September 7, 2020
by Matt Stannard
Several converging events summon these notes: a massive upsurge in right-wing violence encouraged by the Trump administration, the infusion of fascist ideology into the covid-19 pandemic crisis (particularly the often hidden argument that it’s okay for vulnerable people and the elderly to die), a concern with how socialists should approach the Republican and Democratic parties politically, and a friendly disagreement with Chris Richards of Political Hack & Slash, which we dig into on this episode of the Cowboys on the Commons podcast.
Donald Trump has been an incipient fascist figurehead, and whether he’s done so consciously or not, members of his administration are conscious white nationalists with yearnings for the administration to possess absolute executive power, the ability to silence both governmental and media criticism, and a preference for visible brutality. The administration and its boss have encouraged the growth of far-right street and militia-sustained violence against minorities and the left. The administration is fiercely nationalist. All of these traits are fascist. Although a few initial assessments of Trump a few years ago concluded against the label, such as this not-very-prescient Vox piece that relied on extremely bourgeois opinions, the fact behind those assessments have rapidly changed, and many of their conclusions failed even to consider the evidence at hand at the time.
But there’s a thread of thinking (which has been around at least since the term “liberal fascism” emerged in the 1980s from anarchist-punk discourse and then received a new iteration from the far right), that puts both neoliberal, centrist Democratic Party governance and far-right Republican governance on the same basic canvas and calls it “fascism.” Chris Richards’ use of this term to describe the entire spectrum ranging from Biden-Harris to Trump-Pence led me to invite him to a friendly debate on the podcast. I felt like it was important to distinguish the current administration as uniquely fascist, and I still do after listening to Chris, although I think he raised some important issues that problematize making that conclusion too soon. In the end, he feels he has empirical justification for his broader use of the term, and I feel I have arguments justifying the distinction, and we’ll each go our separate ways doing what we need to do (and we largely agree that there are important differences between Biden and Trump although they’re both awful), but I wanted to explain my distinctions in more detail.
The Historical and Marxist Definition of Fascism
Fascism plays a distinct role in brutal institutional countermovement against the democratization of economic and political life. Fascism is when capitalism has a temper tantrum, stripping back liberal reforms and the rule of law, punishing the humanitarian tendencies of liberalism, and doing direct violence against socialist and anti-capitalist movements, liberatory identity movements, and progressive public dissent.
I don’t consider myself an orthodox Marxist, but the general definition of fascism at marxists.org contains what I think are the vital components of a definition of fascism: “Fascism is right-wing, fiercely nationalist, subjectivist in philosophy, and totalitarian in practice. It is an extreme reactionary form of capitalist government.” The definitional essay lists several “fundamental characteristics” including that fascism is right wing, nationalistic, hierarchical, anti-equality, religious, capitalist, warlike, voluntarist (in that it advances a particularly metaphysical view of “the will”) and anti-modern.
Fascism is Performative
Moreover, although this is not explicit in the Marxist definition, these characteristics are performative as well as substantive. By this I mean that fascism celebrates nationalism, the fervor of its hierarchy, and its insistence on violence. Fascism isn’t just authoritarian nationalism in substance–it’s a violent and forceful public argument for authoritarian nationalism.
Although during our conversation on the Cowboys on the Commons podcast, Chris argued that fascism inherited its violent practices from, say, Italian politics or an American tradition of party-based violence that implicated the communists as much as the fascists, the communists did not celebrate their violence or make it party ideology, and by all accounts, fascist violence in Italy, Spain, and Germany far exceeded prior manifestations of political violence. Violence was often the sole argumentative tactic of fascists. The Italian fascists systematized and stepped up political violence. The Spanish fascists were unrelentingly abusive towards peasants and communists and used violence to demoralize republicans in the Civil War. And Kenneth Burke writes of Hitler’s early street-level political team deliberately antagonizing people at rallies in order to start fights that would become performative arguments for National Socialism:
“Hitler also tells of his technique in speaking, once the Nazi party had been effectively organized, and had its army of guards, or bouncers, to maltreat hecklers and throw them from the hall. He would, he recounts, fill his speech with provocative remarks, whereat his bouncers would promptly swoop down in flying formation, with swinging fists, upon anyone whom these provocative remarks provoked to answer.”
. . . a tactic duplicated by the Trump campaign.
So the difference between authoritarianism (which tolerates the liberal state) and Fascism (which doesn’t tolerate the liberal state) is obvious in the way the two forms of governance and political movement function. And there are other distinctions. Fascism flirts with a few revolutionary demands. It typically does this by promising a strong executive, a “strongman” who will bypass the democratic process to create special “exceptional” policies favoring some group or another and overriding procedural barriers to meeting their needs or demands. The Trump administration has done this, though the degree to which the administration has any legitimacy on this is determined by the outcome of internal cabinet struggle and placating big capital.
Above all, fascist ideology glorifies violence, celebrates mythic strength, divides strong and weak. The Trump administration does this by encouraging interpersonal violence, police violence, right wing nationalist violence, the death of “weak” people vulnerable to disease, and the explicit celebration of immigrant detention (rather than Obama’s and presumably Biden’s, more humane-appearing and sugar-coated anti-immigrant violence, which also contains zones of exception and the space for change that explains why most immigration attorneys would undoubtedly prefer a Biden administration to a Trump one).
Fascism is inseparable from white American nationalist and white Euronationalist ideology. Where nonwhite groups have exhibited fascist tendencies they have done so in the context of right-wing nationalism (e.g. Hindutva) or anti-Semitism and mysticism (Nation of Islam under Farrakhan).
Fascism relies on the conscious, publicized creation of street-level gangs and, in the American context, right-wing militia. Fascism is not as contemptuous towards the managerial or liberal state, the military and the intelligence sector as it is to the far left–that is, fascists believe the far left must be eliminated first–but fascists do want to dismantle the liberal state and remake it as a totalitarian state based on mysticism and force. That this goal is ultimately unattainable* is not an immediate concern.
The difference between the fascist state and the liberal state is that the liberal state tolerates judicial review, popular demands, local control and other checks on totalitarianism up to a point. Fascism can’t do that. Liberals form relationships with those protections, demands, and procedural checks that are very different from the bare, aggressive antagonisms of fascism.
Errors from Misunderstanding fascism or Conflating it with General Authoritarianism:
1. Misunderstanding the push-and-pull game of liberalism and fascism. Liberalism is based on the argument that the progressive liberal state can co-exist with capitalism. Fascism rejects that argument, sees liberal progressivism as a threat to capitalism (and to the white supremacist order behind it), and thus periodically destroys it.
To some extent, the working class can demand and take advantage of the reformism of the liberal capitalist order. The socialist movement can use the tension between liberalism’s promises and failures to deliver them to open up wider political space. Fascism closes that potential and that space. Fascism doesn’t just function to reassert capitalism but also to reassert white supremacy and patriarchy and really the whole Kyriarchy, to borrow from the feminist term. Ultimately, just as the looming threat of communism has forced parliamentary democracies to enact social democratic reforms (like universal health care), the threat of fascism serves to close that reformist space. Thus, fascism and liberalism can never “be the same” functionally because to do so would undermine their ability to play off of each other in the service of capitalist white supremacy.
2. Misunderstanding America First-ers’ & MAGA’s argument that Trump won’t start wars. This is a particularly frustrating public argument–that Trump will keep us out of war where liberal internationalists and neocons are more likely to start wars. It’s frustrating because there is a kernel of truth in fascism’s arguments against the interventionist and internationalist state, but we also know that nationalism, particularly non-liberatory nationalism, is an antecedent to the kind of unilateralism that, had things gone a little differently in Iraq and Iran earlier this year, undoubtedly would have taken us into an extremely destructive war. I can write more about this later, or talk about it on a podcast (mine or someone else’s) because I have limited time here and it is a complex discussion. Short version: Trump, like Hitler and Mussulini, would risk millions of lives if he believed it would advance his interests, including very immediate and very personal ones. We already know that he has no qualms about spending American lives in the service of illusory leadership.
3. Misunderstanding other far right regimes like Putin’s Russia.
4. Ceding political space to fascists by not forming critical/contingent electoral alliances with left liberals/left Democrats. There’s a great discussion about this on the vast majority podcast, and I would add that those who believe electoral politics are irredeemable need to answer a few questions: what’s your theory of the state? Are we cool ceding state power, the administrative and material power of various elected and appointed positions, to the far right? How far down the ballot is this true? Do you feel comfortable with the kind of oddsmaking that says we’ll be “worse off” or “just as bad off” regardless of who occupies those positions?
5. In all of these errors, confusing bourgeois identity politics with demands for civil rights, equality under the law, and more radical anti-oppression work. Do we want to be the Socialist Workers Party or the Socialist Equality Party, the former praising the Bundy family and the white supremacist takeover of federal facilities, the latter mocking campaigns against sexual assault? I say that instead of this, we need to acknowledge that even though class and materiality contextualize struggles for equality under the law and equality in the anti-capitalist struggle, we still should support strong steps towards securing political and civil rights within the capitalist system.
6. Sliding into accellerationism. This is where the rubber meets the road, as far as I’m concerned, about socialist praxis. Accellerationists, including people who don’t really know or admit that they’re advocating accellerationism, do this by rejecting reforms that socialists have traditionally led the way in demanding of the capitalist state, and by committing what I’ve come to call the “bare face” fallacy, assuming it’s preferable to have an open fascist in control of the state than a liberal.
This kind of analysis will always feel futile and fleeting if we’re being honest with ourselves. Method and analysis can’t capture the dynamic, ever-changing clusters of material power and meaning-making around us. Nevertheless, in my own attempt to make sense of it, I find that the difference between liberal/neoliberal capitalism and fascistic neoliberal capitalism is that in the former, there is space to fight for, carve out, and demand non-systemic, but useful reforms; in the latter, there is a mad, overwhelming dash to end reforms, relief, and any checks possible against the self-directed excesses of capital.
The liberal/neoliberal capitalist state is still brutal, often exporting or hiding or otherwise deferring the violence away from the political centers of its regime. But it is more likely to pay legal and rhetorical heed to political equality across identities, and more open to demands for relief and service as a function of democratic processes and public bureaucracy or coordination than the fascist state. In those instances where the fascistic capitalist state grants relief, it does so under the public warrant of strong executive power, so that all relief and reform depends on the will and the grace of the strong (and aspirationally unitary) executive. And the fascistic capitalist state is likely to continuously engage in the stripping of legal protections for minorities, as well as sanctioning rhetorical dehumanization of minorities.
These distinctions are problematic; as my discussion with Chris revealed to me, the liberal/neoliberal capitalist state has broken down the distinction between legal and extralegal violence that used to enhance fascism’s reliance on street gangs and militias. But I think the distinctions still explain how liberalism creates the conditions for fascism, and in a sense relies on the looming threat of fascism to prevent the material delivery of socioeconomic rights, or sometimes weaken the enforcement of civil rights.
The U.S. electoral system, particularly where presidential elections are concerned, is pretty much broken, and so I don’t think it’s constructive to get involved in the numerous debates about whether socialists should vote for the Biden-Harris ticket, abstain from voting for a presidential ticket, or vote for a third party. The system is soaked so full of voter suppression and electoral college distortion that one can’t confidently draw an arrow from one’s individual vote to a predictable outcome. What I can say is that a Biden-Harris presidency will raise extremely different needs and tasks for socialists, the anti-capitalist movement, and those concerned with cooperation and justice, than a Trump-Pence re-election–and that there are many people fighting on the front lines of labor, immigration, LGBTQAA+ and civil rights who note an exhausting, perpetually demoralizing, ship-always-sinking, fires-always-burning feeling from the Trump administration. Such an effect is intentional when an administration is full of open white nationalists, radical supply-siders, and advocates of unitary executive governance. There will not be fewer challenges presented by a Democratic administration, but the challenges are likely to manifest in a different, less exhausting and demoralizing way for many categories of progressive resistance. Although we should never pretend that’s good enough, I don’t think we should discourage people from preferring that outcome. It remains for us to educate people why it is, at best, necessary but not sufficient.
* Unattainable because the function of fascism is to beat back resistance to capitalism; when it fulfills that purpose it often (but not always) goes into retreat. Its remnants are assimilated into the liberal state, but that doesn’t make the liberal state a fascist state. The explicitly fascist traits are watered down, rehabilitated, and change rather drastically in form.