by John Bellamy Foster and Farooque Chowdhury
[The following interview of Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster, completed on August 5, 2019, was conducted by Farooque Chowdhury for Kolkata’s famous socialist weekly Frontier and has appeared this month in their special Autumn issue. It was thus originally intended for a non-U.S. audience. Monthly Review is publishing it as well because of the urgency of the issues it addresses. The interview is mainly concerned with the historical conditions associated with the rise of new far-right movements of a broadly neofascist character. However, it is important to underscore that such political movements, though they appear to be ascendant at present, are still far from dominant. Rather, what we are witnessing, especially in the advanced capitalist world, is the development of what David Harvey has recently referred to as a neoliberal-neofascist alliance, reflecting the decline of the liberal-democratic state. Neofascism is the most dangerous and volatile phenomenon in this emerging right-wing historical bloc. Moreover, all of this has to be seen in relation to the structural crisis of capitalism and growing ruling-class attempts to restructure the state-capital relationship so as to create regimes more exclusively for capital. The big unknown in this situation is the response of the left, which, rooted in the working class, remains, at least potentially, the ultimate mass movement — one capable of halting, reversing, and overturning capital, and charting a new path toward a society of substantive equality and ecological sustainability (i.e., socialism)
—The Editors, Monthly Review]
Farooque Chowdhury: The political map on both sides of the Atlantic is increasingly marked by the rise of the right. In Europe, we have Vox and Golden Dawn in Spain and Greece respectively, Alternative for Germany, National Rally in France, Finns in Finland, League in Italy, Conservative People’s Party in Estonia, and many more from the Sweden Democrats in the north to the National Popular Front in Cyprus. Most European economies, from the bigger and stronger to the smaller and weaker, are witnessing the electoral forward march of right-wing forces. On the opposite side of the Atlantic, there is the rise of right-wing forces and trends both in mainstream politics and new groups propagating and resorting to violence. Reports of armed rightist groups have also appeared in the mainstream U.S. media. This reality in these two continents is stark. What are the sources — socio-economic and political — of this rise of the right in these two regions?
John Bellamy Foster: There can be no doubt that we are facing a wave of right-wing movements, for which the term neofascism appears to be the most appropriate designation. In attempting to understand what is happening today, I think it is important to draw on a historical perspective. Eric Hobsbawm’s remarkable The Age of Extremes on the history of the twentieth century includes a chapter called “The Fall of Liberalism,” in which he explains that the liberal-democratic state in the 1920s was mainly limited to Western Europe and the Americas — since much of the world was then colonized. Few in that period would have thought of liberalism as the wave of the future in any sense. There were perhaps twenty-five or so constitutional democracies in 1920. By 1938, this had fallen to perhaps seventeen, and in 1944 to perhaps twelve out of a global total of sixty-four independent states. This of course corresponded to the era of fascism. Nevertheless, to point to the growth of fascism as the cause of this weakening of liberalism in the 1920s would be, Hobsbawm wrote, “both insufficient and not wholly irrelevant.”
The real material cause of the decline of liberalism in the 1920s and ’30s was a socioeconomic crisis affecting the entire capitalist system, coupled with a struggle for global hegemony. The period after the First World War represented a short period of prosperity followed by economic stagnation, arising from the overaccumulation of capital. The result was almost universal political upheaval. This proved to be a breeding ground for movements of the fascist type.
Marxian theorists along with most historians until quite recently have understood fascism as having its backbone in a political bloc or alliance formed between monopoly (today monopoly-finance) capital and the lower-middle stratum/class (or petty bourgeoisie). The radical right has also historically drawn strength from rural sectors, established religions, pensioners, and sectors of the military. Nevertheless, fascism, while always present in a marginal way in capitalist societies, never arises in full force on its own. It is only able to consolidate itself as a movement in those cases where the capitalist class offers its encouragement and support, actively mobilizing the regressive elements of the lower-middle class as the rearguard of the system.
Equally important to understand, as Paul Sweezy pointed out, is that fascism has as its antonym not socialism (as does capitalism in general) but liberal democracy. If the liberal-democratic state becomes an impediment to capitalist rule, in a period of economic and political crisis, the powers that be will seek to preserve, consolidate, and expand their dominance through a shift of the capitalist state to the hard right, a goal that requires mobilizing the rearguard of the system, drawn from the more reactionary elements of the lower-middle class or petty bourgeoisie. Although representing a dramatic change, the rise of fascism occurs within capitalism and is part of its overall logic.
A major contributing factor in the historical fall of liberalism in Western Europe in the 1920s and ’30s, as Hobsbawm points out, was the perceived threat emanating from the mass migration from Eastern Europe, particularly Poland. This resulted in mass xenophobia and racism, particularly among small property holders and pensioners. It is worth remembering, though, that mainstream German sociologist Max Weber was a member for a time of the Pan-German League.
With this as historical background, how should we look at the growth of the radical right that we are seeing today throughout Europe and the United States, as well as in some emerging economies? Obviously, circumstances in the twenty-first century are very different. But the economic and political crises inherent to the system and the response of the capitalist class can be seen as reflecting the continuities of capitalism as well as the changes. Today there is once again a structural crisis of capital, most evident in the Great Financial Crisis of 2008–10, but actually going much deeper and extending back to the 1970s, which marked the beginning of the long slowdown of the advanced capitalist economies. Stagnation, characterized by the overaccumulation of capital, is all the more significant in our time since it has been accompanied by the greatest inequality in history. The world has also seen the emergence of a new phase of imperialism, best characterized as late imperialism, in which international exploitation/expropriation has been intensified in the context of the globalization of production and the prevalence of global value chains. International conflicts and racism are on the rise. Both the United States and Europe are experiencing declines in their respective positions within the international economic hierarchy, symbolized by the rise of China. On top of all this is a planetary ecological crisis on a scale that has no precedent in history, and which threatens the very future of humanity, not in some distant period, but already in the present century.
Neoliberalism, which seeks to subordinate the state to the market while also using the state apparatus to enforce market relations, is systematically dissolving all bases of community relations, transforming them into mere commodity relations. This has served to delegitimize the state, the unintended effect of which has been to encourage the development of radical right or neofascist movements opposed to liberal/neoliberal political elites along with the working poor. Xenophobic racism is being directed at immigrants and populations emanating from the Global South. At the same time, perpetual war and imperialist-based coups have generated millions of refugees. Overall, the conditions of our time are those of epochal economic, social, and ecological crises, accompanied by intensified imperialism and war.
It is no coincidence that the drift to the right corresponds with the spread of social diseases, such as mass killings, virulent racism, and misogyny. In the United States, where the social fabric is coming apart, mass shootings are increasing in frequency. There is now a 60 percent chance of at least one mass shooting and a 17 percent chance of two mass shootings on any given day in the United States. In India, the rise of the right has been associated with widespread lynchings, while in Germany the emergence of the Alternative for Germany as a significant political force has coincided with the resurgence of Nazi-style rhetoric and even organization.
FC: Most of the discussions on the rise of the right point to the mass support that these reactionary forces are amassing. This should be identified emphatically. You have said that the class basis has to do with the mobilization of the lower-middle class by sectors of ruling monopoly-finance capital. Could you say more about the class basis of this right-wing political force? Should the class basis be identified based on support it garners from the broader society or the class interests it upholds?
JBF: I think that most of the confusion in this respect has been the product of a failure to develop a class analysis of these changes. From a class perspective, it is clear that what we are seeing is the growth of various movements in the fascist genre (whether prefascism, protofascism, classical fascism, postfascism, neofascism, neoliberal fascism, ur-fascism, peripheral fascism, white supremacism, or national populism — you can take your pick). Fascist-type movements share certain definite class-based characteristics or tendencies. Although it is common in liberal discourse to approach such movements at the level of appearance, in terms of their ideological characteristics, such an idealist methodology only throws a veil over the underlying reality.
Historically, fascism was defined by Marxist theorists, such as George Dimitrov, Leon Trotsky, Franz Neumann, Sweezy, and Nicos Poulantzas, in class terms, as movements that had their mass basis in the mobilization of the volatile lower-middle class/stratum or petty bourgeoisie, which tends to be procapital (but opposed to what they see as elitist, crony, and financial interests, sometimes mixed, as in Nazi ideology, with anti-Semitism), as well as being anti-working class/anti-immigrant, racist, and xenophobic. The lower-middle class is subject to a fear of falling into the great “unwashed,” poverty-stricken working class below. At the same time, they are very suspicious of the upper-middle class above them, which is more educated and is often more aligned with the liberal-democratic state.
As Karl Marx stressed, class boundaries are always porous and, in many respects, most of the lower-middle class or stratum can be seen as objectively part of the expanded working class, particularly today, when relatively few among this stratum can be said to own their means of production. Nevertheless, the distinctiveness of what constitutes the lower-middle stratum (culturally as well as economically, and often ethnically) is fairly evident at a practical level. In the United States, this population is predominantly white and nationalist, enjoying economic, cultural, and racial privileges, and frequently setting itself apart as the authentic so-called middle class. It constitutes maybe 20 to 25 percent of the population in most advanced capitalist societies, though its influence extends beyond its numbers.
To be sure, movements in the fascist genre are never simply about sheer numbers. The mass mobilization of the radical right, which makes it a singular force, operating on the basis of its own ideology, is normally only possible when backed by significant sections of monopoly-finance capital, who provide the economic support and the means of access and organization. At the same time, big capital dominates the actual political-economic terrain in which movements of the radical right develop. Once a fascistic movement comes to power, there is an effort at the top to purge — if necessary, by extremely violent means — the movement so as to eliminate the more “radical” cadres, thereby subordinating them completely to the interests of the dominant capitalist fraction. At the same time, attempts are made via Gleichschaltung, or bringing into line, to use propaganda and terrorism to dragoon elements of the upper-middle class and working class, broadening the actual material support for the regime.
There is of course little in the way of any direct historical connection between today’s neofascist movements and the fascist moments of the 1920s and ’30s (despite the fact that figures like Donald Trump’s advisor Steve Bannon reached back into the fascist/neofascist tradition of the 1930s, by way of figures like Italian fascist Julius Evola). Nevertheless, there are broad commonalities to fascist-genre movements stretching across history. The neofascism emerging in the United States today (even entering into the White House) has a peculiar American vernacular of white supremacy dating back to slavery and settler colonialism, mixed with all sorts of new ideological elements. Still, the breeding grounds of such reactionary movements share certain similarities in class terms. If you look at what is referred to as Trump’s militant “political base,” consisting of about 25 to 30 percent of the electorate, what you find is that it consists largely of the lower-middle stratum, with family incomes in, say, the realm of $75,000 a year — a sector of the population which is heavily white and in a position of extreme economic insecurity (fear of falling), while ideologically nationalist-imperialist, with the accompanying militant racism. Much of this demographic, moreover, is associated with right-wing evangelism. In many respects, this is similar to what is being seen today in Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil.
It is big business within the neofascist bloc that invariably calls the shots in the economic sphere. As far as capital is concerned, it is still the cash-nexus that is first and foremost. Trump’s chief worth to the ruling class lies in the fact that, due to the political leverage that he has derived from the mobilization of the radical right, he is able to deliver value added to the wealthy, while eliminating obstacles to the market’s sway over all aspects of society.
Thus, if one looks at the Trump program, many of the ideological features are of course consonant with the white lower-middle stratum, such as nationalism, racism, misogyny, anti-liberalism, antisocialism, etc. And it is Trump’s particular political agility to draw on these regressive ideologies as means of political mobilization and political power. The main sop provided to his base in this respect is his wall along the Mexican border and his new detention centers (or concentration camps for immigrant families) symbolizing a war against poor immigrants. But the political-economic policies of the Trump administration have little to do with the demands of his political base and are concerned primarily with enhancing the power of monopoly-finance capital: huge tax breaks and subsidies to big business and the wealthy; economic and environmental deregulation; undermining trade unions; rapid privatization of education; expansion of the penal state; destruction of what little progress was made in providing accessible health care to the population; increased support of finance; and an unrelenting war for U.S. hegemony, with no pretenses remaining with respect to free trade or human rights.
FC: In what way is the rise of the right the result of the limitations of progressive political movements, as opposed simply to the structural crisis of capital?
JBF: The impasse of the global left in recent decades is of course part of the equation. The demise of Soviet bloc countries and the seeming collapse everywhere of social democracy in the period of capitalist triumphalism has left the left “disarmed.” The right has to some extent filled the gap, appearing to confront the dominant elites.
It is crucial here to understand that positions facing the right and socialist left in the age of the structural crisis of capitalism and the crisis of the liberal-democratic state are not in any way symmetrical. For the capitalist class and the political right, it is a straightforward question of defending the current order, including pushing forward a neoliberal politics of austerity that has lost all legitimacy, under the mantle of “making America great again.” It is this that has led to the mobilization of neofascist elements with the lower-middle class and the attack on the liberal-democratic state itself, as a way of stabilizing a stagnation-prone system. Weber famously defined the state as that entity with a “monopoly of the legitimate use of force.” In a fascist state, as articulated by the Nazi ideologue Carl Schmitt, the legitimacy of the state resides in the führer principle: the leader embodies the right associated with the monopoly of force.
For the left, the challenges are much more complex. It is presented with a choice between, on the one hand, social democratic policies designed to make capitalism work better on behalf of the entire society, which today, however, means a fatal compromise with neoliberalism, and, on the other hand, a genuine movement toward socialism aimed at a long revolution against capitalism/imperialism. Social democracy as a strategy has proven increasingly dysfunctional in the era of economic stagnation and restructuring, and has capitulated again and again to the neoliberal state. While any genuine socialist attempt to challenge the system fundamentally faces the total opposition of the capitalist system.
To be sure, left populism (which has nothing to do with so-called populism on the right) has emerged in the last few decades as an alternative radical strategy on the left, divorced from social democracy and socialism. However, it has been unable to translate its popular support into organized means of political change consonant with its goals. It draws its political theory from the work of post-Marxists like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, who have argued for a coalescence of the working class with the lower-middle class through a populist left strategy that seeks to avoid articulating working-class aims — in effect a retreat from class. This has been defended as a pragmatic attempt to create a Gramscian-style counterhegemonic bloc. But rather than seeking to absorb key elements of the lower-middle class into a working class-led bloc, this strategy translates into an attempt to create an anti-elite majoritarian movement by subsuming the working class within a political bloc that does not extend beyond the more “radical” anti-elitist milieu of the petty-bourgeois view. The result has been a movement lacking any clear opposition to capitalism. Absent a concrete politics and organization, a political party or movement built up in this way becomes more, not less, vulnerable to the takeover of a corrupt leadership as it approaches power, as in Syriza in Greece, which actually opened the way to the return to power of the traditional anticommunist party of the right, New Democracy.
But if it is true that the left is seemingly unable to mount significant challenges to the ruling circles in the advanced capitalist world, why are neofascist movements now receiving so much support from some of the upper echelons of the capitalist class? The answer is to be found in the structural crisis of capital itself. The stagnation and financialization of the capitalist economy, of which neoliberalism is the outward manifestation, requires that the system continually seek to intensify its exploitation and expropriation of the population and posits this as the only answer. The capitalist juggernaut can never stand still or cease to augment itself, even if it does not accumulate in terms of new investment, but rather needs constantly to expand its circle of value. But today such amassing of wealth in the context of pervasive economic stagnation (slow growth, high underemployment, low investment, and idle capacity) depends on capital taking bigger slices of a nongrowing or slowly growing pie. Unable to rule in the old way, based simply on the actual accumulation process, and choosing outright robbery (so-called accumulation by dispossession) as its answer to its crisis of valorization, monopoly-finance capital in the neoliberal era is drawn to ever-greater extremes of expropriation, undermining the liberal-democratic state itself.
Here, capital is faced with the entrenched institutional gains made by workers in the past, which stand in the way of this intensified bleeding process. As E. P. Thompson wrote in “The Peculiarities of the English,” the working class, failing to overthrow capitalism, had in various ways constructed intricate economic, political, and cultural warrens in areas such as basic working conditions; housing, economic, and environmental regulations; welfare; pensions; public education; public transportation; health; community and cultural institutions; and political/legal/human rights — a whole labyrinthine existence at the material and cultural roots of the system, operating independently of the logic of capital. These entrenched positions and customary rights of the populace, the result of hard-won gains, constitute obstacles that capital in a period of crisis has sought to overcome, and indeed have become the primary target of its avarice. In the United States and Britain, the system is undermining the ability of workers to own their homes, to have adequate health coverage or pensions. Public schools are being marketized if not completely privatized. All of this has fed the coffers of monopoly-finance capital.
The system’s response to overaccumulation has therefore been the “creative destruction” of the very bases of social existence, creating deepening contradictions as the assault on the population penetrates ever further. At the same time, capital is faced with a populace that is recalcitrant and frequently resistant, if not yet driven to outright revolt. This constantly threatens to bring neoliberalism’s accumulation by dispossession to a halt. With the overall risks rising and the stakes going up, monopoly-finance capital has decided to double its bets and draw on the forces of militant reaction as a means of consolidating its power. Yet, these forces are themselves antagonistic toward aspects of the capitalist system.
The conclusion to which we are drawn is that the rise of neofascism is a manifestation of deeper contradictions of capital, including: the structural crisis of the system, the neoliberal assault on the working class, the destabilization of the liberal-democratic state, and the reactionary awakening of a radical right in the lower-middle stratum. It comes at a time of insurmountable economic stagnation, unprecedented inequality, and rapid environmental decline. Moreover, this is not simply a problem evident in the advanced capitalist countries, but we can see the same fault lines in the so-called emerging economies as well, complicated by the fact that they have been on the receiving ends of centuries of colonialism and imperialism.
What is still conspicuously absent on the surface, but exists in all of its potential ready to burst forth in a new actuality, is the absolute rage and irresistible response of working populations everywhere, a volcanic force that is bound to erupt again and again, in a multitude of ways, and indeed can be seen today in some parts of the globe. One thing is certain: the world is facing extraordinary conflicts and irreversible changes in a matter of decades. The system itself is in decay, while pulling down with it the entire planet as a place of human habitation. This center cannot hold. We are facing what Marx once referred to as conditions of “ruin or revolution.”
FC: As the editor of Monthly Review, what’s your proposal to act in this political scene?
JBF: Monthly Review, now seventy years old, is a product of those who edit and write for it, as well as its readers and supporters, all of whom are drawn to the critical tradition MR has developed over the years, but who differ in various respects. Consequently, my own views don’t necessarily correspond with all those involved in the magazine, even if we share a broad, working agreement, which also extends to Monthly Review Press.
In my view, and I think that of MR generally, it is crucial to recognize that capitalism is inherently imperialist, ecologically destructive, racial (in the sense of being the historical point of origin and main force behind racism as an institutional reality of contemporary society), and rooted in the patriarchal family as the economic unit through which private property is organized and the reproduction of the labor force is accomplished. Beginning at the very end of the nineteenth century, capitalism entered the monopoly stage, distinguishing it from the freely competitive capitalism of the mid–nineteenth century and earlier, which was the focus of Marx’s critique of political economy. In the twentieth century, the giant monopolistic (or oligopolistic) firm came to dominate the economy — first on the national and then on the international level. Technology is currently structured in such a way as to maintain the monopoly-capitalist power structures and thus is far from being neutral in its development and effects. An evermore concentrated communication system spews forth a monochromatic ideology. The state is more and more the creature of capital, seldom operating except to expand market relations, even when this means circumscribing the role of the state itself. The main enemy of this hierarchal system is the movement toward socialism, demanding substantive equality and ecological sustainability.
Revolution in the late twentieth century was mainly a phenomenon of the periphery. In the twenty-first century, objective forces are, however, pointing to a planetary movement toward socialism, emanating primarily from the periphery, but flaring up out of necessity in the center as well. The precursor of this can be seen as the world explosion associated with 1968 — but with a totally new emergent reality now looming before us in the form of climate change and the planetary ecological crisis as a whole, and new movements like the Extinction Rebellion. As with all revolutions, this will be a long process in which the starting points and ending points are blurred. Still, it is reasonable to argue that the global movement toward socialism has long since begun in response to the structural crisis of capitalism and that we are currently in an interregnum of reaction, in which movements of the fascist genre appear suddenly ascendant.
The main political issue before us at present is the question of unity on the revolutionary left. The universal threats facing us are clear for those with their eyes wide open, and increasingly intertwined: (1) neoliberalism (threatening universal exploitation/expropriation), (2) neofascism (threatening state terrorism), (3) fossil capital (threatening planetary omnicide), and (4) permanent imperialism, militarism, and war (threatening the demolition of societies and nuclear oblivion).
In the circumstances before us, there cannot be any compromising with capitalism or neoliberalism. A popular front with neoliberalism against the rise of neofascism would not work, given the close relation of these two reactionary capitalist political movements. Rather, we are facing today the prospect of what David Harvey has referred to as a neoliberal-neofascist alliance. Nor is there a basis for any compromise on the issue of fossil capital, as demanded by the system. The only answer then is to turn to the popular bases of revolutionary action, which, despite everything, have been warrening themselves through society, a kind of labyrinth beneath capitalism. All the struggles against imperialism, racial capitalism, global patriarchy, and ecocide, and for LGBTQ rights, indigenous rights, ecosocialism, and equality of condition, are really struggles against the logic of capitalist valorization.
The struggle to coalesce these anticapitalist world movements under the pressure of historical circumstances in a fully mobilized, thoroughgoing socialism for the twenty-first century — one that recognizes that not only capital, but also its Leviathan state, must be dismantled — will determine whether capitalism will itself be eclipsed. Given the speed with which the planet as a place of human habitation is being destroyed, such a movement against the logic of capital—or the movement toward socialism — must grow by leaps and bounds to ensure certain human safeguards, even if the entire process of fundamental social change will necessarily constitute a long revolution with many stops and starts, forward and backward motions. Unless there is a considerable shift in power relations, particularly with respect to the environment, the disastrous effects of the continuation of business as usual are unimaginable. This means that the change must occur within the historical conditions with which we are currently presented, requiring a revolution in the sphere of absolute necessity, where the logic of capitalism must be suspended, in a process of a much longer transition.
None of this, of course, can be considered apart from a global revolt against imperialism. Today there has to be a global mutiny against imperialism, or the flows of money, power, and oppression that constitute world capitalism. This means that there has to emerge a new International of Workers and Peoples (as Samir Amin called it) emanating from the Global South, but with the struggle also occurring within the very center of empire in the North — in accordance with the principle that labor in the Global North cannot be free when labor in the Global South is unfree. Most of all, we need to see the rise of a global environmental proletariat, of which there are already signs, capable of addressing the material devastation of both economies and the environment.
Is all of this too much to expect? Perhaps. The foregoing comments might be dismissed by some as mere idealism, where the prospects for revolution are concerned. Yet, the truth is that if we take Thompson’s concept of warrening (and similar notions) seriously, it is clear that the left, despite everything, has been advancing politically and culturally, and in some ways institutionally, over the last half century or more, fighting innumerable small battles that have added up over many years. There is a dialectic at work here. The left, correcting past mistakes, has been focusing for decades on identity-in-difference, while now it has to shift to difference-in-identity, that is, to a wider unity, rooted in the recognition of difference. The problem is not the objective weakness of the working class, but the cultural divisions that constantly disunite it and reduce its effective numbers — and the elimination, in this process, under the influence of liberalism, of effective working-class struggle itself. Nevertheless, there is a basis today, arising out of past historical struggles and current necessity, for a broader, corevolutionary movement: one that can respond to our unprecedented age of peril.
Without such revolutionary action unleashing a whole new age of creativity, the future of the world is grim. Writing in 1968 in The Explosion, French Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre emphasized that the totality of events can produce changed situations altering the field of action rapidly in ways that make the impossible possible, constituting a whole new historical moment. Such thinking might once have been described as utopian, but today it is simply a question of survival: the impossible, the creation of a new ensemble of social relations, is not only possible but absolutely necessary. Or as Lefebvre himself was later to say, with the planetary ecological crisis in mind, it is a matter of “revolution or death.”
FC: Thank you for dissecting the burning issue in many countries.
JBF: Thank you, Farooque.
Note: The interview has appeared in Monthly Review, volume 71, no. 5, October 2019, and in Frontier, Kolkata, Autumn Issue, volume 52, nos. 13-16, September 29-October 26, 2019.
John Bellamy Foster, editor, Monthly Review, is a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon, and author of numerous books on political, economic, and ecological issues, including The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism (1986, 2014), Marx’s Ecology (2000), Naked Imperialism (2006), and Trump in the White House (2017).
Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka, Bangladesh.