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Weekend speculations on the fascism question
Andy here, speaking only for myself, with a few reflections on the past week.
Admittedly, I had not taken the comparisons between Trump and "fascism" too seriously, but Wednesday was a bit of a wake-up call. I'm not saying I didn’t know “this is who Trump is!” but just that I had a hard time processing what was going on during the day and what my true feelings and reactions were.
As it turned out, Jacobin magazine had just last week published a piece on Arthur Rosenberg and his 1934 essay “Fascism as a Mass Movement,” outlining a general, historical-materialist way of thinking about fascism.
I recommend both the Jacobin piece and the original essay, which I found illuminating. The author of the piece is Jairus Banaji, a Mumbai-based scholar who has spoken publicly about the fascist turn in India; and at any rate, another TTSG-listening friend, Anand, scholar of the RSS, had long encouraged me to take a look at Rosenberg in order to understand fascism globally. Its resonance extends beyond the US, but it is no less relevant for it.
In the argument, modern fascism only makes sense in the context of global economic transitions. I won’t bore you with the finer details, but there are several eerie parallels between the rise of anti-liberal sentiments in the early 20th century and the reactionary wave that appears to be cresting in the 21st.
(There are also many reasons why we are in a far different situation from that of the 1920s, but that’s a different essay)
Primary is the rejection of the failures of free-market capitalism to guarantee employment and stem depressions. Back then, it started with the crisis of 1873 and culminated with the big one in 1929; this time, we have the crises of global neoliberalism (cf. East Asia in 1997) culminating with the big one in 2008.
Reacting to the failures of "free capitalism," we next see the turn towards a controlled and nationalized economic system (as well as calls for socialism), one defended as naturally still-capitalist. Hence, calls for trade wars with China and the consolidation of massive tech companies in tandem with governments. This is a useful way to think about the “anti-globalism” of the Bannons and Millers of the world.
We also see the racial scapegoating of minority groups, heightened expressions of chauvinism and patriarchy, and a hysterical, quasi-religious paranoid defense of national tradition.
What was striking from interviews with protesters Wednesday was how so many said they had marched "in defense of our future," as if they were a millenarian peasant cult in nineteenth-century Asia and not some basic real estate agent from Frisco, Texas.
Rosenberg’s main point was that fascism worked only with the merging of many different classes in society. First, there are the political and business elites who mostly monopolize power in society but are too few to hold any popular and democratic appeal. Think the Kochs, Waltons, Amazons, and Goldmans.
Secondly, there is the social base, the non-elite who defend the first group on their behalf. The elites could not survive without them, ranging from workers to small-business owners and managers to “intellectuals” like Larry Summers. What distinguished modern fascism, though, was the appearance of “stormtroopers”: a volunteer-corps that does the state’s normal job of enforcing rule through violence for them, as a grassroots rather than top-down approach. A fitting name for the “stop the steal” crowd?
“Fascism,” Rosenberg put it, “is nothing but a modern form of the bourgeois-capitalist counter-revolution wearing a popular mask.”
So what should the rest of us -- what he called workers and democrats -- do about this? Rosenberg’s tactical recommendations are worth quoting at length:
As a rule, there will be differences of opinion. The liberal bourgeoisie and certain fastidiously authoritarian conservatives will condemn the stormtroopers and the methods of fascism. But it would be a disastrous mistake for the working class to suppose that such differences mean very much. Despite all tactical differences, the fascist stormtroopers belong with the ruling capitalists and feudal landlords as the flesh of their flesh. It is not true that in such periods there are three distinct forces in the state – ruling capitalists, fascists, and socialists who stand for democracy. Rather, there are always only two forces – the capitalists and the fascists on one side, the democrats and socialists on the other. One damaging drawback of the theory of a ‘petty-bourgeois’ fascism is that it obscures this simple fact in the eyes of workers. For them the world looks like this: first there are the capitalists in power, next there is the petty-bourgeois fascist opposition, finally, there is the proletarian socialist opposition. With this threefold division, every conceivable trick and manœuvre becomes possible, for example, an alliance of socialists with fascists against the ruling bourgeoisie, or a coalition of socialists with the liberal and upright conservative capitalists against the fascists, or some other soap-bubble of this kind. Illusions of this sort have been disastrous for the working classes of Germany, Italy and other countries.
The language might sound a bit exotic to modern ears, but I think it is still useful for trying to make sense of the current terrain.
There will be disagreements between those in power (CEOs and mainstream GOP and Democrats) and the “stormtroopers” mobilized to defend them (Trump voters). But from a certain angle, this is really an intra-family squabble.
Mainstream GOP politicians sometimes align with Trump, but on Wednesday, they wound up on the same side as their Democrat peers, their class allies in the end. While watching TV coverage, I listened to Kevin McCarthy, a major Trump supporter, denounce the rally and call for a return to order. I was genuinely surprised how many Trump backers, including Cruz and Graham, followed suit that afternoon, even if they are equivocating right now. Politicians may suddenly rebuke Trump as not “one of them,” but this is only a difference of degree and not of kind. And though wealthy politicians and media members align in sneering at the "stop the steal" crowd, the majority of the protestors see themselves as foot soldiers for the most conservative of the established parties, defending capitalism, tradition, and hierarchy. They are “flesh of their flesh.”
So why does this matter?
I think we should be careful not to follow one of those “dangerous illusions” Rosenberg described. It’s best to pay attention to the social and political divisions at stake here and not strategically identify with the lesser of two evils -- respectable, “upright” elites -- in our horror at what we witnessed.
If our political views are critical of economic exploitation, financial austerity, and nationalist xenophobia, then we should be able to a) denounce the violence by Trump supporters and bemoan any loss of life Wednesday but b) without also rushing to the defense of the conservative institutions and ideas we were willing to openly criticize on Tuesday.
For instance, I understand why many want to denounce the protestors as “terrorists.” Sure they might meet some terminological threshold for the term. But we should push for the retirement of the word and not its proliferation. Its function has been to depoliticize state violence against groups deemed threats to national security, wherever it travels, bolstering uncritical patriotism as a bonus. We know who those groups are, and they’re never just real estate agents from Frisco. Who really thinks “terrorist” can be successfully redeployed to fight white supremacists while also shorn of its racist core?
I also fully sympathize with the impulse to hypothesize that, “had the white protestors been Black, they would have been brutally mistreated as so many protesters were this past summer.” This is an observation with open-ended implications, though, and the way I’ve seen it articulated has sometimes felt more than a bit reactionary: something along the lines of, “we want to see the police officers beat up Trump supporters with impunity just like they do to us.” That is, “our side" needs to get revenge on "their side" and even the score. The result of this kind of back and forth, I'm guessing, will not be greater social justice but larger police budgets.
What I found jarring was seeing so many denounce the violent repression of protestors when it’s the “good guys” but justify it when it’s the “bad guys.” It is left-liberals who have a clear-eyed view of the costs of society-wide militarization. Why now indulge in the fantasy that state forces can now be recuperated to serve and protect “us” from “them”?
If we believe that police and military forces are largely conservative and identify with the message of “law and order” — and surely there are many exceptions, but we’re speaking at an institutional level here — then shouldn’t we conclude they are not neutral and impartial arbiters of justice? That seemed to be exactly the lesson that Wednesday afternoon taught us. Calling for greater police presence to quell national security threats may wind up as precisely one of those “be careful what you wish for” scenarios.
Ultimately, it is not hard to imagine how phrases used against the Trump supporters -- “insurrectionists,” “traitors,” “an assault on American democracy” -- could be easily deployed against the next wave of Occupy or BLM-style actions. Nationalism and militarism, it appears to me, are not ideologies that are only bad when espoused by the other side but good actually when employed by ours.
OK, I won’t belabor the point any further. As for how exactly one should proceed instead, I have no clear answers, but I do think we need to take seriously the idea that fascism is a pro-business movement “wearing a popular mask.” It is a formation that operates not solely through the figure of a Trump or Mussolini nor through the spontaneous uprising of your local right-wing radio host -- it draws on an equilibrium of diverse social forces.
Long term, it’d be best to think beyond the horizon of impeaching Trump (though I’m not against it!) and to understand fascism at the level of society -- and not just US society of course, but that’s another topic. Along the way, we need not sacralize D.C. elites and institutions and their friends, enablers, and protectors, all of who sow the seeds of reaction in the first place.
Comments, questions, disagreements?