The Landing: Fascists without FascismResearch & Destroy
The results of the election surprised us, without a doubt. This even as the right/left spectrum that had oriented us for more than two centuries fell into collapse: Hollande in France finally destroying the labor protections which had stood off the assaults of the right; SYRIZA discovering its socialist fate was to ignore heroically a national referendum against, so as to become an instrument of the European banking sector; the Brexit vote unfolding across a series of oppositions between classes, races, south and north, city and country, but with Labor and Tory providing no explanatory power whatsoever. Nonetheless we thought the long disaster would appear elsewhere and otherwise. But what surprised us the most was how many people still seemed to believe that the current interregnum, the long non-recovery, could last indefinitely. That the shaking would never begin, that the bomb was all fuse and no powder. This delusion finally proved deadly for the liberal panderers. In the infinite effusion of campaign blather, the only moment of truth on offer belonged to Trump, hidden in the cargo of his slogan Make America Great Again. We all understood, instantly, that this meant make America white again, male again, straight again, cis again, and so on. In the wake of the racist hatred of Obama and the anxiety provoked by the rise of a national movement opposed to the police privilege of shooting black kids, crude xenophobia seemed a timely play. Trump did so without shame. The shamelessness was part of the appeal. But these appeals were not truths; they were the open carry version of Southern Strategy. The truth was in admitting to the great congregation, as no candidate from either party had done previously in any significant way, that our best was behind us. We were not great, we were the wreckage of greatness. We had a greatness once, which was indexed punctually to the success of the great industries on which the nation rose. When the profit rate tumbled downhill, it took greatness with it. Things got worse for a lot of people.
This has been ongoing. In 2008, it was Obama who promised something different, first under the rubric of humanistic progress — the first black president! — and then formalistic “change” as such. The Republican party, contrarily, stood for continuity, conservatism, a steady hand, no surprises for its constituency, traditional values, and the like. The 2016 election is unique in the reversal of this ideological polarity; while Republicans have previously run as outsiders, never before have they seized the thematic of change as their own. Clinton found herself as the mouthpiece of continuity and conservatism, the steady-handed technocrat who would preserve America’s greatness as needed, here a coup, there a trade deal, everywhere a drone strike. The problem is that, in our era, what passes for the status quo is pure contradiction: it is things staying the same by getting worse. Such was the best promise Clinton could make.
Trump, however, was as forthright as a presidential candidate could be about the long crisis of hegemony unraveling. This far more than his boorishness was intolerable to many in his own party, as well as to the Democrats who might have owned this historical truth years ago. Trump blasts away the same to reveal the worse all at once, to announce the terrible century to come. It is Trump and his cabinet of horrors who have become the party of change, of the new. There is no avoiding it now.
In the preceding decades it must have been eerie to encounter the hysterical disavowal of what was each year a more obvious fact, year after year, election after election. The not-said, the unsayable. This must have felt particularly uncanny in the counties where the decline was a daily brutality, where industrial employment had given way not to tech or the service industries but to opioid addiction and, for the first time in national history, declining life expectancy. To imagine Trump’s victory, engineered via electoral college mechanics whose gyres and gimbals pivoted on the very voters whose lives had been annihilated by those decades, as separate from these developments would be an absurdity.
But this in and of itself does not imply that Trump could deliver the change he promised, particularly the change that these counties imagined. For if the catastrophe of Trump is not an inexplicable and sudden event but the outcome of a long transformation driven by underlying dynamics that are relatively immune to executive policy, a new executive is in the most limited position to reverse its course. Making the worst of a bad situation, however, might be more within reach.
...In his first few weeks, Trump has backgrounded the mainstream aspects of his plan and led by showcasing his commitment to the nationalist project: Muslim ban and border wall, steroid injections for the police forces. This is no doubt done in order to galvanize the most virulent members of his base, a bit of red meat for the red-blooded Americans scowling under their MAGA hats, but some large part is also pantomime. Many of the Executive Orders were statements of intention rather than actions, designed to show his commitment to the proto-fascist project without requiring him to put much weight behind it. They simulate absolute authority, as if he were already the kind of leader capable of remaking the country by fiat. But he’s not, at least not yet. And so his administration remains a sort of simulacrum of fascism; Trump is a Mussolini without his Italy. To become a true fascist, he will need loyal people at all levels of the government, as well as extra-governmental forces capable of doing the dirtiest work but also forcing the hand of bureaucrats and judges too loyal to the letter of the law. It is hard to see how he can garner such devotion except by giving people something more than empty rhetoric, fear-mongering, and fake news about fake news. He will actually have to put people to work and build infrastructure and increase their living standards, and to do this, he will have to tell the most rapacious billionaires to get with the program.
We now have some measure of both the challenges he might face in such attempts as well as the forces that might assist him. That there were a number of Customs officers willing to enforce his racist ban despite explicit interdiction from the courts is no doubt worrying; these people are the kernel of a force capable of remaking government service in absolutist directions. But for every one of these officers, there were just as many officials that were unwilling to carry out such orders, or who were openly opposed to them, often for practical more than ethical or political reasons. Trump as yet has no machine, no party institution, capable of making sure his commands are realized without obstruction. Furthermore, we’ve already seen capital begin to hold his actions at arm’s length, particularly Silicon Valley capital (a fraction of the ruling class highly likely to reject most protectionism, given its global domination of markets and its dependence on planetary supply chains). Resistance from such a powerful sector will be a strong and perhaps insuperable impediment to Trump, though it’s always possible many companies could be won over by various forms of corporate subsidy. If he cannot rally Google and Apple and Facebook to his cause, he will have a very hard time.
In the 20th century, radicals were often made accomplices to their own extermination through participation in popular fronts with liberal and opportunist lefts. What we see on the horizon is the uncomfortable prospect of radicals fighting alongside Google management, import-export capitalists, mainstream journalists, liberal politicians, and rogue factions of the CIA. Here, the theme of this essay returns: more than anything, liberal opponents of the regime want things to stay the same. Or rather, their desire is counterfactual: they want things to have stayed the same
. They are partisans of the return to normalcy, the return to the normal that itself bred Trump and his ilk and will, if not destroyed, produce more of the same.
If things get bad enough, these people will give up on their political etiquette and accept the use of force, but if they do so they will wreck the world for a return to the bleak certitudes of the Obama years, and they will betray everyone who wants more. They will gladly endorse a military coup if it means Hillary for Prez, particularly if they can somehow disavow their violence as they have the ceaseless violence of the years before Trump’s onset. The question for radicals — which at this point need not mean the wild-eyed, the militant, but simply those shorn of the fatal fantasy of return — is how to act in the same field as such groups without subordinating oneself to them, how to betray them before they betray you. One cannot maintain separation from them but one must remain separate. One must stand alongside and apart, within and outside.
The last few years have been dominated by social movements such as Black Lives Matter and NoDAPL which, in particularizing the tactics and rhetorics of movements such as Occupy, managed to focus and radicalize them. And yet, these movements suffer the same scissions and founder upon the same false unifications that bedeviled their predecessor movements. Within Black Lives Matter, divisions between a college-educated and largely middle class activist layer and the thoroughly proletarian kids whose riots started the movement; at Standing Rock, divisions between pacifist elders astride the moral high ground and the more confrontational factions who derive from the militants of the 60s and 70s. There is perhaps no clearer example of this division, historically, than that found within western feminist movements, each wave featuring a faction oriented toward formal equalities and inclusion within capitalist society and another faction committed to something like abolition. In the present moment of antipatriarchal politics, impelled by Trump’s overweening misogyny, this split again presents itself in the gap between the large and pacific Woman’s March the day after the inauguration and the avowedly anticapitalist International Woman’s Strike planned for March 8th. Though the former has endorsed the latter, the divisions remain.
These are the internal splits which have persisted as something like an invariant within social movements; if they are historical artefact, its persistence spans the long history of liberal democracy. Trump represents the possibility of a weak unification of these movements. Things come to feel so dire — as we’ve seen, the production of this direness is central to Trumpism — that the factions within any social movement might be drawn to unite around his expedient eviction. The most pitiful and dangerous replacements will be offered as solutions, ‘ound which all will be pushed to rally. Once this is done, the militant factions will be systematically destroyed. The structural shaking, meanwhile, will continue.
But there is another set of possibilities. As we’ve seen, the splits internal to these movements are cut across by a split extending the length of western liberalism, between those who have yielded already to the logic of Anything But Trump, and those for whom the catastrophe retains its aura of possibility — between those who want a new president and those who want no presidents at all. In one sense, Trump’s unification of recent movements is possible in so far as he names an enemy common to them. He is the president of police murder and pipelines alike, of sexual assault and border walls equally. But this unification is weak, as we’ve said, because it in no way overcome the divisions internal to these movements. As such, the larger split provides an axial consistency to the splits within each particular social movement, allow each of them to see more clearly that their potential accomplice is not the less militant side of their own struggle but the more militant side of another. But these movements cannot really unify; their formally shared position on the militant side of the split does not equate to shared content, to some identity of ends. Their divisions do not line up cleanly with each other or with the broader social division.
Contrary to those who worry over any disunity, however, such slippages are in truth a necessity. They are the engine of duration, as they prevent the possibility of an early foreclosure of struggle which appears inevitably as the subordination of everyone to the common denominator of the popular front. The fraught interaction of these movements allows for new and newly intense dynamics of antagonism along previously invisible faultlines. In our reading of history, the path from movement to insurrection does not follow a straight line, does not occur through the simple aggregation and unification of existing groups, but instead involves centripetal, unifying forces as well as centrifugal, polarizing ones. The forces that unify on one level often divide on another. Divisions are, in other words, what allow for the possibility of success, not what obstruct it.
This is by no means to argue that people can do nothing to draw themselves together, to find accomplices and comrades, strategize about and prepare for future. But such organizations should remain flexible, open to forces that they might transform them, lest they become a mechanism for funneling people into previously prevailing and defunct political forms. In many of the futures we can see from here, the state will be both turbocharged and weak; its oppressive mechanisms will churn in higher gears without being highly functional, as jurisdictional and factional disputes proliferate. Civil war, as it approaches — and we are closer than most imagine — will not look much like two color-coded armies clashing on a plain, but like one state’s national guard carrying out orders another will not, the overriding of one branch by another, the spurning of electoral legitimacy, while at the level of daily life opportunities will open for dual-power organizations to step into the breach: workplace and neighborhood assemblies, rapid response networks for dealing with attacks and crises of all sorts, land and resource reclamation projects. As fissures within the state begin to yawn, these projects will become all the more vital. They need to be coordinated, of course, otherwise they are likely to be redundant or, worse, act at cross-purposes. But they certainly need not be centralized under a single organizing body; the value of dual-power institutions is that they are flexible and, given such flexibility, can permit the emergence of these productive divisions and subsequent reorganization around new projects. If we conceive of civil war and breakdown of the state as the upper limit of what’s possible in the next few years, then such institutions are indeed the way forward, as they will become indispensable as rallying points in such scenarios.