Post-Liberal (And Post-Conservative) Politics: Understanding The New Reactionary Movements

At the end of the 20th century, the triumph of capitalism and democracy seemed at one stage so complete that an era of global economic liberalism appeared to beckon. Today the folly of that delusion has been made obvious by the financial crisis and its political consequences. –
Martin Kettle 

This world is on the threshold of a new phase in a decades-long larger change in the relation between capitalism and liberal democracy that initially emerged with the collapse of the USSR, though the shift went far beyond that specific collapse. Capitalist economic institutions that had been born under representative democracies in the 19th century were in the 1990s successfully deployed within non-democratic regimes, such as the newly “post-communist” nations (Russia, former Yugoslavia, etc.), China, Singapore, and importantly, many Islamic regimes. The historic connection between capitalism and democracy in the West turned out to be an accident of history, not a necessary interdependence.

As a somewhat predictable consequence of this changed global situation, manifestations of post-liberal politics now rise up within the Western birthplaces of capitalism, such as Brexit, Trump, resurgent white supremacy, and a new phase of the US Christian Right now driven by ideological forces that have overtaken its original moralistic politics. Calling this new phase a sort of neo-fascism is almost right, but does not capture the novelty and specificity of the moment. Calling it the “end of humanism” as some have, has an anachronistic ring, as much of the West rejected liberal humanism in the 80s and 90s with academic postmodernism being unequally yoked with religious anti-humanism. The “new atheists” tried to revive a sort of rational humanist ideology, but their alliance with anti-Muslim politics doomed them to merely echoing the dominant shift, if contradictorily.

The U.S. is entering a period of intensification of authoritarian politics under the Trump administration and, similar regimes in other parts of the world have clear echoes of fascism. However, this new era is not so much a farcical repetition of 20th century fascism as it is a meandering slide into a new authoritarianism of the center. Trump is in no real sense part of the late 20th century right-wing of US politics, which were decisively shaped by the neo-conservative offensive of the 70s and 80s and culminated in the Bush presidency of 2001-2008. As much as Trump is post-liberal, he is also post-conservative. Appointing mostly establishment Republicans to his administration makes it clear that even Trump does not truly grasp the novelty of this moment, despite his uncanny ability to profit politically from the contemporary crisis of democratic legitimacy.

Key aspects of this new post-democratic moment include the intensification of capitalist exploitation, ecological crises, racist & nationalist polarization, re-politicized heterosexism, anti-democratic politics, the disintegration of religious liberalism, and global eclipse of atheism. Though quite unorganized, the social bases for opposing post-liberal regimes at present resides in mass movements of a narrowly oppositional character, not a unified positive focus. Such a positive left vision was the historic project of the far left manifested as Anarchism and Marxism, but both of those movements today are far too divided and unpopular to unify the needed radical opposition to post-liberal centrist authoritarianism.

Signs of hope for a radical movement did emerge during the Obama era, notably two surges in economic leftism; Occupy Wall Street and the Bernie Sanders campaign. Other left movements of the Obama era such as marriage equality, while crucial cultural engagements, left the political and economic forces largely untouched. OWS was inspired in part by the Arab Spring, which was triggered by the opposition to post-liberal capitalism in northern Africa and the Middle East. The Syrian Civil War is the last vestige of that struggle and has descended into sheer tragedy. The fate of the Arab Spring was fundamentally bound up with the authoritarian shift in the politics of capitalist expansion.

There is some grim humor about in the face of Trump, as in the wry observation that instead of warp drive and flying cars, the world seems to be arriving at a cyberpunk dystopia. There is no humor in the return of blatant racism, especially as manifested in the upsurge in police murders of black men. Black Lives Matter is another manifestation of a potentially radical resistance to reactionary politics.

The left has long been in need of a unifying 21st century political vision and liberalism of almost every possible sort has decisively failed to forestall the emergence of centrist authoritarianism. The far left has descended yet again into squabbles about the relative importance of struggling against capitalism vs. racism vs. male domination vs. lgbtq causes ad nauseum. Each narrow interest within the broad left clings to its own territory with a very unleftist proprietary mindset. Some want to reassert Marxism, others attack class politics altogether. And yet, the resources for a unified left politics are out there in the form of class-conscious intersectional and ecological politics.

As perhaps never before, the fate of humanity and life on earth is threatened by the juggernaut of contemporary ruling class and its androcratic ecocidal white supremacist capitalist systems of death. The revolution has already begun, but it has a long bloody fight ahead.

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