Seeing Through the Platitudes of Biden’s Neoliberalism
In a prime-time address to his country, President Joe Biden acknowledged that Americans are “owed nothing less than the truth” about when life under the Covid-19 pandemic will get back to normal. And the truth, he says, is that the only way to regain normality is to beat the virus.
But that’s like boasting you’re going to be completely honest while confining your honesty to the stating of a tautology or a platitude. “You can trust me because I’m going to level with you: two and two make four. Also, the sky is blue.”
Americans Against their Government
Biden wants to reassure the public after the loss of faith in American government due to Donald Trump’s four years of kakistocracy. Thus, Biden said, “We need to remember, the government isn’t some foreign force in a distant capital. No, it’s us, all of us, we the people.”
Yet Americans could be forgiven for dismissing that palaver. After all, as USA Today reports from 2019, “The typical congressional representative — including both senators and House members — has an estimated net worth of over $500,000, or roughly five times the median U.S. household net worth.” Moreover, “The high net worth of American lawmakers is partially attributable to their annual salaries of $174,000, which is more than triple the average wage across all American workers of $51,960 and higher than the median earnings of even the highest paying jobs in America.”
Meanwhile, as a NY Times report shows, the average American is struggling to make ends meet, because wages haven’t kept up with living costs. Median income growth has remained virtually flat since the 1990s, whereas healthcare, housing, and education costs have risen. (Housing costs tanked during the Great Recession of 2008 but are back up and rising.) Corporations have evidently reserved most of their profits for the new American aristocracy who make up the wealthiest ten percent of the country’s population. As a result, many Americans have resorted to falling into debt to maintain the appearance of prosperity.
Also, many American voters no longer pick their political representatives, as you’d expect to happen in a functioning democracy. Instead, with gerrymandering and voter suppression, Republicans in Congress especially find they can select their voters, as you’d expect to be standard in something closer to an Orwellian dystopia.
Republican policies no longer speak to most Americans since they’re meant to provide excuses for monarchy, plutocracy, or some other reversion to the natural, mammalian default in which only a tiny elite is permitted to flourish. So that party cheats at the national level to compete with Democrats for the presidency. Rather than being accountable to the majority, Republicans insulate themselves by turning out an increasingly radicalized base of rural supporters, taking advantage of the unrepresentative Electoral College.
That base of Republicans has become so blind to the craziness of its paranoid Trumpian cult that many of them are openly in support of insurrection — not for “regime change” against a foreign dictatorship, mind you, but for armed revolt in the United States, as happened in the storming of the Capitol, which capped what David Frum called the “Trumpocalypse.” How else can these radicalized libertarians, trolls, and Trumpians expect to be politically relevant in the United States when they have no hope of convincing the other two thirds of Americans that their cherished convictions from Fox News aren’t retrograde and preposterous?
Either way, this would make for minority rule, whereas President Biden thinks he’s levelling with his audience by reassuring them that the government is just “us, we the people.”
Back to the Norm of Neoliberalism
Biden thinks he’s reassuring the country with his slogan, “America is coming back.” This slogan assumes that Trumpism was an aberration rather than a reaction to the neoliberal norm that elite Democrats prefer. Indeed, much of Trumpism was evidently a bad faith, white supremacist reaction to Barack Obama’s presidency, but some of it was also proof of a nihilistic grudge against the establishment for having rigged the economy against the middle class.
If Biden is bringing the country back to where it used to be — since Biden’s a responsible politician, unlike his predecessor, the bizarre narcissist — that means the Democrats will be up to their old tricks of triangulating with the lobbyists for the corporate sector and selling out the working class.
The return to pre-Trump normality will mean progressives can experiment with woke solutions to First World problems like intersectional feminism and systemic, metaphysical racism. Those pyrrhic victories are granted on the condition that progressives have a hand in preserving the economy as a laissez-faire experiment that entrenches the power of the superrich who run the latest monopolies, and that threatens everyone long-term with global warming, cultural infantilization, and the automation of labour.
Indeed, judging from his choice of cabinet members, Biden’s set to win some symbolic victories for progressives while leaving the monopolists and their lobbyists and neoliberal functionaries to run the economy into the ground until it’s time for the next socialist bailout, as happened under Bush and Obama in 2008.
According to a NY Times report, “There is no one yet in Mr. Biden’s cabinet carrying the torch for the policies that he campaigned against during the primaries: free college for everyone, a costly Green New Deal, an anti-Wall Street agenda, universal health care and steep increases in the minimum wage.”
Thus, the progressive manager for Bernie Sanders’s campaign is reported as saying that the danger is that “Mr. Biden does not pay sufficient attention to the struggle of working-class people, whose fortunes have declined under the economic policies of presidents from both parties.” Moreover, “a return to the Democratic status quo, before Mr. Trump’s presidency,” isn’t enough.
Similarly, Republicans have waged culture war against communism and (real) democracy at home and abroad, and against intellectualism and expertise, feeding its base sugar pills and symbolic victories to distract from the parasitic nature of the American economy that’s been protected by both parties since the 1980s.
Perhaps this explains why the Republicans don’t fear Biden’s unifying, platitudinous rhetoric, and why not a single Republican voted for his $1.9 trillion stimulus package. Certainly, these dynamics account for how ex-Anti-President Trump was only ever a caricature of what most Republicans had already partly become: saboteurs of democratic government to prevent the return of a counterweight against the selfish and short-sighted struggles in the rigged capitalist marketplace.
Republicans aren’t interested in helping mainly the poorest Americans, because Republican ethics boil down to social Darwinism: the majority must languish to make the wealthy minority feel dominant. And Republicans know that although Democrats have a different brand, consisting of proprietary rhetoric and personas, a return to the Clintonian gambit of capitulating to big business to enable symbolic, token victories for progressives in the field of simulacra known as “the culture war” ensures that Republicans will get from Biden what they really want.
No Republican compromise is necessary because Biden’s already moved to the center on the only issue that really matters to Trumpian Republicans, which is the preservation of American plutocracy.
Radicalism, Supervillainy, and Enlightenment
As safe and responsible as Biden’s presidency seems compared to that of his unspeakable predecessor, Biden mustn’t have the substance of a true American hero. Indeed, because Trump was more like a supervillain than a functioning president, he was paradoxically more heroic than a neoliberal, status-quo-preserving politician like Biden (or like Barack Obama or Bill or Hillary Clinton). In the comic books, both superheroes and supervillains are extraordinary figures; effectively, these higher classes of heroes and villains dramatize Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the Ubermensch, for young people’s consumption.
The idea goes back to Gnosticism and to ancient platonic contempt for the vulgar blindness of the masses. Most people are trapped in a playpen for adults or in a cave that mesmerizes its prisoners with noble lies. Only intellectual elites can penetrate those platitudes and speculate about how things really work.
Such philosophy, such love of knowledge more than popular opinion alienates the elites from conventional society, putting those elites beyond the mundane choice between what the exoteric, mainstream religions call “good” and “evil.” The elite outsiders become heroic ascetics, artists, or revolutionaries on the one hand, or dictators, fraudsters, or cult leaders on the other: real superheroes and supervillains.
Thus, President Biden can be expected to seem more heroic than he can afford to be. In so far as he represents Democratic normality rather than a radical break from neoliberal politics, Biden can tell the public only so many unvarnished truths. He can make a show of feeling your pain, like President Clinton did, but Biden can’t speak to the real meaning of Trump’s anti-presidency or to the Democratic Party’s original sin of triangulating and compromising even with an increasingly lunatic fringe that’s taken over the opposing party.
Meanwhile, Trump the supervillain has burst the bubble. Not by anything resembling philosophical acumen, but by sheer force of his antisocial personality disorder, the abomination of Trump’s mock presidency which desecrated American norms proved to the country and to the world that most Americans have been living in that glorified playpen. The American Dream, technological progress, the booming stock market, the stage-managed political pageantry, the baubles and spectacles proffered by the entertainment industry — all of this led ironically to:
- the US version of a neo-fascist, anti-modern Taliban known as Trump’s Republican Party
- the despoliation of the biosphere.
But because we have so many toys to distract us in our postindustrial playpens, we haven’t bothered to look out at the unsettling world beyond, to reflect on the philosophical questions that might prepare us for what’s to come — again, not until a supervillain took the stage in lieu of a real American superhero, and not until that supervillain knocked down the guard rails and let the childlike trolls storm the high places that are supposed to be run by adult statesmen. That outbreak of treason, useful idiocy, trolling, and narcissistic infantilism should compel even those who aren’t interested in philosophical meta-questions to recognize the clash between reality and all our petty, feel-good fictions.
It wasn’t just the Republican politicians gaslighting their rabid, “base” constituents; the Clintonian, centrist Democrats were doing so to theirs. Both parties taught their voters to accept the strengths and weaknesses of their self-destructing capitalistic economy. Trump came along and turned the whole affair into a vulgar reality TV show. But wasn’t it such a show all along, at least since the collapse of 1960’s radicalism? Hasn’t Trump inadvertently enlightened us about the nature of centrist American politics, precisely by denigrating the norms without shame?
When the ancient Greek king Antiochus IV placed a pagan altar in the Jews’ holy temple, he radicalized Judaism, beginning with the apocalyptic Book of Daniel which calls that act “the abomination of desolation.” That desecration forced Jews to search for a larger perspective to regain their respect and to see where they really stand in relation to powerful foreigners.
The humiliation helped to wake them up.
After Trump’s comparable desecration of the White House, then, the question is whether Americans will be content with President Biden’s soothing lullabies, or whether they’ll wake up and confront their unsettling reality.