By Andrew Dobbs
(If you appreciate original analysis, please contribute to my work on Patreon).
US politics is experiencing the final consolidation of a major realignment. On one side are the Nationalists, dominant now in the Republican Party. On the other side are the Technocrats at the head of the Democratic Party.
One is centered in rural and exurban areas, and in regions dependent upon extraction and industry; the other is focused in cities where finance, technology, cultural production, education, and government dominate. The reactionary US Constitution gives a structural advantage to the Nationalists, but Technocrats have found their niches in culture and municipal policy.
The Nationalists have completed their takeover of the GOP; the few remaining “Never Trump” conservatives are quickly passing into irrelevance. There is still a struggle over the extension of Technocracy into progressive spaces, however, with the vanguard of that movement trying out a variety of ways to sell their line to left-leaning constituencies. Despite appearances, however, Technocrats are just as committed to projects antagonistic to democracy, workers, and the oppressed as their Nationalist opponents.
One of the most important fronts for the Technocratic campaign to capture misguided leftists: market-oriented “urbanism.” In cities across the country urbanists have hijacked discussions about affordable housing so that even self-identified leftists believe it to be something other than what it is: a power grab for the ruling class. This isn’t just a wonky debate on the edges of contemporary politics, it is a crucial struggle to decide the fate of the US left altogether.
Understanding how we got to this place can prevent dangerous mistakes, the only hope we have for escaping the capitalist crisis threatening our future.
The Two Ends of the Value Chain
Mainstream political struggle in the US today is divided across the value chain of production. This concept of the value chain comes from the American business academic Michael Porter, but Marx essentially outlines the same idea with his theory of the Valorization Process. Cambridge University’s Institute for Manufacturing defines the value chain as a way of seeing a manufacturing firm or economy
“…as a system, made up of subsystems each with inputs, transformation processes and outputs. (These) involve the acquisition and consumption of resources — money, labour, materials, equipment, buildings, land, administration and management. How value chain activities are carried out determines costs and affects profits.”
Land and labor is input into extraction and agricultural processes, outputting basic commodities. These are input into refining and manufacturing processes, which output consumer products. These are inputs for shipping and storage processes, which finally output merchandise.
The drive to increase output efficiency while reducing process costs demands greater technological development and new services. The whole thing requires money and a place to invest returns — finance. Finally, keeping markets stable requires repressive force from the state and persuasion from civil society and culture, all of which contribute to academic research and education.
Extraction, agriculture, industry, services (including professional services), finance, technology, cultural production, civil society, government, academia — this is the chain of value production.
The earlier parts of the chain are primary and productive. The later portions are secondary, or support activities — they provide for the reproduction and iterative development of the chain. The secondary activities are dependent upon the capital generated by the primary activities, but the primary parts will stagnate or collapse without the support of the latter elements. There is always a tension between the two about where in the chain profits should be reinvested, but together they combine forces to turn dirt and the stuff you find in it into hundreds of trillions of dollars of wealth.
The Value Chain and Class Struggle
It is my hypothesis that US politics began to realign around these elements after the Great Recession. Such crises test the balance of power between capital and labor. The 1930s, for example, saw a sharp increase in the number and militancy of strikes, the founding and rapid expansion of the CIO, and a seven-fold growth in Communist Party membership.
Workers forced the ruling class to make a deal: the capitalists will give over a major portion of the surplus in return for mass support for the system, creating a mass middle class. By 2008, however, labor was totally disorganized and powerless. Union membership had declined by nearly half since 1983, a result of the neoliberal realignment which followed a major crisis in 1971–1973.
By 2008 the ruling class knew workers could not threaten them, and they no longer had to make any pretense at sharing social surplus with the middle class. The historic rivalries of the ruling class itself, the competition between primary and secondary sectors for investment, now organize our politics today.
The Politics of the Value Chain
The primary productive sectors of the value chain require substantial investment in physical plant and land, tying them to a specific place and to a pre-capitalist source of social power (land). Secondary support sectors can more often operate in virtual spaces and on a global basis. Their foundation in finance ties them to money, the source of social power under capitalism.
Obviously they are all controlled by capitalists, but land cannot expand and can only be divided so many times before becoming worthless. Inheritance has therefore become a primary strategy for its transfer, making family structures, paternity, and gender roles — patriarchy — materially important for land-based economies.
Capital, on the other hand, favors liberalism — it is infinitely expandable and highly fungible, making conventional social distinctions obstacles to its growth. The fact that its power can be expressed anywhere in the world quickly and easily also makes for a cosmopolitan value structure in those secondary sectors.
Texas politics has demonstrated this phenomenon in recent years, with the main opposition to culturally reactionary policies coming from the Texas Association of Business (TAB). TAB’s eight-member Board of Directors does not have a single member employed in extraction or agriculture. Only two directors are involved in manufacturing, with one of them employed by Lockheed Martin, arguably the most advanced manufacturer in the world. The rest of the Board members are all involved in services, administration, or retail — secondary support functions.
TAB is Republican, of course, but this is simply because the GOP has a monopoly on Texas politics, a historical tendency only reinforced by the present realignment. TAB nonetheless epitomizes the slogan “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.”
TAB’s nemesis is Empower Texans, the arch-reactionary advocacy group behind the Bathroom Bill. Empower Texans is largely funded by Tim Dunn, a billionaire in the oil and gas extraction business. Dunn and two of his sons, both also employed by his extraction business, control the Empower Texans Board of Directors. Two of the other three Board members I’ve found likewise made their fortunes in energy production — i.e. extraction.
This may be just one data point, but it is illustrative of something easy to observe: if your community relies upon agriculture, extraction, or manufacturing you’ll probably find more conservative families than if you live in an area dominated by technology, finance, or professional services.
This is especially true on questions of trade. For secondary sector enterprises disadvantages with one partner can be offset with advantages elsewhere in the world. Most beneficial of all, capital can use international trade to arbitrage labor costs, hence secondary sector support for global, multilateral trade agreements. TAB’s top priority right now is saving NAFTA, for example.
Primary sectors, on the other hand, can benefit from some trades, but they also bear tremendous risk. Chief among them, of course, is being subject to that very labor arbitrage from the secondary sectors. This isn’t about harming workers in this context, it’s about domestic firms losing business to foreign enterprises, screwing these particular bosses.
These elements — led today by Trump’s Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross — support economic nationalism: protection from low wage competitors abroad, subsidies to make up for any retaliatory effects, and a series of bilateral trade agreements with mutually beneficial partners. Their movement altogether can be summarized as “socially conservative and economically illiberal.”
Nationalists and Technocrats
Primary, productive sectors are thus the material basis for Nationalism in the US today, and the secondary, support sectors for Technocracy. Farmers, oil drillers, coal miners, frackers, blue collar management, land developers, and businesses and professionals serving those sectors, especially labor-oriented small businesses and construction — these folks voted for Trump, they support Republicans, and they are Nationalists.
Educated professionals, tech workers, artists, teachers, academics, creative class folks, public sector employees, NGO staffers, and the services supporting them — food service, architects, design, consulting, etc. — these folks vote Democrat and are dominated by Technocratic narratives.
There are, to be sure, the occasional Frackers for Hillary or Hippies for Trump, and there are some structural exceptions — cops are government employees, for example, but typically Nationalist. But on average these sectors tend towards these politics. Note again that we are talking about management and ownership. Rank-and-file workers are typically unrepresented altogether — a 2014 Census Bureau study found that at least 57% of families making under $30,000 a year outright said they do NOT vote, ever.
Nonetheless, we do still have elections, and so both sides have narratives to obscure their responsibility for our present problems. Both are in service to the same basic interests — capital — and so neither actually talks about power. They each revert to the prejudices of their material basis to explain the world without reference to real distributions of resources.
For Nationalists this means referring to both their patriarchal perspectives and their roots in specific places. The problem is rejection of traditional values, folks not from around here, or the internal colonies of the United States — immigrants, people of color, women, young people, the poor, the Third World, LGBTQ people, etc. Their solutions are restrictive and exclusionary — keep these people or products out of this place.
Technocrats, on the other hand, refer to their basis in virtual spaces and their trade in intellectual products. The problem is a lack of creativity or innovation; technique is more important than political structures, not the other way around. Innovation in and of itself will solve the problem. They claim openness, but access is nonetheless limited by access to capital, just as Nationalist solutions exclude based on place.
In the past, the politics of distributing the social surplus to the middle class were either liberal (we should actively distribute the surplus as widely as possible) or conservative (we should limit our active role and tolerate a more narrow distribution). Now that there is no need to distribute the surplus because the masses can’t do anything about it the question is what do we blame for their continued stagnation and decline — outsiders or backwardness? What sort of illiberal rule will we have in the future — chauvinism or a tyranny of experts and machines?
Nationalists and Technocrats in a Global Context
Globally speaking, the end of mass middle class politics might be relevant in Europe, but this doesn’t really explain Nationalism’s currency in places that never had such surplus distribution in the first place — India, Turkey, or the Philippines, for example. What unites the whole world, however, is the fact that for the first time ever in 2007 a majority of humanity lived in urban areas and not in rural settings.
This is a world historic event as capitalism’s growth has always depended upon regular infusions of primitive accumulation — the act of driving people out of subsistence agriculture and self-sufficient folkways and into the labor market and commodity consumption.
Once a worker is in the city, being exploited, you can only increase their surplus production by working them longer or harder or paying them less. Each has significant physical limitations. When they move from the farm into the city, however, they go from a point of near zero exploitation to a whole lot more than zero: an infinite percent increase in exploitation.
The entire value chain in the imperialist centers could not exist without the steady expansion of primitive accumulation, and so the struggle between the Technocrats and the Nationalists is about what strategies should be pursued to address its imminent end.
Nationalism argues that nations must restrict the outflow of their gains, and minimize sharing the shrinking global surplus. These restrictions should be implemented domestically by heightening the exclusion of already oppressed groups (Black folks in the US, Arabs in Israel, the Moros in the Philippines, Roma in Europe, etc.), internationally against subordinate nations by restricting their rights to migration and remittance, and against other peer nations by exiting traditional alliances or demanding different material arrangements for them. Trump’s hostility to NATO is one example, the crackup of the Gulf Cooperation Council is another.
Technocracy takes a different view. They recognize that the institutions the Nationalists wish to upset are the ones that make primitive surplus possible in the first place. Rural Third World populations are forced into urban wage work when First World products flood their cash crop markets, robbing them of the income they need for basic necessities.
Their governments can’t do anything because of the free trade agreements, but they can offer jobs in the city thanks to foreign investment. That investment follows those same trade agreements and their “free trade zones” with their acute exploitation of these workers. The agreements also establish unrestricted capital flows to ensure the capitalists can bring their money back home with no trouble and no taxes.
If any government tries to protect their native industries while demanding a share of the capitalist spoils, these same international alliances will subject those regimes to military action or economic war — sanctions, sabotage, etc. See, for example, Venezuela. In the meantime they preclude this possibility through weapons deals to the ruling regimes, giving them the tools they need to keep their own populations in line along with some hefty kickbacks and bribes.
Threatening these institutions right now is the height of foolishness, the Technocrats claim, and this then threatens to hasten the crisis, not hedge against it. The Technocrats want to protect the goose, while the Nationalists want to hoard the golden eggs.
The Geography of Nationalism and Technocracy
This global divide has very specific domestic geography with important political implications. Nationalists, based in agriculture and extraction, tend to live in rural areas. Cheaper land in the exurbs also attracts families who put stock in land ownership, typically more patriarchal, Nationalist elements. Between 2004 and 2016 89% of US counties with under 100,000 people became more Republican.
Nationalists also congregate in industrial areas reeling from the shift of labor-intensive manufacturing out of the United States. In 2016 the 20 congressional districts with the most manufacturing jobs were all represented by Republicans — in 1992 15 of the 20 were represented by Democrats. Their struggles make them even more susceptible to Nationalist political resentment.
This makes it difficult for people of color, even those in the primary/productive sectors, to be in political coalition with the Nationalists. They have been left to the Democratic Party regardless of their interests. Professional class elements from these communities claim power there — more than 60% of the Black or Latino Democrats in the Texas House of Representatives are attorneys, for example.
Technocrats are most dominant in cities; the concentration of communities of color in urban areas only underscores this. There is a Technocratic core in every city’s professional class, but they especially rule in places invested in the high end of the value chain: tech and advanced manufacturing (Seattle, Austin); finance (San Francisco, New York); cultural production (Los Angeles, Portland); and research and education (the Research Triangle, Boston)
The US Constitution was written by and for large landowners; rural areas have disproportionate power in the US political system as a result. This provides a structural advantage to the Nationalists, which is how Trump can be so widely reviled and yet likely to win reelection.
The Struggles for Control of the Major Parties
Since the 2008 financial crisis these two movements have sought to unify control of their respective political parties. Obama was the arch Technocrat, and his policy initiatives are the priorities of the Technocratic movement today: Obamacare, “education reform,” cap-and-trade, urbanist housing policy, drone warfare, and “job training” for displaced workers, chiefly.
In each case the Technocrats ignore fundamental injustices in how education, healthcare, environmental protection, housing, war, or employment are organized, instead to focusing on their delivery. The result is that the style of access changes with some marginal cases making gains, but the vast majority of people will still be in the same position. Structures of power are ignored, “innovation” in process is fetishized.
Your schools still suck, but not because of “bad” unions. Your healthcare still sucks, but you have insurance. Your air quality still sucks, but the polluter is planting some trees now. You are still poor, but now you know how to drive a forklift. Your landlord is still screwing you, but you live in a highrise. We kill poor people abroad by the thousands,but the US military has no casualties.
The “innovative solutions” give the sense of doing something, but the bosses are untouched — the Technocratic dream.
Obama’s victory meant he could impose his factional interests on his party. The Republican Party, on the other hand, had no such discipline. They engaged in a multi-year internal battle between the traditional conservatives — ”establishment Republicans” — and the Nationalists. The former were still focused on rejecting popular economic intervention; the latter placed a priority on activist policies of exclusion. The old guard retained their traditional “pragmatism,” while the Nationalists — at first called the Tea Party — read this as cosmopolitanism.
Through bitter primary battles in 2010 and 2012 the Nationalists consolidated their position, and in 2016 Donald Trump — a Nationalist candidate so seemingly ludicrous journalists literally laughed at the idea he might win — led the field from the moment he announced his run. As president he has a higher level of support within his party than almost any other president ever recorded; the battle for the GOP is over, the Nationalists have won.
The Rise of “Left” Nationalism
Since 2016, however, the unanimity in the Democratic Party has broken. Now out of power they are experiencing their own debate on the question, led by a labor-focused “Left” Nationalist challenge from Bernie Sanders and his allies. This Nationalism is “left” in the sense that it is to the left of the Democratic Party establishment and other Nationalists, but should not be confused with leftist national liberation efforts elsewhere in the world.
This challenge has a significant mass base, especially among declassed young working people. The Left Nationalists claim to represent the productive sectors and service workers, demanding a revival of New Deal style economic nationalism. These policies were nationalist because they sought to create a middle class out of the national surplus and in the national interest. They often supported nationalist trade policies as well, and they have less to say about Trump’s protectionism than their Technocrat party mates.
Sanders and his allies do not share the GOP Nationalists’ hostility to “Others,” though they have tried to reduce competing national interests to merely economic concerns. The idea that economic nationalism can solve cultural problems is a neat inverse of the Right Nationalist idea that cultural nationalism will solve economic problems.
Left Nationalists directly contradict the Technocratic priorities: education should be socialized and teachers’ unions strengthened (not eliminated), healthcare should be partially nationalized and insurance companies kneecapped (not strengthened), mandatory wage increases should be imposed and the market restricted (not trusted), fracking should be banned, pipeline construction halted, and carbon should be left in the ground (not extracted and then securitized).
As for drone warfare there is no daylight between Sanders and the Technocrats, and urbanism is an unresolved terrain. It is here, therefore, that the Technocrats are threatening to corrupt their left opposition.
The Threat Posed by Left Nationalism
This is a Technocratic priority because the intraparty disputes are not created equal. In the GOP, establishment conservatives focus on irrelevant questions, but they are in line with the interests of capital. Left Nationalists, on the other hand, want to undo of a major historic victory for capital. This makes them subject to hostility from the ruling class.
Note that despite affinity for the name “socialist” they are merely pushing for the restoration of arrangements capital tolerated for decades. This is why their movement is acceptable if still hotly opposed, while efforts that directly contest the fundamental logic of capital are suppressed — e.g. Occupy.
Because they address the material questions of the moment both Nationalism and Technocracy are guaranteed to be the dominant elements of their respective parties. If they were not, they would have to form a new party to represent those interests and that party would become immediately relevant (see, for example, Macron’s En Marche in France, or AMLO’s MORENA Party in Mexico). But the fact that both sides of the GOP fight are acceptable to the ruling class allows for much more cooperation within that party than exists between the sides of the Democrats’ fight. The Left Nationalists must be defeated.
There are a variety of strategies and tactics for doing this. Most notable was the conspiracy by the Democratic Party’s hierarchy to eliminate any chance that Bernie Sanders might win their nomination. More subtle is a strategy of pseudo-cooperation to capture the energy of the Left Nationalists. It’s the strategy commercially-inclined conservatives used on Nationalists when they would promise to end abortion access, for instance, and then do little meaningful on the issue.
Technocrat darlings Kamala Harris and Cory Booker sponsoring “Medicare for All” is an example of this, but the Left Nationalist vanguard can see through this ploy. Much more effective is to find a way to make the left adopt a Technocratic line that they believe to be their own. Urbanism is a perfect ideological Trojan Horse for this strategic purpose.
The Urbanist Corruption of Progressive Politics
The lack of a coherent Left Nationalist alternative on housing makes it easy for Technocrats to put forward policies that claim to address housing insecurity while appealing to their ideological prejudices. Left Nationalist skeptics of urbanism typically respond in one of two ways. First is an emphasis on the Nationalism of Left Nationalism, a hostility to newcomers.
Urbanists attempt to draw parallels between this position and Trump-style xenophobia. The major difference is that newcomers in gentrifying areas are — by definition — wealthier than traditional residents, and Nationalists welcome rich white neighbors. It’s the immigrants and people of color they want to exclude, i.e. the people distressed by gentrification. Urbanist moral conflation of wealthy tech industry managers with destitute refugees is proof positive of their fundamental dishonesty.
Yet this does not make the Left Nationalist position any less erroneous. They err by focusing their ire at the consumers of property — culpable as they may be — as opposed to its producers, tenants and residents rather than landlords and developers. This bad analysis gives rise to ineffective solutions.
Their alternative then is to put the emphasis instead on the leftism of Left Nationalism, demanding more public housing or other apparent alternatives, such as community land trusts.
Urbanists, however, shift these questions to matters of delivery. The real estate industrial complex can easily accommodate community land trusts, inclusionary zoning, density bonuses etc. They can also elide the differences between public housing and privately controlled “affordable housing,” including non-profit developments. They skillfully use a little bit of non-profit housing to sugarcoat the bitterness of new gentrifying developments.
They say “let’s have all of the above!” reinforcing their message that supply and demand — again, questions of delivery and access — are the issues at hand, not ownership and power. We just need a different kind of shelter; then the problem will be solved. That the regulations preventing this “innovation” are restrictions on land only underscores their claim that their opponents are reactionary Nationalists.
“If only we could break the power of retrograde property owners and their outdated, suburban neighborhoods tied to the extraction industry, then the progressive forces of creativity and innovation could be unleashed to make housing cheaper, benefiting everyone.” Is this not a good summary of the urbanist line? It works because it echoes the primary material divide in our politics between Technocrats and Nationalists.
Opposition to reactionary Nationalism is exploited in other ways too. “Innovative” industries appear to be mostly social upside with none of the ugliness of agriculture, extraction, or heavy industry. The social liberalism of these secondary sectors also makes it easy to be friends with their advocates. Of course all capital is produced by exploitation, but the global nature of the technical/service industries means they may do their exploitation on the other side of the world, out of sight and out of mind.
Left Nationalists can accept this because they are imperialists, hence why Technocratic drone warfare is only an issue for their fringe, and why they are comfortable operating in the imperialist Democratic Party. Like all political errors it leads to confusion about who are their friends and who is their enemy.
Technocrats take advantage of this, starting from a place of apparent social openness and nodding along with New Deal-style ideas about public housing. When they call neighborhood activists xenophobes just like the GOP Nationalists, or shit on the suburbs this too appeals to leftists. If the Left Nationalists happen to actually threaten the landlord class with an idea like rent control, the urbanists turn on them quickly. But if they are somewhere like Texas where this isn’t possible the idea of upzoning to increase supply and lower costs sounds right. Didn’t we learn that in high school?
At that point the ideology put in our heads by the class enemy meets up with the finance capitalist deregulation agenda, and the “socialists” end up pushing the same line as the Chamber of Commerce.
The End Game for Urbanism
The end result is very clear: more entitlements make land more profitable, raising rents and driving out working people. Allowing more supply is not the same thing as actually building it, and the landlords will only do what makes them the most money. That means charging the highest possible rents, leeching the lifeblood out of the working class as purely worthless parasites. Urbanists gleefully encourage this raw exploitation.
Over time working families will either be forced out of the city altogether or warehoused in “microunits” and other tenements of the future. The Technocrats will get a nice assist from Nationalist-controlled courts when they overturn any affordability mandates on privately-owned properties. Because the left couldn’t tell the difference between public housing and privately-owned “affordable” housing even more families will be displaced.
So long as working families are isolated or disenfranchised everywhere they live they can’t accomplish any of their other demands. The Left Nationalist project will be defeated, and with it any pretense that the US state governs for the public at large. Cities will be left for the Technocrats, the rest of the country pretending at feudalism while practicing the most hateful sort of capitalism.
What Then is The Truth?
If all of this comes to pass because leftists are confused about power in housing, then we need some clear, radical truths to avoid such errors: landlords raise rents, and developers displace people. The capitalist real estate industrial complex is responsible for gentrification, raising rents and displacing people because it makes them money.
Giving these elements more power through deregulation will only make things worse. Depending on them to provide housing to the working class is guaranteed to end up screwing those families. The only solution is to break their power and to transfer control of housing to working people.
This should not be hard to grasp. Left Nationalists get that the problem with health care, for example, is that it is controlled by for-profit corporations. The solution can only come by ending the profit motive and giving control to the public. They need to extend this same logic to housing, and to recognize that just as the idea of reducing health care costs by making everybody buy insurance is bullshit, so is the idea that upzoning the city will make housing affordable.
It’s the exact same logic coming from the exact same sources, and they are entirely antagonistic to the interests of the working class. They cannot be accommodated, only defeated.
These sorts of mistakes will keep popping up as long as these “socialists” refuse to actually pursue a socialist line. We need clear truth on this too. Socialism is the demand that production be brought under the control of the working class, seizing the value chain as a whole. Simply demanding that capitalists give workers more isn’t socialism, and it will — again — confuse that primary question of all politics: who are our enemies, and who are our friends?
The lines are already clearly drawn. We have to step outside the mystifying discourse dominant in so-called progressive politics today and its Technocratic fetish for “innovation” so that we can see the enemy with both eyes open. We have to organize tenants to ultimately take all housing for themselves, to eradicate the landlord class altogether.
We can beat them if we stay clear on the tasks at hand, and we can start on that road to victory today.