Fascism is a Reaction to Capitalist Crisis in the Stage of Imperialism

Ken Kawashima

A Response to Ugo Palheta

I want to thank Historical Materialism for allowing me to respond to Ugo Palheta’s article, ‘Fascism, Fascisation, Anti-Fascism’.1 In what follows, I would like to very schematically develop the meaning and implications of these three terms.

On fascism. Ugo defines fascism as ‘a force capable of challenging ‘the system’ as well as re-establishing ‘law and order’,’ and thus fascism is an ‘explosive mixture of false subversion and ultra-conservatism’. Fascism, in this regard, is a moving contradiction of capitalist society. One of the great problems with fascism, however, is that—and to borrow a term from the world of professional wrestling—fascism has a ‘full-nelson’ effect: with one arm, it locks the heads of workers in non-contradictions within the masses; with the other arm, it locks the heads of workers in class contradictions. Put differently, fascists (like Trump), who are bearers (Träger) of fascism, experience great pleasure, enjoyment, cult-like popularity, job security and wealth by ‘going out of their way’ to embody and vocalize the difference between (class) contradiction and (mass) non-contradiction. This is why fascist thought, while often sounding rebellious, is a fake rebelliousness. In truth, it is simply and only a pure eclecticism. As Lenin said, ‘The eclectic is too timid to dare to revolt… Let anyone name a single eclectic in the republic of thought who has proven worthy of the name rebel.’2

What we could call fascist eclecticism is nothing but a hodge-podge of theory that blurs the boundaries between class contradictions and mass non-contradictions, and that ‘seduce[s] social strata whose aspirations and interests are fundamentally antagonistic.’ Fascism thus neutralises (class) antagonisms through a mass-based seduction of attraction and repulsion, and it works by getting your attention, by ‘messing with you’ or by taunting you, e.g., ‘Hey chink (or whatever racist term), whatcha gonna do, huh, hit me? maybe cut me down with your samurai sword, huh?!?’, etc., etc. Through tried and tested infantile tactics such as these, fascism-in-everyday-life tries to seduce, antagonise, and convince workers to divert their class antagonisms against capital, and to re-direct these antagonisms towards an attack on other races of people, all the while leaving the despotism and dictatorship of capital untouched. This is what we could call the racial ideology of fascism, as well.3

Ugo also speaks of ‘historical fascism’, especially of the interwar period, and essentially as a reaction formation to the ‘structural crisis of capitalism’. What is missing in this account of historical fascism, however, is the problem of capitalist crisis in the capitalist stage of imperialism. It is important to understand fascism as a reaction-formation to capitalist crisis in the stage of imperialism, specifically, and for three reasons.

First, broadly speaking, capitalism in the stage of imperialism is (supposed to be) capitalism’s last or final stage of development, and thus capitalist crisis in the stage of imperialism is a crisis of capitalism in its final stage. Fascism, then, is a reaction-formation to capitalist crisis in its final stage. The problem here, obviously, is that the stage of imperialism can last a very long time—partly because of fascism itself. Thus, fascism has to be understood as a problem that is designed to defer the end of the imperialist stage, and thus to defer the end of capitalism itself.

Secondly, capitalist crisis, which is fundamentally inevitable to capitalist society based on the commodification of labour power, is always a crisis of excess capital alongside surplus populations, i.e., a crisis of the impossibility of bringing capital’s products of labour into a union with the workers who produced them and with the surplus populations who are unemployed by capital.4 As a crisis of this kind (which is not just a crisis of overproduction and under-consumption, nor simply a crisis of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall), capitalist crisis is still inevitable in the capitalist stage of imperialism, but unlike capitalist crisis in the previous stage of liberalism (1820s to 1860s), capitalist crisis in the stage of imperialism impacts the whole world, more or less simultaneously, which is due to the dominance and emergence of finance capital and monopoly capital after the crisis of 1873.5 Fascism is a reaction-formation of disavowal and denial of the contradictions of capitalist society and of its inevitable crisis under the dominance of finance capital and the financial oligarchy. Thus, when fascism tries to look or sound ‘radical’, if often refers to working class victims of industrial capital, as if to appear critical of finance capital and the elites on Wall Street. This, however, is an illusion. Fascism is fundamentally financial in nature and it thrives on Wall Street.

Third, in the stage of imperialism, capitalism’s accumulation phase of depression, which necessarily comes after the accumulation phase of crisis itself, becomes chronic. In the previous stage of liberalism, the capitalist cycle of prosperity-crisis-depression abided by a cycle of ten years, or the so-called decennial cycles (Marx, 1990, Chapter 25). Imperialism distorts the duration of the phases of the accumulation cycle while keeping the cycle intact overall, and it does so by prolonging the phase of depressionsuch as the one after the crisis of 1929. The length of this duration is partly determined by the time it takes to sell-off old and out of date fixed capital, which becomes huge quantitatively in the stage of imperialism, and thus harder to sell-off quickly. This reveals the salto mortale, or ‘leap of faith’ of the commodity-form itself in the stage of imperialism, which impacts not only capitalists but also workers, who now must chronically struggle to sell their labour-power as a commodity in the phase of depression. In other words, from the perspective of workers, chronic depression means chronic unemployment, so, in the capitalist stage of imperialism, the biggest problem for workers is chronic economic fear, chronic job insecurity (or ‘precarity’) and chronic unemployment.

In imperialism, the capitalist state has to use everything it has to prevent unemployed labour power from forming solidarities and alliances with employed workers and into a unified and antagonistic proletarian class force against the dictatorship of capital. If we fail to grasp this aspect of imperialism’s chronic depression, the historical and materialist source of fascism’s seductive power over (unemployed) workers is largely lost. Put differently, fascism, as a reaction-formation to capitalist crisis and chronic depression in the capitalist stage of imperialism, tries to make imperialism itself chronic, thereby prolonging and deferring the inevitable death of capitalism.

On fascisation. According to Ugo, the main forms of fascisation are an authoritarian hardening of the state and the rise of racism. Ugo also writes of the fascisation of the state in terms of how ‘the entire functioning of the police is fascisised’, which allows the ‘far Right to spread its ideas and establish itself within them’. Again, the inter-war period is indicative of these problems. I will mention two points.

First, when we consider fascism as a reaction to capitalist crisis in the stage of imperialism, one of the clear, ideological characteristics of fascisation is what I will call the feudal unconscious of fascism, which is peculiar to capitalism in the stage of imperialism. This is a problem of the interwar period, which is also a problem of the stage of imperialism. In other words, in the capitalist stages of mercantilism and liberalism that preceded imperialism, feudal customs, sentiments and practices were repressed in order to allow for the development of the capitalist mode of production based on the commodification of labour power. Archetypically, this took place in the stage of liberalism (1820s-1860s) and in England. However, these same feudal customs, sentiments and practices return with a vengeance in the wake of capitalist crisis in the stage of imperialism, the last stage of capitalism, and specifically in the interwar period of so-called late-developing countries like Japan, Germany, and the US.6 In these countries, it was not hard for the hegemonic ruling bloc to strategically re-introduce feudal customs, sentiments and practices in order to defeat modern proletarian struggles because these forms of feudality still survived within social formations on the level of custom, sentiment, and practices.7 Capitalist crisis in the stage of imperialism thus brings about a nasty return of repressed feudal customs, sentiments and practices—archaisms— as a reactive and defensive mechanism to save capitalism from its inevitable demise in the stage of imperialism. Fascisation prefers to re-code feudality, which it already knows and which it actively archives, instead of confronting an uncertain future after capitalism. We can site two examples of fascisation as a re-feudalisation in imperialism in two countries, Japan and the U.S.A.:

  1. Interwar Japan: feudal practices originating in the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) were used after World War I to organise day workers for large public works projects, which expanded especially after the crisis of 1929. The difference in the 1930s is that Japanese fascism re-feudalised colonised labour from Korea, China, Taiwan, and Okinawa, and not simply that of native prisoner labour, which the Tokugawa regime used for its public works projects.8
  1. Interwar U.S.A.: the systemic racism of the era of Jim and Jane Crow in the 1930s has roots in the pre-Civil War era of feudal slave-labour, as well as in the Slave Codes and then the Black Codes. As W.E.B. Dubois’ Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 showed so powerfully, the racist conditions of Jim and Jane Crow in America in the 1930s have their origins in the Black Codes of the Reconstruction era (1865-1880s); the Black Codes themselves simply re-codified the feudal Slave Codes. Thus, when Dubois speaks of capitalism in the US after the crisis of 1873, and of the counter-revolutionary movement that defeated the dictatorship of the black proletariat that had momentarily emerged at the beginning of the Reconstruction, Dubois refers to the ‘new feudalism based on monopoly’ that came into being after the crisis of 1873.9

The second point about fascisation is the problem of racism and policing. In the stage of imperialism, the repressive state apparatus (RSA) tends to become more and more autonomous from the ideological state apparatus (ISA, which focuses more on the Mind and the imagined community of the Nation). The relative autonomy of the RSA, which focuses more on the Body, is one important reason how, and why, racial ideology became the official philosophy of the police system itself. On this point, the interwar periods in Japan and the US are instructive once again. In Japan, the police system underwent radical transformation during the chronic depression after the end of WWI, and revealed how (colonial) racism was spread through the work of the police, specifically by extending police work into welfare organisations, as well as to immigration police offices around the Japanese empire. Extending police work to welfare work was a practice that was first used in England in the 1840s (with Edwin Chadwick’s idea of ‘preventive policing’) and then by the New York City Police Department after World War One. In Japan, the new police slogan of the interwar police was thus: 警察の民衆化・民衆の警察化, or ‘the massification of the police and the policification of the masses’.10

In the case of the USA, Dubois’ Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 again shows how the modern police system of the 1930s inherited the legacies of the feudal Slave Codes and the Reconstruction-era Black Codes, and recruited poor whites into the ranks of the police in order to repress, criminalise and incarcerate black workers, ultimately as a means of regulating the formation of the national labour market according to what Dubois called ‘the shibboleth of race’ and ‘the race philosophy’. In this way, racism became the official philosophy of the police.

On Anti-Fascism. Ugo’s article importantly identifies the ‘crisis of the alternative’ to the existing order of capitalist society as one of the basic causes of the rise of fascism, fascisation, neo-fascism, and the new Right. The question of anti-fascism, therefore, is one that should begin by asking how to overcome the crisis of articulating the alternative to capitalism, which has led to, ‘the inability of the exploited class (proletariat) and oppressed groups to constitute themselves as revolutionary political subjects and engage in an experiment of social transformation (however limited)’. This inability has allowed ‘the far Right to appear as a political alternative and win the adhesion of very diverse social groups’. Ugo thus emphasises the need for the proletariat, defined as ‘the exploited’, and the subaltern, defined broadly as the oppressed, to ‘unite politically around a project of rupture with the social order and seize the opportunity presented by the crisis of hegemony’. Finally, Ugo reminds us to never renounce the construction of links of solidarity between (a) anti-fascist struggles and the need for a break with racial, patriarchal and ecocidal capitalism, and (b) ‘the goal of a different society (which we here call ecosocialist).’

In other words, the struggle against fascism should not limit itself to overthrowing the most egregious aspects of fascist expression and dominance only, as if fascism could be defeated by merely eliminating racism, patriarchy, ultra-nationalism and ecocide. Rather, to truly overcome fascism, and to prevent even the possibility of a future return of new forms of fascisation, the anti-fascist struggles have to aim and shoot higher, as it were, i.e., to aspire to the higher goal of creating a new society altogether. Overthrowing merely the forms of fascisation without overthrowing capitalism’s class dictatorship in the stage of imperialism has only led to forms of identity politics that simply reproduce what Tosaka Jun, writing in 1933, called cultural liberalism, i.e., one of the epistemological conditions of fascist thought itself.11

To develop Ugo’s notion of anti-fascism further, I would conclude by emphasising two points. First, Ugo tends to emphasise a conception of the proletariat as the exploited, and combines and contrasts it with the ‘subaltern’ and ‘the oppressed’. A problem, however, is in the conception of the proletariat simply as the exploited, which of course refers to Marx’s analysis of the exploitation of the workers’ surplus-labour time in the labour and valorisation process of capitalist production, which produces absolute and relative surplus value for the capitalist class. It must never be forgotten, however, that this definition of the proletariat (as the exploited) itself rests upon a repressed conception of the proletariat-as-the-expropriated, which is the result of so-called primitive accumulation, i.e., the expropriating process led by the state (and not by capital). The proletariat-as-expropriated needs to be liberated from its theoretical repression in today’s political and economic unconscious of Marxist theory, which is often only (or still only) conscious of the proletariat as the exploited.

To rethink the proletariat from the perspective of the expropriated is to think of the capitalist mode of production from the perspective of its conditions of possibility, not from the perspective of its inevitable results. This is what Althusser emphasised when he wrote:

When Marx and Engels say that the proletariat is ‘the product of big industry’, they utter a very great piece of nonsense, positioning themselves within the logic of the accomplished fact of the reproduction of the proletariat on an extended scale, not the aleatory logic of the ‘encounter’ which produces (rather than reproduces), as the proletariat, this mass of impoverished, expropriated human beings as one of the elements making up the mode of production. In the process, Marx and Engels shift from the first conception of the mode of production, an historico-aleatory conception, to a second, which is essentialistic and philosophical.12

To think of the proletariat equally as the expropriated not only brings into focus the conditions of capitalism. It also reveals the perspective of dialectically negating capitalism by constructing conditions for ecosocialism and communist society. This perspective thus approaches communism not as an accomplished fact, but rather as the fact to be accomplished. In other words, ‘the most beautiful sea hasn’t been crossed yet’.13

Thus, secondly, to think of an ecosocialist revolution and a new communist society from the perspective of the fact to be accomplished, and not from the accomplished fact, is the task at hand. This is also the task of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, an idea that needs to be renewed today, especially after official communist parties abandoned it in the mid-1970s, much to the delight of the newly emerging dictatorship of neoliberal capital.14 I thus conclude my response to Ugo’s article with the eternal question of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and with a quote from Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme:

The question then arises: what transformations will the state undergo in communist society?

…Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. There corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.15

In thinking of anti-fascism, a basic task and state function of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the socialist period of the revolutionary transformation from capitalist to communist society is, and cannot avoid: the negation and sublation of the commodification of labour power (or 労働力商品化の無理・止揚), its aufheben in new forms of communist sociality and intercourse.16

To eradicate systemic racial ideology that underpins fascist racism today, it is necessary more and more to overcome and negate the commodification of labour power itself.

To be, or not to be, a commodity of labour power, that is the question. It is the question of LP-X,17 of the General Strike, of the revolutionary transition from capitalism to communism, and of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

References

Althusser, Louis 2006, Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978-1987, Verso.

Balibar, Etienne 1977, On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, NLB.

DuBois, W.E.B. 1992, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, Free Press.

Haider, Asad 2018, Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Era of Trump, Verso.

Harootunian, Harry 2015, Marx after Marx, Columbia UP.

Kawashima, Ken 2009, The Proletarian Gamble: Korean Workers in Interwar Japan, Duke UP.

________, Fabian Schaeffer and Robert Stolz 2013, Tosaka Jun: A Critical Reader, Cornell UP.

Kawashima, Ken and Gavin Walker 2018. ‘Surplus alongside Excess: Uno Kozo, Imperialism and the Theory of Crisis,’ in Viewpoint Magazine dossier on imperialism, https://viewpointmag.com/2018/02/01/surplus-alongside-excess-uno-kozo-imperialism-theory-crisis/

Lenin, V.I., Book Review: Karl Kautsky. Bernstein und das sozialdemokratische Programm. Eine Antikritik, Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, vol. 4.

Marx, Karl 1990, Capital, Vol. 1, Penguin.

______. Critique of the Gotha Program (1875), in The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert Tucker, Norton, 1978.

Sotiris, Panagiotis 2020, A Philosophy for Communism: Rethinking Althusser, Brill.

Uno, Kōzō 1953, Theory of Crisis, translated by Ken Kawashima, forthcoming, Brill.

__________1958 Shihonron to Shakaishugi, Uno Chosakushu, Vol. 10, Iwanami, 1973.

Walker, Gavin 2016, The Sublime Perversion of Capital: Marxism and the Politics of History in Modern Japan, Duke UP.

 

Ken Kawashima is Associate Professor, Department of East Asian Studies, University of Toronto. He is author of The Proletariat Gamble: Korean workers in interwar Japan (Duke UP, 2009), co-editor of Tosaka Jun: A Critical Reader (Cornell UP, 2014), and the English translator of Kōzō Uno’s Theory of Crisis, forthcoming (Brill). He is also Sugar Brown, a blues musician, composer and recording artist.

 

“File:QAnon Trump supporter – JFK, Jr version (48555417926).jpg” by Marc Nozell from Merrimack, New Hampshire, USA is licensed under CC BY 2.0


  • 1.https://www.historicalmaterialism.org/blog/fascism-fascisation-antifascism
  • 2.Lenin, V.I., (1899), Book Review: Karl Kautsky. Bernstein und das sozialdemokratische Programm. Eine Antikritik.
  • 3.On racial ideology, Haider 2018, pp. 42-64, and DuBois 1992.
  • 4.See Uno 1953; and Kawashima and 1Walker 2018.
  • 5.Lenin 1916.
  • 6.Uno 2018.
  • 7.On the question of ‘feudality’, see Walker 2016, 28-74; and Harootunian 2015, pp. 153-196.
  • 8.Kawashima 2009, pp. 67-94.
  • 9.DuBois 1992, pp. 583-84.
  • 10.Kawashima 2009, pp. 130-168.
  • 11.Tosaka 2013.
  • 12.Althusser 2006, p. 198.
  • 13.Sotiris 2020.
  • 14.Balibar 1977.
  • 15.Marx (1875), 538. See also Lenin 1917; DuBois 1935; Balibar 1977; Sotiris 2020.
  • 16.Uno 1953; 1958.
  • 17.Kawashima, Ken, ‘On the Negation and Sublation of Labour Power as a Commodity, or LP-X’, forthcoming.