THE BLOG
11/21/2016 10:57 am ET Updated Nov 21, 2017

Bannon's Faux Economic Populism: Where's the Beef?

Stephen Bannon, President-elect Donald Trump's chief adviser and strategist-in-waiting, has received much scrutiny for his blatant trafficking in racism, xenophobia, sexism and extreme hostility towards Muslims. His alleged populist economic ideology, by contrast, has not been examined nearly as closely. In recent days, however, Bannon's remarks at a 2014 conference of right-wing Catholics held in the Vatican have become available and are revelatory when it comes to his thoughts regarding contemporary capitalism.

Bannon thinks capitalism as an economic system is magnificant, but, like the real Adam Smith, not the caricature of him embraced by laissez-faire advocates, he believes it needs to be softened by "moral sentiments": values not intrinsic to its modus vivendi. To Bannon, this means drawing less upon Smith's belief in innate human generosity, but rather the "Judeo-Christian" tradition, which, in his view, has the capability to restrain the two evil variants of capitalism: kleptocratic (Vladimir Putin's Russia) and laissez-faire (unrestrained economic self-interest as a moral value, embraced by Ayn Rand devotee, Paul Ryan, most of the GOP, and its billionaire donors). Bannon decries secularism, because he believes the evils of capitalism emerge when religious beliefs are no longer a brake on rapacity. He might even applaud Pope Francis' condemnation of capitalism, echoed, as well, by his more conservative papal predecessors.

And so, it appears ironic that Bannon now serves Donald Trump, a Putin admirer and con man, seemingly opposed to all governmental restraints on capitalism, and devoid of any religious inclinations, except when courting the votes of evangelicals and fundamentalists.

Of course, Bannon must invent an entirely fictitious view of world history to believe the Judeo-Christian heritage, even when at its most influential, ever had a profound restraining influence on capitalism. Judaism, unlike Christianity, never became a significant cultural force in an influential and powerful capitalist state and society, and thus had no potential to alter economic history via its tenets.

As for Christianity, Christ himself might have appeared to be a proto-socialist in his attacks on money-lenders, his claim that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to go to Heaven, and his personal disinterest in world goods. Some influential later Christian thinkers have certainly opposed usury, the unbridled pursuit of wealth and conspicuous consumption. But, pious Christian capitalists, like those of other faiths, typically have compartmentalized: their religious values were rarely expressed in their businesses; often in places of worship and the dinner table. Christianity, in its institutional form, the church, has largely been a bystander as capitalism emerged, burgeoned, and triumphed over all competing economic systems. Modern capitalism is even less likely to be "soulful" (to use John Kenneth Galbraith's 1960s naive belief in a coming era of corporate social responsibility), than the proverbial Main Street mom and pop store.

Historically, the only militant opponents of kleptocracy and laissez-faire, the two forms of capitalism Bannon condemns, have been those most adversely affected by them: peasants, driven from their small land holdings and forced to become agricultural laborers or chronic migrants in search of work; those forcibly imported from non-capitalist societies and condemned to slavery on plantations; indigenous peoples forced, as in the Belgian Congo, to provide labor for colonial state capitalism; urban craftsmen whose economic independence was destroyed by the advent of industrial capitalism; unskilled workers required to sell their labor at market rates which left them economically insecure.

It should be noted that while many of the struggles of workers to improve their lives under capitalism were inspired by secular ideologies, there have also been movements inspired by the Judeo-Christian tradition. One path Bannon might consider, as a devout Catholic who professes to be concerned about the plight of workers, is associated with the inspirational radical Catholic, Dorothy Day: the Catholic Worker's Movement. Day is being considered for canonization as a saint.

The forms of resistance utilized by these groups have included escape; sabotage; violent revolts; organizing unions and engaging in strikes and other methods to negotiate with capitalists for higher wages and better working conditions; forming mass political parties representing the interests of workers. In the U.S., unionization drives, strikes, and voting for Democrats, produced what the religious values of capitalists did not: greater equality of opportunity; less inequality in wealth and income distribution; a minimal welfare state.

The high point for the working class was in the 1950s when about 35 percent of the labor force was represented by unions, compared to 11 percent today. The decline of labor has many sources, but significant among them are the greater legislative barriers to forming a union than in, for example, Canada. Many more Americans would like to be in a union then are represented by one and about 60 percent think unions should have more influence. Union workers earn significantly higher wages than those unrepresented by unions and are less subject to arbitrary dismissal or changes in work rules. They even appear to be happier.

If Bannon was serious about helping workers, not simply trying to get them to vote to help institutionalize xenophobia, racism, and sexism in a Trump Administration, the most effective thing he could do is urge his patron to facilitate more union power, through Trump's National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) appointments and legislative initiatives, and fight against the GOP's desire to de-regulate industry and weaken the already feeble social safety-net. Of course, he might then hear Trump uttering those famous two words: "You're fired!"