Fascists and Liberals in the US Ruling Class, 2020
There are seemingly endless websites, newspapers, documentaries, docudramas, podcasts and more these days that fill peoples’ lives with true stories of the crimes of this system — from heinous crimes that might only affect one or a handful of individuals to crimes so vast that they shape all of society. Meanwhile many people who see that things need to change to one degree or another are looking for deeper answers, watching whole youtube channels and reading tomes, PDFs, and manifestos, trying to understand some of the deeper structures of society.
But where do these two things meet? If you become convinced of the need to overthrow the system, do you watch the news just to tell folks ‘see how bad it is?’ Do you play advanced connect the dots just to try to convince people that anything they’re outraged about should turn them into revolutionaries? Do you follow along with your fingers crossed waiting for signs that the time for change is coming? Or do you just put your head down, ignore the wider world and plug away at your most immediate struggles, knowing that its all connected? Is there anything more one can do?
If we’re able to really gain some understanding of the system we live under, would it be possible to understand not just why it’s bad, not just why things are the way they are, but maybe what the major forces shaping current events are in real time? Clearly the things that are happening are horrible — but why these things, why now? Could we understand what connects the horrors that are happening and what sets them apart from the much wider array of all possible horrors? And if we do that, could that give us insight into what needs to be done, in this moment, to advance towards revolution?
Even as Marx plumbed the depths of the capitalist system, uncovering its most basic elements and contradictions, he continuously wrote widely published articles and letters about the dynamic developments pitting various ruling classes against eachother and various sections of the same ruling class in heated battle. Even as the latter more often paid the bills, these activities weren’t separate or in opposition. This was the world he was living in — the dynamic world of capitalism, whose most basic churning contradiction held within it the prospect of a radically better world and whose extremely dynamic contradictions on many levels were constantly shaping and reshaping the world, the struggle to change it, and people’s understanding of it all.
The Real American Exception
Some of the blame for the poverty of analysis today lies with the stability of US imperialism — with a generally consistent governing consensus and dominant ideology for 70 years since the end of World War 2, including an overall successful and smooth transition from the Cold War to sole superpower status. Many people from many different perspectives cannot imagine a significant shift in the US power structure, or the governing ideology. For radicals and self-proclaimed radicals this has all too often meant that they see Trump as just more of the same. If they see him as anything different, it’s not in the sense that he’s particularly bad or that he represents a larger tendency, for they often arrogantly dismiss such notions, but that he’s a temporary aberration in style from the dominant liberal bourgeois model of American empire. Many will even say that he’s throwing a wrench in the gears of the imperialists’ hold on power through incompetence or because he isn’t a part of the political class — ultimately parroting Democratic and Republican talking points respectively. And therefore they maintain that the main enemy is essentially American liberal bourgeois Democracy, the ruling class clique centered around the Democratic Party (with some Mitt Romney and GWB thrown in for good measure) these days. In the aftermath of Bob Avakian’s statement calling on people to use all possible non-violent means to oust Trump, including but not relying on voting for Biden, a number of “leftists” made it explicit that they would prefer four more years of Trump to Biden and what they see as a return to deadly normalcy.
But beyond articulated positions from crusty revisionists (which usually go no further than social media comments or posts) this line is most forcefully exerted as a broad political paralysis in the face of fascism — an unwillingness to recognize the possibility of fascism, or that there’s really anything new under the sun at all, and a mode of struggle stuck in the middle: exposing all the things that this system might be doing at this time, yet not wanting to put this on the fascist regime in the white house or the fascist movement and program that have been building for decades lest they give quarter to the “real enemy:” the bourgeois liberals.
Bourgeois democracy was never just a bribe to keep sections of people from rising up. It was never just a trick or gimmick. As Bob Avakian has put it: “in a world marked by profound class divisions and social inequality, to talk about “democracy” — without talking about the class nature of that democracy and which class it serves — is meaningless, and worse. So long as society is divided into classes, there can be no “democracy for all”: one class or another will rule, and it will uphold and promote that kind of democracy which serves its interests and goals. The question is: which class will rule and whether its rule, and its system of democracy, will serve the continuation, or the eventual abolition, of class divisions and the corresponding relations of exploitation, oppression and inequality.” Bourgeois democracy at its most fundamental level is a certain form of democracy amongst the ruling capitalist class and dictatorship over the rest of society. Bourgeois democracy has never simply been a good idea to serve the ruling classes’ interests but it corresponds to the level of rights of individuals in capitalist society — and the atomized formal individual rights that capitalist society is based on, most fundamentally the right to own property. As the engines of colonialism, slavery, and eventually imperialism enabled capitalism to make life relatively comfortable for broader privileged sections of people in the oppressor nations, this comfort overlapped with and afforded broader rights within this individualistic framework. Even where they have applied, these formal legal rights have served as cover for deadly unequal relations. But these relationships have fostered a material dependency on the system amongst insulated or privileged sections of the people and a concrete bond between their welfare, relative freedom, and way of life on the one hand and the subjugation of those more brutally oppressed and exploited at home and abroad on the other. Even as their application is limited, and even as they provide only illusory power, they are a key pillar maintaining the legitimacy of the system, and to openly do away with them is something that the rulers undertake at great risk. Therefore the question in America since it’s founding has not often been whether to grant rights to the people but: who counts as a person deserving of rights and who as a pariah? And consequently how do you maintain those relationships materially, socially, and ideologically?
There has been a certain evolving set of answers to those questions that has held this country together from the end of World War 2 until now, even as they’ve gone through changes in that time. This is the status quo that all too many in this country see as simply the way things are, or at least the way they’ll be until the apocalypse or revolution. And that post-WW2 American liberal bourgeois democracy has been a motherfucker. Putting aside genuine liberation — formal, legal, civil rights for oppressed nationalities and women and LGBTQ people haven’t been simply given, nor even entirely won, but they’ve been dangled on the negotiating table to some extent. After all, “we” beat the fascists, right? And for some time the US had to maintain some legitimacy in claiming the mantle of freedom against communists who were actually liberating people, rival imperialists who would opportunistically use their crimes against them, and in the face of heroic struggles of millions of people against oppression, exploitation and injustice. More fundamentally, the favorable position of US imperialism both enabled and compelled them towards exercising (relatively) more soft power at home while demographic changes within the US and economic compulsions arising from the expanding empire began to break and redefine many of the boundaries that had helped to enforce white supremacy and the patriarchy in their previous, codified forms within the borders of the US.
But liberal democracy has not meant a better world. This has been an extremely bloody peace built on nuclear domination and endless war. This was the democracy in which Black communities went from super exploited workhorse to superfluous throwaway population and on which mass incarceration was built — stripping more Black men of their freedom in 2020 than chattel slavery did in 1850. This Pax Americana added the direct capitalist exploitation and atomization as super-exploited wage-earners to the burden women carried while largely maintaining many in traditional, almost feudal positions of servitude as unpaid caregivers and home-makers. Alongside commodifying their labor power, liberal democracy commodified women’s very bodies on a radical new scale, no matter their position in society. And as exemplified most strikingly in Saudi Arabia, this liberal democracy had no hesitation to prop up the most outmoded reactionary patriarchal absolutism in its neo-colonies as long as it served to maintain their power. In fact, the liberal element of this empire gave cover and removed any responsibility for this because ‘the US must respect Saudi culture and self-determination, no?’ Liberalism itself absolved the US of responsibility. No matter the open secret that the house of Saud would not be ‘determining’ anything and would be overthrown without US backing. Meanwhile immigrants and refugees who fled to this country were forced into the shadows at every turn.
The ability for this country to keep its knee planted firmly on the neck of the world while leading the chorus of kumbaya really was something to behold. Both the illusion of equality and power as well as the actual significant level of freedom and rights provided to significant sections of the home population (along with Western Europe by alliance) were impressive forces in maintaining the dictatorship of capital, with the US in ascension and then firmly on top. If they could maintain it, it’s clear they would.
Look at Barack Obama, whose exceptional charisma and insight probably maintained bourgeois democracy longer than it could have lasted otherwise. It didn’t hurt that in Joe Biden’s words, he was a “clean” Black guy. He was able to massively expand the use of military force while winning the Nobel Peace Prize. He was able to deport a record number of immigrants and refugees, maintain the largest incarcerated population in the world, expand the militarization of the police, brutally crackdown on three major uprisings, and more all while maintaining and even strengthening the US’s image as the leader of the free world. He didn’t lift a finger for Gay marriage, even opposed it during his campaign, and still is seen as its guarantor. All this and his popularity remains enormous. He would probably be popularly elected again in a landslide if that didn’t come with its own set of contradictions for the rulers.
And it wasn’t all built on charisma and illusion — in certain ways Obamacare did provide some relief to some people and he did maintain some social programs and environmental regulations that were on their way out and which have been decimated since his departure. He maintained a mainly secular approach to governance. He did all this in ways that didn’t upend or wrench the ruling class; in fact he found ways to make it all quite profitable in the short term. Rabid white supremacy was unleashed against him during his presidency, which did dovetail perfectly into Trump’s fascist program, but it wasn’t unleashed by him (even as he quite explicitly refused to do anything concrete for Black people). Obama committed quite a few heinous acts that would be on level with Donald Trump, and he also did some things that significantly constrained the fascist wing of the ruling class, but in large part his role was to effectively lay the groundwork for the fascists to come. As Bob Avakian wrote in 1998 in a slightly different context about Bill Clinton, “This is not because of the much-discussed “realities of electoral politics.” Nor is it merely because all mainstream politicians are beholden to powerful financial interests. More fundamentally, it is because those who occupy seats of political power must, and can only, serve the economic and social system of which that political power is an extension.”
Built on Shifting Sands
There are some whose whole analysis is built on analyzing subjective forces — does the ruling class have an easier time controlling people through liberalism or fascism, through the carrot or the stick? “Which will the all-controlling illuminati choose?” But Marxism isn’t just a tool to understand how society is in the abstract, it’s a science that can uncover the driving forces of society in specific places and times. So let’s go down deeper. Because regardless (to some degree) of anything Obama did, the contradictions pushing this government in particular as well as many governments worldwide towards fascism kept sharpening all through his tenure. Global Warming accelerated even as he recognized its existence. The global refugee crisis and massive global displacement continued and expanded. Some of this was affected by actions of the Obama administration — like their heinous coup in Honduras and their actions in Syria (which in and of themselves were responses to necessity faced by the US rulers), but as a whole the crisis was and is beyond them. This system still cannot profitably exploit Black people at home while maintaining empire abroad but during Obama’s presidency, mass incarceration and brutal policing increasingly came under fire, to some degree highlighting the tension of raising Black people’s expectations and hopes with empty promises, which will only become sharper and sharper as the US loses its white majority. The contradictions driving the spread of religious fundamentalism across the world, and its increasing militancy, sharpened — as people’s traditional bonds and roles and ways of life continued to be torn up by this system while people remain cutoff from any liberating outlook and/or scientific understanding of the world. This is happening even as the demographics of the US are shifting and non-believers are becoming more outspoken about it, making it much more difficult for that old time religion to dominate.
Both of these factors (the loss of their religious status quo and the loss of whiteness) as well as the capitalist atomization of women, are mobilizing the Christian right into an end-times frenzy. The need for ever greater brute force in maintaining the US empire is clashing evermore with pluralistic and libertarian notions of an all-volunteer army. Meanwhile those all-volunteer armed forces are increasingly made up of oppressed nationalities and women (in large part because it is a poverty draft, and their empire can’t profitably exploit many of those people otherwise) even as many in the ruling structures recognize the need for the military to be the backbone of (or at least not in the way of) their violent reassertion of white supremacy, patriarchy, and xenophobia. All of this is happening as other major powers vie for greater influence or even the chance to topple the US’ top position and as the basic structures and dynamics of imperialism keep churning, concentrating even more wealth in fewer and fewer hands. All of these phenomenon are reshaping a globe that the US dominates, and one that it is compelled to maintain dominance over.
Obama represented, in large part, what has been the mainstream of the ruling class for the last 70 years. He did it very well, and the Democratic Primary that has just passed proved more than any political tract ever could that such a ruling consensus is dead. Joe Biden poorly represents its dying gasps. But the fascists, even with the allegiance of a smaller portion of the population have a coherent program to deal with all of this. And they are on the rise.
This has major implications for our work. Many basic facts about the world would have to be different to come to the conclusion that liberalism was still dominant. But if you believe the main enemy is liberal bourgeois democracy, then it makes sense to somewhat ignore or downplay Trump. If liberalism is more powerful, then our ideological and organizational work mainly needs to go into preparing people against a return to normalcy. If liberalism is more powerful, than we don’t have to focus our energies on defending basic rights like abortion that have already been won. If liberalism is more powerful, this is honestly a pretty great moment to expose people to things they don’t usually see before things calm down and they get their blinders put back on. If liberalism has the initiative marginalized communities should be focussed on keeping our people safe until the more extreme violence blows over. If liberalism has the initiative then that should be our main ideological enemy and object of attack. If liberalism is stronger than we should put almost all of our work explicitly into building the movement for revolution, and only unite people around that explicitly in opposition to liberalism. If liberalism is the main enemy, and you can convince yourself that Trump is just messing that up through incompetence or by being an outsider, then maybe you would even want four more years of Trump.
But if fascism has the initiative, then we have to stop it from getting to a point where dissent is even more restricted and outlawed. If fascism has initiative we have to deal with the fact that the violence and brutality that oppressed people face today is poised to become much worse. If fascism has the initiative, we can’t wait until people get it — we need to disrupt business-as-usual and break people out of their comfort zones before it becomes too late. If fascism is in command, one of the greatest evils of the liberals is their conciliation and collaboration with that fascism, and this needs to be exposed even as we aim to isolate the hardcore of the fascists. If fascism has the initiative, we need to break the glass. If fascism has the initiative we need to unite all who can be united in action to stop it, even as we struggle for a scientific understanding of that reality and for a revolutionary people to emerge and to strengthen the revolutionary vanguard at the heart of both of those movements.
To a significant degree, the post WW2 American ideal itself grew organically out of what came before. This is remarkably different than Europe in Marx’s time and most of the world ever, including today. The power of American exceptionalism — in part based in the stability (and even more so the perceived stability) of the idea of this country holds such sway that most people cannot fathom the contradictions within it. And they are different contradictions than those which exerted themselves in Marx’s day — they aren’t the cotton producers versus the shipping industry vs the industrialists, etc. The development of finance capital, monopoly, and the full integration of imperialism has reorganized that to a great degree so that this does now play out much more directly through the interests of centralized states and integrated blocks of capital, and the competing ruling ideologies have shifted to reflect that. But we have the tools to understand that. In a broad way, starting with Lenin’s imperialism, and moving through Bob Avakian’s Breakthroughs. And specifically in regard to the rise of American fascism and the contradictions propelling it, Bob Avakian’s work has been hitting hard for at least 22 years since “The Truth About Right-Wing Conspiracy…And Why Clinton and the Democrats Are No Answer.”* As he has said elsewhere:
“We have to keep digging down to see even what Marx taught us — even what Marx gave us as a foundation, you have to keep digging down to grasp that and see how it applies today — to understand what is actually at the base of things in society and its ongoing historical development — you have to keep digging down to see how this is actually working itself out at any given time. What are the actual dynamics of the contradictions we are confronted with and seeking to transform, and how are these different contradictions interrelated? This is why it takes continual work. This is hard, it is hard work. Yet it’s about something that’s worth it — and more than just “worth it,” it’s about the emancipation of all humanity from relations of inequality, oppression, and exploitation.”
In the context of the uprisings kicked off after George Floyd’s murder, the line that liberalism is dominant is being expressed when people pose stopping Trump, criticizing Trump, even mentioning Trump in opposition to the slogan that Black Lives Matter. It’s true that stopping Trump won’t end white supremacy. But stopping police brutality, defunding the police, ending mass incarceration, stopping gentrification, etc. won’t in and of themselves end white supremacy either. The difference is that no one is posing them as though they are in opposition to stopping white supremacy. After all, there is not a single expression of white supremacy that has stayed the same throughout the last 400 years. But only Trump is seen as the kind of symptom that we don’t need to address. This is only because he’s seen as a temporary aberration from the dominant liberal mode.
Now, just because the fascists have the initiative in this moment for very significant reasons does not mean that the future is all sewn up. And our recognition of this fact does not give us a crystal ball. Their initiative is not an absolute by any means. To fully consolidate their power means ripping up laws and norms, it means disenfranchising not just sections of the people from nominal power, but even oppositional sections of the ruling class from exerting real power. It means a certain kind of chaos and to a degree it means going against the spontaneous individualism built into capitalist society. Fascism is coming to the fore to help them resolve issues within their system, and they see it as their best treatment, but it’s important to recognize that this treatment is not painless for them. Things can go in many different directions from here.
We can overthrow this whole ruling class and make revolution. The conscious struggle of the people here can knock them off course even short of revolution, which would open up many more divergent paths. And other factors, like major events in other countries, or a giant meteor, or some other event that we can’t predict can throw them off or restrain them to one degree or another, (or accelerate their consolidation). But just because we can’t predict anything with specificity and certainty doesn’t mean that we can’t see dominant trends and tendencies and act accordingly. In fact, it’s impossible not to respond to such trends and tendencies. No matter what program or course of action you choose; you are basing that on one analysis of the situation or another. And if you aren’t consciously, scientifically analyzing it, then do you even know who’s analyzing it for you?
*In discussing the bleak prospects of liberalism in this moment, I am relying heavily on Bob Avakian’s analysis of the rise of Fascism from the aforementioned “Right Wing Conspiracy” to “The Coming Civil War and Repolarization for Revolution,” to “Trump/Pence Must Go” with many articles and other works touching on this in between. The situation is not merely a result of the weakness or insufficiency of the liberal status quo, but that the whole history of this country has provided extremely fertile ground for the rise of a distinctly American fascism and that the previous decades have provided ample trellising for the fascist movement that we see consolidating today.