The bad old days
Are we going back to the 1930s? Tony Blair says this scenario “no longer seems far fetched”. But will Donald Trump save us? Paul Demarty thinks not
Shortly after the inauguration of Donald Trump, various news outlets reported on the state of Amazon’s bestseller lists. A certain dystopian pallor had set upon it, with George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal farm jostling for position with Margaret Atwood’s The handmaid’s tale.
Eyes particularly alighted on another book, less well known today than it was in its own time: It can’t happen here by Sinclair Lewis.1 Written in 1935, it depicts the rise of senator Berzelius Windrip to the presidency on a populist platform, and the descent of American society into Hitlerian tyranny. Its title is obviously ironic: Lewis was not at all convinced that it could not happen; and a lot of Amazon shoppers were apparently concerned, early last year, that he might have been right all along.
Windrip is the classic Trumpian figure - somehow both a power-broker and an enraged ‘little man’, seething with resentment at the establishment that excludes him. George W Bush is reported to have said, after Trump’s inauguration speech, “That was some weird shit”; and the weirdness consists in the wrong person being in the wrong place saying the wrong things. The dystopian cast of Trump’s reign has not let up - hopes that this unstable regime might merely collapse under the weight of its own unprofessionalism have hardly been borne out, with the president’s economic promises - lower unemployment, higher growth - kept ... so far. Meanwhile, the forcible separation of immigrant children from their families has resulted in widespread horror, coupled with fear that more people might approve of it than are actually saying so. Is it happening here?
If so, then America is not the only place. Authoritarian rightwing governments have popped up all over Europe, especially in the east, but now in Italy. Matteo Salvini - deputy prime minister but widely believed to be the power in the new government - has long made a habit of driving around in a bulldozer as a symbol of his promise to forcibly clean out Roma camps, and now that procedure is to begin, with a ‘census’. It is a process that - unless defeated in the courts or politically - will certainly lead to mass deportations, the only question being whether there is also the political capital for a much more wide-ranging policy of forcible repatriation of non-EU migrants.
Fear of the mob
The reappraisal of It can’t happen here, then, is not an isolated matter - many wonder, on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere, whether we are going ‘back to the 1930s’ - and, consequently, what can be done about it. The good news is - we are probably not. The bad news has two parts: to wit, firstly, that there are very many other types of catastrophe that can befall great swathes of humanity; and, secondly, that viewing everything through the lens of the rise of Hitler disarms us against those other dangers.
As an exemplary case of liberal anxiety we turn to a piece by the Harvard historian Cass Sunstein in the New York Review of Books. It is headlined - what else? - ‘It can happen here’ (although that presumably is a spoiler for Sunstein’s recent book, Can it happen here?). “Liberal democracy has enjoyed much better days,” he tells us:
Vladimir Putin has entrenched authoritarian rule and is firmly in charge of a resurgent Russia. In global influence, China may have surpassed the United States, and Chinese president Xi Jinping is now empowered to remain in office indefinitely. In light of recent turns toward authoritarianism in Turkey, Poland, Hungary and the Philippines, there is widespread talk of a ‘democratic recession’. In the United States, president Donald Trump may not be sufficiently committed to constitutional principles of democratic government.2
The article is a retrospective of three books partly or entirely about the experience of ordinary Germans of the rise and rule of the Nazis, and Sunstein’s concern is with the very ordinariness reported by students of this history. Commenting on Milton Mayer’s They thought they were free - a 1950s book based on interviews with people who had lived through the Hitler years - Sunstein writes:
When Mayer returned home [to America], he was afraid for his own country. He felt “that it was not German Man that I had met, but Man”, and that under the right conditions, he could well have turned out as his German friends did. He learned that Nazism took over Germany not “by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler”. Many Germans “wanted it; they got it; and they liked it”.
What jumps out from this is the peculiar contradiction at the heart of bourgeois historical memory, when it comes to the rise of fascism. On the one hand, it seems we cannot get enough of marching Brownshirts. The British school history curriculum for a time seemed to be devoted entirely to the chain of events that led from the Versailles peace to the furnaces of Auschwitz and Treblinka - although perhaps after eight years of Tory misrule, there are now some kings and queens in there too.
The attraction is clear. It is a story that pits Us - the masses and parts of the elites of the allied countries - against an incontrovertibly evil Them - the genocidal tyranny of Nazism. The meaning of this is the relatively novel idea that capitalist rule and democracy go together, if only the right people are in charge: summed up in the aphorism, erroneously attributed to Edmund Burke, that “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing”.
Yet there exists also the contrary evidence that many apparently ‘decent’ people did not resist at all - take the archetype of the cultured, family-loving camp guard. This contradiction is resolved by focusing on the mob-politics aspect of the phenomenon of fascism. The elements of the elites that even cautiously welcomed Hitler, who hated ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’ as much as he did, get off basically scot-free.
It is this skewed view that leads, ultimately, to the liberal fear that we might now find ourselves with paramilitary squads, fresh Nuremberg laws and camps full of dissidents, but also to the pervasive identification of anti-elite sentiment as such with incipient fascism (is it even possible to use the word ‘populist’ today without that resonance?). Such was the take, already, of Lewis’s It can’t happen here, whose Buzz Windrip was clearly modelled on the Louisiana populist, Huey Long. So, also, are Sunstein’s fears, as reported in ‘It can happen here’, where he complains rather lamely:
Thus far, president Trump has been more bark than bite. But some of the barks have a history that is at once ugly and revealing. The Nazis applied the term Lügenpresse (lying press) to the mainstream press; President Trump refers to the “fake news media”, which, he says, “is not my enemy - it is the enemy of the American people!” In significant domains (including climate change), his administration denigrates science; he has even failed to fill the position of White House science advisor. The Nazis also dismissed or politicised science (especially Einstein’s ‘Jewish science’) in favour of what they claimed to be the spirit of the Volk.
This is a world outlook cut to measure for ‘liberal’ business leaders and Harvard professors - bad things come when the elites are no longer believed. The difficulty is, first of all, that it involves a kind of wilful blindness, where the descent into barbarism is suddenly merely a twitch of demagogy away rather than a well prepared event. The consequence is also the loss of the very link that the whole apparatus was supposed to maintain, between (capitalist) liberty and political democracy. Churchill’s famous formulation - that democracy is the worst imaginable system, except for all the others - is, after all, an empirical one, open to disproof by fresh evidence ...
But, of course, it was always a lie. It was the organised political struggle of the masses and especially the labour movement that got anyone much the vote in this country, and most of the European continent. Concessions on that point undermine the ability of elite classes to rule; thus arises a new caste of professionalised politicians, journalists and so on, whose essential job is to lie, and great apparatuses of lies for them to tell. Given all the hoo-ha about migrants nowadays, it is worth remembering that the first meaningful immigration controls in this country were brought in shortly after the foundation of the Labour Party, which is no accident: the point was to get up a chauvinist agitation about Jewish migrants that would get support from the labour movement, which - unfortunately - it did. Other examples abound: we could name, in the British context again, anti-Catholic agitation against Irish migrants, and so on.
More than a century down the line, hard borders are simply normal, and if they are suspended within the EU, they are enforced vigorously enough at its margins - even before the likes of Salvini started their long march to power. This story is worth telling because it is a most pertinent example of the way something supposedly unacceptable and barbaric can just become a usual feature of politics.
The widespread denunciation of ‘populism’ by partisans of the establishment, their worry about a ‘return to the 1930s’, attracts to their banner many progressive-liberal types who would have shunned them before. Their fears are now the same. The fruits of their alliance are the anti-Trump ‘resistance’ in the United States, and ‘remainer’ agitation in this country. This in turn pulls further-left forces behind them - think of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty campaigning for a second referendum, and demands for a substantially liberal alliance against Fidesz in Hungary.3 The AWL has long been on the road to this destination, but we feel it has arrived fully now, and is transformed into a miserable appendage of the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie - tragically at just the moment of the latter’s collapse.
Yet the signs are already there that the fight looks very different to some parts of this rainbow coalition than others. Tony Blair is desperate to convince Trump that neither Brexit nor “a wider break-up of the EU will be in US interests”, but he is quite happy to talk about the need to further restrict free movement. What must be saved is the ability for capital to move across borders - migrants may be steamrollered over, in order to throw some meat to the oiks. We rather suspect this is not what naive liberals, never mind the AWL, have in mind.
The capitalist class, as Mike Macnair argued last week, can rule either through the party of liberty - which offers the promise of equal opportunities and personal freedom - or the party of order, which offers a pseudo-critique of the former based on organicist ideology of one sort or another.4 The past few decades have seen a combination of both - the Thatcher-Reagan promise of liberation from the shackles of the state fell back on cheap authoritarianism to plug the inevitable credibility gap. Neoliberalism posed as a new party of liberty, but its avatars were always ready to exploit bigotry, stiffen jail sentences and encourage the exploited to fight amongst themselves.
This political regime has long started to disintegrate - but its only successful challengers have come from the right. That, in the end, is the main difference from the world that gave us Hitler. There will be no mass fascist movement in the classic, paramilitary sense - what would be the point? Who is there to crush?
Without an alternative, working class pole, however, that is no consolation. Trump does not need the clowns of Charlottesville to intern Mexican children; nor will the vile government of Italy need paramilitary irregulars to inflict terror on Roma and African refugees. The void of political authority in the bourgeois establishment is licence enough. Generations of poison, fed to us by the same people who decry ‘populism’, are having their effect.
If the working class is not organised consciously, it will be atomised by everything else, each section hoping to be thrown some meat. Leftwing capitulation to liberalism, certainly, cannot help - for the policeman’s truncheon was ever the necessary complement to Lady Liberty’s torch l
1. See http://money.cnn.com/2017/01/28/media/it-cant-happen-here-1984-best-sellers.
3. See ‘Across the board’ Weekly Worker April 26.
4. ‘Race and class’ Weekly Worker June 21.