) is at the root of the 2008 problem, encouraged by the move to accruing massive amounts of debt via credit in order to compensate for a consistent period of wage repression since the 70s— without money to buy goods, you don’t have demand, but instead of raising wages (thereby allowing capitalists to retain more profits) the credit economy took off, specifically in the housing market. Harvey goes on to explain how capital never respects a limit but simply turns it into a boundary to be circumvented, leading to the positing of new limits and new circumventions; in other words, to cut to the chase, there is a structural inability to solve the problem of recurring crises in capitalism (like 2008), because capital is unwilling to set and recognize limits as limits, instead moving them around and utilizing them as opportunities to empower financiers to greater levels of complexity — until, that is, they collapse on themselves.

Clinton wants to suggest that the Dodd-Frank legislation created in the wake of the 2008 crisis in order to reign in speculative banking, and a vague and general disposition against Wall Street abuses, are somehow enough to overcome these systemic, structural problems. But even in the heyday of at least American regulation in the early twentieth century, the crises came and went and came again, because the twentieth-century capitalist economy was not in fact reducible to (though it did indeed depend on) the actions of the state. It operated and continues to operate according to a logic of growth and speed, the articulation and circumvention of limits. The twenty-first century has only seen further independence for the global economy beyond local boundaries as it follows this logic. To simply point to Donald Trump as a dastardly and insensitive real-estate investor, as though Trump’s character had anything to do, really, with the abuses of 2008 is ignorant at best — pure cynical demagoguery at worst.

Especially troubling is that Clinton’s vision, whether authentic or cynical, that the weak intervention of Dodd-Frank (cf. Harvey) is something worth being proud of is the default position for most who take themselves to be on “the left” in the popular American imagination. During the #OCCUPY protests, for example, largely inspired by a reaction to the 2008 crisis and the failure to explore actually effective responses, liberals doubled down on their opposition to legitimate class consciousness and a willingness to consider the internal contradictions of capitalism, perhaps best exemplified by the “sobering” voice of The New Republic, which suggested that the Dodd-Frank legislation was at that time “the best liberal hope for improving democratically regulated capitalism.”

Well, they might be right about that — Dodd-Frank might be the best liberal hope — but that’s exactly why one should abandon liberalism and Clinton’s defense of it altogether, provided one really cares about the fates of people who live under a capitalist hegemony and are subject to the ebbs and flows of its crises. Dodd-Frank does nothing to stop the habits of capitalism, which not only make Trump’s attitude toward his 2008 opportunity incredibly reasonable but even laudable. That confidence in the Dodd-Frank “reforms” have won significant appeal as some victory for the left, even down to its defense in such media spectacles as Elizabeth Warren’s reaction to the feud between Trump and Clinton, shows the poverty of American political discourse in full.

If Clinton was truly outraged by Trump, it was not because he operated as a businessman (and, of course, it wasn’t much of a problem when Trump donated to the Democratic Party in 2008). It was not because he profited off Americans losing their homes and their retirement. It was not because he took advantage of a speculative bubble as a speculative investor. On the contrary, it was because Trump, in Clinton’s estimation, presented himself wrongly. The full aestheticization of politics is completely summarized in no one better than Hillary Clinton (even if, as I suggested elsewhere, the 2016 election is largely an advertising spectacle in itself).

Trump’s business decisions taking advantage of the housing crisis were a mix of opportunism and banking compromises, but he defended the action further saying “I am a businessman and I have made a lot of money in down markets, in some cases as much as I’ve made when markets are good. Frankly, this is the kind of thinking our country needs — understanding how to get a good result out of a very bad and sad situation.” Clinton and Warren both seized on the opportunity to say this is exactly the kind of thinking our country doesn’t need. But given their liberalism, are they really saying anything different? What were the post-2008 bailouts other than an attempt to get a good result out of a very bad and sad situation? Is the Democratic Party much more than “Trump Economics” with a human face? Is “Clinton Economics” qualitatively different from “Trump Economics?”

Yes, it was awful that Donald Trump “rooted” for the crash in 2008. But that’s because capitalism is awful — not because Trump is awful (even though, in case it needs to be said, he’s awful independently of that fact). And if Clinton, Warren, or, for that matter, Sanders (who touts a return to Fordist regulatory policies, making him a “democratic capitalist” much more than a “democratic socialist”) are unable or unwilling to grasp that in its entirety, then they, too, are advocating policies tantamount to rooting for people getting thrown out on the street (as Warren put it with respect to Trump). At least Trump owns and is proud of his garbage decisions. Clinton is building and maintaining the dump, expecting you’ll ignore that if she points out the trash. The question to pose to Democrats, now that the American public is starting to show a real interest in the machinations of capital, is “What are you going to do? It’s business!”

As Harvey says, “any sensible person right now would join an anti-capitalist organization.” And as he rightly observes, “I don’t see us debating and discussing this.” Even Sanders is not addressing, debating, or discussing these internal contradictions, for all the paranoia and praise of his “socialism.” Whatever happens in the general election, as long as it continues a refusal to discuss the problems generated, internally, in capitalism itself (no matter whether it’s regulated by Keynes or let loose by Friedman), I can see no other estimation of the whole political process in the United States better than Harvey’s: “ — it’s crap. You should know it’s crap and say it is.”

Dean Dettloff
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