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The Johnson government: an embryonic far-right regime

Neil Faulkner and Phil Hearse discuss the implications of the Johnson-Cummings coup to oust Sajid Javid.

1 March 2020.

Sajid Javid: a victim of far-right gleichschaltung.


‘Bloodbath!’ That’s how the Daily Mirror dramatised the 13 February cabinet reshuffle that saw the departure of Sajid Javid as Chancellor.


If Javid were a low-ranking employee, he could claim constructive dismissal – Johnson’s demand that he sack his advisors was clearly designed to make him resign. But the Left would be unwise to regard this as merely Tory comic-opera stuff, of no interest to radicals.


There are two things to consider: what these events tell us about the administration being established by Johnson; and what we learn from the dispute over economic policy between Johnson (and his effective chief of staff Dominic Cummings) and Sajid Javid. What is clearly emerging is an authoritarian regime founded on economic nationalism.


Since becoming prime minister last July, Johnson has:


1) Introduced a xenophobic new immigration policy that will exclude many EU migrant workers and force many already here to leave.


2) Attempted to close down Parliament to prevent further Brexit debate.


3) Effectively expelled a swathe of Remainer MPs from the Parliamentary Conservative Party.


4) Told the police to use ‘the full force of the law’ against Extinction Rebellion protestors.


5) Started deporting offenders born abroad but who came here as children.


6) Fashioned a Cabinet whose primary feature is spineless obedience to Johnson/Cummings. As Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee put it: ‘Johnson’s choice of pipsqueaks and placemen, yes-women and yellow-bellies is the most under-brained, third rate cabinet in living memory.’ This, we would add, is a feature of far-right regimes in general – throughout history – for the obvious reason that fascism as a political current is chronically ‘under-brained’.


7) Attempted to exclude journalists from media outlets critical of Johnson from government briefings, threatened the BBC with ending its national broadcaster position through abolition of the license fee, and banned ministers from routine TV interviews (a normal part of the process of democratic transparency and accountability).


8) Announced changes to voting requirements, so that electors will have to produce ID, something designed to discriminate against poorer people and immigrants who may either lack the documentation or awareness of the requirement. This parallels Republican attempts at (black and Hispanic) voter suppression in the US.


9) Recruited openly fascist advocates of white supremacist racism and eugenics to Cumming’s No 10 team.


10) Fostered a culture of workplace bullying in Priti Patel’s Home Office (and no doubt in other government departments as well).


Getting rid of Sajid Javid is just another step towards a hyper-centralised, less accountable, more authoritarian form of government. The established formalities of cabinet government are being ditched to create a more ‘presidential’ form of rule. So there are attacks on: the semi-independence of ministers; the procedures and protocols of liberal parliamentary government; the ability of the media to investigate and critique power; and on the rights and freedoms of poorer/BAME voters and radical movements/protestors.


In addition, the courts have become targets of Johnson and Cummings, the Supreme Court having ruled against the parliamentary shutdown late last year, and judicial reviews having prevented, temporarily at least, the deportation of some of the black people scheduled for deportation to Jamaica more recently.


According to former MP Christine Jardine, the No 10 authoritarian duo intend to close down the Supreme Court or pack it with their appointees, and to abolish the Human Rights Act. The Human Rights Act, says Jardine, 'protects your rights to a fair trial, to keep your private life private, to marry the person you love – and not to be tortured, discriminated against, or forced to work against your will’.


Individual rights like these work together with free trade unions and the right of political association and public protest to create a check on power.


Gleichschaltung: creeping fascism


What is at work here is a process ongoing in several countries since the 2007-8 financial crash – Trump in America, Modi in India, Erdogan in Turkey, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and the Law and Justice Party (sic) in Poland. It involves trying to close down all centres of political opposition, using the levers of power available to those in government.


When the Nazis came to power in Germany, this was called gleichschaltung. John Bellamy Foster explains:


This process, known as gleichschaltung – ‘bringing into line’ or ‘synchronisation’ – defined the period of consolidation of the new political order in the years 1933-34. This meant politically integrating each of the state’s separate entities, including the parliament, judiciary, civil bureaucracy, military, and the local and regional branches of government, and extending this to the major organs of the ideological state apparatus within civil society, or the educational institutions, the media, trade associations, and more.


This synchronisation was accomplished by means of a combination of ideology, intimidation, enforced cooperation, and coercion, usually by pressuring these institutions into ‘cleaning their own houses’.


Of course, Johnson is not Hitler and the new Tory government is not fascist, but the similarities to the process and the overall direction of travel are clear. The Johnson-Cummings regime is one among a growing number globally that are (consciously) pushing beyond the established norms of liberal democracy that have been familiar in advanced capitalist countries since the end of the Second World War.


We have called this process ‘creeping fascism’ – though, under a variety of labels, the basic concept is now common currency among a growing cohort of radical commentators internationally. There is debate about detail, but not about the essential observation that we are facing ‘second-wave’ 21st century fascism.


A nationalist economic turn?


But what exactly were the disputed issues that prompted Johnson and Cummings to jettison Sajid Javid?


In a word – government spending.


In the election, Johnson promised major spending on infrastructure and the NHS. This was seen on the Left (including the present authors) as mere hot air, an empty electoral stunt.

But through the announcement on HS2, Johnson has shown that he wants to break from Sajid Javid’s straight-bat austerity/deflation position – itself a continuation of policy under Cameron and May.


Johnson is demonstrating an appetite to use historically low interest rates to borrow money and boost infrastructure investment in the regions. More than that: an appetite for higher taxes on the better-off to pay for increased public spending. And Cummings – the Steve Bannon of the regime – seems even more enthusiastic about what appears to be an attempt to consolidate a Tory electoral base in former Labour areas through increased state spending.


But how can this be? Surely the post-2010 Conservative Party is the party of cuts and deflation, completely opposed to Keynesian ‘pump-priming’ of the economy? Well, not necessarily – and here’s why.


When the Nazis consolidated their power in Germany, they moved to fortify their mass base through ideological mobilisation (especially campaigns against Jews and Communists), street thuggery, and economic policies aimed at infrastructure renewal, increased arms production, and sharply reduced unemployment.


Nazi economics stressed privatisation, but also state collaboration with major conglomerates to boost domestic production and consumption. The infrastructure renewal was symbolised by the building of the autobahn motorway network. Unemployed workers were recruited into a uniformed labour army, the Deutsche Arbeitsfront, which set wages through a joint board with employers (under strict state regulation, following the destruction of the trade unions).


Nazi policy increased domestic output, mopped up unemployment, and created a national-capitalist economy capable of sustaining a global war effort after 1939.

Priti Patel: probably nasty enough to keep her cabinet post in a far-right regime.


Globalised national-capitalism?


Today’s conditions are very different. The globalisation of capitalism – what Marx called ʽthe centralisation and concentration of capital’ – has created a economy in which small groups of giant transnational firms dominate entire sectors of the world market.


These mega-corporations are increasingly liable to burst their national shells and morph into fully internationalised conglomerates. The capitalists who control them are an increasingly internationalised ruling class (what William Robinson, writing on this website, calls ʽthe transnational capitalist class’), who control thousands of plants across the world in dozens of separate countries, and whose profits are stashed in tax-havens beyond the reach of national governments.


This much has been central to radical politics since the Seattle demonstration of 1999 and the rise of the anti-globalisation movement. Throughout the last two decades, we have fully shared this general perspective. But we now think it is one-sided.


Talk of ʽdeglobalisation’ is certainly overstated. There can be no return to the ʽstate-capitalist’ model dominant between c.1935 and c.1975 – a period in the development of the world-capitalist system when nation-states were key economic players because of the degree to which the major blocs of capital remained anchored within national territory. The ʽautarkic’ model of 1930s Germany or the Keynesian model of 1950s Britain is no longer possible. The nation-state cannot hope to control the mega-corporations of today’s financialised/globalised corporate capital in the same way.


But this takes us only so far. The implication that the state is ʽin retreat’ in a general sense seems to be false, for it remains central to the operations of neoliberal capitalism.


It is not simply that police repression at home and the projection of military power abroad have necessarily increased as consent has drained away from an economic and geopolitical system afflicted with a long-term crisis of legitimacy.


It is also that the state levies ʽtribute’ on the citizen-bodies under its control (in the form of taxes), and these are then recycled into revenue streams/profits to corporate capital contracted to deliver infrastructure projects, public services, armaments, etc.


These investments, moreover, provide services essential to the process of private capital accumulation – roads, railways, ports, utilities, education services, health services, social support, and so on.


The state also provides an essential backstop when the system breaks down – most obviously in the case of the 2008 crash, when trillions in state revenue and borrowing was recycled in the form of bailouts to bankrupt financial corporations.


All these forms of government intervention – public contracts, public infrastructure, public bailouts – are mechanisms whereby state-levied tribute payments are transformed into private corporate profit.


There is a second point to be made: Marx’s famous comment about the long-term tendency towards ʽcentralisation and concentration of capital’ actually refers to two quite distinct processes.


Centralisation of capital concerns ownership, and there is no real limit to the degree to which ownership of capital might be centralised in ever fewer hands. But concentration of capital concerns actual production facilities and processes, and there are unquestionably very obvious limits to this.


One can imagine a single corporation monopolising all global production of, say, oil or cars or shirts. But one cannot image a single oilfield or car factory or clothing sweatshop supplying the entire world market.


Unlike ownership, because production takes a material form, because raw materials and energy must be supplied to the production facility, and because finished goods must be transported from it to the market, production per se can never be truly ʽglobal’, because it has to take place in a specific geographical location.


This means that even the most globalised mega-corporations are running thousands of operations in dozens of individual countries, and that when they do so they are usually sub-contracting to dozens of other, smaller, more local, more nationally-rooted corporations.


Take HS2. Let us assume it goes ahead. Let us assume that a ʽChinese’ corporation wins the contract to build it (whatever ʽChinese’ means in the context of globalised neoliberal capitalism). What this means in practice is that a foreign-owned corporation will cream off a large slice of the overall profit. But not all.


HS2 will be built in Britain, and there will be any number of local corporate snouts in the trough. Have a read of Joel Benjamin’s article on this website, where he catalogues the colossal syphoning of what we are calling ʽtribute’ (surplus in the form of state-levied taxation on the citizen-body) that has already occurred in the history of this project.


Or take the example of Trump’s 25% increase in arms expenditure. Whether funded by revenues or borrowing, it is the US taxpayer who bears the cost, whether immediately or in the long term, and the primary beneficiaries are the corporations of the military-industrial complex.


Here, we contend, is the basis for a far-right project of economic nationalism in the context of the globalised financialised monopoly-capitalism of the neoliberal era.


An increasingly autonomous state?


There is a big BUT.


The Johnson/Cummings regime is in conflict with more orthodox mainstream conservative forces – just as the Trump regime has been in the States. Trying to consolidate a new Tory electoral base in previous Labour ‘Red Wall’ heartlands – or a Trump base in previous Democratic ‘Rust Belt’ heartlands – involves conflict with conservatives committed to austerity economics and sections of capital whose interests may be damaged by the lurch to the right.


At a bizarre cabinet meeting on 14 February, Johnson made his cabinet chant the election target and promises – 40 new hospitals, 50,000 new nurses, more money on schools and the police, etc.


If such socially desirable objectives (leave out the police) were achieved, this could certainly help consolidate the Tory base in the Midlands and North. But there are significant obstacles to this. The most substantial is the likely development of the world economy in general and, in the context of Brexit, the British economy in particular.


Virtually every serious economic commentator thinks another 2007-8 type financial crash is very likely because of the unsustainable debt mountain that is holding up world production and, especially, consumption. As radical French economist Thomas Picketty put it in a recent interview:


There will be another economic crash, I think it’s clear with all the quantitative easing, all the money creation we’ve had, and the inflated balance sheet in the financial sector. The history of financial crashes is not over, that’s for sure.


Another financial crash will put paid to grandiose spending plans, indeed will lead to swingeing cuts that will devastate welfare benefits, public-sector employment, and much else. In the ensuing social turmoil, the repressive face of the Johnson Tories would be all too clear.


It is possible that such a crash is unfolding as we write. Check out Phil Hearse’s article ‘Global pandemic, financial firestorm, political chaos’ on this website.


Even leaving aside the likelihood and perhaps actuality of another financial crash, the government has promised lower corporation tax and a rise of the higher-rate income tax trigger from £50,000 a year to £80,000. Contrary to Johnson’s false claims, this will produce substantially less tax income.


So, Johnson/Cummings find themselves at odds with a wide swathe of traditional economic opinion inside the ruling class. They are also at odds with most capitalists in relation to their proposed racist flagship: Priti Patel’s new points-based immigration system.


This is likely to impose potentially crippling labour shortages on whole sectors of British industry – like construction and catering and hospitality – and especially in the hyper-charged economy of London and the South East.


But this seems to matter less than it used to. One consequence of the transition from a state-capitalist to a neoliberal-capitalist model since the 1970s is the increasing relative autonomy of the state. Less tied to the interests of a specific bloc of national capital, and at the same time not in any direct sense representative of the ‘transnational capitalist class’, the state becomes a more semi-independent political player. It becomes, in a sense, the potential vehicle for a far-right project of economic nationalism, authoritarianism, and racism.


Creeping fascism


Sections of the British Left accept as obvious that in countries like Germany, Italy, and France a section of the working class has been won to the racist discourse of the Far Right – but recoil from such a conclusion in relation to Brexit Britain. We do not.


In most countries, the core of the far-right voting base is in sections of the middle class, to which, where the Far Right has been relatively successful, parts of the working class have been added.


This was the genius of the Brexit project and the campaign, led by the Far Right inside and outside the Conservative Party. Using themes of xenophobic racism and economic nationalism, it fused together a reactionary bloc.


A recent article by Steven Bush claims that the Johnson government is ‘power without purpose’, and that the Johnson-Cummings regime ‘lacks energy and ambition’. This is wide of the mark.


The Johnson-Cummings regime is full of ambition – to transform the state in accordance with the principles of gleichschaltung, and to transform the political map of Britain by consolidating a hardened base mobilised by racism and economic nationalism.


In the aftermath of the 2007-8 financial crash, many radical and insurgent movements came forward to challenge the dominant neoliberal model that had delivered misery to so many. In Britain, this was signified by huge anti-austerity mobilisations – hundreds of thousands on a demonstration organised by the TUC, for example, and the emergence of the Peoples Assembly and the Occupy! movement.


But there was little movement in the ruling elites and right-wing parties in response to the evident failures of globalised neoliberalism. All they came up with was ‘quantitative easing’ (massive cash injections for the banks), alongside more and harsher austerity for the mass of the population.


As it became clear that the ongoing crisis could create a polarisation to the left which might challenge the neoliberal order, pro-capitalist politics shifted to the right, helping to generate a swathe of parties playing the same role as fascism did in the 1930s.


Some of these movements – like the RSS-BJP bloc in India, or Salvini’s allies in the Brothers of Italy – are clearly fascist. Others are on a political escalator that leads to a modern form of 21st century fascism.


In our opinion, the Johnson-Cummings regime is on this spectrum. To fight it, the Left needs to break with economic nationalism and resist being dragged into ‘left’ justifications for harsh anti-immigrant and anti-refugee measures.


The frontline in the struggle against creeping fascism is uncompromising defence of internationalism and multiculturalism – specifically, of migrants and Muslims targeted by the border guards and police snatch-squads of an increasingly racist state.


Neil Faulkner and Phil Hearse are co-authors, with Samir Dathi and Seema Syeda, of Creeping Fascism: what it is and how to fight it.