Creeping fascism: who’s in the driving seat?

Davy Jones doubts whether the global drive towards fascism is being driven by a coherent transnational capitalist class. It’s messier and more chaotic, but no less dangerous.

5 March 2020.

Damian Lewis in An American Oligarch: is a 'transnational capitalist class' pulling Trump's strings?

This is a response to William Robinson’s article, Can 21st century fascism resolve the capitalist crisis? And, no, I’m not going to answer the question posed in the title, unless ‘dunno’ or ‘I hope not’ count.

There are many important points in Robinson’s article, especially on the importance of ‘expulsion of surplus populations’ for the far right, and capitalism. I’m in agreement that what we are seeing with Trump, Modi, and Johnson is the development of a particular 21st century form of fascism – even if the main figures are not necessarily fascists themselves, or aware of this as a trajectory. Not least, I agree about the existential threat this poses, on a number of levels.

I’m also doing lots of head nodding when he writes: ‘For the fight-back against the global police state and 21st century fascism to be successful, we need to build a united front against fascism. But any strategy of broad anti-fascist alliances must foreground a revitalised Marxist critique of global capitalism and its crisis as a guide to an emancipatory working-class politics that can win over the would-be social bases of 21st century fascism.’

Which begs the question, what is the Marxist critique of global capitalism? Of which, more below. But first I’d like to touch on the nature of the creeping fascism we are threatened by.

Transnational fascism, or fascism all over?

Robinson does a good, concise job of outlining what the Trump administration has been doing, but then describes what’s emerging as ‘neoliberalism on steroids’. But if neoliberalism was the post-Keynesian internationalisation of capitalism, how can the reversal of this – the rise of protectionism and the rolling back of the previous international order – still be ‘neoliberalism’?

There is a commonality, such as the continuation of deregulation, but there are also significant differences. I think we need to make a distinction between these periods, which forces are driving them, and the implications.

What we are seeing is not the continuation of neoliberalism, but a response to its crisis. This works in much the same way as neoliberalism (often just a highfalutin word for ‘nasty’ on the left, but let’s roll with it) was a response to the crisis of Keynesianism – or more accurately, the post-WWII heightened state intervention in economy and society – in the late 1970s.

The need to distinguish different periods is particularly apparent when it comes to the lurch to the right today. Robinson states: ‘Fascism in the 20th century involved the fusion of reactionary political power with national capital. By contrast, 21st century fascism involves the fusion of transnational capital with reactionary and repressive political power in the state – an expression of the dictatorship of transnational capital.’

The concept of the transnational capitalist class (TCC) as the driving force of global fascism seems to be the core to Robinson’s argument. If this were to be correct, the TCC is doing some serious messing with itself. And mummy always warned about where that would lead.

Pointing to a coherent international agency underplays the increase of economic conflicts around national lines, manifesting in trade wars, increased tariffs, and, in the context of the UK, Brexit.

If there is a TCC (debatable, but capital has certainly been more transnational since the collapse of Bretton Wood half a century ago), it has looked askance at the rise of Trump, Brexit, etc. These represent a breakdown of the internationally regulated order it’s spent so long constructing, and the erection of costly barriers to trade in its place.

Trump the Lump(en)

For instance, as Samuel Farber in Jacobin pointed out with regard to US capital’s attitude to Trump: ‘Even though US capitalists have for the most part benefited from his presidency, they see him not only as not part of them as a class, but also as an outside political actor with whom it is impossible to come to a mutual understanding of what to expect from each other’.

Instead, Trump’s first presidential campaign drew financial support from firms in ailing industries such as steel, rubber, and others that expected to benefit from his protectionism. In other words, retrograde – by capital’s standards – and more nationally focused. Not a transnational capitalist class by any means.

Farber instead characterises him as a ‘lumpen capitalist’. Big capital has quickly accommodated to this new trend – Farber’s article does an excellent job of charting this accommodation – but it didn’t bring it about and doesn’t welcome it.

There are, in all of this, elements of both continuity and rupture. We need to understand each, and here I’m putting the stress on rupture, both from the previous period, and within the capitalist class, globally and nationally.

It seems more plausible that what we are witnessing is the increasing dominance of fractions of different national capitals looking to resolve their problems by pushing them onto other (inter)national capitals, rather than seeking a solution cooperatively. As such problems intensify, so will this drive to beggar-thy-neighbour.

Stuff and value

Lastly, I think this formulation from Robinson states two contradictory things: ‘This extreme concentration of the planet’s wealth in the hands of the few and the accelerated impoverishment and dispossession of the majority means that the TCC cannot find productive outlets to unload enormous amounts of surplus it has accumulated. The Great Recession marked the onset of a deep structural crisis of over-accumulation, which refers to accumulated capital that cannot find outlets for profitable reinvestment.’ [My emphases.]

I agree with the second statement, but not the first.

Is there a glut of commodities – of stuff – that isn’t being sold? Where? There’s a conflation here, common on the left, between physical surplus product(stuff, if you like) and surplus value. There is ‘accumulated capital that cannot find outlets for profitable reinvestment’, which is why capital needs all this leverage (debt) to make a reasonable rate of return – borrowing is a claim on future profitability in order to make a profit now.

What is not so apparent is a critical failure of demand – or oversupply, which is in essence the same. Instead, falling demand is a trailing indicator of recession, not a leading one (which it would be if a collapse in demand, or excess supply, was the cause of the crisis, instead of a symptom). Corporate profitability, on the other hand, is a leading indicator.

Keynes’ theory of crisis rests on the former, Marx’s on the latter. Marx’s theory is premised on relations of production, Keynes on (unequal) distribution, leading to a mismatch in supply and demand – too much stuff that people can’t buy.

Confusingly, many Marxist theories of crisis, from Rosa Luxemburg onwards, have rested on similar concepts of disequilibrium. It may be Marx-esque, but it ain’t Marx, and is instead closer to Keynes.

I think Marx is demonstrably right, though this is not the place to properly defend such an assertion. Instead, I will point you to Marxist economist Michael Roberts, who offers empirical backup here.

The argument is further elaborated in the context of the 2007-9 global financial crisis in both Andrew Kliman’s The Failure of Capitalist Production and Paul Mattick’s Business as Usual.

Messy business

In short, I’m in agreement with Robinson on the direction of travel and the dangers it poses, which is the crucial thing. I differ on which section of the capitalist class is represented within it – though I do not have a fully worked-out view, and have yet to come across one that ticks all the boxes.

For instance, there have been attempts to align Trumpism with private rather than public equity, which is interesting, and might be a factor, but I find this ultimately unconvincing. Private markets are every bit as international as public.

The same is true of the distinction between the ‘real’ and financial capital – both face threats from global markets fragmenting on national lines, but also potentially benefit from arbitrage opportunities this creates, plus the regulatory race to the bottom, such as the UK selling itself as ‘Singapore-on-Thames’.

There are lots of moving parts and conflicting interests, none of which distil down to a ‘transnational capitalist class’ driving the process. It looks far messier than that.

Told you I didn’t know. I wasn’t lying.

Why are these distinctions important? It is not like we cannot put a face to the bad guys – Trump, Modi, Johnson, Erdogan, Orbán, Duterte…

But you’ve got to know who you’re fighting and what their vulnerabilities are: if you’re in a scrap with Achilles, you don’t want to be going for his elbows.

Davy Jones is a Labour activist in West London.

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