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Ecocidal Populism

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

We live in the age of rampant right-wing populism. And we also live in an age of a looming ecological genocide – ecocide. Together, they create ecocidal populism. The rise of populism during recent years may not have occurred unconnected to the environmental devastation caused by global warming. Nationalistic populism rose at a time of increased environmental vandalism and the awareness of it in some quarters. Nationalistic right-wing populism is commonly defined by setting the so-called good people against a corrupt elite. Right-wing populism depends on what Le Bon saw as the mass. Unlike traditional conservatism’s elitism, nationalistic populism needs the mass as it engineers a massive amount of right-wing voters.

Since the untimely demise of the last remaining left-wing populist – Hugo Rafael Chávez was buried in March 2015 – the field of populism is exclusively defined by nationalistic right-wing populism. Today, we see the populism of the nationalistic right in people like Donald Trump (Charlottesville Neo-Nazis are fine people), Brazil’s Bolsonaro (you should not only torture opponents, you also need to kill them), the Philippine Duterte (proudly killing drug dealers with his bare hands), Hungary’s Viktor Orbán (George Soros is behind everything), India’s Narendra Modi (Hindu nationalism), Israel’s Bibi (I protect you from an enemy that I have created), Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan, Italy’s Salvini, Austria’s deputy Neo-Nazi Strache,  France’s Le Pen, Britain’s NigelFarage (crypto-Neo-Nazi Tommy Robinson, aka: Stephen Yaxley-Lennon is my friend) and Boris Johnson (de Pfeffel), the Netherland’s Wilders, Germany’s Björn Höcke and Gauland, and many more. On current predictions, there are more to come. Virtually all of them follow the propagandistic scripture of Hermann Goering:

‘That is all well and good, but voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country’.

Most, if not all, of the world’s nationalistic populists are masters in telling people they are being attacked. Nationalistic populists have often succeeded in making people believe they are assaulted by – as a matter of fact – people such as Muslims, migrants, refugees, Jews, and others. Meanwhile those seeking peace are denounced as lacking patriotism. Nationalistic populism frames them as exposing the country to danger. This is the banality of evil – an evil that works very well for nationalistic populism. Nonetheless, the rise of nationalistic right-wing populism is by no means a historic accident and it is also not an historic first.

The First Wave of Nationalistic Populism

Nationalistic populism has a long history. Its current rise is only a second wave. In historic terms, the first wave occurred roughly a hundred years ago. Like the second wave today, it occurred when capital was severely threatened. The first serious threat ever to hit capital came in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917. In the years after the revolution, capital started to realise that it might have failed to contain the Bolshevik Revolution. It could not, as the great statesman (sic!) Winston Churchill noted, strangle the baby at birth. Wanting to strangle babies has often made great statesmen – on the radical right. Still, not even unleashing the White Terror, including the invasion of the young Soviet Union by Western powers, could kill off the Soviet Union. Despite all the forces mustered by the West (and Japan), Trotsky’s Red Army successfully won the civil war during the years of 1918 to 1920. By the early 1920s, the existence of the first openly anti-capitalist state was secured.

Still, the breaking out of the capitalist camp by a sizable country was a major shock to European, if not global capital. And worse was to come, major unrests occurred in the immediate years after World War I. Between 1918 and the early 1920s, several anti-capitalist revolutions, rebellions, and revolts were on the way. In Germany, a working class revolution narrowly failed when Germany’s mighty social-democrats opted to stabilise capitalism and parliamentarianism halfway into the revolution. Still, capital was deeply traumatised by these events. It was also being forced into major concessions given to workers and trade unions in subsequent years. In Germanys’ southern state of Bavaria, a communist government was actually established – albeit only for a short few months.

In Hungary, an anti-capitalist Republic of Councils (Magyarországi Szocialista Szövetséges Tanácsköztársaság) survived for 133 days. InItaly, the Red Bienniumor Red Years happened during a two-year period, 1919 and 1920. Similar threats to capital occurred elsewhere. Essentially, capital was threatened by a force that capitalism itself had created. Marx was correct. Wherever there is capitalism, there are workers. Wherever there are workers, there is a class of workers. Wherever there is a working class, there is an organised working class fighting against capitalism.

All of this caused capital’s first major backlash against an increasingly rebellious working class. During the 1920s and 1930s, the first wave of such a backlash came in the form of nationalistic populism. It ravaged Europe. In two of Europe’s main countries – Germany and Italy – the most extreme versions of nationalistic populism, i.e. Fascism and Nazism won the day. Elsewhere, nationalistic populism made a showing in Portugal (Salazar), in Austria (Austro-Fascism), in Yugoslavia (Stojadinović), in Greece (Metaxas), in Romania (Goga), in Spain (Falagism), and in several other European countries.

To counter the anti-capitalism threat, nationalistic populism replaced the vertical capital-versus-workerstruggle with the nationalistic and horizontal nation-versus-nation struggle. Anyworker-vs.-capital struggle constitutes a threat to capitalism. It attacks capitalism. Nation-vs.-nation struggles never threaten capitalism – they threaten other nations. As a consequence, capital supports nationalistic populism. In some cases, capital’s support for a nationalistic struggle led to ultra-nationalism in the form of Nazism and Fascism. Nationalistic populism, Nazism and Fascism were generously supported by powerful propaganda machines. This way, Italian Fascism and German Nazism drove towards war. The resulting World War II caused the destruction of large sections of Europe, unimaginable suffering in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, the Holocaust and Auschwitz. Roughly 50-56 million people (including six million Jewish people) were killed with an additional 19 to 28 million deaths from war-related disease and famine. Capitalism won, its system survived but it came at a huge cost.

The Rise of Corporate Mass Media

After the horrific destructiveness experienced in the wake of capital’s fight against the first existential threat, capitalism sought new means to pacify the working class. Some of these were developed during the post-war years, often using techniques created during World War II. After the war, wartime propaganda techniques were converted into post war influence. This coincided with the rise of mass media corporations. Mass media after WWII –television, movies, Hollywood, etc.– allowed capital to influence large sways of people. The role of the media in capitalism became significant. Capitalism needed the media’s double function – it sells its wares and it assured the existence of capitalism by supplying a pro-business ideology and a pro-capital hegemony. The media’s rather successful ability to pacify workers is often underrated. Together with post-war affluence based on mass consumerism, the media’s daily barrage of pro-capital framing and messaging showed considerable effect. Over time and enticed by petit-bourgeois goods and lifestyles, workers accepted their assigned position in capitalism. They did so almost in the same way as animal-torturer Seligman’s dog accepted learned helplessness. Workers had learned that they are helplessly exposed to a system they cannot change. Over generations, they have learned and internalised Maggie Thatcher’s TINA: there is no alternative – to capitalism.

In turn, once communist strongholds –countries and regions with strong communist parties– started to weaken until they dissolved. Berthold Brecht’s working class milieu slowly disintegrated. It was replaced by petit-bourgeois lifestyles marking a Farewell To The Working Class. At the same time, trade unions were made to decline. Even today, it still remains an extreme rarity to see positive images of unionised workers or a strike in our media. After the deliberately engineered demise of communists, next in line were social-democratic parties. Today, their voting share remains at the twenty per cent margin. This came despite the fact that New Zealand’s labour leader Jacinda Ardern is globally admired. But Ardern is one social-democratic leader from a small country at the end of the world. The demise of progressive parties also came about because of a stacked game in which conservatives and nationalistic populism enjoy the massive support of the corporate mass media. This stacked contest has created an electoral two-against-onegame. Traditional conservatives and nationalistic populism have one opponent (progressive parties) while progressives have two opponents. They have to face conservatives/populists and corporate mass media. The expected outcome of such a 2-to-1 fight is that we see less and less progressives elected.

Instead, conservatives and nationalistic populist parties are elected. They aided the targeted weakening of working class organisations and progressive political parties. Most of the time and in most countries non-progressive parties are in government – occasionally interrupted by progressives. In the future, we will most likelysee even less of such progressive governments. Instead, we will see more nationalistic populism. A future election choice will more likely be a stacked choice between moderate conservatives (e.g. Emmanuel Macron) and outright nationalistic populists (Le Pen). Sadly, Alexis de Tocqueville was right – in a democracy that has been reduced to a mere media spectacle, it is not the one with the better argument that gets elected (Bernie Sanders) but the one with the biggest mouth (Donald Trump).

Ecological Genocide and the Second Wave of Nationalistic Populism

Just as in the case of the first existential threat to capital that came about because of capitalism’s very own internal contradictions, the second threat is also created by capitalism itself. Many inside capital have already understood that a system that depends on plundering the earth while polluting it at the same time is unsustainable. It is just as unsustainable as the hallucination of endless growth – one of the key imperatives of capitalism. Plundering, pollution, and limitless growth may well lead to the end of the world. Becoming aware of this, capital is again cravingfor its own security and survival. For many, it is still easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism – inside many corporations, the awareness that the end of capitalism is near never meant changing course.

Under corporate short-termism, the goal is still making money until the last moment. In reality however, avoiding the looming abyss means fundamental change and most likely the end of capitalism. Fundamental change might indicate the end of the current system or at least some very serious changes. Whatever these changes might look like, it does not look good for profit-making corporations. Yet unless very serious changes are being made, the earth faces extremely serious consequences.The global consequences of rampant environmental exploitation and global destruction have been given four names:

1. Anthropocene, a period during which human activity alters the climate and the environment;

2. Capitalocene describing capitalism’s impact on the Anthropocene;

3. Sixth Mass Extinction – the massive death of animals and plants; and eventually

4. Ecocide – the impending ecological suicide.

In slightly different ways, they outline the coming of the same event – The Uninhabitable Earth. This is what we are facing – the annihilation of life on earth. What is coming isn’t unknown. Corporations that created the Capitalocene know and have known this for very long time. Just like in the case of tobacco corporations killing 100 million people in the cause of the 20thcentury and in the case of asbestos, multi-national corporations have known what they do for a very long time. The same goes for the fast food industry, the sugar industry, and several others. For decades, corporations have been able to put a smokescreen in place that clouds our understanding of what is being done to animals, plants, our earth, and us. These corporations have a powerful helping hand that comes in the form of corporate mass media operating globally.

Fundamentally, there is no difference between corporations making frying pans, cars, fast food, insure your house, and media corporations. Corporate mass media function on the very same premise at which other corporations go about their business as well. Ever since Adam Smith we know this as profit-making. Three hundred years after Smith, the former Harvard Business Review editor Magretta calls it the real bottom line. This is not to say that there is a global conspiracy between such manufacturing corporations and media corporations. Instead, there is a certain interest symbiosis.

What drives both are sales, sales in cars and frying pans as well as sales in advertising for media corporations. A few years ago, this has been made crystal clear. As a known anti-Trump newspaper –the Washington Post – admitted, Yes, Donald Trump has been good for the media business. Nationalistic populism generates news, news that people wantto see, hear and Internet sites that are clicked. Nationalistic populism’s sound-bites, hype, and insults are good for the media business. It is like throwing a fire accelerant into an already burning BBQ. It generates news and web-clicks that can be turned into advertising revenue. This is even truer for tabloid newspapers (the British Sun, for example) and tabloid-TV (Vox, etc.).

Such media corporations operate on the premise what bleeds that leads – what thinks that stinks. Nationalistic populism is good for media corporations as it leads to profits. Thinking about the rather dull and boring science of global warming does not create advertising revenue. It stinks. The abuse and verbal violence of nationalistic populists is better – it leads. As the old PR saying goes, the media cannot tell youwhat to think but it can tell you what to think about. In the beginning, the media made you think about the nation– not the class.Today, it makes you think about refugees, Muslims, etc. – not global warming.

It may even be the case that corporate mass media – with the possible exception of Vox – do not even understand the link between The Uninhabitable Earthand nationalistic populism. In fact, just as nationalistic populism, the media work hard to assure that many –if not most– people fail to see this crucial link. The entire system operates a bit like a London bus. Those sitting upstairs can see afar while those downstairs hold the steering wheel.

Yet it cannot be a coincidence that the rise of nationalistic populism occurs at a time when more and more people become aware of the impact of global warming and its consequences for life on earth – despite the best efforts of corporate mass media to suppress the facts. Corporate capitalism seeks to contain such knowledge. Still, there is a reason why well above 95% of all scientists agree that global warming is real. At the same time and depending on the country and the power of the corporate mass media, only 50% of a given population believe global warming to real. There is a reason for the often noted 95%-to-50% gap. In any case, global warming has next to nothing to do with believing but a lot with scientific facts.

It is not at all surprising to find that Forbes Magazine noted as recently as March 2019 that corporations spend about $200 million on defeating awareness of climate change. In fact, corporate mass media has even made us change the actual wording from the threatening global warming to the more harmless climate change, insinuatingthat there is just a little change in the climate like changing the climate in your house by turning up or down your air conditioning. It is all non-threatening, really.

What Lies Ahead

All of this came not totally unconnected to capital’s second most existential threat and the rise of nationalistic populism. It is no accident that the rise of nationalistic populism that we have seen during recent times came when – despite the best lobbying efforts of media corporations and fossil fuel corporations – an increasing number of people have become aware of what we are facing. The first wave of nationalistic populism that defended an unsustainable system called capitalism from a rising working class has cost the world roughly 50 to 60 million people. Given what we are facing with the second existential threat, we might get away with 500 to 600 million deaths – and that means we will have gotten off lightly.

Sadly but true, what has been said above explains the recent rise of nationalistic populism. It is capitalism’s global effort to take our attention away from the impending environmental annihilation caused by capitalism. That we see the global rise of nationalistic populism right now is a sure sign of the seriousness of what capital has understood is coming. The inevitable conclusion is nationalistic populism will continue to grow. And it will increase in ferocity. It may even end in a similar way to the first wave, outright Fascism. Given the recent history of capitalism, one should never totally discount such a possibility. This is not to argue that 2019 is 1933. It is not. What is coming will be worse. The looming fight will be worse and even if we win, the outcome will be horrendous.

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Thomas Klikauer is the author of Managerialism (Palgrave, 2013).

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