I have been aware of Steve Bannon’s presence as one might be aware of a thug: you have a wary eye open and keep a safe distance from the thing. Hence I watched his performance at the Oxford Union (on Youtube) anticipating nothing but disdain. The first thing to comment on was his appearance. He sauntered into the room with the persona of a raffish intellectual, and his scruffy demeanour is clearly part of his shtick – which is to say, he wants to be seen as an outsider, his appearance must conceal his true identity as a member of the elite. But he needs only to get a haircut, a shave and a white uniform with a sash and shiny buttons and he could be mistaken for Herman Goering. I won’t pursue that line of thought.
Much of his analysis of why our ‘great Judeo-Christian society’ is going to the dogs lays bare stuff that many if not most of us on the left could agree with. He has an attractive shorthand for the various components of the elite which has brought ordinary (i.e. white, but always sneak in a crafty mention of BAME types*) working folk to their knees – he calls it the Davos Party. The bankers, the privileged jet-set politicians, the globalists. But given that he himself used to work for Goldman Sachs (as did and so do many of Trump’s closest economic advisors) Bannon could easily pass himself off, like an ex-smoker as full of the evangelical zeal of the converted. But of course he is not converted at all. A poacher turned gamekeeper? Not a bit of it, for all his visceral critique of the Davos Party that got us into this mess his proposed remedies fall far short of the reforms required to fix capitalism’s fundamental problems. Resorting to purely nationalistic protectionism, a key Bannon theme, is not the answer. Such a model is no longer available – the interconnectivity of global markets has gone too far – not merely because of some neo-liberal attachment to theories of comparative advantage, but because of the technological revolution whose greatest progeny so far is the internet but which promises much more that will not stop at borders.
Bannon wants, in his words ‘the deconstruction of the administrative state’ at the same time as he wants a strong state. His utopia is made up of flourishing citizens unburdened by petty bureaucracy, or what in British terms Tories would characterise as the ‘nanny state,’ i.e. the kind of government which has a ‘cradle to grave’ approach to welfare. That’s a socialist idea – indeed, as Bannon made clear, that is a national socialist idea where even capitalism itself bends its knee to totalitarian corporatism, where everything revolves around the omnipotent state. What one wonders is the state’s place in Bannonworld? A strong military, naturally. Isolationism, of course – Bannon was explicit in his view that the U.S.A. has no ambitions for hegemony (ha!) and never had (but he’s heard of manifest destiny I assume) – he only needs to cite the failed examples of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to show that America has better things to do. War costs a lot of money. I think he said these last two cost $7 trillion. This presumably is money that would be better spent on military boondoggles to keep the Republicans in power. An Army Of The Wall springs to mind.
But still, he’s against American wars! Another blow to the lefties who used to occupy that space. One imagines with just a little tweak he could stand shoulder to shoulder with Bernie Sanders. He mentioned in passing that many of Bernie’s people had asked him if he might work with them, such is his popular appeal and understanding of blue collar America. But on the crunch questions, like the future of capitalism and the impact of climate change Bannon is a total dud and the polar opposite of Sanders. Perhaps, in the footsteps of Teddy Roosevelt who broke up Standard Oil, Bannon would break up the behemoths of Facebook, et al, but he only needs to read the history of the seven sisters (the big oil companies of the early twentieth century) to see that capitalist behaviour is very adaptable. As regards climate change, which is capitalism’s greatest and worst legacy, Bannon had nothing to say to his audience of millennials. He is credited with getting Trump to renege on the Paris climate change accords, and since the hoax of climate change bores the pants of people, who cares?
Having said all of which doesn’t diminish his obvious appeal. He expresses himself bluntly. We now know that ‘blue collar folk’ like plain speaking. Bannon’s message is simple: you’ve got one of your own in the White House. Trump may have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but he’s different! And if anything goes wrong, it’s fake news – or more subtly, in Bannon’s oft used phrase to brush aside criticism, ‘it’s far from perfect.’ Well, whoever thought things would be? Bannon reminds me of Marlowe’s Mephistopheles, when asked by Faustus ‘Where is Hell?’ he answers ‘Why this is Hell, nor am I out of it.’
*Bannon thinks that BAME people will eventually flock to Trump. He cited as evidence 1.6 million African-American Obama voters not voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016, saying that they may be readied to support Trump in 2020. He didn’t say whether Republican voter suppression and gerrymandering had anything to do with the absent votes.