Trump plays silly buggers with trade.

It’s hard not to think of Trump as either silly or cynical.  His economic nationalism is skating on very thin ice and is impossible given the current state of capitalist industry and finance in the world today. Trump should know that capital has long considered national borders as an inconvenience, an opportunity to make more capital, but certainly not as impenetrable walls. His own campaign material was printed in China. His ‘Make America Great Again’ hats were made in China. What the hell is he thinking? It may be that he doesn’t care a wit about any of this because nationalism and flag waving are big sellers in the US. If enough Americans buy into his strategy, if in fact he has one, he can safely ignore his anti-globalist stance in practice and get on with making more money for himself and his cronies. He promised Appalachia that coal would return. It won’t. Empty promises don’t matter, it seems. China and Canada are mean and unfair to poor little USA. ‘Yes! That’s right!’ shout his acolytes. Blame others, that’s it. The people will lap it up. As long as people believe him, Trump feels safe. That would make him the consummate cynic. Do you buy into the idea that Trump knows exactly what he’s doing? His popularity is slowly waning however so he had better watch his ass. Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I want to repeat here what I’ve written before, at least in its essence, elsewhere in this blog (among other places). Yes, I will be repetitious in this post, but only because sometimes repeating a message over and over again is the only way to get through to some people. Of course the people I would like to convince to look more deeply into Trump’s politics are not likely to read this blog. Research, science and thoughtful criticism are not where they turn to for ideas on current political affairs. Belief is enough for them, heart and feeling trump brain. Because Trump is so high on America First, I want to outline some ideas that have been kicking around for centuries about the relationship between countries and capital. Where do American corporations fit into Trump’s world of international trade? Where do international industrial practices, just in time production, export processing zones and globalist production, distribution and consumption fit in Trump’s world? Who knows? However, I don’t think it matters much because capital is bigger than Trump and bigger than the American political system. Capital will eventually eclipse all politics and we’ll be left with who knows what. That may be the end of our tenure on this planet. I have no idea. The problem is that we are such a species full of contradictions. We can do amazingly wonderful things then in the blink of an eye turn into murderous butchers. But back to my point. There is a ton of books that have been published in the 19th, 20th and now in the 21st century about the relationship between countries and capital, but they haven’t seemed to have convinced most people that countries are no longer the repositories of capital and haven’t been for a couple of centuries. Most of the books and scholarly articles I’ve read, and I’ve read dozens on this subject, are clear that capital has long since eclipsed countries as the seat of political economic power. Barnet and Muller in their book Global Reach: The Power of Multinational Corporations from 1976, the year I entered graduate school, argue that of the 100 most powerful economic entities on the planet, 49 of them were multinational corporations (MNCs). I’m sure that ratio is now even more skewed towards MNCs than it was then. I suggested earlier in this post that I was about to write about capital, so what am I doing writing about multinational corporations? Well, MNCs are the seat of capital, the embodiment of what capital means and stands for. They are the crystallization of capital, the vehicles for the generation, circulation and consumption of capital and ultimately its concentration. It might be informative at this stage to define what I mean by capital. I’m not going to do that except to say that capital is the means of creating and re-creating wealth although people commonly equate capital with money. Actually, Marx defined capital in the 1860s with his book, Capital. If you want to understand capital, read Marx, then read some more. A recent book by Thomas Piketty (2017) called Capital in the Twenty-First Century, takes up Marx’s challenge and does a fair job of it. His argument carries on where Marx left off. He clearly documents how capital has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of just a few corporations and individuals (the 1%) over the past three centuries. It’s been a slow but inexorable process. I’ve already argued in this blog on several posts that countries were a creation of capital to start with. ‘Modern’ capital was initially dominated by merchant capital, think Christopher Columbus, (starting in the 11th Century and even before), was replaced eventually in the mid 18th Century by industrial capital, think Wedgwood, then in the late 19th Century by finance capital, now, of course, think Rothschild and Goldman Sachs. That doesn’t mean that all forms of capital haven’t survived, it just means that the dominant form of capital has changed over the decades. In the face of the persistent and overwhelming power of capital, countries went from being somewhat independent political entities with more or less functioning economies to essentially servants of capital and managers of the working class. It didn’t happen overnight. It’s a process not an event. As Harold Innis (1894-1952), a political economist and professor at the University of Toronto, wrote in the 1940s, politicians rely on national statistics to support their power. The Canadian government collects national statistics and ostensibly relies on them to make political decisions. Stephen Harper did not like Statistics Canada because it often reported in ways he did not approve of. Innis knew that national statistics were often a sham and he said so. Think of this possible scenario: General Motors sends a car it assembled in Oshawa to Michigan. Stats Can considers this a transaction that needs to be reported under the heading: international trade. Or this: Canada’s petrochemical industry is overwhelmingly owned by American companies. They ship their product along their pipelines from Canada (Alberta) to the US for refining. That is international trade. It strikes me that if we want to get a grip on how ‘our’ economy works we need to abandon our traditional way of collecting statistics or we must at least map out how large multinational corporations do business across borders. William Carroll at the University of Victoria studies international supply chains. His work is illuminating, but the situation is changing so rapidly it’s hard to keep up. According to the Office of the United States Trade Representative:
  • U.S. goods imports from China totaled $505.5 billion in 2017, up 9.3% ($42.9 billion) from 2016, and up 57.3% from 2007. U.S. imports from are up 394% from 2001 (pre-WTO accession). U.S. imports from China account for 21.6% of overall U.S. imports in 2017.
These are impressive statistics, but what real story do they tell? Well, for one, when the Trade Representative notes that ‘imports from China account for 21.6% of overall U.S. imports in 2017, does he include iPhones in that calculation? Apple assembles iPhones in China via a contractor called Foxconn. Foxconn has plants all over the place, not just China and parts for iPhones may very well come from Thailand or the Check Republic. Is an iPhone a Chinese product considered an import from China? China has established social processing zones also known as export processing zones (EPZs) where foreign corporations like Apple can come and set up shop without paying all those annoying local taxes while, in many instances, ignoring health and safety regulations and paying very low wages. Some of these EPZs are huge encompassing whole cities and surrounding areas. EPZs exist in many parts of the world we used to call the ‘Third World.” They are where our toys, clothes, and a myriad of other products are made and/or assembled. All of these products are ‘made’ by American or Canadian manufacturers, who now maybe should be called importers, but they still call the shots in every way. The automobile industry assembles cars here and there but the parts come from all over the globe. Engines can arrive at an assembly plant in Québec or Michigan ready to be dropped into a car, so are all drive train parts. Body parts can be pressed in Mexico and batteries can also come from there. There is no such thing as a “Canadian” car. Trump either knows this and doesn’t care or has it in for the  auto sector for some reason. I wonder if Trump has done the political economic calculus on his tariff plans for the ‘Canadian’ auto industry or if he just wanders off flying by the seat of his pants making decisions that are clearly arbitrary. It’s been well established that putting tariffs on ‘Canadian’ cars will put a significant dent in the profits of American car companies. Trump doesn’t seem to mind. Maybe he thinks it’s fake news. Some people have argued that Trump is just trying to force American corporations to manufacture their products on American soil. The fact is, that horse has already left the barn and there’s no way of getting it back, even if plants could retool. It used to be that the Ford plant in Dearborn, Michigan imported from around the US and abroad all the raw materials required to build a car, manufacture the parts and assemble the cars on site. That is no longer the case and hasn’t been since the creation of shipping containers and the need to acquire parts more cheaply than possible from American sources only. ‘American’ cars are manufactured all over the world. Capital, like the weather, ignores borders. We live in a global world with a global economy. The existence of nation-states or countries is still a fact because taxes need to be collected and passed on to the corporations and workers need to be managed. So far, it seems better to do that locally than globally. That may very well change and there are signs that it is. Trump’s Americans are not happy about the decline of their precious country, but their world is not contained within their borders and the sooner they realize that the better.

Escape 14: Promise me immortality and I’ll kiss your boots.

Escape 14: Promise me immortality and I’ll kiss your boots.

 So how did we go from creating inequality just on the basis of personal qualities to what we have now?  In present times, in lots of ways it isn’t even people who we bow down to it’s capital.  That’s how abstracted from the original basis of inequality it’s become.  Chapter 4 of EFE is called The Evolution of Inequality and that’s what it delivers.  The next chapter brings us closer to the present, but for the moment we must stay with primitives for a while longer.

Once men consented to live by the redistribution of life’s goods through a god figure who represented life, they had sealed their fate.  There was no stopping the process of the monopolization of life in the king’s hands.

 Actually, this quote, although representative of part of the thesis of this chapter only reflects the trajectory in broad terms of the creation of ‘organized’ inequality and the development of classes.  In early primitive societies there was a basic equality.  Yes, some individuals were superior hunters and received prestige because of it but there was a mutual support system built into this arrangement.  The gods provided life and the society provided prestige for the gods or their intermediaries, the priest-rulers who fancied themselves capable of harnessing the power of the sun to benefit the society in question.  Early on there were people who commandeered the ritual techniques of manufacture and demanded that people followed them precisely or else death and destruction would follow.  Most Indiana Jones movies are based on this kind of scenario.  People weren’t necessarily happy about giving up some of their own power to the king or ruler, but they were willing to put up with a certain amount of tyranny if the harvests were good.  If not, one consequence was often the violent deposition of the ruler.  ‘You deliver, or else.’  Still things are never simple or straightforward everything considered: people like to be cajoled and seduced into following.  They don’t want it to be simply a question of force.

…men will not give in to power unless it is accompanied by mystification, as in the service of something that has a grander aura of legitimacy, of symbolic compellingness. (p. 58)

 So, eventually, after a period of thousands of years through the power of mystification and a good measure of coercion humankind moved from a simple system of sharing to one of redistribution by the ruler.  Slowly, without noticing it, people bartered away social equality and some individual freedom for prosperity and order.

Once you went from an economy of simple sharing to one of redistribution, goods ceased to be your natural right.  (p. 58)

Here Becker uses the potlatch as an example of a situation whereby economic activity and social morality began to be disconnected from each other.  He calls the classic potlatch as practiced by the ‘Kwakiutl’ a redistribution ceremony pure and simple.  Huge surpluses were gathered and concentrated in the hands of the chief without creating severe hardship for the people then redistributed.  It created a situation where heroism and expiation could be exercised concurrently.  The more goods one could give away or destroy the more heroic he would be and the more power could be accrued.  Expiation came too because in giving away loads of goods, the chief atoned for the sin of accumulating the surplus in the first place.  Now the invisible powers started to take a back seat to the more visible chief.  Now we were witness to what Hocart calls the ‘growing conceit’ of man.  Communal ritual now replaces the ritual importance of the family.  The thing about the classic potlatch though was that it didn’t transcend the group.  The modern ‘potlatch’ whereby Ted Turner gives the  UN billions of dollars or public buildings are donated by the likes of Carnegie, Rockefeller or more tellingly, Telus, GM and Molson’s is good publicity but it’s giving but a tiny fraction of what was gotten by exploitation.

Escape 13: “…men fashion unfreedom as a bribe for self-perpetuation.”

Escape 13:  “…men fashion unfreedom as a bribe for self-perpetuation.”

 So, this is my 13th post looking at Ernest Becker’s last book Escape From Evil (EFE) published posthumously in 1975.  I’m taking a different tack from now on in these posts.  First of all, I’m changing the titles so that they always start with Escape, rather than Ernest Becker. I’ll start with a short quote from Becker’s EFE then put that quote into perspective and elaborate.  So far I’ve used sometimes long quotes from Becker so as to let Becker speak for himself.  As I said before, there’s no substitute for reading Becker himself, but this will hopefully tweak your interest in the subject of Becker’s work which can be summarized in this quote:

Each society is a hero system which promises victory over evil and death. [EFE 125]

Of course that promise is empty, always unfulfilled except temporarily, and brings with it astonishing pain and suffering to millions of innocent people, because more often than not evil and death are seen to have a face and that face must be destroyed at all cost.  This is exactly how Hitler thought of the Jews.  To him, the Jewish people presented a threat to the Aryan race.  Every Jewish face was a reminder for the Nazis of disease and death.  In the end, Hitler’s promise was a monumental con and he himself became the personification of evil and death for millions of people who vowed to destroy him even at the cost of their own lives.

But back to the quote in the title: “…men fashion unfreedom as a bribe for self-perpetuation.”  This quote is from the last paragraph of Chapter 3 in EFE called The Origins of Inequality.  In this chapter Becker tackles a basic fact of life in virtually all societies beyond the primitive.  Hunting and gathering societies had virtual equality, but even then there were people who stood out because of their prowess in certain things like hunting or healing.  Becker argues in this chapter that we are unequal in society because from the very beginning personal qualities gave rise to rank, power and privilege.  And those personal qualities were there for all to recognize.  Becker notes that a Sioux warrior announced by means of decorations on his moccasins how many horses he had captured, ‘enemies killed…etc.’  If a person is particularly good at hunting and consistently ‘brings home the bacon’ it’s hard not to see how all benefit from his skill.  He will always be rewarded and eventually the rewards become part of the structure of society.  This is the origins of the concept of hero.  As Becker notes “…he is the one who gambles with is very life and successfully defies death, and men follow him and eventually worship his memory because he embodies the triumph over what they fear most, extinction and death.” (p. 43)

So, we’ve always sorted ourselves out by personal characteristics, but Becker argues that the first real class distinction was between humans (mortals) and immortal beings which were not only gods, but ancestors and other fauna inhabiting the invisible world and played with human lives, or so the primitive thought.  What else was he supposed to think?  Without science, there was no recourse but to imagine or dream of what it might be that controls us.  So, class society began with the distinction between immortal and mortal.  It wasn’t much of a stretch then to see that heroes, because of their special skills might just have a special connection with the invisible forces that surrounded the primitives in their world.  Heroes were revered for their special gifts, but also feared because of their connection to the sometimes merciless and volatile forces that controlled life on this planet.

Once the ‘hero’ who was also the shaman and chief created the techniques of perpetuating his power even as he aged and became weaker the stage was set for society to have a structure of followship where the chief and shaman spoke for the gods and demanded subservience and tribute from the people.  “Who has the power to mystify?” (p.49)  Class distinctions have always been and still are sacred because they are all about the quest for immortality.  The leaders promise immortality or at least future prosperity and we sometimes gladly, sometimes reluctantly, surrender our own personal power.  We defer because we are promised immortality, we hold on to that promise with dear life and we bend to the wishes of the gods through their earthly intermediaries. We may complain now and again, but our first instinct is to submit.  Still, there are moments in history when our gods have abandoned us and that’s made it necessary to abandon their promises and adopt new, more powerful ones.

I haven’t been overtly critical of Becker yet in these posts but I must disagree with his analysis of Marxism in this chapter.  That won’t concern most of you.  Suffice it to say that his emphasis on the control of economic power by the elite is grounded in the humanism of a certain brand of Marxism and not of Marx himself whose analysis of class was purely historical and structural.

Ernest Becker 11: Bartering with the gods: You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.

Bartering with the gods: You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.

So, the forces of nature are pretty scary and can be downright devastating, mean and nasty killers.  What does a primitive to do in the face of such capriciousness?  Well, it’s always better to have something tangible to deal with so instead of thinking about the ‘forces of nature’ early humans created immortality projects that usually incorporated a god, or at least some kind of entity that served as a stand-in for those anonymous forces.  The forces of nature, gods, were obviously the source of life but they could just as easily be the source of death.  So a two pronged approach was required.  Gods had to be thanked for the bounty they provided, but they also had to be appeased in case they got pissed off at something humans were doing.  Humans were in debt to the gods all the time and paying off that debt was a constant preoccupation of primitives.  They were driven to accumulate a surplus so they could offer something to the gods and food was a logical choice.  Becker writes:

Food is a sacred element because it gives the power of life.  The original sacrifice is always food because this is what one wants from the gods as the basis for life.  “Give us our daily bread…”

And of course food is not just a physical thing.  After all, milk contains the essence of the cow, beef too.  Sharks fins are more than a delicacy for certain people, they embody the fierceness and boldness of the fish itself.  Maybe that fierceness and boldness gets transferred over in the process of eating the things.  So, giving food as a gift to the gods meant that you were also giving them mana power, “the strength of supernatural life.” (p. 39)

This is how we are to understand the potlatch giving and one-upmanship, the destruction of quantities of goods: the eternal flux of power in the broad stream of life was generated by the greatest possible expenditure; man wanted that stream to flow as bountifully as possible. It then became hard to distinguish who gave and who received, since all were bathed in the power of the movement: everyone participated in the powers that were opened up – the giver, the community, the gods.  “I give you power so that you may have power.” The more you give, the more everyone gets.

 Of course, we need things to flow, to move, to grow.  We get all bent out of shape when the stock market falls.  We need to keep the economy moving.  The magical free entreprise powers are working only so long as goods keep moving.  That’s why at every turn we are pressured to buy, buy, buy.  Buy anything.  Don’t have any more money?  Well then, borrow some, borrow lots.  If you don’t, prosperity will cease and the whole deck of cards will come toppling down.

Like the primitive, modern man feels that he can prosper only if he shows that he already has power.

 Giving gifts to the gods or the gods of your kinsmen Hocart sees as the origins of trade.  Of course the exchange was always a contest.  Who could give the most.  Who  had the power.  Who was obviously already favoured by the gods.  The more you could give, the more heroic you were.  The one who gave the most away was a ‘big power’ man.  Why, because everyone benefited if the gods were appeased and life flowed out of soil and there was plenty to eat.

And so, all this seemingly useless surplus, dangerously and painstakingly wrought, yields the highest usage of all in terms of power. Man the animal who knows he is not safe here, who needs continued affirmation of his powers, is the one animal who is implacably driven to work beyond animal needs precisely because he is not a secure animal.  The origin of human drivenness is religious because man experiences creatureliness. The amassing of a surplus, then, goes to the very heart of human motivation, the urge to stand out as a hero, to transcend the limitations of the human condition and achieve victory over impotence and finitude. 

 In fact, in primitive society, the greatest prestige went to the ‘big man’ who gave everything away and kept nothing for himself.  The ‘smooth flow of life’ had to be ensured.

This reveals a central fact about social life; primitive man immersed himself in a network of social obligations for psychological reasons.  Just as Rank said, man has to have a core psychological motive for being in a group in the first place, otherwise he would not be a group-living animal.  Or as Brown, who likes to call a spade a spade, put it, “man entered social organization in order to share guilt.  Social organization…is a structure of shared guilt…a symbolic mutual confession of guilt.” 

 What the hell!  What does guilt have to do with anything?  Well, stay tuned for the next post when we discuss the nature of guilt.  It’s a good one.