Crisis on the Right: “What’s Left?” August 2017, MRR #411

This is my overlong analysis of the crisis of the Left and the crisis on the Right . I owe the tripartite analysis of the modern American Right to Political Research Associates, which does excellent work dissecting the Right through investigative reports, articles, and activist resource kits.

———

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”

Yet periods of ideological decay often breed strange new variants, such as the ‘Red-Brown alliance’ in the former Soviet Union, which do not easily fit into conventional political-science categories of “left” and “right.”

Kevin Coogan, Dreamer of the Day

I’m ass deep into analyzing the crisis of the Left. There are three components to this crisis, beginning with the defeat of organized labor by ascendant neoliberalism in the industrialized west (Reagan busting the PATCO unions in 1981, Thatcher defeating striking coal miners in 1984-85). Next came the collapse of real existing socialist regimes with the disintegration of the Soviet bloc in 1989-91. These two events mark the decline of Marxism broadly and Leninism more narrowly as the third component of this ongoing crisis. The present growth of anarchism and left communism and the breeding of “strange new variants” like insurrectionism and communization I consider a mixed blessing because this actually demonstrates the Left’s weakness. The relationship between the resurgence of the anti-authoritarian Left and the decline of the rest of the Left, in turn, reflects a broader relationship between the politics of Left and Right, with the “ideological decay” of the Right hinting at something broader.

If the crisis of the Left is also a crisis on the Right, perhaps I need to use the word interregnum. The sentiment of the Yeats poem, borne by the mystic, cryptofascist Irish nationalist in his reactionary politics, conveys the sense of a violent interruption between old and new orders. An old order loses its grip, but before a new order manages to establish itself there is a period of social chaos and disintegration when things “do not easily fit into conventional political-science categories of ‘left’ and ‘right’.” An interregnum, by definition, is a big deal.

The Latin term interregnum originated with the English civil war to designate the period from the execution of Charles I in 1649 to the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. Cromwell’s dictatorship is sometimes considered a prequel to the bourgeois revolutions that ushered in the modern world. Most of the history I tend to fixate on—the French 1789 Revolution, the Russian 1917 Revolution, the German 1918-19 workers’ revolt ushering in the Weimar Republic, the Spanish 1936-39 civil war, etc.—also indicate relatively short-lived, national interregnums. But interregnums can also be long and slow moving, involving a much wider geographic scope.

The Papal Schism that split the western church between three contending popes from 1378 to 1417 damaged the Catholic church’s reputation and authority. Along with issues of priestly celibacy, the marketing of relics, and most importantly the selling of indulgences, the Protestant Reformation was all but inevitable. From Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses in 1517 through the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, Europe experienced scores of religious wars predicated on dynastic conflicts and as many as 20 million deaths due to religious violence, not to mention a continental reshaping of European social, political, and economic realities that eventually gave rise to the modern nation-state system. That’s over a century-long, diffuse, continental interregnum. Alternately, the series of national interregnums from the beginning of the first World War in 1914 to the end of the second World War in 1945 might be threaded together into a single, grand, worldwide interregnum. A global interregnum

I’m paleo when it comes to my Marxism. Interregnums fit nicely into a history propelled by class struggle and revolution. As for modes of production and stages of history, I’m both less and more orthodox. Less because I don’t think historical modes of production prior to capitalism were comprehensive, and more because once the capitalist mode of production arose it eventually became socially and globally all-embracing. And I’m definitely old school in contending that the French revolutionary interregnum of 1789 ushered in the modern world, starting with the riotous sans culotte and culminating in Napoleon’s more disciplined conscripts sweeping across continental Europe.

The first bourgeois revolution in France coincided with a wide variety of interrelated historical processes and cultural phenomena—from the Enlightenment and scientific revolution to modern warfare and the rise of industrial capitalism—to mark the watershed between pre-modern and modern eras. It also introduced our modern-day distinctions between Left and Right through the representative seating at the 1789 National Assembly. Here’s a standard high school PolySci description: “In a narrow sense, the political spectrum summarizes different attitudes towards the economy and the role of the state: left-wing views support intervention and collectivism; and right-wing ones favor the market and individualism. However, this distinction supposedly reflects deeper, if imperfectly defined, ideological or value differences. Ideas such as freedom, equality, fraternity, rights, progress, reform and internationalism are generally seen to have a left-wing character, while notions such as authority, hierarchy, order, duty, tradition, reaction and nationalism are generally seen as having a right-wing character.” [Andrew Heywood, Key Concepts in Politics and International Relations] The Left’s stress on reason and program in accepting modernity makes for greater structure and coherence compared to the eclectic, muddy stance of the non-rational, instinctual Right in the rejection of modernity. But it all does come down to an embrace of, versus a revolt against, the modern world.

And here we encounter a contradiction central to the Right. For in order to revolt against the modern world, the Right must simultaneously embrace it. Moderate conservatives like Edmund Burke who were terrified by the French Revolution were dragged kicking and screaming into modernity, accepting the economics of Adam Smith and the private property of Locke while demanding that tradition put the breaks on changes wrought by capitalism. Reactionaries like Joseph de Maistre advocated for “throne and altar” in a restored ancien regime—a Counter Enlightenment counterrevolutionary—yet he still admired Napoleon. The Left went full-bore into mass politics, vanguard parties, technological innovation, and heavy industrialization with the Bolshevik turn after 1917, yet another national interregnum. From Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome through Hitler’s 1933 acceptance of the German chancellorship, the extreme Fascist right responded by producing an anti-liberal, anti-conservative, anti-capitalist, anti-Marxist revolutionary mass politics to reindustrialize central Europe around a vanguardist, ultranationalist, palingenetic core. The Right has always been in reaction to the Left because of this central contradiction, and there are scholars of Fascist Studies who claim that Fascism was actually a synthesis of revolutionary Left and Right.

Lacking a feudal past, a universal church, and monarchist and aristocratic traditions, the Right in the United States remained confined to moderate conservative factions in the prominent pre-civil war electoral parties—Federalists, Democratic-Republicans, Whigs, and Jacksonian Democrats. It’s been argued that the American Right actually started as a form of European liberalism. At its most immoderate, early American conservatism demonstrated strong nativist and isolationist tendencies, as with the American “Know Nothing” Party. The country’s Protestant citizenry was subject to populist Great Awakenings, rightwing fundamentalist movements, and heretical cults like Mormonism. And, of course, the prevailing assumption across the board was that the United States was a white man’s nation, owned and run by white people. Southern slave society came closest to offering a European-style Right based on aristocracy and tradition. The struggle over slavery that lead to the civil war also drove conservative elements of the southern Democratic Party into the extremism of the Ku Klux Klan’s white supremacist militia terrorism after the civil war, while much of the GOP drifted into an isolationist, laissez-faire Old Right.

Along with a revival in rightwing religious movements like Christian evangelicalism and pentecostalism, the United States witnessed its own fascist movement paralleling European Fascism between the world wars. Based on a reborn, white supremacist, mass KKK that was also anti-Catholic, antisemitic, and populist, it included the antisemitic ravings of Father Coughlin, Charles Lindbergh’s America First movement and sympathies for Nazi Germany, Pelley’s Silver Shirts and Christian Party, even the more demagogic leftist populism of Huey Long. The threat of an American Fascism was very real in the 1920s and 30s.

With the defeat of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy at the end of the global interregnum, in large part thanks to the Soviet Red Army, it was assumed that Fascism had been liquidated once and for all. The United States assumed for itself the sole superpower and the center of empire, capable of imposing a Pax Americana over the world, except for an obstreperous Soviet Union. Some form of Cold War anti-communism became a mainstay of mainstream American politics. It should be remembered that Joseph McCarthy started out a Democrat and ended up a Republican. McCarthyism, the John Birch Society, and Barry Goldwater’s faction of the Republican Party were all radically anti-communist.

But the Right in the United States remained fractious. It included the antisemitic white supremacism of the Klan, George Wallace and the Dixiecrat revolt, the beginnings of the patriot/militia movement in DePugh’s Minutemen and Beach’s Posse Comitatus, the paleoconservatism of Russell Kirk and Paul Gottfried, embryonic conspiracy theorizing a la Bircher anti-fluoridation paranoia, Ayn Rand’s atheist Objectivism, the first inklings of Murray Rothbard’s AnCap libertarianism, and the like. In contrast to the rightwing alliance between Christian evangelicals and Catholic bishops on everything from school prayer to abortion, serious theological divisions emerged in Reconstructionism, Dominionism, and Christian Nationalism alongside religious cults like Children of God, Unification Church, Fundamentalist LDS, Church Universal and Triumphant, etc. As the Right so often mirrors the Left, American conservatism tried to force a contrapuntal unity against the perceived “international communist conspiracy for world domination.”

William F. Buckley founded the National Review Magazine in 1955 in an explicit effort to demarcate a proper American conservatism and to keep it properly policed through vicious polemics and purges of racists, antisemites, and conspiracy wingnuts. He wanted an official American conservative movement that overlapped with the Republican Party, a pro-business/anti-union conservative movement dedicated to a disciplined, uncompromising, good-vs-evil crusade against communism. Buckley thought of this as standing athwart history, yelling stop, in his version of revolting against modernity, but he discovered that policing the Right was like herding cats. It’s been argued that Buckley’s National Review conservative movement was a facade; that the Right didn’t grow less diverse or more unified under Buckley’s shepherding. Yet what ultimately vanquished Buckley and the conservative movement was the crisis of the Left that bubbled up during the 1980s, culminating in the Soviet bloc’s sudden collapse from 1989 to 1991. The United States won the Cold War and truly became the sole superpower and center of empire. Yet things fell apart and the center could not hold as another global interregnum took shape.

I argue that the crisis of the Left produced a corresponding crisis on the Right, a proliferation of “strange new variants” on the Right. The Reagan/Thatcher neoliberal rebranding of official conservatism primed the crisis, alongside the direct mail Viguerie New Right and imported rightwing countercultural currents like Skinheads. All sectors of the Right subsequently proliferated, from the Secular Right (Libertarianism, Neoconservatism) through the Religious Right (soft and hard Dominionism) to the Xenophobic Right. The latter witnessed the most explosive growth through populist movements (armed citizen militias, Sovereign Citizens, patriot groups) and white nationalist ultraright movements (Christian Identity, Creativity Movement, National Socialist Movement, National Alliance).

The most visible aspects of the growing Right—the Tea Party Movement and now the Alt.Right—are just the tip of the rightwing iceberg. Whereas the Secular Right remains committed to a pluralist civil society, the Xenophobic Right is hardline anti-democratic, with the dividing line between conservative and hard Right falling somewhere in the Religious Right. The confusing variety on the Right can barely be contained by this conceptual triad, unlike the Left’s greater structure and coherence which falls easily into antiauthoritarian, democratic/parliamentary, and Leninist categories.

The changes to global capitalism that underpinned the rise of this current global interregnum must wait until a future column. I’ll conclude by quoting Tom Robinson: “If Left is Right, then Right is Wrong. You better decide which side you’re on.”

Being Middle Class: “What’s Left?” November 2007, MRR #294

I no longer have to work for a living, thanks to circumstances I won’t go into at the moment. I can do my own projects full time, and I can actually enjoy the rest of my life. I’ve got credit cards and investments. I own a car and a house. No doubt about it, I’ve become middle class.

In a way, I’ve loosely paralleled my parents’ journey up the social ladder. They started out as working class Polish immigrants from war-torn Europe in the mid-1950s. By the time I went off to UC Santa Cruz in 1972, they were solidly, comfortably middle class. I dropped out of graduate school in 1979 to join the wage-laboring proletariat. Now, I too am middle class, though my social status is far more precarious than was my parents’.

Take health care, for example. I exhausted my eighteen months of Federal COBRA Blue Shield health insurance from my last job a few weeks ago. I paid the full cost of the insurance, that is, what the company paid as well as what had previously been deducted from my paycheck, plus a COBRA administration fee. Now I’m on Cal-COBRA, the California-mandated equivalent, for the next year and a half. That’s costing me almost forty dollars a month more, for the same coverage. And, unless Ah-nold manages to push through his market-based knock-off of universal health care, I’ll use Federal HIPAA regulations to convert to a permanent health insurance policy, which promises to cost even more for less coverage.

Being middle class, I can afford to purchase supplemental health insurance to augment my HIPAA policy. That I’m now entirely dependent on legally protected health care and insurance portability has not escaped me, however. When COBRA screwed up a couple of months ago and reported that I wasn’t paid up, resulting in the temporary cancellation of my coverage, I completely freaked out. My anxiety went through the roof and I was in a panic until I straightened out the error. One of my middle class lifelines is my health care, and the incident demonstrated how shaky that was.

My parents made their climb up the economic ladder when folks had careers. People sought to work for a company for life. Unions had a measure of strength in those days, and one of their top demands was always job security. My dad worked most of his life for the government, a civil servant who went from loading dock foreman to managing the Pacific missile range. He retired early, and was guaranteed perks like access to high-level health care and a pension with built-in cost-of-living adjustments.

By the time I toppled out of the ivory tower’s rarified atmosphere, into the murk and mire of wage slavery, the idea of a career had become a joke. The deindustrialization of the United States was beginning in earnest, unions were crumbling, and corporate capitalism was demonstrating its lack of loyalty to the American working class in spades. Workers were reciprocating, and no one expected to work for the same company for life. I never worked at the same job for more than six or seven years. Many of the companies I worked for tried their damnedest not to provide benefits to their employees, one in particular going so far as to declare all its workers freelancers and independent contractors until busted by the government. My last job canned me, allowing me to take an early retirement as well, but leaving me with bare bones health care.

I realize that having shitty, expensive health insurance is better than having no health insurance at all. Forty seven million Americans-mostly working class and poor-are uninsured, so I hold onto my pitiful policy tooth and nail. Nor am I ashamed to say that if the Governator pushes through a better deal for me, I’d take it in a New York minute. My point is that, while being working class is still hell, becoming middle class is not the guarantee of security it once was.

My mom didn’t have to work. Now, it takes two people, sometimes working two or three jobs each, to maintain the middle class life my dad could afford on his salary alone. Not only has the range of health care and pension benefits become shabbier, it’s no longer a sure thing as health insurers regularly deny or cancel coverage, and corporate pension plans go belly-up one after another. Middle class saving has plummeted over the last forty years, and a good number of people in that middle class are also just one or two paychecks from the street. So, while it can be debated as to whether the American middle-class has shrunk demographically in the past few decades, there can be no doubt that, today, it takes a lot more time and effort to maintain a middle class existence that is far more economically precarious.

Now, for the sixty-four dollar question. Might there be a reason for this, other than the relentless avarice of corporations needing to maximize profits?

My parents were part of a post-World War II economic wave that saw the explosive growth of private-sector wealth, suburbs, the white middle class, and a consumer-oriented economy. In 1958, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote a book, The Affluent Society, the title of which neatly summarized how America portrayed itself going into the ’60s. And affluence meant the ability to buy more and more commodities, with the growing leisure time to enjoy them. Both the threat demonstrated by union organizing and the socialist upsurge during the Great Depression, and the need during the Cold War to outperform the Soviet Union, helped to underpin an economic prosperity that, in turn, produced its own discontents.

This much-touted affluence did not include significant parts of the society-black people for instance-which helped precipitate a civil rights movement, race riots in America’s cities, the rise of a black middle class, black power, and revolutionary nationalism. The burgeoning affluent white middle class raised a generation with the comforts of abundance, only to see significant numbers of their children rebel, even reject their middle class status, by protesting the Vietnam war, immersing themselves in New Left politics, or dropping out to become hippies. By turning affluence into austerity and putting the screws to the middle class, it was hoped that a repeat of the social unrest of the 60s could be avoided.

There was an interesting notion circulating in those years that uprisings by the oppressed didn’t occur when social conditions were at their worst, but actually happened when there was the glimmer of improvement. The rising expectations and aspirations sparked by incremental progress was what prompted rebellion and revolution in the lower classes, not the total desperation of being up against the wall with nothing left to lose. Fostering a climate of increasing scarcity in which even the middle class finds it harder and harder just to tread water helps insure that America’s oppressed minorities don’t get any wrong ideas.

Those who participated in the various social movements of the 1960’s who neither flew off into the ether of Hindu/LSD mysticism nor sank into the quicksand of one or another kind of Leninism-that is, those who straddled the divide between the counterculture and the New Left-often came to similar conclusions about America’s affluent society. The more politically aware communalists, Diggers, Yippies, Provos, Motherfuckers, et al, realized that US society was so wealthy, so abundant in commodities and leisure time, that an entire alternative social order could maintain itself, even flourish, simply on what this society threw away. Some even fancied that their marginal cultural and political spaces would grow strong enough to entirely supplant the dominant society. The absurdity of this fantasy aside, any potential for creating an alternative social order by siphoning off or stealing a fraction of society’s prosperity was easily annulled by replacing abundance with scarcity. If the lower and middle classes spend all their waking hours just struggling to make ends meet, that possibility is effectively negated.

Not to be too heavy handed, but the history lesson here bears repeating.

America’s economic collapse in the Great Depression generated unprecedented labor organizing, the most radical elements of which had called for both revolution and socialism. The bourgeoisie responded to this threat with equal parts carrot, stick, and diversion. The diversion was entry into the second World War, which drafted American workers and shipped them overseas to fight and kill German and Japanese workers. The stick was a savage post-war anti-communism, under the catchall called McCarthyism, which domesticated the American working class and gelded its union movement. And the carrot was a post-war consumer economy and leisure society built on the myth that everyone was middle class. When the affluent society failed to lull significant segments of the population into soporific acceptance of the status quo, and instead produced the racial conflicts, political protests, and countercultural experimentation that we now call the ’60s, it was time for a further tweak. Austerity replaces affluence, the middle class is driven to the edge, and the ruling class once again turns their full attention to maximizing profits.

What may disturb some of you is that I seem to think that the capitalist ruling class-the bourgeoisie-is some kind of secret, totally evil, smoke-filled backroom cabal that is consciously conspiring to fuck over the rest of us. Nothing could be further from the truth. I really do loath conspiracy theories, of any sort. But I do assume that, nine times out of ten, people act out of their economic interests, and that different social classes in society have different economic interests. After that, systems theory and Marxist notions of “class consciousness” can adequately explain how the capitalist class asserts its interests, and control, over the working class.

A basic tenet of systems theory is that, an ecosystem for example, can be entirely self-organizing and self-regulating based solely on the autonomous, self-activity of its members. There is no “grand council” of the redwood forest for instance, yet the redwood forest functions just fine without one. There is overwhelming evidence that biological systems, and growing evidence that social systems, abide by this rule. All living systems, and in theory human social systems, thus have an innate capacity to self-organize and self-regulate. That this can apply to social classes within a larger society is not much of a stretch.

Follow up systems theory with Marx’s idea that one of the preconditions for a social class to gain power in society is for that class to become self-aware. In other words, class conscious. This requires that the class in question go beyond the unconscious self-activity, self-organization, and self-regulation common to all systems, towards the creation of organs and institutions of self-reflection. self-governance, and self-defense. In Marxist terms, the social class must move from being a “class in itself” to a “class for itself.” The bourgeoisie exemplifies just such a “class for itself” with its various business newspapers and journals, its numerous commercial and manufacturing associations, its vast private security and intelligence apparatus, and its well-oiled lobbying and influence machinery. Thanks to such class conscious activity and organization, they are in de facto control over government at all levels of society, affirming Marx’s definition of the state as “the executive committee of the ruling class.”

The capitalist ruling class, therefore, does not have to conspire to globalize the economy, or bust the unions, or undermine the middle class. It does so openly, discussing such matters candidly in the Wall Street Journal and then carrying them out through the marketplace and government policy. Obviously there is obfuscation, public relations, and influence buying. But out-and-out conspiracy? It’s hardly needed. Nor, I might add, is the bourgeoisie particularly evil. It is merely pursuing its class interests, with a vengeance.

Common wisdom used to be that the poor far outnumbered the rich, and that a strong, prosperous middle class was the best possible bulwark against the poor ultimately expropriating the rich. Supposedly, this was one of the lessons the bourgeoisie learned from the Great Depression. This astute observation no longer holds much influence these days as the middle class gets driven to the wall. Whether this means that poor and working people will rise up and “expropriate the expropriators” is, at this point, the subject of another column.