Thursday, 17 August 2017

Fascism and Economic Anxiety






















What's the liberal hot take on last weekend's white supremacist march in Charlottesville, North Virginia? According to Twitter, and never missing an opportunity to be smug, it definitely, definitely was not about "economic anxiety". Here are some typical examples. They think they're being clever funny ironic, of burnishing woke creds while caricaturing and mocking those annoying people who insist there is a relationship between what goes on in someone's life and their outlook on the world. This liberal heroism merely advertises their inability to think, and broadcasts their unwillingness to do so.

And what is more, they are entirely wrong. They are even wrong on their assumptions about what economic anxiety is. Here I want to look at economic anxiety in a narrow and an expanded sense, that is how economics 'stands alone' (which as a proposition is only possible in an analytical exercise like this, in the real world it cannot be separated from wider social processes and inequalities) and how it combines, in this case, with race/ethnicity and, crucially, gender as a way into explaining how white supremacists become the hate mongering shits they are.

What is less than useless is the position of liberal heroism. Here racists are racist because they're racist. People voted for Donald Trump because they're racist. Studies prove it. Racists marched in Charlottesville because they're racists. Racists hate on blacks and Jews because they're racist, and so on. There is no attempt at a social explanation here, rather they're reducing racism to a matter of choice, to personal morality. In so doing they manage to avoid facing up to the sorts of social conditions that manufacture fascists. Or to put it another way, while all fascists are awful human beings, they are congenitally uninterested in why not every awful human being is a fascist.

Let's begin with economic anxiety, narrowly conceived. Traditionally fascism has been regarded as a movement powered primarily by petit bourgeois and declassed elements (the unemployed, precariously employed, etc.). That isn't to say working class people never get involved, but in the "classical" cases as per Germany and Italy the other classes and class fragments were present in disproportionate numbers. It all makes a certain sense when you look at these as positions and relationships: these are de facto unstable and precarious. Effectively, they are individuals versus the weight of the economic world. If you are a business person, even a successful (small/medium) business person, your position is caught in a vice. The employee class, the proletarians, are the pains you can't do without and they so pester you with unreasonable demands like health and safety at work, time off and decent wages. And at any time big business threatens to squash you with the competitive advantages they can bring to bear. If you are not a business owner and are declassed thanks to unemployment or sporadic work, you are still thrown onto your own devices. Unemployment and precarious employment are social failings, but experiencing it and the social security institutions policing it put your situation on you. Some thrive on this, but others are filled with existential dread. Among this layer then, we tend to find a concern for order, a tendency toward nostalgia, a hankering for authoritarianism and hostility toward scapegoats deemed to threaten and/or undermine their received position and perceived privileges.

As we have seen before, there is an assumption that economic anxiety just equals working class people, which is demonstrably false. While plenty of (white) working class people voted for Trump, it was the wealthier layers who turned out in disproportionate numbers to back him. The persistence of this understanding, or rather misunderstanding of economic anxiety starts looking deliberate the more it is repeated. It's almost as if layers of official opinion formation cannot cope with the idea of fascists as their local plumber, hot dog man, or restaurant manager. It's easier to dehumanise fascists if you conceive them as poor and working class. The more social distance you can put between them and you, the better.

So much for the narrow economics, what about a more expansive approach to anxiety? As per recent arguments, we live in a society which has been totally subsumed by capital. Market relationships and market logics have penetrated all aspects of social life, and increasingly the business of capitalism is about taking from the common store of social knowledge (or 'the common'), repackaging it and selling it back to us. Here, labour in advanced capitalist societies is increasingly immaterial. At the behest of our employers, we are much more likely to produce knowledge, information, services, relationships and types of people (subjectivities). We also tend to do this in our own time as well. This blog post as an example of knowledge/information-sharing and (hopefully!) subjectivity formation, for instance. Capitalism is now in the business of producing people, which means the contradictions and conflicts between capital and labour have rippled beyond the workplace and fused with the politics of identity formation. Class and gender and race and other locations of so-called identity politics can only ever be separated analytically: in real life they combine and condition each.

What has this got to do with our Charlottesville sad sacks? Quite a bit. One thing that strikes about last weekend, far right mobilisations and fascism generally is, well, where are the women? The alt-right and white nationalism are manly affairs. Very manly affairs. It glorifies fighting, militarism, weaponry, misogyny and the rest. It rails against anything that presents a danger to a mythologised, idealised and brittle hyper-masculinity, and here it conjoins with the racialism. The "threats" arrayed against whiteness can only be seen off by militant manliness, of white men protecting theirs and their bloodlines by having lots of children and aggressively seeing off competitors and deviants. Hence its fragility vis a vis male homosexuality (in particular). Its promise is a society in which everyone knows their place. All men are (white) men for whom there are enough jobs and enough women. It is an order that institutionalises white power and male privilege under some benevolent fascist administration that represses the deviants. It's a heaven for a few built on the hell of the many, of women, of "undesirable" races and ethnicities to be enslaved and wiped out, of sexual difference kept in the closet under pain of lethal force.

What kind of person is going to find views of this kind attractive? Presumably white men would in disproportionate numbers. And why might some of them (after all, not all white men ...)? Because of the lot young white men are facing, of a progressive dissolution of a privileged gender and racial locations. Let's bring it narrowly back to economics for a moment. Many scholars have written about the feminisation of labour markets. This doesn't just mean the progressive integration of more women into work, but also the spread of conditions one would previously associate with "traditional" women's employment (part time, low pay, short term) as well as the content of work. The immaterial labour that has always coexisted alongside the development of capitalism in the home, the affective caring work overwhelmingly undertaken by wives and mothers helped produce human beings with certain sets of capacities that left their children work ready, to a degree. Immaterial labour as an increasingly dominant arena of capital accumulation sees larger numbers of men drawn into affective, service-oriented cognitive labour, the sorts of labour that also produces social relations, networks, and human beings of certain types. Therefore, not only are younger men having to compete with women for jobs more regularly than their dads and grandads did, but they do so for jobs that fall short of the traditionally masculine manly man. There is a mismatch between this received masculinity, which finds itself expressed in whole and in part through a bewildering array of cultural artefacts, and the reality. Matthew Heimbach, the well known white supremacist interviewed in Vice's acclaimed Charlottesville documentary is a testament to this. Prior to his politics getting him the sack, he worked in child protection.

If that wasn't bad enough, women have expectations of being treated like human beings. The feminist movement has asserted women's autonomy. Millions no longer want to be the arm candy or the mothers gender ideology throws at women and men, and millions refuse the gender apartheid that underpins traditional male privilege and power. With greater freedoms, they might not only out-compete men at work but may also choose to be intimate with men who are not white. Therefore in the white patriarchal imaginary the liberated woman is a double threat - a threat to their economic well being and masculinist conceptions of work, and a sexual threat in her potential exodus from and abandonment of white men who feel entitled to her body. Hence, particularly in America, how the racist anxieties towards black men is bound up with a sexual anxiety, of their being hypersexual, better endowed, more manly than white men. A triptych of of gender, sexuality, and race on which the anxieties of alt-right, fascist America are represented.

Fascism is a promise to do away with these tensions. Instead of leaving white male privilege in contention, it reinforces it. Turning the clock back, rewinding the film, of repeating history is about stamping on uncertainty and, yes, anxiety (be it economic or otherwise). Women and minority ethnicities are to be put back in the box, the complex processes of struggle underpinning the feminisation of work substituted for conspiracy fairy tales of Jewish/communist/Jewish and communist manipulations, the fevered reification of masculinity with its celebration of militarism and war, and society locked into a rigid patterning of authority (overseen by a dictatorial patriarch) not only is a simple vision, but one that can only be achieved through the blood and fire of redemptive violence. Fascism is more than a dystopia attractive to a would-be elite, it's a weak apologia for criminality and wanton murder, of promising empowerment via the infliction of pain and suffering on one's enemies.

All this ineluctably leads to the conclusion that fascism has a great deal to do with economic anxiety refracted through class, gender, race and ethnicity. Understanding what fascism is, where it comes from, what it appeals to and crucially, who the fascists are and how they are made is not an idle exercise. It's the very basics of militant anti-fascism. Knowing what generates fascism allows for it to be pulled up by its roots, and that is inseparable from a wider programme of political change - a programme that addresses the antagonisms and conflicts pregnant with fascist possibilities by abolishing them altogether, and that brings us back to capital and its apparatus of command. Liberals fly from even trying to understand how their system works, and that might have something to do with why their anti-fascism considers racism and white supremacy matters of individual moral failure.

12 comments:

Jim Denham said...

Phil: of course serious people (eg Marxists) need to analyse the economic roots of fascism, and thus its appeal to sections of the lumpen proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie (Trotsky's writings, as I'm sure you know) are especially useful here). But that's no reason to sneer at "liberals" who want to oppose fascism simply on moralistic grounds: at least they're on the right side.

Boffy said...

"What is less than useless is the position of liberal heroism. Here racists are racist because they're racist. People voted for Donald Trump because they're racist. Studies prove it. Racists marched in Charlottesville because they're racists. Racists hate on blacks and Jews because they're racist, and so on. There is no attempt at a social explanation here, rather they're reducing racism to a matter of choice, to personal morality. In so doing they manage to avoid facing up to the sorts of social conditions that manufacture fascists. Or to put it another way, while all fascists are awful human beings, they are congenitally uninterested in why not every awful human being is a fascist."

The reasons that individuals hold the views they do is complex, and as much a matter of study for psychology as it is for sociology. Why do so many affluent, well educated people become supporters of ISIS or other terrorist organisations for example?

More importantly, its a bit like with criminals. Socialists should also examine the social causes that lead people to become criminals, but none of that understanding is of any use, when a criminal is about to break into your house etc., and you need to know how to respond! Similarly, we have to combine an attempt to understand phenomena, whilst responding here and now to the particular phenomenon.

In the case of racists and other bigots, the first response should be not to pander to their racism and bigotry, but to confront it head on. Indeed, one reason for the growth and persistence of that racism and bigotry is the fact that "liberal", social-democratic, and socialist politicians have refused to tackle it head on.

Many socialists have put an abstract "working-class" on pedestal, in which those amongst its number who hold such reactionary views must be some kind of aberration. Liberal and social-democratic politicians have failed to tackle it, as now with Brexit, for fear of losing votes amongst the ranks of bigots. And indeed, not only have they failed to tackle the outright racism and bigotry of reactionary organs like the Daily Mail etc., but they have contributed to it, by proposing things like immigration controls, import controls and other nationalistic measures, that place the blame for problems on foreigners, rather than capitalism.

if your house is on fire, first put out the fire, before you investigate the cause of the fire.

Ben Philliskirk said...

I think it's unfortunate that you've chosen to focus on 'economic anxiety', because you show signs in your post that you recognise that it is much broader than this.

As you point out, capitalism has broadened and deepened its scope and the very impersonal nature of capitalist forces and relationships have created 'angst' on an existential level, and exacerbated by the fact that very few have been willing or able to see an alternative to capitalism.

Politically the effects of existential 'anxiety' stretch more widely to cover most current political movements, not only fascism. Yes, neo-nazis want the 'certainties' of racial hierarchy and domination, but there is also pseudo-monarchism (of right and centre) represented by Trump and Macron, nationalist nostalgia in the form of 'Brexit', the religious fanaticism of Islamism, and the rise in support for ameliorative social-democracy reflected in 'Corbynism', Sanders and Syriza. In the meantime, 'centrists' have taken the mantle of 'There is No Alternative' from Thatcher, and have been liberally resurrecting the tired old 'horseshoe theory'.

It is possibly getting to the stage where offering a new system might be more reassuring to people than going along with the old.

Phil said...

Knowing what generates fascism allows for it to be pulled up by its roots, and that is inseparable from a wider programme of political change - a programme that addresses the antagonisms and conflicts pregnant with fascist possibilities by abolishing them altogether, and that brings us back to capital and its apparatus of command.

I'm old enough to remember when you were writing in terms similar to this, but concluding with a well-er-basically about building the Leninist party! What I love about the political moment we're in is not just that it's possible to talk about the need to take on capital and its apparatus of command and still be a member of the Labour Party (although that's not a small thing), but that people more widely are ready and willing to hear language like this without running screaming about naive utopians and sinister subversives. Long may it continue.

Jay said...

Nice try Phil but what you've written here has already been comprehensively refuted and debunked by a history professor in this thread: https://twitter.com/QueenMab87/status/897257045585522688 Maybe try to remember you're a sociologist -- your musings may have impressed a less knowledgeable few but I think I'll defer to the specialist here. Stay in your lane!!!

david walsh said...

I'd make a small observation that the use of the decades old slogan "blood and soil" as the main alt-right chnnt in Charlottesburg says a lot about the southern male psyche in the US

Phil said...

Jay, I think you need to look up dictionary definitions for these three words: 'comprehensively', 'refuted', and 'debunked'.

A historian without a sociological imagination is neither use nor ornament. But might come in handy for the gnat-sized attention spans of woke Twitter.

George Carty said...

I'm a bit bemused by the "blood and soil" slogan – in 1930s Germany that slogan spoke to dirt-poor peasants desperately hungering for more land (which in 1930s Germany was the most important constituency for the Nazi Party), but the contemporary United States has no peasant class as its agriculture is extremely mechanized and corporatized to a degree (AIUI) even greater than in contemporary Europe.

Michael Collins said...

He all needs to look up professor - I think he means PhD student...

Sergio Graziosi said...

Phil,
thanks for writing this. It helped me solidify an idea that have been troubling me for a little while. In a nutshell, I have the impression that American neo-nazis are very different from our own breed of fascists and proto-fascists. From what I see here in the UK, the kind of framing that nurtures hard-right beliefs revolves around class and the incompatible culture of immigrants, with echoes of British imperial "greatness" (ugh) - racism acts as a sort of lubricant that acts behind the scenes, it helps, but is not among the main active ingredients.
What you write, perhaps paradoxically, confirms my hunch: in the US, the framing is solidly rooted on race, aided by the cult of grass-roots insurgence (violence) and with much more than echoes of the US' military might.

You write: Fascism is a promise to do away with these tensions. Instead of leaving white male privilege in contention, it reinforces it. Turning the clock back, rewinding the film, of repeating history is about stamping on uncertainty and, yes, anxiety (be it economic or otherwise).

If I understand you correctly, I think I agree in full (see link below).
What I'm not sure about, is whether you'd agree with the following. If my hunch is correct, in the US racism is a key active ingredient. There are vast pockets of white culture where open and implicit racism aren't shunned, they are the default position. This background then allows to promise reducing uncertainty, and with it anxiety, by blaming blacks, Jews and whatever non-white identities are at hand (along with 'Commies!). The militaristic and militia-friendly organisation of society then brings manliness to the forefront. It would be wrong to assume that all the nutcases in Charlottesville don't have a faithful female figure that approves their doing, voted for Trump, and remained at home, 'cause she knows her place. (I fear.)
On the UK side, I think the situation is very different, see here for an outline (Note: I'm not a historian, sociologist or Marxist scholar!).

Conclusion: if I'm right, you've managed to convince me that there is some truth in the otherwise simplistic conclusion that "Racists marched in Charlottesville because they're racists". Which is paradoxical, since your OP was explicitly trying to demonstrate the opposite. Obviously, I do assume we both agree that racism isn't the only ingredient. I also agree that such an explanation does nothing to help us understand how to eradicate the problem at its roots (not without trying to understand the roots of racism, which in turn may or may not bring us back to your main argument!).

Thus, the question emerges: what, if any, do you think I'm getting wrong?

Speedy said...

I started off by cutting and pasting whole blocks of what you had written with the intention of commenting that of course you could say the same for Islamism, which presents a much greater, clearer and more present danger to the values liberals purport to wish to defend, but I think you know that anyway.

What I was struck by, however, is how it is always the winners who benefit from the current settlement that make up the majority marching against the fascists (although I am not sure your language is correct either - they are racists and national socialists, whereas the Islamist allies of the left have more in common with actual fascist ideology. It flatters the far right to suggest they have one).

By winners I mean, the liberals who actually march - a bit like the all white, and excruciatingly posh, black lives matter activists who blocked the airport. What they are actually demonstrating against is any manifestation that presents a challenge to the status quo, from which they benefit. Boffy exhibits a good example of this attitude by his defence of mass immigration, as if it had absolutely nothing to do with international capitalism. The same could be said about being anti-Brexit (which I am too, incidentally, but at least I understand why) - naturally the anti-democratic surpra national body which facilitates the free movement of goods and labour faclitatets capitalism, which is why Labour was agin it back in the early 80s. But for purely economic self-interest, voila much of the left is now pro-EU.

Liberals don't march against Islamism because it presents no threat to their white privilege. In no real sense of the word are their jobs threatened by mass immigration, "their" women going to be forced to be covered up or into marriage, or worse. But the likes of the BNP (and I'll stick to the UK becauae I think the anaylsis of white power in the UK and US are totlally different) give them the thrill of signalling their virtue at no risk of any cost whatsoever to their power. In fact it can only enhance it. It is an almost symbollic protest in a war won long ago.

I only say this because all this talk about the left against "fascism" as if it is world war two or even Spain in 1936 is so much eyewash. If you want to see the effects of real fascism go to Spain yesterday, or Finland or Germany, but even these now regular occurences barely muster any outrage because we know they are no real threat to the ruling order, and never have been. But I will refer to one passage in your post - what they are, however, is a reaction against global capitalism, an effort to "turn back the clock" and put the likes of women "back in their box". It is a response against liberal democracy, just as old-style fascism was. And just as the response of some on the left was not to fight it but to appease it out of self-interest, so we see much the same attitude today.

Phil said...

Just to come back to what you said, Ben, it was necessary to talk about economic anxiety in the narrow and expanded sense for two reasons:..

1. The expanded sense is much closer to how economic anxiety works in the real world. In the age of leaky economics, where production is simultaneously social production that churns out ideas, identities and subjectivities it is economic in the sense this is how a growing proportion of capital accumulates.

2. And the narrow sense to polemicise with the liberals, whose ideas of economics are so crude and clunky they'd embarrass the most mechanical Marxists.