How neoliberalism prepared the way for Donald Trump, by Zygmunt Bauman

The eminent Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman died on 9 January, less than two weeks before Donald Trump’s inauguration. In this piece, he blames neoliberalism for abandoning the principle of equality in pursuit of freedom – and argues that Trump’s victory is the inevitable result of a popular craving for a ‘decisionist’ leader who will overturn the Establishment.


Donald Trump holds a rally in Mesa, Arizona, December 2015. Photo: Gage Skidmore via a CC-BY-SA 2.0 licence

I still vividly remember what fewer and fewer people, as time goes by, can and do: the names that Nikita Khrushchev, having decided to expose and publicly decry and condemn the crimes of the Soviet regime to prevent their repetition, gave to the moral blindness and inhumanity which was until then its mark: he called them “mistakes and deformations”, committed by Joseph Stalin in the course of successful implementation of essentially healthy, correct and deeply ethical policy.

In Khrushchev’s many hours-long speeches no room was found for a slightest suspicion that there must have been some inequity, indecency and immoral malignance with which that policy was from the start adulterated and poisoned; and which – unless arrested and thoroughly revised – had to lead to the now denunciated and decried atrocities. The system’s norm was presented and a series of blunders committed by one man, at best in cooperation of some others, also personally nameable.

I also remember vividly public reactions to Khrushchev’s revelations. Some people, brought up, drilled and groomed as it were under the wardenship of the Soviet Ministry of Truth, embraced and accepted, even if not without some residual unease, the successive proclamation from on high. More people cried, bewailing the historical drama of their lives for the second time – but this time degraded to the rank of (contingent, and surely unintended) gaffes and oversights of in essence unerring man of integrity pursuing an unqualifiedly noble goal. But most people laughed, though the bitterness in that laughter was all too audible.

I am not recalling all those (and after all, distant) events just because old people like me tend to be fond of, and addicted to, reminiscences – but also due to their eerie similarity to the reactions of the defeated and their sympathisers to the resounding drubbing administered to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party she represented, and the neoliberal policies they mistakenly conducted and promised to continue after their electoral victory. Even terms like “mistakes” or “deformation”, with the names of the culprits duly attached, are assigned in both compared reactions the role of paramount – sufficient and satisfactory – explanation.

Orban, Kaczynski, Fico, Trump – this is an incomplete list of those who have already managed or are about to make it – that is, to impose a rule that has its sole (and sufficient!) foundation and legitimation in the will of the ruler; in other words, to put into practice Carl Schmitt’s (once a pretender to the role of Adolf Hitler’s court philosopher) definition of sovereign power (see his Political Theology) as a “decisionist” rule. The list of those who watch avidly their audacious and brazen insolence, while full of admiration and itching to follow their examples, is lengthening – and fast. Alas, the public acclaim and demand for the first and for the second, and therefore for the principle of Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer put in words by Hitler in 1935 and into flesh promptly thereafter, is growing as fast – and perhaps yet faster. Until recently a supply market for would-be “one and only” leaders has turned quickly, and thus far unstoppably, into a market of demand. Trump became the President of the US because he made it clear to Americans that he will be that kind of a leader and because Americans wanted be led by a leader of that kind.

A “decisionist” leader needs nothing except an (spontaneous or contrived, voluntary or imposed) public acclaim to act. His decisions bear no other constraints – not even the one supposedly derived from and/or imposed by genuine or putative “higher reasons” or supreme, indisputable super-human commandments – as in the case of divinely anointed monarchs of the Middle Ages. A decisionist leader comes close to the absolute: as God in his reply to Job’s questioning, he refuses to explain his decisions and reject Job’s (or anybody else for that matter) right to ask for explanation and expect it to be given. The sole explanation the leader’s resolution required, and was owed to those affected and given to them, is the leader’s will.

The “certainty” of things important to life happening or not is the most avid of dreams dreamed by people harassed and oppressed by their uncertainty (though that certainty might also be, as William Pitt the Younger observed already in 1783, “the plea for every infringement of human freedom” and “the argument of tyrants”). Politics guided by the decisionist principle is the meeting point between the tasty arguments of tyrants and the ravenous appetite of their acclaimers. The new era of liberal democracy whose imminent advancement Pitt was one of the first to adumbrate was to be, we may say, dedicated to preventing such a meeting, for the sake of reason and genuine human interests, from happening.

In the course of the subsequent decades merging into centuries, law theorists and practitioners as well as philosophers of politics joined forces in order to achieve – and once achieved, safeguard – that purpose. To the pursuing of that objective was their thought and ingenuity deployed. The road to fulfilling the purpose (identified for all practical intention with the passage of power from the kings and princes to people) led in prevailing opinion through institutional measures: division between legislative, executive and judiciary sectors of power, simultaneously mutually autonomous and closely, intimately dovetailed – pressing them thereby to permanently engage in negotiation of agreement, while drawing away from the temptations of solitary, potentially absolute, rule.

That tendency was complemented by another – of more cultural than institutional provenience. Its manifestation was the slogan Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité promoted by les philosophes of Enlightenment and shortly later embroidered on the banners carried from one end of Europe to another by French revolutionary armies. Advocates of that slogan were aware that its three elements stood chance of becoming flesh only together. Liberté could yield Fraternité solely in company with Egalité; cut off that medium/mediating postulate from the triad – and Liberté will most likely lead to inequality, and in effect to division and mutual enmity and strife, instead of unity and solidarity. Only the triad in its entirety is capable to secure a peaceful and so thriving society, well-integrated and imbued with the spirit of mutual cooperation.

Whether explicitly or implicitly, such a stance came into close association with the “classic” liberalism of the next two centuries, which agreed that humans can be really free only on condition of possessing the capability of making use of their freedom – and only when both qualities, freedom and brotherhood, are obtained the true Fraternité may follow. John Stuart Mill drew from his thoroughly liberal convictions socialist conclusions; while Lord Beveridge, the moving spirit and agitator of universal welfare state in Britain (as well as the inspirer of the rest of European countries to follow that example), considered and presented the pattern he recommended as indispensable for the implementation of indubitably liberal ideals.

But to cut the long story short: neo-liberalism, now the hegemonic philosophy shared by almost the whole of the political spectrum (and most certainly the entire part classified by Trump and his ilk as the “establishment” earmarked for annihilation by the popular wrath and rebellion) distanced itself from its predecessor and indeed set itself in stark opposition by doing precisely what the classic liberalism fought valiantly to prevent while leaning over backward to reverse in case it was already done: and that by exiling the precept of Egalité – for all practical intents and purposes, from the three-partite compact of the Enlightenment’s principles and postulates – even if not always from its entitlement to lip service.

After thirty/forty years of undivided and not seriously challenged hegemony of neo-liberal philosophy in a country of great expectations and yet, courtesy of its neo-liberal rulers, also of their no lesser frustrations, the electoral victory of Trump has become all but pre-determined. Given the circumstances, to the mistakes and deformations eagerly searched or construed and so hotly debated by most of the opinion-makers were at utmost left the role of icing the fully baked (over-baked?) cake.

For the self-appointed carriers of great expectations and conquerors of great frustration, demagogues and haranguers of all brands, in short: personages proclaiming themselves and believed to be strong (wo)men whose strength is measured by their capability of breaking rather than observing the rules of games foisted and cherished by the “establishment”, their common enemy – those circumstances amount to a field day. We (I mean here and refer to people worried by their actions and yet more by their not-yet-fully revealed potential), are advised, however, to be sceptical about quick fixes and instant exits from trouble. All the more so for the options we confront under those circumstances having been drawn from the category of choices between a devil and a deep blue sea.

Shortly before his death, the great Umberto Eco drew in his brilliant essay Making an Enemy the following sad conclusion from his numerous studies of the matter: “Having an enemy is important not only to define our identity but also to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our system of values and, in seeking to overcome it, to demonstrate our own worth”. In other words: we need an enemy to know who we are and who we are not; knowing this is indispensable for our self-approval and self-esteem. And he adds: “So when there is no enemy, we have to invent one”. A codicil: “Enemies are different from us and observe customs that are not our own. The epitome of difference is the foreigner”.

Well, the trouble with a foreigner is that all too often he is indeed foreign – not just in the sense of obeying alien habits, but also – and most importantly – in that of residing beyond the realm of our sovereignty and so also beyond our reach and control. It is not fully up to us to make of such people enemies and put our enmity in practice (unless, of course, they cross boundaries with the intention of settling in our midst). If sovereignty consists in the “decisionist” capacity of acting solely on one’s own will, then many a foreigner is unfit to perform the role of a proper enemy according to Eco. In many cases (or perhaps in all?) it is better to seek, find or invent an enemy closer to home and above all inside the gate. An enemy within sight and touch is for many reasons more proficient (and above all easier to control and manipulate) than the seldom seen or heard member of an imagined totality. Already in the Middle Ages the function of the enemy in case of Christian states was perfectly performed by heretics, Saracens and Jews – all residing inside the realms of dynasties and churches by which they had been appointed. Today, in the era that favours exclusion over inclusion while the first (but not the second) is fast becoming a routine measure to which well-nigh mechanically to resort, internal choices assume yet more attraction and facility.

The most popular choice among the actual or aspiring strong (wo)men when it comes to the casting the enemy’s role (that is, as spelled out by Eco, to the processes of self-defining, integration and self-asserting) – indeed a fully and truly meta-choice, determining all other choices by association or derivation – is currently establishment: un-packable as a foggy and (felicitously for their choosers and would-be foot soldiers) under-defined collection of have-beens who outlived their time and are grossly overdue to be relegated to history and recorded there in its annals as an aggregate of selfish hypocrites and inept failures. In a simplified rendition: establishment stands for the repulsive, off-putting and unprepossessing past, and the strong (wo)men, ready to send it to the rubbish tip where it belongs, stand for the guides to a new beginning, after which (s)he who has been naught shall be all.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit. It was first published at Social Europe.

zygmunt baumanZygmunt Bauman was Emeritus Professor at the University of Leeds and one of Europe’s foremost sociologists. He was the author of ‘Liquid Modernity’ (Polity 2000) and many other books on contemporary society. Photo: Meet the Media Guru via a CC-BY-SA 2.0 licence.

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