It is common for both supporters and critics of the Mueller investigation to treat the anti-climax of the Mueller report as proof of a crisis of liberalism. Although there is disagreement as to the nature of the failure (i.e., is it a political failure or a failure of the justice system), it is the failure of the report to indict Trump of criminal wrongdoing that is treated as representative of a crisis from which the system must be saved.
But is the system really in crisis? And if it is, is merely addressing the political and institutional crises of the system enough? Far from seeing the Mueller report as a failure for the liberal system, I’ll argue here that the anti-climactic nature of the report and its fallout are the system functioning as it is intended to. Not only did the Mueller report protect the bourgeois state and its ability to reproduce the rule of capital, but the FBI was never going to threaten the state’s legitimacy in the first place. As opposed to liberal interpretations of the report, I’ll attempt to sketch out (although by no means claim to establish) an explicitly socialist interpretation of the report and the fallout by being mindful of the class forces at work in the investigation and a timely reminder of the explicit class character of the state.
Before elaborating on this further I’ll quickly sketch out the position of the two major camps that have consolidated themselves in the fallout of the Mueller report.
With a radical wing of true believers and moderate wing of self-styled anti-skeptics, supporters of the investigation generally believed that the Trump administration colluded with the Russian government. The radical wing believed this would mean criminal indictment of Trump as well as his close associates and family, and impeachment would be on the table. The anti-skeptic wing had a less clear view of what the results of the investigation would be, although they shared many base assumptions with the radials.
The legitimacy of the investigation was never in question, and at present this camp believes that the release of the “full” report will indict the Trump administration in some capacity. For supporters of the investigation, the Mueller report is seen as a crisis of institutional legitimacy. The notion that no one is above the law, including the president, is the living reality of the legal system.
Here I’ll dispense with the Trumpist right, and instead draw our focus on the amorphous and self-described, “anti-Trump,” skeptics. They do not believe collusion happened and they are the most explicit in calling the report a crisis of legitimacy for the system.
Although they believe that the report draws into question the legitimacy of the system, they treat the report itself as legitimate—regularly citing Mueller and General Attorney Barr’s statements as supportive of their position that no wrongdoing occurred in actual as well as legal fact. For the skeptics, the Mueller report is seen as an electoral political crisis. That in essence the Democratic party failed to embody the expected role of an opposition party and in place of policy placed all of their hopes on an increasingly fantastic story.
Although the skeptics and supporters of the investigation may seem to have irreconcilable positions, they share a set of fundamental assumptions that place them firmly within liberalism. What is meant by this? They share the belief that the US government is capable of acting as a check on itself. That the separation of powers is meaningful and real. That the FBI is an institution which would approach any investigation let alone the investigation of the highest office in the country in good faith, and that justice system would punish the government’s most powerful people. Simply, they share the liberal conception of the state as an entity that exists outside of society and has no class character.
It is notable that they regard the FBI’s word on the matter to be trustworthy. That is, they treat de jure and de facto guilt as one and the same whether they are arguing that the report exonerates Trump or that the full report has not-yet-seen information that will establish legal guilt. Further, they believe that the crisis can only be resolved within the bounds of the state itself and on the state’s own terms—primarily through the election of Democrats. For true believers and anti-skeptics alike, this is to create the political will in Washington to actually indict Trump based on the content of the as-of-yet-released full report and restore institutional legitimacy. For skeptics the election of a Democratic Party not beholden to the Russiagate story will restore political legitimacy to the system. In these views of the Mueller report, the crisis lies within the political and institutional forms of the state. But, because the state is seen as a body outside of society an bearing no particular class character, no issue is taken with the state itself.
“As the state arose from the need to keep class antagonisms in check, but also arose in the thick of the fight between the classes, it is normally the state of the most powerful, economically ruling class, which by its means becomes also the politically ruling class, and so acquires new means of holding down and exploiting the oppressed class… [T]he modern representative state is the instrument for exploiting wage-labor by capital.” —Engels, “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”
Opposed to the liberal view of the state as something standing outside of society, socialists view the state as a body arising out of class warfare and a tool of class oppression. When it is understood that the existing American state has a definitive bourgeois class character, it’s not long until you arrive at a radically different interpretation of the Mueller report.
The purpose of the bourgeoisie state and its various institutions (among them, the FBI) is to reproduce the logic of capital and maintain its rule. The first and most obvious consequence is the realization that capital is never going to seriously threaten the legitimacy of its own rule. The purpose of the FBI specifically is not to act as a neutral arbiter of justice in the liberal sense, but to protect and reproduce capital’s rule. Although it is outside the scope of this piece, the long and documented history of the FBI as a reactionary body targeting socialists, black activists and the antiwar movements should testify to the actual class character of the FBI. By de jure absolving the Trump administration, the FBI is not carrying out any kind of dereliction of duty as some disappointed supporters of the investigation have suggested. Nor is it acting a neutral body coming to conclusions people just don’t like, in the stances taken by some skeptics. It is carrying out its institutional function of protecting the powerful.
Further, one only has to look at recent history to see the failure that comes from attempting to address the political or institutional forms alone without addressing the class character of the state. The Obama administration rode to power on the promise that it would offer a break from the Bush years. In practice the Obama administration acted in continuity with the Bush administration, at once codifying and expanding many Bush-era policies and failing to prosecute anyone for these excesses. It is not hard to imagine the next Democratic president repeating the same kind of rhetoric about moving forward and not “looking back” when the question of addressing any of the very real and easily proven crimes of the Trump administration—let alone the question of Russiagate—comes up. Trusting the bourgeoisie to act as “checks and balances” on the bourgeoisie state at all is a political dead end.
While liberals regard the Mueller report to be representative of a crisis of the system, their ultimate goal is to restore legitimacy to the system by means of electoral politics. What socialists take issue with is not the political or institutional forms of capital’s rule, but the rule of capital itself. Relief from Trumpism will not come from sealed indictments or the Democratic party—it can only come from the working class and oppressed building and taking power for themselves.