In winter the rain-soaked Pacific Northwest wind finds its way through split bricks and cracked beams. It is fended off with wood stove and blankets, occasionally the warmth of a kindred spirit. From my office in this ramshackle warehouse, set next to a railroad crossing busy with jostling container cars and the occasional furtive hobo, surrounded by artists, counterculture types and a few working class intellectuals (some of whom work at Powell’s Books, a temple for what remains of the graphosphere) I engage in my phantom labor: interrogating the past so as to excavate the future.
As I leaf through old texts, always on the lookout for how fascism is apprehended by comrades and enemies alike, I find references to a scholarly work from the 1970s and a novel term of abuse from 2015. Together, they tell us something important about fascism, and, perhaps unexpectedly, the left.
The first text sends me to the Dead Letter Department of Anglo-American academia. Here I find the work of an American sociologist describing–even if he didn’t use this terminology–an American form of fascism. As with many advances in science and technology, the key insight from this work was stumbled upon and then, as with a miss-addressed letter, returned to sender. Unfortunately, that return address hasn’t been viable for forty years. But at least someone found it, opened it and read it, before sending it back to the Dead Letter Department, where it awaits some old-ghost to reinterpret its contents.
In 1976 the sociologist Donald Warren published The Radical Center: Middle Americans and the Politics of Alienation. From this work he coined the term “MARs”, an acronym formed from ‘Middle American Radicals’.
Warren and a team of researchers developed the concept of the MARs in an attempt to explain the results of their in-depth personal interviews, demographic research and attitudinal surveys collected over a period of years in the early 1970s. What they were studying was white people–a bunch of white people who, Warren noted, held beliefs seemingly at odds with their economic position–a polite way of saying social class. The book was published in 1976 and has been trotted out by liberals (John B. Judis), conservatives (David Brooks), paleo-conservatives (Samuel Francis) and even radicals (Zaid Jalani for Alternet) whenever recurring eruptions of ‘populism’ have needed explaining. All of these authors, and many others, misinterpret the singular insight Warren provides in The Radical Center. While this insight is related to his term “MARs”, it is a bit different from it, too.
So, what is it about Warren’s study, a work from the margins of sociology, published in relative obscurity and without much of a readership, that nonetheless remains attractive to analysts across the political spectrum? And what is that special something I think he discovered, that has been hidden in the Dead Letter Department?
If, as I contend, fascism has an ideology, a political economy, a social base and a geography, it also has a motor–something that once switched on sets it in motion, propels it in a particular direction, and must be engaged for it to keep going.
Early on, in order to will itself into being, fascism will engage in a double movement of fighting elites above and the working and non-working poor, below. This vertical double movement is from an oppositional political footing that is also deeply contradictory. It is at once set against certain elite centers of power but still closely tied to them; a semi-permeable membrane separating and binding together the two. I call it the MARs Motor. While this concept of a fascist motor¹ is mine, I didn’t identify the mechanics that underlie it; that was formulated by Warren, and as with many important discoveries, he was looking for something else.
From page 14 of The Radical Center:
“Thus, an “ideological perspective” seemed to emerge from our in-depth exploratory interviews. This ideological point of view does not readily fit the traditional notion of “left wing” or “right wing” convictions. Instead, it seems to embody, a distinct orientation of multiple threats of being caught in the middle between those whose wealth gives them access to power and those whose militant organization in the face of deprivation gains special treatment from the government.”
This is the only significant explanatory passage in some 260 pages that Warren sets apart and italicizes; it is the nut of what he is arguing. And its easy to see why it appeals to a broad political spectrum. For Warren social class didn’t neatly correlate with political consciousness. Likewise, the notion that something was needed ‘beyond left and right’ to assuage the ‘alienation’ of people trapped in the middle seemed appealing to a growing consensus that there was no longer ‘class conflict’, only entrance into the ‘middle class’ or banishment from it. But the relatively anodyne passage above doesn’t really capture why a growing number of ‘white ethnics’ (to use the terminology of the day) seemed to be wrenched loose from their traditional moorings within labor unions, the Democratic Party and liberalism. Why would they turn toward a radicalism that was in many ways anathema to mainstream insititutions–the presidential candidacy of George Wallace, for instance?
Warren’s singular insight, sketched out in the passage above, is developed further:
“The Middle American Radical perspective was developed from interviewing numerous individuals who felt very threatened by problems that were not immediately related to their economic position in society. Such individuals, in some problem areas, directed their scorn toward, and felt threatened by, groups which they seemed to consider lower in status than themselves, such as the organized poor and minority groups. At the same time we found that many individuals were deeply concerned about the status groups above their own…An additional element in this discussion of threats from the rich, the poor and the minorities, was the role of the government as an arbitrator of group interests.” (pgs. 13-14).
What is important here is that this ‘something’ be identified, if some four decades later, as nascent white nationalism, an American fascism just waking up from its slumber, still within the paternal confines of the Cold War anti-communist consensus, but nontheless self conscious of its relatively independent nature. What Warren described would become known as the ‘paleo-conservative right’, originally fronted by Pat Buchanan, later to re-invent itself as the ‘Alt-Right’, the key component of Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential victory. What I call it is nascent white christian nationalism, the American form of fascism.
The MARs Motor is a feature of fascism that sets it apart from run-of-the-mill conservatism and right reaction. While often considered to be a red-headed bastard step child of the broader conservative family, it is still, regardless of what neo-conservatives might argue, a member of that family. The MARs motor is an essential ingredient in the fascist repetoire that signals it is on the move. It is the struggle with an ungrateful elite above and the unworthy poor below. If they are not engaged in a struggle with both, they are something else. In the capitalist core the political expression of this movement must take the form of white nationalism. Today, throughout Europe and North American a new fascism is being forged that seeks to reinforce a political geography of white christian nationalism and with it a new identity as a dispossessed and besieged minority. It is arrayed against the Global South, making socialist internationalism that much more important. Fascists, to be fascists, must fight above and below, then near and afar. The near and afar come when they go to war–and war is coming.
The dynamic Warren identified is a feature of fascism, not populism.² There is no such thing as populism, other than as a term of disparagement. But there most certainly is something called fascism. What Warren stumbled upon was indeed ideological, rather than an expression of a class position, a wooly conspiracy theory or a response (legitimate or illegitimate!?) to rising expectations, declining prospects, relative (or absolute) deprivation, etc. He documented a fundamental shift then just underway in the imaginary of the far right, from defenders of the white supremacist Jim Crow status quo to the newly dispossessed (white, silent no more) majority. White racism was developing a new character in the post-civil rights movement era, essentially morphing closer to an American fascism, something that their European counterparts would come to recognize. The defeat of de jure white supremacy by the civil rights movement set fascism back, but also offered a new horizon in the way of white nationalism, previously made redundant by the state’s own formal white supremacy. In a way, nationalism and racism had to shift terrain, in order to survive. And they did.
But from the dizzying heights of academic disdain, it’s difficult to understand any of this. And Warren, while I’m sure a nice guy, is a product of an institution that is largely incapable of getting it. Even the title of his book includes the phrase “politics of alienation”, by which Warren most certainly did not mean the alienation of workers from the products of their labor, but rather their ‘alienation’ from the splendid institutions of progress that American capitalist democracy had on offer at the time.
Following this, The Radical Center occasionally coughs up a cringe-worthy paternalism that regards its subject as a wayward child. But in this it was only following accepted conventions then (as now) regnant throughout sociology, political science and history. Behind virtually every study of populism (or todays Antifa, for that matter) is an implicit rebuke: Why would anyone reject freedom and democracy for extremism, especially when doing so is against their own interests? As in a shlocky horror film, academics peer into their brains, trying to determine what the hell is wrong with them and how they are to be fixed, or, more often than not, cured of whatever disease is causing the epidemic. The most extraordinary thing about Warren’s work was how a sociologist so obviously indebted to the head-patting paternalism of Richard Hofstadter and his ‘Paranoid Style in American Politics’, could have identified a key element in the development of a nacsent white nationalism in the United States, without ever calling it that, much less understanding it as such. But Warren obviously meant well, I’ll give him that. And he largely took his subjects at their word, a singular accomplishment at that time, as any.
All conservatives and liberals share this fundamental outlook about the far right and far left. But these angry white people still know what side their bread is buttered on. Capitalism creates the zero-sum game within which racism is made (and remade) normative, the conspiracy theory rational, the mode of exploitation necessary and eternal, the act of mass murder justifiable. If there is psychological projection here, it is on the part of patrician academics and their media chatterboxes and sycophants, products of their sociotope, which treats all radical politics as childish and utopian.
To state that this overall approach to the far right is emblematic of the dominant thought running througout all conservative, liberal and many socialist traditions would be an understatement. It is also central to why the return of right reaction surprises everyone except anti-fascists.3 And militant antifascists have a unique perspective on this recurring phenomemon. In trying to understand fascism, it sometimes helps to kick its ass. Empirical knowledge has its foundation in experience; there’s nothing quite as illuminating as the direct knowledge that a fascist is but a meat sack. But I aggress.
For Warren, the challenge was to identify a feature both constant and unique to his term, ‘middle american radical’. He would run up the flag pole the whole gamut of sociological, demographic, psychological and political markers that contend, but fail to achieve, the empirical throne: the ‘silent majority’, an ‘ethnic’ (pretty much white, working class Catholic), the alienated, forgotten, angry, troubled, disillusioned, ‘relatively deprived’; the “not quite poor American living in the not altogether affluent society” and so on. Then, Warren looked to income and education levels and labor union membership, for some kind of control for those pesky variables, again to no avail. Having dispensed with all these pretenders to the throne, Warren would attempt–like so many before and after him–to place the giant elephant in the room (racism) into some service of his middle american radical definition, but by calling it anything but that. What’s most important here is the all-too-common analytical operation of identifying discrete ‘races’ and correspondingly ‘race relations’, but not racism as the feature that structures important beliefs. And it’s mostly unconscious, an implicit given, shared by well-meaning academics, that remains operative today. And so long as one operates from these assumptions, nothing will make sense.
The motor of fascism has another aspect of importance to radicals, something that becomes visible by way of contrast. If fascists constitute themselves by fighting above and below, radicals do the same (come into being) by fighting the rich, and only the rich, and their homunculi, everywhere. Socialists become something else if they allow the bonds of solidarity that unite peoples in struggle to dissolve through racism and nationalism. Socialists should never fight the poor masses, but from a restrictive, narrow definition of who is a worker, especially during war, they risk doing precisely that. Cue a reference to the great betrayal of the socialist international in 1914. To be a socialist is to have an expansive definition of what it is to be a worker, the poor, the marginalized. The fault line here is nationalism, but not all nationalisms, just the form it takes in the core.3 White nationalism. The failure to organize the ‘unorganizable’, to swim within the great ocean that is the brutal exploitation and domination of the lowest of the low, is on display when socialists look to their betters above, and want to be like them, rather than put their heads on a platter.
Back in my office I am laughing at a zinger from a right-winger.
The hilarious epithet ‘Trumpen proletariat’ was first introduced to our political lexicon in 2015 by the effervescent right-winger Jonah Goldberg, who scribbles for National Review and the American Enterprise Institute. Goldberg is also the purveyor of a related term, ‘liberal fascism’ (a smiley face with a Hitler mustache adorns the cover of his book by the same name). But while his cockamamie thesis about fascism having roots in the family tree of liberalism was effectively savaged by scholars such as Roger Griffin, his ‘Trumpen Proletariat’ hits on all cylinders, at least as polemic, if not analysis.
As a tripartite portmanteau of ‘Donald Trump’, ‘lumpen’, and ‘proletariat’ the epithet at once mocks Trump as an interloper among political elites, while asserting his followers are of a plebeian nature (lumpen) best understood as an outgrowth of the left (proletariat). But it misunderstands all three terms, in a perverse manner and that’s why it’s funny–a billionaire leading the scum of the earth in a left-wing revolution. What the fuck. But, it succeeds in another way that is altogether uncomfortable for some radicals.
The term ‘lumpen’ is used by many Marxists eager to explain why certain people won’t accept socialism–can’t accept socialism–principally because they are not workers or the peti-bourgeoisie and are therefore unorganizable. When Marxists consider a hefty portion of any population to be an undiferentiated mass of criminals and ‘deplorables’ you can count on any ‘revolution’ they lead being one that maintains inequality, class divisions, violence and oppression. These undesireables don’t count among the proletariat, and usually don’t figure in Marxist equations for social transformation. If they do it is as the gangs that support fascism. They cannot be organized, only neutralized or destroyed. There is a long history of what I call patrician socialists deliberately sabotaging efforts to organize with the lowest of the low. But know this: when the slum dwellers, gang bangers, outcasts and unemployed are condemned to the orthodox Marxist original sin of non-participation in the formal economy, when they are dismissed and discarded as so much “human dust”, you ensure they will be organized by themselves, by others, or not at all. In any case, many will turn to the right, or all the way to fascism. Indeed, many have probably completed that journey and are wearing MAGA hats rather than joining Redneck Revolt.
This contempt for the common people (plebians) is most pronounced among elite liberals and conservatives–indeed it is central to their world view.
Gary Kamiya, a co-founder of Salon magazine, explained back in 2011, apparently in all seriousness, that the childlike behavior of Tea Partiers could be understood by resurrecting Hofstadter, whose work, Kamiya writes was “penetrating…prescient…brilliant” (all three adjectives in one sentence).
Kamiya, in his article “The Infantile Style In American Politics” (a nauseating homage if there ever has been one) excerpts the following from Hofstadter’s The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt — 1954:
“[I]n a populist culture like ours, which seems to lack a responsible elite with political and moral autonomy, and in which it is possible to exploit the wildest currents of public sentiment for private purposes, it is at least conceivable that a highly organized, vocal, active and well-financed minority could create a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.” (Salon, December 5, 2011).
Well, you could say that it was 1954 when Hofstadter wrote that, but it was the 21st century when it was adoringly quoted by a liberal fucktard. To do this passage justice one should channel the inimitable Mid-Atlantic lock jaw of William F.Buckley jr. or Gore Vidal, or perhaps its 21st century liberal identitarian version, the incessant screeching of Arianna Huffington, who learned how to embrace the weirdness of her cacalogical musings by sidling up to Henry Kissinger–the very definition of elite creepy weirdness–so she can now lecture Uber drivers on getting more sleep, so they can starve more efficiently. Those accents are as entirely contrived as the bullshit it enunciates so clearly.
But this is not about otherness or rising above being weird, it’s about believing you are an Optimate and that capitalism offers upward mobility to all who would just strive to climb the ladder of success. But climbing means your foot is best positioned on someone else’s neck–someone below you.
From the Financial Times (December 6, 2016).
“When Trump first ran for President, the Huffington Post had each story that mentioned him print a byline that described him as ‘a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther’. But when I ask whether his victory surprised her, she says no. She points me to her 2010 work Third World America. ‘Its about the fact that many parts of America have become third world. They are the people who voted for Trump.'”
Right. How effortlessly Huffington links Trump with the lumpen of the global south, now invading America. How convenient for a millionaire, many times over.
This elite visceral reaction to Trump is not resistance–its hatred and fear of the hoi polloi, channelled in a narrow, self-serving direction.
This disdain for the masses by ‘people of property’, to use a phrase by that war mongering skeezoid David Frum, are to be expected and should cause no sense of surprise. But they tend to take other forms when issued from on high from the left. Any radicalism that traffics in this stupidity aids the growth of fascism.
On the other hand, dismissing the importance of racism in structuring political and social life can lead to other pitfalls. For instance, consider two very recent political developments, the first a ‘controversial’ policy effort on trade by the Trump administration and the second an extraordinary expression of worker militancy in a state that most recently flipped so hard to the right that Mike Davis thinks it might end up setting a Guiness World Record.
Trump’s imposition of tariffs on steel imports should not be understood apart from this:
Here, to be clear, more than one-year after his assumption of the presidency, is Trump offering a sop to his working class base, albeit one that probably won’t help anyone. In fact, it might hurt more than a few. But its good optics. It means, in part, that Trump, now more than a year into his tenure, is finally rewarding white workers–practicing patronage if you will–and thereby growing the political, cultural and ideological space within which fascism can thrive. He’s also building his re-election bid. And no, it doesn’t mean all steel workers are racists–it means anti-racism needs to happen there in conjunction with socialist work, or that constitutency will be lost to fascism.
Then there is the West Virginia wildcat teachers strike, which should not be understood apart from this:
The extraordinary fact that an illegal strike–a wildcat strike!–on the part of public employees was not put down by the state should be considered in light of Mike Davis’ Jacobin article of February 7, 2017 “The Great God Trump and the White Working Class”.
“The exception [during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election] was West Virginia where the Democratic wipeout was so enormous that it will probably end up in Guinness World Records. Only Wyoming gave Trump a higher percentage of its presidential vote. But even more striking than his 42-point margin of victory was the fact that Clinton received 54,000 fewer votes than were cast earlier for candidates in the Democratic primary — a contest that Sanders (125,000 total) won in every single county…a large minority of working people, custodians of a heroic labor history, are ready to support radical alternatives but only if they simultaneously address the economic and cultural crises of the region.
The struggles to maintain traditional kinship networks and community social fabrics in Appalachia or, for that matter, in the embattled Black-majority counties of the former cotton South, should be every bit as important to socialists as defending individual rights to make free reproductive and gender choices. They’re usually not.”
Isn’t that the truth. But how to explain such an incredible volte-face? Is there a relationship between renewed worker militancy in West Virginia and its recent turn to the right that should be theorized in relation to fascism? Saying as much doesn’t mean any number of unsupportable corollaries; for instance, that West Virginia teachers have become white nationalists. Perhaps the only space available for labor militancy is in a state like West Virginia? Why would that be the case? While there is no doubt that the overwhelming popular support hard-won by West Virginia teachers came about as a result of direct action/mutual aid tactics like providing free lunches to kids out of school, thereby denying their opponents a dirty wedge with which to divide the movement (your’e hurting the children!), it can also be partially attributed to the fact that West Virginia is not Mississippi.
And while much of what Davis has written about Trump is true in a narrow electoral sense, it doesn’t adaquately capture what is going on here. And Jacobin, while correctly applauding the heroism and militancy of the West Virginia teachers, fails yet again to explore the larger context of a growing fascism, not least because their editorial line doesn’t recognize the existence of that political phenomenon.
This is how the Australian anti-fascist Angela Mitropoulos can accuse Jacobin of “authoritarian Left nationalism” or Strasserism, for printing articles by Die Linke leftists that argue for a ‘tightening’ of Germany’s borders. In its coverage of the West Virginia strike Jacobin buries that state’s recent political developments in the perennial and futile search for revolutionary agency that is myopic, at best. My response to Mitropoulos’ admittedly polemical attack on Jacobin is a riff from the comic Chris Rock, who approached the obvious guilt of OJ Simpson by saying: “I don’t agree, but I understand.”