Wednesday 20 October 2010

Eyepatch on the Left?

Perhaps the most interesting thing about 'Inferno' (interesting to me anyway) is the way that the fascist world of the Brigade Leader is distinguished by only a very few differences – mainly in terms of attitude and levels of state violence – from the ‘democratic’ capitalist world of the Brigadier and 70s Britain. There are more similarities than differences. There’s very little to distinguish a state-funded project in a ‘democratic’ world and one in a fascist world; very little distance between the basic jobs of a Brigade Leader and a Brigadier. The people behave differently but the essential structure of society is the same, albeit with very different levels of official repression. This reflects – probably accidentally, if we’re honest - the fact that fascism is not a fundamentally different form of economic system but a different way of running a capitalist state.

Actually, I’ve been calling them “fascists”… but the casual reference to the execution of the royal family, the fact that the Brigade Leader is a member of something called the “Republican Security Force” (the Nazis planned to reinstall Edward VIII as their puppet monarch when they took over Britain, not set up a ‘republic’), the Orwellian poster and the fact that a government official can happily go by the name of Sir Keith Gold, all tends to suggest that this might be a ‘communist’ tyranny rather than a ‘Nazi’ one. (By the way, I don’t mean to suggest that Jews always had a lovely time of it in Stalinist dictatorships, merely that anti-Semitism wasn’t a central part of ‘communist’ doctrine the way it was with the Nazis.)

There are indications that work for either a fascist or ‘communist’ world… and that was probably the idea: the notion that both are essentially the same, or very similar. Okay, so does that work? Well, the idea that Nazism and ‘communism’ (and other similar systems, like Baathism in Iraq) are all akin to each other and best described as ‘totalitarian’ is still a very common and popular one. The concept of ‘totalitarianism’ is certainly useful to an extent, as it expresses a fundamental difference between a repressive state that attempts to simply force obedience and one that also attempts to impose orthodoxy in all aspects of life. Ultimately, however, it’s probably a bit of a millstone. It allows people like the ‘anti-totalitarian’ left and the French ‘New Philosophers’ to argue for imperialist wars waged by America, the UK and NATO, on the grounds that their opponents are ‘totalitarian’ and are therefore akin to the powerful states that created the Gulag and the death camps. It’s arguable how many societies have really that closely resembled the totalitarian model as represented by Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (which, in popular consciousness, is a bit like the Platonic ‘form’ of totalitarianism). We should never forget that Orwell’s book is a satire, and as such contains a great deal of exaggeration… and that the representative of Oceanian ideology in the book specifically states that the world of Big Brother has gone further than the Nazis or communists did. The most relevant objection to the term 'totalitarianism’ here is that it elides all sorts of states that are ultimately as different as they are (or were) alike.

Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, for example, shared various similarities, some superficial (like the reduction of all art and culture to crashingly bland kitsch) and some far from superficial (like powerful internal secret police forces)… but, in the end, to call them both ‘totalitarian’ and imply that they were essentially the same is misleading. Nazi Germany may have been ‘state capitalist’ in the loose sense (i.e. there was nationalisation, state direction of industry, etc… and this was a general trend in capitalism at the time, also to be found to varying degrees in Britain and Roosevelt’s America) but private industry and property wasn’t suppressed in the same way as in Soviet Russia, where the class of private capitalists was ultimately replaced by a new bureaucratic class of state managers. The Nazi state may have been highly bureaucratic and statist, but the bankers, factory owners and industrialists weren’t expropriated as a class. Thyssen, for example, wasn’t nationalised until Thyssen himself – a reactionary and, hitherto, a supporter of the Nazi regime, anti-Semitic discrimination included – expressed opposition to the war. Indeed, many members of the German capitalist class enthusiastically funded, supported and helped the Nazis into power, hoping that they would (amongst other things) act as a bulwark against labour unrest (which they did, immediately abolishing trade unions) and destroy the communists (which they did, throwing all left-wingers into concentration camps).

If many people nowadays can’t see a difference between ‘fascist’ and ‘communist’ states, then many powerful and rich people in the 30s certainly knew that they liked Hitler and disliked Stalin… Lord Rothermere, for instance, made his Nazi sympathies clear in the Daily Mail, and also published the fraudulent ‘Zinoviev letter’. In more recent times, America has been happy to support skull-crushingly brutal dictators like Suharto and Pinochet and Saddam Hussein in order to contain and decimate communist parties and/or movements, while attacking nominally ‘communist’ nationalists like Castro… not to mention Reagan’s funding and arming of the horrifyingly violent Contras in an effort to destroy the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, a broad movement of nationalists who included communists and who unseated the US-backed dictator Somoza.

None of this should be taken as a defence of Castro or Stalin, by the way. I shouldn’t have to say that but weary experience tells me that I do.

What makes the difference in how this or that regime gets treated by America and her allies is usually to do with the amount of control exercised by the state over private capital, and particularly over foreign (i.e. U.S.) access to desired investments and/or commodities. William Randolph Hearst liked Nazi Germany (even allowing Nazis like Alfred Rosenberg to write articles for his newspapers) because they were no barrier to business and free trade. Indeed, IBM did nice business with the Nazis, devising and installing the information card systems that enabled the German state to keep track of all the Jews it was murdering. Kissinger and Nixon disliked self-described ‘Marxist’ Salvador Allende (and connived to have him and his elected government destroyed and replaced by Pinochet) because he was fighting to improve the lot of his country and people at the expense of entrenched vested financial interests, not least those of American corporations like PepsiCo.

But, to veer slightly back in the general direction of the point, I was saying how the fascist… er, totalitarian?… umm, shall we settle on authoritarian? world of the Brigade Leader is not really all that different in structure to our world. And this is because all these tyrannies – fascist or communist, with all the very real variances between them – were essentially capitalist, like our society. That is to say that they are (or were) all based on private ownership and/or control of the industrial means whereby everything is made, distributed and exchanged; on the work being done by a mass of propertyless people who have to make a living by selling their labour power; and on the appropriation of the surplus created by their labour into the hands of the employers and owners, be they private businessmen or state managers. (Disclaimer: this is to simplify heavily because many capitalist economies were, and are still, composed of non-capitalist elements like agrarian peasant labour, etc.)

Nazism and Fascism were statist and authoritarian forms of capitalist society that resulted from petty-bourgeois movements in reaction to high levels of working class struggle. By contrast, Stalinism... leaving aside the question of how it arose (which is another distinction in itself)... was a bureaucratic form of extreme ‘state capitalism’ in which the private capitalist class had been expropriated only to be replaced by a newly risen nomenklatura who came to control state-owned industries, but who still exploited labour for surplus value and who still engaged in competition, albeit with rival foreign states rather than domestic rival firms. (Whatever you think of the SWP, I personally am fairly convinced by Tony Cliff’s analysis on this subject.)

It’s interesting (to me at least), in light of all this, that ‘Inferno’ is centred upon a government project, staffed by lots of state-employees (or state slaves in the alt-version), to obtain new sources of energy. This will work as a reflection of 70s British oil rigs in the North Sea, Nazi-era private and nationalised companies mining in the Ruhr or Stalin-era state-run industrialisation in Magnetogorsk. They’re all expressions of the same thing in different forms: the integration of industrial capital with the state, to differing degrees and in different social forms.

Of course, if you believe today’s neoliberal snake-oil salesmen, all state involvement in (or control of) the economy is a form of tyranny that will lead to serfdom. Better to relax all controls, abolish all regulation, relieve the rich of their tax burdens, privatise everything in sight, etc. But these are the same people whose policies have brought the world economy to the brink of implosion. Who cares what they think anymore? Well, actually, we'd better care because there's a gang of the bastards running our government at the moment.

And, let’s not forget that many of the supposedly amazing achievements of the free market are actually attributable to state funding of projects that are just too expensive for profit-oriented private industry to develop. Nonetheless, the state (i.e. the taxpayer) pays the bill for the prohibitively expensive outlay and/or R&D, and then, ultimately, the resulting caboodle starts making profit for private individuals. That's one of the essential roles of the Pentagon: to be a huge, state funded research and development project for technologies that will then end up being manufactured, utilised and/or sold by private companies. Want a good example? You're surfing it at this very moment. (So much for free enterprise.) If Stahlman’s gas had ended up being safe and profitable, pretty soon the British Stahlman’s Gas Company would end up bringing in profits for people other than the poor schmoes who had to spend every day in the noise and heat and dodging the green slime. And then it would’ve been privatised in the 80s, along with BAX (British Axonite).

I find myself imagining the "Don't forget to Tell Sid!" style advertising campaign for the sell-off of shares in Stahlmann’s gas and Axonite. And I imagine that Axonite stops working properly in the 90s when it's become Bax PLC. They forget how to make it work and, suddenly, they can only make frogs one milimetre bigger. Then Branson buys it and the frogs actually start getting smaller. Or swell to the size of home counties and crush loads of people. Leading to public inquiries which absolve the government of all blame for the thousands of giant-frog-crushing deaths. Meanwhile, Stahlgas PLC is running adverts (designed by a high-flying PR firm, natch) in an attempt to convince people that growing werewolf hair, a snout and fangs (because you’ve stood too near your gas cooker for too long) is actually a fashion statement.

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