Beware of Bad Bed Fellows

A contribution to the "Reflections on J18" collection.

Submitted by R Totale on June 24, 2018

The Dutch antiracist organisation "De Fabel van de illegaal" (The myth of illegality) and other left-wing organisations involved in the international campaigns against free-trade agreements like the MAI, regularly get compliments from the extreme right. Although unwanted, these compliments are not accidental. The critique of free trade has long been a speciality of the extreme right, and has proven to easily turn anti-Semitic. We will all become "slaves" to the "international capitalists living on the Riviera", the Dutch National-Socialist Party (NSB) ideologist Hylkema said in 1934. Free trade would bring the Dutch factories and farms down. Dutch goods would be pushed off the domestic market by cheap imports, he feared.

The only chance for survival was a fascist economy, he wrote. "We should control our national household in such a way that our people will not perish, when this group of people without a fatherland starts flooding us with imports. We don't want our factories to close down because Eastern coolies work for a few dimes a day." Hylkema called for resistance against "the trade and bank world, which still speaks of the principle of the open door. But the farmers feel that if things go on like this, the end is near."

"But don't think that the import trade capital and trust capital will save us then. They are extremely mobile. In one aeroplane they can bring billions in paper money across the border in just a few hours. Holland can then be bought by international speculators for a couple of guilders and we will become a poor and dependent people", the angry fascist wrote. If Hylkema, half a century later, had been able to surf the Internet, he probably would have been pleasantly surprised looking at some of the anti-MAI homepages. Hylkema's present-day successor Rüter certainly is very enthusiastic about them. Rüter is the main ideologist of the Dutch new-right think tank Voorpost. He advised his readers to check the Internet pages of "MAI niet gezien?!" (MAI, didn't see it / MAI, don't want it), the Dutch anti-MAI campaign. The new-right Dutch Student Organisation even linked their homepage to that of the anti-MAI campaign. The Dutch fascists are not the only ones interested. The German Republicans and the French Front National also turned against the MAI. In some countries the New Right even popped up at left-wing campaign meetings. The state against globalisation? For some time now extreme-right intellectuals have been working on renewing fascist thinking. The ideas and concepts of the current campaigns against free trade seem to be of good use. These are not specifically left-wing and even seem to be easily integrated into the traditional extreme-right worldview. For instance, take a look at the very fashionable concept of "globalisation of the economy", which is very central to the international campaigns against the MAI. This concept implies that capitalism is originally a local system, and has only recently begun to spread its tentacles around the world. But in fact capitalism has from the start been a global system, and has been able to evolve only because of the plunder of the southern parts of the globe.

By pointing to this so-called globalisation as our main problem, the anti-MAI activists prepare our thinking for the corresponding logical consequence - the struggle for "our own" local economy, and as a consequence also for "our own" state and culture. Some movements in the South that also fight against free trade draw exactly that conclusion. Taking their situation into account, it may be understandable, but it is certainly not emancipatory. In the rich countries, promoting a struggle against globalisation could create a fertile ground for the extreme right to grow. Fascists have always valued a self-sufficient economy. "No imports of things that our own people can produce, are happy to produce, are able to produce very well. Because there is no better worker than the Dutch worker", Hylkema thought already. Sixty years later, new-right Voorpost ideologists write about the "globalisation of American capitalism" and call for "a large-scale people's capitalism and small-scale worker participation", because that would offer the best "guarantees for the safeguard of our own industries." In it's first pamphlets "MAI niet gezien?!" wrote that the agreement "would put up enormous barriers" for states to "direct their own economies". But according to new-right ideologist Rüter, "the political elite doesn't even want to guide or decide any more - they gave up their power, only to serve an economic system that, because of its hegemony, doesn't need the specification 'capitalism' anymore".

Notice that both the anti-MAI activists and the new-right ideologists think the state and the capitalist economy are separate entities. In reality they are completely interconnected. The modern state and capitalism developed at the same time and pre-suppose each other. They are symbiotic twins. States create the social and physical circumstances for the continually changing capitalism and that is precisely why they are working on agreements like the MAI, together with the companies. The anti-MAI activists with their resistance against the "globalisation of the economy" run the risk of ending up calling for a strong state. Already, some of them are speaking in positive terms of the Malaysian state, which is supposedly curbing the free circulation of capital. But Malaysia is close to being the prime example of a modern fascist state. Productive versus speculative capital? Traditionally, left-wing thinkers have pointed out the dividing line between capital and workers as the main political economic conflict. However, when activists start using concepts like globalisation, they tend to start thinking in terms of a conflict between "local capital" and "international capital", in terms of good "productive capital" and bad "trading and speculative capital". But production and trade are inseparable parts of capitalism. And both parts of capital grow by stealing from the labourers (both paid and unpaid) and by plundering nature. Regularly, the international anti-MAI campaigns have used the image of the small local company being destroyed by a large foreign, if possible American, multinational. Many activists call for investment in regional companies or in social projects that would bring jobs and positive prospects. Such investment is also believed to bring more economic stability than the "casino capitalism" that is held responsible for the recent large economic crises.

This way of thinking perfectly resembles traditional extreme-right thought. To Hylkema only one real economic duality existed, the one between the "national, creative and productive capital" and "reprehensible international big capital". The extreme right never principally opposed capitalism and even denies any difference in interest between the "national capital" and the workers. "The owner, the staff and the workers together share only one central goal - a flourishing company", Hylkema explained. For him the main thing was to reduce "class hatred" and to strengthen the unity of "the people" as a whole. For that reason it is very convenient for the extreme right to have a common enemy, one that can be held responsible for the economic problems, crises and insecurities that will always accompany capitalism. "International capital" can fulfil that role perfectly. Modern nazi-ideologists also understand this principle very well. "Solidarity within the nation gets replaced by some sort of universal solidarity between the rich, the managers, the industrials: on many an international congress they secretly decide on their strategies", according to new-right Voorpost.

Capital without a fatherland

Once ideologically separated from the rest of capitalism, the "reprehensible international capital" can easily be associated with "the enemy" - some other state or a certain well-defined group of people. Following this line of thought, a critique of the system as such can gradually turn into the crazy idea that a small group of hostile people completely controls our lives. Such thinking is historically very closely linked to anti-Semitism. In the deeply rooted and mostly European anti-Semitic tradition there's always this connection made between "the international capital", America and "the Jews". This tradition holds that the "international speculative capital" is in the hands of Jews who conspire to rule the world. This "Jewish capital" supposedly operates from New York. For centuries right-extremist and nationalist movements have repeatedly revived this anti-Semitic way of thinking. Usually by saying that "the fatherland" or "Europe" is being threatened by - and this depends on the audience - "international capital", American multinationals or "the Jews". It's all the same to the ideology behind it. Of course, criticising free trade doesn't have to lead to anti-Semitism, but the two combine surprisingly easily. Hylkema's fascist party NSB, for instance, was not anti-Semitic in the beginning of the thirties. But, by its constant propaganda against "international capital" it did lay a strong foundation for its later turn to anti-Semitism. In the beginning of the forties it was just a small step for the party to start inserting the word "Jewish" in front of the phrase "international capital" in their propaganda pamphlets. Anti-MAI activists putting "international capital" apart ideologically, are not by definition anti-Semites, but the analysis behind their reasoning surely is potentially anti-Semitic. History shows how easily the one can lead to the other.

The New Right also loves this type of anti-Semitism. In a recent article on globalisation, Rüter for instance wrote that "whoever arranges and controls the loans, also controls the economic cycle and economic development." It is most certainly no coincidence that he throws in a quote of Amschel Meyer van Rothschild, a Jew who, according to Rüter, once said: "Give me control over the currencies, and I don't care anymore who makes the laws."

At the start of the international campaigns, autumn 1997, the anti-MAI activists strongly emphasised that the talks on the agreement were secret, and their attention swiftly turned to the individual decision-makers. "MAI niet gezien?!" wrote about a "multinational coup" and a "silent taking over of power". Actually, the talks were partly secret, but not as totally as the activists suggested. Forced by an assistant leaking official documents, the talks quickly became more open. Many contemporary "conspiracy fans" were drawn towards the anti-MAI campaign. The campaign office received frequent calls from these nuts, probably alerted by the long article on the MAI published in their favourite magazine Nexus. This article was written by a left-wing organisation that is central to the international anti-MAI campaigns. Until the beginning of the nineties the Australian-based Nexus was openly anti-Semitic, but after that it backed down a bit. However, the stories remained essentially the same. In recent issues, articles on the political power of "Jewish capital" popped up again.

Conspiracy fans also visited anti-MAI meetings. On such a meeting in Geneva in August 1998, titled "Globalisation and Resistance", one participant wanted to publicly read excerpts from the books written by Jan van Helping, a hideous German anti-Semite. Around about the same time, "conspiracy expert" Kohl’s came into contact with the Dutch campaign. For several weeks he was able to spread his anti-Semitic poison in anarchist circles before being unmasked.

Liberalism replaces capitalism

The central concept of globalisation has recently filled the analytical gap that was left when some 10 years ago the critique of capitalism went out of fashion. In the middle of the nineties left-wing circles first turned to the concept of "neoliberalism". Especially the popular Zapatista uprising in Mexico stimulated its use. But neoliberalism is not the same as capitalism. It is rather the ideology that gets delivered together with the changes of capitalism that have been imposed from above since the mid-seventies. Among these changes are the flexibilisation of the workforce, the privatisation of government services and the development of new computer and biotechnology industries. Also part of these developments is the trend towards an increased international division of labour. By the end of the nineties this latest trend became central to left-wing analysis, especially when activists started campaigning against the MAI and WTO. This change in analysis and focus of attention undoubtedly is a result of the overall political swing to the right that we have all witnessed this last decade. This raises the question of what might still constitute a left-wing analysis, and what makes a political line right wing. Political discussions are getting scarce, especially in the Netherlands, which poses great problems to campaigns like those against the MAI. Knowledge of the history of left-wing politics is also scarce.

Earlier campaigns and discussions on international solidarity seem to have been almost completely and collectively forgotten. Most left-wing groups joined the anti-MAI campaigns without giving it much thought, upset as they were by apocalyptic stories about a new secret "world constitution". And they kept on going without a thorough discussion that could have lead them to a radical change in their political direction. This last decade has seen non-governmental organisations (NGOs) taking on a more central role in campaigns, unhindered by the rapidly shrinking left-wing movement. Especially in the realm of international campaigns this can be clearly seen. For the left it is problematic that the NGOs' criticism usually does not see beyond neo-liberalism and free trade. They do not consider capitalism as such as a problem. That is of course not in their interest. They are too much a part of the system themselves, and have a lot of jobs to lose as well. Too much leftist talk doesn't pay. NGOs therefore don't like political discussions. The professional NGO campaigners rather spend most of their time flooding their fellow activists with details on free trade from every corner of the world. The activist who does not have access to Internet or e-mail will easily get the impression that he or she is not able to seriously participate in the campaigns. An extra problem with this NGO-provided information is that it usually has a top-down focus. Information from a grassroots point of view is getting very rare. And because of the information overload, even the most experienced activist in the end starts to overlook the difference between the two.

Nowadays left-wing groups are most often not powerful enough to get an international campaign off the ground without the help of NGOs. The choice of limiting criticism to free trade so as not to endanger the help of the NGOs is apparently easily made. With the result that left-wing groups are spreading an ideology that offers the New Right, rather than the left, bright opportunities for future growth.

Eric Krebbers

Merijn Schoenmaker

De Fabel van de illegaal, July 1999