Donald Trump’s de facto Islamophobic ban, “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States,” is symptomatic of the shift of the new administration’s policies from the neoliberal ideological consensus to the emergent structures of Western authoritarian capitalism. While countries like China and Singapore have managed to adapt neoliberal economic policies into their autocratic political structures, the Trump administration is in the process of grafting autocratic and authoritarian measures into the neoliberal American market. It is not that he is doing away with the global capitalist system, which he denounced during his presidential campaign for robbing the working class and enriching the corporations. He is, instead, chipping away at the structures of democratic governance and decoupling global capitalism from democracy at a fast pace.
The ominous signs that portend this shift into authoritarian capitalism are proliferating and cannot be simply conflated with fascist ideology. These signs include not only the battle over the constitutionality of Trump’s Muslim ban, the erosion of the structures of democratic governance, attacks on the freedom of the press and the consolidation of white supremacist ideology. They also include a CEO-dominated cabinet, protectionist policies and crony capitalism. Indeed, Asia specialists are increasingly acknowledging that Trump is playing by the Asian authoritarian capitalist book.
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The challenge of the left in this battle over the ban and the refugee crisis is to link this struggle to the wider struggle against well-established and emergent authoritarian capitalist regimes around the world. The left must first maintain a consistent position on these issues and start rethinking the coordinates of the struggle in its international dimensions. The left must thus link the political economy of the ban and the refugee crisis back to the fundamental antagonism — that is, around the deepening polarization of wealth between the haves and have-nots, the exploitation of the working class and the hegemony of the transnational capitalist class.
The Obama Legacy on Immigration and the New Asylum Paradigm
As the left and other people of conscience struggle against the Muslim ban, these groups must also link this particular struggle to the wider struggle against exclusionary immigration policies around the world, in general — and US immigration policies, in particular — including other recent executive orders that criminalize immigrant communities and undocumented workers. The left must, therefore, begin by understanding the ban in the context of the new asylum paradigm, including the Obama legacy on this issue.
This new approach to immigration and refugee issues has been driving the immigration, asylum and refugee policies of many countries around the world for the last two decades. Back in October of 1995, Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, noted that this attack on the cosmopolitan human rights regime is global in character. She stated that, “Many countries are blatantly closing their borders to refugees while others are more insidiously introducing laws and procedures which effectively deny refugees admission to their territory.”
Under this new asylum paradigm, many countries have banned the entry of these refugees into their borders and intensified the exclusionary mechanisms of the asylum application process and resettlement programs. In this paradigm, stateless people are reduced into a subhuman status through an intricate system of administration, monitoring, tracking, regulation, examination, surveillance and policing. Such a system arrests, fixes and freezes the movement of many refugees and limits their access to refugee status.
Trump’s ban, as de facto Islamophobic as it is, must be viewed as the product of this new asylum paradigm, and in calling for “extreme vetting,” it does not just transpire out of thin air, but builds on global trends, in general, and Obama’s legacy, in particular. In his attempt to overshadow Obama in his tough talk on immigration, nonetheless, Trump made some contradictory statements about the ingenuity and uniqueness of his executive order. First, he pointed out the need for extreme vetting which, he added, “we should have had in this country for many years.” As the protests at home and the international outrage became more defiant, Trump invoked Obama’s immigration policies in his defense as precedent.
It is true that Obama’s 2011 immigration restrictions were not as sweeping as Trump’s ban, but the Obama administration was no stranger to extreme vetting. The duration of the screening process for Syrian refugees used to take up to two years, and refugees had to undergo a 21-step security check process and a comprehensive medical examination before they could be admitted into the country. Once admitted, refugees were subjected to further screenings, and in cases of security concerns, asylum applications could be put on hold for years under a special program called the Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program. The Obama administration was notorious for delaying the processing of the Iraqi refugee applications.
Likewise, there is nothing new in Trump’s country list in the ban. In 2015, Obama signed the “Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention” into law, targeting the citizens of the same seven countries (Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Libya) that Trump later designated as exporters of terrorism in his executive order. Moreover, the Obama administration had an abysmal record on deportation, issuing many immigration orders to deport about 2.5 million people, more than any other president in the history of the United States, earning him the title “Deporter in Chief.” Indeed, Trump’s ban is the truth of the Obama immigration policy.
The left should not be indulging in romantic reveries or become complacent about the US record on immigration or the “good old days” of former presidents, some of whom have been accused of war crimes. Robert Fisk, for one, went as far as reminiscing about George W. Bush’s presidency and even calling him “a visionary,” since he underscored the importance of spreading freedom around the world and since he “mentioned the Quran” as well.
The Political Economy of the Muslim Ban and the Class Struggle
Cultural sensitivity and respect for “the Other” alone cannot serve as the true antidote to the toxic Trump brand. The left cannot continue framing the struggle against the ban on the basis solely of multicultural tolerance and respect for “the Other.” As we have recently seen, American CEOs of transnational corporations opposed the ban in the name of diversity of the labor force and philanthropy. We should not be fooled by this ruse, which is used only to promote exploitative business interests and obfuscate the fundamental antagonism. This should be a cause for alarm, not celebration for the left.
The left should instead address the political economy of the ban and refugee crisis in relation to the fundamental antagonism, as seen in the radical polarization of the wealth and the hegemony of the transnational capitalist class in the US and around the world. This is important, since it demonstrates the extent to which the market logic dominates all decisions and considerations in contemporary refugee politics.
The critique of the political economy of the ban and the refugee crisis begins with questioning the relation between the ban and the seven Muslim states that have been targeted for extreme vetting measures and new visa restrictions. It is true that the Obama administration targeted these countries, but there is an interesting twist to this list under the Trump administration. As a few commentators have noted, the common denominator among the seven states that Trump designated in his executive order is that they are Muslim countries where coincidentally the Trump organization does not conduct its business.
This critique must also be examined in the context of the new administration’s executive order to freeze federal hiring. The impetus behind this executive order is to accelerate the plans to privatize government programs, including Medicare, veteran services, student loans and infrastructure projects, as an effort to create an “effective and efficient government.” This federal hiring freeze will result in, as American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) national president J. David Cox Sr. noted, “gutting federal programs and funneling … taxpayer dollars into the hands of less-regulated private companies who answer to their corporate shareholders and not the American people.” He added that, “This hiring freeze will mean longer lines at Social Security offices, fewer workplace safety inspections, less oversight of environmental polluters and greater risk to our nation’s food supply and clean water systems.”
Trump has also signed an executive order to reduce regulations that allegedly hamper job growth and to cut corporate taxes. Signing the executive order in the presence of small business owners, Trump said, “There will be regulation, there will be control, but it will be a normalized control.” As Truthout’s Mark Karlin points out, this order will “make the United States less safe by rolling back regulations that protect the public.” He thus concludes that these “new regulations are more likely to favor industry, finance and the Chamber of Commerce, in general” and would be more likely to have adverse effects on the public.
It is not far-fetched to assume that the Trump administration will also privatize the refugee processing and asylum accommodation services, the way it has been done in Europe. In the UK, for example, the institutionalization of neoliberal governmentality has shifted the management and administration of humanitarian services to private delivery companies.
Jonathan Darling thus argues that the institutionalization of this accelerated for-profit market rationality in the asylum accommodation and reception services has been translated into pure economic calculations, market competition, consumer choice and economic efficiency. In an interview with The Independent, he noted how badly the asylum accommodation has been hit by cutbacks as a result of austerity measures. He concluded that “concerns over profit have taken precedence over the needs of asylum seekers.”
Understanding the political economy of the ban and the refugee crisis makes it possible to link these issues back to the class struggle as the basis for a common struggle among different constituencies — refugees themselves included. The leftist answer, as various commentators have noted, cannot simply be spontaneous and fragmented “resistance” movements that are aligned by a common enemy. Les Leopold is correct to argue that, “Sooner or later, we should go beyond resistance and advocate a vision for the future,” and that vision is nothing short of the total transformation of the global capitalist system.