Yesterday was V. I. Lenin’s 150th birth anniversary and just the other day I read a report of a survey that claimed that 75 percent of Russians think the Soviet era was the best time in the country’s history. A great tribute to Lenin on this occasion, one would imagine, whatever may have been the reasons for socialism’s collapse. If you could put this response in Russia to nostalgia for a time gone by, it comes as an even bigger surpise that a recent poll in the United States of America, conducted by an outfit called YouGov and funded by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (a clearly anti-communist outfit) found that 70 percent of the millennials (between the age of 23 and 38 years in 2019) favoured socialism. Earlier in February 2019, Jochen Bittner, politcal editor of the German weekly Die Zeit wrote in the New York Times on ‘Why Socialism is Coming Back in Germany?’
The Global Rise of the Right
All this sounds like great news that ought to be celebrated. And of course, Marxists of all hues have been celebrating it, telling us that the Kingdom of God is at hand. I remember that soon after the 2008 financial crisis, when the sales of Marx’s Capital were shooting up, there were similar celebratory pronouncements from Marxists (and Leftists in general) across the world. It was almost as if now, at long last the fruit of capitalist crises has ripened and will most certainly fall into our laps in the form of socialism. The periodic celebrations of the ‘Second Coming of Marx’ aside, what really emerged from the dismal landscape left by the success (and, I would venture to add, the end) of neoliberalism and globalization were the grotesque figures of a Donald Trump, a Narendra Modi, a Jair Bolsanaro and a Boris Johnson – to name just some of the prominent ones. Those who lost out in the neoliberalism/ globalization game did not troop towards the Marxists or Leftists (save that brief moment of Corbyn’s emergence in Britain and the Syriza fiasco in Greece); they headed straight towards what is being called ‘right-wing populism’ today.
My fear is that the good news that more and more millennials are turning towards socialism in the USA, Germany or Russia (and maybe Britain, Greece and Spain) can also turn sour very soon. For Marxists who think that the inevitable logic or history will eventually favour them, will continue to talk like high priests of a rapidly dwindling order, while the bourgeoisie – the only class perhaps, that has shown the will to occasionally act as a class – will take these as alarm bells and start planning its next moves. It will pour in money to set up foundations – as it has done in the case of the climate-change-denial industry – to discredit any attempt to articulate any alternative vision. It will step up the media blitz fanninng Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments, and whatever other strategy it can lay its hands on. The right-wing’s framing – and eventual impeachment – of Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian President, in order to install the most corrupt and most reactionary white male elite government of Michel Temer is a case in point. That Dilma Rousseff herself was not personally accused of corruption but Temer was neck-deep in it did not matter as was this was more of a parliamentary coup. What was worse was that in the elections that followed, it was Bolsanoro who was elected! There is little doubt that there was a massive surge in Rousseff’s unpoularity as President following allegations of corruption against the coterie around her – and that became the occasion for the Brazilian elites wanting to push austerity and privatization measures to step in. Eventually, for 55 percent of the voters, it did not matter that 14 years of Workers’ Party rule had lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty. Such was the anger against the corruption that her government too had become associated with. This was a bit like the UPA government in India, where the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself was himself never accused of being personally corrupt but the large-scale corruption and the cronyism that his government came to be associated with, led eventually to the installation of the Modi government, which makes the UPA government look like kindergarten stuff, as far as corruption goes. It did not matter, in the end, that the UPA government had initiated the National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREGA) scheme or that it had enacted important laws like the Right to Information (RTI) and the Forest Rights Act.
As a matter of fact, this period of the rise of Modi in India also follows the demise of the 34 year long Left Front rule in West Bengal – a process that began in 2006-2007 with the Singur and Nandigram episodes and culminated in the end of CPI(M) led rule in 2011. And this certainly had repurcussion in terms of de-legitimizing the Left. Remember too that that was the year of the Arab Spring and mass upsurges against brutally corrupt regimes across the Arab world. It was also the year of the launching of the Anna Hazare-led India Against Corruption (IAC) movement against the UPA government.
It is also worth recalling in this context, that the great new experiments in democratic socialism of the twenty first century in Latin America too had started losing steam (and legitimacy) long before Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016. The leaders of the Left too were being seen as involved in corruption and in general and what was called the Pink Tide was on the wane.
Here, then is the first point: the rise of the new right-wing fascistoid political formations took place in the context of the continuing decay and irreversible crises of the existing ruling Left (which for our purposes includes the Left-of-centre) formations. They entered the field vacated due to the crises of the Left.
Even though the Latin American Left (Pink Tide) was quite innovative – and different from the old, twentieth century Left – it seems to me that it was still unable to stake out a path that would be fundamentally different from capitalism.
Therefore, my second point: Behind all the stories of ‘corruption’ – the leitmotif of all the mass movements and voters’ anger mentioned above – is the not-so-invisible hand of capital and private corporations. At some level, even the new Left formations largely played along with them – even when their leaders were not personally corrupt (think also of the West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya). This was largely because they still cannot think of experimenting with other modes of ownership and production – including small, non-corporate private entrepreneurship. Their imaginations are still tied to the 1990s idea that only capital can generate employment and rescue them (I discuss some such experiments in my piece last fortnight here). The impact of the anger against corruption (and land acquisition in the Indian case) was ultimately directed at the visible political leadership, for after all they and not the corporations were elected with popular votes.
But there was another related problem that needs to be underlined.
It is equally important to bear in mind that across Latin America, the elites had hardly reconciled to their loss of power and had long been preparing to strike back. Thus, as argues Omar G. Encarnacion, in the article linked above:
‘All this said, largely overlooked in obituaries of the Pink Tide is the right-wing backlash that it provoked. This backlash aimed to reverse the shift in power brought on by the Pink Tide—a shift away from the power brokers that have historically controlled Latin America, such as the military, the Catholic Church, and the oligarchy, and toward those sectors of society that have been marginalized: women, the poor, sexual minorities, and indigenous peoples. Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016 perfectly exemplifies the retaliation organized by the country’s traditional elites. Engineered by members of the Brazilian Congress, a body that is only 11 percent female and has deep ties to industrial barons, rural oligarchs, and powerful evangelical pastors, the impeachment process was nothing short of a patriarchal coup.’
Herein lies the rub. This is not the first time in history that this has happened. Capital has never reconciled to its defeat and has not hesitated to subvert popular mandate nor waited for its messiah to arrive. Whenever capital is under pressure, it shows enough flexibility to enter into a New Deal or accept a welfare state but it strikes at the first available opportunity to regain its power.
Therefore, my third point: Right-wing elites are constantly looking ahead, planning for ten or fifteen years ahead, while Leftists drown in the hope that after all (‘see, even in the USA the youth are becoming socialist’) their time is just round the corner. Right-wing elites and capital have no holy cows to protect but their own self interesst. They are therefore, always infinitely flexible, while socialists only have holy cows to worship – always constraining their intervention in the present.
So far the story of the rise of the right seems to be quite understandable in rational-logical terms. For it stands to reason that the demise of the Left (and the massive distrust of all traditional parties) leaves no option for many people but to vote for those who seem to be holding the banner of opposition to ‘globalization’ – which in effect also displaces the anger onto the influx of immigrants, the fear of being marginalized and swamped by an alien culture and such concerns. But already in this displacement lie the clues to another side of the story of the global rise of the right.
The Revolt of the ‘Little Man’
Those who lost out in the decades of neoliberalism and globalization however, are not the highly stylized ‘proletarians’ of Marx’s dream; still less are they the even more styilzed and abstract ‘multitude’ of Hardt and Negri’s fantasies. They are, in Marxist psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich’s terms, personified in the figure of the ‘little man’. The ‘little man’ is the angry provincial man who has for the last century and a half remained something of an enigma. The little man in revolt has exhibited, throughout, a dual characteristic that we in India can very easily recognize in the large subaltern mass that has moved towards Hindutva in the last few decades. Reich connected the dual characteristic of this figure to the rise of fascism:
‘Fascist mentality is the mentality of the “little man”, who is enslaved and craves authority and is at the same time rebellious.’ (Mass Psychology of Fascism, p. xv, emphasis added)
A rebelliousness combined with a craving for authority are also characteristics that fascist mass movements exhibit. Another Marxist psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm calls this character-feature a ‘longing for submission’ and the ‘lust for power’. (Fear of Freedom, p. 4) He further underlines that
‘the Nazi ideology was ardently greeted by the lower strata of the middle class, composed of small shop keepers, artisans and white collar workers.’ (Fear of Freedom, p. 181)
Against the mythical belief of modernity that all human beings desire autonomy and freedom, Fromm claims that ‘freedom’ is actually a very ambiguous thing: for many people it can mean powerlessness – from which they try to escape by aligining with a father-figure or with a larger community or cause. The panic generated at the sudden loss of a protective authority-figure is identified by both Reich and Fromm as lying at the bottom of the search of the figure of a Leader/ Il Duce/ Fuhrer and is not unrelated to a masochistic yearning for domination (which is of course simultaneously, a sadistic one of killing or maiming the ‘other’).
Why is the figure of the ‘little man’ relevant to our discussion? And why fascism?
To take the second question first, my use of the term ‘fascism’ (in lower case ‘f’) is meant to deliberately refer to its more generic sense, rather than as a proper noun in the way many European thinkers tend to do, claiming a certain singularity of the Fascist or Nazi experience. At one level, my use of the term resonates with the idea of ‘microfascisms’ that Deleuze and Guattari talk of: ‘What makes fascism dangerous is its molecular or micropolitical power, for it is a mass movement: a cancerous body rather than a totalitarian organism.’ (A Thousand Plateaus, p. 215)
In the more generic sense in which I use the term, ‘fascism’ is closely tied to a particular pathology of nationalism – as an always present possibility in the structure of all nationalisms – that acquires a special resonance in its relationship to the state. In the first instance, fascism is a mass movement – but a mass movement of a special type that exhibits at once both a rebellion and an alliance with authority/ state. Secondly, the fascist phenomenon, in this sense, is tied to a specific feature that relates to the ‘little man’ and therefore brings us to our first question: As Reich would say, where liberal, secular or socialist ideas appeal to and address the ‘surface level’ of the character (marked by self-control, tolerance etc), fascism relates to the ‘secondary level’ of the more elemental drives – say the sex drive and the death drive. At this level, it is not rational argument that works but emotions like fear and anger. Regardless of whether we accept in toto, these psychoanalytic explanations and accounts of the ‘layers of the character-structure’ offered by Reich or Fromm, there is little doubt that there is something vital that they point to.
The ‘little man’ is important precisely because there is one level of our experience that cannot be understood in purely rational terms. In my own experience, I have seen it repeatedly from the time of the 1984 anti-Sikh carnage in Delhi that people who were the most gentle and reasonable, almost overnight began offering arguments – mostly based on rumour – that amounted to justification of the killings. It was suddenly as if their veneer of being ‘civilized’ (the Super Ego, if you please) was suddenly dropped and they stood there naked with the violent and sadistic parts of their selves on full display. How do we understand this sudden switch unless we recognize that this completely different aspect of the ‘character’ or ‘personality’ too exists simultaneously, alongside the one that dominated till the other day?
Anger and fear are the two most common contexts in which the irrational part of the character structure come into play. In principle, this could be true of all human beings but in the context of the ‘little man’, it is necessary to keep Spinoza’s warning in mind:
‘For, as the mass of mankind remains always at the same pitch of misery, it never assents long to any one remedy, but is always best pleased by a novelty which has not yet proved illusive.
This element of inconsistency has been the cause of many terrible wars and revolutions; for as Curtius well says: “The mob has no ruler more potent than superstition”, and is easily led, on the plea of religion, at one moment to adore its kings as gods…’ (A Theologico-Political Treatise, p. 5)
Spinoza rightly assigns this propensity to be influenced by novelty and by superstition to the misery – and in our times precarity – of the everyday existence of ordinary people.
Indeed, if we were to look at the current stories behind the global rise of the Right, it is patently clear that it is this continuing misery, aggravated manifold by neoliberalism that has opened out possibilities of ‘trying out a novelty which has not yet proved illusive.’ And somewhere behind this rise of the right lies the failure of ‘the system’ long identified with the modernist and secular elite – for which then ‘the Left’, or ‘Left-liberal’, ‘Marxist’ or ‘Lutyens Delhi’, ‘Khan Market gang’ and even ‘Urban Naxal’ become easily interchngeable signifiers. The sharp rhetoric against ‘failure of the system’, against ‘procedures’ and so on displaces, once again, the anger of the ‘little man’ towards supporting vigilante justice (the encounter raj of Yogi Adityanath, for instance), death penalty (as for instance in the case of rape).
In an ex-colonial society like India’s there is an additional reasons why the ordinary small town person feels alienated and excldued from alll modern institutions and spaces – namely language. English continues to be the language of our modern institutional spaces, which comes to stand for those larger forces that are responsible for the exclusion and cultural marginalization of the provincial, small town person. There is a certain sense of rebellion even in following Modi’s call for taalis and thalis or in bursting fire-crackers where he merely called for lighting a lamp. The rebellion is against all those forces that the little man holds responsible for his marginalization and whose condensed expression is to be found in the figure of ‘the intellectual’. The intellectual – sometimes human rights activist, sometimes feminist, sometimes Marxist, modernist, secularist – is a name that condenses in itself the forces that are destroying tradition (and thereby the family (women’s rights, free love/ sex), destroying culture, destroying the Nation. This is a peculiarly comfortable and risk-free mode of rebellion undertaken under the protective wings of the Great Leader.
And with some changes here and there, this is the general story of the revolt of the small man in most places that have seen the rise of the Right Wing in recent times. Read the accounts of the rise of Bolsonaro, or the electoral victory of Donald Trump in 2016, and you know that in their essentials it is pretty much the same story.
And this is really the missing link: Tradition/ culture/ family. This is what makes possibe the seamless transition from the experience of economic marginalization and precarity to a narrative of ‘threat to tradition’, to ‘our way of doing things’. This is where the upper caste oppressor of the Dalits (also the ‘little man’ at another level) and the violent masculinist and misogynist subatern Hindutva defender of rape come to the forefront. Thereafter, the question of class and economic oppression is quietly and neatly folded and kept away and the alliance is forged between the little man and Capital (Adani, Ambani etc) through the persona of the Great Leader.
Urgent Need to Reinvent the Left
If what I have been arguing above is correct, two conclusions follow that should provide a way of beginning to rethink the Left project. First, the struggle against the Right is a single struggle – the economic and the cultural aren’t really different. If the Right continuously seeks to displace it on to the cultural terrain, it is important for the Left to hold on to the economic and not get drawn into a reactive politics of responding to the agenda set by the Right. However, this does not mean that the new Left imagination can simply keep mouthing 19th and 20th century understandings of the economic forms of capitalism. The Left has to be as agile and flexible as capital and cannot afford holy cows that will keep it tied to specific modes of struggle and forms of organization. This does not also by any means imply that the Left can continue to simply ignore the cultural questions that are being posed today – not just by the emergence of the Hindu Right but also by the rise of Dalit/ Bahujan politics or the struggle around gender questions. It simpy cannot. And it certainly cannot continue to be insensitive to matters of cultural and political marginalization and exclusion of the non-English speaking and even ‘nonmodern’, ‘nonsecular’ sections of ordinary people from our insitutional spaces.
Second, the break with capital – and here I mean corporate capital – has to be absolutely top priority. In many ways, the actual forms of post-capitalist economies can emerge only through bold experimentation with a variety of modes of ownership and economic relationships that, as I had indicated (in my piece linked above) are already happening in different parts of the world. This is only possible if there is a certain openness towards experiments being undertaken – a denunciatory mode toward all innovativeness can only mean the complete disappearance of what remains of the Left.
Finally, it is perhaps not difficult to see that if it is misery and precarity in people’s everyday lives that drives them towards irrational behavior, addressing those questions in the here and now, can go a long way in taking care of them. The point is not to eliminate such elemental irrational drives but to minimize their effects on political life. In a sense, this means treating politics not as a separate domain but something like what Shankar Guha Niyogi was trying to do with his Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha, combining sangharsh (struggle) and nirman (constructive activity) in an entire region. Running hospitals, schools and building local economies together is one way in which people in some areas have attempted to build lives in common. This is a major departure from traditional Left politics that only knows one language: protest. And one form: demonstration. That leaves the ordinary person with her family life open, most of the time, to propaganda by the Right. Traditional Left politics that sees only the ‘economic’ side can never really address the all round needs of a person who fears freedom. This person needs an alternative community. The Left certainly cannot provide him or her with a Fuhrer or Great Leader figure but it can provide alternative communities by developing further on the Shankar Guha Niyogi kind of vision.