The Dishonorable Society, Part 2
Reading Anton Jäger's Jacobin Piece
Before I could finish my argument, Mr. Jäger already seems to have gotten a little upset about what I’ve written so far. Here’s what he tweeted:
Well, excuuuuuuse me. First of all, I don’t even really understand the first sentence. How can you know whether they were right or wrong if you don’t know what they thought? That just makes no sense. Second, you clearly do care what Marx said about Bonapartism, becuase you write, “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.”
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I honestly wanted to critically engage with the substance of Jäger’s piece, but since he decided opt for this dickish fulmination, I’ll just be blunt: How can you say it’s a more “powerful precedent for our situation” when you’re apparently not even clear what Marx’s account of the 1848 actually was? Yes, I may only have an undergraduate degree in history, but at least I learned to find out what the texts I’m namedropping actually say. And if you think Riley’s interpretation of fascism and Trumpism is the correct one, then by extension you should care about what Gramsci wrote about it, because Riley’s interpretation is Gramscian.
Second, it clearly says at the end of the last piece I was still developing my argument, so it’s not really a fair jibe to say “this is not a refutation.” Although I had some criticisms, I wasn’t really trying to “refute” Jäger’s piece so much as think along with it. I proposed the possibility of a synthesis between the various perspectives in question. I posed the question whether maybe all of the analogies and frames offered so were actually not quite right. I was trying to clarify my own thoughts as much as to reject anybody else’s. I’m actually interested in answering the question and open to revising my position. You know, thinking. As for this gratuitously nasty and supercilious remark about a “copypasta from an undergrad reading list,” I was just trying to explain the ideas in question clearly to my readers who might not be that familiar with them. Sorry if that’s beneath you, Anton.
In the tweet below, Jäger writes, “There also is a mountainous literature on how the KPD interpretation of fascism as recycled Bonapartism was faulty and bad - George Mosse is a good place to start.” Thank you, I’m quite familiar with Mosse’s writing and even have cited him several times on this newsletter. I was not aware Mosse had written anything specifically on this issue, and was unable to find it, so I would be very grateful for the reference. In any case, I thought we’re discussing class and structural theories of fascism here, not cultural theories. Whenever people discuss the ideological or mythopoeic similarities between modern far right movements and fascism, people complain that this just fixating on “rhetoric” and not looking at the real structural and sociological underpinnings. I was trying to take seriously those complaints, which why I was looking at Thalheimer; I was not really endorsing Thalheimer’s interpretation as correct. I wonder if in reviewing this “mountainous literature” Jäger noticed that Thalheimer’s interpretation was not the KPD interpretation of fascism: he was booted out of the party. Nor did he say fascism was simply Bonapartism, he explicitly says it is not the same thing and points to the very organizational and social differences that critics of the fascism think are of the essence, but he used Marx’s Eighteen Brumaire as a starting point, just as Riley did in his piece on Trump. The idiotic KPD line that has rightly come in for so much criticism was that fascism and social democracy were “twin brothers,” just two aspects of the dictatorship of capital. Perhaps Jäger is confusing Thalheimer with Thälmann? And maybe if Jäger was a slightly more attentive reader he’d have noticed the subtle commonalities between the Thalheimer perspective and the Riley perspective he endorses, since they both ultimately are rooted in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, with Riley’s via Gramsci.
Let’s first briefly recap the theories of Bonapartism and fascism we discussed in Part 1. Then we’ll reconstruct the Trump phenomenon in its political and social structure and also its manner of governing, and see how they fit or don’t fit these theoretical frames.
So first, let’s look at Thalheimer again. For him, Bonapartism and fascism are two iterations of “the open dictatorship of capital.” They both appear in the aftermath of a revolutionary defeat. They both offer guarantees of security for a bourgeoisie that has decided to abandon its political rule in favor of retaining its dominant social position. Of course, they both have a coup-like moment and its dramatic hero. They are also both based on a declassé mob, in the case of Bonapartism, this is represented in the relatively small “gang” surrounding Louis Napoleon, and, in the case of fascism, a mass party. This difference is “conditioned by the general development of bourgeois society and the level of the international class struggle.” Thalheimer writes, “Louis Bonaparte’s “December gang” was the counterpart of the small secret revolutionary organisation of the French working class at that time. The fascist party is the counter-revolutionary counterpart of the Communist Party of the Soviet Russia.”
Both relied upon the independent executive power of the state and an atomized class that could not articulate its own interests and called for a strongman to become its champion instead. Both used appeals to nationalism and eventually pursued foreign policies of imperialist war-making in order to paper over the divisions in society. Unlike other theorists of the Third International, who crudely declared that fascism was identical with big business rule, Thalheimer discusses potential conflicts between the fascist state and bourgeoisie and even inevitable internal contradictions: neither Bonapartism and fascism can make good on their promise to benefit the entire nation rather than any given class, they end up juggling hand outs to different interest groups. It’s these internal contradictions leads to the foreign adventures.
Now, let’s look again at Gramsci and Riley’s theories. For Gramsci, there is an “organic crisis,” a situation of conflict between “represented and representatives,” this is a “crisis of the ruling class’s hegemony” that “occurs either because the ruling class has failed in some major political undertaking for which it has requested, or forcibly extracted, the consent of the broad masses (war, for example) , or because huge masses (especially of peasants and petit-bourgeois intellectuals) have passed suddenly from a state of political passivity to a certain activity.” If this crisis is not solved by the traditional institutions of the ruling class and the progressive forces are immature and underdeveloped, a charismatic leader from outside the political class and swoop in and promise to resolve the crisis:
When the crisis does not find this organic solution, but that of the charismatic leader, it means that a static equilibrium exists (whose actors 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.
The traditional party systems are unresponsive to the new political developments and easily rolled over by the emergence of this charismatic master.
To Gramsci, Riley adds Tocqueville’s account of civil society development fostering growing democratic demand. But in the case of fascism this democratic demand—for responsive government—is answered by an “anti-political” and anti-liberal force that promised to do away with the conflicts of politics and inept or self-interested elites and replace them with an omni-competent system that would directly handle social interests.
As you may have noticed, these theories are highly structural and don’t fully speak to the ideological and rhetorical parts of fascism that might seem to make so distinct from other forms of politics: the wounded and humiliated nationalism, the desire for national rebirth, national Darwinism, racism, male chauvinism, the cults of virility and force, and so forth, but even critics of the fascism frame admit that some of that stuff is present in Trumpism, they just insist that the structures are radically different.
The Trump Phenomenon
Critics of the “fascism thesis” don’t pay enough attention to what the most casual observer of American politics can tell you: Trump was not the creature of the Republican party elite; he attacked it from outside. In fact, the constituency that flocked to him out of frustration with the unresponsiveness of the party establishment. The party had largely become merely a vehicle for its donor class with few ideas outside of cutting taxes and trying to pare back social benefits. It had grown moribund and brittle. This elite was fundamentally out of touch with its mass base and found itself totally overwhelmed by the popular support for Trump. All of the columnists’ denunciations and all of the politicians stentorian reprimands could not prevent him from seizing the party. Republican primary voters were hardly demobilized: they went to rallies and voted for Trump in droves. The establishment G.O.P. eventually got in line.
From the beginning, the mob also flocked to Trump. He surrounded himself with fringe cranks and fellow members of the kleptocratic demimonde. Every single crackpot conspiracist perked up when Trump entered the scene. The extreme right, small and fractious as it may be, immediately saw in him the promise of the kind of politics they had long hoped for: explicitly racist, populist, demagogic, and confrontational. After long last, here was their guy. These are the famous “deplorables” Hillary Clinton mistakenly tried to turn into an object of political attack. As we can see after Charlotesville and more recently with his meeting with Kanye and Nick Fuentes, he was never been eager to fully jettison this constituency. The paramilitary formations and the mob have tried to act as shock troops for Trump, and he has also attempted to wield them, albeit without much success so far.
Was Trump really the product of a demobilized electorate and a vacated civil society? Well, not exactly. We should remember that prior to Trump there had been the Tea Party wave in response to Obama’s presidency. As Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson point out in their The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, the Tea Party wan an exception to the modern pattern of civic life with its NGOS and “bodyless” groups that Jäger talks about:
Had the Tea Party turned into a glorified email list, no social scientist who studies U.S. voluntary associations and interest groups would have been surprised. Professionally run operations that involve grassroots citizens mainly via sporadic, emotional appeals to send money or take an online “action” are the norm these days.”…
Most local Tea Parties were not just preexisting groups of other kinds that draped themselves in a new label after February 2009. Remarkably, local instigators created and sustained brand-new membership groups, ongoing local parts of a nationally shared identity. This sort of of thing used to happen all of the time in American civic and political life. But it is much rarer nowadays…
Skocpol and Williams point out that these groups were independent of the institutional GOP and put pressure on them. Here we had an actual growth of party-independent civil society groups and a kind of “democratic demand” being made on the political establishment: Tea Partiers were very aggressive towards the establishment GOP. Remember Trump’s that first steps into the political arena was through birtherism, something that came out of the Tea Party nebula of social myths. He cunningly divined that racial reaction was the major animating force. But they were also middle class people motivated by economic fears about home values, taxes, and retirement savings. Jäger writes, “A homeowner’s convention is no John Birch Society chapter,” Okay, sure, but the Tea Parties kind of were. Of course, the Tea Party eventually suffered the fate of most political organizations in the U.S., especially right-leaning ones: it just became a way to scam old people.
As Jäger admits, a recent study showed that Trump did better in areas with high density of civil society organizations and social capital but experiencing social and economic decline. But Jäger wants to differentiate between a pathological and normal forms of civic engagement, insisting on a difference between being part of a homeowner’s association and being in the Klan. That seems like common sense, but it’s a little at variance with Riley’s own structural, Tocquevillean perspective. He writes in Introduction to the second edition of The Civic Foundations of Fascism in Europe:
I also rejected the distinction between democratic and non-democratic associations on methodological grounds. The attempt to differentiate between good, “democratic” associations, and bad, “antidemocratic” ones smacked to me of a retrospective and ad hoc attempt to save a theory; especially since no one has ever provided any convincing criterion to distinguish between “democratic” and “antidemocratic” associations. If theories of civil society were to be explanatory, I thought, they should retain the structural claim that voluntary organizations promote democracy regardless of their character.
This points to a possible problem with Riley’s account. He says both fascism and Trumpism are not really anti-democratic, but both contain a “twisted and distorted” democratic demand: “Trump, (and even more so) Mussolini and Hitler are commonly presented as “antidemocratic” leaders. That is a profound mistake. In fact, these leaders arose, both in the thirties and today, by articulating a demand for a profound renewal of political institutions that would render the state more responsive to the populace than it had been previously.” Okay, but if we take seriously the Tocquevillean structural part of Riley’s thesis where is the pressure of these democratizing demands coming from if civil society is so weak?
While Trumpism still might not be fascism, but Dylan Riley is perhaps not the best foundation to rely upon to make that case since, at least in an attenuated form, what actually happened is pretty close to what Riley outlines as the structural formula for fascism. I believe Trump’s presidency is the product of an “organic” crisis of hegemony, that is to say, a struggle between “represented and representatives” that first appeared with the Tea Party, and it arose out of the embittered “democratic demand” or populism stemming from dense civil society activity, even if its the remnant or an exception to the rule of general civil society decay. To this we can add back a piece of the original Gramscian theory of the “charismatic leader” who takes advantage of the political deadlock and the calcification of the old parties. As in Thalheimer’s theory of both Bonapartism and fascism, there is a promise of the reassertion of social order and the employment of the mob as political core.
Okay, I’m getting tired now, but in the next part I’ll look at how Trump actually used the state to govern or not govern, what social classes or fractions of supported him, and so forth.
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