John Bellamy Foster has the distinction of having expertise in both political economy and ecology, perhaps the two most important fields in terms of analyzing the COVID-19 pandemic. His work in political economy has both explained and extended the theory of monopoly capitalism first developed by Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy. He has helped to show that this theory remains the best analysis of the global capitalist economy. His work in environmental sociology is world-renowned, elucidating with great clarity the intimate connection between capitalism and ecological crises, of which the current pandemic is the latest manifestation. In this interview, we ask John to take a retrospective look at his book, Trump in the White House: Tragedy and Farce. It has been two-and-a-half years since the book was published, and, given President Trump’s disastrous handling of the coronavirus catastrophe, this is a good time to assess what has transpired since he was elected president.
In what follows, MY will mark questions from the interviewer, Michael Yates, and JBF will mark Professor Foster’s responses. Purchase Trump in the White House now from Monthly Review Press. on sale now for just $5 (eBook) or $10 (paperback) to the end of April.
In your book, you argue that Donald Trump’s presidency represents the resurrection of fascism in the United States, which you term neo-fascism. Can you explain how you came to this conclusion?
It depends of course on how we understand fascism. The only theoretically advanced and historically grounded theory of fascism was developed within Marxism in the 1930s and ‘40s and was common to such varied thinkers on the left as Leon Trotsky, Georgi Dimitrov, Franz Neumann, and Paul Sweezy, as well as, later on, Nicos Poulantzas. This view of fascism as an outgrowth of capitalism focused principally on the class character of fascist movements and regimes. Fascism arose as an alliance of convenience between big capital or monopoly capital and the largely reactionary elements of the petty bourgeoisie or lower-middle class. C. Wright Mills in White Collar, designated the petty bourgeoisie or lower-middle class as “the rearguarders” of the capitalist system. In periods of serious crisis, monopoly capital seeks to mobilize the more reactionary and dangerous elements of the lower-middle class, as foot soldiers against its enemies both in the working class and among the upper-middle class or professional-managerial class.
Ultra-nationalists, white supremacists, and so-called “radical rightists” are always present in capitalist society. But the conditions are ripe for fascism when there is an acute crisis of one sort or another (involving some combination of radical class movements from below, acute economic and political dislocation, declining national hegemony, and obstacles to the growth of monopolistic capital) which threaten the position of big capital and encourages it to call on (or to give free rein to) these reactionary tendencies within the lower-middle class and in rural areas. This takes the form of strong nationalist, xenophobic, racist, and fundamentalist religious (particularly evangelical) sentiments, directed at both the upper-middle class and the bulk of the working class. Ideologically fascism is associated with what has been called palingenetic ultra-nationalism (palingenetic refers to a belief in rebirth) and extreme repression, based on a climate of misogyny, homophobia, racism, jingoism, etc. Fascism was always understood in this way in the 1930s and ‘40s, during the struggle against it by the left, and extending beyond Marxism itself—although this theoretical and historical understanding always remained firmly rooted in Marxism, the Popular Front, and the Anti-Nazi War fought from below. The preeminence of Marxian views in the understanding of fascism was evident in the fact that Neumann’s Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism was used in the Nuremburg Trials.
The historical-materialist approach to the analysis of fascism remained dominant up through the 1970s. However, in the 1980s, with the weakening of Marxism, this well-developed theory of fascism, which had been around for half a century, was systematically replaced by the views of liberal historians, who substituted an idealist view of fascism, which they merged with the conception of totalitarianism expounded by Hannah Arendt and others. One of the characteristics of the liberal view was that there was no relation between fascism and capitalism. Rather fascism was reinterpreted in purely ideological terms divorced from all class and material conditions, a kind of extreme authoritarianism, with no further definition. Such a view, which stripped away all genuine critical-social analysis in this area, had no theoretical purchase and was consistent with treating fascism as nothing more than a genocidal aberration, tied to specific forms like anti-Semitism and swastikas entirely removed from its material basis in capitalism, and floating in mid-air as it were. Already by the 1950s, some of the more conservative figures in the Frankfurt School, like Theodor Adorno (and indirectly Max Horkheimer), played a role in downplaying the material bases of fascism, seeing it primarily in psychological terms, in their focus on The Authoritarian Personality. This followed Adorno and Horkheimer’s return to West Germany at the invitation of the American authorities, during which Adorno wrote for a time for CIA publications attacking figures like Georg Lukács, who had been unstinting in his critique of fascism in The Destruction of Reason.
The result was the frequent confusion of the outer manifestations of fascism with its inner causes and a complete distortion of history. Fascism was portrayed, in what became by the 1980s the dominant liberal view, as simply an extreme, brutal political ideology complete with Nazi salutes, concentration camps, and gas chambers, as portrayed in B movies. In contrast to the Marxist theorical and historical approach, which allowed for historical analysis, this characterization of fascism as a pure ideology and as a kind of psychological aberration lacked any real power of historical explanation and was in fact designed to dissociate fascism from capitalism. Hence, fascism was treated as a historical anomaly, or simply as part of a totalitarian couplet together with Stalinism. Even among socialists, the class basis of fascism and its relation to big business was often forgotten.
The term neo-fascism was developed in Europe, by figures like the Italian political theorist Julius Evola, a leading supporter of Mussolini and Hitler, who in the decades after the war sought to provide a new cultural fascism that would be considered more acceptable, politically and intellectually. Trump’s chief political adviser Steve Bannon was strongly influenced by Evola and was outspoken in promoting neo-fascist ideas, which he brought to the U.S. alt-right via Breitbart News. Bannon honed Breitbart into the ideological headquarters for Trumpism, also producing Stephen Miller, who remains in the White House, and other key figures. Neo-fascism, in brief, is an attempt to resurrect fascism all the way down to class basis and racist ideology, but in such a way that it is divorced from some of its worst historical antecedents. It is presented in the U.S. today as a kind of “national populism”—the way the movement is commonly described on Breitbart.
The main reason, of course, for talking about neo-fascism today in the context of the United States is that Donald Trump occupies the White House. But what we know as “the Trump phenomenon” in general is not simply about a single individual, any more than McCarthyism was merely about Joseph McCarthy, but rather has to do primarily with class dynamics, associated with capital’s increasing reliance on a white-supremacist, neo-fascist movement, emanating from the lower-middle class, in a context of deepening economic disarray, hegemonic decline, and failing neoliberal globalization. It is these conditions that led to the active mobilization of its rearguarders within the most reactionary elements of society, made much worse in the United States by a legacy of slavery, imperialism, and war. Trump is a vehicle of this ultra-reactionary shift in class dynamics, coming along at just the right time. As a billionaire real estate mogul, he represents monopoly-finance capital. We know that his former wife, Ivana Trump, indicated that the only book she ever saw him read (other than his own ghost-written Art of the Deal) was a collection of Hitler’s speeches, which he kept at his bedside. He learned, via Reality Television and Hollywood coaching to play the role of a king-like billionaire channeling the extreme anger of the lower-middle class, directed at the government and liberal elites, and at the so-called underserving poor. He has deliberately portrayed himself as someone to whom the normal rules don’t apply, who could act with impunity, an attitude he has put into practice in the White House, and which is the secret of much his popularity with his followers.
But more important than Trump himself was the political formation that coalesced around him in the form of a direct alliance between elements of the billionaire class and the largely reactionary, white lower-middle class with the former often bankrolling the latter. The billionaire capitalists and the CEOs of the big corporations understood that the Trump administration represented their economic interests and they were willing to put up with the Cro-Magnon political ideology, of which they do not care a fig one way or another, as a kind of necessary evil enabling them to continue their looting of the society. What made Trump essential for the “masters of the universe”—as the capitalist billionaires now characterize themselves—was the nature of the neo-fascist political alliance that gave him an army of belligerent supporters, with the help of Fox News, Breitbart, twitter, etc. With this, he was able to reach the White House and from there he and his cabal were able to conduct their onslaught on the liberal-democratic state with the backing of some of the key sectors of monopoly-finance capital, and under the mantra of Making America Great Again.
Characteristic of fascism is the notion of the leader, or Führer, giving rise to the Führer principle (Führerprinzip). Once this is in place, as the chief Nazi legal and political and legal theorist Carl Schmitt explained, a kind of ur-legality can be perpetuated in which the Führer principle overrides nearly everything. There is no doubt that Trump has now come to represent something like this for his followers. He is seen as transcending the legal structure or is himself the law; the constitution is continually bent against liberal democracy. This is of course a very dangerous phenomenon, especially in a period of crisis such as the present when the seizure of greater power at the top is possible. Moreover, Trump’s iron grip on the Republican Party and his packing the U.S. Supreme Court and judiciary suggest that the famous separation of powers (or checks and balances), especially those represented by judicial review, are scarcely operative anymore. Trump and his followers attack Republican non-loyalists, those with a trace of respect for the Constitution or the separation of powers, as Never Trumpers and rage at them with an intensity far greater than their attacks on “leftists,” by which they mean anyone as far “left’ as Joe Biden. In this way, the entire Republican Party has been brought into lock step.
Here is it is important to recall Paul Sweezy’s point that fascism is the antonym of liberal- democratic capitalism. It is a form of capitalist state that seeks to overturn liberal democracy and to replace with a centralized, repressive regime enforcing a privatized monopolistic economy. What stands out in such a state is the means of repression it utilizes, but it has as its raison d’être the promotion of capital accumulation on behalf of big corporations/cartels, just like monopoly capitalism generally—only in this case through a complete removal of political sovereignty from the people.
Do you think your view of Trump has been further vindicated since your book was published? And how would you answer critics who say that neo-fascism is not the proper way to characterize the Trump administration? He may be an authoritarian, a racist, a serial abuser of women, and a xenophobe, but fascism is too strong of a word to use in characterizing him and what he has done since becoming president.
Yes, it is an unfortunately the case that the main political, economic, and environmental dangers highlighted in Trump in the White House have materialized to a considerable extent in the events of the last two and a half years. There has been a determined effort in the corporate media to hide the seriousness of the situation by characterizing the whole Trump phenomenon as no more than an authoritarian personality at the head of a right-wing populism, likely to be kicked out of office in the next election. But to argue in this way is to remove all of the essential elements of the phenomenon and to downplay the dangers. The neofascist shift that the Trump administration promoted in its initial radical phase was followed by a partial compromise in a kind of neoliberal-neofascist alliance, but with neo-fascism gaining ground all the time and seeking to break the alliance.
This captures the basic logic of what has been transpiring at the level of the state over the last few years. Initially, Trump and his coterie merely captured the White House. Their problem was to extend their power to the state as a whole, by seizing control of the rest of the state: that is, the civil service, Congress, the judicial system, the military, the deep state (or so-called intelligence community), the Republican Party as a whole, the state and local governments, and the ideological state apparatus, extending to the media, educational institutions, think tanks, etc. My book was written in the period of Trump’s first 100 days. This can also be characterized as the Bannon period—the period in which Bannon, then head of Breitbart, engineered Trump’s victory and set the new political structure in motion, including introducing a period of Gleichschaltung or bringing into line (particularly important in capturing the state and closely related organs of civil society). The confrontation with the corporate media was a big part of this. This allowed the Trump regime, with its foothold in the White House, to beat down the initial opposition in sections of the civil service, deep state, military, Republican Party establishment, the media, educational institutions, etc. A lot of this had to do with overcoming opposition to Trumpism from the upper-middle class.
Bannon in his various capacities of running Breitbart, strategizing Trump’s campaign, and, serving as chief political operative in the White house, was an outspoken proponent of neo-fascism, all the way to promoting the viciously racist French novel, The Camp of the Saints and drawing on the ideas of Evola. When he departed from the administration (having made the mistake of intimating he was the real president, thus engendering Trump’s wrath), the establishment response was that the connection of the Trump administration to the alt-right, white supremacism, and neo-fascism had subsided. Trump we were told, even by most of the left, was merely “authoritarian,” but not in any sense connected to the “F word.”
At this point it is indeed useful, in seeking to characterize Trump himself, to draw on the Frankfurt School’s notion of The Authoritarian Personality introduced by Adorno and others. Adorno and his colleagues designed what they called an “F scale” with the “F” standing for Fascism. They introduced a cluster of nine or so personality traits to determine how high someone was on the F scale, including such traits as authoritarian aggression, authoritarian submission, anti-intellectualism, anti-intraception (opposition to subjectivity and imagination), superstition and stereotypy (fatalism and adherence to rigid categories), power and “toughness,” cynicism and destructiveness, projectivity (projection of the outside world as dangerous), and exaggerated concerns of sex. There can be no doubt that Trump is at the very top of the F scale.
But fascism, as I have tried to explain, is a political tendency, movement, and regime involving a particular class constellation, arising under circumstances where the core capitalist class feels itself in peril or blocked in its advance, leading to the unleashing of extreme right-wing forces principally based in the lower-middle class or petty bourgeoisie, which occupies a very fragile and contradictory class position in capitalism. All of this is mixed up with a spirit of misogyny, racism, jingoism, and destructivism. It is directed at the “other”—and particularly at the educated upper-middle class “elites” (often by way of attacking scapegoats and various threats and even terrorism), at the bulk of the working class, and at nationalistically and racially defined enemies abroad. The approach to the upper-middle class is predominantly one of Gleichschaltung or bringing into line, while the approach to the working class and poor (in the United States today consisting mainly of people of color and women) is one of repression. It is when a deep-seated structural crisis of capital arises, forcing a new political alliance between big capital and the lower-middle class, that a figure like Trump, very high on the F scale, can come along and become the symbol and indeed leader (Führer) of a fascist-style or neo-fascist regime. It is in this sense that Trump or Potus (a term to which he has given new meaning) is to be viewed today.
A friend of mine, political philosopher Sayres Rudy, said of Trump: “The one person, towering above former B-actor and dimwit frat boy [Reagan], you never ever want as President of a country is a corrupt, sleazy, mobbed-up NY salesman hawking hope.” This was in response to Trump stating in a recent press conference that he downplayed the severity of the crisis because he was trying to give the people hope.
How do you assess Trump’s handling of the pandemic catastrophe? Does it buttress or contradict your neo-fascist thesis?
Your friend clearly sees Trump as a kind of mob boss. This resembles what Brecht so brilliantly portrayed in his 1941 play on fascism, The Resistible Rise of Aturo Ui. But there are of course weaknesses as I keep on emphasizing in focusing simply on the individual—whether portrayed as a personification of madness or as a mob boss—and losing sight of the changing material forces and class constellations that come together in forming a movement or regime within the fascist genus and within a particular historical setting, including today’s neo-fascism.
Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which was preceded by his closing in 2018 of the National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, has been atrocious, involving do-nothingism, denialism, and racism (with his constant references to China virus). He finally adopted an approach in line with the U.S. capitalist class in general, which as Rob Wallace and his colleagues (in “COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital,” Monthly Review, May 2020 [published online on March 27]) described as “toggling in and out” of social distancing, rather than seeking to suppress the virus, a strategy designed to promote the economy even at the expense of the population, thus leading to tens (and perhaps even hundreds) of thousands of additional deaths. Beyond that, the pandemic has been seen by the Trump administration as an opportunity to set aside all environmental regulations, vastly expand oil and gas leasing, put more economic and military pressure on Venezuela, and accelerate spending on Trump’s Wall between the United States and Mexico. The so-called “economic stimulus” package is mainly a bailout of corporations loaded with debt. Meanwhile, we are treated with constant doses of his grandiose claims about his own successes in fighting the virus, even as the official estimations of the likely numbers of deaths continues to rise. Trump only the other day dismissed the need for national testing for COVID-19, declaring that the United States had the best testing system in the world, despite the fact that its tests per million people in the population is only about half that of Germany’s and a third that of Norway’s.
We are still in the early stages of the pandemic. Yet, what we are seeing in the United States is a class-based phenomenon of “social murder,” as Frederick Engels called it in The Condition of the Working Class in England, where the deaths of what are now called “essential workers” are seen as necessary for the further promotion of the economy. The body count will pile up. At the same time, there could be a big power grab here, particularly if Trump under these circumstances is able to pull off a victory in the upcoming presidential elections. What is ominous is that Trump’s poll numbers are higher than ever before, and a majority of the population actually thinks he is handling the pandemic well—even though total deaths from COVID-19 in New York State alone, well before their peak, are at this moment about three times that of all of China, with worse yet to come.
Despite the fact that Trump tells multiple, easily fact-checked, lies in every one of his daily coronavirus briefings, his approval ratings have risen. How do you explain this?
Trump’s followers don’t view him as having to conform to normal standards of truth. This is a sign of the operation the Führer principle. It is now universally recognized that he lies perpetually, but his lies are then accepted by his followers and converted into accepted “political truths,” even conditions of membership in the pro-Trumper as opposed to Never Trumper club, in a game full of cynicism and defiance. The attitude among many of his followers is that he speaks “for us” and everything else can be called fake news, not because it is fake (though the corporate media is full of lies in the interest of power) but rather because it represents a perceived liberal or neoliberal establishment and political elite that is viewed with anger and disdain. The rage of the lower-middle class and some of the privileged sections of the working class is like that of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man (in Notes from Underground—see also Paul A. Baran’s The Longer View), who vomits up rationalism, rejecting the notion that 2+2 = 4. Trump in his constant twitters, laced with hyperbole, vile attacks on his opponents, perpetual self-praise, and the grandiose insistence that he is himself the ultimate arbiter of truth, and the only real actor (even while he constantly plays golf), offers a sense of “liberation” from science and the facts for sectors of society that have utter contempt for what they perceive as the liberal elites ruling society, obstructing business. Indeed, even for some sections of the white working class, Trumpism appeals to their sense of “radical” defiance of prevailing cultural norms. They enjoy seeing what they see as elite talking heads discomfited by the absolute rejection of science on climate change, COVID-19, toxic pollution, etc. We could see the growing spread of this kind of irrationalist political psychology, actually praising ignorance, and spewing hate, quite early on in talk radio, which has now migrated to social media. It has penetrated deeply into society. I don’t know if you have read Harry Frankfurt’s book On Bullshit. One can learn a lot about the vomiting up of reason in the Tea Party and Trump eras from that.
You argue in your book that Trump’s major support base is lower-middle class consisting of small business owners, lower-level managers, corporate sales representatives, lower-rung white-collar professionals, rural property owners, and the like, plus the class segment of better-paid workers. All of these groups are overwhelmingly white and have less education than those occupying the middle strata of society as a whole. There is no doubt an overlap with Christian evangelicals, whose leaders are fanatically devoted to Trump, despite the utter lack of religious conviction on the part of the president. However, it cannot be denied that there are also not a few poorer white workers who very strongly support Trump. How can we explain working class support for a neo-fascist and major-league con artist? Is it race? The demise and class-collaboration of the labor movement? The patriarchal structure of family life? Is it possible that this support will erode in the wake of the pandemic?
All of the factors you mention are important. In order to answer such questions, one has to look at the material conditions first of all. There is a certain segment of white workers in the United States, who for a number of decades in the 1950s-1960s and to a lesser extent after that clearly benefitted to some extent from the hegemonic position of the United States in the world economy and from U.S. imperialism, receiving higher wages as a result. This labor aristocracy (a term with a long history descending from Engels and Lenin) is now largely gone. Economic stagnation, financialization, neoliberal expropriation, the offshoring and outsourcing of production have all been the name of the game. These workers and their families are thus experiencing a precariousness that they never encountered before and are mired in debt, threatened with repossessions of their vehicles and foreclosures on their homes, often not knowing from where they will get their next paycheck. People I know in this country are struggling to obtain food boxes, are living in crowded rooms in houses, are unable to pay car insurance or health insurance, are constantly robbed by banks because of overdrafts which they cannot help. In the Midwest, where much of the de-industrialization took place, the anger is palpable. The United States is now experiencing a rise in deaths of despair, particularly among middle-aged white men that has been serious enough to reduce life expectancy in the entire country for three years running. And this was before the COVID-19 pandemic, which will bring social murder in our time to new heights.
Finding themselves in desperate circumstances these workers are at odds with the establishment neoliberal regime of the Clintons, Bushes, and the Obamas. Trump seemed to be a horse of a different color, and indeed regimes in the fascist genus often superficially appear to borrow from both the right and the left. The ultra-nationalist, right-wing corporatist platform seemingly promised to save jobs, protect Social Security and Medicare, remove regulations on business, get people back to work, in such a way as to Make America Great Again. Trump abandoned free trade nostrums and argued for tariffs to protect American jobs. He talked of spending a trillion dollars on infrastructure, helping the white working class while putting people of color, the poor, women, migrants, and foreign enemies in their place, ending government handouts and walling off immigrants. He seemed to care more about the plight of primarily white workers faced with de-industrialization, while antagonizing the liberal elites. His racism was directed at all “others,” a fact that he punctuated with virulent attacks on one group after another. And he manufactured plenty of scapegoats. Of course, the overtures to white people at the bottom, even to the lower-middle class, were false. Fascism, and this goes for neo-fascism as well, has always been about privatization (a term that first arose in Nazi Germany), with the plunder from expropriation going to big business, much like its neoliberal cousin. It is about extreme repression and the concentration of economic and political power. But in the climate of the United States, where both major political parties have been neoliberal parties, Trump seemed to be promising something different to a formerly privileged strata of white workers desperate to regain their former position.
The Sanders “democratic socialist” movement, if allowed to take hold, offered another, diametrically opposite alternative to workers, in the face of the structural crisis of capital. It had the makings of vast political upsurge propelled by the working class and youth. But the ruling capitalist class in the United States, and the Democratic Party establishment used the enormous weight of their money and power to stop the Sanders campaign in its tracks. The weakness of the Sanders campaign all along was that it was channeled through the corrupt and manipulative structure of the Democratic Party, which maintained the mechanisms necessary to shut down the movement. As Baran and Sweezy explained in Monopoly Capital in 1966, the United States political system is democratic in form and plutocratic in content.
Still, capitalism is in a state of deep structural crisis, with its entire material basis eroding. It could go on indefinitely as we descend further into Hell, continuing to destroy human prospects, unless, as you argued in Can the Working Class Change the World?, a vast new global movement arises prepared to leave the burning house and build another. Revolutionary struggles against the system are naturally strongest in the periphery of the world economy. But the conditions for a socialist alternative, as Sanders demonstrated, are rapidly developing in the United States too, in the heart of the declining world empire, in the midst of Fortress America. The speed of the dissolution of capitalism in the age of stagnation, financialization, soaring inequality, precariousness, climate change, and COVID-19, and the advent of a dangerous New Cold War mean that we are facing a choice between barbarism and exterminism, on the one hand, and socialism and ecology, on the other. As Marx once said, we have reached the point of ruin or revolution.
If a real movement from below arises, the present thin layer of working-class support for a neo-fascist figure like Trump will evaporate and part of the lower-middle class will discover that it is actually aligned with the working class. The actual dividing lines between classes are in constant flux. Class, as E.P. Thompson explained in his The Making of the English Class, is not simply about the relation to the means of production, but also about culture and consciousness. So, something like the present pandemic—and such shocks are bound to emerge more frequently today—could lead to a building up of anti-capitalist and working-class forces. Neo-fascism, while it may penetrate into the ranks of workers, can never be a working-class ideology or political formation. It is always vanquished in the end by a revolt from below. This was even true in many respects in the context of the Second World War. Read Basil Davidson’s Scenes from the Anti-Nazi War.
My own view is that the storm of revolutionary socialist protest that will overrun capitalism will emanate primarily from the Global South where imperialism makes conditions far worse. But change in the system worldwide is dependent on rebellion within Fortress America too, a reality that is emerging sooner than anyone expected with the structural crisis of U.S. capitalism itself.
You have argued that the COVID-19 pandemic must be seen as part of the multiple environmental crises that capitalism has created as it has torn asunder both Earth’s own metabolism and that between humans and nature. This means that we will face future pandemics, along with global warming, the extinction of innumerable species of flora and fauna, and much else. Trump is obviously oblivious to all of this; in fact, he is doing everything he can to make these crises worse. Yet, right now in the United States, his likely opponent in next November’s election will be Joe Biden, the very definition of a political hack, a man with his own race and gender problems, a man with no discernible program, and a person who may be suffering serious mental decline. Under these circumstances, how can we be hopeful about the future?
The environmental crisis/catastrophe is now all-encompassing. The Trump administration’s actions are speeding the world toward planetary genocide or omnicide. There is a whole chapter in my book on “Trump and Climate Change,” written during the transition to his administration, which lays out in excruciating detail the planetary exterminism being carried out by capital and its virulent anti-environmentalist stance, made far worse by the rise of Trump. As Noam Chomsky said (quoted in my book), it is not unreasonable to view Trump’s election as “almost a death knell for the human species,” raising the question of planetary omnicide. This ominous tendency toward omnicide can be seen in the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change, in the abandonment of the Puerto Rican people after Hurricane Maria, in the promotion of trillions of dollars in new oil and gas pipelines in the midst of global warming, in the introduction recently of a whole new class of nuclear weapons, and in its scarcely concealed threats of war with China. The Trump Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to use COVID-19 to lay aside all environmental laws and regulations designed to protect the public is part of this same destructive enterprise. Trump’s declaration that COVID-19 is a “hoax,” something he now claims was distorted by fake news, is part of this same uncaring, omnicidal stance. Precious months went by while the pandemic spread, and the Trump White House looked on unconcerned from his golf course. Only when the stock market plummeted did it become a major issue for the administration.
SARS-CoV-2 is only the most serious (thus far) of an increasing number of pandemics that are threatening global society, due primarily to the role of agribusiness in a regime of neoliberal globalization and the accelerated destruction of forest ecosystems. The result is zoonoses that cross over from animal species to humans. This is just another manifestation of ecological breakdown attributable to the system. The danger has been known for well over a century, and was raised by the great British biologist, E. Ray Lankester, Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley’s protege and Karl Marx’s close friend, in his The Kingdom of Man (1911). The threat of zoonoses generated by human actions was raised again by the great Harvard ecologist Richard Levins in his article “Is Capitalism a Disease?” in the September 2000 Monthly Review. The inevitability of pandemics as a result of the creative destructive of ecosystems and the world’s remaining wild species reduced to commodities by global agribusiness was explained more recently in great detail in Rob Wallace’s Big Farms Make Big Flu (Monthly Review Press, 2016). At the very least, he insisted, precautions had to be taken against the inevitable pandemics. Nevertheless, such warnings were ignored by a system of monopoly-finance capital that puts profits before people and the planet. Today the nature of the U.S. response under Trump and monopoly-finance capital is leading to a maximization of the death toll in the country. Already deaths from COVID-19 per 1 million people in the United States is more than 30 times that of China, and it is still only beginning here.
Indeed, we are now in the midst of a planetary ecological catastrophe generated by capitalism, made far worse by the current reactionary turn. The imperial value/supply chains associated with neoliberal globalization are generating a gigantic bullwhip effect destabilizing economic, environmental, and epidemiological conditions around the globe. The only answer is to pull the emergency brake. Yet, capitalism is a system that has a built-in accelerator and no brake. It stops only when it crashes.
As for Joe Biden versus Donald Trump, so-called benign neoliberalism versus neofascism, I think the best general response may be that of Shakespeare: “A plague o’ both your houses.” To be sure, the Biden Democrats can’t be equated with the Trump Republicans, and most on the left faced with the “choice” between a great and a greater evil will no doubt lean toward the former, especially since the issue now entails questions of human survival. But the situation is extremely grim, and the outcome of such a contest can only affect the speed with which we accelerate to the end of the cliff. In neither case will the system put on the brakes or even swerve away from the cliff. To accomplish that requires a movement against capital.
It is well to remember that the establishment neoliberal interests represented by the Biden Democrats have opposed Trump strongly in only one area: the New Cold War with Russia. Endless attacks have been unleased on the Trump administration for its attempt (now largely faded) to engineer a detente with Russia, so that the U.S. imperial order would be able to avoid a two-front war and concentrate on a struggle with China for world hegemony. This aspect of the geopolitics of the Trump administration was dealt with extensively in my book, including focusing on the role in the Trump administration of Peter Navarro, an open advocate of economic and even military warfare against China. Since that was written, Navarro was put in charge of Trump’s tariff war directed at China, and then, when Trump declared that SARS-CoV-2 was a “China virus,” Navarro was made policy coordinator for enforcement of the Defense Production Act, making him responsible for defending the U.S. and the U.S. population in the context of the pandemic.
To be sure, Navarro was reportedly the first Trump adviser in the West Wing to point to the possible dangers of a coronavirus pandemic threatening the lives of millions of Americans. But his choice for his current role was no doubt a result of Trump’s attempt to frame the issue as a threat coming from China. Already as a result of the Trump tariffs, engineered by Navarro, the commodity/value/supply chains with China were beginning to break, while now as a result of the pandemic they are fractured at every point. Seeing this as the critical issue, Navarro has declared that the commodity supply chains to China now need to be brought home; that is, the major strategic opportunity offered by the pandemic from the standpoint of the administration is to break down completely the U.S.-China trade, viewed as a critical step in a contest for world hegemony. Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general, has declared that the failure to put the blame for the virus on China is due to the “China lobby” in the United Sates.
Meanwhile, Navarro’s inept handing of the COVID-19 pandemic, leading him to oppose the scientific assessment of Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases—with Navarro claiming he too was a doctor, with a Ph.D. as an economist!—drives home the tragedy of Trumpism. The fact that the administration viewed COVID-19 as a geopolitical opportunity and a capital accumulation problem, not principally an issue of public health, was highlighted by Trump’s appointment of the anti-China hawk, Navarro, to organize the U.S. government’s response, as well as by all the other statements of the administration.
But what does Biden have to offer on his side? The whole Trump impeachment affair revolved around Biden and was really about Trump’s breaking the ultimate rule of U.S. party politics: do not use political power to undermine the other party in the political duopoly. His actions were not seen principally by Democratic Party insiders as an attack on the Constitution, though presented in that way, but as an attack on the Democratic Party itself, and the main presidential candidate of the Democratic Party establishment. It has to be remembered that it was Trump’s inept attempts to use the Ukrainian government to uncover the nefarious dealings of Biden (and his son) that became the main issue in the impeachment proceedings. Trump was caught red-handed holding back on giving military assistance to the fascist government in the Ukraine, aid that would have helped it play its role in the New Cold War against Russia, as a means of forcing the Ukrainian government to deliver dirt that could be used against Biden. The issue from the Democratic Party standpoint was to protect the Party and Biden, while promoting the New Cold War against Russia. It had little or nothing to do with democracy or reining in presidential power. A similar analysis could be provided of the whole blown up issue of Russian election interference. Trump and Russia became the main issue of the Democratic Party establishment, not climate change, not working conditions, not growing inequality, not Black Lives Matter, not abuse toward women, not the huge tax gifts to the wealthy and corporations, not the need for universal health care, not the inhumane sanctions against Venezuela and Iran. In face of the COVID-19 emergency, Biden has not budged one iota toward acceptance of Medicare for All, which he rejects. In a debate with Bernie Sanders, his main “answer” to the novel coronavirus was simply to call in the troops.
You ask, “Under these circumstances, how can we be hopeful about the future.” I think the answer has to be that the circumstances are rapidly changing, and the system is becoming unhinged. Capitalism is in its biggest crisis this century, even dwarfing the 2007-2009 financial crisis. Everyone’s lives are being affected. It is becoming impossible to deny that the planetary environment as a place of human habitation is now in peril and populations everywhere are being endangered. The capitalist economy remains mired in stagnation and financial fragility, with financial meltdown a distinct possibility. Public health is declining even in the wealthiest countries, like the United States. Racism, war, misogyny (including femicide), are all on the increase. The possibility of a thermonuclear war is increasing. Everywhere the ground is shifting. Capitalism has failed.
People, Fidel Castro once said, are like volcanoes. With capitalism dissolving before our very eyes, we can expect real popular eruptions coming from those fighting for a more egalitarian, sustainable world. The army of reaction, even in the United States, is much smaller than the massed force of the working class. The former draws its strength from its artificial connection to centralized power, an alliance that cannot be maintained because reflecting fundamentally different interests. Fascism is invariably a sign of capitalism in peril, forcing it to call on its dangerous rearguard, which, however, it then undermines. The ruling class is losing its ability to rule, and as the planetary crisis comes even closer there will be more splits at the top as well, within the capitalist class itself, since the need to protect the planet for future generations crosses class lines.
The answer in this situation is the building of a vast, unstoppable socialist (or ecosocialist) movement. This is happening in many places in the world. What is perhaps most astonishing is that a socialist movement is emerging today in the United States itself, where no such movement was supposed to be possible. This is a manifestation of a dying Empire and the need for real change. The Sanders campaign is over, but its legacy is far more revolutionary than is generally supposed. We are seeing in the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and the Sanders plan for the reinvigoration of labor in the United States, a new agenda that cannot simply be eliminated, a shifting of the terrain of what is considered possible.
The world is now in what scientists are calling a no-analogue situation. The dangers are increasing and so is the space for revolutionary human development, calling for a new Earth movement. If humanity is to survive a renewed struggle for freedom as necessity.