Atheism / Christianity / History / Politics / Religion / Society

Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and the Crisis of Capitalism

22814293388_d311f82040_oStephen K. Bannon is a public figure shrouded in mystery.  He’s arguably the person most responsible for the Trump presidency.  He is to Donald Trump what Karl Rove was to Bush’s brain.  Being the executive chairman of Breitbart News and soon-to-be Counselor to the President, his impact on our culture is undeniable.

Yet, not only do we know very little about Steve Bannon as a person, and although he is at the forefront of potentially volatile and ascendant social forces, little is known about his vision for the future, which becomes an important question for the American people and the world in the wake of the 2016 US presidential election.

Some commentators are convinced the President-elect is Bannon’s puppet.  Prior to the election, billionaire Mark Cuban saw Trump’s rhetoric as part of a Bannon-inspired, cynical ploy to make money for Breitbart, a way to feed the lucrative social media outrage and hate machine, which to Cuban is Trump’s primary source of influence and power.  Whether that’s true is somewhat beside the point now that Trump will be President.  Their words and actions will no longer be confined to online echo chambers, as governing figures what they say and do will have real-world consequences for us all.

After being bestowed with his new presidential cabinet position appointment, Steve Bannon is suddenly a major topic of debate, rightfully so.  Many have been quick to label him a racist, a white supremacist, an anti-Semite, a politically-savvy conservative activist and propagandist.  Perhaps these are all true to some degree or another, and getting to the truth of these questions is essential if Bannon is to hold an important cabinet position.  However, particularly in light of the limited information available, I prefer to avoid moralistic pronouncements, which are more likely to stifle debate than further understanding.

Besides, with all the partisan claims and bad news floating around social media, it’s better to practice caution in the absence of sufficient evidence.  Luckily, a conservative friend of mine posted a Buzzfeed article on Facebook (where else?) titled “This Is How Steve Bannon Sees The Entire World.”  It’s a transcript of a 2014 Skype talk he gave at a conference on poverty hosted by the Human Dignity Institute at the Vatican.


Steve Bannon’s take on world history is interesting to say the least.  Being knowledgeable on the subject, I’d say he analyzes and interprets historical events in an overly-simplistic manner, devoid of nuance, blind to any context challenging his conclusions, which were likely arrived at prior to any reasoning on the subject.

In short, he’s an ideologue.  His primary Ideal is what he continuously refers to as the “Judeo-Christian West,” something according to his descriptions more mythological than actual, an identity marker and source of pride for the populist right, of which he is at the vanguard.  To Steve Bannon the forces of history are neatly categorized, unfolding in pre-determined stages, one giving way to the next, filed away under supernatural headings.  They are evidence of a mystical power, God’s hand.

Good vs. Evil.

The Good and Evil Angels Tate Blake

As with all ideological moralizers, Steve Bannon is of course on the side of Good.  From that perch, anyone he disagrees with simply becomes a denier of historical truths if not an enemy of God.

His utopianism, as expressed in this talk, envisions not only God upon a heavenly throne but an “enlightened capitalism” sitting upon a very earthly one.  No doubt the righteous are certain to make lots of money and gain tremendous power within Bannon’s capitalist paradise.  As always, they will yield such power with care, compassion, and a view towards what is best.

Granted, his audience here is the Vatican.

Bannon is smart to criticize capitalism, to call it out and to recognize its state of crisis.  The Vatican, under different Popes, has long provided harsh critiques of capitalism, of its tendency to put a price on everything, how it creates poverty and extremes of wealth inequality, of its soul-crushing materialism.

Bannon distinguishes three forms of capitalism, two in detail, the other vaguely.  He marshals critiques of what he terms “state-sponsored” or “crony capitalism” and (atheistic) “Ayn Rand or the Objectivist School of libertarian capitalism.”  Both are already rejected by most of his audience in the Vatican so I get the impression he’s pandering somewhat.  He then reveals his favored form of capitalism, “the ‘enlightened capitalism’ of the Judeo-Christian West.”

He never clearly defines or describes what he means by “enlightened capitalism.”  He comes close, constantly skirting around the answer, explaining it mostly by emotional buzzwords or by what it is not.

I think that you’re seeing three kinds of converging tendencies: One is a form of capitalism that is taken away from the underlying spiritual and moral foundations of Christianity and, really, Judeo-Christian belief.

I see that every day. I’m a very practical, pragmatic capitalist. I was trained at Goldman Sachs, I went to Harvard Business School, I was as hard-nosed a capitalist as you get. I specialized in media, in investing in media companies, and it’s a very, very tough environment. And you’ve had a fairly good track record. So I don’t want this to kinda sound namby-pamby, “Let’s all hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya’ around capitalism.”

[….]

Now, with that, we are strong capitalists. And we believe in the benefits of capitalism. And, particularly, the harder-nosed the capitalism, the better.

[….]

General Electric and these major corporations that are in bed with the federal government are not what we’d consider free-enterprise capitalists. We’re backers of entrepreneurial capitalists. They’re not. They’re what we call corporatist. They want to have more and more monopolistic power and they’re doing that kind of convergence with big government. And so the fight here — and that’s why the media’s been very late to this party — but the fight you’re seeing is between entrepreneur capitalism . . . and the people like the corporatists that are closer to the people like we think in Beijing and Moscow than they are to the entrepreneurial capitalist spirit of the United States.

Bannon’s message, while failing to detail in a clear and positive manner the meaning of enlightened capitalism, is certainly rooted in Christian sectarianism and Western cultural supremacy, as evidenced by his references to the Judeo-Christian West.

One thing I want to make sure of, if you look at the leaders of capitalism at that time, when capitalism was I believe at its highest flower and spreading its benefits to most of mankind, almost all of those capitalists were strong believers in the Judeo-Christian West. They were either active participants in the Jewish faith, they were active participants in the Christians’ faith, and they took their beliefs, and the underpinnings of their beliefs was [sic] manifested in the work they did.

The clumsy wording (what does it mean to be a “strong believer in the Judeo-Christian West”?) betrays a vague idealism and vulgar determinism where complex historical forces and changes are simply understood as inevitable products of superior and inferior cultures.

Furthermore, Steve Bannon is an outright enemy of secularism, which he mystically, without detail, ties to Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism.

The other tendency is an immense secularization of the West. And I know we’ve talked about secularization for a long time, but if you look at younger people, especially millennials under 30, the overwhelming drive of popular culture is to absolutely secularize this rising iteration.

Now that call converges with something we have to face, and it’s a very unpleasant topic, but we are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism. And this war is, I think, metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it.

These strike me as highly ideological claims.  They ignore the fact that over the last 250+ years the Western intellectual tradition has moved to be more secular and scientifically-based, less religious and faith-based.  Cultural Jews in the West have long been at the forefront of the secularization of society, from Freud to Einstein, Mahler to Dylan.  Simply put, the more secular and science-based Western society became – including Jews, capitalists, Christians, Muslims, atheists, and everyone else – the greater the broader social benefits enjoyed.

Science, not faith or prayer, has led to longer lifespans and actual cures for once incurable diseases.  And it promises greater things on those fronts in the future.  Science feeds growing populations.  It brings electricity, the internet, video games, mass transit, the engines of capitalism.

Science, not the “Judeo-Christian” religion, is responsible.  When god ruled Europe, it was a hell-hole for the masses.  Disease, violence, war, and ignorance dominated daily life for thousands of years.  Just look at the most religious regions of the world today.  Repression.  Bigotry.  Sectarianism.  No thanks.  I’ll take the secular, science-believing (or at least science-leaning) countries – flawed as they may be – any day.

The greatest advances of world civilization, with actual positive benefits for humanity, have been the result of skeptical, scientific inquiry, not religious revelation.  The West had the Enlightenment, which began the long and difficult process of secularization, including the development of capitalism, that continues today.

Insofar as Steve Bannon wants to fight against the forces of secularization, he is an enemy of human progress, objectively so.

Donald Trump Caricature by DonkeyHotey

This caricature of Donald Trump was adapted by DonkeyHotey from a Creative Commons licensed image from Gage Skidmore’s Flickr photostream.

Furthermore, he is wrong in his assumptions.  Neither Judaism nor Christianity can take full credit, if any at all, for the advances of the West.  Scientific truths are true regardless of one’s religion or ethnicity.  Technological change, such as the invention of the printing press, was more obviously responsible.  Other civilizations could arrive at the same discoveries.  Understanding the scientific method does not require one to first be Judeo-Christian, white.

Bannon formulates most of his answers during the Q-and-A through this framework.  Most of what he despises he castigates as the seeds of crony capitalism.  From the Republican establishment and the 2008 financial crisis to the increasing racism present among the populist right in Europe and the United States, Bannon blames crony capitalism.1  The bailouts were also a violation of Bannon’s enlightened capitalism.  He wants to make the bankers suffer for sure.2    He willingly fuels the anger through his media empire but offers little coherent vision beyond electoral victories and new media advertising dollars.

For any governing body, electoral victories or losses are only the beginning.  Vision matters.  And Steve Bannon’s vision is muddled, simplistic, and dangerously regressive.  More secularization is needed, not less.  More expert opinion.  More science.  Technological innovation.  Skepticism.  Progress.  To me, Bannon represents reactionary anger, emotional irrationalism, and regression.  His critique of capitalism might share some elements with some progressive critiques.  However, his prescriptions are either unclear and filled with buzzwords, or they are contrary to human progress.


1.  Bannon on the 2008 financial crisis: “The 2008 crisis, I think the financial crisis — which, by the way, I don’t think we’ve come through — is really driven I believe by the greed, much of it driven by the greed of the investment banks. My old firm, Goldman Sachs — traditionally the best banks are leveraged 8:1. When we had the financial crisis in 2008, the investment banks were leveraged 35:1. Those rules had specifically been changed by a guy named Hank Paulson.”
Here he is on the rise of racism: “One of the reasons that you can understand how they’re being fueled is that they’re not seeing the benefits of capitalism. I mean particularly — and I think it’s particularly more advanced in Europe than it is in the United States, but in the United States it’s getting pretty advanced — is that when you have this kind of crony capitalism, you have a different set of rules for the people that make the rules. It’s this partnership of big government and corporatists. I think it starts to fuel, particularly as you start to see negative job creation. If you go back, in fact, and look at the United States’ GDP, you look at a bunch of Europe. If you take out government spending, you know, we’ve had negative growth on a real basis for over a decade.”
2.  “Here’s how capitalism metastasized, is that all the burdens put on the working-class people who get none of the upside. All of the upside goes to the crony capitalists.  The bailouts were absolutely outrageous, and here’s why: It bailed out a group of shareholders and executives who were specifically accountable. The shareholders were accountable for one simple reason: They allowed this to go wrong without changing management. And the management team of this. And we know this now from congressional investigations, we know it from independent investigations, this is not some secret conspiracy. This is kind of in plain sight.”
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