The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States is the latest example of the rise in support for right-wing racist and jingoistic political forces in advanced capitalist countries. Strikingly this rise has come after a sustained period of corporate driven globalization and profitability.
As highlighted in the McKinsey Global Institute report titled Playing to Win: The New Global Competition For Corporate Profits:
The past three decades have been uncertain times but also the best of times for global corporations–and especially so for large Western multinationals. Vast markets have opened up around the world even as corporate tax rates, borrowing costs, and the price of labor, equipment, and technology have fallen. Our analysis shows that corporate earnings before interest and taxes more than tripled from 1980 to 2013, rising from 7.6 percent of world GDP to almost 10 percent. Corporate net incomes after taxes and interest payments rose even more sharply over this period, increasing as a share of global GDP by some 70 percent.
As we see below, it has been corporations headquartered in the advanced capitalist countries that have been the biggest beneficiaries of the globalization process, capturing more than two-thirds of 2013 global profits.
On average, publicly listed North American corporations . . . increased their profit margins from 5.6 percent of sales in 1980 to 9 percent in 2013. In fact, the after-tax profits of US firms are at their highest level as a share of national income since 1929. European firms have been on a similar trajectory since the 1980s, though their performance has been dampened since 2008. Companies from China, India, and Southeast Asia have also experienced a remarkable rise in fortunes, though with a greater focus on growing revenue than on profit margins.
And, consistent with globalizing tendencies, it has been the largest corporations that have captured most of the profit generated. As the McKinsey report explains:
The world’s largest companies (those topping $1 billion in annual sales) have been the biggest beneficiaries of the profit boom. They account for roughly 60 percent of revenue, 65 percent of market capitalization, and 75 percent of profits. And the share of the profit pool captured by the largest firms has continued to grow. Among North American public companies, for instance, firms with $10 billion or more in annual sales (adjusted for inflation) accounted for 55 percent of profits in 1990 and 70 percent in 2013. Moreover, relatively few firms drive the majority of value creation. Among the world’s publicly listed companies, just 10 percent of firms account for 80 percent of corporate profits, and the top quintile earns 90 percent.
Significantly, most large corporations have chosen not to use their profits for productive investments in new plant and equipment. Rather, they built up their cash balances. For example, “Since 1980 corporate cash holdings have ballooned to 10 percent of GDP in the United States, 22 percent in Western Europe, 34 percent in South Korea, and 47 percent in Japan.” Corporations have often used these funds to drive up share prices by stock repurchase, boost dividends, or strengthen their market power through mergers and acquisitions.
In short, it has been a good time for the owners of capital, especially in core countries. However, the same is not true for most core country workers. That is because the rise in corporate profits has been largely underpinned by a globalization process that has shifted industrial production to lower wage third world countries, especially China; undermined wages and working conditions by pitting workers from different communities and countries against each other; and pressured core country governments to dramatically lower corporate taxes, reduce business regulations, privatize public assets and services, and slash public spending on social programs.
The decline in labor’s share of national income, illustrated below, is just one indicator of the downward pressure this process has exerted on majority living and working conditions in advanced capitalist countries.
Tragically, thanks to corporate, state, and media obfuscation of the destructive logic of contemporary capitalist accumulation dynamics, worker anger in the United States has been slow to build and largely unfocused. Things changed this election season. For example, Bernie Sanders gained strong support for his challenge to mainstream policies, especially those that promoted globalization, and his call for social transformation. Unfortunately, his presidential candidacy was eventually sidelined by the Democratic Party establishment that continues, with few exceptions, to embrace the status-quo.
However, another “politics” was also gaining strength, one fueled by a racist, xenophobic, misogynistic right-wing movement that enjoyed the financial backing of the most reactionary wing of the capitalist class. That movement, speaking directly to white (and especially male) workers, offered a simplistic and in its own way anti-establishment explanation for worker suffering: although corporate excesses were highlighted, the core message was that white majority decline was caused by the growing demands of “others”—immigrants, workers in third world countries, people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, Muslims, and Jews—which in aggregate worked to drive down wages, slow growth, and misuse and bankrupt governments at all levels. Donald Trump was its political representative, and Donald Trump is now the president of the United States.
His administration will no doubt launch new attacks on unions, laws protecting human and civil rights, and social programs, leaving working people worse off. Political tensions are bound to grow, and because capitalism is itself now facing its own challenges of profitability, the new government will find it has little room for compromise.
According to McKinsey,
After weighing various scenarios affecting future profitability, we project that while global revenue could reach $185 trillion by 2025, the after-tax profit pool could amount to $8.6 trillion. Corporate profits, currently almost 10 percent of world GDP, could shrink to less than 8 percent–undoing in a single decade nearly all the corporate gains achieved relative to world GDP over the past three decades. Real growth in corporate net income could fall from 5 percent to 1 percent per year. Profit growth could decelerate even more sharply if China experiences a more pronounced slowdown that reverberates through capital-intensive sectors.
History has shown that we cannot simply count on “hard times” to build a powerful working class movement committed to serious structural change. Much depends on the degree of working class organization, solidarity with all struggles against exploitation and oppression, and clarity about the actual workings of contemporary capitalism. Therefore we need to redouble our efforts to organize, build bridges, and educate. Our starting point must be resistance to the Trump agenda, but it has to be a resistance that builds unity and is not bounded in terms of vision by the limits of a simple anti-Trump alliance. We face great challenges in the United States.