Fascism in Italy and Germany in the 1930 was a distal result of the Great Depression. This vast crisis in capital accumulation and flow led not only to immense suffering among the working class but also to a devastation of the middle class. This both stimulated the growth of a fascist mass movement (which always have their base in the middle classes) and created a political deadlock in normal democratic government. This deadlock was so paralysing that powerful sectors of the ruling capitalist class – notably those in heavy industry, which stood to benefit directly from fascist government’s state programs and war preparation – were persuaded to relinquish the fig-leaf of democracy altogether. Fascism is many things but it is always a desperate attempt on the part of a crisis-ridden capitalist system to overcome paralysing contradictions born of crises caused by its own economic laws of motion.
The last big crash, commonly dated to 2008, led to what the Marxist economist Michael Roberts has called ‘the Long Depression’. This refers to the inability of Western capitalism since 2008 to make a full recovery. Beset by insufficient and stagating profit rates, and unmanageable build-ups of debt (fictitious capital, itself an attempt to compensate for insufficient profitability), capitalism has limped along waiting for an even bigger crisis which will eventually restore profitability (at least enough) by wiping out huge amounts of capital. (This, by the way, confirms Marx’s analysis of capitalism as subject to an inherent tendency for the rate of profit to fall owing to increasing investment in fixed over variable capital (i.e. machinery, tech, etc over labour), thus lowering the amount of value produced by the system, it being abstract socially necessary human labour time that is the objective substance of value.) It is this ‘Long Depression’ which has ultimately been the economic basis of what Neil Faulkner and co-authors have called ‘creeping fascism’. Faced with a slow-motion crisis in the economic base, the capitalist superstructure has been subject to a slow-motion political crisis. An ongoing crisis of capital accumulation has birthed a gradual crisis in the legitimacy and functioning of liberal democracy. The markers are all too well known, the most seismic in the West being Brexit and Trump.
Some Marxists have been predicting this new crisis for some time, not least because of the continued failure of the system to restore profit rates and the continued build up of debt. The same underlying conditions in place, and very little in the way of political or economic reform (of, say, the financial sector) having been achieved, the next crisis was imminent. Few expected it would be as vast as the one just in the process of starting to hit, but then few predicted a global pandemic that would force global capitalism to essentially put capital accumulation on pause for months. (It is worth remembering that, far from being a random unlucky happenstance, coronavirus itself is almost certainly a byproduct of capitalism’s abuse of the environment. It is not just profit rates that are unsustainable; it is also the tolerance of nature.)
Much as the Great Depression had a catastrophic effect on the middle-classes and thus spawned fascist movements as a reaction, so the Great Recession and Long Depression of 2008-onwards also entailed huge negative effects (in real terms) for the middle classes, which (arguably) constitute an ever larger and more important sector in hyper-neoliberal capitalist economies like Britain and the United States. This is not because the working class is disappearing – on the contrary, globally it is vaster than ever – but because neoliberal capitalism has scaled back production in developed countries and vastly scaled up financial services and other such white collar jobs while engaging in wholesale proletarianisation in so-called developing economies. In the Marxist view, anybody who has to sell their labour power to a capitalist is a member of the working class, and Marx and Engels spoke of “two great classes… bourgeoisie and proletariat” in The Communist Manifesto. But Marx and Marxists don’t deny the existence of intermediate social layers. Even within the “two great classes”, people stand within all sorts of relations to the means of production and those who own them. Most police officers, for instance, are not independently wealthy and couldn’t afford to not be employed by somebody, yet (hopefully) no Marxist would see police as straightforwardly members of the working class, because their social role is to stand as the guardians of the social order based on the ownership of the means of production by a minority. They don’t spend all their time working directly for big capitalists, or even in a directly repressive capacity for the state. But their essential role is to enforce laws of property which benefit those who have it, and to keep the social order that capitalism needs in order to reproduce itself. They also serve an ideological role in legitimising the existing social order, the supposedly necessary protective role of the capitalist state, etc. Certainly, police – for all their rhetoric about being there to ‘protect and serve’ – generally understand themselves to be in a separate category from the mass of workers or unemployed.
In the same way, the class of small business owners (petty bourgeoisie) don’t quite seem to fit into a simplistic reading of Marx’s theory. They own a small amount of the means of production, they employ people and thus appropriate surplus value by exploiting them, yet they are themselves often dependent upon credit from big capitalist banks, effectively working for the big capitalists via the medium of small business. This, to be clear, separates them from the working class, yet it doesn’t quite align them with the capitalist class – at least it is a partial and uneasy alliance even at the best of times. A shopkeeper has an antagonistic class relationship with their own employees because they exploit those employees in order to make a profit, yet if huge chunks of that profit are them handed over to a major bank which extends them the credit they need in order to operate, they stand in a semi-exploited role in relation to the capitalist ruling class. This becomes clear in moments of capitalist crisis when small businesses are the most likely to go under, have credit withdrawn, be made bankrupt, and be swallowed up by big capitalists more able to absorb economic shocks. This is, in a way, only a fast-motion version of the normal process of competition, which drives small businesses out at the expense of big businesses. Just look at the city centres dying because of out-of-town supermarkets and Amazon. The crisis increases the prevalence and tempo of the process.