Worried about Trump and right-wing extremism in general? You should be. But however you choose to fight it nationally, the true answer to the fascist worldview is cooperative, sustainable economies and community solidarity.
by Matt Stannard
If I were giving this essay as a sermon at a Unitarian Universalist fellowship, the accompanying children’s story at the beginning of the service would be about fighting back against bullies in a world where everyone feels afraid and insecure, and learning that standing up together not only pushes back the bullies, but eliminates bullying. What does economic justice have to do with bullying, you ask?
We seek what bell hooks calls “the fierce willingness to repudiate domination in a holistic manner.”
For a year and a half I aided victims of domestic violence in the courtroom asking for injunctions against their abusers and in the “system” asking for resources to gain independence. For the last several months watching Donald Trump and his new loyalist Chris Christie, I’ve noted the spot-on similarity of verbal outbursts of both men and the behavior and abuse patterns of respondents in domestic violence injunction hearings. “Sit down and shut up.” “Are you stupid?” “Beat him up.” “Bomb the shit out of them.” Vulgar sexist jokes. Narcissistic and disproportionate self-justification. Those are words victims, in their petitions, report hearing.
Statistically, the incidents and impacts of domestic abuse cluster most heavily in poverty. I just read another article explaining that link, this one by Helen Nianias at Broadly, a Vice channel. There cannot be too many of these articles written or read. The thesis is that lack of access to material security like rental property worsens domestic abuse, traps victims with their abusers, and exacerbates all interpersonal violence.
And I submit, in all seriousness, that the way domestic violence victims interact with their abusers and our economic system tells us a lot about the real context of Donald Trump’s incipient fascism, and why economic injustice is unjust. For millions, American life and politics are an intersection of trauma, material insecurity, and dependence on abusive systems and people. So now we have public behavior from leading political figures –one who may become president— that would be dispositive in a domestic violence injunction hearing.
We Are Material
Well, we certainly have some things to deal with now, don’t we? And unfortunately, we don’t make our history any way we please. The other night I picked up my old copy of Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy, an essay written in response to a certain strain of utopian socialism, but which also contains spot-on criticism of mainstream economics. Grace Lee Boggs, the revolutionary of Detroit who died last year at age 100, read Marx as she read Jesus: urging us, on multiple levels, to shed our fetishization of wealth, seeing a relationship between that fetishization and systems of brutality. My takeaway from The Poverty of Philosophy is that human relationships don’t occur between abstract political subjects, but between human beings immersed in their material conditions. This isn’t hard determinism. It’s simply a humbling reminder that matter exists, we are in it, and we are often overwhelmed by it.
Professional economists tend not to live in or understand that overwhelm.The divisions Marx makes in The Poverty of Philosophy between these mainstream theorists very much resembles the respective economic approaches of the 2016 Republican field, Hillary Clinton’s neoliberal centrism, and Bernie Sanders’s strong redistributivism and old labor politics. Marx writes of the fatalistic conservative economists who see poverty as “the pang which accompanies every childbirth, in nature as in industry” – essentially the economic philosophy of the Republicans, enforced through a combination of now-undead trickle-down economics and apocalyptic Christian exaltation of suffering. He writes of the humanitarians, seeking to ease the pain and conflicts of inequality by calling for concessions and cooperation on both sides—a charitable but fair description of the Clintonian, DNC-guided corporate welfare state. He writes of the philanthropic economists—“den[ying] the necessity of antagonism,” and wishing to turn us all “into bourgeoisie” with no such class conflict at all—a possibility envisioned by Sanders and numerous (but by no means all) “new economy” proponents. A large section of what is now considered left-of-center economic thought now posits that wealth can be used for good, and that we can create structures within the market economy that eliminate involuntary poverty. Almost all of these approaches assume at least a certain amount of good will (or at least cooperation) from the world’s most powerful economic interests. That such good will might be replaced by violent repression (as historically valid as that concern is) does not occur to most humanitarian or philanthropic policy advocates. They should think about it now.
Marx doesn’t stop there, but I will. We don’t need to be “Marxists” to beat back fascism, or build economically just institutions. Sanders’s philanthropic capitalism is not impossible. Nor, even, is Clinton’s capitalism-with-a-human-face (I’m going to ask some tough question about how to achieve sustainability and justice under it, but I’ll listen to the answers). Fighting for those visions is not dishonorable, insincere, or even foolish. Nor are those people foolish who say those fights don’t go far enough and risk too much compromise—those socialists and Greens who raise their heads in interest at the Clinton-Sanders debate, while forging ahead building what they see as a necessary, new politics and economics.
But in what comes from the right, we face a categorical antagonist to any humanistic political economy at all. It is material power reasserting itself as unmoored irrationalism, brutality, and actual interpersonal abuse as politics. How can we adequately respond to that if we have different views of the ultimate good?
Well, we can.
What is it, anyway? I’ve read several articles and analyses about fascism over the last twenty years, and several articles and short social media posts recently about whether Trump(ism) is (a) fascist/ism. Perhaps I should be more meticulous, perhaps the characterization is hyperbolic or violates one or another scholars’ demarcations, but such hair-splitting is a luxury for those who have time, and I think we don’t have much. What is happening on the right side of American politics is close enough for me. Jim Wolfrey’s decade-old review of Michael Mann’s Fascists and Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism lists what I see as decisive: simultaneous anger at, and alliances with, economic elites; bedazzlement of power; incapability of conventional political structures to deliver stable social goods; the shifting of “social frustration onto the symbols of nationalism and violence”; a space for racism and sexism through a methodology of interpersonal violence. Such tendencies are fueled by anti-rationalism. There is no need for internal consistency, so Christianity compliments rather than critiques calls for hate. Whatever ideological tools at hand will do. Does it provide visceral satisfaction? Make you feel like it’s okay to feel anger and hate and belonging and pride? It’ll do. And I don’t care what you call it. Our inability to resolve our deepest insecurities, tied together on a beam of economic and social inequality and an extractive, exploitative model of collective life, summons it into being.
Fighting by Building
Whether the Democrats’ hybrid humanitarian-philanthropic capitalism triumphs over the Republican’s hybrid thugfascist Christian politics of antiempathy is certainly the defining question of the 2016 presidential election for many. But my concern is how proponents of economic justice and materialized empathy move forward regardless of that outcome. By all means, we should still be active in influencing that outcome, in whatever way our own consciences dictate. But what we actually need to do to create a world where narcissistic billionaires can’t threaten to pull us into their pathetic universes is much more focused and direct. There is a rapidly growing movement for actual economic justice—not mere redistribution, certainly not austerity, but materialized empathy: institutions, laws, and practices that hardwire economic justice, from sustainable and democratic financial practices to provide a material basis for fairness—a basis which, when missing, disempowers us socially and personally, as the sad facts about poor victims of domestic violence illustrates.
And so, when the Berkeley City Council this month joined other cities around the country increasing support for worker-owned cooperatives—tax and land-use incentives, educational programs, devoting city procurement to cooperative businesses, and discounting its bids to make cooperatives more viable in the bidding process—the city not only helped build a sustainable, prosperous, and cooperative economy. In building and incentivizing local economic cooperation, Berkeley also fought fascism.
Materialized Empathy, the Commonomics USA project I direct, assists local leaders and grassroots organizations in building economies of solidarity and security. Many other valuable organizations are engaged in similar efforts. Each local structure we help build makes us stronger opponents of hate and extremism. Commonomics USA also educates Americans about basic income (I’m hosting a live chat about it on March 4) and postal banking, national programs made necessary by the real state of the economy, a perspective miles outside of the Republicans’ ballpark.
Local activism overcomes internal splits too. Tired of your friends in the Sanders and Clinton camps yelling at each other on Facebook? Invite them all to demand public banks in their cities or to shape municipal ordinances supporting community agriculture. Suspicious of the white privilege of many progressives? Study the work of African-American and Latina/o-run cooperative economy projects and intentional communities around the country—and stand in solidarity with them. None of our political standpoints are complete, and none alone can fight the monsters American excess has created. Everyone has a candidate and everyone’s got blueprints. What we need is love—not just in our hearts, but in our policies and—especially—in our economies. That’s how we fight fascism.
In Case I Missed Anything
There is a chance I’ve left something out of this analysis and call to action. If so, unless it says we should be mean to each other, not live sustainably, or not create economically just institutions, it’s compatible with what I’ve been trying, however imperfectly, to say. Join us.
Matt Stannard is policy director at Commonomics USA and director of the Materialized Empathy project. He provides research and communications assistance to the Public Banking Institute, speaks and writes on economic justice, and is the author of Love and Production and The American Commons, both of which will be published in 2016.