Deciphering Steve Bannon’s (Global) ‘Revolution’

Comment, Conflicts Forum, 25 Nov 2016

Recently, a 2014 video presentation with the enigmatic figure behind the Trump throne – Steve Bannon, the purveyor of intellectual framework and ideas – to the new US President-Elect, was published. In a sense, it sets out key aspects of Bannon’s strategic view. In a separate interview, Bannon states very frankly, the nature of his relationship with Donald Trump: “He gets it; he gets it intuitively,” says Bannon. He adds: “you have probably the greatest orator since William Jennings Bryan, coupled with an economic populist message, and two political parties that are so owned by the donors that they don’t [deign] to speak to their audience. But, he adds, “[Trump] speaks in a non-political vernacular, he communicates with these people in a very visceral way. Nobody in the Democratic party listened to his speeches, so they had no idea he was delivering such a compelling and powerful economic message.”

In short, whereas Trump’s cryptic style resonates, as it were, with some suppressed, almost forgotten, cultural (and avowedly spiritual) seams within half of the American public, Steve Bannon has the charge of giving these ‘instincts’ intellectually systematic form. What results from this partnership is nothing of the usual, economically determinist ‘blah, blah’. It is profoundly radical, it is revolutionary, and it needs to be better understood because of the significance of what it may entail. Its proponents clearly believe that it is precisely this radical vision that will “energise everyone” — ultimately even the Republican élite, as well as the electorate at large. Referring to that Republican elite, Bannon has said: “Does Paul Ryan think that everything Breitbart stands for, Steve Bannon stands for, is great? No. Do I think that everything he [Ryan] stands for … is great? No. Can we work together to implement Donald Trump’s vision for America? Can we do that? Oh yeah”.

First point: Trump, as he said earlier in the campaign, does intend to be a unifier.  But, not through compromise, but instead by folding former adversaries – enveloping them – into the ‘energy’ of a global revolution. Equally plain (as The Atlantic writes): “Circa 2013, Bannon continued to believe that the only way to destroy the Left was a populist uprising of a sort that requires [firstly] the destruction of the GOP establishment”. Just to be clear, the ‘old’ Republican Party was one of those two parties which Bannon described as ‘bought’ by donors, and entirely oblivious to what was happening in its own backyard.  Bannon seems now to have modified somewhat his antagonismto parts of the Republican establishment saying bluntly that the Trump victory “would not have been possible without the [help] of the RNC (Republican National Committee)”.  Trump, as it were, is Bannon’s vessel for taking over the Republican Party, and remaking it as the sword by which to slay the ‘liberal’ Left.

All this – the slide of Republican elite towards Trump in the wake of the election ‘shock’ – allows Bannon to focus his efforts on the existential struggle of mounting a determinedly and exultantly ‘illiberal’ democratic response to decades of undemocratic, liberal policies – rolling back the secular, ‘identity’ wars on Americans’ national, cultural and moral inheritance.  This is the essence of their ‘revolution’: throwing over “the guardian[s] of a corrupt and incompetent elite and status quo.” In this, as Michael Wolff notes, “[Bannon] could not be a less reassuring or more confusing figure for liberals — fiercely intelligent, and yet reflexively drawn to the inverse of every liberal assumption and shibboleth.”

Bannon’s ideological framework is made clear from his remarks to a conference held inside the Vatican in the summer of 2014. In his presentation, Bannon outlines what he sees as the three types of capitalism which have evolved. Two of these, he argues, directly threaten [western] civilisation:

“The first is “crony [or corporatist] capitalism” [which he utterly condemns], because it “it forms a brutal form of capitalism that is really about creating wealth and creating value for a very small subset of people. And it doesn’t spread the tremendous value creation throughout broader distribution patterns that were seen really in the 20th century [particularly in the US].”

He continues: “The second form of capitalism that I feel is almost as disturbing, is what I call the Ayn Rand or the Objectivist School of libertarian capitalism. And, look, I’m a big believer in a lot of libertarianism … However, that form of capitalism is quite different, when you really look at it to [his third category]: what I call the “enlightened capitalism” of the Judeo-Christian West. [Objectivist capitalism] is a capitalism that really looks to make people commodities, and to objectify people, and to use them.”

Crony capitalism, Bannon says, is what you find in Russia or China.  He then makes clear that the type of corporatist-in-bed-with-government and regulator ‘capitalism’ is basically GOP capitalism: “General Electric and these major corporations that are in bed with the federal government are not what we’d consider free-enterprise capitalists. We’re backers of entrepreneurial capitalists. They’re not. They’re what we call corporatist. They want to have more and more monopolistic power and they’re doing that kind of convergence with big government.”  This, it would appear, is at the core of his gripe with the GOP: It has betrayed its ‘working-man constituency’ forged under Reagan. The ‘deplorables’ were betrayed by the establishment, or what he dismisses as the “donor class.”

But worse, the ‘liberal’ Left, the main subject of Bannon’s visceral contempt, married corporatist capitalism to objectivist Ayn Rand thinking. And this, together with militant cultural secularism, he argues, has effectively defiled and stripped the (Judeo-Christian) moral values of 19th and 20th century America:

“When capitalism was I believe at its highest flower and spreading its benefits to most of mankind, almost all of those capitalists were strong believers in the Judeo-Christian West. They were either active participants in the Jewish faith, they were active participants in the Christians’ faith, and they took their beliefs, and the underpinnings of their beliefs was manifested in the work they did. And I think that’s incredibly important and something that would really become unmoored. I can see this on Wall Street today — I can see this with the securitization of everything is that, everything is looked at as a securitization opportunity. People are looked at as commodities. I don’t believe that our forefathers had that same belief.”

The past ten days have seen Wall Street and the financial sphere brimming with confidence that Trump intends to de-regulate the financial industry, garland it with tax breaks and serve it with a banquet of fiscal stimulus. The S & P index has been soaring happily upwards, since early November.

On the face of it, such a perspective may appear plausible: One might read Bannon’s financial career (working for Goldman Sachs and founding a ‘boutique’ investment bank: Bannon & Co.), as reasonable support for the financial sector’s elation. But, you would be wrong. Bannon is as radical towards Wall Street as to the Left. He wants to overturn its very culture. For, as Bannon has himself pointed out – it was in fact, the 2008 Great Financial Crisis that radicalised him: “Goldman in the ’80s was like a priesthood, a monastic experience where you worked all the time but were incredibly dedicated to client services, to building and growing companies,” he says. “[But] he underwent a conversion … (Bloomberg relates) “watching with horror as staid private partnerships such as Goldman Sachs became highly leveraged, publicly-traded companies, operating like casinos. “I turned on Wall Street for the same reason everybody else did: The American taxpayer was forced to cut mook deals to bail out guys who didn’t deserve it.”  Later Bannon’s 2010 documentary film Generation Zero (2010), examined critically the roots of the 2008 financial meltdown.

Bannon thus is no uncritical ‘friend’ to Wall Street:

“The 2008 crisis, I think the financial crisis — which, by the way, I don’t think we’ve come through — is really driven I believe by the greed, much of it driven by the greed of the investment banks. My old firm, Goldman Sachs — traditionally the best banks are leveraged 8:1. When we had the financial crisis in 2008, the investment banks were leveraged 35:1. Those rules had specifically been changed by a guy named Hank Paulson. He was secretary of Treasury. As chairman of Goldman Sachs, he had gone to Washington years before and asked for those changes. That made the banks not really investment banks, but made them hedge funds — and highly susceptible to changes in liquidity. And so the crisis of 2008 was, quite frankly, really never recovered from in the United States. It’s one of the reasons last quarter you saw 2.9% negative growth in a quarter. So the United States economy is in very, very tough shape”.

“And one of the reasons is that we’ve never really gone and dug down and sorted through the problems of 2008. Particularly the fact — think about it — not one criminal charge has ever been brought to any bank executive associated with 2008 crisis. And in fact, it gets worse. No bonuses and none of their equity was taken. So part of the prime drivers of the wealth that they took in the 15 years leading up to the crisis was not hit at all, and I think that’s one of the fuels of this populist revolt that we’re seeing as the tea party. So I think there are many, many measures, particularly about getting the banks on better footing, making them address all the liquid assets they have. I think you need a real clean-up of the banks balance sheets.

“In addition, I think you really need to go back and make banks do what they do: Commercial banks lend money, and investment banks invest in entrepreneurs and to get away from this trading — you know, the hedge fund securitization, which they’ve all become basically trading operations and securitizations and not put capital back and really grow businesses and to grow the economy. So I think it’s a whole area that just — and I will tell you, the underpinning of this populist revolt is the financial crisis of 2008. That revolt, the way that it was dealt with, the way that the people who ran the banks and ran the hedge funds have never really been held accountable for what they did, has fuelled much of the anger in the tea party movement in the United States.”

So, together with the GOP, the financial world, in Bannon’s view, requires its earthquake too. A cultural, as well as structural, shake up.  But even this does not go to the heart of Bannon’s revolution. For what, it would appear, he (and Trump) seem to have in mind is not just an American revolution, but a global one – and his inference about who might become a major partner in this global makeover, portends major geo-political consequences for Europe and the Middle East. Firstly, Bannon has said: “the movement” isn’t just about electing one man, but a worldwide revolt of different nationalist groups opposing a globalist elite. “This whole movement has a global aspect to it … People want more control of their country. And they are very proud of their countries. They want borders. They want sovereignty. It’s not just a thing that is happening in any one geographic space. You can see it happening in Asia, you can see it happening in Europe, you can see it happening in the Middle East, and you’re seeing it happen in the United States.”

But in his earlier exchanges at the Vatican in 2014, when a questioner asked Bannon, since these disparate global parties (as described above) seem to be getting support from Russia, are they therefore simply promoting Russian thinking (implying that this should be a point of concern),  Bannon’s reply is very interesting:

“I think it’s a little bit more complicated. When Vladimir Putin, when you really look at some of the underpinnings of some of his beliefs today, a lot of those come from what I call Eurasianism; he’s got an adviser who harkens back to Julius Evola and different writers of the early 20th century who are really the supporters of what’s called the traditionalist movement …

“One of the reasons [that a lot of people are attracted to these notions] is that they believe that at least Putin is standing up for traditional institutions, and he’s trying to do it in a form of nationalism — and I think that people, particularly in certain countries, want to see the sovereignty for their country, they want to see nationalism for their country. They don’t believe in this kind of pan-European Union or they don’t believe in the centralized government in the United States. They’d rather see more of a states-based entity that the founders originally set up where freedoms were controlled at the local level.

“I’m not justifying Vladimir Putin and the kleptocracy that he represents … However, we the Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what he’s talking about as far as traditionalism goes — particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism … I think strong countries and strong nationalist movements in countries make strong neighbors, and that is really the building blocks that built Western Europe and the United States, and I think it’s what can see us forward.

“You know, Putin’s been quite an interesting character. He’s also very, very, very intelligent. I can see this in the United States where he’s playing very strongly to social conservatives about his message about more traditional values, so I think it’s something that we have to be very much on guard of. Because at the end of the day, I think that Putin and his cronies are really a kleptocracy, that are really an imperialist power that want to expand. However, I really believe that in this current environment, where you’re facing a potential new Caliphate that is very aggressive that is really a situation — I’m not saying we can put it on a back burner — but I think we have to deal with first things first.”

Two points here: Firstly, in terms of context, Bannon had been explaining to his audience in 2014 (before the reference to President Putin) that “we are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism. And this war is, I think, metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it”. He continued: “I believe you should take a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam … If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours, or other places”.  What Bannon seems to be saying is that Mr Putin and Russia might well be a partner in this ‘war’.

Secondly, Bannon tells us that Mr Putin is an ‘interesting character’ and very intelligent – and that we need to look carefully at his intellectual roots, and understand them. He mentions Julius Evola, an Italian philosopher, and the Traditionalist Movement of the early 20th century.  Well, both Evola and the Traditionalists have aspects that might well resonate with Trump and Bannon. Evola was radically and consistently anti-liberal, and cast his perspectives as masculine, traditionalist, heroic and defiantly reactionary. But the Traditionalists, as a group, also held that the malaise of the modern world lay in its denial of a metaphysical sphere to human life – thus objectifying the human being (a prominent Bannon theme).

Whether these truly are President Putin’s intellectual roots or not, is beside the point. Bannon thinks so, and in a coded way, he is saying that, here is someone (Mr Putin), who shares our instincts; is fighting Islamic radicalism; who – like Bannon and Trump – also ‘gets it’ (understands the global populist reactionary movement); and who values sovereignty and the nation – not globalism – as the basis of the international order. “I think it [this framework] can see us forward”, says Bannon.  In other words, Bannon could see Russia as a partner to Trump’s ‘revolution’ (at least in Europe).

Banon has acknowleged that “this is going to be a very nasty, long, protracted fight.” Speaking at a meeting of American conservatives in 2013, he warned: “There is a permanent political class in this city (Washington) that dominates it, and by that dominates the country. And there is a dedicated group of libertarians and grassroots conservatives and Tea Party conservatives and limited government conservatives that are here to destroy that. And that is going to be ugly tough work. That’s just reality. People are not going to give up an aristocracy easily.”

An US-Russian alliance – however circumscribed by the inevitable differences between the two parties – nonetheless would (if it came about) portend huge change for Europe. It would change the map. The WW2 balance of European powers would be toppled.  And a joint war against “radical Islam” inevitably will re-order western alliances in the Middle East. Will President Putin welcome such a revolution? I think he will be cautious. Trump’s revolution could become quite quickly overwhelmed by financial crisis – and Mr Putin will wish to understand better how this worldview would impact on his strategic links with China and President Xi.  He will also wish to understand better Mr Trump’s thinking about Iran (a major actor in the war on radical Islam).

And if their ‘revolution’ somehow fails?  The conventional view is that the Davos ‘set’ would sweep back. I am sceptical. I incline to Dr Paul Craig Roberts view that if Trump fails, what we will face is aggravated radicalism.

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