The following is a response to Stan Goff from D. Hamerquist.
Excerpt: "There is a general assumption that recognizing a fascist danger... automatically subordinates the struggle against the capitalist system to an anti-fascist alliance with a sector of it (Capital). This assumption has some roots. This is what happened with the ‘united’ and ‘popular’ fronts against fascism in the 30’s and 40’s and with various reincarnations of them more recently. It’s predictable that reformists and right wing communists will resurrect these failed positions as the proper response to Islamic radicalism and I understand why this makes leftists wary of an exaggerated emphasis on the fascist potentials in the current situation. I also understand why leftists would worry that this perspective might direct us away from solidarity with movements that are fighting against ‘our’ ruling class. This also has happened before.
However, without ignoring the dangers, our overriding responsibility is to think clearly, pay attention, and organize based on our best understanding of the truth, not on what we wish were true. Unfortunately, following this course means that the job will not look so easy and the road ahead won’t seem so straight."
I’d never heard of Stan Goff before a friend asked me what I thought of the article in question. Not that this is a virtue, however, it is a fact. It’s also a fact that I used the Goff article as a convenient platform to present some of my own ideas without giving sufficient attention to his. After reading his response and checking what I wrote, I accept some of his criticism. I should not have categorized and dismissed his politics based on this brief article. I probably did misstate and caricature his positions. I apologize for this. It is already hard to generate serious discussions in the U.S. left and my sloppy, possibly misdirected, polemical generalizations can only contribute additional obstacles.
In particular, I apologize for minimizing my area of agreement with Goff: I agree with him that the official arguments for the war – the supposed threats from wmd, links with Al Qaeda, etc. were bogus from the outset and were never seriously held by those responsible for the policy. I agree with his criticism of the way the left commonly uses “oil” as an underlying explanation:
“…the United States does not have to take oil from anyone. Every oil producing nation, including Iraq, has been perfectly willing to sell oil to the United States. It is cheaper to buy oil than it is to steal it with military action.”
Finally, I agree with the thrust of his position on what is to be done and, particularly on the “fetish of elections”.
However, there are disagreements. Although the collected works of Goff may
be important and relevant, I’m going to limit myself to the specific exchange at this time. Hopefully this will get us to points that are at issue, but I’m sure that again, I will be guilty of using his positions in order to bring out some ideas of my own.
The very title of Goff’s article… “There’s no There There, Debating a Neocon” implies that neocon politics are a void set. This is reinforced when, reflecting on his debate, he states more fully;
“That’s when it occurred to me, there’s no there there. These people have no arguments they can state…We don’t need the heavy artillery of superbly crafted argument to face them down…The simplest facts…can shoot these guys down like sparrows lined up on a fence.”
Contrary to what Goff maintains, the neocons have many arguments that they can and do state - along with a few that they usually don’t. Their publicly advanced positions on the aggressive use of military power -“preemption”; on “nation-building”; on the significance of “transnational threats” and “non-state actors”, have contributed to important changes in policies and priorities for the global and national ruling class. Of course, neocon positions are contested within the ruling class and they do not always win. William Kristol, a neocon stalwart, recently called for firing Rumsfeld, a pretty good sign that even Iraq policy might not be going the neocon’s way.
I don’t mean to exaggerate the importance of the neocons or overstate their cohesion. They certainly aren’t a disciplined monolithic bloc with a ‘line’. The neocons are a more or less open ruling class faction, unified around certain issues and approaches and still debating other questions. Some ideologues that I regard as neocons, like T. Friedman and Thomas Barnett, would almost certainly maintain that they are not. Various self described neocons may reject the views that I attribute to their camp. The important point is not who is, or is not identified as a neocons, it is to understand this relatively distinct pole in ruling class debate about global strategy.
The left shouldn’t be preoccupied with conflicts in the ruling class, not even this one, but neither should they dismiss them as irrelevant or irrational. Such debates help set the political context in which we operate and, as I mentioned in my earlier piece, they will inevitably find reflections in tendencies within the movement.
Goff doesn’t offer a serious treatment of this issue and implies strongly that none is necessary by ridiculing supposed neocon positions. Consider, for example the passing reference to the “delusional thinking of the islamophobic clique advising the current presidential mediocrity”. (If the references to “delusional” and “islamophobic” aren’t directed at the neocons, Feith, Bolton, Libby, Hadley et al, I’m really confused.)
Perhaps “islamophobic” might describe some neocons. (I sense that Goff feels it might apply to me as well.) However, the neocons, more than other ruling class tendencies, believe that the real danger to capitalist hegemony and power cannot be reduced to “political Islam”. Other ruling class factions match the neocons in their antipathy for “political Islam”, but are completely opposed to the current Iraq policy. It is easy to see this on a world scale – consider the attitudes of the ruling elites in France and Russia. It is apparent inside this country as well – and goes far beyond the America Firsters like Buchanan.
What’s “delusional” with these Islamophobes? I hope Goff isn’t accepting the liberal nonsense about the neocons’ underestimations of the difficulties in Iraq – the charge that they expected to be greeted as liberators and believed that this war would ‘pay for itself’. No matter what Perle, Wolfowitz, or Cheney said publicly, I don’t believe for a moment that they actually held such views. This situation is no different than with the fake issues of wmd threats or “links to terrorism” that Goff notes. The public arguments that the war would be “easy” and that the thing they call “freedom” would be a hot commodity in Arabia, were public relations gambits, as transparently fraudulent as the related public arguments for the “Iraq threat” and the “necessity” of the war.
The neocons were confronted with a problem. The strategic course they thought was essential promised to be costly and massively unpopular. So they built a case for it that had no necessary connection with the facts and the truth. Certainly they would be happier, if the war and occupation were going more smoothly, but we can expect that they will find ways to make use of the difficulties incurred in Iraq to expedite their general strategy. For them, Iraq is only a first step, an episode, a place to begin – and they have begun.
In my first response I cited fragments of Goff’s thesis about the nature and cause of the current Iraq war. The entire passage clarifies some additional issues:
“Present-day imperialism is a real system, and it is currently directed by the American state. The war in Iraq was probably the inevitable action of this state in response to the impending and inexorable erosion of the very basis of American global power. The war in Iraq, while deeply morally repugnant, is not a failure of morality, but the action of a system that can’t help it, because like the scorpion, it is that system’s nature.”
There is a lot to comment on here. Let me begin with, “present-day imperialism”. Global capitalism is certainly ‘real’, and it still involves the national oppression, national competition, and national privilege that are central to radical conceptions of imperialism. However, contemporary capitalism also involves increasingly important elements of international and transnational oppression and exploitation, not to mention the resistance to these. I question the emphasis on its continuity with what we have called imperialism. (This emphasis on continuity is clearer in other analyses than it is in the Goff piece; e.g., Achcar’s theses on the War in Iraq (ZNet). However, I interpret his dismissal of my “capitalist internationalism” and his invocation of capitalist “nature” as an indication that it is also his position.)
Let me spell out my argument in more detail, particularly since some of my language, e.g., “capitalist internationalism”, might be confused with the “ultra-imperialism” predicted by some reformist social democrats a century ago. Globalization is a dramatic transformation and expansion of capitalism, but it does not make it a more stable system. The social costs of capitalist production - its devastation of human potentials and natural resources - are magnified, and the inherent tendencies towards uneven and unequal ‘development’ are heightened. The growing problems of administering and enforcing the global capitalist system expose limitations in the existing political structures and inadequacies of some long-established institutional and ideological tools of domination. From the perspective of global capital its political superstructure is increasingly unwieldy and archaic; too costly, both politically and economically, and of doubtful effectiveness looking towards the future.
In the capitalist center new, probably more explicitly authoritarian, forms of class domination are needed to supplement, and in some cases supplant, the ‘class compact’; the parliamentarianism, social democratic trade unionism and institutionalized white supremacy that underlay a relative stability in a simpler day. In this new matrix the nebulous privilege of ‘security’ will have to replace more tangible and significant concessions.
Since the mid-seventies, the global ruling class has relied on neocolonial political structures and the capitalist world market to enforce equilibrium on the periphery. What order remains depends on discredited elites, kleptocracies, and so-called ‘failed states’ that rest uneasily on top of rapidly growing masses of economically and politically marginalized people. The straightforward imposition of market economics on the periphery requires an increasing external military force. The patchwork arrangements of cooptation and class accommodation that may still have some utility in the center are too costly to be applied there.
This all presents real dilemmas for capital. Despite the increasingly global character of the capitalist system and the transnational character of some of the challenges to it, military power is still largely exercised through nations, and capitalist hegemony rests on nationally specific institutions and processes. The issues facing capital, including the differences over the war in Iraq, expose the growing gulf between its needs and the means it has available to achieve them. As I argued in the first piece, the existing multistate frameworks (U.N. etc) as well as the institutional framework that maintained domestic tranquility are increasingly dysfunctional.
These contradictions within the ruling class are only superficially and (probably) temporarily expressed in conflicts between competing national elites and competing national capitalisms. The old imperialist conflicts have not disappeared, but they are not at the heart of the matter. What is central is the interplay between sharply different conceptions of how the global ruling class should rule and what kind of institutional framework and which policies are required. Differences here do not align with national borders.
Hopefully this explains why I would never say, as Goff does, that it (imperialism) “is currently directed by the American state”. We disagree about the nature of the “it”. There is another reason. I believe in the relative autonomy of the state, but this is a situation where, if anything it is the actions of the “American state” that have been determined; first, by the competition between different estimates and strategies in the global ruling class and; second, by the resistance the adopted policies evoke.
Clearly, then, I don’t think Iraq policy was, or is, “probably inevitable” or that the war is the “action of a system that can’t help it”…(because) “it is that system’s nature.” The “system’s nature”, not to mention both concrete history and current political and economic interests, could just as well have put the 300 billion bucks and 300,000 boots into Venezuela. It hasn’t, and there are reasons why it hasn’t.
Goff argues that the occupation of Iraq was intended to demonstrate “U.S. military invincibility” and its failure will demonstrate the opposite. There’s truth here, but nothing that makes the Iraq war “inevitable”. If the danger to capitalism was that its military power would loose the sheen of invincibility, why not demonstrate this power where victory would be easier and cheaper; think, Grenada, Panama, Kosovo? Indeed, as Goff notes, the very predictable problems of the Iraq venture expose the limits of U.S. military power and further weaken it.
Finally, consider the “impending and inexorable erosion of the very basis of American global power”. While I agree with Goff that capitalism is facing severe crises that impel it into risky actions, I’m as hesitant to accept his inexorabilities as I am his inevitabilities. The future depends on human action which in turn depends on organization and consciousness, on collective will. Human action, by the rulers and by the ruled, may be limited and shaped by objective conditions, but it is never completely determined by them.
In short, the War in Iraq was not “probably inevitable”. Instead, a particular ruling class view of specific conditions, a rational view in my estimation, concluded that it was desirable. This conclusion was not significantly influenced by considerations of the impact on the Halliburton bottom line, nor was it really designed to strengthen that “very basis of American global power” to which Goff refers.
The initial article maintained that, “These people (neocons) have no arguments they can state.” Goff challenged my assertion that he raises the point but fails to take it into account. He apparently thinks that the neocons’ unstated arguments concern the fact that the U.S.’s military, political, and economic interests and objectives in Iraq have little or nothing to do with democracy, freedom, wmd, terror threats, real or fabricated, etc. It’s true that in certain situations (like a campus debate with a communist?) neocons might find honest arguments about real class interests uncomfortable and awkward to make. However, they can be quite open and candid about them in other forums. I grant both that these points might not have been raised by his debate opponent and that he, Goff, did take them into account.
However, I had in mind a narrower argument that, I think, the neocons “can’t state”, one that Goff also didn’t state and may not accept. The fact is that neocon policies may well jeopardize economic and political stability in the metropolis. The neocons are willing to risk, not only popular living and working conditions in the imperial center, but also the relative power and influence of the specifically U.S. sections of capitalism. This is why it is so problematic to identify neocon strategy with a resurgence of U.S. imperialism. They would risk the “very basis of American global power” to protect and advance what they call “freedom”. There are not many audiences in this country that are receptive to this message, not even in the ruling class. (We might note numerous situations where metropolitan leftists and trade unionists are just as reluctant to deal openly with national privilege, preferring to look for approaches where solidarity and internationalism don’t involve political risks and economic costs.)
What perceived dangers lead the neocons to such a risk-laden course? I’m interested in their estimates and positions that relate to this question, not for their intrinsic importance, but to help delineate forces and processes that the left must understand to develop its own politics.
When I attempt to understand this feature of the neocon position, it leads to the question of fascism. In many ways, I think this is the central point and that it will turn out to be the core of whatever disagreements exist between Goff and me.
In his response to my first piece, Goff objects to, “..this notion of Islamic fascism”, saying …“It is shortcut thinking by an Orientalist western metropolitan left”…(that) “has to broaden any operational definition of ‘fascism’ into a dead sea of meanings…” In fact; “…this notion of Islamic fascism…(is a) kind of simplified moral imperialism that has tainted the metropolitan left”.
Before getting to the “shortcut thinking” and the “taint” on the left, let’s look at the issue as it confronts the ruling class. Does a significant sector of the ruling class see “political Islam” as a real danger or is it a proxy for something else, possibly an inter-imperialist challenge? Is this purported danger a smokescreen behind which to advance other ruling class objectives – maybe an end run cutting off China’s future energy supplies, or a general attack on living and working conditions in the ‘homeland’? Then, if political Islam is actually regarded as a threat, is the challenge a fundamental one or a minor and temporary problem - perhaps a new manifestation of pan-Arab nationalism that can be handled as other nationalist movements have been? In short, when ruling class factions picture Islamist movements as a global threat and when they are called “fascist” by one or another of them, should this to be taken seriously or should it be discounted as a mixture of public relations propaganda and self delusion? Further, if the notion of a ‘fascist’ danger is advanced seriously, just what is it about Islamic radicalism that is seen as fascist?
I believe that all factions of the global ruling class and almost every national state see salafi jihadism, particularly its takfiri strand, as the current ‘main danger’. If the capitalist ruling class sees jihadism as the major current challenge to its overall hegemony, this is certainly a significant fact. Jihadism is far from the only possible candidate for this role. The class struggle; national liberation movements; emerging potential rivals like China; ‘rogue states’; ‘chaos’, ‘warlordism’, all might also be considered.
I think there is clear evidence of a consensus on this point, although it is one that has been reached quite recently. This consensus is embodied in the general ruling class acceptance of the so-called ‘war on terror’. Notwithstanding the fact that many of its elements might eventually have a broader usefulness, the political/military core of the war on terror is capitalism’s basic response to the jihadist threat.
The ruling class approach to jihadism includes points on which there is general agreement - specifically the magnitude and immediacy of the danger - and points where there are significant continuing differences. Such differences include, for example, the extent to which the threat is a military one, susceptible to a military/police response. It’s also not agreed whether the phenomenon is an atavistic “pre-modern” resistance to development that is unlikely to survive evolutionary changes in conditions, or an outgrowth of current contradictions …as ‘modern as the cell phone’. Finally, the balance between responding to the jihadi threat and maintaining stability in the ‘homeland’ is a matter of continuing debate.
Not that they completely agree among themselves, but the neocons have answers to these questions that shed light on why they advocated using military force in Iraq (and not only Iraq) and why they more and more frequently define the enemy as fascist. (As do nitwits like Ann Coulter,which somewhat shakes my confidence in my position.)
Before going to the substance of the issue of fascism, some stipulations may avoid unnecessary arguments. Since fascism emerged, the ruling class has regularly used it to demonize its opponent of the moment. (In this they are not so different from the left which also uses fascism and fascist as synonyms for ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’.) In recent times, from Nassar through Khomeni, Khaddafi, Noreiga, Aidid, and Milosevich, to Saddam, the official line frequently describes the leader of the enemy du jour as “like Hitler”, and the enemy regime as “like Nazi Germany”.
It’s also true that the jihadi movement was substantially a creation of the global ruling class. The Muslim Brotherhood, the source of many jihadist tendencies was a counter to Nassar’s semi-socialist secular pan-Arabism. The Afghan mujahadeen, progenitors of al Qaeda, were recruited and supplied by the CIA to give the Soviets ‘their own Vietnam’. The Taliban was sponsored by the Pakistani security services, a close CIA adjunct, to stabilize Afghanistan. Israel promoted Hamas as a counterweight to the radical secular elements in the Palestinian movement. Parts of the jihadi movement are undoubtedly still penetrated and may actually be “black operations” of various security agencies, notwithstanding all the bleating about those agencies’ alleged lack of ‘human intelligence’ resources.
This underscores the fact that from time to time the capitalist ruling class has constructed its own fascist movements. The Cointelpro documents contain examples in this country and similar cases in Italy are well known. Typically, state sponsored fascism was used to launch extra-legal attacks on the left culminating in death squad activities, but another, more political, function was also involved and is increasingly important in my opinion.
For fifty years, the official doctrines of “asymmetric” and “low intensity” war have included the use of “pseudo gangs” to define opposition movements in ways that undermine and discredit them with their potential base. The tactic was initially directed against radical popular anti-imperialist movements, but it has been used in the state penetration of both communist and fascist groups in this country and is more than likely being used with the jihadists in the Middle East as well. Note the cartoonishly and conveniently ‘evil’ Zarqawi group. What an advantage to have an enemy that issues manifestos promoting its own caricature: an enemy so counterproductively “fascist” in its tactics and targets: an enemy that regularly supports the official U.S. propaganda line - remember the ‘we are losing’ plea of the alleged Zarqawi message to Osama last year: an enemy that disrupts popular anti-occupation unity when it begins to emerge, as in the initial Falluja situation where there was significant Shia support for a largely Sunni insurgency.
Clearly, all of these issues have some relevance to the nature of the jihadi movement as well as to the character of the war in Iraq. However, I think that the crucial features of the jihadi movement are not determined by its origins or by its manipulation, but by the social conditions within which it functions. Whether or not it is conceived as a form of fascism, this movement is a threat to established power more than it is an alternative form of it.
The radical transnational Islamic movements are based geographically and politically in the ‘gaps’ in global capitalist system. The most important of these movements are popular - I would say in spite of their authoritarian clandestine structure and reactionary social program rather than because of them. They have a political trajectory that increasingly challenges the rules and norms of global capitalism. The neocons, and some other ruling class factions as well, see this as a movement that could overthrow both compradorial regimes in Saudi Arabia and Jordan and rotten neocolonial state structures in Egypt and Algeria. They see movements that might gain control of vital resources, intending, not just to redivide the profits, but to withdraw the resources from the global capitalist system. Finally, they see movements capable of moving beyond the Middle East to northern Africa, and Asia, and, through emigration, to Europe.
This is a multi-sided danger to the global capitalist system. It includes a threat to withdraw women’s labor, a source of massive profits, from the global labor force. It involves a rejection of consumerism, self-indulgent individualism and similar elements of the bourgeois worldview and lifestyle. It threatens to link political rebelliousness with the massive underground economies that flourish at the margins of the capitalist system.
For the neocons, the war in Iraq was one response to this perceived danger. Iraq was a place where they hoped to begin a counteroffensive, challenging the jihadists militarily while attempting to change some of the political and social conditions that provide them a popular base and operating room. Undoubtedly things have not gone exactly as they might have hoped, but can anyone seriously argue that they are not accomplishing some of what they intended?
More and more frequently, neocons characterize the jihadi challenge as a new form of fascism. This analysis may not carry the day in the ruling class and even if it does, its full implementation will be constrained by the narrowing objective limits on capitalist flexibility, just as is the case for the alternatives to it. The invocation of a fascist danger is more than a political and propaganda tactic to disorient left oppositions, although some neocons certainly understand that ruling class ‘anti fascism’ poses problems for leftists that have yet to come to grips with the strategic dilemmas of WWII and the united fronts against fascism. However, the possible disruption of the domestic left is just a minor side benefit – at least for the time being. There are bigger fish to fry.
Of course, beyond the issue of what this or that ruling class faction thinks, the validity of their analysis and their estimates is what is important. Are they right? Specifically, if the neocons are right to locate a real danger in the jihadi movement, are they also right to see it as an emerging fascist threat to capitalism? I think that they are, Goff apparently does not. This brings us back to the “operational definition of fascism”.
There’s no doubt that the left applies the term fascism widely and loosely. There is no doubt that this is a problem. My initial response to Goff shared in the problem. It was too casual and superficial on this question. In the first place, I didn’t clarify my own conception of fascism even though it is not self evident. In fact, it is definitely a minority view in the left. In the second place, I can hardly criticize Goff for using the categories of imperialism and anti-imperialism without adequate regard for changed historical conditions, and then do something similar with fascism. I will attempt to present the issues more carefully here.
Fascism emerged in a particular historical context – the combination of the very sharp, but localized, capitalist crises following WWI. with the shock of the Bolshevik revolution. At the time, most revolutionaries felt that the final stage of capitalist development had been reached. The emergence of fascism was seen as a manifestation of, as well as evidence for, capital’s terminal crisis. The left believed that the world revolution had only been temporarily sidetracked and that, whatever the limitations of the USSR, the momentum would quickly return, especially when popular anti-imperialist insurgencies among the “Peoples of the East” merged with the international class struggle.
The concepts and analysis of a left that viewed capitalism as “moribund” a century ago must be employed with serious reservations on every issue. This is certainly true when the issue is fascism. From its beginning, fascism eluded the popular left understanding of it. The various movements and states that were (and still are) lumped together as fascist had obvious differences with each other. It was always questionable to use the same label for anti-imperialist Peronism in Argentina, clerical reaction in Spain, and National Socialism in Germany.
To further complicate things, German fascism, the usual archetype, contained contradictory elements indicated by its name, National Socialism. To this day, very different conceptions of German fascism compete depending on whether it is defined by its nationalist-corporative or its anti-bourgeois/anti international capitalist elements. In my opinion, the left analysis of the past, possibly excepting Reich and the early Guerin, always underestimated the significance of the popular ‘socialist’ elements contained in the so-called “Third Position” tendency in German fascism. The advocates of a “second socialist revolution” might have been crushed by Hitler at the time but their influence was substantial and continues to the present day. (These elements were much less significant in Italy and, even less so in Spain.)
The problem goes beyond the faulty estimates and inadequate terminology of previous generations of revolutionaries. Not only have we lived nearly another century within a supposedly terminal capitalism, we have also lived through the implosion of the supposed anti capitalist alternative, the “World Socialist System”, not to mention the neocolonial/neoliberal containment of the anti-imperialist upsurge of the “Peoples’s of the East”. The political terrain is drastically changed. Rather than a decrepit and frail capitalism confronted by an increasingly strong and determined international working class movement, we have a triumphant global capitalist system that, at least on the surface, has demonstrated the capacity to defeat or absorb its main challengers.
In 1922, Klara Zetkin described fascism as the price the working class had to pay for the failure of the social revolution. The price paid would be commensurate with the magnitude of the failure. For Zetkin, the failures probably appeared to be limited and local, the defeats of the revolutionary upsurges in Germany and Italy after WWI. –setbacks that she almost certainly thought were temporary - so the price would be limited. It’s likely she would have felt that failure on the scale that we have experienced it was quite out of the question.
However, what Zetkin said then is even more applicable now. Fascism still grows out of a dual crisis, a crisis of the capitalist order and a crisis of the movements against that order. Our political reality is dominated by two shaken faiths and two failed gods. First, there is the faith that capitalism is the necessary structure of modern progress - that allowing everyone to ‘Be All They Can Be’ will lead to the “end of history”. It isn’t selling well in much of the world. Second, unfortunately there is another commodity that isn’t selling - the faith that a fundamental emancipatory alternative to capitalism is both necessary and possible and, indeed, is already well under construction. Capitalism will pay a price for the first failure. We will be paying for the second and the reemergence of fascism will be a part of the price in each case.
We had better expect a fascism that won’t fit in the old definitions. It will be a neo-fascism growing from social conditions that are different from those that existed when fascism originally appeared. It will be a neo-fascism that incorporates a critique of the corporative tendency that was important in early fascism, particularly its Italian and Spanish variants. Most important, it will be a neo-fascism that grows out of and is decisively marked by the social consequences of the contemporary failures of liberatory revolutionary movements.
If the conditions now are so markedly different from when fascism originally developed, why continue to use a term that will necessarily be confusing? I could be convinced to make this change, but only if there was an alternative language that signified one important truth, a truth that the term fascism brings into focus…there are three players on the stage. The struggle won’t reduce to the simple ‘two classes’ dualism, the workers versus the bosses, labor versus capital; good versus evil. The black and white world that so many very different left politics hunger for is not going to happen.
The concept of a three sided struggle has the potential to introduce a dose of reality into simplistic complacent left thinking. Recognizing the existence of a reactionary, but radical and ‘modern’, opposition to global capitalism, an opposition that competes with us on ‘our’ ground and for ‘our’ base, can be an antidote to the “imbecilic optimism” which Gramsci warned against. At least it can be, when it is also understood that of the three sides, it is our side, the radical left, that is the least defined and the most poorly organized.
Clearly, if the conventional notion of fascism as a reactionary form or policy of capitalism is the point of reference, my position amounts to so much nonsense,. So let me begin a definition of neo-fascism by tossing some common left notions about fascism into the “Dead Sea of Meaning”. If Goff wants to fish them out, he may try.
As I said earlier, neo-fascism cannot be reduced to an optional form of the rule of capital. It is not just a tool, a ‘hammer against the working class’. It is not, and fascism never was, just the ‘…dictatorship of the most reactionary section of capital’ or any other version of the old Third International formula.
Neo-fascism is most definitely repressive, but so is capitalism. Neo-fascism is neither the logical end point nor the goal of capitalist repression.
Neo-fascist ideology is not necessarily based on racial or ethnic supremacy, on “blood”, although I know of no instance where it does not involve male supremacy.
Neo-fascism is not a “white privilege”. No nationality, race, or ethnicity is innoculated against it.
Neo-fascism is not conservative and not “pre-modern”, no matter what utopian descriptions of a mythologized past, Roman Empire or Islamic Kaliphate, are incorporated in its ideology.
Contemporary neo-fascism involves two elements. First there is a rapidly expanding social base This base is composed of the declassed and marginalized, a huge population, particularly in the ‘gap’, that has been permanently devalued – defined as non-productive and rendered redundant - by capitalist development. This is a feature of contemporary global capitalism. It is not the same as earlier capitalist enforced displacements of rural populations or petty bourgeois elements into the working classes. This is a post-proletariat, demoralized and demobilized by the failures of anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movements, alienated from capital and anti-capital as well. It is a social layer that for a variety of economic, social, and military reasons, is commonly deeply segregated by gender.
The second element is the assortment of reactionary groups, with no necessary connection to each other, that more or less consciously try to organize this social base against the established structure of power, a structure which they see as corrupt, decadent and fundamentally wrong. These groups have no shortage of cracked messiahs and thugs, not to mention opportunists, but it is a big mistake to focus on these element at the expense of considering the operative ideas and values, particularly those involved in the critique of western capitalist ‘civilization’. (For an example of this critique focused on the opposition between “Atlantism” and “EurAsianism” look at national Bolshevik, Alexander Dugin’s essay on the “New World Order” on the Arctogaia website.)
From the classic fascist worldview neo-fascism takes the emphasis on hierarchy, order, discipline and sacrifice as contrasted with creativity, autonomy and fulfillment. Neo-fascism is anti-universalist. Its social vision is anti-humanist, legitimating the forceful subordination of majorities to minorities - of “low cultures” to “high cultures. The subordinated majorities are ‘untermenshen’, not fully human, a lesser status that is sometimes expressed as being ‘feminine’, rather than ‘masculine’. The alleged superiority of the privileged group may be defined in different ways, by gender as above, by religion, ‘culture’, as well as by the more familiar race, nation, and ethnicity. This all opens possibilities for competing neo-fascisms, complicating the overall challenge to global capitalism, not to mention confusing the hell out of the left.
Currently, Islamic radicalism is the most advanced outpost of neo-fascist politics in the organizational sense. This is where an animating ideology links with a mass base at a weak spot in the global capitalist structure. However, the overall jihadist ideology, combining religious reaction with neo-fascist themes, is not the clearest ideological expression of neo-fascism, even in the Middle East. In Syria, there are communist fragments which have adopted an explicitly National Bolshevik orientation. More important, in a trend that has been evident since the Iranian revolt against the Shah and can certainly be seen in the Palestinian conflict, the radical elements of national liberation movements are moving away from democratic and secular politics in this direction. Break offs from collapsing neocolonial structures, perhaps including some of the mysterious “Baathist Dead-enders”, also have the potential of embracing neo-fascism.
We must assess whether these organizing thrusts and ideological tendencies are likely to continue on a fascist trajectory in the Middle East, perhaps merging, and whether they have the potential to coalesce a popular bloc, a mass fascist movement. The assessment has to begin with a real appreciation of what already exists in the area. When multiple suicide bombers are mobilized every day for weeks…months…years, something significant is happening. When an insurgent movement operates with impunity in urban terrain, lacking its Sierra Madre or equivalent liberated zone, and it does this against an overwhelmingly superior military force, it means something about its popular base. When a movement can cripple the infrastructure that a population depends on for months or years, it must have support, a sea in which to swim. Give me a break about pro-Saddam Sunni sentiment; Give me a break about sectarian fanaticism; Give me a break about generic nationalist resistance to occupation; these exist, but they don’t explain this level of struggle, generated this rapidly, persisting for this amount of time; surviving against such overwhelming military force.
So what will be the eventual outcome? Let’s consider three basic possibilities which are not necessarily completely exclusive. First, Islamic radicalism might stay confined within an apocalyptic irrational religious shell which cannot deliver any basic changes for its constituency in this world and probably cannot achieve anything looking like a conclusive military victory. Second, Islamic radicalism may polarize into a new pro-capitalist authoritarianism and a popular anti-imperialist/anti capitalist anti-occupation movement. Finally, Islamic radicalism might lead to an organized explicitly neo-fascist movement.
The first option would lead to a gradual weakening of the substantive challenges to global capitalist power, but without resolving any of the social issues that have created the base for the movement. If it happens, the social base will inevitably find some other form of political expression unless the more sanguine of the neo-cons are correct and this area of ‘gap’ can develop ‘connectivity’ with the ‘core’. Of course, that would mean that I, and presumably Goff also, are wrong in seeing this potentially intractable base as a necessary consequence of capitalist ‘development’ - as being constantly regenerated.
This leads to the second option which contains the perspective – or should I say the hope – of most of the left. There may be a polarization, but it is unlikely that it will look like this, a division into poles which are each known and, I must say, known as failures, by both the social base of the movement and by the factions contending for its leadership.
There already are pro-capitalist authoritarianisms of every conceivable type. The problems with their viability have led to the current situation. Replacing the House of Saud with the House of bin Laden will not change much. Nor would the Allawi, Chalabi, or Jaafari options be substantially different from that of Saddam. The other side of the polarization is equally problematic. A successful polarization to the left must result in something new. This can’t be based on politics that have led to disaster in Lebanon, Iran, Yemen, and, prepare for it, Palestine. This leads to the last option. Remember, we are not talking about our preferences here, the issue is not what we would like the most, it is what we think is likely. Which do you think is most likely?
There are many neo-fascist organizing ventures that are more ideological, if less successful, than the Islamist groups. Some of them, particularly those of the National Bolshevik’ inclination also don’t define themselves as ‘fascists’. When Dugin is asked, “Are you a fascist?”, his answer is, “…not exactly, which means exactly not.” They see their politics as having transcended both fascism and bolshevism, merging the fascist ‘Third Position’ and ‘communism’ of the Stalin variant. Again, I don’t point this out because I like it, but because the potential for this sort of insurgent reactionary fascist movement extends far beyond any variant of religious fundamentalism. The real danger is that the “Islam” will become less significant in this movement and the ‘fascism’ more so. Isn’t it more likely that the polarization in the Middle East will take this path, not the convenient division into a comfortable ‘us’ and a comfortable ‘them’?
One final point: There is a general assumption that recognizing a fascist danger more or less automatically subordinates the struggle against the capitalist system to an anti-fascist alliance with a sector of it. This assumption has some roots. This is what happened with the ‘united’ and ‘popular’ fronts against fascism in the 30’s and 40’s and with various reincarnations of them more recently. It’s predictable that reformists and right wing communists will resurrect these failed positions as the proper response to Islamic radicalism and I understand why this makes leftists wary of an exaggerated emphasis on the fascist potentials in the current situation. I also understand why leftists would worry that this perspective might direct us away from solidarity with movements that are fighting against ‘our’ ruling class. This also has happened before.
However, without ignoring the dangers, our overriding responsibility is to think clearly, pay attention, and organize based on our best understanding of the truth, not on what we wish were true. Unfortunately, following this course means that the job will not look so easy and the road ahead won’t seem so straight.