So, farewell 2016. But don’t worry. Plenty of nasty shit is going to happen next year too.
Plenty of nasty shit went on this year, and has especially been going on since Trump was elected. Next year won’t be better. It’ll be worse. The question isn’t whether it’ll be worse (it will), the question is how will it be worse?
As many predicted, the most immediate danger is probably going to be the emboldening effect of Trump’s election upon the vast army of resentful bigots who – like bullies in every schoolyard – suddenly feel a lot braver in the shadow of the really big bully.
Moreover, despite apparently immediately falling prey to incompetence, lack of preparedness, and a tendency to prioritize the settling of scores with Republican enemies, the Trump team has managed to make some appointments, and moot more… and they range from the routinely scary to the frankly terrifying. One of the worst so-far, almost everyone seems to agree, is Steven Bannon, former head of crazed, ultra-reactionary internet rag Breitbart, online hub for white supremacists, anti-semites, misogynists, conspiracy theorists, and most fervid and febrile flavours of the ‘alt-right’. Bannon himself is every bit the distasteful specimen you’d expect from such a background. He’s another of the ‘fascists without a uniform’ who seem to be proliferating in Trump’s bloated shadow. As an indication of what Trump plans to do with his presidency, it’s pretty unmistakeable. He plans to surround himself with a cloud of extreme reactionary dogma, and at least sound PR notes centred on denying and denigrating progress, attacking womens’ rights, stoking white ressentiment and paranoia, feeding Islamophobia, smearing Black Lives Matter and any such movement, and relentlessly attacking anything that looks like ‘the Left’ to the kinds of people who think the new Ghostbusters film is a Marxist plot (it wasn’t, by the way… or at least, if it was, they forgot to tell me.)
However, to once again be pedantic and lay myself open to misunderstanding, I find it implausible that Bannon and Trump will be instituting a Nazi-style round-up of anyone to the Left of them into camps, or a new political police force to arrest people for questioning the regime.
What does worry me is the idea that, on the look-out for such things, people – and I include myself in that, because god knows I’m prone to missing important shit going on under my nose – miss the incremental ramping-up of what we might call ‘normal extremism’ to the point where ‘fascism’ becomes entirely obsolete, because the system simply no longer needs it. That is what I see starting here: the beginning of a final burst of speed for normal extremism as it sees the victory line in the distance. The contours of fascism return as normal extremism speeds up. People notice the increase in speed and ferocity, but fascism as we have known it fails to appear. But before anyone notices, every function fascism has historically played in the service of capitalism – the burying of the left, the smothering of resistance, the disempowering of the working class, the slavish servicing of the needs of big capital, the reinforcement of the hierarchies of race and gender that capitalism finds so conducive to stability, the ruthless imperialism in the service of domestic capital, etc – can be achieved without fascism. It can now be done without the actual need to permit and tolerate and use the fascist form of government, which has always had its drawbacks. After all, haven’t I just given a fair summary of the social and cultural effect of decades of neoliberalism? Isn’t neoliberalism, in some important respects, a form of socio-cultural counter-revolution?
In the past, fascism has worked for capitalism for a while, and then brought ruin. Fascism is strong but commensurately brittle. Fascism overreaches. And it flirts with features which capitalism has only ever been able to tolerate temporarily, for the duration of the emergency so to speak, such as increased state control and direction of business in some areas (coupled with lots and lots of privatisation and deregulation… don’t lets forget that). Apart from anything else, fascism just has an image problem now.
Capitalism would love to have its fascism and eat it.
Normal extremism is a thing now. Indeed, there’s no contradiction here between the idea of the normal ever-rightwards drift of mainstream politics and society, and the new irruption represented by Trumpism. Normal extremism is the very basis of Trumpism, the soil in which it grew. It has reached the top of the ziggurat by scaling the terraces of normal extremism. If we’re not careful, and don’t look out for it, that same normal extremism will also be the foundation upon which something new is built… but that new thing will just be another layer of normal extremism. Because that’s all it needs to be. That’s how normal extremism became normal extremism. It got itself built up, heightened, layer-by-layer, over a very long time. Every layer looked like ground level after a while. And every time someone added a layer, everyone just looked on and said “oh, it’s bad, but it’s only one layer on top of ground level”. As the post-war boom ended, and the normal instability of capitalism returned, and the threat of the supposed ‘alternative system’ in the East receded, reaction set in. Heralded by the rise of extreme reactionary economics, and the politicians who wanted to put it into practice, the reaction became the global slow-mo socio-economic-cultural counter-revolution we call neoliberalism. Delayed only slightly in America by the comparative economic prosperity of the 90s, the counter-revolution became even slower-mo. But then the Great Recession hit, and the counter-revolution sped up again.
It’s the very existence of ‘normal extremism’, by which I mean the extreme horror of normality, that has driven a significant wedge (significant in terms of effect rather than sheer numbers) away from voting Normal-Dem toward voting Abnormal-Rep. It’s very easy for liberal commentators to sneer at this, and to throw their hands up in horror at the sheer political illiteracy of it all, but – again – they should take another look at the normality that they think of as sanity, and perhaps take in the fact that, to millions of people, it looks like a perpetual crisis. Normality is the crisis now, for many.
This ‘normal crisis’ is the very state of affairs that liberal capitalist democracy has engendered, fostered, nurtured, protected, and defended so studiously. Of course, as far as capital is concerned, that state of affairs seems normal, natural, and sensible. It fosters a perpetual crisis for some as a by-product of the state of affairs which suits it best. Capital then reacts with disingenuous puzzlement when others react against this normal crisis. It’s like a worm inside a cat’s belly reacting to a worming tablet with a cry of “But I don’t understand – this arrangement was working so well for both of us!” Is it really so unreasonable to reject normal notions of political literacy when the candidate identified as ‘progressive’ is someone like Hillary Clinton? Though she’s not the problem; she’s a symptom. The real problem is the skewed universe of establishment liberalism.
Fascist logic runs rife within Trumpism. But we need to remember that there are two senses in which a person or group or tendency can be a fascist. They can be so in the sense of being part of a fully fledged fascist movement, or in the sense of embracing some version of the ideological claims and obsessions of fascism.
Trumpism seems based on, or animated by, people who are the latter rather than the former. To the extent that Trumpism contains a fully fascist dynamic, it is in a comparatively muted and slow-motion form. There is, after all, no revolution for fascism to be a counter-revolution against. There is no longer a highly organised, class conscious, dangerously uppity working class in Europe or America. This is linked to other fundamental dissimilarities with the original fascist moment. While undoubtedly a distal product of the Great Recession and the ongoing crisis of capitalism, the crisis is – as noted – much less sharp than the Depression of the 30s.
The middle classes’ absence of unified class consciousness is channelled into a syncretic form of reactionary nationalism, in which the nation is fetishized precisely because it comes to be seen as containing, through the concept of culture, all those values the middle classes have come to identify with, such as orthodox or ‘normal’ race relations, gender and sex relations, etc. This we see happening in Trumpism. It started outside Trumpism, fed into its rise, and now nestles happily inside it. They have fused into a lovely, symbiotic relationship.
My point isn’t that, because it doesn’t correspond perfectly to what went on in Italy and Germany in the 30s, we can relax and not worry about Trumpism. We certainly can’t, and not only because it’s not a perfect fit with classic fascism. It’s horrifying enough in its own right, not only for the extreme reactionary measures which the Trump administration will doubtless institute but also, perhaps even mostly, for the emboldening and radicalizing effect it will probably continue to have on the festering extreme Right (American and global) that pre-dates it, and which has lain comparatively fallow until now.
Indeed, the lack of perfect correspondence between Trumpism and classic fascism is, on the whole, cause for concern rather than relaxation. It is evidence that fascism may have learned to disguise itself to just the extent it needs to. Away with separate fascist parties with their own internal culture of symbols and pageantry. Rely instead on co-opting the version of that which already exists within the military and governmental cultures of the establishment. Orwell always said British fascism, should it come, would come wrapped in a Union Jack (mind you, he said the same thing about British communism, and was altogether too soft on patriotism). American fascism may have learned to wrap itself in the stars and stripes rather than the stars and bars. Indeed, the first attempt at a full American fascist party already did this. Fritz Kuhn’s American Nazi party, the ‘German American Bund’, held rallies draped in Old Glory and enormous pictures of George Washington. The marginal full-fascist groups in the US have long flown the US flag. It’s possible that, in Trumpism, the same impulse has learned to keep the stars and stripes and dump the sinister runes. And it’s hard to see a real contradiction here, if we’re honest, given that America is a settler-colonial state, founded by European imperialism, based on racialized genocide and slavery, and organized along the logic of white supremacy.
In addition to the danger of fascism going camouflaged, there’s the related danger – just alluded to – of fascism’s fuzzy edges, of its nature not as an alien entity entirely separate from other forms of capitalist/imperialist political organisation, but rather as one node on the same continuum.
In short: the differences between Trumpism and classic fascism do not tell us that it can’t be considered fascism in any sense, and thus can be treated as in any way normal business. It may not be destined to become the full-fascism of banners, concentration camps, Rather the opposite. The differences tell us that the fascism is mutating, integrating…
More to come. Please remember that. And that I am, essentially, thinking aloud.