Dedicated, with all awareness of the impudence and absurdity of doing so, but also with sincere love and respect, to the memory of John Berger.
In the new Preface he wrote in 2010 for a reprint of his 1975 book A Seventh Man, John Berger explained why, in some respects, the book was outmoded. It is a book of words and photographs – by Jean Mohr – about migrants. It was written, as Berger says, before a great many things happened which would profoundly alter the world’s political landscape. One of these things is, as Berger puts it, “the establishment of the global economic order, known as neoliberalism – or, more accurately, economic fascism”.
Not even in the remote vicinity of fucking about, was Berger, despite his customary elegance.
But it’s true, in very essential ways. Fascism is marked by one of the treasured tactics of the liberal or the reformist leftist. It is a ‘mixed economy’. One of the first things the Nazis did, when they were handed power by German bourgeois politicians, was to privatise lots of key manufacturing industries. Much as did Thatcher as part of the neoliberal counter revolution in Britain. This isn’t to equate Thatcher and Hitler, but to point out that neoliberalism is a version of a strategy also central to fascism. And yet, as is better known (thanks to the semi-coherent screeching on this subject from the contingent of pub bores and internet bloviators I am thinking of christening ‘the folk Right’), the Nazis also employed a policy of state direction of industry, and were ‘statists’ in other broader senses. But then, as many have pointed out, neoliberalism is not really anti-statist. It expands the state in key ways, even as – fascism style – it integrates state power with corporate power. The great early triad of neoliberalism was Thatcher, Reagan, and Pinochet. Pinochet’s Chile, supported by Thatcher, and helped into being by the US, was run as a kind of lab experiment in what has become known as neoliberalism. The opening of the state to corporate interests, and the subsequent transfer of what had been socialised wealth into private hands, with the brutality of all that being buttressed with direct state brutality, with the growth of state power in areas such as police repression and military spending. Military spending, once again, a key aspect of fascism.
Of course, in Euro-American culture, we say it isn’t fascism if white people aren’t in the camps. If white people aren’t being locked up for thoughtcrimes, aren’t being murdered by the state, then whatever it is, surely it isn’t fascism. Without for a moment wishing to deny or downplay the immense suffering of the victims of the Nazi holocaust, and of mid-20th century German imperialism more generally, it’s true that we reserve a special and unique horror for that particular form of aggressive and racist imperialism because it was committed against mostly ‘white’ people in Europe.
(Though we must always remember that the category of ‘whiteness’ is socially constructed, and is therefore permeable, malleable and manipulable. The Nazis themselves certainly wouldn’t have considered Jews and ‘Gypsies’ and ‘Slavs’ to be the same ‘race’ as Anglo-Saxons and Teutons, etc. Their racial ideology was not as indirectly evolved or subtle as that pertaining in other Western capitalist-imperialist cultures – precisely because it was consciously formulated for direct political ends, rather than being dialectically evolved from the reality of a formally egalitarian racial hierarchy, such as the Eastern United States. One of the main planks of our apparently universal modern rejection of Nazi ideology is the rejection of their claims that those they victimised were of a different biological race. But this tends to take the form of resolving those victims down into our idea of ‘normal’ or ‘neutral’, which in our racist culture still means ‘white’… but this aside is an entire essay all to itself.)
The Nazi genocide against the Jews is much concentrated-upon, as indeed it should be. But we have a much lower cultural awareness of the genocides committed by the Kaiser’s empire in what is now Namibia, or by Belgian colonialism in the Congo, or the genocide inherent in the settling of Australia and Tasmania, or, for that matter, the genocides inherent in the creation of the United States.
The truth is that the normal operation of capitalist imperialism is pretty similar to fascism. Not just in terms of the economic strategies of modern neoliberalism, but in the older structures of classical liberalism… something which becomes all too clear when we look at classical liberal capitalism’s practice of racist imperialism and settler-colonialism.
There is nothing inherently democratic or liberating about capitalism. To the extent that it brings liberty, that liberty is mainly confined to opportunities for the few to engage in exploitation, and for a relatively small para-layer to enjoy freedom based on that exploitation. History shows capitalism to be deeply at odds with democracy most of the time, especially if we take democracy to mean genuine political power for most people. Economic inequality hinders even real political democracy, and economic inequality and compulsion are built into the system. Moreover, the system takes full advantage of nationalism, racism, etc, to foster divisions between people, to exploit oppressed groups, and to justify relations of savage domination. The absolute worst tendencies of capitalism towards extreme plutocracy, hierarchy and pillage have been ameliorated in the 20th century onwards, particularly in the Western and/or Westernised world… but even then this amelioration is based on displaced horror. The long stretch of growing prosperity in Western capitalism was built on the economic stimulus of war and Cold War, and on the dividends of imperialism (colonial or, later, financial). To be crude: capitalism looked pretty good in some places by sucking others dry, or filling them with bodies and wreckage. And in this the 20th century was just the flowering of a global capitalist system that had already constructed itself on primitive accumulation, empire, and slavery.
Again: Classic fash was based, in part, on this kind of domestic dividend based on imperialistic displacement of horror. As Götz Aly argued in his recent book Hitler’s Beneficiaries, the Nazi government bought the complicity of the German people with liberal welfare spending and social programmes, funded largely through robbery with violence abroad. This incidentally is an imminent danger within the rise of discontented populism.
As has been observed, populism spans the political spectrum. This is not to share the delusions of those who see no difference between Trump, Stein, Sanders, and Corbyn. This is based on making a fetish of the mainstream, and utterly failing to notice the existence of what Tariq Ali has called “the extreme centre”. However, there is a sense in which the rise of such figures does speak to a greater and growing willingness on the part of disaffected sectors of the Western populace to look to non-establishment figures, and non-centrist politics… largely in the wake of the devastation wrought by the establishment and the centre. The trouble is that this is happening in the wreckage that 40-odd years of neoliberalism have made of social democracy, and the attendant political disorientation resulting from the media’s normalising of same. It has already been noted that a sector of the Sanders support may have wandered over to Trump. This is the inverse of the classic fascist tactic of speciously appropriating some key demands of the Left. This kind of disorientation seems a fairly minor factor at the moment, but there’s no reason in principle why it couldn’t grow, and the long term threat of populist demands for an end to neoliberal austerity being appropriated by some form of fully resurgent fascism.
Trumpism has already hijacked the discontent of ‘the little guy’, as right-wing politics tends to do. There’s Nixon’s ‘silent majority’ for example. But Nixon wasn’t really much of a neoliberal. His government could be called, with some reason, the last non-neoliberal American government. A nixonian address to the discontented ‘silent majority’ in the context of the 2010s would entail addressing people squeezed long term by neoliberalism, and then by post-recession austerity. Trump looks to be becoming entirely subsumed in the milieu of establishment reactionaries, and they are fanatically wedded to an extreme form of the continuing neoliberal project… and even the alt-right don’t do much calling for wealth redistribution, which is yet another reason why it is sometimes misleading to just call them ‘fascists’ or ‘nazis’. Identifying such things directly with their praxis obscures some of the mechanisms whereby fascism actually worked. If a more full-blooded fash grew from the alt-right and Trumpism, it might well (cynically, natch) appropriate a Bernie-esque demand for wealth redistribution. There could be an apparently ‘Left-Trumpism’, as indeed there was a ‘Left wing’ of the Nazi Party, the wing dominated by the Strassers, and by elements in the Stormtroopers who were committed to what Michael Parenti called “a ‘share the wealth’ mentality”. In the concomitant political disorientation, the populism of the squeezed could well be channelled away from Bernie-style Left-reformism into a classic fascist bribery scheme based on aggression elsewhere. This is the trend, after all. Discontent and demand flows rightwards now, apparently as a matter of course.
Having said all that, modern capitalism is now built on the continuation of such relations, generally through economic imperialism rather than in direct violent conquest and colonialism… though the invasion of Iraq showed that capital in the developed capitalist world can still profit from predating on less developed nations through direct invasion and takeover. (I say capital can profit from this because it was US capital that did well out of the adventure of Iraq, not ‘the US economy’, or the state which funded it and which ended up with a huge deficit.) The US didn’t need a fascist government to launch the ‘war on terror’. It just needed a government sufficiently fanatical about furthering the dominance of national capital and national imperial power, with a built-in awareness of the oneness of these things… and it achieved this not with a fascist takeover but with a government of neo-cons and oil industry executives. It didn’t need a fascist seizure of power, just an election system already set up to disenfranchise the poor, artificially group people by geography rather than by class, and give people a choice between two-wings of one reactionary party. Again, the two-party system in the US is close enough to a one-party system, though there are more real differences between the two parties the closer you get to the ground. And the fact that Bush still needed to cheat, and get himself appointed by the Supreme Court, itself showcases the nullity of democracy in crucial sectors of the democratic system.
I personally think it highly unlikely that modern capitalism would be able to bring itself to countenance anything but the most specious return to social democratic policies of social provision, but it could easily relearn the rhetoric, and even learn to partly fund some seductive showcase fudges, especially in the context of continued foreign looting. This isn’t a million miles away from what Obama already did with health care provision, to the thunderous applause of many, despite the drones he was flying all the while.
It doesn’t help that, the world being complex, there is genuine overlap between reaction and real opposition to neoliberal policies. Brexit is the word here.
None of this is to say that fascism is essentially the same thing as capitalist democracy. With all its structural unfairness, capitalist democracy is still not fascism. We mustn’t fall into the same mistake made by so many who faced classic fascism, namely the mistake of thinking that we’re dealing with some species of normal. Almost everybody in Germany thought the Nazis were something of this kind. Following Stalin’s idiotic analysis, the German communists thought that, because the reformist parties were at peace with capitalism, and capitalism was so bad, and the Nazis were just the tools of the capitalists, then the Nazis and the social democrats were essentially the same thing. This was a fatal mistake because, in the guise of being ruthlessly clear-eyed about the reformist parties, it was actually a warrant for paralysis. It stymied the united front between all sectors of the left which could and should’ve and been constructed against the Nazis, and which could and should’ve stopped them.
Even so, I think there’s case for emphasizing continuity when so many people are emphasizing rupture. I don’t mean the foolish continuity advocated by so many liberals, the kind which says “give him a chance” and “let’s try to work with him”, which pretends Trump won’t do – or try to do – half of what he said he would, that he probably didn’t mean it, that he’ll simply find most it impossible to attempt, that the pre-existing structures will stop him, etc. It’s true that Trump and his coterie – which looks set to include a large number of very scary people, true extremist reactionary radicals – will find themselves enmeshed in an established governmental structure designed to contain what a president, or anyone, can do. It’s true that this system has evolved to protect the beast it surrounds, to filter out threats to its stability and safety even from the apex of the power structure. But Trump will have the full resources of the Republican Party behind him, at a time when they effectively control the entire government. The Republican Party is an organisation seething with febrile reactionaries, including in its ranks just about every variety of right-wing crackpot and wingnut going. Pence, Trump’s veep himself, is the kind of Christian fundamentalist who things Christians should run society, and that gay people can be electroshocked back to ‘normality’. Again, in considering Trumpism, we find ourselves having to negotiate an incredibly complex and fuzzy relationship between continuity and rupture.
The militarisation of the police and their already authoritarian culture. The scandalous inequalities in how one is treated by the justice system depending on whether you can afford a private legal defence or have to rely on overworked and under-resourced public defenders. The growth of the vast, gulag-like, semi-privatised US prison system which, owing to the intense racial injustice rampant throughout the justice system, looks more and more like an under-the-counter reintroduction of black slavery. The war on drugs has always been, essentially, a war on the poor, whether domestically or in the foreign countries where the drugs. The US national security state remains as unaccountable and unscrupulous as ever. The US media is pretty much just the propaganda arm of corporate America, and it provides this service to government too – showing the essential unity of private and state interests. There are lots of trenchant critiques of the US media, but you only have to look back at the experience of the Iraq war to see how entirely the media is in the thrall of establishment ideas, how it sees responsible journalism as the act of being an uncritical amplifier for the pronouncements of government.
There is an essential link between this creeping privatised authoritarianism (which is itself just a natural progression of capitalism’s natural tendencies, fostered by neoliberalism, rather than a rupture) and the reactionary lunacy that has been slowly taking over America’s political establishment for some time now. They are essential aspects of each other. You need the extreme ideas to justify and normalise the extreme reality. Not only do such policies, suggested by the logic of capitalism itself (especially in this neoliberal phase) need state enactment, and so need political instigators and administrators, but they need formulation in the first place. It’s not a linear top-down conspiracy where the evil rulers of corporate America come up with some new grotesque bit of legislation and then phone their paid politicians and order them to put it into practice. Very often it is the politicians who – being true believers, and often company men themselves, or corporate lawyers, etc – will come up with some new method to expand capital accumulation into some new area of life, or re-accumulate some piece of social wealth, or some new power for the police that will help them bully the propertyless proletariat (and therefore, to a huge extent, the people of colour) into submission. They work towards capitalism in much the way Nazi officials ‘worked towards the Fuhrer’ by coming up with some new and radical idea and then presenting it to their superiors in the Nazi system for approval. The pols who thus work the system for the expansion of capital, or the furtherance of the authority of property, are sometimes even working from the ground up, responding to what they perceive to be popular demands. There is a dialectical way in which pressure can come from below for more measures which empower and enrich the system, owing to the fact that the increasing empowerment of the system creates alienation, which is then ideologically managed, and which then becomes reactionary politics. Indeed, in classic fascism, that’s a mechanism in the self-organisation of the fascist base in the ranks of the anxious middle classes.
There you go. The normal functioning of life, law, and politics in capitalist democracies has a lot in common with fascism these days. Again: that’s not to suggest an equivalence but rather a continuity, a family relationship, and fuzzy boundary. We really need to watch that fuzzy boundary. It could very easily fool us. We could see the intensification of the authoritarian features of pre-Trump America as ‘normal’, as ‘bad but not that bad’, as ‘a comparative relief’. We could even allow an extreme reactionary backlash against immigrants, Muslims, etc, to comfort us. Liberalism is susceptible to a kind of happy outrage about things that its finds disgusting, and which it enjoys finding disgusting, while it essentially rests on a comfortable knowledge of its own safety. Trump could yet pull a very crafty trick on us: making liberals and the left focus on drastic, government-organised depredations against minorities even as, round the back, it fundamentally restructures the American political system. This isn’t to say that the depredations against minorities will be any less important or any less of a priority. On the contrary, the fact that they will be such a priority will be used against everyone. The Tories in Britain are already pulling off sneaky shit like this, with a fundamental restructuring (i.e. selling-off, i.e. destruction) of the NHS going on as we all panic about Brexit.
It is just this sort of thing – which is potentially much further ranging coming from trump, and more potentially more dangerous for the whole world in America – that I’m worried about people missing precisely because they’re looking out for overt fascist signs that today’s Trumpian quasi-fascists are too canny to advertise.
Again, from Berger, from ‘Where Are We?’ in the collection Hold Everything Dear:
People everywhere – under very different conditions – are asking themselves – where are we? The question is historical not geographical. What are we living through? Where are we being taken? What have we lost? How to continue without a plausible vision of the future? Why have we lost any view of what is beyond a lifetime?
The well-heeled experts answer: Globalization. PostModernism. Communications Revolution. Economic Liberalism. The terms are tautological and evasive. To the anguished question of Where are we? the experts murmur: Nowhere!
Might it not be better to see and declare that we are living through the most tyrannical – because the most pervasive – chaos that has ever existed? It’s not easy to grasp the nature of the tyranny, for its power structure (ranging from the 200 largest multinational corporations to the Pentagon) is interlocking yet diffuse, dictatorial yet anonymous, ubiquitous yet placeless. It tyrannizes from offshore – not only in terms of fiscal law, but in terms of any political control beyond its own. Its aim is to delocalize the entire world. Its ideological strategy – besides which Bin Laden’s is a fairy tale – is to undermine the existent so that everything collapses into its special version of the virtual, from the realm of which – and this is the tyranny’s credo – there will be a never-ending source of profit. It sounds stupid. Tyrannies are stupid. This one is destroying at every level the life of the planet on which it operates.
Ideology apart, its power is based on two threats. The first is intervention from the sky by the most heavily armed state in the world. One could call it Threat B52. The second is of ruthless indebtment, bankruptcy, and hence, given the present productive relations in the world, starvation. One could call it Threat Zero.
We have to reject the new tyranny’s discourse. Its terms are crap. In the interminably repetitive speeches, announcements, press conferences and threats, the recurrent terms are: Democracy, Justice, Human Rights, Terrorism. Each word in the context signifies the opposite of what it was once meant to signify.
Democracy is a proposal (rarely realized) about decision making; it has little to do with election campaigns. Its promise is that political decisions be made after, and in the light of, consultation with the governed. This is dependent upon the governed being adequately informed about the issues in question, and upon the decision-makers having the capacity and will to listen and take account of what they have heard. Democracy should not be confused with the ‘freedom’ of binary choices, the publication of opinion polls or the crowding of people into statistics. These are its pretences.
Today the fundamental decisions, which effect the unnecessary pain increasingly suffered across the planet, have been and are taken unilaterally without any open consultation or participation.
Both military and economic strategists now realize that the media play a crucial role – not so much in defeating the current enemy as in foreclosing and preventing mutiny, protests or desertion. Any tyranny’s manipulation of the media is an index of its fears. The present one lives in fear of the world’s desperation. A fear so deep that the adjective desperate – except when it means dangerous – is never used.
Without money each daily human need becomes a pain.
Berger was writing in the context of the Bush coterie and the ‘War on Terror’… but, as we’ve seen, we’re today talking about continuity rather than rupture. Meanwhile, people are dying in US-led bombing raids in Syria, and the person who is being mourned by American liberals as a lost ‘lesser evil’ is personally responsible for the destruction of Libya.
Every form of contestation against this tyranny is comprehensible. Dialogue with it is impossible. For us to live and die properly, things have to be named properly. Let us reclaim our words.
This is written in the night. In war the dark is on nobody’s side; in love the dark confirms that we are together.