This is a talk I gave last week at the 12/7/2016 meeting of Chicago Local of News and Letters Committees
“It is the totality of the present world crisis which compels us to turn to Hegel and his Absolutes….Today we live in an age of absolutes, that is to say, in an age where the contradictions are so total that the counter-revolution is in the very innards of the revolution. In seeking to overcome this total, this absolute contradiction, we are on the threshold of true freedom and therefore can understand better than any previous age Hegel’s most abstract concepts.”
– Raya Dunayevskaya
I hope everyone has read or will soon read the Lead-Editorial in the new issue of N&L. I don’t want to repeat too much of it since most here have read it. It begins with the protests that began immediately after Trump’s victory in an election where his opponent got 2.5 million votes more than he did. The protests broke out all over the U.S. and in several other countries. And the resistance continues. Last Saturday, hundreds of people came from across North and South Carolina to defeat a Trump victory rally called by the KKK in Pelham, N.C. The Klan had to cancel the rally and slink home.
At the same time, the hate crimes that have spiked since the election continue to expose what Trump’s ascent is really about. Trump supporters keep painting “Make America white again,” swastikas, etc. on walls and sidewalks. Many mosques have received hate mail with exactly the same line in the hate message N&L received on our website: “Trump is going to do to the Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews.”
Internationally, what Bob McGuire called a grand world coalition of reactionaries continues to gather, with Trump and Putin vying to lead it even as they embrace each other and both lend their support to far right groups in multiple countries. Meanwhile, Francois Fillon positioned his establishment right-wing party in France to outflank the National Front by spouting just as much hate and threats toward immigrants and Muslims, and being anti-LGBTQ and pro-Putin while claiming to stand up to American imperialism.
Trump signaled his opposition to allowing human rights to have any influence on foreign policy by viewing Syria as nothing more than a platform for fighting “terrorists” hand in hand with Putin and Assad, who is busy carrying out genocide with Putin’s help. Trump reinforced this stance on human rights by warmly giving his blessing to kindred spirit President Duterte of the Philippines and his thousands of assassinations outside of the law.
We meet under the whip of counter-revolution. As the Lead says, “This election deepened counter-revolution at home and globally. There can be no doubt that it is a very serious setback for all the oppressed and for all freedom movements. What Trump represents above all is counter-revolution, and, more specifically, fascism, which is the excrescence of capitalism under threat. His rise is the index of this system’s crisis and bankruptcy of thought, which the Left has hardly met with a truly revolutionary perspective.”
Because this counter-revolution threatens the very future of humanity—and the dangers of climate chaos should be enough to make that point clear—and because its very depth and the way it has metastasized into the entire political system show that nothing short of revolution abolishing this system can break us free from this descent, Dunayevskaya’s dictum that the Absolute determines all perspectives gains new urgency.
The Lead takes up how fascism is the excrescence of capitalism under threat. The strengthening of the state is a sign of the weakness of the system, both from its internal crisis, which began in 2007 and still afflicts it; and from the unrest running the gamut from people uncertain of what kind of future their children will have economically to people gathered to block the Dakota Access Pipeline. It is no coincidence that fascism is rising at the very time that more and more people have been coming out against capitalism and speaking of socialism.
What I want to stress tonight is that fascism is a transformation into opposite of liberal democracy—a transformation coming from within its very being. It happened in Germany with the Nazis, who started out as the German Workers Party and tried to co-opt socialist workers in their rise to power. It happened in Italy with Mussolini, who started out as a socialist but turned to nationalism.
Most of the Left and liberals are so steeped in empiricism that they tend to get lost in the continuity between this administration and the next. Any Leftist who before the election was saying there was no difference between Democrats and Republicans, can say that Obama opened the door for all that Trump is going to do. They can point to many facts that show it is so, but they lose sight of how extreme the change can be. I’ve seen some confirmation bias, where those who said before that Hillary Clinton was just as bad as Trump, today point to his appointments of Wall Street fat cats and smugly say she would have done the same. Or take Chris Cutrone of the Platypus Society, in his article titled, “Why Not Trump?” He wrote:
“Trump promises to govern ‘for everyone’….There is no reason not to believe him. Everything Trump calls for exists already….Finding Trump acceptable is not outrageous. But the outrageous anti-Trump-ism — the relentless spinning and lying of the status quo defending itself — is actually not acceptable….Why not Trump? For which the only answer is: To preserve the status quo. Not against ‘worse’ — that might be beyond any U.S. President’s control anyway — but simply for things as they already are. We should not accept that.”
Besides that, some of the criticism of Clinton from the Left reveals a bizarre attitude: she is tarred with the imperialist policies of the Obama administration, as if imperialism is merely a personal attribute or a policy choice. It reminds me of what Dunayevskaya wrote in her Political-Philosophic Letter on “Lebanon: The Test not only of the PLO but the Whole Left”:
“…the New Left, born in the 1960s, so disdainful of theory (which it forever thinks it can pick up ‘en route’), has a strange attitude toward imperialism. It is as if imperialism were not the natural outgrowth of monopoly capitalism, but was a conspiracy, organized by a single imaginary center, rather as the Nazis used to refer to the Judeo-Catholic-Masonic Alliance, or Communists under Stalin to the conspiracy of the Trotskyists and Rightists in league with the imperialist secret service.
“It is such an attitude to imperialism, along with the theoretic void that has pervaded the Movement since the death of Lenin, that has led revolutionaries to collude with narrow nationalism on the ground that it is ‘anti-imperialist’ though purely nationalist. Evidently nationalism of the so-called Third World is of itself revolutionary even when it is under the banner of a king, a shah, or the emirates. Thereby they canonize nationalism, even when it is void of working class character, as national liberation.”
Today that seems to have degenerated to the point of supporting the genocidal dictator Assad, baptized a legitimately elected anti-imperialist. That viewpoint is shared by much of the Left and the far Right, as they swap conspiracy theories and erase the subjectivity of the masses whose revolts created the Arab Spring. Instead these converging elements of the Left and Right cherish the myth that the CIA started Arab Spring in order to depose Assad.
All that shows is that a portion of the Left has succumbed to this decaying system’s deterioration of thought. The system’s mental rot has led to the appointment of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as Trump’s National Security Adviser—that is, the person who is supposed to make sense of intelligence reports is a hysterical believer and spreader of absurd conspiracy theories and fake news stories. That includes the claim that chemical weapons attacks conducted by the Assad regime were actually “false flag” operations by the opposition. He claims that the Obama administration “willfully” allowed ISIS to form in order to overthrow Assad, and he claims that jihadists drive the opposition in Syria. He opposes Assad’s downfall and advocates “constructive cooperation” with Putin, whose propaganda outlet RT Flynn has worked for. This is not just about foreign policy. It is about subordinating objective facts and conditions to ideology in all spheres.
In relation to Trump, who also spreads many lies and has a tenuous relationship to reality, consider what Dunayevskaya wrote about Charles De Gaulle in March 1963: “If this is madness, as it is, it is not, however, the madness of an individual egomaniac. It is the madness of the state-capitalist age that has exuded a Mussolini and a Hitler….”
The Lead describes how the KKK-endorsed billionaire took over what used to be called “anti-globalization” by the Left, how he exploited fears of white middle-class and working-class voters that were partly about economic prospects threatened by capitalism’s unending crisis, but he played up fear and hatred of the Other—immigrants, Muslims, Latinos, Blacks, women, anybody but the straight white male.
The rural-urban divide has been exacerbated by the economic deterioration of many rural areas, but it has to do as well with the fact that they are whiter, and it’s not all about rural areas because we can’t overlook the role of the white suburban vote in pushing Trump over the top in states like Pennsylvania.
The Lead mentions how Clinton failed in challenging this. She “adopted some of Bernie Sanders’s specific proposals but remained a neoliberal ‘New Democrat,’ like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama before her. Her message that the economic crisis is past and things are getting better rang hollow for too many people, some of whom fell for Trump’s siren song on trade.
“What neither Clinton, nor Trump, nor even the socialist Sanders acknowledged is that capitalism itself, by its very nature, is always decimating existing jobs, businesses, industries, and even regions. Boosters tout this as ‘creative destruction.’ Today, parts of the middle class are falling into the working class, and previously better off workers are ending up in low-paid service jobs, the ‘gig economy,’ or unemployment.
“Being in that situation can spur someone to look to the future, to a new human society beyond capitalism, or to the past. If the power of the idea of freedom is muted, and an emancipatory vision of the future is not being articulated and heard, then a void is opened for a con man like Donald Trump to fill with a fabricated mythic past.
“…Too many were willing to overlook, or were positively attracted to, a vision of the past that rolls back all the gains made by people of color, women and workers in the last century and a half—as long as its stench was perfumed by Trump’s fake promises of prosperity, such as bringing back the jobs lost in the coal and steel regions of the ‘Rust Belt’ and Appalachia.”
The Carrier deal speaks volumes. While most workers will certainly not get even this amount of attention, it’s astonishing that Trump admitted in a speech that he had forgotten about his promise to prevent Carrier from moving 2,000 jobs to Mexico until he saw on TV a recording of himself making the promise! He had also said that any company that moves jobs abroad would have to pay. After the deal, Carrier is still moving 1,000 jobs to Mexico and not paying but getting $7 million in tax breaks. The other 1,000 jobs can be moved at a later date when Trump has forgotten again. [Since I wrote this, it has become clear that Trump was lying when he claimed the deal would save 1,100 jobs in Indiana.] When it comes to coal and steel jobs, just forget it altogether.
What he will do for workers is to try to dismantle or sabotage Obamacare, Medicare, and Social Security, gut labor laws and regulations, cut taxes for the rich and social services for everyone else, and wipe out access to reproductive health services. Some wishful thinkers believe that Trump voters will automatically become disillusioned when they realize he lied to them. In contrast, the Lead argues that he will try to distract them “by attacking scapegoats, in the first instance with more mass deportations and giving the police a free hand under the cry of ‘law and order.’”
The Lead takes up how the opposite to this bankruptcy of thought can be seen in movements like Black Lives Matter—where most recently the outcry forced the Sheriff of Jefferson Parish in Louisiana to charge the killer of Joe McKnight—and the largest national prison strike in U.S. history, women’s struggles for new human relations, and Indigenous resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Though only a partial victory, it was an important victory when the movement forced the Obama administration to deny permission to build that pipeline under the Missouri River near the Standing Rock reservation—which apparently the company is still doing illegally. This is not over. The ideas underlying this movement have been powerful enough to inspire thousands of veterans to head to the Standing Rock area to protect the water protectors from the police forces who serve and protect the exploiters. Some of those veterans are planning to head to Flint to revive attention to the poisoning of the largely Black population there.
And now the Fight for 15 movement has just held protests nationwide calling for a living wage. Internationally, there is mass opposition to Trump, who scares people around the world.
Trump’s accession to power has been hailed as the end of neoliberalism. Let’s consider it more closely. The mid-1970s economic crisis, as analyzed by Dunayevskaya, was a structural change brought about by the fall in the rate of profit. The crisis led the ruling class to turn away from the Keynesian form of state-capitalism and replace it with the economic, political, and ideological restructuring that people now generally call neoliberalism, headed by Reagan-Thatcher. By the way, Pat Buchanan, an important racist demagogic precursor of Trump and rehabilitator of Nazism, was in the Reagan administration. Far from being the end of the era of state-capitalism, neoliberalism partially destroyed the welfare state, labor unions, and taxes and regulations on corporations in a successful effort to shore up the rate of profit. But large-scale state intervention in the economy never ended, as seen for example in gargantuan military spending, massive subsidies for industries such as fossil fuel, nuclear power, and agribusiness, and the vast expansion of the prison industrial complex, followed in 2008 by the bailout of Wall Street, auto companies, etc.
Trump comes in the wake of the end of neoliberalism’s temporary bolstering of the profit rate. It plunged again in 2007 and remains low historically. He represents very little change in any of the features of neoliberalism I just mentioned, except a turn toward protectionism and away from free trade. By the way, the trade agreements of the neoliberal era were about a lot more than free trade, and there is little evidence that Trump opposes the empowerment of corporations involved in them.
Just as ideology was central to Reagan-Thatcher, who famously tried to chain the masses’ minds with the dogma that “there is no alternative” to capitalism, so for Trump a never-ending priority is pushing his inchoate ideology, which he does not understand in any reasoned way but only understands in his gut. What the bourgeois press and its fact-checkers don’t get is that fascism doesn’t care about facts, science, history, reasoned arguments. What matters is the manipulative appeal to irrationality, emotions and prejudice. The Republican Party has been acting that out for years. Not only have they deliberately defunded areas of research ranging from global warming (and now Trump wants to defund NASA’s climate research) to tracking right-wing domestic terrorism, at the state and local level, most prominently the Texas Board of Education, they have mandated the teaching of lies in school to whitewash the history of racism and erase freedom movements, and they have dictated lies that doctors must tell women seeking abortion. Now Trump is going to exploit the hell out of the bully pulpit of the White House as a platform for ideology.
A little example of how he knows how to manipulate is the spectacle of reporters debating how they should report on his tweets. They are missing the point: He doesn’t care. He is bypassing the press. Twitter is his direct line to the people, as you can see from his followers repeating his lie that millions of people illegally voted for Clinton. They won’t be reading the reports debunking that lie.
The stress on ideology underscores our role in responding. I’m heartened to see people who have dropped out of politics for several years coming back because they are not going to stand for this. But ideas, philosophy, are the crucial element that would help activism achieve historic continuity, coalesce into a transformative movement, coming face to face with that enemy ideology and not just with the political moves.
In the process, we have to see how much of what the “alt-right” does is copied from the Left, as well as the decades of work that the Right has put into ideology with billions of dollars behind it and its think tanks, which were expressly founded to battle the Left in ideas, not just to lobby for corporate economic interests.
There is a tremendous temptation to get lost in first negation, opposing the terrible new reality. Part of our analysis of this situation and how it came to be is how the Left, Marxist and otherwise has, in Dunayevskaya’s words, “let the movement from practice suffocate for lack of any comprehensive revolutionary theory with which to combat” the new fascist Right.
The most prominent example of how far the movement has drifted from serious theory is a supposedly Left critique of the Democratic Party that they got caught up in “identity” rather than inequality. Bernie Sanders has articulated a version of this. Why counterpose class or economy against race, gender, sexuality? But in fact that counterposition has been around for a long time, as so much of the Left has given up on the working class in favor of “new social movements,” or stuck to a Debsian position that class is everything, while none of them actually conceive of workers as potentially self-developing Subject. Rather, the idea that the masses are backward is a dogma that is still being clung to. Only Marxist-Humanism has a concept of four forces of revolution, forces as Reason interacting in a dialectic of revolution, even if the people who make up those forces are not at every moment revolutionary. Counterposing “identity” with “inequality” is a capitulation to ideological pollution.
The fact that so many people voted for Trump is chilling, yet let’s not forget that he failed to get a majority. Even if you disregard the fact that nearly half of eligible voters did not vote, the millions of people denied the vote because of past felony convictions, the racially biased procedures used to eliminate registrations and make it harder for certain groups of people to vote, Trump still only won because of the Electoral College, which dilutes the urban vote and was invented by the Founding Fathers to inhibit democracy and protect the institution of slavery.
The reality is that Trump lost by 2.5 million votes [2.84 million votes at latest count]. Total votes for Republican candidates for the House of Representatives are perennially millions less than those for Democrats. If Senate seats were apportioned by population, Republicans would have only 45% of them after this election. And yet, once Trump’s Supreme Court pick is rubber-stamped, the minority party will have single-party control of the federal government and about half the states. That is exactly what they have been aiming for since the Tea Party wave of 2010, including their gambit of slamming the door in Merrick Garland’s face and their government shutdowns. Now that they have succeeded, they will work to cement that single-party rule by attacking voting rights, among other measures.
One aspect of it is how the power of the state can be expected to be brought to bear to repress dissent. Trump and some of his key appointments favor mass surveillance, and more powers and impunity for the police. Outside the state, the wave of hate crimes is a taste of the extralegal means that will be used.
The Lead took up some of Trump’s nominees, but New York Times columnist Charles Blow captured it with his label, “a team of billionaires and bigots.” By far the richest cabinet in history, they are Wall Street friendly and anti-Gay; anti-woman and Islamophobic; pro-racist, anti-labor and anti-immigrant. To top it off, Trump’s family and business interests will be intertwined with government like a tapeworm, heralding a new era of corruption and plutocracy, which he claimed to be campaigning against, and was described by all too many observers as a “populist.”
The shining example of Populism in U.S. history is the movement that took on the industrialists and plantation owners in the 1880s and 1890s, as described in American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard. It brought together workers and farmers, Black and white, in what one of its leaders described this way:
“This is not a political fight and politicians cannot lead or direct it. It is a movement of the masses, an uprising of the people, and they, and not the politicians, will direct it. The people need spokesmen, not leaders, men in the front who will obey, not command.”
Since that movement’s defeat, only fake populism gets that label, that is, demagoguery. One of the greatest examples aside from Trump is his so-called chief strategist and self-styled populist Steve Bannon. Deeply racist and sexist, he panders to white supremacists, homophobes and misogynists and has pushed many lying stories as head of Breitbart News Network. Though he is working for the biggest crony capitalist of all, this former Goldman Sachs banker believes in a dual crusade, both against crony capitalism and in what he calls “a global war against Islamic fascism.”
He claims to be leading a “revolution” for the middle class against “crony capitalism,” by which he means both state-capitalism and monopoly capitalism. (To that end, he touts “economic nationalism,” and grandiosely speaks of a “trillion-dollar infrastructure plan.” But the actual plan proposed by Trump is not a New Deal-type spending plan. Instead it would give deregulation and tax breaks to businesses to privatize infrastructure and allow them to levy fees for toll roads, water and sewage service, etc., without addressing the country’s real infrastructure needs.)
His grand illusion is that capitalism can be returned to some mythic entrepreneurial capitalism from before the Fall, when the capitalists in charge were “enlightened…Judeo-Christians.” (Without the religious element, the same delusion is held by Green reformers from the Left like Paul Hawkin.)
In order to get to that imaginary goal, any lie, any manipulation, any alliance with racists or other fanatics, is acceptable. I don’t know how he reconciles in his head that the new administration-in-waiting is filling up with corporate fat cats that he supposedly opposes as a “populist” who denounces the 2008 bailout of Wall Street. In addition to actual Wall Street tycoons, those fat cats include a number of associates of the billionaire Koch brothers, who have fought feverishly against labor unions and laws regulating wages and working conditions, against any regulation of corporations, against any action on climate change, against any restrictions on campaign funding, and so forth. (Check out George Monbiot’s Nov. 30 column, “Frightened by Donald Trump? You don’t know the half of it.”) It appears that, once again, ideology trumps facts. And no doubt Bannon and Trump share the feeling that their own grasp of power is the most important thing of all.
You can see why the Lead ends with these four paragraphs:
This must be stopped. To wait four years for another election would be to give up. That nothing short of revolution can suffice is clearer than ever, as unprecedented reaction is entrenching itself in all three branches of the government with a fascist at its head, doubling down on climate change denial and nuclear-armed militarism. Civilization’s survival is called into question unless this rotten political and economic system and its ideology are abolished.
We must fight this backward movement here and now and in doing so not disarm ourselves by failing to project the need for social transformation fundamental enough to pull out fascism’s roots in capitalism, which is intertwined with racism, sexism, heterosexism and imperialism. Let us not limit ourselves to being against this new form of fascism, or even against capitalism, but release the power of the freedom movements by aiding their unity with the philosophy of freedom for the reconstruction of society on totally new beginnings.
What Raya Dunayevskaya declared has never been more urgent: “The totality of the world crisis today, and the need for a total change, compels philosophy, a total outlook.” This is the missing link for projecting a truly revolutionary perspective.
Many in various movements are stating their resolve to keep fighting. Confidence in the power of the idea, which is at the same time confidence in the masses, is what will allow us not only to keep fighting, but to keep working at the needed rethinking, the unity of theory and practice, so that revolution can succeed and bring forth a new human society.