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Confronting authoritarian neoliberalism: the challenges facing the Left

Interview with Warren Montag by Dimitris Givisis

Warren Montag, in this interview with Dimitris Givisis, offers global perspectives for the current capitalist conjuncture.

In this interview with Warren Montag, conducted via email between September and October 2022, Dimitris Givisis asks him about the current global geopolitical and economic situation. They discuss the growth of the far right in both the U.S. and throughout the world, and the multiple sites of struggle in which the international and anti-capitalist Left must intervene in order to avoid a dystopian future.

This interview was originally published in two parts in Greek in Εποχή on October 23 and October 30, 2022. Tempest editors have made minor edits for style and added a few links to help readers who may be unfamiliar with certain reference points.

Tempest readers will find the analysis both familiar and provocative. Montag is driven by a concern for the absolute necessity of building an anti-facsist movement while he wrestles with what he describes as “a structural tendency to irrationality” in this moment of acute existential threat. Describing both the mutually reinforcing arrogance and ignorance of the global ruling class, and the loss of any “illusion…[in] a universal alliance against climate change, pandemics, and war,” Montag paints both a sobering picture but also one that attempts to treat with what may be unique about this epoch’s version of imminent barbarism.

Dimitris Givisis: How would you describe the new world that is emerging as a result of the great rearrangements, contradictions, and upheavals in the global economy, in global relations, and in geopolitics? Do you think the centrifugal multipolar tendencies can affect the processes of globalization? And if so, in what way and in what direction?

Warren Montag: If there is a process of globalization, a question that is difficult to answer in the affirmative, it does not take the form of a universalization of the neoliberal regime. The proponents of neoliberalism once promised the arrival of a perpetual peace in which economic competition within the limits of agreed upon rules would replace the wars, both the inter-imperialist wars, and the so-called Cold Wars, of the past. Instead, with the elimination/transformation of the major non-capitalist societies, neoliberalism accelerated the accumulation of capital and with it the intensification of its contradictions. It turns out that the much-vaunted success of neoliberalism was a function of the limits imposed on it from the outside, limits that protected it from the form of autoimmunity proper to it. It may be argued today that what exists is less a fracturing of globalization than the globalization of fractures and faults in what was once known as the World System. The causes and to a lesser extent the probable consequences of the unfolding global crisis are widely recognized, but this recognition has not so far led to the action necessary to address them.

Global capitalism, to the extent that it once formed something like a “world system,” preserved a kind of fragile unity after 1945, a necessary joining of forces against a series of initially anti-colonial revolts in Asia and Africa (above all, Vietnam and Algeria) that tended to develop in an anti-capitalist direction, anti-imperialist movements in Latin America, and the creation of a Soviet buffer zone in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The period—from the victory of the Cuban revolution in 1959-60 to the moment that the victory of the Vietnamese over the U.S. in 1975 became clear—marked the end, rather than the resumption, of the revolutionary wave, had been a time of great hopes, mass struggles, and precious experiences. In Europe, the workers’ movements from France to Italy (1968-69) and Spain and Portugal (1974-75), and the mass struggles to which they gave rise shifted the balance of power to a degree that frightened European and North American capital.

Outside of Europe, the success of anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist mobilizations could be measured by the ferocity of the state and non-state violence directed against them, as shown by the experiences in Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina. Soon the revolutionary movement in Portugal stalled and the U.S. financed Contra War in the eighties led to the downfall of the Nicaraguan revolution. The Iranian revolution, so inspiring in its first days, was crushed by clerical counter-revolution and ended with the near total decimation of its once powerful Left.

Few suspected that the “pause” after 1975 signaled a stabilization of capitalist relations (with a few exceptions) and the slow, although uneven, weakening of workers’ movements, and the defeat of revolutions. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the re-birth of capitalist Russia, and the gradual restoration of capitalism in China, seemed to many observers to herald “the end of history,” in the sense that humanity had found in capitalism the final and essential form of the social existence proper to it. For these observers, the attempts to do better had failed and it was said that there had emerged a universal acknowledgement that capitalism was shown to be the best of all possible worlds. Even the most enthusiastic of the celebrants, however, were quickly forced to admit that while liberal democracy, that is, the formally democratic state, was for them certainly the most preferable of all political systems, it was not always possible (especially when populations refused market rationality or ceased to respect the property forms it required). Little did anyone suspect that another possible end of history, one in which the idea of capitalism as humanity’s final form would take on a very different, and far more sinister significance than that imagined by its liberal prophets, awaited humanity.

The news that capitalism had finally been enthroned as the true form of humanity’s social existence, however, was slow, too slow, to reach the empire’s distant outposts and, when it did arrive, was greeted with indifference or skepticism. The temptation to hasten not simply the end of history, but also the recognition that it had truly reached its final form in capitalism, was too great and a sense of righteousness certain of its invincibility seemed both to justify, and guarantee the outcome of, military interventions, led by the U.S. but supported by all or part of the NATO/EU nations. The events of 9/11 furnished the U.S. with the pretext it needed to pursue a newly formulated strategy to allow it to take full advantage of Communism’s collapse.

The so-called “War on Terror,” waged above all by the U.S., no doubt can be explained, at least in part, by the fact that Iraq alone has nearly three times the oil reserves of the U.S. The invasion of Afghanistan was certainly motivated by a desire for vengeance, but it was also intended to secure a staging ground for the increasing number of military interactions in the region. But these explanations don’t begin to capture the often unacknowledged threshold marked by the invasion of Afghanistan and the Iraq war: However paradoxical it may seem, given the extraordinary technological advances in the art of killing as many people as possible with a corresponding decrease in risk to the aggressor, we have passed into an era of irrational warfare.

What was surprising was the set of delusions, each marking a radical break with the received understanding of the history of twentieth-century warfare, military doctrine and practice, not to mention the entire set of rights and obligations concerning belligerent parties and the treatment of civilians drawn up after WWII. The importance of this last has nothing to do with the ethical norms that such codes seem to embody. Each of the agreed upon provisions is designed to insure the success of an invasion force that seeks to hold a territory and impose a new government that will serve the long-term interests of the invading party. It was well-known among both occupiers and insurgents that indiscriminate, large-scale violence if carried on past a brief initial period could only help build an insurgency. In fact, invaders then and now, for reasons that remain to be explained, “see the better and pursue the worse” (to paraphrase seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza).

The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq differ in important respects, but both exemplify not simply the failure of these imperialist adventures, but a military and political disaster of global proportions, whose consequences continue to unfold with no end in sight (a very conservative estimate puts the death toll at one million dead in Iraq alone). They form a complex situation, with few precedents in the last two centuries, that captures what is essential to global politics in this period. There is undoubtedly much to say about the sheer incompetence and gross amateurism of the (George W.) Bush administration, as well as about its imperial arrogance, but what is striking today is that these “operations,” viewed from a distance, appear as the military equivalent of a (mass) murder-suicide, unfolding, unevenly to be sure, in slow motion.

What the Left internationally needs to confront is what we might call a structural tendency to irrationality:a tendency (and not a destiny) on the part of the existing imperialist powers (including Russia) to undertake courses of action, internal as well as external, political, military and economic, whose foreseeable results are profoundly self-destructive, weakening and perhaps permanently harming their ability to act in the world. This tendency is overdetermined: Its causes do not lie in the weaknesses of world leaderships or their flawed reasoning, nor in the miscalculation of the probable outcomes of a specific action or a strategic error based on insufficient information, even if these kinds of errors occur with regularity. The fact that Trump, Putin, and Bolsonaro, to take only them, rose to leadership positions at all is an effect, not a cause, of this tendency and the recent electoral victories of Liz Truss in the UK and Giorgia Meloni in Italy confirm it.

We might cite the identifying characteristics or symptoms of this tendency.

First, the sheer proliferation of wars launched without the slightest chance of success, and that seem propelled from the outset toward what Marx and Engels warned was the alternative to proletarian revolution and the expropriation of the expropriators: the mutual ruin of the contending forces. Nuclear weapons serve as pretexts for, or threats of (mass) murder-suicide. The Hobbesian doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), based on the assumption that if all nations and their leaders possess nuclear weapons the result will be an equilibrium based on fear, assumes that fear of annihilation will supersede all other passions. Thomas Hobbes, however, does not regard the fear of death as a guarantee of peace. There exist those who destroy others fearlessly for the glory the demonstration of their power will bring. Others kill for the pleasure the contemplation of their ability to kill brings them, irrespective of the risks involved.

The stated reasons for engaging in the destruction of hundreds of thousands of lives and entire cities in a matter of a few months are transparently false, little more than habitual and automatic gestures toward justification that few accept as valid. The Iraq war, undertaken on obviously false pretexts, will have cost millions of lives when its effects have all been taken into account, and in addition set into motion the dynamic that allowed someone like Trump to become president of the U.S. The legalization of torture, or rather, the placing of everything concerning the enemy, defined as enemy combatants, and deprived of the rights enshrined in the Geneva conventions, outside the law, like so many homini sacri [in the work of contemporary philosopher Giorgio Agamben, people who are defined by their capacity to be killed], inevitably returned to the U.S.: How many places in the U.S. today are de facto zones of exception where laws may be ignored by law enforcement agents with impunity?

More recently, moreover, the utter disregard for the lives of “enemy” civilians, the deliberate targeting of their schools, playgrounds, hospitals, and retirement homes, is now extended through a kind of feedback effect to the aggressor’s own population. “Soldiers” utterly unprepared for combat, barely able to operate the artillery, tanks, and armored vehicles assigned to them, given antique weapons and insufficient ammunition and allowed to go hungry, presumably because they can always pillage the population they have come to liberate: They live just long enough to kill large numbers of non-combatants.

This is not a matter of human nature or an elemental death drive that has been leading humanity by means of the ruse of its progress to the threshold of its self-extinction. The forms of self-destruction only too evident today have arisen from forces and tendencies whose combined effect, the combined effect of the “normal” operation of capitalism in an unprecedented and therefore “abnormal” moment of crisis, has led us to (but not yet across) the threshold of irreversible catastrophe. This is Adam Smith in reverse: The by-products, side effects and toxic waste considered the accidents of the constant profit maximization essential to capitalism have merged to form a tendential counter-providence in the interstices or “pores” of the old society.

Mike Davis has demonstrated in detail the extent to which deforestation, whether for the extraction of lumber or to clear land for cattle raising, has exposed human beings to new, potentially deadly, and in a number of cases extremely transmissible, viruses. The new, “highly efficient” forms of raising and slaughtering animals, particularly cattle and chickens, have in turn become the means of production of new diseases, while the international informal market in consumable wildlife, from monkeys and apes to bats, have allowed diseases once confined to non-human species to threaten a significant part of the world’s population. The rapid emergence of ever more virulent viruses, some of which exhibit previously unknown rates of mutation means that vaccines and medicines effective against one variant of a virus might be useless against another variant of the same virus.

The lessons of the still ongoing pandemic are sobering: It is now clear that preventative measures (particularly masks and social distancing) can be very effective in slowing the spread of these viruses, whether transmission occurs by means of airborne particles or contact; it is clear that the world’s medical systems cannot rely on global supply chains but must maintain emergency supplies of the equipment necessary to the treatment and prevention of any disease; it is clear that there must be a sufficient number of hospitals and medical and support personnel relative to population. Finally, it is also clear that patents on medicines and medical technologies (that is, capitalist property relations) are incompatible with an effective global response to pandemics. What is not at all clear is that any of these lessons will affect the operation of health care in a capitalist world.

The fact that pharmaceutical corporations, in an alliance with the governments of the world’s wealthiest nations, refused to allow even a temporary suspension of their vaccine patents, demonstrates the degree to which capitalist property relations have become an obstacle to protecting the lives of a majority of the world’s population. Nevertheless, if the experience of COVID-19, so unprecedented in so many ways, failed to convince those who control the manufacture of medicines and therefore the lives of tens of millions of people, it remains highly unlikely that, no matter how severe future pandemics may be, the legitimacy of private property in medicines and medical technologies will be questioned.

But perhaps most devastating in its direct effect on world politics is climate change, particularly the warming of the earth’s atmosphere. The increasing incidence of drought across the world, the drying up of water sources, threatening the water supplies of mega-cities around the world, followed by crop failure and hunger and disease, on the one hand, and the melting of polar ice caps, raising the sea level at a rate faster than previously thought, on the other, have begun to bring about massive population movement. Millions have suffered from flooding and storm surges caused by increasing mega-storms; a series of island nations are gradually disappearing. Large sections of cities like Kolkata, Shanghai and Miami will become uninhabitable, followed by Amsterdam, Mumbai, Jakarta.

Meanwhile, the world’s producers of oil and gas have recorded record profits in 2022. And they have systematically concealed the fact that greenhouse gas emissions have declined at a rate far below what is necessary to affect climate change. Just as in the case of vaccine patents, national governments and international bodies have refused to force the very industries that bear the primary responsibility for global warming to cut emissions to the point necessary to prevent catastrophe. To do so would call the rationality and legitimacy of the capitalist mode of production into question. But capitalism is surrounded by a defensive wall of banks, financial institutions (including the World Bank and the IMF), the world’s major manufacturers, and all who depend on them.

Paradoxically, the conjunction of these developments, each motivated by the drive to increase profits and revenues, maintain property rights, cast regulations and environmental protections aside, and eliminate as much of the state as possible—with the exception of the repressive apparatus, the police and armed forces, in which ever greater sums are invested—finally threatens the existence even of those of those who “enjoy” these gains. The lies the ruling classes tell themselves and others, their attempts to deny the existence or the virulence of Covid-19 or of a link between greenhouse gasses and global warming, cannot save them from the very real possibility of a pandemic that is allowed to spread uncontrollably or global warming that continues to increase as it has over the last few decades. How is it that they, with a few exceptions, continue to behave as if nothing had changed?

Their headlong rush into species extinction, however, cannot be attributed to the greed and stupidity that is only too evident in the most celebrated figures of the global capitalist class, or to their fidelity to the tenets of neoliberalism. Nor can it be understood as the logic of capital that operates with an indifference to human life, an indifference once attributed to the working classes and the poor. The ideas that justify the power and cunning of their attempts to increase their profits and avoid having to surrender a part of their wealth to society’s “takers,” are both made possible by and inscribed in a series of movements whose power and rapid growth are also the result of the phenomena described above.

Dimitris Givisis: How do you see the relationship between authoritarianism at home and authoritarianism in international relations? Is it the old global order that, disintegrated, pushes for authoritarian solutions at home, or the anti-democratic trajectory in each country, almost inevitably, leads more often to scenes of confrontation (conflict) than international cooperation?

Warren Montag: Before I respond to your questions, I think it’s important to examine the conditions that determined the emergence of what you are calling “authoritarianism.” Unless we specify its characteristics, not as an ideal type, but as it exists at present, in diverse, but increasingly similar, forms, we will simply reproduce the formal categories of the reigning political taxonomy. While a number of these authoritarian movements, in Europe especially, have roots in pre-1945 Fascism, those that are re-emerging in Latin America, above all in Brazil, are linked to more recent local dictatorships (Brazil, Argentina and Chile). Despite these differences, however, none would have had the weight and influence they now have, were it not for certain features of the present moment linked to the interlocking crises discussed above.

Although I myself have used the term “authoritarian neoliberalism” in the absence of anything better and to avoid provoking the taxonomic impulses of specialists, it is important to clarify that in speaking of its anti-democratic and often ethnocentric and racist character, that its ideas or ideologies and the practices in which they are inscribed do not emanate from the state alone. “State racism” is very real, but this very racism cannot be completely separated from popular racism rooted in inequalities internal to the working class. In the U.S., for example, fact, recent history has shown that powerful mass movements outside and against the state have changed the theory and practice of state actors, both leading to a loss of legal or formal protections once extended to specially oppressed groups, and to the de facto suspension of laws that continue to exist de jure. In this context, Nicos Poulantzas’ definition of the state as “a condensation of the relationship of forces,” is closer to the reality than the conception of the state as a machine that is stable and set apart from civil society.

Sometimes, as in the recent case of Italy, the far right is capable of becoming—whether alone or in concert with other, smaller right-wing parties attracted by the growing power of far right authoritarianism—an electoral majority. In most cases, however, they remain an electoral minority, which does not prevent them from successfully changing practices and customs irrespective of the continuity of the law and the constitution. A mass base of sufficient size and strength allows them to impose both constraints and obligations which they enforce with the predictability and regularity associated with (the ideal of) law. Further, such movements as they grow more powerful may be capable of changing national policies, including foreign policy and immigration policy without the involvement of official decision-making bodies, rendering electoral majorities irrelevant.

It is easy for far-right militias, then, to recruit from and colonize police forces (including and especially those responsible for policing immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers) as well as the branches of the military. In the U.S., far-right paramilitary groups regularly patrol borders, and detain migrants they suspect of being “unauthorized” at gunpoint until the militias choose to turn them over to the official Border Patrol. In the case of the U.S.-Mexico border, these so-called “private” militias, equipped with surveillance equipment and military grade weaponry, operate in perfect freedom and apprehend border crossers without any accountability.

The mass migrations so resented by the far right in Europe and North America and that serve as the basis of racist, Islamophobic, and xenophobic mobilizations, are in fact driven by both climate change the primary agents of which are the U.S., China and the EU, and by NATO-initiated wars and their after-effects (such as the rise of ISIS in Syria and Northern Iraq), on the other. Not only are the causes of mass migration not acknowledged, even by moderates and centrists, but the wars that have displaced millions in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan were repeatedly explained by the Western media as endemic to the Muslim world. This is an explanation that absolves the imperialist powers of any responsibility for the effects of their invasions and occupations, as well as the global warming whose effects on Iraq, for example, are among the most severe in the world. Further, the nations that claimed they could not take on the financial burden of thousands of refugees from Iraq or Syria, immediately accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees from Ukraine without hesitation and without insisting on the verification of their status as refugees. The rejection of refugees from fleeing Homs or Mosul was clearly an effect of the racist and Islamophobic mobilizations that succeeded in creating an atmosphere of fear and hatred.

Those fleeing war, drought, and famine from outside of Europe are now regularly seen as an invading army, demanding ruinous expenditures that can only result in higher corporate taxes and lower profits. In addition, immigrants from any part of east or southeast Asia are regarded as carriers of Covid-19 and are subjected to physical violence on an alarming scale in North America and Europe. The ease with which the bulk of the far right was able to reorient to oppose every measure implemented to stop the spread of Covid-19, from masks to vaccines, while labeling the pandemic a fiction, furnished a set of arguments against increased funding for medical care or for subsidizing workers during temporary shutdowns of businesses. In most cases, corporations in a broad range of industries saw record profits.

The political orientation of the far right internationally, with certain exceptions, is typically compatible with, if not supportive of, the program of neoliberalism. In the U.S., especially before the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, the capitalist class had grown increasingly comfortable with the threats and low-level violence of the Trump movement, and was willing to tolerate the “eccentricities” of Trump in exchange for massive tax-cuts, huge reductions in social spending, an earnest campaign to end environmental and workplace regulations designed to protect workers and consumers, and the privatization of as many state functions as possible. The movement very aggressively took over the streets following the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 and used the same tactics to take over local governments across the nation.

The outcome of these struggles in the U.S. and elsewhere may well be an authoritarian state capable of imposing increasingly repressive measures. If, that is, it can count on the support of a violent mass movement capable of acting outside the law to protect a neoliberal economy from workers, the Left, and refugees whose demands or simply needs are at odds with the freedom that market rationality demands. This is global class war that in certain respects and under certain conditions not only allows but requires cooperation between authoritarian states. But this tendency coexists with another that will only become more powerful as resources such as fuel, food and water become increasingly scarce and cooperation gradually less possible: Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is the most recent example and testifies to the irrational and finally self-destructive character of the normal process of capital accumulation in a period like ours. If the Iranian regime collapses, we can expect a push for a NATO intervention whose outcome would be as destructive and unsuccessful as the earlier “liberation” of Iraq. If such an intervention takes place, it is likely to strain the relations between member nations to the breaking point.

Dimitris Givisis: How can the risk of a dystopian outcome for the working class, given the current crisis, be averted?

Warren Montag: Any illusion that the grave threats facing humanity would unite it and lead to the creation of a universal alliance against climate change, pandemics, and war is now gone. The lure of ever greater profits, combined with the increasingly common fantasies of an escape from the earth they will have rendered uninhabitable, has led the ruling classes of the world to extract every last drop of surplus value before they make their exit to remote mountain redoubts, self-sufficient communities on mega-ships that will never approach land, or even the new frontier, Mars. The childish absurdities with which the ruling classes increasingly attempt to reassure themselves that they can escape the devastation that they have brought about, demonstrates how completely unfit they are to govern.

It is clear now that climate change is the decisive site of class struggle. The capitalist class internationally, despite its apparent diversity, sometimes through action and sometimes through inaction, has proven to be incapable of understanding or acting on its own self-interest as a class, let alone acting, even unintentionally, like Adam Smith’s proud and unfeeling landlord, in the interests of humanity as a whole. To paraphrase Marx, capitalism now constitutes an obstacle to the kind of social organization necessary to the continued existence of the species.

Finally, the wars that follow increased competition for resources, no longer simply oil or “conflict minerals” (lithium, magnesium, cobalt, etc.), but also arable land, water, and food sources pose a particular dilemma for the Left. Whether the U.S./NATO invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq or the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Left must oppose such invasions, the object of which is plunder, even when they are declared necessary for the security of the invader. To issue abstract calls for peace on the basis of concessions on the part of the invaded nation is a disastrous invitation for greater, not fewer, numbers of such wars and is especially repellent in the face of the people’s active resistance. There has never been a time when the notion of proletarian internationalism was more relevant than now. This means opposing imperialism, not simply for abstract reasons, but because imperialist interventions mean both the oppression of peoples and the acceleration of climate change whose effects threaten the survival of the human species.

The anti-capitalist Left internationally has an important role to play in organizing a global movement or coalition of movements to stop and perhaps reverse the unfolding catastrophe. To do so, however, it must be absolutely clear about both the causes and effects of the destructive forces at work today: They are global and cannot be understood or effectively opposed at the level of the nation-state. The next period will certainly see enormous movements of populations from South to North, and East to West, for all the reasons enumerated earlier. How will the Left react to this phenomenon? By ignoring it or worse by entering into a de facto alliance with the traditional political parties to define a “sensible” immigration policy that seeks to defend borders in a “compassionate” way, for example, by advising the millions fleeing unsurvivable conditions to go back to their country of origin?

The Left’s confusion is rooted in the fact that the arrival of refugees and “unauthorized” migrants in Europe and the U.S. has been instrumentalized by the right and the far right to create cultures united by a hatred of the other and a forgetting of the fact that Europe and the U.S. laid waste to the refugees’ countries of origin. Racist and xenophobic ideas flourish in such an environment and typically metastasize to other areas of social life leading to increased levels of misogyny, as well as homophobia and transphobia. These ideas are rooted in powerful mass movements that now have momentum. The Left’s ideas, no matter how well-argued and irrefutable, can triumph only when the relationship of forces shifts in favor of the exploited and oppressed. Fascism or neo-fascism will not simply disappear on its own. On the contrary, in the absence of organized mass opposition, it will continue to advance. However difficult the task of building an effective anti-fascist movement may appear, it is absolutely necessary. A return to the traditions of proletarian internationalism means not simply defending, but actively aiding those who are fleeing the effects of the necro-economics and necro-politics of contemporary capitalism.

Featured Image Credit: Photo by wiredforlego via Flikr; modified by Tempest.

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Warren Montag and Dimitris Givisis View All

Warren Montag is a professor of English at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. He has written books and articles on Louis Althusser, Spinoza, and Adam Smith, and is editor of the journal Décalages. He was a founding member of the revolutionary socialist organization Solidarity.

Dimitris Givisis is a member of Syriza and a journalist for the left-wing newspaper Εποχή.