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Charlottesville, fascism and economic anxiety

What’s the liberal hot take on last weekend’s white supremacist march in Charlottesville, North Virginia? According to Twitter, and never missing an opportunity to be smug, it definitely, definitely was not about “economic anxiety”. Here are some typical examples. They think they’re being clever funny ironic, of burnishing woke creds while caricaturing and mocking those annoying people who insist there is a relationship between what goes on in someone’s life and their outlook on the world. This liberal heroism merely advertises their inability to think, and broadcasts their unwillingness to do so.

And what is more, they are entirely wrong. They are even wrong on their assumptions about what economic anxiety is. Here I want to look at economic anxiety in a narrow and an expanded sense, that is how economics ‘stands alone’ (which as a proposition is only possible in an analytical exercise like this, in the real world it cannot be separated from wider social processes and inequalities) and how it combines, in this case, with race/ethnicity and, crucially, gender as a way into explaining how white supremacists become the hate mongering shits they are.

What is less than useless is the position of liberal heroism. Here racists are racist because they’re racist. People voted for Donald Trump because they’re racist. Studies prove it. Racists marched in Charlottesville because they’re racists. Racists hate on blacks and Jews because they’re racist, and so on. There is no attempt at a social explanation here, rather they’re reducing racism to a matter of choice, to personal morality. In so doing they manage to avoid facing up to the sorts of social conditions that manufacture fascists. Or to put it another way, while all fascists are awful human beings, they are congenitally uninterested in why not every awful human being is a fascist.

Let’s begin with economic anxiety, narrowly conceived. Traditionally fascism has been regarded as a movement powered primarily by petit bourgeois and declassed elements (the unemployed, precariously employed, etc.). That isn’t to say working class people never get involved, but in the “classical” cases as per Germany and Italy the other classes and class fragments were present in disproportionate numbers. It all makes a certain sense when you look at these as positions and relationships: these are de facto unstable and precarious. Effectively, they are individuals versus the weight of the economic world. If you are a business person, even a successful (small/medium) business person, your position is caught in a vice. The employee class, the proletarians, are the pains you can’t do without and they so pester you with unreasonable demands like health and safety at work, time off and decent wages. And at any time big business threatens to squash you with the competitive advantages they can bring to bear. If you are not a business owner and are declassed thanks to unemployment or sporadic work, you are still thrown onto your own devices. Unemployment and precarious employment are social failings, but experiencing it and the social security institutions policing it put your situation on you. Some thrive on this, but others are filled with existential dread. Among this layer then, we tend to find a concern for order, a tendency toward nostalgia, a hankering for authoritarianism and hostility toward scapegoats deemed to threaten and/or undermine their received position and perceived privileges.

As we have seen before, there is an assumption that economic anxiety just equals working class people, which is demonstrably false. While plenty of (white) working class people voted for Trump, it was the wealthier layers who turned out in disproportionate numbers to back him. The persistence of this understanding, or rather misunderstanding of economic anxiety starts looking deliberate the more it is repeated. It’s almost as if layers of official opinion formation cannot cope with the idea of fascists as their local plumber, hot dog man, or restaurant manager. It’s easier to dehumanise fascists if you conceive them as poor and working class. The more social distance you can put between them and you, the better.

So much for the narrow economics, what about a more expansive approach to anxiety? As per recent arguments, we live in a society which has been totally subsumed by capital. Market relationships and market logics have penetrated all aspects of social life, and increasingly the business of capitalism is about taking from the common store of social knowledge (or ‘the common’), repackaging it and selling it back to us. Here, labour in advanced capitalist societies is increasingly immaterial. At the behest of our employers, we are much more likely to produce knowledge, information, services, relationships and types of people (subjectivities). We also tend to do this in our own time as well. This blog post as an example of knowledge/information-sharing and (hopefully!) subjectivity formation, for instance. Capitalism is now in the business of producing people, which means the contradictions and conflicts between capital and labour have rippled beyond the workplace and fused with the politics of identity formation. Class and gender and race and other locations of so-called identity politics can only ever be separated analytically: in real life they combine and condition each.

What has this got to do with our Charlottesville sad sacks? Quite a bit. One thing that strikes about last weekend, far right mobilisations and fascism generally is, well, where are the women? The alt-right and white nationalism are manly affairs. Very manly affairs. It glorifies fighting, militarism, weaponry, misogyny and the rest. It rails against anything that presents a danger to a mythologised, idealised and brittle hyper-masculinity, and here it conjoins with the racialism. The “threats” arrayed against whiteness can only be seen off by militant manliness, of white men protecting theirs and their bloodlines by having lots of children and aggressively seeing off competitors and deviants. Hence its fragility vis a vis male homosexuality (in particular). Its promise is a society in which everyone knows their place. All men are (white) men for whom there are enough jobs and enough women. It is an order that institutionalises white power and male privilege under some benevolent fascist administration that represses the deviants. It’s a heaven for a few built on the hell of the many, of women, of “undesirable” races and ethnicities to be enslaved and wiped out, of sexual difference kept in the closet under pain of lethal force.

What kind of person is going to find views of this kind attractive? Presumably white men would in disproportionate numbers. And why might some of them (after all, not all white men …)? Because of the lot young white men are facing, of a progressive dissolution of a privileged gender and racial locations. Let’s bring it narrowly back to economics for a moment. Many scholars have written about the feminisation of labour markets. This doesn’t just mean the progressive integration of more women into work, but also the spread of conditions one would previously associate with “traditional” women’s employment (part time, low pay, short term) as well as the content of work. The immaterial labour that has always coexisted alongside the development of capitalism in the home, the affective caring work overwhelmingly undertaken by wives and mothers helped produce human beings with certain sets of capacities that left their children work ready, to a degree. Immaterial labour as an increasingly dominant arena of capital accumulation sees larger numbers of men drawn into affective, service-oriented cognitive labour, the sorts of labour that also produces social relations, networks, and human beings of certain types. Therefore, not only are younger men having to compete with women for jobs more regularly than their dads and grandads did, but they do so for jobs that fall short of the traditionally masculine manly man. There is a mismatch between this received masculinity, which finds itself expressed in whole and in part through a bewildering array of cultural artefacts, and the reality. Matthew Heimbach, the well known white supremacist interviewed in Vice‘s acclaimed Charlottesville documentary is a testament to this. Prior to his politics getting him the sack, he worked in child protection.

If that wasn’t bad enough, women have expectations of being treated like human beings. The feminist movement has asserted women’s autonomy. Millions no longer want to be the arm candy or the mothers gender ideology throws at women and men, and millions refuse the gender apartheid that underpins traditional male privilege and power. With greater freedoms, they might not only out-compete men at work but may also choose to be intimate with men who are not white. Therefore in the white patriarchal imaginary the liberated woman is a double threat – a threat to their economic well being and masculinist conceptions of work, and a sexual threat in her potential exodus from and abandonment of white men who feel entitled to her body. Hence, particularly in America, how the racist anxieties towards black men is bound up with a sexual anxiety, of their being hypersexual, better endowed, more manly than white men. A triptych of of gender, sexuality, and race on which the anxieties of alt-right, fascist America are represented.

Fascism is a promise to do away with these tensions. Instead of leaving white male privilege in contention, it reinforces it. Turning the clock back, rewinding the film, of repeating history is about stamping on uncertainty and, yes, anxiety (be it economic or otherwise). Women and minority ethnicities are to be put back in the box, the complex processes of struggle underpinning the feminisation of work substituted for conspiracy fairy tales of Jewish/communist/Jewish and communist manipulations, the fevered reification of masculinity with its celebration of militarism and war, and society locked into a rigid patterning of authority (overseen by a dictatorial patriarch) not only is a simple vision, but one that can only be achieved through the blood and fire of redemptive violence. Fascism is more than a dystopia attractive to a would-be elite, it’s a weak apologia for criminality and wanton murder, of promising empowerment via the infliction of pain and suffering on one’s enemies.

All this ineluctably leads to the conclusion that fascism has a great deal to do with economic anxiety refracted through class, gender, race and ethnicity. Understanding what fascism is, where it comes from, what it appeals to and crucially, who the fascists are and how they are made is not an idle exercise. It’s the very basics of militant anti-fascism. Knowing what generates fascism allows for it to be pulled up by its roots, and that is inseparable from a wider programme of political change – a programme that addresses the antagonisms and conflicts pregnant with fascist possibilities by abolishing them altogether, and that brings us back to capital and its apparatus of command. Liberals fly from even trying to understand how their system works, and that might have something to do with why their anti-fascism considers racism and white supremacy matters of individual moral failure.

3 Comments

  1. Tony says:

    Much is made concerning the demonstrations in Charlottesville about the statue of Robert E. Lee.
    However, I think it is worth remembering that there are any statues of General Sherman in the northern states. His behaviour in the south during the Civil War was absolutely monstrous. One unionist general, Don Carlos Buell, was so horrified that he resigned from the army in protest.

    And his activities were not just confined to the south. According to US conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, he wrote a letter in which he told President Grant: (1)

    “We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux (Indians), even to their extermination, men, women and children.”

    Buchanan adds that he later called for the extermination of all American Indians in what he described as the “final solution to the Indian problem.”

    Ironically, a famous tank of WW2 was named in his honour.

    (1) Patrick J. Buchanan: “Where the right went wrong” p118-119.

  2. Bazza says:

    Yes it’s funny how Trump et al CON some of the left behind and right wing middle class Republicans in the US.
    Was reading how Trump and his family own companies abroad, so Mr ‘America First’ Trump why don’t you disinvest from abroad and invest in the US to help US workers and actually put America First?
    Trump why don’t you put your big money (legally nicked from working people) where your big US mouth is?
    Answer- because Trump and Family Co Ltd put one thing first – like all Neo-Liberal Capitalist Legal Nickers do – the Trumps et al!
    If the Right Wing Neo-Liberal Pro- Big Business Democrat Establishment had not sabotaged Bernie Sanders Campaign then Bernie and the wonderful emerging left wing democratic socialist forces in the US could have won with its own Corbyn like surge!
    We need left wing democratic socialist forces in every country in the Workd to take economic power back from the Neo-Liberal capitalists!
    Left wing democratic socialism is realy the only force can unite diverse working people internationally against the right and far right!
    Yours in International Solidarity!

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