December 10, 2018
“Fighting Fascism, How to Struggle and How to Win”
Haymarket, 131 pages
With the term fascism much in the news since Trump’s election, those concerned about it might want to consult the pros. They include Clara Zetkin, whose “Fighting Fascism,” originally published in 1923, was recently reprinted and Leon Trotsky’s “Fascism, What It Is and How to Fight It,” still, fortunately, in print. For both authors, a key feature of fascism is terror, violence on a massive scale against ordinary working people. By that standard, what we have seen so far in Trump’s America is not fascism. This doesn’t mean it’s good; in fact, what we see and what started long before Trump, which his racism and xenophobia amplify, is a kind of proto-fascism, because neoliberalism shades easily and imperceptibly into fascism. It does so through its savage assault on ordinary people’s living standards; by abolishing rent control (cited by Zetkin), by privatizing public enterprises (Zetkin also cites this), by slashing the social safety net, cutting food stamps, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, by suppressing wages and undermining unions. Indeed, with regard to these neoliberal economic policies, Mussolini said it all: fascists “are liberals in the classic meaning of the word.”
Fighting fascism is something it would seem everyone is able to agree on. After all, 75 years ago, half the world was anti-fascist, because half the world was fighting fascism; Americans and Soviets allied against it. So it’s always a bit of a surprise to hear the term anti-fascist disparaged on a major news network like, say, Fox. If Fox is against anti-fascism, it’s not unreasonable to assume it favors fascism. Even if this is not yet explicit, it soon could be. Which is all the more reason to consult original anti-fascists like Zetkin and Trotsky: “The historic function of fascism,” Trotsky wrote, “is to smash the working class, destroy its organizations and stifle political liberties, when the capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with the help of democratic machinery.” According to Zetkin, fascism has two essential features, “a sham revolutionary program…and the use of brutal and violent terror.” In Italy, she writes, “fascism found its breeding ground in the disintegration and weakness of the economy.” Indeed, Mussolini’s assault on revolutionary workers’ organizations has some parallels to today’s corporate attacks on unions and to Trump-inspired, right-wing hysteria over migrant workers.
For Zetkin, fascism opportunistically seizes power, when socialists fail to take advantage of a revolutionary situation. She blames reformists, who weaken left-wing militancy and open the way for a government that thinks “better the fascists than the socialists.” This reformist failure was evident in the 1920s and ‘30s and was certainly evident during the 2008 economic collapse. Bailing out financial criminals, Obama squandered his political capital with working people, who voted in a Republican congress in 2010, and then defected to Trump in 2016. Many working people just did not want another Wall-Street Democrat in power. When Clinton rigged the campaign through the Democratic National Committee against Sanders, she may well have handed Trump the presidency.
Zetkin lists Italian fascism’s failures to fulfill its promises, and the list brings to mind Trump’s faux populism, though it is far more detailed than Trump’s pledges. Despite promises, Italian fascism did not provide proportional representation, women did not get the vote, an economic parliament was not created, no national assembly was summoned to reform the constitution, there were no protections for the eight-hour day and the minimum wage, no insurance for the elderly and invalids, no funds for the unemployed, no demands that workers participate in factory leadership, no progressive tax on capital, no military reform, and religion returned to the schools. Today’s Republican party would applaud many of these betrayals, considering them sound policy.
Zetkin argues that fascism uses “either ‘democracy’ or a dictator,” provides the troops for the corporate capitalist assault on working people and “consists everywhere of an amalgam of brutal terrorist violence together with deceptive revolutionary phraseology.” She would not have been surprised at how Trump deployed populism in the 2016 election, nor at the subsequent fascist violence in Charlottesville, nor at the anti-Semitic slaughter in Pittsburgh. These are symptoms of the disease in its earliest stage. We’ve passed the window for a vaccine, and lukewarm Democratic polices will not provide a cure. The infection is present. It remains to be seen whether it can be controlled.
September 23, 2018
“Not Enough, Human Rights in an Unequal World”
Harvard University Press, 277 pages
The human rights movement has been criticized from the left in recent years, charged with abetting the grotesque results of neoliberal market capitalism, namely, runaway inequality. A new book by Samuel Moyn, “Not Enough, Human Rights in an Unequal World,” clears the movement of this specific charge, but observes that “the critical reason that human rights have been a powerless companion of market fundamentalism is that they simply have nothing to say about material inequality.” Nor does he let go of a central fact in this debate, that is, “the coexistence of the human rights phenomenon with the death of socialism.” There are no innocent bystanders. By ignoring inequality and keeping public focus on other issues, human rights activists have made a dreadful mistake; though not to blame for the rise of right-wing authoritarian – some would say neo-fascist – governments throughout the First World, they have stayed silent on a condition fueling it, fury over inequality.
Of course people have the right not to be tortured, but we are in a sorry state if this is our baseline for social decency. In their defense, Moyn notes that human rights activists have pushed for a social minimum – a right not to starve, a right to existence – but even this is not enough. Moyn advocates a ceiling on wealth and to illustrate his view, begins his book’s conclusion: “Imagine that one man owned everything. Call him Croesus…” Imagine that Croesus is not a monster: Moyn says Croesus cannot stand torture and believes everyone has a right to subsistence. This, of course, is where we are headed in a world where a handful of people own as much wealth as billions of impoverished others. Indeed, in our world, it is questionable whether our handful of Croesuses really do care about torture and abuse. Certainly the bigwigs at Apple do not seem particularly concerned about the thousands of workers at the huge Foxconn center in Shenzhen, China, who put in 17-hour days doing extremely complex, repetitive fine motor tasks, so that they when they try to sleep in their dormitories they cannot stop shaking, while suicides have swept the workforce. Nor do the heirs to the Gap clothing fortune seem particularly concerned about ten-year-old children who have labored in their sweatshops in India, in what author Gerald Coles has called conditions close to slavery, even as the Gap fortune funds corporate U.S. educational darling, charter schools, at the expense of public education.
We may already inhabit Croesus’s world, without the hypothetical benevolence. As Moyn observes, “some national settings have been trending toward absolute inequality.” And it is a problem that “nothing in the scheme of human rights rules out Croesus’s world.” But there does exist a long history of people – and Moyn details that history – who did wish to rule out Croesus’s world. Those people were, and are, called socialists. They have a tradition of fighting inequality, and they used the welfare state in the west to do so, while in the east they used the communist state. Because of abuses associated with those communist states, the term “socialism” fell into a disrepute, from which it has only recently begun to emerge. But make no mistake – if the Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyns or Andres Manuel Lopez Obradors of the world are too successful, market fundamentalist ideologues will not hesitate to tar them with the mid-twentieth century sins of communism.
Red scare tactics may not, however, work yet another time around. The world has gotten a good, long look at the ugliness of neoliberal austerity. Many U.S. millennials regard capitalism negatively. Given that so many of them graduated college bankrupted by debt, this is not surprising. Given that so many of them are underemployed or can only find work in service jobs, despite their B.A.s and despite official propaganda about the supposedly wonderful job market, it is not surprising that they esteem socialism. Moyn observes that human rights advocates may soon have no choice but to address inequality. Indeed the discontent over economic inequality that put Trump in the white house and other near-fascists in power in Europe has already caused human rights abuses – the separation of young children from their parents by ICE at the Mexican border and the drowning of refugees in the Mediterranean en route to abysmal refugee camps in Europe, for starters. More abuses may be coming. Who should human rights activists team up with? Like it or not, the answer is socialists.