Though the stale expression “political capital” has become a handy item in every pundit’s vocabulary, there was a time when the financial metaphor would have seemed jarring and paradoxical in the context of democracy. Its popularity today reflects a disturbing trend in the reasoning that governs democratic decision-making. The traditional focus on ensuring the general welfare and responding to the will of the people has been replaced by a process of cold calculation we associate with the world of finance and investment. Politics is no longer about governing. It is exclusively about winning elections, accumulating capital and living off the spoils of victory.
Living metaphors play on comparison between two disparate orders of reality. Dead metaphors fester in their own world as meaningless rhetorical artifacts. Attempting to analyze US President Joe Biden’s strategy of refusing to comment on Israel’s disproportionately violent campaign of “self-defense,” New York Times journalists Annie Karni and David E. Sanger propose this explanation: “Mr. Biden’s tactic was to avoid public condemnation of Israel’s bombing of Gaza — or even a public call for a cease-fire — in order to build up capital with Mr. Netanyahu and then exert pressure in private when the time came.” In this case, the metaphor is so definitively dead the authors don’t bother with the epithet “political” and simply call it “capital.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
US media have made a major effort in recent days to make sense of the strategic logic behind Biden’s behavior at the height of the crisis that some now believe has been resolved by a ceasefire. Of course, nothing at all has been resolved, even if the fireworks have come to a provisional halt. The media, as usual, focus on identifying winners and losers. They present a scorecard and retrospectively imagine the strategy that governed the play of the actors.
Western media continue to view what is clearly a deep, complex and enduring historical crisis not for what it is, but as a game being played by leaders on both sides seeking to reinforce their image and consolidate political capital with their base. In this reading, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s aim was to cling to power after losing an election. The adversary, Hamas, reacted with the sole motivation of reaffirming its position as the most resolute defender of the Palestinian cause, all for the sake of obtaining electoral advantage both in Gaza and the West Bank. The analysis contains a grain of truth but appeared more as a random factor in a much bigger geopolitical drama than as the basis of a serious account of the events.
What journalists call political capital today was once expressed by the notion of “goodwill,” a term borrowed from business vocabulary that includes the idea of customer satisfaction, trust and loyalty. Like so much else in the English language, goodwill itself has been transformed by the trend to financialize our thinking about everything under the sun.
The authoritative Shorter Oxford Dictionary (SOD) gives this primary definition of goodwill: “Virtuous, pious, upright position or intention.” Investopedia begins with this definition: “Goodwill is an intangible asset that is associated with the purchase of one company by another.” The SOD does include another definition of goodwill in use as early as 1571: “the possession of a ready-formed connexion of customers” used to evaluate “the saleable value of a business.” Investopedia sees goodwill as an asset before citing its virtuous status in the eyes of customers. The SOD puts virtue first, customers second and “saleable value” (= asset) last. Goodwill began its history as a virtue and ended up as a proprietary asset.
Political capital has definitely replaced political goodwill as an operational concept in modern political thinking. Kenya may be the last English-speaking country to continue to use the metaphor of political goodwill in preference to capital. In an editorial dated May 15, 2020, the Times of San Diego referred to goodwill as something real but now associated with the historical past. “It was not so long ago that we experienced a time of goodwill in our national political life, with Jimmy Carter promising never to lie… Now all that has changed,” adding, “we have lost what had been an open window to the fresh air that characterized the late 1970s.”
There are two related semantic principles underlying this historical shift that reveal a lot about how society itself has changed, precisely in the decade that followed Carter’s presidency. The first concerns the shift in social culture itself from an ability to focus on collective interest that has been replaced by a narcissistic obsession with individual competitive advantage. The second concerns the trend toward the financialization of all human activities and attributes.
The 1980s witnessed the triumph of the transformative Thatcher-Reagan ideological coalition. The ideas associated with government “of the people, by the people and for the people” found themselves suddenly radically subordinated to theoretical principles purportedly derived from the logic of free market capitalism. The idea of goodwill has always had a collective connotation. It was never about an asset or property, but a state of mind shared by the public. In 2007, Robert Kuttner in The New York Times complained that George W. Bush’s warmongering “squandered the global goodwill that has long been the necessary complement to America’s military might.” Goodwill was an asset shared by the nation and its people.
Kuttner correctly noted that Bush’s Middle East adventures both broke the solidarity of goodwill and squandered its value as a collective asset. In 2004, Chris Sullentrop, writing for Slate, noticed how, at the same time goodwill was disappearing from the media’s vocabulary, Bush himself relentlessly insisted on the idea of political capital. “Now the most common usage of ‘political capital,’” according to Sullentrop, “means the power that popularity confers on a politician, or something like that. ‘Political capital’ is shaping up to be the first buzzword of the second Bush administration.”
Sullentrop cites multiple examples in Bush’s discourse. In 2001, the president, newly elected (by the Supreme Court), explained: “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style.” Really? Is spending one’s public reputation — to say nothing of blood and treasure in the Middle East — a feature of presidential style? When Time magazine asked Bush, “What did you learn about being president from watching your father?” he answered, “I learned how to earn political capital and how to spend it.” There are many other examples. If for Americans “time is money,” for post-Reagan Americans, goodwill (earned or unearned) is also money.
In 2008, Barack Obama insisted that he was on a mission to restore America’s goodwill. But after eight years of Bush, the very idea of goodwill had lost all its ancient connotations of being “virtuous” and “upright.” It was now reduced to the simplistic idea of marketing the nation’s image to the rest of the world. By continuing most of Bush’s policies, from maintaining his tax breaks for the rich to prosecuting Bush’s wars and even expanding them to new regions, Obama’s efforts at creating goodwill could only remain superficial and cosmetic. That bothered no one in Washington, since the reigning ideology, formerly focused on seeking politically coherent solutions to complex problems, had converted to an ideology based on the newly adored laws of branding and marketing.
Some saw Donald Trump’s triumph in 2016, built around his guiding principle, “America First,” as a shift away from even the need to spread goodwill. In reality, his hyper-narcissistic ideology was an extension of the same trend that had replaced the notion of virtuous action by that of accumulated assets.
And what about Joe Biden’s plan to order to “build up capital with Mr. Netanyahu and then exert pressure in private when the time came”? It sounds like a joke. Playing the accomplice to someone else’s criminal actions cannot produce political capital. Al Jazeera quotes Nader Hashemi, a Middle East expert at the University of Denver: “[T]he more Israel is coddled, supported, sustained, the more belligerent and intransigent Israel becomes to making any concessions.” Bibi Netanyahu is not done with managing America’s foreign policy.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.