Think again about the election of Donald Trump – private versus public


Whatever else was on show during the Trump/Clinton election this was a titanic battle between public and private sectors and their values. The private sector won.

We needn’t think of traditional Right wing versus Left wing politics – in any meaningful sense, both Trump and Clinton are right-wing. In what way? Well, perhaps in the simplest way, that both put economics before social justice. Both attended to economic necessities before coming to the question of what makes for a fairer society. This inevitably plays into the hands of the wealthy and the corporate elite – because contemporary economics works best for them. If we start with the question, ‘what kind of society do we want?’, and then put economics to its service, we are more likely to come out with pro-poor and pro-vulnerable policies, because we have to confront questions of fairness.

So. What were the principal differences between the two candidates, and what do we learn?

Clinton was standing up for public institutions and public values. She was accused of defending the ‘establishment’, and so she was. The ‘establishment’ does not mean the elite, the wealthy and the privileged. It means those people and institutions who represent the infrastructure of society – its parliaments, its public services, its public universities, the courts, the diplomatic service, the military and so on – those foundations on which society is established. With these come a set of values and beliefs on which society is founded: that we have more to gain by pooling resources (taxes) and agreeing on collective values (democratically approved policies) than by acting alone; that once we do this we have to think about what fairness means; that freedom is a conscious trade-off between what’s good for all and what’s good for ’me’; and that all the dilemmas implied by these mean we have to negotiate our way forward.

Of course, we have a constant beef with ‘the establishment’, and so we should. They should be democratically accountable to us, and too often they are not and they take liberties. Insofar as we have an ‘establishment’ of this kind, it is flawed – but it is ‘ours’. We share ownership of the State.

Now think of Donald Trump. He was standing up for private institutions and private values and attacking the ‘establishment’. Everything public, in Trump’s world, is derided as being ‘liberal’. And, again, so it is. The very idea of government with social responsibilities is a liberal idea, expressing altruism, self-sacrifice for the sake of the collective, a trade-off between self-interest and the ‘common wealth’. The public sector is a world of values in which we confront all the moral and ethical complexities of that trade-off; the private sector is one in which we can ignore many of those those complexities and just go for ‘the bottom line’, the unquestioned ‘goal’, a desired ‘result’. Trump is impatient with the slowness of government and public sector, their extreme caution in doing something different or bold. But it is precisely that slowness and careful deliberation that creates the space in whch we make calculations of what is to be valued and justified. Government and public sectors are conservative in a way that frustrates quick-fire, deal-making corporate leaders. Of course they are. They have much to conserve and protect, many obligations to meet, numerous competing interests to resolve. They hold much of our common wealth and interests in trust – we don’t want them to be ‘swash-buckling’.

Teachers, police officers, social workers, nurses, bureaucrats and other public sector workers have had long experience of translating private sector values into public work: performance management, unstable employment, the monetisation of public value and the commercialisation of decisions. They are all subject to privatisation and commercialisation, to being overwhelmed by monetary values. This is what Trump represents above all else – the privatisation of government itself.

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