The United States today is a nation divided. We’ve all witnessed the way that both liberals and conservatives attack one another on social media at the first indication that someone upholds the opposing political stance. Considering that we exist in an age of post-truth, data harvesting, and infowars, this rift continues to widen and calcify. It has gotten to the point that a recent survey, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, suggests that Americans have “become radically split in their basic perceptions of reality.”
The resulting damage can feel massively irreparable. Yet, perhaps this so-called polarization isn’t actually the root of our nationwide psychosis, but a symptom of something deeper. Our entrenchment in an atmosphere of American exceptionalism and historical amnesia deludes us into believing the falsehood that this polarization is based on a legitimate opposition of two political ideologies. In actuality, the divide between liberal and conservative has more to do with party branding than it does with concrete reality. While the policies and political history of the United States display relatively little systemic variation between the liberal-conservative party in power, bipartisanism serves to disorient both groups’ perceptions of reality and obscure any true structural understanding of our political system as a whole.
As Chomsky puts it, “Historical amnesia is a dangerous phenomenon, not only because it undermines moral and intellectual integrity, but also because it lays the groundwork for crimes that lie ahead.”
What’s more is that in the midst of this political climate, we are faced with the question of whether what we are witnessing as part of the Trump administration represents our descent into authoritarianism, economic crisis, and war. Lately, I’ve been especially stricken by the comparisons made between the current state of America and the rise of Nazism in Germany. Yet, even these discussions are erroneously framed within the paradigm of bipartisan debate, whereas liberals compare the progression of events to Nazism and Trump supporters refute it merely by impulse of the fact that their opponents are the ones to raise these concerns. Suddenly, we are arguing our own political circumstances through the (several times removed) medium of Nazi Germany, and therefore, our own political sentiments dangerously obscure the reality of historical fact.
When we are lost in the mire of bipartisanism, our disgruntlement with the status quo is both obscured and misdirected from rendering the kind of potent structural critique that is necessary in order to save us from ourselves. Ironically, the petty infighting that exists between liberal and conservative camps becomes a distraction that puts us at far greater risk of slipping into fascist dictatorship.
Bipartisan Illusion and the True Ruling Class
It’s important to note that the proposed preconditions to authoritarianism we are currently witnessing are not simply unique to Donald Trump’s administration, but deeply innate to our political system itself. For many Americans, the fact that we only have two major political parties comes with the widespread acceptance of the idea that they are, therefore, situated at opposing ends of the political spectrum. This is an illusion and one of the ways that bipartisanship obfuscates the true role and nature of our government as a political entity.
In actuality, both liberals and conservatives in the United States occupy a myopic section of the full range of legitimate political ideology. For the most part — no matter which party they belong to — the vast majority of candidates and elected officials over the last several decades sit at the center right. While often expressed through rhetoric and personality politics, however, liberals and conservatives are portrayed as representing different and often polarized values.
To conservatives, for instance, Trump is painted appealingly as a renegade for his lack of political correctness, toughness, and promises to offer something different than the elitism of the so-called latte liberals. To liberals, Trump is the Hitler of the 21st century. Meanwhile, liberals heil Obama as the cool, accomplished, impeccable hero – the embodiment of a vision of identity politics as a means of social change and a more egalitarian future. To conservatives, Obama was a foreigner with a questionable background, a socialist, even the full-blown antiChrist. While the packaging may be different, however, the proof is in the pudding.
Many of Obama and Donald Trump’s policies are not so different from one another. Obama deported more people than any other president, and he launched thousands of drone strikes on our resource-rich targets in the Middle East. Both received corporate funding in their campaigns, have been pulled by the sway of lobbyists, and are fundamentally dedicated to the interests of Wall Street. This is to say that while US politicians may seem to represent different values on the surface, systemically, they are more or less the same.
To extend this further, politicians on both sides of the aisle represent a ruling class who is beholden first and foremost to the interests of capital no matter whether they identify themselves as Democrats or Republicans. As such, American bipartisanship is a tool that keeps us divided amongst ourselves. It renders our legitimate disgruntlement with an exploitative and stratified system impotent in fostering any real structural change, justice, or liberation.
This is not the first time that the mire of bourgeois parliamentary democracy has obscured the truth of power and class relations to the detriment of society. To drive this point home, I will turn to Daniel Guerin’s 1936 book, Fascism and Big Business, where he analyzes the rise of fascism in Mussolini’s Italy and in Nazi Germany:
“The state has always been the instrument by which one social class rules over other social classes. When a state changes its outward features, when one political regime yields to another, the first thought that comes to mind is: what is going on behind the scenes? Is a new class coming into power? But when a number of unequivocal signs indicate that it is the same [ruling] class in the saddle, the question instead becomes: what interests of the ruling class are served by this upheaval?”
The Capitalist Ruling Class
If we manage to cut through this quagmire of bipartisan politics, we begin to see that capitalist interests have dictated our foreign and domestic policy since the very creation of our nation. This is one of the truths self-evident in the Declaration of Independence, which came about when the landowning American colonists could no longer stand their position of subservience to the British crown. It is apparent in the setup of our voting system as a democratic republic, which favored the propertied aristocrats in decision making through the establishment of political structures like the Electoral College.
The privileging of capitalist interests show themselves once again in the legal protection and institutionalization of slavery, which was a key contributing factor in building our nation’s wealth and global influence, and in the intolerable conditions of industrializing cities in the north. They are also evident in the Cold War, which was a defense of capitalism against the rise of communism around the world as well as in imperialist interventions in resource rich regions, which have led to millions of deaths and the destablization of countries across the globe. Capitalist interests continue to play out in the 21st century in the form of SUPER PACs and Citizens United, the privatization of public services, the military industrial complex, the NRA lobby, and for-profit prisons. Returning again to Guerin’s writing on Italy and Germany,
“Bourgeois parliamentarianism offers only a caricature of democracy, ever more impotent and more corrupt.”
In contemporary times, the capitalist class even petitions for taxpayers to pay for their reckless speculations and shortsighted decisions in the form of bailouts, as we witnessed in the 2008 recession. Guerin aptly highlights a similar situation leading up to the rise of Nazism in Germany:
“When the economic crisis becomes acute when the rate of profit sinks toward zero, the bourgeoisie can see only one way to restore its profits: it empties the pockets of the people down to the last centime. It resorts to what M. Caillaux, one finance minister of France, expressively called ‘the great penance’ : brutal slashing of wages and social expenditures, raising of tariff duties at the expense of the consumer, etc. The state, furthermore, rescues business enterprises on the brink of bankruptcy, forcing the masses to foot the bill.”
As much as possible, the capitalist ruling class maintains the system of parliamentary democracy because it keeps the population docile and gives it a sense of agency. When it seems as if we, the people, democratically select different and opposing personas who are obliged to serve the interests of their constituencies, we are less likely to rebel. Thus, this system of governance requires fewer tactics of overt violence to maintain (it should be noted here that plenty of violence is still inflicted on marginalized groups under this form of government), as increased state repression tends to inspire popular resistance, making it unsustainable in the long term. Guerin notes the same of the antecedent quasi-democratic political systems in Italy and Germany during the 1920s and 30s:
“The political rights which democracy grants to the masses act as a sort of safety valve and prevent violent clashes between rulers and ruled… Democracy enlarges the capitalist market by encouraging the masses to want more goods and by giving them, to some extent, the means of satisfying their needs. All true enough — when the feast is abundant, the people may safely be allowed to pick up the crumbs.”
Yet, the hold that the capitalist class has on us is beginning to loosen. The economic strain placed on the American populace of late to maintain the exploitative status quo has given rise to disillusionment and demoralization as we currently see expressed in voting behaviors and social unrest in both liberal and conservative arenas. For instance, returning to the PRRI survey I cited at the beginning of this article, 82% of Americans believe that, “the influence of wealthy individuals and corporations a major problem in America’s electoral system.”
Capitalism in Crisis: Falling into Fascism
Once we get beneath the facade of democracy, we must understand the nature of capitalism itself. It is a system that is naturally comprised of booms and busts, making it inherently unstable. As deindustrialization takes place and resources like oil fall in value, we begin to see a higher instance of recession. The capitalist class has various strategies for maintaining the social order when systems are in crisis. Aside from further cutting wages and pressuring politicians for tax cuts and fewer legal regulations over the ways they conduct business, the ruling class can go to war in order to drive up the prices of raw materials. Even Keynesianism, which helped us bounce back after the Great Depression, was a strategy for maintaining the capitalist system and bourgeois democratic government. In more recent decades increased public spending in times of crisis remains a dream of the past since Reagan ushered in neoliberal ideology that powerfully portrays recipients of public assistance as shameful, lazy, and greedy.
There sometimes reaches a point of crisis, however, when these various techniques for maintaining the existing capitalist order do not suffice, and the bourgeois democratic rule must be overridden for the sake of maintaining the hegemony. This is when we see a shift into authoritarianism, and the guise of liberal democracy that we are accustomed to is lifted.
As Guerin details in his analysis of Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, the rise of the authoritarian right, fascist factions are often disguised as popular movements, that start from the ground up. Like the blackshirts of Mussolini’s Italy and the Braunhemden who targeted labor organizers and unions in 1930s Germany, this rightwing populism is championed for its brutality. It is also known to scapegoat the marginalized as a means of dividing and distracting us from waging effective critiques against the root causes of our plummeting living standards and general sense of demoralization. Another primary target of these fascist factions are those who intend to raise class consciousness amongst the population at large, including labor organizers, workers’ unions, and Marxists because these groups pose a direct threat to the capitalist class.
And make no mistake about it: the popular fascist movements would never be allowed to grow if they weren’t already approved by what Guerin calls the capitalist magnates, i.e. the wealthiest and most influential players in the hierarchy of our society. He adds:
“At first, the fascist gangs have the character of anti-labor militia entrusted by the capitalist magnates and country landlords with the mission of harassing the organized proletariat and destroying its power of resistance.”
Once the fascist factions successfully attain positions within parliamentary democracy, they begin dismantling it at the behest of the capitalist magnates, breaking precedents and eroding civil liberties to make way for a dictatorship, all with public support, as the fascists cunningly harness popular disgruntlement towards blame of the political establishment. They begin enforcing the law through the police and the military with increased brutality and disregard for human rights. Guerin continues that:
“It must give the impression that it is swept into power by a vast popular movement and not simply because its financial backers, including heads of the army and the police, are ready to hand over the state to it. Thus its tactic is essentially legalistic; it wants to come into power through the normal action of the constitution and universal suffrage…. It was better to lull the adversary by pretending to observe the Constitution.”
All of this should be sounding familiar to what we are seeing in our own political situation today. Trump is a boisterous strongman who distracts the world with behavior ever increasing in its absurdity, profanity, and incoherency. Meanwhile, his excessively wealthy cronies go to work in retracting political protections for working class people, cutting necessary government funding, placing asylum seekers in internment camps and forcibly separating them from their children, slashing environmental regulations in favor of corporations, and more.
Whether or not you’re okay with living under this system is a topic for another article (largely one that would require you to examine your own privilege and meager stakes in the existing social order). Rather, my goal here is to shed light on the true nature of our government in order to identify the preconditions necessary for the shift from bourgeois democracy to authoritarian fascism.
That said, perhaps one of the greatest achievements of the magnates in power is that they’ve successfully erased the history of struggle in popular consciousness, propagating a sense of amnesia amongst the populace in terms of the power we hold when we are united to create a viable alternative to our existing political model. If you are interested in resisting a fascist regime, we can start by better acquainting ourselves with the sheer magnitude, depth, and history of class struggle. That is to say that, unfortunately, using the bourgeois parliamentary system that serves the current hegemony as our primary means of dismantling that same hegemony is a dead end. Therefore, our best shot is in propagating popular unity in the form of class consciousness. The kind of class consciousness I speak of here must be one rooted in an understanding that we are all stratified, exploited, and oppressed under a system that favors wealth of a few over human life. It must involve an integrated critique of the ways that this stratification manifests itself in heterogenous ways based on race, gender, sexuality, ability, and so on.
The kind of class unity that manifests as a result is the key to resisting the political, social, and economic crises of our time because it exposes our true oppressors and elucidates how they exercise and maintain their power. This, in turn, sheds light on the mechanisms of their propaganda and their instigations to scapegoat and blame each other for the conditions under which we are suffering. We resist through our courageous refusal to be bystanders when we witness these things. We resist through our solidarity with one another.