The question of the labor movement under fascism is the question of what to do when it is already too late. Racist vigilante attacks are intensifying, comrades are being indicted, workers are being deported, bosses are breaking labor law with even greater impunity, the press is under threat, civil liberties are disappearing, politicians are attempting to rule by diktat, police are even more out of control, war is on the horizon. Everywhere, the threadbare niceties of the state under liberalism have vanished.
We are not ready for this. The general strike seems like the only reasonable response, but the existing left and labor organizations are hard-pressed to mobilize for one. The working class is self-organizing, but success remains far from certain. What is this hell we are entering? How did we get here, and what role can the working class play in helping us find a way out?
Never miss another story
Get the news you want, delivered to your inbox every day.
Origins of Fascism
Fascism did not start out as a pejorative term. The word originates from the Latin fasces, a term for a bundle of sticks bound together around an axe so that they could not be broken, a symbol of unity and power. In ancient Rome, the fasces were carried by lictors, the bodyguards of magistrates and other state officials. The sticks could be unbundled to mete out beatings as prescribed by magistrates. The axe was used for the death penalty.
Fascism first appeared in social movement usage not on the right, but on the Italian left in the late-nineteenth century as a symbol or term for “league” or “group” for various socialist and syndicalist organizations. It was in fact a former socialist who indelibly stamped fascist as an adjective for the far right: Benito Mussolini. His politics were shaped by the conflicts of modernity: violent class struggle, a bourgeoisie attempting to build a nation and a national market, and war. For a young Mussolini, working-class power seemed to be the way forward. But after beginning his political career in the Italian Socialist Party, the failure of the socialist movement to prevent World War I, as well as the outpouring of patriotic feeling released by the war, catalyzed Mussolini’s conversion from class politics to a new brand of nationalism.
Mussolini promised to make Italy great again, to return to the golden age of the Roman Empire. In his view, this could only happen through a new cross-class national unity, a powerful state under the tutelage of a new elite of Übermenschen, and a march toward war. The first task of Mussolini’s fascism was the violent repression of workers’ and peasants’ movements in the wave of strikes and occupations after World War I, followed by the destruction of independent labor organizations once state power was attained.
The conditions of crisis that had led to Italian fascism soon gave rise to parallel movements in other countries. Perhaps because of the visibility of Nazism, in particular in US popular culture, the fascism of the 1930 serves as the primary reference point for analysis of the right-wing authoritarianism we face today. The fascists of Italy, Falangists of Spain, Nazis of Germany and their less well-known counterparts across the Western world believed their elite were destined to rule as autocrats because they had won out in the war of all against all — or must do so. The new elite would lead the nation in an imperialist project of gaining more spazio vitale (living space, or as the Nazis would call it, Lebensraum), seeking to displace British or American hegemony over the capitalist world-system and gain their people’s place under the sun.
Fascism cast culture as nature. It enforced and strengthened hierarchies based on ethnic or gender identities, claiming that some are meant to be masters and others to be slaves. Fascist governments replaced liberal guarantees of civil liberties and independent civil society organizations with a reimagining of the nation as a patriarchal family based on a racist conception of self and other, and corporatist organizations subordinated to the state. Corporatism here does not refer to corporations in the sense of a private company — it actually referred to the incorporation of bosses, workers and state bureaucrats in a single overarching organization that would supposedly reflect their common nationalist interests.
Fascists paid lip service to “socialism” for the Volksgemeinschaft (the Nazi concept of a racially pure “people’s community”), but they found their most willing partners in the project of rationalizing social, political and economic life in the bourgeoisie. Fascists in league with big capital subjected the working class to a redoubled divide-and-conquer strategy. Some sections of workers were included in the Volkgemeinschaft, bound up in corporatist schemes of labor-management compromise in exchange for loyalty necessary for war-making. But those who were not thought to belong to the “master race” were excluded from any form of representation or organization, and subjected to hyper-exploitation. Millions of Jews, Roma, eastern Europeans and others deemed Untermenschen were subjected to persecution, forced labor and genocide.
For the working class, fascism is the bloody assertion of heteronormative, patriarchal capitalism without democracy. The mythologization of hierarchy and the nation, intensified oppression based on ethnic and gender identities, glorification of war, and violent repression of worker and social movement organizations were hallmarks of all the historical regimes we call fascism — Hitler’s National Socialists, Franco’s Falangists and others. Today, most of these characteristics are also present in the new wave of right-wing regimes taking power in the West, as well as in India, Russia, Turkey and other authoritarian capitalist states of the periphery.
Continuities With Liberalism
As participants in this unfolding catastrophe, we tend to emphasize its discontinuities with the postwar liberal order that preceded the current unraveling. But the continuities are in fact more alarming, and more important to understand if we want to eradicate fascism root and branch, once and for all. Fascism is possible not in spite of liberal capitalism, but because of it. Both historically and philosophically, fascism is rooted in the same Western tradition as liberalism. Fascism continually reemerges because its seeds are incubated in the contradictions of capitalism.
The capital-F Fascism of authoritarian government is possible because of the lower case-f fascism that thrives in everyday life under capitalism. The centralized state was an invention of the bourgeoisie, a business innovation necessary to manage its affairs. Its bureaucracy stands ready-made for takeover by fascist thugs. Eichmann-like obedience necessary for the Fascist political project is inculcated by the state and corporate bureaucracy built by the bourgeoisie. Fascists march to war down roads that were paved by centuries of European colonialism and imperialism. The fascist discourse of national greatness is nothing more than a continuation of the nationalism of the imagined community constructed by the bourgeoisie.
The fascist enforcement of gender norms is a grotesque exaggeration of the patriarchal division of labor engendered by one form of capitalism. Fascism’s celebration of hierarchy and legitimation of class society is an extreme form of the twin lies of liberalism: “meritocracy” (barely distinguishable as a concept from Social Darwinism) and racist essentialism. Racism itself was born of the Western project of colonialism, and given a stamp of legitimacy by Enlightenment science that sought to taxonomize all things, plants, animals and people.
Liberalism promises to keep its Id in check with guarantees of the rights of man, but this was always a promise more often broken than kept. The majority of our planet’s inhabitants have already been living under a permanent state of exception. The test runs for the Nazi Holocaust were the late-Victorian holocausts of mass murder in Africa, and the genocidal colonization of the Americas and uncounted colonial massacres.
In the capitalist core, millions have long lived their lives as what Giorgio Agamben termed homo sacer — a term from ancient Rome signifying those who are deprived of rights by the state, and subject to extra-judicial violence by the George Zimmermans of the world. Across the capitalist core, immigrants and refugees live without the promise of any kind of liberal human rights, facing possible deportation in any interaction with the authorities.
Clintonite cosmopolitan liberalism claims that these oppressions are atavisms of the past, even though they are renewed every day. It promises to unite the world Benetton-like in a multicultural global market, where everyone is equally free to exploit and be exploited. Liberalism will occasionally apologize for its racism, sexism and colonial massacres, and may make affirmative action reforms to stabilize its rule and rationalize production, or in the case of the US government’s eventual concessions to the civil rights movement, to compete ideologically with the Soviet Union. But there is one place where it can never acknowledge illegitimate hierarchy: the workplace. And it is precisely here that the contradictions that propel the world toward fascism are rooted.
The Liberal Compromise
Fascism is not only a grotesque exaggeration of the worst elements of bourgeois society. As a popular tendency, it is a response to the same contradictions that generate left radicalism: poverty, powerlessness and alienation. It is the manufactured scarcity of capitalism that opens the door to a fascist solution.
As a form of government, fascism is not the bourgeoisie’s first choice, of course. It is an unstable system prone to cronyism that places certain limits on the market. So, like the boss who wants you to try for a promotion rather than organizing a union, liberalism first tries to resolve its contradictions through expansion. This could mean economic growth through technological upgrading, or stimulation of new needs and desires to create new consumer markets, or it could mean capturing new markets through war and trade agreements. As long as the pie is getting bigger, tensions over who gets the biggest piece are diffused.
The contradiction of liberal capitalism played out in real historical time. To stabilize its own rule in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II, liberal capitalism accepted a degree of regulation, establishing norms necessary for more-or-less long-term operation of a market, and setting up a system that could compete economically and ideologically with international socialism. This took the form of the New Deal and the Keynesian welfare state, a compromise that institutionalized class struggle to boost consumption.
In the United States, some — mostly white, mostly male — workers were granted some rights under the National Labor Relations Act. Domestic workers and farm laborers were excluded, a concession to white supremacist political factions. This was a far more soft-serve version of the inclusion/exclusion from representation that also characterized the fascist system of labor control of the same era. It was also premised on loyalty to the capitalist state. The leaders of the major union federations were granted seats at the table, in exchange for expelling Communists from their ranks and adopting a depoliticized approach to labor relations.
After World War II, the US exported this New Deal model of labor relations through its reconstruction efforts in Western Europe and East Asia. For around thirty years, workers were rewarded for their loyalty with wage increases that matched growth in productivity. For the most part, this resulted in an apolitical acquiescence to life under capitalism. By the end of the twentieth century, liberalism seemed to reign triumphant. Some claimed that liberal capitalism was the End of History, that the age of extremes had definitively passed. Both socialism and fascism were consigned to the dustbin. Under the leadership of the WTO and the largest of the Western corporations, humanity was to march onward into a glorious consumerist future with McDonald’s, Starbucks and Apple products for all.
How wrong they were.
Everywhere, authoritarian regimes are winning out over centrist liberalism. The Chinese model of development — an authoritarian state with just enough market relations to fill the pockets of a kleptocratic elite — has become the dominant development paradigm for much of Asia and Africa. Western corporate elites have watched jealously as mega-projects and mega-profits that would take years of political wrangling in the capitalist core get the green light in China. Nevertheless, most sectors of capital still seem to prefer Clintonite liberalism to Trumpian fascism, or certainly to Bernie Sanders’ social democracy. But increasingly, the centrist option is off the table, for reasons of the bourgeoisie’s own doing.
The triumph of liberalism in the 1990s belied its own decay. Since the 1970s, global capital has sought to dismantle the liberal welfare state and put more and more social goods (such as education, healthcare and what remains of public housing) on the market through “structural adjustment” and austerity.
The decay of the liberal system is nowhere more evident than in labor relations. The stable system of collective bargaining put in place by the National Labor Relations Act was under attack from the far right since its inception — but has been most effectively undermined by the liberal center since 1981. In that year, Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in the PATCO union, signaling open season on the labor movement. Workplace-level union-busting, the use of scabs to break strikes, automation and outsourcing all drove unionization rates in the United States down from around 30 percent in the 1950s, to barely 10 percent in 2017. Behind this evisceration is a shift in ruling-class strategy from grudging acceptance of unions in the system of labor control, to direct domination of each individual worker through “Human Resources Management.”
As a result, the standard of living in the capitalist core has undergone almost half a century of decline. This has paralleled the decline of the United States as the hegemonic power in the global political economy. As this decline continues, workers in the capitalist core of all income levels have begun looking for alternatives to neoliberal politics. The mythology of the American Dream no longer works its magic of erasing class antagonisms.
Today, the body politic is afflicted with a dysphoria — a disconnect between the lived experiences of the working class, and the political and cultural representations with which hegemonic liberalism seeks to interpellate them. The Clintonite slogan “America Is Already Great” does not resonate with workers who see themselves making less money than their parents’ generation. The cultural disjuncture leads to a political rejection of corporate liberals. A new political subject is waiting to be called into existence. The depoliticization of life that accompanied the postwar liberal settlement is over. The center cannot hold. Everyone is picking a side.
Neoliberalism promises more of the same, fascism promises “economic nationalism” and a return to a mythologized past, a democratic socialist revival bids for a return to some form of social democracy. But once again, the discontinuities of these ideologies with liberalism are not as strong as their continuities. Both the fascist ideology of Trump and Brexit, and the social-democratic revivalism of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn are post-liberal, in that they are symptomatic of the breakdown of the liberal order. But they are also post-liberal, in that they fail to break with the fundamentals of liberal capitalism: private ownership of the means of production, wage labor and markets as a means of distribution. It is these fundamentals of capitalism which brought us to the crisis of neoliberalism, and any movement that is unwilling to challenge these fundamentals will ultimately bring us more of the same.
In some cases, the post-liberal left wins or makes important gains in elections — Syriza and Podemos serving as the most prominent examples. But their victories tend to be short-lived. Without willingness to fundamentally break with neoliberal capitalism, it is not long before voters realize that they have elected a non-solution, and turn once again to the right. The failure of the left to offer an anti-systemic alternative is what brought the fascist right to power in the United States and threatens to do the same in other places across the world. Now we need to figure out what exactly to expect, and how to fight to win.
The Other Workers’ Movement
True to form as fascists, the Trump regime has set to work recasting the boundaries between self and other in the United States. It is a project of scapegoating, and of legitimizing the repression of labor and social movements. Unlike its 1930s antecedents in Germany, Italy or Spain, Trump’s cartoonish fascism has not had to ban the unions and set up new ones under direct control of the state. There is no need for a new fascist system of labor control, because under neoliberalism the United States already has one.
Since the 1980s, most workers’ organizations have already been liquidated. Most workers are subjects of a capitalist dictatorship in the workplace, and millions have long been excluded from even the most basic guarantees of liberalism: to be paid for your labor, to not be summarily executed by police, to be accorded due process rights. There is a new intensity and scale to these attacks, but the line of attack itself is not actually new.
The “official” workers’ movement has largely failed to resist attacks old and new. Under Trump, the labor movement has gladly divided and conquered itself, with the heads of building trade unions meeting with Trump and sycophantically glowing over the “respect” he showed them, while he prepares orders to deport millions of immigrant workers and deprive millions more citizens of their rights. Many unions simply seem to be hoping for the best, while failing to prepare for the worst. Others refuse to publicly attack Trump in the hopes of cutting some sort of deal. But no matter how close some unions get to the boss, they cannot escape the fact that their organizations are in the crosshairs more than ever. Trump’s fascism seeks to finish off the legal framework of labor relations under postwar liberalism, dealing the coup de grâce to an institutional labor movement that has long been hemorrhaging members.
The resistance is therefore in the “other” workers’ movement — among those who never were included in the legal mechanisms of the compact of postwar liberalism in the first place, such as immigrant workers, the unwaged labor of women, and students. They are joined by a new “other” workers’ movement: the rebel rank-and-file of the institutional unions, such as teachers and public sector workers, and increasingly, self-organized groups of workers who have never belonged to a union. As the state falls under the sway of fascist control, the weapons of this resistance are increasingly extralegal: from protests to strikes, highway blockades and physical confrontations.
While increasingly bold in tactics, resistance to fascism is so far largely conservative, in the true sense of the word: it seeks to conserve the liberal order. Until now, its battles have been mostly defensive, and if they are won, will merely put liberals back in power. The real destruction of fascism can only be accomplished by a new workers’ movement, unencumbered by the sacred cows of the bureaucracies that grew up under corporate liberalism. It is in the “other” workers’ movement that a radicalism beyond liberal capitalism can be imagined, and it is with the forces that we build with our own hands that it can be won.
How do we win this fight? The tasks are largely the same as before, but with a new sense of urgency, and in conditions of heavier repression. As before, we must engage millions in the fight for a different future. No true revolution is possible without mass participation. We must build a vast network of workplace and community-based organizing committees that make a general strike possible. We must also be prepared to go beyond a general strike, to build dual power through worker and community assemblies that will replace or transform the state with a true democracy. This is a struggle not just to restore the old world-system, but to build a new one. This is the time to be revolutionaries, to fight to win the world we actually want.
Calamity of epic proportions awaits millions in the working class. Deportations, intensified exploitation at work, the destruction of our life-giving planet, vigilante attacks, refugee crisis, resurgent misogyny, transphobia and racism, and the threat of inter-state war. It is already too late to prevent much of this. But it has always already been too late. Untold tragedy is the legacy of liberalism, and of every return of fascism. That is why we fight for the future. That is why we fight to win.