Response to “Whither America?”

This is a useful and interesting piece. I agree with some aspects and disagree (strongly at points) with others. I will be concentrating on some areas of difference, notwithstanding some substantial agreements with the analysis of working class composition and the changing nature of the capitalist work process. I also should say that I’m far from certain that I adequately understand all of the author’s arguments. Hopefully this will not significantly undermine my criticisms.

The general theme of the essay is that a range of secular processes, largely, but not completely, internal, are driving us capitalism towards toward a fundamental crisis. This crisis will be politically defined by the emergence of an unstable nationalistic authoritarianism—Trumpism—that is presented as a modern neo-fascism which will dramatically increase the likelihood of global war and accelerate the development of environmental catastrophe. The revolutionary anti-capitalist left is pictured as essentially impotent and clueless in this scenario with only a faint hope raised in the final passage that: “…at this moment (the ‘moment’ of social collapse and essential civil war) …a withering critique of the primacy of profitability over need…will increasingly receive a hearing” (p. 24).

Much of the current us left shares some aspects of this perspective and I do as well; however there are many problems with the analyses and assumptions on which this version depends. These problems are magnified by the tendency of the author to present eminently debatable hypotheses as accepted fact. Let me start with a quick example of the problem from the very first paragraph: “…the bloc of classes underpinning Trump’s presidency permits him to fully engage in the one area of policy formulation where restrictions on presidential behavior are severely constrained…allowing him a free hand in pursuing…a trade war…” (apologies for the ellipses which will continue through these criticisms).

In the first place, the proposition that there is a distinctive bloc of classes that supports Trump must be argued for to justify its function in the essay. Here it is presented as a self-evident fact. In my opinion the class fragments that constitute Trump’s political base of the moment constitute an extremely unstable asymmetric coalition of various class fractions that don’t merit being termed a “bloc of classes.” It is a fragile political base lacking common short—or longer-term economic interests, and there is no apparent process through which such interests might develop. This base is riddled with contradictions and conflicts that don’t provide Trump a free hand on trade policy or any other issue. For evidence, consider the disorganized responses of his agricultural supporters to the impact of Chinese tariffs and his industrial supporters to restrictions on steel and aluminum imports.

The palpable contradictions within Trump’s political support raise serious questions whether it constitutes a “bloc of classes”, but that is only part of the difficulties with this remarkably casual argument. Trump trade policies will be “severely constrained” by a broad range of factors beyond the characteristics of his political base—notwithstanding any megalomaniacal rhetoric on the subject. These factors effectively deny him any “free hand” to pursue tariff wars or similar policies. Consider the effective political impact on his policy from the instability provoked in the commodities and equities markets from trade conflicts with China (even when the conflicts are still mainly at the stage of rumors and potentials).

Perhaps we should discount this point as an introductory polemical overstatement that is not representative of the major argument. However, the tendency to draw strong conclusions from weak facts while ignoring contradictory evidence and alternative hypotheses runs through the piece and I will be raising additional examples in the course of some criticisms.

Before getting to some of these specific issues, I would like to raise a more general problem. I think the essay lacks a clear delineation between two topics that should be kept distinct despite their many interconnections. On the one hand it analyses the circumstances and trajectory of the us capitalist social formation. On the other hand it implies an analysis of transnational capitalism in which the us is an important component. By not properly distinguishing between these issues, the argument tends to treat us capitalism as a simple proxy for the transnational capitalist system. This elevates historical factors unique to this country (sometimes factors that embody a questionable history) into essential drivers of the transnational capitalist system while giving negligible attention to how that global system impacts and interacts with politics in this country.

At what I regard as its better points, the analysis deals with processes that are features of the global system: us-based, massive debt-supported consumption (that is) fueling global expansion has formed the other side of the abandonment of domestic industry and with it domestic industrial employment for sites abroad (primarily in East Asia), a development that characterizes industrial Europe as well…overall global industrial employment has shrunk as productivity increased enormously. In and through this process, the us economy has undergone transformation from the world’s industrial dynamo to a rentier formation…” (p. 3).

While I have questions about the assertion that “global industrial employment has shrunk” (perhaps we are working with different definitions of industrial employment), this is a reasonable description of some significant global economic processes that the essay elaborates at a number of later points. However the author combines this line of argument with questionable assertions about us historical development to support a conception of a specific political alignment that he appears to think will dominate the global conjuncture. These posit the development of: “…a multi-centered, decentralized mass political party of the right…” (p. 3) and the eclipse of, “…the old liberal wing of the ruling class…in a political sense…” (p. 4). In the process of spelling out these points, major features of the global dynamics of struggles within the framework of capital and against that framework get lost in the narrative of an inexorable march towards fascism and social collapse—towards: “… the increasingly totalitarian, police despotic naked dictatorship of capital over society” (p. 8).

This argument is the main content of the first section of the piece. At a later point issues are raised that tend to undermine it, I think, although the author probably doesn’t see it that way. Here are a few of them:

(Trump and his capitalist supporters) …embody the protectionist and rentier interests of factions within the us ruling class who have been less successful in valorizing their capitals in an era of American de-industrialization. It is these capitals which have ‘lost the battle for modernization’ in the face of global competition…” (p. 21).

“…the ruling class domestic factions whose interests his presidency promotes are intent on dismantling global agreements and the centralized institutions of capitalist power that operate worldwide without regard to whether they are financial…exchange oriented… or political” (p. 21).

“Trump understands nothing of the financialization and rentierization of the us economy, nothing of the fictitious accumulation of multitudinous and unsatisfiable paper claims to real wealth and he understands nothing of the global supply chains which thickened throughout the 1990s and whose networks grew astronomically after 2000” (p. 23).

The question these points raise for me concerns how a sector of the ruling class that has “lost the battle of modernization” will manage to “eclipse the old liberal ruling class” and dominate the political trajectory of capitalist power in the us and globally, culminating in “… the increasingly totalitarian, police despotic naked dictatorship of capital over society” (p. 8). I will spend much of the rest of my response on this general topic.

I previously mentioned the essay’s argument that the capitalist ruling class had been structurally transformed as neo-liberalism supplanted ‘Fordism.’ Here is a more complete version of the argument: “At that moment, the old liberal wing of the ruling class became largely nonexistent in a political sense as the neo-liberal program initially took shape. And it was from this situation that the primacy of speculative financial investment in the us economy, and the ensuing renterization, arose” (p. 4, author’s emphasis).

I agree that that the transition from the Fordist model was associated with a range of changes in ruling class organization and ideology which, as the essay reasonably claims, “…objectively constituted recognition of the inability of declining mass production industries to form the foundations of renewed us capital accumulation…” (p. 8). However, I don’t agree that the main political substance of these changes is that, beginning from the mid-seventies, the hegemonic political tendency in the us ruling class increasing becomes a “neo-right, neo-Fascist Oppositional culture” (p. 4).

The essay makes the argument as follows: “The political culture that emerged in the 80s is what we have here characterized as ‘neo-right,’ nascently neo-liberal and today, more or less openly neo-fascist. Opposed to the reformist, welfare-statist perspectives characterizing high capitalism in its Fordist phase and embodied in the historically liberal wing of the Democratic Party…” (p. 8).

I would argue to the contrary that the changes in the ruling class that developed from this period are better understood as the emergence of ruling capitalist elites that are increasingly motivated by the transnational interests of capitalism, interests which are increasingly in tension with the stability and domestic tranquility of particular national capitalisms—including us national capitalism. The resulting conflicts certainly develop around questions of profitability, but they are particularly acute around issues of hegemony and political consent.

It is revealing that the author speaks of the “… neo-Right practices of the Reagan-Bush era” (p. 8) that have become hegemonic in the time of Trump. In fact developing neo-liberalism exhibits an essential continuity of political practice between the Reagan-Bush era and the subsequent Clinton–Bush Jr.–Obama period. This continuity of practice extends beyond this country and includes virtually all governing ruling class segments in the global system and most of those that make up the loyal opposition—notably incorporating parliamentary social democracy. In short, as a transnational capitalist system emerged, the array of capitalist political elites that identify with it have coalesced and dominate the levers of state power throughout the system—frequently to the detriment of capitalist nation states.

Neoliberal ideologies and political practice featuring the privatization of public assets, the dominance of markets, ‘free’ trade, control of information and communication systems, and the end to ‘welfare as we know it’ have been the major factors in the efforts of the capitalist ruling class to maintain profit and power in the late capitalist ‘New World Order.’ Contrary to the essay, this system of power is not equivalent to “… the increasingly totalitarian, police despotic, naked dictatorship of capital over society” (p. 8). It has not normally involved the overt reliance on the police power—even if it does include increasingly effective limitations on political democracy. The ruling elites continue to be concerned with their hegemony as well as their profits. They still have concerns with maintaining some elements of ‘consent’ among those that are ruled and the essential class ‘dictatorship’ still remains a good distance from being ‘naked.’ However capital’s potential to gain political consent from systems of differential material benefits such as Fordism—or from mirages of Fordism—is dramatically curtailed. Capitalist hegemony must be organized and developed via other factors.

As the contradictions within the global capitalist system intensify, the dominant sector of capital comes into sporadic conflict with a ‘losing’ minority of capitalist interests that often combine with a disaffected mass right wing constituencies in nativist populist movements, parties and regimes. Overwhelmingly the transnational capitalist elites see these developments as major destabilizing threats, and not, as the essay suggests, as a welcome facilitation of a path towards a fascist future.

Despite the growing problems facing the ruling elites and their difficulties maintaining a coherent and consistent politics, they continue to dominate most of the levers of state power globally and with some notable exceptions they are using this power to successfully oppose nativist populisms—including the disruptive elements of the Trump phenomenon. For the most part the global capitalist elites have been able to contain and dilute populism where they haven’t managed to defeat it.

The essay misses entirely the process by which the reactionary populist opposition to current capitalist power is being used by the currently dominant sectors of capital to develop a renovated approach to their hegemony. This involves a partially constructed and partially genuine popular fear of fascism being used to provide a basis for a cross-class social bloc that is not dependant on the substantive material and political concessions involved in the Fordist model. I have written at length elsewhere on these points and won’t go into them further here.

Instead, I’d like to indicate some significant gaps and errors in the historical treatment of what the essay terms the, “multi-centered, decentralized mass political party of the (neo) right.” (p. 3) This is a central concept in the conception of the development of ‘neoliberal fascism’ in the us (I think this neoliberal fascism concept initiated with Henry Giroux although it’s popping up in many places.) Athough this right wing political formation is described as hostile to the transnationalist capitalist order and as involving the sectors of capital that have “…‘lost the battle for modernization’ in the face of global competition…” (p. 21); it is paradoxically, in my opinion presented as the political vehicle which will lead to the “naked dictatorship of capital over society” (p. 8)?

There is little evident effort to describe this vehicle anywhere in the global capitalist system outside of this country. Perhaps this could be done, but it would certainly require more and different evidence and the elaboration of a different historical arguments than the ones that the essay uses for the United States. This makes a critical look at the historical arguments that are presented for this country more relevant.

The essay supports its picture of the development of the mass right wing movement in the us with some substantially manicured history. It requires a harsh hand with known facts to sustain the conclusion that, “… at the top that neo-Right power rejoins nativists, fascists and neo-Nazis on the ground” (p. 6). Most popular sectors of the mass right tendency, and certainly the elements that are closest to fascism, have historically been in opposition to notions of the “New World Order,” that is the essential feature of the “Reagan-Bush” neo-Right neoliberalism that this argument places as a major launching point for the neofascist political trajectory. No evidence is presented as to how this contradiction has been, or will be, transcended.

Consider the extended treatment of right wing ‘Think tanks’ on page five: they are presented as a major center of power in the “neo-right, neo-fascist Oppositional Culture” (p. 4). In reality, the great bulk of these groupings provide the ideological bulwark for ‘New World Order’ politics and are committed to a ‘never-Trumpism’ that is in explicit opposition to any insurgent populism or mass-based proto-fascism. Where does this fit with an emergent “neo-right, neo-fascist Oppositional Culture”?

Consider the following comment: “… the entire neo-right, neo-fascist culture has tied their defense of capitalism to climate change denial” (p. 14). This is factually dubious on many levels. There have been numerous manifestations of right-wing environmentalism, including some that are essentially eco-fascists; and there are significant fascist tendencies that use environmentalist arguments as a basis for an anti-capitalist politics. Both tendencies are evident in nativist opposition to immigration. On the other side a number of very pro-capitalist elements in those rightwing think tanks are not into climate change denial, while many nativist right-wingers oppose transnational capitalism in part because of its ecological destructiveness in what they see as ‘their’ territory.

Perhaps the most striking problem with the essay’s perspective on the emergence of fascist tendencies in us politics emerges in the section on the ‘Crisis of State Legitimacy’ (p. 15–16). This is the 9/11 Truther section, but that notorious dead-end for left analysis is not at the heart of the matter. The author uses it in an unexceptionable way to highlight how the denial of ‘conspiracy theories’ in general and alternative explanations of 9/11 in specific function as “…the myth of our time binding the working class to ‘its nation’ (i.e., to the ruling class, to its projects, and to capitalism)” (p. 16). I agree that one function of the attack on ‘conspiracy theories’ is to tie the population to ruling class narratives and obscure the effective power of the ‘deep state.’

Personally I’m quite open to conspiracy theories and averse to official explanations for a whole range of historical phenomena; the problematic lone assassins; various convenient coups and interventions, wars of questionable origins; and the multitude of extravagant corruptions. I also think there is significant substance to notions of the ‘Borg’ and/or ‘deep state.’ So I’m not at all put off by the author’s assertion that, “…there is something very much like a ‘deep state’ functioning within the structure of the bourgeois polity…” (p. 16).

However, what I find to be significant in most examples of potential ‘deep state’ intervention that come to mind is that they are carried out in the interests of the ruling sectors of capital—although sometimes these interests are misconceived. They are focused on maintaining the existing structures of power in the centers of capital, not on toppling it. I see the evidence of ‘deep state’ involvement in the startling emergence of Macron in France and, particularly, in the efforts of the anti-Trump ‘resistance’ to reverse the outcomes of the 2016 election. In the second of these examples, the organized role of the “…network of operatives housed inside the intelligence agencies, the military command structure and the Executive-based permanent bureaucracies…” (p. 16) is far more evident and their motives and goals are much easier to understand than can be said about any alternative explanations of 9/11.

That’s why the general approach of the essay to the topic seems so off-target: “… in the red hot heat of class confrontation, the presence of ‘deep state’ operatives in support of a fascist oppositional bloc guarantee civil war…” (p. 16). In my opinion, the ‘deep state’ and the other tools of capitalist state power will probably be aligned against any potential “fascist oppositional bloc”, and not incorporated as the author implies in what he sees as “… the Tendential direction of Capitalist Development” (towards fascism).

I intended to spend some more time on these criticisms although they are already self-indulgently long. However, I’ve encountered major computer problems and will cut it off here and hope my comments have some use.


2 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Steve,

    Don, You said “The essay misses entirely the process by which the reactionary populist opposition to current capitalist power is being used by the currently dominant sectors of capital to develop a renovated approach to their hegemony. This involves a partially constructed and partially genuine popular fear of fascism being used to provide a basis for a cross-class social bloc that is not dependant on the substantive material and political concessions involved in the Fordist model. I have written at length elsewhere on these points and won’t go into them further here.”

    Can you point to this other writing? Thanks.

  2. Don Hamerquist,

    Sorry, I took so long to respond to a simple request. Here’s a recent piece:

    I touch on the issues you cite in part l and treat them in more detail in part 3.

    Don Hamerquist

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