There will be a new episode of IDSG along later today. In the meantime, here is a substantially re-edited and rewritten/updated section of something I wrote and originally published for supporters only at my Patreon. As it happens, the subjects discussed below have a fair bit of relevance to the main topic to today’s forthcoming new IDSG.
On 31st May 2020, President Donald Trump tweeted:
“The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organisation.”
The statement is meaningless in real terms. As has been widely remarked, ‘ANTIFA’ (even Trump’s use of all-caps is telling of where he’s getting his ‘information’) is not an organisation at all. It is not a group of people who do things; it is a way of doing a certain thing, namely: opposing fascism. To be specific: it is a strategy of direct action for confronting fascists, fascism, or things deemed liable to incite or encourage the growth of fascism. It is a diffuse, rhizomatic, leaderless cloud of people; connected not by membership or hierarchy but by shared goals and tactics – and even that very broadly. Nor, as has also been widely remarked, does Trump – or indeed ‘The United States of America’ (whatever he might mean by that) – have the ability to ‘designate’ (whatever he might mean by that) anybody or anything ‘a Terrorist Organisation’. (…though Attorney General William Barr subsequently indicated that Trump’s threat – which he has made before – might be implemented in some form. Since this was originally written, mysterious hybrids of ICE and the DHS have started their Orwellian black-bagging of protestors. The lack of clarity and formal legal powers was never going to be a problem. Indeed, the mutation of nebulous reaction and state gangsterism into intensely codified and punctilious legality, with liberals and centrists always taken by surprise, is a fascistic hallmark.)
The tweet is pure Trump in that it reeks of truculent political illiteracy, barely concealed sadism, paranoid terror, adolescent performative swagger, and a kind of egomania that can fairly be called Hitlerian since Hitler also messianically equated himself and his emotions with his entire nation. What is remarkable, as ever, is how little it matters. Because, as detached from reality as Trump’s statement may be, it nonetheless serves a very real, tangible political function and gives every appearance of being well crafted to be effective and dangerous. And it manages this, as so often with Trump’s addresses, by being aimed far above the heads of the establishment and the professional pundits. It not being aimed at them, their rebuttals also fail to connect with anything or anyone. It is also characteristic of Trump that he manages to be an incredibly skilled politician via the unexpectedly effective tactic of being an irrational ignoramus. Gibberish though it is, the tweet sends a very definite political message out into the ether where anybody and everybody can hear it and react to it as they choose – and of course Trump knows the kinds of people who will choose to react to it in a certain way, even if they only absorb it with, and as nothing more than, a shrug. One of the characteristics of Trumpism as a fascistic event is the circular mutual radicalisation of Trump’s base and the fascistic trend in government.
The ultimate Facebook grandpa, Trump has stumbled bassackwards (via the simple expedient of being staggeringly rich and even more staggeringly stupid, and making a bid for attention and his own show on Fox at the historical moment when the ‘long depression’ was so undermining capitalism and the legitimacy and efficiency of neoliberal government that ‘creeping fascism’ began to appear) into the ultimate Facebook grampa dream: he can spend all day watching Fox News, tweet angrily about the stuff he saw that made him angry, and huge numbers of people will a) listen, b) click Like, and c) sometimes go out and Do Something about it. The Something that they do takes many forms, one of them being the ‘stochastic terrorism’ of the resurgent far-right (though I don’t suggest that all of them are Trump loyalists, or that Trump’s twitter witterings are all that motivates them – far from it.) Indeed, these days the actual fascists of the former ‘alt-right’ are generally disillusioned with Trump, he having failed to deliver the Day of the Rope (as they lovingly call the day after they win the race war and proceed to murder all the remaining black people, gay people, left-wingers, etc) a couple of weeks after his inauguration.
The point is that Trump knows full well what he is doing when he tweets things like this, or like “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. He is signalling to the troops on the ground – be they cops or national guard or less official groups – in the middle of the protests that they can attack, shoot, beat, maim, arrest, and kill with impunity, as long as the people they do it to are the Enemy. This may not actually be true – I daresay a few officers will find that they do not actually have presidentially-approved blanket impunity from any consequences at all – but it’ll be too late by then. And the rebellion will have been crushed. That’s the plan, anyway. And Trump will enjoy immunity, of course. He will be criticised. He will be repeatedly owned on Twitter by clever liberals. He will be repeatedly excoriated in clever articles. But he will, at the end, suffer no consequences. He never has so far! Indeed, the consequences for him have always been liberating and exciting, in that the radicalisation he engenders comes back to him in the form of permission.
Trump may or may not technically be a fascist depending on your definition (personally I would distinguish between ‘fascism’ and ‘the fascistic’) but he is certainly hoping to make this rebellion (initially against the police murder of George Floyd) – and everything else it stands for, from the catalogue of police killings of African Americans through to the fact that coronavirus is only the latest curse that hits Black America ten times harder than it hits White America – into his Reichstag Fire moment. He does not of course know anything about the Reichstag Fire (he reportedly kept a book of Hitler’s speeches next to his bed but almost certainly didn’t get through it) but he knows instinctively that he needs one.
And here we start to hear the siren song of the liberal centrist who warns that by opposing fascism with ‘violence’ and ‘left authoritarianism’ and ‘attacks on free speech for all’, the antifascist actually helps the fascists! “When you think you’re punching nazis you don’t realise you’re also punching your cause,” we’re informed by Trevor Noah, who described Antifa as “vegan ISIS” (which, like so much of the bilge we get from Noah and those like him, is joke shaped but lacks the internal connections to actually qualify as a joke). He speaks for many. (Though, of course, when we say of Noah and people like him that “he speaks” we actually mean his team of writers.) Far better than barracking them and ‘attacking’ them in the street, far better than shutting them down when they march or organise, far better than protesting when they or their favourite intellectuals are invited to speak on campuses or high-listenership podcasts, we should rather let fascists speak and engage them in reasoned debate, sunlight being the best disinfectant and all that. It might be easy to be seduced by this if one lacked any understanding of what fascism is, or any knowledge of its history. Sadly, lack of understanding of politics or knowledge of history are quintessential traits – one might even say mandatory qualifications – of the species known as the mainstream pundit or opinioneer. Bill Maher claimed victory after inviting Milo Yiannopolous on his show and flattering him in front of millions of viewers, whereas it was actually activists unearthing not-terribly well-hidden dirt on Milo that ended his ascent to respectability in polite reactionary society, and the slow and grinding work of years by antifascists – protesting, haranguing, barracking him everywhere he went – that eventually wore him down to the point where he now scrapes a living working for Alex Jones.
It’s worth being very clear about the stakes here: damaged by the catastrophic way he has ‘handled’ the Covid-19 pandemic, Trump is almost certainly going to attempt to run his campaign for reelection based on scaremongering about, and authoritarian response to, Antifa and Black Lives Matter, which he will confect into hallucinogenic threats to the freedom and security of the nation. The fundamental basis of this strategy is, of course, the widespread authoritarianism and racism (always mixed with other forms of bigotry) that prevail in many sectors of US society, especially among those who constitute Trump’s base of existing or potential support. We’re talking about nothing less than the mestastacizing of Trumpism into an actual fascist government project (as opposed to a fascistic one… which is bad enough), based on the acceleration of Trumpism’s inherent fascistic strain in response to an outbreak of revolt from below. We’re already literally seeing it happen on the streets. Nobody should deny that there are heavy lines of continuity between Trumpism and ‘normal’ American politics, that it emerges from and grows within a deeply racist and authoritarian ‘mainstream’. But fascism always does. The point to emphaszie at this moment of intense danger is the rupture. Trump is also poised to deny the result of the 2020 US general election if it goes against him. We are looking directly at the imminent arrival of the worst case scenario.
It’s also worth being very clear about the fact that the irruption of struggle from below is what is catalysing this acceleration. But this is not to reprove the struggle from below. On the contrary. It is, or should be, a call to intensify it and align behind it, so that it can continue. Because it is not only good in itself, despite its blowback from the system, it is also the only force that can stop the ‘creeping fascism’ of which Trumpism is the political spearhead within the tottering and mutating neoliberal capitalist state. It is now too late to stop and turn back. Doing so would not stop the growth of the reaction, any more than the defeats of the waves of strikes and occupations in Italy stopped the arrival of Mussolini, or the defeat of the German revolution stopped the coming of Hitler. On the contrary, these defeats emboldened fascism and Nazism in their bid to reconstitute the capitalist national state to be proof against the internal contradictions which put it in danger from crisis and revolt.
If the protests accelerate, any movements, organisations, slogans, etc, invented and used by the protestors will be seized upon by the reaction, demonized and used to spready the paranoia and authoritarian yearning that legitimises the fascist response. As I say, Trump and Trumpism are already doing this with Antifa and BLM, and will continue to do so. But they will do the same thing, emboldened, probably more strongly, if the protests ebb. And they will be helped at every state by the respectable, sensible, mainstream lefties and liberals and centrists. Because such people find movements from below as threatening as Trump does – precisely because, despite being movements against racial injustice, these are manifestly working class movements from below. The fact that the fascistic strain within the ruling class and those aligned with it will ruthlessly shut down the liberal/centrist strain if given a chance does not mean that the liberal/centrist strain will turn away from a class alliance with fascism, right up to the point of its own destruction. They will see Antifa, BLM, and even the Sandersnistas, as a greater threat, right up until fascism comes up behind them and shoots them in the head. This does not, of course, mean that alliances shouldn’t be sought and forged where they can be. On the contrary. The politics that rejects such alliances is equally suicidal and, for all the supposed purity of revolutionary class politics supposedly motivating it, actually derives from a fetishisation of electoralism and reformism. Alliances must be made across the left. But a lot of the people who ought to be ready to join in an anti-fascist united front – at least going by what they say – are not, because they see the cure as worse than the disease, or equivalent.
The real problem with Antifa as far as respectable, sensible, mainstream lefties and liberals and centrists are concerned is not that they oppose fascism in the wrong way, but that they actively oppose it at all. I don’t mean that such people are secretly pro-fascist. They’re not, though they are objectively pro lots of things that are far from inimical to fascism, being supporters of a system with more in common with fascism than it has against it. No, I mean that they are anti-fascist but only because it is a threat to them and the system they represent and benefit from. In the 30s, Orwell warned the left that “you have got to drive away the mealy-mouthed Liberal who wants foreign Fascism destroyed in order that he may go on drawing his dividends peacefully – the type of humbug who passes resolutions “against Fascism and Communism”, i.e. against rats and rat-poison.” Depressingly little has changed.
The values such people claim to hold dear are expressions of their class position and interests, hence the ease with which they compromise or jettison them routinely when that same system (and their class interests) require it. Moreover, they oppose Antifa for pretty much exactly the same reason they oppose fascism: it represents politics being grabbed by grubby hands, usurped from the hegemony of its proper stewards in the professional political and media classes, i.e. them. This is why, to them, fascism and socialism look like cousin varieties of the same problem, namely: the wrong people, out and about, making nuisances of themselves, interfering in matters that are outside their proper province.
There was much talk after Trump’s election of a revenge by the ‘left behind of neoliberalism’. This proved to be false. In actual fact, Trump’s base is not to be found among the ravaged working classes or unemployed, the ‘left behind’ of neoliberalism, but among the US’s extensive, relatively prosperous, but squeezed middle layer. The average Trump voter is white and college-educated, fairly well-off but subject to all sorts of pressures. Trumpism fails to map directly onto classical fascism in all sorts of ways, but in this it corresponds quite closely, albeit with inevitable distinctions. Trumpism is powered, to an extent, by ‘economic anxiety’, but it is not, by and large, the ‘economic anxiety’ of the worker or the poor, but rather of the petty bourgeoisie who survived ‘08 scathed and never fully crawled out from under it, the prosperous white collar guy who sees his mortgage and insurance and energy bills getting steeper and his savings worth less, and the great layer of functionaries who serve the state in the capacity of enforcers, i.e. the police. Trumpism, like classical fascism (albeit with inevitable differences that some try to use as gotchas to disprove the validity of any comparisons to fascism), is based in the “human dust” of the middle classes, as Trotsky called them. Neither of the working class nor of the ruling class, separated from the great mass of workers by relative prosperity and prestige but far below the ever-more-distant pinnacle of wealth, and frequently fucked-over by establishment politicians, even as their vote is endlessly courted with rhetoric about values. Despite all the claims to break with the discredited politics of the past, Trumpism just pulled over another version of the old ‘values’ trick, disguising itself by going brazenly for the kind of openly racist talk that the establishment abandoned (at least in public) decades ago. All those guys with ‘Blue Lives Matter’ stickers and Punisher decals on their cars were captivated by Trump’s Mexican rapists, the Caravan, and the “not people… animals” of MS-13, just as others before them have been captivated by welfare queens and superpredators and godless teachers preaching the heresy of evolution and contraception.
But here again, we need to be very clear: the animating principle of Trumpism and its social base, and thus of the nascent mass movement sector of American fascism, is authoritarian racism. in this it is a symptom of the fact that US capitalism is based upon the racism which animated settler-colonialism, slavery and imperialism, and which thus organises US capitalism as a deep logic. And, at the moment, the animating principle of the protest movements is anti-racism or, to be more precise, a widespread rejection of that deep logic and the status quo it props up by the victims. The right-wing attempts to paint the entire movement as an emanation of Antifa, with Antifa as mainly white middle-class college kids, is a direct attempt to delegitimate the movement not only in itself but as a bottom-up movement for racial social justice by those oppressed by systemic and state racism. The “anti-antifa is just fa” joke actually gets at a very important point: for a lot of people, especially those in those middle layers who fetishize the ‘normal’ (the ‘normal’ being, of course, the baseline authoritarian racism and racial injustice of US capitalism), their fascist politics will be constituted of being anti-antifa, and thus will they arrive back at fa. Just as ‘All Lives Matter’ is a racist statement because of its context, so opposition to Antifa (opposition that is, not criticism) is now, in meaning and effect, fascism. And every time the media, or the sensible liberal centrists who are so concerned about free speech, demonize protest by painting it as dangerous authoritarianism, they are thus greasing the slide of the democracy they claim to love down into the pit.
Because all this is happening in the context of a larger-scale process that has been called ‘creeping fascism’. Contrary to myth, neoliberal capitalism has never been about ‘rolling back the frontiers of the state’ in areas other than welfare spending or infrastructure investment. It has always been punitive, carceral and imperialistic. You need the militarised police and the prisons (often privatised) to cope with the social problems that explode once you withdraw social spending. Neoliberalism has always been evolving more and more authoritarian methods of government, including sinister methods of monitoring the movements – physical and virtual – of individuals. But recently, neoliberal ‘democracies’ have been embracing fascistic forms of politics and leadership. For all the continuity that exists between the new form and the old (and Trump is far more like Obama and Clinton than he is different) this is definitely a rupture, not only quantitative but qualitative. Trump is not only worse than what has gone before; he is essentially different. He may or may not be ‘a fascist’ (there comes a point where such technical definitions become shackles rather than tools) but he and the politics he represents are, almost without doubt, ‘fascistic’. Categories are excellent servants and terrible masters. This is a qualitative change that may be partly a result of the slow quantitative build-up of state authoritarianism, and is definitely related to the cultural changes that neoliberalism has wrought on societies where it reigns, whether deliberately in its capacity as a deliberate counter-revolution or blindly via the way it has eroded social bonds and the economic security of millions. At a deep level, the current creeping fascism and the neoliberalism which gave birth to it are both political symptoms of the longstanding economic stagnation and decline of capitalism’s ability to sustain profit levels, a ‘stagcline’ that has accelerated since 2008’s crash.
At the same time, the corporate media is more hegemonic (concentrated and centralised) than ever and is spawning more and more demagogic right-wingers with recognisably fascistic rhetoric who are suffered to dwell within the ‘mainstream’, albeit mostly at the edges. This has been happening for a while now, but seems to flowering now, especially in the person of Tucker Carlson (whose head writer Blake Neff was recently found to frequent racist online forums and spout open racism). Carlson is admired by far-right types for a good reason; much of what he says is straightforwardly fascistic – in both content and style – to anyone who knows the ideological markers and ticks of fascism. Fox News may be the rightmost edge of the ‘mainstream’ but it is mainstream, despite its attempts to position itself as a brave outlier up against a left-wing media establishment. Carlson’s quantum leap from standard right-Republicanism to outright fascistic rhetoric is probably a spearhead rather than an endpoint. This sort of ideological drift always has an open field on the right. Fox tends to be pulled rightward by its most successful rightmost voices. Fox has had a rightward-pulling effect on the rest of the US ‘mainstream’ media. And Fox, in the person of Carlson, is trying to outbid a burgeoning right-wing media ecosystem which now includes a groundswell of fascist and fascistic media coming from below via free platforms like YouTube, which is a cesspool of fascistic opinions. So we’re seeing the ideological production system of today’s crisis-ridden neoliberalism being pushed in a fascistic direction by the rising propaganda of an embryonic fascistic mass-movement.
This is not the place to go into this in detail, but it is worth noting that the coronavirus pandemic is likely to speed up the process. Not only have many governments already introduced authoritarian measures for dealing with it (with even the arguably necessary ones worrying in the irresponsible hands of our current rulers), but it has sparked arguably the most catastrophic economic crash in the history of capitalism. The Great Recession of 2008 began an era of slump which Marxist economist Michael Roberts has dubbed the ‘Long Depression’. ‘Creeping fascism’ must be seen in the context of this ‘long depression’. The economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic is orders of magnitude worse than the crash of ‘08 and, in the absence of radical government policies which seem unlikely to materialise, is likely to lead to an even worse and more sustained ‘long depression’. All the political crises ultimately spawned by the ‘long depression’ since ‘08 – crises of legitimacy and deadlock for democratic governments, ‘creeping fascism’, the rise of the radical right, the carnival of reaction that is Brexit, the ascendancy of Trump, the rise of other such fascistic (as distinct from just authoritarian or right-wing) leaders like Modi and Bolsonaro, the ‘post-truth’ phenomenon – are likely to continue, and to be intensified globally, by the post-corona slump into which we’re headed. In tandem with the onrushing climate catastrophe, the corona slump is only likely to accelerate both the rise of fascist movements and the authoritarian, quasi-fascistic drift of the mainstream and the establishment.
Just as everyone is in favour of ‘legitimate protest’ (though definitions are thin on the ground and, in practice, very little protest seems to actually be legitimate), so nobody is pro-fascism. At least, nobody admits to it (often not even the fascists). People like sharing that fake Churchill quote about how “the fascists of tomorrow will declare themselves anti-fascists”, seemingly not noticing that it cuts both ways. Whoever actually did say that was kind of right, in that so many of today’s fascists would declare themselves non-fascists and anti-fascists, absolutely opposed to fascism, frequently slandered with comparisons to fascists by the left who – in their desire to silence those who bravely speak the un-PC untruths the world needs to hear – are themselves the real fascists. In fascists, this sort of reasoning is often simply conscious dishonesty, or a kind of self-justified triangulation in the name of higher truths and aims. But the basic thinking isn’t confined to fascists… which is why they use it: it resonates. And, as with racism considered by so many white people, the thinking seems to run thus: Fascism is bad; I’m a good person; ergo I can’t be a fascist. Job done. The fascism that ‘everyone’ is against is the notional, nebulous, contentless, ahistorical, depoliticised, aesthetic fascism which is just mean people who want to tell you what to do. It’s the fascism of Darth Vader and Voldemort. Rowling has, of course, denounced the fascism of both left and right.
In practice, the ‘tolerance’ of the centre turns out to look like this, time and again. This kind of thinking is terrifyingly widespread, not least precisely because it is relentlessly promoted by the capitalist culture industries. We have reached a point where so many people are so politically uneducated and disoriented, as a result of decades of neoliberal cultural counter-revolution (against the high-points of political knowledge, theorising and struggle in the West in the 1960s), that we find people tweeting things about how nice it would be if we could all – communists, fascists, Jews – just agree to tolerate each other and march together with our banners – hammer and sickle, swastika, Star of David – side by side, and all respect each others points of view and right to speak. This looks like tolerance – at least if you don’t actually look at it or think about it. It’s actually a betrayal of the people the fascists want to destroy, a de facto refusal to tolerate them because they commit the unpardonable sin of causing strife through their lack of enthusiasm for being killed. It is also, in practice, an invitation to fascism to rise and keep rising. This is, objectively, a kind of alliance with fascism. History shows us that it is an alliance which happens again and again where fascism rises. It doesn’t get less serious or less enabling. It gets more so. It has been a vital part of fascism’s ascendancy, where it did ascend. This is where equating fascism with all dissent gets you. This is where equating tolerance with goodness gets you.
This is why the mainstream has such an issue with Antifa and active, ‘violent’ antifascism generally. It is not that the people who are prepared to cheerlead for, or tolerate, or try to gradually phase out the manifold horrors of capitalism – poverty, inequality, imperialist war, environmental devastation – are so moral that the sight of violence offends their moist eyes and pristine consciences. The problem is that they are seeing the legitimacy of the monopoly on violence – and more broadly on activity, on power – by the establishment, the capitalist state, challenged from below by ordinary people. That the people in question tend to come from somewhere on the radical left – from revolutionary socialists and communists and wobblies to anarchists and syndicalists – is both to be expected (because the left generally understand fascism and the threat it poses better) and also a further reason for the mainstream to hate and fear them when they see them. Of course, to such people, it looks like “fascism of the left or right” because, to them, their perception buttressed and promulgated by a hundred movies and books and newspaper articles, fascism reduces down to a contextless and depoliticised and ahistorical sort of organised ‘intolerance’; it is the enemy of liberalism and liberalism is the only hope for democracy and fairness; and it rises from below as a sort of excrescence of the ill-educated, its fundamental cause to be found in unchallenged irrationality. Of course it seems to these people like the proper way to deal with it is to endlessly debate it – platforming it all the while – so that it can be disproved and discredited. That way, it goes away because, far from being an emanation of the capitalist system in crisis and deadlock, it is a sort of atavism of the idiotic, people who just need liberal democracy to set them straight. When they see the left, organised and armed, out there fighting the fascists, they see another problem, something in the way of the debate, a barrier between them and both the ideological triumph of liberalism and the monopolistic legitimacy of the liberal state. They see a mass of the great unwashed, brawling, shouting equally threatening slogans at each other. They see politics drained of all content. They see pure form. Ugly form. And they want it cleaned up. And, of course, when they issue the inevitable conclusions from these thought processes for the umpteenth time, and get slapped down by antifascists who’ve heard it all before and know it amounts to fiddling while Rome burns, endlessly reciting that Martin Niemoller poem (with the sympathetic reference to communists decorously censored) while the nazis take your neighbour away, they’re infuriated at being told that they’re not helping, and they interpret the criticism from one tribe of people in black as authoritarianism, a threat to their free speech – this being, of course, the ultimate concern of the middle class writer or intellectual, after they’ve consumed endless reassurances that the main problem with political tyranny is how it impacts on the editorial freedom of middle class writers and intellectuals.
The problem is that this highly convenient morass of ideological confusion not only allows for but promotes the same agenda Trump is now consciously cultivating as a winning strategy. And, more deeply, it both reflects and enables the deep process of which trump is but the symptom, abeit perhaps a decisive one, the process whereby capitalism is attempting to salvage itself by mutating from neoliberalism into a kindred new form of fascism.
Gramsci said that fascism triumphed in Italy because the socialists disdained the spontaneous movements. So my message to socialists would be: don’t disdain the spontaneous movements. Align behind them. No spuriously pure class politics must hinder this. This is the class flexing its latent power.