The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 20-JAN 21

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DEC 20-JAN 21 Issue
Field Notes

The American Crisis: A Trans-Atlantic View

A week after the American elections Le Monde—one of the European newspapers that respects the principle of “All the news that’s fit to print” and which Guy Debord named “the official paper of every government”—asked, “Where did the ‘soul’ of America go?” A “soul” that seems unquiet, even tormented, in a profoundly divided and polarized country. This situation worries those who run Europe. Beyond the Trump “case,” practically all analysts agree in seeing Trumpism as a “coalition of popular protest,” an “anti-system” movement held together by an ultra-liberal ideology. These are tendencies to be seen also in the European societies, where Trump has become a model for various right wing organizations, more or less extreme. But what is aggravating the malaise of the European political classes and their ideological servitors is the destructive impact of Trumpism on the coherence of American society, on the national consensus, on the very foundation of the modern state—the idea of a general interest and collaboration between the classes.

The division inherent in all societies based on the capitalist mode of production is aggravated in the American case by the historical specificities of its foundation and its development—a division which Occupy emphasized with a crash, not so long ago, and which the revolts against racial violence, the appearance of new movements like Black Lives Matter, and the mobilizations for the abolition of the police have very recently made evident. Ultimately, the disquiet of the European ruling classes clarifies what they understand to be the essence of that “soul,” whose contours seem at first sight to be rather vague: democratic consensus. For the implosion of this consensus opens up on conflicts and clashes escaping consensual resolution and makes even the pursuit of the reproduction of a modern capitalist society seem difficult.

In other words, and this seems to be indeed the central preoccupation of capitalist thinkers on this side of the Atlantic, can the system of representation survive in the absence of a cross-class consensus, the reign of neoliberalism, or does it require a new, muscular neoliberalism dominating society in an authoritarian way? Does the American evolution announce the European future—a future which is in any case already being constructed with the accelerated deployment of repressive states, oriented towards anti-terrorist measures, and an incapacity to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic other than by the curtailment of daily liberties? Countries like France have lived for years now under a state of emergency, with a muscular “state of law” and more and more repressive legislation. Has the “soul” of Europe also been dissolved in the security needs of the present?

Trump’s defeat and the new administration were thus greeted with lukewarm relief. Relief, on the one hand, because they put a provisional stop to the authoritarian evolution of representative democracy, an evolution not always easy to manage. Lukewarm, on the other hand, because the famous “divisiveness” is still there, as is shown by the strengthening of the Trumpists in opposition to the work of moderation promised by the new team. Especially because fear of a possible reemergence of oppositional movements is added to global political disequilibrium. Thus, in France, social conflict is “masked” by anti-pandemic confinement measures and the specter of the Yellow Vests still haunts the political class. Apart from the differences in proportion and the specific features of the two societies, they play a role comparable to that of Black Lives Matter in the United States. The disquiet of the European leaders is particularly exacerbated by the North American situation and this is why the stakes of the American election and the questions it raises go far beyond the anodyne electoral event.

Every election is a photograph of a particular moment. If societies are, as class societies, formations in movement, the moment captured by the photo does not show this movement. What is visible is not all of what is real, even if some aspects of the visible express the movement of society and announce its future.

Thus, even for those who don’t confuse the struggle for real democracy with the passive practices of representation, the electoral photo is important: it reveals the state of the balance of political forces. It shows the measure of the forces at work in the movement of society, and clarifies the points of conflict. The North American elections, apart from the complex, obscure, and particularly imperfect character of that specific system of representation, are undeniably important because they take place in the framework of one of the richest—if not the richest—and most powerful societies in the capitalist world, at a particularly disequilibrated moment in its history. The profound political and social crisis that the United States is going through is rooted in a long period of economic stagnation characterized by a weak growth of the productivity of labor and of productive investment, with mass unemployment, wage-labor restructured around precarity, and the impoverishment of living conditions. As a corollary, there is growing social inequality and a hitherto unseen level of concentration of wealth. These tendencies, aggravated today by a pandemic with unknown limits, are present also, to various degrees, in European societies. Under these circumstances, the importance of the Republican vote, the mobilization of the Trumpist crowds, and the weakening of the Democratic vote in suburban areas and in the American heartland are as significant as the defeat of Trump.

In his article “Happy Days,” in the November Field Notes,1 Paul Mattick posed several questions about current interpretations of the authoritarian nature of the Trump administration and about the perspectives of the Biden administration to come. He correctly opposed the facile and moralistic idea that the Trump administration is proto-fascist, which evades analysis of the goals and interests it actually has. He based his critique on a comparison with the fascist regimes of the past, which were based on a massive intervention of the state into the economy and on the totalitarian organization of social life. It can also be said that, in the same way that the obsession with Antifa mobilizes the Trumpist crowds, a confused anti-fascist sentiment has taken root in the progressive milieu, confusing people to the point of weakening critical thinking and immobilizing the development of oppositional action. Such action had reached an unexpected degree of radicality in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations against racist crimes and for the abolition of the police, only to turn to electoral activity, from which it will have to disengage itself if it is to take up again an autonomous and creative dynamic. Conversely, one of the most urgent tasks of the new managers of the state will doubtless be to try to integrate this opposition into their political agenda, the attempt to rebuild national unity being their highest priority. During her victory speech, the vice president, Kamala Harris, was clear: “You have fought, you have organized yourselves, you have voted!” Without saying it, she suggested, “Now, it’s our business—go home.” Given the ruptures in society, the rise of white-supremacist racism swept along by the fear of those who persist in seeing class society and its inequalities as the only possible and desirable horizon, it is far from certain that the sought-for unity will come into being.

Political discussion should free itself from old formulas with their old contents that no longer correspond to the present. The congealed illusion of anti-fascism is inadequate for the comprehension of the mutations of contemporary politics. In Europe, as in the United States, it is common today to evoke the past, confusing the authoritarian evolution of representational systems with fascist regimes. Certainly, this evolution borrows traits, values, and principles of action from classic fascism. This is why the term is often utilized in an emotive way, evoking the cruelty of political action, the recourse to values like patriotism, racism, hatred of the Other, the call for violence, the exaltation of male chauvinism. Sometimes, under certain economic aspects of the nationalistic defense of weak sectors of capitalism, the Republican party under the control of the Trump clan is reminiscent of the political protest movements of the 1950s in France which led to the Front National of the Le Pen family. Except that Trump and his family succeeded in installing themselves at the head of the American state, transforming the representational system, already quite selective, into a rather personal power, able to surround itself with repressive police institutions supporting him and with a growing presence in society. It is interesting, from this point of view, to note that a similar development is taking place in French society, where the power of the police is strengthening and winning a certain degree of autonomy over the “democratic” institutions of the state. The police unions, close to the extreme right, have become unavoidable forces in political life, with a determining weight in the choice of high-level functionaries and ministers, protecting their members with total impunity.2

We know that capitalist society and its forms of government are terrains of madness. But, to return to the case of Trump and his administration, we must remember that we are looking at an attempt to reinforce the capitalist class and to extend the private pillaging of resources beyond any state regulation. Trump is surely not a fascist in the classical sense, but he is without a doubt a modern expression of the bourgeois authoritarian personality. In the same way that social democracy is no longer a way to “reform” the system, the form that political authoritarianism will take in the future will break from the old model of the fascist regime, which defended a certain type of general interest based on the ideology of the abolition of classes and on the irrational values of race, nation, and people.

The ongoing American crisis is that of the disintegration of the idea of the general interest inherent in the functioning of representative democracy. Trumpism, beyond the hysterical defense of tax reductions, is the ideology of each for himself, along with contempt for the weak (“losers”) and the Other. Contrary to classical fascism it does not serve as a vehicle for the idea of a totalitarian unity of society, but, much the opposite, it nourishes its breaking apart. That such a disintegration is happening in one of the most powerful capitalist societies is in itself significant of the historical moment in which we live, that of a deep crisis of bourgeois politics. This disintegration is at the root of the violence of the Trumpist period, of the exacerbation of the most ignoble and inhumane values. A violence which is not only political, but which hides the violence of social relations, at work and in every other aspect of collective life. In the United States, the breakdown of the idea of the general interest brings to the surface principles and values specific to the violent history of that nation: colonization, genocide, slavery-oriented racism. More than in Europe, the old labor movement and its institutions have progressively collapsed—for ill and for good—in company with the trajectory of capitalist stagnation since the WWII, bringing with it the disappearance of the last landmarks of working-class integration into the social consensus, one of the pillars supporting the general interest. This can only aggravate the evolution of the social implosion.

In the European countries of the old representative democracy, this movement of disintegration of the idea of the general interest is absent, the political forces organizing compromise and negotiation between the classes still bet on the defense of the general interest of the system, seen as indispensable to the functioning of capitalism, even under its aggressively neoliberal form. The violence unleashed by this disintegration in the United States disquiets more than it seduces the European ruling classes. Hence the quest for the “lost soul” of America.

The future can always bring something worse, but also something better, if the forces of emancipation get themselves together. The electoral moment is only a momentary pausing of this process. To repeat Paul Mattick’s words in “Happy Days”, “we will be forced one again to confront the real problem: … the basic nature of our present social reality itself.” In other words, we are engaged in the contradictory movement of the system towards a day of reckoning for the survival of humanity. Discourses about a possible return to a harmony of the past which never existed may be comforting, but they run the risk of being derisory and prone to blow up in our faces. Another future can never have the contours of the past.

Paris, November 2020

  2. At the end of November 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Macron government proposed a security law promoted by the extreme right. This produced a strong opposition in society (and even in the very go-along-to-get-along Council on Human Rights of the UN) because it was intended to “protect the police,” forbidding everyone, including journalists, to film police during demonstrations. This was the cynical response of the government to social movements against police violence, which continually victimize the young people of the suburbs as well as the Yellow Vests.


Charles Reeve

Charles Reeve lives and writes in Paris. He is most recently the author of Le Socialisme Sauvage (Paris: L'échappée, 2018), with translations into German, Portuguese, Spanish, and Portuguese (Brazil).


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 20-JAN 21

All Issues