It is a truism about our moment is that we are living in an age of black swans, of chaos, of the failure of polls and predictors. And yet, while consenses and expectations fail left, right and centre, it feels strangely scripted no matter what eventually plays out. (Over and over we find that the left is positioned as responsible for liberal defeats, but never victories; betraying the oppressed is written predictably into all dominant politics; yesterday’s monsters are rehabilitated with a dull consistency, etc.) In a previous essay (which I could not have written without conversations and ideas from Rad Shiba), I explored the myths sustaining such scripts, and rooted them in the fantasy of time travel: that is, that all went awry at some historical instant, and that the cause of this is exogenous and so it remains possible to return to a prior, good state. Although the historical content of nostalgia is diverse, this core fantasy is maintained by the Keynesian left, the liberal centre, the conspiracist fringes and the fascist petit-bourgeoisie alike.
So, in the moment when history explodes back onto the scene, a profound lethargy also overwhelms us. It is no longer possible to retain Francis Fukuyama’s distinctively 90s claim that history is finished, but still this does not feel like a living moment, rich with contested possibilities. That is because every proposed alternative, even those proposed by progressives, is suffused with the rhetoric of a conservative return. The fantasy of return is often not even that earnest, and certainly lacks the vitality of a positive vision, backed by genuine agency. Whether for a New New Deal, or a quasi-religious prelapsarian ethno-state, or a 90s reset, we are mired by zombie politics, shambling and shuffling and limping on, stinking of layers of rot, animated by a mindless hunger.
The threat of zombies is not the threat of the unexpected, enigmatic, and uncertain (as with Gothic monsters like Ghosts and Vampires), but of the relentless obscenity of a wholly expected death, the slow onset and (worse) acceptance of decay. There is nothing surprising about the rote responses online or off (although it is tragic), or the double-standards increasingly applied the further away someone is from the gravitational well that remains the far right. Unless something new and living emerges, we will be plunged into that worst myth, an incestuous one of purity and power. That is because the myth propagated by fascism is the most effective, most dazzling of the deceptions on offer, comfortingly backwards for any who cannot imagine a way forward.
I made few online comments during the election. But I did a quick tweet thread summing up my views on what felt most meaningful behind the prognostications. ‘As someone who considers left Keynesianism an enormous compromise, and loathes Biden et al., I honestly don’t hold him more responsible for this (currently seems a narrow defeat / victory) than I did Corbyn in the UK. The crisis of bourgeois democracy is greater that any election. Although, I do think the cravenness of liberals reveals a politics the apparent depthless emptiness of which requires a Trump, someone who can exceed that abyssal void of meaning and history and therefore obscure it. Again, we live in a period of banal obscenity. Socialists should look to workers everywhere who suffer and die to sustain a system in terminal crisis. And to the oppressed whose scapegoating serves as a spectacle of distraction. We should know that those who make this world can, mindful of their power, unmake it.’ I stand by those words; especially the last sentence.
Empty rhetoric is just that, however. And while good diagnoses might come from a slither of the far left that sees in this slow unfolding crisis the contradictions of capital, the organizations of socialism remain obstinately, pitifully ineffectual. I said in my essay on myth that the real enemy of the far right is not the left, but an establishment liberalism that retains a powerful hold over society’s key institutions, and while some sections of the left attribute Biden’s victory to anything other than the forces he commands, that would be an error. Liberalism has no way through the crisis, but it presently remains a more robust tradition than socialism. That might (I hope) change, but for it to change philosophy must meet practice, an understanding of the crisis must join with the mass will for a new society. Grouplets and third-way social democrats will never break through. Online propaganda outfits might bind us together, but little more. I am playing a small role alongside comrades in answering the organisational problem, but the challenge needs more attention.
While liberalism has proven tenacious, it would be wrong to imagine away continuities between a Biden and Trump presidency (both are signed-up to America’s Great Power Competition, both ran campaigns heavy on nationalist xenophobia, both have records of buttressing racism domestically and imperialism abroad). The removal of Trump is good, but does not even provide a breather to socialists or that amorphous and vague umbrella ‘the left’. If we were blessed with an improbably combative Biden seeking to reverse Trump’s influence, especially in the Supreme Court, even then Trump’s fascist street militias, his process of gleichschaltung (whereby the institutions of liberal democracy are eroded by fascist infiltration, a term used by the German Nazis) have still embedded Trumpism into American (and world) politics. Such a combative Biden is unlikely anyway, as he has consistently talked the shallow language of compromise and unity. This is in fact why the Republican establishment is so quick to abandon Trump, rather than backing his (ongoing) efforts to steal the election. Control over the Judiciary and (they hope) the Senate, as well as increased power in the House, and less culpability for the unfolding catastrophe of US power, serves them. And none of that looks much beyond the borders of the US, where powerful forces of reaction are tightening their holds.
To understand how dire the situation remains, we must appreciate how it came to be. In Neil Faulkner, Samir Dathi, Phil Hearse and Seema Syeda’s co-authored Creeping Fascism, the reactionary wave of the far right was surveyed and its slow-burn nature explained by fascism’s dialectical relationship with the ‘threat’ of socialism. Fascism here is understood, through a Marxist lens, as the response capitalist class society offers up to counteract emerging discontent. In the interwar period, that discontent spawned mass movements of workers united by liberatory philosophies, and fascism cut its teeth in combat (often victoriously) with unions, communists, the then emerging forces of the oppressed and so on. (It is little known, but amongst the books prominently burned by Nazis included early medical research into helping transgender people; the same battles recycle over and over.) Such movements and forces are either disconnected or weak today (after a temporary fightback in the 70s), and so mass discontent has been answered by a fascism that was, initially, less focused on street violence and more on eroding the liberal content of conservative parties from within, pushing them further and further to the extreme right.
Insightfully, Jack Graham, co-host with Daniel Harper of a podcast tracking US fascism, I Don’t Speak German, has linked creeping fascism with the work of Marxian economist Michael Roberts (in particular his well-researched and data-heavy The Long Depression). The thesis is that the slow nature of the capitalist crisis under neoliberalism, underscored by low and falling profitability since the 70s and the collapse of left Keynesian solutions, has shaped the nature of fascism (along notably similar lines to that described by Faulkner et al). If fascism is a capitalist response to a crisis, then a protracted crisis results in a protracted process of fascist takeover, a march through the institutions rather than (at least at first) the streets. This fits well with any informed understanding of how socialism came to be in the weakened state Creeping Fascism describes. As Sai Englert has pointed out in his essay Notes on Organization ‘both the organisational forms adopted by the vanguardist and social democratic left no longer correspond to the structural realities we face.’ That is, these organisations consigned themselves to irrelevance by the strategies adopted, and circumstances imposed on them, during the long defeat of neoliberalism.
Just as the counterrevolution of Stalinism, the capitulation of Marxists elsewhere to third way Keynesianism, meant that much of the radical left abandoned any deep critique of capitalism as a set of social relations, the defeat of those projects by neoliberalism (projects that shared much, despite being adversarial) meant a left that was both institutionally smashed and emptied of ideas. It is a great tragedy of history that it was this left that remained, entrenched in tiny organisations with esoteric beliefs and a teacherly attitude to workers. It was on their shoulders the opportunities of the 2008 crash would fall. It was ultimately a group of eccentric celebrities (Slavoj Žižek, Noam Chomsky, Paul Krugman, Richard D. Wolff, etc.) who too often would become the left’s loadstars. All of whom had and have serious limits to the radical depth of their ideas. Out of that, a culture of online microcelebrity and journalist gurus has emerged on new media platforms and YouTube, often built atop the failure projects of Sanders, Corbyn, et al, and with little breadth of thought and no accountability to social movements. I do not say any of this to be harsh; the problem is not with particular people, the majority of whom act in good faith and in response to the realities that define them. There has been a great collective failure.
With the apparent defeat of Trump, many will be tempted to speculate that we have seen the high-water mark of the reactionary wave. They will point, persuasively, to this and other coming defeats of reactionaries, to single issue polling and the internal play of party politics. Certainly, Trump’s hateful cult will lose some of its softer contingents. All of that ignores the material reasons for the rise of the far right: the root, the ongoing-crisis of capital, which will not abate (global capitalism faces a profitability crisis and the metabolic rift, it has no solutions). The centre is clearly not defeated (not yet), but the writing is on the wall as their solutions will not even serve to distract for long. That is also true of the Keynesian left, who have neither honestly grappled with the historic failure of their ideas, nor command the social forces we have just seen mustered by Biden. Fascism now reimagines the liberals into the structural role ‘normally’ preserved for the left, dubbing centre-right imperialists like Biden as Marxists, anarchists, etc. This is an additional sign of the weakness of the left, that it is the memory of our power that animates the right, not our real forces.
My point here is not to be fatalistic, but just as it is not determinism to posit that if someone jumps of a cliff edge they will fall, it is not defeatism to indicate that we are losing badly. Biden (and the class forces he represents) will necessarily repeat the mistakes that produced Trump. They cannot both sustain capitalist production (a sine qua non for them) and resolve the tensions in American pseudo-democracy. Even allowing that some third way social democrat could capture a party such as the democrats (an approach that has now failed in Greece, Britain, the US and elsewhere) the ideas of this part of the left are proven to be dead ends. But times are different to when Obama first lost to Trump. Workers and the oppressed have shown deep wellsprings of imaginative anger; in the BLM movement in particular (it is so often the Black working class who take seriously history’s burdens), but less prominently in initial Covid-19 community responses, in the incredible fightback of trans people, in struggles of the exploited everywhere from China to Brazil. This, and only this, offers a way out.
A way out of what? Climate change is merely the most extreme manifestation of a metabolic rift (mass extinction and coronavirus are others), which capitalism must worsen. The capitalist solutions to it (from the solutions of liberals to Keynesian Green New Dealism) include geoengineering and imperialist extractivism, which will only worsen that rift or create other social contradictions (in less abstract terms, with mass death and misery). Moreover, we exist in dangerously alienated times, when our common humanity has been eroded by a separation of unproductive and productive labour that maps consistently to the old imperialist counties and everywhere else respectively. Exacerbated by a communications technology that, while in itself potentially liberating, has been shaped by the needs of a capitalism that encourages increasingly dangerous rent-seeking. Forms of addiction and social atomization have created dystopian societies, failures of social solidarity and endemic mental health crises, further fueling the emergence of fascism by pulling more people to an ideology that speaks to the lonely, the defeated, the empty.
In this context, with Biden in the presidency, many fair-weather friends of recent efforts to overcome our calamity are quite possibly about to recklessly abandon the cause. Such is the relish for a return to normalcy, one defined by a blithe indifference to our approaching and shared calamity, that they will embrace a blissful ignorance in the face of universal death. Many who do not take that path render themselves useless nonetheless, as they seek the lazy comfort of cults of inaction, invoking Marx in their love of refighting historic battles and sectarian squabbles over the ruins of history. No less than liberalism, this is also the march of the undead. The question, then: who remains amongst the living? Who can keep fighting? Who refuses to accept this miserable end?