Mar 28, 2019

Trump’s election and capitalist power – an exchange

In February 2019, Three Way Fight published the essay “Trump’s shaky capitalist support: Business conflict and the 2016 election,” by Matthew N. Lyons. In this exchange with Matthew, Don Hamerquist explores some of the larger issues raised in that essay regarding the dynamics of capitalist power.

Don Hamerquist comment
I agree with Matthew’s emphasis on the “shaky” character of Trump’s capitalist support. He points out that, “…Trump has been forced to bring many establishment figures into his administration, and to implement elements of both neoliberalism and nationalist populism, or at least oscillate between them… [However] neoliberalism (and the related internationalist/interventionist foreign policy stance) still enjoys majority support within the U.S. ruling class and among political elites in both major parties … the situation seems likely to feed, not a calculated march toward dictatorship, but a sharpening mix of repression and instability.” This is quite distinct from the prevailing narrative on the North American left. Consider for example, Henry Giroux’s version of the “fascist creep” thesis, that pictures Trump as “…a fusion of the worst dimensions and excesses of gangster capitalism with the fascist ideals of white nationalism and racial supremacy.”

However, while accepting most of Matthew’s political conclusions, I have reservations about the Ferguson “investment theory of party competition” that is incorporated in his argument. In my opinion such approaches are useful – but only within clear limits. (I would make similar criticisms of Page and Gillen’s argument supporting their conception of oligarchy.) Ferguson’s campaign contribution metrics can roughly measure the efforts of particular capitalists to gain access to and influence on government, but they gloss over important contradictions that underlie alternative ruling class approaches to the strategic direction of society. To adequately understand the organizational cohesion and the political “will” of the ruling class fractions that support and/or oppose “Trump,” it’s important to avoid reducing class politics to financial and technical self-interest within an essentially “given” national framework.

U.S. capitalism is part of a developing transnational system with an institutional and ideological trajectory and momentum that transcends national politics. The changing relationship between class profit and class power in the global capitalist system overdetermines the political, economic, and ideological posture of particular capitalist fractions– at times transforming them dramatically. This leads to the hollowing of capitalist state institutions and to growing challenges to capitalist hegemonic ideology – to a broad range of popular grievances and a heightened and more generalized instability. While capitalist fractions will continue to pursue narrow national and corporative interests through the parliamentary process, the more significant strategic elements of the ruling class response to the problems confronting capital increasingly will be shaped in global economic and political institutions and processes outside this framework – where the left challenge should be located as well.

In 2008, at the depths of the global financial crisis, the factors setting the politics of capitalist fractions in this country were quite different from 2116 when Trump had his improbable triumph in the late stage of a capitalist recovery. These factors are likely to be very different again in 2020. In 2008, the destabilizing risks of concessions to nationalist populism – even concessions that were mainly symbolic or rhetorical – would have been overwhelming. In 2016, nearly a decade after capital had responded to its existential crisis with generalized austerity and mammoth institutional bailouts, a very different set of potential risks and responses had emerged. The overall system was no longer enmeshed in crisis – although there were warnings on the horizon – and the limited elements of nativist populism hinted by Trump posed minimal risks for capital. Concessions in this direction might provide something of a release valve for mass discontent – a ruling class feint with potentials to pre-empt more disruptive oppositions before the business cycle took its next dive.

In this view “Trump” appears as something of an accident, like Brexit, but that also doesn’t adequately explain the dynamics at work. The elements of “populism” in “Trump” have been almost totally eclipsed by the embrace of neo-liberal economics and garden variety capitalist reaction. The MAGA nationalism is likely to wilt if it is confronted with any indication of major problems in the global economy. Despite this, the most noteworthy feature of current politics is the frantic way a major sector of capital and much of the institutional weight of capitalist state power is organizing against Trump, notwithstanding his remarkably incompetent “populism” and his routine vanilla conservatism. Certainly this indicates a ruling class fear of major pending dislocations in the global system, including an expectation of more substantive populist challenges. This dictates an accelerated need for a transnational ruling class perspective that can enforce a capitalist consensus on competitive sectors of the ruling elites and develop some better tools to incorporate and diffuse potential mass oppositions from both left and right. Trump is a distracting infection in the emergence of a global ruling class. The over-reaction of ruling elites to the Trump phenomena is an element of the birth pangs of a capitalist new world order.

Head shot of David Koch
David H. Koch, right-wing businessman.
He and his brother Charles Koch oppose
Donald Trump on immigration and trade.
Matthew Lyons reply
I appreciate Don’s comment and I think his criticism is very helpful. I agree that Ferguson’s “investment theory” is not an adequate framework for analyzing ruling-class politics and internal conflict, and agree in particular that we need to bring in the international dimension. Still, I want to offer a couple of caveats. First, while Ferguson’s quantitative analysis is limited, to me it’s a welcome contribution in a context where so many leftist analyses of capital are based only on selective use of anecdotal evidence, or on out-and-out distortion. (I’m thinking for example of Floris D’Aalst’s recent piece in Insurgent Notes, where he claims that the Koch brothers are Donald Trump’s allies, although in fact they have consistently and very publicly opposed Trump on both immigration and trade issues.)

My other caveat is that while Ferguson’s framework here is indeed national, it would be a mistake to see his investment theory as just “reducing class politics to financial and technical self-interest.” Ferguson and his co-authors combine the data from electoral campaigns with other evidence to develop larger analytic themes. For example, in their article about the 2012 presidential election, they draw a connection between Obama’s cordial relationship with high-tech firms and his active continuation of the “national surveillance state” policies he inherited from George W. Bush. And one of the main reasons I got interested in Ferguson to begin with is because of his work from the 1980s on intra-capitalist debates around FDR’s New Deal. Ferguson argued that firms and sectors that had relatively low labor costs (and thus had more flexibility to negotiate with organized labor) and/or were oriented toward international markets formed the core of a new historical bloc that backed FDR, restabilized U.S. capitalism, and created a new hegemonic set of policies that persisted for forty years. This analysis is far better than anything else I’ve seen on the subject.

Again, I think we need to look beyond Ferguson’s approach – to examine, for example, how “the changing relationship between class profit and class power in the global capitalist system overdetermine the political, economic, and ideological posture of particular capitalist fractions,” as Don puts it. One of the questions that Ferguson et al. pose – and by their own admission aren’t really equipped to answer – is why Trump's (and Sanders’s) politics captured mass support in 2016 and not earlier. I’m partly sympathetic to Don’s suggestion that “in 2008, the destabilizing risks of concessions to nationalist populism...would have been overwhelming,” whereas in 2016 the system had restabilized to the point that it could allow and benefit from “a release valve for mass discontent.” However, to me this raises a question: what is the mechanism whereby “the system” makes these choices? Do they reflect conscious strategic decisions by sections of the ruling class, and if so where do these happen and what evidence do we have for them? Or is there some other “objective” mechanism at work? Either way, I’m wary of ascribing too much rationality to the system. I think the system has a tremendous capacity to adapt to unexpected pressures, and this seems like one of those times that the ruling class was blind-sided and had to scramble to adapt. On this question, I would ask Don if he could elaborate on his somewhat cryptic comment that “‘Trump’ appears as something of an accident...but that also doesn’t adequately explain the dynamics at work.”

Don Hamerquist added comment
I wouldn’t speak of “mechanisms,” “system,” and “rationality” in this context. The U.S. nation state is a rapidly changing complex entity that is impacted by a range of conflicting and contradictory interests and forces; some essentially internal and some not so much, many of which aren’t clearly delineated or competently advanced. These are expressed within an array of structures that have their own weight and momentum, and they are mediated through a range of ideologies with their histories, fans and fanatics.

Rather than “conscious strategic decisions by sections of the ruling class,” political outcomes and policy stances in capitalist states are the resultants of a variety of different factors that interact at various levels and in different ways. Financial and commodities markets both determine and are determined by changing state policies – at times via conscious ruling class intervention and at times in spite of it. A definite inertia and momentum is provided by the internal state and quasi-state bureaucracies and apparatuses that have developed to implement capital’s control, but that increasingly fail to reflect interests of particular capitalist fractions in a stable and continuing fashion. The increasing weight of transnational capitalist institutions and policies that deal with trade, finance, countercyclical policy, and various accumulated social costs of capitalist development provide another set of causal factors that have real effects on internal politics, independently of the relative political strengths of domestic capitalist fractions – generally overriding them in most countries – sometimes even here.

As you point out U.S. capitalism has a well-demonstrated capacity to adapt – or to say it differently, it is a system fortunate to have produced oppositions with demonstrated capacities to self-destruct. But despite its good fortune in enemies, U.S. capital has no clear adaptive path. Its various efforts will “work” in places and at times, but usually at the cost of worsening problems elsewhere or, perhaps, later. This leads to a daunting multitude of unavoidable problems and adds to the difficult gestation of a legitimate transnational capitalist elite.

Nevertheless, the process is not all chaos and confusion. There are certain strands of policy that are clearly embraced and enforced by the dominant sectors of transnational capital. The most important of these is their organized opposition to any of the destabilizing populisms of either the right or the left that threaten to emerge from the dilemmas of global capital. These policies are developed at Davos and Valdai, and in the think-tanks of Washington, Brussels and London, and we will shortly see, I think, from Moscow and Peking also. These are shared visions of a capitalist global order with common ideas about what forces and tendencies would be problematic for that order and a common concern with maintaining both the power and the legitimacy of transnational capital. I recognize the importance of differences over the significance of sovereignty and between visions of a uni-polar or multi-polar structure for the global system, however these have strategic importance mainly for relatively weaker capitalist interests that are more reliant on access to specific elements of state power.

It’s possible to discern the potential elements of a global strategy for capital in this framework. In the first place it includes developing viable transnational institutions and understandings to deal with the predictable effects of the reversal of the business cycle and, more important, to deal with the increasingly critical aspects of secular crisis in capitalist production and bourgeois civilization. In the second place it requires developing some basis of “consent” from among the masses that will not be among the beneficiaries of any global capitalist order. I’ve dealt with these issues elsewhere and won’t go into further detail here.

The imperatives of this strategy underlie ruling class attitudes towards Trump, towards Brexit, towards Bolsonaro. You say about Trump, “I think this was one of those times that the ruling class was blind-sided and had to scramble to adapt.” I agree for the most part, but what I think is most important is the content that the “adapting” scramble assumed. Perhaps we will have to argue this point elsewhere, but, beginning with the presidential primary and continuing through the first half of Trump’s term I think that it has taken the form of a thinly disguised attempted coup that risks the viability of the party system and parliamentary structure in this country. It’s difficult to explain the magnitude and urgency of the organized ruling class effort to displace Trump who was swiftly neutralized into an ordinary reactionary – if he was ever something more. What calculation explains this effort against Trump, more of a comic figure than a populist demagogue.

Photo credit:
Photo by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

Mar 18, 2019

The Alt-Creeps: A review of Against the Fascist Creep and Ctrl-Alt-Delete

Review by rowan

This review was written in October 2017 and originally published in Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, no. 30 (2018/2019). It is republished here with permission of the author.

Books reviewed:
Alexander Reid Ross, Against the Fascist Creep. Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017. 400 pp. $16.95, ISBN: 978-1-849352-44-4.
Matthew N. Lyons, It’s Going Down, K. Kersplebedeb, and Bromma, Ctrl-Alt-Delete: An Anti-Fascist Report on the Alternative Right. Montreal: Kersplebedeb Publishing, 2017. 108 pp. $10.00, ISBN: 978-1-894946-85-8.

A few years ago a dear friend expressed his concern about what he perceived as a dangerous political and cultural turn to the right. “The Alternative Right, the men’s rights activists, the Dark Enlightenment. All of these fascists are organizing and trying to build power. It scares me.” In some arrogant attempt to posture as very serious, I scoffed at these reactionaries as “wingnuts confined to the internet,” with no significance in “the real world.” I was wrong.

We are experiencing a frightening and drastic rightward shift in the overall political climate, not only in the United States, but also throughout Europe and Asia as well. The 2016 presidential election and the events surrounding it have empowered and emboldened all of these tendencies and more. Formerly marginal sectors of the Far Right have stepped into the light of mainstream US politics. They have helped to build neo-fascist movements and elect a bullying right-wing populist to one of the most powerful positions in the world. From Trump, to Brexit, to LePen, to the Islamic State, to the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Far Right is on the move. They are attempting to organize for and to brutally impose their hierarchical and inegalitarian visions on society. I have since apologized to my friend.

I don’t, however, think that my opinion was especially unique. Rather, I expressed a common view among folks on the radical Left. I argued for years that while fascists and the Far Right should certainly be opposed, they represented a far smaller threat to the lives and well-being of people of color than did the police, the prison system, and other institutions of official society. I am by no means the only one who held this position. Nor was I completely wrong. However, my complacency was sorely misplaced. It was, consciously or not, rooted in a view that saw social relations as stable and which failed to comprehend the total social, political, economic, and ecological crisis that we inhabit.

In this moment, those of us who seek to build a free and just world would do well to study our enemies and understand their politics, strategies, and history. Two recent books attempt to examine the history and politics of the insurgent Far Right: Alexander Reid Ross’s Against the Fascist Creep and the anthology Ctrl-Alt Delete published by Kersplebedeb.

Book covers of Against the Fascist Creep and Ctrl-Alt-Delete
Clocking in at almost 400 pages Reid Ross’s tome is by far the more ambitious project. Against the Fascist Creep is an attempt to tell the history of insurgent fascist politics and their complicated relationship with the Far Left.

Throughout his book Reid Ross focuses more on the ideology of fascism as a revolutionary movement than on the operations and policies of fascism in power. Reid Ross starts by looking at populist tendencies of North American “Manifest Destiny" and the emergence of anti-elitist ideologies that remain deeply racist and authoritarian. From these roots, he looks at the explosion of radical and militant right-wing politics following the First World War. In the wake of that catastrophe, Europeans developed ideologies and built movements to make sense of a chaotic and unjust world and to change it. Anarchists and Marxists led revolutions and rebellions across the continent. In opposition to, but also sometimes influenced and inspired by these left-wing ideologies, more authoritarian and nationalist politics emerged; from “national syndicalism” to Italian Fascism, to German National Socialism. Amidst the chaos of power structures crumbling, radical movements splitting, and struggles over power and principles, fascism emerged in opposition to both the exploitation of capitalist modernity and the universalism of Marxist communism.

Following a lengthy engagement with the life and thought of fascist occultist Julius Evola, Reid Ross discusses the emergence of the European New Right (ENR) in the 1960s. Fueled by resentment in the face of decolonization, the ENR attempted to rebuild insurgent right-wing politics to fit the postwar reality. Drawing on the work of Italian communist (and anti-fascist) Antonio Gramsci, these activists and intellectuals prioritized cultural transformation in the place of an immediate struggle for political power. They also tended to minimize explicit biological racism, in favor of a less alienating stress on cultural integrity and self-determination. Finally, while initially reacting against decolonization, they appropriated the revolutionary politics of their time, positioning themselves as radicals fighting for the liberation and self-determination of European people against the imperialism of US capitalism and Soviet state socialism. Reid Ross goes on to discuss various other Far-Right and fascist movements: Nazi skinheads from London, England to Portland, Oregon; National Bolshevism and radical nationalisms in Russia and the Ukraine; and now, the Alt-Right which helped sweep Donald Trump into power.

Reid Ross’s book is important in that it touches on some significant yet often under-examined aspects of fascism. Instead of seeing Right and Left as simplistic opposites, he is willing to think about them inhabiting a more complex relationship. While Marxist and anarchist leftists have generally understood fascism to be the most authoritarian and violent form of capitalist rule, Reid Ross takes seriously fascism’s radical, even revolutionary, opposition to capitalist modernity. From “national syndicalists” active following the First World War to “Nazi Maoists” in the 1960s, the author conveys how complicated and confusing this political terrain is.

The line between Left and Right, between communist and fascist, is often far from clear, leaving us with the difficult work of clarifying our own values and politics. The distinction between Right and Left is not always obvious. Throughout history the record has been complicated. From Bakunin to Mussolini and from Stalin to Metzger, insurgent anti-imperialism has intermingled with vitriolic anti-Semitism and racism on both the “Right” and “Left.” The Far Right is both our competitor in this period of social crisis and a danger that can destroy the liberatory potential of our own movements from within if we fail to clearly draw political lines that distinguish our radicalism from theirs.

Unfortunately, Against the Fascist Creep, while hinting at important insights and essential questions, often fails to live up to its promise.

Reid Ross’s attempt to understand fascism as a process is useful in helping us avoid dogmatic attachment to fixed definitions. However, he does tend to define every social, political, cultural, or spiritual trend he doesn’t like as being fascist, or at least tainted by it. In a denunciatory tour of the impurities of the political spectrum, Reid Ross attacks everyone from Deep Ecologists to class struggle anarchists, accusing them of enabling the right, sometimes citing evidence and sometimes not. In identifying a “fascist creep,” he is too quick to resort to a casual guilt-by-association in a constant search for enemies, mistaking a moralist purity for the kind of political clarity we need to fight and win.

The danger of a “fascist creep” influencing and poisoning both society as a whole and our left-wing movements is very real. From casual anti-Semitism to macho fetishization of violence, the Left too often shares values and politics with the radical Right. This must be resisted and opposed, but doing so requires real humility, self-criticism, and a commitment to political clarity that cheap self-righteousness cannot provide. A real examination of the “fascist creep” would involve something more than a hunt for enemy infiltrators in our otherwise good movements; it would require confrontation and struggle with our own limitations and weaknesses.

Too often throughout the text, Reid Ross fails to engage fascist politics as deeply as he could, opting rather to denounce and ridicule them. If we could defeat fascism by proclaiming our own superiority, this practice would serve us well. But real politics is not just about being right; it’s about winning. We need to develop the resources and forces to defeat fascists in the streets. Books should help us understand our enemies, what they think, and how, and why. Moralistic posturing, while it may feel good for both author and reader, doesn’t really help. The purpose of political analysis is not to distinguish between “good guys” and “bad guys” like a ten-year-old watching Star Wars. Instead, we need the nuance and sophistication to actually understand the complexities of our world, our movements and our enemies in order to be able to successfully fight and win.

Finally, the writing itself is poor and confusing. Sometimes this is a result of needlessly academic big words. At other points it’s just sloppily crafted paragraphs, which change the subject without transitions. At its worst Against the Fascist Creep feels like 400 pages of name-dropping, the author simply referencing all of the obscure thinkers and projects he knows of, strung together with convoluted prose.

In contrast to Reid Ross’s meandering volume, the collection Ctrl-Alt-Delete, published by Kersplebedeb, is quick, clear, and to the point. At fewer than 125 pages, this book pulls together some useful and timely documents, which reflect on the political moment of Trumpism and the insurgent movements he rode to power.

The collection begins with the title essay by longtime anti-fascist researcher and writer Matthew Lyons. “Ctrl-Alt-Delete” is a fifty-page report in which he seeks to familiarize the reader with the history and ideology of the “Alt-Right.” Beginning with its roots in both old school “paleoconservatism” and the European New Right, Lyons explains how intellectuals like Richard Spencer built a political milieu by synthesizing different strains of right-wing nationalism and internet culture. He then goes on to examine some of the different tendencies within the Alt-Right.

White nationalism and racism have been core to this political project with its hip rebranding of neo-Nazism, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism. Lyons, however also discusses the gender politics of the Alt-Right, pointing to its roots in and connections with the online culture of anti-feminist backlash, from “Gamergate” to “pick-up artists.” Also, significant in this regard is the “male tribalism” of Jack Donovan and the Wolves of Vinland, who seek to establish male supremacist resilient communities autonomous from multicultural capitalist modernity. Other forces include right-wing anarchists who seek to resist state authority in favor of decentralized “tribalism,” and “neoreaction,” an ideology spawned from tech CEOs seeking philosophical justifications for their fantasies of corporate feudalism.

Finally, Lyons examines the relationship between the Alt-Right and Donald Trump. Many sought to use the Trump campaign as an opportunity to push their politics within a broader arena, and their interventions injected new levels of violence and cruelty into American electoral politics. Lyons’ report is concise, clear, and extremely useful in giving a rundown of who the Alt-Right are, where they come from, what they believe, and what their role is in this historical moment. I suspect that this report will stand as the go-to on the subject for some time, and Lyons' forthcoming book Insurgent Supremacists will likewise be necessary reading.

“The Rich Kids of Fascism” by It’s Going Down is another attempt to analyze the Alt-Right. The focus here is on the class character of the movement. They argue that unlike other forms of fascist and right-wing politics, the Alt-Right is a class-elitist movement. They also point to the weaknesses of the Alt-Right as being an internet phenomenon without any demonstrated ability to fight for its politics in the streets. While this may well have been true at the time the piece was written, that certainly seems to be changing, and the fact that anti-fascist forces have been losing street fights over the last couple years should humble us. Overall, while the piece has some useful and interesting points, there is a definite tendency toward triumphalism, and self-righteous posturing. The macho chest-thumping of “we ain’t afraid of no memes” may feel good and may psych us up as we get ready to hit the streets, but it doesn’t actually help us make sense of the world or the enemies by whom we have too often been defeated.

K. Kersplebedeb’s “Black Genocide and the Alt-Right” looks at the racial politics of the Alt-Right and argues that, though it has been less addressed than its sexism or anti-Semitism, anti-Blackness is at the core of the movement’s politics. That's a good point, but the article is too short. In a historical moment when we are witnessing the emergence both of militant fascist and Black Liberation movements, the relationship of these phenomena is of the utmost importance for radicals. Kersplebedeb is right to point out the antagonism, but unfortunately does little more.

Finally, Bromma’s “Notes on Trump” is an attempt to understand the 2016 election in the broader historical context, viewing Trump's victory as a response to capitalist crisis and a rejection of neoliberal globalization and neocolonial multiculturalism in favor of right-wing nationalism. Following real victories by anti-racist and anti-colonial liberation moments, capitalism shifted and made space for figures and forces from the African National Congress in South Africa to Barack Obama in the United States to step forward and administer global exploitation. Bromma suggests that we are currently seeing the repudiation of such “progressive” rainbow imperialism. Instead we are now faced with more open white supremacy and a chaotic and violent world situation.

We are in a period of crisis and upsurge where political categories are being rapidly undone and remade. The labels and genealogies that folks claim may matter much less than the content of their politics and what their practice looks like. Distinctions between anarchism and Marxism may matter far less than one’s concrete commitment to building antiauthoritarian political culture or rooting one’s politics in working class life. At this juncture of fear, confusion, crisis, and opportunity, it is unclear where new political forces will emerge. But if the history Reid Ross presents teaches us anything, it is that we must be on our guard and take great care in seeking political clarity. In this chaotic “marketplace of ideas” (particularly in the internet age), where every tendency from Democratic Confederalism to Marxism-Leninism-Maoism to Pan-Secessionism to National Bolshevism is on offer, the next fascist threat, the next praxis of terror and extermination, can appear from anywhere, from our enemies’ midst or from our own.

The Trump administration and the Alt-Right are shifting and shattering official politics with its lies of progress, multiculturalism, and civility. Stability and peace are not on the table, but transformation is certainly on the horizon. Both Reid Ross’s and Lyons’ interventions are important reminders that the Left are not the only ones who can benefit from instability, and that the transformations ahead are as likely to be full of horror as they are to lead us to freedom.

rowan lives in Portland, Oregon. They are the parent of a three-year-old who thinks that “singing protests” are “a little bit fun” but “fire protests” are “too scary.”

Mar 10, 2019

Meditations on a dead fascist

LaRouchePAC magazine cover shows images of Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and LaRouche with headline, "The Last Chance for Civilization?"
Laying claim to the mantle of Lincoln and FDR.
Lyndon LaRouche’s recent death at age 96 brought him more attention than he had gotten in decades. Many of the obituaries and retrospectives I’ve seen treat him as little more than a political curiosity, a deranged cult leader whose main achievement was to help inure us to bizarre conspiracy theories, and who lost most of the little influence he had over thirty years ago. But there’s a lot more to him than that.

LaRouche carved out a place on the U.S. far right unlike any other. Few U.S.-based fascist groups maintain strength for more than a few years, but LaRouche kept hundreds of followers in multiple countries tightly organized for over four decades. In the 1980s, his network’s achievements in grassroots electioneering, fundraising, propaganda, and dirty tricks were completely unparalleled on the far right, as Dennis King chronicled in his invaluable 1989 book Lyndon LaRouche and the New American Fascism (available online here). In the late 1980s, the LaRouchites’ practice of systematically defrauding elderly Republicans of millions of dollars destroyed the network’s extensive Reagan administration connections and sent LaRouche to prison for five years. But what’s remarkable is that they were able to rebound from this defeat, remake themselves politically, recruit a new cohort of younger activists, and forge new ties with political elites—this time elites outside the United States. And throughout all of this, LaRouche was able to fly largely below the radar of both the mainstream media and the left, because most people thought he was just a crackpot who claimed the Queen of England pushes drugs.

I was first confronted with the LaRouchites in 1990, during the lead-up to the first U.S.-Iraq war, when one of the founders of my local anti-war group admitted to being a LaRouche supporter. The group voted to expel her (the LaRouchites’ history of spying on and physically attacking leftists overrode people’s desire to be open and inclusive), but then we discovered this wasn’t an isolated incident, but part of a coordinated effort by LaRouche activists around the country to infiltrate the antiwar movement. Trying to make sense of this, of why a fascist organization would be opposing U.S. military expansionism, turning out for leftist-led demonstrations, and accusing George Bush of genocide, was one of the conundrums that led me to start researching far right politics systematically. Since then I have kept tabs regularly on LaRouchite propaganda, partly for its sheer baroque extravagance and partly to mark one of the outer parameters of far right thought in the United States and beyond.

Several commentators have described Lyndon LaRouche as a pioneering conspiracy theorist who helped pave the way for Alex Jones and even Donald Trump. Not so many have delved into the sophisticated utility of LaRouche’s bizarre ideology. His periodic warnings of plots to kill him weren’t just paranoid fantasies but part of the cult psychology he used to control his followers—and extract millions of hours of free labor from them. His seemingly random mix of conspiracist targets—from the Communist Party to the International Monetary Fund, from environmentalists to the Christian right—enabled the LaRouche network to present itself as “conservative” in one situation and “progressive” in another, and to attack or defend people anywhere on the political spectrum with equal facility.

Whether tilting right or left, LaRouche promoted the same basic ideology from the mid 1970s onward. He saw all human history as a massive Manichean struggle between good “humanists” and evil “oligarchs,” a struggle carried out largely behind the scenes. He warned over and over that the world was on the brink of imminent economic collapse, full-scale dictatorship, or nuclear war, and proclaimed himself one of the few people with the insight and will needed to lead humanity out of the crisis. He argued that people could be divided into three levels of “moral development,” and that those at the lowest level were dangerous to society and should not have the same rights as their superiors. Under his 1981 “draft constitution” for Canada, which detailed his vision for how to organize a state, people who espoused “irrationalist hedonism”—basically, any beliefs or practices he considered dangerous, such as homosexuality, laissez faire economics, or rock music—would have no political voice. Yet LaRouche’s drive to reshape society went far beyond political exclusion. Evil oligarchic influence, he declared, must be rooted out of every sphere of society and culture, from economics to mathematical formulas, from technological development to the pitch used to set musical scales.

Two magazine covers: “Defeat Britain’s Terror War Against the U.S.A!” and “How the Conservative Revolution Crowd Plans To Destroy America”
1990s: LaRouche publications criticize conservatives and
blame House of Windsor for Oklahoma City bombing
Unlike most U.S far rightists, LaRouche was familiar with leftist theory and political culture, having spent over twenty years in the Trotskyist movement and the student left, and he was more effective than most far rightists at delivering his message to people across the political spectrum. He appeared several times on The Alex Jones Show, a right-wing conspiracist radio program with millions of listeners, but his propaganda also repeatedly reached left-leaning audiences, largely with the help of intermediaries such as the Christic Institute, Michel Chossudovsky’s Global Research, and former LaRouche network members William Engdahl and Webster Tarpley, all of whom have given a leftish gloss to LaRouche-originated anti-elite conspiracy theories. As recently as 2016, Helga Zepp-LaRouche (wife of Lyndon and founder of the network's Schiller Institute) was listed on the program of the Left Forum in New York City. Dennis Speed of LaRouche’s Executive Intelligence Review spoke at the 2015 Left Forum.

LaRouche was also better than most U.S. far rightists at forging ties with people in power. In the late 1970s and early 80s, as Dennis King noted, LaRouche recognized that the post-Watergate crackdown on government abuses made his outfit useful to intelligence agencies interested in outsourcing some of their spying and dirty tricks operations, and that positioning himself as a hawkish Democrat made him interesting to Reagan officials. (In this respect, he may not have looked that different at first glance from the early neoconservatives—some of whom also had a Trotskyist past.)

In the 1990s, LaRouche saw a new opportunity in Russia, where his hatred of international bankers, praise for Vladimir Putin, and advocacy of protectionist, strong-state economic development won him a hearing with many political leaders, including close Putin aide Sergey Glazyev. By the time he died, LaRouche had also made significant inroads in China, where state-run media now quotes LaRouchite journalists extensively and invites them regularly to news conferences. (The LaRouche network’s praise for President Xi Jinping may be opportunistic but it’s also sincere, as Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative represents the kind of large-scale infrastructure project that LaRouche has been advocating for decades.) It’s hard to think of another U.S.-based fascist who has achieved this kind of government access.

Along with shifting the focus of his overtures from U.S. political elites to Russian and Chinese ones, LaRouche shifted his movement’s public stance leftward. In the 1980s the LaRouchites championed Reagan’s Star Wars program and spearheaded ballot initiatives to forcibly quarantine people with AIDS, but in the 1990s and 2000s they were active in campaigns against the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Yugoslavia and in the Occupy Wall Street movement, glorified Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and denounced Christian right leaders such as Pat Robertson. The LaRouchites continued to present themselves as New Deal progressives even after embracing Donald Trump’s America First populism.

New Federalist (newspaper) headline: "LaRouche, Farrakhan, Chavis Mobilize Against Nazi Economics"
Presenting LaRouche as ally of African American leaders
LaRouche’s trajectory set him apart from white nationalists, who put race firmly at the center of their politics. In the 1970s, the LaRouchites vilified black and indigenous people in overtly racist terms, and allied themselves with white supremacists such as Ku Klux Klan leaders Roy Frankhauser and Robert Miles. By the 1990s, however, LaRouche organizations welcomed people of color as members and celebrated civil rights movement veterans—and LaRouche supporters—James Bevel and Amelia Boynton Robinson as heroes. LaRouchites declared African American spiritual music to be “the basis for an American Classical culture”—a worthy counterpart to the European classical culture they constantly celebrated. Sometimes LaRouche reverted to open racism—for example referring to Barack Obama repeatedly as a “monkey”—but the overall effect anticipated the Proud Boys’ racially inclusive “Western chauvinism” much more than the white exclusivism of Richard Spencer or The Daily Stormer.

LaRouche’s antisemitism followed a similar pattern. He began scapegoating Jews in the 1970s at the suggestion of the Liberty Lobby’s Willis Carto, and his conspiracism was deeply rooted in anti-Jewish themes—such as the false dichotomy between “evil” finance capital and “good” industrial capital, and the emphasis on Anglophobia (derived from 19th-century claims that that the Rothschild banking family controlled Britain). But in stark contrast to neonazis, LaRouche included Jews among his supporters and top lieutenants. And over time he became increasingly careful and sophisticated in deflecting the charge of antisemitism, for example by denouncing opponents as “Nazis” and by portraying Jews as tools or dupes rather than as the top wire-pullers.

“From the time of his emergence as a public figure over fifty years ago,” declares his obituary on the LaRouchePAC website, “the only tragedy that characterized Lyndon LaRouche’s life, is that he was never permitted to carry out, either as President or as an adviser to the serving President, the economic reforms that would have improved the lives of tens of millions of Americans and hundreds of millions around the world.” LaRouche never got the power he craved. Despite all his efforts to piggy-back on popular movements, only a limited number of people were willing to submit themselves to his self-proclaimed greatness. Despite his efforts to make himself useful to political elites, his mix of conspiracy thinking, strong-state nationalism, and cultural totalitarianism was ultimately a deal-breaker, at least in his home country. He was profoundly at odds with the neoliberal precepts of privatization, deregulation, free trade, and individualism that have dominated U.S. capitalism for decades.

Still, LaRouche’s impact was real. He not only helped make conspiracism a major part of our political culture, he field-tested a variety of tactics that other rightists could learn from. He was a pioneer of red-brown alliance-building and Russophile “anti-imperialism,” and showed that fascism could be reworked in ways that went far beyond exchanging a brown shirt for a suit and tie. The expectation that his organization will now collapse may or may not prove true. Cults don’t always die with their founders, and his widow Helga Zepp-LaRouche, comparatively young at 70, is a seasoned organizer and speaker who has played an increasingly prominent role in recent years. LaRouche is dead, but unfortunately his politics are not.

Photos by author. Portions of this essay are adapted from Matthew N. Lyons, Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire (PM Press and Kersplebedeb Publishing, 2018). See Chapter 5 of that book for additional citations.