“We Are Before the Gates of Hell”: The Global Battle Against Trumpism and the Specter of 21st Century Fascism
Interview with William I. Robinson
Professor of Sociology, University of California at Santa Barbara
Cross-post from Marxist Glossary Discussion, a facebook group
This week the German news and analysis website Zwischenzeit interviewed me on the rise of Trumpism. In the interview, I extend the analysis I have been developing of Trumpism as a “21st century fascist” response to the crisis of global capitalism. I also examine the nature of neo-fascism in this new century, critique the liberal elite, and discuss the fight back against Trumpism.
ZWISCHENZEIT: Donald Trump will become the next president of the US. Who voted for him and what do you think are the reasons people voted for him?
WILLIAM I. ROBINSON: The election of Donald Trump can only be understood in the context of capitalist globalization and crisis. A significant portion of the white sector of the U.S. working class (women included) voted for Trump. This vote has been interpreted as racist and there is a major element of truth in that but the analysis needs to be deepened.
The U.S. political system and the dominant groups face a crisis of hegemony and legitimacy. Racism and the search for scapegoats is one key element in their efforts to face this crisis. At the same time, major sectors of the white working class have been experiencing social and economic destabilization, downward mobility, heightened insecurity, an uncertain future, and ever more precarious work and life conditions. This sector of the working class historically enjoyed the ethnic-“racial” privileges that come from white supremacy vis-à-vis other sectors of the working class. But they have been losing these privileges in the face of capitalist globalization. Now racism and the escalation of veiled (coded) and also openly racist discourse from above is aimed a channeling this white working class sector into a racist and a neo-fascist understanding of their condition. This explains in large part the electoral base that Trump was able to garner.
In addition, as others have already analyzed, the political system is discredited and voters were looking for any candidate that could be seen as anti-establishment, outside the system, and against the course of capitalist globalization (free trade, runaway jobs, etc.). Of course Donald Trump is none of these! Contrary to perception, Donald Trump is a member of the transnational capitalist class. His vast business empire spans several dozen countries around the world. Much of his “populism” and his anti-globalization discourse have to do with demagogy and with political manipulation in function of the electoral campaign. Trump’s global business empire could not flourish without capitalist globalization, including the free trade agreements he has railed against, and without the super-exploitation of immigrant workers in the United States.
Trump and more generally the transnational capitalist class seeks to place downward pressure on wages in the United States in order to make U.S. workers “competitive” with foreign workers. The downward leveling of wages across countries and the “race to the bottom” has been a general tendency under capitalist globalization that Trumpism certainly intends to continue, now through a discourse of making the U.S. economy “competitive” and “bringing jobs back home.”
Contrary to some superficial interpretations, Trumpism represents an intensification of neoliberalism in the United States together with a major role for the state in subsidizing transnational capital accumulation in the face of stagnation and overaccumulation. For example, Trump’s heralded proposal to invest one trillion dollars in infrastructure, when we examine it closely, is in reality a proposal to privatize public infrastructure and to transfer wealth from labor to capital by corporate tax breaks and subsidies for the construction of privatized infrastructural works. We can expect under the Trump regime an effort to further privatize what remains of a public sector, including schools, veterans affairs, and possibly social security, along with the drive to further transfer wealth from labor to capital through corporate tax cuts and austerity. Trumpism is not a departure from but an incarnation of an emerging dictatorship of the transnational capitalist class.
ZWISCHENZEIT: You warned already in 2012 of fascist tendencies in the US. The term is sometimes lightly used within the left. What are the elements that you think connect past and present?
WILLIAM I. ROBINSON: The crucial point is that fascism, whether in its 20th or its emerging 21st century variant, is a response to deep structural crises of capitalism, such as that of the 1930s and the one that began with the financial meltdown of 2008. The rise of fascism in Europe and elsewhere in the 1930s was a response to the crisis of that decade. Today the emergence of new neo-fascist movements is a response to the crisis of global capitalism.
Trumpism’s veiled and at times openly racist and neo-fascist discourse has “legitimated” and unleashed ultra-racist and fascist movements in U.S. civil society. I have been writing for about a decade about the danger of “21st century fascism” as a response to the escalating crisis of global capitalism. The far-right response to this crisis explains the rise a neo-fascist right in both Western and Eastern Europe, the vengeful resurgence of a neo-fascist right in Latin America, and the turn towards neo-fascism in Turkey, Israel, the Philippines, India, and elsewhere.
One key difference between 20th century fascism and 21st century fascism is that the former involved the fusion of national capital with reactionary and repressive political power, whereas the latter involves the fusion of transnational capital with reactionary political power. It is crucial to stress that Trumpism does not represent a break with capitalist globalization but rather the recomposition of political forces as the crisis deepens.
I want to emphasize the strategy of cooptation into a fascist project based on the manipulation of fear and insecurity among the downwardly mobile so that social anxiety is channeled towards scapegoated communities. This psycho-social mechanism of displacing mass anxieties is not new, but it appears to be increasing around the world in the face of the structural destabilization of capitalist globalization. Scapegoated communities are under siege, such as the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Muslim minority in India, the Kurds in Turkey, southern African immigrants in South Africa, Syrian and Iraqi refugees and other immigrants in Europe. As with its 20th century predecessor, 21st century fascism hinges on such manipulation of social anxiety at a time of acute capitalist crisis. Extreme inequality requires extreme violence and repression that lend themselves to projects of 21st century fascism.
It is a mistake to view 21st century fascism as a political development outside of the “normal” progression of global capitalism. This global capitalism faces an unprecedented crisis of social polarization, of political legitimacy (hegemony), of sustainability, and of overaccumulation. The transnational capitalist class has accumulated trillions of dollars that it is finding ever harder to “unload.” In recent years it has turned to mind-boggling levels of financial speculation, to the raiding and sacking of public budgets, and to what I call militarized accumulation – that is, to endless cycles of war, destruction an reconstruction, to “accumulation by repression” (private prisons and immigrant detention centers, border walls, homeland security technologies, etc.), and the construction of a global police state to defend its global war economy from rebellions from below.
ZWISCHENZEIT: And what are the elements that are specific for the type of fascism of the 21st century?
WILLIAM I. ROBINSON: Twenty-first century fascism shares a number of features with its 20th century variant but there are also key differences. This 21st century fascism seeks to fuse reactionary political power with transnational capital and to organize a mass base among historically privileged sectors of the global working class, such as white workers in the Global North and middle layers in the Global South, that are now experienced heightened insecurity and the specter of downward mobility. Far-right forces pursue militarism, racism and a racist mobilization against scapegoats, transitions from social welfare to social control states, mystifying ideologies often involving race/culture supremacy and an idealized and mythical past, and a neo-fascist culture that normalizes, even glamorizes war, social violence and domination.
However, 21st century modalities of social control allow dominant groups to organize a more selective rather than a generalized repression. New technologies for surveillance, the restructuring and control of space, cultural hegemony (indoctrination), the diversion of resistance into consumerist fantasies, “non-lethal” crowd control methods, and so on…..all this may allow the dominant groups to organize a more “carefully planned” repression and control that we saw with 20th century fascism – that is, unless a revolt from below comes to actually threaten the rule of the transnational capitalist class.
In the United States, we see the rise of a system of mass incarceration and social-spatial apartheid that in some respects replaces the concentration camps of 20th century fascism. Let us analyze this:
The sheer magnitude of the means of violence is unprecedented, as is the concentrated control over the means of global communications and the production and circulation of knowledge, symbols, and images. We have seen the spread of frightening new systems of social control and repression that have brought us into the panoptical surveillance society and the age of thought control. This real-life Orwellian world is in a sense more perturbing that that described by George Orwell in his iconic novel 1984. In that fictional world, people were compelled to give their obedience to the state (“Big Brother”) in exchange for a quiet existence with guarantees of employment, housing, and other social necessities. Now, however, the corporate and political powers that be force obedience even as the means of survival are denied to the vast majority.
Global apartheid involves the creation of “green zones” that are cordoned off in each locale around the world where elites and the well-off are insulated through new systems of spatial reorganization, social control and policing. “Green zone” refers to the nearly impenetrable area in central Baghdad that U.S. occupation forces established in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The command center of the occupation and select Iraqi elite inside that green zone were protected from the violence and chaos that engulfed the country.
Urban areas around the world are now green zoned through gentrification, gated communities, surveillance systems, and state and private violence. Inside the world’s green zones, privileged strata avail themselves of privatized social services, consumption, and entertainment. They can work and communicate through internet and satellite sealed off under the protection of armies of soldiers, police and private security forces
Another key distinction between 20th and 21st century fascism is that in the 1930s mass worker and socialist movements threatened capitalist domination. Today in the United States, but also in Europe and elsewhere, there is a weak socialist and worker movement.
ZWISCHENZEIT: In 2012, you said that “the US cannot be characterized at this time as fascist”. Has that changed?
WILLIAM I. ROBINSON: I do not think we can characterize the US as fascist at this time. What we can say is that a fascist movement is rapidly expanding in civil society – including in the political system through the right wing of the Republican Party and so on. At the same time certain fascist movements seems to be achieving a toe-hold in the U.S. state through the emerging Trump regime. This is extremely dangerous but we are not yet in a fascist system and it can still be averted if the fight back is expansive, organized, and unified into some sort of an anti-fascist united front.
ZWISCHENZEIT: Since the election there are protests all across the US. Does this give you hope that fascist tendencies can be stopped? Is the election of Trump like a wake up call for the left?
WILLIAM I. ROBINSON: Absolutely, the Trump election is a wake up call for the left. It is a wake up call against the bankruptcy of “identity politics” that has gripped the left and even more so the petty-bourgeois intellectuals in recent decades. If there is any “silver lining” to the rise of Trumpism is that it has unleashed already a mass fight back. Let us recall that crises – and the current crisis is both structural, that is economic, and also one of the hegemony of the dominant groups, that is, cultural – present us with grave dangers but also with opportunities to challenge the dominant system and advance emancipatory projects from below.
But for this fight back to be successful, in my view, it needs to have a clear and sharp analysis of global capitalism and of its crisis. As well, within any strategy of broad anti-fascist alliances popular class forces need to exercise leadership over the fight back.
This raises the matter of the liberal elite. The failure of elite reformism, the unwillingness of the transnational elite to challenge the predation and rapaciousness of global capital, has opened the way for the far-right response to crisis. In the U.S. the betrayal of the liberal elite is as much to blame for Trumpism as are the far-right forces that mobilized the white population around a program of racist scapegoating, misogyny, and the manipulation of fear and economic destabilization.
But critically, the political class that has been in place for the past three decades is more than bankrupt – it is feeding the turn to the far right. Its brand of identity politics has served to eclipse the language of the working and popular classes and of anti-capitalism. It helps to derail ongoing revolts from below, has helped push white workers into an “identity” of white nationalism and helped the neo-fascist right organize them politically.
ZWISCHENZEIT: What do you think does the election of Trump mean for Europe where we will have elections in France, Germany and the UK?
WILLIAM I. ROBINSON: The particular conditions in any one nation are always linked to more general conditions in the global system. In this case, those general conditions are the rise of a truly integrated global economy and society and the deep structural and cultural crisis of the new global capitalism.
In Europe the far-right and neo-fascist movements are following a very similar path as Trump in terms of recruiting formerly privileged sectors among the popular classes who are suffering under the crisis by scapegoating Muslims, immigrants, and other vulnerable sectors. Just as Trump, they are promising to stabilize the situation for these precariatized sectors. “National” identity is a stand-in (that is, a code) for racist mobilization against scapegoats.
However, an important difference between Trumpism and the far-right forces in Europe is that Trump and his team are more formally integrated into the transnational capitalist bloc than are some of these forces in Europe, some of whom are more grounded in national fractions of the elite and as well in the petty-bourgeoisie.
ZWISCHENZEIT: In a recent interview, the sociologist Richard Sennett said that it is possible to see a civil war in the US. Do you share that view?
WILLIAM I. ROBINSON: A civil war is not impossible. Here is the key issue: Trump’s electoral base among the white working class will discover very early on in his regime that his promises were a hoax. How will their rage be contained? Will they be recruited into projects of 21st century fascism? Political and economic elites in the United States (and worldwide) are currently divided and confused. Will the dominant groups – if and when the mass of humanity, the global working class, poses a challenge to TCC control – unite to defend their rule?
The liberal elements among the transnational elite will be unlikely to object to 21st century fascism in political power if that is what it takes to beat down challenges from below and maintain control. I fear we are before the gates of hell. There will surely be massive social upheavals from below, but also an escalation of state and private repression. If we do enter this hell, it may well involve a civil war, but more so, the passage into a more openly militarized police state, e.g., martial law, National Guard and army troops patrolling cities, and so on. But this is not inevitable! Let us hope and struggle for us not to get to this point!
ZWISCHENZEIT: How do you think the left worldwide should react to the rise of fascist tendencies? What is it that all those who are worried by the present can do to fight for a better future?
WILLIAM I. ROBINSON: Of course this is the crucial question. A global rebellion against the transnational capitalist class has been spreading since the financial collapse of 2008. Wherever one looks there are popular, grassroots, and leftist struggles and the rise of new cultures of resistance. But these movements have not been able to press forward for several reasons that we need to carefully ponder as this global battle against the specter of 21st century fascism heats up.
First, the “left” intellectual class must shake itself loose of crippling identity politics and strive to become organic intellectuals of the mass movements from below. Second, the new global communications has helped linked multiple struggles around the world. But there needs to be transnational coordination of local and national struggles. Third, we need a more clear vision of an emancipatory project around which resistance forces can unite. This means moving beyond the view that emancipatory struggles involve a resistance in civil society but not a campaign to overthrow the state, which involves the development of political organizations and projects alongside mass social movements.
The most urgent task right now may be a united front against fascism, but that task cannot be addressed without a set of principles and goals, and a vision of what we are struggling for, beyond what we are struggling against. Ultimately, we need a transnational ecosocialist project.
Finally, what would be the agent of any such project? Of course this must be the new global working class that labors in the factories, farms, offices, and service sectors of global capitalism. But we must have a new conception of the global working class – one that highlights immigrant labor, female labor, part-time, temp, contract, and “precariatized” workers, ethnically diverse workers, as well as “surplus humanity”, those that have been structurally marginalized. Some would say that talking about the global working class is a distraction from the fight against neo-fascism. But it is the opposite: only by building up the organization of the global working class and placing its multitude of struggles at the center of the fight back can we win.