The worst thing would be to trivialise or downplay the entry of neofascism into Donald Trump’s White House.
We finished writing Creeping Fascism: Brexit, Trump, and the Rise of the Far Right about a month after Trump’s inauguration. This was too soon for a serious analysis of the new regime. Now, approaching the end of the first 100 days, we can see things more clearly – assisted by the rich insights to be found in John Bellamy Foster’s latest article in Monthly Review, ‘Neo-Fascism in the White House’, which I strongly recommend.
Much of the new theoretical work hinges, of course, on the obvious differences between the ‘first-wave’ sledgehammer fascism of the interwar period and the ‘second-wave’ creeping fascism of our own.
In the early 1930s, the two largest economies, those of the US and Germany, went off a cliff, with unemployment hitting one in four within three years of the Wall Street Crash. Social polarisation was extreme, the breakdown of ‘politics as usual’ rapid. In Germany, the class struggle pitted a still-powerful working class against a rising fascist movement, with frequent open clashes by armed paramilitaries of the Left and the Right.
The situation today is radically different. The economic crisis in the major economies (though not in the periphery) is slower and more shallow; we are seeing a much more gradual process of stagnation-slump and social decay. This occurs, moreover, in a society which has already been substantially hollowed-out by neoliberalism; most notably, there have been catastrophic declines in union membership, workplace organisation, and strike rates over the last 30 years, so that the economic plunge after 2008 and the vicious austerity attacks launched by the ruling class since have (so far) engendered only weak and ineffective resistance.
In contrast to the situation in Germany in 1932, for example, the social terrain is characterised by a general malaise, by widespread apathy and resignation, and by historic levels of political disillusionment and disengagement (‘the democratic deficit’). In crude class terms, the rate of exploitation – both at the point of production and at the point of consumption – has continued to rise sharply since the 2008 Crash, with wealth being hoovered upwards to the rich, the banks, and the corporations, resulting in levels of global inequality without historic precedent. It is now the case that the half dozen richest men in the world (they are all men) – the occupants of a golf buggy – have the same wealth as the poorest 50% of humanity.
This terrain, in the absence of effective working-class resistance, is increasingly dominated by the Far Right. The fascists are feeding off the atomisation, alienation, and anomie at the base of society. In the hollowed-out spaces of the neoliberal dystopia – in the social vacuum created by the system’s rampant individualism, consumerism, and greed – they can quickly attract a mass following. The human wreckage of the capitalist crisis becomes the raw material for fashioning new fascist movements around the myths of nation, race, and family. In Creeping Fascism, we speak of the mass base of the neo-fascist movements as comprising ‘human dust’. We stand by this. There is no class basis – that is, no basis in a class acting for itself – represented by these movements. They are agglomerations of discontented individuals around a cocktail of blood-and-soil mysticism, anti-migrant and Islamophobic racism, and a large dose of psychotic rage.
1) The contested state
I want to make three new points based on the experience of Trump’s first 100 days (with due acknowledgement in places to John Bellamy Foster). The first concerns the fraught relationship between the Trump regime in the White House – the executive function of government – and several other parts of the US state apparatus.
What is clear is that the fascists control the executive, but not the legislature (Congress), the judiciary, the security services, or the military. Congress has contested some top government appointments and has blocked (for the time being) the dismantling of Obamacare. The judiciary has challenged executive decrees, most notably in the case of the Muslim ban.
In relation to the security services (‘the deep state’), we have the bizarre spectacle of the US police and spy agencies investigating alleged serious malpractice on the part of Trump and his entourage – with the real possibility of this leading to criminal prosecution of top regime personnel and even impeachment of the president. Whether this is preparation for a soft coup – to take out a president who is obviously mentally unbalanced, totally unfit for office, and, as far as the US ruling class is concerned, out of control – or simply a matter of firing warning shots in an internal power struggle is impossible to judge. But it is certainly without precedent in US history.
Then there is the military. The ousting of the maverick pro-Trump Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor and his replacement by the more conventional hawk Herbert McMaster represents a shift towards the mainstream military, and perhaps a relative weakening of key fascist personnel like Steve Bannon.
It is important not to overstate the significance of all this. All fascist regimes are hybrids, involving some mix of traditional elites, the existing state, and the fascist ‘new men’. All are subject to internal conflict. Even so, by 1926 – that is, within four years of becoming prime minister – Mussolini had constructed a totalitarian dictatorship, and Hitler had achieved the same by the middle of 1934 – that is, in his case, less than a year and a half after his appointment as chancellor. Their respective regimes remained hybrids, but the fascists were dominant, all opposition parties had been banned, and what the Nazis called Gleichschaltung (‘bringing into line’) of state and society had been accomplished.
By comparison, it seems clear that Trump’s victory in 2016 has far less significance than that of Mussolini in 1922 or Hitler in 1933. Gleichschaltung seems far more remote. The US ruling class and the US state seem much more out of synch with Trump than either the Italian or the German elites were with Mussolini and Hitler. The space for dissent, organisation, and resistance remains wide. But we should beware. The situation could change rapidly. Time may not be on our side. We must act now.
2) Neoliberalism on speed
In the 1930s, the fascists adopted a coherent economic programme based on one variant or another of state capitalism. As we explain in Creeping Fascism:
The aim was autarchy – national self-sufficiency – through the construction of an independent economic bloc insulated from the vagaries of world trade (the opposite of ‘globalisation’). To achieve this, the state had to become a major economic actor … State intervention took various forms: protectionist tariffs, capital controls, and currency management to control inflows of foreign goods and stem outflows of domestic capital; deficit spending to fund infrastructure projects, mop up unemployment, and inject demand into the economy; and state contracts to private capital, especially heavy industries, construction firms, and arms manufacturers.
No such programme is possible today. In the early 20th century, it was still the case that most large corporations had one primary national base. In the early 21st century, the dominant corporations, both financial and industrial, are truly global. They have broken the national shell and operate as international mega-corporations able to treat with even the most powerful nation-states on equal terms, trading investment in return for tax breaks, subsidies, and deregulation. In the epoch of global financialised monopoly-capitalism, no nation-state can construct an autarchic ‘siege economy’ in opposition to the giant banks and conglomerates that control the world’s capital flows.
What is clear is that the Trump regime – despite all the rhetoric about America first, American jobs, making America great again – is the most thoroughly neoliberal regime in US history. As John Bellamy Foster explains,
Although Trump promised to fight crony capitalism and to ‘drain the swamp’, he has filled his cabinet with billionaires and Wall Street insiders, making it clear that the state will do the bidding of monopoly-finance capital… Trump’s initial 17 cabinet picks … had a combined wealth that exceeded that of a third of the population of the country. This does not include Trump’s own wealth, reputedly $10 billion. Never before has there been so pure a plutocracy, so extreme an example of crony capitalism, in any US administration.
It is worth interjecting a British parallel. Phil Hearse has argued that Brexit can be interpreted as an internal Tory Party coup which ousted the soft ‘one nation’ Tories around Cameron and replaced them with a regime of hard ‘Thatcherite’ Tories under May. The aim of the Tory Right is to ‘complete’ the Thatcherite programme of deregulation, privatisation, and corporate power. By cutting adrift from Europe, they free themselves up to abolish social protections and environmental safeguards, undercut continental businesses, and create a low-wage sweatshop combined with tax haven and money-laundering centre.
So we appear to be witnessing an acute intensification of the neoliberal counter-revolution pioneered by Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s; a second phase, if you like, in that project, where government is more openly colonised by representatives of big capital, where all pretence of politics in the service of society as a whole is abandoned, and where corporate power is allowed to run rampant and the greed of the rich given free rein.
In this context, the meaning of creeping fascism is simple: it is the use of nationalism and racism to distract attention, channel discontent, demonise sundry alien ‘Others’, and justify the suppression of dissent and resistance.
3) Neoconservatism on overcharge
The Trump regime has just fired 57 Tomahawk missiles at Syria, dropped a massive Moab bomb on Afghanistan, and dispatched a flotilla of warships to North Korea. It seems to be projecting military power against three enemies at once: against the Assad regime and its Russian backers; against the Islamists; and against North Korea and its Chinese backers. What is going on?
Some of us have long argued that the historic decline of US capitalism lies behind recent US aggression, especially in the period since the 9/11 bombing of the Twin Towers in 2001 and the launching of the self-proclaimed ‘War on Terror’. In 1945, the US controlled about 50% of global production, and its overwhelming economic supremacy meant that sheer market power was sufficient for it to hegemonise the Western world – and compel its Soviet enemy to use naked military power to protect its own empire in the East against US penetration.
The US economy now accounts for only about 20% of global production, and predictions are that China will displace it as the largest economy in the world next year. Yet the US military – for the time being at least – retains massive supremacy over all other militaries. So the policy has been to use that continuing military predominance to compensate for declining economic clout. The Iraq War, for example, involved the use of military power to topple a dictator, seize another country’s wealth, and sell it off to US multinationals.
Trump’s military aggression appears to be an intensification of this neocon geopolitical strategy. Each stunt is a demonstration of US military power with multiple effects. It plays to the domestic base by presenting an image of a presidential strong man defending US interests against ‘the bad guys’ – Trump cannot deliver jobs to the rustbelt, but he can drop bombs on Muslims. It plays to allies like May, desperate to insinuate her way into a closer US alliance as the Brexit crisis unfolds. It rattles rivals like Russia’s Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, serving warning of US capacity and resolve in the event of rising international discord. And it serves to create a ‘state of tension’, to militarise politics, to marginalise dissent, and to legitimise Trump’s planned 10% increase in US military spending.
Since I am in full agreement with him, let me conclude by quoting John Bellamy Foster:
The worse thing in present circumstances, I believe, would be if we were to trivialise or downplay the entry of neofascism into the White House or the relation of this to capitalism, imperial expansion, and global exterminism (climate change and the growing dangers of thermonuclear war).
An effective resistance movement against the Right … requires the construction of a powerful anti-capitalist movement from below, representing an altogether different solution, aimed at epoch-making structural change. Here the object is overturning the logic of capital, and promoting substantive equality and sustainable human development.
Such a revolt must be directed not just against neofascism, but against neoliberalism – i.e. monopoly-finance capital – as well. It must be concerned with the struggles against racism, misogyny, xenophobia, oppression of LGBTQ people, imperialism, war, and ecological degradation, as much as it is with class exploitation, necessitating the building of a broad unified movement for structural change, or a new movement toward socialism.
Neil Faulkner, with Samir Dathi, is the author of Creeping Fascism: Brexit, Trump, and the Rise of the Far Right.
Illustration by artist Jamie Reid, who has adapted the legendary artwork he created for the record God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols.
Creeping Fascism: Brexit, Trump, and the Rise of the Far Right
A tide of racism, nationalism, and authoritarianism is sweeping the world. With the world economy hobbled by debt and stagnation, society being torn apart by austerity and inequality, and a political system paralysed by corporate power, support for the Far Right is surging. This new book by Dr Neil Faulkner and Samir Dathi argues that we face the clear and present danger of ‘creeping fascism’.