Monday, June 18, 2018

Populism or Fascism?

William E. Connolly
Author, Aspirational Fascism: The Struggle for Multifaceted Democracy Under Trumpism (2017) and Facing the Planetary... (2017)

In h
is impressive 1944 book, The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi reviews how a series of Fascist movements erupted in Europe, the United States and elsewhere after the meltdown of market capitalism in 1929 known as the Great Depression. Sure, Italian fascism preceded that collapse, but its virulence increased after the Depression, and it was joined by the vitalization of similar movements. Some succeeded, crushing communism and social democracy, as they introduced a version of corporate capital tied to Fascist governance. Others failed, largely because of democratic movements trending toward social democracy. One lesson from this cross-regional cluster of movements, Polanyi claimed, is that Fascist movements are not simply reducible to the internal dynamics of a single regime.

 Pressures to Fascism flow from a volatile conjunction of internal and external forces. Internal discontents in Germany after its total defeat in World War I were joined to the devastating cross-regional effects of the Great Depression on middle and working classes. German Nazism became the most virulent mode of Fascism, joining intense racial nationalism, antisemitism, attacks on "slavs", Romani, gays, communists and social democrats to initiation of World War II and the utter horror of Death camps. But other Fascist movements also arose in countries such as the United States (Father Coughlin had a radio following of 30 million), Norway, France, England, Sweden, Hungary, Holland, Finland and Japan. The horror of German Nazism, indeed, can distract attention from how the other movements, too, were driven by both internal and external dynamics.
 It is pertinent to see how the deregulated precursors to more recent versions of neoliberalism ushered in the Great Depression. But market ideologues soon pretended, with Hayek taking the lead, that it is Keynesian policies that place society on “the road to serfdom”. Polanyi was amused by Hayek’s denial of marketeer responsibility for the Great Depression. He therefore felt confident that Hayekism would never return to a position of prominence in western democracies. He was ohhh so wrong on that last point. But his recognition of general sources of the first wave of Fascist movements and our recent experience do suggest that the cross-regional victories of neoliberalism, with its drives to periodic crisis, austerity programs, and attacks on worker security, readily establish preconditions for Fascistic eruptions.
 Today, you might say, new dislocations have emerged to challenge several democracies. The escalation of refugee pressures has been deployed to incite racism in several countries. Job insecurities and stagnating wages, generated by the hegemony of neoliberal regimes and the decline of labor movements, exacerbate these pressures. The droughts in Syria, the Sub-Sahara, and Latin America, linked in part to galloping climate change, already help to spawn civil wars and the flows of desperate refugees. They also pull American constituencies, drawn to the myth of a golden age when coal, oil, gas, massive highway projects, and automobility were kings, to leaders who blame their troubles on immigration, racial integration, trade agreements, and ethnic pluralization. These constituencies become susceptible to false promises to return to a manufacturing era that gave them entitlements. Such developments vary significantly across regimes, of course, but variations are discernible in the United States, the UK, Poland, Italy, Hungary and Turkey. A series of local surges with cross-regional affinities. A new version of the world Polanyi charted for the 1930s.
What needs close attention today, however, is how several authoritative analyses replace the old designation of Fascist movements with that of “Populist” movements. The label Polanyi used to review multiple movements in the 1930s is now refused by many critics. Take, to cite merely one example, the new book by Levitsky and Ziblatt on How Democracies Die. “Populists are antiestablishment politicians—figures claiming to represent the voices of the people, wage war on what they depict as a corrupt and conspiratorial elite. Populists tend to deny the legitimacy of established parties…And they promise to bury the elite and return power to the people.” (p. 22)
 Levitsky and Ziblatt do capture aspects of the current crisis in democracy, attending to how the movements they decry undermine democratic norms. And they certainly realize that democracies can die. But they underplay the deeper sources of that erosion and focus too much on how party reform can restore “guardrails” of democratic governance. What, speaking more generally, is deficient about accounts couched as critiques of Populism?
  First, the reduction of the new movements to Populism tends to cover Left Populism and Right Populism under the same umbrella. That encourages the call for establishment guardrails to foreclose both movements from the Left and Right. But it can be argued--I do argue--that a focus on guardrails alone reproduces the conditions that created the crisis in the first place. It under plays how radical actions within universities, corporations, localities, and the state challenged ordinary party politics as it extended the pluralization of civic culture. And it ignores how the market fundamentalism of the neoliberal Right and the pluralizing politics of the cultural Left—while each resisted the other--caught many members of the white working and middle classes in a bind between them. That bind increased their job insecurities, produced wage stagnation, made it more difficult to send their kids to college in an economy where a high school education is not enough, and made them highly vulnerable to the debt and underwater mortgages spawned by neoliberal meltdowns. The bind even encouraged some within the liberal Left to characterize this constituency in disparaging terms it would find to be outrageous if they were applied to Blacks, women, Jews, Mexicans, Muslims or others. Think of the words white trash, hillbillies, and crackers for starters. The binds in which they are caught primed the “deplorables” to listen to the voices of aspirational Fascism.
Second--a related point--while deriding "populist" rhetoric on the Right, generic antipopulists also tend to deflate egalitarian, pluralizing and democratic rhetorical practices desperately needed to counteract the rhetoric of aspirational fascism today. Antipopulists sometimes act as if they want rule by democratic elites to be almost as automatic--once the election is over--as neoliberals pretend markets are when they are left free to rumble. Such an elective affinity between lovers of regular party rule and lovers of untrammeled markets is not too surprising; the two parties had already arranged a rocky marriage contract. What is urgently needed today, however, are democratic activists with rhetorical powers to both activate several minorities and inspire the higher angels of a larger faction of the white working and middle classes. The dispersed working class in fact has become a minority itself today. The leaders must call for radical changes that draw these constituencies closer together, rather than exacerbating divisions between them. More about that soon. They will do so in ways that repeatedly expose the Big Lie Scenarios of aspirational Fascism as they ground their own inspirations in evidence based claims. Think of the differences here between William Barber and Donald Trump. And, on another register, the differences between Hillary Clinton and Barber, with the former too crippled by her own neoliberalism to address real class issues of the day.
Beto O'Rourke and Veronica Escobar Lead March on Tent City
 Third, democracy does not consist merely of representation through open elections, compromises between governing elites, and consensus on guardrails. Representative democracy stands in creative tension with its indispensable double: creative social movements to open up new possibilities in the domains of worker entitlement, ethnic diversity, religious plurality, income egalitarianism, climate action, and gender diversity. The fact that some constituencies on that list have made precarious advances over the last few decades, while the working class has faced declining entitlements and growing insecurities, means that this second dimension of democracy must be widened again. Critics of generic "Populism" do not appreciate sufficiently the need for such social movements. Their one-dimensional definition of representative democracy—often joined to softness on a neoliberalism that demeans social movements even more belligerently—depreciates citizen activism as an essential ingredient of democracy. Such a combination of elite guardrails and softness on neoliberalism, however, promises to reproduce the condition the elites purport to fight against. That, indeed, is how we got here.
 Fourth, while the democratic Left might hope to win a Presidential election with an inspiring candidate, it cannot create large enough Congressional majorities unless it makes substantial inroads into the large fly-over zones between the two coasts. This, too, means that a larger segment of the dispersed white working class must be drawn again into its orbit. Entrenchment by the radical Right in small towns and rural districts--joined to a ruthless ideology and extreme gerrymandering--shows how the politics of stalemate deepens when a Democrat wins the White House. The politics of gridlock, however, is precisely the politics that attracts aggrieved low information voters to listen to definitive, ruthless incitement from authoritarian leaders. A cascade process is set into motion here. 
 Fifth, while ideologues of aspirational Fascism stoke white nationalism, a territorial Wall, fossil fuels, racism, and stories of a climate hoax to return to a golden 1950s era when an old manufacturing regime prevailed--it is nonetheless insufficient to use the language of racism and misogyny to oppose them. Those practices certainly must be identified and rooted out, and it is important to emphasize how the 1950s brought McCarthyism. But, it is now clear: in order to surmount racism and misogyny you must also support general policies to render the infrastructure of consumption more inclusive, to make public college tuition free, to protect low and middle income people from retrograde bankruptcy proceedings after a meltdown, to improve the legal power of labor unions, to reverse finance laws that allow the rich to steal elections, to build a sustainable power grid, to support universal health care, to protect worker retirements after a company closes, and to reduce the income discrepancy between the highest and lowest paid workers in each firm. Several of these proposals would provide more working and middle class people in many subject positions with better jobs and living conditions. But such proposals fall into categories that some pundits place under the label of Left Populism. Neglect or repudiation of such programs incites temptations by caught many in the binds described to tolerate or succumb to aspirational Fascism.
 Is it really wise to define virulent movements on the Right as carriers of aspirational Fascism? One reason it is wise to do so is that it allows us to draw selectively from energies conservative democrats and neoliberals now sink into a vague muddle called Populism. The change in labels additionally underlines how serious the danger from the Right is today. Aspirational Fascists already use Big Lies every day, conspire with hostile foreign powers to rig elections, make vicious attacks on the media as “enemies of the people”, instill racism, engage in minority voter suppression, advance militarism, threaten wars, assert the President to be a Sovereign above the law, strive to turn the Justice Department into a tool of elite gangsterism, make thinly denied appeals to vigilante groups, use the Presidency as a corrupt vehicle for a family business, demand unquestioning support from the courts, and support local police violence. They are already Fascist in both achievement and ambition.
GOP Nominee for Virginia Senate Seat Corey Stewart
What would they do if they succeeded even more on several fronts? They would become more oppressive yet in their use of the IRS, racism, intimidation of the media, corruption of courts, use of Reichstag temptations to mobilize the base, voter suppression, militarism, support of vigilantism, alliances with local police, and infiltration of the academy. They would define all adversaries to be "enemies of the people", as they winnow down what counts as "the people". They would transfigure democratic institutions into mechanisms of oppressive rule. They would deploy the separation of powers as a cover more than be restrained by it. What looked like a Populist movement to proponents of one dimensional democracy before it seized power would surface as Fascism if it consolidated power.

We already inhabit the era of aspirational Fascism, then. It is unwise to assume that the separation of powers and elite protection of old guardrails will suffice to defeat that movement. It may do so, but it is unwise to count on it alone without large doses of citizen activism. It is more wise to recall how a set of neoliberal Republicans-- so recently proud of free trade deals, originalist judges, the “rational” market, tax cuts for the rich, and dog whistles over overt racism--have slunk either into silence or toward ebullient Trumpism. The differences between them and Trump have been squeezed by complementary desires to mobilize a governing assemblage composed of rich donors, leading financial elites, white evangelicals, the white working and middle classes, Big Lie Scenarios, minority voter suppression, a territorial Wall, and a Fascist leader exempt from criticism, judicial action or legislative review. We live during a moment when a new crisis is apt to place democracy even more severely at risk. Citizens who love democracy may soon have to take to the streets, twitter mobilizations, town halls, and phone banks to force accountability from leaders who seek to evade it.
I am aware that a faction on the Left contends that democracy forms a thin varnish on top of capitalism. They exaggerate. Democracy and capitalism do chafe against each other; neoliberal capitalism places democracy under severe pressure; and a neoliberal/evangelical resonance machine places it under extreme pressure, as I diagnosed in Capitalism and Christianity, American Style in 2008. But, as Theodore Adorno found, after the “veneer” had been ripped off Weimar democracy, democracy had in fact been closer to a skin than to a veneer. Tearing it off created a bloody mess. The crisis of capitalism and democracy, in that instance, ushered in Fascism, when many communists had thought it would open the door to Communism. Capitalism with democracy provides footholds and handholds at many sites from which significant change can sometimes be pursued, including radical changes in the growth imperatives that both shape capitalism and threaten the future during the Anthropocene. Late modern capitalism without democracy, on the other hand, becomes Fascism. This is so because extra repression is needed to stifle constituencies accustomed to democratic citizenship. Such repression would find expression in numerous institutions--from localities, schools, churches, police departments, and corporations to governing state institutions of the day. It is thus unwise to wait for democracy to collapse in the hope of installing a new Kingdom of Heaven. That lesson has been taught before; aspirational Fascism teaches it again.


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