The bourgeoisie, what is it good for? To paraphrase the soul singer Edwin Starr: absolutely nothing – at present, when it comes to defending the rule of law. The people who run our banks, corporations and small businesses seem deeply relaxed about democracy falling apart.
On both sides of the Atlantic we’ve seen in the past week overt attempts by ultra right-wing politicians to undermine the legitimacy of the executive state: in the USA the Nunes memo slagged-off the FBI as politically partisan; in the UK we saw Jacob Rees-Mogg and minister Steve Baker attack the impartiality of the British civil service.
You don’t need a PhD in political science to understand that the rule of law is pretty fundamental to the functioning of an economic system based on markets. That’s why – from the Putney Debates among Cromwell’s soldiers in 1647, through to the French revolution and the American declaration of independence – people who’d made money through commerce used the idea of democracy to attack people who’d made money by owning land or being born in mansions.
The entire 250 year old system of industrial capitalism can only work – and self-replicate – if some crime family, kleptocrat or hereditary monarch cannot arbitrarily steal your profits, outlaw your business model, or demand money by force.
But the release of the Nunes memo by conservatives on the House intelligence committee, and the seemingly coordinated attack on British civil servants by Rees-Mogg and his associates, are a demonstration of how weak the attachment to democratic principles has become among modern elites.
The Nunes memo was not some piece of primary intelligence: it was a partisan note to himself by Trump acolyte Devin Nunes, appearing to claim that FBI wiretaps on Trump advisers, carried out before the election on suspicion of Russian collaboration, were politically motivated. By releasing it, Trump supported the allegation that one part of the secret state – the FBI – abused another part of the secret state – a court known as FISC (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court), which rubber-stamps requests for wiretaps on foreign intelligence suspects – with the aim of hindering his bid for the presidency.
You might think a secret court which has approved more than 35,000 wiretaps and refused only 12 could do with a bit more democratic control, but that is not what Trump is bothered about. He is trying to remove the special counsel Robert Mueller, and shut down his investigation into Trump’s own Russian links.
In short, Trump’s clearly stated aim is to prevent the rule of law in the USA from taking its course.
In Britain, Trump-worshipping right-wingers Rees-Mogg and Baker staged their hit on the UK civil service for similar reasons. Civil servants are obligated both to implement government policy, provide impartial advice and to act in a way that would allow them to serve equally loyally a different party in government – which is interpreted as allowing them to take into account ‘the national interest’.
Rees-Mogg alleged the Treasury had broken this code by rigging its assessments of Brexit to produce negative results.
If you’re struggling to work with a hangover on a freezing February morning, all this can seem utterly wonksville and irrelevant to your life. But the obligation of the state to be impartial – which is the issue underlying both arguments – is a pretty fundamental condition of everything that will happen to you today.
That the bus driver has to avoid bike riders, that your boss can’t sexually assault you, that your suppliers have to pay you – all rely on legal systems where someone’s uncle can’t “have a word with the judge” and where the cops can’t wage vendettas and where governments can’t rig the evidence to suit their own policies.
Let’s look at a list of who is up in arms about the partisan attacks on law enforcement and civil service right now: democrats, social democrats, liberals, lawyers and ex-civil servants. Now let’s look at a list of who’s not up in arms: newspapers owned by billionaires like Rupert Murdoch, Trump supporters, golf-club conservatives, bankers, shareholders and rich people in general.
Why? Why has the elite of modern capitalism become so laid-back about the erosions of the rule of law?
First, because the entire neoliberal system has come to rely on the state being rigged in favour of private profiteers. As long as FISC was only targeting ordinary Americans, right-wing conservatives didn’t care. When someone in the FBI realised that Trump was systematically hiring people with compromised relationships to the Kremlin – and that’s what the two FBI targets, Carter Page and George Papadopoulos clearly were – suddenly the profiteers and polluters who benefit from Trump being in power started complaining.
It’s the same with the British civil service. This is an institution that has merrily rubber stamped one-cruel policy after another; endorsed disasters like Universal Credit and PFI; and at the top level, once their work is done, are quite happy to enter the revolving door leading to directorships of the very firms they’ve been providing contracts to.
Nobody on the right of politics bats an eyelid about this. Yet as soon as civil servants try to tell their political bosses – note, not the British people, from whom they are obliged to keep information secret – some basic truths about the unworkability of a hard Brexit, then it’s out with the slander and hatchet jobs.
Andrew Turnbull, who ran the civil service under Tony Blair, is right to say the ultra-right’s determination to scapegoat civil servants has echoes of pre-Nazi Germany. When Brexit ends in a shambles, the Tories will say they were ‘stabbed in the back’, just like the German generals did.
But in defending the civil service, and in the USA defending the FBI against charges of political persecution, the left should never lose sight of the fact that this is a state machine designed to defend not some abstract democratic system, but a concrete and specific market economy, full of inequalities, power networks and injustices.
The modern state is so big, so crucial to the coercive imposition of market relationships into everyday life, so enmeshed with businesses like Carillion and Capita, that you have to see the state not as some kind of third force hovering above the class struggles within society, but a part of them.
Forcing the state to act impartially, and observe the rule of law, has in the era of Trump and Brexit become largely a task for democrats, liberals and socialists – because the political right seems to understand something very unpleasant about neoliberalism’s failure.
If you look at Turkey, Russia, Poland under Law and Justice, Hungary under Viktor Orbán and increasingly Trump’s USA, there’s a common pattern emerging. Unrestrained corruption allied with attempts to redefine the national interest entirely in line with the rule of right-wing political parties. From Ankara to Moscow to Warsaw political opponents of the ruling ultra-right are stigmatised as saboteurs, terror supporters, or unpatriotic citizens.
That’s the new shtick of the conservative right, and as long as it allows them to keep their money offshore and their businesses union-free, large parts of the 1% are happy to go along with it. Bourgeois democracy is, for them, increasingly an ideal belonging in the past.
They know the failed neoliberal system can only survive as a kleptocracy, with the electorates bombarded with propaganda and misinformation and the executive’s ability to police the presidency curtailed.
The default political form of a failed neoliberal economy is rule by a crime family. That’s the horrific political truth of the current situation. One of the reasons centrist and liberal politics is so blindsided by it is that there’s very little precedent.
America has been governed by crooks and liars, but never one surrounded by people who can be plausibly suspected of working for the Russians. Britain has had incompetents and charlatans in 10 Downing Street before, but has never been led by a government determined to commit economic suicide.
Radical social democracy means insisting on the impartiality of the state; defending the rule of law and the executive’s codes of practice against attempts by the elite to undermine them.
But never accept at face value that the modern state is neutral. It’s a battleground between the interests of the many and the interests of an increasingly desperate, barmy and anti-democratic few.