Jun 15, 2014

Reading "The Solstice" -- Kasama on right-wing mass movements

Rightist mass movements around the globe have made several dramatic advances recently. In India, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a massive victory in the April-May 2014 national election. (The country's new prime minister is Narendra Modi, who as chief minister of Gujarat state oversaw the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, in which well-organized Hindu nationalist mobs murdered some 2,000 Muslims, often with police collusion.) In the May 2014 European parliamentary elections, right-wing populist parties made big gains in Britain, France, Denmark, and Austria. In Thailand, months of right-wing demonstrations against the elected liberal populist government succeeded in sparking a military coup. In Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a group that has been repudiated by al-Qaeda as being too extreme, conquered much of the country's northwestern region, including Mosul, Iraq's second largest city. And let's not forget Ukraine, where far rightists have been playing key roles on both sides of a bitter and growing conflict.

Protesters on motorcycles in Bangkok, 1 December 2013CC BY-SA 2.0
All of this makes it an opportune moment to read "The Solstice: On the Rise of the Right-Wing Mass Movements." This essay by "NPC" was published in February on the Maoist website KasamaProject.org in three installments [and now available in one document on the website Ultra]. I don't agree with all of "Solstice," but it offers a lot of useful information and an innovative analysis that can help leftists take a fresh look at the right. In this blog post I will outline some of the essay's main points and offer a few critical comments.

In her/his overview discussion, NPC highlights the tendency of far right movements to combine rightist and leftist political themes:
"The new right-wing has become skilled at consuming and incorporating the most useful components of the last few decades' dead left-wing movements--many of these far-right groups actually clothe themselves in the aesthetics, theory and, to a limited extent, the practice, of autonomy, decolonization, and anarchism....

"Bratstvo [in Ukraine] are Christian orthodox national anarchists, CasaPound [in Italy] founds squatted social centers and fights the police to defend them, Santi Asoke [in Thailand] runs autonomous rural communes, has a national network of co-operatives and talks of ‘decolonization' in much the same way as west-coast anarchists here in the US. All of these groups portray themselves as ‘neither' left nor right, or ‘beyond' left and right. Meanwhile, their post-left, post-Marxist aesthetic and post-colonial intellectual treatises act as a veil covering a fundamentally far-right ideology and deeply conservative political practice. Similarly, all invoke a mythic ‘community' to be found in tradition and regained through moral discipline, accompanied by the absolute destruction of all who oppose this ‘mystical unity,' whatever form it might take" (Part 3).
I agree that this dynamic is important, and that when you combine leftist and rightist politics, the result is right-wing. But this really isn't new -- fascists have been parasitizing leftist politics from the beginning, a point that would have strengthened NPC's argument. Also, it's too simple to see the incorporation of leftist political themes as a veil or an aesthetic maneuver. It also embodies genuine changes in the far right, such as the shift by many rightists from advocating highly centralized nation-states to advocating various decentralized forms of authoritarianism and ethnic exclusivism.

The essay's central case study is Thailand, whose right-wing mass movement, NPC argues, is "in many ways far more advanced than those of Ukraine or Italy" (Part 3):
"Thailand is... one of the few places where national-anarchist and effectively third positionist far-right organizations have had significant time to build up a social base, obtaining limited backing from the monarchy, historical backing from the US military, and intellectual justification from the country's ‘radical' intelligentsia. Some of these organizations, such as the Buddhist Santi Asoke group, are authentically anti-capitalist, utilizing leftist language and tactics, promoting autonomous self-governance and the rejection of international financial institutions like the IMF, all within the framework of a socially conservative, ethnically nationalist and neo-feudal political-economic program. Many of these groups draw their leadership from both the far-right paramilitaries of the 1970s as well as leftist NGOs, which often include demobilized Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) cadre. They thus represent not only the combination of leftist political imagery with a rightist core, but also the limited fusion of Thailand's left-wing and right-wing histories, with the latter subsuming the former." (Part 1)
NPC interweaves this analysis with a detailed historical explanation of the recent "increasingly violent anti-democracy protests...in Bangkok, led by the Peoples' Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), whose Thai name more accurately translates to the ‘People's Committee for Absolute Democracy with the King as Head of State'" (Part One). "Solstice" traces the complex shifting of political and class forces in Thailand over the past two decades that brought this movement into being. This includes the rise of the left-populist Thai Rak Thai party, spearheaded by telecommunications mogul Thaksin Shinawatra, who advocated "a revitalized Keynesian development model for the country, investing in schools, basic transportation and agricultural infrastructure, as well as instituting a universal public healthcare system" and loaning money to villages to encourage small business formation (Part 2). Thaksin was overthrown in a 2006 military coup, but his supporters regrouped as the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), known as the Red Shirts, which brought together liberal capitalists aiming to regain political power and popular forces struggling for social justice. Opposing them were the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), or Yellow Shirts, who supported the 2006 coup and were the precursors of the recent right-wing protestors.

I know little about Thailand, so I can't assess the specifics very well, but I found this section especially interesting and informative. For example, there's a whole discussion of how some 1970s Marxists turned to a kind of cultural nationalism that glorifies traditional Thai village culture, which they see as the site of resistance to western consumerism and global neoliberalism. It's an agrarian myth that is most popular among upscale city dwellers. The parallels with western fascist politics are striking. (For a different leftist discussion of Thailand, see Louis Proyect's "What's Going on in Thailand?" and the useful comments on it by Michael Karadjis and others. Proyect's article fills in many of the reasons why the anti-Thaksin movement has attracted real popular support, but doesn't substantively call NPC's analysis into question.)

After presenting the Thai case study, NPC uses it to develop an analytic model of how such far-right movements relate to other political forces. The model is based on Alain Badiou's discussion of "three types of subjectivity: faithful, reactionary and obscure" relative to a political "event" that opens the prospect of revolutionary change. (All quotes from Part 3.) The terminology here is a bit cumbersome, but bear with me:
  • The faithful subject equals "organized bodies that seek to preserve, consolidate, develop and extend the communist potentials embedded within the mass movement itself." In plain terms, the radical left. In Thailand "in 2010 and its aftermath, the forces in and around Red Siam most visibly played the role of the faithful subject."
  • The reactionary subject "attempts to deny and foreclose the eventual opening, to suffocate its communist potential and to ‘return to normal,' which really means the forcible implementation of capitalist discipline... Normally the role of reaction is filled by the state, the police, the military, etc." (Part 3). Politically, this can include forces ranging from hardline conservative to social democrat. In Thailand, this role has been played by the right wing of the Red Shirt movement, under the leadership of Yingluck Shinawatra (wife of Thaksin Shinawatra), who was Thailand's prime minister from 2011 until the 2014 coup.
  • The obscure subject "occults" the event "through the generation of a mystical, ahistorical unity that dissolves the present into the mythic image of some lost, prelapsarian past." (Part 3) In other words, rightist forces that divert popular unrest into false solutions -- specifically, in Thailand, "the anti-democracy protestors, and the right-wing populism they are a part of, [including] fundamentalist sects such as Santi Asoke and Pitak Siam."
This is in fact a kind of three-way-fight analysis. Like this blog, NPC treats far right forces as an autonomous player that may be "in violent opposition" to both the left and the established power structure:
"In the terms established above,... we have to recognize that the anti-democracy protestors are not simply ‘the party of order' [i.e. the reactionary subject] contra the ‘party of anarchy' [the faithful subject]. In fact, the ‘party of order,' represented here by Yingluck and the liberal-democratic capitalist factions she represents, sees the obscure subject as itself fundamentally ‘terrorist,' and very much a part of what it perceives to be ‘the party of anarchy.' There is some truth to this, as the obscure subject does not, at least initially, have to take a state form -- it can be earnestly anti-state, especially when it affirms a religious order against a secular one. In traditional liberal fashion, the party of order mushes together the far-right and the far-left until they appear to be nothing but a vague, terrorist ‘totalitarianism' evacuated of all sense or reason" (Part 3).
But NPC's conception of this autonomous far right is more rigid than ThreeWayFight's. For one thing, NPC is confident that if or when the far right comes to power, it will behave in a predictable way:
"[T]he obscure subject can be thought of as simply the ‘anti-party,' imagining itself ‘beyond left and right'.... When in power, the anti-party can generate nothing but warlordism or a dry technocracy gilded in religion, war and spectacle. Its mode of rule is, by necessity, military and religious, though even its state forms can be administered in a quasi-stateless fashion at the lowest levels through a combination of indoctrination, self-organization and mercenary force wielded by local gentry" (Part 3).
I appreciate NPC's point that the far right doesn't necessarily rely on a traditional strong state to enforce order, but may instead rule through warlordism or "in a quasi-stateless fashion." This is consistent with the rise of decentralist politics on the far right, from the U.S. paramilitary right's leaderless resistance to the newer doctrines of national anarchism and autonomous nationalism. But I think we should be cautious about thinking we know how far rightists will behave in power. Leftists have made this mistake repeatedly and have suffered for it. In particular, we should not underestimate the far right's capacity to remake society in radical ways. Witness German Nazism, which brought settler-colonialism into the heart of Europe and created a horrific new system of industrial slave labor.

A related point is that we need to go beyond old school left ideas about fascism,  which are represented in the concluding section of "Solstice" by a quote from Marc Saxer:
"Against the vertigo of change, fascism promises to restore unity and order. The ‘disease of plurality" must be healed by uniformity. ‘The Other' outside and inside must be ‘rooted out' to heal the societal body.

"Contrasting the ‘decay' of the present against an imagined golden past, fascist movements aim to turn back the wheel of history. The fascist utopia is basically the anti-thesis to the modern, pluralist and capitalist society. Fascism seeks to overcome the divisions of a fragmented society and the noise of a pluralist culture by melting all differences into a homogeneous, ‘people's community'" (Part 3).
Yes and no. Fascism has always been about creating a "new order" as much as restoring a mythical past -- it represents a different conception of modernity, not a rejection of modernity in total. That's part of its appeal. And today the most dynamic fascist currents, notably those influenced by the European New Right, don't attack pluralism but embrace it, and say that they are defending cultural diversity against the oppressive effects of a homogenizing global economy and "totalitarian humanism." This isn't just a smokescreen -- it's a substantive reworking of fascist ideology that we need to understand and confront.

Thankfully, the concluding section of "Solstice" does in fact go beyond old ideas, warning that we need to be prepared for "the frightening possibility of a directly politicized, far-right populism of a different form than we might expect" -- for example, one with "a techie-leftist branding," support from the infotech section of the ruling class, and "targeted expansions of quasi-socialist welfare programs in particular ‘creative class' urban enclaves. This would entail some degree of fusion with US progressivism, particularly the leftovers of the anti-globalization era (the ‘99ers,' many of whom went on to become the right-wing of Occupy), now distributed across NGOs, universities, municipal governments and union bureaucracies" (Part 3).

NPC concedes that this specific scenario is "highly speculative," but argues that in one version or another, "such seemingly ‘left-right' syntheses are not only possible, but probable." "And these syntheses will not necessarily arise from the ‘usual suspects.' Any reactionary movement with real purchase in the US will not be based, like the Tea Party, among the predominantly conservative white Baby Boomers, [but rather] much closer to home, very much sharing its social base with any potential communist movement" (Part 3).

While I wouldn't discount the "real purchase" of movements based among conservative white Baby Boomers (given that white evangelical Protestants alone number in the tens of millions), I agree that we could easily face right-wing populist movements with a very different demographic.

As far as I can tell, "Solstice" has elicited little discussion among leftists so far. This is disappointing. It's a serious effort to grapple with important political developments in a new way. More and more, right-wing movements are not going to fit leftist preconceptions. We ignore this at our peril.