The United States of America currently lies stricken in multi-faceted economic, political and social crisis. More than 100,000 Americans have been killed by COVID-19 in a once-in-a-century pandemic. Unemployment has sky-rocketed, with over twenty million people now out of work. Widespread protests have erupted in American cities in response to the killing of George Floyd, yet another African American victim of police brutality. It isn’t too much to say that the very fabric of American society appears to be breaking down, and it is crucial to note under whose aegis this process is taking place – Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States.
In a previous post on Progress in Political Economy (‘Optimates Vs Populares: Lucan On Trumpism’), I argued that we could learn a lot about the nature of the Trump presidency through a reading of the Roman poet Lucan’s epic Civil War. Developing this idea in a recent article in Journal of Historical Sociology, I have suggested that the best way to grasp the nature of the Trump administration is through Antonio Gramsci’s notion of “Caesarism,” an important but generally neglected element of his work. His classic statement on this phenomenon is found in The Prison Notebooks:
Caesarism can be said to express a situation in which the forces in conflict balance each other in a catastrophic manner; that is to say, they balance each other in such a way that a continuation of the conflict can only terminate in their reciprocal destruction. When the progressive force A struggles against the reactionary force B, not only may A defeat B or B defeat A, but it may happen that neither A nor B defeats the other – that they bleed each other mutually and then a third force C intervenes from outside, subjugating what is left of both A and B (Gramsci 1971: 219).
Caesarism expresses an exceptional form of state that arises in the context of intense class struggle resulting in a breakdown in the hegemony of a particular bundle of ruling-class groups (known as an ‘historical bloc’). In this context, a third force can enter the fray and, exploiting the taut balance of social forces, achieve a level of relative autonomy which would be unthinkable in non-crisis periods. This third force ‘is entrusted with the task of “arbitration” over a historico-political situation characterised by an equilibrium of forces heading towards catastrophe’ (Gramsci 1971: 219). The purpose of this arbitration ‘is to freeze and to redirect the antagonism, certainly the open, political forms of it, in order to prevent the reciprocal destruction’ (Fontana 2004: 179).
Depending upon the nature of the third force’s intervention and the effect on the state structure, Caesarism can be, respectively, progressive/regressive and qualitative/quantitative. Regarding the former, Gramsci (1971: 219) notes that:
Caesarism is progressive when its intervention helps the progressive force to triumph, albeit with its victory tempered by certain compromises and limitations. It is reactionary when its intervention helps the reactionary force to triumph – in this case too with certain compromises and limitations, which have, however, a different value, extent and significance than in the former.
As an illustration, he regards Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte as examples of progressive Caesars, as they advanced the class interests of the Roman populares and the French bourgeoisie. By contrast, Gramsci cites as regressive Caesars Louis Napoleon and Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck, who managed the antagonism between workers and various fractions of capital in the interests of the latter.
The qualitative/quantitative dyad refers, by contrast, to the changes which Caesarism makes to the state it inherits. According to Gramsci, Julius Caesar’s regime was qualitative in that it forged the historical passage from one type of state (the Roman Republic) to a completely different one (the Principate). The same could be said of Napoleon Bonaparte. Again, Gramsci uses by way of comparison the quantitative rule of Louis Napoleon which, despite the re-institution of the role of Emperor, left the fundamental structure of the state relatively unscathed. That is, ‘there was no passage from one type of State to another, but only “evolution” of the same type along unbroken lines’ (Gramsci 1971: 222).
As a consequence of the arbitral role of the third force and its relative autonomy from warring social forces, we can speak of the tendencies which Caesarist states tend to exhibit. Ertekin (2019: 62) has usefully described some of these characteristics, including the:
belittling of the parliament that accompanies a political discourse based on popular elections, purging of autonomous power groups within state and society, intolerance towards independent political groups and individuals, and concentration of all sorts of decision-making processes at the hands of a single person.
To this we should add the important role of the military, ‘both as a bureaucracy and as an organization of violence’ (Fontana 2004: 186) and the centrality of the third force’s “mission” to mediate social antagonism. This lattermost reality is expressed in an often intensely nationalist and populist rhetoric and action, with calls for national unity and rebirth linked to the struggles of a vaguely defined “people” (suitably abstracted from the concrete class forces in struggle).
It is my argument that American society is currently in a Caesarist moment. Against a backdrop of working-class immiseration and entrenched economic stagnation, social conflict has spiked. The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of the late 2000s was a turning point. Although in the aftermath of the crisis the structures of neoliberalism remain more-or-less intact, the system is enervate, increasingly fragile and, perhaps most importantly, lacking the sense of legitimacy and inevitability which had once been its armour. The GFC bled directly into the Occupy Wall Street movement, which was a large-scale and explicitly left-wing mobilisation in response to economic inequality and the unequal sharing of the burdens of the crisis. Conservative responses to the movement shared common themes – that the protestors were advocating class warfare, that they were pushing for bigger governments taking a harder line with capital, that they were shiftless and, most provocatively, that they were anti-American. In the post-GFC context of mediocre growth, stagnant wages and a further degradation in America’s status as global hegemon, the specter of such widespread dissent has created the conditions for a ‘preemptive’ Caesarism of the kind Keucheyan and Durand describe. A profound and qualitatively distinct episode of class struggle has created the situation where a third force in the shape of Trump could enter the scene and position himself above the conflicting forces.
Central to Gramsci’s conception of Caesarism is the idea that the third force is in a position to “arbitrate” an apparently insoluble conflict. Key to this capacity is the ability to simultaneously appeal to the groups in struggle. Pivotal to Trump’s victory was his capacity to win over large segments of the (white) working class. As Clark (2017: 242) notes, ‘Donald Trump…spoke passionately to them about their most basic fears and concerns – safety, security, and jobs. His rhetoric about the system being “rigged” against working-class Americans and his targeting of straw men who threatened their way of life…rang true to these voters.’ In his inauguration speech, Trump spoke potently of:
rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation…One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions and millions of American workers that were left behind. The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world.
This posture has not been only rhetorical. Trump has indeed taken some concrete steps to aid the plight of these workers, particularly those in the so-called “Rustbelt.” The imposition of tariffs on certain key industrial products, the threatening of corporations that plan to relocate production with sanctions and the withdrawal from the deeply neoliberal Trans-Pacific Partnership are undeniably pro-worker reforms.
Does this then mean, in Gramsci’s terms, that Trump is a progressive Caesar? The presence of a handful of worker-friendly policies, whilst noteworthy, is not in itself sufficient to answer this question. Remember, Gramsci’s formulation of the progressive/regressive dyad notes that both forms require compromises and limitations. On this score, a regressive Caesarism is quite capable of instituting pro-worker reforms (a good example being Bismarck’s Prussian state). The pivot delineating the distinction between the two types is the word “triumph.” Taking a macro-view, the question is whether or not Trump’s administration more organically represents the interests of workers or of capital under the threat of social dislocation.
Taking this viewpoint, it is clear that modern American Caesarism is fundamentally regressive. Standing against a comparatively small basket of explicitly pro-worker reforms are developments that go in the opposite direction. In this context one might cite:
- Sweeping tax reforms that barely benefited workers but cut the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%. Business interests were fundamental in driving this agenda;
- The appointment of exceptionally wealthy individuals to key Cabinet roles, often in areas where they have a demonstrated neoliberal record. Key examples include Steve Mnuchin (Secretary of the Treasury), Wilbur Ross (Secretary of Commerce) and Betsy DeVos (Secretary of Education).
- The recent elevation of pro-business, anti-worker figure Eugene Scalia to the role of US Secretary of Labor. This appointment should be construed in the context of a conservative network of influence within the administration that, despite Trump’s courting of blue-collar unions, ‘are less ambivalent, pushing hard to undermine unions’ ability to bargain collectively, raise dues and exert political power’ (Scheiber and Thrush 2019).
- Perhaps most significantly, Trump’s brand of divisive politics fragments the working class. His relentless exploitation of distinctions based on gender, ethnicity, nationality and religion degrades the ability of the class to exercise power collectively.
Taking a broad view, it is thus clear that, whilst bound by Gramsci’s (1971: 219) ‘compromises and limitations’ to the workers who were partly responsible for his election, Trump’s regime ultimately freezes the struggle between labour and capital in favour of the latter. We are thus dealing here with a regressive Caesarism.
Regarding the second of Gramsci’s dyads, we are currently faced with a true moment of historical openness. At the time of writing the original article (some months before the pandemic and protest movement), I was of the opinion that American Caesarism was essentially quantitative in character. Whereas Lucan’s Caesar was able to recast Republican institutions and usher in the era of a fundamentally different form of state, Trump has, up until now, generally been incapable of a similar subversion of American political institutions. These remain essentially unchanged in form and viable in terms of their operation. A case in point was the furore over the so-called “Muslim ban,” an executive order revolving around travel restrictions on people from several Muslim-majority countries including Iran, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. Whilst the idea itself paid homage to the aforementioned politics of division, the implementation of the original order (Executive Order 13769) was stymied by a number of legal challenges and only partial enforcement. In the event, this order was superseded by another (Executive Order 13780), the legality of which has been upheld by the US Supreme Court in a narrow decision. The point was that, despite loud protestations, Trump was nevertheless forced to respect the extant juridical structure, buttressing the contention that American Caesarism was quantitative in essence.
However, the recent willingness of Trump to invoke a military solution to the protest movement that erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s murder raises the spectre of a Caesarism that can more fundamentally remake the American state. Given that Caesarism is predicated upon the ability of a third force to mediate and arbitrate social antagonism, we can say that the current political turmoil is evidence of Trump’s failing in this role. In the midst of a rapidly evolving situation, potential solutions to an apparently insoluble state of crisis must necessarily be somewhat speculative. That being said, it is my contention that two possible routes of escape present themselves:
- An intensification of American Caesarism, up to and including a shift in its character towards a more qualitative bent. This would entail the Trump administration more radically assailing the extant political and juridical structure. The aforementioned invocation of a military solution is a troubling early indication on this front. It is important to note that, according to Gramsci, Caesarism not only strengthens the military, but attempts to institutionalise it as part and parcel of the daily political life of the community. A widespread use of the military to crack down on protests and abnegate core constitutional rights, such as the rights to free speech, peaceful assembly and a free press (all of which are already suffering at the hands of the police), might solve the current crisis through transforming the American state into an openly authoritarian one. Such a development could be considered the creation of a more qualitative Caesarist state.
- A mass social movement that neuters the Trump presidency. What we are seeing on American streets today is the further development of what Gramsci noted as a necessary condition of Caesarism – the entry of large masses drawn from subaltern social classes onto a new plane of political activity. The core of the protest movement is working class African Americans that are rebelling against a police apparatus that routinely kills them with apparent impunity. However, allies to this movement are appearing from many different quarters, including other sections of the working class, university students and high-profile supporters in the arts and entertainment industry. There is the potential for this movement to cohere as the new form of multi-racial class politics Walley observed was necessary to combat and defeat Trump. At a bare minimum this movement could organise to elect a new president in November, but to minimise the damage Trump and his administration can cause between now and then, it must be willing to directly confront the President and actively seek to stymie his efforts at creating a more authoritarian state.
Which of these two outcomes is more likely currently hangs in the balance. Those who would seek to combat Caesarism must fight to realise the second. In any event, Lucan’s words, which so powerfully captured the spirit of his age, come back to both haunt and inspire us today:
‘…The day had come that would
establish the fate of human affairs for ages,
and in that clash they were struggling over
what Rome [America] was to be – this was clear to all’ (Lucan 2012: 184, text added).