New Stuff from an Old Guy – Part 3

Three Way Fight


By Don Hamerquist

Editor’s note
This is the final installment of a three-part essay by longtime Three Way Fight contributor Don Hamerquist. In Part 1, Hamerquist discussed transnational capital’s need to reestablish mass support in the face of populist challenges on both the left and the right. In Part 2, he criticized the widespread leftist conception that fascism, right-wing populist movements, and capital are all aligned together, arguing instead that fascism is a right-wing revolutionary tendency composed of “an array of emerging reactionary anti-capitalisms.” In Part 3, below, Hamerquist argues that transnational capital’s representatives are replacing the old Global War on Terror with a new common
threat/common fear scenario, which mis-identifies right-wing populist movements as part of a new “fascist threat” to “democracy,” in a bid to renew popular support. Without a decisive anti-capitalist intervention from the left, we are likely to see either transnational capital restabilized, or reformist right-wing populisms transformed into actual fascist movements, posing a serious threat of anti-liberatory “barbarism.”

Part Three 

I hope that these criticisms of different left analyses and approaches will help me clarify some adaptive scenarios for transnational capital that have potentials to partially reconstitute its popular legitimacy. I’d like to shift to a more specific discussion of those issues, beginning from a citation from a ruling class ideologue, Damon Linker, who, to my knowledge, is not associated with any sector of the left. (I have sliced the passage up a bit to highlight my points. Beware the ellipses.)

But the paradox is our reality now, so we have to face it…

Whether it takes the form of Trumpian attacks on immigration to the U.S., enthusiasm for Brexit in the U.K., or the surge in support for populist parties and politicians across Europe, anti-liberalism portrays itself as a defense of nationalism against the globalizing tendencies of liberal ideology and institutions. Yet this turn toward nationalism is happening globally. This doesn’t just mean it’s taking place in several places simultaneously, which it is. It also, and more revealingly, means that its proponents across the world increasingly see themselves as ideological allies fighting a common battle against common enemies…

And that makes it a cross-border movement in support of borders, an international battle for national sovereignty…We see it in Stephen Bannon gallivanting around Europe attempting to empower his brand of far-right nationalist politicians and parties…We see it in the very warm reactions of some on the American right to Vladimir Putin’s efforts to present himself as a champion of Christian civilization — and in the similarly positive response of others to a recent speech by Hungarian President Viktor Orbán proposing an anti-liberal, nationalist manifesto for Central Europe…These examples all point to a growing sense of anti-liberal solidarity that transcends the very nations that the ideology aims to champion, creating a kind of nationalist international.

— Damon Linker, The Week, 8/3/18

Linker sees the movements on the “nationalist” side of the nationalist/transnationalist pairing as paradoxically non- or even anti-nationalist. Instead they are an increasingly international movement of “…ideological allies fighting a common battle against common enemies…” Linker emphasizes features of current populism that contrast with alternative conceptions that highlight the narrowness of populist nationalism and its dominance by nativist and jingoist elements with minimal potential to generate mass movements across existing national borders.

Linker downplays the factors that might support different perspectives, although he doesn’t completely discount them. But even if his view of an emerging reality may not comfortably fit the reality we are living…yet, I think the factual problems with his estimates of current populisms are less important than what he says about the political trajectory that they are likely to follow. Linker sees common threads that are linking a broad assortment of relatively spontaneous reactionary nativist right-wing resistances across national boundaries and aligning them against transnational capital. This is a vision of a movement with quasi-Duginist “Fourth Political Theory” politics that could pose an existential threat to the current world order.

It takes very little imagination to see Linker’s internationalized insurgency of right wing populisms as a global fascist movement. Both avowed proponents of fascism and many of its committed opponents will understand it that way. Such an interpretation is further supported by Linker’s thinly disguised warnings against the “red/brown” variant of fascism that are implicit throughout the piece and are made explicit in a later passage:

But for more radical and more ruthless leftists, the potency of right-wing anti-liberalism today could pose a powerful temptation, inspiring thoughts of strategic international alliances and ideological pincer moves designed to weaken the liberal center throughout the West.

Some strategically aware elements of transnational capital, the Atlantic Councils and the AEIs and CAPs, are already spreading a ruling class narrative of an emergent global fascism based on an analysis similar to Linker’s. Here’s the lede from a recent CAP/AEI press release:

Today, the Center for American Progress and the American Enterprise Institute released the results of a unique collaboration focused on defending liberal democracy and the transatlantic partnership in an era of rising authoritarian populism.

— American Enterprise Institute and Center for American Progress press release, 5/8/18

So what do these folks have in mind with their not-so-“unique collaboration”? We might compare this collaboration with an earlier effort of the same forces to promote the “Global War on Terror” (GWOT). The GWOT, along with some other functions, attempted to construct a common threat/common fear basis for social solidarity in core capitalist states. This was intended to fill the vacuum left by the deflation of the “communist threat” following regime changes in the Soviet Union and Communist China and the final collapse of the Soviet Bloc. Initially the intended beneficiaries of the GWOT project were the “Trilateralist” states, the “West” plus Japan, but it expanded quickly. Virtually every organized state, except N. Korea and Iraq, made strenuous attempts to join the “civilized” states in the GWOT. Post-Maoist China and post-Soviet Russia, along with Iran, Syria, Libya, joined the state opposition to “terrorism” and “disorder” in support of the “international rule of law.”

Following 9/11, the GWOT provided some legitimacy for the neocon agenda of interventionist ventures in the Middle East. In this country it provided a favorable climate for the disruption and dispersal of the anti-globalization movement and some related movement initiatives (ARA?) that had peaked around the change of century. However, the threats posed by “terrorism” and “radical Islam” had a more limited shelf life than the threat of communism. Over time, they proved to be too small, too sporadic, and too localized to retain their capacity for social control. This diminished effectiveness was compounded by the tendency of some factions of the ruling class to claim they were “winning” (or had won) the GWOT.

Most important, the GWOT was largely peripheral to the fractures that appeared with the economic crisis of 2008, and to the dilemmas that confronted a capitalist recovery. This crisis, and the protracted and the shaky recovery from it, clarified capital’s need for a more plausible and substantive basis for social cohesion and stability than the GWOT could provide. The GWOT was virtually irrelevant to the measures that could limit the dangers of a repeat of the financial collapse without bringing the essential dominance of capital into question. At some crucial junctures, e.g., during transnational capital’s efforts to manage and redirect the energies released by the massive disruptions of the Arab Spring, the GWOT actually appeared to be counterproductive.

Established power needed an updated version of the common threat/common fear scenario – a more inclusive approach that replaced the GWOT, or more accurately, reformulated, repositioned, and incorporated it. That need, I think, underlies a good deal of what we are dealing with here. The issues and players in the GWOT have changed somewhat, although there are still some similarities in the narrative. Now, however, Russia and China are increasingly regarded as significant economic and military threats, as “near-peer competitors,” and completely undependable allies in the fight against terrorism. In fact, ideologues like Linker put elements of Russian state policy at the center of the threat posed by the not quite, but almost, fascist, “nationalist international.”

Russia, and an assortment of right wing populist ideologies, groups, parties – electoral and not; and some regional state formations…maybe including Trump, but certainly involving the Bannon ventures, are the new threat. It is an amalgam of mass nativist movements and right-wing electoral ventures with a significant salting of authoritarian state formations. It is Trump, Orbin and Putin in alliance with the AfD and LePen, Spencer and Milo, and a scattering of leftist opportunists with propensities towards the authoritarian; presented as an international movement and a resurgent fascist danger by a significant sector of the transnational capitalist ruling class, with the help of a wide array of liberal and leftist ideologues.

Since we are dealing with a newly posited global enemy – an enemy that is heavily, although not completely, external, I’d like to make a brief diversion to deal with the notion of a “fabricated external enemy.” A range of leftists have argued that capitalist ruling classes routinely fabricate hollow dangers and threats to divert and undermine “genuine,” foreign and domestic movements for social justice, national liberation, and ultimately anti-capitalist revolution. Perhaps unfairly, I associate this concept with Chomsky and actually wrote a criticism of it a while ago. At the time I was concerned that the emphasis on the “fabricated” aspect of the issue minimized both the reality of some threats to capitalism, first from “communism” and later from salafi jihadism – and the extent to which ruling class segments actually felt threatened. However, most of those issues are a matter of history, not current politics.

Salafi jihadism has always been susceptible to manipulation by various capitalist state formations, while it continues to be a significant harbinger of potentials for reactionary “barbaric” warlord forms of anti-capitalism. In contrast with Soviet Communism, the issues of “radical Islamic terrorism” are still relevant and, in my opinion, still present an existential danger to the global order of transnational capitalism – not to mention a danger to what there is of a global left. However, whether or not it continues to be a substantial danger for transnational capital, it’s clear that the ruling class perceptions of these dangers have been substantially reduced compared to the relatively recent past.

Salafi jihadism has experienced a prolonged period of retreat and defeat while other potential risks have become more pressing for transnational capital, particularly since its 2008 crisis. Further, the “terrorist” threat always lacked the universality and the ideological dimensions of the “communist threat” in its day; and, in my opinion, it is scheduled for the back burner to the extent it can’t be incorporated into the new “Russian” or “Eurasian” “global fascism” threat.

Behind this new emergent fascist narrative lurks the ruling class recognition that both the communist threat and the GWOT have lost much of their social control value. In these circumstances, the reshaped conception of a global fascist threat serves a number of different purposes for transnational capital. It promotes an oppositional quasi-nationalist populist dynamic that turns populism back inwards, towards the more manageable narrow nationalist terrain (immigration and protectionism) and away from the “nationalist international” that Linker worries about. At the same time, the narrative can confuse and disorient – possibly even pre-empt – the development of an internationalist anti-capitalist opposition through exaggerating the “red/brown” elements of the fascist threat. But most important, this largely constructed “fascist threat” stimulates the organization of a broad, reformist although essentially conservative, populist response that is against “fascism” and for “democracy.”

The resurrected popular front against fascism obscures the left’s responsibility for radical alternative responses to the grievances with transnational capital that underlie populist protests. These real grievances are presented as pretexts, as “false flag” diversions and distractions from the fascist “creep.”

Since right-wing nativist populist movements are so easily conflated with fascist movements, this resurrected popular front against fascism obscures the left’s responsibility for radical alternative responses to the grievances with transnational capital that underlie populist protests. Instead, these real grievances are presented as pretexts, as “false flag” diversions and distractions from the fascist “creep.” This is a framework for a “resistance” that is much more comfortable for transnational capital than a radical opposition to nativist populism. It is a “resistance” that legitimates the entrance of transnational capital into the political arena under fraudulent “democratic” and “progressive” popular front branding, while its pursuit of maximized returns continues relatively unimpeded, insuring that the grievances that evoke populist responses are reproduced at an escalating scale.

So where does this leave us? Despite its quite evident structural weaknesses and an increasing likelihood of new crises, the transnational capitalist structure continues to concentrate and centralize economic activity while increasingly impoverishing social life. It expands economically, but in distorted ways that accelerate inequality while wastefully consuming increasing amounts of scarce resources. Left alone this structure will either implode or explode – but it’s not left alone. Instead it is impacted by countervailing processes and opposing social forces, and these then also produce and reproduce their own antagonists. Some of this is organized and strategically planned by transnational capitalist elites and various oppositions to it – both radical and reformist – but most is not. Our concern should be with the net impact of the process – whether it contributes to the stabilization of capital or moves us more rapidly towards its terminal crisis – an end point which we know has dual possibilities, liberatory or barbaric. But we have to realize that as long as the contending forces continue to work themselves out relatively spontaneously, they won’t produce the polarizations needed for radical internationalist approaches to international issues like capital and labor mobility.

Giroux posits circumstances that don’t currently exist: a massive and growing reactionary right-wing – ultimately fascist – movement is faced off against a “democratic” “anti-fascist” resistance of everybody else. To the extent such scenarios actually materialize – a very open question – they pit populist movements that are only really “popular” to the extent they reflect grievances with transnational capital; against anti-fascisms with crippling compromising entanglements with the sources of the grievances. Whether or not Giroux’s prospective is a probable future, it is the last thing the liberatory left should work towards. It would dramatically improve prospects for the stabilization of transnational capitalism while greasing the way for the emergence of forces in the not distant future that could much more legitimately be called fascist.

All forms of populism lack the autonomous organizational capacity to break free of the conditions that set the terms and limits of their contestation with the power of transnational capitalism. Whether it is anyone’s intent, if the largely spontaneous struggles continue in the current paths, the outcome will be one of two bad alternatives for the liberatory left. The first possibility is a temporary stabilization of transnational capital – although perhaps not on a completely global level (leaving an expanded zone of “chaos”). Less likely, but definitely not out of the realm of the possible, is the transformation of reformist right-wing populisms into actual fascist movements and the emergence of a serious danger of a distinctly non-liberatory “barbarism.” It is distressingly likely these potential outcomes will be unintended product of popular movements and struggles that are aiming for something quite different.

Poster: "This man is your friend -- Russian -- He fights for freedom."
WWII popular front against fascism

Capitalist stabilization in the center of capitalist power is the most likely outcome of this interplay of more or less mass, more or less popular movements – some progressive, some reactionary, and some that are fundamentally ambiguous. Without a decisive anti-capitalist intervention from the left, this process has scant prospects to develop a fundamental class based polarization and could find working classes that are never really defeated but are managing to defeat themselves – at least in some areas and for some extended time.

In the capitalist center the likely form of this defeat would be a renewed cross-class compact, but with crucial differences from our historical experience with such compacts. Rather than a somewhat more equal income distribution, something of a social security safety net and some potential for upward mobility for those on the socio-economic bottom, this new cross-class compact will rest on a proffer of security against a posited resurgent fascism. Rather than actual “material gains,” there may be some resurrected hopes for such gains that will quickly dissipate in a politics dominated by real fears of the chaotic forces of external and internal barbarisms.

To the extent the pathetic minimalistic privilege of “security” in an insecure world becomes a reality for a substantial minority of the populations in the core areas of capital’s dominance, the best possible outcome will resemble the “benevolent” authoritarianism of WWII civil society in the U.S., not the progressive reformism of the 30’s New Deal. That might be enough to allow a few decades more of relative stability for sectors of the capitalist system, although any such stability in the core will have its destabilizing consequences on the system’s periphery that are likely to damage liberatory alternatives to capital in both center and periphery – particularly if the possibilities for internationalist solidarity are substantially reduced…as will likely be the case.

*          *          *

This is a hypothesis that is debatable on a number of levels. It rests on a conception of a crisis-prone transnational capitalist system facing serious problems, including challenges from a complex of popular grievances and populist movements that it constantly regenerates. This picture is open to modification or rejection. For example, I realize that it doesn’t give adequate attention to the complications presented by the role of militarized nation states. Assuming the initial premise is accepted, the nature of the movements and struggles that it has generated are also debatable. What is genuine and organic and what is astroturf; how much is radical and how much reformist? Beyond this, many debatable questions remain about the interactions between these movements, and between the movements and segments of the ruling class. Finally my conclusion – that the most likely outcome in the “West” is a temporary stabilization of capitalism, but there is a possibility for the collapse of the transnational capitalist structure into a chaotic disarray and the emergence of a variety of “barbarisms” – certainly merits debate.

This is a grim prognosis. Neither “probability” nor “possibility” is a good outcome. However, if radical politics aren’t confined to conflicts between nativist populisms on the “right” and reformist social democratic populisms on the “left,” this isn’t the extent of the possible, As I said early on, both of those outcomes – as well as all other possibilities – can be decisively influenced by the intervention of “…a clear liberatory and internationalist anti-capitalist alternative…” Whether they are likely to be is another question.

Those that get this far will realize that I’ve left a lot of open questions. Transnational capital is not simple. We can see it in a range of phenomena, but we can also see internal contradictions and countervailing factors that bring its primacy and the permanence of its impacts into question. Do the conflicts and the differences between Eurasian and Atlanticist; between “authoritarian” and “representative”; between “unipolar” and “multipolar”; outweigh the significance and impact of the global system? I don’t think so, but I realize that it’s not a settled issue.

More specifically, I should have been clearer that I regard the current conflict with “Russia” as a conflict and competition within capitalism, where one side is not necessarily more or less prone to fascism than the other. I also assume implicitly that in this conflict and competition, common capitalist interests will limit capital’s internal divisions and will ultimately prevail across the global system. Further, I’m assuming that competitions based on national and regional factors will be subordinated to competition between segments of capital and, hopefully, to international class struggle. Similarly, I think that capital’s tendency towards increasing reliance on authoritarian command will hollow out systems of popular representation and this process will be manifested in an increasing similarity of regimes between East and West – although perhaps not so much between North and South. Cryptic, but I hope not too much so.

Photo credit: U.S. government poster, 1942 (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

1 thought on “New Stuff from an Old Guy – Part 3”

  1. This is a follow up to the comments I made on Part I. Thanks again, Don for this analysis.

    Based on my contention that the global capitalist system is in a classic crisis in which the system is unable to reproduce itself and is generating a mass of people whose basic needs can not be met by the system, I would contend that Don’s “most likely outcome” that would allow “a few decades of relative stability for sectors of the capitalist system” is not very likely. The option of the collapse of transnational capital and the emergence of “various barbarisms” seems more likely to me as some of these are already underway around the world. I posited the idea of “exterminism” in my previous post which is one of those barbarisms.

    There are many other possible outcomes but I will point to one here that is presently emerging in many parts of the world that is a broader context for “exterminism.” That outcome is the development for a new form of “primitive accumulation” reminiscent of the very beginnings of capitalism. In large parts of Asia, Africa and parts of South America there is a massive seizure of land from peasants and traditional peoples, forcing them into waged labor by the development of large scale agriculture, the building of hydro electric dams, and various extractive industries including oil pipelines, mines, fracking etc. This activity could be used to develop other kinds of manufacturing and developments using cheap energy from seized and exploited lands to employ the surplus population as waged laborers. Look right now to India, China and Africa where this is currently under way and this may also be the future of Brazil.

    Such a development is spawning new national alliances. This seems to be the basis for the BRICS alliance (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) who meet regularly and have established their own bank. The U.S. is specifically excluded but given “observer status” from time to time. There are other such formations in the works.

    To the extent that this becomes a coherent direction it will have great implications for the fortunes of the various political forces Don discusses here. In India, for example, there is a rise in violence against Dalits (who used to be called “untouchables”) by higher cast Hindus and they seem to be doing so with impunity. India’s President Modi is associated with anti Muslim fundamentalist Hindus—a fundamentalism that strengthens the caste system and may explain the rise of caste based violence. We could think of similar ventures by the “populist right” in other nations as well.


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