Oct 23, 2018

New Stuff from an Old Guy - Part 1

By Don Hamerquist

Editor's Introduction

Don Hamerquist is a longtime contributor to Three Way Fight and co-author of Confronting Fascism: Discussion Documents for a Militant Movement (first published 2002) [cite], which helped to inspire creation of Three Way Fight in the first place.

In this essay, Hamerquist addresses the conflict between transnational capitalism and populist nationalist movements, conceptions of fascism, and some pitfalls facing the radical left. The essay is divided into three parts.

Part 1 argues that the transnational section of the capitalist ruling class is looking for a new basis of stability. Transnational capitalism is still recovering from the 2008 economic crisis and faces widespread populist oppositional movements (left-wing and right-wing), which are fueled by neoliberalism’s massive increases in inequality and other problems. In this context, restabilization requires transnational capitalists to seek a “renewed foundation of mass legitimacy and popular acquiescence.”

Part 2 critiques various leftist responses to the current situation. In particular, Hamerquist criticizes a widespread leftist tendency to see fascism, right-wing populist movements, and capitalist interests as all aligned together. Often this implies a division of capital into “good” and “bad” sectors (or “authoritarian” versus “democratic”). He argues instead that transnational capitalists are “strategically hostile” to both left-wing and right-wing populisms, that all of capitalism (including its more liberal elements) tends toward repression, and that fascism is best understood as “an array of emerging reactionary anti-capitalisms” – a right-wing revolutionary tendency that is real but distinct from “reformist” right-wing populisms.

Part 3 argues that transnational capitalists are manipulating anti-fascism to help them build a new mass legitimacy. Hamerquist posits a new popular front that conflates right-wing nationalist populist movements with fascism, and that corrals leftists into supporting capitalism in the name of defending “democracy.” If leftists go along with this and fail to offer a radical anti-capitalist response to the real grievances that are fueling populism, they will help restabilize transnational capitalism and may help push right-wing populist movements into genuinely fascist politics.

Three Way Fight hopes that the essay will contribute to constructive discussion and debate about these important issues. Part 1 of the essay is below. The essay is continued in Part 2 and Part 3.

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Part One
… Yanis Varoufakis, former Greek finance minister and co-founder of the DiEM25 democratic movement, laments the triumph of a Nationalist International – at least stressing that they “sprang out of the cesspool of financialized capitalism.”

-- Pepe Escobar, “The West Against The Rest or The West Against Itself?” 9/18/18
Two things appear to be certain. First, at least in the so-called “West” – North America, the European Union and Australia – there is an emerging conflict between emerging populist nationalisms and the economic processes and political institutions that comprise the transnational capitalist system. Second, this transnational system is limping towards another tipping point after an incomplete and distorted recovery from the 2008-2009 global financial crisis.

The combination of these prospects leaves left/liberals and “progressives” stuck between nostalgic visions of a “New New Deal” and an implicit support for a tidied up global status quo. Radicals must do better.

I want to look a bit deeper into the contradictions between globalized capitalism and the populisms of the left and right that are both its effects and its flawed challenges. In the process I indicate a potential scenario for capitalist stabilization that, I’m afraid, is more probability than possibility. This will lead to criticisms of various “common sense” left strategic approaches and will include some aspects of an alternative approach.

*                   *                   *

Anti-austerity protesters facing riot police,
Brussels, 3/24/2011
The lack of a mass anti-capitalist response to the 2008 global financial crisis has reduced the obstacles to the gradual and distorted recovery of capitalist economic activity. Globally, “recovery” has meant neoliberalism – a more broadly generalized austerity and the increasing privatization of social resources and collective goods. It is a recovery defined by massive increases in economic and social inequality; a recovery that deliberately avoids the issues of capital’s “externalities”: the looming ecological crises and the genocidal implications of the marginalization and increasing precarity of major populations.

For the moment, U.S. capitalism works within a relatively benign economic context, despite its continuing dependence on Ponzi financial manipulations and an expanded militarization that has yet to be balanced out by the economic and political costs of a major war. This context is time-limited. Growing problems from frictions in capital and labor flows, from trade and investment imbalances, and from the gamut of corruptions that rot inside the complexities of rent-seeking financialization are on the horizon.

The transnational segment of the global ruling class is certainly more aware of the fragilities of global capitalism than less strategically placed sectors of the class – more aware of the need to put the capitalist house in order, limiting the potentials for new crises and widespread disruptions. This ruling elite recognizes the need for stronger transnational state and quasi-state formations with a global vision of ruling class interests and the capacity to discipline competitive elements of capital to a coherent strategic perspective. The point is made in this recent (7/18/18) report from the “International Panel on Social Progress”:
Interestingly, the Panel sensed that “globalization and the spiral of inequality and corporate political power have triggered a growing legitimacy crisis in old and new democracies, undermining the nation-state as the basis for democracy and welfare policy.” It sees transnational private actors and international financial institutions as new players in the global governance system.

It also doubts that the present international financial system based on “flexible exchange rates and footloose capital mobility, low barriers to trade and high barriers to low-skilled migration” can be sustained into the future.

-- Review comment on International Panel on Social Progress Report, Naked Capitalism Links (8/15/18)
However each tentative step towards stronger transnational governance encounters powerful and diverse segments of capital with material interests in thwarting the process. Beyond the direct resistance from the dynamics of the pursuit of private profit, capitalist nation states that see themselves as actually (or even potentially) losing in global competition typically oppose such transnational projects.

Perhaps more important, is the likely opposition from the more or less spontaneous, more or less popular, countervailing movements that are reacting to the current impacts of transnational capital. They include both struggles against austerity that are fueled by the increasingly obvious linkages and contrasts between austerity and corruption, and challenges to the lack of representative legitimacy and accountability. There will be no support here for efforts to streamline and strengthen transnational governance in the interests of elites that are already benefiting grotesquely from capitalist globalization.

Even if capital’s general ideological hegemony continues to be more or less unchallenged, this array of social forces against globalization ensures that technocratic adjustments and minor reforms won’t be enough to produce more effective structures of governance for transnational capital. To reach that objective, the institutional changes and new structures must be accompanied by a renewed foundation of mass legitimacy and popular acquiescence. This objective, if it is even possible, is certainly not easily attained – not even in the core territories of capital. However, without an expanded legitimacy, transnational capitalism will increasingly be forced to prioritize command over consent, and an extended period of “flailing and churning” in which no protracted social equilibrium will be possible is the likely outcome for the transnational capitalist system.

Is there any capitalist adaptive scenario that can address this dilemma for capital and improve the possibilities for an extended period of transnational capitalist stability? Unfortunately, I think there are such possibilities that can develop from the working out of nationalism/globalism’s contradictions. The revolutionary left should take care to avoid incorporation into such stabilizing scenarios.

The initial elements of one such scenario are apparent in this recent observation by a well-known neocon theorist, Robert Kagan (husband to Victoria Neuland of “fuck the E.U.” note).
The peaceful, democratic Europe we had come to take for granted in recent decades has been rocked to the core by populist nationalist movements responding to the massive flow of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. For the first time since World War II, a right-wing party holds a substantial share of seats in the German Bundestag. Authoritarianism has replaced democracy, or threatens to, in such major European states as Hungary and Poland, and democratic practices and liberal values are under attack in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. France remains one election away from a right-wing nationalist leadership, and Italy has already taken a big step in that direction.

-- Robert Kagan, Washington Post, 7/14/18
There are many such pessimistic statements from transnational capitalist elites of varying political hues. They may disagree about many other matters, but they agree that nationalist/populist responses to transnational capital are on the ascendency… that they are a real danger to global stability…and that the transnational ruling elites are poorly prepared to counter them.

William R. Rhodes, Senior Vice-Chairman, Citigroup,
speaks at World Economic Forum meeting,
Tianjin, China, 9/27/27/2008
These claims have some basis, but they are often overstated and this is the case here. The imminent and overwhelming lurch towards right wing populist nationalism is not so self-evident. There are important limitations on supposedly ascendant nativist populisms: visible ceilings on their accomplishments (Trump?); likely instances of setbacks or stalemates (Brexit, Trump?) and their substantial, if temporary, reverses (Macron vs. LePen?).

Political/economic reality dictates that no revival of mercantilism and tariff wars will negate global supply chains; the centrality of transnational financial capital won’t be reversed with MAGA rhetoric; nativist protectionist and anti-immigrant politics will ultimately lose any contest with the geo-political and market factors that determine labor and capital flows. All of this will hold in the absence of a serious rupture of the overall global capitalist framework, and such a rupture is currently beyond either the reach or the intent of nativist populisms – certainly of the right-wing variants. (I’ll raise some important complications on this question later.)

Here is an academic perspective on the problems that confront any populist nationalism, right or left…and the obstacles for left populisms will be greater since they are more dependent on their ability to secure substantial economic concessions for their constituencies than their right wing cousins:
In a globalized economy, it may be extremely difficult for any country to implement policies that protect the bargaining power of workers, that reverse income inequality, that raise minimum wages, that improve the social safety net, or that otherwise make households better off relative to businesses and governments. Implementing any of these policies causes a country’s international competitiveness to deteriorate. Consequently, rather than achieving the desired result, these policies cause the trade balance to go into deficit, and either unemployment will rise or debt must rise.

-- Michael Pettis, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 7/10/18
Despite these limitations, recent right wing populist successes have blocked and perhaps even reversed the momentum towards stronger transnational capitalist institutions. This has happened even when these limited and ambiguous successes look very reversible.

The transnationalist sectors of the capitalist ruling class are able to understand and respond to an unfavorable alignment of forces. Their response is apparent in largely successful attempts to infiltrate and co-opt nativist oppositions and deflect the political trajectory of their populist elements. The grotesquely pro-capitalist policy content of Trump’s millionaire-stacked entourage is an obvious example here. However, the left should be alert for ruling class tactics that are less overt but possibly more important. Transnational capital may only mobilize a half-hearted and diluted resistance to some populist insurgencies, not so much from weakness or confusion, but because there are reasons to concede nativist populism some victories. It’s a way to shift political responsibility for the economic reversals, trade wars, environmental crises, and nasty military conflicts that continue to infect global capital – even at the apex of the current recovery. Similar tactics might also pass off responsibility for expanding authoritarianism – which will be an essential feature of all regimes of mature capital – by subcontracting it to local jurisdictions under circumstances that maximize illusions that repression is essentially accidental, contingent and easily reversible through popular pressure.

I believe that this tactic is currently in play in this country, as well as in the U.K. and Greece, and probably Italy and Spain. When successful, such gambits help expose the essential hollowness of the populist promises of material advantages and more responsive governance in situations where they have some measure of (parliamentary) success. The collapse of its promises exposes populism’s strategic weakness and exacerbates its internal contradictions. This increases cynicism and internal polarizations that demobilize and demoralize the actual and potential mass constituencies of populist movements and cripple potentials for future organizing initiatives.

Currently, with Greece as the possible exception, such tactical responses from transnational capital are directed towards populisms of the right wing nativist variant. However, the same political forces using much the same tactics will undoubtedly confront potentially “left” variations of populism (e.g., possibly Imran Khan in Pakistan?). (I will have to think a bit more about how to relate this argument to situations in this hemisphere – the reversals of the “Pink Tide” in Brazil and Ecuador [Venezuela? Bolivia?], and what to make of AMLO in Mexico.)

However, although they may be tactical successes, such maneuvers don’t confront transnational capital’s basic problems and can even exacerbate them. The tools and methods that effectively undermine and discredit populist governance will not create the base of legitimacy and popular acquiescence that transnational capital urgently needs for longer-term stability. No discrediting of populism gains an affirmative popular ‘consent’ to transnational capital.

If the conflicts between nativist populisms on the “right” and reformist social democratic populisms on the “left” develop without a clear liberatory internationalist anti-capitalist alternative to both, possibilities for a longer-term stabilization of global capitalism can emerge. This can happen, even in the absence of a comprehensive ruling class strategic project. My fear is that these possibilities are more likely probabilities and I’d like to spend some time on how they might emerge.

This comment expresses a common left/liberal approach to current politics:
The key question for the immediate future is whether those populist revolts will tack left or tack right, and in which countries. The most important, of course, being the USA. If the USA tacks right, with appeals to jingoistic white identity nationalism as the primary motivation for sustaining political support, then the gloom and doom will come to pass.

If the populist revolts tack left, with appeals to the better angels of our nature coupled with appeals for a classical republican (not “R”epublican) mobilization of civic virtue for selfish interests to yield to the interest of the General Welfare in building a new world economy free of dependence on burning fossil fuels, the likely result will be a new “golden age of capitalism.”

-- Anthony Wikrent, Naked Capitalism, 7/19/18
Leaving aside the “better angels” and “new golden age,” there is some value in Wikrent’s recognition of the internally contradictory elements of the populist/nationalist response to the impacts of transnational capital. Roughly speaking, these impacts have a right and a left, each of which contain potentials to morph into the other, as well as to fork in a multiplicity of ways. Wikrent, along with many others on the left, is fixed on hopes that this develops into a populist “left” fork that can resurrect and institutionalize the mass reformist constituency that provided some relative stability for capital in a previous period.

Whether or not it would be desirable, it’s not possible to replicate the “successes” and “victories” of the past in our present not-so “golden age.” The material benefits of those arrangements, which have been termed “Fordism,” were always restricted to strategic minorities of the working class in the “First World” – class segments that are no longer so strategic. The potential political and economic returns for transnational capital from such reformist national class compacts are much more limited than they were historically.

No “New New Deal” is in the cards for the same reasons that the promises of right wing nationalism will not be fulfilled. If left populist movements gain any victories, they are overwhelmingly likely to be “victories” within a parliamentary/electoral context where they will have even less potential to provide tangible benefits for their core constituencies than the similarly questionable victories of their right wing nativist cousins. The characteristics of global capitalism that limit the current prospects for right wing nativist populism; the globalized supply chains and the transnational financial structures, present similar limits for all reformist left variants of populism and they will be particularly effective against those versions of populism that are inclined to follow the social democratic electoral/parliamentary model.

This essay is continued in Part 2 and Part 3.

Photo credits:
1. Picture by M0tty [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
2. Photo by Natalie Behring/copyright World Economic Forum (www.weforum.org) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.


Dave Ranney said...

Thanks to Don for this important contribution. I am going to focus my comments on Part I. I completely agree with the conclusion that transnational capital will be unable to meet the demands of either the right or left variants of populism. Your insights on how the current crisis is playing out politically is quite original and important. But my agreement is for somewhat different reasons that I believe are important for estimates of where all of this is heading.

I don’t find the notion of “recovery” or “transnational capitalist stability” to be useful in explaining what is happening. Taking in the whole 20th Century and the 21st to date I would identify three periods where capitalism hit its limits – a classic crisis—that resulted in brutal destruction of productive labor power and a major reorganization of the manner in which capital accumulates value and reproduces itself.

The first crisis was not resolved for half of the 20th century and the “churning and flailing” included two world wars and the Great Depression. In the end, the U.S. was able to become the leading nation-state to implement the new mode of accumulation (“Fordist mass production and imperialism). This began to unravel in the 60s. Nixon essentially cancelled the now old order by taking the dollar off the gold standard (1971) and allowing the value of the dollar to float (1973). The reorganization away from U.S. led “Fordism” continued until about the mid 1980s when the “new world order” of neo liberal transnational capitalism was secured. It involved a somewhat diminished role for U.S. capital and the U.S. nation state and hyper capital mobility but had to run on phantom capital – mainly debt. I think the 2008 financial crisis was not simply a great recession but the appearance of a new crisis. The now old, new world order was no longer viable. And it was coming apart already in the 1990s. What we are facing today is a way out of the mess of what Gramsci might have called a period where the old order is dying and the new is yet to be born.

What causes these crises and the drive for a new order is complex and I can’t go on too long in this comment. But basically the problem of any capitalist order is to reproduce itself and the people who function within the system. Only exploited living labor can create the value needed to do this. Reproduction means not only growing capital, but providing food, clothing, shelter, education and health care for the producers of value. Yet ultimately the system begins to eliminate the producers of value itself to the point where the demands generated by reproduction outstrip the capacity of the system to meet those demands.

This, to me, is why we are seeing a growing precariat and an unneccessariat. And it is also why neither the right nor left populist demand for supremacy and/or redistribution can’t be met. Sometimes people forget that taxes needed for redistribution and a “just allocation of society’s resources are part of the value produced by living labor. The system now is running on air and the illusions of phantom capital (debt, financialized “assets” etc.).

A real danger just now, I believe, is what the radical historian E.P. Thompson termed “exterminism.” Here is what he had to say.

“What happens if the masses are dangerous but are no longer a working class, and hence of no value to the rulers? Someone will eventually get the idea that it would be better to get rid of them.”

This is why the analysis and thinking in Don’s essay is so important not only to read, but to act on.

Matthew N Lyons said...

This is an important essay and there’s a lot here that I agree with. As Don Hamerquist argues, transnational capital, mass right-wing populist movements, and fascists have different interests and goals, and it’s a serious mistake for leftists to lump them together or assume they are all working in concert. That’s been a standard refrain on Three Way Fight since we started, but part of what’s distinctive about this essay is Don’s focus on illuminating transnational capital’s current interests and goals relative to these other forces, and particularly its interest in coopting and exploiting anti-fascism to bolster its popular legitimacy and strengthen its rule.

Since the late 1970s, the dominant (or at least most visible) trend within the U.S. ruling class has been to sponsor or support political initiatives that want to dismantle welfare state programs, attack organized labor, deregulate industry, and privatize government functions. As a result, a whole generation of leftists and “progressives” has grown up identifying big business with right-wing, anti-New Deal politics—and grown up unfamiliar with capitalists’ use of other political strategies, such as liberalism. In the 1960s, major corporations and corporate-funded foundations made a big push to coopt the Black Liberation Movement into pro-capitalist channels while blunting or crushing its revolutionary tendencies—a strategy that Robert L. Allen rightly described as “neocolonialism” in his 1969 book Black Awakening in Capitalist America. There are echoes of this strategy today when antifascism is harnessed in the service of the Democratic Party while radical left voices are marginalized and attacked. Yet as Don argues, this time the cooptation will likely offer little in the way of actual material gains and rely mainly on fear of fascism.

Matthew N Lyons said...

I have two main criticisms of Don’s essay. First, while I completely agree that we need to take fascist anti-capitalism seriously, I think the issue is much less clear cut than Don implies. Don writes, “The question is whether we should focus on fascism as a tendency within capital or as an independent existential threat to it.” But those aren’t the only two options. There are many versions of right-wing politics that are independent of—and challenge—ruling class power and could arguably be called fascist but don’t necessarily pose an “existential threat” to capital. Even if we accept Sohn-Rethel’s argument that German Nazism was pushing toward a “transcapitalist” social order, that really doesn’t describe Italian Fascism. Today most of the U.S. far right, as far as I can tell, challenges capitalist political power but doesn’t really call capitalism as a system into question. Third Positionists such as Matt Heimbach arguably do, but Third Positionism is a pretty weak current within the U.S. far right these days.

On the question of fascist anti-capitalism, I keep going back to Don’s debate with J. Sakai in the 2002 book Confronting Fascism. Sakai agreed that fascism is revolutionary and that it “uses a violent mass popular movement to both remake the State and abruptly alter the class structure.” But against Don, he argued that fascism is “anti-bourgeois but not anti-capitalist,” meaning that fascism genuinely wants to overthrow and destroy “the big imperialist bourgeoisie... the transnational corporations and banks, and their world-spanning ‘multicultural’ bourgeois culture,” yet it “is based on fundamentally pro-capitalist classes.”

I’m not saying that Sakai was right and Hamerquist was wrong. I’m saying that fascism’s relationship with capitalism is not settled – because it is still being worked out in practice – and our concept of fascism should be flexible enough to encompass both interpretations.

My second criticism is related to the first. Don rightly emphasizes the radical distinction between fascist and non-fascist versions of right-wing politics, i.e. between revolutionary and reformist right-wing currents. But in doing so, he fails to address the dynamic interconnections between them. Fascist movements both influence and are influenced by system-loyal right-wing forces in lots of ways. Neonazi David Duke’s electoral campaigns provided a blueprint that was explicitly copied by paleoconservative Pat Buchanan. Buchanan’s (non-fascist) movement in turn was one of the major forces that birthed and gave shape to the (fascist) alt-right. And alt-right white nationalism, which rejects the existing political order, helped inspire and open political space for groups such as the Proud Boys, which have tried to position themselves as vigilante adjuncts to the police and the existing state. Unless we pay attention to these interconnections, we can’t fully assess fascism’s role and significance today. And if we focus only on what sets fascism apart from other right-wing politics, we’ll just keep talking past those whose analysis goes no further than “the cops and the Klan go hand in hand.”

Mary said...


I had a couple of questions about Insurgent Supremacists, Three Way Fight and the Right Wooing the Left (from Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons).

If I understand correctly, in the Three Way Fight there is the (at times) repressive state,along with anti-equality (or fascistic) insurgents on one side and left-wing progressive/antifa struggles on the other.

If the right can "woo" or even infiltrate the left, is it doing so with authoritarian - as well as inegalitarian - impulses?

If the state can be viewed as repressive or authoritarian (while not necessarily fascist) such as the Japanese concentration camps set up in WWII by US government as but one example (that used in IS), can there be such a thing as leftwing authoritarianism or (non-fascist) repression?


Matthew N Lyons said...

Hi Mary,

Thanks for writing. Those are good questions. Here are some quick thoughts:

1) Right-wing overtures to the left certainly do involve authoritarian impulses. Authoritarianism and inegalitarianism tend to go together, since both involve systematically disempowering whole groups of people. Please note that authoritarianism doesn’t necessarily mean advocating a big, powerful state. Much of the U.S. far right now advocates authoritarianism implemented more or less on a small scale, partly because this kind of authoritarianism is easier to hide (and easier to peddle to leftists).

2) Both leftwing authoritarianism and non-fascist repression are quite real. A classic example of leftwing authoritarianism is Stalinism, which at its height in the USSR involved mass killings, mass imprisonment, utter suppression of dissent, a cult of personality around the leader, and systematic use of media in an effort to control information and public opinion. Anti-authoritarian leftists have long debated what gave rise to Stalinism, but it clearly was not a result of far rightists infiltrating the left in an organized sense — although arguably Stalinism embodied many fascistic political elements.

Non-fascist repression can also be promoted and implemented by non-leftists. As you say, the mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans was certainly an example, and there have been many other examples in U.S. history. The U.S. has never experience a full-scale dictatorship on the national level, but I would argue that most dictatorships have been non-fascist, among other reasons because they’ve usually represented the political interests of the ruling class or at least a major faction of it. I discuss the issue of non-fascist repression a bit more in the essay “Is the Bush administration fascist?” (http://newpol.org/content/bush-administration-fascist).