Anymore Late Bulletins From Noam Chomsky?
On Class Reductionist Economism, the "Road to Neofascism," and White Male Privilege
Last week a fellow communist and anti-fascist sent me the self-described “anarchist” Noam Chomsky’s latest Truthout interview by C.J. Polychroniou. “Maybe,” she added, “if you named your book This Neofascism Could Maybe Happen Here Sometime in the Future it would sell to the ‘progressive’ crowd.”
The first thing that grabbed me was the interview’s title, taken from Chomsky’s reflections on the current political situation in the United States (US): “We’re on the Road to a Form of Neofascism.”
How Rip Van Winkle was that? Where has Chomsky been the last seven years and in this Millennium? A fascist, albeit a clumsy one named Donald Trump, was elected to the US presidency in 2016. He stood atop a party that had been crossing over into white nationalist, nativist, women-hating, gay-bashing, eco-cidal, and Christian-fascist political eliminationism since the 1990s. Numerous liberal and radical commentators, myself included, had Trump and Trumpism pegged (with no great difficulty or contortions required) as fascist (no prefixes obliged) from the start of Herr Donald’s 2015-2016 campaign. “His personality and his program,” Adam Gopnik wrote in The New Yorker in May of 2016:
“belong exclusively to the same dark strain of modern politics: an incoherent program of national revenge led by a strongman; a contempt for parliamentary government and procedures; an insistence that the existing, democratically elected government…is in league with evil outsiders and has been secretly trying to undermine the nation; a hysterical militarism designed to no particular end than the sheer spectacle of strength; an equally hysterical sense of beleaguerment and victimization; and a supposed suspicion of big capitalism entirely reconciled to the worship of wealth and ‘success.’”
The name of that “dark strain” was clear for Gopnik: “fascism.”
To his erudite summary, Gopnik should have added other key ingredients: relentless demonization and “Othering” of subordinate racial, ethnic, and/or cultural groups; an “obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood” that used as justification for “redemptive violence…without ethical or legal restraints” (historian Robert Paxton); a relentless assault on truth; contempt for intellectuals and science; militant anti-socialism; a largely petit-bourgeois sociopolitical base; savage sexist patriarchy; the purging of the “disloyal;” attacks on the media and press freedoms; constant propaganda; romance of the rural “heartland” and its people (“volk”) combined with fear and hatred of “dark” and polyglot cities; use of alternative media for direct communication with the fascist base; cults of personality built around always male maximal Leaders; glorification of instinct (especially the Leader’s instincts) over rational though; embrace of political violence against one’s enemies; savage cruelty towards the poor and minorities; the vicious Social Darwinian embrace and promotion of strict social hierarchy; rampant lawlessness in the name of law and order. Candidate and president Trump checked off all those boxes too.
In December of 2015, the prolific left social critic and cultural theorist Henry Giroux wrote on Truthout that Trump was was articulating a “political ideology [that] is unapologetically fascist.” Further:
“What almost none of the presidential candidates or mainstream political pundits have admitted…is not only that Trump’s comments form a discourse of hate, bigotry and exclusion, but also that such expressions of racism and fascism are resonating deeply in a landscape of US culture and politics crafted by 40 years of conservative counterrevolution. One of the few politicians to respond to Trump’s incendiary comments was former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who stated rightly that Donald Trump is a ‘fascist demagogue.’”
In the summer of 2016, Giroux rightly called Trump “the successor of a long line of fascists who shut down public debate, attempt to humiliate their opponents, endorse violence as a response to dissent, and criticize any public display of democratic principles… His presence should be viewed as a stern warning of the possible nightmare to come.”
The nightmare presidency followed three months later. I detailed the long dark night as best I could in the third chapter, titled “A Fascist in the White House, 2017-21,” of my latest book This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America.
Even Barack Obama got it before the 2016 election, telling the Democrats’ vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine “you’ve got to keep a fascist out of the White House.”
The organization Refuse Fascism was formed in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election with the explicit and legitimate purpose of forcing the end of the Trump-Pence regime with prolonged mass protest. RF’s founders included members of the Revolutionary Communist Party, whose chief theoretician Bob Avakian had been warning about maniacal US-American white supremacist and patriarchal Christian national fascism for many years. Avakian naturally identified Trump as a fascist well before the orange reptile’s defeat of Hillary Clinton.
Chomsky, by contrast, refused to describe the nation’s 45th president with the supposedly inappropriate “F-word” through the entire horrific Trump administration. His chief justification for this head-in-the-sand position was that “neoliberal” Trump had not achieved dictatorial state power over the economy ala Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini in interwar Italy and Germany – as if fascism was little more than an especially authoritarian political-economic form of state capitalism. This ignored both numerous interrelated non-economic aspects of fascist politics and ideology (see above) and the critical distinction between fascism as a movement and politics and fascism as a fully consolidated regime.
Given Chomsky’s near cult-like status among many US “progressives,” his denial of the really and already existing fascism in the US executive branch – very common among the older white male academic establishment during the Trump years (see Chapter 4, titled “The Anatomy of Fascism Denial,” in This Happened Here) – was a serious problem for those of us who attempted to organize the kind of mass popular uprising that presidency deserved and required.
Some other academics besides Giroux also did much better than the legendary linguist Chomsky on the problem of 21st Century US-Amerikan fascism. Trump’s ascendancy helped spark the historically astute political sociologist Carl Boggs to write his important 2018 book Fascism Old and New: American Politics at the Crossroads. By Boggs’ account, “Deep historical trends suggest the U.S. could be moving toward a distinctly novel form of fascism, embracing elements of the historical phenomenon as it appeared in such countries as Italy, Germany, Japan, and Spain, while also departing in significant ways. A twenty-first century [U.S.] fascism,” Boggs determined “would build on firmaments of entrenched power going back to World War I.”
The Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley’s widely read 2018 volume How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them usefully broke down ten basic fascist political narratives shared by the classic historical fascism of the 20th Century and the fascist politics of 21st century authoritarians like Trump, Viktor Orban, Marine Le Pen, and Jair Bolsonaro. Racist and sexist storylines, intertwined, were central to his analysis, as they must be in any serious approach to fascist politics and ideology, in contrast to Chomsky’s narrow, default economism.
Boggs and Stanley’s volumes helped inspire me to write This Happened Here (linked above), a comprehensive discussion of Trump and Trumpism as 21st century fascism. That book is informed by and congruent with the prolific left political scientist Anthony DiMaggio’s 2021 study Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here. DiMaggio’s volume examines “how rising fascism has infiltrated U.S. politics—and how the media and academia failed to spot its earlier rise…Fascism,” DiMaggio shows, had “long bubbled under the surface” of US politics before January 6, 2021.
Indeed. Giroux raised alarms about US-American “road to neofascism” at least eighteen years ago. In his 2004 volume The Terror of Neoliberalism: Authoritarianism and the Eclipse of Democracy, he cited astute thinkers like Kevin Passmore, Sheldon Wolin, Robert Paxton, and Arundhati Roy to write presciently about how “the specter of a creeping fascism is becoming a reality in the United States.” By Giroux’s account, the post-9/11 United States was already on the path to becoming a “fascist state,” having spawned “[an] ideology [that] is extremely anti-liberal, anti-democratic, and anti-socialistic…[that] exalts the nation and race – or some purified form of national identity – over the individual; [that] supports centralized dictatorial power; [that] demands blind obedience from the masses… [that] appeals to emotion and myth rather than reason; and [that advances] the glorification of violence on behalf of a national cause.”
I could go on citing various authors and experts – another among many who deserve special mention is the brilliant political journalist David Neiwert – who have been observing and warning for many years that the United States is on what Chomsky discovered 23 months after Trump’s thankfully failed Capitol Hall Putsch: “the road to a form of neofascism.” A good place to appreciate the depth and degree of Chomsky’s Rip Van Winkel-ism here is the Refuse Fascism podcast, where the splendid Philadelphia anti-fascist Sam Goldman has interviewed dozens and dozens of these authors and experts over the last three years.
But timing is not the main problem with Chomsky’s latest comments on Amerikan fascism. The biggest difficulty is his class-reductionist and economistic misunderstanding (belated or not) of the “neofascist road” – his portrayal of the fascist menace as all about “neoliberal” capitalism’s abandonment of the American working class:
“The class war took off, [in the 1970s and 1980s – P.S.] very naturally, with an attack on labor unions, the prime means of defense for working people… The neoliberal class war has been a grand success for the designers…achievements [include – P.S.] ‘hopelessness and social malaise,’ with nowhere [for the proletariat – P.S.] to turn. The Democrats abandoned the working class to their class enemy by the ‘70s, becoming a party of affluent professionals and Wall Street donors…In the midterm elections in the U.S., the Democrats lost even more of the white working class than before, a consequence of the unwillingness of party managers to campaign on class issues that a moderate left party could have brought to the fore. The ground is well prepared for the rise of neofascism to fill the void left by unremitting class war and capitulation of the mainstream political institutions that might have combatted the plague… The result is a general sense — not mistaken — that the government is not serving us, but rather someone else. The doctrinal system, also largely in the hands of the same concentrations of private power, deflects attention away from the workings of power, opening the door to what are termed ‘conspiracy theories,’ usually founded on some particles of evidence: the Great Replacement, liberal elites, Jews, other familiar concoctions.”
This all makes a certain amount of sense, to be sure. The top-down collapse of the US labor movement and the New Deal-Great Society welfare state has combined with and reflected the dismal, dollar-drenched Democrats’ ruling class captivity and allegiance to depress the Democrats’ onetime working-class base and thereby help disastrously pry the electoral door for Republi-fascist maniacs. This is well-established. But one major party demobilizing its working-class voters is not the same as the other major party winning those voters over. After repeated empirical warnings from scholars who have been doing the hard social scientific and investigative work (which is about toil and trouble, not genius IQ) on this matter, Chomsky is still dancing around in a fairy tale that has been invalidated in the serious research on the Republi-fascist base – the myth of the Trumpenproletariat. In reality, the Amerikaner Republi-fascist base is NOT especially or particularly working-class; it is relatively affluent and petit-bourgeois. It’s not comprised to any impressive degree of blue- and gray-collar folks who are somehow pining for the long lost “golden age” days of (imperial-chauvinist) Big Labor and the Keynesian welfare state. Trumpism-fascism is no more proletarian than Nixonism, Reaganism, Bushism, or the Tea Party.
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The wrongheaded but ubiquitous (across the ideological spectrum) notion that the Republican Amerikaner base is the (um, white) “working-class” drawn to a new right-wing “populism” that fills the “vacuum” left by the neoliberalism-imposed collapse of the labor movement and welfare state has been disproven in study after study (much of this research can be found in the fifth chapter of This Happened Here, titled “Amerikaners and Trumpenvolk”) showing that the Trumpenvolk are relatively affluent, not proletarian and poor, and driven above all by an ugly, mutually reinforcing mixture of racism, sexism, nativism, fundamentalism, and authoritarianism, not “economic anxiety.” Those who have habitually called the backers of Trump and his white nationalist party the “working class” have tended to badly conflate education level and region of residence with class. They have fallen for the foolish notion that someone is working class and “economically anxious” simply because one lacks a college degree and/or lives in an economically depressed, often rural region. They ignore overwhelming evidence on what is really driving the fascist sentiments of the Trumped-up Amerikaner base: a toxic stew of racist, patriarchal/sexist, authoritarian and Christian fundamentalist nationalism, not material distress. (And their definition of “the working class” really amounts to the white working class, leaving out the large mass of non-white proletarians who are not part of the Republi-fascist coalition for good and obvious reasons.)
Having a remarkable and beautiful mind should not exempt one from Mao’s onetime maxim: “no investigation, not right to speak.”
On the topic of Amerikan fascism, Chomsky seems stuck in an industrial and laborite world that passed away long ago. He writes about the current US fascist menace as if the great rebellions and social movements of the 1960s and 1970s never arose to challenge the nation’s previously reigning doctrinal religiosity, white supremacism, patriarchy, homophobia, and nativism. Those social movements reflected and intensified big non-class societal and cultural fractures that have their own lives and logic within (yes) the broader historical framework of capitalist-imperialist class rule. They and the backlash they sparked are critical to understanding the American “road to a form of neofascism.” From the 1950s (decade of the Brown v. Board of Education decision) on and with special intensity after the great popular rebellions and civil and human rights victories of the 1960s and 70s, a predominantly white, male, and Christian fundamentalist swath of the country has been recoiling against the real and perceived (the latter typically far outstrips the former) advances made by Black people, brown people, women, immigrants, gays, trans folks, secularists, atheists, Muslims, disabled people, youth, and intellectuals.
Nobody on “the left” --- whatever that means anymore (my next Paul Street Report will explain why I have dropped that label for myself) --- should be helping the vicious Social Darwinian and plutocratic, truth-twisting Republi-fascists falsely brand this revanchist, women-hating, gay-bashing, white supremacist, anti-intellectual and theocratic fascism as some sort of working class/workerite economic populism, however bastardized. Nobody on “the left” should be caught seeming to suggest that racism, sexism, nativism, gay-bashing, trans-hating, and arch-reactionary Christianity are just ruling-class Machiavellian “diversions” – swindles – from the real problem of class.
Sadly, this suggestion and worse is quite common among a significant number of relatively privileged and usually older (45+) white males who identity as “left” nowadays. As a social scientist recently wrote me, “These guys know that race and gender are just elite scams because as white men they don’t experience racism and sexism! … Understanding the gravity of racism and sexism in America is just not something they get or have any interest in getting.”
No serious advocate of social justice, equality, and democracy should think that focusing to a significant degree on non-class oppression structures is necessarily to embrace a “bourgeois identity politics” that ignores, distracts and/or diverts from, and/or cloaks class rule and inequality. As I’ve had to explain to numerous white male “Trumpenleft” (more on what this term means in the next Paul Street Report) emailers who have written me citing (well) Chomsky on how Trumpism supposedly isn’t fascism and is really all about class and the neoliberal screwing of the proletariat, it’s only bourgeois identity politics when bourgeois identity politicos (like the leaders of the corporate Democratic Party) do it. It isn’t bourgeois identity politics when race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and sexual identity are taken up by revolutionary socialists and communists who know that: (1) you can’t understand and overthrow class rule without understanding and attacking non-class oppression; (2) you can’t understand and overthrow non-class oppression without understanding and confronting its intimate, dialectically inseparable relationship with class oppression; (3) much of what has driven the heightened racial, ethnic, sexual, and religious discord that has produced the US Amerikaner fascist backlash traces in key ways to underlying shifts in the anarchic capitalist mode of production. These are basic points long and well understood by US revolutionary communists and their leader Avakian, the mere mention of whose name causes instant eye-rolling for US “progressive” intellectuals, for whom Chomsky is often something of a cult figure.
Chomsky’s economism (perhaps it’s better to say political economism) extends to his understanding of classic historical fascism. When asked by professor Polychroniou to comment on how Trump’s rise to power “returned white supremacy to mainstream politics” and how the US has “never [been] immune to fascism,” Chomsky launched into a discussion citing the interwar 20th Century political economist Robert Brady’s analysis of fascism as (in Chomsky’s words) “industrial capitalis[m]…with powerful state control of the economy and social life.” Brady wrote in 1937, a few years before the beginning of the Nazi Holocaust – the Third Reich’s attempted industrialized extermination of European Jewry and its related mass slaughter of gypsies, Slavs, leftists, and others.
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In his response, Chomsky curiously identifies the problem of racism with what he calls “street fascism,” meaning things like the lynching of Black people in the Jim Crow South and Nazi brownshirts’ violent assaults on Jews, socialists, and communists. He contrasts this nasty “street fascism” with fascism understood as “ideology and policy,” by which he means state control of the corporate economy as analyzed by Brady before even the Nazis’ Kristallnacht, much less the full-on Holocaust. To which any serious investigator of the rise of the Nazi Party and the Third Reich can only say, “seriously?” Is it possible that Chomsky has forgotten or never read Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf and the many speeches in which the genocidal arch-racist Fuhrer linked his “powerful state” to the mass liquidation of Jews and Marxists, joined together with the hideous Nazi phrase “judeo-Bolshevism”? Hello? The Third Reich was very much about race and European white nationalism and for Hitler the United States was the leading historical role model of supposedly glorious white-skinned, Social Darwinian ethnic-cleansing and racist enslavement.
A final note: it is long past time for left thinkers to say “neoliberalism” less. Neoliberalism is among other things capitalism returning to its pre-New Deal, pre-Golden Age (1945-70), and pre-Soviet and pre-Maoist China norm, with gloves being ever more taken off. Of course the US Big Labor-New Deal welfare state was short-lived: it naturally crumbled under the whip of competitive, anarchic global capitalism. That’s how it goes with the world capitalist system. Blaming neoliberalism seems to suggest meaningful and lasting solutions for humanity and the common good under capitalism, whose natural destination – in alliance with the intimately related and dialectically intersected oppression structures of patriarchy, racism, nationalism, and imperialism – is fascism (so I argued in a recent Paul Street Report). Contrary to the self-described “left-anarchist” and de facto revisionist social-democrat Chomsky’s recent comments on different paths of human progress and reform that could supposedly have been and/or might still be taken under the rule of the bourgeois class, there are no such solutions. There never have been and there never will be. We need a proletarian revolution, of course, one that enlists the working class as, in Lenin’s words, “tribunes of the people” in a many-sided struggle against all forms of oppression, including but hardly restricted to class oppression.
As I watch the news with images of the current and likely to continue disasters, especially natural but of course also person-made I wonder at the ongoing leftier-than-thou readiness toward the recurrent irony of the gifting of so-called "prizes," that ignores the one that might be more meaningful today, a Kropotkin Prize for the best ideas for any circumstance for implementing Mutual Aid. Which would include generating ideas for converting the massive outpouring of nationalistic love generated by the World Cup to life affirming enterprises, that could easily dwarf previous efforts by the entertainment industry.
I use the term "person-made" tongue-in-cheek as a reaction to currently trendy "white male privilege," not so much for the "white" part of it but for the male portion, as so glibly and unthinkingly emphasized in the Counterpunch article about multiplication in horsemen (italicizing "men") which unfortunately lacks a response option, which ignoring by intent or design (even if not by you) the immense contributions of Rice, Albright, Clinton, Thomas, among so many others who may remain in the shadows, Lady Macbeths, in promulgating and propagating some of the worst human disasters of modern times and reaping whatever benefits accrue from the idea that it is men only who are responsible because it is they who the buck stops at. Its not to say they are worse, simply that it is an unfortunate area that should they wish they could claim an achieved equality. The maxim might be "Take the stance, share the blame." And note that this should not be regarded in any way as an anti-feminism stance.
and Chomsky gave a talk at the NYC Village Gate back in 1992 titled; "Creeping Fascism." In 2004 Giroux noted: "the specter of a creeping fascism is becoming a reality in the United States."