A few thoughts about fascism and class — some of them probably obvious to any theory-steeped Marxists in my orbit, but maybe useful for anybody working through these questions as I am?
Liberalism’s major analytic deficit is that its understanding of class is profoundly inadequate. Liberals don’t deny class, in fact; liberalism has a class analysis. But this analysis takes class to be a simple binary tension between rich and poor, haves and have-nots. It presumes that class is just one form of privilege, like race or ability, and if anything rather simpler than those.
The problem with this analysis is that class isn’t only or mostly about money, about having and not having, though this can be an important part of it. Class is a whole subjective and objective formation, comprised of values, tastes, modes of association, etc., and defined ultimately by its members’ roles in the process of production. The petty bourgeoisie is not the proletariat, which is also not the peasantry. All may be “poor” (or not), but their class interests are wildly different.
Fascism’s traditional base, and that of authoritarian dictatorship in general, is the petty bourgeoisie (those “small business owners”!) and the peasantry. This is Trump’s base. The proletariat or “working class,” which Marx and Engels and Lenin and Luxemburg considered to be the revolutionary class, is distinct from these groups. It’s distinguished from them by the far greater degree of association among its members. The proletariat is that group of workers exploited most directly, most bodily by industrial capitalism — but industrial capitalism brings those workers physically into community with each other, and depends on their uninterrupted labour, and so creates the conditions of possibility for them to unite against it, first of all in the form of the labour strike.
It’s this group, to repeat, that Marx et al. saw as the base for socialism.
But what happens to this class analysis when an ever greater part of capitalism is post-industrial? When the factory no longer brings the workers together, but instead they remain atomized in their diffuse digitized workplaces? How do we then distinguish between white-collar proletarians (if that can be thought) and white-collar petty bourgeois? To what extent does the proletarian class, as Marx understood it, disappear with the rise of so-called immaterial labour?
A nation of clerks, where the clerks are relatively poor, isn’t thereby a proletarian nation. It’s a petty bourgeois nation. And such workers, by nature liberal democrats if not turned fascist (the same people contain both potentials!), lack the leverage to derail capital that associated industrial workers have or had in the form of the strike.
The petty bourgeois can strike, but in their fragmentation, their isolation, to do so causes minimal disruption to capital. In the eyes of capital, they’re dispensable in a way that industrial workers became but once were not. Thus they lack revolutionary capacity, though they may act briefly with a semblance of unity to install a strongman who can represent their interests by proxy. (This is a version of Marx’s class analysis in the “18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.”)
The new working class, today’s proletarians, seem to me to be mostly not in offices but behind counters and grills and steering wheels: low-wage service workers. This isn’t Trump’s base. This is a group that feels its exploitation as such, that doesn’t believe itself to be “temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” actual or potential “small business owners” in need only of lower taxes and smaller government for their success.
It’s these people who must be brought into effective coalition with the left. They, and the unemployed and disabled, late capitalism’s wounded veterans, its human sacrifice zones. And if the petty bourgeois can be won over, that’s good too. But it should be remembered that their class interests are served, to a great extent, by a leader like Trump. Which is why liberal class analysis, which de-centers and simplifies class conflict, is so often in fact petty bourgeois class analysis, the ploy of a class that wants to obscure its own parasitic relationship to authoritarian state power. Which is why we should reject it.
Happy Labour Day.