The role of the left in the rise of far-right populism - Ben Debney

If Trump exemplifies the use of scapegoats by the far right for the destruction of the country by the pursuit of privilege, then Hilary Clinton exemplifies the use of scapegoats by what passes for the left for the selling out of principle on much the same grounds, a habit with many similar examples in more radical spheres.

Submitted by Common Struggle on March 29, 2018

A year of Trump has given everyone to come to terms with his election, and the resurgence of far-right populism around the world along with it. According to the average Democrat, the problem lies solely with Russian hacking of DNC computers and subsequent leaking of Hilary Rodham Clinton’s emails to Wikileaks, who then released them as Assange, to his everlasting infamy, lined up with the corporatist state media over at Fox News as the backlash swung the 2016 election in Trump’s favour.

Some, including some Counterpunch writers, argue that Democrats are riding the Trump-Russia issue merely to try to weasel out of having to admit that a rolling trainwreck of a narcissistic personality disorder did not win the 2016 presidential race so much as they lost it. Personally, I disagree with the idea that the Mueller investigation has no merit purely because the Democrats use it to dodge any sort of reflection on their own role in the rise of Trump. It is however obvious that they do this, which is problematic not least given their role in contributing to the conditions that make Trump possible to begin with.

We might take this a step further and argue that what can really only be adequately characterised as the chronic pissweakness of the DNC in refusing to reflect on their own crucial role in creating the conditions that made a loss to Trump possible is emblematic of the chronic pissweakness of the organised left in the same respect far more broadly. If Trump exemplifies the use of scapegoats by the far right for the destruction of the country by the pursuit of privilege, then Hilary Clinton exemplifies the use of scapegoats by what passes for the left for the selling out of principle on much the same grounds.

Fascism and Anti Fascism

We find in Gilles Dauvé’s When Insurrections Die a prescient historical analysis of the tension between fascism and anti-fascism with much bearing on this issue. The essence of liberal anti-fascism, he wrote, ‘consists in resisting fascism by defending democracy: one no longer struggles against capitalism but seeks to pressure capitalism into renouncing the totalitarian option.’

Thus reduced to anti-fascist resistance, social critique is enlisted in dithyrambs to everything it once denounced, and gives up nothing less than that shop-worn affair, revolution, for gradualism, a variant on the “peaceful transition to socialism” once advocated by the CPs, and derided, thirty years ago, by anyone serious about changing the world. The retrogression is palpable.

Dauvé was writing in the 1970s, when those who identified as liberals still entertained some vague concept of society beyond the market. In these days of neoliberalism on the other hand, liberalism represents the liberal wing of near-complete corporate totalitarianism, which habitually conflate the vested interests of opulent elites with the common good. Liberalism, when it still even bothers trying to sound progressive, gives us ethical finance capitalism predicated on the global circle jerk of endless petrodollar recycling and fiat currency, nice Greencorps rather than nasty browncrops, and sooner or later presumably, a biodiesel powered tank for environmentally sustainable imperialism.

With this being the case then, these days even gradualism bears the Mark of Cain in daring to cast doubt on the corporate supremacist status quo; to propose reforms for any other reason than to further entrench the absolute power of capital is to commit diabolical heresy against Freedom, necessarily defined in terms favourable to elites. This includes its liberal wing which has long defended class privilege with the carrot rather than the stick, a fact clearly not lost on many voters who abandoned the Democrats after figuring out how completely the Democrats had already abandoned them.

Anticipating such developments, Dauvé adds, ‘We won’t invite ridicule by accusing the left and far left of having discarded a radical perspective which they knew in reality only when opposing it.’

It is all too obvious that anti-fascism renounces revolution. But anti-fascism fails exactly where its realism claims to be effective: in preventing a possible dictatorial mutation of society . . . Bourgeois democracy is a phase in capital’s seizure of power, and its extension in the 20th century completes capital’s domination by intensifying the isolation of individuals. Proposed as a remedy for the separation between individual and community, between human activity and society, and between classes, democracy will never be able to solve the problem of the most separated society in history. As a form forever incapable of modifying its content, democracy is only a part of the problem to which it claims to be the solution. Each time it claims to strengthen the “social bond”, democracy contributes to its dissolution. Each time it papers over the contradictions of the commodity, it does so by tightening the hold of the net which the state has placed over social relations.

In significant respects, this is precisely what Trump played on in making appeals to the American working class, long abandoned by the Democrats. More precisely, his appeal was to the white working class, the token privileges of white skin having long been a way for anglo-capitalists to ensure the loyalty of white subordinates within vertical economic hierarchies.

For his part, Dauvé well anticipates the isolating and alienating effects of what passes for democracy under late capitalism, which guarantees individual freedom as long as they don’t conflict with the autocratic hierarchies inherent to capitalist relations of production. The corporate supremacism characteristic of neoliberal ideology in this sense reigns supreme. It is this neoliberal absolutism and the antisocial form of corporate globalisation it has engendered that is responsible for the gutting of manufacturing jobs and the laying to waste of generations of capable workers. Trumpist demagoguery harnessed this rage as a big old ‘fuck you’ to the lazy, arrogant Democrats, who despite the devastating loss have managed not to acknowledge any major issues at all, continuing with business as usual.

The fact that corporate supremacism is articulated using the corpse of liberalism and its dead language, as a perverse kind of ventriloquist act, should be telling in and of itself. Equality before the law is now articulated in the dead language of liberalism, amounting to the right to obey for those of us who find ourselves on the wrong side of the perpetual class war (nobody mention it, okay?). For those whose jobs haven’t been exported overseas, the right to obey means working overtime to service insane housing markets and personal debt accrued in the process of using retail therapy to try cope with the lack of control over the conditions of our work and our lives, throwing an endless torrent of commodities into the bottomless pit of our alienation. The right to obey otherwise means the right to rot in poverty, or the right to rot in jail when we try to utilise the same predatory instincts as CEOS without the same access to capital (Clarence Darrow).

Faced with a hostile, winner take all world, we withdraw onto antisocial media platforms, which in providing us with ways to contribute to a kind of collective, voluntary simulacra and panopticon based on policing of public morality through collective approval and opprobrium wielded against unconventionality and nonconformity are as destructive of social bonds in the name of bringing people together as it gets. And yet one waits in vain for the liberal left to acknowledge the abovementioned issues or their ramifications; in terms of the militant ignorance of Clintonite Democrats towards things they prefer not know about, they seem to come in second onto to the shortcomings of their own party and its glorious leader.

Coincidentally enough, this also tends to characterise the attitude of the radical left towards its own shortcomings. While the radical left points the finger at Democrats for their patent unwillingness to reflect on past mistakes and incapacity to place principle ahead of servicing their own careers, interests and egos, it throws stones from within a glasshouse.

On the abandonment of relevance

As movements based on electoral party dynamics, both the liberal left and significant swathes of the radical left are loyal opponents insofar as they share the common shortcoming of abandons meaningful politics for alienated roles of permanent protest. Such roles, despite being alienated in rarely managing anything more than protest and eventually burning out those who spend enough time trying to attend every protest action, are however useful for party politics, both liberal and radical. They provide a continuous source of fresh meat for party recruiters who typically zero in on unfamiliar faces at such events like, to be frank, flies on shit. Where the liberal left abandons meaningful politics for alienated roles of permanent protest because of entanglement with the corporate interests that have long since captured, co-opted and colonised capitalist democracy, using democratic forms to speak the language of corporate supremacism, the radical left does so through entanglement with idol worship and personality politics.

As I noted in a long critique of Leninism (Leninism as Conservatism: The Russian Revolution and the Lessons of History, also on my blog at, the Russian Revolution was ‘a momentous episode in the history of working class struggle and a beacon of hope for anyone who has ever dared to dream of a basically sane and just world,’ given ‘the industrial democracy of factory committees established on the ruins of Tsarism and war.’ For some however, I argued that it tends to represent ‘an opportunity for the politicisation of history’ and ‘an opportunity to sweep all the problematic aspects of the revolution under the rug, be they the fate of the factory committees under Bolshevik rule, or of many of those who dared to fight for the ideals of socialism when they came into conflict with the political ambitions of the Bolsheviks.’

As I argued then, this tends to give rise to self-serving belief systems arising out of the exercise of state power in Russia, innocent apparently of even the slightest derivation from the original founding principle of the First International that ‘the emancipation of the working class will be carried out by the workers themselves.’ In this sense, those who embrace the ideologies associated with State Communism in Russia reflect, insofar as they share the same electoral and statist orientation as the liberals they purport to oppose, also demonstrate the same incapacity for critical reflection and militant ignorance towards facts failing to fit their preconceived narratives. Just as the liberal left suffers from the tendency to conflate corporate interests with those of everyday people, by turning a blind eye to its capture of the political process, so too does the radical left suffer from a similar tendency to conflate the vested interests of the Bolsheviks with those of the Russian people, by turning a blind eye to the fact that they became part of a ruling class as soon as they assumed state power. While those who defend their legacy howl that it was a workers’ state, not a bourgeois state, ultimately, they do so on the assumption that state actors could be defined by the ideals they professed, not by the crimes of state they committed in the name of those ideals.

As subsequent history was to demonstrate, however, the Bolshevik state was still very much a class institution. It might have survived foreign invasion, embargo and a terrifying civil war, but the revolution did not; contrary to many claims, the two were not of necessity the same thing. There was no immanent threat from the White Reaction when sailors at the Kronstadt Naval Base revolted against moves to turn municipal councils or ‘soviets’ into vassals of their own power in 1921, though as a propaganda lie the concerted resistance from Trotsky’s ‘cream of the revolution’ was proven guilty by association once their creamlike qualities became a hindrance to his own political ambitions. Again, such issues or their implications may not be discussed amongst large parts of what remains of the minute corpuscles of the radical left without howls of protest and the kind of labelling that tends to proceed demonization and the construction of a self-exonerating victim complex based on self-serving labels (‘if you think for yourself the petit-bourgeoisie wins’).

Ironically enough, this process takes place in much the same way as HRC cites misogyny far ahead of her ties to Wall Street and her hawkish foreign policy record during the Obama years as a deciding factor in her 2016 election loss. While we can hardly argue that misogyny is “very much a part of the landscape politically, socially and economically,” and that one some level it “played a role,” as Gary Leupp pointed out on, voters might have seen things somewhat differently.

The “surge” in Afghanistan; the winding down of the Iraq occupation; the huge increase in drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, killing hundreds of civilians and terrorizing whole regions; the total failure of the Obama administration to end U.S. client state Israel’s illegal settlements on the West Bank and indeed a general deterioration in high-level U.S.-Israeli relations; various U.S. interventions during the “Arab Spring;” the U.S./NATO assault on Libya that destroyed that modern state, etc.? Hillary was a key player in all these events. It’s all in her record, for all to see.

Many a Bush-era neoconservative would be proud of this record, which accounts for the support many of them lent her campaign. While the fifty-three percent of white females who voted for the short-fingered vulgarian might have felt that having a woman president of the order of a Neocon by Any Other Name wasn’t the most liberating option on the table for women, according to HRC, her party and supporters, the only issues to be accounted for were Russian hacking and misogyny.

The line of rationalisation deriving from the ‘if you think for yourself the misogynists win’ style logic is significant, not least because it demonstrates, as does the history of the Bolsheviks, that labelling, blame-shifting, demonising of opponents and adopting a victim complex based on a refusal to distinguish between being criticised and being attacked, can be perpetrated on the basis of progressive pretexts as well as reactionary ones.

On defeating the enemy by becoming them

At the reactionary end of the political compass, misogyny perpetrated by Trump and his supporters demonises women associated with the #metoo movement for resisting sexual harassment, and for wanting to be heard on that count as dabblers in ‘political correctness’ and ‘identity politics.’ This is said to oppress men by perpetrating thought policing in the form of reverse sexism that shamelessly distinguishes between attacking someone’s rights and criticising their attitudes. The hypocrisy is palpable. While bigots of various shades carry on about the perils of identity politics and thought-policing when it comes to acknowledging the injustice and insanity produced by social relations that uphold class and social privilege, they also base their own ideology on their racial and gender identity, policing criticism of their identity politics by refusing to tell any difference between being contradicted and being attacked. But everyone else is the thought police.

In white supremacism, white identity is the starting point for assumptions of relative merit — the opinions and beliefs of whites are of inherently greater value simply because of their identity. Furthermore, they don’t need facts or proof to support their ideological claims because their identity is their argument, one that with supreme convenience requires no further substantiation. Thanks to these facets of white supremacist identity politics, is no more possible to demand supporting evidence from white supremacists than it is to express doubt in, contradict, question or challenge their guiding assumptions without being identified with the enemy. In this sense of course, white supremacism is probably one of the least demanding belief systems on the planet, requiring nothing more than our circumstances of birth (which those of us who are white clearly had no say in) to justify feelings of worth and merit that again as a characteristic feature require no investment in terms of time, energy or effort to earn.

Embracing authoritarian mentalities of this kind is arguably not a hugely clever, effective or viable strategy for those of us who acknowledge the need for radical social change, even less so for neoliberals like HRC who are often hard to tell apart from the far right. This fact only becomes truer when we considering the way unprocessed authoritarian historical baggage cripples the unreconstructed radical left and frustrates its ability to establish and maintain a basic harmony between means and outcomes (the outcomes we desire understood to be determined by the means we employ). It does however have the benefit of replacing the work of challenging unjust and irrational social relations with the policing of revolutionary morality.

In policing morality, identity politics operates much the same way irrespective of whether the policing is perpetrated in the name of reactionary ideals or purportedly revolutionary ones. Actual political arguments will acknowledge the intersectional relationship between various hierarchies of privilege-based injustice and oppression, noting at the root of these a predatory, sociopathic gaze that sees workers, women, the flora and fauna and even the Earth itself as mere objects who value is determined in terms of their exploitability for profit. Identity politics invoked in the name of such arguments suggests that, because I belong to one of the categories targeted for oppression, that I have the right to invoke the same kinds of attitudes for the sake of replacing the current oppressive hierarchies with new ones under my control. Cue the Oppression Olympics where everyone lines up to see who has the biggest willy most oppressions; the winner gets to be the leader of the new informal hierarchy dominating the radical milieu and chief of the revolutionary morality policing squad.

Such attitudes are patently visible in Leninist vanguardism, which as a matter of definition tries to resolve ideological controversies and other disagreements by asserting a particular identity — in this instance, that of the working class, or of those who appoint themselves to speak in their name. I represent the working class, says Leninist vanguardism, therefore as a matter of definition you can’t contradict me without being against the working class. This attitude, being based on ‘if you think for yourself, the enemies of the working class win’-type logic is no different in terms of its blame-shifting and victim-blaming mechanics than the white supremacists logic of, ‘if you think for yourself, the enemies of the white race win.’ While the alleged evil is different, they are otherwise perfectly like; each position refers to the other while reflecting the same logic.
In actual fact, they serve the same function, which is to compel obedience to the form of identity politics being invoked (and, naturally, the person invoking them). If you don’t shut your mouth and do as you’re told, you hate us and want to destroy us, whoever ‘us’ happens to be. Within the anarchist ghetto, this attitude turns into ‘if you think for yourself or doubt the judgment of the self-appointed arbiters of revolutionary morality, the authoritarians win,’ the most self-contradictory mentality of the lot.

On becoming everything we claim to oppose

If the issues described above can be summarised as failing to dodge the pitfall of becoming everything one claims to oppose, then it does not require a degree in rocket science to figure out what the effects are. This is especially true if the left as presently (pissweakly) constituted faces a public pissed off with business as usual politics and not wanting to see more of the same. Dauvé’s observations about the limits of liberal anti-fascism in facing off against far-right populism can be extended on these grounds to radical left anti-fascism where it, too, fails to produce anything meaningful in terms of addressing the conditions that generate political support for demagogues of the Trumpian tenor.

Perpetrators of the ‘if you think for yourself or ask the wrong questions about Kronstadt, the counter-revolution wins’ attitude have, after all, had a century to make good on their ideas. Even given persistent and brutal state repression, they would not appear overall have made a great deal of headway, other than to preside over a historic defeat, not only of the left, but of the working class as well. The neoliberal corporate empire and its corporate supremacist ideology, for the moment, reigns supreme.

Not that we would want to let facts get in the way of a good story of course. As much of the radical left clutches on to century-old ideological baggage for the sake of, for example, the social status to be enjoyed as an academic well-versed in the prevailing orthodoxy, or a prominent militant for a state socialist political party, the world continues along the downward spiral into economic and ecological collapse. While defenders of left orthodoxy insist on claiming to have all the answers without appearing to know what the question in the service of their own individual self-interest, the reassertion of self-serving ideological orthodoxies take precedent over critical appraisal of the legacy of left movements, with all that entails in terms of sacrificing the viability and effectiveness of future movements for social justice to the tawdry business of servicing century-old ideologies. Just as some say that it is easier to envision the end of the world than the end of capitalism, so too does it seem easier to envision the end of the world than the end of left wing idol worship and emotional dependence on authority. Maybe we should stop believing in revolutionary prophets and just start believing in ourselves.

The fruits of these disordered priorities are apparent today in the isolation of radicals from the broader working class, whose disinterest in the radical left might be interpreted as a statement on the relevance of autocratic, doctrinaire vanguard parties incapable of thinking beyond alienated roles of permanent protest. The same goes activist ghettos toxic with informal hierarchies more generally. At best, they reduce workers to apathy. At worst, they create fodder for the far right, who are at least willing to acknowledge the pain they experience at the hands of neoliberalism while offering them exactly the wrong solution in the form of false hope via the politics of scapegoating.

Either way, the global working class shifts from one defeat after another, constantly on the back foot against a predatory neoliberalism, a ruling class offensive from an emboldened corporate aristocracy. In the face of this situation, business as usual left responses produce sickening capitulations. Movements that create interest and capture the imagination, such the Indignados of Spain, rise to significance outside of electoral politics; movements that do so, and then betray that interest and engagement, such as SYRIZA, squander it needlessly and disastrously. The endless rallies and protests of leftism-as-usual might be useful to party recruitment and the political ambitions of nominally socialist politicians but fail to challenge the unjust and irrational social relations that make endemic privilege and injustice possible to begin with. In the final analysis, this failure is where the far right finds its most fertile soil.