To Form a More Corporate Union

The Land of Enterprise: A Business History of the United States shows that Trump’s greed is no aberration.

Chris Lehmann March 30, 2017

Donald Trump, real estate mogul, entrepreneur and billionaire, poses in the foyer of his home in August 1987. (Joe McNally/Getty Images)

The present cri­sis of the Amer­i­can repub­lic stems, at least in part, from a will­ful mis­un­der­stand­ing of our civic life. Viewed from the soar­ing lib­er­al pre­sup­po­si­tion that our nation is, and has always been, a paragon of Enlight­en­ment virtues, Don­ald Trump seems like a grotesque aber­ra­tion — a dero­ga­tion of all that is good and great about Amer­i­ca, from equal­i­ty under the law to rev­er­ence for a free press.

Corporate capitalism of Trump-era America looks not all that different from the robber-baron capitalism of the late 19th century.

Viewed from the actu­al make­up of the U.S. polit­i­cal econ­o­my, how­ev­er, Trump­ism is a fore­see­able out­growth of a cen­turies-long siege upon demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions. From colo­nial times onward, a feck­less and enti­tled busi­ness class exploit­ed unfree labor and con­sol­i­dat­ed wealth. With such winds of his­to­ry blow­ing so strong­ly at his back, why shouldn’t Don­ald Trump — the exem­plar of some­thing-for-noth­ing cap­i­tal­ism — ascend to the Oval Office?

Ben­jamin C. Waterhouse’s The Land of Enter­prise: A Busi­ness His­to­ry of the Unit­ed States sets the his­tor­i­cal record straight. Water­house deliv­ers an unsen­ti­men­tal, clear-eyed appraisal of America’s mono­ma­ni­a­cal dri­ve toward cap­i­tal­ist accumulation.

In Waterhouse’s view, for exam­ple, the South­ern slave econ­o­my — gen­er­al­ly held to be a feu­dal atavism out­grown via the Civ­il War — was a fea­ture, not a bug, in the con­sol­i­da­tion of the Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ist order. Far from a periph­er­al part of the sto­ry of busi­ness and cap­i­tal­ism, slav­ery was cen­tral to the eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment of the Unit­ed States,” he writes.

In 1860, he notes, enslaved work­ers rep­re­sent­ed more than 80 per­cent of the total out­put of the U.S. econ­o­my — a share that, mea­sured in con­tem­po­rary dol­lars, would total more than $13.8 tril­lion. Under­stood in this way,” Water­house writes, enslaved peo­ple were cap­i­tal assets worth more than the country’s entire pro­duc­tive capac­i­ty from man­u­fac­tur­ing, trade and rail­roads combined.”

Dur­ing the first great wave of indus­tri­al­iza­tion in the late 19th cen­tu­ry, gov­ern­ment oper­a­tions and busi­ness inter­ests con­verged. The Home­stead Act of 1862, for exam­ple, was a mas­sive gov­ern­ment give­away to the emerg­ing rail­road trusts. In the fol­low­ing decades, fed­er­al law­mak­ers failed to pass antitrust laws with enough teeth to stop steel, oil and finance titans from erect­ing ver­ti­cal­ly inte­grat­ed empires.

Though the inter­ven­ing years have seen reform­ers tin­ker, cor­po­rate cap­i­tal­ism of Trump-era Amer­i­ca looks not all that dif­fer­ent from the rob­ber-baron cap­i­tal­ism of the late 19th cen­tu­ry. The post­war years, under­writ­ten by gov­ern­ment sub­ven­tions in the tech, defense and aero­space sec­tors, were also an orgy of finan­cial­ized merg­ers, spurred on by Wall Street’s alle­giance to dodgy account­ing. When the post­war boom suc­cumbed to 1970s-era stagfla­tion, Wall Street’s paper econ­o­my moved into the van­guard, with Pres­i­dents Carter and Rea­gan both over­see­ing a steady dereg­u­la­tion of eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty on all fronts, from the air­line and truck­ing indus­tries to the dis­as­trous dereg­u­la­tion (and sub­se­quent multi­bil­lion-dol­lar bailout) of the S&L indus­try in the 1980s. By the time the 2008 melt­down arrives, Waterhouse’s read­ers are primed for his ver­dict: The Finan­cial Cri­sis of 2008 marked the cul­mi­na­tion of decades of increased finan­cial­iza­tion, abet­ted by a dereg­u­la­to­ry polit­i­cal atti­tude that over­took not only Amer­i­can busi­ness but glob­al cap­i­tal­ism as well.”

Waterhouse’s sur­vey should not be as eye-open­ing as it is — but a key col­lat­er­al casu­al­ty of the cap­ture of pro­fes­sion­al eco­nom­ics by busi­ness inter­ests has been the atro­phy of the dis­ci­pline of polit­i­cal econ­o­my. Most polit­i­cal his­to­ries of recent Amer­i­ca touch on eco­nom­ic devel­op­ments either tan­gen­tial­ly or with the rev­er­ent atti­tude of low­ly gen­er­al­ists ven­tur­ing into a hal­lowed field of sacro­sanct expertise.

Such intel­lec­tu­al reflex­es do more dam­age than one might think. The fail­ure to see Amer­i­can polit­i­cal econ­o­my in its true pro­por­tions is how many lat­ter-day vic­tims of gov­ern­ment-busi­ness col­lu­sion have come to place their faith in the grotesque­ly mis­cast fig­ure of Don­ald Trump. Just ask any of the vot­ers who enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly cast their 2016 bal­lots for Trump because he was the sort of can-do busi­ness genius who would, at long last, shake things up in Wash­ing­ton once and for all.

Chris Lehmann, is edi­tor-in-chief at The Baf­fler and a for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of In These Times. He is the author of The Mon­ey Cult: Cap­i­tal­ism, Chris­tian­i­ty, and the Unmak­ing of the Amer­i­can Dream (Melville House, 2016).
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