In recent months, the subject of “red-brown” alliances bringing together parts of the left and the far-right, especially around shared support for Assad in Syria, has received increased attention, particularly since the publication of Radical Vagabond’s massive investigation on the subject. This trend was allowed to go effectively unopposed for quite a while, so the increasing awareness of and opposition to it is a welcome development.
One of the most recent pieces to be written on the subject is “The Red-Brown “zombie plague”: how fascist ideas are becoming popular on the Left”, by the New Zealand/Aotearoa-based writer Daphne Lawless, which forms part of a loose series on “conservative leftism”. As part of a critical response to the spread of red-brown ideas, I’m generally glad to see Lawless’ writings getting circulated; but there are some troubling aspects to her ideas, which are worth examining precisely because we’re broadly “on the same side” here.
Lawless uses the analogy of a “zombie plague”, so to pick her image up and run with it, I think she’s in danger of doing that thing where the protagonist sees zombies everywhere and ends up blasting away at a human (the classic version of this scene’s at the end of Night of the Living Dead, but off the top of my head it definitely happens in Evil Dead II as well): that is to say that, throughout the “conservative leftism” series, there’s an increasing tendency to lump genuinely radical and important critiques in with reactionary approaches. At some points, Lawless even seems at risk of falling into precisely the “campist/lesser evil/enemy of my enemy is my friend” trap she criticises, coming down on the side of a “neoliberal leftism” that supports Clinton and the EU against Trump, Brexit and Putin.
The best, most clear-headed piece in the series is the earliest article, “Against Campism: What makes some leftists support Putin?” While I wouldn’t invoke the same trot reference points that Lawless does, her overall argument here is one I can pretty much entirely endorse. If anything, it’s notable for its opposition to “the demands that the socialist Left fall in behind the Democratic candidate – even if that’s the thoroughly imperialist and pro-capitalist Hilary Clinton” and her conclusion:
“that’s the real secret of campism – someone who aggressively demands that you take a side between two evils has an interest in concealing that the two camps are really not that different. Campism is born of weakness and lack of faith in the ability of real popular forces to build their own alternative to Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Damascus, Wellington and all the others. But that is precisely what socialism is supposed to be about.”
This is worth bearing in mind, as some of her later writings come close to suggesting that such an attitude should be denounced as “conservative leftism”.
The next article, “Against “conservative leftism”: Why reactionary responses to neoliberalism fail”, is broadly sound, but shows some signs of a worrying willingness to dismiss all critiques of the specific social arrangements created by neoliberal capitalism as being inherently “reactionary”.
I’m nowhere near well-informed enough about the context of arguments about urbanism in contemporary Aotearoa/New Zealand to pick a side in the debates she references, but I’m not convinced that, for instance, a speaker who encouraged “Māori to abandon the cities and build eco-villages”, or those who oppose the merging of various local authorities into a single “super city” should automatically be lumped in with the likes of pro-Assad “anti-imperialists”.
Certainly, in the wake of the Grenfell disaster, it’s very hard to see “high-density housing” as something that should automatically be cheered for and defended in its current form.
Lawless attacks the spread of ideas like anti-vaccination or 9/11-style conspiracy theories, but again shows a willingness to paint any kind of anti-elitism and suspicion of “experts” as being on a par with, or a slippery slope towards, flat-earther lizard people stuff. As an example, she cites an occasion when “I made some arguments based on Transportblog‘s analysis of Auckland’s need for the City Rail Link, another Marxist dismissively replied that he trusted what “ordinary people” were telling him rather than any putative experts”.
Again, I’ve not researched Transportblog enough to have an opinion on them specifically, but on matters to do with urban planning in general, some level of suspicion towards “experts” is surely justified. Urban planning and development is hardly a neutral, value-free field; what’s beneficial from the perspective of investors, landlords and businesses, and helps increase the market value of an area, may be experienced as decidedly less positive from people renting in the area who experience it as skyrocketing rents and prices. Generally speaking, and without presuming to judge Transportblog specifically, most experts in the field of urban planning and development will usually tend to adopt the former perspective. I don’t think having this as a starting point necessarily leads on to freeman-on-the-land, “I’m x of the family y” stuff.
Lawless suggests that “anti-urbanism is a dead-end because it neglects the new constituency of precarious urban white-collar workers thrown up by neoliberalism”, but this is far from self-evident: having a critique of the specific urban forms developed under capitalism doesn’t automatically mean neglecting the populations living in those places, it just means refusing to treat everything about the way they – we – currently live as being an unproblematic neutral good.
The classic Hamilton Institution text “Now That It’s Undeniable” is relevant here:
“we usually end up in conflict with progressive urbanists long before we confront capitalists. These are the people who talk about urban revitalization, smart planning, liveable cities, poverty alleviation, social entrepreneurship, the creative class, and other clever-sounding rebrandings of a very old story. In general, urbanism is the study and design of urban space, usually with a goal towards improving in some way the lives of people who live in cities. Salto offers a different definition of urbanism: “Urbanism seeks to reproduce social hierarchies in the physical urban space, without conflict.”
When urbanists talk about improving lives, they are usually talking about projects designed to mask the contradictions of capitalism and of urban space: if we are to be an uprooted and flexible workforce, at least let there be affordable public transit so the commutes we are forced to make aren’t too much of a burden; if we are going to work minimum wage jobs, let there at least be housing we can afford; if we are going to live in crowded, oppressive conditions, at least let there be public art, good services, and native tree species slowly dying in roadside planters. However, as we get bedbugs from our library books and are hit by cars in the bike lane, we remember that these gestures are actually shit. They are meant to ease the discomfort caused by the purpose of urban space – to provide a density of physical and human resources to maximize value for capitalists. And once an area becomes a comfortable one in which to be exploited, you can bet someone is going to pay more for it than you can.”
Lawless cautions against the temptation “to trust “the wisdom of the people” over expert opinion as a default” because there “is no guarantee that “common sense” or “what the people are saying” under capitalism will be right about anything.” But, of course, there’s also no guarantee that expert opinion under capitalism will be right about anything – even neglecting the existence of antagonistic social conflicts where the “best” outcome for some people may be the worst for others, and concentrating on relatively neutral factual questions, the history of stock market crashes, not to mention the Corbyn-Brexit-Trump-UK GE 2017 sequence of “shocks” must demonstrate that a lot of the time the “experts” whose job it is to predict these events are just really really bad at it.
It’s interesting to see this kind of appeal to deference towards expert scientific authority in a text attacking “conservative leftism”, in light of the long history of radical critiques of such claims to authority, going back to Bakunin at the very least, and on the other hand all the examples of deeply conservative views that appeal to scientific expertise. There’s the opposition of orthodox Marxism, with its claims to have found the historical science of dialectical materialism, to newer theories influenced by postmodernism or poststructuralism – most recently dramatized by that weird US Maoist cult – as well as the “rationalist”/skeptic/New Atheist axis of Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson and the like, and then “you can’t argue with biology” terfery, all of which could be fairly described as conservative, or at least lying towards the conservative end of leftism.
In her summary, Lawless identifies “Opposition to the social changes induced by neoliberalism… shading into anti-urbanism, suburbanism, ruralism and otherwise clinging to traditional ways of living and working” as one of her targets, seeing such a tendency as inherently conservative. Here we’ll have to part ways, because I’d see attacks on the specific forms taken by capitalist “development” and “progress” as being a vital theme of struggles that have posed some kind of challenge to capitalism, running from the Luddites through to the ZAD and Standing Rock.
Setting out her vision of a less conservative, more progressive left better equipped to respond to contemporary conditions, she writes that rather than offering “a 9-5 state sector office job” to “a precarious freelancer, working from home, who enjoys their control over their conditions of work but not the uncertainty of their livelihood… A radical response, on the other hand, would be to explore ways in which flexible or freelance work (which might involve cross-border clientele) could be made less precarious and stressful – perhaps through a Universal Basic Income, or by expanding the “commons” of goods and services which are available outside the market economy.”
But one of these things is not like the other – they’re really, really different, and there’s serious consequences that follow on from those differences. To talk about a Universal Basic Income is to offer a state-based solution, and so one that pins its hopes on getting the left to capture the nation-state and manage the economy, so for all its proclaimed radicalism, the logic of such a position points back towards electoralism and all the baggage such an approach carries. On the other hand, “expanding the “commons” of goods and services which are available outside the market economy” is a much more genuinely radical, autonomist/anarchist/communist approach, one that doesn’t require us to place our faith in anything except each other.
Also, at the risk of sounding like the workerist dinosaur I am, I can’t help thinking that the most obvious method to made flexible/freelance work less precarious and stressful is one that’s already being practiced in some places – the classic solution of workers in these industries organising collectively to assert more control over their working conditions.
Concluding this article, Lawless writes that conservative leftism is “a way to explain the world which in fact makes it impossible to change it, because it does not look at the seeds that neoliberalism itself has planted which will undermine it one day.” There’s some truth to this, but I would suggest that the widespread crisis of faith in traditional authority and elite “experts” is precisely one of those seeds which is undermining the current social order.
In the next piece, “Trump, Brexit, Syria… and conservative leftism”, Lawless re-examines the idea of conservative leftism in the light of 2016’s “massive catastrophes”. I’m not convinced by how well the sequence “Trump, Brexit, Syria” holds together: certainly, it can be hard to resist lumping the first two into “unexpected electoral events where populist nationalism beat the neoliberal centre”, but there are also real differences between a vaguely-worded and unclear referendum and an electoral campaign based around parties and specific figureheads, not to mention between both of those things and a war.
One of those major differences is in the fact that the No2EU/Lexit and Another Europe is Possible campaigns were able to stay relatively independent from the official Leave and Remain campaigns, in a way that wouldn’t really be possible with a normal electoral race, especially not a two-party one. You can read this in a charitable way, and treat those campaigns as really being independent and advancing the values they claimed to uphold, or you can be cynical and say that both were just left window-dressing for one ruling-class camp or the other; but I can’t see any grounds for being harsh about one without being equally harsh about the other.
Lawless also refers to the Brexit campaign as being led by “the Trump-like UKIP”, a popular claim which doesn’t really stand up to examination; looking at the roles played by the likes of Johnson and Gove, it would be much more accurate to say that it was led by a faction within the Conservatives. Of course, that distinction doesn’t make it any less reactionary, but if we set things out clearly and say that it was fundamentally a confrontation between the more hardline nationalist and the more fanatically pro-business/free market wings of the Conservatives, the demand that we have to choose a camp and side with the lesser evil seems much less convincing.
Lawless accuses Lexiters of “one-sidedly attack[ing] the EU’s neoliberal institutions… and ignoring the fact that freedom of movement for workers between EU countries is a vital progressive gain for migrant workers”, but this presentation is itself one-sided. In particular, it’s worth looking at the propaganda term “freedom of movement”; while it’s true that EU citizens are indeed free to move from one country to another, I always feel uncomfortable with accounts that celebrate the freedom of movement within Fortress Europe without also mentioning the utter brutality of its border regime.
To just cheer for the freedom of movement of EU migrants, without ever looking at the way this system enshrines a two-tier approach where (mainly white) European citizens are given rights that African and Asian migrants are denied, may be convenient when trying to portray Brexit as being solely about racist xenophobia, but this approach struggles to explain why over a third of Asian voters, and the majority of Sikhs, voted to reject a system that discriminated against their families.
None of this is to excuse or minimise the wave of racist violence that followed the referendum; but a genuinely internationalist, non-campist position has to be equally critical of the mass suffering created by the Fortress Europe border regime, not brush it under the rug.
In passing, while writing this article I noticed another related piece, “Winning with Conservative Leftism: Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit” – I’ve not read this one fully enough to have a proper response, but did notice it contained one outright untruth: a claim that “the best predictor of wanting to quit the EU was being white”, which is backed up with a link to research showing that… education level, income level, housing status, people saying that they were economically struggling, thinking that Britain had got worse in the last 10 years, and thinking that life had got worse personally in the last 10 years were all far more accurate predictors of wanting to quit the EU than being white, with a strong majority of people who described themselves as white but not British backing remain.
The most recent article, the “zombie plague” piece looking at the spread of red-brown ideas, is again broadly on target, but with some worrying and overly broad strokes. At one point, Lawless cites Idrees Ahmed’s characterisation of the “alt-left” as being “a strain of leftism that sees liberalism rather than fascism as the main enemy”; it’s hard to know where those of us who reject campism and lesser evilism, who oppose fascism while recognising that we live in liberal democratic states, and that the state is no ally against fascism, fit into this picture.
Ahmed also complains about people who are “more concerned with imagined “deep state” conspiracies than with actual Russian subversion of US democracy”, which is a frankly laughable objection to raise. It’s hard to know what to say about this respect for “US democracy” – a system that, were it working properly and not being interfered with, would presumably have cemented the House of Clinton as being the other great dynasty rotating power with the House of Bush. Of all the atrocities that the Russian state can be blamed for, from the torture of anarchist and anti-fascist comrades to its contribution to the slaughter in Syria, getting outraged that it made some internet posts that sullied the integrity of the sacred process that gave us Bush, Nixon and Andrew Jackson seems a particularly odd thing to choose.
And as for “imagined deep state conspiracies” – the fact that some people have very confused ideas about what it is that the CIA and FBI get up to does not in any way mean that the CIA and FBI don’t exist. If being concerned about modern-day COINTELPRO operations like the Cleveland 4 frameup, the NATO 3 case, or the collusion between the state and the far-right to target J20 defendants makes me an alt-leftist, then I guess I must be an alt-leftist.
Ahmed also sneers at us for being “eager to prevent a global war no one is contemplating”, which I’m not sure is how things work; I don’t think many people in 1914 were consciously planning for the outbreak of a four-year conflagration that would devastate Europe and claim millions of lives, but the fact that no-one was planning for such an event didn’t make the anti-war movements of the day any less right.
Taking Ahmed’s somewhat problematic description of the alt-left as a starting point, Lawless says that the outcome of the US election could have been determined by the influence of alt-left ideas on “a small but significant minority of the US voting population… The 10% of people who voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary who went on to vote for Trump in the general election may well have tipped the balance.”
But with any event, large or small, there are a thousand and one factors that were at play in causing things to turn out exactly as they did.
There are many explanations that can be given, and the one that we choose will tend to say as much about our political framework as anything else; for instance, opponents of mass incarceration and the drug war might point to the laws stripping felons of their voting rights, and the way that the “justice” system operates to disenfranchise millions and millions of voters from the low-income and ethnic minority communities that tend to favour the Democrats, while critics of the Democrat establishment might point to the Clinton campaign just being really bad at campaigning in a lot of ways, and doing things like ignoring volunteers on the ground saying that things weren’t going well in Michigan and that they could use some help. Like any other explanation, the “Bernie Bros for Trump one” is most likely to be taken up by those with a certain political agenda and perspective; I’d say that it’s been pushed hard by supporters of the Democrat leadership and those who want to paint any criticism of that leadership as playing into the hands of the Republicans and white supremacy, so it’s odd to see a socialist – and self-proclaimed enemy of campism and lesser evilism! – picking it up.
A more serious point of difference is Lawless’ criticism of writers who argue “the rise of Trumpist neofascism, or protofascism, was in part fuelled by the neoliberals’ “hawkish” foreign policy” such as “supporting the insurgency which brought down Muammar Qadhafi’s dictatorial, murderous “modern state” in Syria”. Leaving aside the obvious slip-up here, it’s still the case that “supporting the insurgency” is quite a passive way to describe a major series of air raids. The list of objections Lawless presents to Clinton/Obama foreign policy is misleadingly short, brushing over both Clinton’s role in supporting things like the Iraq invasion in 2003 and the Honduras coup in 2009 and the sheer scale of Obama-era military intervention, as Obama presided over air strikes in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. The friendlier, softer rhetoric of the Obama regime shouldn’t be allowed to cloud over how warlike his record actually was.
As if it needs stating, none of this justifies support for Trump, but it should be possible to argue against Trump honestly, without blurring the facts when it comes to his opponents.
Lawless states that “Trump is sometimes even seen as a lesser evil – not because he is any less militaristic than Obama or the Clintons, but because he is on the same side as Russia”. Again, this isn’t the whole story: I certainly wouldn’t argue that his actual record has been any less militaristic, but his campaign rhetoric was all things to all people, and did at times include an anti-war pitch, especially in his outspoken criticism of the Iraq War, a stance that made a sharp contrast to Clinton’s warmongering record.
To repeat, I don’t think Trump’s anti-war posturing at some points during the campaign justifies supporting him at all, or even being gullible enough to believe him, but to talk as if Trump being comparatively pro-Russian was the only difference, and skip over his stance on Iraq, feels like a bit of a distortion, and one that shouldn’t really be needed. Those leftists who can only see Iraq in 2003, and interpret every situation as if it were a re-run of that, are certainly frustrating, but it’s equally unhelpful to write the Iraq war out of the campaign entirely.
Lawless claims that that are leftists whose “argument is precisely the same as that offered by those Rightists who admit Trump’s failings but see him as an “anti-politician” going into Washington to “combat the elites” and “drain the swamp””. But nothing she quotes shows anyone actually making this argument – she cites John Bellamy Foster and Ben Debney criticising Clinton’s policies, and Sanders, who definitely endorsed Clinton in the actual election, offering qualified approval of some specific Trump economic policies, but citing two people criticising Clinton, and one Clinton supporter saying some positive things about Trump, is not the same thing as showing anyone actually endorsing Trump as a counterweight to the military-industrial complex/deep state. If you can’t show anyone actually supporting Trump, then it looks a lot like you’re smearing.
Lawless complains that leftist writers who “make arguments that, in one way or another, “neoliberals did it to themselves”… mirror… an argument made by pro-Trump and other far-right forces.” The difficulty is that this argument is also true, unless we’re just going to rule pretty much everything about social conditions in the US in 2016 as being inadmissible evidence.
And again, this is very confusing from someone who’s talked about the need to study and nurture “the seeds that neoliberalism itself has planted which will undermine it one day”. So understanding how neoliberalism creates the social conditions that pave the way for its own downfall was vitally important for socialists in February 2016, but in 2018, anyone suggesting that the failure of the neoliberal centre’s preferred candidate might have had something do with the conditions created by neoliberalism sounds like a fascist.
Lawless accuses commentators on both the right and left of wanting “to provide an alibi for Trump voters”. At which point I have to ask what the point of this sort of analysis is. If the aim is moral judgement, to separate out the sinners from the elect, then certainly I’m happy to agree that people who voted for Trump did a bad thing. But if it’s meant to serve as a guide to strategy, then studying the fault lines in the Trump coalition and the ways in which it could potentially be broken apart seems worthwhile, and that in turn means not just writing everyone off as an undifferentiated reactionary mass, but looking sharply at potential divisions around things like economics.
It’s also important to be aware of, and resistant to, the tendency to slide between “Trump voters” and, for instance, “Appalachians” or just “anyone living in a red state” as a category. I don’t have much time for “Trump voters” as an abstraction, but given the ease with which “Trump voters are driven by bigotry and it’s right to mock people who talk about economic anxiety” can turn into “anyone who talks about economic problems and poverty in places like West Virginia is distracting from the real issue and making excuses for bigotry”, I tend to be very wary of anything that seems to point in that direction.
Lawless sums up with a quote from some confused US Marxist-Leninist organisation saying that “with Trump as President, promoters of harmful illusions about Obama, Clinton and the Democrats… will be in a weaker position… It should not take too long before the white working masses who voted for Trump have had enough experience to begin a serious struggle against this reactionary billionaire”. The first point there is obviously very stupid – being in opposition means that promoters of harmful illusions about the Democrats are in a stronger position, because they don’t have to answer to a record in government and are free to engage in all the #Resistance posturing they want.*
But while the first point is clearly false, the second point, the claim that “It should not take too long before the white working masses who voted for Trump have had enough experience to begin a serious struggle against this reactionary billionaire”, actually turns out to be… kind of true, or at least truer than would have seemed likely at the time it was written? If the recent wave of workers’ struggles across places like West Virginia, Kentucky, Georgia, Oklahoma, Arizona and so on haven’t quite fully borne out the Ray O’ Light perspective yet, they have at least firmly discredited any idea that workers in those places are always characterised by bigoted reactionary attitudes first and foremost, and that there’s no point looking for points where they might potentially come into conflict with the ruling class.
And besides, even accepting that the Ray O’ Light folks have an unhelpful and overexcitable analysis, that doesn’t in itself prove anything beyond that particular grouping having an unhelpful and overexcitable analysis. Just saying that RO’L agree with Debney and Bellamy Foster is not in itself enough evidence to show that the latter two actually share the former’s ideas, unless you can quote them saying similar things.
Lawless concludes that there are “parts of the Left reading the victories of the far Right as an obstacle to or “payback” for neoliberal globalist overreach – or performatively shrugging, on the grounds that nothing real has changed”. The first thing to examine here is what’s being smuggled into “the victories of the far right”, since the Brexit vote is not the same thing as the Trump campaign, and the vague wording leaves space for even more disparate phenomena to be bundled in there; and the second is the apparent equivalence being drawn between the very “campist” stance that would actively celebrate things like Trump’s election, and the much more “third campist” position of refusing to endorse lesser evils and stating that nothing real has changed.
The implication here seems to be that those of us who would stress the underlying continuity of the US state – those who believe that, while Trump certainly represents a new phase in the ongoing authoritarian nationalist development of that state, today’s ICE raids are not a fundamentally different thing to those that deported 2.5 million under Obama, just as the cops today are not fundamentally different to those who killed countless people, repressed uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore, and conspired with Nazis against antifascists under the nice cuddly Obama years – are not really, seriously interested in confronting Trump and the far right.
While Lawless is right to take aim at those who would back Putin, Assad, North Korea or anyone else as a counterweight to US power, her framing seems to go beyond this and target anyone who has a serious and uncompromising critique of the neoliberal center as being not really committed to the fight against Trump and the far right; and, by implication, to lay claim on those who are actively confronting the far right as endorsing the analysis that a fundamental change took place in November 2016, and that the social and economic conditions created by neoliberalism had nothing to do with that result.
Of course, as a limey and a kiwi respectively, neither of us is really that directly plugged in to contemporary US antifascist organising, and even if we were involved as individuals, that still wouldn’t give either of us the right to speak for the entire movement; but from what I’ve observed, among many of those people involved in confronting both street-based far-right movements and the Trump administration itself, there’s a heartening refusal to endorse the neoliberal 2016 status quo as being some kind of lesser evil, and a recognition that white supremacy is written into the foundations of the US state, that ICE was an inhumane enemy that needed to be resisted long before Trump came along, that the laws used to target the J20 defendants form part of a long and continuous history of repression even as their specific use represents an escalation, and so on.
Certainly, “conservative leftism” should be rejected, but “neoliberal leftism” wouldn’t be any kind of an improvement, or even a lesser evil. In the end, I think the conclusion to Lawless’ original article on campism sums up everything that needs to be said: (again, I might word things slightly differently, but that’s a side issue): “someone who aggressively demands that you take a side between two evils has an interest in concealing that the two camps are really not that different. Campism is born of weakness and lack of faith in the ability of real popular forces to build their own alternative to Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Damascus, Wellington and all the others. But that is precisely what socialism is supposed to be about.”**
*In fact, I’d argue that this is precisely one of the few saving graces of the Trump administration – having the alt-right’s preferred “goy” in power, saddled with the responsibility of presiding over four years of imperial decline, while the more liberal wing of the business class get to pose as saviours, is far from ideal, but it could yet to turn out to be less bad than what would’ve happened if the situation was reversed, so it was the Democrats who were stuck with the blame for everything that goes wrong for the next four years, while the far-right would be free to spread their ideas without being burdened by association with a failing administration.
** I’m aware that, while I was writing this, part II of the “zombie plague” series was published; but since that part seems to be very much just focused on critiquing actual red-brown currents and doesn’t really contain anything that I would read as being a “campist” defence of the Democrats, the EU or other neoliberal institutions, I don’t really have much to say in reply to it, it’s a piece of writing that I welcome without any serious reservations. Similarly, part III just came out while I was finishing this off, but I’m happy to leave things here.