Donald Trump was an obscenely wealthy exploiter, a vicious reactionary, a vile misogynist and a sickening racist long before he brought those qualities to the White House. That he is a shallow, self-absorbed and unscrupulous excuse for a human being is well known and widely accepted. If more than 200,000 people have died in the US from COVID-19, that doesn’t matter to Trump, even if he is largely to blame for it. Flown to hospital for a level and quality of medical intervention very few could even dream of, he appears to have survived his own infection with the virus. Yet he fails to take the basic precautions that would protect those who must work around him. That such a person comes from great wealth and privilege and holds the highest office is, in my view, highly telling. Taking the ugliest American of them all as my starting point, I want to explore the societal basis for the distorted sense of self in this society that Trump so sharply personifies and that his followers exude.
John Donne’s proposition that ‘no man is an island’ has been repeated many times since he penned those words in the 17th Century. Yet, the capitalist society that was emerging in Donne’s day challenges that very notion to a considerable extent. While it came into existence in active opposition to the formal political inequality that lay at the foundations of feudalism, capitalism has established itself as a global system built on class based exploitation. Accumulating its reserves of initial wealth through colonialism and slavery, it has stamped society with a hateful and destructive ideology of racial hierarchy. The pursuit of profit has meant war on a scale that overshadows the conflicts of past ages. Today, that same quest for enrichment of the few has generated a global pandemic and unleashed an ecological crisis that threatens all life on this planet. In the midst of the suffering caused by the spread of COVID-19, the wealthiest handful of people have become staggering richer, taking inequality to unheard of levels.
In ‘The German Ideology,’ Marx made the enormously important observation that:
"The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.”
While the social values of the exploiters are challenged and opposing and even revolutionary perspectives are advanced by the exploited, the dead weight of the the dominant ideology is enormous. Some years ago, I was stopped by a man on the street who recognized me as a representative of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). He wanted to challenge the role that we played in fighting for improved social assistance and shelter for the homeless. He explained that such an approach only encouraged laziness and that anyone could be successful in this society if they only put their mind to it. As he spoke to me, he would periodically break off the conversation in order to appeal to passers by to give him spare change. A man literally begging on the streets was giving me a line you might have expected to hear from a representative of the Chamber of Commerce. This particular poor person was regurgitating bourgeois ideology in a way that was both sad and ironic. However, he was anything but unique in this regard, even if the example is especially jarring.
The ruling class is shaped by the exploitative role they play and the dominant position they occupy. Though they actually draw their wealth from the labour of the mass of workers they exploit, the driving force appears to them to lie in their commanding role and in their own spirit and genius. Early in the development of the bourgeoisie, protestantism challenged the dominant role of the feudal Catholic Church and reinforced a sense of their social place and particular destiny. Martin Luther set the concept of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ against the authority of the Church in Rome. Calvin went further and advanced a notion of ‘God’s Elect,’ predestined to enjoy salvation. This was the religious expression of the societal claim of the rising capitalists. Established as the new ruling class, however, their role was far more dynamic and complicated than that of the old feudal rulers. Voyages of discovery, colonial expeditions, bold developments in productive technique and social organization took the place of the relatively static feudal order. Capitalists operated in sharp competition with each other and their feelings of class identity didn’t preclude a strong sense of individualism. The ‘great man,’ Hamlet's ‘mighty opposite,’ becomes the self-image of the capitalist, today expressed as the embodiment of ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ or even in the thoroughly unjustified arrogance and self-confidence of Donald Trump.
Trump’s monstrously distorted sense of self is not likely to rest on any highly developed philosophical outlook. However, the notion of the dominant individual whose ideas shape the world around him underlies the concept that being, all physical existence, is created by consciousness, a philosophical position of subjective idealism. In his ‘Materialism and Empirio-Criticism,’ Lenin quotes Denis Diderot who illustrates this perspective by imaging a deluded musical instrument that thinks it is the source of external reality. “There was a moment of insanity when the sentient piano imagined that it was the only piano in the world, and that the whole harmony of the universe resided within it.” Trump is, indeed, an insane piano of bourgeois ideology, though the thinkers who laid its foundations might well be ashamed of their finished product.
Survival of the Fittest
Having set its stamp on society, the capitalist class sought to backdate its competitive and individualist ideology and associate it with an immutable ‘human nature.’ The crude notion of a ‘survival of the fittest’ in the natural world was taken over to a concept of Social Darwinism but the assumptions underlying both are subject to challenge. It becomes clear that the humans didn’t advance on the basis of selfishness or the ruthless trampling of the strong on the weak. Human societies survived and developed through co-operation and mutual support. The concept put forward by Friedich Engels in ‘The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’, published in 1884, of early human societies in which social and gender inequality were unknown, has stood up over the years. Hunter food gatherer societies existed for most of the time humans have formed social groups and the people who lived during this vast period were ‘peaceful egalitarians.’ Libertarian thinkers, who equate the unequal ownership of private property with freedom, struggle painfully with the reality that their sacred property rights must have been established by asserting a claim to resources that had previously been collectively utilized. This is, indeed, what took place, as the transition to agriculture gave rise to land ownership and the emergence of social classes and inequality.
It becomes clear that class societies in general and capitalism in particular have developed and imposed on entire populations a sense of self that reflects the interests and perspectives of their ruling classes. In present day society, though ideas of gaining at the expense of others and dreams of rising into the ranks of wealthy elites are widespread, the exploiters express such an outlook to a much greater degree. Psychologists have even explored this question and concluded that there is a reduced empathy for others among those with considerable wealth.
To capitalists and their fellow thinkers, the very idea of an egalitarian society seems to be an assault on freedom. To Friedrich Hayek, an ideological driving force for the architects of the neoliberal stage of capitalism, the notion of a socialist society was the charting of ‘The Road to Serfdom.’ Yet present day global capitalism, beset by crises of public health, economic slump and climate disaster, shows us that human society can’t find a way forward if it remains dominated by the drive to enrich a minute ruling class at the expense of everyone else. In challenging the domination of that class over economic and political life, we also find ourselves driven to counter its values and world outlook. We must conclude that greed is not good and that co-operation and human solidarity are the way of the only future possible.
It is in the nature of things that we find it hard to shake off the ideas and assumptions of the society we have grown up in. Yet, the distorted sense of self, the cult of individualism that capitalism has created, must be refuted. The great Irish writer, James Joyce, suggested that ‘In the particular is contained the universal.” That is true of individual human beings and the societies they are part of. The human mind itself can’t be reduced to an individual consciousness in one brain but it exists in a state of interaction with the external world and other people. That interconnectedness and interdependency doesn’t crush our individual development. On the contrary, it provides the basis for taking that development off in bold new directions and to heights not possible in a class based society. As Stephen Jay Gould powerfully wrote, “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”
A New Society
The issue is not to try and change the selfish attitudes of the capitalists but to build a commitment to the revolutionary transformation of society among the mass of exploited working class people. If the development of the human personality and the realization of human potential requires a different type of society, it is also true that the exploited and oppressed rise to new levels and provide a glimpse of what is possible when they are in collective struggle against their oppressors. In even relatively minor struggles, working class people tend to put aside the backward, divisive and bigoted ideas that this society generates. On picket lines, mobilizing to defend a family facing eviction or taking to the streets to challenge racist police brutality, they are pushed in the direction of a consciousness that corresponds to the task of overturning an oppressive social order and replacing it with one based on full economic and political democracy. At times of revolutionary struggle, the working class can 'succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew,' as Marx put it. During the Spanish Revolution, George Orwell witnessed that very process at work and left us a description, in his ‘Homage to Catalonia,’ of Barcelona, ‘a town where the working class was in the saddle.’
“Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workman. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said
'Sen~or' or 'Don' or even 'Usted'; everyone called everyone else 'Comrade' or 'Thou', and said 'Salud!' instead of 'Buenos dias'. Tipping had been forbidden by law since the time of Primo de Rivera; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. There were no private motor-cars, they had all been commandeered, and the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black. The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loud-speakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no 'well-dressed' people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class
clothes, or blue overalls or some variant of militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in this that I did not understand, in some ways I did not not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”
I make no apologies for picking on Donald Trump. At this moment in history, he represents the very personification of the distorted individualism of this society and its ruling class. In any society based on rationality, cooperation and social solidarity, Trump, far from being placed in any position of leadership and responsibility, would be considered a warped and pitiful excuse for a human being. His self-obsessed disregard for others is the exact opposite of the kind of person that will be valued and respected in a socialist society. Far from suppressing individual development, as apologists for the present system like to tell us, such a society, free of a drive for profit that ensures rampant inequality and the exploitation of others, will create a healthy relationship between each person and the social collectivity they are part of. On that basis, the universal will be expressed through the particular and the individual human personality will rise to its full height.