For those of us whose lives and work have existed under the shadows of European fascism and its responses, a surging populism – vitriolic, racist, misogynistic, indeed monstrous and ubuesque – has given us much to fear. Many have wondered aloud, as radical Right parties have claimed seats in continental parliaments, the United Kingdom passed a referendum to secede from a legal union in Europe, and the United States elected a boisterous, ego-maniacal and overtly hateful agitator to its highest elected office, whether we were now witnessing the catastrophic return of fascism; perhaps, as Marx prophesized, as farce, but certainly no less dangerous and aided by the advent of terrible new technologies of mass devastation. As was the case a century ago, this swell in enthusiastic violence is not limited to the prosaic planes of Europe or the American backwater, but finds similar expressions in Moscow, Delhi, Ankara, and Damascus. Many have cried ‘fascism!” as a general sign of warning, that ascent to the rule of such regimes would have potentially world-annihilating consequences, that a new terror would be unleased on the world, less bureaucratic and more wild, and that we would all be consumed by its fires. Justly, we are afraid and angry.
In Germany, for decades now, a public controversy has raged among the cultural class over the inevitability of that nation’s historical path to fascism. Were it destined to fall into the clutches of Nazism, it would be a taint on all its history until that point. This tension meant too, as Theodor Adorno famously argued, distinguishing between our efforts to overcome the past, and our working through it – an awareness of the danger that national catharsis could mean we forget what came to pass, and in so doing, make ourselves vulnerable to its repetition. In view of this so-called historian’s controversy, it is imperative that we recognize that the demagoguery of the recent elections has made it possible to give voice to sentiments, to a Weltanschauung, which had anyway fomented among large portions of the population for a long time.
In the past week, the rash of incidents in which icons of Nazi fascism have been painted on the doors and homes of Muslim, Jewish, queer and migrant peoples, is testament not to a shift in ideology, but a new possibility for expression. It is now possible to utter what has long been held in the hearts of oppressors who have felt that their grip on the world was slipping – now the signs of their anger can move through the world for all to see. These words of hate are able to find a footing in the world, where they are picked up and passed along by others, giving birth to new forms of mass politics, as such expressions are wont to do, by taking hold of old symbols. It is this social condition in which we find ourselves that makes clear why the ascent of the Far-Right is such frightening possibility. We have lost what Antonio Gramsci called the war of position (a fight for cultural hegemony), in order to avoid fighting a war of maneuver – an all-out war to the death. We see this manifest clearly in the recurrent invocation of the threat of apocalypse. Those are the options before us, neoliberal violence or complete destruction, if not in nuclear winter then swallowed up by anthropogenic climate change. One is very clearly worse. But how this barbarous politics has come to power and what to do about it, in my view, is connected to the acquiescence of the Left to a language of acceptance of a middle ground in a struggle over ideology.
We may be struck by a particular vexing aspect of this emergent global political reality. Despite its nationalist rhetoric, it is the Right who have now coalesced a spirit of political action in excess of the nation, not through an organized vanguard, but spontaneously. How else are we to understand the camaraderie of nationalist politicians? I would suggest this is not simply another axis of realist power. This global Right is mirrored on the Left, for example, by the preference for a regional economic union without a check on national sovereignty, over the return to oppositional, trans-national trade. The stumbling of the Maastricht experiment has everything to do with our acceptance of the continued existence of the bourgeois state as the organizing principle of political power, and any hopes for inter-national economic redistribution have been very evidently misguided. We find ourselves with a nationalist politics in service not of a national class, but of a global financial logic whose hegemony has replaced the old national-industrial structure, in order to preserve the capitalist mode of production in the post-war, post-wall, era. This realignment however, it is my principal contention, has been abetted by a form of quasi-Left politics and writing. It has been made possible by a shift in political language whose architects are those who purport to be its enemies. Needless to say, I am not suggesting a coordinated and conscious effort on the part of a liberal cultural-producing class. Rather, the contradictions of global capital have been covered up by the creation of a privileged ‘critical’ subject position, as well as by a conversion from the language of value to growth, and from the primacy of the new bourgeoisie’s monopoly over symbolic rather than physical violence.
In the historical period since the defeat of European fascism, capitalism, once centered on the activity of industrial factories, and the shift from rural peasantry to urban labor, reimagined itself through the languages of globalization, financialization, and service economy. To fend off the threat of proletarian revolution, it ingeniously established a series of internal oppositions, in order to provide the semblance of external criticism. The traditional intellectuals of arbitrary authority, the Church’s scholar-monks and the artists of mercantile patronage, were transformed into experts, technocrats who today everywhere are re-building institutions like the academy to protect their privileged position in service of the state. No doubt the replacement of critical thinkers by endlessly proliferating administrators in western universities is a symptom of this process. We privileged, educated, elites, holed up in our pristine white institutions where we feel most comfortable, find ourselves locked in battle with the diffuse, supposedly ‘uneducated,’ anti-intellectual masses, who hoist up their uncritical religion and economic quackery against us. And while these two factions go to war, the structures of inequality that have ruled our society continue to prevail. Every attempt to challenge the order is condemned as a pipe dream, a distraction from the threat in front of us. And so we have marched on, limping to the right for years.
Allow me to make this point, in the space that remains, both as the level of electoral politics and then with regards to the role of intellectuals.
To whatever extent we may be tempted to call the current threat fascism, it must be acknowledged that we no longer live in the world of 1930s Europe. This, instead, would be a fascism born of a bourgeois fantasy of enduring domination, given shape, for example, as the American dream – white, Christian, heteronormative, masculine. They fear for the money they earned, pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, concerned that it might fall into the hands of the lazy and the poor. It is another aspirational politics, a hegemonic notion that leads the dominated peoples, like the petit bourgeois of old, to align politically with their own oppressor in hopes of emulating their successes while fewer and fewer have access to the storehouse of wealth. But while its opponents work tirelessly under the banner of equality, they fight in service of the continuation of a system that continues to afford less to their constituents.
I remained awake throughout the night of November 8th, anxious and downtrodden like many, all weeping because we have justifiably preferred a strategic victory over clear and present danger. Such is the conceit of privilege. We had to gesture to an imaginary center, accept lesser evils, and give up political ground, because we had to win. Until we lost. This has been the explicit strategy of the nominally Left in the United States, or more properly “progressive liberalism” since at least the formation of the Democratic Leadership Council and the Clinton administration (though its roots are of course much older). We are told that most Americans are ‘socially liberal and fiscally conservative.’ That centrism and political expediency were necessary means of enacting a progressive agenda. On the other hand, it was that old conservative-liberal Barry Goldwater, we recall, that said, citing a spurious quotation from Cicero, that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue. When it has been that American political actors have refused to give ground, it has traditionally been, unsurprisingly, among marginal populations – perhaps most famously by Black intellectuals, which remains the case today. But even then their voices are either occluded, or held up as icons without being engaged.
But this tactic is no longer even expedient – and to an extent, we have sown the seeds of our own demise. Defeated, the neoliberals justly cry out against the deplorable vision of the Right, but lay the blame for their loss everywhere except within themselves. We have seen it already in the clamoring for exogenous historical contingencies, in efforts to bludgeon what remains of the American Left with guilt, to point fingers at Russia, uninspired young people, the dubious claims of an incompetent FBI Director, or buffoonish minor party candidates. Whatever the cause, those of us who wish to fight against the rampant violence of the system today, can at least, finally, no longer reasonably turn to the better of bad choices. We suppose. And yet the opposition to the American President-Elect has been quickly fractured, busily fighting itself.
Lest we all forget, the fracturing of a tenuously unified revolutionary Left after the collapse of the German Empire, led eventually to the seizure of political power in the subsequent Weimar Republic by the Nazis. It was the social democrats who crushed the revolt of the Spartakusbund in January 1919, aligning with the Freikorps to assassinate Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, and it was disillusionment with the SPD’s moderation coupled with economic depression that set the groundwork for Hindenburg’s employment of emergency powers and Hitler’s ascent to the Chancellery. This will not be the situation in the United States or Europe today. We must nevertheless fight, immediately, to throw off this horrific fascism, if that’s the term, to avoid worse consequences. But it cannot be done through a return to a lesser Right-wing liberalism. It cannot be done, moreover, only through electoral politics. We must wage a war, not with guns and fists, but in service of a counter-ideology and through the creation of counter-publics.
Among sanctioned intellectuals, this is manifest most apparently in the bourgeois postmodernism that offers empty language under the sign of critique, and in so doing serves the interests of global capital. As Frederic Jameson has convincingly argued in a recent interview, the formations of class politics gave way to the category of identity, allowing us to talk, for example, about labor without talking about class. Hence the recent confusion over whether support arose from poor disaffected labor (who, it turned out, were not poor) and white nationalism. In turn, we have shifted to an amorphous category of power, rather than a turn, as Jameson advocates, to economics without presuppositions about economic solutions. Yet the relationship between race, identity and class been taken for granted on the Left as much as on the Right. For too long, leftist intelligentsia have been happy to parade photographs of themselves at rallies, turning to each other for approval of their ostensibly ‘good politics,’ writing books that appear to offer challenges to state power and structural oppression, to racism and xenophobia, sexual violence and homophobia, but which are scarcely more than a token of resistance. While there are many who have offered powerfully instructive critiques of ideology today, enough uncritical false consciousness exists that it has in many cases undermined the good work of those committed to the fight.
We must meet the expansion of the integration of the Right with a new politics of resistance. We must reinvigorate the project of critique of culture that was inaugurated to meet the challenges posed by the last century. We must organize to fight every legislative and executive action undertaken in the next four years in the United States. We must also occupy the institutions like the Democratic Party. But most importantly, we must recommit ourselves to a critique of ideology and to supporting the articulation of an organic opposition.
Andrew Brandel is currently a visiting fellow at the IWM, where is completing work on his book City of Letters, on the figurations of literary thought in contemporary Berlin. He is the author, with Clara Han, of a forthcoming monograph on how stories of catastrophic violence are told within families, and is co-editing a volume on the anthropology of texts. He holds a doctorate in anthropology from The Johns Hopkins University.