Editorial note: This essay was originally published in the now defunct journal The North Star, on October 8, 2013, during the US government shutdown crisis. It references several other articles by Horras and others which were published around the same time in 2010, on the website Information is a Weapon, and in the YDS (now YDSA) journal The Activist (both venues which are, again, no longer in operation). Three of these 2010 essays on fascism were later republished after the election of Donald Trump in 2016, on the blog Imagining Justice, and can be found here, here, and here. The remainder of these writings can no longer be found on the world wide web. We are republishing it in order to encourage further theorization around the subject of fascism in the USA.
It is being republished now to attempt to contextualize and understand the long trajectory of the resurgence of neo-nazi, neo-confederate, “right-wing populist,” and other neo-fascist strains in the last decade. The turn of the right-wing’s mainstream from neo-conservativism to thinly veiled fascism has been portrayed simultaneously as astro-turfed (i.e. existing with no mass base) and populist, overblown and an existential threat to democracy, and so on. An effective analysis will examine the socio-economic, political, historical, and cultural bed from which these movements have emerged and crashed so unceremoniously onto the national stage, most recently with the invasion of the US capital. While analysis is slow-moving, emerging data paints a picture of right-wing nationalism, patriarchy, and of an alleged “birthright” (i.e. the “American Dream”) forestalled. Moreover, the economic character of this movement gives lie to the liberal notion of it as a movement of the backward working-class. Indeed, recent analysis of the Capitol Hill insurrectionists makes this point starkly. For example, studies by political scientist Robert Pape of arrestees from the Capitol Hill insurrection found that in contrast to right-wing arrestees from years prior (typically younger and less financially secure), many at the capital were middle-aged, petit bourgeois and bourgeois individuals with jobs as CEOs, business owners, doctors, lawyers, etc. They note that this movement is a “new force in American politics” representing a “…mass political movement that has violence at its core…,” concluding that understanding this movement’s “activities and participants” will be crucial to undermining it. Whether these represent truly novel elements or simply outward expressions of longer-term trends requires further understanding. US fascism is of course not a new trend, and indeed they have quite easily drawn inspiration from a real and imagined past. One need only review the founding documents of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution to see the basic elements of fascism baked within: paranoia and racism (of the “merciless Indian savages” and the 3/5ths compromise) and opposition to democracy (in the construction of the Senate and Supreme Court as checks on popular participation). Of course, going back that far in US history is not necessary: from the founding of the Confederacy to the early 20th century Klan terror to the Goldwater campaign in 1964 and on and on, fascistic tendencies are not alien to US society: they are foundational to it. Given the new iterations of familiar tropes choking right-wing airwaves (e.g., white genocide, liberal-elite cabals, Jewish conspiracies), it is not difficult to see why, in 2021, confederate flags and “Camp Auschwitz” shirts could be seen among the mob at the capital in January. While these elements may cohere into something familiar resembling a true fascist party, they may also mutate into some novel iteration of US or Western fascism. Therefore, it is imperative that nascent left-wing movements understand the origins and characteristics of this growing right-wing movement. Given the multiple tasks of the Left, be it the overthrow of white supremacy, opposing the indignities of capitalism, and breaking the growing environmental catastrophe, not one inch of ground can be ceded to these darkest elements of our society.
“What rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
— W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming” (1919)
The most recent displays of irresponsibility from those in our government charged with promoting the general welfare have come as a shock to many Americans. Congress’s shenanigans leading up to and during the current federal shutdown seem to confirm the poet Yeats: “the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
A few years ago, in a rarely-visited corner of the internet, I had an extended argument with Chris Maisano, Bhaskar Sunkara, and Seth Ackerman. These are all excellent writers who went on to justifiable success when they later founded Jacobin magazine. The content of this argument had to do with “reading the tea (party) leaves,” i.e. what the prospects of the ultra-right Tea Party movement would be in the near future and in the longer arc of history. For some context: at the time of these writings, the Tea Party victories in the 2010 primaries and the later Republican storming of the House had yet to occur. On the Left, Wall Street had yet to be Occupied. There was also no Philly Socialists (the group I would later participate in founding), only a couple of isolated revolutionaries who had just moved to Philadelphia, and were in the process of rethinking a lot of things after a low ebb in movement activity.
I’ve reflected a lot on my exchanges with the Jacobin comrades recently, as the government shutdown has crashed its way through people’s lives and into the headlines. Adding the benefit of hindsight. I regret that my interlocutors and I got caught up in a semantic debates on whether or not a particular movement was or was not “really” fascistic, and thus wasted a lot of energy going in circles, rather than sketching out potential political scenarios and strategies for left renewal. I wonder if our discussions might have been more fruitful in generating useful ideas if I had approached it in a different manner.
In the spirit of self-critique, I’m going to briefly lay out my main arguments from that period, and see how correct I was in retrospect. At the time, I wrote:
Both mainstream Republicans and Democrats in the US have been up to now cavalier toward the Tea Partiers, though the Republican Party is now scrambling to try to put down this uprising of the grassroots. Without fail, the Tea Party movement is rebuffed with perfunctory charges such as:
— The Tea Party is an “astroturf” operation, with only minimal grassroots support.
— The agenda of the Tea Party is in essence no different than the Republican Party.
— Fascists in the United States could never gain power because the bourgeoisie and the State would never “allow them” to do so.
— Economic recovery will take the steam out of rightwing extremism.
— An endemic tradition of civil liberty would never allow the emergence of totalitarianism in the U.S.
Such pacifying blandishments have no basis in fact.
I generally got right the ideas that:
1) the Tea Party was not an astroturf operation, but rather a legitimate social movement with a large mass base of support, 2) the mainstream Republican Party agenda was actually very different from the Tea Party agenda, 3) the capitalist class wouldn’t necessarily be in control of the Tea Party, like the sorcerer conjuring up forces they are incapable of controlling, 4) economic recovery was not going to happen, therefore extremism would continue to rise, and, (not mentioned in the passage quoted above), 5) key political conflicts would be centered around debt and default.
There are other assertions I made or suggested which we still have yet to see play out. For instance: 1) Can the center hold within the Republican Party? Or will the split lead to new political forms? 2) Will the bourgeoisie continue to back the Tea Party, and if not, what might this mean? 3) Is constitutional government in the United States a sure bet? Or might some set of crises lead to a some new political configuration? 4) What will be the role of the military-security-industrial complex in this period of generalized and increasing political instability? Many of these questions hang in the air, unanswered, like a comma at the end of an unfinished manuscript.
At this point in my life, I’ve learned to a bit of humility; I’m more interested in asking probing questions than coming up with grand theories. Experience and the practice of politics has a way of grounding you; I would recommend to all my fellow socialists the salutary effects of community organizing as an antidote to grand theory.
That said, my general prognosis remains “bearish” or pessimistic in terms of the health of the U.S. political and economic system. This was my analysis when I wrote about the prospects for the U.S. economy back in 2009, although this went against popular ideas about “green shoots” of economic growth prevalent among liberals at the time. I stand by what I wrote and feel that this perspective has been vindicated.
I expect the coming years to be stormy ones; a time of troubles. The situation may not be catastrophic, but it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I’d advise my friends and allies in the American working classes to get down to brass tacks. Start organizing in earnest: in your workplace, in your neighborhood, at your school, or in whatever institutions touch your life. Don’t wait. Find others and do work.
As radicals operating in an atmosphere of governmental dysfunction and political instability, we should avoid getting tied up too much in defending the status quo, instead maintaining a level of critical distance. It makes sense to affirm that saving Obamacare isn’t a political priority for those of us on the far left. Building up our forces, and embedding the living practice of socialist politics more deeply in the everyday experience of broad masses of people: this is our central task today.
If the Left can successfully organize a genuine pole of attraction in the coming years, I remain convinced that poor and working class Americans will have the wherewithal to beat back the “rough beast” of reaction, and finally arrive at a more fair and just society: the cooperative commonwealth.