It may seem like a truism that all human societies share key universal characteristics. Incredibly, however, we all too easily forget this basic fact and mostly assume that our respective cultures are unique compared to all others, and for the most part exceptional. Iranians, for example, know that they are unique, especially when contrasted to Arabs, Afghans and Pakistanis. Chinese people have no doubt that they are exceptionally unique, as do the Japanese, the Russians, the French, Germans, Italians, Egyptians and Moroccans. Americans especially consider themselves exceptional. The ideology of American Exceptionalism runs so deep in fact as to have become the foremost part of the national ideology.
It is perhaps within this national-ideological uniqueness frame that Trump’s coming to power in the U.S. has shocked a majority of the American people. “How can it be that we are following the European path to fascism, and eighty years later at that?”
Crisis of the Ruling Ideology
Though we are not at the point of fascism in the U.S., we are witnessing right wing politics taking on a new quality in this country that has not been seen before. When Richard Nixon’s White House Council, John Dean, appears on Democracy Now! to comment about the extreme nature of president Trump, then we know we are living in extreme times. But it took some getting here before we got here.
The most significant post-WWII political turn to the right in the U.S. started with the Reagan presidency. Starting with Reagan, a new ideology of the ruling class became the official rulebook. Neo-liberalism was the name it was given and it served to provide ideological justification for a systematic attack on the living standards of working people, while the transfer of historic amounts of wealth upwards became accepted orthodoxy.
Alongside globalization of production and ‘free trade’, Tax cuts for the rich and the corporations were justified, so that an increasing share of the newly created wealth could go to the ruling strata. A significant added component of the new ideology was the shift from ‘social obligations’ owed to citizens to a paradigm of ‘personal responsibility’ of atomized individuals. Meanwhile, a two pronged systematic attack on the people’s income and living conditions went into effect, eroding the social safety network at the same time that citizens’ health and safety protected previously by environmental and consumer protections (regulations) also came under attack. The direct and deeply-felt impact of neo-liberalism on the income levels of people in the U.S. has been the stagnation of real incomes (actual purchasing power) at the level of early 1970s, while during the same nearly-five decades labor productivity has skyrocketed.
Politically, since 1980, the extreme right represented by the Republicans has consistently pushed the political spectrum to the right, and when the Democrats come to power, they hold the ‘center’ pretty much where it was under the Republicans. So, for the past 30-plus years, Republicans have dictated the ‘center’, as they pushed it further and further to the right, while the Democrats have held it in place faithfully until the next extreme Republican pushed it even further to the right. Let us not forget how extreme George W Bush looked only a decade ago. Among his achievements, he destroyed habeas corpus, and president Obama kept it destroyed so successfully that most citizens have forgotten the concept, the very cornerstone of individual liberty and the main defense against arbitrary acts of the state against citizens.
The capitalist ruling classes worldwide have known for a long time that the system cannot keep enough people healthy and happy enough to ignore all the systemic problems that capitalism brings about on a cyclical basis. The financial crisis of the 2008-2009 illustrated to a majority that the system is incapable of preventing such deep crises, never mind bringing about prosperity for all. To this day, the underlying causes of the 2008 financial crisis have not been resolved and are still operational.
By 2011, the continuing effects of the financial crisis had morphed into a crisis of ideological hegemony, as Obama’s administration of ‘Hope and Change’ had by then proven itself to have acted as a shill for the very financial players who brought about the destruction of trillions of dollars of wealth of the ordinary people. The bankers, bailed out equally by Bush and Obama, were happily sitting on top of, and making even more money with, the trillions of taxpayers’ money, while millions of ordinary citizens lost their homes, their pensions and their hard-earned savings.
Here are some telling figures from a Frontline report, from 2012: (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/how-much-did-the-financial-crisis-cost/)
Government bailouts: The government has poured about $23 trillion into a host of programs and bailouts.
Lost household wealth: With home prices tanking, the report estimates a loss of $7 trillion in the real estate industry. The stock market decline has brought another $11 trillion in losses, and retirement accounts have lost $3.4 trillion.
Human suffering: It’s hard to put a dollar value on this. But the report found plenty of grim data to offer some insight: The Census Bureau’s 2010 estimate of 46.2 million people in poverty is the “largest number in the 52 years for which poverty estimates have been published.”
According to Poulantzas, “The conjuncture of fascism corresponds to a crisis in the dominant ideology,” (Fascism and Dictatorship, p. 76). Again, we may not be at the point of fascism here, but a lot of its features look deeply similar to what extreme American right wing political figures are currently bent on bringing about.
In the context of the economic devastation of the 2008 financial crisis, the rise of the Occupy Movement in September of 2011 was a clear sign of the loss of ideological hegemony of Neoliberalism. Even though that movement died out in a matter of months, its most significant accomplishment and its lasting legacy was the establishment of a new and permanent social vocabulary: the 1% v. the 99%. That was a turning point for the ideological hegemony of the ruling classes. The Occupy Movement publicly and unequivocally voiced the (previously subconscious) social awareness that the system is stacked against a majority of the people, that the people are truly un-represented, and that they had to take to the streets in order to voice their grievances directly.
Infighting within the Ruling Bloc
Poulantzas argues that, “The appearance and rise of fascism corresponds to the deepening and sharpening of the internal contradictions between the dominant classes and class fractions,” (ibid. p. 71). He further explains: “These contradictions in the conjuncture of fascism, … are not confined … to the economics alone. In the growth of fascism, the intensification of the ‘internal’ contradictions of the power bloc is characteristically revealed by their extension over the political and ideological planes. This has repercussions in the deep crisis of the party representation and in the deep ideological crisis which affect the [ruling] bloc,” (all emphasis in original).
That last line takes on a pronounced significance when we remember that in the 2016 elections, the leadership of both establishment parties faced a lively and strident opposition from their base.
As for the sharpening of the internal contradictions among the dominant classes, we can see in retrospect that for some time now, there has been an internal debate among the ruling elites in the U.S. as to what the actual long-term plan should be. For me, Trumpism (to adopt a currently used name other than fascism) signals the fact that the differences among the U.S. ruling elites have only gotten irreconcilably deeper, so that a new order has to be imposed on the ruling bloc, an imposition which constitutes Trump’s platform, which is clearly opposed by large portions of the establishment functionaries and ideologues, not just in various governmental departments and agencies, but also in other ideological state apparatuses such as the mass media.
It is at this point in the rightward lurch of the last thirty years, having already piled successive quantities of misery on the working classes, that a new quality of right-wing extremism is emerging, much to the fright of the established liberal order and its functionaries, as well as the general public (except for Trump’s social base, of course).
Hence the platform of extreme right-wing solutions: an active escalation of racism and sexism, attacks on women’s rights, scapegoating of particular minorities, economic nationalism, an all-out attack on regulations that protect the people and the commons, cronyism, nepotism, bellicose jingoism, raising the specter of an undying enemy supposedly bent on destroying us, along with a very fluid reading of laws and the elimination of laws impeding the imposition of discipline on the ‘unruly’ members of the ruling factions and their ideas.
Defeated Working Class: Right-wing Recruiting Ground
Poulantzas has another insightful point about the conditions for the emergence of fascism. For him, fascism typically emerges after substantial historical defeats of labor. In his Fascism and Dictatorship, he reminds the reader that in both Germany and Italy, “The working class had already been thoroughly defeated by the time fascism came into power,” (p. 61).
Some would argue that class struggle in the U.S. is not intense at this historical moment due to the fact that labor has been cowed and its strength systematically eroded since Reagan dismantled the air traffic controllers union in 1981. The fact that labor is on the defensive does not negate the ferocity of class struggle; it can in fact indicate how intensely and ferociously the capital side of the class struggle is winning and pushing us back.
The corollary to this loss of ground by labor is that the most backward segments of a defeated and unorganized working class are best suited for ideological manipulation of the type the extreme right is good at. This goes back to the point that started this article: the social universals. All class societies have backward leftovers of past social relations, and those backward segments of society provide the reactionary political leaders with their foot soldiers. In Iran, for example, they are remnants of the feudal days, while in the U.S. they are remnants of the days of slavery.
As African-Americans know well, certain habits of slaveholders never died along with the demise of legal institutions of slavery. Systemic racism in the U.S. was sublimated into housing and urban development and the banking practices that financed urban development; into the educational system; even into the seniority system in factories; and of course into a justice system of incarceration and criminalization of particular acts and behaviors. So, there are very material interests connected to maintaining racist attitudes as well as institutions, and there are naturally people who gain from racist policies, practices and institutions.
Trump Loves Only His Base
For Trump to get enough votes to be elected, in hindsight he seems to have had an easy strategy: talk only to the base. His intended audience was not the society at large, but his own particular base.
This is something the liberal commentariat is either missing or else is very irritated by! The liberal commentariat likes to be the sole and principal audience, center of attention, at all times. They, just like the Clinton candidacy, consider themselves entitled. Late night show hosts like Stephen Colbert or Trevor Noah present their jokes and pile ridicule on Trump from the point of view of, “Look how crazy this guy is! Is he that clueless? He knows we have eyes, right?” Yes, he knows, and he doesn’t care. In fact, Trump’s base considers such ridicule by the ‘dishonest liberal media’ as his vindication.
What few realized fully during the elections is that Trump was deliberately and consistently talking only to his own base. He was not addressing the society at large. He targeted his intended audience, and he talked to them directly, completely and blissfully disregarding the liberal commentariat and what it was up in arms about. He is still doing the same thing. He is not, in his own image, the president of the entire society. He is the leader of a movement of a segment of society out to impose political and ideological discipline on the entire society.
During the elections, Trump saw that most people were fed up with the status quo. The Democratic Party leaders saw the same phenomenon, but chose to ignore it. Further, Trump’s ‘in’ was the simple fact that Hillary Clinton was the most uninspiring (nay, anti-inspiring) candidate the Democrats could have put up. The Clintons are the status quo; even worse, as pointed out above, they are the status quo that the traditional Republicans had dictated. That’s double status quo. The Democratic candidate who was actually energizing the party base through an anti-status quo message, Sanders, was actively sabotaged by the party leaders, and the news of that sabotage came out during the campaign period, further dampening the mood for a big turnout, and making Clinton look even more uninspiring.
Trump saw that Clinton was a wet blanket on the Democrat’s spirit, and kept on further energizing his own base with increasingly more outrageous statements. Even his ‘pussy grabbing’ scandal energized parts of his base, as the Daily Show reported (http://www.cc.com/video-clips/ykwlrj/the-daily-show-with-trevor-noah-jordan-klepper-fingers-the-pulse—donald-trump-s–locker-room-talk-).
As noted, fascism arises out of the need to impose discipline on both the working classes and (more importantly) on the ‘unruly’ factions of the ruling class. The ‘unruly’ ruling factions in the U.S. do have institutional power within the state structures and are naturally putting up a fight, evidenced by the reaction of some segments of the judiciary, the mass media and some government functionaries in agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s, or the CIA. They also have the necessary resources to put up a fight.
However, there are hundreds of thousands of professional types with the right credentials and connections willing to step forward to replace the unruly functionaries in various government departments. Replacing and disciplining the unruly will take time, and there will be administrative and social chaos, but chaos is what the extreme right can afford. They have the social and economic support networks and resources to ride out the chaos, while all the rest of us, the invalids and the ill-prepared, shall be washed away by the high waves of history, as planned.
How Bleak Can It Get?
Just because we are not at the point of fascism in the U.S. does not mean things cannot get worse. As people from the old world can tell you, things can always get infinitely worse. Anywhere.
For one item, the latest reports on Trump’s tax plans are likely to get the super rich to have successive wet dreams, and should give the rest of us scary nightmares for some time to come. This one headline reveals all you need to know: “Mnuchin wants tax reform by August as part of 3 percent growth plan.”
It used to be that in the richest country on earth, capitalism could produce much healthier growth rates without having to implement policies that would push the social fabric over the edge, and down into the abyss.
The key part of the tax ‘reform’ is to cut by more than half the corporate share of total taxes collected (which currently stands at under 10% of total tax revenue).
To put that in perspective: If your annual income is $70,000-100,000/year, your tax break can amount to a semi-decent family vacation, which is nice, but the vacation passes quickly and all you’ll have is nice memories and some photos and videos you’re not likely to look at ever again. If you are among the more than the 50% of the households making less than $50,000/year, you may be able to buy a new refrigerator with your tax break, if it’s not too expensive. That’s it. However, if you’re among the top stratospheric classes, your tax break will likely amount to a mini Trump Tower, on an upscale strip on a truly famed beach, plus college funds for five generations.
What will happen to us schmucks in the meantime? Whatever the ruling classes may want to happen to schmucks like us. Replacing all the social obligations of the state that used to be part of the social contract, the state will be reduced and minimized, and then further condensed down to a pure security state, with all the exponentially and rapidly developing technologies of weaponry and surveillance, all fully legal – in the sense that they’ll pass laws legalizing it – protecting the mansions of the stratospherically rich.
What about the Left?
Readers of Marx and Gramsci are familiar with the idea that revolutionary conditions simultaneously create counter-revolutionary conditions and reaction. The reverse can also be true. Leftists living right now in the U.S. are witnessing the reverse of that axiomatic statement: Reactionary conditions have created counter-reactionary movements. Depending on how the left intervenes, the ensuing counter-reactionary movements can defeat the reaction and shift the social conditions toward those more favorable for moving forward to revolutionary conditions.
The reason Trumpism looks so similar to fascism may be due to the fact that fascism has usually had a close relationship with organized crime in its society. In Japan, for example, the social links between the Yakuza networks and the right wing political forces are well known. The same close ties exist between the Italian fascists and mafia families in that country. The same in Iran, Russia, Azerbaijan and many other countries throughout the world.
So, maybe, along the lines suggested by Louis Proyect, we can think of Trump as something representing the mob side of that joint venture, not so much the actual (street-organized) political fascist side. At the same time, those street fighting foot soldiers could be brought out too if there is a real need and the will.
There is also another consideration: it could be that the American political system doesn’t really need a real fascist. The reason the U.S. can do without a real fascist may be due to the fact that the legal and security system put in place, especially since George W Bush’s regime, considers itself capable enough of handling any level of real resistance from below.
Regardless, bigger empires with more comparative power have fallen before. Our species is in its intellectual infancy still. As we grow, we will be doing a lot more new things, and a lot of them will have to do with how we organize ourselves socially.
The qualitatively significant factor for the left is this: The current political situation is dominated by a fight among the ruling elites, almost in all countries.
A strong push from below can deepen this divide further. If the push from below is strong enough, it can force more sub-classes of the ruling elites to peel away from their class, further weakening the internal unity of the ruling classes. That is why it’s essential for left formations in all countries to take advantage of such fights between their ruling elites, especially when they acquire such intensity.
But, what should the left do to gain some advantage at this juncture? In a word: Organize! We must organize our own forces, our own independent organizations, our allies and potential allies, and organize so that we can meld with and contribute to other social forces organizing to push back against reaction.
One thing is certain: Our first and foremost question should not be: Which ruling faction should we support? Should we support the CIA, now that it is going against Trump? Should we come to the help of the Democrats (and half of the Republican Party, for that matter) to defeat the extreme right?
Such questions are shortsighted; Democrats, not just the Republicans, and the CIA, and the mass media, and a whole host of other ruling institutions are exactly what brought us to the current situation. Aligning with any ruling faction or institution strategically is obviously not an option.
Our present question is very specific: How can we existentially and presently benefit from the political space that has opened up while there is a deep-structure infighting afoot among the elites? That is the key question. Our focus must be on engaging the opened-up political space to reach more people and help in the long and complex process of organizing people.
As to how we handle our tactical moves, a basic and practical principle works universally: beware of self-indulgent and, worse, planted distractions.
The self-indulgent distraction right now is: presuming ourselves to be the movement, or even worse, that we are the entitled leaders already. The left is not the movement, much less the leaders of the emerging movement; we are a part of the movement.
The movement is the masses of the millions of people expressing all the myriad symptomatic dimensions of this social disease called late capitalism; the movement is the millions of people publicly and loudly trying to collectively construct a social solution. If the left is to be anything, it has to help. Not lecture and talk at people, with all the negative-critical guns blazing as we enter the scene, handing out pass/fail grades to every move the people make, shoving our paper in their face, telling them to read it to learn better.
If the left is anything, it has to be humble, positive and helpful. We’re not there just to sell papers, or issue directives or a ‘line’. We must help where we can. If you cannot help, don’t pass judgment either. If you didn’t take bags of rice or blankets or other materiel to Standing Rock, or donate money, or do something useful that actually helped them out, don’t issue directives on what Standing Rock should have done or what tactics they should have taken. Help first, work with people whose lives are affected daily and immediately; then, if you learn something new, express well thought-out and well researched ideas about how to help more.
Planted distractions, on the other hand, are, again, the pleas to fall in line and merge with this or that ruling elite or sub-elite and their organizations engaged in the cat fight going on upstairs. There will be a lot of such distractions in the next four years. The obstacle course ahead will be dynamic and fast moving, but if the left plays its cards well, it can turn the tables on the reactionary forces.