Those who have been led to believe that the western ‘Allied’ countries who fought the Second World War were fighting to end Fascism, must be puzzled by recent events in the Ukraine. For in the last few months politicians in the West (Europe and the USA) have been silent about the high-profile role of ultra-nationalists, Judeophobes and neo-fascists in the armed uprising which took place in the capital city – Kiev – during February and March 2014.
The same Western elites have also made no public comment upon the extreme right-wing nature of those who have been given seats and appointed to ministries in the re-shuffled Ukraine government. In view of the war against Nazism and Italian Fascism, does this lack of comment or concern from politicians in Europe and the USA not seem surprising? Isn’t anti-Fascism supposed to be part of the political DNA of all classes in Europe and North America?
Worse still in this regard, there is more than a suspicion that funding from western sources was channelled to many of those assembling in the Maidan knowing they would find their way into dubious hands. Was pressure on the Ukraine government to align with Europe’s economic and political motives or resign, more important than human rights? Can it really be possible after the experience of the Second World War, with its blitzkriegs, concentration camps and gas chambers, that western capitalist governments could be neutral or supportive of anti-Semites and right-wing-Fascists no matter how few they are in number?
Can they really remain silent and complicit as once again Jewish people and other non-conforming citizens are being targeted and threatened by right-wing thugs? Can pro-capitalist elites really turn a blind eye to fascistic military dictatorships such as those they once sponsored in South America, and those now installed in Egypt? And isn’t neo-Fascism or authoritarianism and extreme nationalism on the rise everywhere without serious censure by all governing elites of capitalist countries – including Russia? It seems the answer is an unequivocal – Yes! But to understand this political neutrality, silence or even support – on all sides – we need to consider the cyclical nature of the capitalist mode of production as it passes through its successive economic phases.
Economics ultimately determines politics.
If we recognise that the economic mode of production has an enormous underlying influence upon the actions of individuals and classes certain things follow. It becomes important to understand how this influence impacts upon the political superstructures erected upon this economic base. Needless to say, fluctuations in the economic base, particularly violent ones, will effect to a greater or lesser degree, how the politics and political systems function and how they become modified.
Economic fluctuations and their phases are created by the cyclical pattern of industry, commerce and finance during the functioning of the capitalist mode of production. These phases of the cycle have long been identified as; ’prosperity – overproduction – crisis – stagnation – inactivity – revival – and then back to – prosperity – overproduction – crisis – and round the cycle again.
In periods of prosperity, the preferred political superstructure for capitalists and their system in the advanced countries has been bourgeois democracy. This democratic form of governance enables the various sectors of the capitalist class to compete for privileges and advantages without threatening the class domination of the system as a whole. This form of governance also gives the illusion to all classes that it is possible to use these overtly democratic forms to change things in line with their own interests.
However, the bourgeois democratic system is designed so that it deliberately does not challenge the private ownership and control of the means of production. Bourgeois democracy to function, requires a professional cadre of paid politicians who pursue their own career interests before all else. The system is also heavily rigged against the working class and the poor. So the best that can happen for workers in periods of prosperity and pluralist democracy is the temporary achievement of slightly better wages and conditions, along with basic social benefits for those not in employment, through sickness or old age.
However, when the economic phases of over-production and stagnation are entered, things begin to change elsewhere. The phase of over-production means many more goods and services have been produced than can normally be sold at a profit in the available markets. So sooner or later this symptom of overproduction leads to a contraction and often to a prolonged phase of economic stagnation. In the past, relative overproduction crises were offset by creating new markets (originally by colonial expansion) and later by seizing competitors markets (imperialist expansion by warfare) as it was in 1914 and again in 1939.
Since capital always requires labour to create and re-create it, when a period of prolonged and wide-spread stagnation occurs, something serious in this sphere also changes. Workers wages are effectively reduced and many also become unemployed. Workers and others are obliged by circumstances to begin challenging the owners of capital, their political representatives and often the capitalist system as a whole.
In such circumstances bourgeois rule and the democratic forms are challenged and the smooth operation of pro-capitalist governance can be easily disrupted. If civil unrest develops beyond a certain point, the supporters of the capitalist mode of production begin to recognise the need for a ‘scapegoat’ and a more authoritarian form of control. In mainland Europe during the early 20th century, this dual recognition was in a well advanced stage.
So when 20th century Fascism developed in Italy and Germany, it was not the aberration many naively thought at the time – or since. A totalitarian form of governance was but a logical expression of the political and economic needs of large capital formations and their supporters, particularly in a period of crisis and stagnation. The need was for ever more guaranteed, large-scale sources of cheap labour, cheap raw materials and the guaranteed social form for the realisation of surplus-value and profit. This authoritarian tendency was given a further impulse because the crisis of over-production and stagnation in the inter-war period had not been overcome. It was so extreme that a further extended war to obtain further markets and sources of raw materials became necessary for European capital to survive and revive.
Authoritarianism also became necessary because under democratic forms of governance, total war requires the active or at least the passive consent and co-operation of all citizens. Given that workers (the majority of citizens) in a war are used as cannon-fodder, resistance and opposition from this direction is to be expected. Such opposition did arise in Europe particular after the experience of the First World War, along with strong anti-capitalist feelings and organisational developments. This increased level of social ferment created an even wider recognition that only an authoritarian totalitarian political form and the creation of an ‘enemy within’ would be able to physically suppress and eliminate such wide-spread anti-war and anti-capitalist opposition. This was exactly what mainland European Fascism accomplished in mainland Europe between the 1920’s and 1940’s.
But Fascism and authoritarian developments also accomplished more, than killing socialists, communists, Jews, Gypsies, Slavs and those with physical or mental handicap. Under totalitarian political forms of capitalism, the state effectively became the employer of all wage-labour and directed it to capitalist industry and public projects on the basis of a grand plan for peace and later for war. It also solved unemployment and provided a ‘higher reason’ to accept savage exploitation and even death – “Deutschland ueber Alles” (the capitalist nation above all else!) became the new fixation – and not only in Germany.
Under these new conditions, the state co-ordinated and streamlined production whilst retaining private ownership of the means of production and the profit motive. Even though Fascism did not succeed in the United Kingdom, nevertheless the politics of the UK were also given an authoritarian make-over with conscription, state control of production and distribution of commodities and labour. On both sides of the Second World War the new needs of large-scale capital ensured that the ‘capitalist-state’ form became for all intents and purposes a ‘state-capitalist’ form.
In other words, in a number of countries during the crisis period of the 20th century, the bourgeois democratic form of national rule no longer completely satisfied either the needs of, nor guaranteed the continuity and development of large-scale capital and its nationalist supporters. It was under threat from all directions! So to the era of imperialist economic and financial expansion was added in the 20th century a period of capital inspired totalitarian political adaptations complete with military-led competitive ‘total’ wars for resources and markets.
Fascism or Nazism, was merely the term first applied to the European extreme form of nationalist, pro-capital, totalitarian governance. Stalinism became the term applied to a similar totalitarian symptom in the east. In fact so great was the pressing needs of capital accumulation that all capitalist governments moved more than a step or two in that authoritarian direction – even if some of them were prevented from going the whole way.
Political forms for Capitalist rule in the 21st century.
Although it was a humanitarian disaster of gigantic proportions, the destruction during the second world war did solve the over-production problem. It did so by damaging, destroying or rendering obsolete much of the previous capital accumulation. Machinery, buildings, infrastructure, commodities and men were eliminated – in large quantities – and needed replacing. Although after the war, democratic forms of governance quickly replaced previous totalitarian forms, the newly developed state-capitalist forms in Europe were continued. This was because state support was needed to sustain and promote the post-war development of social and private capital. It was ably assisted by creating large-scale public-service investments and nationalisations.
So within a short time this state-aid for capital reinvestment produced a new phase of capitalist revival and relative prosperity to the cycle. State-led planning was continued in the UK and Europe until the private economic and financial sector was powerful enough to re-assert their interests against the confirmed statists. At this juncture, the economic and financial interests of private capital found their way into the bourgeois political process in the form of neo-liberalism – as it is now known.
However, despite extensive use of credit to absorb the new post-war surplus production the economic cycle once again produced a crisis of relative-overproduction of commodities and the consequent over-production of finance-capital. The financial collapse occurring in 2008, triggering a new phase of prolonged stagnation and the situation is now also compounded by a global sovereign debt crisis.
And yet in this 21st century crisis the needs for capitalist accumulation in the advanced capitalist countries are still essentially the same as they were in the 20th. As long as capitalism exists these needs are;
a) sources of cheap labour, (hence continued immigration from low wage countries and the ability to export of capital to low-wage economies);
b) guaranteed supplies of materials and markets (hence invasions and/or the imposition of IMF conditionalities); and
c) stable supportive governments, (hence military government or the severe erosion of democratic practices).
These fundamental needs for capital mean that progress to authoritarian forms of governance together with an increasingly restricted form of democracy, are continuing in all parts of the world. And of course, armed skirmishes and sanctions – if not yet all-out global war – are the order of the day. Working people should resist being recruited to one side or the other in such developments.
Yet the problem facing the capitalists choice of a totalitarian solution to the current phase of the capitalist economic cycle in the west and east is also clear. It lies in the almost universal horror of the past practice of Fascism in pursuit of its capital supporting aims. This horror together with the efforts and sacrifices required to defeat it before and after 1939 – 45 simply cannot be ignored even after one generation.
It is unlikely, therefore that 20th century Fascism will be the totalitarian choice for the majority of modern capitalist and pro-capitalist elites. However, as protests against the system develop further – and they undoubtedly will – this does mean other forms of ultra-nationalism and collectivism will be supported by pro-capitalist elites. Already bourgeois secular states have enhanced their armed bodies and restricted forms of protest in order to inhibit anti-capitalist developments.
It is no secret that kettling, tear-gas, pepper-spraying, restricted areas, holding pens and even ‘concentration camps’ for demonstrators and other undesirables have re-appeared in the forward plans of the secular capitalist elites in Europe and the US. It is no accident that calls are made by capitalist elites for continued high-levels of arms expenditure – despite austerity and the crisis continue – in all capitalist countries east and west. This latter provides a clue to their recognition of the needs of capital above ordinary people. Yet the resurgence of Islamic and Zionist fundamentalist aspirations for governance also show that authoritarian political trends allied to capitalism and backed by capitalists do not only take a secular form.
Nor should it be overlooked that so-called ‘socialist’ governments can become authoritarian and serve the needs of capital accumulation. They have done in the past under Stalinism, Maoism, National Socialism and under ‘left’ governments such as Labour in the UK. All the leaders of these political tendencies supported and developed social capital (called ‘nationalisation’) to a high degree, before handing it back to the private sector. They can do so again if they are allowed to.
So it would be a step back for working people to put their faith in ‘nationalisation’ or any of these forms of politics – religious or secular – disguised as being for the benefit of all. Where we allow an elite (left, centre or right) to continue to rule over us we are never – ‘all in it together’! But that is material developed by other articles in this blog and in some yet to come.
Roy Ratcliffe (March 2014.)