Author Archive

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Jan

 

 

 

The historian has been at the forefront of telling the lost stories of U.S. radicalism—in comic book form—for nearly two decades.



The Progressive

Dec 14, 2021

In recent years, there has been a wave of politically-themed graphic novels that both help us to understand the past, as well as challenge the current status quo. Titles such as Guantanamo Voices by Sarah Mirk, Paying the Land by Joe Sacco, and March, a three-part series on the life of the late Congressmember John Lewis, use visual storytelling to untangle complex issues in a way that’s enjoyable to read but still rigorous and hard-hitting.

While nonfiction comics and graphic memoirs are now more popular than ever, I think it’s important to take a closer look at one of the authors who spearheaded the genre and whose work continues to shape it. Paul Buhle—a historian who has published books on everything from C.L.R. James to Jewish popular culture—began writing, editing, and producing graphic novels—a list now in excess of fifteen volumes.

Two of his early comics, Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History and The Beats: A Graphic History, rely on a combination of oral histories, vibrant images, and humor (both were co-written by Harvey Pekar, of American Splendor fame), to offer a unique and accessible lens on often misunderstood moments in U.S. radicalism. More recently, Buhle has followed this same trajectory by coming out with visual biographies of socialist stalwart Eugene V. Debs and Latin American revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

Paul Buhle of Madison, Wisconsin, is one of the United States’ most distinguished historians. As a chronicler of the American left, he is unparalleled. His books on the Hollywood left, Marxism, oral history, and related topics have set the standard for scholarly excellence. His magisterial Encyclopedia of the American Left, co-edited with Mari Jo Buhle and Dan Georgakas, is essential for anyone interested in the radical tradition of American radial history, culture, and politics (the third edition is due out in 2022).

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For more than sixteen years, Buhle has also written, edited, and collaborated closely with other writers and artists to create many engaging graphic nonfiction books that appeal to a wide audience of all ages. His subjects are broad and extensive, including topics and themes that fundamentally chronicle the American experience through the twentieth century and beyond. This work complements his exemplary personal activism and writing for progressive causes.

The artwork in his graphic books are examples of popular cultural visual expression about hugely important topics, especially biographical drawings of figures who have unjustly faded into historical obscurity.

My focus here is on the significance of the graphic novel genre and specifically on three of Buhle’s biographies—one on Paul Robeson, the second of Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, and the last about radical attorney Leonard Weinglass. These strike me as emblematic of Buhle’s work in this exciting arena of interdisciplinary intellectual discourse.


Let’s start with Robeson. In 2020, Buhle co-edited Ballad of An American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson, superbly drawn and written by Sharon Rudahl. The volume combines engaging art with biography and radical history and did tremendous justice to Robeson’s multi-dimensional life of art and political engagement.

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It chronicled the entire trajectory of Robeson’s storied life and accomplishments, including his disgraceful blacklisting during the darkest days of McCarthyism in the early Cold War era. The book proceeded from his early struggles to his precocious academic, musical, and athletic triumphs in his youthful years.

Ballad of An American highlights how Robeson overcame the horrific racism during his time at Rutgers University, while becoming its first nationally recognized football star and All-American. It also details Robeson’s early involvement with the emerging film industry.

What truly elevated him, however, was his political awakening. He became one of the most effective and eloquent advocates for progressive political change in U.S. history during much of the twentieth century. Robeson’s advocacy encompassed the struggle against racism and for the rights of labor and for all oppressed people, both domestically and internationally.

But the blacklist destroyed his health, ruined his income, and catalyzed the historical amnesia about him and his legacy that remains to the present. Despite a Robeson revival at his centennial in 1998, he still remains “the greatest legend nobody knows,” as historian Joe Dorinson ruefully noted.

Buhle’s book combines Sharon Rudahl’s magnificent artwork and details of Robeson’s astonishing life with an afterword by himself and Lawrence Ware that provides compelling historical context.


The graphic biography Herbert Marcuse: Philosopher of Utopia, by artist Nick Thorkelson and edited by Paul Buhle and Andrew Lamas, with a foreword by Angela Y. Davis, attempts to herald a Marcuse revival. Once again, Buhle has assembled a superb team of professionals to add visual and intellectual depth to this enterprise.

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The biography is a remarkable fusion of Marcuse’s life and philosophical development, set against the tumultuous historical events of early twentieth century Europe. It details his early studies with Martin Heidegger, his prominence in the iconic Frankfurt School and his crucial flight from Germany as a Jew from the growing threat of Nazi rule. Marcuse joined a large and distinguished number of intellectuals, artists, and others who fled Nazi tyranny, finding refuge in the United States and elsewhere.

Thorkelson’s drawings add enormously to the narrative. This reflects Paul Buhle’s commitment to the verbal and visual collaboration that has been the hallmark of this monumental focus of his later professional life in fostering radical graphic nonfiction.

Philosopher of Utopia addresses Marcuse’s personal struggles, his academic trajectory, especially at Brandeis University, and his growing stature as a radical political and public intellectual. Angela Davis was one of his star students at Brandeis and she came to realize, with his encouragement, that it could be possible to be an academic, a scholar, and an activist.

The book impressively summarizes Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, a scathing takedown of modern capitalist society. Its main theme is submission to a sophisticated capitalist scheme that demands and almost entirely ensures that “people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.” The only thing that has changed since 1964 is the growing level of capitalist manipulation and domination.

Marcuse was outspoken in supporting Black Americans, students, and other protesters, and in opposing the Vietnam War. By then, he had moved to the University of California at San Diego, a city well known for its conservatism. He attracted considerable hostile attention, including from the American Legion, the Ku Klux Klan, and then-governor Ronald Reagan. The book shows how he was even forced to go into hiding during those times, a victim of the reactionary responses to the Black liberation, student, and other movements sweeping the globe and to Marcuse’s unwavering support for them.

Marcuse continued to support resistance movements throughout his lifetime, including the women’s movement. He supported it as the most important radical movement of the time. He also did his best to support Angela Davis throughout her activism and unjust incarceration.

In the graphic biography’s foreword, Davis writes: “Fifty years later, as we confront the persisting globalities of slavery and colonialism, along with evolving structures of racial capitalism, Herbert Marcuse’s ideas continue to reveal important lessons. The insistence on imagining emancipatory futures, even under the most desperate circumstances, remains––Marcuse teaches us––a decisive element of both history and practice.”


Throughout much of the twentieth century and into the very early twenty-first century, radical defense attorney Leonard Weinglass also advanced the ideals of a just and humane society. Like Robeson and Marcuse, he blazed his own path for these powerful ideals. And like the others, he too remains mostly unknown in the mainstream.

Once again, Buhle collaborated with other prominent figures of the creative left, including artist/writer Seth Tobocman and lawyer/writer/activist Michael Steven Smith, to produce a powerful visually based account of a truly heroic lawyer who devoted his entire life to the defense of movement activists.

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In Len, A Lawyer in History, we learn how Weinglass, a Yale-educated attorney, turned his back on privilege and monetary comfort; instead, he defended leftist activists, often in memorable cases, against the oppressive machinery of the capitalist state judicial apparatus right up until his death in 2011.

Proceeding chronologically, the book begins from Weinglass’s childhood on to his initial legal career. After his service in the Air Force, he worked briefly at a large law firm, and later the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, and then opened a small office in a poor Black community in Newark, New Jersey––generally uncharacteristic of Ivy League legal graduates. Tobocman’s drawings effectively convey how this was the real start in his lifelong struggle for racial justice.

Soon, he began representing Newark activists challenging the corrupt administration of Mayor Addonizio. He defended rent strikers and those who had engaged in civil disobedience. The 1967 Newark “riots” fully radicalized him and he soon emerged as one of the country’s foremost activist lawyers, a position he would occupy for the remainder of his life.

Tobocman continues on to illustrate many of Weinglass’s most celebrated cases. He came to additional visibility when he defended the people charged after the Chicago police riot, following the massive police brutality unleashed by Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley during the Democratic National Convention in 1968.

Len, A Lawyer in History further chronicles his drive to use his superb legal talents on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed. Among his clients were Native American prisoners, student protestors against the Central Intelligence Agency, and other reactionary targets and policies of the U.S. government, as well as the Cuban Five, men who were unjustly imprisoned in the United States and labeled terrorists after resisting continued attacks on the socialist government of Cuba.


The three graphic nonfiction works detailed in this article join Paul Buhle’s larger body of work in this genre to add a powerful dimension to our understanding and appreciation of history. He has brought his remarkable scholarly background and skills to this enterprise. All of these volumes make a huge contribution to the contemporary historical canon.

Buhle’s works have also shaken up the long hidebound field of art history, for the good. That discipline has been slow to change, but maverick art historians combined with the massive upheavals of sixties and subsequent protests and the creation of ethnic and gender studies programs have permanently altered the discipline.

In 2022, Buhle and artist Anne Timmons will release ¡Brigadistas!, a graphic history of the Spanish Civil War. This work will further ensure that his distinguished legacy continues.

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Paul Von Blum is senior lecturer in African American Studies and Communication at UCLA. He is a longtime civil rights and political activist and the author of many books and articles on political art, expressive culture, education, and law.

 



 

Category : Culture | Education | Media | US History | Blog
21
Oct















Grey Eminence, or Theory at the Top

By N. S. Lyons
Palladium
October 2021

One day in August 2021, Zhao Wei disappeared. For one of China’s best-known actresses to physically vanish from public view would have been enough to cause a stir on its own. But Zhao’s disappearing act was far more thorough: overnight, she was erased from the internet. Her Weibo social media page, with its 86 million followers, went offline, as did fan sites dedicated to her. Searches for her many films and television shows returned no results on streaming sites. Zhao’s name was scrubbed from the credits of projects she had appeared in or directed, replaced with a blank space. Online discussions uttering her name were censored. Suddenly, little trace remained that the 45-year-old celebrity had ever existed.

She wasn’t alone. Other Chinese entertainers also began to vanish as Chinese government regulators announced a “heightened crackdown” intended to dispense with “vulgar internet celebrities” promoting lascivious lifestyles and to “resolve the problem of chaos” created by online fandom culture. Those imitating the effeminate or androgynous aesthetics of Korean boyband stars—colorfully referred to as “xiao xian rou,” or “little fresh meat”—were next to go, with the government vowing to “resolutely put an end to sissy men” appearing on the screens of China’s impressionable youth.

Zhao and her unfortunate compatriots in the entertainment industry were caught up in something far larger than themselves: a sudden wave of new government policies that are currently upending Chinese life in what state media has characterized as a “profound transformation” of the country. Officially referred to as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Common Prosperity” campaign, this transformation is proceeding along two parallel lines: a vast regulatory crackdown roiling the private sector economy and a broader moralistic effort to reengineer Chinese culture from the top down.

But why is this “profound transformation” happening? And why now? Most analysis has focused on one man: Xi and his seemingly endless personal obsession with political control. The overlooked answer, however, is that this is indeed the culmination of decades of thinking and planning by a very powerful man—but that man is not Xi Jinping.

The Grey Eminence

Wang Huning much prefers the shadows to the limelight. An insomniac and workaholic, former friends and colleagues describe the bespectacled, soft-spoken political theorist as introverted and obsessively discreet. It took former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin’s repeated entreaties to convince the brilliant then-young academic—who spoke wistfully of following the traditional path of a Confucian scholar, aloof from politics—to give up academia in the early 1990s and join the Chinese Communist Party regime instead. When he finally did so, Wang cut off nearly all contact with his former connections, stopped publishing and speaking publicly, and implemented a strict policy of never speaking to foreigners at all. Behind this veil of carefully cultivated opacity, it’s unsurprising that so few people in the West know of Wang, let alone know him personally.

Yet Wang Huning is arguably the single most influential “public intellectual” alive today.

A member of the CCP’s seven-man Politburo Standing Committee, he is China’s top ideological theorist, quietly credited as being the “ideas man” behind each of Xi’s signature political concepts, including the “China Dream,” the anti-corruption campaign, the Belt and Road Initiative, a more assertive foreign policy, and even “Xi Jinping Thought.” Scrutinize any photograph of Xi on an important trip or at a key meeting and one is likely to spot Wang there in the background, never far from the leader’s side.

Wang has thus earned comparisons to famous figures of Chinese history like Zhuge Liang and Han Fei (historians dub the latter “China’s Machiavelli”) who similarly served behind the throne as powerful strategic advisers and consiglieres—a position referred to in Chinese literature as dishi: “Emperor’s Teacher.” Such a figure is just as readily recognizable in the West as an éminence grise (“grey eminence”), in the tradition of Tremblay, Talleyrand, Metternich, Kissinger, or Vladimir Putin adviser Vladislav Surkov.

But what is singularly remarkable about Wang is that he’s managed to serve in this role of court philosopher to not just one, but all three of China’s previous top leaders, including as the pen behind Jiang Zemin’s signature “Three Represents” policy and Hu Jintao’s “Harmonious Society.”

In the brutally cutthroat world of CCP factional politics, this is an unprecedented feat. Wang was recruited into the party by Jiang’s “Shanghai Gang,” a rival faction that Xi worked to ruthlessly purge after coming to power in 2012; many prominent members, like former security chief Zhou Yongkang and former vice security minister Sun Lijun, have ended up in prison. Meanwhile, Hu Jintao’s Communist Youth League Faction has also been heavily marginalized as Xi’s faction has consolidated control. Yet Wang Huning remains. More than any other, it is this fact that reveals the depth of his impeccable political cunning.

And the fingerprints of China’s Grey Eminence on the Common Prosperity campaign are unmistakable. While it’s hard to be certain what Wang really believes today inside his black box, he was once an immensely prolific author, publishing nearly 20 books along with numerous essays. And the obvious continuity between the thought in those works and what’s happening in China today says something fascinating about how Beijing has come to perceive the world through the eyes of Wang Huning.

Cultural Competence

While other Chinese teenagers spent the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) “sent down to the countryside” to dig ditches and work on farms, Wang Huning studied French at an elite foreign-language training school near his hometown of Shanghai, spending his days reading banned foreign literary classics secured for him by his teachers. Born in 1955 to a revolutionary family from Shandong, he was a sickly, bookish youth; this, along with his family’s connections, seems to have secured him a pass from hard labor.

When China’s shuttered universities reopened in 1978, following the commencement of “reform and opening” by Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping, Wang was among the first to take the restored national university entrance exam, competing with millions for a chance to return to higher learning. He passed so spectacularly that Shanghai’s Fudan University, one of China’s top institutions, admitted him into its prestigious international politics master’s program despite having never completed a bachelor’s degree.

The thesis work he completed at Fudan, which would become his first book, traced the development of the Western concept of national sovereignty from antiquity to the present day—including from Gilgamesh through Socrates, Aristotle, Augustine, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Hegel, and Marx—and contrasted it with Chinese conceptions of the idea. The work would become the foundation for many of his future theories of the nation-state and international relations.

But Wang was also beginning to pick up the strands of what would become another core thread of his life’s work: the necessary centrality of culture, tradition, and value structures to political stability.

Wang elaborated on these ideas in a 1988 essay, “The Structure of China’s Changing Political Culture,” which would become one of his most cited works. In it, he argued that the CCP must urgently consider how society’s “software” (culture, values, attitudes) shapes political destiny as much as its “hardware” (economics, systems, institutions). While seemingly a straightforward idea, this was notably a daring break from the materialism of orthodox Marxism.

Examining China in the midst of Deng’s rapid opening to the world, Wang perceived a country “in a state of transformation” from “an economy of production to an economy of consumption,” while evolving “from a spiritually oriented culture to a materially oriented culture,” and “from a collectivist culture to an individualistic culture.”

Meanwhile, he believed that the modernization of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” was effectively leaving China without any real cultural direction at all. “There are no core values in China’s most recent structure,” he warned. This could serve only to dissolve societal and political cohesion.

That, he said, was untenable. Warning that “the components of the political culture shaped by the Cultural Revolution came to be divorced from the source that gave birth to this culture, as well as from social demands, social values, and social relations”—and thus “the results of the adoption of Marxism were not always positive”—he argued that, “Since 1949, we have criticized the core values of the classical and modern structures, but have not paid enough attention to shaping our own core values.” Therefore: “we must create core values.” Ideally, he concluded, “We must combine the flexibility of [China’s] traditional values with the modern spirit [both Western and Marxist].”

But at this point, like many during those heady years of reform and opening, he remained hopeful that liberalism could play a positive role in China, writing that his recommendations could allow “the components of the modern structure that embody the spirit of modern democracy and humanism [to] find the support they need to take root and grow.”

That would soon change.

A Dark Vision

Also in 1988, Wang—having risen with unprecedented speed to become Fudan’s youngest full professor at age 30—won a coveted scholarship (facilitated by the American Political Science Association) to spend six months in the United States as a visiting scholar. Profoundly curious about America, Wang took full advantage, wandering about the country like a sort of latter-day Chinese Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting more than 30 cities and nearly 20 universities.

What he found deeply disturbed him, permanently shifting his view of the West and the consequences of its ideas.

Wang recorded his observations in a memoir that would become his most famous work: the 1991 book America Against America. In it, he marvels at homeless encampments in the streets of Washington DC, out-of-control drug crime in poor black neighborhoods in New York and San Francisco, and corporations that seemed to have fused themselves to and taken over responsibilities of government. Eventually, he concludes that America faces an “unstoppable undercurrent of crisis” produced by its societal contradictions, including between rich and poor, white and black, democratic and oligarchic power, egalitarianism and class privilege, individual rights and collective responsibilities, cultural traditions and the solvent of liquid modernity.

But while Americans can, he says, perceive that they are faced with “intricate social and cultural problems,” they “tend to think of them as scientific and technological problems” to be solved separately. This gets them nowhere, he argues, because their problems are in fact all inextricably interlinked and have the same root cause: a radical, nihilistic individualism at the heart of modern American liberalism.

“The real cell of society in the United States is the individual,” he finds. This is so because the cell most foundational (per Aristotle) to society, “the family, has disintegrated.” Meanwhile, in the American system, “everything has a dual nature, and the glamour of high commodification abounds. Human flesh, sex, knowledge, politics, power, and law can all become the target of commodification.” This “commodification, in many ways, corrupts society and leads to a number of serious social problems.” In the end, “the American economic system has created human loneliness” as its foremost product, along with spectacular inequality. As a result, “nihilism has become the American way, which is a fatal shock to cultural development and the American spirit.”

Moreover, he says that the “American spirit is facing serious challenges” from new ideational competitors. Reflecting on the universities he visited and quoting approvingly from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, he notes a growing tension between Enlightenment liberal rationalism and a “younger generation [that] is ignorant of traditional Western values” and actively rejects its cultural inheritance. “If the value system collapses,” he wonders, “how can the social system be sustained?”

Ultimately, he argues, when faced with critical social issues like drug addiction, America’s atomized, deracinated, and dispirited society has found itself with “an insurmountable problem” because it no longer has any coherent conceptual grounds from which to mount any resistance.

Once idealistic about America, at the start of 1989 the young Wang returned to China and, promoted to Dean of Fudan’s International Politics Department, became a leading opponent of liberalization.

He began to argue that China had to resist global liberal influence and become a culturally unified and self-confident nation governed by a strong, centralized party-state. He would develop these ideas into what has become known as China’s “Neo-Authoritarian” movement—though Wang never used the term, identifying himself with China’s “Neo-Conservatives.” This reflected his desire to blend Marxist socialism with traditional Chinese Confucian values and Legalist political thought, maximalist Western ideas of state sovereignty and power, and nationalism in order to synthesize a new basis for long-term stability and growth immune to Western liberalism.

“He was most concerned with the question of how to manage China,” one former Fudan student recalls. “He was suggesting that a strong, centralized state is necessary to hold this society together. He spent every night in his office and didn’t do anything else.”

Wang’s timing couldn’t have been more auspicious. Only months after his return, China’s own emerging contradictions exploded into view in the form of student protests in Tiananmen Square. After PLA tanks crushed the dreams of liberal democracy sprouting in China, CCP leadership began searching desperately for a new political model on which to secure the regime. They soon turned to Wang Huning.

When Wang won national acclaim by leading a university debate team to victory in an international competition in Singapore in 1993, he caught the attention of Jiang Zemin, who had become party leader after Tiananmen. Wang, having defeated National Taiwan University by arguing that human nature is inherently evil, foreshadowed that, “While Western modern civilization can bring material prosperity, it doesn’t necessarily lead to improvement in character.” Jiang plucked him from the university and, at the age of 40, he was granted a leadership position in the CCP’s secretive Central Policy Research Office, putting him on an inside track into the highest echelons of power.

Wang Huning’s Nightmare

From the smug point of view of millions who now inhabit the Chinese internet, Wang’s dark vision of American dissolution was nothing less than prophetic. When they look to the U.S., they no longer see a beacon of liberal democracy standing as an admired symbol of a better future. That was the impression of those who created the famous “Goddess of Democracy,” with her paper-mâché torch held aloft before the Gate of Heavenly Peace.

Instead, they see Wang’s America: deindustrialization, rural decay, over-financialization, out of control asset prices, and the emergence of a self-perpetuating rentier elite; powerful tech monopolies able to crush any upstart competitors operating effectively beyond the scope of government; immense economic inequality, chronic unemployment, addiction, homelessness, and crime; cultural chaos, historical nihilism, family breakdown, and plunging fertility rates; societal despair, spiritual malaise, social isolation, and skyrocketing rates of mental health issues; a loss of national unity and purpose in the face of decadence and barely concealed self-loathing; vast internal divisions, racial tensions, riots, political violence, and a country that increasingly seems close to coming apart.

As a tumultuous 2020 roiled American politics, Chinese people began turning to Wang’s America Against America for answers. And when a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021, the book flew off the shelves. Out-of-print copies began selling for as much as $2,500 on Chinese e-commerce sites.

But Wang is unlikely to be savoring the acclaim, because his worst fear has become reality: the “unstoppable undercurrent of crisis” he identified in America seems to have successfully jumped the Pacific. Despite all his and Xi’s success in draconian suppression of political liberalism, many of the same problems Wang observed in America have nonetheless emerged to ravage China over the last decade as the country progressively embraced a more neoliberal capitalist economic model.

“Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” has rapidly transformed China into one of the most economically unequal societies on earth. It now boasts a Gini Coefficient of, officially, around 0.47, worse than the U.S.’s 0.41. The wealthiest 1% of the population now holds around 31% of the country’s wealth (not far behind the 35% in the U.S.). But most people in China remain relatively poor: some 600 million still subsist on a monthly income of less than 1,000 yuan ($155) a month.

Meanwhile, Chinese tech giants have established monopoly positions even more robust than their U.S. counterparts, often with market shares nearing 90%. Corporate employment frequently features an exhausting “996” (9am to 9pm, 6 days a week) schedule. Others labor among struggling legions trapped by up-front debts in the vast system of modern-day indentured servitude that is the Chinese “gig economy.” Up to 400 million Chinese are forecast to enjoy the liberation of such “self-employment” by 2036, according to Alibaba.

The job market for China’s ever-expanding pool of university graduates is so competitive that “graduation equals unemployment” is a societal meme (the two words share a common Chinese character). And as young people have flocked to urban metropoles to search for employment, rural regions have been drained and left to decay, while centuries of communal extended family life have been upended in a generation, leaving the elderly to rely on the state for marginal care. In the cities, young people have been priced out of the property market by a red-hot asset bubble.

Meanwhile, contrary to trite Western assumptions of an inherently communal Chinese culture, the sense of atomization and low social trust in China has become so acute that it’s led to periodic bouts of anguished societal soul-searching after oddly regular instances in which injured individuals have been left to die on the street by passers-by habitually distrustful of being scammed.

Feeling alone and unable to get ahead in a ruthlessly consumerist society, Chinese youth increasingly describe existing in a state of nihilistic despair encapsulated by the online slang term neijuan (“involution”), which describes a “turning inward” by individuals and society due to a prevalent sense of being stuck in a draining rat race where everyone inevitably loses. This despair has manifested itself in a movement known as tangping, or “lying flat,” in which people attempt to escape that rat race by doing the absolute bare minimum amount of work required to live, becoming modern ascetics.

In this environment, China’s fertility rate has collapsed to 1.3 children per woman as of 2020—below Japan and above only South Korea as the lowest in the world—plunging its economic future into crisis. Ending family size limits and government attempts to persuade families to have more children have been met with incredulity and ridicule by Chinese young people as being “totally out of touch” with economic and social reality. “Do they not yet know that most young people are exhausted just supporting themselves?” asked one typically viral post on social media. It’s true that, given China’s cut-throat education system, raising even one child costs a huge sum: estimates range between $30,000 (about seven times the annual salary of the average citizen) and $115,000, depending on location.

But even those Chinese youth who could afford to have kids have found they enjoy a new lifestyle: the coveted DINK (“Double Income, No Kids”) life, in which well-educated young couples (married or not) spend all that extra cash on themselves. As one thoroughly liberated 27-year-old man with a vasectomy once explained to The New York Times: “For our generation, children aren’t a necessity…Now we can live without any burdens. So why not invest our spiritual and economic resources on our own lives?”

So while Americans have today given up the old dream of liberalizing China, they should maybe look a little closer. It’s true that China never remotely liberalized—if you consider liberalism to be all about democratic elections, a free press, and respect for human rights. But many political thinkers would argue there is more to a comprehensive definition of modern liberalism than that. Instead, they would identify liberalism’s essential telos as being the liberation of the individual from all limiting ties of place, tradition, religion, associations, and relationships, along with all the material limits of nature, in pursuit of the radical autonomy of the modern “consumer.”

From this perspective, China has been thoroughly liberalized, and the picture of what’s happening to Chinese society begins to look far more like Wang’s nightmare of a liberal culture consumed by nihilistic individualism and commodification.

The Grand Experiment

It is in this context that Wang Huning appears to have won a long-running debate within the Chinese system about what’s now required for the People’s Republic of China to endure. The era of tolerance for unfettered economic and cultural liberalism in China is over.

According to a leaked account by one of his old friends, Xi has found himself, like Wang, “repulsed by the all-encompassing commercialization of Chinese society, with its attendant nouveaux riches, official corruption, loss of values, dignity, and self-respect, and such ‘moral evils’ as drugs and prostitution.” Wang has now seemingly convinced Xi that they have no choice but to take drastic action to head off existential threats to social order being generated by Western-style economic and cultural liberal-capitalism—threats nearly identical to those that scourge the U.S.

This intervention has taken the form of the Common Prosperity campaign, with Xi declaring in January that “We absolutely must not allow the gap between rich and poor to get wider,” and warning that “achieving common prosperity is not only an economic issue, but also a major political issue related to the party’s governing foundations.”

This is why anti-monopoly investigations have hit China’s top technology firms with billions of dollars in fines and forced restructurings and strict new data rules have curtailed China’s internet and social media companies. It’s why record-breaking IPOs have been put on hold and corporations ordered to improve labor conditions, with “996” overtime requirements made illegal and pay raised for gig workers. It’s why the government killed off the private tutoring sector overnight and capped property rental price increases. It’s why the government has announced “excessively high incomes” are to be “adjusted.”

And it’s why celebrities like Zhao Wei have been disappearing, why Chinese minors have been banned from playing the “spiritual opium” of video games for more than three hours per week, why LGBT groups have been scrubbed from the internet, and why abortion restrictions have been significantly tightened. As one nationalist article promoted across state media explained, if the liberal West’s “tittytainment strategy” is allowed to succeed in causing China’s “young generation lose their toughness and virility then we will fall…just like the Soviet Union did.” The purpose of Xi’s “profound transformation” is to ensure that “the cultural market will no longer be a paradise for sissy stars, and news and public opinion will no longer be in a position of worshipping Western culture.”

In the end, the campaign represents Wang Huning’s triumph and his terror. It’s thirty years of his thought on culture made manifest in policy.

On one hand, it is worth viewing honestly the level of economic, technological, cultural, and political upheaval the West is currently experiencing and considering whether he may have accurately diagnosed a common undercurrent spreading through our globalized world. On the other, the odds that his gambit to engineer new societal values can succeed seems doubtful, considering the many failures of history’s other would-be “engineers of the soul.”

The best simple proxy to measure this effort in coming years is likely to be demographics. For reasons not entirely clear, many countries around the world now face the same challenge: fertility rates that have fallen below the replacement rate as they’ve developed into advanced economies. This has occurred across a diverse array of political systems, and shows little sign of moderating. Besides immigration, a wide range of policies have now been tried in attempts to raise birth rates, from increased public funding of childcare services to “pro-natal” tax credits for families with children. None have been consistently successful, sparking anguished debate in some quarters on whether losing the will to survive and reproduce is simply a fundamental factor of modernity. But if any country can succeed in reversing this trend, no matter the brute-force effort required, it is likely to be China.

Either way, our world is witnessing a grand experiment that’s now underway: China and the West, facing very similar societal problems, have now, thanks to Wang Huning, embarked on radically different approaches to addressing them. And with China increasingly challenging the United States for a position of global geopolitical and ideological leadership, the conclusion of this experiment could very well shape the global future of governance for the century ahead.

N.S. Lyons is an analyst and writer living and working in Washington, D.C. He is the author of The Upheaval.

Category : China | Cold War | Marxism | Blog
7
Oct

 

Friends of Socialist China
October 6, 2021

We are republishing this insightful article in LA Progressive by Dee Knight (member of the DSA International Committee) comparing human and democratic rights in the US and China, and challenging the lazy, Eurocentric assumptions that China is ‘authoritarian’ and that the only valid system of governance is Western capitalist democracy.

The leaders of the USA and China faced off at the United Nations General Assembly in late September, in a dramatic verbal conflict over peace, democracy, and human values. Biden said “The authoritarians of the world, they seek to proclaim the end of the age of democracy, but they’re wrong.” He added that the U.S. will “oppose attempts by stronger countries to dominate weaker ones, whether through changes to territory by force, economic coercion, technological exploitation or disinformation… But we’re not seeking a new Cold War or a separation of the world into rigid blocs…”

The UN delegates listened as Biden proclaimed the United States “is not at war” for the first time in two decades – weeks after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. He did not mention continued U.S. military occupations in Iraq, Syria, and Somalia – all of which have been deemed failures – or U.S. military presence in at least thirteen other African countries and hundreds of bases across the globe.

Biden also offered no explanation for the recent agreement with Australia and the United Kingdom to develop and deploy nuclear submarines in the Indo-Pacific region, or the “Quad” alliance with Japan, South Korea and India to threaten China with war ships and nuclear missiles. The question of U.S. sanctions against targeted enemies across the globe also was not mentioned. Neither were the activities of the National Endowment for Democracy and the Alliance for Progress to try to control internal affairs in numerous countries, including China.

Xi Jinping responded that “China has never and will never invade or bully others to seek hegemony… A world of peace and development should embrace civilizations of various forms and must accommodate diverse paths to modernization. One country’s success does not have to mean another country’s failure,” Xi continued. “The world is big enough to accommodate common development progress of all countries.”

Xi emphasized that “Democracy is not a special right reserved for any individual country but a right for the people of all countries to enjoy.”

The U.S. president did not mention his difficulties getting bills through Congress to upgrade the country’s infrastructure and provide improved basic services to people – services like health care, child care, housing and education, which are guaranteed in China, often free or at minimal cost. The “Build Back Better” bills are supported by a decisive majority of the U.S. population, but are fiercely opposed by recalcitrant right-wingers in Congress, along with “moderate” Democrats beholden to big oil and big pharma. These bills – dubbed “enormous” and unaffordable by Congressional opponents – pale in cost when compared with the military budget. At $743 billion for one year, while the infrastructure and budget reconciliation bills are for ten years, the military budget is nearly double their total for each year. (This doesn’t include military-related items, such as intelligence and veterans’ services, which bring the annual military total up above a trillion.)

An effort to pare off just ten percent of the military budget was crushed in Congress in September: a sign of the political power of the military-industrial complex, which combines with big oil, big pharma, big banks and insurance companies to dominate the U.S. political process. These same forces are helping right-wingers in both Congress and many states to quash voting rights, reversing the historic gains of the mid-century Civil Rights movement.

While the U.S. economy struggles to recover, levels of inequality reach historic proportions, and the political system is ever more polarized, Xi could point to China’s success in helping 800 million people lift themselves out of extreme poverty. A recent report noted that “In 2019, as China entered the last stages of its poverty eradication scheme, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said, ‘Every time I visit China, I am stunned by the speed of change and progress. You have created one of the most dynamic economies in the world, while helping more than 800 million people to lift themselves out of poverty – the greatest anti-poverty achievement in history’.”

Average wages for urban workers in China doubled between 2010 and 2020.”>China’s economic success – growing at an average rate of 9.5 percent per year, growing in size by almost 35 times (according to China’s Great Road, by John Ross), building railroads, highways, subways, even entire cities, to become the second largest economy in the world – didn’t happen without strain. Inequality increased, and some worried that the new “market socialism” was a lot like capitalism. The poverty eradication campaign was essential, just as efforts to restrain big capitalists were as well. These efforts were possible in large part due to the Chinese approach to democracy. As Xi said:

What we now face is the contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life… The needs to be met for the people to live better lives are increasingly broad. Not only have their material and cultural needs grown; their demands for democracy, rule of law, fairness and justice, security, and a better environment are increasing.

How China’s leaders intervened is an illustration of China’s democratic path. A report from Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation finds over 90% of the Chinese people like their government, and “rate it as more capable and effective than ever before. Interestingly, more marginalized groups in poorer, inland regions are actually comparatively more likely to report increases in satisfaction.” It says Chinese people’s attitudes “appear to respond to real changes in their material well-being.”

This contrasts with people’s attitudes in the United States, which are polarized politically, racially, and economically. Public trust in the U.S. government is in crisis. There are very real human rights concerns, with police killings, homelessness and mass incarceration at pandemic proportions. A new report says police killings in the U.S. have been undercounted by more than half during the past four decades. Of nearly 31,000 people killed by police during that period, more than 17,000 were unaccounted for in official statistics. Black people were 3.5 times as likely to be killed by the police as white people. Latinx and indigenous people also suffered higher rates of fatal police violence than white people.

Chinese democracy
The Chinese revolution itself was fundamentally democratic – abolishing feudalistic hierarchy and privilege, equalizing gender differences, and enabling poor workers and farmers to be involved in national administration. The Ash Center study includes an important essay, “Democracy in China: Challenge or Opportunity?” by Yu Keping, director of the China Center for Comparative Politics and Economics. Yu Keping says “Western scholars use their democratic standards, such as a multi-party system, universal suffrage, and checks and balances, to evaluate Chinese political development,… and conclude that Chinese reform is more economic than political.” This, he says, is an unnecessary bias and misunderstanding.

The basics of Chinese democracy are people’s congresses at local, provincial and national levels. A Global Times report says “according to the State Council, ‘Deputies to the people’s congresses of cities not divided into districts, municipal districts, counties, autonomous counties, townships, ethnic minority townships and towns are elected directly by their constituencies. Deputies to the NPC [National People’s Congress] and the people’s congresses of the provinces, autonomous regions, municipalities directly under the Central Government, cities divided into districts, and autonomous prefectures are elected by the people’s congresses at the next lower level.’ These elections are all competitive.”

There are also regular consultations between government officials and the people at all levels. Key principles are “people-oriented government, human rights, private property, rule of law, civil society, harmonious society, government innovation, and good governance,” Yu Keping wrote.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is at the core of all this. Its 95 million members make it a preponderant factor in Chinese society. There are eight non-communist political parties, with which the CCP consults regularly. But CCP members lead society. The guiding slogan is “serve the people.” The story of the poverty eradication campaign provides a good example:

The targeted phase of poverty alleviation required building relationships and trust between the Party and the people in the countryside as well as strengthening Party organization at the grassroots level. Party secretaries [were] assigned to oversee the task of poverty alleviation across five levels of government, from the province, city, county, and township, down to the village… Three million carefully selected cadres were dispatched to poor villages, forming 255,000 teams that reside there. Living in humble conditions for generally one to three years at a time, the teams worked alongside poor peasants, local officials, and volunteers until each household was lifted out of poverty. In this process, many cadres were unable to return home to visit families for long stretches of time; some fell ill in the harsh natural conditions of rural areas and more than 1,800 Party members and officials lost their lives in the fight against poverty. The first teams were dispatched in 2013; by 2015, all poor villages had a resident team, and every poor household had an assigned cadre to help in the process of being lifted, and more importantly, of lifting themselves out of poverty. At the end of 2020, the goal of eliminating extreme poverty was reached.

The study says the “cadres and officials who have mobilized in the countryside have been essential in building public support for and confidence in the Party and the government.”

The government’s effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic continued to build public support. Shortly after Wuhan emerged from the COVID-19 lockdown, York University Professor Cary Woo led a survey of 19,816 people across 31 provinces and administrative regions. Published in the Washington Post, the study found that 49 percent of respondents became more trusting of the government following its response to the pandemic, and overall trust increased to 98 percent at the national level and 91 percent at the township level.

“The Chinese way of political development,” Yu Keping says, “is extremely different from the Western democratic tradition… Consequently, it is almost dead-end to explain the Chinese way of democratic politics through using existing Western democratic theories.” Democracy means “government by the people,” the professor says. So “the fundamental criteria to judge whether a country is a ‘democracy’ or not is government’s responsiveness to its citizens… As long as a country has formal institutions to guarantee that government policies can effectively reflect the public’s opinions, that citizens can participate in political life, and the incumbent political regime has to respond to people’s interests, it can be considered democratic regardless of the particular party systems, election procedures, or power separation mechanisms.”

Western Challenges
Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo admitted in 2019 that “We lied, we cheated, we stole… It’s part of the glory of the American experiment.” Pompeo’s claims that the Chinese Communist Party is “the greatest danger” to democracy in the world, and that China’s to blame for the COVID-19 pandemic have served to discredit the U.S. position rather than strengthen it. Biden, Secretary of State Blinken and most in Congress, to their shame, are continuing Pompeo’s infamous campaign. Despite hundreds of millions of U.S. funds to support protests in Hong Kong, that effort has fizzled. Hong Kong ranks in the top three on the Fraser Human Freedoms Index, while the U.S. is in 17th place. (An earlier LA Progressive article provides additional information.)

Regarding claims of “genocide” in Xinjiang, Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs, a special advisor to the UN Secretary General, says “The US government has offered no proof, and unless it can, the State Department should withdraw the charge.” Code Pink webinars have demolished U.S. anti-China claims. Using these lies and false accusations, the U.S. has imposed sanctions and launched an international boycott of products made in Xinjiang. The main result has been to hurt the people of Xinjiang. But the smear campaign has also confused many progressives and so-called “leftists” in the U.S., who have fallen victim to the continued repetition of these lies in the mainstream media.

China has answered the U.S. slander campaign with claims of its own. In late September it called on the UN Human Rights Council to “work to eliminate the negative impacts of colonialism on people around the world.” The statement, issued with 21 other countries, said “Economic exploitation, inequality, racism, violations of indigenous peoples’ rights, modern slavery, armed conflicts and damage to cultural heritage are among the legacies of colonial repression.” In a separate statement, China “called for nations that have conducted illegal military interventions to pay reparations. Without naming any states, he pointed out that such action had severe consequences for social and economic development.”

“A democratic system is a marriage of universality and particularity,” Professor Keping says. “We cannot make arbitrary conclusions that democracy has only one model merely based on the assumption that democracy is a universal value and has common features… The nature of democracy is government by the people or ‘people become their own masters,’ which is reflected in a series of institutions and mechanisms that guarantee the citizens’ democratic rights… Chinese democracy, growing out of Chinese tradition and society, will not only bring good fortune to the Chinese people, but also contribute greatly to the advancement of democratic theory and practice for all mankind.”

Category : China | Democracy | Blog
5
Sep

By TIM LACY

US Intellectual History Blog

FEB 20, 2014

Thinking Like a Gramscian Historian: An Introduction, a Provocation, and Guide to the Basics

What follows is a guide and provocation—not a formula—for writing as a mature, unorthodox Marxist historian. By the latter I mean as a “Gramscian Historian,” or perhaps something like a Critical Theorist historian. As the points below accumulate, moreover, you might see this as a guide to thinking like a Gramscian Intellectual Historian. We’ll see. [Note: This could be read as a companion to Kurt Newman’s November 19, 2013 post on Gramsci.]

The deeper I delve into the darkest corners of my theoretical self (an ongoing preoccupation over the past year, by choice and accident), I’m seeing myself as a someone who could get comfortable writing in a Critical Theorist-Gramscian historical mode of analysis. By this I do not mean using that mode to direct my selection of evidence, guide all of my interpretive decisions, or to depart from a factually rich style of writing (hopefully that sense of self will be confirmed as reviews of my book begin to appear). Rather, in a fashion true to the historicism of Max Horkheimer and the concreteness of Antonio Gramsci, I mean using that mode to help one make sense of the abstractions, generalizations, and inductions that arise from a deep immersion in evidence. A Gramscian-Critical Theorist mode of analysis is another important tool in my box of interpretive tools.

The immediate inspiration for this post is the death of Stuart Hall, but through a recommendation by James Livingston. When Jim posted a reflection about Hall on his Facebook page, he included a reference to Stuart Hall’s 1986 article “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity” (Journal of Communication Inquiry, vol. 10, no. 5, pp. 5-27). I would’ve never noticed this without Jim’s shout-out, which included this marketing tag: “The best single piece on Gramsci I have ever read is not by Cammett or Genovese, or Nairn or Anderson, or, for that matter, Laclau and Mouffe, but by Hall, in the Journal of Communications Inquiry.” That is no small praise. I bought Livingston’s pitch, and this post is the result.

Almost everything in the outline, or program, below derives from the Hall article. That piece, in turn (which sadly contains no bibliography), relies primarily on Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. But Hall also references a number of other pieces that may (I’m not sure) exist outside the Notebooks. Finally, in a bibliography afterwards I cite some other potentially useful secondary sources.

———————————————————————
How to Think Like a Gramscian Historian, as Inspired By Stuart Hall

Note: All page references are to the Hall article. Other sources are sprinkled throughout.

1. Like any good orthodox Marxist—as distinct from a unorthodox Marxist thinker like Gramsci—you must still know and understand the economic terrain/base. This means thinking about the period, particulars, and specifics of capital and labor. Be sensitive to communities and various regional differences. This is what helps make your historical thinking historicist. This means knowing both qualitative and quantitative data, as much as is possible. (pp. 14, 18)

2. Having learned the economic terrain, let it simmer in the background. Think about the contours of the story you have just ascertained—it’s elements of commodification and reification (the ‘thingification’ of social relations, as a relation of tradeable objects).

3. Ask how these contours, in turn, affected “superstructures” as manifest in culture, thought worlds, ideology, politics, psychology, and personality. Again, sensitivity to particular communities and regions, as well as periodization, is a necessity. (p. 14)

4. Think about the relations of conceptual superstructures to social forces and individuals. What are the various levels of articulation between these classes and forces, and how do they compete with each other? Be aware of sites of struggle and crisis. Think about whether the social force, movements, and individuals (all the players) are ‘organic’ (meaning historical and deep) or incidental (“occasional, immediate”). An ‘organic’ crisis can last for decades and is not static. (p. 13)

5. Has the interaction or coordination between these forces created a ‘hegemony’ or effected a historical bloc that sustains hegemonic environment? This definition of hegemony seems useful (from here): “the success of the dominant classes in presenting their definition of reality, their view of the world, in such a way that it is accepted by other classes as ‘common sense’.” Hegemonies are seen through their effects of power and control. Hall also seems to imply, to me anyway, that for Gramsci not all hegemonies are necessarily bad; they can dominate in positive and negative ways. Hegemony is, then, more of a descriptor than a shadowy monster. Hall notes that “‘hegemony’ is a very particular, historically specific, and temporary ‘moment’ in the life of a society.” It is multi-dimensional and has a multi-arena character that involves many fronts in society’s superstructure. Finally, it is a ‘historic bloc’ rather than a ‘ruling class’ that includes the “strata of the subaltern and dominated classes, who have been won over by specific concessions and compromises and who form part of the social constellation but in a subordinate role.” (pp. 14-15)

6. Is the hegemonic class dominating or leading? Domination can maintain the ascendancy of a class, but only with limited reach. A leading hegemonic bloc wins consent by taking into account “subordinate interests” and attempts to maintain popularity. Coercion and consent run together for Gramsci, and run the gamut of cultural, moral, ethical, and intellectual concerns. (p. 16-17)

7. Consider the power—“the sturdy structure”—of “civil society” when analyzing struggles. Most all struggles, in liberal democracies, are won by protracted and complex ‘wars of position’ rather than momentary ‘wars of maneuver” that are reminiscent of WWI trench battles. Those wars of position occur in the context of civil society. The ‘art of politics’, then, is what happens in the context of “voluntary associations, …schooling, the family, churches and religious life, cultural organizations, so-called private relations, gender, sexual and ethnic identities, etc.” The state, in this scenario, is both “educative and formative”—a “point of condensation” for those diverse kinds of institutions and their relations. The state is a function of the “civil hegemony” that derives from that civil society. The complexity of these historical circumstances cannot be emphasized enough. In Hall’s words (as inspired by Gramsci): “This points irrevocably to the increasing complexity of the inter-relationships in modern societies between state and civil society.” Hall adds: “The effect is to multiply and proliferate the various fronts of politics, and to differentiate the various kinds of social antagonisms.” (pp. 17-20)

8. Enter ideology, and how it affects civil society and hegemony. Gramsci defines ideology as “a conception of the world, any philosophy, which becomes a cultural movement, a ‘religion’, a ‘faith’, that has produced a form of practical activity or will in which a philosophy is contained as an implicit theoretical ‘premiss’. …In its best sense [it is]…a conception of the world that is implicitly manifest in art, in law, in economic activity and in all manifestations of individual and collective life.” Given this definition, Gramsci declares that the essential problem of ideology is how it “preserve[s] the ideological unity of the entire social bloc which that ideology serves to cement and unify.” Ideology consists of a philosophical core or nucleus that is linked and elaborated, in Hall’s words, “into practical and popular forms of consciousness” as they affect (and effect) “the broad masses of society, in the shape of a cultural movement, political tendency, faith or religion.” Gramsci is less concerned with the philosophical nucleus than ideology as an organic form which touches thinking people and “practical, everyday, common sense.’ The key here is that philosophy values coherence while common-sense thinking is eclectic—concerned with effectiveness and practice. Common-sense thinking, to Gramsci, is “not rigid and immobile but is continually transforming itself.” It also more likely to be a deep product of historical process. Finally, Gramsi circles back to everyday politics: “The relation between common sense and the upper-level of philosophy is assured by ‘politics’.” (p. 20-21)

9. At this point you, as an historian, might be asking about ‘the self’ and real people. What of the individual thinker, however complex or simple? Gramsci hasn’t forgotten you and them. Gramsci recognizes the individual via plurality. According to Hall, Gramsci “refuses any idea of a pre-given unified ideological subject.” There is a “‘plurality’ of selves or identities of which the so-called subject of thought and ideas is composed.” As such, “the personality is strangely composite.” And on that individual’s consciousness (always a tricky subject in Marxist thought), Hall sees Gramsci as drawing “attention to the contradiction in consciousness between the conception of the world which manifests itself…in action, and those conceptions which are affirmed verbally or in thought.” The result is a “complex, fragmentary and contradictory conception of consciousness” that surpasses considerably the “false consciousness” of traditional/orthodox Marxist thought. In sum, there is no “‘given’ and unified ideological class subject” (p. 22-23). We must try to understand those who participate in hegemonies in the smallest units possible to as to reflect individual and group agency (the final term being my import).

10. Finally, Gramsci even addresses paradigm change—the transformation of hegemonies. Hall found an extraordinary passage in the Prison Notebooks that hits Kuhnian tune. Here’s Hall’s narration:

“The multi-accentual, inter-discursive character of the field of ideology is explicitly acknowledged by Gramsci when…he describes how an old conception of the world is gradually displaced by another mode of thought and is internally reworked and transformed: ‘what matters is the criticism to which such an ideological complex is subjected…This makes possible a process of differentiation and change in the relative wight that the elements of the old ideologies used to possess…what was previously secondary and subordinate…becomes the nucleus of a new ideological and theoretical complex” (p. 23).

A Gramscian vision of benign or pernicious ideological, or hegemonic, change is one where the new paradigm always contains residues of the old. New ideas are articulated, and old one disarticulated. In either case history and historical circumstance are respected.

I noted this on the USIH Facebook page, but consider the “how to” outline above my own kind of tribute to both Stuart Hall—and James Livingston?. The latter probably gets more credit as an antagonist and provocateur than as an authentic person and inspiration to good historical thinking. This one is for you, Jim, even if you think it comes off as sucky, programmatic b.s. – TL

———————————————————————
Secondary Bibliography

Notes: (a) These are in addition the abovementioned Hall article and his embedded citations of Gramsci’s works. (b) I do not endorse these in their particulars, but rather as broad guides to thinking about Gramsci’s thought

“A Gramsci Glossary.” Workers’ Liberty. March 27, 2013.

Raney, Vanessa. “Gramsci Outside of Marx?: Defining Culture in Gramscian Terms.” Web essay, Claremont Graduate University (Fall 2003).

Rosengarten, Frank. “An Introduction to Gramsci’s Life and Thought.” Marxist Internet Archive Library, Antonio Gramsci Archive.

Category : Hegemony | Marxism | Theory | Blog
31
Jul

Decolonization and Communism

 

 

By Nodrada

“We have to give life to Indo-American socialism with our own reality, in our own language.
Here is a mission worthy of a new generation.”
-José Carlos Mariátegui, “Anniversary and Balance,” José Carlos Mariátegui: AnAnthology

 

June 26, 2021 Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Orinoco TribuneWhile the turn towards analyzing ongoing settler-colonialism has finally reached the mainstream of North American political discussions, there is still a lack of popular understanding of the issues involved. Settler-colonialism is, ironically, understood within the framework of the ways of thinking brought by the European ruling classes to the Americas. By extension, the conceptions of decolonization are similarly limited. Although the transition from analyzing psychological or “discursive” decolonization to analyzing literal, concrete colonization has been extremely important, it requires some clarifications.

Settler–colonialism is a form of colonialism distinct from franchise colonialism. The colonizers seek primarily to eliminate the indigenous population rather than exploit them, as in the latter form of colonialism. Decolonization is the struggle to abolish colonial conditions, though approaches to it may vary. Societies formed on a settler-colonial basis include the United States, Canada, Israel, New Zealand, and Australia. For our purposes, we will focus on the United States in analyzing local ideas of settler-colonialism and decolonization.

Among North American radicals, there are two frequent errors in approaching decolonization.

On the one hand, there are the opponents of decolonization who argue that settler-colonialism no longer exists. In their view, to identify specific concerns for Indigenous peoples and to identify the ongoing presence of settler-colonial social positions is divisive and stuck in the past. They believe that settlers no longer exist, and Euro-Americans have fully become indigenous to North America through a few centuries of residency.

On the other hand, there are proponents of decolonization who believe that Euro-Americans are eternally damned as settlers, and cannot be involved in any radical change whatsoever. The most extreme of these argue for the exclusion of Euro-Americans from radical politics entirely.

Settler-colonialism is not over, contrary to the first view. Rather, Indigenous peoples still struggle for their rights to sovereignty within and outside reservations, especially ecological-spiritual rights. Their ostensibly legally recognized rights are not respected, either. The examples of the struggles of the Wet’suwet’en, Standing Rock Lakota, Mi’kmaq, and other peoples in recent memory are testimony to this. Indigenous peoples are still here, and they are still fighting to thrive as Indigenous peoples. Capitalists drive to exploit the earth, destroying ecology and throwing society into what John Bellamy Foster calls a metabolic rift. This means that the demands of capital for expansion are incompatible with the ‘rhythm’ of ecology, destroying concrete life for abstract aims as a result.

An atomistic, individualist worldview is what undergirds the view of settler-colonialism as over and of contemporary Euro-Americans as being just as indigenous as Indigenous peoples. When settler-colonialism is seen as an individual responsibility or guilt, we are left with a very crude concept of it.

The denialists of settler-colonialism assume that it must be over, because the colonization of the Americas is apparently over. Thus, they think that modern Euro-Americans cannot be blamed for the sins of their forefathers, since individuals shouldn’t be held responsible for things which happened outside of their lifetimes. Guilt in this conception is an assessment of whether an atomistic individual is responsible for extremely specific crimes, such as participating in something like the Paxton Boys’ ethnic cleansing campaign in 1763 Pennsylvania.

The same ideological approach characterizes the other side, which obsesses over the individual status of “settler” and micro-categorizing the contemporary residents of North America within an abstract concept of settler-colonialism. They argue that having the individual status of “settler” means one is eternally damned, one is marked as a specific person by the crimes of a social system always and forever. This hefty sentence has high stakes, thus the obsession with categorizing every unique case within a specific box. continue

Category : Marxism | Racism | Socialism | Theory | US History | Blog
15
Jun


By Xuan Tan
People’s Daily
June 07, 2021

General Secretary Xi Jinping profoundly pointed out at the Party History Study and Education Mobilization Conference that the belief in communism and the belief in socialism with Chinese characteristics is the political soul of the Communists and the spiritual pillar for the Communists to withstand any test. He emphasized the centuries of the party. The course of struggle and great achievements are the most solid foundation for us to strengthen our confidence in road, theory, system, and culture. The words of the general secretary are loud, firm and heroic, deeply revealing the inner relationship between socialism and communism, and a century of struggle and struggle, and demonstrates the perseverance and perseverance of the Chinese Communists to advance along the only correct path of socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Over the course of a hundred years, many people and things are still vivid, and many shouts and singing are still in my ears. After going through the wind, frost, snow and rain, and creating miracles on earth, we have the obligation to comfort the martyrs with victory: Socialism has not failed China! We have the responsibility to let history tell the future: socialism will not fail China!

One

The accidents of history often carry certainty. In the 1840s, ancient China was opened by the powerful ships and guns of the great powers, and China’s destiny has since entered an unprecedentedly miserable situation. In almost the same era, in Europe where capitalism was in the ascendant, Marx and Engels began their great explorations of scientific socialism and the cause of human liberation and progress.

After the Opium War, China was poor, weak, and at the mercy of others. “Forty million people shed tears, where is China in the End of the World”. This poem by Tan Sitong is full of blood and tears and hesitation. The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, the Reform Movement of 1898, the Boxer Movement, the Revolution of 1911… the Chinese struggled in the dark to find a way to save the nation and survive; reformism, liberalism, social Darwinism, anarchism, pragmatism… all kinds of Western theories and doctrines have been Introduce as a prescription to strengthen the country and enrich the people. I have tried every plan, but they have repeatedly come to nothing. Every road was explored, but he was battered. “Countless heads and blood, poorly bought fake republics.” Great powers were rampant, warlords fought, and the people were in dire straits. The First World War pierced the seemingly beautiful illusion of capitalist civilization. Countless people with lofty ideals use their lives and souls to ask questions again and again: Where is the way out for China? Where is the hope of the nation?

The blast of the October Revolution brought Marxism-Leninism to China. This is a great historical agreement, this is a solemn historical promise! The shackles of feudal society for thousands of years are too tight, and the old cannot be replaced without a thorough social transformation. The oppression imposed by imperialism on the Chinese is too heavy, and it cannot be resisted without the mighty power of mobilizing tens of thousands of toiling people.

Li Dazhao praised: “The alarm bell of humanity is ringing! The dawn of freedom is here! Try to see the future of the world, it must be the world of red flag!” Chen Duxiu declared: “The political revolution in France in the eighteenth century, and the social revolution in Russia in the twentieth century. People are all swearing at them; but later historians will regard them as the key to the change and evolution of human society.” The young Mao Zedong exclaimed: “The time has come! The tide of the world is getting more urgent! Dongting The gate of the lake moved and opened! The mighty new thoughts have surged on both sides of the Xiangjiang River!”

In 1920, when it was warm and cold, the 29-year-old Chen Wangdao spent two months in the firewood room in his hometown of Yiwu, Zhejiang, and forgot to eat and sleep for two months. For the first time, he translated the “Communist Manifesto” completely, and the first 1,000 copies were sold out immediately. By 1926, it was reprinted and republished 17 times. The advanced and unyielding Chinese have chosen Marxism as the way to save the country and the people after repeated comparisons and repetitions, as their unswerving ambition.

In July 1921, the Communist Party of China, a political party with Marxism as its guiding ideology and communism as its goal, was born, with faith, entrustment and dreams in mind, resolutely in the rising sun of Shanghai Shikumen and the blue waves of Nanhu Lake in Jiaxing set sail. Since then, the fire of socialism has been ignited in the East, and China, once troubled and hopeless, has a direction!

Two

After the failure of the Great Revolution, the Communist Party member Xia Minghan was arrested in Hankou and wrote a farewell to his wife before his heroic death: “Tossing his head and shed blood, Minghan has long been taken care of. Everyone needs what he needs, and the revolutionary cause will be passed on from generation to generation. Hong Zhu Keep the thoughts of each other, and the red cloud hopes for perfection. Persevere in the revolution and follow my will and vowed to pass on the truth to the world.” In those stormy years, like Xia Minghan, he did not regret nine deaths for his communist belief and firmly believed in the revolutionary ideals. There are more than tens of thousands of martyrs who have realized it. Once they recognized their beliefs and doctrines, they never hesitated or wavered, and did not hesitate to water the “communist blossoms” with youth and blood. continue

Category : Capitalism | China | Socialism | Blog
24
Mar

Comic on “The Opium Ban in China” from the weekly De Amsterdammer, December 2 1906

Toward an Understanding of China’s Historical Political Economy and Its Relationship to Contemporary China

By Ken Hammond
MROnline

March 3, 2021 – The contemporary political economy of the People’s Republic of China, the nature of the Chinese system, has been the subject of much discussion and debate in mainstream academic, media, and political circles, as well as on the left.1 Since the end of the 1970s, China has pursued policies of “reform and opening” (gaige kaifang,) to develop its economy, a process that has resulted in the massive growth of production, China’s emergence as a major player in global trade, and the lifting of around 800 million people out of poverty, while at the same time generating serious problems of inequality, corruption, and environmental stress. At the heart of this project has been the decision by the Communist Party, originally under the guidance of Deng Xiaoping, then carrying on through successive changes of leadership, to use the mechanisms of the marketplace to develop the productive economy. How should this situation be characterized? Is it capitalism, state capitalism, market socialism?2

One can only make sense of contemporary China with a clear understanding of the country’s economic history.3 A historical materialist analysis of the nature of China’s political economic order over the course of history, especially the last thousand years, can illuminate critical aspects of the present. A serious engagement with the complexities of China’s historical economic systems must take into account knowledge about the Chinese past that was not available to Karl Marx, allowing us to go beyond the vagaries of the Asiatic mode of production and transcend the limitations of earlier theorizations of the “sprouts of capitalism” (ziben zhuyi de mengya) by historians in China in the 1950s and ’60s.4 Applying categories and modes of analysis derived from Marx’s Capital and other writings to the understanding of China’s early modern history and exploring the relevance of that history to contemporary China are the main tasks of this essay.

From the period of the Tang-Song transition, roughly the ninth and tenth centuries, China developed a commercial capitalist economy that encompassed a largely urban manufacturing sector and also reshaped agricultural production in much of the empire. A ruling class evolved that was a hybrid of the long-established landowning elite and the early modern commercial stratum, which managed the economic affairs of the country through a blend of private agency and the operations of the imperial state. Through much of China’s imperial past, the state maintained a complex, not always consistent, role in economic affairs, seeking both to support the livelihood of the people, promote prosperity, constrain the pursuit of private profit, and regulate the functions of markets. This historical relationship has inflected the developmental itinerary of the country and is reflected in the deployment of the theory and practice of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and the “socialist market economy.”

II
China’s recorded history goes back more than 3,200 years and can be usefully divided into four major periods: (1) antiquity, from the beginning to the end of the third century BCE; (2) the middle period, from the second century BCE to the tenth century CE; (3) the early modern period, from the tenth through the eighteenth centuries; and (4) modern China, from the end of the eighteenth century to the present.5 Throughout antiquity, China was ruled by an elite of warriors who controlled the land, collecting tribute from their subjects. Economic activity was largely locally self-sufficient, with a small layer of high-value elite trade centered on the royal court(s). Over time, a professional administrative elite developed, often referred to as the literati because of their mastery of the written records of history and their shared literary culture. These administrative officials were often rewarded with grants of land, and over time these became hereditary property, though the sovereign always retained ultimate ownership.6

The middle period began with the unification of the empire and the consolidation of the imperial system under the Han dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE). During this period, private ownership of land became a practical reality, while in theory the empire continued to belong to the ruler, now the emperor. Many officials in government service built up significant land holdings, while other great families emerged based on their local acquisition of agricultural assets. This was a complex, long-term process, with large landed estates forming by the later Han, which became the underpinning for the political influence of the landowning class. Over the centuries of the middle period, China developed an aristocratic elite, with quasi-official status and a strong transmission of wealth across generations. China went through periods of internal division after the collapse of the Han dynasty in 220, and then renewed imperial unification under the Sui and Tang dynasties (589–618 and 618–907, respectively). Recruitment for service in the imperial government, which was largely pursued through a process of recommendation by serving officials, allowed established families to place their sons in careers in official life and perpetuate the power of the elite. This aristocratic class effectively dominated the state, which served to promote and protect its interests.7

Alongside the estates of the great families there was a sector of agricultural production organized around small holders, managed through a system of land tenure maintained by the imperial state, which regularly redistributed land to male heads of village households who, in turn, were taxed in grain and cloth products. The system varied in its specifics in different parts of the empire but was a clear example of state oversight and management of economic activity. This oversight also extended to urban centers and markets. Imperial law restricted the number and location of markets and established strict controls over their operations. This blend of aristocratic estates, state-managed distribution of small holdings, and tightly regulated urban markets was not in any sense feudal in its economic or political organization and functioning.8

By the ninth century, changes began to emerge in China’s cities and countryside. The Tang dynasty had been deeply shaken by the An Lushan Rebellion in 755–63, and the long-established aristocracy began to decline. But even before this, the very success of the imperial system of economic management had given rise to contradictions within the economy. Its potential for growth and development exceeded the parameters of state oversight, and new forces began to push beyond the regulations of the government. The power of the dominant elite and the control of urban space by official overseers weakened. Markets began to spread outside areas that had been designated and monitored by the state and to become more integrated into residential areas. Private ownership of farmland expanded beyond the great estates and the land subject to government distribution. The imperial court maintained a role in the production and distribution of certain key commodities through government monopolies, a practice that had its roots centuries earlier in the Han dynasty. But the overall role of the state in economic affairs declined, just as the class basis of imperial rule was itself dramatically altered.

In the later ninth century, further rebellions destroyed much of the elite’s wealth and the institutional infrastructure that had legitimized and maintained its power and prestige. Rebellious peasants attacked the estates of the wealthy, killed many members of the elite, and burned the documents that validated their status and power. The fall of the Tang in 907 led to the chaos of the Five Dynasties and Sixteen Kingdoms, with small regional states contending for power through chronic warfare and further destruction, until the Zhao brothers established the Song dynasty in 960 and reunified the empire over the ensuing decade. The warfare of this age of transition cleared the way for the further transformation of China’s economic and political order. The old aristocracy was gone, but the ownership of land and the control of agricultural production was still the primary mode of wealth accumulation.9

As the Song dynasty (960–1279) consolidated its power, a new elite emerged, formally based on the attainment of merit through education, but practically grounded in the riches produced on their estates. These provided the resources to support the education of sons in the Confucian classical traditions that formed the basis of the imperial civil examination system, which became the main vector for entry into service in the bureaucratic administration of the empire. Not all landowning families produced examination graduates or government officials. The class of landed wealth was more extensive than the group of literati who staffed the imperial state, and relations between members of this class in their capacity as local elites or as representatives of imperial power could be complex. This larger class is often referred to as the gentry, and the overall landowning class may be designated, perhaps somewhat awkwardly, the literati/gentry.10

This reconfiguration of the landholding elite took place in tandem with the further development of a commercial economy in China. Markets proliferated, woven together by networks of long-distance trade spanning the empire and linking up with larger global systems. New forms of capital valorization and accumulation took shape within an increasingly monetized economy. Division of labor both within productive enterprises and on a regional geographic basis, as well as ongoing technological innovation, drove enhancements in productivity. New developments in banking and financial operations facilitated the mobilization and allocation of capital.11 This is the key to understanding the early modern period that began in the ninth and tenth centuries and continued, with dramatic advances and retreats, throughout the following eight hundred years, across several dynastic transitions, down to the beginning of the modern era at the turn of the nineteenth century. It is the emergence of China’s early modern capitalist commercial economy and its development over the following years that must be understood to enable a better comprehension of China’s recent pursuit of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” continue

Category : Capitalism | China | Blog
31
Dec

By Marc Becker
Against the Current
No. 209, November/December 2020

WRITING IN THE 1920s, the Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui introduced a uniquely Latin American perspective on revolutionary socialist movements and theories. He famously noted, “we certainly do not want socialism in America to be a copy. It has to be a heroic creation.”(1) This political dynamism is what made him into an intellectual force with lasting relevance.

Mariátegui’s voluminous and perceptive writings as well as extensive political activism left an unmistakable and lasting impression on the political, social, and intellectual landscape of his country. Nevertheless, even as he has retained central importance for revolutionary socialism in Latin America, in the United States few people are aware of his contributions.

When Mariátegui died in 1930, his funeral turned into one of the largest processions of workers ever seen in the streets of the capital city of Lima, but in the United States his death was hardly noticed.

Waldo Frank, a prominent left-wing U.S writer, the first chair of the League of American Writers and a close friend of Mariátegui, declared that Mariátegui’s death plunged “the intelligentsia of all of Hispano-America into sorrow; and nothing could be more eloquent of the cultural separation between the two halves of the new world than the fact that to most of us these words convey no meaning.”(2)

Despite this lack of attention in the United States and writing a century ago and on a different continent, Mariátegui’s thought remains relevant for the struggles we face today.

Early Life

José Carlos Mariátegui was born June 14, 1894 in the southern Peruvian coastal town of Moquegua and grew up on outskirts of Lima. He was raised by a poor and deeply religious mestiza (mixed race) single mother, Maráia Amalia LaChira. She had separated from her husband, Francisco Javier Mariátegui, because, when she discovered that he was the grandson of a liberal independence hero, she wanted to protect her children from that liberal influence.

This did not prevent her son from becoming the leading Marxist thinker in Latin America, but it did seem to temper his attitudes toward religion.

Mariátegui was a poor and sickly child. He suffered from tuberculous, and when he was eight years old he hurt his left leg, disabling him for life. Because of a lack of financial resources, he only managed to achieve an eighth-grade education. As a result, he was largely self-taught, which later led him to quip that he was an intellectual at odds with the intellectual world.

Rather than continue his education, Mariátegui was forced to find a job to help support his family. At the age of 15, he began to work as a copyboy for the newspaper La Prensa. He soon rose through the ranks in the newsroom as he began writing and editing as well.

These experiences introduced him to the field of journalism, which he subsequently used both for his financial livelihood and as a vehicle to express his political views. Almost all of his voluminous writings originated as relatively short pieces that he penned for popular magazines.

Drawing on this journalistic experience, Mariátegui launched two short-lived newspapers, Nuestra Epoca and La Razón, that assumed an explicitly pro-labor perspective. His vocal support for the revolutionary demands of the workers soon ran him afoul of the Peruvian dictator Augusto B. Leguía, who in October 1919 exiled him to Europe.

Mariátegui later calls this early period of his life his “stone age” and ignored the literary output that resulted from it. As a result, his early writings have received little attention.

Marxism and Amauta
It was during his three-and-a-half-year sojourn in Europe that Mariátegui developed into a Marxist intellectual. Through a series of experiences in France and Italy he saw the revolutionary potential of Marxism. This trajectory and orientation later led his critics to condemn him as a “Europeanizer,” a rather ironic criticism for someone who has come to be generally applauded for adopting Marxist theories to a Latin American reality.

Mariátegui later commented that in Europe he picked up some ideas and a woman, the Italian Anna Chiappe with whom he subsequently had four children — all boys.

In 1923, Mariátegui returned to Peru “a convinced and declared Marxist.” He presented a series of lectures on the “history of world crisis” at the González Prada Popular University in Lima that drew on his experiences and observations in Europe.

He was a popular lecturer, but because of his lack of an academic degree he could not get a regular teaching appointment at the main San Marcos University. Indeed, he was an intellectual at odds with the intellectual world.

In 1924, the police arrested Mariátegui because of his alleged subversive activity at the González Prada Popular University. A strong international reaction led to his release, perhaps reinforcing in his mind the importance of the international dimensions to a socialist struggle.

In 1924, Mariátegui lost his (good) right leg, and as a result spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Even as his health failed (or perhaps because of that), both his intellectual output and efforts to organize a social revolution intensified.

Among Mariátegui’s literary activity, the most significant was the founding in 1926 of the journal Amauta (which means “wise teacher” in Quechua) as a vanguard voice for an intellectual and spiritual revolution. The journal moved beyond politics to include philosophy, art, literature, and science.

Amauta was a relatively high-brow publication that gained international renown. Two years later, Mariátegui launched a short-lived biweekly newspaper appropriately titled Labor as an extension of Amauta to reach out to the working class.

In 1928, Mariátegui published his most famous book 7 ensayos de interpretación de la realidad peruana (Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality). The essays provide a broad sociological overview of key issues facing Latin America: economics, racial problems, land tenure, education, religion, regionalism and centralism, and literature (the last and by far the longest essay in the collection). This book quickly became a fundamental work on Latin American Marxism and established him as a founding light of Latin American Marxist theory.

In terms of his political activity, in 1928 Mariátegui founded the Peruvian Socialist Party (PSP), served as its secretary-general and brought it into alignment with the Communist International as a vanguardist party designed to lead the proletariat to revolution. With that goal in mind, the party organized communist cells all over country. In 1929, the PSP launched the General Confederation of Peruvian Workers (CGTP) as a Marxist-oriented trade union federation.

During this entire time, Mariátegui continued to run into political problems with the Leguía regime. Mariátegui attacked working conditions at the U.S.-owned Cerro de Pasco copper mine and Leguía feared that he was inciting workers.

In 1927, the police arrested and detained him for six days at a military hospital on charges of involvement in a communist plot. The police subsequently raided his house and shut down Labor.

Even as the labor and political organizations that Mariátegui helped found flourished, his health floundered. The person who came to be known as the Amauta died on April 16, 1930.

Mariátegui’s Ideology
Mariátegui was an integrative thinker who incorporated a broad range of factors into his political analyses and materialist conception of the world. Broadly, his intellectual contributions can be broken down along five lines: national Marxism, anti-imperialism, agrarian issues, racial matters, and religion.

Mariátegui is often seen as the first truly creative and original Latin American Marxist thinker who analyzed concrete historical realities in order to develop solutions to problems of non-European societies. Rather than a rigid and determi­nistic Marxism, he embraced an open and voluntarist revolutionary praxis that excelled in applying European doctrines to Latin American realities in new and creative ways. continue

Category : Latin America | Marxism | Theory | Blog
13
Dec

Limitations and Problems of the Western Doctrine

By Ai Silin & Qu Weijie
Marxism and Reality, No 3, 2020

Abstract: The slogan “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” put forward by Western liberal scholars contradicts the principle of non-interference as stipulated in the Charter of the United Nations. The Western conception of human rights includes two main justification methods—naturalism and bottom-lineism, but neither of them can substantively justify the universality of human rights going beyond reality. This also determines that the relationship between sovereignty and human rights is not an “either-or” one, but a dialectical and mutually reinforcing one. Human rights cannot be fundamentally guaranteed without the support of national sovereignty. The culture-centric mentality implied by the doctrine that human rights are superior to national sovereignty is not conducive to international cooperation. Only by engaging in dialogue in a non-coercive, inclusive, and equitable manner would it be possible to reach a bottom-line consensus that would be widely accepted by the international community.

Since the late 20th century, and particularly since the Kosovo War in 1999 and Iraq War in 2003, Western powers have advocated the theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” to legitimize starting a series of regional wars. However, the concept which lies behind this theory conflicts with a series of principles of international law as stipulated in the Charter of the United Nations, such as the principles of the sovereign equality of states and non-interference in internal affairs. According to Jürgen Habermas, a German philosopher, “This prohibition of intervention is indeed reaffirmed by the UN Charter; but from the beginning it stood in tension with the development of the international protection of human rights.”[1] This paper attempts to review the relationship between national sovereignty and human rights based on a critical reflection on the Western concept of human rights.

I. Two Ways to Justify the Western Concept of Human Rights: Naturalism and Minimalism

It is generally believed that the universalist concept of human rights has its origins rooted in the modern Western concept of natural rights. It must first be clarified, however, that no consensus has thus far been reached in Western political academia about how the concept of “right” first came into being. Probing into the evolution of the concept of “right”, Richard Dagger wrote that the English word “right” comes from the Latin word “rectus” (meaning “straight”), which in turn can be traced to “orek-tos” (“straight, upright”) in Greek.[2] At the beginning, therefore, the word “right” presumably did not indicate “a justified claim or entitlement, or the freedom to do something” in its modern sense, and the concept of right in a political sense did not emerge in the West until the late Middle Ages as the idea of “natural rights” took shape. Western political scholars such as Charles Beitz and James Griffin who were committed to studying human rights believed that despite the differences in connotation between the concepts of human rights and natural rights, from a historical perspective, the origin of the modern Western concept of human rights is closely linked with the theory of natural rights, which in turn is directly related to the natural law theory established by Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages. The influence of modern natural science and the Enlightenment Movement, however, led the natural law theory to gradually give way to Enlightenment rationalism, thus divorcing the theological elements from the concept of natural rights. From this point, the individual awareness in line with the nature secured its fundamental status in practical philosophy, and the secular concept of “human rights” emerged in the late 18th century. According to Beitz, “the most broadly influential contribution of the natural rights tradition to contemporary thought about human rights is the idea that human rights belong to persons ‘as such’ or ‘simply in virtue of their humanity’.”[3] Such justification for human rights is referred by Beitz as “naturalist” view on human rights, which is one of the most common ways to justify human rights. Its core argument is that the concept of human nature is regarded as evidence of the universality of human rights, while human nature is in itself in conformity with the nature. “Not as something evolving in the course of history, but posited by nature, because for them this individual was the natural individual, according to their idea of human nature.”[4] In the modern Western tradition of metaphysics, such an individual in conformity with the nature may either be presumed as a Kantian rational being or an experimentalist aggregate of feelings. Whichever presumption is made, the “demystified” concept of human rights attempts to justify its universalist appeal by naturalist theories.

However, the biggest weakness of the naturalist theory is that it neglects the historical aspect of mankind. To ensure the prioritization of individual rights, an individual is ridded of his social identity such as roles and status, and is translated into a moral agent in a metaphysical sense. Marx made the lucid statement that the concept of moral agent as constructed by modern Western philosophers was but a product of disintegration of feudal society and maturity of the civil society. Elaborating human rights from the perspective of an abstract and naturalist human nature has abducted human rights evolution from its historical dimension, and the understanding of rights thereof is non-historical. In fact, the emergence and application of the concept of human rights are inevitably based on certain social practices and historical conditions, and shall undergo changes correspondingly with changes in such social practice and historical conditions. The connotation and denotation of this concept remains in dynamic evolution, in which sense the naturalist view will inevitably be challenged by historicism. From a historicist perspective, political or moral concepts are neither inherent nor created at the discretion of any person; instead, any concept is a product of history and depends on certain social practice and objective historical conditions as a foundation. So is the case with the concept of human rights, which has evolved over a long history rather than remaining unchanged, As early as during the Enlightenment Movement, certain Western thinkers and statesmen made the statement that “all men are born equal”. However, this slogan is just a promissory note that cannot be cashed immediately as U.S. sociologist Robert N. Bellah argued.[5] Women were not granted the right to vote or to stand in elections until the 1920s, and the rights of African Americans were not sufficiently protected until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Even today, various social classes and groups in the West remain troubled by identity and economic gaps.

The naturalist concept of human rights can be viewed as a “top-down”[6] approach according to Griffin, i.e. deduction of human rights based on one or multiple abstract principles, and it is exclusively built on the metaphysical concept of “man himself” or “human nature”. In fact, the evolution of human rights indicates that human nature, whether deemed a factual or normative being, is not a sufficient condition of human rights. The factual concept of human nature of the normative concept of personality itself does not naturally and logically lead to the deduction of a set of concepts of plural rights. Instead, our understanding of modern concept of human rights depends more on a “bottom-up” approach: approaching the human rights theory from widely used concept of human rights in actual social interactions. Through investigation into various types of human rights, political theorists attempt to find a consensus from all known concepts of human rights that is universally accepted by all nations. The bottom-up approach differs from the top-down approach in that the former acknowledges in the first place that different lists of rights may be categorized as human rights by different thinkers, who may interpret and understand the same right in different ways. Charles Taylor believed that human rights consist of norms of conduct and underlying justification, the former referring to various rights stipulated in national laws and international conventions, and the latter referring to philosophical views on human nature and society from a metaphysical perspective that constitute the philosophical basis of the norms of conduct related to human rights. For Taylor, people with different cultural backgrounds may vary in the deep underlying justification of human rights, which, however, does not impede us from seeking consensus on the level of norms of conduct through dialogues and communication. Such consensus, similar with “overlapping consensus” suggested by John Rawls, is a minimum consensus acceptable by all parties. Taylor further pointed out that “one can presumably find in all cultures condemnations of genocide, murder, torture, and slavery”[7]. According to Taylor, such norms of conduct are deemed overlapping consensus in a culturally diversified world. This concept of human rights can be defined as minimalism. In the West, Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian scholar of political science, is one of the first advocates of the minimalist theory of human rights, which he believes is tantamount to the “negative freedom” defined by Isaiah Berlin that protects individuals from physical harm.[8] Likewise, Western political scholars such as Michael Walzer, David Miller and Joshua Cohen all advocate minimalism of human rights, albeit to various degrees. Walzer proposes a set of “negative injunctions” that rules against murder, deceit, torture, oppression, etc.[9] as minimal morality for all societies.

A Kantian question is: how does the consensus in minimalism become possible? Is it possible to reach some degree of consensus in a non-coercive approach and come up with a list of human rights universally acknowledged by all countries? Many western scholars on human rights are optimistic, such as Griffin emphasizing that “We now, in these cosmopolitan times, tend to exaggerate the differences between societies.”[10] Empirical observations show that people in different countries may differ in religions, world outlooks, set of values and lifestyles, yet certain fundamental preconditions apply to all humans, as no one would deny the value of food, health and security in life, which may be translated into corresponding appeals for rights and summarize a minimalist list of human rights. Borrowing Walzer’s theory, this would be a “thin” list of human rights whose underlying justification does not build on “thick” and profound metaphysical or religious resources; instead, it proceeds from indisputable human needs or interests. In a world of complexity and diversity, many Western philosophers have come to realize that a “thick” list of human rights would unlikely be universally accepted unless by means of coercion or even violence. Yet obtaining a list of human rights by such means is in itself a violation and disrespect of human rights. It is therefore obvious that the minimalism of human rights with empiricism as the basic methodology conforms to our empirical observation. Problems arise, however, from empirical induction, and disputes over the contents of such a minimalist list of human rights have never ceased between countries and regions. Besides, the multitude of political, economic and social rights stipulated by various conventions on human rights are absent from the “thin” list of human rights as many of these economic and social rights rely on enormous public spending, and cashing these “checks” of pledged rights may incur an unaffordable cost on some developing countries.

The viewpoint that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” is unlikely to constitute a minimal consensus among all countries on the human rights issue since minimalism requires overlapping consensus based on equal dialogue. As behind the theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” lurks a unilateralist and interventionist approach in international affairs, which is unacceptable for other countries advocating equality of national sovereignty.

II. Boundaries of Humanitarian Intervention and Its Subsequent Problems

It was not until after WWII that a modern and secularized concept of human rights became globally influential. Traumatized by the unprecedented calamity of Fascism preying on all nations, and in particular the holocaust by Nazi Germany, many argued that a prospective international political theory shall be advocated to safeguard human rights. In 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which sought to provide a generic and normative foundation to safeguard human rights worldwide by listing a series of rights that all shall be entitled to. It was in this very context that “human rights diplomacy” practiced by Western countries started to gain momentum across the world, and wars were started in the name of “humanitarian intervention”, which consisted a major challenge to the concept of human rights in classical international law. So, does safeguarding human rights necessarily require a thorough abolishment of non-intervention principle within international law?

To answer this question, Western political philosophers advocating minimalist human rights argue that approving humanitarian intervention does not mean abandoning the non-intervention principle in international relations, but rather “becoming aware of particular exceptional situations” which constitute the scope and boundaries of humanitarian intervention. Walzer was one of the first Western political philosophers that expounded on humanitarian intervention whose basic viewpoint grounded upon “the norm is not to intervene in other people’s countries; the norm is self-determination”.[11] In normal situations, the principle of non-intervention shall apply in international affairs; however, humanitarian intervention is justified when it is response to acts “that shock the moral conscience of mankind”[12] and no local political organization possess the means to end the status quo. Therefore, failure in exercising sovereignty is an essential condition for the deposal of a sovereign state; while a second essential condition is the occurrence of “exceptional situation” that shock the moral conscience of mankind. Therefore, justified humanitarian intervention is essentially negative with a very narrow scope of applicability. According to David Miller, the non-intervention principle would be set aside provided that the international community reaches a universal consensus on whether the human rights violation has gone beyond the boundary of tolerance. At present, “such agreement exists in the case of genocide”[13] where the victims are deprived of all means of resistance without foreign aid. In such a case, the non-intervention principle of the international law is temporarily disabled and the boundary of national sovereignty broken, and intervention by other countries is justified. This indicates that a rather high threshold for the execution of humanitarian intervention is defined by minimalist human rights theory.

Another crucial question is: is “regime transformation” included in the “exceptional cases” where humanitarian intervention applies? Some advocates of “human rights first” argue that in order to prevent or avoid humanitarian disasters, it is necessary to transform the regime of certain countries by military means into a regime in conformity with Western liberalist democratic institutions. For them, humanitarian intervention is of a hysteretic nature and represents a negative and passive response; to eradicate the possibility of humanitarian disasters, regime transformation must be executed in countries where such disasters are possible to mold them with Western democracy. In other words, do political and military actions aiming at regime transformation deserve the name of humanitarian intervention or constitute a legitimate reason of humanitarian intervention? Walzer emphasized that democracy and rule of law of a country does not provide a legitimate ground for intervening with its internal affairs, nor is democracy of the political system a precondition for intervention; the key, instead, is whether the sovereignty is in severely conflict with human rights, and the only purpose of such intervention should be putting an end to violence. Therefore, “humanitarian interventions are not justified for the sake of democracy or free enterprise or economic justice or voluntary association or any other of the social practices and arrangements that we might hope for or even call for in other people’s countries”.[14] Every country has its own historical traditions, values and cultural beliefs, and one cannot truly understand the emergence, evolution and operation of political systems without being personally immersed in these specific cultural tradition resources. Regime transformation in the name of humanitarian intervention reflects a cultural centralism, which, in any form or type, would be refuted by cultural pluralism from a theoretical perspective in a world highlighting cultural diversity. In its very essence, an institutional and cultural superiority lurks behind cultural centralism in violation of the liberalist morality of equality and mutual respect. The theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” constitutes a violation of basic liberalist moral principles such as equality, respect and pluralism, and is, therefore, a self-negation of the theory.

The minimalist theory of human rights is only in favor of humanitarian intervention under exceptional circumstances; however, as Walzer put it, since the Spanish conquest of Mexico with the pretext of putting an end to Aztec human sacrifices, the so-called humanitarian intervention in most cases has been risible. Even in a morally justifiable intervention, the country initiating such intervention might have a political agenda in mind apart from humanitarian aid, for example, seeking regional political hegemony in the name of humanitarian intervention. The absence of pure humanitarian intervention in reality is the essential theoretical dilemma of humanitarian intervention. Walzer distinguished between two types of humanitarian interventions: pure humanitarian intervention and humanitarian intervention with mixed motives, the former purely aiming at saving lives, while the latter referring to mixed cases where the humanitarian motive, among other considerations of political and economic interests, is one among several reasons for military intervention. There are few genuine cases of military intervention in which their purpose was purely humanitarian; although military powers play a crucial role in international political arena, states do not send their soldiers into other states, it seems, only in order to save lives. As Jürgen Habermas noted, “the program of human rights consists in its imperialist misuse”[15] when human rights politics is reduced to an ideological tool manipulated by major powers to cover up their political interests. Therefore, entering a country by military means always sounds an alarm, and reality has sufficiently proved that interventionism tends to end up in failure. Both the Iraq War in 2003 and Libyan War in 2011 started in the ideological frame of unilateralism and interventionism deviated from the tracks presumed by Western countries, as neither country has an effective human rights protection mechanism put in place, or achieved post-war reconstruction for a thriving economy and stable society; on the contrary, both countries are plunged into prolonged turmoil. Interventionism has produced large number of refugees in West Asia and North Africa, who are deprived of both human rights and national sovereignty by the intervention of external forces.

III. Re-examination of the Relationship Between Human Rights and National Sovereignty

The theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” reflects the belief that individual rights and freedom are of a higher priority than national sovereignty, and that the respect and protection of human rights constitutes the moral foundation of legitimacy of national sovereignty. Again, “individual” here is a metaphysical presupposition, where individuals are viewed as atomic, independent moral agents entitled to the identical plural rights regardless of all identity markers such as nationality, ethnic background, culture and faith, as well as all social relations. Therefore from the perspective of philosophical foundation, the theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” relies on ontology where “the individual comes first, and society comes second”, on which critical reflections can be initiated in the following three aspects.

First is the Marxist rebuttal of the metaphysical presupposition of the individual. Marx criticized such an atomic individual as “an individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprice, and separated from the community”[16]. Human rights are thus established on the isolation rather than coalition of individuals. Isolation here refers to clear boundaries between one another that distinguish “me” from “him”. Taking property rights as an example, private property rights are defined as the possession and use of one’s own property without intervention from others, hence the existence of others is regarded as a restriction on individual rights rather than an essential element of materializing one’s individual rights. For Marx, human beings are a species being rather than enclosed and estranged “monad”. For an individual, society is a constitutive being—constituting the identity and main source of social relations of an individual—rather than a dissident being, The notion that an individual is an atomized being free of all historical traditions and social relations is but a philosophical fiction which in reality is untenable. An individual is an individual in reality, and the question of individual identity will not dispel by itself; therefore the “cosmopolitan citizen” imagined by liberalists is but a castle in the air. When one claims to be a “cosmopolitan citizen”, he/she would inevitably be questioned on his/her nationality, ethnic background, faith, etc., therefore voiding the claim of being cosmopolitan citizen. The existence of community (Gemeinschaft) makes identity possible for an individual, and all individuals in turn find themselves in existing political and cultural communities.

Second, the theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” fails to dialectically acknowledge the mutual complementarity between individual rights and national sovereignty. In fact, human rights and national sovereignty are in a dialectic and mutually complementary relationship rather than a dualistic one, and there would be no guarantee of human rights without national sovereignty. A review of the theoretical origins of Western political philosophy shows that despite the differences in their philosophical origins, the thriving development of both notions is closely related to the theory of social contract. The purpose of reaching a social contract is to ensure effective fulfillment of individual rights, which in turn relies on the sovereign authority constituted through social contract signed by the people. The principle of people’s sovereignty reveals that sovereignty is essentially constituted by the common will of all people in a political community and has, therefore, a view to safeguard public interests that are relevant to all people. Thomas Hobbes made it clear that the purpose of sovereignty is not only procuration of the safety of the people, but also guarantee that every individual subject to the sovereign be granted “all other Contentments of life, which every man by lawfull Industry, without danger, or hurt to the Common-wealth, shall acquire to himselfe”.[17] In other words, the theoretical constitution of the social contract reminds us that national sovereignty should not be severed from human rights. Should no guarantee be needed for the fulfillment of rights, the purpose of the constitution of social contract would be somewhat suspicious: since an individual has already possessed and fulfilled his/her rights, what is meaningful about sovereignty authority? Subjecting an individual under the sovereignty through social contract itself indicates that the fulfillment of human rights require a corresponding institution that materializes and safeguards human rights.

A functionalist opinion holds it that sovereignty authority will be weakened as globalization deepens. Globalization has given rise to massive flows of commodities, services, capital and workforce, delivering a heavy impact on the established lifestyles and ideologies of various countries; meanwhile, human beings are facing mounting global challenges from tackling the climate change to anti-terrorism and addressing regional security concerns, which is beyond the means of any single country. Common interests and community of destiny are therefore constructed for all countries by such reality. According to Jürgen Habermas, “this conception encounters difficulties in a highly interdependent global society.”[18] Such a functionalist view is undoubtedly based on the reality of economic globalization yet its conclusion is open to debate. In reality, from a realistic perspective, there is no global political institution whose legitimacy is universally acknowledged that is able to practically defend all rights, and nation states remain the dominant institution to safeguard human rights. Overriding the boundaries of sovereign states would likely fail to secure human rights and even cause greater harm to the human rights of other nations. Furthermore, as the US President Donald Trump openly declared “make America great again” as the guiding program of his administration, this slogan in itself indicates bitter controversies over the theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” within the Western society itself. Opposite to what liberalist philosophers advocating universalism of human rights have presumed, localizationist and nationalist narratives are still exerting their far-reaching influence on the Western society.

Lastly, the theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” ensconces the hypothesis that the contemporary Western political and legal systems are more effective in defending human rights, and that the institutional pattern of developed countries in the Western hemisphere is the only right option for the development model of modern countries, behind which lies, undoubtedly, the mindset of Euro-American cultural centrism, which is powerfully challenged by the rise of cultural pluralism that calls for inclusiveness and mutual respect in addressing cultural differences, and pursues diversity rather than singularity. Confronting Euro-American cultural centrism, S.N. Eisenstadt and Taylor both advocated the concept of “pluralistic modernity”, emphasizing that various modern cultural patterns exist among different countries, that the Western culture is merely one component of the world’s pluralistic cultural system and that Europe is but a “provincializing Europe”[19]. As mentioned above, the modern concept of human rights in the West is a universalist value proposition based on so-called universal human nature or humanity. Yet, Alasdair MacIntyre was precise to the point as he commented on David Hume’s moral philosophy that “the appeal to a universal verdict by mankind turns out to be the mask worn by an appeal to those who physiologically and socially share Hume’s attitudes and Weltanschauung.”[20] To say the least, the fact that universalist value appeal is a typical feature of the Western culture does not necessarily eclipse the cultures of other countries or regions which are also entitled to appeal for universalization, as universality is not exclusively reserved for the Western cultural pattern. In summary, based on the normative requirements for inclusiveness and equality, Western cultural values cannot be taken indiscriminately as the standard against which value appeals in other cultures are measured. The theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” is detrimental for international cooperation on an equal footing, as the cultural centrism behind it jeopardizes, rather than facilitates, the consensus on human rights. Only through joint participation in dialogues with a non-coercive, open and inclusive attitude will a minimal consensus acceptable to all stakeholders be possible.

(Ai Silin: Professor; Dean of School of Marxism, Tsinghua University; Changjiang distinguished professor, Ministry of Education.

Qu Weijie: Associate Professor, School of Marxism, Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications.)

This paper was first published in Marxism and Reality, No 3, 2020 in Beijing, China.

* This paper was first published in Marxism and Reality, No 3, 2020 in Beijing, China.

[1] Jürgen Habermas, The Inclusion of the Other, edited by Ciaran Cronin and Pablo De Greiff. The MIT Press, 1998, p. 147.

[2] Terence Ball et. al. (ed.) Political Innovation and Conceptual Change, Cambridge University Press, 1989, p. 293.

[3] Charles R. Beitz, The Idea of Human Rights, Oxford University Press, 2009, p.59.

[4] Karl Marx, Economic Manuscripts of 1857-58, “Introduction”, Marx & Engels Collected Works. Vol. 28, Lawrence & Wishart , 1986, p. 18.

[5] Robert Bellah, What Changes Very Fast and What Doesn’t Change: Explosive Modernity and Abiding Truth, Journal of Peking University (Philosophy and Social Sciences, 2012 Vol. 1.

[6] James Griffin, On Human Rights, Oxford University Press, 2008, p.29.

[7] Charles Taylor, Dilemmas and Connections, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011, p. 106.

[8] Michael Ignatieff, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, Princeton University Press, 2001, p. 173.

[9] Michael Walzer, Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad, University of Notre Dame, 1994, p. 10.

[10] James Griffin, On Human Rights, Oxford University Press, 2008, p.138.

[11] Michael Walzer, Arguing About War, Yale University Press, 2004, p. 81.

[12] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, Basic Books, 2006, p. 107.

[13] Lukas H. Meyer (ed.) Legitimacy, Justice and Public International Law, Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 249.

[14] Michael Walzer, Arguing About War, Yale University Press, 2004, p. 69.

[15] Jürgen Habermas, The Concept of Human Dignity and the Realistic Utopia of Human Rights, Metaphilosophy, Vol. 41, No. 4, July 2010, p. 477.

[16] Karl Marx, On the Jewish Question,1844, Marx & Engels Collected Works. Vol. 3, Lawrence & Wishart , 1975, p. 164.

[17] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Oxford University Press, 1965, p. 258.

[18] Jürgen Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion: Philosophical Essays, Translated by Ciaran Cronin, Polity Press, 2008, p. 320.

[19] Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, Duke University Press, 2004. p. 196.

[20] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, University of Notre Dame Press, 2007, p. 231.

Category : China | Democracy | Philosophy | Theory | Blog
25
Oct


Protestors demonstrate during a ‘No Evictions, No Police’ national day of action protest against law enforcement who forcibly remove people from homes on September 1, 2020, in New York City. ANGELA WEISS / AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

By William I. Robinson
Truthout

Oct 25, 2020 – Few would disagree in light of recent events that the Trump regime, its most diehard extreme-right, white supremacist supporters, and elements of the Republican Party are bidding for a fascist putsch. Whether this putsch remains insurgent or is beaten back will depend on how events unfold in the November 3 election and its aftermath, and especially on the ability of left and progressive forces to mobilize to defend democracy and to push forward a social justice agenda as a counterweight to the fascist project.

This fight can benefit from analytical clarity as to what we are up against — in particular, analysis that links the threat of fascism to capitalism and its crisis. I have been writing about the rise of 21st-century fascist projects around the world since 2008. While such a project has been brewing in the United States since the early 21st century, it entered a qualitatively new stage with the rise of Trumpism in 2016 and appears to be fast-tracked now as the election draws near.

In the broader picture, fascism, whether in its 20th- or 21st-century variant, is a particular, far right response to capitalist crisis, such as that of the 1930s and the one that began with the financial meltdown of 2008 and has now been greatly intensified by the pandemic. Trumpism in the United States; Brexit in the United Kingdom; the increasing influence of neo-fascist and authoritarian parties and movements throughout Europe (including Poland, Germany, Hungary, Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, France, Belgium and Greece), and around the world (such as in Israel, Turkey, the Philippines, Brazil and India), represent just such a far-right response to the crisis.

Trumpism and Fascism

The telltale signs of the fascist threat in the United States are in plain sight. Fascist movements expanded rapidly since the turn of the century in civil society and in the political system through the right wing of the Republican Party. Trump proved to be a charismatic figure able to galvanize and embolden disparate neo-fascist forces, from white supremacists, white nationalists, militia, neo-Nazis and Klansmen, to the Oath Keepers, the Patriot Movement, Christian fundamentalists, and anti-immigrant vigilante groups. Since 2016, numerous other groups have emerged, from the Proud Boys and QAnon to the Boogaloo movement (whose explicit goal is to spark a civil war) and the terrorist Michigan group known as Wolverine Watchmen. They are heavily armed and mobilizing for confrontation in near-perfect consort with the extreme right wing of the Republican Party, which long since has captured that party and turned it into one of utter reaction.

Encouraged by Trump’s imperial bravado, his populist and nationalist rhetoric, and his openly racist discourse, predicated in part on whipping up anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-Black sentiment, they began to cross-pollinate to a degree not seen in decades as they gained a toehold in the Trump White House and in state and local governments around the country. Paramilitarism spread within many of these organizations and overlapped with state repressive agencies. Racist, far right and fascist militia, identified by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security as the most lethal domestic terrorist threat, operate inside law enforcement agencies. As far back as 2006, a government intelligence assessment had warned of “white supremacist infiltration of law enforcement by organized groups and by self-initiated infiltration by law enforcement personnel sympathetic to white supremacist causes.”

Fascism seeks to violently restore capital accumulation, establish new forms of state legitimacy and suppress threats from below unencumbered by democratic constraints.


The fascist insurgency reached a feverish pitch in the wake of the mass protests sparked by the police-perpetrated murder of George Floyd in May. Among recent incidents too numerous to list, fascist militia members have routinely showed up heavily armed at anti-racist rallies to threaten protesters, and in several instances, have carried out assassinations. Trump has refused to condemn the armed right-wing insurgency. To the contrary, he defended a self-described vigilante and “Blue Lives Matter” enthusiast who shot to death two unarmed protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on August 25. On September 3, federal marshals carried out an extra-judicial execution of Michael Reinoehl, who admitted to shooting a few days earlier a member of the white supremacist group Patriot Prayer during a confrontation between Trump supporters and counterprotesters in Portland, Oregon. “There has to be retribution,” declared Trump in a chilling interview in which he seemed to take credit for what amounted to a death squad execution.

Particularly ominous was the plot by a domestic terrorist militia group, broken up on October 8, to storm the Michigan state capitol to kidnap and possibly kill the Democratic governor of Michigan and other officials, a conspiracy that the White House refused to condemn. While there are great differences between 20th- and 21st-century fascism and any parallels should not be exaggerated, we would do well to recall the 1923 “beer hall putsch” in Bavaria, Germany, which marked a turning point in the Nazis’ rise to power. In that incident, Hitler and a heavily armed group of his followers hatched a plot to kidnap leaders of the Bavarian government. Loyal government officials put down the putsch and jailed Hitler but the fascist insurgency expanded in its aftermath.

The fascist putsch now hinges on the November election. The rule of law is breaking down. Trump has claimed, without any credible evidence, that the vote will be fraudulent, has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose, and has all but called on his supporters to be prepared for an insurrection. Himself a transnational capitalist, a racist and a fascist, Trump took advantage of the protests over the murder of George Floyd to bring the project to a new level, inciting from the White House itself the fascist mobilization in U.S. civil society, manipulating fear and a racist backlash with his “law and order” discourse, and threatening a qualitative escalation of the police state. Widespread and systematic voter suppression, especially of those from marginalized communities, has already disenfranchised millions. Donald Trump Jr. called in September for “every able-bodied man and woman to join an army for Trump’s election security operation.”

Morphology of the Fascist Project

The escalation of veiled and also openly racist discourse from above is aimed at ushering the members of this white working-class sector into a racist and a neo-fascist understanding of their condition.
The current crisis of global capitalism is both structural and political. Politically, capitalist states face spiraling crises of legitimacy after decades of hardship and social decay wrought by neoliberalism, aggravated now by these states’ inability to manage the health emergency and the economic collapse. The level of global social polarization and inequality is unprecedented. The richest 1 percent of humanity control more than half of the world’s wealth while the bottom 80 percent had to make do with just 5 percent of this wealth. Such extreme inequalities can only be sustained by extreme levels of state and private violence that lend themselves to fascist political projects.

Structurally, the global economy is mired in a crisis of overaccumulation, or chronic stagnation, made much worse by the pandemic. As inequalities escalate, the system churns out more and more wealth that the mass of working people cannot actually consume. As a result, the global market cannot absorb the output of the global economy. The transnational capitalist class cannot find outlets to “unload” the trillions of dollars it has accumulated. In recent years, it has turned to mind-boggling levels of financial speculation, to the raiding and sacking of public budgets, and to militarized accumulation or accumulation by repression. This refers to how accumulation of capital comes increasingly to rely on transnational systems of social control, repression and warfare, as the global police state expands to defend the global war economy from rebellions from below.

Fascism seeks to rescue capitalism from this organic crisis; that is, to violently restore capital accumulation, establish new forms of state legitimacy and suppress threats from below unencumbered by democratic constraints. The project involves a fusion of repressive and reactionary state power with a fascist mobilization in civil society. Twenty-first-century fascism, like its 20th-century predecessor, is a violently toxic mix of reactionary nationalism and racism. Its discursive and ideological repertoire involves extreme nationalism and the promise of national regeneration, xenophobia, doctrines of race/culture supremacy alongside a violent racist mobilization, martial masculinity, militarization of civic and political life, and the normalization — even glorification — of war, social violence and domination.

As with its 20th-century predecessor, the 21st-century fascist project hinges on the psychosocial mechanism of dispersing mass fear and anxiety at a time of acute capitalist crisis toward scapegoated communities, whether Jews in Nazi Germany, immigrants in the United States, or Muslims and lower castes in India, and also on to an external enemy, such as communism during the Cold War, or China and Russia currently. It seeks to organize a mass social base with the promise to restore stability and security to those destabilized by capitalist crises. Fascist organizers appeal to the same social base of those millions who have been devastated by neoliberal austerity, impoverishment, precarious employment and relegation to the ranks of surplus labor, all greatly aggravated by the pandemic. As popular discontent has spread, far right and neo-fascist mobilization play a critical role in the effort by dominant groups to channel this discontent away from a critique of global capitalism and toward support for the transnational capitalist class agenda dressed in populist rhetoric.

The ideology of 21st-century fascism rests on irrationality — a promise to deliver security and restore stability that is emotive, not rational. It is a project that does not distinguish between the truth and the lie.

The fascist appeal is directed in particular to historically privileged sectors of the global working class, such as white workers in the Global North and urban middle layers in the Global South, that are experiencing heightened insecurity and the specter of downward mobility and socioeconomic destabilization. The flip side of targeting certain disaffected sectors is the violent control and suppression of other sectors — which, in the United States, come disproportionately from the ranks of surplus labor, communities that face racial and ethnic oppression, or religious and other forms of persecution.

The mechanisms of coercive exclusion include mass incarceration and the spread of prison-industrial complexes; anti-immigrant legislation and deportation regimes; the manipulation of space in new ways so that both gated communities and ghettos are controlled by armies of private security guards and technologically advanced surveillance systems; ubiquitous, often paramilitarized policing; “non-lethal” crowd control methods; and mobilization of the culture industries and state ideological apparatuses to dehumanize victims of global capitalism as dangerous, depraved and culturally degenerate.

Racism and Competing Interpretations of the Crisis

We cannot under-emphasize the role of racism for the fascist mobilization in the United States. But we need to deepen our analysis of it. The U.S. political system and the dominant groups face a crisis of hegemony and legitimacy. This has involved the breakdown of the white racist historic bloc that to one extent or another reigned supreme from the end of post-Civil War reconstruction to the late 20th century but has become destabilized through capitalist globalization. The far right and neo-fascists are attempting to reconstruct such a bloc, in which “national” identity becomes “white identity” as a stand-in (that is, a code) for a racist mobilization against perceived sources of anxiety and insecurity.

Yet many white members of the working class have been experiencing social and economic destabilization, downward mobility, heightened insecurity, an uncertain future and accelerated precariatization — that is, ever more precarious work and life conditions. This sector has historically enjoyed the ethnic-racial privileges that come from white supremacy vis-à-vis other sectors of the working class, but it has been losing these privileges in the face of capitalist globalization. The escalation of veiled and also openly racist discourse from above is aimed at ushering the members of this white working-class sector into a racist and a neo-fascist understanding of their condition.

To beat back the threat of fascism, popular resistance forces must put forward an alternative interpretation of the crisis, involving a social justice agenda founded on a working-class politics.

Racism and the appeal to fascism offer workers from the dominant racial or ethnic group an imaginary solution to real contradictions; recognition of the existence of suffering and oppression, even though its solution is a false one. The parties and movements associated with such projects have put forth a racist discourse, less coded and less mediated than that of mainstream politicians, targeting the racially oppressed, ethnic or religious minorities, immigrants and refugees in particular as scapegoats. Yet in this age of globalized capitalism, there is little possibility in the United States or elsewhere of providing such benefits, so that the “wages of fascism” now appear to be entirely psychological. The ideology of 21st-century fascism rests on irrationality — a promise to deliver security and restore stability that is emotive, not rational. It is a project that does not and need not distinguish between the truth and the lie.

The Trump regime’s public discourse of populism and nationalism, for example, bears no relation to its actual policies. Trumponomics involves a sweeping deregulation of capital, slashing social spending, dismantling what remains of the welfare state, privatization, tax breaks to corporations and the rich, anti-worker laws, and an expansion of state subsidies to capital — in short, radical neoliberalism. Trump’s populism has no policy substance. It is almost entirely symbolic — hence the significance of his fanatical “build the wall” and similar rhetoric, symbolically essential to sustain a social base for which the state can provide little or no material bribe. This also helps to explain the increasing desperation in Trump’s bravado as the election approaches.

But here is the clincher: Deteriorating socioeconomic conditions and rising insecurity do not automatically lead to racist or fascist backlash. A racist/fascist interpretation of these conditions must be mediated by political agents and state agencies. Trumpism represents just such a mediation.

To beat back the threat of fascism, popular resistance forces must put forward an alternative interpretation of the crisis, involving a social justice agenda founded on a working-class politics that can win over the would-be social base of fascism. This would-be base is made up of a majority of workers who are experiencing the same deleterious effects of global capitalism in crisis as the entire working class. We need a social justice and working-class agenda to respond to its increasingly immiserated condition, lest we leave it susceptible to a far right populist manipulation of this condition. Joe Biden may well win the election. Yet even if he does so and manages to take office, the crisis of global capitalism and the fascist project it is stoking will continue. A united front against fascism must be based on a social justice agenda that targets capitalism and its crisis.

William I. Robinson is distinguished professor of sociology, global studies and Latin American studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. His most recent book is The Global Police State. His Facebook blog page is WilliamIRobinsonSociologist.

Category : Fascism | Militarism | Neoliberalism | Racism | Rightwing Populism | Trump | Blog