When Donald Trump spoke of draining the Washington swamp, he conjured a very different image up in my mind to the one he intended. I immediately thought of an old film that I had watched entitled ‘The Creature from the Swamp’. In this film the inhabitants of a small American town are terrorised by a creature from the swamp. This creature has been created from the interaction of the chemical discharges from the town’s factories with one of the embryonic reptilian creatures developing in the swamp. Needless to say after a number of deaths the creature is killed by the ‘all American Hero’ a man who was a feature of so many films of the fifties. I should have added that this film included the fainting helpless blonde who attracted the desire of the swamp creature and who had to be saved from the creature by the all American hero. If Donald Trump has seen this film he would have identified with the all American hero, instead of seeing the swamp creature as an all too realistic portrayal of himself.
The swamp creature I believe provides a very useful analogy for the understanding the politics of our time (and the misguided economic policies of those politicians). There are I believe many cultural swamps within our culture that damage and distort the personalities of the people within them. Although it may appear an unfair comparison, I think there are two similar swamp cultures within our society that are particularly damaging. One is the criminal sub culture that produces the bosses of organised crime and the other that entrepreneurial subculture, usually focused around property development, that produces the new class of sociopath entrepreneurs.What both cultures produce is a people who lack empathy, who lack an understanding or appreciation of others. These creatures rise to the top through a career that involves the destruction of others. The sociopath crime boss or entrepreneur sees others either as an obstacle to their advancement which has to be overcome or as tools that can be used to advance their interests. What both swamp creatures lack is empathy as they cannot see others except as either having or not having a ‘use value’. They are incapable of recognising the humanity of the other, people for them as people don’t exist. Only by denying the humanity of the other can practise the cruelties and deceits which are the prerequisites of their success.
In a radio programme I heard how the Tony Schwartz the author of ‘Trump: the art of the Deal’ describe how he first came into contact with Donald Trump. He was a journalist working in New York and he was sent to investigate a redevelopment project for which Donald Trump was responsible. He discovered that Donald Trump had hired a firm who specialised in getting those with a legal right to remain in their home to move. (He could only redevelop an empty apartment block so he needed these people out.) They could make it undesirable for these tenants to remain by removing the lights from corridors or putting lifts out of action. What is significant about this story is how Donald Trump turns what could be a human obstacle into a tool for their own use? The journalist Tony Schwartz was so captivated by Donald Trump the man, that he agreed to write a book on Trump the deal maker. The book was a tremendous success and it made Donald Trump into a national and international celebrity. Such a favourable public image is essential for the sociopath hungry for power. The mythic status of being a deal maker turns the uglier aspects of the personality, the ruthless and abusive personal manner into something more positive. Donald Trump became the man who could get things done, which became the essence of his successful Presidency campaign.
Despite my reservations the sociopath can fulfil a useful function in society. It was Robert Merton who said that crime and organised crime fulfilled an invaluable role in society. They made available to people products or services that they otherwise could not get. Without organised crime the low income addict could not get their drugs and the city financial dealer their cocaine. Some accounts suggest that cocaine is the essential tool for maintaining that high level of frenzied intellectual activity which makes a successful trader. Similarly many of the great entrepreneurs of the past such as Andrew Carnegie America demonstrated the ruthless behaviours characteristic of a sociopath. He believed that steel worker union was hampering him in his efforts to trade union prevent him from make Carnegie steel into the largest and most efficient maker of steel in the USA. He decided that he would remove this obstacle which resulted in the notorious Homestead Strike of 1892. He employed the Pinkerton Detective Agency to break up the steel workers strike. Extreme acts of violence were committed against the trade unionists and by the trade unionists in their defence. Ultimately the ruthless boss triumphed. Other businessmen were not above using organised crime to deny the worker their rights in their endeavours to make their businesses more profitable. Jimmy Hoffa the boss of the Teamster’s Union decided to fight fire with fire and he allied himself with organised crime to use the employers weapons against them. He was so successful that many of the dockyards in the 20th century USA were in effect controlled by the Teamsters Union and their allies in the American mafia. Although I can condemn these men as monsters, they performed an essential role in driving the American economy forward.
While Donald Trump is but a pale imitation of the great entrepreneurs such as Andrew Carnegie. This particular monster is far more damaging to American society, as the damage he has done to the social fabric is not matched by any benefits accrued to the wider society. A steel mill is far more beneficial than a casino, for example the former requires skilled highly paid workers, the latter the reverse. The one single factor that makes the difference is that in 1890 although Andrew Carnegie was able to subvert the local legal system and manipulate it to his advantage, the larger national legal system remained largely uncorrupted. Andrew Carnegie was a monster but his monstrous activities were largely constrained within a manner that benefitted society. In contemporary America there are no longer the legal constraints limiting the damage that these people can inflict on society. Wolfgang Streeck describes American variously as a kleptocracy or oligarchy. It is a state in which the rich oligarchs can use their money to bend and twist the law to suit their purposes. Just recently the US senate passed a law guaranteeing the US banks unlimited and ‘no questions asked bailouts’ in the event of another financial crisis. The monsters are no longer constrained in their behaviours in a manner that ensure that there activities work largely to benefit to the wider American society.
In a successful and viable social system monsters such as Donald Trump would be constrained. He would have been the owner of a small chain of casinos and leisure centres, the legal system would have prevented his ‘walking away’ from his serial failures. Unfortunately in the current US the legal system has been rendered ineffective in regulating the bad behaviour of rich oligarchs, so there is now no limit on what these monsters can achieve. There is a similar change taking place in the UK. There is on disturbing example that proves this, when the EU was proposing to introduce legislation to make money laundering more difficult, the British government successfully lobbied against it. The City of London had argued that if the legislation was passed British banks would be at a disadvantage, as other countries would not observe the law, while the British government would operate it to their competitive disadvantage.This spurious argument worked and the UK is now called the world’s largest tax haven by the IMF.
Unfortunately for us all the creatures from the swamp are allowed to roam freely within our societies and wrecking damage to the host society to further their own self interests.