Let us Burn All Illusions in 2021
Left Turn welcomes the year 2021 without any illusions about the nature of the system that produced the severe political, economic, and public health crises of 2020 and the new horrors surely on their way if we as a society fail to counteract the ingrained tendencies and deliberate policies that have produced the present unsustainable historical moment. We do not share with the liberal class the sense of optimism that has been generated by the electoral defeat of the Trump regime if it only entails the removal from office of the Trump malignancy without embarking on a massive and disruptive collective struggle demanding a substantive change of course in policymaking and a radical reconstruction of society from below.
That’s not to say we understate the removal of Trump from office, rather we think it’s a necessary, yet insufficient, step toward weakening the most reactionary forces in the U.S. and in the world, where rightwing forces have ascended. To decisively change the balance of forces in the longer run, We the People must resist a return to the pre-Trump “normal” of rule by the hawkish neoliberal elites. Clearly, such a return is precisely what the powers that be intend. We are in for a rude awakening if we let them succeed.
Let’s not forget the complicity of the neoliberal elites in creating the conditions for the rise of the reactionary forces in the first place. For decades, they pursued pro-corporate policies at home and abroad, abandoned the working class in favor of the professional suburbanites and the unions for the big-tech donors, pushed austerity at home, and pursued interventionism abroad. When an electoral insurgency a la Bernie Sanders emerged in 2016 and 2020, promising to pursue mild social democratic policies, the neoliberal establishment united to ensure its defeat.
Can we not agree that (1) the neoliberal order has led to greater public disempowerment, resentment, and distrust of institutions, and (2) blocking social democratic alternatives under such conditions only further empowers even more retrograde and reactionary forces? If we agree, then, a return to the pre-Trump ‘normal’ would very likely mean the strengthening of the present reactionary tendencies with the additional possibility that a less unhinged and more competent personality might assume the leadership position.
Just because the country witnessed its highest level of voter participation since 1908, the election of several additional progressives to national legislative offices, and a new administration with the most “diverse” and intersectional staff heretofore, does not warrant complacency. What matters most are policies and our ability to force changes. We know that the Biden administration represents business-as-usual politics and has filled key positions with familiar neoliberal politicians from the previous administrations. Their raison d’être is serving corporate power and the U.S. empire albeit with a touch of diversity or a heavy reliance on identity politics optics.
Millions of people voted for Biden without any illusions about what he represents. The corporate Democrats and the media are busy trying to convince people Biden is a transformational president. Their talk of fairness, decency, empathy, healing is intended to press the snooze button and prevent the public from organizing and demanding Medicare For All, living wages, emergency “survival” checks, debt jubilee, free public education, moratorium on evictions, social housing, significant cuts in the military budget, vastly more progressive taxation, a New Green Deal, sustainable agriculture, healthy food, community policing, end to structural racism, end to the carceral state, and a just foreign policy. While they seek to take credit for Trump’s electoral defeat, we must make it clear that the people voted Trump out of office in spite of the Democratic Party not because of it. Similarly, it is up to the people to commit to struggles and actions on a scale sufficient to make business-as-usual politics costly for the governing class and force them to alleviate unnecessary suffering, prepare for future public health crises, reverse the ecocidal tendencies of the capitalist system, abolish nuclear weapons, and ultimately end the dictatorial rule of capital at home and abroad.
Let’s be clear, leaving the needs of the people unmet will only lead to more anger. And who is good at mobilizing public rage? The reactionary rightwing forces. The neoliberal Democrats will respond by trying to put us to sleep, and then the rightwing will reemerge stronger, doing what they are good at, especially given the absence of a real left opposition: channeling public rage into neofascist forms of politics.
Expect nothing transformative from the governing class. Resist the snooze button. The future depends on how we act.
Will we make ourselves ungovernable and demand the necessary course corrections? Will we engage in disruptive social and environmental struggles? Will we build independent institutions, working class parties, a labor movement capable of mobilizing millions of workers, democratic unions unafraid of challenging the power of the employing class and the state that serves them, worker-owned and operated workplaces? Will we use the strike weapon and fight to win the public to our side? Will we fight to end dependence on fossil fuels and for a just Green New Deal? Will we connect our various struggles, labor, environmental, anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-imperialist, uniting to give humanity a chance to reverse the course toward oblivion?
So much of this work depends on the clarity, energy, vision and level of commitment of the younger generations. They’re burdened with these crucial tasks. How they respond determines whether humanity will have a chance to thrive on this fragile planet.
Why Liberal Anti-Fascism Upholds the Status Quo
Is the fascist label useful in discussing Trumpism and the Jan. 6 Capitol riots by hardcore Trump supporters? Perhaps that’s a strange question to ask given the oft-repeated claim that “it can’t happen here” — a claim that’s been a staple of U.S. exceptionalism for a long while. However, the attack on the Capitol represented a crossing of a red line for the liberal managerial class. A liberal/centrist anti-fascist discourse has emerged as an extension of anti-Trumpism. Robert O. Paxton, professor of social sciences at Columbia University, wrote in Newsweek that the breach of Capitol “removes my objection to the fascist label…. The label now seems not just acceptable but necessary.” It’s clear that the label can be applied beyond the rioters to other Americans. 2017 polls indicated that 10% of the public supported the “alt-right,” with 9% (roughly 22 million people) calling holding neo-Nazi or white supremacist views acceptable.
Even so, there are clear grounds for concern about the liberal anti-fascist discourse. Here are some:
1) It blames Trump and his enablers for letting the cat out without explaining the conditions that produced Trumpism itself. Liberals call Trump and his enablers out for normalizing white supremacists and neo-Nazis, welcoming them in their ranks and coalitions, and using them as useful street thugs. They underscore the cult of personality around Trump, the dismissal of any news source that challenges him, the inflammatory discourse, the hostility to verifiable reality, and the spreading of untruths and violent conspiracies, especially the “Big Lie” of the stolen election. They view these as precursors to a full-blown fascism. As the Yale historian Timothy Snyder wrote in The NY Times Magazine on Jan. 9: “Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president. When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place…. Post-truth wears away the rule of law and invites a regime of myth.” We can agree yet we’re left without an explanation for what needs an explanation: Why do so many support Trump? That Trump is both cause and symptom eludes the liberal framing.
2) It reproduces the myth of the U.S. as a democracy. Elites repeat this claim ad nauseam. It doesn’t help either that politicians reflexively offer soothing speeches about constitutionalism every chance they get. The centrist discourse thus offers a simplistic picture of a fragile democracy threatened by Trump-incited proto-fascists, violent bigots, and insurrectionists. To be clear, fascism is real but bourgeois electoral politics doesn’t equal democracy. An oligarchic class has captured the state and exercises control over politics. They’ve managed to steal at least $50 trillion from the bottom 90% of the population since the 1970s. They’ve transformed politics into an art of austerity-pushing by corporate-backed careerist politicians. Their greatest fear is democracy, and they’ve used fascism to beat back democracy around the world. Those who accept the myth of U.S. democracy need to pay closer attention to history.
3) It ignores the roots of white supremacy and fascism in U.S. politics and culture. The U.S. is a settler colonial state with a history of genocide against the indigenous population. It’s also a racial capitalist state with centuries of slavery and racist terror against blacks. Racism is foundational to the U.S. Racist hooliganism and white nationalism are rooted in a history of extermination and super-exploitation.
4) It hides the complicity of the system and the elite in the rise of violent reactionary forces at home and abroad. The U.S. is an imperialist state with a history of global alliances with Pinochet-type fascist forces, ruinous wars of aggression, torture, and death by economic strangulation waged against mostly the darker nations of the world. There is also four decades of neoliberal assault on the population during which capital engaged in a counter-revolutionary class war to discipline the working class and roll back the New Deal gains it had made in the post-war era. Neoliberalism serves the oligarchs well while effectively abandoning the common good, causing despair and anger among the public. These conditions were replicated in other parts of the world as millions have become resentful and lost trust in institutions. Ignoring this history lets the elites hide their and the system’s complicity in using and empowering the far-right to prop up empire and class rule.
5) It lets the establishment use the Capitol riots to expand the powers of the national security state. The ex-CIA Director John Brennan likens the homegrown ultra-right to foreign insurgencies (say al-Qaeda), clearly implying a counterinsurgency approach to domestic “terrorism.” The Biden team he said is “now moving in laser-like fashion to try to uncover… what looks very similar to insurgency movements that we’ve seen overseas, where they germinate in different parts of the country… and it brings together an unholy alliance frequently of religious extremists, authoritarians, fascists, bigots, racists, nativists, even libertarians… there’s been this momentum… generated as a result of the demagogic rhetoric of people that’s just a part of government but also those who continue in the halls of congress.” Yesterday’s “deplorables” and “cultish members” are today’s “insurgents” and “terrorists.” The centrist consensus is pushing for a 9/11-style War on Domestic Terror. Yet, the U.S. is already a heavily militarized surveillance state needing no new coercive measures to confront violent ultra-right groups.
Late capitalist normality produced Trumpism. Liberal anti-fascism obfuscates this fact. Centrist liberals hide their role in upholding oligarchic class rule and hide the U.S. empire and its alliances with fascist forces. They support suppressing dissent to hide these facts and preserve the neoliberal global order. The U.S. has a tradition of suppressing the independent left. The capitalist carceral state is fascism. The genocide of the natives is fascism. Centuries of racial terror is fascism. Supporting fascists in the global South is fascism. As the Black Agenda Report’s columnist Margaret Kimberley told me, fascism is not “something new and Trumpian”; it’s “a mistake to think that he is unique.” The left should oppose the centrist liberal consensus on grounds of principle and self-preservation. Defeating fascism requires that we stop producing the conditions that give rise to it. That means building a radically different society. For now, let’s stop the elites from hijacking 1/6 to silence critical voices and make the world safe for capitalism.