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Salvage Perspectives #9: That Hideous Strength
Every issue of Salvage is accompanied by a pamphlet wherein the Editorial Collective presents a synoptic overview of certain key aspects of the political conjuncture as we see it – our perspectives. The below is the editorial perspectives essay that accompanies Salvage #9: That Hideous Strength.
Issue 9 went to press at the end of 2020, and will reach our subscribers in the early weeks of 2021, pending its navigation of the post-Brexit shipping situation and the pandemic-exhausted postal services. Because of these expected delays, we are breaking our usual rules and releasing the issue digitally first; our subscribers can access a PDF of the issue here.
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The ‘world market’ envisaged by Marx and Engels only a century and a half ago only came into being in the 1990s, and it is reasonable to suggest that far from it being the case that capitalism is a ‘Western’ phenomenon, its ‘Western’ phase, protracted though it seems from the point of view of the present, has merely coincided with its pre-history as a genuinely global form.
– Martin Arboleda, The Planetary Mine
Order Prevails in Washington
Every silver lining has its dark cloud. Few are as portentous as that forming over the US presidential election result.
Donald Trump was defeated by a margin of six million votes, by Joe Biden, his rival from the undead centre. This outcome even Trump will eventually have to face, though a clear majority of Republican voters believe his claims that the election was stolen. The word ‘believe’ is, admittedly, a blunt and unsubtle instrument to describe such overdetermined investment. Belief isn’t what it used to be (but then, it never was).
In any case, by stalling the dialectic of radicalisation between Trump and his armed base, the victory of Biden secured some political breathing space. It also generates pleasure, inasmuch as popular reaction is temporarily demoralised. The vignettes of spontaneous street parties held by Trump’s popular enemies, of cops silently weeping in their squad cars, are to be savoured.
Yet even this sigh of relief must be exceptionally brief, as we prepare for inevitable confrontations with an administration led by an austerian, and stacked with neoliberals, fossil-fuel lobbyists, cruise-missile liberals, and Obama-era retreads. As a Washington Post observer astutely put it, Biden has brought back ‘the establishment’. The message is that there will be an attempt at restoration of the very dysfunctional, violent and brutal ‘normality’ in which Trumpism first flourished. And if Trump is a symptom of imperial decline and the de-centring of Euro-America in world affairs, Biden gives every indication of striving to halt that decline. That this is a chimerical project is no comfort, given how he will try, and fail. The lining looks less silver by the minute.
Trump added over ten million votes to his own electoral coalition, breaking into presumed Democratic redoubts such as the Rio Grande in Texas, Miami-Dade in Florida, Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, Detroit in Michigan, and Milwaukee in Wisconsin. In New York City, the pole star of east-coast liberalism, Trump’s support increased by almost five per cent. In the Bronx, which has a majority of black and Latino voters, there was a twelve point swing in Trump’s favour.
Pre-election surveys and exit polls showed him expanding his support among every demographic except white men. No one denies that these increases are, generally, from low bases to numbers still low: but to such shifts in popular reaction those of us committed to its defeat must pay attention. Not least because, particularly for many left liberals, a nothing-to-see-here insistence in service of a crassly essentialist and vulgar ‘woke’ politics is both analytically false, and doomed to failure in its own terms.
Many of Trump’s gains were made among working-class voters who usually don’t turn out. This, similarly, does not validate the spiteful class identitarianism of the middle-class coastal liberal, but underlines real fractures in the US working class, and the simultaneous intellectual vacuity and political dangers of the deployment of class, from left, centre and right, as cultural identity.
Trump’s core support is now harder than in 2016. Then, among all the bigoted lies that Trump’s supporters took pleasure in believing, they were convinced of one very obvious truth: that Hillary Clinton was a friend of the banks who had sunk the US economy and of those who had destroyed the rustbelt, a Washington insider with no sympathy for the majority of working-class Americans, and a habitual liar. That Trump was in almost every respect even worse than Clinton does not detract from these truths he so adeptly exploited.
In 2020, millions of these voters came to believe, delusionally, or perhaps to ‘believe’, that Biden, Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic centre-right were ‘radical leftists’, ‘socialists’, ready to impose ‘Chinese-style communism’, were at the beck and call of ‘Marxists’ and ‘anarchists’, and directing a Black Lives Matter terror campaign against the suburbs.
Anticommunism-without-communism is not, perhaps, as novel as it might seem. From Woodrow Wilson-era theories of ‘Jewish Bolshevism’ to the Dixiecrat struggle against NAACP ‘communists’, anticommunism has rarely engaged with communism as it actually exists. It has been aroused, rather, in opposition to a racial fantasy figure: a deeply American tradition.
Nonetheless, the appearance of this fantasy now in the absence of anything remotely like a mass communist challenge to capitalism anywhere in the world cannot but remind one of Marcuse’s notion of ‘preventive counter-revolution’. An imaginative strike against possible futures.
Meanwhile, the Democratic coalition, as Musa al-Gharbi has demonstrated in a series of analyses, has been fraying among all demographics since 2008. The idea that the Democrats can stack up various groups (women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people) and appeal to them on a purely identitarian basis has been decisively repudiated. The Democratic base is obviously still disintegrating in places that matter for the electoral college vote, as Trump was able to increase both his absolute vote and his vote share in these deep blue territories. It seems that Biden’s victory was won in large part by flipping certain suburban voters on a one-off, anti-Trump basis: many of these voters either voted Republican or abstained in down-ballot contests, leading to a weak (if ultimately victorious) Democratic performance in the Senate. Even bracketing questions of political principle, then, there is little evidence that Biden has secured these votes on a positive basis. Far more of Biden’s voters chose him on the basis of opposing the other candidate, than did Trump’s. Should the Democratic vote collapse, should turnout slide again, as seems eminently likely, particularly on the basis of this unenthusiastic foundation, it is not unlikely that a Trump-style candidate – if not Trump himself – could achieve a majority of the popular vote as well as an electoral college win.
How did it come to this?
It is taken for granted among both liberals and the Left that Trump’s administration was a shambolic failure. Legislatively bound, legally sandbagged over his corruption scandals, encircled by a hostile media, and challenged in the courts, he was unable to achieve most of his stated agenda, from the much-hyped infrastructure project to the construction of ‘the wall’. Even the rate at which migrants were arrested and deported was lower than under the Obama administration. Despite much invective against the institutions of global liberalism, and open contempt for its institutions, he proposed no alternative and no challenge beyond the incremental. At best, for Trump, his trade war with China was moderately successful, to the extent that sinophobic aggression has become one of the few sources of bipartisanship in Washington. At worst, his ineptitude and conspiracy-mongering over Covid-19 left a quarter of a million Americans dead – and counting, amid a new spiral of infections during his last months in office.
Yet, Trump’s voters – and the GOP, which vehemently defended his refusal to concede the election – clearly do not see things this way. From the point of view of the GOP establishment, Trump’s administration was a roaring success. His accomplishments for this mercenary ruling-class faction are not restricted to rebuilding their popular vote. For all the failures of his white-nationalist, anti-‘globalist’ agenda, the Republicans will be delighted with his trashing of the more ‘liberal’ elements of Obama’s legacy (the Paris Accords and the Iran peace deal), his slashing of corporation taxes from 35 per cent to 21 per cent, the abrupt shift in the balance of judicial forces (three Supreme Court judges and 220 federal bench judges appointed by Trump), military escalation in the ‘forever wars’ leading to more civilian bloodshed, aggressive support for Israel in annexing Jerusalem and implementing de facto apartheid laws, and an eminently conventional foreign policy with tougher sanctions on Trump’s supposed bosom buddy, Vladimir Putin. He also passed, without controversy, a cautious, sensible act of prison and sentencing reform. The one policy that really divided Republican senators was his cancellation of the Trans Pacific Partnership, but that is eminently reversible.
Throughout all this, the Trump administration delivered a deficit-financed period of prolonged economic growth. As Adam Tooze points out, while Trump’s braggadocio about building ‘the strongest economy in the history of the world’ is fevered fantasy, it touches on elements of reality. Growth rates were strong, profit rates soared thanks in part to federal tax cuts, stock prices roses, unemployment fell to historic lows (including among African American men), average hourly wages continued to rise (and even spiked in late 2019 before the pandemic struck), and the official poverty rate continued to fall, hitting an all-time low at the turn of 2020. How could this occur?
Trump faced none of the obstacles to deficit-spending during a period of growth that Obama did when his deficit was inherited from the credit crunch. Congress passed major stimulus budgets, much of the discretionary spending going on defence and some infrastructure. This approach had much in common with the Reaganite formula of military Keynesianism and speculative bubbles, and it produced a boom that – even as it turbo-charged class inequality, redistributing wealth to investors – did in fact, if inadequately, lift most incomes. By early 2020, with the FBI’s moves against Trump exhausted and the attempted impeachment having predictably floundered, the administration was beginning to stabilise itself as Wall Street thrived.
It would be wholly misleading, however, to ascribe Trump’s electoral expansion simply to ‘the economy, stupid’. Jobs growth was strongest in western Democratic states such as California, Arizona and Nevada, and weakest in the ‘heartland’ red states and the mid-West. Many of those blue counties of the rustbelt where Trump expanded his base continued to rust, seeing their population decline year-on-year throughout his administration. Indeed, Trump’s biggest gains were in some of the counties that saw job losses. Trump, it is important to recall, had inherited a growing economy, and any Republican presidency could have delivered his economic policies with a friendly Congress. Trump’s differentia specifica was always his ability to wage the culture war on the frontiers of cyberspace, a practice he pursued relentlessly from the Oval Office using his one domain of limitless sovereignty: his Twitter account. His metier from the start has been apocalyptic nationalism, racist conspiracy theory, and personal resentment dignified as a mythic battle between good and evil. This is why, far from being injured by his defence of neo-Nazis and QAnon, his embrace of militias, his apologetics for the killer Kyle Rittenhouse, his Covid-19 conspiracism, and his delusional anticommunism, he has thrived on the polarisation.
Decisive in energising reaction for election year was the spiral of mutual radicalisation between Trump and his armed supporters sparked, first, by anti-lockdown protests, and then by the militias ‘patrolling’ Black Lives Matter protests. Trump had been somewhat waylaid and disoriented by the Covid-19 crisis, until he saw gatherings of armed reaction denouncing social distancing as communism. Likewise, the first weeks of 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests, the largest in US history, left Trump in the dust, and racked up significant victories. Yet the militias, Three Percenters and boogaloo preppers soon struck up tactical alliance with glad-handing local police forces from Portland to Philadelphia. Fired up by that repressive coalition, Trump improvised an ad hoc, and clearly party-political, counterinsurgency campaign, using the resources of the Department of Homeland Security.
Soon, while Black Lives Matter was caught in the pincer movement of trasformismo, Democrat-style, and Attorney General Barr’s sweeping counterinsurgency, Trump’s redeployment of legal/police networks enjoyed the moral solidarity of armed suburbanites – symbolised by the bourgeois white couple, Mark and Patricia McCloskey of St Louis, Missouri. Having threatened Black Lives Matter protesters marching past their mansion with an assault rifle and a pistol, they were made heroes of the Republican convention. From such a dialectic emerged the lethally potent Republican turn toward anticommunism.
The Democrats have always been extraordinarily complacent about the affective pull of such inchoate fascism (let alone their own role in creating the conditions for its rise). In 2016, as Trump delivered his vatic jeremiad of America’s decline, victimisation by other countries, economic devastation at the hands of globalists and of China, immersion in violence and chaos brought by immigrants, and descent into Third World conditions, Obama intervened with cheerful bemusement, insisting that all was not so bad. The ‘birds were chirping and the sun was out’, he said the day after a Trump speech. People were watching their kids play in sports teams and getting ready for the weekend. What could be more innocent, less suggestive of End Times? That Trump’s paranoid and hateful messaging was far more efficiently wired into the emotional world of masses of voters, that it articulated and gave form to real experiences of injury and loss, would shortly become apparent. The birds chirped, the sun came out, the rustbelt died, the wildfires raged, Flint’s water was poisoned, migrants were detained and deported at record levels, real wages continued to flatline, unions were demolished. And Trump was elected.
Four years later, having performed poorly in the interim, the Democrats have learned nothing. Either that, or they are more allergic to the solutions suggested by the lessons than to the Trumpism they so operatically denounce, and which they helped unleash. Every step, from the Democratic establishment circling their barely coherent, dessicated candidate Joe Biden like debris circles the drain, to their running a downgraded version of the 2016 campaign, to Biden’s tedious restatement of nationalist pieties – not red states, not blue states, but the United States – to his post-election call for ‘national healing’, let alone the diminution of sops to the Left that previously energised the Democratic campaign, shows as much. In his victory speech, Biden called upon his supporters to ‘stop treating our opponents as an enemy … they are Americans’. This, of course, is a rationalisation for the political strategy that he intends to pursue, wherein nothing will be attempted that Mitch McConnell couldn’t, in principle, agree to. It also ideologically disarms his supporters at a time when the Right ruthlessly and effectively deploys the friend-enemy distinctions of politics, thus bringing a butter knife to a gunfight.
As if to remind anyone misunderstanding what this current represents, and thus what butter-knife Bidenism is incapable of defeating by itself, on the day that Republicans lost control of the Senate by losing both Georgia seats, armed rightist protesters descended on the capitol building in Washington, DC. Their overt goal was to support those elected Republican officials who were trying, as Trump had been since the election, to overturn the results. This symbolic attempt to subvert liberal constitutional law was a lost cause, a desperado effort: and, in other ways, a training run. They were allowed, with their guns, to enter the capitol building by DC police, who opened the gates for them. They were permitted to roam the corridors, with armed police looking on, searching for elected officials to confront: it takes little imagination to envision what could have happened had they found any. They were allowed to enter the chamber as officials were rushed out, leaving computer screens and emails open and unguarded. The National Guard’s deployment was requested but the Pentagon, under a new acting secretary since 9 November, refused the request. The police and the Pentagon allowed the situation to develop into a shoot-out in the capitol before the National Guard was finally deployed from the neighbouring state of Virginia. In this tawdry, twenty-first century, networked beer hall putsch, was discernible the rudiments of the violent, extra-parliamentary right with networks of support in the executive and repressive wings of the state, that had already been on display in the policing – and vigilante shooting – of Black Lives Matter protests. These forces, though electorally defeated for the moment, are unlikely to be deprived of further opportunities to build their coalition, expand their organisation of violence, and refine their tactics.
In this election, Trumpism proved that it is not an aberration. By expanding its base into the bluest of blue counties, as well as among Latino, Asian, and Muslim voters, Trump has also shown that the resources of Trumpism extend beyond the programmatic commitment to white nationalism. That there is a basis for violent enmity among Americans. And that it is a source of meaning, and jouissance, for millions, in a way that will soon make itself apparent.
Reaction in ‘the global South’
To construe Trumpism through the narrow prism of ‘whiteness’ is a parochial hobby of a wing of the US Left. That line of analysis, insofar as it reduced a clearly overdetermined phenomenon to a single line of demarcation, was already of dubious insight in 2016, and it will not gain loft in 2020. The global traction of these fascistic energies and their demographic spread have long demonstrated that something far bigger is afoot.
From the point of view of America’s old centre, embracing both neoliberals and the fading neoconservative sodality, rising global authoritarianism represents an inexplicable ‘deconsolidation’ of the democracy that was apparently secured with the collapse of Stalinism. Somehow, people have ‘lost faith’ in democratic government, abandoned ‘civility’ and been seduced by ‘populists’. This is the Biden purview. The indices of ‘deconsolidation’ are serious enough. Since the mid-1990s, according to the World Values Survey, there has been a marked increase in the number of people, worldwide, who favour ‘a strong leader who does not have to bother with elections’. This has been most pronounced in the US, India, Russia, Turkey, South Africa, Argentina, Germany and Japan, and the increase is strongest among the rich – a fact not often remarked upon. The minority who think democracy is a ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ way to run a country has more than doubled in Europe and North America.
And yet what do such ‘value’ measurements explain? They indicate, at most, that the spruced up ‘modernisation theory’, which underpins most analyses of democratic consolidation, was dismally wrong. Nonetheless, Biden will likely double down on Obama-era efforts to further institutionalise global liberalism, on the assumption that only it can supply the material base to stabilise democracy. This is tantamount to the failed idea that reaction is, narrowly and reductively, a result of economic distress.
The material base of inchoate fascism lies, however, in the way that the contradictions of capitalist democracy are sharpening in an era of relative global stagnation. It is telling that far-right ascendancy in Brazil, India and the Philippines, for example, is underpinned by ideologies of capitalist development, that is to be unleashed by the liberation of liberal capitalism from liberalism, the macho flouting of all attempts at institutionalising species longevity by mitigating climate change, and the extirpation of national folk devils (communists, Muslims, drug addicts) whose presence has been ideologically linked to the class trajectories of long-suffering constituencies in these countries. These are not particularly poor countries: rather, they are striving competitors, rising middle-income states, with growth rates much higher than those in the former capitalist heartlands. Those growth rates, it is invariably argued by the right, would and should be much higher were it not for corrupt, anti-nationalist elites weakening the national cause through their sentimental alliance with the wretched of the earth.
Will the defeat of Trump fatally weaken those formations? Not necessarily. The US is hardly as important as it was: the major trading partner of India, Brazil and the Philippines is China. Precisely because of that, Biden has indicated no desire for a major showdown with Bolsonaro, Modi or Duterte. Biden is likely to flatter Duterte in exchange for his support for retaining US troops in the Philippines. US military bases, encircling what Sir Halford Mackinder once called the ‘world island’, remain a crucial check on the expansion of China.
Modi was greatly admired by the Obama White House, as well as by US investors and business publications. Unlike Bolsonaro, Modi was quick to congratulate Biden for his victory, and the two enjoyed the usual convivial phone call pledging each side to continuing the India–US strategic partnership. The Indian press gleefully points out that Biden has a long history of supporting its military chauvinism, going back to his support for nuclear testing in 1998. While Biden may genuflect to human rights concerns, his presidency will be as keen as Trump’s to secure India in the anti-China coalition.
The one leader who is likely to find himself isolated is Bolsonaro, whose accelerated destruction of the Amazon is in conflict with traditional Washington’s doctrine of climate management. Biden has threatened sanctions which, given Bolsonaro’s efforts to free Brazil from its economic entanglement with the Chinese Communist Party, presents a real dilemma. Even there, it would appear that the ball is very much in Bolsonaro’s court.
Perhaps, at least, the removal of their most bellicose ally from the (still) most powerful office in the world will dent the aura of invincibility that these tendencies have begun to accumulate. Yet the popular resilience of reaction in these countries is alarming.
Narendra Modi, having been re-elected in 2019 with a larger share of the vote than in 2014, and with a clear majority in most demographics, castes and occupational groupings, has an approval rating of 72 per cent. Not in spite of the settler-colonial invasion of Kashmir, the mass cancellation of Muslim citizenship provoking a mass movement of opposition, the police-enabled pogrom in Delhi, the shutting down of news media such as Asianet and Media One for being ‘critical toward Delhi Police and RSS’, and the regime’s calamitous handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, but in part because of them.
Likewise, Rodrigo Duterte, ‘the Punisher’ or ‘Duterte Harry’ as he likes to style himself, is the most popular politician on the face of the earth, according to several mainstream polling organisations. Not in spite of his shutting down of opposition media like ABS-CBN, his jailing of political opponents like Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, recent controversies over his corruption, or his swaggering and overt contempt for human rights laws and his use of death squads to murder tens of thousands of poor drug addicts, but because of, or at minimum inextricably from, them. What ‘Duterte Harry’ offers the working class, who polls suggest support him as much as do the affluent middle class, is a path to respectability and capitalist development through the merciless annihilation of the undeserving poor.
Jair Bolsonaro’s position has always been more precarious than that of either Modi or Duterte. He lacks their political organisation and has never fully commandeered the state in the way that they have. Bolsonaro has always relied for his organised clout on the ‘Bull, Bible and Bullet benches’: agribusiness, evangelical Christians, and the reactionary state security sector. The majority of elected representatives of his old political home, the Social Liberal Party, were firmly of the ‘bancada da bala’: either ex-army or ex-police. His poor showing in the recent mid-term elections is evidence that he has been unable to impose a unifying instance on the heteroclite exploiters, moralists, purveyors of violence, greenshirt revivalists, YouTube vigilantes, middle-class enragés, gun-toting governors, climate arsonists and Olave-style infotainment intellectuals who make up his base.
Yet, even with this weakness, and after eight months of bellicose Covid-19 denial/affirmation, sorry-not-sorry exhortations to keep capitalism booming whatever the body count, and consequent failure on the most basic task the biopolitical state announces as its own – protecting the life of its citizens – Bolsonaro’s approval rating reached its highest levels yet this October. Once again, this renewed popular energy has occurred not in spite of the punitive social Darwinism, but because of it.
What any analysis of the conjuncture must confront is the surprising global relevance of palingenetic nationalism, its successful appeal to sensibilities hardened through decades of neoliberal sadism, its overt excitement of decivilising impulses, its apparent fit with legacy ideologemes of ‘growth’ and ‘aspiration’, more traditionally associated with liberal capitalism, its leveraging of ‘commonsensical’ modes of racial and national perception, the seeming appropriateness (to its supporters) of its preventive strike against communism, its fearful cleaving to a cartoonish gender ‘traditionalism’, and its apprehension, disavowal and courting of ecological and biological disaster. And above all, the ways in which these ideological tributaries have been conducted into capitalist administrations that are, on their terms, quite successful.
If US imperialism is not what it once was, the UK remains supine enough for the changing of the guard at Pennsylvania Avenue to dictate congruent shuffles of personnel at Downing Street. With a barely decent degree of haste, the Prime Minister’s advisor Dominic Cummings was sacked almost as soon as decisive results came in from Pennsylvania.
Although it would take a heart of stone not to laugh at the booting out of Cummings – and Lee Cain, the factotum’s factotum – the significance of the man has always been overplayed amongst London’s especially provincial and obtuse media milieu. Much as the same small group of lobby journalists and utterly seventh-rate columnists fixated on a ‘Jeremy Corbyn’ folk-devil of their own imagining, so Dominic Cummings served as a means not to talk about the reasons for Dominic Cummings. The boring tosh Cummings was fond of spraying at anyone who would listen – rambling blog posts about ‘data’, ‘disruption’ and ‘cognitive diversity’ in the civil service, the typical engineering-envy of the hardcore humanities graduate – concealed one simple insight: a majority of English voters dislike the European Union. On the basis of this perfectly obvious fact, revealed by the referendum result of 2016, was Cummings’ career made, and on its consequence did he founder.
A second term Trump probably would not have given Johnson the post-EU trade deal he imagined would be forthcoming. Biden, however, has made very clear that the EU – above all Germany – will remain the US’ priority in any future trading relationship. This is not because of Biden’s invocations of distant Irish ancestry – schmaltzy identity-mongering being another way in which the president elect represents an unwelcome return to the American political norm – but because Germany and the EU are important economic and geopolitical actors. The UK is not.
Facing the end-of-year deadline for a post-Brexit trade relationship with the EU, Johnson had little choice but to make concessions, having already done so on the state aid rules that provoked the government earlier to threaten to ignore the Irish border ‘backstop’ they had themselves negotiated. As an aside, it is instructive to compare the – furious – centrist reaction to this ‘breach of international law’ with the silence around the Overseas Operations bill that would have given British military personnel a ‘presumption against prosecution’ after five years for war crimes committed overseas. Beating Iraqis to death is no biggie, but you must not subsidise cement firms in Scunthorpe.
The eventual shape of the deal – pleasing to some fishermen, infuriating to others, market access for manufactured goods (which the UK barely produces) and no guarantee of such for financial services (upon which the UK depends) – is less important than its achievement at all. Johnson and the Tories have ‘got Brexit done’: at least until parts of it need to be undone for further electoral advantage.
What of her Majesty’s most loyal opposition? Three and a half years of relentless character assassination against Jeremy Corbyn for facilitating Brexit notwithstanding, Sir Keir’s Labour party voted through the deal, thirty-odd abstentions notwithstanding – proof concrete that all the carping about ‘stopping Brexit’ was only ever about stopping Corbyn.
Stopped, Corbyn and Corbynism nonetheless remain the other-object of the endlessly spiteful Labour Right. The report of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which includes amongst its number a vocal supporter of ‘white self-interest’ and the policy of a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants, into allegations of Labour party antisemitism, served as the pretext to suspend Corbyn from party membership and then to remove from him the Labour whip.
The actual report itself provided thin material for the claim that either Corbyn personally, or Labour under his leadership institutionally, were antisemitic. Disingenuously ignoring the factional efforts of the Labour right to use the issue to discredit Corbyn, the report focused on seventy out of 220 instances of claimed antisemitic speech or conduct in a party of half a million members. Fifty-nine of these consisted of social media posts. Notwithstanding the undoubted presence of antisemitic conspiracy mongers on the fringes of the Left, especially the online Left, only two of these were judged by the EHRC to have broken the law by ‘contributing to create’ (a phrase not found in the corresponding legislation) a ‘hostile, intimidating or offensive environment’.
Yet the EHRC is not competent to decide that such an offence has been committed. This principle was tested in the case brought by Ronnie Fraser against the Universities and Colleges Union for passing a pro-BDS motion in 2013. On that occasion the presiding employment tribunal ruled that it was ‘an impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litigious means’; the complaints ‘palpably groundless’, ‘obviously hopeless’ and ‘devoid of any merit’. All of Frasers’ complaints were dismissed in their entirety.
Further north, as surveyed in James Foley’s article in this issue, consistent opinion poll majorities for Scottish independence obscure both fractures within the Scottish National Party (SNP), and between it and any wider movement for a renewed independence referendum. Even if, as predicted, the SNP win an unprecedented majority in next May’s Holyrood elections, they would need the leverage of a popular and disobedient mass movement to wring a legally valid referendum from the intractable Tory majority at Westminster. Mass and popular disobedience is the last thing that the leadership in Bute House – stalwart proponents of the undead centre benefiting from the fallout from Brexit and an exaggerated reputation for competence in the handling of Covid-19 – want. ‘Unchallenged national consensus’, writes Arwa Salih of the Egyptian Communist Workers’ Party, ‘is a clear sign that the bourgeoisie remains firmly in charge of the popular movement. This is the class that always claims to speak in the name of the people even when it is bent on betraying them.’
Not merely the background, but the very stuff of politics in the UK, is the catastrophic response to the pandemic. At every possible opportunity Johnson and his cabinet have taken what appeared to them the easy way out only to be forced to reverse course with whiplash-causing panic. Precious weeks in the spring were squandered as the government put off the inevitable lockdown, playing human life against capitalist productivity to the eventual benefit of neither. The relaxations of the summer paved the way for the building second wave of the autumn – including the emergence of the new, more transmissible variant of the virus that by Christmas was again overwhelming hospitals in the South East and threatening to do so elsewhere in the country. The only policy left, to which at the time of writing Johnson has just acquiesced, is a full lockdown until the vaccine begins to take hold.
Critics on the Left should mourn this outcome. It is a tragedy, the only and necessary response to a year of utter failure: an administration whose signal achievement is not Brexit, not ‘leveling up’ but a hecatomb of (at least) 75,000 dead. In a sensible political culture, Johnson and all Tories would be pelted with ordure in the street. The UK is not such a culture.
In 2020, the plague of infectious micro-organisms intersected with a plague of fires, from Australia to the western US to the Arctic forests. Each ecological crisis lent itself to pseudo-Darwinian assertions of vigorous autonomy and resilience on the Right, coupled with contradictory exhortations against hallucinatory enemies. In mid-September, as wildfires ravaged Oregon, armed militias patrolled roads and small towns in search of alleged ‘Antifa’ arsonists. Pointing their guns at journalists, and anyone who didn’t look like they were ‘from around here’, the far-right’s febrile online rumour-mill claimed that the fires were part of an effort by antifascists to destroy the town.
That these fires were undoubtedly aggravated by climate change was, of course, unthinkable in the framework of fascist counter-subversion. Even if they were able to accept that capitalogenic global heating posed an imminent biological threat to the conditions of their own survival, much as do capitalogenic plagues, their cognitive mapping requires that friend/enemy distinction.
Folk devils, enemies of civilisation – in this case, tellingly, antifascists. Further, the thought that Trump himself is a co-author of the fires, insofar as his policies were expected to add an extra 1.8 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by 2035, thus intensifying the severity of the planetary burn, can only be treasonous to those who know that climate change is a Chinese hoax.
Likewise, that fires are indeed started deliberately, and that the slash-and-burn deforestation of the Amazon has terrifying effects on the US mid-West and Pacific coast, is unthinkable to those whose deep sense of Usonian civilisation is anchored in heedless capital accumulation. Denialist it may be, this effort to contain threats to nature with AR-style rifles and side-arms also contains the germ of ecofascism, in which the defence of the biosphere is coterminous with the extirpation of mutinous biological forms.
Equally unthinkable to the militia mind, for historical reasons, is that the planet is meant to burn. No human intervention is required to turn an oxygen-rich atmosphere, soils packed with organic fuels, and carbon-based organisms into a ball of flame. As earth scientist Stephen J Pyne has documented, the world has evolved to burn, and every ecosystem has its fire regime. Without fire, especially in lands poor in nutrients, where the burning off of old growth resets the biological clock, some biotas would die off. If fire is suppressed in some parts of the world, the resulting damage to the local ecosystem makes uncontrollable wildfire a more likely occurrence.
This, famously, is the case for letting Malibu burn. The grasslands of California burn, on average, every couple of years, to no great loss as far as the plantlife is concerned. The shrubland burns once every five years. The chapparal and woodland communities fringing Malibu currently burn once a decade. It is futile, wasteful, reckless, to build rich communities in these flammable coastal areas when they are destined to go up in smoke. Fire suppression efforts introduced to preserve these communities change the biochemical composition and moisture-resistance of the soil, and make the fires more extreme.
Australia, likewise, is meant to burn, as it did from July 2019 to March 2020. Currently, around 5 per cent of the Australian land surface is burned by wildfires each year. This destroys 10 per cent of the continent’s ‘net primary productivity’ – that is, the ability of its tropical forests, woodlands and savannah to photosynthesise solar energy. Again, these fires are more severe than they would be without climate change. But if they didn’t happen at all, parts of the continent would die. Since Australia broke off from ancient Gondwana, it has evolved ecosystems packed with pyrophytic and pyrophilic trees and plants, across large, low-nutrient, parched landscapes.
The problem with current wildfires is not even that there are too many of them. If anything, Pyne points out, recent decades have seen a ‘fire famine’, brought on in part by misguided, colonial-capitalist efforts at suppression. Rather, the problem is the aggravation of the ‘wrong’, biologically destructive type of fire. The tactics of fire suppression, in their origin a manifestation of what Alfred Crosby calls ‘ecological imperialism’ insofar as they exported a fire regime proper to temperate parts of Europe, exacerbating the appearance of ‘bad’ fire, redouble the radicalising effects of global heating on the severity of wildfires. Fire seasons start earlier, finish later, and kill off vital ecosystems. The vicious feedback loop kindled by this, wherein wildfires pump more black carbon into the atmosphere, contribute to the retention of heat, the melting of Arctic ice and the dwindling of the ‘albedo effect’ in which solar radiation is reflected back into space, ensures yet more severe wildfires. The capitalocene is also, to borrow Pyne’s phrase, the ‘pyrocene’.
If Trump-style conspiracism and counter-subversion augurs the composition of ecofascism, funded and fuelled by the lumpenbourgeoisie, what does Biden’s strategy of climate management entail? The approach of neoliberal capital, and of global climate governance, has always been structured around an irresoluble contradiction. Insofar as capitalist states are capable of taking a longer, executive view with regard to the reproduction of capital, the decarbonisation of capitalism’s energetic infrastructure is vital. Moreover, insofar as it injects investment into an under-invested system, it represents potential commercial opportunities. Insofar as climate management has been financialised, it opens new opportunities for profit.
Yet, insofar as large monopoly capital is structurally invested in fossil energy, insofar as US imperialism has been bent around the imperative of securing the global flows of oil and gas, insofar as both US state factions have an historical alliance with fossil corporations as a form of concentrated political power in themselves, and insofar as traditional modes of hegemony have rested on petromodernity’s nexus of ‘prosperity’ and automobility as ‘freedom’, Washington has always represented an enormous impediment to projects for survival. The systemic sustainability of capitalism depends on measures that would severely restrict particular – but structurally salient and powerful – forms of accumulation. The damage done to the capitalist world-system by the prompt suppression of fossil capital, and the loss of its value, could only be managed by a scale of interventionism that, though dwarfed by emergency pandemic management, would be far more permanent than pandemic management.
Biden’s priorities on climate illustrate this contradiction. An opponent of the Green New Deal, he has nonetheless proposed $2 trillion of infrastructure spending to transition the US grid to net-zero-carbon electricity by 2050. These proposals, though inadequate to prevent disastrous warming, are better than historic centrism has mustered.
Yet, of course, even these are inevitably subject to Biden’s strategy of negotiating away his more ambitious goals in the ostensible interests of ‘bipartisanship’. And he is likely to want to give the ruthlessly effective Mitch McConnell as much fiscal restraint as he can. He will also re-join the Paris Accords and likely revoke some of Trump’s executive orders and re-fund climate research. This in itself will make a non-negligible difference. However, all evidence suggests that the Paris Accords, and policies anchored in its predicates, will still lead to untenable levels of warming.
Biden’s early climate appointments have been relatively conciliatory, insofar as he did not appoint fracking fan Ernest Moniz to the Department of Energy as he considered doing, and former DuPont strategist Michael McCabe did not get to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Rather, he appointed two figures, former Michigan governor Jennifer Branholm and North Carolina environmental regulator Michael Regan, commensurate with a cautious reformism. Likewise, to the Interior Department, overseeing federal lands and development, he appointed congresswoman Deb Haaland, the first such indigenous appointment, and a supporter of the Green New Deal. The effect of all this is that Biden accepts, and intends to act on, ‘the science’.
Yet, of course, these appointments are hardly flawless – Branholm has links to energy companies, while Biden’s climate liaison, congressman Cedric Richmond, is an ally of fossil corporations. More to the point, they are nested within a cabinet overwhelmingly dominated by Wall Street and corporate America, meaning that such climate mitigation as Biden does get past an overtly denialist and obstructionist GOP, will be whatever is congruent with the pressure coming from capital.
Global climate management has hitherto been the functional equivalent of ‘biosecurity’ as a response to pandemic threats, the latter self-consciously designed to accommodate the needs of agribusiness while scapegoating small producers, hunters and the esoteric consumption habits of racialised portions of humanity, for the threat of coronaviruses from avian flu to Covid-19. ‘Biosecurity’, since avian flu, has coercively reorganised food production through closed, ‘biosecure’ units run by large corporations. In so doing, while offering an inadequate solution to the growing risk of zoonotic spillover and pandemic, ‘biosecurity’ also ensured that food production would be concentrated in precisely the sorts of environments that, as Rob Wallace documents, intensify virulence and create new opportunities for spillover.
mIn the same way, global climate management from the Earth Summit to the Paris Accords, has attempted to ‘price’ carbon emissions in ways that it was assumed would make capitalism safe for the environment. The eventual result on both counts, predictable and predicted, has been to put humanity through a series of stressful, life-endangering and life-losing crises, squandering the political will accumulated by environmentalist movements, and co-generating the ontological and historical conditions for the circulation of microbial fascisms.
The order that prevails, for now, in Washington, and among its allies both declining (the UK) and rising (Brazil, India, the Philippines), and even among its enemies (Russia, China), is the disorder, the catastrophic decomposition, of life. That order must be sabotaged.
– Salvage Editorial Collective,
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