I have been a big fan of William I. Robinson ever since I read his – ever-so dense but profound – A Theory of Global Capitalism (a book you should all read) – and in this Al-Jazeera column, he pursues a familiar line of thinking: that global capitalism leads to 21st century fascism:
“I want to discuss here the crisis of global capitalism and the notion of distinct political responses to the crisis, with a focus on the far-right response and the danger of what I refer to as 21st century fascism, particularly in the United States.”
I write “familiar” because this is something he has spoken about before. In Robinson’s view, globalization is characterized by three major and dominating entities: transnational capital, the transnational capitalist class (TCC) and the transnational state. These three components are well integrated and embedded, hence their thorough dominance, which, with the current recession, is now plain to see and deeply entrenched:
“By the late 1990s, the system entered into chronic crisis. Sharp social polarisation and escalating inequality helped generate a deep crisis of over-accumulation. The extreme concentration of the planet’s wealth in the hands of the few and the accelerated impoverishment, and dispossession of the majority, even forced participants in the 2011 World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos to acknowledge that the gap between the rich and the poor worldwide is “the most serious challenge in the world” and is “raising the spectre of worldwide instability and civil wars.”
Global inequalities and the impoverishment of broad majorities mean that transnational capitals cannot find productive outlets to unload the enormous amounts of surplus it has accumulated. By the 21st century, the TCC turned to several mechanisms to sustain global accumulation, or profit making, in the face of this crisis.”
What are these mechanisms?
1. Militarized accumulation: permanent wars that generate huge profits for the military-industrial complex. The global economy is a war economy. This militarization-of-everything applies to immigration policy, the criminal justice system and protest / social movement management as well.
2. Raiding and sacking of public budgets through the imposition of austerity measures, which are actually mechanisms of massive redistribution to the top.
3. Worldwide financial speculation: the financialization of everything, including food and it does not really matter if the consequences are devastating. Quick example:
“Today, hunger is growing as food prices reach record levels, and a further 44 million people, according to the World Bank, have found themselves reduced to conditions of extreme poverty since the middle of last year. The figures are imprecise but, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, about a billion people now live in chronic hunger – a scandal in what should be an age of plenty.
As the numbers increase, suspicion has mounted that a new factor has been helping to push food prices beyond the pockets of the poor – the vast amounts of money poured into the commodities market in recent years.
In a new report, Hungry for Justice, Fighting Starvation in an Age of Plenty (pdf), Christian Aid says it is not primarily the hedge funds that are behind this trend. More pertinent are the activities of institutional investors such as pension funds looking for a safe place in which to grow their money following the burst of the dotcom bubble and collapse of the property boom.
The scene was set for their entry into the commodities market in 1991, when Goldman Sachs created an index of 18 commodities, including various foods, in which people were invited to invest. As well as providing diversity in the form of different types of commodities, from oil to metals to foodstuffs, that would perform differently, the index would offer diversity at a broader level to those with investments in traditional assets such as shares and bonds.
Business built up quickly, becoming an avalanche once the Commodity Futures Modernisation Act was passed in the US in 2000. That allowed banks, brokers and other financial institutions to develop, market and trade a variety of unregulated financial products.
Crucially, it also allowed more heavily regulated investors to enter the commodities market. Pension funds, for instance, are banned in the US from speculating on commodities futures themselves because that involves leverage, or the use of borrowed money. However, the Act gave them access to the index funds. And they have money – lots of it. An indication of the funds at their disposal is the fact that the combined value of the world’s 13 largest pension markets is around $US26.5trn, higher than the combined GDP of China and the US.”
Back to Robinson: the Obama factor:
“The Obama project from the start was an effort by dominant groups to re-establish hegemony in the wake of its deterioration during the Bush years (which also involved the rise of a mass immigrant rights movement). Obama’s election was a challenge to the system at the cultural and ideological level, and has shaken up the racial/ethnic foundations upon which the US republic has always rested. However, the Obama project was never intended to challenge the socio-economic order; to the contrary; it sought to preserve and strengthen that order by reconstituting hegemony, conducting a passive revolution against mass discontent and spreading popular resistance that began to percolate in the final years of the Bush presidency.”
Passive revolution refers to Gramsci’s concept of the power elite letting a little symbolic change happen in order to suppress “softly” actual discontent from the masses. If successful, the result is that the system is left largely untouched. It has not really worked in the Middle East (although the jury is still out as to what will follow the collapse of the dictatorships of Tunisia or Egypt and what will actually happen in Lybia). In the US, the Obama administration along with the Democratic party succeeded in demobilizing social movements that had emerged towards the end of the Bush administration. In this sense, Obama is one more preparatory stage for 21st century fascism whose characteristics Robinson defines as such:
- The fusion of transnational capital with reactionary political power
- Militarization and extreme masculinization (Cynthia Enloe is the go-to analyst on that topic, I would add)
- A scapegoat which serves to displace and redirect social tensions and contradictions: immigrants, Muslims, teachers, union members, women, but NOT actual right-wing terrorists… take your pick
- A mass social base, in that case, the white masses of teabaggers
- A fanatical millennial ideology involving race/culture supremacy embracing an idealized and mythical past, and a racist mobilization against scapegoats (unless they all get raptured on Saturday)
- Charismatic leadership: Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, etc.
On a global scale, add to this the need to police the 1/3 of the world population that lives on Mike Davis’s planet of slums and you have an increasingly authoritarian and violent system.
“In essence, the state’s ability to function as a “factor of cohesion” within the social order breaks down to the extent that capitalist globalisation and the logic of accumulation or commodification penetrates every aspect of life, so that “cohesion” requires more and more social control.
Displacement and exclusion has accelerated since 2008. The system has abandoned broad sectors of humanity, who are caught in a deadly circuit of accumulation-exploitation-exclusion. The system does not even attempt to incorporate this surplus population, but rather tries to isolate and neutralise its real or potential rebellion, criminalising the poor and the dispossessed, with tendencies towards genocide in some cases.
As the state abandons efforts to secure legitimacy among broad swathes of the population that have been relegated to surplus – or super-exploited – labour, it resorts to a host of mechanisms of coercive exclusion: mass incarceration and prison-industrial complexes, pervasive policing, manipulation of space in new ways, highly repressive anti-immigrant legislation, and ideological campaigns aimed at seduction and passivity through petty consumption and fantasy.”
That’s what reality TV is for.
And for anyone paying attention, these trends started thirty years ago, which leads Robinson to note that this crisis masks structural traits of the system.
As Robinson concludes,
“The United States cannot be characterised at this time as fascist. Nonetheless, all of the conditions and the processes are present and percolating, and the social and political forces behind such a project are mobilising rapidly. More generally, images in recent years of what such a political project would involve spanned the Israeli invasion of Gaza and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, to the scapegoating and criminalisation of immigrant workers and the Tea Party movement in the United States, genocide in the Congo, the US/United Nations occupation of Haiti, the spread of neo-Nazis and skinheads in Europe, and the intensified Indian repression in occupied Kashmir.”