Soon before his ignominious departure from the Trump White House, that Rasputin of the Trump set, Steve Bannon, gave an interview. Yet, the interview was not given to an alt-right publication like Breitbart, but to social democratic magazine, American Prospect. In a 2017 interview by journeyman social democratic writer, Robert Kuttner, Bannon denounced “corporate Republicans” and endorsed what seems to be anti-austerity economics and welfare state provisioning. In the years since then, Bannon has glommed his way into liberal/left media, print, online, podcast, and broadcast. One of his closest media cothinkers is the almost indisputably white nationalist broadcaster, Tucker Carlson. Carlson has developed fans on the Left who enjoy his anti-war, pro-welfare-state, and anti-corporate rhetoric, while downplaying his anti-migrant xenophobia, transphobia, anti-Black racism and generally reactionary authoritarian politics.
One of Carlson’s fans, evidently, is also frequent Tucker Carlson Tonight guest, Glenn Greenwald, unquestionably one of the best reporters in the world. Yet, being a great reporter does not always mean having the best political judgement (we have seen this in Seymour Hersh’s credulity with regards to Assad’s chemical weapons attacks). Greenwald is also a great admirer of Steve Bannon, and the feelings may well be mutual. This is hardly anything new, left-of-center and far-right journalists and politicos developing mutual admiration societies, and perhaps collaborating journalistically. Yet what is now being suggested, by Bannon and Carlson, by Greenwald of late, and by Rising hosts Krystal Ball and Saajar Enjetti, is that this be raised to the level of a political collaboration. Both hosts repeat a mantra that Leftists have more in common with Trump supporters than with liberals.
Rising is an entertaining and well-produced news program, often with excellent reporting and avoidance of the drab clichés of left media. Krystal Ball, like other left YouTubers such as Contrapoints, is part of a flourishing left media ecosystem, online and in print. Far beyond the American Prospect, the reformist or social-democratic left has developed a significant presence, with Jacobin, Intercept, and Current Affairs, and an active presence on social media. Members of this milieu, with the notable exception of Current Affairs, proudly wear their “anti-woke” badges. This is not to declare them useless—much of what Jacobin does is great and The Intercept is an exceptionally important news publication, even with a spotty background,
It is against this backdrop that Nathan Robinson, the closest today’s Left has to a pre-9/11-Christopher Hitchens figure, wrote a polemical piece denouncing the left-right collaborationism has been continuously suggested by Enjeti and Ball. Their suggestion is an instrumentalization of the idea, as mentioned above, of promoting political coalitions, not merely on a single issue basis, but as that old saw states, “beyond right and left”, a favorite of Huey Long, Ross Perot, and Benito Mussolini. Robinson gives a powerful critique of the very idea that the Left should have anything to do with right wing populism, In a follow-up piece, he sums up this point of principle with a thought experiment wrapped up in a joke, reproduced here in full:
The liberals are destroying this country!
They’re so weak. And elitist. They don’t care about the workers.
Oh, it’s so true.
And of course the media is complicit. They never tell the truth.
Meanwhile, illegal immigrants are taking our jobs and destroying the ethnic majority.
Wait, what the fuck?
Robinson is arguing within a milieu that actually would not say “what the fuck?” to the last statement. Perhaps instead, they would coach the fascist that the issue is not the ethnic majority—it is citizenship and so forth. Or perhaps they would sound like Angela Nagle and her pleas for social democracy in one country. And then they would bemoan the state of the labor movement, with its being in favor of open borders. There are those who have accused Robinson of moralism, but here an ounce of good-old fashioned liberal moralism is worth a ton of “anti-woke” tailing of reaction. And this is where we see the crux of the matter. Whether or not we conceive social democracy as a political tendency separate from revolutionary socialism, it is not our enemy. The stakes of debates within social democracy are not something to be ignored as it has a material impact on the uneven processes of politicization occurring throughout the American and international working classes. If modern social democracy is liquidating into a “post-left” trajectory, then the honest elements, Chomsky readers, and iconoclasts are left at their own fork in the road.
Hypothetically, these are often the people who until recently were the only Leftist in their town or social scene. Perhaps more recently though they may have joined a DSA chapter or helped with the Sanders campaign. A decade ago they were loyal viewers of Democracy Now! and were readers of Z, In These Times, and New Politics, later moving on to read Jacobin, The Intercept, and so forth. Perhaps they are even readers of Spectre, one hopes. Paradigmatically they are anti-racists and pro-queer, but also have the requisite critique of the bourgeois deployment of representation. They are thus, like Robinson, suspicious of “anti-woke leftism” as has increasingly been popularized. Yet still, they inhabit a general unspoken Left common sense, that since the late nineties has moved from a vague anarchism to Sanders/Corbyn style social democracy. In short, I’m talking about the Generation X and older Millennial Left, precisely the Left out of which Robinson springs, with his unabashed Chomsky admiration. Our generation politicized unevenly, if at all.
What Robinson is getting at but can’t quite put his finger on, is that even factoring out the horrifying representatives of right-wing populism that he mentions—Bolsonaro, Trump, Duterte, and the like—someone he may see as a political co-thinker on most questions may well have the same politics as an outright reactionary, in the last instance – the politics in question, being a very economistic, shared anti-corporate, pro-union, and anti-austerity horizon within the unspoken framework of capitalist social property relations. It does not make sense to Robinson, and probably not to the great many others who came to social democracy from liberalism, that ostensible allies are willing to set principle aside. Yet, this is partially due to an undeveloped conceptualization of capitalist society as a whole, and with that, undefined and sometimes contradictory commitments. Robinson is a brilliant writer, but his political horizon is limited, and he has been known to put his foot in his mouth (about Marx in particular).
Rising hosts and guests such as Greenwald, Taibbi, and others may inveigh—indeed Tucker Carlson does inveigh—against capitalism as such. Capitalism is a low-hanging fruit these days. COVID-19 treatments are found and monetized before a blink of the eye. And while entertaining, Rising hosts’ critiques of capitalism are nowhere near as systemic as the comrades at Teen Vogue. It is a sort of “elitist” analysis, talking about bankers and “neoliberals.” It is easy to see how the logic of focusing on an essentially conspiracist or moralistic framing of capitalism is akin to the logic of antisemitism. The Jewish bankers and financiers like Soros, in this understanding, have their hands everywhere. This is not at all to suggest that the Rising hosts are anti-Semites, but that their presentation of capitalism is very close to the socialism of fools. After all, the alt-right shares this analysis and pushes it a step further to the “great replacement theory.” There is an uncomfortable continuum from talking about “banksters offshoring jobs” to talking about Jewish financiers backing a globalist agenda to “replace” white Americans with migrants.
Robinson and many other social democrats either explicitly or implicitly don’t conceive of capitalism as a totality, a set of social property relations, and a mode of social reproduction. Robinson is of the tradition, well known in Canada, that buttresses social democratic politics with a left-libertarian ethos and inflections of anarcho-syndicalism. At one point, his type would be found languishing in the likes of Z Magazine, but he now edits the far more fashionable Current Affairs, one of best journals of the social democratic Left. Yet it is still shocking to him to see people with whom he generally shares a set of ideas tailing reactionary forces. What is valuable, however, is that Robinson, unlike even some forces within the socialist Left, recognizes the nature of the threat. The masks are off, pun intended. There is a genuine fascist movement, a broader fascist sensibility, and a set of fellow travelers in the United States right now. Trump has ostentatiously used Nazi imagery, and it is an open question as to whether there can be a legitimate presidential election come November.
Given the existence of an emergent fascist international with at least indirect connections to the Trump White House, while it is not realistic to claim that Trump is an agent of a fascist international as such, elements around him are happy to encourage fascist rhetoric and basebuilding. Stephen Miller is, at the very least, not unsympathetic to fascism, though he is not a “Traditionalist” like the puppet-master, Steve Bannon. Indeed, Bannon is a Rasputin type. He deserves the title of enemy visionary. Without Bannon, Trump would not be president. Bannon is affiliated with an international network of Traditionalists, capital-T. This is a mostly elite-based, quasi-secret society, mixing ostentatious Occultism with admiration for figures like Julius Evola (who criticized the Nazis from the right), Jung, and of course, Heidegger (“My Guy,” Bannon says).
Bannon does not conceal his Traditionalist politics. The anthropologist Benjamin Teitelman spent time with Bannon, alone and among the Traditionalists, interviewing him at length in the valuable book, War for Eternity. Bannon is not in it for the money like Paul Manafort. He is not Roger Stone, in it for the fun. He is the real deal, attempting to proverbially immanentize the eschaton. And part of his bag of tricks is a synthesis of the Occultist seeking of Kismet with the constitution of a political subject in the form of the “deplorables,” in order to deliberately build a fascist base, partially by awakening the one that already exists. Bannon is a rich man and an ideologue, and he has found a sometimes-willing partner in the White House but maintains his own independent credibility as a sort of broker of ultra-right support.
This base-building is aimed at politically unsophisticated or cynical Leftists who join around the banner of being “anti-woke.” Meanwhile Greenwald, Taibbi, and Ball cultivate this anti-wokeness with the great good guidance of the likes of Walter Benn Michaels and Adolph Reed. These “normie socialists” are not “Red/Brown,” far from it. However, there is a path dependence, a tendency in organized social democracy to go towards the lowest common denominator, tail reaction, and turn on one’s comrades. The cultivated anti-wokeness has brought us to a point in which the distinction between the “normies” and the “red/browns” is one of degree, not kind.
Does this mean that in circumstances of political upheaval and transformation they would not be “on side” with the existing, if still small, socialist Left? It is telling that at least at the beginning, key figures and elements of the “normie socialist” milieu were quite dismissive of the Black-led, multiracial, working class uprising that is occurring south of the Canada-U.S. border. Does this mean, like Rising cohost and young right-winger Enjeeti, they support Trump’s “Don’t tread on me” motto? It is genuinely hard to tell, when both sound the same when talking about the really-existing Left, as well as the movements on the streets. It is notable that Robinson has not taken this “normie” stance and seemingly has a very well developed anti-oppression politics.
In turn, this clearly goes beyond an orientation around the movement for Black lives. On queer and trans struggles, a good deal of this milieu is dismissive, if not hostile. They are practically mute (as is too much of the US Left) on Indigenous liberation. Again, this does not mean the majority of their cothinkers, often “very online” types, would ever cross the “red/brown” precipice. But is it hard to imagine a situation of such political confusion that a layer of potentially left-moving people, white or otherwise, would be brought rightward to red/brown, and thus, eventually Brown politics? And what does it mean to share a platform with someone who shares a platform with white supremacists, as in the case of media ventures like Rising?
Krystal Ball’s reply to Nathan Robinson’s critique occurs in the context of a shared belief that there is nothing inherently problematic with media-based collaboration with the far-right. It is hard to be critical of Leftists going on Fox News without also being critical of them going on any other part of the bourgeois media. Ball seemingly implies Robinson opposes this type of collaboration. He does not indeed – at one point he was to debate the old school reactionary felon Dinesh DeSouza. Yet, Robinson seems to oppose going beyond that, to the realm of political collaboration in the practical realm. By framing Robinson and others’ opposition to working with reactionaries as merely “refusing to debate,” and then accusing Robinson et al. of “cancelling” or “silencing,” there is an uncomfortable inflection. After all, who else recently spoke, like a Fuhrer on Mount Rushmore, about “cancel culture”? Glenn Greenwald has actually been a target of right-wing authoritarians in the Bolsonaro machine, those who work closely with Bannon. His husband, a socialist legislator, is a constant target. Yet, Greenwald professes admiration for Bannon.
One other area in which Greenwald and company have an affinity with Bannon, and even moreso with Carlson, is their campism. Of course this does not mean that that Bannon and company do not want US imperialism. Their arguments range from the traditional “anti-interventionist” paleoconservatism to, in the case of Bannon and his inner circle, seeing the United States and Russia as saviors of the Western camp as against the rising Chinese hordes (note Trump’s exteme Sinophobia and talk of the “Wuhan Virus”).1This is actually a contradiction within the fascist international, as Bannon’s cothinker Dugin sees more of a hope with an anti-American alliance of China, Russia, and an EU-free Europe. Of course, these are differences among comrades, and Dugin and Bannon regularly speak to hash it out, reporting back to Putin and Trump, respectively. In effect, however, we see Carlson allowing Venezuelan diplomats to denounce not merely US imperialism, but capitalism more broadly, while seemingly agreeing with the diplomat’s critique and joining her to poke fun at Guaidó. In a certain time, this would be a positive good, even keeping in mind the necessary critique of the Maduro government. It is akin to a right wing talk show giving unencumbered space to Sandinistas in the ’80s, or members of Allende’s PU government in the early ’70s.
Indeed, it is this kind of attitude among a layer of conservatives that encourages Ball to see the broadest affinity. Perhaps Ball recalls, and has as a frame of reference, the media collaboration of paleoconservatives and foreign policy realists with Leftists during the George W. Bush era. Yet, a group of libertarian or Ayn-Rand-reading, Ron-Paul-voting, weed-smoking college kids who hate the war, or for that matter, International Relations realists such as Andrew Bacevich appearing in New Left Review, are a far cry from Tucker Carlson, a white nationalist jousting with Glenn Greenwald. The frame of reference is categorically wrong.
This needs to be seen as being in continuity with a veritable counter-insurgency campaign against the Black liberation movement and the Left as a whole. Arguably, there has been at least informal targeting of the anti-racist movement since Charlottesville, where after the killing of an activist, a “Rachel Corrie moment,” Trump hemmed and hawed. Yet, eventually, the counter-insurgency against the movements has taken shape.
Beyond Martin Schoots-McAlpine’s invaluable account, this counterinsurgency against the Left seems to be taking a variety of forms from above and below. Yet the coordinated action seems less institutional than stochastic. The consolidation, as seen in the recent Harper’s letter, of a déclassé set of organic intellectuals ostensibly in opposition, yet on a deeper level, in support of this counter-insurgency, is a case in point. If we were to see a set of, for example, Russian “liberals” or “dissidents” writing an open letter to Putin complaining about Pussy Riot, it would obviously be seen as “loyal opposition” attempting to detach itself, but in doing so, re-attaching themselves all the more firmly to the party of order.
This is precisely what this letter constitutes. Indeed, a similar point was regularly made with great brio by one of the statement’s surprising signatories, Noam Chomsky. Chomsky has now made peace with the intellectuals he once decried, and one presumes he was not properly informed of the context of this letter which, more egregiously, was actually signed by a good number of individuals who have managed to actively “cancel” people in academia. Perhaps Chomsky, who once defended the ability of holocaust deniers to make their argument, signed this as a troll against a Left which seems to have passed him by. Perhaps he was duped by someone who flattered him. Yet, the fact remains that he has violated his own set of principles when it comes to “the responsibility of intellectuals.”
It was obvious to Chomsky that these kinds of “middle-ground” approaches from liberals, even from social democrats like Michael Harrington and Bayard Rustin, were in effect, pro-war and pro-Nixon. They acted as both a gesture to power and as a middle finger to the masses. The letter feigns indignation and calls for reason, yet It came together in large part immediately following the very justified “cancellation” of the exceptionally transphobic and arguably antisemitic J.K. Rowling. Still, this is not about JK Rowling except insofar as she is regularly cited by right-wingers in their war on trans people, a component part of this counter-insurgency. This is about the signifier, “cancel culture,” as the glue that holds together the liberal intelligentsia, the Trump/Stephen Miller milieu, the Bannonites, and Alt Right, progressive journalists like Greenwald and Ball, and ostensibly left-wing forces, such as cothinkers of Adolph Reed, Angela Nagle, and so on.
Leftists taking the “cancel culture” bait should take heed—it is not a good look when Trump is making the same argument as you. He is shrewd; he is saying, “all your base belongs to us.” And then within the following week of Trump inveighing against “cancel culture,” the letter appears. Of course, we continue to see within social democratic spaces the same argument increasingly being made, often by Jacobin contributor Dustin Guastella, a Teamster staffer. Guastella complained about “fringe” concerns being the Sanders campaign’s Achilles heel, and more recently has styled himself a voice of reason in opposition to defunding the police.
They all complain about being cancelled, but it’s like Groundhog Day. This “cancellation” has to stop, says Margaret Wente on the CBC, Canada’s national broadcaster. She has been complaining about being “canceled” for a long time; it is her modus operandi. Wente’s misanthropic approach is the key to the underlying bourgeois logic at play here. Complaining about the mob incessantly acts to ensure consent or, at least, political will to confront the mob.
This logic is at play, in turn, with the American state stepping up its approach against the anti-racist and anti-fascist movement, and the Left as a whole. As such, Left forces that spend their time inveighing against “cancel culture”, even when they mean well should examine why this critique is being made by those with whom they would not normally break bread. Indeed many concerns about the broad descriptor refer to social industry driven behaviours and practices that are constitutive of modern social relations whether we like it or not. There is a distinction between fierce debate within a community of people with a shared horizon, or within a community of comrades or even fellow travellers and putting the thumb on the scale of the debate by aligning with power.
I watched the morning broadcast of Rising one night last week. That’s what COVID boredom will do to you, but at least I don’t listen to Joe Rogan. Both hosts were complaining about Trump not going after Biden from the left, economically. Ball did not feign “for the sake of argument” in her framing. Both were explicitly advocating an industrial policy, trade union rights, an essentially classic left-liberal or even New Deal, if not social democratic approach on economic questions. Both call for a unity of Left and Right wing forces. This was followed by both of them crowing about the “neoliberal Left,” complaining that Noam Chomsky signed the letter for free speech, followed by an implicit defense of JK Rowling. It occurred to me that this is part of the emergent common sense that needs to be unlearned, lest it hasten the path towards a red/brown politics. A firm rejection of left participation with right-wing forces is insufficient. A rejection of the terrain upon which they operate is necessary, as certainly the fascists already know. Others on the Left need to consider this point, and that rejection of internationalism, and a narrowing of horizons towards “social democracy in one country,” can have disturbing implications.