pt. 2: Third World Third Positionism: “What’s Left?” October 2019 (MRR #437)

I had a favorite t-shirt in the 1980s, one I owned several of and wore frequently. It was red with a stylized black silkscreened image of Alberto Korda’s famous photo of Ernesto “Che” Guevara printed above his popular quote: “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by feelings of great love.” Korda’s image of Che with military beret and solemn expression was taken during a Cuban state funeral; handsome, heroic, and seemingly immortal. I wore the t-shirt around the UC San Diego campus without incident or even much notice, but I liked pushing the envelope by wearing it all around the very conservative city of San Diego.

While wearing the shirt and eating my customary grease-, carb- and meat-heavy breakfast washed down with several bottles of Negra Modelo beer outside Harry’s Coffee Shop in La Jolla circa 1985, I noticed a young man glaring at me. Harry’s was a local favorite, so I assumed he was a surfer because of his shaggy haircut, Quiksilver Hawaiian shirt, colorful boardshorts, and leather huarache sandals. He frowned at me over a decimated plate of food next to which rested a russet guampa, a hollow calabash gourd lipped with silver from which a silver bombilla straw protruded. A waitress poured more hot water into his maté gourd before bussing his dishes and leaving the check.

“You realize Che was not Cuban,” the man said after taking a sip, his Spanish accent patrician.

“He was Argentinian,” I said. “But Castro’s revolutionary government granted Che Cuban citizenship ‘by birth’ in 1959.”

“Bravo.” He raised the guampa in mock salute. “Not many yanquis, especially gabacho izquierdistas, know much about Guevara’s background.”

I nodded, then continued demolishing my breakfast. He counted out his money to pay for the meal and stood, cradling his gourd.

“I presume though you think Che is Third World. He certainly has been made into a symbol for Third World leftist revolution. But Argentina is not a Third World country, ethnically speaking. Argentina was settled by Spanish, Italian, and German migrants who completely wiped out the native indiano populations. There was no race mixing. The Argentine population is almost pure European. Che Guevara was as white as you or I, so it is laughable to consider him Third World.”

I’ve mentioned Ernesto “Che” Guevara in relation to fellow Argentinian Juan Perón and his Third Positionist justicialismo ideology. Third Positionism—the myth of a politics that is neither left nor right—has one source in the Third World after the second World War but another source in the First World before the first World War. Extreme Left movements first converged with ultranationalist authoritarian extreme Right movements between the revolutionary syndicalists influenced by Georges Sorel and the Action Française of Charles Maurras in the early 20th century. This matured in Italy during and after the first World War with the ultranationalist, irredentist activities of Gabriele D’Annunzio which culminated in his seizure of the city of Fiume, as well as in the evolution of Benito Mussolini from the far-left wing of the Italian Socialist Party to the first Fascist seizure of power in 1922. The 1922 March on Rome shifted the development of Fascist Third Positionism from Italy to Germany with the proliferation of rightwing antisemitic organizations and movements alternate to the Nazis like Conservative Revolutionism, Strasserism, National Bolshevism, and the like. Even Ernst Röhm’s tenure in the NSDAP’s Sturmabteilung (SA) constituted Third Positionism in its claim to be the vanguard of the “National Socialist revolution,” with Röhm calling for an overtly anti-capitalist “second revolution.” When Hitler assassinated Röhm and Gregor Strasser on the “Night of the Long Knives” in 1934, orthodox Nazism was consolidated and the move to Third Positionism was curtailed during the second World War.

Cross contamination was inevitable given the violent antagonism between Marxism and Fascism. Taking on Marxism’s class based schema, Italian nationalist Enrico Corradini developed the concept of the “proletarian nation” in 1910 which transposed the class struggle to the struggle between nations. D’Annunzio, Mussolini, and the Strasser brothers among others defended this notion. But it gained little traction until the defeat of classical Fascism in Italy and Germany, the instigation of the Cold War between the Soviet bloc’s “socialism in one country” and the American-led “free world,” and the upsurge of anti-colonial struggles in the Third World after the end of the second World War. Third World anti-imperialism didn’t just take the form of socialist struggles for national liberation, or even the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) of underdeveloped and developing nations not formally aligned with either of the two Cold War superpowers. It often took a reactionary anti-imperialist turn that talked about going beyond Left and Right. In a phrase, it was Third World Third Positionism where proletarian nations struggled internationally against bourgeois nations.

I discussed Juan Perón at length and mentioned Bolivia’s National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) in passing in a past column. Of the MNR’s reactionary anti-imperialism Loren Goldner had this to say:
In the case of Bolivia, the multi-class nationalism epitomized by MNR intellectual Carlos Montenegro, with its problematic of the “nation” versus the “foreign,” combined in practice with the corporatist models attempted by 1936-1940 “military socialism” and the 1943-1946 Villaroel regime, and influenced to different degrees by Mussolini’s Italy, the Primo de Rivera dictatorship in Spain, Nazi Germany, Vargas’s Brazil, Peron’s Argentina and the Mexico of Cardenas. Though the standing bourgeois army in Bolivia (in contrast to these other experiences) simply dissolved and had to be rebuilt (as it quickly was), theoretical disarmament set the stage for the practical disarmament of the worker militias. (“Anti-Capitalism or Anti-Imperialism? Interwar Authoritarian and Fascist Sources of A Reactionary Ideology: The Case of the Bolivian MNR”)
Goldner clearly defines a Latin American Third World Third Positionist bloc.

Another Third World Third Positionist bloc emerged in the Middle East, determined by the rise of pan-Arab nationalism. Reacting to Western imperialism and Zionist colonialism, the pan-Arabic nationalist response was unsteady and uneven between the two world wars, going so far as to court “the enemy of my enemy” in the case of Haj Amin al-Husseini’s collaboration with Nazi Germany in Mandatory Palestine. Reactionary Arab anti-imperialism after the second World War—as exemplified by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, various Ba’athist parties and regimes in Syria and Iraq, and the short-lived Egyptian/Syrian United Arab Republic—was explicitly national-socialist. Arab Third Positionism took inspiration from European Fascism, suppressed socialist and communist unions and parties while seeking Soviet aid, adopted corporatist economic models, promoted modernization and state nationalization of foreign and domestic assets, and engaged in “military socialism.” This reached a pinnacle in the Libya of Muammar Gaddafi, whose Green Book rejected representative democracy and promised a third path between capitalism and communism. Gaddafi’s Jamhariyah system embodied the true “state of the masses” funded by Libya’s oil reserves. Combine Arab Third Positionism with a virulent anti-Zionist opposition to Israel that readily spilled over into anti-Jewish anti-semitism and you have the closest approximation to orthodox Nazism to date.

I don’t have space to discuss the leftist ethnic nationalism of Labor Zionism’s “socialism for one people” in Palestine or Nyerere’s ujamaa socialism in Tanzania, nor of Third World Third Positionism in sub-Saharan Africa (Idi Amin’s Uganda) or Asia (the Juche regime in North Korea). Maoism’s repurposing of the concept of “proletarian nation” is also beyond our scope. The defining characteristic of Third World ultranationalist resistance to capitalist neo-colonialism and Western imperialism is not racial identity, but rather a reactionary Third Positionist anti-imperialism that seeks to substitute a struggle between nations internationally for the classic Marxist international class struggle.

White “First World” adherents to Third Positionism, in turn, have adopted a Third Worldist view of international affairs. This has meant overt solidarity with Third Positionist Third World regimes and movements on the grounds they constitute non-white racial nationalist resistance to Western multiculturalism, multiracialism and Zionism. Decrying the creep of non-white cultural influences into white Western nations from the colonies and vice-versa, First World Third Positionists nevertheless consider their Third World counterparts kindred spirits to white nationalist movements in the developed West. The European Nouvelle Droite has cultivated ties with Islamist groups, and US Third Positionists have sought common cause with the Nation of Islam and other Black Nationalist groups over anti-semitism and racial separatism. That doyen of ultraright high idiocy, Troy Southgate, fleshed out Third Positionism from his faux guerrilla National Revolutionary Faction to National Anarchism, his bastard ideology of decentralized racial/ethnic tribal autonomy. The move from white power and white supremacy to white nationalism and a white ethnostate, in fact, has Third Positionist ethno-pluralist ramifications in implying that non-whites can pursue racial/ethnic separatism and nationalism as well. The loosely-organized far right populist Posse Comitatus movement has even proposed extending white ethnonationalism down to the county level.

Despite the Third Positionist claim to “go beyond Left and Right,” it’s wise to remember Upton Sinclair’s sentiment that: “Fascism is capitalism plus murder.”

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American fascist exceptionalism?: “What’s Left?” September 2019 (MRR #436)

If you can’t tell the difference between glorification and ridicule—does it matter?

—Spencer Sunshine

I read recently that San Francisco’s Financial District, called “Wall Street West,” is being downgraded. The district is both downsizing economically and shrinking physically. Financial services are moving online and it’s just too damned expensive for employees in downtown banking and financial companies to live in the city anymore, thanks to the booming tech industry’s gentrifying impact on San Francisco. I remember back fondly to Sunday, February 16, 2003, when a quarter of a million people protesting Junior Bush’s invasion of Iraq shut down the Financial District and briefly the Bay Bridge. Mass anti-war protests continued to disrupt “business as usual” in Wall Street West for weeks to come.

I’d forged my leftist politics and love for street action during the ’70s, but America’s steady rightward reaction and the sudden international collapse of the Soviet bloc over the next two decades depressed the hell out of me. The resurgence of Left activism with the Iraq War was quite heartening. I wanted to be in the thick of those demonstrations despite having fractured the big toe and one of the sesamoid bones in my right foot in an accident several months before. I was hobbling around in great pain but nevertheless elated to be experiencing popular street politics once again, exhilarated to be roaming the city with a small group of friends demonstrating, blockading traffic, participating in impromptu sit-ins, engaging in general vandalism and mayhem, etc. I had my black bloc gear in hand, but I was in no shape to participate in those tactics.

Then, out of the swirling chaos, an odd vision materialized. Tony marched along Market Street at the head of a one-man parade. I’d known Tony from San Diego where he’d played in hardcore punk bands and belonged to an infamous Maoist communist party. We met again when we both moved to the Bay Area, when Tony was a postmodern Leftist studying at UC Berkeley and in post-hardcore bands. Now, he was dressed in a pure black Army combat uniform, shouting anti-war slogans. Black combat boots, black trousers with black tactical belt, black jacket over black t-shirt, black patrol cap, black megaphone. “1, 2, 3, 4; We Don’t Want Your Fucking War! 5, 6, 7, 8; Organize To Smash The State!” So why the all-black getup? Was it parody or was Tony serious? Had Tony gone full anarchist and was this a militarized black bloc outfit? Was it some homage to Third World socialist revolution, paying tribute to the VietCong and the EZLN? Had Tony joined the Army or the police and was he now a Special Forces or SWAT recruit? Had Tony perhaps gone rightwing fascist and was he aping the Falange or SS wardrobes? Or was this all camp, an elaborate, theatrical performance piece? My signals were getting crossed.

I was simultaneously intrigued and bewildered, befuddled by the semiotic mixed messages.

I’m in the middle of a three-part series on Third Positionism, a type of “red/brown” politics that claims to “go beyond Left and Right.” Those politics are dead serious about mixing far left and far right elements into a confusing new type of Fascism that, in the case of Perónism for instance, attempted to fuse extreme nationalism with pro-working class initiatives. Third Positionism might prove as baffling as my reaction to Tony, but it’s nevertheless genuine. Let’s talk instead about deliberate obfuscation by the far right in throwing up ambiguous slogans, symbols, memes, texts, ideas, etc., calculated to muddy any political or social discourse.

In Spencer Sunshine’s unpublished piece “Industrial Nazi Camouflage,”* he discusses the evolution of the industrial music scene, noted for its fascination with the taboo and transgressive. Warning that it’s never a good idea to play with Nazi imagery because you can’t control how such imagery is interpreted, Sunshine is intent on figuring out who in the industrial music scene was innocently flirting and who loved Nazism, who was being ironic and who was offering a sophisticated critique, who was obsessed and who was willing to commit, who believed in fascism theoretically and who was engaged in fascist activism. He periodizes that scene into a time when individuals and bands were fascinated with but not yet committed to Nazism, to active Nazi participation between 1986 to 1996, and finally to lying profusely about those involvements back in the day as well as their current fascist commitments. Ultimately, Sunshine suggests that if you can’t tell whether something is genuine or a joke, or someone is being upfront or engaged in camouflage, does it really matter?

Treat it all as fascism or fascist adjacent is what I say.

The otherwise insipid, reactionary, ahistorical critique of the alt-right offered by Angela Nagle in Kill All Normies does get that the far right uses intentional obfuscation and ironic misdirection as deliberate tactics, as ways to maintain plausible deniability and camouflage their true intentions. They want normies to be confused about their true message, unable to know when to take them seriously and when to shrug them off. Gavin McInnes loves to make the distinction between a liar and a bullshitter in his sad career that includes a lackluster stint as a comedian. His internet “talk shows” often featured calls to violence as in “I want violence. I want punching in the face.” But when his critics lambasted him for promoting violence he invariably deflected such criticisms by demanding “Can’t you take a joke?” In one motion, McInnes and his ilk throw out threats of violence while simultaneously denying they are being threatening or violent, masking their intentions with crude humor or irony that they then claim their viewers simply don’t get. It’s the perfect ploy for the far right to seed confusion among people trying to suss them out.

The antifascist Left is neither confused nor amused however.

What then to make of some supposedly unique, if bewildering aspects of the far right in the US? Both antifascist researchers Spencer Sunshine (“Decentralization & The U.S. Far Right”*) and Matthew Lyons (“Some Thoughts On Fascism and The Current Moment”) imply there’s an American fascist exceptionalism when it comes to the far right’s embrace of decentralization, in contrast to traditional Fascist totalitarian centralism. George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party pioneered the shift from white supremacy to white nationalism, allowing American fascists to parry Leftist calls for “Black Power/Black Separatism” with “White Power/White Separatism,” encouraging white nationalists to work with black nationalists along pro-segregation/anti-miscegenation lines, and developing the strategy of a white ethnostate that portended scenarios of side-by-side racialist nationalism. Drawing inspiration from American history, two ultra-patriotic movements arose opposed to the power of the Federal government; the Posse Comitatus Movement of the 1960s (from posse comitatus common law traditions) and the Militia Movement of the 1990s (from the colonial/Revolutionary War institution of the independent local militia). Both took the States’ Rights Movement further right. Deeply distrustful of government beyond the county level, Posse Comitatus proposed the county sheriff as the highest lawful authority whereas the Militia Movement insisted that any armed citizenry organized into decentralized militia groups was the highest civil authority. Given the various failures of the States’ Rights Movement, elements of these two movements within the Patriot Movement now propose extending white ethnonationalism down to county, municipal and individual levels, implying the possibility of an ethno-pluralism where decentralized racial nationalist enclaves can reside concurrently. Finally, there’s leaderless resistance as put forward by KKK member Louis Beam, which uses a decentralized, horizontal structure of small, independent cells to resist what is considered a tyrannical Federal government.

“[T]hese ethno-pluralist views can facilitate a politics that, on the surface at least, is not in conflict with the demands of oppressed groups,” according to Spencer Sunshine, who acknowledges it’s an “ethnic or racial pluralism that is opposed to multicultural and cosmopolitan societies.” Matthew Lyons argues that “[m]any of today’s fascists actually advocate breaking up political entities into smaller units, and exercising totalizing control [authoritarianism] through small-scale institutions such as local government, church congregations, or the patriarchal family.” Before declaring the US far right a unique American “wild west” Third Positionism however, consider that the alt-right’s flirtations with decentralization might be at the very least a purely defensive reaction to the exigencies of battling the Federal government. At most, it may be an outright deception designed to confuse and obfuscate. That the American far right on every level is enamored with the Führerprinzip leadership principle—from their own charismatic cult leaders to a president who governs by executive decree and routinely violates the Constitution—makes it likely in any case that the far right’s much vaunted decentralism will be the first thing abandoned come their fascist revolution.

I’ve talked about the libertarian-to-fascism/alt-right pipeline before, a process as disingenuous as the industrial music scene. For me, the far right’s appropriation of the Left’s aspirations for freedom and self-determination is the sly semiotic joke here. And thus our differences with them do matter.

* Spencer says: Both essays are available as special items for Patrons who give at least $2 a month to my Patreon. However, if you’re broke (and boy have I been there), drop me a line and I’ll send you copies: www.spencersunshine.com/contact.

 

pt. 1: Perónismo and Third Positionism: “What’s Left?” July 2019 (MRR #434)

When faced with two bad choices, choose the third.

It’s the proverb I try to live by. Most prefer the lesser-of-two-evils approach to things. I prefer tertium quid every time.

Tertium quid started with Plato, who first used the term (triton ti) around 360 bce. In ancient Greek philosophy, it meant something that escapes classification in either of two mutually or more exclusive and theoretically exhaustive categories. What’s left after such a supposedly rigorous, exhaustive division is tertium quid. The third what. The third something.

Post Plato, what was considered tertium quid might be residue, sui generis, ambiguous, composite or transcendent depending on one’s philosophical inclinations. I encountered the concept indirectly via hoary Catholic theology when I briefly met a young heretical Catholic Worker named Alvin in 1969. Inspired by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, Alvin was a voluntary celibate who wanted to start a Catholic Worker commune in the Ventura County area. Which was why he was camped out in his VW microbus in the Ventura Unitarian Church’s foothill parking lot, where everything progressive and left-wing eventually wound up in those days. But Alvin was a little too radical even for the Catholic Worker. He was a fan of Paolo Freire and Latin American liberation theology, and he wanted to return to what he saw as the gospel of the early Christian church, with its emphasis on voluntary poverty, communalism, helping the poor, and liberating the oppressed. The latter required solidarity with armed struggles for socialist national liberation according to Alvin. But he was also knee-deep in the Church’s anachronistic fourth century Christological debates, specifically his championing of Apollinarism over Arianism. Both were discredited heretical doctrines, with Apollinaris of Laodicea speaking of Jesus as something neither human nor divine, but a mixture of the two natures, and therefore a “third something.” It was the first time I heard the term tertium quid. Not surprisingly, Alvin grew more personally frustrated being celibate in a time of aggressive hippie “free love,” until one day he suddenly disappeared. A quarter century later I visited San Francisco and ran into him in the Castro wearing the habit of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

Last column I described an informal left-wing “third something” I hoped was developing between anarchism and Marxism IRL with the EZLN in Chiapas and the SDF/YPG in Kurdish Rojava. Now, let’s consider a formal right-wing “third something” that disingenuously claims to be “neither Left nor Right.” In other words, Fascism. Fascist ideology was, according to Ze’ev Sternhill, “[A] variety of socialism which, while rejecting Marxism, remained revolutionary. This form of socialism was also, by definition, anti-liberal and anti-bourgeois, and its opposition to historical materialism made it the natural ally of radical nationalism.” (Neither Right Nor Left: Fascist Ideology in France) An Israeli, Sternhell was critical of Zionism as a member of the Peace Now movement. Sternhell’s thesis that Fascism arose in France out of the revolutionary syndicalism of Georges Sorel—which had gained popularity among the working classes in part because of their sociological composition—was criticized for underemphasizing the traditional conservative nature of the French Right and overemphasizing that Fascism was born of a single ideology.

You might say Fascism is revolutionary in form, but reactionary in content. Certainly, much Fascism has emphasized some variation of Sternhell’s argument that it is neither Right nor Left, capitalist nor socialist, pro-American nor pro-Communist, etc. Fascism is notoriously syncretic, polymorphous and hard to pin down, ranging from Traditionalism to fundamentalism, corporatism and Nazism, all held together by a virulent ultra-nationalism. It has nothing to do with the Third Way centrism of the likes of Tony Blair’s social democrats and Bill Clinton’s New Democrats however. It is instead an extremist third way often labeled Third Positionism, with historical roots in Strasserism, National Bolshevism, and other red-brown alliances brought up-to-date with the likes of the Nouvelle Droite, national-anarchism, and various currents in the American alt-right. To understand how slippery and dangerous Third Positionism is, consider the example of Perónismo.

Juan Perón rose to power as part of a military coup d’état against a conservative civilian president in 1943. A colonel serving in a military government with a portfolio in the Department of Labor, Perón promoted a wide range of labor reforms for unionized workers—wage increases, collective bargaining and arbitration, social insurance, social welfare benefits—which made him wildly popular among Argentina’s working classes. With Perón’s other government positions, this support allowed him to win and hold the presidency from 1946 to 1952. So great was Perón’s hold on Argentine politics he served as president intermittently thereafter, from 1952 to 1956 and 1973 to 1974. He carefully crafted a cult of personality in office and in exile which has severely skewed those politics ever since.

Perón epitomized the sort of strong man politics known in Latin America as caudillismo which was imported from Europe and fits nicely within a broader context of military rule defined by coup and junta. With a populist twist. As the strong man leading a strong state, the caudillo acts to rescue capitalism from crisis, bail out and discipline the comprador bourgeoisie, and brutally suppress the rebellious working classes.

In Perón’s case, he instead championed Argentina’s descamisados, the “shirtless ones,” the working classes which he bought off with money and social reforms like a Workers’ Bill of Rights, all while promoting economic industrialization and nationalization. Perón came to exercise increasing control over the leadership and direction of the assorted trade unions, as he did over universities and newspapers. Socialist and communist resistance to Perónismo was smashed. The state became the foremost arbiter of Argentine life and Perón became the personal arbiter of the Argentine state. This was justicialismo which Perón considered a “third ideological position aimed to liberate us from [individualist] capitalism without making us fall into the oppressing claws of [communist] collectivism.” He also encouraged Argentina’s economic and political independence from the United States and challenged America’s hemispheric domination under the Monroe Doctrine. Finally, Perón attempted from 1944 onward to steer a neutral international course between what the French fascist Robert Brasillach called the two poetries of the twentieth century—Communism and Fascism—as well as between the Cold War’s “Free World” and Soviet bloc.

This is the bare essentials of what Perón called justicialismo domestically and the Third Position internationally, twin aspects of Perónismo. But it was clear from the start which side of the Left/Right divide Perón favored. While the Soviet Union sent aid and advisors to Cuba in the 1960s, Perón’s Argentina protected Nazi war criminals. To be fair, Perón granted immediate full diplomatic recognition to Castro’s Cuba and never fomented anti-semitism or attacked Argentina’s large Jewish community. Perónismo became an ideology unto itself well before Perón died and Evita was overthrown in a military coup backed by elements of the Argentine bourgeoisie and the CIA.

The military junta that took over in 1976 as the National Reorganization Process was anti-Perónist, instigating a vicious “dirty war” from 1974 to 1983 in which the military, security forces, and right-wing death squads kidnapped, tortured, murdered and “disappeared” students, trade unionists, artists, writers, journalists, militants, left-wing activists and guerrillas numbering some 30,000. The guerrilla component was comprised not only of Marxist-Leninist groups like the People’s Revolutionary Army/ERP and the Liberation Armed Forces/FAL, but also a highly splintered Perónist guerrilla insurgency ranging from Leninist/Perónist hybrids like the Revolutionary Armed Forces/FAR, through left-wing groups like the Perónist Armed Forces/FAP and the Catholic Perónist Montonero Movement/MPM (Montoneros), to the outright antisemitic, fascist Tacuara Nationalist Movement/MNT modeled after the Spanish Falange. (As the MRNT under Joe Baxter, Tacuara renounced anti-semitism and became progressively Marxist.) Most presidents since the military junta relinquished power have been Perónist, including Menem and Kirchner.

Perón said “[o]ur Third Position is not a central position. It is an ideological position which is in the center, on the right, or on the left, according to specific circumstances.” In exile eventually in Franco’s Spain, Perón met secretly with various leftists in Madrid like Salvador Allende and Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Of Che, Perón said: “an immature utopian—but one of us—I am happy for it to be so because he is giving the yankees a real headache.” Yet, in his final days in power in Argentina, Perón also cordially met and negotiated with Pinochet. Perón’s red-brown alliances of convenience internationally and his domestic worker-oriented populism caused headaches for the Left both in Latin America and worldwide. It still does as an exemplar of generic Third Positionism, what with the global upsurge of the alt-right and its claims to go “beyond Left and Right.”

It might be argued that Perónismo is socialism with Argentine characteristics—Perón being a precursor to left-wing military rule like Bolivia’s National Revolutionary Movement or Portugal’s Carnation Revolution—and that the Argentine military junta were the real fascists. But it was clearly charismatic national fascism versus faceless client-state fascism. When faced with two bad fascist choices, choose actual socialism.

The once and future Left: “What’s Left?” June 2019 (MRR #433)

Let’s talk about dysfunctional relationships.

We love them from a distance, even going so far as to make movies about them. From Richard Burton’s and Elizabeth Taylor’s tortuous on-again off-again love affair that fans believed underlaid the ferocious film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, to punk rock’s murder/suicide darlings Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen who were the subject of the eponymous biopic Sid and Nancy, we’re fascinated by such emotional human train wrecks. Richard Kruspe of the sketchy brutalist band Rammstein commented that being in a band is “like a relationship. It’s a marriage without sex.” Vin Diesel’s movie xXx featured a clip of Rammstein playing “Feuer frei!” Dysfunctional musicians in dysfunctional bands is a tired old trope.

The history of larger human institutions is equally fraught with social dysfunction. “If measured by the number of lives it destroyed,” wrote author Elizabeth Gilbert, “Then you can’t find a worse alliance than the marriage between the Nazi Party and the Catholic Church, sealed with the Reichskonkordat treaty in 1933. Like many abused wives, the Church initially thought it would be protected by its powerful husband (from Communism, in this case), but instead became complicit in unthinkable psychopathy.” Today, the European Union is often criticized as a marriage of convenience that has since gone awry. “This one has sabotaged the siesta, those gorgeous lire, French-baked baguettes,” author Stacy Schiff comments. “Down this road lies a Starbucks on every Slovenian corner.” The battle over Brexit continues to remind both Britain and the continent of how unsatisfactory the European Union has become.

But the dysfunctional relationship I’m most intrigued with and continue to be involved in is that of the Left. The Left emerged during the French Revolution and experienced its first major defeat during the European-wide uprisings of 1848. In response to the failed revolutions of 1848, various tendencies of the European Left organized the International Workingmen’s Association (First International, or IWA) in 1864, intended to unite the proletariat and its class struggle through a representative body of diverse left-wing socialist, communist, syndicalist and anarchist organizations, political parties, and labor unions. The IWA quickly polarized between the followers of Karl Marx with his parliamentary focus and those of Michael Bakunin who promoted “direct economical struggle against capitalism, without interfering in the political parliamentary agitation.” Despite their increasing antagonism the experience of the insurrectionary 1871 Paris Commune tended to bring the Left’s various factions together. But Marx declared the Commune “essentially a working class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor” while Bakunin considered it “a bold and outspoken negation of the State.” These fundamental differences eventually split the IWA’s contentious 8-year gig into two competing organizations by 1872: the Marxist red First International (which disbanded in 1876), and the anarchist black First International which continues to this day. Bismarck remarked of this ur-Left that “[c]rowned heads, wealth and privilege may well tremble should ever again the Black and Red unite!”

The next time Black and Red united in the streets was during the Russian Revolution, a touchstone for the Left to this day. But the Russian Revolution was actually two revolutionary events. The inchoate, anarchic mass uprising of March 8, 1917 (February Revolution) toppled the feudal Czarist ancien regime while the disciplined, thoroughly planned insurrection of November 8, 1917 (October Revolution) overthrew the liberal bourgeois Kerensky government, with 245 days in between. The broad February Revolution is embraced by all manner of Leftists, from anarchists to Stalinists, whereas the narrow October Revolution is praised mostly by Leninist party types or Bolshevik wannabes. Instead of contending that February was one step away from anarchy while October was all putsch and coup d’etat, a more judicious evaluation was offered by Rosa Luxemburg, who acknowledged the revolution’s myriad problems while writing: “In Russia, the problem [of the realization of socialism] could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to ‘Bolshevism.’”

It’s no secret I think anarchism suffers from initial problems that produce related problems down the road. The anarchist misunderstanding of power generally and of state power in particular means that, while spontaneous popular uprisings can and do occur to topple rulers and regimes, anarchism has never been able to consolidate a liberatory society out of those moments. The 1936-39 Spanish civil war proved to be anarchism’s greatest failure, a debacle that liquidated anarchism in Spain and marginalized it internationally, stunting its revolutionary capacity for decades and haunting it to the present. Anarchistic societies exist by default, as in the case of the anthropological category of Zomia where highland peoples and cultures manage to hold onto a de facto anarchy through geographic isolation. I consider anarchism’s glorious string of revolutionary defeats a “beautiful loser” syndrome where anarchists insist time and again on proudly snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

In turn, Leninism’s historic string of successes reinforces the same issue in mirror form. Lenin’s formulation of the need for a vanguard party of professional revolutionaries to “make the revolution” has resulted in substitutionism in which the Leninist party substitutes for the working class in power, the party’s central committee substitutes for the party, and eventually the all-powerful party chairman substitutes for the central committee. There’s a direct line from Marx through Lenin to Stalin; not the only line that has been or can be drawn from Marx, but certainly one of the most prominent. Equally, the Leninist vanguard party has never been able to consolidate a truly socialist society out of decades of one-party rule, in which the self-activity and self-organization of the working class as a class fails to materialize. The succession of Leninism by Trotskyism, Stalinism, Maoism, Hoxhaism, et al has gotten us no closer to the classless, stateless society originally envisioned by Marx.

During revolutionary situations anarchists refuse to take power expecting the people to spontaneously rise up while Leninists seize power in the name of the people. Each hope to usher in a liberated socialist society but never succeed. What is unique in the political conflicts between anarchism versus Leninism is belied by the common dynamic that both socialist tendencies share, namely the complex relationship between cadre organization and mass organization, or between revolutionary organization and mass social movement underlying the problem of realizing socialism. In Marxism and the Russian Anarchists and other analyses, Anthony D’Agostino acknowledges not only the centrality of the dynamic to both anarchism and Leninism but contends that these two divergent socialist tendencies developed analogous political solutions. Despite their differing class compositions, Lenin’s faction of the RSDLP and Bakunin’s International Brotherhood/Alliance of Social Democracy had a strikingly similar relationship to mass working class organizing, and notable parallels can be drawn between the role of the Bolshevik vanguard party within the Russian workers’ movement and that of the Spanish FAI within the mass syndicalist CNT. “There will always be enragés and then again Jacobins,” yet the dialectical problem of cadre vs mass organization within the problem of realizing socialism resulted in one-party dictatorship when given a Bolshevik tweak and in revolutionary failure when given an anarchist tweak.

After three quarters of a century Leninism went down for a substantial defeat with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact by 1991, whereas anarchism has experienced resurrection and resurgence since the 60s yet still has never triumphed. What this means is there are various new opportunities to get the band (e.g. the ur-Left First International) back together and reformulate anarchism anew with Marxism. Starting with pioneers like ex-FAIista and Spanish Civil War veteran Abraham Guillén who called himself an anarchist-Marxist in fashioning his urban guerrilla strategy we have the usual suspects (council communism, left communism, Situationism, and autonomism) hoping to square the Leftist circle. Following the collapse of Love & Rage, the now-defunct Bring The Ruckus project explicitly called for combining cadre and mass organizations as “neither the vanguard nor the network” in a clear New Abolitionism. Insurrectionary communization has advanced through Tiqqun, Endnotes, Gilles Dauvé, and Théorie Comuniste as neo-anarchist and neo-Leninist experiments—like hypothetical quantum particles—keep popping in and out of existence. Finally, old-school Marxist-Leninist parties have taken new directions; from the Mexican Guevaraist FLN adopting indigenismo and “mandar obedeciendo” to emerge as the EZLN, to the Kurdish PKK embracing Murray Bookchin’s municipalist confederalism to sponsor the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’s YPG/SDF.

I often write about the Left’s glaring problems like sectarianism or dogmatism. Those issues notwithstanding, the Left needs a proper dynamic between cadre and mass, revolutionary organization and social movement, in order to advance toward common ground and a socialist society. Whether the right dynamic can be achieved theoretically, and whether any of the current contenders can achieve it, remains to be seen.

Rojava and the ghost of Kropotkin: “What’s Left?” April 2019, MRR #431

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
Karl Marx
The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852

There’s no Left left.
riffing on Gertrude Stein

 

Does history repeat? Are we living through a rerun of the interwar period (1918-1939) with a repeat of the wealth-crazed Roaring Twenties, the dark rise of Fascism, the growing international crisis, and the imminent threat to progressive politics if not all of civilization as we know it? Karl Marx was using the debacle of Louis Bonaparte rhetorically to elicit historical comparisons, bitterly mocking the political situation of his time after the dismal defeat of the 1848 revolutionary wave. Dialectics kept him from falling into the aphoristic thinking of liberal historiography a la Santayana. In reviewing the current state of affairs, I’m tempted to sidestep Marx’s biting humor to acknowledge that history often happens first as tragedy and second as even greater tragedy.

“There are a thousand differences between what happened in Spain in 1936 and what is happening in Rojava, the three largely Kurdish provinces of northern Syria, today.” So wrote anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber in a 10-8-14 Guardian opinion piece in fleshing out the general parallels so far sited between the two time periods. Besides noting the striking similarities between libertarian socialist politics in liberated territories then and now and alluding to the resemblance between the International Brigades of 1936 and the International Freedom Battalion today, Graeber concludes: “If there is a parallel today to Franco’s superficially devout, murderous Falangists, who would it be but Isis?” In further praising the “remarkable democratic experiment” being conducted by the Kurds in the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, otherwise known as Rojava, he reformulates the fascist enemy in a 2-23-18 Guardian opinion piece:

Today, this democratic experiment is the object of an entirely unprovoked attack by Islamist militias including Isis and al-Qaida veterans, and members of Turkish death squads such as the notorious Grey Wolves, backed by the Turkish army’s tanks, F16 fighters, and helicopter gunships. […] The religious extremists who surround the current Turkish government know perfectly well that Rojava doesn’t threaten them militarily. It threatens them by providing an alternative vision of what life in the region could be like.

I’ll discuss the parallels and distinctions between libertarian socialist politics then and now in a future column. The international situation and disposition of forces today are radically different from what they were in 1936. Liberal parliamentary democracy seemed to be on the ropes back in the interwar period, steadily losing ground to Fascism on the Right and Communism on the Left. Modern decolonization movements in the form of socialist struggles for national liberation hadn’t yet begun. The Soviet Union was touted as a revolutionary socialist society positioning itself as humanity’s bright utopian future around which progressives, social democrats and even anarchists rallied, confirming a world in which “[b]ourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism” according to Rosa Luxemburg. Today there is no “socialist world” and “real existing socialism” is confined to a handful of Soviet-style relic states. A decolonized Third World continues to fragment. Social democracy and progressive politics generally are losing ground to rightwing populism in liberal parliamentary democracies, part of the rightward trend worldwide toward conservatism, traditionalism, authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism, fascism, neo-nazi totalitarianism, etc. There is no “transition to Socialism,” merely the threat from various forms of Barbarism.

The centuries-long legacy of European imperialism and subsequent Third World decolonization left the Kurds and their national aspirations stateless, divided between four artificially constructed Middle Eastern nation-states and among a dozen surrounding ethnic/religious communities. With the Cold War overlay and global contention between the Soviet bloc and the “Free World,” the Kurds had a brief few decades when they sought to choose between socialism or barbarism instead of competing imperialisms. Virtually every Kurdish political formation claimed to be socialist at minimum or Marxist-Leninist in full, with several dozen conflicting Kurdish political parties divided territorially, ideologically, and by tribe/clan, thus generating a highly fractious nationalist politics. I don’t have the space to discuss this complexity other than to note that when Soviet-style Communism collapsed internationally between 1989 and 1991, the US was left the victor and sole superpower. The Kurds reoriented themselves to seeking alliances with and aid from the US, which has repeatedly proven to be a mistake.

The US has blatantly used the Kurds and their nationalist ambitions for short-term American imperialist gain time and again, betraying them without a second thought whenever it was convenient. Through the CIA, the Nixon Administration fomented a Kurdish rebellion in northern Iraq against Saddam Hussein as a favor to the shah of Iran in 1975 which Henry Kissinger then betrayed. In 1991, George H.W. Bush personally encouraged the southern Shia and northern Kurds of Iraq to revolt against Saddam Hussein, only to balk at militarily aiding those rebellions, leaving the Shiite and Kurdish insurgents to be brutally crushed by the Ba’athist dictatorship. Kurdish autonomy and the Kurdistan Regional Government that emerged thereafter were more honored in the breach than the observance by the US, establishing a de facto Kurdish independence after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That autonomy was compromised after the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 as the central Iraqi government, backed by Iran, rolled back agreements on power sharing, oil production, and territorial control with the Kurds. The 2011 collapse of Syria into civil war, and the subsequent rise of IS with its 2014 Northern Iraq offensive were followed by the battles for Kirkuk and Mosul, the consolidation of Kurdish power in northern Syria, and the Kurdish defeat of IS in both Iraq and Syria. The US aided this Kurdish military resurgence, but now Trump and the US threaten to betray America’s Kurdish allies once again by a precipitous withdrawal of troops from Syria.

The Kurds see the US as the political and military guarantor of Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq, and now in northern Syria, where Rojava is carrying out a profound libertarian socialist experiment in self-government. But the US is a notoriously unreliable partner, first and foremost because America always pursues its own imperialist interests in the region. Second, the US consistently promotes the interests of regional client states like Israel and Egypt and regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The US being the principal imperialist power remaining in the world means that support for the Kurds and Rojava is a complicated affair, especially for the left of the Left.

“Syria In Brief” is an internet project [syriainbrief.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/leftist-groups-on-the-syrian-civil-war/] which summarizes the position of some fifty-four western Leftist groups, all of which “support secularism and socialism […] and oppose intervention by Western powers, but their attitudes towards the Assad regime, the Kurdish PYD/YPG-led Rojava, the vast and multi-colored opposition,” Russian intervention, “and the so-called Islamic State vary greatly.” For the anti-imperialist Leninist Left disparagingly called “Tankies,” those politics are rigid, vulgar and formulaic. Imperialism is categorically bad and US imperialism is particularly bad, so the Butcher of Damascus Assad and his Russian allies are to be supported at all costs. Thus Tankie anti-imperialism means defending the client Syrian state of the former “real existing socialist” state of Russia without fail. By contrast, virtually all of the left communist and left anarchist groups listed—as well as assorted independent Leninists, Trotskyists and Maoists—support the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria/Rojava, the PYD/YPG/SDF, and their libertarian socialist experiment on the ground. Many also critically or partially support the Free Syrian Army in particular and the Syrian opposition generally.

But how to square the circle and support the Kurds without endorsing US imperialism? The short answer is that it can’t be done. An open letter in the New York Review of Books from the Emergency Committee for Rojava on 4-23-18 called for the defense of Rojava by demanding the US government:

  • impose economic and political sanctions on Turkey’s leadership;
  • embargo sales and delivery of weapons from NATO countries to Turkey;
  • insist upon Rojava’s representation in Syrian peace negotiations;
  • continue military support for the SDF.

David Graeber signed the letter, along with Noam Chomsky, Debbie Bookchin and scores of others. Much as the anarchist Peter Kropotkin provisionally supported the Allied cause in the first World War by signing the Manifesto of the Sixteen, the left of the Left today cannot easily back the Kurds of Rojava without tacitly supporting American imperialism. But the crude support for Assad, the Syrian government, and their Russian backers by “sundry ersatz progressives” and “fatuous self-styled ‘anti-imperialists’” means supporting “the genocide and democracide now being planned over in Ankara” and complicity with “the torture, abductions, killings and ethnic cleansing of Kurds that will follow,” according to Anna-Sara Malmgren and Robert Hockett (Haaretz, 2-2-19).

Welcome to Machiavellian realpolitik.

Crossing the line: “What’s Left?” March 2019, MRR #430

[The Motherfuckers are] a street gang with analysis.
—Osha Neumann

Fuck shit up!
—hardcore punk catchphrase

Conservatives are the new punk.
—alt-right-lite catchphrase

When I read Michael “Bommi” Baumann’s political memoir Wie Alles Anfing/How It All Began in 1979, about his experiences as a West German urban guerrilla, I took to heart his slogan: “Words cannot save us! Words don’t break chains! The deed alone makes us free! Destroy what destroys you!” The feeling behind his words resonated with the aggressive, direct action-oriented anarchism I’d developed since 1968, but by the late ‘80s I’d abbreviated those sentiments into the phrase “fuck shit up.” Fuck shit up was a hardcore punk war cry. Bands from Useless Pieces of Shit to Blatz wrote songs with the saying in the title and the lyrics. There’s no more punk an expression than “fuck shit up,” which is abbreviated FSU in graffiti.

An organization of punks arose in the Boston area in the early ’90s also called Fuck Shit Up/FSU, started by Elgin James. James was a mixed-race orphan raised by peace-and-love hippie foster parents who preached pacifism but subjected Elgin to a harmful home environment of alcohol and drug abuse. He reacted to his parents by becoming straightedge and rejecting their pacifism for the Black Power philosophy of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and the Black Panther Party, ultimately embracing the aggressive ideals of hardcore punk rock. Running afoul of the law, confined briefly to juvenile hall, Elgin enrolled to study pre-law but suffered brain damage from an injury incurred during a gang fight. He slowly, painfully recovered his mental and physical abilities through intense physical therapy, but remained destitute and homeless until he moved to Boston. There, he became the singer for the hardcore band Wrecking Crew in 1991 and joined a multi-racial crew of working class punk kids to form FSU, with Fuck Shit Up also coming to mean Friends Stand United and Forever Stand United.

Ostensibly aggro, straightedge and anti-racist, Boston FSU’s core stance was undying loyalty to one’s crew of friends defended by righteous violence. Boston FSU started by claiming to purge white power skinhead gangs from shows and the scene, then quickly moved on to taking out drug dealers. Going “right after the heart of the enemy, money,” FSU robbed drug dealers, then gave half of their take to local charities and straightedge bands while keeping the remainder for themselves. FSU started an “arms for hostages” scheme to trade handguns for pit bulls used in dog fighting rings with inner city gangs. Boston FSU’s reputation grew. Soon FSU chapters sprung up across the country. In 1992, I remember FSU being listed in Anti-Racist Action zines as a premier straightedge, anti-racist, hardcore punk organization and therefore legitimate allies in the fight against white supremacy.

That didn’t last. Many Boston punks considered FSU thugs and their claim to rid the scene of nazi skins bogus. FSU also targeted bouncers, scene outsiders, and civilians with what the group considered justified violence. “Fuck nazis and dope dealers” escalated to “fuck anybody who isn’t us.” Ideologies grew more extreme, with hardline supplanting straightedge. Members died and chapters splintered. A number of FSU members eventually joined the Outlaws and Mongols motorcycle gangs. Violence linked to FSU in Salt Lake City—including a mob attack, McDonald’s arson, and mink farm bombing—culminated in a gang-related murder in 1998, leading the FBI to declare FSU a street gang by 2009. Elgin James put out a hit on a supposed neo-Nazi and then attempted to extort money from the individual in 2005, which lead to his arrest by the FBI in 2009 and imprisonment in 2011/12.

So when does a crew become a gang? When FSU fell apart, James and surviving founding members formed the Foundation Fund to set up scholarships at local universities to honor dead FSU members and reflect “hardcore punk culture” and ideals. But FSU had crossed the line from scene crew to street gang long before.

Now consider another example of the use of violence in turning a crew into a gang.

Breitbart published an article entitled “Political Punks” in 2015 that featured a détourned image of the classic Ramones picture, the four band members posed against a brick wall with their faces switched up for Greg Gutfeld, Clint Eastwood, Ann Coulter, and Gavin McInnes. One of the first uses of the spurious meme, the cliché that “conservatives are the new punk” has become a mantra for McInnes and his ilk ever since.

McInnes was born in Britain of Scottish parents who migrated to Canada when he was a child. He played in the Ottawa punk band Anal Chinook and founded Vice with Shane Smith and Suroosh Alvi in Montreal in 1994, exhibiting from the beginning his propensity for provocation, rightwing culture jamming, and countercultural cooptation. McInnes almost single handedly manufactured the gentrifying, mostly white, male and young hipster subculture. He was bought out by his two Vice partners in 2008 and, fancying himself a comedian, writer, actor and businessman, he attempted various marginal commercial ventures. But by 2012 his increasingly right wing trajectory was apparent. He peddled transphobia, founded his own news commentary internet show and advertising company, and became a regular contributor for Rebel Media, Infowars, and Fox News. He wrote for more overt paleoconservative/white supremacist media like TakiMag, American Renaissance, and VDARE. And McInnes founded the Proud Boys (PB) in 2016 just prior to being employed by CRTV in 2017.

What The Monkees were to music the PB are to politics—a cleverly constructed and recruited group designed to appeal to a carefully targeted demographic. And like hipsterism before, the PB were mostly concocted by Gavin McInnes, whose leadership has been equal parts deflection and “balls out” bullshit. He has constantly declared the PB multiracial and gay friendly, yet its membership remains overwhelmingly young, white, and hetero. From its retro rightwing ideology (anti-feminist pro-family, free enterprise small government, anti-Muslim “Western chauvinism”) to its goofy ritualism (Disneyesque name, Broadway themed anthem, five cereal faux beatdown initiation) and pseudo-Masonic trappings (pledging, graduated system of “degrees,” Fred Perry “uniforms”) the PB as a fraternal organization boils down to drinking and fighting, in McInnes’s own words. And despite simply wanting to enjoy a drink with “his boys” and a little spurious charity work, McInnes is all about the fighting, having declared “I want violence, I want punching in the face. I’m disappointed in Trump supporters for not punching enough.” He amended the PB with a “fourth degree initiation” where “We don’t start fights […] but we will finish them.”

What this has meant in practice publicly is overt provocation, intentional aggression, and targeted violence by the PB. At New York University, in Berkeley, California, in Portland, Oregon, and mostly recently at the New York Metropolitan Republican Club, the PB have squared off against antifa in alliance with assorted white supremacist (Identity Evropa, 211 Boot Boys) and patriotic militia (Oath Keepers, III Percenters) groups. Acting as “founder, not fuhrer,” McInnes proclaimed after Charlottesville that the PB can’t have white supremacist alt-right members while at the same time declaring that white supremacy doesn’t exist. This leaves the PB free to associate and openly work with the racist alt-right as a rightwing alt-lite ally. The PB may have started as a joke, but it’s far from a goof that simply got out of hand. McInnes deliberately fanned the PB’s violent rhetoric, hyperbolic claims, and collusion with white supremacy. In turn, this allowed McInnes to transform the burgeoning PB from a contrived crew to an ersatz gang specializing in bodyguard muscle, anti-antifa vigilantism, and general rightwing mayhem. The Monkees, after all, were quite popular and had a decent following even when they were purely corporate tools.

I viewed the brutal Boston Beatdown videos and realized that six or seven charismatic individuals besides Elgin James were behind FSU’s power and draw. When I saw Gavin McInnes’s rambling, incoherent video distancing himself from the PB and the “Proud Boys 9” “for their own good” now that the FBI unofficially consider them extremists I could feel the palpable fear of a RICO anti-organized crime indictment looming over McInnes’s resignation action. McInnes had become the clownish ex-hipster Mussolini of a suburban gang without analysis. Now that an “Elders Chapter” and Chairman Enrique Tarrio are officially the boss of this so-called “Western chauvinist” fraternity few think the PB will remain the leading alt-right-lite organization tasked as GOP enforcers and anti-antifa vigilantes. Some are predicting sectarian battles and splits. Others believe the PB will gradually fade into obscurity. But the PB might yet linger. To Mao’s famous dictum “if you don’t hit it, it won’t fall” I’d like to add the anarchist caveat:

“If it doesn’t fall, you didn’t hit it hard enough!”

Originally this column featured a Skarhead picture to obliquely reference a wider discussion about crews in punk and hardcore from https://dukecityhardcorepunk.wordpress.com/2017/12/19/crews-in-the-punk-and-hardcore-scene/. I got crap for it so I replaced it and other pictures with ones from Boston Beatdown.

Rightward and downward: “What’s Left?” December 2018, MRR #427

My wife, my friends, everybody I know is pissed that I’m not more pissed off about that horrible, horrible man Donald Trump. That I seem pretty sanguine about the hurricane of political, social, and human destruction Trump and the GOP have wrought in such a short period of time or the damage they will continue to inflict for decades to come through, for instance, the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. So, why am I not more freaked out about Trump?

The answer is that, in my lifetime, I’ve seen this nation’s relatively liberal politics go consistently downhill and rightward to the present. I first became aware of American politics writ large when I was 8 years old, when John F. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960. My parents had been Democrats and Adlai Stevenson supporters, so my frame of reference started from a liberal “Golden Age,” the “one brief shining moment” that was the myth of JFK and Camelot. But unlike many people who believe the fifty-eight years that followed have witnessed ups and downs, good times and bad, pendulum swings left and right, and are therefore upset, desperate, and obsessed with the rise of Trump, I see those years all of a piece, a steady right wing devolution as we go straight to hell in a handbasket.

The relatively lean, muscular structure of the American state prior to 1929 permitted the nation to create an empire—by conquering the native populations, expanding its rule from coast to coast under Manifest Destiny, and asserting its power across the western hemisphere under the Monroe Doctrine. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in confronting the challenges first of the Great Depression and then the second World War, radically transformed American government in riding a wave of socialist/communist militancy. FDR crafted the modern warfare/welfare/corporatist state that attempted to democratically sidestep the excesses of Soviet Communism and European Fascism while outflanking the Old Left’s upsurge domestically. Considered the height of American Liberalism, the New Deal has been disingenuously celebrated by that same Old Left even after a smooth political transition to the rabid anti-communism of the Eisenhower era. The guns-and-butter Kennedy/Johnson years continued the anti-communist military intervention and domestic social welfare expansion permitted by First World economic affluence, as New Left* activism and organizing surged. It must be remembered that Nixon arguably was the last liberal president.

These two prolonged separate Leftist periods were when progressive coalitions mobilized to move the Democratic party and American politics dramatically to the left. Four briefer, distinct occasions when ultra-conservative coalitions mobilized to purposefully move the Republican party and American politics profoundly to the right need also be noted: McCarthyism and the era of “Father Knows Best” morality; the prefiguring Goldwater presidential campaign; the rise of the New Right presaging Reagan’s presidential bid in a new age of austerity; and the Tea Party movement that anticipated the rise of Donald Trump and independent Trumpism. Yet Democratic party governance after 1975 was not a reversal or even a holding pattern so much as a more gradual rightward descent: Carter with economic deregulation and Cold War escalation; Clinton in slashing welfare and promoting free trade; and Obama as the drone-bombing-deporter-in-chief and TPP champion.

I’ve summarized this country’s inexorable political slide to the right over the last half century. The changeover from Keynesian affluence to neoliberal austerity however hints at something more fundamental underlying American politics whether you see those politics as a swinging pendulum or, like me, as a steady flush down the porcelain highway. American capitalism made the switch from making profits out of industrial productivity to financial speculation somewhere around 1975, accounting for both the decline of the 60s New Leftist surge and the defeat of the 70s labor upsurge. In commercial capitalism profit is extracted almost exclusively from circulation, from trade, from the buying and selling of commodities. Under industrial capitalism profit is extracted not just from circulation but also from the labor process in which factory workers are paid less than the value they produce from their labor—from surplus value. Surplus value is then used to construct more factories and to hire more workers for wages in an ever-expanding cycle of profit-making.

But capitalism suffers from a tendency for the rate of profit to fall (in the interpretation of Marx I favor), which not only results in the boom-and-bust economic cycle we’re all familiar with but also in an increasing inability to sustain industrial production. In my lifetime we’ve seen industrial production become so unprofitable that US industrial labor has been outsourced and factories moved to the Third World, resulting in America’s overall deindustrialization and conversion to a service economy. More and more, capitalism in the US is based on extracting profit from financial transactions and speculation, a far less profitable form of capitalism then even the trade in commodities of commercial capitalism. Capitalism worldwide also suffers from the same declining rate of profit, meaning that in China, Vietnam, and other Third World nations industrial production is contracting, meaning that industrial capitalism is slumping internationally and being replaced by finance capitalism. Finance capitalism is not merely a capitalism in decline, it is capitalism heading for the mother of all crises.

Some students of the 1929 Great Depression have contended that, in liberal democracies, deep economic depressions as suffered by the interwar US are conducive to the growth of socialist movements whereas runaway inflations as experienced by Weimar Germany are favorable to the rise of fascist movements. During depressions, people who have no money or work are screwed but for those who do, money has value, work has meaning, and society has integrity, giving the edge to socialism which values labor. During inflations, it doesn’t matter whether people have money or work because money has no value, work has no meaning, and society is crumbling, giving the advantage to fascism which values power.

A similar dynamic can be seen in the transition from industrial capitalism to finance capitalism in liberal democracies. In industrial capitalist societies, work and capital are intrinsically productive and so leftist movements and ideologies are widespread. Government spending and services grow, welfare programs and economic regulation expand, and the public realm and labor unions are endorsed. In finance capitalist societies, work and capital are mostly unproductive and so rightist movements and ideologies are prevalent. The economy is deregulated and financialized, the welfare state is rolled back, labor unions are crushed, the public realm is privatized, and government spending and services are cut back. About all they have in common is an aggressive, interventionist foreign policy. Marxists consider industrial capitalism in terms of constant vs variable capital while consigning finance capitalism to the category of fictitious capital.

Whether Keynesian or neoliberal, democratic or authoritarian, the state serves as the monopoly of legitimate violence, the bulwark for the existing social order, and the lynchpin for the nation and economy. The state functions the same whether under affluent industrial capitalism or austere finance capitalism, so why does society exhibit leftist unrest in the former and rightist agitation in the latter? A staid principle developed in the 1950s was that of the revolution of rising expectations in which “rising expectations embodied the twentieth century’s ‘real’ revolution insofar as it represented for the vast majority of the world’s population a break from centuries of stagnation, fatalism, and exploitation.” The growing affluence from 1945 to 1975 caused expectations to rise in the population at large all over the world, which in turn lead to civil unrest, insurgencies, and revolutions according to the theory. But did persistent austerity after 1975 cause the opposite: widespread social reaction, stagnation, and obedience? The results are dubious either way the theory cuts. The inconclusive empirical evidence, methodological constraints, and conceptual criticisms of the whole revolution of rising expectations thesis makes it useless.

I’m of the Marxist mindset that the social superstructure follows the economic base much as form follows function in the principle enunciated by modernist architecture and industrial design. It also means, in a Gramscian sense, that social superstructure can gain autonomy to act back on the economic base, but the starting point is crucial. We make our own history, but we don’t make it as we please; we don’t make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

I just snuck in another Marx quote.

*New Left in this case does not refer to the politics that grew up around organizations like Students for a Democratic Society but to Leftist organizing and movements that flourished from the Civil Rights movement beginning in 1955 to the collapse of the anti-Vietnam war movement in 1975.

SIGNIFICANT DATE RANGES: Old Left: 1930-50; New Left: 1955-75; Keynesian industrial affluence: 1945-75; neoliberal finance austerity: 1975 onward; McCarthyism/Eisenhower era: 1950-1960; Goldwater campaign: 1963-64; New Right: 1980-88; Tea Party/independent Trumpism: 2009 onward.

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