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Last week, I wrote about what is needed in this moment and urged people to look more deeply, beyond the Biden-Trump spectacle, to understand where we are as a country and what we must do to change course. I cited the work of Gabriel Rockhill. Read his three recent articles in Counterpunch and the fourth in the series here at Black Agenda Report for an enhanced understanding of how we got here and what we are up against.
This week, I delve more deeply into the question of where we are and what Rockhill means when he writes that “…liberalism and fascism, contrary to what the dominant ideology maintains, are not opposites. They are partners in capitalist crime.” What it all points to is that the path away from fascism to a future that respects human rights and protects the planet requires a mass movement working to create systemic change.
Listen to my interview with Gabriel Rockhill on Clearing the FOG (available Monday) and aired on WBAI in New York City and WPFW in Washington, DC.
Liberalism and Fascism
Liberalism, meaning liberal democracy, and fascism, which can become authoritarian but this isn’t a requirement, are forms of governance that both exist and serve to protect capitalism. John Curl, in “For All the People,” explains that prior to the founding of the United States, a real democracy movement of collectives, cooperatives and communalism existed, established by the settlers out of necessity. Of course, indigenous peoples have used these democratic structures throughout time.
The settlers’ communal practices threatened the oligarchs, the major land and slave owners, because the people had real power that couldn’t be controlled by the colonial governments. Thus, the founding Constitution, which exists today, was written to prevent participatory democracy and to establish property rights, and later corporate rights, over human rights. In 1776, the capitalist state was born.
In a liberal democracy, a mostly western institution, elections are held and those who hold power are supposed to represent the interests of the people and protect their rights. Fascism can take different forms in different circumstances, but it uses violence, repression and control to maintain power. Both liberalism and fascism can and do exist at the same time for different populations in the same country.
Rockhill explains in the interview that liberal democracies give the illusion of protecting the rights of people, but they only do so as long as the people are compliant with the capitalist system. In reality, the system serves the interests of the few while exploiting the working class and poor and degrading the planet. This is what we refer to in the Popular Resistance School as the official policy, what we are told something does, versus the operative policy, what it actually does.
In theory, in liberal democracies, people can choose to participate in governance through elections where different perspectives are represented and compete for power. There are checks and balances, including the rule of law, that prevent the ruling class from trampling on the people’s rights. That sounds good.
In practice, in the United States, voter suppression, suppression of third parties and an unaccountable voting system prevent full participation in the process, create a limited choice for voters and have the potential to rig the outcome. The checks and balances and rule of law have been undermined over time as those in power write laws to legalize consolidation of power, theft from the people and assaults on civil rights.
For the past few decades, using executive orders and laws like the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the power of the presidency has grown. Congress, through legislation such as the Patriot Act and the National Defense Authorization Act, allows mass surveillance of the population and restrictions on our rights to due process. Studies show that Congress represents the interests of the wealthy elites and polls find the approval rating for Congress is extremely low, currently at only 17%. This couldn’t be more evident when looking at Congress’ current failure to protect the health and economic security of the people during a time of multiple serious crises while the wealthy have amassed more riches.
Fascism uses state actors, law enforcement and the military, and non-state actors, vigilantes and civil society groups, to violently suppress people. This can be blatant violence such as is occurring against black and brown people and those who support their struggle or it can be the structural violence of gentrification, discrimination and incarceration. People who support fascism are propagandized to believe they are protecting their rights while they are actually protecting the interests of the wealthy class. Once fascism achieves state power, through the process of liberal democracy, it may turn to authoritarianism. Rockhill describes how Hitler and Mussolini both rose to power through the governance structure, not outside of it.
Fascism is used when liberal democracy fails. Fascist elements have existed throughout the history of the United States. Think of the slave patrols that preceded the institution of police and white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the American legion. It has been used to suppress dissent whenever segments of the population rise up to demand their rights. It is no coincidence that the “War on Drugs” and mass incarceration followed the rise and successes of the civil rights movement. It is no coincidence that the attack on worker rights and unions followed the period when taxes on the rich were very high and the middle class was growing.
The middle and upper classes live in the illusion that they are served by liberal democracy while the poor and working class, especially for people of color, are controlled through fascist practices of detention, segregation, lack of rights and violence. Those fascist practices will be unleashed against the middle and upper classes too if they recognize the charade and rebel. Capitalism knows no limits. We are living in end-stage capitalism and a falling empire.
Building a culture of resistance
Once we understand who and what our opponents are, we can strategize and organize to defeat them. Our foes are not the personalities, Trump and Biden, but the systems and institutions they represent. No matter who is elected in November, the systems stay the same. We need to find ways to work outside those systems to create the world we want to see. This requires building a culture of resistance, a culture of non-cooperation. If we are successful in building popular power, the systems will change either through what is referred to as “victorious retreat,” which means the power holders acquiesce to the demands of the people, or through attrition where new institutions built by the people grow and replace the old systems as they fade away.
The current struggle is being defined as Trump versus Biden and many progressives are convincing themselves that a Biden presidency is a step on the path we are seeking. There are serious risks for the struggle no matter who wins.
President Trump is open about what he is doing in empowering the extreme right and having no regard for human life. He sharpens the contradictions by showing what he plans to do and often in response, the institutions that make up our government and the people push back, forcing him in some cases to back down.
As we experienced under an Obama-Biden presidency, and Biden has differentiated himself from Obama by declaring himself in opposition to the needs of the people while Obama at least gave the pretense of believing in human rights, the administration was effective at dividing and weakening opposition to it. It convinced people it was doing one thing while it actually did another.
An example that I am very familiar with is the health reform process in 2008-2010. There was majority support for National Improved Medicare for All by the public and super-majority support for it by Democratic voters. The administration, working with major labor unions, ‘progressive’ organizations and faith-based groups, created a distraction, which it called the ‘public option’ and convinced people that this was achievable and would lead to Medicare for All. This divided the movement for universal health care. Tens of millions of dollars were poured into this effort and towards the end of the process, we witnessed that even this tiny crumb was never intended to be in the final legislation.
The resulting “Affordable Care Act” forced people to purchase private health insurance or pay a fine. Government resources were spent to aggressively market and subsidize health insurance products, even hiring salespeople called “navigators.” In return, people received health insurance that did not guarantee they would receive the healthcare they needed or protect them from financial ruin. Health insurers found ways to work around the regulations and their profits, along with those of the pharmaceutical, private hospital and other medical industries, soared.
The unanswered question is whether a Biden-Harris administration will be as successful at hoodwinking and dividing progressives as they enact an agenda that will continue to cut social services, degrade worker rights, pollute the environment, foment wars and repress dissent.
The actual struggle is not Trump versus Biden but putting people and planet over profit. It is people power versus the power of wealthy elites and corporations. We can only win if we organize and mobilize. Failure to do so means we will certainly continue on the destructive path we are on. Victory requires political clarity, a bold vision of a different future and building a culture of resistance, which means both stopping harmful policies and practices and creating new systems to meet our needs. We must and we can make what seems impossible in this moment inevitable.