The Dishonorable Society, Part 1
Reading Anton Jäger's Jacobin Piece
(I know I’m supposed to be on vacation, but I wanted to write about this. Since this is on “my time,” there’s a bunch of Marxist theory. If you don’t find that interesting you can just skip it.)
In the latest issue of Jacobin, Anton Jäger has an interesting feature entitled “From Bowling Alone to Posting Alone.” As you may have guessed from the title, it deals with Robert Putnam’s famous thesis that American civic life is disintegrating, that Americans are becoming more and more isolated, more lonely, less engaged with others and the surrounding world. Putnam’s picture was largely based on the suburbanization of America: as a people we started to drive everywhere and then zone out at home in from the TV in the evening, instead of volunteering or just socializing with neighbors in the street or at social clubs and bars, those great incubators of civic life. Adding to this picture of social atomization, Jäger points out important political aspects, as well: the virtual destruction of labor unions and the decline of mass participation in political parties. The internet comes to fill this void in social life:
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Clearly, the internet only becomes comprehensible in the world of the lonely bowler. Online culture thrives on the atomization that the neoliberal offensive has inflicted on society — there is now ample research showing positive correlation between declining civic commitment and broadband access. At the same time, the internet accelerates and entrenches social atomization. The exit and entry costs of this new, simulated civil society are extremely low, and the stigma of leaving a Facebook group or a Twitter subculture is incomparable to being forced to move out of a neighborhood because a worker scabbed during a strike.
The extreme marketization of Putnam’s 1980s and 1990s also made the world vulnerable to the perils of social media. The dissolution of voluntary organizations, the decline of Fordist job stability, the death of religious life, the evaporation of amateur athletic associations, the “dissolution of the masses,” and the rise of a multitudinous crowd of individuals were all forces that generated the demand for social media long before there was a product like Facebook or Instagram. Social media could only grow in a void that was not of its own making.
The intention of Jäger’s piece is two-fold: one is to consider the challenges that this weakened civic world poses has for left wing politics and to provide a possible interpretation of right wing politics, which Jäger points out has faired better under the same conditions. Jäger is rather dismissive of what he calls “the fascism frame” to describe Trump and related national-populist movements. This dismissal relies on a series of now-familiar arguments, drawn from Dylan Riley and Corey Robin, among others: Trump and the Republicans do not have a tightly-organized mass political party, they rely upon the most conservative, anti-majoritarian aspects of the constitutional order rather than revolutionary reorganization of the state, while paramilitaries exist they are politically insignificant and cannot be meaningfully compared to interwar groups, and, in general, the socio-economic conditions are so different from the massive upheaval of the post World War I environment that any comparison is going to be superficial at best: there is no social experience of total war and there is no threat of labor unrest or revolution to create the degree of reactionary backlash that qualifies as a fascism.
Dylan Riley’s formula for fascism requires a strong—indeed overflowing—civic life, and a lack of effective political leadership: in a kind of perverse form of democratic demand, society calls for a strong, technocratic leadership to replace parliamentary immobilism and govern directly in its interest. As Riley writes, “They therefore attempted to replace political struggle, and representative institutions, with a form of nonpolitical interest representation. In this sense fascist regimes were never exactly rightist or leftist; they represented instead a distinctive rejection of politics as such.”
Again channeling Riley, Jäger offers the example of “Bonapartism” and Napoleon III as a better frame for our time than fascism:
What would a viable alternative to this fascist frame look like? As Riley suggests, a far more powerful precedent for our situation can be found in Karl Marx’s account of the 1848 revolution. At the revolution’s close, instead of giving in to this unrest, Napoleon III gathered an apathetic peasant population and ordered them to quell the revolution. Marx described these French peasants as a “sack of potatoes” for whom the “identity of their interests fosters no community spirit, no national association and no political organization.” And since the peasants could not represent themselves, “they must be represented” — in this case by a king.
There is a certain irony here since Marxist theorists in the interwar period turned to Marx’s writings about Napoleon III as a starting point to understand fascism, but I will get to that later. First, I think there are a few empirical points are worth making. Jäger writes:
The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations might well count as the first properly fascist organizations in history. But as institutions, they have been on the wane for decades, and they do not supply the shock troops for white supremacy that they did in the past. Militias like the Proud Boys and the boogaloo movement instead thrive as “individualized commandos,” as Adam Tooze put it, far removed from the veterans that populated the Freikorps or the Black and Tans in the early 1920s. These were highly disciplined formations with direct experience of combat, not lumpen loners who drove out to protect car dealerships.
It’s true that we shouldn’t overestimate the political significance of paramilitary formations, but we shouldn’t completely dismiss or mischaracterize them either. What Jäger writes about the Proud Boys is just not correct: they do not emphasize individual acts of terror or “lone wolf” operations; they are a fraternal street-fighting group. While American militias are traditionally rural, the Proud Boys have attempted to replicate the urban militia cadres of historical fascism. This comes with certain internal contradictions: the diverse nature of American cities, the Proud Boy’s recruiting pool, has made it difficult for the group to be overtly White Supremacist. Instead, they’ve tried to create an ideology of multi-racial fascism or “multi-racial White Supremacy” as some commentators have labeled it. Their political efforts are still small but not totally negligible. They have attempted to set themselves up as a kind of paramilitary reserve of the G.O.P., infiltrated Republican party structures, and been repeatedly involved in the ongoing harassment of LGBTQ groups and events. They’ve also shifted to a local strategy, bringing intimidation and thuggery to the school board and town council level. In other words, they are engaging in the very kind of civic mobilization that has become “etiolated” according to Riley and Jäger, albeit in an explicitly fascist way. Jäger also completely passes over other groups like the Oath Keepers, who with the Proud Boys were the major force during the January 6 attack and are organized on an explicitly paramilitary basis. And while it’s true that the present generation of far right paramilitaries in size, experience, and training cannot hold a candle to the Freikorps or squadristi, the fact remains that veterans are overrepresented in their ranks. According to NPR, 1 in 5 defendants in Capitol invasion cases served in the military. We need not conclude that this is the same thing as the S.A., but we can at least take a clear look at the facts.
This prompts a brief sidebar: If the “fascism frame” is such a self-evidently weak interpretation why do its critics constantly need to pass over empirical details or rhetorically downplay them as Jäger does when he calls the paramilitaries “lumpen loners who drove out to protect car dealerships?” In point of fact, they’ve done quite a bit more than that. Might I suggest that there is a certain methodological nihilism involved here? Critics like Jäger, who by the way is an admirer of Jean Baudrillard, reserve for themselves the sovereign right to decide which political phenomena are real and which are kinda fake. In fact, one reading of viewpoint is as a tendency to insist on the virtuality, the online-ness, and therefore the unreality of everything. In extreme versions of this view, discourse and the fascism discourse in particular is just another sham: an ideological illusion generated by the system itself that further perpetuates said system. Funnily enough, this is structurally similar to the ultra-left position that labels everything in contemporary society “fascism” and declares all political efforts impotent or compromised in advance. With its emphasis on the cultural predominance of social media, this view also comes close to the liberal preoccupation with “misinformation” as the main determinant of politics.
Trumpism as Bonapartism?
Riley and Jäger believe we should prefer the example of Napoleon III as a better analogy than interwar fascism. Well, why? One constant refrain of critics of the fascism analogy is that there’s a lack of the revolutionary threat that fascism confronted. But as Jäger writes, Napoleon III’s coup and dictatorship came in the wake of the 1848 revolutions, when the revolutionary proletariat burst onto the political scene for the first time. In Marx’s reading, the Louis-Napoleon regime was brought on by the bourgeoisie’s liquidation of its own political and intellectual rule in favor of a strongman who could take care of state business and allow them to pursue their private interests in peace. For Marx, the rise of Napoleon III marked “the ultimate form” of bourgeois rule and also that class’s decadence: “[It] was the only form of government possible at a time when the bourgeoisie had already lost, and the working class had not yet acquired, the faculty of ruling the nation.”
Jäger writes that “At the revolution’s close, instead of giving in to this unrest, Napoleon III gathered an apathetic peasant population and ordered them to quell the revolution.” But that is not quite what happened: the revolution had already been quelled by the bourgeois republic. And Napoleon’s coup’s was not carried out by the peasantry, but by the mob: “the refuse of all classes” produced by capitalism, the Paris Boheme that Marx so colorfully savages in The Eighteenth Brumaire. Marx characterizes Louis-Napoleon as the chief of this declassé class: a disreputable roué, financially ruined several times over, a kind of mob boss offering “protection” for the bourgeoisie. That does start to sound a little bit familiar.
What Riley thinks makes Trump “Bonapartist” is that he eschews “the logic of bureaucracy” and attempts to turns the state into a family business:
While fascism was a product of intense civil society and associational development, Trumpism is an expression of the etiolation and weakening of civil society. That is why Trump is more similar to Bonaparte, particularly Bonaparte II, than to the interwar fascists. This difference is particularly evident in the basic institutional conflict that characterizes the dynamics of each form of right-wing regime. Fascist regimes were plagued by struggle between the state and the party. Their leaders sat atop these two competing organizations and played them against one another. Mussolini and Hitler’s families, however, played very little role in the power politics of their regimes. In contrast to Mussolini and Hitler, the institutional conflict that characterizes Trumpism is what Weber would have called the “logic of the household” and the “logic of bureaucracy.” All of Trump’s supposed “violations of democratic norms” are not that at all. Instead they are violations of “bureaucratic norms.” Trump is constantly reviled in the media for failing understand the difference between loyalty to the person and loyalty to the objective order of the state. The threat that Trump poses, therefore, is not that he might establish a neo-totalitarian nationalist regime, but rather that he might build a neo-patrimonial Bonapartist regime based on the logic of the household.
For what it’s worth, that comment about the leader’s family in Italian fascism is not quite right in the case of Italy: Mussolini’s son-in-law Galeazzo Ciano served as Foreign Minister and was once seen as his likely successor. The notion that Bonapartism could be somehow non- or anti-bureaucratic is surprising. For Marx, Bonapartism was precisely the apotheosis of executive power and bureaucratic rule over and above civil society. The rule of Napoleon III was the sign that its independence had become complete:
But under the absolute monarchy, during the first Revolution, and under Napoleon the bureaucracy was only the means of preparing the class rule of the bourgeoisie. Under the Restoration, under Louis-Philippe, under the parliamentary republic, it was the instrument of the ruling class, however much it strove for power of its own.
Only under the second Bonaparte does the state seem to have made itself completely independent. The state machinery has so strengthened itself vis-à-vis civil society that the Chief of the Society of December 10 suffices for its head – an adventurer dropped in from abroad, raised on the shoulders of a drunken soldiery which he bought with whisky and sausages and to which he has to keep throwing more sausages. Hence the low-spirited despair, the feeling of monstrous humiliation and degradation that oppresses the breast of France and makes her gasp. She feels dishonored.
Corruption and the state are not opposed for Marx, but in a way identical: It is sort of the industrialized and rationalized form of self-dealing:
The seignorial privileges of the landowners and towns became transformed into so many attributes of the state power, the feudal dignitaries into paid officials, and the motley patterns of conflicting medieval plenary powers into the regulated plan of a state authority whose work is divided and centralized as in a factory.
Politics had become a game of capturing the state and making it rain: “The parties, which alternately contended for domination, regarded the possession of this huge state structure as the chief spoils of the victor.” Marx also makes clear that the bureaucratic domination of the state over society is the political form of the peasantry: “The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power which subordinates society to itself.”
It was these features, the bourgeoisie putting aside parliamentary democracy in favor of a dictatorship to guarantee their interests, the lumpen character of the leader’s coterie, and the relative independence of the state vis-a-vis civil society, that made Marxists in the period of the Third International turn to Napoleon III as a guide for their investigations of fascism. Particularly notable is the work of August Thalheimer, a chief theorist of German Communist Party, who was expelled from the K.P.D. because his interpretation of fascism was at variance with the International’s line. In his 1929 On Fascism, Thalheimer writes:
The best starting point for an investigation of fascism is, in my opinion, the analysis of Bonapartism (Louis Bonaparte) by Marx and Engels. It should be taken for granted that I do not equate fascism and Bonapartism. But they are related phenomena, having both common and divergent features, both of which require elaboration.
Martin Kitchen provides a useful summary of Thalheimer’s “Bonapartism theory” in his book Fascism:
Similarities with fascism are striking. Fascism was not, of course, a peasant movement, but the position of the small-holding peasant in France was similar to that of the urban petit bourgeoisie in Italy and Germany. The social basis of Bonapartism and fascism was a sector of society which had at one time, at the beginning of the process of industrialisation, been revolutionary, but which was now threatened by the further development of industrial society and had therefore become counter-revolutionary. Both the peasantry and the petit bourgeoisie were unable to articulate their common aspirations and frustrations, because both groups comprised isolated individuals who lacked any sense of class solidarity. Thus both groups were willing to submit to the will and bidding of a saviour.
The fascist parties, like Louis Napoleon's society of 10 December, provided a happy home for the déclasses of all classes, for the rootless and the bitter. But there was clearly a difference of degree. Fascist regimes were backed by mass parties, Louis Napoleon by a small band. This is due to different historical circumstances and the different degree to which the contradictions which gave rise to the need for a Bonapartist or fascist regime had developed. For Thalheimer the mass party was a mixed blessing to a fascist regime. On the one hand it strengthened its independence, but on the other hand it intensifIed the problem of the contradiction between the party which represented the aspirations of the masses and the particular interests of the ruling class.
Thalheimer concludes, “Thus, Bonapartism is a form of bourgeois state power in a situation of defence, fortification and reinforcement against the proletarian revolution. It is a form of the open dictatorship of capital. The other form, a closely related form, is the fascistic state form. The common denominator is the open dictatorship of capital.” There is a somewhat paradoxical element in both: the social position of capital is guaranteed by sacrificing up its political rule in favor of the “dual regime” of lumpen party or gang and the executive state. Unlike other communists who confidently believed fascism was the step before revolution, Thalheimer predicted (correctly) that after fascism parliamentary democracy was likely to return in strengthened form.
Antonio Gramsci also apparently took Napoleon III as a guidepost for fascism, describing him as an example of “reactionary Ceasarism.” For Gramsci, obviously channeling the sections of Eighteenth Brumaire where Marx speaks of the proletariat and bourgeoisie both being unable to rule, this Caesarism occurs when conventional political forces are unable to solve a political deadlock:
When the crisis [of hegemony] does not find this organic solution, but that of the charismatic leader, it means that a static equilibrium exists (whose factors may be disparate, but in which the decisive one is the immaturity of the progressive forces) ; it means that no group, neither the conservatives nor the progressives, has the strength for victory, and that even the conservative group needs a master…This order of phenomena is connected to one of the most important questions concerning the political party-i.e. the party's capacity to react against force of habit, against the tendency to become mummified and anachronistic.
What does this all have to do with Trump you ask? Well, don’t worry, I am almost there. Let’s just recall again Dylan Riley’s theory of fascism, which is based heavily on Gramsci. Riley contends:
For the purposes of understanding fascism, the possibility that civil society might develop in the absence of a hegemonic politics is very important. Gramsci calls these situations “Organic Crises,” which he defines as decisive turning points in which the democratic demands produced by civil society cannot adequately be expressed through existing political institutions. This leads to a crisis of representation in which “the traditional parties, in that particular organizational form, with the particular men who constitute, represent, and lead them, are no longer recognized by their class (or fractions of a class) as its expression.” Fascist regimes were the consequences of just such a crisis in which the “traditional parties” and the forces of opposition were outstripped by a rapidly developing civil society. In this context the democratic demands of civil society tend to develop against the regime of political parties and are often expressed as skepticism about all forms of political representation. Fascism, then, develops out of this general crisis of politics. Fascist movements are well adapted to such situations because they claim to transcend the political. These movements are therefore perfectly positioned to exploit the crisis of political representation caused by a situation of civil society and hegemony.
In other words, there’s a kind of populist disgust with political class as such, a feeling that the government no longer represents them and needs to be replaced with something radically new. At the same time, there’s the hope that this “something new” will handle everything. But if the recent attempt and failure of proletarian revolution is a major criterion for both Bonapartism and fascism, then neither framework is appropriate to the present situation. Does that mean we should just throw both interpretations in the trash and start over? I actually think a synthesis is possible with a class analysis of Trumpism. It could be that there’s a third species in the genus of Bonapartism and fascism, which we have quite identified yet. But this is getting very long and I will have to do that in a Part 2.
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