This is the final part of ‘Faeces on Trump’… which now seems a peculiarly poor title for this series… all the worse for being so nearly right. Still, I daresay I shall have more to say about Trump and related issues in the years to come (if I’m spared). But this first line of thought draws to a close. This post is, as a result, a kind of ‘summing up’. (God, I sound pompous, don’t I?) Further thoughts, or lines of thought, will have to stand alone from now on – and so I’ll be able to retitle for more relevance when I arrogantly shit them all over the internet, as if my opinion matters. But anyway, this is the last squirt of diarrhea from the bellyache that Trump’s victory gave me. Further dyspepsia will doubtless cause more and different effluvia to rain down upon you, because clearly I can’t help myself. (And you’re not even paying me!) Watch this space, you poor doomed motherfuckers.
Fuck it, let’s not bother with any more piss jokes. Let’s have some Lenin. We might as well, in a world in which making a Ghostbusters film with a female main cast is enough to get you called a Marxist:
Bourgeois democracy, although a great historical advance in comparison with medievalism, always remains, and under capitalism is bound to remain, restricted, truncated, false and hypocritical, a paradise for the rich and a snare and deception for the exploited, for the poor… [D]eceit, violence, corruption, mendacity, hypocrisy, and oppression of the poor is hidden beneath the civilized, polished, and perfumed exterior of modern bourgeois democracy.
– Lenin, from The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (as quoted by Cliff in Volume 2 of his biography of Lenin)
Paul Foot put that quote up over his office door at the Daily Mirror – where he worked before Robert Maxwell was allowed to take it over so he could bust the unions – just, in his words, “so there could be no doubt about where I stood”.
Even so, Foot wrote an entire book – and a very good one, which I recommend – about how great the The Vote was, and how many people had to struggle so hard and for so long to get it. Arguably, Foot under-stresses the extent to which the vote has not just been betrayed (by Labour) or undermined, but also repurposed as part of a system of consent to continued capitalist rule. You have to remember that huge numbers of working people thought of universal suffrage (however they defined it) as a means to fundamentally change society in favour of working people, including redistributing wealth and property. This ultimately didn’t happen, obviously… or rather, it did, but the wealth and property were redistributed upwards. This is neoliberalism, and a vital part of how it works is the repurposing of popular democracy, more than just its subversion. You could even say that neoliberalism is the great expression of that repurposing. Neoliberalism, as a global system, is a direct – and, at the lower and earliest levels, consciously connived – counter-revolutionary response to the post-war social democratic era, which was itself an extemporisation on the part of the capitalist system, a survival strategy to appease a global rejection of the inequalities of the pre-war system. Neoliberalism is the counter-attack to the social changes – such as increased state control, regulation, and intervention in business and the market – which came about as a response to democratic pressure, expressed through the popular franchise (at least partly), which itself came from democratic pressure from below (though not always from ‘peaceful protest’). Neoliberalism found itself unable to directly repress or repeal universal suffrage, except in places where the developed West had long exercised imperialistic methods of intervention, such as sponsoring coups and client dictators. Instead, it decided not simply to undermine popular access to voting per se, but rather to repurpose it as a vital cosmetic decoration. A vital tactic of neoliberalism (and pardon the short-hand that makes it sound like its alive) is the hollowing out any other avenue for democratic pressure over the state that had evolved, and ramping up authoritarianism (police repression, spying on the population, etc). And that’s without the retardation of democracy inherent in greater concentration of wealth into fewer and fewer hands. Even as it did so, neoliberalism utilised the appeals to freedom and liberty with which classical liberalism has ideologically expressed the interests of the rising middle classes of the past, and the extension of imperialism.
What we ended up with is, as John Berger said, a kind of ‘economic fascism’ (private enterprise enthroned, state repression to protect it), and an increasingly gutted and narrowed sphere of debate and expression, but with a formally democratic governmental structure centred upon, and ideologically justified by, the glories of the fetishized franchise. To the extent that some elements in the neoliberal democracies are taking things further into outright voter fraud and suppression (i.e. the Republican Party in the US) they are only running with an established mindset in order to further directly selfish and immediate party interests. The utter slavish devotion of all ‘centrist’, ‘progressive’ parties (except one or two in Europe which have recently developed, and some of which have already been neutralised) to the neoliberal consensus is the norm from which the extreme reactionaries diverge, helping to keep the system stable in the ‘extreme centre’ by constantly trying to shift it rightwards.
And this is where we came in.
But, having said all that, as shitty and squalid and dishonest and inadequate and pernicious as it may be, bourgeois democracy must be defended, even in today’s ‘normal’ neoliberal form, against fascist impulses. As bad as it is, and as subverted and repurposed as it has been, it is the product of struggle. It is hard won; torn from the gritted teeth and grasping claws of the ruling class. And any defeats only make the powerful stronger, and the rest of us weaker and more vulnerable, and less able to resist. You might not like your shitty old wobbly ladder, but it’s still a platform. If it is whisked away from beneath you, you’ll fall, and find yourself bleeding and broken on the ground, unable to climb any further. (This isn’t, by the way, a rationale for always voting for ‘the lesser evil’. I take stuff like that on a tactical, case-by-case basis.)
It’s essential that we don’t make the same mistakes people made before, and relax in the face of fascistic assaults on even bourgeois freedom. Ironically, one of the biggest dangers for this is in their very normality these days. We’ve allowed people like Trump to become mainstream enough to win presidential elections. That didn’t just happen on November 11th last year. It didn’t just happen anytime recently. All the direct factors which fed into his victory ‘on the day’ are important, but they’re the result of longer processes. The increasing authoritarianism of American society, the long-term neglect and poverty inflicted on whole communities and whole swathes of people, the refusal to rein in capitalism after it nearly brought its own system to the brink (and us with it), the refusal to address ever-increasing economic inequality and injustice, the refusal to address the structural and institutional racism of the police and justice and prison systems, the refusal to address the racialized nature of poverty, the refusal to turn away from a policy of imperialism and endless war… and the doubling down, the refusal to accept criticism when such things are mentioned; the smearing and persecution of those who protest. This hasn’t just fostered positive resistance from below, it has fostered negative resistance to the resistance from those who have nowhere to go with resistance to the system. This hasn’t just fostered Trump, it’s fostered a situation where Trump doesn’t look that unusual. Capital was briefly alarmed by his election, but rallied pretty quick. He’s going to look okay to them soon, when things stabilise and he starts pursuing his radical right-wing agenda from within the structures of the establishment he was speciously talking about challenging.
Ironically, we’re not going to get to the grips with the real scale of the problem Trump represents if we reduce him to a ‘fascist’ in some sort of abstract way. The term, used carelessly, runs the risk of mischaracterizing exactly what he is, and therefore of misleading us. Worryingly, the problem isn’t of making him look worse and more dangerous than he really is except in the most superficial terms. Rather, the problem is of making him look better and look less dangerous than he really is, precisely because we don’t recognise that he’s as much a continuity as a rupture. He may not be classic fash, but that could actually be bad news in a sense. In certain ways, he’s potentially worse. He’s a bundle of fascist impulses and tactics, repurposed for the needs of the day, potentially about to fuse himself (and a bunch of what I call ‘fascists without uniforms’) into the normal functioning of the normal political establishment of the US… but that’s the state with the most imperial and military power on Earth, overseeing the most powerful economy on earth… and it’s also, crucially, one that is already heavily authoritarian, heavily fused with big capital, already surrounded by a de facto propaganda system, etc. Even more crucially, this is an authoritarianism already increasing incrementally under normal conditions, already highly normalised, even invisible to many, owing to the slow-motion way in which neoliberal American governments have accreted it. The classic fascist regimes took over pre-existing state apparatus that were also authoritarian to various degrees. Even the Weimar Republic, often rhapsodised, had a record of sending in troops to smash strikes and demonstrations, and a marked tendency to deal in a draconian way with the left while going soft on the right (see Hitler’s own trial and brief, cushy incarceration). But remember what I was saying before about one factor missing from Trumpism being the role of counter-revolutionary movement. There is no revolution for Trumpism to suppress. There is no strong and confident left, no powerful workers’ movement. Consequently, as I pointed out, Trumpism lacks some essential characteristics of full fascism. It’s not a counter-revolutionary mass movement armed with a paramilitary wing. (Not yet anyways… the germ of a street-fighting force is there in the various militia groups on the American far-right, some of whom have tried to appoint themselves patrol forces for Trump rallies and polling stations, etc… don’t underestimate what could happen if the circumstances became more revolutionary.) But the flipside of that is that there is no strong counterweight, at least not presently.
Of course, the strength of the workers’ movements in Germany and Italy didn’t help when fascism came to shut them down. They generally crumbled, mostly because of political disorientation, and the cowardice and backsliding of their reformist leaderships. In Germany, a little later than Italy, Stalinism played its part too in gutting the communist movement of real insight, independence, and fighting spirit.
This is an area where a proper understanding of fascism could be very important in times to come. If a strong anti-Trump coalition is built, it runs the risk of supplying an element missing from the incomplete fascist jigsaw puzzle that is Trumpism: a ‘revolution’ to be crushed. They won’t have to see much resistance to interpret it as an oncoming communist apocalypse… what with the normalised alt-Right being already very good at being extremist outriders, and with this itself just being a kind of ‘cargo cult’ version of what goes on on Fox News every day. This is where a chain reaction might conceivably be ignited which assembles the currently chaotic and incoherent bits and pieces of the American far-right – Trump, the alt-right, the militias, extreme Republicans, even Dominionist Christians – into something that looks like an actual classically-fascist fighting mass-movement. I’m not saying the left shouldn’t resist for fear of triggering this… I’m saying that the left needs to be aware that this is a thing that could happen. I’d argue that what we know about the essential elements of classic fascism, coupled with what is and isn’t currently going on inside Trumpism, makes this a distinct possibility. The gaps seem to be waiting to be filled.
Even if Trump and Trumpism turn out to be as shambolic and distracted all the way through their tenure as they’ve been so far – and seriously, even their efforts to assemble their extreme reactionary personnel have been keystoneish – they seem likely to accelerate the already-existing drive within neoliberal imperialist capitalism towards authoritarianism.
As I’ve tried to indicate, I don’t think it’ll instantiate as something immediately recognisable as classic fascism, with traits that a Trotskyist can tick off a checklist… Even so, there’s no reason – as we’ve already seen – to say Trumpism couldn’t appropriate the rhetoric of economic populism to gain and hold support, even a mass movement. This scenario is, once again, in some ways even more worrying than the idea of classic fash resurgent. The rhetoric wedded to a fully neoliberal system, i.e all the state authoritarianism but normalised and erased from view under the repurposed ‘democracy’ of the vote; but with no concession to state control, just the same – and probably enhanced – free-marketeering dogma. As we’ve also seen (in the Bush years for instance) there’s absolutely no reason why such a set-up would prevent savage and racist imperialistic wars. There’s no reason why the fascistic ‘mixed economy’ of neoliberalism (private enterprise unchained, the state bullying everyone else) can’t get even more authoritarian, and statist (at least when it comes to repression and imperialism) as long it it ultimately serves capital.
At the very least, Trump will leave behind him a ‘new normal’. At the very least, it will be a new psychological normal. It will be quantitatively normal rather than qualitatively normal, in that it will only be an increased acceptance of a more ferocious acceleration of something that was already happening. But that will be more than bad enough. This will happen and will, alongside the determination not only to not do anything against climate change but to positively make it worse, represent an unprecedented leap closer towards barbarism. The barbarism will be the barbarism we already live in writ large, but we don’t have to settle for that any more than we should be under any illusions about it. As I say, this will happen – unless it is stopped. And even the best case scenario is terrifying. And, in my opinion, even resistance will only work if:
- people become aware of the latent forces they are dealing with, and how they could – indeed seem certain to – react when challenged. And…
- get to grips with the fact that we’re not facing some alien aberration but the capitalist system itself, albeit in a particularly nasty mood.
The struggle needs to be bigger than just a struggle against Trump, especially if he is conceived of as a strange and unusual threat rather than as the worst (so far) of a bad system. And it needs to be ready, if it gets anywhere near a real challenge, to confront the true and full barbarism of capitalism in a corner.
The main danger is – as usual – one of complacency. I’m not talking about the kind of complacency being all-too-predictably shown by the mainstream media (which is using every strategy from simply pretending everything’s essentially normal to blaming ‘populism’ – by which they mean us – for cursing the political system with instability and eccentricity). I’m not talking about the kind of somnambulistic minimizing coming from the Democratic Party, which even as it makes hostile noises is still treating things as basically normal… except for all their increasing conspiracy-theorizing about Russia (and, by the way, what a great idea for defeating the Right! Re-embracing paranoid Russophobia redolent of anti-communist witchhunting, while blithely trusting the CIA!). Nor am I talking about the kind of complacency coming from the Right, who seem to be going for the kind of condescending tone usually adopted towards ‘hysterical’ women by doctors in 19th century fiction… though whether their soothing cooing noises are cynical or based on failing to understand their own new figurehead is open to debate, and probably has to be judged on a case-by-case basis. No, I’m talking about a more fundamental and more long-term danger faced even by the strongly anti-Trump Left: that of gearing up for things that probably aren’t going to happen tomorrow and consequently relaxing, only to be caught off-guard further down the line… or, even more dangerous, be caught off-guard by the line itself, by its slow arc.
Because we should realise now, as never before in recent years, that the slow arc of history goes nowhere towards justice… unless we shove it that way by force.