Interview: Brian Francis Culkin, Author of ‘The Meaning of Donald Trump’

Brian Francis Culkin is a writer, theorist, and film director. He has written extensively about topics including contemporary urban gentrification, analyses of 21st century global capitalism, heroin addiction in modern American society, and the cultural development of Boston, Massachusetts. In his recently-published book, The Meaning of Donald Trump, he presents an ideological critique of the US President in which his election is the natural consequence of a logic that is innate to neoliberal globalisation.

A key area of discussion in your book is neoliberalism and how Donald Trump is both a physical embodiment and a symbolic rejection of neoliberal politics. I was wondering if you could clarify what we mean when we talk about neoliberalism, and how it relates to Trump.

Neoliberalism, explained simply, is an ideological development that began in the 1980s. In many ways, its infancy was signified by the double-election of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. It’s basically a radicalised form of capitalism.

In the post-war era from the late ‘40s into the late ‘70s, you had what was called “consensus capitalism”; embedded liberal capitalism; the welfare state. It was a time when capital, labour and the state all reached a basic consensus of how things were going to operate.

What happened in the 1980s is that arrangement began to disintegrate, and one of the main reasons was technological development. With neoliberalism, the state stops properly regulating capitalism, so all of a sudden corporate power can effectively do what it wants.

This coincides perfectly, in England, with industries like docking and mining going away. The traditional, stable, 9-to-5 job with pensions disappeared. What you get is a society populated by what we call “precarious labour”. There is no longer any stability because capitalism is now functioning in a way that it doesn’t actually want to provide that; it’s freed from that. So neoliberalism speaks to this integration of capitalism with very powerful computational technologies which the government can no longer regulate.

In America, the Rust Belt—Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan—these communities were centrepieces of union labour, factory labour and mining. For a period of time they were working, middle-class people who had a decent life. They weren’t setting the world on fire, but it was a decent life. And what happened, starting in the ‘80s, is those jobs left. They went to China, or Mexico, to find cheaper labour markets. Neoliberalism enabled that process.

What you’ve had since then is a total and complete collapse. Not just economic, but symbolic also. There is no longer any meaning in these places. What neoliberalism specialises in, ideologically, is the displacement of blame from economics onto social problems. ‘Ah, these people are racist. They’re homophobic. They’re against transgender bathrooms.’ And yeah, it’s true that a lot of these people are like that, but it’s also convenient for neoliberalism; displacing its core problem, radical deregulation, and relocating it in culture.

It’s very similar to Brexit. The people against Brexit assumed the people who supported it were just racist nationalists who didn’t want any immigrants. Again, that’s probably true for some people, but it seems like the overwhelming majority were regular people who saw problems with the EU in front of their very eyes but weren’t able to articulate it in a theoretical way, so their response was to say, ‘We have to do Brexit. We have to get out of this.’

So neoliberal capitalism is producing these incredible antagonisms and fissures across the socioeconomic field, and it’s impressive how it manages to put the blame elsewhere as it does so. That’s where Trump comes into play. As intellectually-unsophisticated as he is in terms of articulating a coherent politics, his ability to manipulate the media is genius. He came into this political matrix at a very specific time, and said the words—not right words, I don’t believe in them at all—that awakened and mobilised people who are still with him today.

That’s a brief history. What we’ve seen happening since the ‘80s is a basic idea; constant development of capitalist power combined with technologies that have progressively eroded our social and public spaces for deregulation and privatisation. Neoliberalism, de facto, wants to privatise everything. Facebook, for example, turned friendship, something that was always beyond the reach of capital, into something which could be monetised, quantified. These are all part and parcel to the neoliberal system.

That individualism feels like one of the worst consequences of neoliberalism. Since Reagan and Thatcher, an individualist politic arose that encouraged voters to focus purely on their own material position – ‘Yes, food banks are increasing, rents are rising, wages are stagnating, but you’re doing alright, aren’t you?’

That’s one of the saddest aspects of neoliberalism. It allowed capitalism to mete out its own idea of justice in society, breaking down social spaces from the nuclear family, to public resources, to friendship, anything that is “human”. It wants to transform that into a technological feature that can be monetised.

The aim is not only to individualise everything, but to break it down to cellular, genetic, algorithmic levels. I’ve recently been reading about neuromarketing. Corporations are now targeting the brains of people. This is a wonderful example of neoliberalism in action, because it actually goes past the individual, right down to the brain. There’s this prevailing feeling today that society has become increasingly individualised and therefore narcissistic, self-centred, which has then caused a breakdown of community, family, our relationship to nature; what I would call a “spiritual decomposition”. So then you have the emergence of hyper-individualistic practices, yoga studios and so on, to try and offset that basic consequence of neoliberal alienation.

Gilles Deleuze, one of the great philosophers of the twentieth century, wrote a very important essay in 1990 called ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’. In it, he basically says that in the future we’ll be pining for the days of the factory. What he meant was, in the ‘40s or ‘50s, the factory was the symbolic space of industrialised capitalism. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but you were working with people, side by side. There was this sense of brotherhood.

And what Deleuze observed in the 1990s was the rise of the corporation, the tech company, and how it turned people against each other in constant, individualised competition. He said we would be wishing for the days when our lives weren’t universally controlled by market forces and technological intrusions. And what’s happening right now, as neoliberalism becomes increasingly pathological, is people are tired. They’re exhausted. They know that it’s just not working anymore. And it’s unbelievable how nostalgic our culture is these days. All these movies and TV shows like Stranger Things. They’re fundamental reactions to neoliberalism, nostalgia for the “good old days”, a time before hyper-technology and monetisation of our inner lives and friendships took over society.

The really sad thing is this is a point that both the left and the right would agree with if you said it in the correct way, but neither side can fully grasp that this is happening to both of them, for different reasons. Neoliberalism doesn’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. It’s an abstract ideological project, and it’s mediating everything.

That point about Deleuze is interesting, because in East London you have all these creative agencies and tech firms in converted factories, breweries and textile houses, and the employees wear American workwear brands like Dickies and Carhartt. I remember thinking a few years back how it felt like this performative act, signifying, ‘I am a worker. I make things.’ Because we don’t make anything anymore. We make ideas and concepts and strategies. And we need some way of locating ourselves in the world of the ‘real’.

Subjectivity has become a project; a do-it-yourself situation. A hundred years ago, you would be born into a working class family in East London—on the docks, for example. The process was already structured by the social symbolic system in which you were living. Whereas today, you’re totally mediated by the “free market”, so identity is incredibly plastic and fluid. People have absolutely no idea who they are today, so there’s this constant need to assert your identity through market mechanisms. To brand yourself. If you really think about that, it’s the most outrageous idea, as a living flesh human being, to brand yourself.

I’m not familiar with the specifics of East London, but I’ve written two books on gentrification, so I understand the idea of former industrialised, working class neighbourhoods being handed over to capital. Gentrification is basically neoliberalism in an urban environment. What you see in East London is very similar to what’s happened in Brooklyn, South Boston, all through the Rust Belt, where these former ethnic-based, working class neighborhoods, where everybody worked on the docks, or in factories, or in mining, those neighborhoods went through a crisis in the ‘70s, just as the industrial economy was collapsing.

So they went through a gradual collapse over two or three decades, and then suddenly became hip and cool. By the second decade of the 21st century, you’ve got million-dollar flats. They became these exclusive neighborhoods for the cognitive workforce of the global economy. And that urbanisation is another aspect of neoliberalism. Drawing people out of their local communities, out of the countryside, and bringing everybody into the city.

The reason I’ve written two books on gentrification is because, to me, it’s the key concept of the 21st century. We’re no longer living in a world with “nation states”; we’re moving into a geopolitical era where we’re just going to be living in massive cities, and gentrification is really important for understanding the links between capitalism and technology functioning in urban spaces.

Capital always requires new resources to extract, expropriate and build upon. It’s almost as if it’s begun to turn inward on itself.

Human beings are the new resource. The ways that we produce, our neural power, our genes, our basic biological space are the new gold and silver mines of the 21st century. So yes, capitalism is going through a crisis right now, because there is no more physical space to exploit. It’s migrating into the virtual and biological realm.

This is what’s problematic fundamentally. The world feels crazy right now, like the sky is falling. Capitalism, in a way, is the sky. It’s an ideological horizon. It surrounds and envelopes us. We feel this incredible instability today, not knowing what will happen tomorrow. This symbolic field of meaning which is determined by capitalism is disintegrating. So in a way, it’s bad, right? But to be honest with you, I’m incredibly hopeful for the future. People are waking up and asking these questions.

It’s funny that you use the phrase ‘waking up’, because I just wrote a piece about Vanilla Sky and, this desire to scream out for tech support. You talk to people, and there’s this prevailing feeling that something is fundamentally broken.

That’s a great scene. And it’s an interesting moment in that film because that cry for tech support is really an existential call for God. That’s how I read that moment. He’s trapped in this virtual universe, and his symbolic reality collapses and he’s saying, ‘Tech support, where are you? You’re supposed to help me!’ And it’s a wonderful example of how, every day, people are crying out for help.

As the instability of this system that we’re in—globalised capitalism, neoliberalism, whatever you want to call it—further decomposes, that call will become louder. But people need to have the strength to do it together. That involves work to make sure we’re not shaming people and closing them off, because it forecloses the possibility of us being able to share this search for meaning.

It also speaks to the inability of the current order to confront the issues of the day. It was encapsulated during the 2016 election campaign when Hillary Clinton responded to Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again”, by saying ‘America is already great.’ What do you think that says about the state of the liberal establishment, and how unable or unwilling they are to respond to the politics of the right?

One of the real blind spots of the Democratic Party is this tendency to talk out of both sides of their mouths. One day they’re saying America is already great, the next day they’re saying America is the most racist country in history. It’s this back-and-forth where they can’t form a coherent narrative. It modulates to any negativity or resistance that they experience.

And there are parts of America’s history that are bad. There’s no doubt about it. Colonisation of other countries, especially in the Middle East, and our political interferences in Latin America. Of course this isn’t good. But in another sense, America has a wonderful history in the Arts, technology, the First Amendment—these are wonderful things that America has done. And on the other side you have slavery, corporate colonisation. What’s important is that we talk about this in an honest way.

So to say America’s already great? I don’t know, it’s kind of a ridiculous statement because you’re responding directly to Trump. But to say make America great again? Yeah, let’s do that. But when he says that, he disavows all of the shadow side in which America wasn’t great. If we really want to make America great again, then we have to come clean with ourselves and the world, and tell the whole story, just like a human being would. This is the basic idea of redemption, whether in the personal or political field.

I double-majored in Philosophy and American History in college, so for me American history is endlessly fascinating, but I’m absolutely aware that there are parts of our story that are not great. We’ve lost the ability to hold two views at the same time; it’s a zero-sum game.

So in America, we need to develop the cognitive ability to hold two views at once. America was great. It also wasn’t great. There’s nothing inherently false about that. It’s a consequence of the statement itself. Clearly I wasn’t a fan of Trump, but I found that statement to be a very dishonest retort to his basic gesture.

In Capitalist Realism Mark Fisher talks about capitalism being inherently bipolar, with its phases of mania and depression. There was something about both Clinton and Trump that was ideologically schizophrenic. The only thing they truly believed in was the market, and they were two schizophrenic consequences of that belief system. Anything else, particularly from the Democrats, was simply an attempt to rationalise an increasingly-manic system.

There’s an incredible instability to their personal views. And the media’s attempts to find the smoothed-out narrative of the Democrats and Republicans created this clear division, when in actuality, you’re correct, it functions much more unstably.

Bill Clinton did more as a liberal Democrat than anyone to unleash capital from its chains. He presided over a period when capitalism first became integrated with computational technology. You could day-trade and enjoy this host of new, exotic products on Wall Street, as well as the dot-com boom.

When that market crashed in the late ‘90s, there was a reorganisation of capital that went into real estate markets, flooding the economy with mortgage products that were traded on the secondary market as bonds and derivatives. When Obama came in, as that market crashed, capital reorganised itself again, this time into tech giants—Facebook, airbnb, Uber.

Now, when that crash happens, it’s going to be absolutely monumental. But what Mark Fisher is talking about there is the same thing Marx told us 150 years ago; capitalism always emerges from its self-created crises in a new form. That’s the basic operation of capitalism. It creates problems, and then it “solves” its own problems.

The problem we’re having is one of consciousness. We are becoming progressively sicker from our proximity to raw market power and unregulated technology. Clearly we’re becoming physically sicker, with crises in obesity and the quality of food we’re eating. And clearly we’re becoming mentally sicker in America, with the various drugs people are taking, these terrible school shootings, the collapse of people’s ability to create cognitive maps of the world. But most essentially, there’s a spiritual blackout; a lack of meaning.

The language of self-care that we’re seeing at the moment on social media is in many ways the individualist response to neoliberalism, and it’s vitally important. But the next step is taking those principles and turning them outward into communities and the social sphere.

I absolutely believe in self-care. We cannot take care of other people if we ourselves are not well inside. But I do believe that neoliberalism doesn’t extend that self-care into the social sphere. We have to push that into a collective, communal experience that is totally and completely free from capitalism. It’s not even about rejecting technology—to me, technology is great—but when it becomes integrated with corporate power and capitalism then it becomes dangerous. And I have total faith that these things are going to emerge in the next few years.

There used to be this phenomenon in the UK called “TV pickup” where power stations would increase their output in the evenings because everyone would be watching TV together. When the commercial break came on, everyone would turn on their kettles to make cups of tea, causing a nationwide power surge.

In America, when I was a little kid, everybody watched Cheers on Thursday nights at 8:30. Everybody. I was 6-years old and my parents used to let me stay up and watch it. My grandmother was from Liverpool, and she lived with us when I was little, and every single night she would watch Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, and I’d have to make the cups of tea for her.

Today, everybody watches their private shows by themselves. It signifies a collapse of our social or public life. And one of the dishonest things that neoliberalism does is it says, ‘All these people back then were racist bigots,’ and it’s just not true! Was there structural racism? Yes. But were all these people raving, misogynistic animals? Of course not. My experience, both of my grandfathers were feminists; soft, gentle, hard-working men—outside of the structure within which they were raised and conditioned.

And at the same time, let’s not do a Donald Trump and whitewash it and say there weren’t problems of structural misogyny and racism. It absolutely was there. But I think the point we’re making is that this system that mainstream liberalism is now trying to defend in many ways is proving itself to be equally if not more problematic. And I think people on both sides are starting to realise—certainly on Trump’s side. They elected a reality TV star to be President, so they were willing to roll the dice all the way.

You wrote the book in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election, and say throughout that you didn’t know how Trump’s presidency would turn out. Two years on, many questions seem answered. What’s your take on him now, and how do you think your writing and predictions then compare to the reality?

Well, another of the consequences of neoliberalism is the collapse of the future. We live in real time now. We barely know where we’re going to be even a week from now. If you were a regular working class guy in Liverpool in 1960, you had a good idea where you’d be 20 years from now. Today, the exact opposite is true. You don’t even know where you’re going to be a month from now. There is structural instability to the neoliberal order.

So, in terms of Trump, the sky hasn’t fallen, but my prediction is that if the Democrats win the House in a couple of weeks, which it’s beginning to look like they will, there will be impeachment proceedings, and that will be incredibly destabilising to the country. But you just never know what’s going to happen these days. But if they win the House, there will be tremendous political theatre.

Since his election, we’ve seen the rise of more overtly fascist parties in other countries, most recently Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. We’re already seeing mainstream news outlets write about markets “rallying” around him, completely skirting his fascist rhetoric and the clear threat he poses to the environment and non-white communities. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on him.

I have a particular problem with him. I spent about 2 years of my life living in the middle of the Amazon with a community of Indigenous people, so my heart is in the Amazon. It’s a very special place where I spent a pivotal moment of my life and I have a lot of friends there. So this guy, particularly, I find horrifying. I find how he views the Amazon as a meaningless space fit for economic expansion… there’s no words for it, really.

Brazil has a lot of state-run industries, such as power, water and transportation. His idea is to privatise them totally; give them all over to corporate power. And this has developed enormous interest. Jamie Dimon (CEO of JPMorgan Chase)  has said he’s very bullish on Brazil in the future. So when you see this, you see the cards being played for what they are. Spiritual and ecological devastation, communal subjugation and psychological collapse.

But I spoke to a good friend of mine who’s a psychologist in São Paulo a few weeks ago, and I asked her, is this madman going to win or not, and she said, ‘Yes he is, but the guy he’s running against is even worse.’ So when she said that, I was pretty horrified. They didn’t have anyone to go up against him, and he won. The people of Brazil were sick and tired of the bullshit, so they rolled the dice on a madman, just like we did.

So again, people have to wake up and see what’s going on, and hopefully he won’t do too much damage to the Amazon before his time is up.

The Meaning of Trump is available now from Zero Books
Alternatively, request it at your local bookstore or library.
Find out more about Brian Culkin’s work at his website.

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3 thoughts on “Interview: Brian Francis Culkin, Author of ‘The Meaning of Donald Trump’

  1. Calogero LoGrasso

    Incredibly insightful piece. When it comes to writing about globalization, neoliberalism and gentrification, Brian Culkin is in a class all his own. He can perfectly articulate his message because he’s experienced it firsthand.