8th April 2021
On 6 January 2021, far-right protestors—many bearing Confederate flags, some open fascists—stormed the Capitol in Washington DC, seat of the United States Congress. Liberal and leftist commentators were quick to denounce the action, as a result of which five people died, as a coup. Did it fit Edward Luttwak’s classic “formal and functional definition of a coup”: “the infiltration of a small but critical segment of the state apparatus, which is then used to displace the government from its control of the remainder”?1
One obvious difference is that the assault on the Capitol was intended not “to displace the government” but to keep in office the existing administration of Donald Trump. Congress was meeting to certify the results of the presidential election of November 2020, in which Trump had been defeated by the Democrat Joe Biden. So the invaders of the Capitol were seeking to intimidate Congress into reversing the election result and keeping Trump in the White House. Naunihal Singh, another expert on coups, argues that their actions are best described as an “attempted insurrection”, because “it is the involvement of state security forces” that defines a coup.2
There were elements of high farce about this “insurrection”. The liberal historian Timothy Snyder commented, “No one appeared to have any very clear idea of how this was to work or what their presence would accomplish. It is hard to think of a comparable insurrectionary moment, when a building of great significance was seized, that involved so much milling around”.3 However, as more video footage of the assault came out, the actual and potential violence involved became clearer.
What those who chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” would have done if they had encountered Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, let alone the left-wing Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, does not bear thinking about. Ocasio-Cortez has described how she hid in her office bathroom in fear for her life.4 The FBI allege that one woman they arrested sent a video message to her children saying, “We were looking for Nancy to shoot her in the friggin’ brain, but we didn’t find her”.5 Inept the invaders may have been, but they were definitely very nasty too.
The left-wing British writer Paul Mason draws a useful comparison with the events of 6 February 1934 in Paris.6 Amid press agitation to replace the chaotic parliamentarism of the French Third Republic with an authoritarian regime, far-right leagues organised a demonstration, made up predominantly of ex-servicemen, seeking to attack the Palais Bourbon (seat of the Chamber of Deputies) and the presidential Élysée Palace. They were protesting against a politico-financial scandal surrounding the alleged suicide of the business adventurer Alexandre Stavisky and the formation of a government of the centre-left Cartel des Gauches (the liberal-bourgeois Radicals supported by the Socialist Party) headed by Édouard Daladier, who had just sacked the right-wing Paris police chief. They clashed violently with the police, who opened fire twice, killing 14 people and preventing the demonstrators reaching their targets.
Nevertheless, Daladier, despite having won two votes in the Chamber, resigned the next day. He was replaced by ex-president Gaston Doumergue, who formed a centre-right government that in effect reversed the outcome of the 1932 election, which the Cartel des Gauches had won. Doumergue was one of many right-wing politicians advocating the concentration of power in the hands of the executive. Leon Trotsky predicted that “the Doumergue government represents the first step of the passage from parliamentarianism to Bonapartism”.7
So on 6 February 1934, the far right failed to reach their targets but won a political victory. In contrast, on 6 January 2021, the far right got into the Capitol. However, they failed politically, at least in the short term. Whatever mixture of complicity, conspiracy and cockup ultimately explains the extraordinary failure of the Capitol police and the plethora of other security forces in Washington to protect Congress, the invaders were cleared out of the Capitol relatively quickly. There is no evidence of the leaders of the vast US national security state showing any sympathy with their cause. The political backlash saw key Trump enablers in the Republican leadership such as vice president Mike Pence and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell effectively disavow him. Congress reassembled to certify Biden’s election, and he was duly inaugurated on 20 January while Trump flew sulkily back home to Florida.
Nevertheless, the enormity of what had happened cannot be ignored. The US remains the most powerful capitalist state in the world. Office had been transferred peacefully from president to president since the first, George Washington, was elected in 1789. The inauguration of Washington’s latest successor took place protected by 25,000 armed National Guards. Nothing of the like had been seen since Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration in March 1861 amid threats of assassination, the secession of the slave states of the South and the beginnings of the Civil War. Even before the assault on the Capitol, the leading US Marxist Mike Davis had concluded his analysis of the 2020 election: “Deep structures of the past have been disinterred during Trump’s presidency and given permission to throttle the future. Civil War? Some analogy is inevitable and should not be easily dismissed”.8
Moreover, the polarisation of US politics isn’t just a local phenomenon, but something that can be seen on a global scale—in Europe with the growth of the far right there, but also beyond the imperialist core, for example, in Narendra Modi’s India and Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil. These developments need to be set in their proper historical context—the interplay of crisis, revolution and counter-revolution at work in the era of classical fascism and operating in modified form today. Unlike many other leftist interpretations of the rise of the far right today, my aim is to understand this as a global phenomenon.9
Classical fascism and the Age of Catastrophe
The greatest victories of the modern far right—the capture of power by Italian fascism (1922) and German National Socialism (1933) and General Francisco Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War (1936-9)—took place during what the Marxist Eric Hobsbawm has called the “Age of Catastrophe” between 1914 and 1945.10 The left-liberal historian Arno Mayer refers to this as “the general crisis and Thirty Years War of the 20th century”.11 This period had three defining features:
An epoch of inter-imperialist war: It was in these years that the economic and geopolitical rivalries among the Great Powers—the consequence of the generalisation of the capitalist imperialism pioneered by Britain—reached breaking point, precipitating two terrible and destructive world wars in 1914-18 and 1939-45. These destabilised existing economic, political and social structures and undermined their legitimacy, provoking a polarisation of politics towards both the extreme left (the Communist International) and the extreme right (authoritarian conservatives and fascists). The failure of the First World War to resolve the underlying antagonisms made a second edition highly likely;
The most severe depression in the history of capitalism: The Great Depression of the 1930s was organically connected with the inter-imperialist rivalries that exploded in the two world wars. Antonio Gramsci traced the source of imperialist expansion to Marx’s tendential law for the rate of profit to fall: “Capitalist Europe, rich in resources and arriving at the point at which the rate of profit was beginning to reveal its tendency to fall, had a need to widen the area of expansion of its income-bearing investment; thus, after 1890, the great colonial empires were created”.12 The inability of Britain, hitherto the hegemonic capitalist state, to manage the financial instability created by the First World War precipitated the deepest systemic crisis the capitalist mode of production has experienced; this intensified inter-imperial rivalries and only began to be overcome as the Great Powers switched to war production in the late 1930s;
Revolution and counter-revolution: The destruction and privations of the First World War created the context for the first socialist revolution, in Russia in October 1917, and for a wave of revolutionary upheavals inspired by it that swept through the most powerful European state, Germany, and reached as far as China in 1925-7. This in turn immediately unleashed a powerful reaction from the right, starting with the Russian Civil War and then the counter-revolutionary violence in Germany in which Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht perished. The war produced large numbers of socially dislocated young men who had become habituated to violence, many of whom were mobilised by the forces of reaction, from the Black and Tans in Ireland to the Freikorps in Germany and its borderlands. The early fascist organisations recruited heavily from this section of society.
Ruling-class politics, above all in continental Europe, was therefore dominated by counter-revolution, especially once the onset of the Great Depression had further destabilised existing structures. The tendency was towards authoritarian right-wing regimes that broke to a greater or lesser extent with the parliamentary forms exemplified by the leading liberal capitalist states of Western Europe, France and Britain, relying instead on repression by the military and the police. The historian Mark Mazower writes:
In most of Europe by the mid-1930s—outside the northern fringe—liberalism looked tired and the organised left had been smashed. The sole struggles over ideology and governance were taking place within the right—among authoritarians, traditional conservatives, technocrats and radical right-wing extremists. Only France continued its civil war between left and right through the 1930s, until that was ended by the Vichy regime. But civil war had already erupted briefly in Austria (in 1934), and more protractedly in Spain, before ending in right-wing triumph. In Italy, Central Europe and the Balkans, the right held sway.13
This trend towards a spectrum of forms of what Nicos Poulantzas calls the “exceptional capitalist state” (for example, fascism, military dictatorship and Bonapartism) is what Trotsky had in mind when he talked about Doumergue representing the beginnings of Bonapartism in France. He describes Bonapartism as “a regime of military-police dictatorship”:
As soon as the struggle of two social strata—the haves and the have-nots, the exploiters and the exploited—reaches its highest tension, the conditions are established for the domination of bureaucracy, police and soldiery. The government becomes “independent” of society… If two forks are stuck symmetrically into a cork, the latter can stand even on the head of a pin. That is precisely the schema of Bonapartism. 14
In the German case, Trotsky was thinking of the successive governments of Heinrich Brüning, Franz von Papen and General Kurt von Schleicher. Between 1930 and 1933, these administrations sought to manage the economic crisis (mainly through implementing austerity in order to appease the banks) by using the emergency powers of the president, Paul von Hindenburg, to rule by decree, thereby bypassing the Reichstag.15 Parliamentary government became a facade, behind which bureaucrats and generals called the shots in close alliance with the big bankers and landowners. This amounted to counter-revolution from above—forcibly imposing a capitalist solution to the economic crisis on the mass of the population (workers, peasants and petty proprietors) using the repressive apparatuses of the state.
As Mazower observes:
The crucial difference was between the regimes of the old right, who wanted to turn the clock back to a pre-democratic elitist era, and the new right who seized and sustained power through the instruments of mass politics. The former included Franco and the Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas, men who feared mass politics and allied themselves with bastions of the established order such as the monarchy and the church. In the Balkans, the right harked back to the 19th century, where a strong, autocratic monarch picked his ministers, supervised political parties and ran closely controlled elections.16
The prevalence of authoritarian right-wing regimes reflected the fact that, as Mayer puts it, “down to 1914 the interwoven landed and service nobilities throughout Europe continued to be dominant in the ruling classes”.17 Indeed, this continued to be the case in Central Europe for a further 25 years, despite the continent-wide financial dominance of the advanced liberal capitalisms of Britain and France. Counter-revolution therefore came as an extension of the existing political and social order.
Fascism, by contrast, represented counter-revolution from below. It emerged only rarely in its pure form (in Spain, for example, the fascist Falange was subordinated to Franco’s military dictatorship), in Italy under Mussolini and Germany under Hitler, effectively outflanking the authoritarian conservatives. It is not an accident that, aside from liberal France, Germany and Italy were the two most industrialised economies in continental Europe. Of course, these two societies were shaped by the process of uneven and combined development. They therefore exhibited what the German Marxist Ernst Bloch called in the mid-1930s the “contemporaneity of the non-contemporaneous”, the coexistence of social forms representing different historical times: the steel mills of the Ruhr or the car plants of Turin alongside the Jünker’s landed estates in East Prussia or the great latifundia of southern Italy.18 For Poulantzas, they were “the weakest links in the imperialist chain after Russia”.19
The dynamic of fascism, particularly in the purest case of National Socialism, involved especially: (i) a political style promising a revolutionary rupture with the present; (ii) an ideology counterposing a racially defined “national community” to destructive outsiders, crucially “cosmopolitan Jewish finance capital”, and characterised by virulent anti-Marxism; (iii) the construction of a mass movement with a paramilitary wing recruited especially from the petty bourgeoisie (small shopkeepers, petty producers more generally, the relatively privileged “salariat” of the inter-war years and professionals); (iv) a dynamic of radicalisation that found its fullest expression in power with the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe.20
Bloch recognised at the time the mass appeal of a kind of pseudo-revolutionary romantic anti-capitalism in Nazi ideology:
Apart from nastiness and speechless brutality, apart from stupidity and panic-stricken deceivability, which are illustrated by every hour and every word of the Germany of terror, there is an element of an older, romantic contradiction to capitalism, which misses things in present-day life and longs for something vaguely different. The susceptible situation of the peasants and employees has its different reflex here, and not merely one of backwardness, but occasionally one of genuine “non-contemporaneity” as well, namely of an economic-ideological remaining existence from earlier times… The temporal alienation of this contradiction facilitates both the deception and the pathos of “revolution” and reaction at the same time.21
Of course, the ruling class—capitalists, landowners, generals and state bureaucrats—would not lightly contemplate parties of this kind coming to power. It was only prepared to take the risk of supporting them in desperate circumstances. These circumstances were confrontation with a working class that, though weakened by defeats (the failure of the German Revolution of 1918-23 and of the Italian factory occupations of September 1920), still retained too much organisation and militancy to be dealt with effectively by what Trotsky calls a Bonapartist military-political dictatorship.
The fascist mass movements, fused and driven by a reactionary utopian ideology, provided the impetus needed to crush and atomise the organised working class. Yet, it bears emphasising, they came to power thanks to the support, however reluctant, of the ruling class. Neither Mussolini nor Hitler won a free election, although they both came to office constitutionally. They then moved to crush the left and concentrate power in their hands, with Hitler doing so particularly quickly and brutally in the “Machtergreifung” (seizure of power) of spring 1933. Fascism in power thus combines counter-revolution from above and from below.
The greatness of Trotsky’s writings on Germany lies in his understanding of the specificity of fascism amid the spectrum of bourgeois reaction and of the mortal threat it represented to the workers’ movement:
The big bourgeoisie, even those who supported Hitler with money, did not consider his party theirs. The national “renaissance” leaned wholly upon the middle classes, the most backward part of the nation, the heavy ballast of history. Political art consisted in fusing the petty bourgeoisie into oneness through its common hostility to the proletariat. What must be done in order to improve things? First of all, throttle those who are underneath. Impotent before big capital, the petty bourgeoisie hopes in the future to regain its social dignity through the ruin of the workers.
The Nazis refer to their overturn by the usurped title of revolution. As a matter of fact, in Germany as well as in Italy, fascism leaves the social system untouched. Taken by itself, Hitler’s overturn has no right even to the name counter-revolution. But it cannot be viewed as an isolated event; it is the conclusion of a cycle of shocks which began in Germany in 1918. The November Revolution, which gave the power to the workers’ and peasants’ soviets, was proletarian in its fundamental tendencies. But the party that stood at the head of the proletariat returned the power to the bourgeoisie. In this sense, Social Democracy opened the era of counter-revolution before the revolution could bring its work to completion. However, so long as the bourgeoisie depended upon Social Democracy, and consequently upon the workers, the regime retained elements of compromise. All the same, the international and the internal situation of German capitalism left no more room for concessions. As Social Democracy saved the bourgeoisie from the proletarian revolution, fascism came in its turn to liberate the bourgeoisie from the Social Democracy. Hitler’s coup is only the final link in the chain of counter-revolutionary shifts.22
Trotsky’s insight into the dynamics of fascism stopped with the seizure of power. To some extent, this reflected his acute understanding of the conflicts between fascist parties and the ruling class. However, he assumed that these would be resolved in the latter’s favour:
German fascism, like Italian fascism, raised itself to power on the backs of the petty bourgeoisie, which it turned into a battering ram against the organisations of the working class and the institutions of democracy. Yet fascism in power is least of all the rule of the petty bourgeoisie. On the contrary, it is the most ruthless dictatorship of monopoly capital.23
Trotsky predicted that, “as the Italian example shows, fascism leads in the end to a military-bureaucratic dictatorship of the Bonapartist type”.24 In fact, as I wrote some years ago:
Far from finishing up as a military dictatorship, the Nazi regime massacred the generals after the July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. Poulantzas…argued that a stabilised fascist regime was characterised by the dominance of the political police within the state apparatus. Certainly this corresponds well to the final phase of the Nazi regime, in which the SS and its police arm, the RSHA [Reichssicherheitshauptamt, “Reich Main Security Office”], acquired ever greater prominence.25
The relationship between National Socialism and German capital, I continued, “is best characterised as a conflictual partnership. It was based on a limited convergence of interests between the Nazis and sections of German capital (particularly those associated with heavy industry) who shared common objectives, notably the destruction of the organised working class and an imperial programme of expansion into the East”.26 One aspect of the radicalisation of the Nazis in power—driven by considerations such as ideology, Hitler’s objective of waging a war of imperial expansion, competition between different parts of the regime and the imperatives of economic management amid a global depression characterised by the fragmentation of the world market—was the construction of a considerable state capitalist sector that simultaneously supported and undermined private capital. Moreover, the relentless pursuit of the extermination of the European Jews, which in no way corresponded to the needs of German capital and the priorities of waging a war on two fronts, highlighted the political autonomy of the Nazi regime, expressed particularly in the growing power of the ideologically driven police-military bureaucracy that was the SS.27
Ultimately, the fascist states were ended by military defeat. The Allied invasion of Italy prompted the removal of Mussolini by his own colleagues, aided by an alliance with the old regime represented by King Victor Emmanuel III, in July 1943. He was rescued and propped up by the Nazis until April 1945, when he was captured by partisans and executed. Meanwhile, National Socialism perished with the invasion and parcellisation of Germany, the physical destruction of the military and much of the country’s infrastructure, and the death of the main Nazi leaders. As historian Robert Paxton succinctly puts it, “the Italian and German fascist regimes drove themselves off a cliff in their quest for ever headier successes”.28
Gramsci argues that the “organic crisis” of the capitalist mode of production that exploded during the First World War provoked not only the Russian Revolution and the attempts to imitate it elsewhere but also efforts on the part of capital to reconstruct the system in order to allow it to survive. Gramsci used the concept of passive revolution to understand these responses. Passive revolution consists in “molecular changes that progressively modify the pre-existing composition of forces, and hence become the matrix of new changes”. This involved attempts to defend the existing capitalist mode of production and avert its overthrow by incorporating some of the pressures to socialise the productive forces. This reflected “the necessity for the ‘thesis’ [capitalism] to achieve its full development, up to the point where it would even succeed in incorporating part of the antithesis itself [socialist revolution]—in order, that is, not to allow itself to be ‘transcended’ in the dialectical opposition”.29
In the era of counter-revolution and global depression between the world wars, passive revolution took two main forms. The first was fascism, which combined elements of economic interventionism with the systematic repression of the workers’ movement. The second is what Gramsci calls “Americanism and Fordism”, which reached its climax with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the reorganisation of the liberal capitalism that had failed in Europe on the basis of mass production and the transformation of proletarian subjectivity to accommodate its rhythms.30
There is an important qualification to be made to this analysis, which Gramsci wrote in 1933, when both the Great Depression and these political responses were at their early stages. He could not therefore know that neither fascism nor the New Deal would overcome the economic crisis. The resolution came only with the Second World War, in which liberal imperialism in the shape of the US defeated fascist imperialism, and with the persistence of the arms economy that had developed during the war thanks to the new rivalry between the US and its former ally, the Soviet Union.31 Fascism may have been a response to the greatest capitalist crisis, but it was not a solution.
The contemporary far right and the “permanent catastrophe”
This historical sketch provides a benchmark for understanding the present—not, it must be emphasised, because history is repeating itself, but because it helps us to identify what is different in the present, as well as what is (or could be) the same. One thing that is the same is that this too is an age of catastrophe. However, this takes the form less (so far) of the mass killings characteristic of Mayer’s “Thirty Years War” than of the combination of mass impoverishment and destruction of nature that is expressed in a concentrated form in the Covid-19 pandemic. The German Marxist philosopher Theodor Adorno used to refer ironically to the impersonal logic of capitalism, which imposes itself on and destroys individual lives, as the “world spirit”:
Society stays alive, not despite its antagonism, but by means of it; the profit interest and thus the class relationship make-up the objective motor of the production process that the life of all human beings hangs by, and the primacy of which has its vanishing point in the death of all… The world spirit…would have to be defined as permanent catastrophe.32
So what are the defining features of the present period? I’d like to point to three salient characteristics:
The decline of US imperialism and growing competition with China: The present period is not characterised by the kind of fluid geopolitical competition constitutive of the era of classical imperialism between 1870 and 1945. Rather, the capitalist state that has been hegemonic since 1945, the US, has experienced a long decline in its share of global GDP, as well as suffering a severe geopolitical defeat through its failed occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Meanwhile, China’s emergence as the leading manufacturing and exporting economy and its growing military capabilities represent the most serious challenge that US hegemony has yet faced. Nevertheless, although inter-state competition has been growing in the past decade or so, the developing military challenge posed to the US from China is restricted to the Asia-Pacific region; moreover, despite the blow that the global financial crisis of 2007-9 represented to Washington’s prestige, the centrality of the US to the international financial system has, if anything, grown since then. This is thanks to the role played by the US Treasury and Federal Reserve in orchestrating state responses to the panics of 2007-8 and 2020 and maintaining the flows of dollars on which global money markets depend;33
Sluggish, finance-driven growth (the “Long Depression”) exacerbated by a growing crisis in humankind’s relationship to nature: The neoliberal economic policy regime, installed in the 1980s and crucially involving a global restructuring of production and the deregulation of finance, has failed to overcome the crisis of profitability that developed in the advanced capitalist states in the 1960s and 1970s. The result is what Michael Roberts calls the “Long Depression”, in which even the comparatively low rates of growth achieved in the US and Europe since the global financial crisis have depended on huge infusions of cheap credit money by the leading central banks.34 The interaction between these crisis tendencies and what Chris Harman calls “the new limits to capital”, “the tendency for the system to undermine the very process of interaction on which it, like every other form of human society, depended”—what Marx called the metabolism of labour and nature—have fused in the Covid-19 pandemic, a harbinger of even worse catastrophes wrought by climate change;35
A series of movements and risings provoked by neoliberalism juxtaposed with the development of reactionary movements: The increasingly destructive nature of neoliberal capitalism has since the late 1990s generated what Joseph Choonara describes as three cycles of revolt from the left. First, the Zapatista revolt in Mexico and other anti-neoliberal risings in the South, above all in Bolivia, as well as the international movement for another globalisation and the opposition to the war on Iraq (1994-2005); second, the Arab uprisings, the occupation of the squares in Greece and the Spanish state, and Occupy Wall Street (2011); and, third, “a new cycle of revolt” beginning in spring 2019—uprisings in Algeria and Sudan and mass protests in Hong Kong, Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, Lebanon, Haiti, Guinea, Kazakhstan, Iraq, Iran, France and Catalonia.36 This cycle survived the onset of the pandemic, with the Black Lives Matter risings in the US and the solidarity they received around the world in the summer of 2020. However, these movements are counterpointed by the global rise of the far right, marked not just by electoral breakthroughs (Modi, Trump and Bolsonaro), but also by a succession of coups d’état in Egypt (2013), Thailand (2014), Bolivia (2019) and now Myanmar (2021).
To sum up: the neoliberal version of capitalism is breaking down amidst a multi-dimensional crisis that is simultaneously economic, political, and biological. The severity of this multiple crisis is understood by at least sections of the Western ruling classes. Janet Yellen wrote to her staff after taking office as Biden’s secretary of the treasury: “If you have listened to President Biden speak over the past few weeks, you have heard him talk about ‘four historic crises’. COVID-19 is one… The country is also facing a climate crisis, a crisis of systemic racism, and an economic crisis that has been building for fifty years”.37
The result is a crisis of hegemony: the decay of the dominant forms of bourgeois rule.38 Yet there has not been any breakthrough to the left, and nothing remotely comparable to the Russian Revolution of October 1917. The closest was the Egyptian Revolution of 25 January 2011, in which political opposition to the dictatorial Mubarak regime fused with discontent caused by the economic and social impact of neoliberalism and the global financial crisis. This sparked a rising that started with young people but drew in a working class with long traditions of struggle.39 However, this was crushed by the military coup launched on 3 July 2013 by Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who imposed an even more brutal and repressive dictatorship than Mubarak’s.
In the Global North, the most advanced struggles were probably those in Greece against European Union-imposed austerity in 2010-12. This led to the electoral victory of the left-wing Syriza party in January 2015, only for its leader, prime minister Alexis Tsipras, to capitulate to Brussels and Berlin six months later. The inspiring upsurges in the reformist left led by Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain went down to electoral defeat. Ireland, however, remains an important exception, with the radical left People Before Profit advancing both sides of the border—a very important development given how Brexit is destabilising the 100 year old partition of the island.
This is the context in which challenges to the existing order have been dominated by the far right. Far-right currents have grown spectacularly in the past few years thanks to the accumulated discontents of the neoliberal period, intensified by the economic suffering and dislocation caused by the global financial crisis. These currents have succeeded in directing the resulting anger, at least in certain sections on the population, onto, on the one hand, a “cosmopolitan elite”, and, on the other, migrants and refugees. In rhetorically championing jobs and welfare against globalisation, as Walden Bello puts it, “the right ate the left’s lunch”.40 What Tariq Ali calls the neoliberal “extreme centre”, whether in its conservative or social-democratic form, has found itself squeezed electorally.
Nevertheless, this has not been in any sense a simple repetition of what happened between the world wars. We can identify four key differences between then and now. The first is the wider social context within which today’s far right has emerged. In the Global North the far right has been less directly counter-revolutionary, less a response to the advance of the left than it was in the 1920s and 1930s. The last great global upturn in workers’ struggles, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, stimulated the neoliberal effort to shift the balance of class forces back in capital’s favour.41 What we are witnessing today is the disintegration of the neoliberal order without—yet—a strong enough drive of workers’ struggles from below to provide a progressive alternative capable of capturing the imagination of the masses. This has allowed the far right to capitalise on the discontent and anger created by the multiple dysfunctions of the status quo.
When we widen our focus globally, the picture changes somewhat. We see, for example in Asia, the rise of what Priya Chacko and Kanishka Jayasuriya call “authoritarian statism”. This is a concept they take from Poulantzas, for whom it referred to “intensified state control over every sphere of socio-economic life combined with radical decline of the institutions of political democracy and with draconian and multiform curtailment of so-called ‘formal’ liberties”.42
In Asia this shift represents, according to Chacko and Jayasuriya, less the breakdown of the neoliberal regime itself than its disruptive impact on the specific political forms through which ruling parties secure the consent of the mass of the population. The impact of neoliberal restructuring, for example, on the clientelistic networks through which state resources were used to subsidise employment and consumption leads to what Chacko and Jayasuriya call “political disincorporation”:
In the wake of the fracturing of dominant modes of political incorporation, political elites have struggled to create forms of legitimacy for capitalist social relations. The mobilisation of cultural nationalism and anti-pluralist politics by both societal actors and political leaders must be understood in this context.43
As Chacko and Jayasuriya point out, the BJP in India is a good example of this process. The Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party, BJP) is an electorally extraordinarily successful Hindu chauvinist party, which has at its core the fascist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Voluntary Corps, RSS), whose founders were explicit in their admiration for Hitler. The BJP has been able to exploit the disintegration of the base of the historic nationalist Indian National Congress thanks to the neoliberal policies that it pioneered. Then there is what Bello calls the “fascist original”, Rodrigo Duterte, who won the presidency of the Philippines on an anti-crime programme, and, riding a wave of popular revulsion against decades of failed neoliberalism, inspired the murder of thousands of drug users. There are also examples outside Asia, above all in Brazil. There, Bolsonaro was able to capitalise on the disintegration of the Workers’ Party (PT) administration under the impact of the global financial crisis and the exposure of the PT’s part in the corruption endemic in the Brazilian political elite.44
Sisi’s coup in Egypt also falls into this pattern. It was preceded, on 30 June 2013, by an enormous demonstration of the middle classes against the Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi. This was mobilised partly by leaders who had been allied with the left, notably the Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi, the main left candidate in the 2012 presidential election, and the independent trade unionist Kamal Abu Aita. Sisi did not just use military power to overthrow Morsi; he framed the conflict as one between secularism and Islamism, a trap into which much of the left fell.45 He also benefitted from the financial support of the Gulf autocracies, the most powerful capitalisms in the region.
Nevertheless we also see the red river of revolt running much more strongly in the Global South. The Arab risings are the most striking example—a revolutionary process that continues with the upheavals in Algeria and Sudan, despite defeat in Egypt and Syria. But consider the case of Bolivia, which, in the past 20 years, has seen two mass risings that brought down neoliberal presidents in 2003 and 2005, the election in 2006 of a left government headed by Evo Morales of the Movement for Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo, MAS) and based on the indigenous working poor, a right-wing coup in October 2019, and the presidential victory of MAS’s Luis Arce a year later. Here there is a very direct interplay of revolution and counter-revolution. Similarly, the Indian farmers’ movement of 2021 has taken militant direct action on a huge scale, confronting not just riot police but the fascist thugs of Modi’s RSS.
A second key difference between the far right in the inter-war period and today is the significant shift in the ideology of reaction. Today, the key element of far-right ideology is Islamophobia. In an important article, Ed Pertwee identifies a transnational field of anti-Muslim political action known as the “counter-jihad”:
The political geography of the counter-jihad is primarily transatlantic… The variety of white nationalism cultivated within the counter-jihad was, at the time it first emerged, a novel one. For the Hitlerian philosophy of history as Darwinian struggle between different biological “races”, in which the Jew was cast as the antitype of the Aryan, it substituted a culturalist melodrama of agonistic struggle between radically incommensurable “civilisations”, in which “Islam” was cast as the youthful and virile antitype to the moribund husk of the “Judeo-Christian West”. The influence of these ideas on far-right groups in Europe, North America and Australasia, and especially on Trumpian Republicanism, is difficult to overstate.46
Here we see the connection between the contemporary far right and imperialism. Islamophobia acquired its deep hold in Western societies as a result of the “War on Terror” launched by George W Bush and Tony Blair in their failed attempt to entrench US domination of the Middle East. The far-right version is a radicalisation of state and media targeting of Muslims as the “enemy within”. The racist stereotyping of Muslims is a response to the armed resistance and mass risings that have weakened the grip of Western imperialism in the Middle East and North Africa. Sections of the far right have shifted from their traditional support for women’s subordination as a way of highlighting the alleged incompatibility between Islam and “Western values”.47
Pertwee, however, argues that contemporary far-right discourses bear strong affinities with the “revolutionary conservative” ideologies of inter-war fascism, and in particular the Romantic nostalgia for a mythologised past highlighted by Bloch. “They share a common, counter-revolutionary temporal structure, with a mythic past mobilised to legitimate projects of cultural purification in the present.” Distinguishing between the “counter-jihad” proper, “the Trumpian Republicans” and “the avowed racists and misogynists of the alt-right”, Pertwee argues:
This counter-revolutionary temporal structure is also what places all three tendencies in close proximity to “classical” fascism and Nazism… Today, this counter-revolutionary temporal structure is inscribed in the Trumpian slogan “Make America Great Again”.48
Moreover, there are continuities in the content of far-right ideology: (i) hostility to the left remains an important element, if only because the cultural breakdown of Western societies that has supposedly allowed their Islamisation is typically traced back to the 1960s. Trump’s denunciations of the Democrats as socialist and attacks on Critical Race Theory are symptomatic of a persistent anti-Marxism. In Latin America, more traditional anti-Communism fuses with what one might call, following Pierre Bourdieu, class racism directed at poor people of indigenous origin, particularly in the movements against left governments in Bolivia and Venezuela; (ii) antisemitism remains important especially for the fascists because its continuing role in providing the basis of a pseudo-critique of capitalism that locates the source of the problem, not in the system, but in the corrupting effects of “cosmopolitan Jewish finance capital”. The two themes fuse in the discourse of “cultural Marxism”.
A third distinctive feature of the contemporary far right is the predominance of racist-populist electoral parties, though there is also a dangerous and substantial fascist element. In Europe the context is very different from the 1920s and 1930s, when authoritarian regimes developed largely as an extension of the dominance of traditional agrarian elites. The US-directed reconstruction of Western Europe after 1945 gave liberal capitalism a much more stable base, crucially thanks to the development of Fordist mass production and advanced welfare regimes. This was reinforced by the process of European integration, which was also promoted by Washington.49
The state capitalist regimes installed by the Red Army on the other side of the Iron Curtain in Eastern and Central Europe swept away the old landed classes.50 The absorption of these states into the Western neoliberal capitalist order following the revolutions of 1989 involved their adoption of liberal-democratic constitutions and incorporation into NATO and the EU (once again under US patronage). The embarrassment that the authoritarian drift of Poland and Hungary is causing Brussels is an indication that outright dictatorship is not (yet) tolerable.
So the contemporary far right tend to be outsiders who have been able to elbow their way into the big leagues thanks to the debility of the mainstream. Examples include the Lega in Italy, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), UKIP/Brexit Party in Britain and the Danish People’s Party. There are even cases of traditional conservative parties showing signs of morphing into far-right formations; this is true of the Tories under Boris Johnson, the Austrian People’s Party under Sebastian Kurz, and Les Républicains in France. In Europe, the far right tends to specialise in a mixture of Euroscepticism and anti-migrant racism. This combination of racist scapegoating and anti-elite rhetoric (whether directed at the EU or more broadly against “cosmopolitan” elites) makes it correct to describe the main tendency of the contemporary far right, Trump included, as racist-populist, and in this sense different from inter-war authoritarian conservativism.51
However, as in the 1920s and the 1930s, the contemporary far right represent a spectrum. There are fascist political nuclei that have been able to repackage themselves as electorally successful parties. They also focus on racist-populist themes, but they seek radical authoritarian solutions. The most important of these are the Rassemblement National (RN, formerly the Front National) in France, whose leader Marine Le Pen is currently running Emmanuel Macron very close in polling for next year’s presidential elections, the Freedom Party in Austria, the Sweden Democrats and the Fratelli d’Italia (“Brothers of Italy”).
A fourth characteristic element of the contemporary far right is that, although they benefit from the discontents of neoliberalism, they lack a distinctive economic programme. The RN, for example, have played constantly on the ills caused by globalisation, as has Trump. Yet none offer a coherent economic alternative to neoliberalism. Indeed, one strand—notably in the AfD and UKIP/Brexit Party—combines Euroscepticism and economic ultra-liberalism. Trump strayed from the neoliberal playbook in weaponising tariffs, especially against China, but otherwise his economic policies were standard post-Reagan Republican fare, offering goodies to business in the shape of tax breaks and deregulation. The Lega, once vocally anti-EU, now supports a government of “national unity” headed by ex-European Central Bank president Mario Draghi. Ctd....