Choosing or refusing to take sides in an era of right-wing populism

Part one of a two-part article

Two events during 2016—the UK referendum on membership in the European Union (EU) and the US presidential election—raised the question of whether or not socialists should take sides in situations where there are two alternatives, both opposed in different ways, to working-class interests. The most obvious answer would be to abstain from the vote, argue against both options, and make the case for a socialist alternative capable of forcing its way onto the ballot in the future. But if one of the existing alternatives represents the politics of the populist hard right, as it did in both these cases, can socialists avoid supporting the other, however unpalatable doing so might be? 

Faced with the xenophobia and outright racism which respectively dominated and constituted the Leave and Donald Trump campaigns, sections of the left in both countries argued that, whatever problems there may be with the EU as an institution or with Hilary Clinton as a candidate, a vote to remain within the

former and to elect the latter were “the lesser of two evils.” The same argument has already been raised in advance of the 2017 French presidential elections, where the Thatcherite François Fillon of the Republicans has been proclaimed the lesser evil compared to Marine Le Pen of the Front National, just as Jacques Chirac was the lesser evil in the run-off against Le Pen’s father Marie in 2002. In some respects these are more plausible cases than those of the UK and USA since, unlike Nigel Farage or Trump, the Le Pens are actual fascists. 

France is unlikely to be the last place where the left is faced with this type of choice, which indicates the urgency with which it needs to establish an independent position. I will address the concrete question on what basis we should make such choices in the second part of this article in the next issue of ISR. Here, I want to explore the roots and nature of what is usually regarded as “the greater evil”: the populist right, in both its fascist and non-fascist variants.1 

Neoliberalism's crisis

But first, it is perhaps worth briefly discussing why it has become—temporarily at least—the main alternative to the current orthodoxies of capitalist governance. The economic crash of 2007 was at one and the same time a general crisis of capitalism comparable to those of 1873, 1929, and 1973, and a crisis of a particular form of capitalist organization we have come to know as neoliberalism. But the latter has occurred at a particular phase in its history, that of “social” neoliberalism, which emerged after 1989, first within the EU, then in administrations of Bill Clinton in the United States (from 1992), and of Tony Blair in the UK (from 1997). Perhaps the greatest ideological success of social neoliberalism was to turn the categories of “left” and “right” to essentially cultural concepts. When everyone—or at least, everyone who mattered—came to accept neoliberal economics, then the only terrain on which debate was permissible was that of identity: the so-called “culture wars.” So, to be on the left was, for example, to be in favour of gay marriage and migration, and to be on the right was to oppose them: the legitimacy of capitalism was never in doubt on either side. 

In reality what had happened was that right-wing politics—that is, politics openly supportive of the capitalist system—had effectively split in two, or perhaps returned to the classic pre-socialist “conservative” versus “liberal” division of the nineteenth century, with both sides supporting the same economic model, but the latter being more willing to accept rights for what were usually (and in the case of women, inaccurately) referred to as “minorities.” To be clear: the problem with the latter position is not, as Mark Lilla and others are arguing, that the Democrats became obsessed with identity at the expense of economics, but that their policies did nothing to stop the oppression of these groups, in particular their working-class members, since under the Obama administration in which Hillary Clinton served, women continued to be sexually assaulted with impunity, people of color continued to be incarcerated, and migrants continued to be deported in record numbers.2  

Two changes have taken place since 2007, both associated with shifts in the position of a faction within the conservative wing of the ruling class—the populist hard right. One is that it has also adopted a politics of identity, in this case a majoritarian identity based on that most pernicious of invented categories, “the white working class,” whose interests have supposedly been sacrificed to those of the minority populations. However, perhaps realizing that the plight of unemployed coal miners in Pennsylvania is hard to blame on government hand-outs supposedly being showered on Black lesbians in North Carolina, it has also adopted another position, which is to—rhetorically at least—abandon many neoliberal shibboleths and argue for protectionism and government investment in infrastructure. 

Ironically, it was under Bill Clinton rather than Reagan or Bush the First that the United States finally abandoned protectionism, which had been used to protect the steel industry during the 1980s, but this simply added to the case for Democrats having abandoned workers to the ravages of the market. Now, whether Trump is serious about implementing his economic policies is still unclear, and he may not even know himself; but what is perhaps more interesting is not only that a break with neoliberalism is being articulated within the ruling class, but that many of the proposals associated with it would actually be detrimental to US capitalism, which is one of the reasons why so many of them were opposed to his candidacy. 

Contesting lesser-evilism and right-wing populism

One consequence of these changes is that previous arguments against choosing the lesser evil have to be revised, although not, I will argue, the stance itself. The classic discussion is generally thought to be a much-reprinted piece by Hal Draper, first published in 1967.3 The context was the presidential election of the following year, in which it was expected that the incumbent Lyndon Johnson would stand for the Democrats against an as yet unknown Republican candidate. As it turned out, Johnson refused to stand and Hubert Humphrey ultimately won the Democratic nomination only to lose the presidency to Richard Nixon. Johnson had, of course, been the lesser evil against Barry Goldwater in 1964, although, as Draper pointed out, the former subsequently unleashed far greater violence against the Vietnamese than the latter had ever contemplated—and was able to get away with it precisely because he knew that most of the left were paralysed by their fear of the greater evil. But although Draper was primarily concerned with the United States, he did examine the most extreme example possible in order to demonstrate where the lesser evil argument could lead: the rise of Nazism in Germany. 

In the presidential elections of March and April 1932, both the Social Democratic Party and center parties had refused to stand their own candidates, but called on their members and supporters to vote for the incumbent, the independent but deeply conservative candidate Paul von Hindenburg, in an attempt to block the greater evil represented by Adolf Hitler. Once re-elected with the help of the left, Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Chancellor, in the misplaced expectation that he would be constrained by the responsibilities of office. Draper rather foreshortens the actual process, as Hitler was not appointed immediately, but the following January, on the grounds that the Nazis were the largest party in the Reichstag; his central point, however, remains valid: support the lesser evil and you might well end up getting the greater evil too. Draper was careful to point out the extremity of the situation in Germany during the early nineteen thirties, both in relation to the extent of the crisis and the nature of the Nazi program, but argued that if the lesser evil argument was wrong in these conditions, it was far more so in the relatively stable context of the USA in the late nineteen sixties.  

Draper made two general points. First, the left has to create its own political alternative or it will endlessly be faced with choices ultimately determined by defenders of capitalism. Second, even though serious differences remained between parties and candidates—such as had also existed between Hindenburg and Hitler—these were becoming less significant in practice: the increasing centrality of state intervention, ownership and control after the crisis of 1929 meant that all political formations (other than those committed to the overthrow of capitalism) were effectively forced to follow the same core policies, whatever their beliefs or electoral rhetoric. The retreat of state capitalism in the West began after the return of economic crisis in 1973, but Draper’s argument was still relevant as the subsequent neoliberal era involved as a great a convergence around economic policy as there had been between 1929 and 1973, albeit in the opposite direction. 

But as I have suggested, since the onset of a further crisis in 2007, this agreement has begun to break down. In other words, anyone wanting to oppose arguments for supporting the lesser-evil can no longer simply argue that supporting one alternative rather than another will lead to the same result: it would scarcely be credible to argue that it makes no difference whether the UK is in or out of the EU, or to claim that Clinton would have pursued the same foreign policy as Trump. But before turning to the alternative posed by the populist hard right, we need to understand the nature of political leadership under capitalism, which it seeks to command. 

The political incapacities of the capitalist ruling class 

Under all pre-capitalist modes of production, exploitation took place visibly through the extraction of a literal surplus from the direct producers by the threat or reality of violence: economics and politics were “fused” in the power of the feudal lord or the tributary state. Under the capitalist mode of production, exploitation takes place invisibly in the process of production itself through the creation of surplus value over and above that required in reproducing the labor force. The late Ellen Wood identified a resulting “division of labor in which the two moments of capitalist exploitation—appropriation and coercion—are allocated separately to a ‘private’ appropriating class and a specialized ‘public’ coercive institution, the state: on the one hand, the ‘relatively autonomous’ state has a monopoly of coercive force; on the other hand, that force sustains a private ‘economic’ power which invests capitalist property with an authority to organize production itself.” Furthermore, unlike previous exploiting classes, capitalists exercise economic power without “the obligation to perform social, public functions”: “Capitalism is a system marked by the complete separation of private appropriation from public duties; and this means the development of a new sphere of power devoted completely to private rather than social purposes.”4 

The implications of this division for capitalists as a ruling class were noted by earliest social theorists to concern themselves with the emergent system. Since Adam Smith is—quite unfairly—treated as the patron saint of neoliberalism it may be worth reminding ourselves of his actual views on capitalists and the narrowness of their interests: “As their thoughts . . . are commonly exercised rather about the interest of their own particular branch of business, than about that of the society, their judgment, even when given with the greatest candor (which it has not been upon every occasion) is much more to be depended upon with regard to the former of those two objects than with regard to the latter.”5 For the purposes of our discussion, the interest in this passage lies not in Smith’s still-refreshingly candid views about the capacity of business interests for deception and oppression, but their inability to see beyond their own immediate interests. This was one of the reasons why he also wrote (thinking of the East India Company): “The government of an exclusive company of merchants is, perhaps, the worst of all governments for any country whatsoever.”6 

Nearly a century later in the 1860s, Smith’s greatest successor, Karl Marx, was able to point in Capital to the example of the British Factory Acts as an example of how the state had to intervene to regulate the activities of capital in the face of initial opposition from the capitalists themselves: “It is evident that the British Parliament, which no one will reproach with being excessively endowed with genius, has been led by experience to the conclusion that a simple compulsory law is sufficient to enact away all the so-called impediments opposed by the nature of the process to the restriction and regulation of the working-day.”7 Reflecting on the entire legislative episode, Marx noted: “But for all that, capital never becomes reconciled to such changes—and this is admitted over and over again by its own representatives—except ‘under the pressure of a General Act of Parliament’ for the compulsory regulation of the hours of labor.”8 

The thesis concerning bourgeois incapacity was not only restricted to critics like Marx, but to supporters of capitalism, and even of fascism. Carl Schmitt, for example, complained after World War I that, unlike working-class ideologues, members of the bourgeoisie no longer understood the friend-enemy distinction, which was central to his concept of “the political”; the spirit of Hegel, he thought, had moved from Berlin to Moscow.9 Joseph Schumpeter argued a more general case during World War I. Yielding to no one in his admiration for the heroic entrepreneur, he nevertheless also noted that, with the possible exception of the United States, “The bourgeois class is ill equipped to face the problems, both domestic and international, that normally have to be faced by a country of any importance;” the bourgeoisie needs “protection by some non-bourgeois group;” ultimately, “It needs a master.”10 Without the kind of constraints provided by this precapitalist framework, the more sober instincts of the bourgeois would be overcome by the impulse towards what Schumpeter called “creative destruction.” 

The delegation of power to the state therefore exists because of what Draper calls “the political inaptitude of the capitalist class” compared to other ruling classes in history. It is not only that feudal lords combine an economic and political role while capitalists perform only the former; it is also that the necessity for capitalists to devote their time to the process of accumulation and their own multiple internal divisions militates against their functioning directly as a governing class.11 More broadly, Bernard Porter notes that capitalists “tend to be hostile to ‘government’ generally, which they see mainly as a restraint on enterprise and, on a personal level, don’t find ‘ruling’ half so worthwhile or satisfactory as making money.”12 This arrangement is quite compatible with the exercise of bourgeois hegemony over society as a whole, although even in this respect, some sections of the bourgeoisie tend to play a more significant role than others; but politically, as Fred Block has written, “The [capitalist] ruling class does not rule.”13    

As a result, two other forces have tended to rule jointly in place of the capitalists themselves: politicians and state managers, in other words the senior component of the permanent state bureaucracy. In both cases the very distance of the groups involved from direct membership of the capitalist class allowed them to make assessments of what was required by the system as a whole. Politicians need not belong to the same class as the capitalists: indeed, it was landed aristocracies who played this role for much of modern European history down to 1945. “A plainly bourgeois society—nineteenth-century Britain—could, without serious problems, be governed by hereditary peers,” noted Eric Hobsbawm.14 Social democracy—originally a working-class political tendency at least nominally committed to overturning capitalism—has intermittently done so afterwards, and similar patterns can be found in most other Western nation-states. 

Throughout the long boom after World War II, the capitalist class had called to order social democratic politicians when their policies were perceived, however unreasonably, as being too concerned with defending the interests of their supporters. Their normal methods for disciplining disobedient politicians involved currency speculation, withholding investment, and moving production—or at least threatening to do so, which was often sufficient to achieve the desired effect. These police actions by capital were often aided by state managers who tended to be more conscious of what capital would find acceptable or permissible than mere elected representatives of the people. 

But economic or bureaucratic resistance to government agendas is a blunt instrument, capable of blocking or reversing one set of policies and making others more likely, not of bringing about a complete reorientation in policy terms. Capitalist states are sets of permanent institutions run by unelected officials who act in the interests of capital more or less effectively; parliamentary government is a temporary regime consisting of elected politicians who act in the interests of capital, more or less willingly. But in times of crisis capital requires politicians who will decide on a particular strategy and fight for it with absolute conviction, if necessary against individual members of the capitalist class themselves. 

During the 1930s, Antonio Gramsci discussed this type of ruling class response to crisis as “an organic and normal phenomenon”: “It represents the fusion of an entire social class under a single leadership, which alone is held to be capable of solving an overriding problem of its existence and of fending off a mortal danger.”15 Gramsci was thinking of Italian fascism, but a similar shift took place during what I call the “vanguard” phase of neoliberalism under Thatcher and Reagan. It would be quite wrong, however, to imagine that new strategic initiatives are necessarily beneficial to the operation of capitalism. 

Contrary to extreme functionalist or economic determinist positions, representatives of the dominant classes are not infallible or all knowing. As Gramsci once noted, we have to allow for the possibility of error, but “error” is not reducible to a “mistake”: “The principle of ‘error’ is a complex one: one may be dealing with an individual impulse based on mistaken calculations or equally it may be a manifestation of the attempts of specific groups or sects to take over hegemony within the directive grouping, attempts which may well be unsuccessful.”16 

In one sense, however, neoliberalism has been too successful. For it has weakened, to varying degrees, the capacity of capitalist states to act in the interest of their national capital as a whole. The relationship between neoliberal regimes and capital has since the 1970s prevented states from acting effectively in the collective, long-term interest of capitalism and leading instead to a situation where, according to Robert Skidelsky, “ideology destroys sane economics.”17 It is true that neoliberal regimes have increasingly abandoned any attempt to arrive at an overarching understanding of what the conditions for growth might be, other than the supposed need for lowering taxation and regulation and raising labor flexibility. 

Apart from these, the interests of the total national capital is seen as an arithmetical aggregate of the interests of individual businesses, some of which, to be sure, have rather more influence with governments than others. These developments have led to incomprehension among remaining Keynesians of the liberal left.18 But their assessments are correct in noting that, in so far as there is a “strategic view,” it involves avoiding any policies that might incur corporate displeasure, however minor the inconveniences they might involve for the corporations, which of course includes regulation. 

The weakening of the labor movement and consequent rightward shift by social democracy may therefore ultimately prove self-destructive for capital since, as we have seen, one of the inadvertent roles which it historically played was to save capitalism from itself, not least by achieving reforms in relation to education, health, and welfare. These benefitted workers, of course, but also ensured that the reproduction of the workforce and the conditions for capital accumulation more generally took place. But with the weakening of trade union power and the capitulation of social democracy to neoliberalism, there is currently no social force capable of either playing this “reformist” role directly or by pressurizing non-social democratic state managers into playing it. 

That leaves the state apparatus itself, but the necessary distance between the state and capital (or between state managers and capitalists), to which I earlier alluded has been minimized. Any longer-term strategy in the overall interests of capital would have to address the dysfunctionality of the financial system, the refusal of firms to invest in productive capacity, and low levels of tax intake attendant on a fiscal system massively skewed towards the wealthy. But state managers are no longer prepared to do this and neither are most politicians—with the exception of one tendency: right-wing populism.

Varieties of right-wing populism

Given the hysteria about Trump’s supposed incipient fascism, it is important to begin by distinguishing between fascist and non-fascist variants of the hard right. All wings are united by two characteristics. One is a base of membership and support in one or more fraction of the middle-class (i.e. the petty bourgeoisie, traditional middle-class professionals, or the technical-managerial new middle class)—although as we shall see, this does not mean that they necessarily lack working-class support. The other is an attitude of extreme social conservatism, always in relation to race and nation, sometimes in relation to gender and sexual orientation: far-right politicians in the Netherlands, for example, have for example rhetorically invoked the relative freedoms of women or gays in the West as way of denouncing the supposedly oppressive beliefs of Muslims. The political goal is always to push popular attitudes and legal rights back to a time before the homogeneity of “the people” was polluted by immigration, whenever this golden age of racial or cultural purity is deemed to have existed, which is usually at some undetermined period before World War II.  

There are nevertheless large differences between these two types of organization. As Jan-Werner Müller has pointed out, “National Socialism and Italian Fascism need to be understood as populist movements—even though, I hasten to add, they were not just populist movements but also exhibited traits that are not inevitable elements pf populism as such: racism, a glorification of violence, and a radical ‘leadership principle’.”19 More specifically, Michael Mann argues that non-fascist far-right parties are distinguished from fascism by three characteristics: 1) they are electoral and seek to attain office through the democratic means at local, national and European levels; 2) they do not worship the state and, while they seek to use the state for welfare purposes for their client groups, some (e.g. the Austrian Freedom Party or the Tea Party) have embraced neoliberal small-state rhetoric; 3) they do not seek to “transcend” class: “These three ambiguities and weaknesses of principle and policy make for instability, as either extremists or moderates seek to enforce a more consistent line that then either results in splits and expulsions, such as the makeover of the Italian MSI and the disintegration of the German Republikaner in the mid-1990s.”20

The first of these distinctions, adherence to bourgeois democracy, is crucial since it indicates the fundamental distinction between the fascist and non-fascist far right: the latter, as Peter Mair notes, “do not claim to challenge the democratic regime as such.”21 Activists and commentators often draw an absolute distinction between fascism and other forms of right-wing politics, based on the way the former rely on paramilitary organization and violence as part of their strategy for attaining power. In that sense Golden Dawn in Greece is a classic fascist formation in a way that the Northern League in Italy is not. The distinction is important, not least in determining the tactics of their opponents, but fascism is not defined simply by its recourse to extra-parliamentary or illegal activity. Here, Trotsky’s analysis remains relevant: 

When a state turns fascist...it means, primarily and above all, that the workers’ organizations are annihilated; that the proletariat is reduced to an amorphous state; and that a system of administration is created which penetrates deeply into the masses and which serves to frustrate the independent crystallization of the proletariat. Therein precisely is the gist of fascism.22 

Fascism then is revolutionary and the non-fascist far right is not; but what does “revolutionary” mean in this context? Many Marxists are reluctant to use this term in relation to any modern political movement not of the left, with the possible exception of nationalisms in the Global South. But if we consider fascist seizures of power as political revolutions—in other words as those which change the nature and personnel of the regime without changing the mode of production, then there is no reason why the term should not be applicable.23 

The second major difference, which flows directly from the first, is their respective attitudes to society, which they are trying to build. As Roger Griffin points out, the “revolution from the right” in both fascist Italy and Nazi Germany claimed to be using the state to socially engineer a “new man and woman” with “new values.” This is a project of transformation. The non-fascist far right however insists that the people are already the repositories of homogeneity and virtue: “By contrast, the enemies of the people—the elites and ‘others’—are neither homogeneous nor virtuous. Rather, they are accused of conspiring together against the people, who are depicted as being under siege from above by the elites and from below by a range of dangerous others.”24

The purpose of the non-fascist far-right is to return the people to their formerly happy condition before these twin pressures began to be applied: “This is not a Utopia, but a prosperous and happy place which is held to have actually existed in the past, but which has been lost in the present era due to the enemies of the people.”25 This is a project of restoration

The revival of the far right as a serious electoral force is based on the apparent solutions it offers to what are now two successive waves of crisis, which have left the working class in the West increasingly fragmented and disorganised, and susceptible to appeals to blood and nation as the only viable form of collectivism still available, particularly in a context where the systemic alternative to capitalism—however false it was—had apparently collapsed in 1989–91. The political implications are ominous. The increasing interchangeability of political parties gives the far right an opening to appeal to voters by positioning themselves as outside the consensus in ways that speak to their justifiable feelings of rage.26 

The potential problem for the stability of the capitalist system is, however, less the possibility of far right parties themselves coming to power with a program destructive to capitalist needs, than their influence over the mainstream parties of the right, when the beliefs of their supporters may inadvertently cause difficulty for the accumulation process—as in the impending withdrawal from the EU in the case of the UK or, potentially at least, a halt to migration from Mexico and Central America and the mass deportation of all undocumented immigrants at the behest of the Trump presidency in the case of the US. Here we see emerging a symbiotic relationship between one increasingly inadequate regime response to the problems of capital accumulation and another increasingly extreme response to the most irrational desires and prejudices produced by capital accumulation. Again, this is not a new problem for capital.

There is a problem with some left analyses of the hard right and its far right component in particular, which is the assumption that it represents the “real” face of capitalism unmasked (“the naked dictatorship of monopoly capital” etc.). In fact, in the developed world at least, it is only in very rare situations of dire extremity—and usually after facing the kind of threat from the labour movement that has unfortunately been absent for several decades—that capital has ever relied on the far right to solve its problems. Right-wing social movements can relate to the accumulation strategies of capital in three ways: 1) they are directly supportive; 2) they are compatible with and/or indirectly supportive through strengthening ideological positions which are associated with capitalist rule, but which may not be essential to it; or 3) they are indirectly and possibly unintentionally destabilizing. 

Until recently at any rate, examples of type 1 have been very rare indeed, since, as I have argued above, capitalists prefer to use corporate pressure rather than mass movements to achieve their political goals. Examples of type 2 are the most frequent but, as I will argue below, we are currently seeing, and are likely to see more examples of type 3, which raises the question: what is the relationship between the far-right politics and capitalism? What if a fascist or far-right movement came to power which implemented policies against the needs of capital—not because they were “anti-capitalist” in the way that Strasserite wing of the Nazi Party were (falsely) supposed to be, but simply because their interests lay elsewhere?

The Nazi Regime performed two services for German capital: crushing an already weakened working class and launching an imperial expansionist drive to conquer new territory. Racism and anti-Semitism were important for the Nazis, notes Ulrich Herbert, but not for German national capitals:

Any attempt to reduce the Nazi policy of mass annihilation solely or largely to underlying economic, “rational” interests, however, fails to recognize that, in the eyes of the Nazis, and in particular the advocates of systematic racism among them, the mass extermination of their ideological enemies was itself a “rational” political goal. It was supported by reference to social, economic, geopolitical, historical and medical arguments, as well as notions of “racial hygiene” and “internal security”. Racism was not a “mistaken belief” serving to conceal the true interests of the regime, which were essentially economic. It was the fixed point of the whole system.27

It is therefore true, as Alex Callinicos points out, that “the extermination of the Jews cannot be explained in economic terms.” He sees the connection between the Holocaust and German capitalism as an example of an interpenetration of interests, in this case between “German big business” and “a movement whose racist and pseudo-revolutionary ideology drove it towards the Holocaust.”28 The position that Callinicos is articulating here was first expressed by Peter Sedgwick in 1970: “German capitalism did not need Auschwitz; but it needed the Nazis, who needed Auschwitz.”29 But where did the Nazi “racist and pseudo-revolutionary ideology” come from in the first place? Callinicos only sees a connection with capitalism as arising from the immediate needs of the economy at a time of crisis; but the ideological formation of the Nazi worldview took place over a much longer period, which saw the combination of a series of determinations arising from the contradictions of German and European capitalism, and including the authoritarian character of a subordinate middle-class which had never successfully developed its own political identity; extreme right-wing nationalism first formed in response to the French Revolution, racism in its anti-Semitic form, disappointed imperialism, a taste for violence acquired in the trenches, and so on.30 

Adapting Sedgwick then, we might say that German capitalism didn’t need the Holocaust, but the long-term development of German capitalism produced, through a series of mediations, the ideology of Nazism which did contained the possibility of a Holocaust, and when German capitalists turned to the Nazis in its moment of crisis, they were given the opportunity to realize that possibility, however irrelevant and outright damaging it was to German capital’s more overarching imperial project. In other words, the barbaric ideology of Nazism and the socio-economic crisis of Germany to which they provided one solution were already connected as different moments in the mediated totality of capitalism. 

But if the Holocaust was a barbaric irrelevance—except incidentally—for German capital, the Nazi regime also presents us with examples of policies that were instrumentally irrational from the perspective of the capitalist state. As Detlev Peukert writes: “To see fascism as an effective answer to the weakness of the bourgeois democratic state, i.e. as a functional solution to the crisis in the interests of capital, is to be taken in by the self-image of National Socialism created by its own propaganda.” For one thing it led to the creation of a deeply fragmented and incoherent institution: 

The equipping of state bodies with economic functions, and of business enterprises with quasi-state powers, led not to a more effective and rationally functioning ‘state monopoly capitalism,” but to a welter of jurisdictions and responsibilities that could be held in check only by short-term projects and campaigns. The splintered state and semi-state managerial bodies adopted the principle of competition. The “nationalization” of society by Nazism was followed by the “privatization” of the state. This paradox meant that, on the one hand, there were huge concentrations of power as a result of internal and external Blitzkrieg campaigns, while, on the other hand, inefficiency, lack of planning, falling productivity and general decline prevailed.31 

This had the most serious implications in relation to German war making. Götz Aly claims that the plundering of conquered territories and externalization of monetary inflation undertaken by the Nazis as World War II progressed served to bind the German masses to the regime by raising their living standards.32 The thesis is massively exaggerated and ignores such opposition and resistance that did take place.33 Nevertheless, it inadvertently identifies a central problem for the regime: the provision of material resources for German industry and provisions for the German population would have been impossible without territorial expansion through war; yet this was precisely what the nature of the regime undermined. As Tim Mason noted, “the racial-ethical utopia . . . was taken so seriously by the political leadership, in particular by Hitler and by the SS, that in decisive questions even the urgent material needs of the system were sacrificed to it.”34 

Germany had higher rates of female participation in the workforce than either Britain or the US at the beginning of the war, although many of these jobs were in roles considered suitable for women and which would not be detrimental to their roles as wives and mothers.35 Yet, despite a desperate shortage of labor, Hitler resisted female conscription until after German defeat at the battle of Stalingrad, apparently for ideological concerns over a potential decline in the birth rate (and hence to the strength of the “Aryan” race) and the threat to female morals; but even then it was applied half-heartedly and was widely evaded.36 

Thus there can be situations where there is a genuine “non-identity of interest” between capitalists and what are—from their point of view—the irrational demands made by the social base of the political party which they prefer to have custody of the state. This may appear to be sheer stupidity, but as Theodor Adorno once pointed out specifically in relation to the Nazi regime, “Stupidity is not a natural quality, but one socially produced and reinforced.” Hitler failed to invade the UK when he had the chance and invaded the USSR when he did not need to:

The German ruling clique drove towards war because they were excluded from a position of imperial power. But in their exclusion lay the reason for the blind and clumsy provincialism that made Hitler’s and Ribbentropp’s policies uncompetitive and their war a gamble. . . . Germany’s industrial backwardness forced its politicians—anxious to regain lost ground and, as have-nots, specially qualified for the role—to fall back on their immediate, narrow experience, that of the political façade. They saw nothing in front of them except cheering assemblies and: this blocked their view of the objective power of a greater mass of capital.37 

The contemporary relevance of this experience is limited: the working class is not currently combative enough to inspire fear in the bourgeoisie and the states in which the fascist far right is larger, like Greece or Hungary, are not imperialist powers capable of attempting continental domination in the way that Germany or even Italy was capable of doing. The point is that in the contemporary situation all that may remain are those aspects of the far-right program that are irrational for capital, particularly in its current neoliberal manifestation. 

The appeal of the populist right

Fascist movements cannot base themselves on working class organizations, since one of their defining characteristics is to seek the destruction of such movements. This is why a movement like Ulster Loyalism in Northern Ireland, based as it was on the skilled Protestant working class, cannot be described as fascist, however reactionary and divisive as it may otherwise have been. But if fascist movements are incompatible with working-class organization, they can and do draw support from individual members of the working class, as can the far right more generally. This is the real threat posed by Trump in the United States and UKIP in the UK. 

Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons observe that, in the context of the United States, there are “two versions of secular right-wing populism,” each drawing on a different class base: “one centered around ‘get the government off my back’ economic libertarianism coupled with a rejection of mainstream political parties (more attractive to the upper middle class and small entrepreneurs); the other based on xenophobia and ethnocentric nationalism (more attractive to the lower middle class and wage workers).”38 As the reference to “wage-workers” in relation to the second version suggests, the reactionary role played by sections of the middle classes does not exhaust the social basis of right-wing social movements. Since the majority of the population are exploited and oppressed, such movements must draw at least some support from their ranks. 

Unfortunately, the spectacle of the working class or the oppressed more generally mobilizing against their own interests alongside members of other social classes has produced a number of inadequate responses from socialists. One is the claim that working-class demands or actions which might appear reactionary actually contain a rational core which renders them defensible by the left: in relation to migration this is sometimes expressed as the need for socialists to pay heed to the “genuine concerns” of the working class, as if the sincerity of the belief rendered it valid. The other inadequate response is the argument that, even if working-class people participate in them, right-wing movements are illegitimate because they are funded or led by wealthy corporation or individuals. 

This argument inverts the classic conservative theme that popular unrest against the established order is never, as it were, natural, but always orchestrated by external forces (“outside agitators”), inventing or at most manipulating grievances in order to further their own ends.39 Some of the people who supported Trump may well be morally wrong and politically misguided, but it is patronizing—and above all politically useless—to pretend that they are simply being manipulated by elite puppet masters. Sara Diamond is therefore correct that left critics of the US Christian Right are wrong to adopt what she calls “a view of conspiracies by small right-wing cliques to stage-manage what was truly a mass movement.” She is also right to emphasize the complexity of right-wing populism towards “existing power structures,” being “partially oppositional and partially...system supportive.40 

Why then might working class people be predisposed to respond positively to right-wing arguments? There are both general reasons true at all periods in the history of capitalism and specific reasons relevant to the present neoliberal conjuncture. Marxists, above all Gramsci, have shown that most members of the subordinate classes have highly contradictory forms of consciousness.41 Nevertheless, the capitalist system could not survive unless it was accepted at some level, most of the time, by the majority of the people who live under it. The implications of this are darker than is sometimes supposed. A characteristic form of contradictory consciousness involves a reformist inability to conceive of anything beyond capitalism, while opposing specific effects of the system. 

But the alternatives are not restricted to active rejection at one extreme and passive acceptance at the other. There can also be active support, the internalization of capitalist values associated with the system to the point where they can lead to action. Marxists and other anticapitalist radicals frequently point out that, rather than men benefiting from the oppression of women, whites from the oppression of Blacks, or straights from the oppression of LGBT people, it is capitalism and the bourgeoisie that do so. This is a useful corrective to the argument, common in many left-wing movements, that each form of oppression is separate from the others and that none has any necessary connection to the capitalist system. 

Nevertheless, it fails to take seriously the distinction made by Lukács between “what men in fact thought, felt and wanted at any point in the class structure” and “the thoughts and feelings which men would have in a particular situation if they were able to assess both it and the interests arising from it in their impact on immediate action and on the whole structure of society.”42 For we cannot assume that members of the working class are not only capable of having, but actually have the thoughts and feelings “appropriate to their objective situation.” If the workers do not attain this level of consciousness, a significant minority take positions supportive of, for example, racial oppression, which may not have benefited them compared with the benefits they would have received by struggling for racial equality, let alone full social equality. Without some degree of class consciousness, however, they need not ever consider this alternative: in the immediate context of their situation, a stance which is detrimental to working class interests as a whole may not make sense to particular individual members of the working class. 

The victories of neoliberalism have left the working class in the West increasingly fragmented and disorganized, and, for some workers, appeals to blood and nation appear as the only viable form of collectivity still available, particularly in a context where any systemic alternative to capitalism—however false it may have been—had apparently collapsed in 1989-91. Dismissing their views on grounds of irrationality is simply an evasion. As Berlet and Lyons write: “Right-wing populist claims are no more and no less irrational than conventional claims that presidential elections express the will of the people, that economic health can be measured by the profits of multimillion dollar corporations, or that US military interventions in Haiti or Somalia or Kosovo or wherever are designed to promote democracy and human rights.”43 Yet these beliefs, which are accepted by many more people than those who believe in, say, the literal truth of the Book of Genesis, are not treated as signs of insanity. The issue, as Berlet has argued elsewhere, is not “personal pathology” but collective “desperation.”44 

The increasing interchangeability of mainstream political parties, including those on the social-democratic left, gives the far-right an opening to voters by positioning themselves as outside the consensus in relation to social policy.45 Michael Kimmel points out that, although it would be absurd to claim that “women or gay people or people of color are being treated equally,” it is true that “we have never been more equal than we are today;” but “at the same time . . . economically we are more unequal than we have been in about a century”:

So it’s easy to think these phenomena are related—that the greater class inequality is somehow attendant upon, even caused by, greater social inequality. Perhaps we can be convinced that the reason for the dramatic skewing of our country’s riches is somehow that these newly arrived groups are siphoning of the benefits that were supposed to be tricking down to middle- and lower-middle-class white men. 

Kimmel follows the characteristic everyday discourse in the United States, in which working class people are described as, or contained within the categories of, “middle- and lower-middle-class,” but his conclusion is apt: “To believe that greater social equality is the cause of your economic misery requires a significant amount of manipulation, perhaps the greatest bait and switch that has ever been perpetuated against middle- and lower-middle-class Americans.”46

A majority of the people involved in right-wing social movements do so because of underlying economic concerns; the more relevant point is perhaps whether, in the absence of any left-wing solution to those concerns, they continue to demand the implementation of their social program as a condition of support for politicians who claim to represent them. In these circumstances, a deeper problem for the stability of the capitalist system than the less the possibility of far-right parties themselves coming to power with a program destructive to capitalist needs might be their influence over the mainstream parties of the right, when the beliefs of their supporters may inadvertently cause difficulty for the accumulation process. As Müller writes, from the perspective of the liberal left:

It’s hard to deny that some policies justified with reference to “the people” really can turn out to have been irresponsible: those deciding on such policies did not think hard enough; thy failed to gather all the relevant evidence; or, most plausibly, their knowledge of the likely long-term consequences should have made them refrain from policies with only short-term electoral benefits to themselves. One does not have to be a neoliberal technocrat to judge some policies as plainly irrational.47

The clearest examples of this type of irrationality are to be found in the Anglo-Saxon heartlands of neoliberalism: the United States and Britain. Take an important area of Republican Party support. Since the late sixties, Republicans have been increasingly reliant on communities of fundamentalist Christian believers, whose activism allows them to be mobilized for voting purposes. The problem, and not only for the Republicans, is not only that the extremism of fundamentalist Christianity may alienate the electoral “middle-ground” on which the result of American elections increasingly depend, but that politicians are constrained from undertaking policies which may be necessary for American capitalism. Unwanted outcomes for capital need not be the product of a coherent religious worldview; simply one that no longer believes anything produced outside its own experience—or the way in which that experience is interpreted by their trusted sources of information. 

But it is not only religious belief which can cause difficulties for US capital; so too can overt anti-migrant racism. One concrete example of this is the Tea Party-inspired Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act—HB56 as it is usually known—which was passed by the State legislature in June 2011, making it illegal not to carry immigration papers and preventing anyone without documents from receiving any provisions from the state, including water supply. The law was intended to prevent and reverse immigration by undocumented immigrants, but the effect was to cause a mass departure from the many agricultural businesses which relied on these workers to form the bulk of their labor force: “In the north of the state, the pungent smell of rotting tomatoes hangs in the air across huge tranches of land that have been virtually abandoned by workers who, through fear or anger, are no longer turning up to gather the harvest.”48 But the effects went deeper. Before the law was introduced it was estimated that 4.2 percent of the workforce or 95,000 people were undocumented but paying $130.3 million in state and local taxes. Their departure from the state or withdrawal to the underground economy threatened to reduce the size of the local economy by $40 million. Moreover employers had to spend more money on screening prospective employees, on HR staff to check paperwork, and on insuring for potential legal liabilities from inadvertent breaches of the law.49 

These developments are not equivalent to the type of policies with which social democracy occasionally (and decreasingly) attempts to ameliorate the excesses of capitalism. On the one hand, social democratic reforms are usually intended to enable the system as a whole to function more effectively for capitalists and more equitably for the majority, however irreconcilable these aims may be. But far-right reforms of the type just discussed are not even intended to work in the interests of capitalists, nor do they: they really embody irrational racist beliefs that take precedence over all else. 

Independent class politics in a new era

I have tried here to set out a general argument about the nature of the populist hard right and, in particular, to show that it plays a contradictory role: always opposed to the actual interests of the working class, but sometimes also undermining—albeit unintentionally—the interests of capital. In part 2 of the article I will use this discussion as a basis for analysing the two episodes with which I began: the UK vote to leave the EU and the election of Trump. These required different responses: a choice in one and a refusal to choose in the other, despite the presence of the populist hard right in both. 

In one, socialists were faced with a particular outcome, UK withdrawal from the EU, which was indeterminate in its effects (there are both left and right-wing reasons for leaving) and in which the pro-leave sections of the bourgeoisie were (in Gramsci’s terms) “in error” over what it meant for British capital. In the other, socialists were being asked to support a party (the Democrats) that had engineered the exclusion of the only genuine left winger from the ballot and a particular candidate (Clinton) standing on a platform of maintaining the very neoliberal policies which the left is opposed. This, I will argue, is the difference between a situation in which socialists can at least attempt to shape events and one in which they are effectively their prisoners. The key is being able to tell which is which. 


  1. Some of what follows draws on chapters 7 and 8 of my Nation-States: Consciousness and Competition, (Chicago: Haymarket, 2016).
  2. See Mark Lilla, “The End of Identity Liberalism,” New York Times, November 18, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/20/opinio....
  3. Hal Draper [1967], ‘Who’s Going to be the Lesser Evil in 1968?’ Reprinted in International Socialist Review 34, April–May, 2004), and also available at the Marxist Internet Archive, at https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1967/01/lesser.htm.
  4. Ellen Meiksins Wood, “The Separation of the Economic and Political under Capitalism,” New Left Review, I/127, May/June, 1981, 81–82.
  5. Adam Smith [1776], An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, edited by Edwin Cannan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), Book I, chapter 11, 278. 
  6. Smith, Book IV, chapter 7, 8.
  7. Karl Marx [1867], Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books/New Left Review, 1976), 606–607.
  8. Marx, 610.
  9. Carl Schmitt [1932], “The Concept of the Political,” in The Concept of the Political (Expanded edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 63.
  10. Joseph Schumpeter [1944], Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (London: Routledge, 1994), 138–139.
  11. Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol. 1, State and Bureaucracy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978), 321–324.
  12. Bernard Porter, Empire and Superempire: Britain, America and the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 49.
  13. Fred Block [1977], “The Ruling Class Does Not Rule: Notes on the Marxist Theory of the State,” in Revising State Theory: Essays in Politics and Postindustrialisation (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987), chapter 3.
  14. Eric J Hobsbawm, “Revolution,” in Revolution in History, edited by Roy Porter and Mikulas Teich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 27.
  15. Antonio Gramsci [1929–1934], Selections from the Prison Notebooks, edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (London: Lawrence and Wishart 1971), 211, Q13§23.
  16. Gramsci, 408, Q7§24.
  17. Robert Skidelsky, “The Economic Consequences of Mr Osborne,” New Statesman (March 14–20, 2014), 29. The reasons for this are too complex to be discussed here, but see my “Neoliberalism as the Agent of Capitalist Self-Destruction”, Salvage 1, July 2015, 81–96.
  18. Ha-Joon Chang, Economics: the User’s Guide (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2014), 190–191; Will Hutton, “Power is Fragmenting. But what is the True Cost to Democracy?” The Observer, August 25, 2013, 36.
  19. Jan-Werner Müller, What is Populism? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 93.
  20. Michael Mann, Fascists (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 367–368.
  21. Peter Mair, Ruling the Void: the Hollowing of Western Democracy (London: Verso, 2013), 45.
  22. Trotsky, “What Next?,” 125.
  23. Neil Davidson, How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), 490–497.
  24. Roger Griffin, “Revolution from the Right: Fascism,” in Revolutions and Revolutionary Traditions in the West, 1560–1991, edited by David Parker (London: Routledge, 2000), 198.
  25. Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell, “Introduction: the Scepter and the Specter,” in Twenty-First Century Populism, 5.
  26. Alexandra Cole, “Old Right or New Right? The Ideological Positioning of Parties of the Far Right,” European Journal of Political Research, 44(2), 2005, 222–223.
  27. Ulrich Herbert, “Labor and Extermination: Economic Interest and the Primacy of Weltanschauung in National Socialism,” Past and Present 138, February, 1993, 195.
  28. Alex Callinicos, “Plumbing the Depths: Marxism and the Holocaust,” Yale Journal of Criticism, vol. 14, no. 2, June 2001, 403, 406.
  29. Peter Sedgwick, “The Problem of Fascism,” International Socialism, first series, 42, February/March 1970, 34. Callinicos actually ascribes this thought to Joel Geier, who expressed it from the floor during a discussion at Marxism 1993. See Callinicos, “Plumbing the Depths,” 413, note 95.
  30. Richard Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (London: Allen Lane, 2003), 22–76; Ian Kershaw, Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions that Changed the World, 1940–1941 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), 438–444; Sabby Sagall, Final Solutions: Human Nature, Capitalism, and Genocide (London: Pluto Press, 2013), 196–210.
  31. Detlev Peukert [1982], Inside Nazi Germany: Conformity, Opposition and Racism in Everyday Life (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1989), 44.
  32. Götz Aly, Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006).
  33. Donny Gluckstein, The Nazis, Capitalism, and the Working Class (London: Bookmarks, 1999), chapter 9; Peukert, Inside Nazi Germany, 118–125.
  34. Tim Mason [1975], “The Primacy of Politics: Politics and Economics in National Socialist Germany,” in Nazism, Fascism and the Working Class, edited by Jane Caplan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 74.
  35. Peukert, Inside Nazi Germany, 176–178; Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction: the Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (New York: Viking, 2006), 358–359, 513–515.
  36. Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 1889–1936: Hubris (London: Allen Lane, 1998), 563, 567–568, 713.
  37. Theodor Adorno [1951], Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (London: Verso, 1978), 105–106.
  38. Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (New York: The Guilford Press, 2000), 347–348. 
  39. Nigel Harris [1968], Beliefs in Society: the Problem of Ideology (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971), 115–116.
  40. Sara Diamond, Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States (New York: The Guilford Press, 1995), 6.
  41. Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 333–334, Q11§12.
  42. Georg Lukács [1923], “Class Consciousness,” in History and Class Consciousness: Essays on Marxist Dialectics (London: Merlin Press, 1971), 51.
  43. Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America, 348.
  44. Chip Berlet, “The Violence of Right-wing Populism,” Peace Review, vol. 7, nos 3/4 (1995), 285.
  45. Alexandra Cole, “Old Right or New Right? The Ideological Positioning of Parties of the Far-right,” European Journal of Political Research, vol. 44, no. 2 (March 2005), 222–223.
  46. Michael Kimmel, Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era (New York: Nation Books, 2013), 281.
  47. Müller, What is Populism?, 13.
  48. Ed Pilkington, “Immigrants go into Hiding as Alabama Rules that Looking Illegal is enough,” The Guardian (October 15, 2011).
  49. Immigration Policy Centre, “Bad for Business: How Alabama’s Anti-immigrant Law Stifles State Economy” (November 3, 2011). http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/just-facts/bad-business-how-alabama’s-anti-immigrant-law-stifles-state-economy

Issue #67

September 2009

Iran: rebellion and reaction

Issue contents

Top story

Editorials

Features

Interviews

Critical Thinking

Reviews

  • Humanitarian imperialism and its apologists

    Ashley Smith reviews The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War by Conor Foley; Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror by Mahmood Mamdani; Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War by Jean Bricmont; Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law by China Miéville; and The Liberal Defense of Murder by Richard Seymour
  • Debating how to change the world

    Eric Kerl reviews Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism, and Radical History by Staughton Lynd and Andrej Grubacic
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