Next term, I am planning to use selections from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire in Shimer’s senior capstone course, and yesterday I spent some time working through the text. Part of my motivation in using it is obviously its contemporary relevance in the Trumpocene — something that many others have picked up on, particularly given the uncanny coincidence that Election Day was (at least by some reckonings) the Eighteenth Brumaire. As the apparent coiner of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Sarah Palin, I felt I should weigh in on this important cultural reference.
Aside from the fact that Trump is as ridiculous and incompetent as Louis Napoleon, I think the core parallel between the two events is that each exposes the truth of the state in their respective eras. For Marx, Louis Napoleon exposes the fact that the bourgeoisie cannot coherently wield the power of the state, which stands as a power over against them. In our era, I would suggest that Trump exposes the limits to the neoliberal state, which tends to become a purely coercive apparatus whose sole goal is to guarantee capitalist profitability. The fact that Trump’s instinct for cruelty finds such easy outlets — above all in brutalizing immigrant populations — is evidence of this truth, and the fact that he can use the state as a platform for his petty resentments and crackpot schemes demonstrates that there really is no “there” there. The fantasy of the Deep State filled with principled public servants serving the public good is precisely that, a fantasy. To the extent that the American state apparatus ever had something like the public good in mind, that ethos has been systematically destroyed. Trump’s open profiteering is one logical endpoint of the development that has been underway since Reagan and even before.
Even “progressive” neoliberalism is caught in this bind. Obamacare is exemplary here, as its key innovation was to expand access to health care by coercing people into supporting the profitability of the hated private insurance companies. From one perspective, their profits were capped by the law; from another, they were encoded as an entitlement. The other two prongs of the attack were to coerce private employers into providing health insurance (unless they were not large enough to do this while maintaining profitability) and to strongarm the states into expanding Medicaid (which has increasingly become a disciplinary apparatus rather than a public support program). Seemingly the entire thing was engineered to prevent the direct provision of health insurance by the one level of government that was in a position to finance it. And when the Great Recession backed Obama into a corner, forcing him to use Keynesian stimulus techniques, he tried to render it as invisible as possible — providing “stealth” tax cuts that people wouldn’t notice (ostensibly so that they would spend it routinely rather than treat it as a windfall) and financing only “shovel-ready” projects that had already been planned. It’s as though the fact that government spending could be directly beneficial was an embarrassment that must be hidden from the people — presumably because awareness of the possibility of collective economic action independent of “the market” would undercut labor discipline and the profitability of capitalist firms.
My hope is that the lesson we can draw from the Trump era is that the left will give up the easy opposition between “the state” and “the market,” as though it is inherently progressive to favor the former over the latter. Trump shows that there is no inherently progressive impulse behind state power — perversely enough, we must now look to the corporate world for any institutional progressive gains in the coming years. A real transformation will not consist of favoring one side of the state/market, political/economic dyad over the other, but by refusing the distinction and rethinking from the bottom up the form and goals of the institutions we need to organize our collective life.