The Washington Socialist <> April 2017
By Austin Kendall
For socialists of a certain persuasion, Trump’s taking of the White House offered the possibility of shattering liberals’ illusions of the neutrality of the state. When the White House is held by a capitalist, and the outcomes for business are not much different from when it was held by career politicians, liberals might realize that the state was held by capitalists all along.
New information rarely changes subjective political judgments, but experiences sometimes do – so perhaps experiencing a capitalist directly heading the state, as a new experience for many, will create the subjective conditions for the realization that we are governed by a capitalist state. This realization would be invaluable to the revolutionary left, as the working class has become atomized in local battles with business enterprises, without adequately contesting the state’s political power in upholding the social relations that allow for capital accumulation.
But how do we help folks to realize that what is indeed a capitalist state under Trump was always a capitalist state? One tactic is by finding instances of outrage with Trump qua capitalist, and look deeper to see how the problem has roots in non-capitalist presidents due to the essential nature of the capitalist state.
One of the clearest and most visible instances of Trump using his power as head of the state to benefit capitalists is his reopening the review of the fuel economy standards for automobiles set by the Obama administration and heads of automobile capital. Effectively doubling fuel economy by 2022-2025 would require costly investment by automobile capital, such that lessening or canceling the Obama standards would eliminate investment costs for automobile manufacturers. In other words, Trump is very clearly attempting to cut costs for automobile capital, and at the expense of everyone else who must suffer through the scarcity of resources and habitable land that global climate change guarantees.
This is clearly an outrage, particularly to people who think the state can make neutral judgments on the interests of capital and labor, because in this instance the state obviously should not side with capital. It is important to stress to such persons that the reason that the Trump regime’s attempt at loosening the fuel economy standards might succeed is precisely because of the contradictions that emerge from a capitalist state regulating production and the resulting capital accumulation. That is, the Obama-era regulation might be reversed precisely because of the state’s material history of bolstering capital accumulation as a capitalist state.
The bourgeois-liberal media has reassured liberals that it will be difficult for new EPA chief Scott Pruitt and Trump to ease the fuel economy standards because the US has entered into agreements to decrease emissions released into the atmosphere. But therein lies the problem. After Trump won the election, Obama sped up a mid-term EPA review of the industry meeting the standards. The Obama EPA ended the review early, finding that automobile manufacturers were on track to have the technology to reach the standard, but very crucially, that the US was not on track to reach the decreased emissions goals set by COP21[BM1] [BM2] , the Paris climate accords of 2015.
It is thus with some justification that the Trump EPA is reopening the review that Obama hastily closed -- we are not on track to meet the emissions reductions the US agreed to. But perversely, it is precisely the fact that we are not on track for emissions reductions that gives the Trump EPA the legal opening to reduce the fuel economy standards. In order to reach the required emissions reductions, much higher fuel economy standards will be necessary, which automobile capital can decry as requiring investment that is too onerous for it to afford. This could create the opening for new negotiations on fuel economy standards between heads of automobile capital and a sympathetic Trump/Pruitt EPA.
We must be very clear why the US is not on track to meet its emissions reduction agreements: an incredible number of high-emissions SUVs and pickup trucks were sold in the US, many more than had been anticipated when the standards were agreed to, and this was only possible because the US state, as a capitalist state that guards the interests of capital investment and accumulation, bailed out the auto industry after it had doubled down on product lines that buyers could not afford.
Automobile capital played a risky game of building big, expensive, gas-guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks (profit margins are wider than from sedans), which sold so long as consumers had easy access to personal credit lines. When the financial crisis of 2007-2008 hit and easy credit dried up, no one could afford the damned behemoths, but the state backed up the capital invested in what would otherwise be unprofitable business lines and injected American automobile capital with money. As I argued elsewhere [BM3] at length, the crisis gave the state’s authority to a violent restructuring of automobile capital through the shedding of unprofitable lines, contracting out of automobile parts development and production, and the enforcement of incredible wage and benefit concessions on workers. In short, the high emissions emitters were unaffordable, and automobile capital’s ability to reproduce and expand itself through these product lines would have been impossible without the state rescuing it and giving it the political cover to cut wages and close plants. SUVs and pickup trucks would not have sold at the number they did if the state had not protected the interests of capital investment and bailed out the American auto industry so they could make more high-emitters.
The fuel economy standards of the Obama administration might indeed be reduced by the Trump administration because of the state’s responsibility to protect capital accumulation, and the resulting contradictions that were created by indirectly limiting profits.
As Chris Harman put it, “just as the individual capitalist can choose to enter one line of business rather than another, but cannot avoid the compulsion to exploit and accumulate in whatever line he goes into, so the state bureaucracy can move in one direction or another, but cannot ignore the needs of national capital accumulation without risking its own longer term future. Its ‘autonomy’ consists in a limited degree of freedom as to how it enforces the needs of national capital accumulation, not in any choice as to whether to enforce these or not.” (Zombie Capitalism, 2010)
The Obama and Bush administrations enforced the needs of national capital accumulation by bailing out American automobile capital, and the Obama administration enforced national capital accumulation in a different way when it negotiated fuel economy standards with automobile capital – it directed more “green” investment. But requiring substantial investment in “green” technology is still the enforcement of particular directives for capital accumulation, such that these investment directives were always open to revision by an administration with different inclinations. The state serves capital, so it should be no surprise when the state substitutes one directive of investment for another, even when the original, replaced directive lessened the chance of the extinction of the human species.
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