Whither America? Responses to Floris D’Aalst

Floris D’Aalst’s “Whither America?” provides plenty of food for thought. Split into three sections, it first examines reasons for us industrial decline before moving on to dissect the class composition of the contemporary American political scene. Once this has been accomplished, it outlines tasks for revolutionaries. As the author himself openly admits, the second section is the most controversial. The majority of my remarks will thus concentrate there, but we may proceed roughly in order.

D’Aalst begins by sketching the country’s postwar economic development, with a focus on deindustrialization. He pinpoints its cause in three main factors:

  1. geographic diversification of the workforce, both within the United States and offshore;
  2. the real subsumption of labor by capital, with technological innovations granting specific firms a short-term advantage before becoming generalized; and
  3. the falling rate of profit.

Without question, this is the strongest section of the paper. It might even be reproduced elsewhere as a condensed introduction to the topic. Especially vivid here is D’Aalst’s example of steel production, the gradual reduction in man-hours necessary to galvanize and process the metal, illustrating perfectly the dynamics of unemployment that follow.

More contentious is the second section, which is further divided into two subsections on the rise of a new conservatism following the 1974 oil crisis and possibilities for renewed class struggle amidst accelerated climate change. Both present problems. Let us deal with them one at a time, then, starting with the former. Although D’Aalst contextualizes the origins of today’s rightwing oppositional culture quite well, he fails to highlight important fissures within the so-called “neo-Right, neo-fascist” bloc (which is treated as more or less unitary). For instance, its institutional apparatus and sources of funding are laid bare, but no effort is made to parse the distinct — indeed, often contradictory — elements that comprise the Trump coalition. To do so requires a bit more finesse.

Of the various theorists who have analyzed the nascent “alt-Right” ideological formation, Matthew Lyons is by far the most insightful. Itself a fairly complex phenomenon, as he points out, it nevertheless sits in uneasy tension with the neoliberal and neoconservative factions that have dominated the Republican Party since the seventies. Protectionist tariffs chafe against the free trade policies of Reagan, while the isolationist drift of alt-Right ideologues brings it closer to the paleo-conservativism of Pat Buchanan than the hawkish neo-conservatism that held sway under Bush II.1 Even D’Aalst seems dimly aware of this fact, noting in passim the way Trump’s overtures to Vladimir Putin and words of praise for Kim Jong-Un “[render] the neocon policy wonks and media apoplectic.”

Notwithstanding the tax cuts Trump managed to pass, his bloated budgetary allowances send the congressional “Freedom Caucus” into fits. Steve Bannon’s immortal line about House Speaker Paul Ryan, reportedly calling him “a limp-dick motherfucker born in a petri dish outside the Heritage Foundation” in 2016,2 comes to mind. To be sure, one should be careful not to overstate the incompatibility of these elements. John Bolton, a dyed-in-the-wool neoconservative, was later brought on as Trump’s National Security Advisor — having first been rejected on account of his mustache.3

All the same, D’Aalst is onto something with his diagnosis of “a dense lumpenized middle stratum” at the forefront of Trumpian discontent. Under this category he groups a number of down-on-their-luck petty proprietors, whose diminished job prospects fuel their xenophobia and nativism. Furthermore, the second subsection gets off to an auspicious start with lengthy quotes from the late Will Barnes, an independent scholar whose writings seem very relevant today.4 However, I do not share any of D’Aalst’s optimism regarding the younger generation of “socialist millennials,” whom he believes to possess “a non-racialized awareness” thanks to changes in school curricula during the 1980s. D’Aalst insists that this is a “rational hope,” but I am compelled to disagree.

Education alone is not enough to do away with systemic issues such as racism or sexism, which reproduce themselves ideologically along preexisting lines: namely, those laid down by the division of labor and its segmentation across different portions of the population. What is perhaps even worse, moreover, is the fact that liberalism’s proposed solutions to these problems only exacerbate them further. On college campuses, ostentatious gestures of disavowal are encouraged, urging students to check their privilege or other well-intentioned but superficial palliatives. Needless to say, none of these do anything to touch the underlying causes of racism, sexism, etc.5 This in no way excuses reactionary politics founded upon the specter of “political correctness gone mad,” of course, but it does not hurt to at least acknowledge that such gestures are ineffectual.

It therefore strikes me as extremely naïve to hope, as D’Aalst does, that “self-consciously ‘white’ workers will ‘age up’ and no longer be significant for the class relation.” Similar hopes were held by Democratic Party pollsters and statisticians just a few years ago, believing demographic shifts (a less “white” population, thanks to immigration) would shore up their electoral base and undermine the GOP. Unfortunately for them, politics does not work in so straightforward a fashion. Voters who considered themselves white in their countries of origin would soon feel the same way here.

The third section raises several key questions for revolutionary communists, which we will have to weigh carefully in the years to come. Apart from an inexplicable aside on 9/11 midway through, which reads more as a private hobbyhorse than anything deserving public refutation,6 this is a strong segment. Particularly pressing is the scenario D’Aalst envisions where state power has been seized by the proletariat, but zones of habitation continue to be threatened by runaway climate change. How will revolutionaries manage society’s metabolism with nature? Loren Goldner already includes in his “first hundred days” program “measures to deal with the atmosphere, [rapidly] phasing out fossil fuel use.”7 But maybe a more drastic course of action is called for today.

Concluding his essay, D’Aalst reflects on the potential geopolitical implications of a trade war. Whether trade wars inevitably lead to shooting wars is hard to say, though he might be proved right in the years to come. Military conflicts can be set off by any number of unforeseen incidents and eventualities, as seen recently with the sudden escalation in Ukraine. In any case, turbulent waters lie ahead.

  1. Lyons identifies American paleo-conservatism as one of the major “ideological forerunners” to the contemporary alt-Right, the other being the European Nouvelle Droite. See Matthew Lyons. “Ctrl-Alt-Delete: The Origins and Ideology of the Alternative Right.” Political Research. (January 20, 2017).

  2. Quoted in Joshua Green. Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Nationalist Uprising. (Penguin Books. New York, NY: 2018). Pg. 188.

  3. “Bolton’s mustache is a big problem… Trump does not think he looks the part.” Steve Bannon, quoted in Michael Wolff. Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. (Henry Holt & Co. New York, NY: 2018).

  4. See the editors’ “Note on Will Barnes.” Insurgent Notes. (April 10, 2015).

  5. N— Ch—. “Social Justice: Noble, but Doomed to Fail.” Intransigence. (№ 3: November 2018). Pgs. 9-13.

  6. D’Aalst recognizes this, writing: “Now there is good reason why revolutionary communist websites and discussions forums do not take events like 9/11 up (but there is no good reason why the same often parrot the official line): Open a site or forum to discussion of such events and there’ll be arguments whether the Queen of England and, or, the Vatican in pursuit of Satanic rituals control the world of great capitalist finance.” Knowing this, it is strange that he chooses to give vent to baseless conspiracy theories about jet fuel not being able to melt steel beams, or speculations about “controlled detonations,” in the preceding paragraph. I doubt, moreover, that “September 11 is still the myth of our time binding the working class to ‘its’ nation,” or that “no revolutionary transformation is possible without breaking the back of this myth.”

  7. Loren Goldner. “Fictitious Capital and the Transition Out of Capitalism.” Libcom. (November 17, 2005).

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