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Nov 13, 18

Going Forward Pt #2: Capitalist Legitimacy and Growing Populisms

This is the second part of a three-part essay by longtime Three Way Fight contributor Don Hamerquist. In Part 1, Hamerquist argued that transnational capital is seeking “renewed foundation of mass legitimacy and popular acquiescence,” and that this quest is shaped by its conflict with both left-wing and right-wing populist movements in many countries. In Part 2 (below), Hamerquist criticizes widespread leftist tendencies to see fascism, right-wing populist movements, and capitalist interests as all aligned together, and to divide capital into “good” and “bad” sectors.

He argues instead that transnational capitalists are “strategically hostile” to both left-wing and right-wing populisms, that all of capitalism (including its more liberal elements) tends toward repression, and that fascism is best understood as “an array of emerging reactionary anti-capitalisms” – a right-wing revolutionary tendency that is real but distinct from “reformist” right-wing populisms. In Part 3, Hamerquist will address the danger of a new popular front that corrals leftists into supporting capitalism in the name of defending “democracy.”

The anti-capitalist left must provide significantly better answers than a left-populist “New New Deal.” For the most part, I don’t think it does. Consider these examples of left responses to the current political circumstances. I think they illustrate a number of underlying problems and confusions and highlight some debatable conceptions of contemporary capitalism and fascism. (I realize these cites may not adequately reflect the politics of those who are cited. Any emphasis indicated is my responsibility.)

First, are two recent excerpts from Ajamu Baraka: I believe he is associated with Black Agenda Report and the Green Party (past vice presidential candidate).

The capitalist elite understand that they are facing new and dangerous conditions. That is why despite the intense struggle that is going on within their ranks, they will close ranks using Russia-gate to limit the range of information and analysis available to the public. It is why they will also close ranks on the left tendency in the democrat party and by extension against left electoral expressions and formations in general. The democrat party bosses already demonstrated that they would rather lose than concede any institutional power to their left pole.

— Ajamu Baraka,CounterPunch, 7/13/18

Fascism represents a specific form of capitalist decay. That is why even though the proto-fascism of Trump represents a dangerous tendency, avoiding the political and ideological dead-end of anti-Trumpism demands that we keep the focus of our analysis and agitation on the ongoing structures of the white supremacist, colonial/capitalist patriarchy and not individuals and personalities if we want to avoid doing the ideological dirty work of the ruling class.

— Baraka,  Black Agenda Report, 8/1/18

I have some sympathy for Baraka’s position and his mistakes are less central to my argument, however, they are important. Baraka asserts that “the capitalist elite” will close ranks rather than conceding any institutional power to their left wing. This is a mistake – also probably a bit of wishful thinking. The differences of interest within the ruling class and the range of policy options that are available to them, makes it unlikely that they will “close ranks” around any particular tactical approach. Baraka seriously underestimates these ruling class differences and thus he underestimates their policy options. In fact, in response to any significant upsurge of popular struggle, we should expect increasing involvement of sectors of the transnational capitalist elites in all sorts of “left electoral expressions and formations…” For example, as long as the current “left” postures by Democrats are useful to segments of capital in this country, and they obviously are, the likelihood of the U.S. ruling class closing ranks around the repressive and authoritarian trajectory that Baraka suggests is minimal. Further, these co-opting initiatives won’t be limited to the Democratic Party “reformers” that Baraka and BAR quite rightly criticize. They will include third parties and other “left” radical parliamentary and non-parliamentary initiatives, including some social democratic, socialist, “anti-fascist” – or even “anti-imperialist” – ventures.

I noted some situations earlier where the ruling transnational elites might strategically concede some governmental authority (perhaps temporarily) to rightwing nativist populisms. With some modifications such tactics will certainly be applied to left populist forces – particularly given the left’s susceptibility to cooptation and similar manipulations. Some obvious hints about the potentials for co-opting ruling class interventions are provided by the range of current “movement” activity that is tied to foundations and NGOs for funding and, ultimately, for political direction. These existing ties provide many opportunities to extend the influence of transnational capital across the entire range of left organizing initiatives – and those impacts are susceptible to rapid escalation. While they are still mainly potentialities in this country, they have been extensively implemented elsewhere in the global system and we should pay some attention. Perhaps the remarkably unobstructed upwards trajectory of our DSA/Democrat Socialist boomlet points to problems that we will soon be enjoying on a more widespread basis.

Baraka argues against an exaggerated emphasis on “anti-Trumpism,” and he is right that this will be a diversion from the necessary focus on capitalism – on what he calls the “structures of the white supremacist, colonial/capitalist patriarchy.” However, Baraka’s picture of capitalism is too narrow – too focused on its potentials for expanded repression. He minimizes the continuing possibilities for a parliamentary incorporation of an expanded acquiescent base from among the exploited and oppressed. While these possibilities are constrained by the dictates of global profitmaking, they are still quite real, notably in this country. The ruling class will certainly implement policies that take advantage of any and all possibilities to co-opt and contain movement upsurges; and these will impact the entire range of parliamentary leftist politics that Baraka endorses and practices – irrespective of whether they are, or are not focused on “anti-Trumpism.”

Taken by itself, no expansion of capital’s repressive command will resolve its strategic dilemmas – even if that expansion involves the adoption of quasi-fascist state forms in parts of the global capitalist system. Important segments of transnational capital will not share Baraka’s myopia on this question. They will see that, in addition to an expanded capacity for repression, capital needs to reshape, broaden, and deepen its popular “consent,” its hegemonic status to successfully respond to specific populist challenges from its right and its left.

This brings us to Baraka’s conception of fascism as “a specific form of capitalist decay.” In my opinion, describing the trajectory of late capitalism as “fascist” adds nothing but moralistic condemnation to our understanding of capitalism. Although this is clearly not what Baraka intends, the identification of fascism with a moribund capitalism opens some doors to conceptions of a “good” historical capitalism – or a partially good current capitalism, composed of various “productive” segments of capital and political and economic structures that are less afflicted by “capitalist decay.” Recall the earlier cite from Anthony Wikrendt that ended with the hopeful recommendation that the ruling class should, “…yield to the interest of the General Welfare in building a new world economy free of dependence on burning fossil fuels, the likely result will be a new “golden age of capitalism.” From such conceptions, it is a very short step to anti-fascist fronts that will include the representatives of this good (productive? democratic?), socially conscious and responsible capitalism.

Although the features of “capitalist decay” that concern Baraka are real and must be confronted, I’d argue for a different conception of fascism that doesn’t see it as a particularly rotten subspecies of capitalism or a compendium of its reactionary and authoritarian features. I think that the “fascism” that constitutes a distinctive existential threat to both the capitalist world order and to the revolutionary left consists of an array of emerging reactionary anti-capitalisms.

In contrast to approaches to fascism that emphasize the potentials for additional authoritarian, totalitarian and anti-egalitarian elements in capitalism and position fascism as a potential tool for the capitalist ruling class, my concern is with the radical forces that mount authoritarian, totalitarian and anti-egalitarian challenges, perhaps nihilistic ones as well, to capitalism as it currently is. Forces that constitute features of “barbarism” – some of which are potentially significant, and others, such as salafi jihadism, that are already significant.

The fascism that constitutes an existential threat to both the capitalist world order and the revolutionary left consists of an array of emerging reactionary anti-capitalisms.

I understand the problems with a conception of fascism that is so different from common left usage, and will do my best to work around them. However the actual issues are not about language and definitions so much as they are about the underlying reality that is being defined and named, and that can be significantly changed in the process of this naming. The question is whether we should focus on fascism as a tendency within capital or as an independent existential threat to it. I take the second side of this proposition and believe that the opposing side will have great difficulty understanding the political views of serious organized right wing revolutionary groups that are fairly clear about that they think. The popular view of fascism will contort itself to understand and explain the politics of reactionary mass movements that are also hostile to capitalist state power and capitalist markets – and that frequently are opponents, not supporters, of capitalism’s increasingly authoritarian and totalitarian features. Too often leftists picture such right-wing political groupings and their radical subversive projects as frauds and hoaxes, deluded crazies, or public relations manipulations of the capitalist state. No doubt such characterizations sometimes have an element of truth – much the same could be said if they were applied to various elements of the left. However it is a dangerous delusion to think that the revolutionary right is limited to people who don’t know what they think and don’t mean what they say.

A second weakness of the popular view of fascism is that it sees the increasingly repressive and authoritarian character of capitalism as the result of a political project of a reactionary sector of capital, and doesn’t take sufficient account of late capitalism’s internal momentum towards anti-egalitarian, repressive, and oppressive social measures. In my view this repressive trajectory in capital has objective material roots that are independent of any policies or pressures from the ideological right. In fact, in the case of the commodification of social relations and the consumerization of technological advances, many of these developments are closely identified with transnational capitalism’s more politically ‘liberal’ elements.

In my opinion, we will have a better understanding of how to organize political work, if we carefully delineate the useful elements of the Strasserite, Third Position form of fascism from the questionably relevant model of the German Nazi state project. It’s even more important in my opinion to conceptually draw a clear line between what we regard as fascism and all of the elements of reaction and conservativism that are historical features of the development of specific capitalist formations. Of course, some of these elements of capitalist reaction will be incorporated in the politics of incipient fascist groupings. However the necessary fight against capitalist reaction will be more productive when it is challenged as a constitutive element of concrete capitalist social formations, not as a foreshadowing of some future fascist state.

My next argument will begin from two recent comments by Eric Draitser. Draitser is connected with the CounterPunch structure and apparently heads CounterPunch radio.

Many decent, well-meaning people who have dedicated their lives to fighting neoliberal imperialism have suddenly positioned themselves to the right of neocons in alliance with ascendant fascism in the US. They don’t espouse the fascism, but have nonetheless made common cause with the far right in defense of Trump on the grounds of world peace and smashing the neoliberal/neoconservative consensus in Washington.

— Eric Draitser, CounterPunch, 7/27/18

* * *

So let’s consider what comes next…

Trump inspires such antipathy from Democrats and others that (if) the 2020 election marks a defeat for Trump (…the) Trump base would be incensed, likely suggesting that the Deep State conspired to destroy Trump and steal the election from him… What would happen is a sharp rise in far right wing, fascist paramilitary groups. And while the growth of that movement took off under Obama (for reasons that are not difficult to imagine), it would multiply exponentially in a post-Trump period, particularly when the overriding narrative will be that Trump was a crusader for America who was blocked at every turn by the liberals, CNN, Antifa, and all the other undesirables that seek to destroy the US. Trump was our hero, sent by God to clean up this country, and instead he was crucified over Russia, porn stars, and fake news.

— Draitser, CounterPunch, 8/2/18

The Draitser passages have the virtue of emphasizing the possibility of fascism developing a mass radical insurgent character. However, his positing of an “ascendant fascism” raises questions on both an empirical and a theoretical level. The descriptor, “ascendant” might be somewhat plausible when applied to reactionary nativist populism in the U. S and to the reactionary anti-immigrant populisms in sections of Europe, although there is need for better evidence over a longer period to fully justify it. However the estimates of “populism” don’t straightforwardly transfer to fascist organizing potentials. For those that believe Draitser’s picture of ascendant fascism is accurate enough, at least for this country, I’d suggest keeping up with some fascist and near-fascist websites. For example, check out some of the pessimistic posts on the Occidental Dissent site.

I think that the distinctions between reformist and revolutionary projects on the political right are crucial. Far more important, most of the groupings that actually place themselves in the neo-fascist camp also think they are crucial. No left revolutionary would equate the prospects for social democratic left populism with the prospects for working class revolution – at least I would hope not. The same holds for revolutionaries on the right. If there is confusion on this issue, the revolutionary left will not adequately comprehend the unique existential challenge presented by fascism or the specific strengths and vulnerabilities of current capitalist structures and ideologies.

It is a dangerous delusion to think that the revolutionary right is limited to people who don’t know what they think and don’t mean what they say.

Whether or not organized fascist groupings are doing well or poorly at any particular time or in any particular place, it’s important to see fascism as a serious danger and to see anti-fascism as a necessary element of a radical anti-capitalist perspective. This clarity is harder to reach when the prospects for fascism are conflated with the prospects for rightwing populism. The question of whether fascism, seriously defined – which in my opinion means narrowly defined – is on the rise in this country and Europe requires clear definitions of categories and substantial empirical data. An answer for this country would start with a critical look at Draitser’s view of the political circumstances that are relevant to the question. In my opinion, but not his, fascism will not be a simple linear development of the capitalist reaction contained in the Trump phenomenon. Nor is it likely to emerge from a simple reaction of Trump’s resentful political base to its likely defeats and failures.

Despite Henry Giroux’s arguments in his extended essay “Neoliberal Fascism and the Echoes of History,” it’s far more likely that serious fascist movements in this country will be based on a radical and revolutionary, but essentially reactionary, rejection of both Trump’s idiosyncratic nativist pro-business parliamentary politics and the core elements of transnational capitalism that Trump is nominally aligned against. Such fascism will not be vulnerable to challenges from a reformist left that conflates it with the reactionary ideologies and structures of historic capitalism. To repeat a point, the importance of challenging capitalist reaction is not minimized when we choose not to call it fascism. Developing effective challenges to capitalist reaction and repression is a central task, but it is a different obligation from the development of a clear understanding and effective response to fascism. In my opinion, both will be weakened, if the very real differences between them are muddied.

My last selection is a representative passage from Henry Giroux’s essay mentioned above that defines what he calls Trump’s “neoliberal fascism.” Giroux is an academic, a professor of “cultural studies” at McMaster University in Canada.

Under these accelerated circumstances, neoliberalism and fascism conjoin and advance in a comfortable and mutually compatible movement that connects the worst excesses of capitalism with authoritarian “strongman” ideals—the veneration of war, a hatred of reason and truth; a celebration of ultra-nationalism and racial purity; the suppression of freedom and dissent; a culture that promotes lies, spectacles, scapegoating the other, a deteriorating discourse, brutal violence, and, ultimately, the eruption of state violence in heterogeneous forms. In the Trump administration, neoliberal fascism is on steroids and represents a fusion of the worst dimensions and excesses of gangster capitalism with the fascist ideals of white nationalism and racial supremacy associated with the horrors of the past.

— Henry Giroux, Truthdig, 8/2/18

Giroux posits an emergent modern fascism in this country and elsewhere (apparently including most of Eurasia) that threatens to gain access to critical levers of governmental authority. Giroux’s conception of U.S. fascism is clearly articulated. His fascism incorporates the entire historic gamut of reactionary, white supremacist, sexist, and anti-democratic institutions and practices in this country. In addition, it incorporates the negative features of the current capitalist world order associated with neoliberalism; austerity, increasing inequality, privatization and commodification of social goods and common spaces. This fascism he calls: “neoliberal fascism.”

For Giroux, the fundamental antagonisms between market-centric neoliberalism, always a core element of the transnational capitalist “Davos-Aspen” ideology, and the populist nationalisms that have emerged in reaction against transnational capital, are transcended by a politics where “neoliberalism and fascism conjoin and advance in a comfortable and mutually compatible movement.” Giroux believes that this “movement,” that combines the most reactionary features of fascism and neoliberalism with a mass base of right-wing populists, nativists, and fascist street forces, is seriously contesting for state power in the U.S. I suspect that he would also agree with Draitser selection cited previously:

Many decent, well-meaning people who have dedicated their lives to fighting neoliberal imperialism have suddenly positioned themselves to the right of neocons in alliance with ascendant fascism in the US. They don’t espouse the fascism, but have nonetheless made common cause with the far right in defense of Trump on the grounds of world peace and smashing the neoliberal/neoconservative consensus in Washington.

— Draitser, CounterPunch, 7/27/18.

Giroux’s argument does violence to the historical meanings of its primary terms, neoliberalism and fascism. Neoliberalism is an extensively articulated element of capitalism’s ideological framework. It always emphasizes the primacy of “markets” and individual “choice” in both the economic and the political arenas. Fascism proposes a radical totalitarian and hierarchical anti-parliamentarianism and the drastic subordination of individual needs and potentials to an imposed collective good. It has a “trans-capitalist” character (see Sohn-Rethel on Nazi Germany), while neoliberalism universalizes capitalism.

Fascism and neoliberalism undoubtedly share some reactionary positions and might cohabit politically for a tactical moment, but it’s more than a stretch to picture this as, “…a comfortable and mutually compatible movement…” This is a variant of the notion of “fascist creep” that is evident in quite a few left/liberal positions. Here’s another example:

…the process of creeping fascism is at work. Today, it’s considered acceptable by legislators to entertain a political discussion about whether leftists should be criminalized for their political activities. Who is to say that government will not act on that conviction tomorrow, under convenient political circumstances, for example in the wake of a terrorist attack, and undertaken in the name of preserving “national security?” Regardless of the fate of the “Unmasking Antifa Act,” it is yet another point of escalation in the incremental campaign to normalize authoritarian and fascist principles in government. That campaign has been quite successful among Republican adherents, to the detriment of principles of freedom and democracy.

— Anthony Dimaggio, CounterPunch, 8/21/18

Dimaggio divides capitalism into a bad side that features “normalized authoritarian and fascist principles,” and a good side blessed with “principles of freedom and democracy.” I would hope that the problems with such positions are self evident.

Lorenzo Masilo makes an argument that has some similarities with Giroux’s. Masilo also sees a merger between right wing populism and what he terms the “economic elites”:

… many of today’s “populist” leaders offer a mix of authoritarian rule and exclusionary politics repackaged as a vision for a brave new world: walls in place of globalisation, muscular diplomacy in place of multilateralism, “my country first” in place of free trade and protectionist or even social-nationalist measures to tame neoliberalism…

Let there be no mistake: Their revolutionary rhetoric is a sham, too. Right-wing populism is out to shovel up popular discontent to make it subservient to the interests of economic elites. It is no coincidence that Trump’s tax regime disproportionately benefits the rich, that Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey or Orban’s Hungary are turning into oligarchic kleptocracies, or that Austria’s xenophobic government is on a quest against social welfare.

— Lorenzo Masilo, Aljazeera, 8/5/18

However, Masilo doesn’t see the power relationships and the political implications of this merger as Giroux does. For him, the ‘economic elites’ are the puppet masters of an essentially fraudulent right wing populism. (This alleged fraudulence is questionable but, in contrast to Giroux, Masilo’s does have some supporting evidence.) The basic difference between Giroux and Masilo is that the former pays little attention to any ruling class opposition to the movements he calls fascist, and none at all to the specific oppositional role of the transnational ‘economic elites’. In Giroux’s perspective the dominant elements of the capitalist ruling class, the transnational economic elites, have been swept up in the conjoining of “neoliberalism and fascism.” That’s a real long way from Masilo’s conception that, “right wing populism is…subservient to the interests of economic elites.” It is also a long way from reality.

It is readily apparent that the segments of transnational capital that still control most levers of state power in the global capitalist system are strategically hostile to populist nationalism of either the left or the right. There are very good capitalist reasons why this is true. If this fact and these reasons are not clear to Giroux, they are certainly clear to populist movements. When nativist populisms are pictured as “ascendant,” as growing and on the march…who are they marching against? When populism wins an election somewhere, who “loses” it? Every arena of struggle against populist nationalisms includes major mobilizations by the transnational “economic elites” in their specific interests – and the “economic elites” tend to “win” most of these battles – although it sometimes takes a bit of extra effort and a little time.

Major questions about the methods and objectives of this ruling class fraction are raised by its evident hostility to emerging populisms. Does Giroux’s vision of the struggle against “neoliberal fascism” find the Macrons and Merkels, the Obamas, Clintons, and Soros as allies or enemies – part of the problem or a part of the solution? Will “neoliberal fascism” reflect or reject the politics and culture of Aspen, Davos, and Valdai and the policies of the IMF, ECB, World Bank, WTO, G7? Will these segments of capital, and the individuals and institutions that they incorporate, represent themselves in future struggles in a “comfortable and mutually compatible” relationship with the Bannons and Breitbarts?

For Giroux, the global capitalist elite has either disappeared into a quasi- fascist movement or is politically dispersed. However, in the real world, fractions of the transnational capitalist elites lead the toothless ‘anti-fascist’ fronts that call themselves ‘resistances’. In this country and in most of Europe they can be found in “comfortable and mutually compatible” relationships with assorted reformists and social democrats. These are shaky compacts, but they are not compacts with fascists. Is this a “sham,” a ploy to confuse the gullible similar to the project that Masilo attributes to the leaders of rightwing populisms? Masilo’s assertion that the actually popular elements of right wing populism are only demagoguery is hardly plausible and Giroux falls well short of it.

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Three Way Fight is a blog that promotes revolutionary anti-fascist analysis, strategy, and activism. threewayfight.blogspot.com

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