As long as capitalism exists, the threat of fascism exists

Six years is an eternity in politics. Consider what was common opinion at the start of 2016: That changing demographics in the United States favored the Democratic Party; it would soon be impossible for Republicans to win a national election unless they sharply changed from their primary strategy of sending dog whistles to their base of conservative white people, a dwindling percentage of the U.S. population.

Six short years later, there is not only much hand-wringing that Republicans are using bare-knuckle tactics that are poised to give themselves a permanent grip on power despite their minority status but there is open worry of a possible coup by fascistic elements in the Republican Party that would put an end to formal democracy. No longer, it seems, is demographics destiny; the Democratic Party, ever haughtily giving the back of the hand to its base, had believed it merely need show up to win elections.

One year on from Donald Trump’s attempt at a fascist coup — that the attack on the Capitol by his deluded but fanatical followers had no chance to succeed does not mitigate the severity of that day — the Orange Menace’s grip on the worst of the two parties of capital has further tightened. And perhaps Republicans won’t have to resort to widespread cheating and voter suppression to win back the White House — not that the possibility will in any way give them second thoughts about blocking access to the ballot box — given the pathetic performance of Democrats since winning the 2020 elections, a lack of results dismal even by Democrats’ standards of ineptitude.

Fascism is a global phenomenon, not limited to any one country. (Photo by The All-Nite Images from New York)

Many reading these lines will wonder why we should care which party wins since neither of the two parties of capital will work for working people, who constitute the vast majority of United Statesians as they do in any advanced capitalist country. Even the minuscule number of genuine progressives among Democratic members of Congress are constrained by their party’s dominant corporate wing and, due to the material realities of elite politics, inevitably find themselves politically supporting that wing. Nor is the corporate wing reluctant to undercut its electoral base and its progressive colleagues. Witness House Speaker Nancy Pelosi doing an end-run around the Squad’s refusal to back the bipartisan infrastructure bill until the larger Build Back Better bill passed the Senate by gathering sufficient Republican votes to win passage of the infrastructure bill and thus torpedo the only leverage the party had over its two Senate holdouts, fossil-fuel mouthpiece Joe Manchin and perfidious Kyrsten Sinema. It is impossible to avoid thinking there are other Democrats secretly glad the focus is on those two holdouts, allowing them to avoid the pressure to vote for Build Back Better.

There are others who argue that people should hold their noses and vote for Democrats anyway, given that when Democrats are in office there is more room to maneuver and some possibility of some small reforms. The all-out assault by Republicans, when Trump occupied the White House, on seemingly every front does provide support to lesser-evilism voting. So those who do hold their noses and vote for Democrats won’t get any criticism from me although I can’t bring myself to do it. Whether voting for lesser evils or for socialist or Green candidates, the important thing is to be involved in organizing; taking a half-hour to vote once a year need not detract from activist work.

Nonetheless, there are anti-capitalists, including Marxists, who argue forcefully that Trump and his minions are a unique threat, a threat that rises to the threat of fascism. Fascism is far worse than capitalist formal democracy, sham as the latter is. There is no question, or shouldn’t be, that Trump has aspirations of being a fascist dictator. That alone should be enough to see him and his followers as a mortal threat. Trump does not have sufficient support of industrialists and financiers (however much they applaud what he did for them while in office) to actually become a fascist dictator, and his base, although depressingly large and immune to reason and reality, is not big enough for a successful putsch.

Trump does have the blind support of the Republican Party, after Republican leaders momentarily wavered during the immediate aftermath of the 2021 insurrection, so he does have an institutional base he originally lacked — an institution that has become singularly focused on voter suppression and using all means available to put themselves in a position to overturn election results that don’t go their way. There is indeed here an existential threat to the formal democracy of the United States. History provides no shortage of warnings of what could happen, from Weimar Germany and post-World War 1 Italy to Chile and Argentina in the 1970s.

Fascism is a specific form of dictatorship

First, let’s clarify what the political term fascism means. It does not mean any right-wing movement or politician we don’t like, and shouldn’t be thrown around as such. What it does reference is a specific political phenomenon.

At its most basic level, fascism is a dictatorship established through and maintained with terror on behalf of big business. It has a social base, which provides the support and the terror squads, but which is badly misled since the fascist dictatorship operates decisively against the interest of its social base. Militarism, extreme nationalism, the creation of enemies and scapegoats, and, perhaps the most critical component, a rabid propaganda that intentionally raises panic and hate while disguising its true nature and intentions under the cover of a phony populism, are among the necessary elements.

Despite national differences that result in major differences in the appearances of fascism, the class nature is consistent. Big business is invariably the supporter of fascism, no matter the content of a fascist movement’s rhetoric, and is invariably the beneficiary. Instituting a fascist dictatorship is no easy decision even for the biggest industrialists, bankers and landowners who might salivate over the potential profits. For even if it is intended to benefit them, these big businessmen are giving up some of their own freedom since they will not directly control the dictatorship; it is a dictatorship for them, not by them. It is only under certain conditions that business elites resort to fascism — some form of democratic government, under which citizens “consent” to the ruling structure, is the preferred form and much easier to maintain.

Boston Free Speech rally counter-protesters on August 19, 2017 (photo by GorillaWarfare)

Fascism is instituted when it is no longer possible for capitalists to enjoy the profits they believe they are entitled to, or to put a forceful end to large and rising left-wing movements threatening the power of industrialists and financiers. Neither of these conditions are in place in the United States, and with one party dedicated to using existing legal power to repress working people and giving capitalists all they want, and the other party giving them much of what they want while absorbing and smothering nascent movements, formal democracy works just fine for them. What immediate need do they have of going to the trouble of instituting a dictatorship? (Although some of course would love to have one no matter the circumstances.)

The foregoing does not give us license to be complacent. The economy is fragile, environmental destruction steadily mounts, and the numbers of people willing to oppose capitalism has grown tremendously over the past couple of decades, particularly since the 2008 economic crash. And industrialists and financiers — the bourgeoisie to use the classical term — believe themselves entitled to rule. The most important lesson from studying the fascism of the past is the overwhelming violence they will use to keep themselves in power. (No surprise there, given that violence, slavery, colonialism and plunder established capitalism and has kept it in place ever since.) U.S. capitalists are quite content to have police and the world’s biggest and most well-equipped military at their service, and there has never been much hesitation to use it.

If conditions continue to deteriorate, then Trump (or, more likely, someone with more intelligence and self-control) could be tapped on the shoulder. Trump is hardly the only demagogue out there. It could have happened in the 1930s. In Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first year as president, a group of bankers and industrialists, backed by financing from DuPont, General Motors and Morgan Bank, hatched a scheme to institute fascism. Wall Street bond salesman Gerald McGuire approached retired Marine Corps General Smedley Butler with an offer for him to be the fascist leader and deliver an ultimatum to Roosevelt to either take orders from businessmen or be forced from office by an army of 500,000 veterans. Their arms were to be supplied by Remington, a DuPont subsidiary.

Butler declined, informed Roosevelt and the plan was defused by leaking it to the press. No one was punished and the coup threat was treated as a joke. Perhaps the coup plotters didn’t do their homework — Butler, in 1929, became the first general officer since the Civil War to be placed under arrest. His crime? Criticizing Benito Mussolini! Butler, summing up his highly decorated career in 1935, said in an interview, “I spent thirty three years and four months [in] the Marine Corps. … [D]uring that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism.”

Don’t confuse form with content

What we shouldn’t get hung up on is appearances. Chilean fascism under Pinochet and the Argentine “Process” took different forms than did the classical German and Italian varieties, and any fascism in the U.S. would have further divergences and would be wrapped in Christian fundamentalism and phony right-wing “populism.” Political culture in North America is such that brownshirts goose-stepping down the street wouldn’t have much appeal, and we need not have that. There were fascist street gangs in Chile and Argentina who did much marauding and received funding, but in those cases the military was the decisive organization. The military and police would almost certainly be decisive in any fascist takeover in the U.S., with crucial support from the right-wing militias that already exist and Trump’s middle-class base that we saw in action at the Capitol during the January 6, 2021, insurrection.

Comparisons of present-day United States to Weimar Germany are easily overstated, but the years leading up to Hitler being handed power (it is a myth that he was elected) are instructive. Consider the full name of the Nazi party — the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. Yet workers were whom the Nazis intended to suppress on behalf of their corporate benefactors. At the same time that Nazi rhetoric claimed to uphold the right to strike and other worker interests, Hitler was assuring Germany’s industrialists that such policies were merely an attempt to gain popular support and would not be implemented.

Mural paintings in honor of Jecar Neghme of Chile’s MIR in the place where he was killed by the Pinochet government. (Credit: Ciberprofe)

What Hitler’s corporate bankrollers wanted was clear enough: the destruction of their workers’ ability to defend themselves and higher profits in a stable atmosphere. This Hitler promised in meetings of Nazi leaders and industrialists. But no matter how powerful they are, numerically these big businessmen are a minuscule portion of the population. How to create popular support for a movement that would destroy unions, strip working people of all protections, regiment all spheres of life, mercilessly destroy several groups of society, reduce the standard of living of those who still had jobs and inevitably lead to war? This is not an appealing program.

Germany’s blue-collar workforce mostly didn’t buy into fascist siren songs, and continued to support the Communists and the Social Democrats, although it was sharply divided between the two. Most of the middle class, however, was a different story. The desperate economic crisis of the Weimar Republic devastated the shopkeeper, the professional, the white-collar worker on the lower rungs of management. The middle class was losing or threatened with losing what it had, and its sons and daughters were unemployed with little or no prospects. From here the Nazis were able to draw their votes, and these sons, along with unpoliticized people at the bottom of society, swelled the ranks of the storm troops.

The Nazis skillfully appealed to German middle class fears of economic dislocation, the increasing numbers of unemployed blue-collar workers, the threat of being swallowed by big business, and political instability (although the Nazis were the most responsible for the last of those four), creating the social base needed by the economic elite to bring its movement to power. A movement that was as anathema to the middle class as it was to the lower economic ranks, although its middle-class supporters were blind to that reality as the Nazis simultaneously appealed to its grudges against societal elites.

In the last election before President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor, the Nazi vote was 2 million less than the combined vote for Communists and Social Democrats. Although there were many Communists who bravely battled Nazis in the streets, there was no attempt at a united defense of the two parties or their armed followers. The Communists, the Social Democrats and the unions all failed to mount any effective challenge, and the leaders of what remained of Germany’s centrist and nationalist right-wing parties thought they could control Hitler. Had the Communists, Social Democrats and the unions made a common fight against the Nazis, that would have been enough to stop Hitler’s accession to power.

Once in power, Hitler quickly arrested the political opposition, putting Communists, Social Democrats, union leaders and others into concentration camps. Within weeks, the right to strike was abolished, union contracts were canceled and an employer-aligned fascist “union” began to replace the existing unions. With opposition silenced by terror, severe oppression of Jews, Slavs, homosexuals, artists and others began. Once Hitler had destroyed all political opposition, there was no need to maintain his corps of street thugs, some of whom began demanding that the populist promises begin to be fulfilled. The storm troops, too, found out those promises were fantasy and this potential internal Nazi opposition was crushed in the murderous 1934 “Night of the Long Knives.”

From German shopkeepers to U.S. small business owners

Yes, history never repeats exactly. But what is noteworthy here is the class composition of Nazi support beyond big capitalists, who provided huge sums of money. It was shopkeepers, professionals and the white-collar workers on the lower rungs of management. This is consistently the case with fascist movements. It was the middle classes who supported a military overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende, as did the parties they voted for. (Both parties of the opposition to President Allende’s Popular Unity government were banned after the takeover; Pinochet’s blood-soaked dictatorship was a régime for Chilean big business and U.S.-based multinational capital, not a régime for shopkeepers or white-collar professionals, nor even big business’ political representatives, as they would soon find out.)

Although the middle classes in a capitalist country, particularly in advanced capitalist countries, are highly heterogeneous, including a wide mix of people with varying interests and thus unable to constitute an organized bloc, the weight of their demographic size can make them decisive if large numbers go one way or another. Large numbers in the U.S. are anti-fascist and/or Democratic Party partisans, and many of their sons and daughters are describing themselves as socialists, even if an ill-defined socialism that is more oriented toward strong reforms of capitalism unable to be accommodated by Democrats. Nonetheless, it is from middle class ranks that support for Trump comes. That has been seen clearly as hundreds of Trump’s insurgents are prosecuted (albeit treated with kid gloves in contrast to the harsh treatment of Black Lives Matter and other left-wing protest movements).

Raleigh-Durham IWW stands with clergy at the stairs to Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia (photo by Anthony Crider)

The “Tea Party” that arose during the Obama administration was a classic “astroturf” operation, a “movement” that was begun, organized and funded by corporate interests such as the organizations of the Koch Brothers and Republican Party leaders like Dick Armey. It is a straight line from the Tea Party to Trump; they have similar social bases and many of the same financial benefactors.

A study by two University of Chicago researchers, for example, found that more than half of the January 6 insurrectionists held white-collar positions such as small business owners, architects, doctors and lawyers. The two researchers, political-science professor Robert A. Pape and senior research associate Keven Ruby, also found that a large number of the insurrectionists live in counties that have seen declines in their White, non-Hispanic population, also not a surprise given the “great replacement” canard Trump-style fascists are fond of peddling. That of course was a prominent theme in the 2017 fascist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Whatever capitalist country you live in, it can happen there. Fascism is capitalism stripped of all democratic veneers. In every fascist state, wages drastically decline accompanied by draconian laws stripping working people of all protections at the same time that corporate profits rise dramatically, all in an atmosphere of state-organized terror. The only safeguard against this happening in any capitalist country, including the United States, is for working people to organize in their own defense. Given the sorry record of social democracy, no help from there will come to the rescue in Europe. In the U.S., it would be laughable to believe the Democrats would save us from potential Republican dictatorship, whether a conventional authoritarianism or an outright fascist régime.

The long history of Democrats falling to their knees

Democratic Party ineptitude and weak-kneed acquiescence has been on display long before the Biden administration and current congressional majority’s yearlong lack of resolve. From Jimmy Carter’s austerity setting up the start of the neoliberal era for Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton ramming through regressive legislation that Republicans could only dreamed of having done to Democrats’ meek “me too” in response to Newt Gingrich’s Contract On America and the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress to Barack Obama’s serial capitulations to Democrats’ present inability (unwillingness?) to implement the programs they were elected to fulfill, and instead give the Pentagon another raise, liberals are persistently run over by conservatives. But however weak-willed Democrats are, that is only one side of the picture.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Democrats believe in so-called “American exceptionalism,” imperialism and corporate control of society just as fervently as do Republicans.

Liberalism has reached an intellectual dead end, however much individual liberals may yearn for alternatives. There are various reasons that can be assigned as to the cause of the Democratic Party’s — and, thus, North American liberalism’s — steady march rightward: Dependence on corporate money, corruption, domination of the mass media by the Right, philosophical and economic myopia, cowardliness. Although these factors form a significant portion of the answer to the puzzle, an underlying cause has to be found in the exhaustion of North American liberalism. Similar to European social democracy, it is trapped by its core desire to stabilize an unstable capitalist system.

In contrast to the Right, which loudly advocates what it stands for and uses all means possible to get it, liberals are caught in the contradiction of knowing changes are needed but unable to put forth anything beyond the most tepid reforms, a bit of tinkering around the edges. The Democratic Party is not only reliant on corporate money, but in thrall to ideologies that promote corporate domination, propaganda blasted across the corporate media and propagated through a thick web of “think tanks” and other well-funded institutions. With no clear ideas to fall back on, they meekly fall to their knees when the world’s industrialists and financiers, acting through their corporations, think tanks and the “market,” pronounce their verdict on what is to be done.

There is no secret formula waiting to be discovered. The only way to prevent a fascist takeover is through the same methodology that is the route to a better world: A mass movement of movements linking together struggles, organizing with people who don’t look like us and uniting across borders. As long as capitalism exists, the threat of fascism exists.

If you don’t give people a reason to vote, they won’t

The finger-pointing and excuse-mongering continues unabated in the ranks of the Democratic Party following the disappointing election results from earlier this month. The party’s dominant corporate centrist wing wasted no time blaming progressives for the loss of Virginia’s governorship, the surprisingly narrow re-election of New Jersey’s governor and various defeats in local races in places like the New York City suburbs.

Finding reasons for local or state elections in national politics won’t necessarily produce a full picture, particularly in New Jersey, where voters have the habit of electing Democratic congressional and state legislative delegations, consistently voting Democrat in presidential elections but often voting for Republican governors. This time around, particularly in the New York City mayoral race and local races in the city’s Long Island suburbs, unfounded fears of crime waves that largely existed only in the feverish imaginations of right-wing commentators seemed to have tipped more than a few votes.

Not only Democratic centrists but most of the corporate mass media insisted there was a wave of voting for Republicans, and the only proper response (surprise!) is to move to the center, or even to the center-right, to avoid “scaring” voters with “radical” ideas.

Branch Brook Park in Newark (photo by Cjbvii)

Before we can tackle that all too predictable jeremiad, it would be useful to find out if voters really did defect to the Republicans in droves. The evidence doesn’t seem to support that. If we compare this month’s gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia to recent elections, there is more support for the supposition that Democrats simply stayed home. Here are some comparisons:

2021 Gubernatorial vote New Jersey (count as of Nov. 9)
• Phil Murphy 1,295,626
• Jack Ciattarelli 1,224,993

2017 Gubernatorial vote New Jersey
• Phil Murphy 1,203,110
• Kim Guadagno 899,583

Governor Murphy actually won more votes than he did in 2017, when New Jersey set a record low for voter turnout for a gubernatorial election. It could be pointed out, accurately, that Governor Murphy had far fewer votes than did Hillary Clinton in 2016 or Joe Biden in 2020, but although Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli had a relatively smaller deficit in terms of the votes won by Donald Trump, he nonetheless received more than 600,000 votes less than Trump did a year ago:

2020 Presidential vote New Jersey
• Joe Biden 2,608,400
• Donald Trump 1,883,313

2016 Presidential vote New Jersey
• Hillary Clinton 2,148,278
• Donald Trump 1,601,933

Repeating this exercise for Virginia, we find that Democrat Terry McAuliffe (very much a corporate centrist), the loser in an upset, won nearly 200,000 more votes than Democratic winner Ralph Northam in 2017. But the Republican vote totals were much higher in 2021 than four years earlier:

2021 Gubernatorial vote Virginia (count as of Nov. 9)
• Terry McAuliffe 1,600,049
• Glenn Youngkin 1,663,556

2017 Gubernatorial vote Virginia
• Ralph Northam 1,409,175
• Ed Gillespie 1,175,731

Governor-elect Youngkin recorded fewer votes than did Trump in either of his White House runs:

2020 Presidential vote Virginia
• Joe Biden 2,412,568
• Donald Trump 1,962,430

2016 Presidential vote Virginia
• Hillary Clinton 1,981,473
• Donald Trump 1,769,443

Clearly, Republican voters were fired up in Virginia, stirred up by a steady drumbeat of specious culture-war issues, and Democratic voters either took a McAuliffe win for granted or simply weren’t sufficiently motivated to vote. Although the specific dynamics varied between the two states — New Jersey and Virginia are not similar — a low turnout by Democratic voters is the leading reason for the surprising results. And that brings us to the central question: Why did Democrats stay home?

What you see is sometimes what you get

The gap between Democratic candidate promises and what voters want and need on the one hand, and what Democrats deliver once in office on the other, has once again proven to be a canyon-like width. How many times can a party thumb its nose at its base and continue to win? Democrats seem determined to find out. Consider the biggest single failure to date: The failure to pass President Biden’s US$3.5 trillion “Build Back Better” package, which would have included “socialist” items such as paid parental leave. Now down to less than $2 trillion with family leave reduced to four weeks with wide swathes of parents rendered ineligible, what was already a watered-down benefit might not survive its current precarious status.

By right-wing standards, just about every country on Earth is “socialist.” The United States is the only industrialized country without paid family leave; the only countries that don’t have it are Papua New Guinea and four tiny Pacific Island countries. The original bill had allowed for 12 weeks of paid leave — still far less time than most countries — and was reduced to four weeks in the negotiations before it was cut from the bill altogether and then restored as a four-week “means tested” offering. The global average for paid maternity leave is 29 weeks, and it is 16 weeks for paid paternity leave. Some countries allow for a year or more of paid family leave. For example, Sweden mandates 16 months.

The International Labour Organization’s standard is that at least 14 weeks of paid maternal leave should be offered; almost half of the world’s countries do so, including 25 of the 29 developed countries in which International Labour Organization researchers were able to make an assessment. The original offer in the Build Back Better bill was 12 weeks, and even that tepid offering has been taken away. About half of the world’s countries also offer paid paternal leave; such a non-macho idea was not even considered.

Downtown Richmond, Virginia, looking west from Libby Hill Park (photo by Ron Cogswell)

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who has done all he can to tank his own party’s legislation and block any attempt to address global warming, and other so-called “deficit hawks,” claim they oppose congressional bills that would add to the federal budget deficit, but have not been heard to complain about the Trump tax cuts that massively added to the deficit, nor the trillions of dollars spent by the Federal Reserve to buy bonds in recent years nor by last year’s Covid-19 relief measures that gave hundreds of billions of dollars to large businesses.

What is behind all this? It is commonplace for folks on the Left to complain that Senators Kyrsten Sinema, Manchin and others are simply “corrupt.” I won’t argue against that — Senator Manchin in particular is delighted to please his corporate paymasters and give the back of his hand to his constituents, who were in favor of the original $3.5 trillion plan by wide margins, and Senator Sinema turned her back on her Arizona backers from the start. (Several of the Build Back Better provisions are supported by two-thirds or more of West Virginians and a similar percentage of Arizonans backed the original plan.) But there must be deeper reasons here. One factor that would be difficult to overestimate is the inability of U.S. liberals, similar to European social democrats and Canadian liberals, to actually stand for anything.

Capitulation in the U.S. and around the world

North American liberals and European social democrats have a long history of capitulation — we see the same patterns, whether it is Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Jean Chrétien, Justin Trudeau, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, François Hollande, Gerhard Schröder, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero or Romano Prodi. There is something much larger at work than a lack of resolve when each falls to their knees in front of industrialists and financiers, when each speedily implements neoliberal austerity policies despite leading the supposed “center-left” opposition to the conservative parties that openly stand for corporate domination.

Capitalism is a system wholly captured by the most powerful possessors of economic power in a system of massive inequality. U.S. Democrats, similar to Canadian Liberals, British Labour, French and Spanish “Socialists,” Italian Democrats, German Social Democrats, Australia’s Labor and others, win legislative seats and government offices as members of a capitalist party. U.S.-style liberalism (using the North American definition of the word) has reached an intellectual dead end. Democrats mostly understand that the economy is a failure for most people but can only conceive of minor reforms and tinkering around the edges because they remain as firmly in thrall of capitalism as Republicans and conservatives everywhere.

Caught in a contradiction between knowing a system doesn’t work and being afraid of challenging that system, Democrats are unable to offer alternatives or articulate serious reforms. Instead, they simply say “Vote for us, the Republicans are worse.” Sometimes that works; sometimes it doesn’t.

The New York Stock Exchange (photo by Elisa Rolle)

The Right, on the other hand, loudly advocates policies that are anathema to the working people who form the overwhelming majority of any capitalist country but have the mass media, an array of institutions, corporate power and money to saturate society with their preferred policies. But, perhaps most importantly, they have something they believe in strongly — people who are animated by an ideal, however perverted, are motivated to push for it with all their energy.

In contrast, those who are conflicted between their belief in something and their acknowledgment that the something needs reform, and are unable to articulate a reform, won’t and can’t stand for anything concrete, and ultimately will capitulate. When that something can’t be fundamentally changed through reforms, what reforms are made are ultimately taken back, and society’s dominant ideas are of those who can promote the hardest line thanks to the power their wealth gives them, it is no surprise that the so-called reformers are unable to articulate any alternative. With no clear ideas to fall back on, they meekly bleat “me, too” when the world’s industrialists and financiers, acting through their corporations, think tanks and the “market,” pronounce their verdict on what is to be done.

The market, let us not forget, is not a dispassionate entity sitting loftily in the clouds as propagandists would have us believe; it is nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers.

Backing one set of capitalists vs. another set of capitalists

What ultimately differentiates Democrats and Republicans is that they serve different parts of the corporate ruling class. The divergence in interests between industrialists and financiers can be easily overlooked, especially since the two broad groups of capitalists will unite when working people start making demands. Industrialists and financiers argue fiercely, and often litigate, over which gets the bigger piece of the pie but are in agreement that they should get the whole pie.

There has always been an inherent tension between the interests of the financial industry, or finance capital, and the interests of industrialists (owners and executives of companies that produce tangible goods and services, or, to put it another way, the direct owners and managers of the means of production), but the conflict between these two groups has become much more acute in recent decades as massive and ever increasing inequality has stuffed more money into the pockets of the wealthy than can possibly be put to use in productive investment.

The gigantic sums of money that pour into the accounts of those in the top ranks of industrial and financial enterprises are increasingly poured into financial speculation. Wall Street, gaining the upper hand because of the vast sums of money it manages and the financialization of the economy, demands ever bigger profits, no matter the cost to employees or communities. Top executives, who have much of their pay given in stock, are fine with this “enhancing shareholder value,” to use the Wall Street euphemism for elevating short-term shareholder and bondholder profits over all other considerations. There nonetheless is struggle between industrialists and financiers over control of companies and how to split the pie.

That the Democratic Party would come to be the party of Wall Street is not as strange as it might sound. Whenever a company announces bad news that results in a stock-price decline, a flurry of lawsuits will be filed, seeking financial recouping of the shareholders’ losses. The officers of the company being sued in this situation stomp their feet in rage — being a captain of industry is supposed to mean never having to admit a mistake — swearing they are as innocent as a new-born baby. These conflicts can easily land in court. It’s highly profitable for the law firms that represent the interests of Wall Street to pursue these lawsuits, and sometimes, of course, there is chicanery going on and not simply bad management or a downturn in the market.

The symbiotic relationship here is that Wall Street interests and the lawyers who serve them need laws favorable to lawsuits, to rules geared toward investors and to open flows of accurate business information, including requiring companies to report details of their operations. In turn, Democrats love the piles of money these interests give to them.

Industrialists believe it should be almost impossible to sue their companies, want the rules tilted in their favor and hate having to reveal any information. They are heavily represented in the upper ranks of the Republican Party and direct its ideology on economic issues.

Thus the two parties line up on opposite sides of the ruling-class split and the fights can be bitter because immense amounts of money are at stake. A secondary factor in this split between industrialists and Wall Street is social. Financiers, perhaps because they tend to be in cosmopolitan areas like New York, Boston and San Francisco or perhaps because of more complicated psychological reasons, tend not to need to control workers’ personal lives. They want to extract every dollar in your pocket and will do anything to get it, but once they have all the money, they have reached their goal.

Industrialists, on the other hand, frequently wish to control the personal lives of their workers and exert social control. Industrialists are “on the scene” of profit extraction and, enjoying the power their company gives them, often believe they have the right to control the lives of their workers, who are, in their eyes, mere peons. Financiers, meanwhile, take a cut of the profits in more impersonal ways, often by manipulating numbers on a computer screen. A company’s workforce is nothing but another set of numbers to a financier.

Left out of either side of this elite struggle are the employees, whose underpaid work is the source of the profits.

A capitalist party can’t be turned into an anti-capitalist or a people’s party. One so heavily dependent on corporate money, such as the Democratic Party, is all the more incapable of being taken over by insurgents. There do remain differences on social issues and policies toward women and People of Color between Democrats and Republicans, and it is understandable that in times so dreary that millions of people are willing to take the crumbs on offer because the alternative is nothing. But is slowing down the rate of brutality really the best we can aspire to? Reforms can be beneficial, that is true, but a different system based on political and economic democracy would be vastly better. A better world will be won by organizing, not by begging.

Don’t let up: Fascism isn’t dead yet

Even if Joe Biden had won the U.S. presidency by the expected landslide, the threat of fascism would remain. And not simply because Trumpites are not going away anytime soon.

Donald Trump doesn’t have the intelligence or sufficient ruling-class backing to actually become a fascist dictator. His desire to be one, however, has been more than sufficient to necessitate the widest possible movement against him and the social forces he represents, and there is no doubt his authoritarian impulses would have become still worse had he won a second term. What little democracy is left in the United States’ capitalist formal democracy would have been further reduced.

It might be better to understand Trump as the Republican Party’s frankenstein — the culmination of the Republican “Southern Strategy.” Richard Nixon was an open racist who developed the strategy of sending dog whistles to White racists; Ronald Reagan promoted “states’ rights,” well understood code words for supporting racially biased policies; George H.W. Bush exploited racial stereotypes with his Willie Horton campaign ads; George W. Bush’s presidency will be remembered for his callous ignoring of New Orleans and its African-American population in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; and the roster of Republicans hostile to civil rights is too long to list. Moreover, the Republican Party, with very few exceptions, has been an eager promoter and enabler of Trump’s virulent pro-big business policies with most not even bothering to pretend to challenge Trump’s racism and misogyny.

It was no surprise that a billionaire con man whose business plan has long been to screw his real estate empire’s working-class contractors and use every trick imaginable to not pay taxes or his creditors was going to stick it to working people. 

Protesters in Portland, Oregon, on the Morrison Bridge on June 3, 2020 (photo by Henryodell)

The Trump administration has been the worst U.S. presidency in history with an extraordinarily fierce approach to class warfare. But let us consider what fascism is: At its most basic level, fascism is a dictatorship established through and maintained with terror on behalf of big business. It has a social base, which provides the support and the terror squads, but which is badly misled since the fascist dictatorship operates decisively against the interest of its social base. Militarism, extreme nationalism, the creation of enemies and scapegoats, and, perhaps the most critical component, a rabid propaganda that intentionally raises panic and hate while disguising its true nature and intentions under the cover of a phony populism, are among the necessary elements.

Despite varying national characteristics that result in major differences in the appearances of fascism, the class nature is consistent. Big business is invariably the supporter of fascism, no matter what a fascist movement’s rhetoric contains, and is invariably the beneficiary. We often think of fascism in the classical 1930s form, of Nazis goose-stepping or the street violence of Benito Mussolini’s followers. But it took somewhat different forms later in the 20th century, being instituted through military dictatorships in Chile and Argentina. Any fascism that might arise in the U.S. would be wrapped in right-wing populism and, given the particular social constructs there, that populism would include demands to “return to the Constitution” and “secure the borders.”

Formal democracy vs. fascism

United Statesians have indeed suffered through four years of militarism, extreme nationalism, the creation of enemies and scapegoats, the imposition of “constitutionalist” judges and demands to “secure” borders, complete with open racism and misogyny. But the Trump administration and its followers constitute a movement with the potential to bring about a fascist dictatorship, not actual fascism. Should the U.S. ruling class — industrialists and financiers — decide they would no longer tolerate the country’s limited, corporate-constrained variety of “democracy,” the militias and assorted far right street gangs that “stand by” on Trump’s command would be unleashed without constraint. And they would be openly joined by police and security agencies in fomenting violence rather than being tacitly supported as they are at present.

Nonetheless, fascism is the last resort of any capitalist ruling class. Instituting a fascist dictatorship is no easy decision even for the biggest industrialists, bankers and landowners who might salivate over the potential profits. For even if it is intended to benefit them, these business elites are giving up some of their own freedom since they will not directly control the dictatorship; it is a dictatorship for them, not by them. It is only under certain conditions that business elites resort to fascism — some form of formal democratic government, under which citizens “consent” to the ruling structure, is the preferred form and much easier to maintain. Working people beginning to withdraw their consent — beginning to seriously challenge the economic status quo — is one “crisis” that can bring on fascism. An inability to maintain or expand profits, as can occur during a steep decline in the “business cycle,” or a structural crisis, is another such “crisis.”

A rally against Donald Trump in New York City on March 19, 2016, organized by the Cosmopolitan Antifascists

Industrialists and financiers have an iron grip on U.S. politics (witness the dreadful choice the two corporate parties have just offered), and the overdue economic downturn triggered by the pandemic has not hurt profits for most big corporations, with bailouts provided for those who have taken a hit to their bottom lines. Financiers and speculators are doing quite well, and because Wall Street values stability, financiers likely were more behind Joe Biden than Trump. As the Democratic Party favors financiers (while the Republicans favor industrialists), Wall Street will have no problem at all with a Biden administration. Some industrialists likely have tired of Trump’s antics, or calculate that they have gotten all the services they can reasonably expect from him; some among this grouping probably don’t mind a change. And given Joe Biden’s decades of loyal service to corporate interests, in particular the banking industry, little gnashing of teeth is likely to be found in corporate boardrooms.

There was no need for U.S. capitalists to institute a fascist dictatorship during the Trump administration and there won’t be any need in the near future. So, to circle back to the opening of this article, why should it be said that the threat of fascism is undiminished with the ouster of Trump? That is because as long as capitalism exists, the threat of fascism exists.

The rule of capital

The system is called capitalism for a reason — it is the rule of capital. The owners of capital. Those who have capital generally divide into two camps, industrialists and financiers, as alluded to above. Industrialists own or are the top managers of enterprises that produce tangible goods and services, while financiers trade, buy and sell stocks, bonds and other securities, continually inventing new instruments to profit off virtually every aspect of commercial activity. The two compete fiercely for the bigger half of the profits and thus have sometimes conflicting interests, but there is considerable overlap between the two sectors of capitalists. Crucially, their class interests are completely aligned. 

Employees are paid far less than the value of what they produce; this is the source of corporate profit. The bloated salaries and profits generated by exploitation of employees is far greater than can be thrown into spending on luxuries or used for business investment, so these massive piles of money are diverted into financial speculation, swelling an already bloated financial sector, which grabs large amounts of this speculative money for itself. Top managers of industrial firms in turn are paid largely in stock so that their interests are “aligned” with that of finance capital, to use Wall Street lingo.

This is the ordinary and routine working of capitalism. As long as people consent to this arrangement — and thus consent to their ongoing exploitation — all is well for industrialists and financiers. But what if consent begins to be withdrawn? What if an economic downturn is so severe and sustained that it becomes difficult to extract profits? This is when capitalists begin to think about putting an end to formal democracy and instituting authoritarian rule. At the most extreme, this authoritarian rule can slide into fascism. Such a scenario is always a possibility because capitalism is inherently unstable. Twenty years into the 21st century, we’re already living through a third economic downturn, each worse than the previous one.

United Statesians, for now, have pushed back against a potential slide toward fascism by ousting Trump. But the recent global trend is unmistakable: Far right authoritarian ideologues remain in office in countries around the world, among them Brazil, the Philippines, Hungary and Poland, and the U.S. has a history stretching back to the 19th century of installing right-wing dictators and overthrowing democratically elected governments. Capitalists have a variety of economic tools at their disposal to maintain their rule, the armed force of governments to enforce their rule, and a variety of institutions and control of the mass media to reinforce ideologies upholding their rule. Elections in capitalist countries decide who gets to govern, not who gets to rule.

Formal democracy is the preferred method of ruling, but if violence, ranging all the way to fascism, is the only way to maintain their power, that is what industrialists and financiers will insist their governments impose. Fascism can’t arise or be raised to power without a social base, a badly confused bloc that supplies support and the shock troops. This social base has to be maleducated enough to believe the obvious lies spewed by the leader and be enthused by the permission granted to openly display their hatreds, be those racism, misogyny, nativism, homophobia or anti-Semitism, permission wrapped in virulent nationalism. The millions of fanatical Trump followers are a monument to the lack of education in the U.S., a pervasive propaganda system and the product of decades of relentless Republican Party ideology. There can be no potential fascist movement without such a social base.

Given this fanatical support of Trump despite the massive failures and undisguised class warfare of his administration, both the followers and the shock troops remain even when Trump leaves the White House. Will they be called on in the future? If you don’t want the threat of fascism to hover in the background, you’ll have to get rid of capitalism.

We can do better than capitalist formal “democracy”

An article I read shortly after Jacinda Ardern’s re-election in New Zealand noted, with a touch of weariness, that Labour’s victory came after a campaign measured in “weeks.” Folks there ought to count themselves lucky — the United States has endured years of campaigning in what has proved, to the surprise of no one, its nastiest presidential contest in memory.

Not to mention that the sclerotic U.S. political system has yet again thrown up two dismal choices, sadly reiterating that the two major parties offer a choice of extreme right (Republican) and center-right (Democrats). And although a common lament is that a third party is needed, one that might actually represent the interests of the majority of United Statesians, very few seriously considering pulling the lever for an alternative party, and the number of those who actually do are likely to be less than usual, given the understandably fervent desire to push Donald Trump out of the White House.

Millions will hold their noses while voting for Joe Biden. The lesser evil is still evil, especially given former Vice President Biden’s dismal record of war mongering, acting as an errand boy for big banks and turbo-charging the prison-industrial complex. So why does the U.S. not only offer such abysmal choices, but seemingly worse ones every four years?

Ultimately, the stranglehold of capital on all aspects of U.S. institutions, the ability of industrialists and financiers to buy Republican and Democratic politicians and their ownership of the news media makes the idea of “democracy” a farce. But the U.S. is a formal democracy, not yet a fascist dictatorship (despite the wishes of Trump), so theoretically it is possible for a popular movement to elevate a candidate pursuing progressive goals.

Cherry Blossoms in Washington during March (photo by Sarah H.)

Not so easy, of course, as the Democratic Party leadership, obeying the wishes of its corporate benefactors, did all it could to oppose the rise of Bernie Sanders — and Senator Sanders is merely an FDR-style liberal, not actually a socialist (despite what he calls himself). That a platform emulating the time that the party enjoyed its biggest congressional majorities is now beyond the pale speaks volumes. Even if Senator Sanders had been able to win the presidential nomination, corporate Democrats would undoubtedly have undermined his candidacy; party leaders like Hillary Clinton made it clear they would have rather seen Trump win re-election than see Senator Sanders win. Just as we saw in Britain, where Labour potentates, and far from only Blairites, clearly preferred to lose to the Conservatives rather than win with Jeremy Corbyn.

But beyond the sad spectacle of Democratic fealty to Wall Street and Republican worship of industrialists, the U.S. system, as currently constructed, is as foolproof a system of maintaining elite power as exists in any capitalist formal democracy. It’s only partly due to the U.S. being saddled with an anachronistic Constitution hopelessly out of date, a document that cements this corporate lockbox. Not that the Constitution should be overlooked; the U.S. Senate is the world’s most undemocratic legislative body (Wyoming, with 570,000 people, and California, with 39 million, both have two members) and the Electoral College allows a minority of voters to elect a candidate with a minority of votes (a presidential vote in Wyoming counts three times more than a vote in New York).

A president who received nearly 3 million votes less than his opponent in 2016 is enabled by a Senate in which the controlling party received a cumulative 20 million votes less than their opponents and is able to pack a Supreme Court with extremists out of step with majority opinion (an unelected Supreme Court that is a political super-legislature with powers far beyond those possessed by other countries’ high courts).

Choice is an illusion in a two-party system

The foregoing are certainly serious contributors to the backward U.S. political system, easily the worst among all advanced capitalist countries and worse than plenty of others elsewhere in the world. And we haven’t even touched on the pathetic unwillingness of Democrats to stand up for whatever it is they believe in and the party’s bizarre tendency to “stand up” to its base, products of the intellectual dead end of liberalism. Nonetheless, the ultimate reason for the two-party system is the U.S. system of single-seat, winner-take-all representation.

Until some form of proportional representation is enacted, United Statesians will be stuck with their deadening two-party system.

A representative body based on districts each with one representative is a closed system. With two entrenched parties contesting for a single seat, there is no room for a third party to emerge. Campaigns for elections to these bodies can be conducted on larger national issues or on the basis of an important local issue, but the tendency is for these elections to become contests between personalities. If the personality representing the other party is objectionable, or the other party is objectionable, then voting is reduced to the “lesser of two evils.”

The Hague (photo by Alphaomega)

The advantage of the two-party system (for its beneficiaries) is that it offers the illusion of choice, in contrast to one-party systems. This “choice” is illusory because capitalists, through the concentrated power amassed in their corporations and the ability of those capitalists to suffuse their ideologies into other institutions, restrict the scope of debate within boundaries acceptable to them — ideas that question their dominance are far outside those boundaries. Still, there is much more scope for the contesting of ideas and for serious acknowledgement of problems and devising solutions than in a one-party system. Individual political figures can be voted out of office, unlike in a one-party system, and although changing personalities does not in itself change the system in any way, it does provide a safety valve.

Voting for a party or an individual becomes a sterile exercise in ensuring the other side doesn’t win. From the point of view of the candidates and parties, the safest strategy is one of peeling away voters from the only other viable candidate, thereby encouraging platforms to be close to that of the other viable candidate, promoting a tendency to lessen differences between the two dominant parties.

Personalities over substance

With little to distinguish the two parties, the importance of personality becomes more important, further blurring political ideas, and yet third choices are excluded because of the factors that continue to compel a vote for one of the two major-party candidates. In turn, such a system sends people to representative bodies on the basis of their personalities, encouraging those personalities to grandstand and act in an egocentric manner once they are seated. These personalities are dependent on corporate money to get into and remain in office, and the parties they are linked to are equally dependent — the views of those with the most money are the views that are going to be heard. And if the district boundaries can be redrawn any which way periodically, the two parties can work together (since they control all political institutions) so that both have “safe” seats, or if one party is much more willing to employ bare-knuckles tactics than the other, it draws the lines to benefit itself.

The two parties nonetheless compete fiercely to win elections. They represent different groupings within the capitalist class — Republicans favor industrialists and Democrats favor financiers. This is a closed competition: They act as a cartel to keep corporate money rolling in and other parties out. These are the underlying reasons for the stability of a two-party system — replacing it with a multiple-party system would require fundamentally changing political structures.

Most any other system would be more democratic. Not altogether democratic as long as capitalism exists (the built-in inequalities and power imbalances can’t be wished away but must be eliminated through the construction of a better world), but at least an improvement.

One system increasingly being experimented with is ranked-choice voting, also known as instant runoff. In this system, a voter ranks as many candidates as she or he likes. If no candidate wins a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated, and the second choices of ballots choosing the eliminated candidate are then added to the remaining candidates; this can be done multiple times until someone has a majority. In this system, a voter can vote for who they really wish to see take office and rank the “lesser evil” second to keep the “greater evil” out. Australia uses this system but because its House of Representatives uses a winner-take-all, single-seat districts, there is an effective two-party system there (the Liberal/National coalition and Labor), although 14 of the 151 seats are held by minor parties or independents.

This system is an improvement, but it’s not the panacea its promoters promote it as. Using it for single-seat, winner-take-all districts leaves the system of two dominant corporate parties intact, continues to allow them to draw district boundaries to their benefit and only very marginally increases the long odds of a third party winning. At best, this is tinkering with a fatally flawed system.

If you want more choices, you need proportional representation

Multi-party systems can only exist where there is proportional representation, no matter the content of a constitution, even if a constitution never mentions parties.

Some parliamentary systems use a combination of some seats representing districts and some seats being elected on a proportional basis from a list either on a national basis or from large subdivisions. This allows voters to vote for a specific candidate and for a party at the same time. There is more scope for smaller parties here, and this type of system generally features several viable parties, depending on what threshold is set for the proportional-representation seats. Germany, New Zealand and Scotland use this system.

There can be two dominant parties in this system (as is the case in Germany and New Zealand), but the major parties often must govern with a smaller party in a coalition or even in a clumsy coalition with each other (thus, Germany’s tendency to produce periodic “grand coalition” governments). Parties in a coalition government will run on separate platforms and maintain separate identities — the next coalition might feature a different lineup. The rules can be set to make it difficult for any party to achieve a majority, as New Zealand and Scotland do, and thus encourage coalition governments. (Labour’s victory this month in New Zealand marked the first time a party won a majority on its own since this system was adopted.)

The city of Wellington (photo by John Ted Daganato)

Some countries fill all parliamentary seats on the basis of proportional representation. Each party supplies a list of candidates equal to the number of available seats; the top 20 names on the list from a party that wins 20 seats gain entry. This is a system that allows minorities to be represented — if a party wins 20 percent of the vote, it earns 20 percent of the seats. However, if the cutoff limit is set too high (as is the case in Turkey, where ten percent is needed), then smaller parties find it difficult to win seats and voters are incentivized to vote for a major party. Thus even in this system it is possible for only two or three parties to win all seats and a party that wins less than 50 percent of the vote can nonetheless earn a majority of seats because the seats are proportioned among only the two or three parties whose vote totals are above the cutoff.

A low cutoff better represents the spectrum of opinion and allows more parties to be seated. Governments of coalitions are the likely result of such a system, which encourages negotiation and compromise. The most common thresholds are three or five percent of the vote, but cutoffs can be lower. In the Netherlands, a party need only win 0.67 percent — the country is a single constituency with 150 seats. Thirteen parties currently have seats in the Dutch parliament.

Do we really have to limit ourselves to geography?

Such a system in itself doesn’t guarantee full participation by everybody; a national, ethnic or religious majority, even if that majority routinely elects several members of a parliament, can still be subjected to legal oppression. The threshold to win a seat in the Israeli Parliament has been set as low as one percent, and no party has ever won a majority, but that hasn’t prevented the consolidation of an apartheid state that renders Palestinians third-class citizens. The most open legislative system must be augmented by a constitution with enforceable guarantees for all.

Still another variant on parliamentary representation are multiple-seat districts. Voters cast ballots for as many candidates as there are seats — a minority group in a district should be able to elect at least one of their choice to a seat. This is a system that also has room for multiple parties, and with several viable parties in the running, votes are likely to be distributed in a way that no single party can win all seats in a given district. Ireland seats three to five members of the Dáil from each constituency, and additionally uses a form of ranked-choice voting known as “single-transferable vote” in which a voter can rank as many or as few of the candidates in his or her constituency as wished. All but four of the 39 Irish constituencies seated at least three parties.

One way to ensure that multiple parties will be seated might be to limit the number of candidates any party can run to a number lower than the total number of seats. More than one party is then guaranteed to win representation. There is such a stipulation in the District of Columbia — two of 13 seats are reserved for candidates not affiliated with the dominant Democratic Party. But that is not a guarantee that small parties will be represented. Both non-Democratic seats are currently held by independents, one of whom was previously a failed Democratic candidate. Members of the DC Statehood Party, however, have held seats in the past.

Of course we need not limit ourselves to traditional parliaments. Councils representing workplaces or other non-geographic constituencies were organized in revolutionary situations across the 20th century. Yugoslavia had a Chamber of Producers, elected from workers’ councils, one of two chambers in the federal parliament, from 1953 to 1963. For the next several years, Yugoslavia seated a five-chamber legislature! One chamber was the Council of Nationalities (10 members from each of six republic and five from the two autonomous provinces, a setup designed to dampen ethnic rivalries); the other four chambers included representatives from citizens by their economic or social-political function (economy, education and culture, welfare and health and organizational-political chamber). Unfortunately, the five-chamber federal legislature was not fully democratic because its members were delegated by members of lower bodies; there were direct elections only at the local level.

The human imagination can surely conceive of still more representative bodies. But future designers of political structures will need to eliminate single-seat, U.S.-style electoral districts — and overturn capitalism — if we are to ever have legislatures that are responsive to non-manipulated popular will.

Will the pandemic finish Trump or give his régime an escape?

Amidst all the talk about if the global Covid-19 pandemic will lead to an opening for socialism, or at least a reduction in the grip of neoliberalism, in the wake of capitalism’s failures, a more immediate question is if there is to be a reversal of the march of the Right in electoral politics.

Elections in New Zealand and several Australian states are scheduled for later this year, as are Brazilian municipal, Venezuelan parliamentary and French senatorial elections. The results in Brazil will be of particular interest, given the disastrous administration of Jair Bolsonaro, the extreme right president who lusts for dictatorship and continues to deny the effects of the virus despite the vast numbers of people who are dying. Will Brazilians turn local elections into a referendum on their neofascist president?

To the north, the U.S. elections in November will unavoidably be a referendum on the disastrous régime of Donald Trump, who has mishandled the pandemic from the beginning. But to be counter-intuitive: Will the economic collapse triggered by the pandemic serve to save him?

Times Square never looks like this

Bear with me here. By any logical standard, the performance of President Trump (I still can’t believe I have to put those two words together) even before the pandemic struck should have been sufficient to ensure the biggest electoral loss in history. But if logic was operative, he wouldn’t have been elected in the first place, and his fanatical base is completely impervious to facts, reason or reality. Nonetheless, his base is too small on its own for him to be re-elected. Thus President Trump has consistently staked his presidency on the state of the economy, falsely claiming that the economy has been just wonderful.

For his billionaire buddies, the economy has been wonderful. Not so much for working people. The official low unemployment rate is not a realistic measure. Only working people who are receiving unemployment benefits are counted as “unemployed” in official statistics issued by countries around the world. Thus actual unemployment rates around the world are much higher than the “official” rates, generally about twice as high. A better measurement is the “civilian labor force participation rate” — all people age 16 or older who are not in prison or a mental institution. By this measure, the percentage of people holding jobs in the U.S. remains significantly below its May 2000 peak.

And if what jobs there are don’t pay enough to survive on, what good is that? As a meme recently making the rounds of the internet featured a store clerk saying “Sure the Trump administration has created jobs. I have three of them!”

Overdue for the next recession

The long “recovery” from the 2008 crash could not have lasted much longer. Entering 2020, the world’s capitalist economies were overdue for a recession. The question is always what the proximate cause will be. A downward slide in the U.S. economy would have wiped out the single reason the Trump gang could point to for a reason to vote for the incumbent. In normal circumstances, that would almost certainly have ensured his deserved defeat.

An economic downturn has arrived, with astonishing force. The wildcard is that the downturn’s proximate cause is the pandemic. Will this provide the Trump gang with the excuse that enables them to evade their responsibility? It is no stretch to imagine the talking points once the 2020 presidential campaign resumes: “We had nothing to do with it; it was the virus; nobody could have foreseen it.” President Trump’s base will of course lap up such nonsense and it’ll be endlessly repeated on Fox News. The rest of the corporate media isn’t likely to be a big help here; it is easy to foresee endless hand-wringing pablum asking if the downturn could have been avoided and if the administration is responsible.

In such circumstances, it is possible that the Trump gang will be able to avoid their responsibility and escape blame for an economic downturn that is likely to last for some time, particularly if a significant fraction of the vast numbers of small businesses forced to close under government orders are unable to survive. That seems likely, given that small businesses are expected to keep paying rents to landlords despite having no income and a federal small business loan program that swiftly proved inadequate. Why is it that everybody is expected to sacrifice, except landlords? And except Wall Street, of course.

If, despite the foregoing, the 2020 U.S. election turns on the economy without allowing for excuses, then the Trump gang will be finished. But if instead the state of the economy is knocked out as an issue because the Trump gang successfully portrays the economic crash as a deus ex machina for which they have no responsibility (which would require some corporate media collaboration), then the election will hinge on the ability of both corporate parties to bring out their base on election day, and the degree to which voters loathe the candidates.

The Democratic Party has few peers in its ability to blow elections as was amply demonstrated in 2016. Having done all it could to hand its nomination to its least popular candidate and thus run a Wall Street corporate centrist in an election in which voters were clamoring for a change, the Democratic Party national leadership decided to once again elevate a Wall Street corporate centrist.

The failure of the political process

Joe Biden is not as unpopular as Hillary Clinton, but nonetheless he is emblematic of a party that is incapable of learning lessons or imagining a world not under the thumb of the financial industry. One can imagine the panic that must have set in when a few financiers casually made it known publicly that they would back President Trump if Bernie Sanders were the nominee. Senator Sanders, with his formal endorsement of Vice President Biden on April 13, has formalized the end of his campaign. Attacks on Senator Sanders for being a “sheepdog” or any other such useless epithet, clarify nothing. He won’t have any ability to be an influence on a Biden administration, and retain any ability to shift the Democratic Party at least a little bit leftward, if doesn’t act as a good political soldier and work to elect Vice President Biden. That is hard political reality, however much either Sanders supporters or those to the left of the Vermont senator find it distasteful.

It’s once again a “lesser evil” vote for United Statesians. A bitter pill to swallow. Given the unprecedented danger of the Trump gang, it is perfectly understandable that millions who would have preferred a better choice will vote for the Democratic nominee. If popular opinion puts all due blame for the horrific death toll from the virus on the Trump régime, the Orange Tantrum-Thrower will lose, but that is nothing to count on given that the wanna-be fascist dictator has gone all his life avoiding responsibility for his actions. As already speculated above, it is conceivable that the pandemic will provide an escape card from responsibility. How much will the corporate media enable that escape and how willing will voters be to swallow it?

All the above is short-term politics. (I am assuming the November vote will be held as usual; the voting schedule is specified in the constitution.) The larger question emanates from the spectacular inability of capitalism, and especially of institutions hollowed out by neoliberalism, to cope with the Covid-19 crisis. The failure of neoliberal ideology is clearly seen by large numbers of people as never before, and, to a lesser extent, the failure of capitalism itself, not simply its most recent permutation. But observation and organized action in response are not the same.

Neoliberalism was already breaking down and seen as an ideology needing to be sent to the dustbin of history by ever larger numbers of people. Should neoliberalism be replaced by a somewhat reformed brand of capitalism, a reform that would prove short-lived, or should we properly target the real problem — capitalism itself. Reform the unreformable, or a better world based on human need and environmental stability rather than a mad scramble for private profits and ever widening inequality?

That is a question beyond any election and a question to be answered by all the world’s peoples.

No thinking please, we’re red-baiting

The red-baiting of Bernie Sanders is in full swing. From Democrats. Yes, the silly season is upon us as Senator Sanders was roundly condemned because he believes literacy campaigns are good things.

I know the United States is a uniquely anti-intellectual country, but, still, you’d think teaching reading and writing might be thought of as positive goals. The Republican responses to Senator Sanders’ 60 Minutes interview in which he condemned the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s authoritarianism but also acknowledged Cuba’s social achievements, such as drastically improving literacy rates, was predictable. It was only to be expected that there would be pushback by Florida Democrats, who continue to believe they have to roll in the dust at the feet of right-wing Cuban émigrés.

Nonetheless, Democrats outdid themselves. Let’s first pause to quote the words of Senator Sanders that sent them into paroxysm of indignation: “We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad. You know? When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?”

Evidently it is. Particularly humorous was the response of Representative Stephanie Murphy, a Florida Democrat, who said of President Castro on Twitter: “His ‘literacy program’ wasn’t altruistic; it was a cynical effort to spread his dangerous philosophy & consolidate power.”

Teaching people who previously had been left in miserable poverty and without adequate education how to read and write? Run, run for your life!

Viñales Valley, Pinar del Rio province, Cuba (photo by Adam Jones adamjones.freeservers.com)

And demonstrating yet again his complete ignorance, Senator Marco Rubio offered this “history” lesson: “Democratic socialism sounds benign, but at the core of Democratic socialism is Marxism, and at the core of Marxism is this fake offer that if you turn over more of your individual freedom, we’re going to provide you security. We’re going to provide you free healthcare. We’re going to provide you free education. But the problem is that when they can’t deliver on it or you’re not happy with it, you don’t get your freedoms back.”

Where does one begin with such nonsense? Before we get to what socialism actually is, allow me to inform Senator Rubio and other bloviators that virtually every country on Earth, and every advanced capitalist country other than the U.S., has universal health care — and gets better results than the U.S. for a lot less money. Arranging for everybody to have access to health care really isn’t a spectacular achievement. It is not even necessary to be a socialist country to achieve it.

It ought to be possible to hold more than one thought in one’s head at a time, that there could be positive and negative attributes at the same time. Nor should it be forgotten that although demonologists like Florida politicians reflect those who don’t like Cuba, we never hear from those inside Cuba who support their revolution.

Can reading be a conspiratorial act?

A short-hand definition of socialism would be this: Popular control of production so that enterprises are oriented toward meeting the needs of everyone in a democratic system instead of for the profit of an individual owner or for speculators. A system in which working people make the decisions in their enterprises and their communities and that such decision-making is done in a broader social context so that decisions with social repercussions are made with the peoples and communities affected. In other words, when people have real control over the conditions of their lives — the rule of people instead of the rule of capital.

Incidentally, Senator Sanders isn’t offering anything like that. He’s also been in favor of some U.S. overseas offensives, such as the bombing of Yugoslavia; echoes the right-wing lies about Venezuela even if he opposes an invasion; and refers to Hugo Chávez as a “dead communist dictator” even though President Chávez and his Bolivarian movement won 16 out of 17 elections in an electoral system the Carter Center called “the best in the world.” So the red-baiting of Senator Sanders is not based on reality but on an inability to distinguish between New Deal liberalism, designed to save capitalism, and socialism.

Miami skyline (photo by Wyn Van Devanter)

As I am writing these lines, I happen to be reading the autobiography of Dorothy Healey, the long-time Communist Party organizer who rose to be the chair of the party’s Los Angeles branch, then the second biggest in the U.S. In her book, she gave a detailed account of the political trial she and several other party leaders underwent in the 1950s on trumped up, political charges. Without minimizing the seriousness of the many years of jail they faced, this story also makes useful parallels with today. The prosecution used a strategy of guilt by association, and by distorting the party’s ideas, whether intentionally or out of ignorance of what those were. Healey wrote:

“As in the Foley Square case [a previous political trial of Communist leaders], it was a trial of books. The prosecutor would have witnesses read big chunks of violent-sounding passages from Marx, Engels, and Lenin. This kind of trial could not have been conducted in any other advanced capitalist country — France or England or Italy — because the basic concepts of Marxism were so well known, studied in every university, and familiar to every active trade unionist, that people would have laughed at the outrageous simplifications offered up so solemnly at our trial. That was a peculiarly American phenomenon.”

The mere act of reading and self-education was considered part of the “evidence” against Healey and her co-defendants! She wrote:

“The assistant prosecuting attorney, Norman Neukom, was a vulgar, ignorant man. He was so astonished when one of the defendants was quoted on the need for Communists to engage in continual study. ‘Imagine,’ he told the jury, ‘grown-up people feeling the need to continue to study history and economics and philosophy after they’ve left school.’ For him, somehow, this was further evidence of the evil nature of our conspiracy, grown-ups discussing books they had read. In his cross-examination he wasn’t interested in or capable of refuting any of the substantive points Oleta [O’Connor Yates] made about Party theory and activities.”

Times certainly haven’t changed.

Cubans under Batista had good reasons to join a revolution

None of the above is to suggest that Cuba is above criticism, or that the constrictions on political expression in Cuba is something to ignore. Cuba needs more democracy as it continues to convert the services sections of its economy from state-owned enterprises to cooperatives, as agriculture has long been. We might, however, reflect on the crushing burden of 60 years of attempts to strangle the country by its giant neighbor to the North.

The United States not only threatens to use its overwhelming power in military might but abuses its desirability as a huge market for exports by making its embargo extra-territorial and fully leverages its position as the controller of the global financial system. U.S. embassy personnel have reportedly threatened firms in countries such as Switzerland, France, Mexico and the Dominican Republic with commercial reprisals unless they canceled sales of goods to Cuba such as soap and milk. Amazingly, a American Journal of Public Health report quoted a July 1995 written communication by the U.S. Department of Commerce in which the department said those types of sales contribute to “medical terrorism” on the part of Cubans! Well, many of us when we were, say, 5 years old, might have regarded soap with terror, but presumably have long gotten over that.

Conditions in pre-revolutionary Cuba were ripe for a revolution. The country’s hundreds of thousands of agricultural wage earners averaged only 123 days of work per year. Nearly half of the rural population was illiterate, 60 percent lived in huts with earth floors and thatched roofs and two-thirds lived without running water. Not surprisingly, poor health was rampant with health care generally unavailable and unaffordable to the poor who made up the huge majority of Cuba’s population. Plenty of force was used to maintain that level of inequality. In Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second-largest city, Batista’s police would torture people to death, with mutilated bodies strung from trees in city parks or dumped in gutters; victims could be as young as 14.

Those conditions and the use of state terror tactics to keep those conditions in place were swiftly reversed after the revolution, never to return. But let us not have any fear of acknowledging that authoritarianism is not unknown in post-revolutionary Cuba and although there are fully free elections at the municipal level, higher-level government positions are not subject to popular vote. One-party states are not conducive to democratic decision-making, regardless of where on the political spectrum the one-party state sits and even in a case like Cuba where citizens are widely consulted and policies adjusted based on popular feedback. Consultation isn’t the same as the power to make decisions.

There is terrorism, but it comes from Washington

But is the United States in any position to point fingers at another country? Let’s look at the record of U.S.-Cuba relations.

The mere fact of the revolution, and its insistence on developing Cuban resources to benefit Cubans rather than immiserating them to enhance U.S. corporate profits, was sufficient to ensure steady hostility from Washington. Aviva Chomsky, in her book A History of the Cuban Revolution, reports the Central Intelligence Agency’s Miami station alone was given $50 million per year to coordinate the sabotage and overthrow of the Castro government following the Cuban rout of the Bay of Pigs invaders. Not content with the CIA’s efforts, President John Kennedy established a separate effort to sabotage Cuba, called “Operation Mongoose,” tolerated terrorist activities by Cuban exile groups based in Miami, and oversaw a series of sabotage operations against Cuban infrastructure, one of which led to the death of 400 workers at an industrial plant. A steady stream of raids intended to sabotage infrastructure and industry continued after the missile crisis, including a CIA-organized operation in which Cuban exiles mined a harbor, which led to the destruction of boats and the deaths of several people.

Cartoon by Carlos Latuff

Later in the 1960s and thereafter, CIA tactics switched to encouraging exile groups to conduct those types of terrorist operations rather than directly conducting them itself. Instead, the CIA concentrated on biological attacks that resulted in a variety of crop, animal and human outbreaks of diseases. The CIA goal (carrying out U.S. government policy) remained fixed, as an agency operative would later admit: “We wanted to keep bread out of the stores so people would go hungry. We wanted to keep rationing in effect and keep leather out, so people got only one pair of shoes every 18 months.”

In a report published on April 20, 2000, in the Miami New Times, Jim Mullen compiled a list of terroristic acts committed by Cuban exiles in the Miami area, a list Mr. Mullen said is “incomplete, especially in Miami’s trademark category of bomb threats.” Mr. Mullen listed 71 acts of violence from 1968 (all but two from 1974) through April 2000. The list includes seven people, six of whom were exile figures, murdered in a three-year span of the 1970s; a radio reporter whose legs were blown off by a bomb after the reporter condemned exile violence; dozens of actual bombings; several beatings of demonstrators, including a nun; and bombings of cultural events.

Who gets to point fingers?

There is no bigger hypocrisy than U.S. government officials condemning other governments. Martin Luther King was correct when he called the U.S. the biggest pervader of violence in the world, and that is no less true today. The list of countries that the U.S. has invaded, overthrown governments or interfered in elections is too long to fully recount. In Latin America and the Caribbean alone, the U.S. has invaded 96 times. That total represents only the direct invasions; it doesn’t include coups fomented by the U.S., including Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973.

Chile under Salvador Allende was similarly denounced as a dangerous dictatorship even though the Allende government kept strictly within legal bounds while the right-wing opposition used extralegal means to oppose it and when that didn’t work called in the military to bomb, arrest, force into exile, “disappear,” torture and kill hundreds of thousands. What “crimes” did President Allende commit? These three statistics concisely summarize the story:

• In 1970, on the eve of Allende’s electoral victory, 50 percent of Chile’s children were undernourished, stunting their development; there were 600,000 considered developmentally disabled because of lack of protein and other problems of malnutrition.

• In 1972, the Allende administration arranged for 550,000 breakfasts and 700,000 lunches to be served daily to students.

• By the early 1980s, under Pinochet, more than half the population of greater Santiago was unable to develop normally either physically or mentally as a result of lack of proper nourishment.

It takes a breathtaking level of ignorance to see providing health care, seeing to it that children receive proper food and raising literary and cultural levels is a form of terrorism while believing such basics should be provided only to those who can afford them. Unfortunately, such ignorance is bipartisan.

Why are Leftists cheering the potential demise of Rojava’s socialist experiment?

Lost in the discussions of Donald Trump’s abrupt announcement of the withdrawal of United States troops from Rojava is the possible fate of the democratic and cooperative experiment of the Syrian Kurds. Threatened with annihilation at the hands of Turkish invaders, should we simply wipe our hands and think nothing of an interesting experiment in socialism being crushed on the orders of a far right de facto dictator?

The world of course is accustomed to the U.S. government using financial and military means to destroy nascent socialist societies around the world. But the bizarre and unprecedented case — even if accidental — of an alternative society partly reliant on a U.S. military presence seems to have confused much of the U.S. Left. Or is it simply a matter of indifference to a socialist experiment that puts the liberation of women at the center? Or is it because the dominant political inspiration comes more from anarchism than orthodox Marxism?

Most of the commentary I have seen from U.S. Leftists simply declares “we never support U.S. troops” and that’s the end of it; thus in this conception President Trump for once did something right. But is this issue really so simple? I will argue here that support of Rojava, and dismay at the abrupt withdrawal of troops on the direct demand of Turkish President and de facto dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is not at all a matter of “support” of a U.S. military presence.

Kurds, Assyrians, and Arabs demonstrate against the Assad government in the city of Qamişlo (photo via KurdWatch.org)

Let’s think about World War II for a moment. Was supporting the war against Hitler and Mussolini’s fascist régimes simply a matter of “supporting” U.S. troops? The victory over fascism likely could not have been won without the herculean effort of the Soviet Union once it overcame the initial bungling of Josef Stalin and the second-rate commanders he had put in charge of the Red Army after purging most of the best generals. To say that the Soviet Union won World War II is no way is meant to denigrate or downplay the huge sacrifices borne by the Western allies. That Western effort was supported by communists and most other Leftists. The Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) were staunch supporters of the U.S. war effort — party members well understood what was at stake.

In contrast, the main U.S. Trotskyist party, the Socialist Workers Party, dismissed the war as an inter-imperialist dispute. That may have been so, but was that the moment to make a fetish of pacifism or of an unwillingness to be involved in any way in a capitalist fight? We need only think of what would have happened had Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo triumphed in the war to answer that question. Backing the war effort was the only rational choice any Leftist not blinded by rigid ideology could have made. It is no contradiction to point out the CPUSA took the correct approach even for someone, like myself, who is generally strongly critical of the party.

Shouldn’t we listen to the Kurds?

To bring us back to the present controversy, we might ask: What do the Kurds want? The Syrian Kurds, surrounded by hostile forces waiting for the opportunity to crush their socialist experiment, made a realpolitik decision in accepting the presence of U.S. troops, and a limited number of French and British troops. The dominant party in Syrian Kurdistan, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is strongly affiliated with the leading party of Turkey’s Kurds, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK has been locked in a decades-long struggle with successive Turkish governments.

The preceding sentence is something of a euphemism. It would be more accurate to say that the Turkish government has waged an unrelenting war against the Kurdish people. Ankara has long denied the existence of the Kurdish people, banning their language, publications, holidays and cultural expressions, and pursuing a relentless campaign of forced resettlement intended to dilute their numbers in southeast Turkey. Uprisings have been met with arrests, torture, bombings, military assaults, the razing of villages and declarations of martial law. Hundreds of thousands have been arrested, tortured, forcibly displaced or killed. Turkish governments, including that of President Erdoğan, do not distinguish between “Kurd” and “terrorist.”

The PKK’s leader, Abdullah Öcalan, has been held in solitary confinement since his abduction in Kenya in 1999, an abduction assisted by the U.S. Successive U.S. governments have capitulated to Turkey by falsely labeling the PKK a “terrorist” organization and have actively assisted in the suppression of Turkish Kurds. Can it really be possible that Syrian Kurds are somehow unaware of all this? Obviously not.

YPJ fighter helping maintain a position against Islamic State (photo by BijiKurdistan)

Surrounded and blockaded by Turkey, an oppressive Syrian government, Islamic State terrorists and a corrupt Iraqi Kurdistan government in alliance with Turkey, the Syrian Kurds of Rojava have made a series of realpolitik choices, one of which is to accept a U.S. military presence in the territory to prevent Turkey from invading. That in the wake of the announced U.S. withdrawal Rojava authorities have asked the Syrian army to move into position to provide a new buffer against Turkey — despite the fact the Assad father and son régimes have been relentlessly repressive against them — is another difficult decision made by a people who are surrounded by enemies.

To ignore what the Kurdish people, in attempting to build a socialist, egalitarian society, have to say are acts of Western chauvinism. It is hardly reasonable to see the Syrian Kurds as “naïve” or “puppets” of the U.S. as if they are incapable of understanding their own experiences. And Turkey’s invasion of Rojava’s Afrin district, which was disconnected from the rest of Rojava, resulting in massive ethnic cleansing, should make clear the dangers of further Turkish invasions.

The Kurdistan National Congress, an alliance of Kurdish parties, civil society organizations and exile groups, issued a communiqué that said, as its first point, “The coalition forces must not leave North and East Syria/Rojava.” The news site Rudaw reports that Islamic State has gone on the offensive since President Trump acquiesced to President Erdoğan’s demand, and quotes a spokesperson for the Kurd-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces as saying that “More than four million are exposed to the danger of massive displacement, escaping from possible genocide,” noting the example of Turkey’s brutal invasion of Afrin.

Here’s what someone on the ground in Rojava has to say:

Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria is not an ‘anti-war’ or ‘anti-imperialist’ measure. It will not bring the conflict in Syria to an end. On the contrary, Trump is effectively giving Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan the go-ahead to invade Rojava and carry out ethnic cleansing against the people who have done much of the fighting and dying to halt the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS). This is a deal between strongmen to exterminate the social experiment in Rojava and consolidate authoritarian nationalist politics from Washington, DC to Istanbul and Kobane. … There’s a lot of confusion about this, with supposed anti-war and ‘anti-imperialist’ activists like Medea Benjamin endorsing Donald Trump’s decision, blithely putting the stamp of ‘peace’ on an impending bloodbath and telling the victims that they should have known better. It makes no sense to blame people here in Rojava for depending on the United States when neither Medea Benjamin nor anyone like her has done anything to offer them any sort of alternative.”

None of this means we should forget for a moment the role of the United States in destroying attempts to build socialism, or mere attempts to challenge U.S. hegemony even where capitalist relations are not seriously threatened. Certainly there is no prospect of a U.S. government supporting socialism in Rojava; experiments in building societies considerably less radical than that of Rojava have been mercilessly crushed by the U.S. using every means at its disposal. That the project of Rojava, for now, has been helped by the presence of U.S. troops is an unintentional byproduct of the unsuccessful U.S. effort to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. At the same time of the expected pullout from Rojava, U.S. troops will remain in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they are unambiguously occupiers.

Assad brutality in the service of neoliberalism

Even if the analysis is overly mechanical, cheering the withdrawal of troops is understandable, given the imperialist history of U.S. aggression. Less understandable is support for the bloodthirsty Assad regime. “The enemy of what I oppose is a friend” is a reductionist, and often futile, way of thinking. The Ba’ath regime of Hafez and Bashar Assad have a long history of murderous rampages against Syrians. The United Nations Human Rights Council reports “patterns of summary execution, arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, torture, including sexual violence, as well as violations of children’s rights.” Amnesty International reports that “As many as 13,000 prisoners from Saydnaya Military Prison were extrajudicially executed in night-time mass hangings between 2011 and 2015. The victims were overwhelmingly civilians perceived to oppose the government and were executed after being held in conditions amounting to enforced disappearance.”

Enforced monoculture agriculture was imposed on the Kurdish regions of Syria by the Ba’ath régime, with no economic development allowed. These areas were intentionally kept undeveloped under a policy of “Arabization” against Kurds and the other minority groups of the areas now comprising Rojava. Kurds were routinely forcibly removed from their farm lands and other properties, with Arabs settled in their place. Nor should the Assad family rule be seen in as any way as progressive. Neoliberal policies and increasingly anti-labor policies have been imposed. The spark that ignited the civil war was the drought that struck Syria beginning in 2006, a disaster deepened by poor water management and corruption.

Political scientists Raymond Hinnebusch and Tina Zinti, in the introduction to Syria from Reform to Revolt, Volume 1: Political Economy and International Relations, provide a concise summary of Assad neoliberalism. (The following two paragraphs are summarized from their introduction.)

Hafez al-Assad became dictator, eliminating Ba’athist rivals, in 1970. He “constructed a presidential system above party and army” staffed with relatives, close associates and others from his Alawite minority, according to professors Hinnebusch and Zinti. “[T]he party turned from an ideological movement into institutionalized clientalism” with corruption that undermined development. In turn, Alawite domination bred resentment on the part of the Sunni majority, and a network of secret police and elite military units, allowed to be above the law, kept the regime secure. Over the course of the 1990s, widespread privatization drastically shrank the state sector, which earned Assad the support of Syria’s bourgeoisie.

Upon Assad’s death in 2000, his son Bashar was installed as president. Bashar al-Assad sought to continue opening Syria’s economy to foreign capital. In order to accomplish that, he needed to sideline his father’s old guard and consolidate his power. He did, but by doing so he weakened the régime and its connections to its base. He also altered the régime’s social base, basing his rule on technocrats and businessmen who supported his economic reforms and concomitant disciplining of the working class. Syria’s public sector was run down, social services reduced, an already weak labor law further weakened and taxation became regressive, enabling new private banks and businesses to reap big incomes.

Not exactly friends of the working class, and a strong contrast to the system of “democratic confederalism” as the Rojava economic and political system is known.

Building political democracy through communes

Clandestine organizing had been conducted among Syrian Kurds since a 2004 massacre of Kurds by the Assad régime; much of this organizing was done by women because they could move more openly then men under the close watch of the régime. Kurds were supportive of the rebels when the civil war began, but withdrew from cooperation as the opposition became increasingly Islamized and unresponsive to Kurd demands for cultural recognition. Meanwhile, as the uprising began, Kurdish self-protection militias were formed in secret with clandestine stocks of weapons. The drive for freedom from Assad’s terror began on the night of July 18, 2012, when the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) took control of the roads leading into Kobani and, inside the city, people began to take over government buildings.

What the Syrian Kurds have created in the territory known as Rojava is a political system based on neighborhood communes and an economic system based on cooperatives. (“Rojava” is the Kurdish word for “west,” denoting that the Syrian portion of their traditional lands is “West Kurdistan.”) The inspiration for their system is Murray Bookchin’s concept of a federation of independent communities known as “libertarian municipalism” or “communalism.” But democratic confederalism is a syncretic philosophy, influenced by theorists such as Immanuel Wallerstein, Benedict Anderson and Antonio Gramsci in addition to Mr. Bookchin but rooted in Kurdish history and culture.

Political organization in Rojava consists of two parallel structures. The older and more established is the system of communes and councils, which are direct-participation bodies. The other structure, resembling a traditional government, is the Democratic-Autonomous Administration, which is more of a representative body, although one that includes seats for all parties and multiple social organizations.

The commune is the basic unit of self-government, the base of the council system. A commune comprises the households of a few streets within a city or village, usually 30 to 400 households. Above the commune level are community people’s councils comprising a city neighborhood or a village. The next level up are the district councils, consisting of a city and surrounding villages. The top of the four levels is the People’s Council of West Kurdistan, which elects an executive body on which about three dozen people sit. The top level theoretically coordinates decisions for all of Rojava.

Integrated within the four-level council system are seven commissions — defense, economics, politics, civil society, free society, justice and ideology — and a women’s council. These committees and women’s councils exist at all four levels. In turn commissions at local levels coordinate their work with commissions in adjacent areas. There is also an additional commission, health, responsible for coordinating access to health care (regardless of ability to pay) and maintaining hospitals, in which medical professionals fully participate. Except for the women’s councils, all bodies have male and female co-leaders.

At least 40 percent of the attendees must be women in order for a commune decision to be binding. That quota reflects that women’s liberation is central to the Rojava project on the basis that the oppression of women at the hands of men has to be completely eliminated for any egalitarian society to be born. Manifestations of sexism, including male violence against women, have not magically disappeared. These may now be socially unacceptable, and more likely to be kept behind closed doors, but the system of women’s councils attached to the communes, and councils at higher levels, and the self-organization of women, has at a minimum put an end to the isolation that enabled the toleration of sexist behavior and allowed other social problems to fester.

A system of women’s houses provides spaces for women to discuss their issues. These centers also offer courses on computers, language, sewing, first aid, culture and art, as well as providing assistance against social sexism. As with peace committees that seek to find a solution rather than mete out punishments in adjudicating conflicts, the first approach when dealing with violence or other issues of sexism is to effect a change in behavior. One manifestation of putting these beliefs into action is the creation of women’s militias, which have played leading roles in battlefield victories over Islamic State.

Building a cooperative economy based on human need

The basis of Rojava’s economy are cooperatives. The long-term goal is to establish an economy based on human need, environmentalism and equality, distinctly different from capitalism. Such an economy can hardly be established overnight, so although assistance is provided to cooperatives, which are rapidly increasing in number, private capital and markets still exist. Nor has any attempt to expropriate large private landholdings been attempted or contemplated.

Given the intentional under-development of the region under the Assad family régime, the resulting lack of industry and the civil-war inability to import machinery or much else, and the necessity of becoming as food self-sufficient as possible due to the blockade, Rojava’s cooperatives are primarily in the agricultural sector. There is also the necessity of reducing unemployment, and the organization of communes is seen as the speediest route to that social goal as well.

The practitioners of democratic confederalism say they reject both capitalism and the Soviet model of state ownership. They say they represent a third way, embodied in the idea that self-management in the workplace goes with self-management in politics and administration. Since their liberation from the highly repressive Assad régime, Rojava agriculture has become far more diversified, and price controls were imposed.

The city of Qamishli in Syrian Kurdistan (photo by Arab Salsa)

Cooperative enterprises are not intended to be competitive against one another. Cooperatives are required to be connected to the council system; independence is not allowed. Cooperatives work through the economics commissions to meet social need and in many cases their leadership is elected by the communes. The intention is to form cooperatives in all sectors of the economy. But basic necessities such as water, land and energy are intended to be fully socialized, with some arguing that these should be made available free of charge. Because the economy will retain some capitalist elements for some time, safeguards are seen as necessary to ensure that cooperatives don’t become too large and begin to behave like private enterprises.

We need not indulge in hagiography. There are, naturally, problems and contradictions. Private ownership of the means of production is enshrined in documents espousing socialism and equality, and large private landholdings, with attendant social relations, will be untouched. It is hardly reasonable to expect that a brand new economy can be established overnight, much less in a region forced to divert resources to military defense. Nonetheless, capitalists expect as much profit as can be squeezed out of their operations, an expectation decidedly at odds with goals of “equality and environmental sustainability.” In essence, what is being created is a mixed economy, and the history of mixed economies is fraught with difficulties. Another issue is that Rojava’s authorities, connected with the dominant Democratic Union Party (PYD), can be heavy-handed, including the closing of the offices of the opposition Kurdish National Council on questionable legal grounds.

Nonetheless, what is being created in northern Syria is a remarkable experiment in economic and political democracy — not only Kurds but other minority groups and Arabs consciously working toward socialism. Why shouldn’t this be supported? The authors of the book Revolution in Rojava, supporters of the project and one of whom fought in the women’s militia, argue that the idea that Rojava’s acceptance of Western aid is a “betrayal” is “naïve,” drawing parallels with Republican Spain of the 1930s. Describing Rojava as an “anti-fascist project,” they note that the capitalist West turned its back on the Spanish Revolution, allowing fascism to triumph.

In the forward to the same book, David Graeber, careful to differentiate the targets of his critique from those who oppose the global dominance of North American militarism, argues:

“What I am speaking of here instead is the feeling that foiling imperial designs — or avoiding any appearance of even appearing to be on the ‘same side’ as an imperialist in any context — should always take priority over anything else. This attitude only makes sense if you’ve secretly decided that real revolutions are impossible. Because surely, if one actually felt that a genuine popular revolution was occurring, say, in the [Rojava] city of Kobanî and that its success could be a beacon and example to the world, one would also not hold that it is better for those revolutionaries to be massacred by genocidal fascists than for a bunch of white intellectuals to sully the purity of their reputations by suggesting that US imperial forces already conducting airstrikes in the region might wish to direct their attention to the fascists’ tanks. Yet, astoundingly, this was the position that a very large number of self-professed ‘radicals’ actually did take.”

It does seem quite reasonable to hope for a socialist experiment to avoid being destroyed by Islamic State fascism, Turkish ultra-nationalism or Syrian absolutism rather than clinging to dogmatism.