Navigating the Storm
By Christopher Vials
Carl Davidson and Bill Fletcher Jr.’s “New Hypotheses for the Road Ahead” is an excellent and necessarily broad blueprint for where we go from here. With the following points, I’m mainly amplifying and extending certain observations in their piece, though I have a few areas of divergence.
Labels for the far right are important, but only to a point. Admittedly, what we choose to call the far right only matters to a point. Whether we’re labelling them “white nationalist,” “fascist,” or “the radical right,” the most important thing is our own strategy, not what we call the opponent. Labels do matter, however, when they confuse praxis.
With that in mind, calling the far right “populist,” as many liberal media outlets do, is a dangerous trap to fall into (for the record, I don’t think Davidson and Fletcher use this word in an unproductive way in their piece). Populism can go left or right. It’s a majoritarian strategy that speaks to working-class and middle-class existential needs (often economic ones) that aren’t clearly addressed within the hegemonic terms of the major political parties. The left needs more of this (remember Occupy Wall Street?). In calling the enemy “populist,” the left sets itself up for a technocratic isolation from the people.
But I’m also OK with the fascist label, more so than Davidson and Fletcher. To be sure, fascism is only one form of right-wing authoritarianism, and not everything evil in the world needs to go by that name. Trump was never able to convert the U.S. into a fully authoritarian state, but he has an essentially fascist personality, and enough of his organizationally fragmented base meets “the fascist minimum.” That is, their animating passions are not simply de-regulation, tax cuts, and elite class rule. Rather, they’re mostly middle-class folks driven by an authoritarian, racist, ultranationalist, hypermasculine warrior ethos. When we use the word “conservative,” we know full-well that it’s a broad brush, and that its policy particulars and even ideological specifics change over time. When we call Ted Cruz a “conservative,” in other words, we know he sounds nothing like Alexander Hamilton. Likewise, we need to remember that calling something “fascist” doesn’t mean that it’s an exact repetition of Nazi Germany or Mussolini’s Italy; rather, “fascism” is a broad designation for a particular strand of far right politics that takes on particular characteristics in each national context. The label also evokes real and politically powerful historical continuities.
The far right will cry “socialism” whether it exists or not. But conservative complicity with fascism will likely hinge on the actual strength of the left. Davidson and Fletcher raise a very important point when they stress that the right “irrationally” sees Biden as a socialist. Far too many Republicans are going along with this fantasy, which is striking.
The practice of red-baiting liberals has a long history in this country, though it never truly “united the right” in the past, nor did it become ‘common sense’ across the political spectrum (think of how “McCarthyism” is still a nasty word among the general public). In the United States now, we have more young people interested in “socialism” than we have had since the 1930s and 1940s, and Black Lives Matter has become the largest racial justice mobilization since the 1960s. On this basis, some conservatives have already been spooked into a coalition with the fascist right. Prewar Italy and Weimar Germany had massive socialist and communist movements, and fascists were able to scare elite conservatives into allying with them because of a very real strength on the left.
Yet in the United States right now, conservative electors and Secretaries of State are mostly upholding the law and confirming Biden’s electoral victory (though it’s not over until it’s over). This is probably because they don’t really buy the Trumpian narrative that Biden and the Democratic Party are “socialists” who pose existential threats to them at the moment. And they likely think that BLM can be channeled into multiculturalism. Expect that to change if the left gets noticeably stronger and more effective.
There must be a struggle over democratic process. Davidson and Fletcher repeatedly stress the need to fight back at the level of democratic process. I couldn’t agree more. What’s tricky is that campaigns over democratic process don’t generally bring out masses of voters – only the most politically attuned. But such campaigns are critical sites of antifascist struggle. A constitutional amendment to banish the electoral college would be ideal, but isn’t likely to succeed. At the very least, there need to be state-level ballot initiatives and popular referenda that strengthen laws binding electoral college votes to the popular vote. Currently, 29 states bind their electors to the popular vote, but the enforcement is minimal: electors generally face a slap-on-the-wrist fine if they disobey the law. This needs to be changed by popular referendum, and in ways that would survive constitutional challenge. Because we can expect Republicans to put fanatics on election boards from here on out.
ALLIANCES WITH LIBERALS
Yes to an alliance with liberals, but local conditions matter. Of course you can ally with liberals. I’m always puzzled by a left purism that refuses to work with organizations that are not radical: we are not in St. Petersburg in 1917, and the left cannot afford to write off the vast majority of the population, much less the part that’s already socially active. I’m glad to see that Fletcher and Davidson implicitly agree with this point in their comments on potential alliances over the Green New Deal.
There’s an old debate on the antifascist left that is unfortunately now forgotten by many young folks: the debate over the “Popular Front” vs. the “United Front.” In a nutshell, a United Front is a coalition between radical organizations (socialists and communists, for instance) and on a left-wing platform. A Popular Front is an alliance with liberals and leftists, and on a platform where the left does cede some political ground (the most famous U.S. example is the Communist Party’s alliance with Democrats and liberals from 1935-1939, resumed during WWII).
The United States in 2020 is not Weimar Germany in 1930, where there was a massive Socialist Party and a massive Communist Party, which, together, could win a significant part of the national vote. Such was the world out of which this earlier debate emerged, and where limiting yourself to coalitions between left parties at least made a degree of sense (though it ultimately proved impossible in the case of Weimar Germany, with dire consequences for the world).
But what about alliances in a country that has only two viable political parties, and one is (theoretically) a big tent comprising left, liberal, and centrist elements, and the left cannot stand on its own as a left party at the national level? And where you have a highly popular and massive protest movement – The Movement for Black Lives – which is still developing an infrastructure to turn grassroots enthusiasm into political change?”
As most of us who have done political work know, alliances don’t need to take the form of written compacts or platforms, and they rarely do in practice anymore. Locally, coalitions are often ephemeral alliances that arise over a particular issue or emergency: at best, they build relationships that can grow over time. Sometimes, they bring together groups with interlocking members.
With that in mind, the Popular Front vs. United Front debate can still come in handy. But it has to be keyed to the level and scale on which you’re acting, the goals you have in mind, and the demographics of your area. Are you operating at a strictly local level, or taking part in a state or national effort? Are you trying to push a particular set of laws or serve particular needs through an issue-oriented organization? Are you trying to create a union, or build a chapter of an organization based around an explicit political ideal (like the DSA or YDSA)? How widespread are left and progressive ideas in your area of operation, and what racial and class demographics are they spread across? It’s impossible to run through all the permutations here, nor do I have the experience to speak to all of them. Suffice to say that the kind of coalitions one builds has to take level, scale, demographics, and goals in mind. If left-progressive views in your area are strong, for instance, it’s easy to imagine a situation in which something like a United Front is the most pragmatic course.
NEED FOR A NAME
On “racialized financial capitalism,” and the need for a name. In Twenty Theses on Politics, Enrique Dussel wrote about the need for a consistent political vocabulary – boiled down to a small set of words – capable of gluing together a diffuse coalition. I agree with Fletcher and Davidson that the phrase “racialized financial capitalism” brings together some of the broadest and most historically-specific facets of the dominant order that we in the United States are facing today. It also reminds me of Georgi Dimitrov’s definition of fascism that launched the Comintern’s Popular Front policy in the 1935: that fascism is “the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital.” Dimitrov was also trying to mobilize a popular anticapitalism against virulent political reaction, but not in a way that required an instant rejection of all forms of capitalism as the price of admission. What’s changed is that finance capital is now, in reality, the main form of capital we face in the United States.
But, following, Dussel, “racialized financial capitalism” is a bit of a mouthful for everyday use, and Davidson and Fletcher would probably agree with me here. Occupy had a good name for the opponent – “the one percent” – though we’ll need something new. I’ve been in academia far too long to come up with an effective term that could capture the dreams and desires of millions: it will have to emerge from struggle.