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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Potentia Habet Terminos Non: “What’s Left?” November 2016, MRR #402

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I don’t recollect the TV commercial in question, but everything is available via YouTube nowadays. I do remember the controversy surrounding it. A cute, freckled, blonde-haired little girl is in a field of flowers picking the petals off a daisy, counting them out as she goes. When she picks the last petal, a countdown begins, she looks up, and the camera dives deep into her eye. A thermonuclear explosion goes off against the black background as a snippet of Barry Goldwater’s speech plays laying out his perceived choice before god between love and annihilation. Then the final verbal message, the stakes are too high, plays over a title card plea to elect Lyndon Johnson president in 1964. It was the first time I was aware of someone warning against potential Republican fascism, and that only obliquely in a vague, entirely faux “liberty or death” sort of way.

The whole world was exploding in 1968, or so it seemed. Paris, France and Prague, Czechoslovakia experienced a short-lived revolutionary spring; the guerrilla Tet Offensive raged throughout South Vietnam; the Mexican army brutally massacred students in Mexico City; Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated and riots erupted across the US; Robert Kennedy was also gunned down; a police riot at the Democratic National Convention brought Richard Nixon to power—these were but a few of the events that politicized me. I became an anarchist and went from a pious pacifism to wanting to join a rapidly radicalizing SDS, which by that time was tearing itself apart thanks to New Left sectarianism. My precipitous political development had me believing that Nixon—the law-and-order candidate—would round up all the hippies into labor camps, shoot black people on sight, and usher in a red-white-and-blue fascism. With the ratification of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18, I immediately registered to vote Peace and Freedom Party. In 1972, I voted for the People’s Party’s presidential candidate Benjamin Spock in the primaries and George McGovern in the national election.

Living in San Diego by 1980, I was a full-on lefty anarcho making a transition to commie ultraleftism. Ronald Reagan was running for president. As California’s governor, Reagan had said in reference to quelling riotous student protesters: “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.” No wonder me and my fellow lefties, and many liberals to boot, thought that Reagan would call “action” on a Hollywood version of fascism for the country when he got elected. Reagan liked to start and finish his various political campaigns in San Diego for superstitious good luck, so I was part of the protest at the Chargers/Padres sports stadium that hoped to “welcome” the newly elected President Reagan into office. My girlfriend got into a scuffle with a cop and I spent the rest of the evening bailing her out of jail. In hindsight, Hinkley did a far better job in welcoming Reagan to the presidency, but the left of the Left was fully prepared for some Weimar-style street fighting. It was bullets, not ballots, or so we thought.

These Republican campaigns helped move American politics inexorably to the right, but they did not bring about a homegrown fascism. Indeed, the Democratic campaigns of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and even Barack Obama also contributed in their own ways to the rightwing drift of US politics without actually inaugurating fascism proper. So now we’re being told by various liberals and progressives that Donald Trump represents more than your ordinary everyday run-of-the-mill rightwing, authoritarian, racist, nationalist politics; that he actually steps over the line into fascism proper, capital “F” Fascism if you will; and that we have no choice but to do everything in our power to elect Hillary Clinton, up to and including what Bill Maher recently suggested by warning: “Every cause has to take a back seat to defeating Trump. He’s like an infection, you don’t fool around with it. […] There’s no room for boutique issues in an armageddon election.”

Bullshit!

An article in The Economist entitled “Past and future Trumps” (7-16-16) argues that Republican Trump fits the strongman type, much like the dictatorial caudillos of Latin America, but with an Anglo American emphasis on nativism, isolationism, and populism. This election pits him against Democrat Clinton who is a corporatist, globalist, and multiculturalist, and it behooves us to remember that the Democrats and Republicans are two sides of the same coin. Or as Gore Vidal once quipped: “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat.” There actually might be more than a dime’s worth of difference between the Democrats and Republicans this election, to paraphrase George Wallace, but both are rightwing parties bent on taking the US further to the right, one in a free-trade globalist direction and the other in a protectionist nationalist way.

So, which is it? Are the Democrats and Republicans fundamentally the same? Or are there differences that make a difference between the two parties? Is Trump your usual rightwing Republican asshole? Or is he a fascist-in-the-making, a crypto-fascist, an ordinary fascist, or a formal Fascist? Perhaps I should make up my mind.

In keeping with the Wayback Machine theme this column started with, we of the 60s persuasion tended to call anything even remotely rightwing, authoritarian, racist, or nationalist “fascist” all the time. Our rather indiscriminate use of the epithet to broadly tar our political opponents tended to degrade the English language, not to mention any political discourse so that the term eventually became meaningless. It also obscured some real important political distinctions. Take black men for instance. Compared to white men, their unemployment rates are over twice as high, their incomes are less than one sixth, and their incarceration rates are nearly six and a half times as much. Could they justifiably claim they already live under some form of fascism, whether capital “F” or not, especially when compared to their white counterparts?

Some differentiation is thus in order, and we’ll start by defining fascism. Fascism began coalescing as a distinct rightwing politics during the first World War, gained ground in various European political movements in the interwar years before taking power in Italy and Germany, cohered like-minded regimes and political movements around a political/military alliance, finally to fight and lose the second World War. Not only do I consider fascism as encompassing both Italian Fascism and German Nazism, I think its military defeat in 1945 means that what we’re dealing with today is a neo-Fascist/neo-Nazi movement substantially changed by that defeat and by fascism’s propensity for political synchronicity, yet one still committed to a fascist minimum, a generic fascist core ideology. In the bewildering academic tangle that is Fascist Studies, I side with Roger Griffin who argues that:
[F]ascism is best defined as a revolutionary form of nationalism, one that sets out to be a political, social and ethical revolution, welding the ‘people’ into a dynamic national community under new elites infused with heroic values. The core myth that inspires this project is that only a populist, trans-class movement of purifying, cathartic national rebirth (palingenesis) can stem the tide of decadence.

So while Trump’s alt.right fanboys definitely are fascists, as are many of his good-ol-boy back slapping paleoconservative followers, Trump himself is not a fascist. And no quantity of “Make America Great” made-in-China red baseball caps can make his clownish, blowhard politics into some kind of revolutionary palingenetic nationalism. He’s a demagogic schoolyard bully along the lines of Huey Long, but a more up-to-date comparison might be to Silvio Berlusconi. That’s not to say his campaign does not give aid-and-comfort to American fascists, or reinforce some of the more reactionary aspects of US politics, and therefore should be defeated. Yet the liberal/progressive scare mongering that we are on the eve of goose stepping into a Donald Trump presidency is way overblown.

Ah, but wasn’t Juan Perón one of those Latin American caudillos who promulgated a variation of fascism and aligned himself with the Axis powers during the second World War? And didn’t Gilles Dauvé argue, writing as Jean Barrot in “Fascism/Anti-Fascism,” that “Fascism was a particular episode in the evolution of Capital towards totalitarianism, an evolution in which democracy has played and still plays a role as counter-revolutionary as that of fascism,” and thus that fascism and democracy are but two faces of the capitalist state? Couldn’t US democracy turn on a dime and become fascism?

Yes, and no. Dauvé’s overly simplistic and somewhat dogmatic analysis posits a unitary capitalist state run by a unified capitalist ruling class where fascism is one of that state’s and class’s unified responses to a capitalism in crisis when democracy no longer works. (Another implication of Dauvé’s opposition to antifascism—that we don’t need to combat fascism—is belied by a like-minded ultraleft that never held back from fighting fascists.) This vulgar, mechanistic, ultraleft interpretation of Marx’s famous quote that “[t]he executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” does Marxism no favors.

We can agree that fascism is a special case of generic rightwing politics, and that American politics are of a piece left and right, without clearly grasping the relationship of one to the other. I suggest a little less Hegelian dialectics and a little more Heisenbergian simultaneity, in particular the latter’s uncertainty principle in which light is defined as simultaneously a wave and a particle. The idea that two contradictory things can also constitute a kind of unity doesn’t sit well with the more linearly-minded among us. Light is both particle and wave. A singular American party politics is both rightwing and leftwing, Republican and Democratic. Fascism is both a part of generic rightwing politics and sui generis. This duality also applies to behavior, in that we can simultaneously hold that US electoral politics are irredeemably corrupt while voting for the lesser of two evils, or realize that the capitalist ruling class has democratic and fascist faces in power while fighting that fascism in the streets. Two things can be fundamentally the same and yet crucially different.

Personally, I square this circle by not investing too much in the analysis or the actions in any particular case. Yes, US winner-take-all, ideologically narrow party politics are shit, but I don’t endorse third party nonsense or pie-in-the-sky calls for world revolution. Nor do I make a big deal of voting for the lesser of two evils, whether that’s Clinton over Trump or Sanders over Clinton. And make no mistake, Bernie is still the lesser of two evils. Yes, the bourgeoisie has democratic and fascist options when dealing with a capitalism in crisis, but I don’t deny that black people face a more fascistic existence in this country than do white people. Nor do I denigrate those who would fight fascists in the streets even though I don’t agree that the fight against fascism must be the be-all-and-end-all to our politics.

This is part of the centuries-old debate on the Left pitting reform against revolution. I never subscribed to the notion, popular in the 60s, that “the revolution” will happen sooner if we eschew liberal reforms or if reactionary politicians are elected. Nor do I buy into the myth that winning a string of incremental reforms brings us any closer to social revolution, let alone socialism, even while I acknowledge that incremental reforms do make a difference in the lives of ordinary people. The point is to be engaged in social change—whether incremental or revolutionary—without attachment, in the spirit of “When you are hungry, eat; when you are tired, sleep.” More on that next column.

FOOTNOTE:

[Fascism is] a genuinely revolutionary, trans-class form of anti-liberal, and in the last analysis, anti-conservative nationalism. As such it is an ideology deeply bound up with modernization and modernity, one which has assumed a considerable variety of external forms to adapt itself to the particular historical and national context in which it appears, and has drawn a wide range of cultural and intellectual currents, both left and right, anti-modern and pro-modern, to articulate itself as a body of ideas, slogans, and doctrine. In the inter-war period it manifested itself primarily in the form of an elite-led “armed party” which attempted, mostly unsuccessfully, to generate a populist mass movement through a liturgical style of politics and a programme of radical policies which promised to overcome a threat posed by international socialism, to end the degeneration affecting the nation under liberalism, and to bring about a radical renewal of its social, political and cultural life as part of what was widely imagined to be the new era being inaugurated in Western civilization. The core mobilizing myth of fascism which conditions its ideology, propaganda, style of politics and actions is the vision of the nation’s imminent rebirth from decadence. (Roger Griffin, “The palingenetic core of generic fascist ideology”)

Stranger in a strange land: “What’s Left?” October 2009, MRR #317

And Moses was content to dwell with the man: and he gave Moses Zipporah his daughter. And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.

Exodus 2:21-22

I’m riding on a bus, or sitting in a library, or sipping tea in a coffee shop, or even relaxing in a chair at home, and I’m tired. I didn’t get enough sleep the night before, so pretty soon I’m nodding off. My head slumps, my mouth drops open, I start to snore. Everything goes black. It lasts only a moment, though for all I know I’m out for hours. Suddenly, with a start, I’m awake again. I don’t know where I am or what I’m doing. The sense of disorientation is profound. Sometimes, it feels as if I’ve been transported to an alien world. Sometimes, I can’t even understand what the people around me are saying.

For an instant, I’m utterly bewildered.

That sense of complete estrangement, of being a stranger in a strange land, is how I’ve been feeling lately. The Left in this country is rallying around a president who makes sweetheart deals with Wall Street and Big Pharma, asserts executive power and privilege against Congress, regularly withholds information from the public on grounds of national security, and steadily escalates US military involvement in a foreign quagmire, while the Right protests and riots in the streets. It’s enough to give this aging commie vertigo.

For the record, I don’t give a flying fuck about Obama.

I won’t spill any ink debunking the significance of Barack Obama’s electoral victory in particular, or of the increase in Democratic party clout generally. Nor will I waste my time trying to disabuse people of the belief that some kind of revolution happened last November 8. The next few years are bound to deeply disappoint a lot of young people, bleeding-heart liberals, and aging ‘60s lefties who’ve come to consider Obama as God’s gift to progressive politics. But, maybe not. I know way too many progressive types who look fondly back to the Clinton years, despite the fact that Bill Clinton gutted welfare, pushed through NAFTA’s ratification, and initiated the policy of regime change against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. For all of Obama’s criticisms of Bush, there are numerous ways in which our current president’s policies are a mere continuation of his predecessors, as Michael Hirsh has so ably pointed out in his 7-31-09 Newsweek article “Barack W. Bush.” I’ve done a number of columns in the past about how there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Democrats and the Republicans, and I could do many more columns about how Obama is the nothing more than the ever-so-slightly-to-the-left-of-center face of the American ruling class.

What’s far more interesting to me is that such a modest shift in political emphasis within the American bourgeoisie would cause such a monumental tumult, as well as the disconcerting Left-Right reversal mentioned above. The Left bitches about Obama’s betrayals, yet falls into line behind the Democrats when push comes to shove. The Right claims the mantle of populist rebellion, yet gets its marching orders from its corporate Republican enablers. When the SEIU and AFL-CIO announced that they would counter the presence of the birthers, tea bag partiers and other fringe rightists at the August congressional town hall meetings devoted to discussing health care reform, I had visions of Weimar Germany, of Communists and Nazis battling each other in the streets. Then I remembered how well that turned out for the working people of Germany, not to mention for the Left, the Jews, Gypsies, and gays, let alone for the Poles, Russians, French and much of the rest of Europe. I have no doubt who would win in any scenario where there’s actual street fighting between Left and Right in this country. Concentration camp stripes do not become me.

One small incident did help restore my sense of sanity in the topsy-turvy political landscape of the past several months. On July 20, members of Crimethinc Ex-Workers Collective (CWC) attempted to hold a Convergence in Pittsburgh. A group of Anarchist People of Color (APOC) converged as well and unceremoniously evicted the CWC folk five days later, condemning them for white supremacy in the anarchist movement, and gentrification of the surrounding impoverished neighborhood. Folks critical of APOC have used terms ranging from misguided and wrong to idiotic and racist to agent provocateurish and COINTELPRO in describing their actions.

By the way, I don’t give a flying fuck about Crimethinc or APOC either. Plug those two names into Google, and spend the next umpteen wasted hours reading the utter crap from both sides, and everything in between, about the incident. Don’t expect me to reprise the sorry facts here. The capacity for the anarchist movement to tear itself to shreds, to give sectarianism a good name, to make itself look the fool, is limitless. That’s reassuring. It’s what I’ve come to expect, given past practice.

I’m no longer a stranger in a strange land. I’m right at home.

I hear that APOC has denounced Food Not Bombs as white supremacist, and that the National Anarchists are using this anarcho-debacle to try to recruit disaffected white anarchists into their ranks. These shenanigans reaffirm that modern anarchism has become a pathetic joke. At a time when conventional politics seem to have turned upside down, it’s good to know that something like anarchism’s propensity for self-humiliation and self-destruction remains a constant upon which I can depend.

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