Preliminary Notes on Objective and Subjective Fascism

Over the past few years, we have listened to endless discussion of the issue of whether capitalist states (and the USA in particular) are succumbing to fascism, whether various politicians, popular movements, or episodes can be conclusively declared ‘fascist,’ and so on. If the question of fascism is framed in terms of historical analogy, i.e., as a discrete phenomenon confined to Italy and Germany in the ‘30s-‘40s to which we can now only compare current events, and attempt to slot them into an allegedly repeating trajectory (‘have we had our beer hall putsch yet?’ kind of thinking), that is obviously ridiculous. There is indeed an historical gulf that separates us from the specific conditions of the 1930s, and we cannot (and should not) expect anything today to tick every box of an ideal-typical fascism checklist patterned after the Nazi regime. However, that’s not the only way to frame the fascism question. 

There was an argument, common in the 1940s in both the council communist and Frankfurt school critical theory traditions in which we place ourselves, that some form of fascistic state-capitalism was on the ascendency globally (albeit with differences between national variants) as the only way capital could attempt to mitigate, manage, and/or defer the global crisis which had set in in the 1914-1929 period, and regardless of who won the second inter-imperialist war, it would mean the victory of fascism. We think that this was basically correct, but understanding how requires giving greater determinacy to the category.

The crisis which precipitated both the first inter-imperialist war and the Great Depression marked the beginning of a permanent valorization crisis: the point at which the productivity of labor became too great to be coherently measured by labor-time immanently expressed in the form of a money-commodity. The valorization crisis worked itself out as a profitability crisis: investment in production at the scale needed to sustain accumulation became unprofitable, resulting in huge masses of unemployed capital as well as proletarians (and the pauperization of massive swaths of middle-strata private capitalists). Management of the permanent crisis necessitated that states suspend the convertibility of their currencies for commodity-money, replacing the latter with fiat currency backed only by state force and state liability, which could be manipulated via fiscal policy in a way commodity-money could not (you can't print billions in gold) — the capital-process is thus mediated through the state at the level of its constitutive forms. This enabled the devalorization of proletarian labor-power ‘from above,’ through inflationary monetary policies that lowered the material content of the total social wage-bill without having to go through messy struggles over the nominal wage (this was Keynes’s openly-stated aim), and simultaneously the vast expansion of directly or indirectly state-stimulated debt-financed production to set in motion all that idle capital, generally for unproductive purposes that never re-enter the capital circuit (bloated military spending being the most prominent example), yet create the semblance of profits for firms. This is the historical role of the fascisization of global capitalism. 

No longer money as an independent measure of value able to exhibit the socially necessary labor-time content of the commodity in the mirror of its own SNLT content, currency becomes only a representation of value, like a unit of account in the internal ledger books of a firm (this throws some light on the concept of spectacle). The state as one big “national capitalist” (Engels) directs production (albeit in a chaotic, mediated sense) through its economic policies — but capitalism is a world system of national capitals operating at uneven levels of historical development, thus global state-capitalism entails in its concept constant imperialist competition: state-capitalism is not the suppression of competition, but its intensification in the era of permanent stagnation. Seen in this light, the intra-fascist squabble between keynesians and monetarists is revealed as an epiphenomenon: ideological window-dressing aside, practically they advocate slightly different tools to keep the same obsolescent system dragging on, propping up the value of paper claims that have become totally unhinged from labor-substance, and ruthlessly contracting the social reproduction of the proletariat, while the latter has unspeakable quantities of superfluous labor squeezed out of it at the hands of a strong state. The defect with many theories of state-capitalism (like Pollock’s) is that they confuse it with the ‘primacy of the political’ (mystified as a realm of will and decision, contra the law-bound automaticity of ‘the economic’) able to lock down capital’s contradictions, but this gets things exactly backward: in fact it entails the subsumption of the state to capital as the latter’s life-support system, their interpenetration as a “state-capital subject” (Langerhans) no less antagonistic, blind, and crisis-ridden, as it is an effect of deferred collapse always threatening to reassert itself. In Korsch’s words, the ‘planning’ of state-capitalist economic policy is only ever “planning new depressions.”

None of this stopped with the end of the second inter-imperialist war: the defeat of the fascism of the axis powers resulted in a world split between the fascism of the western bloc and that of the eastern bloc, which finally gave way to a fascist world system, under (now ailing) US financial hegemony (the dollar becoming the semblance of ‘world money’ for the post-money era, its stability resting on US geopolitical dominance, which has kept it immune, for now, to the sovereign debt crises that have periodically wracked other states). The other side of fascist economic policies is the gargantuan buildup of the state’s repressive capacities for use both abroad (in endless surplus-capital-sink imperialist ventures), and at home (to police, exterminate, and incarcerate the racialized, devalorized surplus proletariat) — and these uses can be understood as immanently connected, as they were by Aimé Césaire and others: the return of imperialist barbarism from the ‘periphery’ to the (over)developed capitalist ‘core,’ as the core/periphery relation as it existed in pre-WWI capitalism is (gradually and bloodily) liquidated.

These repressive capacities are not always deployed overtly or with equal ferocity. Fascism is not just a boot stamping on everyone’s necks, but the quasi-corporatist integration of the reproduction of the proletariat with the state, both materially (through the exchange of labor-power against wages in a money-form backed by state debt, and the increasing subsidization of these debased wages by personal indebtedness, tying proletarians’ fortunes directly into that of the state-finance nexus) and politically and ideologically (through the strengthening of the illusory national and/or ethnic community of hardworking, morally-upright ‘individuals and families’ against abject strata of racialized foreigners, rendered legal non-persons). Fascist state-capitalism operated in times of relative stability (the post-WWII period when the colossal devastation of the war enabled a state-mediated reconstruction boom) primarily through class-collaboration, then through terroristic force with the reassertion of the repressed crisis — we can thus speak of a geographically-differentiated oscillation between ‘latent’ and ‘manifest’ fascism, a “potentiality” as Krahl put it, “that the state can actualize at any time.” 

Our basic argument is that the global state-capitalist order has been objectively fascistic (whether latent or manifest in any given instance) for almost a century. That is obviously not identical with what one could call subjective fascism: popular movements of those who understand themselves to hold explicitly fascistic ideologies. A lot of ink has been spilled, from Fromm to Adorno to today, on the psychology (and psychological preconditions) of such people, and its interrelation with crisis, the pauperization of middle-strata, and the defense of threatened social, sexual, and ‘racial’ privileges within a national(ist) framework. That work can certainly help us understand such movements today, even if they don't line up in every detail with previous fascist mass movements. But perhaps the main thrust of our argument is that, while obviously a worrying sign, movements like the motley lot that stormed the capitol on January 6th, 2021, are a bit beside the point. Some kind of takeover by self-consciously fascistic chuds isn’t required (nor is it important whether or not it can be proven that Trump, or any other politician, ‘is a fascist’), because objectively, fascism is already here, and has been for some time. Mattick’s warning was right on the money: “American fascism would not require popular participation as it did in Europe. It would most probably be called…100% Americanism. Without popular participation, there would also be no opposition; it would be a matter entirely of the government’s decision. Repressive measures could be introduced within the framework of American democracy, preserving its forms while emptying them of all their content.” This is what Adorno meant when he said he “consider[ed] the survival of fascism within democracy [i.e., objective fascism] to be potentially more menacing than the survival of fascist tendencies against democracy [i.e., subjective fascism].” The wave of fascist state repression to which the (subjective) fascists’ putschist playacting gave license underlines where the greatest danger lies. 

One could of course protest that fascism is such a loaded word we shouldn’t use it in the manner that we have here. Our aim is certainly not to relativize the historical specificity and enormity of the Nazi extermination campaign, but rather to understand fascism as a much broader, variegated historical tendency built into the self-undermining secular dynamic of capital accumulation itself, and to suggest that it does a disservice to the comprehension of all other forms of fascist barbarism to consistently downplay them by comparison to the shoah. It is because the shoah is not comparable, that we should stop comparing everything to it so as to say, ‘ah, nope, don’t worry, not fascism yet.’ Or one could take the more circumspect route and refer to the past century of crisis-deferring carnage as state-capitalist (which will still enrage a lot of leftists who’ve been blinded to this history due to their implicit or explicit commitment to the ludicrous notion of a ‘progressive’ use of the state). Or one could adapt a formula like G.M. Tamás’s ‘post-fascism,’ or Paul Gilroy’s ‘neo-fascism,’ but in our view, the terminology is not actually especially important, as long as one recognizes the fundamentals laid out here. 


A New Institute for Social Research