The virus has accelerated neoliberalism’s descent into dystopian chaos, leaving a stark choice between barbarism and revolution, argue Neil Faulkner and Phil Hearse.
25 April 2020.
Fascist conspiracy theorist Alex Jones attends a demo in his armoured car.
Creeping fascism. We first identified it as a global trend three years ago, following the Leave victory in Britain’s EU Referendum and Trump’s election as President of the United States. Many on the Left at the time were sceptical. That now seems a century ago.
It was clear enough before the pandemic. In half a dozen places, it no longer looked ‘creeping’. In India, for example, the Hindu-chauvinist regime was stripping Muslims of their citizenship, building concentration camps to hold those newly deemed ‘illegal’, and unleashing Hindu-fascist paramilitaries, backed by state police, in full-scale pogroms.
But the pandemic is now accelerating the drive towards fascism. Armed fascists have converged on state capitals across the US to demand an end to the lockdown. Trump has backed them.
Bolsonaro in Brazil has declared coronavirus a ‘little flu’, opposed lockdown measures, openly flouted social-distancing rules, and attended a fascist rally demanding a return to military dictatorship.
The fascists are gaining traction from the threatened economic and social collapse triggered by the virus. With tens of millions unemployed, many with no income and facing imminent starvation, the Far Right is showing a renewed capacity for mass mobilisation. It does so with the backing of big business. The priority is profit, not public health. The imperative for capital is to end the lockdown as soon as possible.
In this article, we look in detail at developments in two countries. Phil Hearse analyses the more extreme situation in the United States. Here, the welfare safety-net is exceptionally weak, not least in public health, creeping fascism is more advanced than in Britain, and the informal fascist paramilitaries are heavily armed. But, we argue, these are differences of degree, not of essence.
Neil Faulkner then analyses the situation in Britain, where Johnson – whom we have described elsewhere as ‘the British Trump’ – is heading an administration that, in relation to the coronavirus crisis, compares with that in the White House in its negligence, incompetence, and serial lying.
This means that the British Tories – who are heading for one of the highest death tolls in the world, and who are planning a massive austerity offensive to deal with the economic meltdown that has now begun – are facing their own crisis of legitimacy. And this in turn means that they too, like Trump, will drive further towards fascism.
As societies are torn apart by disease, mass unemployment, collapsing living standards, and disintegrating public services, there are two main responses, and only two. Capital, the state, and fascist mobs will try and turn the anger against ‘the Other’ – minorities, migrants, Muslims, feminists, socialists, foreign governments, liberal elites. Or working people can organise and fight from below for radical social change. The crisis is so deep that it is now one or the other.
Trump, the Far Right, and the Lockdown
On 20 April, Donald Trump made two statements on the coronavirus crisis aimed at strengthening his extreme-right nationalist and xenophobic agenda. First, he banned all immigration into the United States. Second, he launched an insane tirade against China, threatening dire consequences if it was discovered that China had deliberately caused the pandemic. Trump said the US-China relationship was good ‘until they did this’. He said the question was whether what happened with coronavirus was a mistake that got out of control or something done deliberately. ‘There’s a big difference between those two,’ he said.
Trump’s anti-China, anti-immigrant rants come at the same time as his administration, in concert with hard-right business groups and fascist forces across the country, aim to move quickly to remove lockdowns, with potentially catastrophic results.
On 16 April, hundreds of demonstrators – some carrying assault rifles – organised a rally against Michigan state governor Gretchen Whitner, in the state capital Lansing, demanding an end to lockdown. This was followed by a wave of demonstrations in other states. In Lansing, Harrisburg, and other cities, anti-lockdown demonstrators defied social-distancing rules and abused health workers who heckled them.
The spectacle of the United States Covid-19 crisis, with deaths heading inexorably towards 100,000, is a dramatic verdict on the American version of neoliberal capitalism, with its privatised healthcare system, huge inequalities, mass homelessness, chronic racial injustice, and utterly cruel police and prison systems. Even none-too-radical liberal writers have noticed. George Packer, in an upcoming edition of The Atlantic magazine, says:
We live in a failed state… When the virus came here, it found a country with serious underlying conditions, and it exploited them ruthlessly. Chronic ills – a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public – had gone untreated for years… The crisis demanded a response that was swift, rational, and collective. The United States reacted… like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering. The administration squandered two irretrievable months to prepare.
The result has already been mass death. The official figure is nearly 40,000. Factoring in deaths in care homes and in the community, the real toll is probably 60,000 or more. This is already a higher toll than American deaths in either the Korean or Vietnam Wars – and 20 times the deaths on 9/11.
The Mass Death Route out of Lockdown
In mid-April, the Trump administration, backed by a ranged of extreme-right and fascist forces, moved towards an insane plan to rapidly remove America from lockdown. Phase 1 of the three-stage plan, to be implemented early in May, will see large venues like cinemas, restaurants, gyms, and sports areas able to re-open, provided social-distancing rule are observed. Bars will remain closed. Individuals will be urged not to socialise in groups large than 10 (!) people.
Phase 2, probably early in the summer, envisages a range of lethally dangerous measures. Non-essential travel will be allowed to resume. Schools and summer camps (a big deal in the US) will re-open. Bars will re-open with social-distancing rules – a ludicrously unlikely proposition.
Phase 3, probably late summer or early autumn, envisages a more or less total re-opening, except for the most vulnerable older and sick people, who will be expected to continue self-isolating.
The problem, of course, is that premature exit strategies, impelled by economic imperatives, risk new waves of the virus, with an even greater death toll than the first.
Organised by right-wing Republicans and supported by fascist groups like Proud Boys, the Trump-backed anti-lockdown demonstrations were aimed at re-starting business as soon as possible. As William I Robinson points out:
While the protests appear as spontaneous they have in fact been organised by conservative organisations, among them the Heritage Foundation, FreedomWorks, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, which brings together corporate CEOs and right-wing legislators around the United States. President Trump himself has fired up the protesters through a series of tweets exhorting his supporters to ‘liberate’ their states from the lockdown…
It is easy to see why such a movement might get substantial support, though for the moment opinion polls strongly back lockdown.
Many thousands of small businesses face disaster and bankruptcy. As a result of layoffs, unemployment is now 26 million and rising. Millions have not benefitted from the government rescue package, because it is too small, overwhelmed by claims, or has – like the £394 billion package for small businesses – just run out of money.
Commenting in the New Statesman, David Blanchflower notes:
On [15 April], my son and his wife got their stimulus checks from the IRS, but many didn’t… Calls to reopen the country are driven by the fact that millions have no income. The government has paid out billions in airline money, but what is needed is helicopter money, and fast, for ordinary people who can’t buy food.
A dreadful irony of mass unemployment is that millions are losing the medical insurance that comes with their employment. Tens of thousands will find they face huge hospital bills if they recover from the virus. New York doctors report patients saying, before being placed on a ventilator, ‘How much will this all cost?’
The toll of human misery that American neoliberalism is imposing is often submerged in news reports that concentrate on the hospital crisis and Trump’s latest rants. Among the worst affected are those serving monstrously long terms in the US prison system and occupants of the poor housing ‘projects’ in big cities, most of them Black, Hispanic, or other ethnic-minority groups.
The plight in the prisons is symbolised by one prisoner, 76-year-old Pearl Tuma, who is serving a life sentence at Logan Correctional Center. Wheelchair-bound, suffering from multiple medical conditions, and repeatedly refused parole, she says:
I am very fearful that if COVID-19 comes into this prison, there is no safe place for anyone. Our living conditions are deplorable and unsanitary. We are 66 inmates to a wing, one ‘toilet’ area per wing. It’s our only means to wash our dishes, wash our hands, or brush our teeth.
The savage brutality of the American prison system is thrown into relief by the case of William Garrison. Garrison, who had just turned 60, was in prison in Wayne County, Michigan for 44 years and was due to be released in 19 weeks time, before dying of the virus. He was imprisoned at the age of 16, after an armed robbery.
Although there are no precise figures for Covid-19 deaths in US prisons, many hundreds have been infected and deaths will be soaring. At one Ohio prison, the Marrion Country Correctional Facility, 73% of inmates tested positive for the virus. There are known to be 2,400 cases (at least) in Ohio prisons.
The Crashing of a System
US Democrats frequently pose the problem as being Donald Trump and the Republican Party. But however important political leaders are for setting the tone and trend of events, what is happening in America is the crashing of a system. Here are five things about the crisis to note:
1) At a time of crisis like this, the poor, the sick, the old, disabled people, and ethnic minorities are thrown to the wolves. Giving away large amounts of money is what is needed to save them and the economy, but it is totally against the ethos of extreme neoliberalism, as practised in the United States and Britain.
2) Without large pay-outs to the poor – perhaps through a universal basic income – the demand cannot be created to sustain the economy, except through a more-or-less rapid ‘opening up and ending lockdowns’.
3) The government and the central state apparatus are struggling to assert control. This has led to a series of desperate outbursts by Trump, where he has – totally unconstitutionally – said he is ending congressional oversight of government appointments. He has also asserted that he – not state governors – has total authority over lockdown decisions (but has now drawn back from the claim).
4) To try to assert control the Trump administration is collaborating with extreme-right Republican and fascist groups to mobilise against Democrat governors who want to keep tight lockdowns. These groups include gun ‘rights’ activists and conservative groups funded by the Koch brothers. Trump Education Secretary Betty DeVos has also helped organise the protests. Lunatic conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, owner of the extreme-right Infowars online channel, arrived at an Austin, Texas demonstration in a black armoured car.
5) To build support for his right-wing agenda, Trump has now reached for the most nightmarish anti-immigrant and anti-China conspiracy theories, of the type put forward by the Italian fascist leaders Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni.
The economic system of neoliberal capitalism is hurtling towards collapse. Mass destitution will follow unless the state steps in to fund the life and health of millions. If that does not happen, there will be social collapse.
Structural change cannot be avoided. Either huge areas of the economy, as well as health and social care, come under social control, or a collapsing neoliberalism will have to be sustained though authoritarian and fascist methods. The alliance between Trump, far-right Republicans, and fascist groups is the wave of the future.
Spiced up with racist ideology and conspiracy theory, untrammelled powers for the police and intelligence services, and street mobilisations propelled by armed groups and militias, the totalitarian and apocalyptic spectacle of collapsing neoliberalism will rival dystopian science fiction in its violence and injustice.
Johnson, the Brexit Tories, and the Coming Economic Catastrophe
What of Britain? Such is the Tory regime’s catalogue of negligence and incompetence in relation to the coronavirus crisis that it is under attack from Piers Morgan, The Daily Mail, the BBC, and many other solidly right-wing commentators.
It is, of course, this catalogue of failure that has necessitated the serial lying that now forms the substance of official ministerial statements – serial lying that has contributed to the hostility of the mainstream media.
Let us summarise. The British death rate looks set to be among the highest in the world. This is partly because for five weeks, as coronavirus swelled into a global pandemic between 24 January and 2 March, the Tories did nothing to prepare. The government held six meetings of its emergency Cobra committee in this time, but Johnson missed five in a row, attending his first only on 2 March.
In this time, nothing had been done to address chronic shortages of critical-care beds, ventilators, testing kits, and personal protective equipment for front-line health and care workers. These shortages were the bitter fruit of ten years of Tory austerity cuts – continued in the face of expert advice to the effect that a global pandemic was almost inevitable, and that reserves to deal with a national medical emergency were an essential public-health precaution.
By the time they acted, it was too late. In contrast to countries that had immediately followed the tried-and-tested methods recommended by the World Health Organisation – to test, to contact trace, and to immediately isolate the actually or possibly infected – the Tories, having lost control of the pandemic, began peddling far-right eugenicist notions of ‘herd immunity’.
Then they U-turned, presumably when Johnson realised that the likely 250,000 deaths required to achieve ‘herd immunity’ would destroy his premiership.
They now launched a sustained public disinformation campaign to cover up their failure. Government ministers became serial liars. They lied about everything from the death toll – probably at least double the officially announced hospital fatalities – to the availability of tests and PPE – including their politically-motivated boycott of an EU joint purchase plan.
Let us be clear. The Tories are directly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people. Responsible because they cut the NHS to the bone. Responsible because they ignored warnings to prepare for a global pandemic. Responsible because they did nothing for five weeks.
Corporate Profit versus Public Health?
But it is not simply, as Polly Toynbee put it recently in The Guardian, that Johnson is ‘the wrong man in the wrong job at the wrong time’. Negligence, incompetence, and serial lying are political matters. They arise from political priorities and values. The Tories have not fucked up by accident. They have fucked because they represent neoliberal capitalism and the corporate rich.
Their failures arise from the twisted logic of capital accumulation. The labour of the working class is essential, but the health of the working class is negotiable. That is why the NHS is in such a parlous state. It is either being sold off to profiteers or starved of public funds – because corporate profit is paramount, the healthy of the working class an unwelcome expense.
The imperatives of capital accumulation – as against public health – are also at the root of the split inside the Tory cabinet between those who want to maintain the lockdown and those who want to lift it. Just as in the States, pressure from business to restart the economy, backed by Tories like Gove and Sunak, risks triggering a second surge of the pandemic.
No-one will say this – just as no-one now wishes to claim ownership of the ‘herd immunity’ policy – but the fact that the disease disproportionately impacts the elderly, the sick, and the poor gives encouragement to the ‘lift the lockdown’ wing of the ruling class. From capital’s perspective, these are ‘surplus’ people.
The Tories’ crisis measures have followed the same neoliberal corporate logic. They could have announced Universal Basic Income (UBI) and Universal Basic Services (UBS) – ensuring that every household had income and essential needs covered for the duration of the crisis. But they did not. That is why 1.4 million people have been forced to claim the pitifully inadequate Universal Credit since the crisis started.
They could have funded small businesses by direct government grants. But they did not. They outsourced their business support scheme to private banks – with the result that only 1.4% of the small businesses that had applied for support had received it by mid April.
Corporate power figures so large in the consciousness of neoliberal elites that they seem blind to obvious alternatives. PPE is not rocket science. There are even school DT (design & technology) departments and care homes making the kit. But the Tory approach was to outsource PPE procurement to consultancy firm Deloitte, to approach brand names like Burberry, and to ignore a plethora of small and medium local firms offering to make it. Many of these firms filled in the government request forms and heard nothing back. Too small to matter? Not a Tory donor? Who knows?
The Coming Collapse
But these are merely the lightning flashes and thunderclaps that precede the storm. They have borrowed and printed vast amounts of money to prop up big business. They are looking at catastrophic collapses in demand, output, and tax revenues. We are entering a period of economic and social disaster fully comparable with the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Many bosses are already imposing 15% or 20% pay cuts. Many are talking about mass redundancies when the government furlough scheme ends. As we emerge from the immediate crisis of the pandemic, the Tories, the bankers, and the bosses will attempt to implement a massive programme of austerity and authoritarianism.
Since the 1980s, when the neoliberal counter-revolution began, the international capitalist class has been saddled with a growing crisis of legitimacy. As wages fall or stagnate, as rents soar, as the poor are driven deeper into poverty, as households struggle with mounting debts, as public services are eviscerated, as people’s quality of life deteriorates, consent breaks down. A system powered by profit, where everything is done for a price, nothing for the common good, where human well-being is sacrificed at every turn to the greed of the rich, the mass of people cannot be persuaded that they have a stake in the system.
Who is to blame? Scapegoat politics and neoliberal economics have marched in lock-step since the late 1970s – ever since Margaret Thatcher’s notorious ‘swamping’ speech. This was a carefully coded message to every bar-stool racist that they should vote Tory, and it no doubt made its contribution to Thatcher’s 1979 general-election victory.
This is not the place for an analysis of the role of racism in British politics in the years since. Suffice to say, mainstream political discourse and policy have been increasingly contaminated by racism as the neoliberal counter-revolution has devastated people’s lives.
Crime, terrorism, and immigration have been conflated and racialised in the context of deepening social deprivation, and this culminated in the narrow Leave victory in the EU Referendum in 2016, and then the right-wing takeover of the Tory Party and Johnson’s general-election victory in December 2019.
Brexit, the British expression of the wave of nationalism, racism, and fascism sweeping the world, is a direct consequence of the disintegration of the social-democratic welfare consensus and the construction of a neoliberal corporate dystopia.
Only two roads
The crisis of the 1930s polarised politics across Europe. The final outcome of the Great Depression was fascism and world war. The cost was 60 million dead, the majority of them murdered by the German Nazis in Eastern Europe or the Japanese Militarists in China.
The crisis of the world capitalism system today – a compound of pandemic, militarisation, economic depression, social collapse, and climate catastrophe – is polarising politics in the same way.
The direction of travel is clear: the US Republicans, the British Tories, and far-right political parties across the world, representing the interests of corporate capital and threatened by wholesale social breakdown, will ramp up the nationalism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia, and construct increasingly authoritarian police states. One road is towards fascism.
Or the working class – all of us, regardless of borders and differences, black and white, women and men, migrant and native, gay and straight – can organise, unite, and fight. That is the other road: towards revolution and people power.
Neil Faulkner and Phil Hearse are revolutionary socialists active in Mutiny and co-authors, with Samir Dathi and Seema Syeda, of Creeping Fascism: what it is and how to fight it.
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