Autumn Number 2019

Interview Of John Bellamy Foster

"Ruin or Revolution"

Farooque Chowdhury

[The rise of extreme rightist forces is a phenomenon now affecting numerous countries. The colour and tone of this varies from country to country, depending on the objective conditions of a given society and the electoral equation. Neverthless, there is no doubt that this development is having enormously damaging and alarming effects around the globe. Most intellectual and political responses to these rapidly changing circumstances take a mechanical form, missing the class roots of this phenomenon, and thus only serve to spread confusion and passivity.

In sharp contrast, John Bellamy Foster, editor of Monthly Review, the famous socialist magazine, delves into the question of the rise of the right in the following interview conducted by Farooque Chowdhury in July-early-August, 2019. Foster addresses how these developments relate to the state of the world capitalist economy and its evolving political-class dimensions.

John Bellamy Foster is a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon, and author of numerous books on political, economic, and ecological issues, including The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism (1986, 2014), Marx's Ecology (2000), Naked Imperialism (2006), and Trump in the White House (2017). The interview was completed on August 5, 2019.]

Farooque Chowdhury: The map of politics on the both sides of the Atlantic is increasingly marked by the rise of the right. In Europe, there are the Vox and Golden Dawn in Spain and Greece respectively; the Alternative for Germany, the National Rally in France, The Finns in Finland, The League in Italy, Conservative People's Party in Estonia, and many more from the Sweden Democrats in Sweden in the north to the ELAM in Cyprus in the south. Most of the economies, from bigger and stronger to smaller and weaker, in Europe are witnessing electoral forward march of the rightist forces. On the opposite side of the Atlantic, there are the rise of rightist forces and trends not only in the mainstream politics, but also in other forms and approaches including groups propagating and resorting to violent approach. Reports of armed rightist groups have also appeared in the mainstream media in the U.S. This fact in today's mainstream politics in these two continents is stark. What's the source—socio-economic and political—of this rise of the right in these two continents?

John Bellamy Foster: There can be no doubt that we are facing a wave of right-wing movements, for which the term neo-fascism, appears to be the most appropriate designation. In attempting to understand what it is happening today I think it is important to draw upon a historical perspective. Eric Hobsbawm's remarkable The Age of Extremes on the history of the twentieth century includes a chapter called "The Fall of Liberalism," in which he explains that the liberal-democratic state in the 1920s was mainly limited to Western Europe and the Americas—since much of the world was then colonised. Few in that period would have thought of liberalism as in any sense the wave of the future. There were perhaps twenty-five or so constitutional democracies in 1920. By 1938, this had fallen to perhaps seventeen, and in 1944, to perhaps twelve out of a global total of sixty-four independent states. This of course corresponded to the era of fascism. Nevertheless, to point to the growth of fascism as the cause of this weakening of liberalism in the 1920s would be, Hobsbawm wrote, "insufficient if not wholly irrelevant."

The real material cause of the decline of liberalism in the 1920s and 1930s was a socioeconomic crisis affecting the entire capitalist system, coupled with a struggle for global hegemony. The period after the First World War represented a short period of prosperity followed by economic stagnation, arising from the overaccumulation of capital. The result was almost universal political upheaval. This proved to be a breeding ground for movements of the fascist type.

Marxian theorists along with most historians until quite recently have understood fascism as having its backbone in a political bloc or alliance formed between big capital and the lower-middle stratum/class (or petty bourgeoisie). The radical right has also historically drawn strength from rural sectors, established religions, pensioners, and sectors of the military. Nevertheless, fascism, while always present in a marginal way in capitalist societies, never arises in full force on its own. It is only able to consolidate itself as movement in those cases where the capitalist class offers its encouragement and support, actively mobilising the regressive elements of the lower-middle class as the rearguard of the system.

Equally important to understand, as Paul Sweezy pointed out, is that fascism has as its antonym not socialism (as does capitalism in general) but liberal democracy. If the liberal-democratic state becomes an impediment to capitalist rule, in a period of economic and political crisis, the powers that be will seek to preserve, consolidate, and expand their dominance through a shift of the capitalist state to the hard right, a goal that requires mobilising the rearguard of the system, drawn from the more reactionary elements of the lower-middle class or petty bourgeoisie. Although representing a dramatic change, the rise of fascism occurs within capitalism and is part of its overall logic.

A major contributing factor in the historical fall of liberalism in Western Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, as Hobsbawm points out, was the perceived threat emanating from the mass migration from Eastern Europe, particularly Poland. This resulted in mass xenophobia and racism, particularly among small property holders and pensioners. It is worth remembering, though, that even as mainstream a German sociologist as Max Weber was a member for a time of the Pan-German League.

With this as historical background, how should one looks at the growth of the radical right that we are seeing today throughout Europe and in the United States, as well as in some emerging economies? Obviously, circumstances in the twenty-first century are very different. But the economic and political crises inherent to system and the response of the capitalist class can be seen as reflecting the continuities of capitalism as well as the changes. Today there is once again a structural crisis of capital, most evident in the Great Financial Crisis of 2008-2010, but actually going much deeper and extending back to the 1970s, which marked the beginning of the long slowdown of the advanced capitalist economies. Stagnation, characterised by the overaccumulation of capital, is all the more significant in present time since it has been accompanied by the greatest inequality in history. The world has also seen the emergence of a new phase of imperialism, best characterised as "late imperialism", in which international exploitation/expropriation has been intensified in the context of the globalisation of production and the prevalence of global value chains. International conflicts and racism are on the rise. Both the United States and Europe are experiencing declines in their respective positions within international economic hierarchy, symbolised by the rise of China. On top of all of this is a planetary ecological crisis on a scale that has no precedent in history, and which threatens the very future of humanity, not in some distant period, but already in the present century.

Neoliberalism, which seeks to subordinate the state to the market, while also using the state apparatus to enforce market relations, is systematically dissolving all bases of community relations transforming them into mere commodity relations. This has served to delegitimise the state, the unintended effect of which has been to encourage the development of radical right or neofascist movements opposed to liberal/neoliberal political elites along with the working poor. Xenophobic racism is being directed at immigrants and populations emanating from the global South. At the same time, perpetual war and imperialist-based coups have generated millions of refugees. Overall, the conditions of our time are those of epochal economic, social, and ecological crises, accompanied by intensified imperialism and war. In the United States, where the social fabric is coming apart, mass killings mostly emanating from deranged figures on the right armed with assault rifles, occur almost every day. In India, the rise of the right has been associated with widespread lynchings.

FC: Most of the discussions on the rise of the right point to the mass support that these reactionary forces are amassing. This should be identified emphatically. You have said that the class basis has to do with the mobilisation of the lower-middle class by sectors of the ruling monopoly-finance capital. Could you say more about the class basis of this right-wing political force? Should the class basis be identified based on support it garners from broader society or the class interests it upholds?

JBF: I think that most of the confusion in this respect has been the product of a failure to develop a class analysis of these changes. From a class perspective, it is clear that what we are seeing is the growth of various movements in the fascist genre (whether prefascism, classical fascism, postfascism, neo-fascism, neoliberal fascism, ur-fascism, peripheral fascism, white supremacism, or nationalist-populism—you can take your pick). Fascist-type movements share certain definite class-based characteristics or tendencies. Although it is common in liberal discourse to approach such movements at the level of appearance, in terms of their ideological characteristics, such an idealist methodology, only throws a veil over the underlying reality.

Historically, fascism was defined by Marxist theorists, such as George Dimitrov, Leon Trotsky, Franz Neumann, Sweezy, and Nicos Poulantzas, in class terms, as movements that had their mass basis in the mobilisation of the volatile lower middle-class/stratum or petty bourgeoisie, which tends to be pro-capital (but opposed to what they see as elitist, crony and financial interests, sometimes mixed, as in Nazi ideology, with anti-Semitism), as well as being anti-working class/anti-immigrant, racist, and xenophobic. The lower-middle class is subject to a fear of falling into the great "unwashed," poverty-stricken working class below. At the same time, they are very suspicious of the upper-middle class, above them, which is more educated, and which often is more aligned with the state.

As Marx stressed, class boundaries are always porous, and in many respects most of the lower-middle class or stratum can be seen as part of the expanded working class, particularly today, when relatively few among this stratum can be said to own their own means of production. Nevertheless, the distinctiveness of what constitutes the lower-middle stratum (culturally as well as economically, and often ethnically) is fairly evident at a practical level. In the United States, this population is predominantly white and nationalist, enjoying economic, cultural, and racial privileges, and frequently setting itself apart as "middle class." It constitutes may be 20-25 percent of the population in most advanced capitalist societies, though its influence extends beyond its numbers.

To be sure, movements in the fascist genre are never simply about sheer numbers. The mass mobilisation of the radical right, which makes it a singular force, operating on the basis of its own ideology, is normally only possible when backed by significant sections of monopoly-finance capital, who provide the economic support and the means of access and organisation. At the same time, big capital dominates the actual political-economic terrain in which movements of the radical right develop. Once a fascistic movement comes to power, there is an effort at the top to purge—if necessary, by extremely violent means—the movement so as to eliminate the more "radical" cadres, thereby subordinating them completely to the interests of the dominant capitalist fraction. At the same time, attempts are made via Gleichschaltung, or bringing into line, to use terrorism to dragoon elements of the upper-middle class and working class, broadening the actual material support for the regime.

There is of course little in the way of any direct historical connection between today's neofascist movements and the fascist moments of the 1920s and 1930s (despite the fact that figures like Donald Trump's advisor Steve Bannon reached back into the fascist/neofascist tradition of the 1930s, by way of figures like Italian fascist Julius Evola). Nevertheless, there are broad commonalities to fascist-genre movements stretching across history. The neofascism emerging in the United States today (even entering into the White House), has a peculiar American vernacular of white supremacy dating back to slavery, mixed with all sort of new ideological elements. Still, the breeding grounds of such reactionary movements share certain similarities in class terms. If you look at what is referred to as Trump's militant "political base," consisting of about 25-30 percent of the electorate, what you find is that it consists largely of the lower-middle stratum, with family incomes in say the realm of $75,000 a year—a sector of the population which is heavily white and in a position of extreme economic security (fear of falling), while ideologically nationalist-imperialist, with the accompanying militant racism. Much of this demographic, moreover, is associated with right-wing evangelism. In many respects, this is similar to what is being seen today in Jair Bolsonaro's Brazil.

It is big business within the neo-fascist bloc that invariably calls the shots in the economic sphere. As far as capital is concerned, it is still the cash-nexus that is first and foremost. Trump's chief worth to the ruling class lies in the fact that, due to the political leverage that he has derived from the mobilisation of the radical right, he is able to deliver value added to the wealthy, while eliminating obstacles to the market's sway over all aspects of society.

Thus, if one looks at the Trump programme many of the ideological features are of course consonant with the white lower-middle stratum, such as nationalism, racism, misogynism, anti-liberalism, anti-socialism, etc. And it is Trump's particular political agility to draw upon these regressive ideologies as means of political mobilisation and political power. The main sop provided to his base in this respect is his wall along the Mexican border, and his new detention centres (or concentration camps for immigrant families) symbolising a war against poor immigrants. But the political-economic policies of the Trump administration have little to do with the demands of his political base and are concerned primarily with enhancing the power of monopoly-finance capital: huge tax breaks and subsidies to big business and the wealthy; economic and environmental deregulation; undermining trade unions; rapid privatisation of education; expansion of the penal state; destruction of what little progress was made in providing accessible healthcare to the population; increased support of finance; and an unrelenting war for US hegemony, with no pretenses remaining with respect to free trade or human rights.

FC: In what way is the rise of the right the result of the limitations of progressive political movements, as opposed simply to the structural crisis of capital?

JBF: The impasse of the global left in recent decades is of course part of the equation. The demise of Soviet bloc countries and the seeming collapse everywhere of social democracy in the period of capitalist triumphalism have left the left "disarmed." The right has to some extent filled the gap, appearing to confront the dominant elites.

It is crucial here to understand that positions facing the right and socialist left in the age of the structural crisis of capitalism and the crisis of the liberal-democratic state are not in any way symmetrical. For the capitalist class and the political right, it is a straight forward question of defending the current order, including pushing forward a neoliberal politics of austerity that has lost all legitimacy under the mantle of "making America strong again." It is this that has led to the mobilisation of neofascist elements with the lower middle class and the attack on the liberal democratic state itself, as a way of stabilising a stagnation-prone system. Weber famously defined the state as that entity with a "monopoly of the legitimate use of force." In a fascist state, as articulated by the Nazi ideolo-gue Carl Schmitt, the legitimacy of the fascist state resides in the führer principle: the leader embodies the right associated with the monopoly of force.

For the left, the challenges are much more complex. It is presented with a choice between, on the one hand, social democratic policies designed to make capitalism work better on behalf of the entire society, which today, however, means a compromise with neoliberalism, and, on the other hand, a genuine movement toward socialism aimed at a long revolution against capitalism/imperialism. Social democracy as a strategy has proven increasingly dysfunctional in the era of economic stagnation and restructuring has capitulated again and again to the neoliberal state. While any attempt to challenge the system fundamentally faces the total opposition of the capitalist system.

To be sure, left populism (which has nothing to do with so-called "populism" on the right), has emerged in the last few decades as an alternative radical strategy on the left, divorced from social democracy and socialism. However, it has been unable to translate its popular support into organised means of political change consonant with its goals. It draws its political theory from the work of post-Marxists like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, who have argued for a coalescence of the working class with the lower-middle class, through a populist left strategy that seeks to avoid articulating working-class aims, in effect a retreat from class. This has been defended as a pragmatic attempt to create a Gramscian-style counter-hegemonic bloc. But rather than seeking to absorb key elements of the lower-middle class into a working-class led bloc, this strategy translates into an attempt to create an anti-elite majoritarian movement by subsuming the working class within a political bloc that does not extend beyond the more "radical" anti-elitist milieu of the petty bourgeois view. The result has been a movement lacking any clear opposition to capitalism. Absent a concrete politics and organisation, a political party or movement built up in this way, becomes more, not less, vulnerable to the takeover of a corrupt leadership, as it approaches power, as in Syriza in Greece, which actually opened the way to the return to power of the traditional anti-communist party of the right, New Democracy.

But if it is true that the left is seemingly unable to mount significant challenges to the ruling circles in the advanced capitalist world, why are neofascist movements now receiving so much support from some of the upper echelons of capitalist class? The answer is to be found in the structural crisis of capital itself. The stagnation and financialisation of the capitalist economy, of which neoliberalism is the outward manifestation, requires that the system continually seeks to intensify its exploitation and expropriation of the population—as the only answer. The capitalist juggernaut can never stand still or cease to augment itself (even if does not accumulate in terms of new investment), but rather needs constantly to expand its circle of value. But today such amassing of wealth in the context of pervasive economic stagnation (slow growth, high underemployment, low investment, and idle capacity), depends on capital taking bigger slices of a non-growing or slowly growing pie. Unable to rule in the old way, based simply on the actual accumulation process, and choosing outright robbery (so-called accumulation by dispossession) as its answer to its crisis of valorisation, monopoly-finance capital in the neoliberal era is drawn to ever greater extremes of expropriation, undermining the liberal-democratic state itself.

Here capital is faced with the entrenched institutional gains made by workers in the past, which stand in the way of this intensified bleeding process. As E P Thompson wrote in "The Peculiarities of the English," the working class, failing to overthrow capitalism, had in various ways constructed intricate economic, political, and cultural warrens in areas such as basic working conditions; housing, economic and environmental regulations; welfare; pensions; public education; public transportation; health community and cultural institutions; and political/legal/human rights—a whole labyrinthine existence at the material and cultural roots of the system, operating independently of the logic of capital. These entrenched positions and customary rights of the populace, the result of hard-won gains, constitute obstacles that capital in a period of crisis has sought to overcome, and indeed have become the primary target of its avarice. In the United States and Britain, the system is undermining the ability of workers to own their own homes, to have adequate health coverage, or pensions. Public schools are being marketised if not completely privatised. All of this has fed the coffers of monopoly-finance capital.

The system's response to over accumulation has therefore been the "creative destruction" of the very bases of social existence, creating deepening contradictions as the assault on the population extends ever deeper. At the same time, capital is faced with a population that is recalcitrant and frequently resistant, if not yet driven to outright revolt. This constantly threatens to bring neoliberalism's accumulation by dispossession to a halt. With the overall risks rising, and the stakes going up, monopoly-finance capital has decided to double its bets and draw on the forces of militant reaction, as a means of consolidating its power. Yet, these forces are themselves antagonistic towards aspects of the capitalist system.

The rise of neo-fascism is a manifestation of deeper contradictions of capital, including: the structural crisis of the system, the neoliberal assault on population, the destabilisation of the liberal democratic state, and the reactionary awakening of a radical right in the lower-middle stratum. It comes at a time of insurmountable economic stagnation, unprecedented inequality, and rapid environmental decline. Moreover, this is not simply a problem evident in the advanced capitalist countries, but we can see the same fault lines in the so-called emerging economies as well, there complicated by the fact that they have been on the receiving ends of centuries of colonialism and imperialism.

What is still conspicuously absent on the surface, but exists in all of its potential ready to burst forth in a new actuality, is the absolute rage and irresistible response of working popu-lations everywhere, a volcanic force that is bound to erupt again and again, in a multitude of ways, and indeed can be seen today in some parts of the globe. One thing is certain, the world is facing extraordinary conflicts and irreversible changes in a matter of decades. The system itself is in decay, while pulling down with it the entire planet as a place of human habitation. This centre cannot hold. The world to what Marx once referred to as conditions of "ruin or revolution."

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Autumn Number 2019
Vol. 52, No. 13 - 16, Sep 29 - October 26, 2019