As always, the Trump administration was pasted across the news this week. The main story was the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on border crossings and the widespread practice of separating families trying to cross the US-Mexico border without authorization. But there was another, and I would argue related, story worth noting.
The United States also withdrew from the United Nations Human Rights Council this week. The current Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, called the council “a cesspool of political bias.”
Her main gripe, it seems, was the council’s many criticisms of Israel, though she raised some other issues as well. I don’t think her reasons are worth taking too seriously. The current National Security Adviser, John Bolton, has long criticized the Council on Human Rights, along with the entire United Nations (most pointedly when he was the Ambassador to the United Nations under the Bush administration).
The move simply points to the further consolidation of right-wing forces in the Trump administration, and a policy (if we can call it that) of petulant grandstanding against international institutions (most of which the United States not only helped create but also overwhelmingly benefits from).
The timing is interesting though, notwithstanding the clear violations of human rights on the U.S.-Mexico border, given that the Human Rights Council recently released a report on poverty and human rights in the United States.
Philip Alston, the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, even got into something of a sparring-match on Twitter with Nikki Haley over the report, seemingly prompted by a letter US Senator Bernie Sanders sent to Haley that criticized some of her statement regarding the U.S. withdrawal from the Human Rights Council. Haley has since responded to Sanders’s letter, saying that poverty and inequality are not political issues (a point the report strongly disagrees with).
The full report is worth a read if you have the time (you can download it here, click on the link at the top right). The report shows in clear and convincing detail the breadth, depth, and pervasive cruelty of poverty in the United States.
One of the summary paragraphs hits the point home:
[The United States’] immense wealth and expertise stand in shocking contrast with the conditions in which vast numbers of its citizens live. About 40 million live in poverty, 18.5 million in extreme poverty, and 5.3 million live in Third World conditions of absolute poverty. It has the highest youth poverty rate in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the highest infant mortality rates among comparable OECD States. Its citizens live shorter and sicker lives compared to those living in all other rich democracies, eradicable tropical diseases are increasingly prevalent, and it has the world’s highest incarceration rate, one of the lowest levels of voter registrations among OECD countries and the highest obesity levels in the developed world.
The report goes on to note that the United States has the highest level of income inequality among Western countries, and the recent tax bill passed by the Republican-controlled Congress will only worsen the situation.
This paragraph sums up this state of affairs:
The share of the top 1 percent of the population in the United States has grown steadily in recent years. In 2016 they owned 38.6 percent of total wealth. In relation to both wealth and income the share of the bottom 90 percent has fallen in most of the past 25 years. The tax reform will worsen this situation and ensure that the United States remains the most unequal society in the developed world. The planned dramatic cuts in welfare will essentially shred crucial dimensions of a safety net that is already full of holes. Since economic and political power reinforce one another, the political system will be even more vulnerable to capture by wealthy elites.
A few other interesting findings from the report.
First, persistent discrimination, unsurprisingly, means that women, people of color, and American Indians suffer most from poverty. But the report makes clear that poverty is pervasive in American society, affecting everyone but the most wealthy. Even middle-class white workers face serious precarity in their lives and work, often living on the edge of financial ruin.
Second, the report also identifies the role of political ideology and public policy in obscuring the all-encompassing nature of American poverty. Many Americans see the social welfare system as rife with corruption, fraud, and free-riding. At the same time, politicians depict poverty as a crime and treat it largely by locking people up. When the system fails to physically hide the problem through incarceration, it paints the condition of poverty with a moralizing brush, pointing to a thin-veneer of criminality to deflect any real discussions about the United States’ exploitative economic structures and punitive state apparatus.
One of the report’s most biting paragraphs underscores the dispiriting disconnect between poverty in the United States and many Americans’ views of the poor:
In thinking about poverty, it is striking how much weight is given to caricatured narratives about the purported innate differences between rich and poor that are consistently peddled by some politicians and media. The rich are industrious, entrepreneurial, patriotic and the drivers of economic success. The poor are wasters, losers and scammers. As a result, money spent on welfare is money down the drain. If the poor really want to make it in the United States, they can easily do so: they really can achieve the American dream if only they work hard enough. The reality, however, is very different. Many of the wealthiest citizens do not pay taxes at the rates that others do, hoard much of their wealth offshore and often make their profits purely from speculation rather than contributing to the overall wealth of the American community.
Third, and crucially, the report maintains that the problem of poverty is a political one. Not only do political choices exacerbate the condition of poverty in the United States, but they also undermine the everyday practice of democracy. In a vicious cycle, economic inequality forces more and more people into poverty while at the same time, creating an opening for wealthy elites to exert greater influence and control over the political system, a key mechanism that in different hands could be used to reduce poverty and inequality.
The overall result is a thoroughly unequal and undemocratic society in which many live in deprivation and squalor, a precious few live on the edge of it, and a tiny elite plays the latter two off each other while they enrich themselves, undermine the political system, and spoil the planet.
So what does all this have to do with the Trump administration’s cruel and unusual policy of separating families on the border? More than it might seem, I think.
One debate since the last presidential election has centered on the question of whether or not Trump represents a decisive break with the past or simply more of the same. I think both of these positions are inadequate. It might just as well be the case that the current moment represents a specific historical configuration of both ideas. The relationship between a general deepening of poverty and inequality and the specific policies pursued on the border provide a useful way of making this connection.
As the United States’ hegemonic position in the world capitalist system began to decline in the early 1970s, domestic policies increasingly turned to austerity and punishment to mitigate its effects. Those policies were the expression of an elite class project (pursued by segments of both parties) to beat back labor, rip-up an already threadbare social-safety net, and use greater force at home and abroad to shore up declining profits, secure new avenues of capital accumulation, and contain anti-systemic movements.
Trump, his administration, and his policies are just one especially virulent expression of this right-wing revanchism, what Vijay Prashad calls “cruel populism.”
The Trump administration is working to construct a hegemonic position organized around economic nationalism and ethnic cleansing. One distinct aspect is the performative cruelty that attends certain policy decisions like the separation of families at the border. And I don’t think we should take this as mere performance.
Vanity Fair recently quoted an outside White House adviser saying that Stephen Miller, the chief architect of this policy along with Jeff Sessions, “actually enjoys seeing those pictures at the border. He’s a twisted guy.” Contrast that with the supposedly “compassionate conservatism” of the last Bush administration.
The policies pursued on the border speak to one aspect of the turn toward neoliberalism (and particularly the austerity policies that followed on from the 2008 financial crisis), namely–the dramatic expansion and intensification of the national security state.
At the same time that the state has increased its capacity to manage the population through surveillance and force, it has lost the capacity to augment the population through the social welfare system designed under the New Deal Order (i.e. enforced capital-labor truce, military Keynesianism, direct social investment, albeit racialized and feminized in important ways).
The result is a basic inability of the ruling class to either overcome the crisis of profitability or to effectively manage the state. The only thing left is austerity and policing (whether at home or abroad).
Alex Vitale’s recent book makes a fairly convincing case that much of the violent excess of policing today has resulted from the fact that a withered welfare state has forced police to manage more and more aspects of society. The U.S. military presence across the Middle East and North Africa make this clear as well. Absent any achievable political or military goals, what is the work of the U.S. military other than policing unruly populations?
Similarly, Sam Moyn’s recent book shows that the for the last forty years, the transnational capitalist class has been working to blow the ceiling off inequality while it rips the floor out from under the people relying on already meager social welfare systems. The Trump administration, it would seem, is just deploying a particularly cruel strategy in a longer struggle to shore up capital and elite rule amid hegemonic decline.
Ultimately, I think this strategy might call for using the state as a strategic mechanism to stop the bleeding and help build a path to a different future.
I’m no more sanguine about this proposition than I’ve been since coming to political consciousness. But when you consider that Trump is holding the door open for the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation to take over government and work to immiserate wide swaths of the population, winning state power seems a necessary tactic alongside mass mobilizations against these same policies.
The cruel populism of the Trump administration also suggests the left has to combine a robust strategy of social welfare with a commitment to anti-racism. More than mere principle, it seems necessary to short-circuit the hegemonic discourse of economic nationalism and ethnic cleansing. But then again, what do I know?