The victory of Donald J. Trump marks a challenging moment in the transition from fossil-fuel driven economy to sustainable energy resources. The transition to cleaner power began to take shape at the end of the last century, coinciding with gathering international scientific consensus on climate change at the Earth Rio sustainable development conference in 1992. The neoliberal agenda of international “free trade” agreements propelled by the Clinton administration, while perhaps not intended, set in motion extensive global investment that has placed greater pressure on resources and increased carbon in the atmosphere, among other environmental concerns. At the same time as scientific research demonstrated that human activity since the Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century was affecting global warming, the neoliberal “free trade” initiatives led by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have allowed some of the largest U.S. corporations to ignore critical environmental concerns.
The scientific reports on global warming gave impetus to new initiatives in cleaner energy production. Free trade agreements pushed toward lowering trade barriers in the interest of increasing economic growth. These two developments reflected the historical dichotomy in the perception of government’s responsibility and role in the United States. Lowered trade barriers have had the effect of permitting the most well-heeled transnational corporations in finance and production to shore up their investments in traditional technologies, especially fossil fuels. To defend this position in the face of growing scientific consensus that human activity has contributed to the Earth’s warming trend over the last two centuries, private interests funded “science” that would, in effect, cast doubt – or simply deny – human impact on global warming and climate change. Together, these two developments are the critical political battle ground of the 21st century. The future of the planet and humanity, moreover, are literally at stake.
The November 2016 election to the U.S. presidency of a self-professed billionaire of patently unscrupulous character and business history has turned heads all over the world. In part, it signals that the U.S. transnational corporate class wants to manage the inevitable transition to cleaner energy through dismantling important environmental gains and opening the flood gates for investments already made in future exploitation of fragile ecosystems to profit from fossil fuel production, especially oil and gas. This is likely to have two devastating consequences: slowing down the conversion to cleaner energy alternatives is one perilous result. The other is allowing fossil fuel giants to take advantage of the greater profits yet to be made in producing and consuming fossil fuels in order to gain capital advantage and establish a preponderant investment foothold in the inevitable development of cleaner energy and its distribution.
Either way it is bad news for the quality of the global environment today and into the foreseeable future. Putting off reform of the capitalist economic regime will further degrade the global ecosystem and weaken the efficacy of green technology as disastrous ecological consequences outpace it. Continuing to pump vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, even in the short run, can only increase the warming of the planet. Global warming now threatens to break up the Antarctica’s glacial covering, contributing to rising ocean levels that will devastate island and coastal communities across the world. Perhaps even more alarming (if possible) is the thawing of the northern tundra that will release massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, likely advancing atmospheric feedback loops that may well speed up climate change. These developments will put our species and other fauna and flora species into greater climate jeopardy than already being experienced. Calamitous ecological events, moreover, will cost public and private treasuries enormously as they scramble to mitigate rising tolls in human deaths and suffering.
The Trump election also runs contrary to the professed democratic principles undergirding U.S. republican government. How could a country so advanced economically and scientifically, a country of such tremendous affluence and global presence, a people of democratic will, elect an anti-democratic, authoritarian megalomaniac to the U.S. presidency? Unfortunately the answer is largely due to the same forces that resist the immediate need for a fast-track conversion to cleaner energy sources. The commanding position in global finance, commerce and culture the U.S. has had over the last century has masked some of its greatest vulnerabilities. The most obvious vulnerability is that capitalism – by its need for constant growth in profits and exploitation of natural and human resources – is simply unsustainable. The skewing wealth curve testifies to this. If it were sustainable, significant portions of profits would be used by governments to meet the very real needs of people, here and abroad.
Trump’s election threatens to degrade the morale of the United States’ citizenry as well. He won enough electoral votes because his supporters, critically in the post-industrial states of the MidWest, believe that business moguls know how to create jobs. Trump’s pressure on individual firms may deliver some jobs, but they are likely to be in unsustainable industries, such as industries dependent on fossil fuels. It is doubtful that he will do little to counter the effects of so-called “dark money” hidden from public view (remember he has not released his own tax return) or slow down time-saving automation that structures workers out of the workplace without alternative training and support. Key nominations such as the Labor Department Secretary (Andrew Puzder) and Commerce Department Secretary (Wilbur Ross) are even against the existence of a minimum wage. The corporate class – while many in that class may not admit that they supported Trump’s bid for the presidency – nevertheless understands that it will benefit disproportionately from a Trump presidency. Climate change, ethics and morality aside, Trump’s policy direction is good business in the minds of CEOs in the financial world.
Stock markets responded favorably to Trump’s nomination of the former CEO of Exxon-Mobile (Rex Tillerson) as U.S. Secretary of State. Despite widespread popular rejection of Trump’s political ideas, business representatives across industries quickly covered his back. If Trump is willing to negotiate tax and regulatory issues, the future of corporate profits looks rosy. If Trump’s election fuels unsustainable growth and profits, as is predicted, then industry and commerce will be in a better short-term position to hedge against un-sustainability by acquiring stock in “greener” technologies.
This historical transition is fraught with unprecedented perilous challenges. Modern civilization is critically close to breaking down. The real challenge to our survival as a species is managing our global economic reorganization. This means that regulations need to be placed on corporations, not abandoned. Such wide-scale national economic reorganization requires public support. Only popular democratic pressure will tip the political scale toward a brighter future, jump-starting the transition from classic liberal economic thinking to genuine reform guided by humane principles and environmental consciousness. This transition can be jump-started for the welfare of the U.S. public and people across the world who look to the U.S. for such leadership. Though Trump’s election has given private transnational corporations – at least as seen in Trump’s rhetoric and nominations – the upper-hand in driving U.S. public policy in the immediate months and years, the need for social justice and economic sustainability will become more stark as raw capitalist motives push the world closer to conflict and degradation.
From the first urban cultures in the Fertile Crescent some eight centuries ago, the economic engines that drive civilizations have pushed humans into environmental and social crises. Some civilizations, certainly, were swept into dust by catastrophic geologic, atmospheric and astronomical events. Far more often their demise is open to question as scientific investigation in many fields reveals the complexity of social and environmental relationships. Academic and public debate continues, as it should.
But we do presently know that exploitation and degradation of natural resources often played a role in the decline of past civilizations. At least as importantly, we have known since the beginning of urban culture and record-keeping that civilizations generally have been ill-prepared for dramatic change, environmental or social. Preparation for managing the global economic reorganization without further imperiling the nation and the world requires progressives and leftists to offer the social vision and the specific agenda to mobilize society in the redesign of its productive capabilities and consumption patterns.
Capitalism – born two centuries ago – must be dramatically reformed. Public policies must push the needed reforms forward. The largest and most aggressive capitalists are well aware of how an informed and engaged U.S. public can overwhelm their recalcitrant concerns for private gain. The tough question the opponents of change face is: Can capital interests contain the broad public skepticism of its political institutions long enough to avoid the inevitable crash of a global economic system incapable of transforming itself in sustainable ways. Cynics and pessimists argue that capitalism has already caused devastating climate developments that spell doom for future generations. They seem to believe that they should profit from the capitalist system before it breaks down. Perhaps cynical millionaires and billionaires think that their wealth will enable them and their families to survive the coming global social and environmental turbulence. Whatever their motives, their regressive investment strategies stand in the way of a transition to more sustainable economic organization.
What is the basis of the logic that the corporate class uses to deter the needed economic changes? If there is a shared political motive among capital interests rallying since Donald Trump’s election, Milton Friedman outlined it in his 1962 landmark book Capitalism and Freedom. Friedman’s emphases on the “free market,” deregulation across private industry and monetary management of the economy influenced the so-called “free trade” or neoliberal policies growing from the Reagan presidency. In the Clinton administration it “free trade” was fully embraced and a major deregulation of banking (repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act that separated commercial banking from investment banking), ramping up the global economy and fueling broad financial speculation and its attendant instability. Donald Trump is using his election to the U.S. presidency as a means to apply Friedman ideas through nominations of global and national business tycoons in fossil fuels, anti-labor corporate leaders and climate change deniers. If we scrutinize these early and most significant cabinet and presidential advisory nominations, its is quite clear that Trump plans to lead the U.S. corporate community in the direction of market deregulation and rising profits by essentially regarding his election as a conservative corporate coup.
Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein (educated at the London School of Economics) characterized Milton Friedman’s ideas as they have been applied in various parts of the developing world as the “shock doctrine” ( The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism – 2007). Klein documents Friedman’s plan for economic prosperity as it was instituted under Chile’s Pinochet regime in the 1970s. Some economic growth was achieved but it proved a disaster for political freedom and local environments. In the meantime, foreign corporations were given greater latitude of investment in Chile and the military ensured that political dissenters were jailed or executed. It took more than a decade to find a way out from under the dictatorial regime. According to Milton Friedman’s convictions that economic freedom nurtures political liberties, this shouldn’t have happened. At the time of Pinochet’s takeover and the wholesale imposition of market deregulation and monetary management – i.e. the 1970s – Chile was considered the most democratic of Latin American governments, with a long history of peaceful political transition as well as having the greatest percentage of its citizens in the middle class than anywhere else in Latin America.
The Friedman formula in Chile led to deadly repression in the name of law and order. It also used obfuscation and lies to dismiss its critics and pursue its nefarious goals. Some scholars argue that similar motives and disinformation appeared in the United States in the wake of the destruction of World Trade Center in 2001. The Patriot Act and, most particularly, the deliberate misleading of the public on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction facilitated the invasion of Iraq and the privatization of its oil holdings under U.S. corporate management. The neoconservatives supporting this strategy, vice-president Dick Cheney most prominent among them, viewed the disintegration of the Soviet Union as an opportunity for the U.S. to advance its economic and political interests throughout the world. The invasion of Iraq set neoconservative political and economic objectives on course. Principal among these objectives was the privatization of Iraq’s oil potential and pursuit of a geopolitical strategy in concert with U.S. corporate agenda.
Later in the first two decades of this century, another corporate coup arranged the bailout of financial and other investment institutions. After banking deregulation signed by Bill Clinton, Wall Street financial management put the public interest and the global economy in grave risk through phony stock instruments, irresponsible hedging strategies and heavy speculation. Pension funds, municipal governments, whole nations and a large swath of middle class homeowners in the U.S. were led into these disingenuous investment schemes. Ultimately the public had to bailout the financial industry. As the government did so under the management of presidential appointees drawn from Wall Street, corporate strength in the financial industry became more consolidated. This is part of the reason so much wealth flows to so few; that the middle class lost a third of its wealth in the Great Depression; and that many – in a country with the largest GNP in the world – continue to live at the edge of or in poverty. These are the practical results in the United States (and the world) of Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman’s economic designs.
Wealth flows skewed in favor of the corporate class are only the beginning of a last ditch effort by corporations to profit and forestall inevitable reform of capitalism. Under a Trump presidency corporations stand to gain freedom from decades of regulations and social programs – inadequate as many were – that were instituted in the public interest: clean air and water standards, labor protections, voting rights, expansion of other civil rights, social security, health care, just to name a few examples. Trump’s nominations to his cabinet and his closest advisors are millionaires and billionaires with backgrounds in business. They are ideologues who benefit from the popular consensus that capitalism is good for the nation. What was once good is not always good, perhaps a philosopher might have said. History charts its own paths for sure, but we can learn from where we have been as a species. It helps us to make the necessary reforms. But private corporate interests, especially those heavily invested in earlier generations of technologies, are not really interested in reform, at least not until they can convert their existing capital into profits in the newer technologies and industries.
Returning to the potential for global environmental collapse hastened by Trump’s election as president, his nomination of reactionary political figures to high posts reflects a dedication to corporate growth and further environmental deterioration. One (Texas governor Rick Perry) who detests regulations of corporations will head of the Energy Department, if approved by the U.S. Senate. Another (Scott Pruitt) who doubts human activity contributes to climate change will be the leader of the Environmental Protection Agency. For Treasury Secretary Trump nominated Steve Mnuchin, an allegedly predatory finance-real estate mogul who was once a partner at Goldman Sachs. It is unlikely that Mnuchin, or the others, will advocate for government funding of greener energy initiatives.
While capitalist economic organization has been the most productive in the history of economic regimes, it has led to such concentration of wealth that it is presently a worldwide social liability. The acceptable extremes in social disparity have significantly expanded; actually the economic disparity of the last two decades has grown at the greatest pace in our nation’s history. In the United States – history’s most thoroughly capitalized society – institutions grudgingly accept change at best; usually they quickly justify the status quo and promote conservatism to one degree or another.
Here one needs to keep in mind the intellectual and institutional strength of liberal capitalism, the idea that the unfettered market sustains freedom, perhaps even gives birth to freedom. Its ideology fosters the notion that equal opportunity exists and that the institutions in a capitalist culture moderate change and peaceful transitions. Setting aside the unlikelihood that complete equality of opportunity could be established in a world where profits measures rule, it is easy to see that large capital interests have almost always sought “economic freedoms.” The corollary to the expansion of corporate rights is the loss of popular political participation and social rights. Everyone, from the slums of Calcutta to the tony estates of South Hampton, knows that economic wealth generates political influence. At some point, when the bogus argument that it does not becomes frayed enough, people will be able to see this common equation.
Wealth concentration, as mentioned earlier, saps the public of its will and ability to manage the direction of the economy. Historically, wealth was already becoming concentrated as early as the early 19th century. The populism of Andrew Jackson in the 1830s emerged to slow down the growth of urban-based financial domination. Today similar divisions along geographic and class lines are even more entrenched from a national to a global scale. According to French economist Thomas Picketty in his 2014 critique of capitalism in the 21st century (Capital in the Twenty-First Century), this has been facilitated as profits have grown faster than gross domestic product (GNP) on a world scale. This is nowhere more fully documented than in the United States.
As a result, increasing amounts of money must be spent on commercialization, identity and branding. This development thrusts us into a future that we must carefully manage. Without a radical restructuring of our economic way of life our species is moving toward extinction. Also earlier asserted in this essay, the capitalist economic regime requires growth in economic extraction, production and consumption to sustain and justify its existence. At the same time, the increasing fragility of the planet and the predatory behavior of nativist populism for private gain will lead to opportunities to critique and ultimately re-engineer government at local, national and international levels. Moving toward extinction is the not the same as extinction. Now that we recognize that species extinction is possible it allows us opportunities to avoid it.
Yes, geological and biological events of the magnitude that lead to climate change reach a critical mass or an algorithmic convergence that disrupts the course of planetary evolution. It has happened many times in the geological record of the Earth, the most famous of which was likely of extra-terrestrial origin some 65 million years ago. This is generally thought to have ended the age of the dinosaurs, giving small mammals who subsisted on seeds the opportunity to evolve into the myriad species of animals, including humans, on the planet today.
Scientists now believe that climate change can happen more quickly than previously thought – perhaps in a matter of a few years or a decade of dramatic global environmental events. In the past humanity’s great urban cultures and civilizations have encountered less extreme planetary changes but its social systems have nevertheless disintegrated or devolved into less complex ones when these challenges arose. This occurred at the end of the Roman imperial period when a series of droughts across Eurasia over a few centuries contributed to migrations of agrarian peoples outside and even inside the realm of Roman civilization. The center of the Roman civilization could not contain the forces unleashed by the environment and its social consequences.
All fallen economic regimes, furthermore, may have contributed in some way to the environmental changes that led to their own demise. These civilizations exploited too many natural resources and institutionalized so many forms of social injustice that the prevailing political economy could no longer contain the conflict of values and economic practice. The individual acquisitiveness of those in power and those who benefit from the wealth extracted from the natural environment and the labor of common working people simply overwhelmed the will of the privileged minority to do anything about the excesses and injustices. As these historical transitions unfolded into new economic organizations or regimes, the institutions of the old economic order rigidified and elites retreated to past arguments and measures to hold onto their privileges, just as they do today. The most privileged classes can almost always be expected to deploy every weapon at its disposal (e.g. propaganda, repression, even war) to maintain and even extend their privileges.
The thesis of this essay is that the old ideas of unfettered capitalism and liberal political and economic justifications of it have become obvious liabilities to the survival of the species and the planet as we know them. Intensified migrations, nationalism, nihilism, endemic war and fascist tendencies can only be mitigated by a social vision based on meeting human needs worldwide. Political tendencies will emerge from the fault lines of the present objectification and commodification of culture driven by capitalism. In addition to relying on political repression and threat of war to protect their interests, those in the corporate class will continue to employ identities of social construction (such as “race,” nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender and other cultural expressions and institutions) to divide the majority and attract the public to its populist appeal.
In the United States the corporate elite – ushered in with the Trump victory – will pursue a military build-up and try to cement alliances among elite classes across nations to defeat the radicalized elements of the discontented masses. At first, only a very small minority of the masses will turn to millennial messages and movements, such as ISIS and other atavistic ideological campaigns have already done. But, as the privileged international elite target the “malcontents” with their considerable war machines, they will kill many innocent people. That war has been going on for some time, but a Trump presidency is likely to raise it to a dangerously high level. At a certain point – through a combination of failures to bring about just economic development and massive killings of innocent people – the elite will lose its moral standing.
As the moral moorings of the corporate elite strategy weaken, there will be multiple directions in which global society can move. It can become even more polarized, giving advantage to the elite to extend its privileges. Or a new paradigm can coalesce around the emerging blocks of people who reject the idea that just economic sustainability can be achieved only through market economies, trade wars and military competition and conflict. It is, at this moment, that a social vision and a materialist-based political program can rapidly gather supporters among the public.
New tendencies within existing political parties and in those outside the mainstream parties will be in a position to exploit the fault lines of conservatism and anti-progressivism. Conservative ideas and institutions will appear increasingly unjust. If an alternative socialist vision with a specific programmatic agenda emerges at this time, it will quickly gain adherents. It must address human needs and rights including health care, social security, infrastructure improvements, free education through community college, significantly higher minimum wage, jobs and job training. Climate change will need to be framed as an opportunity for new, green industry and employment as well as building a better future for our children. Studies have shown that conversion to a greener economy is possible and economically beneficial across classes. Such an appeal will be so profound that it will have the chance to renew a spiritual connection to the planet itself. As a result, there will be opportunities for masses of people to coalesce behind this new agenda and its political agencies.
In the meantime, significant protest demonstrations will occur against Trump. Progressive Americans must join in street demonstrations on a massive scale. These actions must be under the banner of opposition to the powerful elite and their corrupt institutions, not simply against Trump. These demonstrations will need to take place across the states in the United States and in the federal capital of Washington, DC. Other nations will also amplify their opposition to the global status quo and the institutions that maintains it. Mass demonstrations will likely ignite spontaneous forms of resistance to the disingenuous ideas and the failing justifications of the elite.
If the progressives and radicals do not take advantage of these opportunities, then – like other civilizations throughout history – social and environmental conditions will deteriorate and deprivation and violence will become pervasive. Intercontinental migrations will vastly increase.Violent social and economic effects will become inevitable. Perhaps smaller pockets of human beings will survive the global crises and reconstruct fragmented societies and culture. At this point the words of Irish poet William Yeats will loom more prophetic than ever:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
(from “The Second Coming” – 1919)
It is up to us to learn from history and embrace the critical moment. These times are charged with volatility and our species and the planet are at stake. Acts of protest and massive demonstrations will multiply; it will not always be peaceful protests and demonstrations but peace must be at the center of the popular struggle. Non-violent confrontation with power brings injustice, corruption and excesses into sharp relief. The political left in the Democratic Party could play a role in this, especially at the local level, if they ally and strategize with groups on the left, including environmental activist groups like Greenpeace, socialist political groups, radical economic institutes like the Hampton Institute, and working-class organizations that support collective ownership and other community initiatives. Thus, when the brittle nature of the present capitalist economic regime and its institutions begin to crack, the political left will be ready to emerge through those fault lines with a healthier vision for ourselves and our planet.