Monday, July 4, 2016

Media criticism and antifascism

Last week I rolled out a quick piece - Filopovic's "US worker exceptionalism", and the hard-working volk - in response to some bizarre and disturbing comments our favorite Cosmo thinkfluencer made on Twitter. While the feedback I've had from this has been overwhelmingly positive, I have received two points of criticism that I think are worth responding to. The first is a Godwin's law style critique that objects in principle to invoking Nazism in political argumentation; the second concerns itself with why I would target for criticism someone as irrelevant and basically liberal as Jill Filopovic.

Both of these concerns, I think, are addressed by the same explanation. Much of my writing proceeds within the political and intellectual tradition of The Frankfurt School, a branch of leftist thought that I routinely invoke and defend on this site. I believe their work is important precisely because it was forged in the crucible of early-twentieth century antifascism: these were leftists who experienced society at its most pathological, and who had a direct, personal, life-or-death stake in fighting fascism. Among the main lessons they took from their struggle, Stephen Crook singles out two:
"[First,] Authoritarian irrationalism is an integral part of enlightened modernity, not to be thought away as historical relic, unintended consequence or marginal other...[Second, there is] a direct continuity between authoritarian irrationalist propaganda and the everyday products of the 'culture industry.'" (Crook, v)
The first point is of course directly at odds with the rhetoric of Godwin's Law, which implies that references and analogies to historical fascism are usually inappropriate and illegitimate. The Frankfurt School, on the contrary, argued that fascism is always with us. It is a latent pathology of capitalism, always ready to metastasize: as Barthes argues, "The petitbourgeois class is not liberal (it produces Fascism, whereas the bourgeoisie uses it)". References to fascism may be abused, but we cannot allow this to become a reason to stop talking about fascism - and in fact, we should recognize that there is something definitively fascist in Godwin's Law's purely procedural and unsubstantive rejection of antifascist rhetoric. Against that posture, the Frankfurt School pleads with us to err on the side of caution, oversensitivity and hypervigilance.

This, in part, compels Crook's second point: that we should even guard against the emergence of fascism in the seemingly innocuous "everyday products of the 'culture industry'". It's easy enough to wait until a rich violent right-wing ethnonationalist is actually on the verge of seizing power to start rolling out the Salon antifascist takes - but some of us have been writing about this for years. For instance, back in 2014 I was already writing about the "American fascism" evident
in the strange ambivalence of many Republicans towards Putin - beneath the national rivalry, a current of admiration for Putin's power, and a resentful appreciation of its exercise against the international left.
Nobody who has noticed the grudging respect and reverence the American right has for Putin should have been at all surprised by the ascendance of Trump. But to get this, you couldn't just wait for Trump himself to start praising Putin as "strong" and "tough" - you have to have seen this rhetoric emerging among some of the least prominent Americans, the Free Republic #tcots praising Putin's "natural born force of character" and so on.

The left has always attended with particular concern to the way that such hypermasculine, violence-inflected authority figures catalyze the emergence of fascism. Another major dynamic the left has always focused on is the way that exploitative economic arrangements can mobilize fascist politics in their defense. Primo Levi was quite explicit about this:
In reality, and despite appearances to the contrary, repudiation of and contempt for the moral value of work was and is essential to the fascist myth in all its forms. Under all militarism, colonialism, and corporatism lies the precise determination of one class to exploit the work of others, and at the same time to deny them any human worth. (The Black Hole of Auschwitz, 8 - h/t Corey Robin)
It should be clear, here, why Barthes writes that the petit bourgeoisie produces fascism. They are the apologists of capitalist exploitation - and they can win support for capitalism, even among the poor and oppressed, by playing on feelings of racist and nationalist supremacy. This becomes increasingly necessary as economic inequality increases and the poor and oppressed find conventional meritocratic explanations less and less convincing. The petit bourgeoisie insists that the local population is somehow uniquely productive and valuable despite its immiseration, and that it is really just the inferior, parasitical others - the Jews, the minorities, the foreigners - who are holding them back. Thus, Crook writes, it is these scapegoats who come to "embody those visible features of capitalist modernity which are found most objectionable".

Thus, just as macho authoritarian rhetoric is an early indicator of fascism, so is the rhetoric that links worker productivity to national / racial character. It's easy to see how dangerous the latter can become if it emerges among the media as a legitimate and respectable way to justify economic inequality: as the plight of the international working class gets worse and worse, capitalists will have more and more of an incentive to advance explicitly racist and nationalist justifications for it.

This kind of systematic explanation is crucial if we want to understand and anticipate the emergence of fascism in the modern world. It is not as if media figures who indulge in remarks about "US worker exceptionalism" are somehow personally responsible for fascism - nor, for that matter, are the random powerless American grandpas who fetishize Putin on right-wing message boards. What foments fascism is when this pathology gets caught up and amplified by much larger political and economic forces like wealth inequality and international conflict; as Zellig Harris warned, if fascism comes to America, it will "differ only in form from the German example [and will] thrive primarily on the critical social and economic inequalities of our present society." (Barsky, 69)

We do well, I think, to keep our eyes open for this. Adorno famously pored through three months of astrology columns in the Los Angeles Times for fascist rhetoric in his essay The Stars Down to Earth; Barthes deconstructed the fascist premises latent in a tourism guide to Spain; Fromm uncovered them in obscure tenets of Calvinism. Today, of course, the main product of the culture industry is in the media - and I suspect that in the innocuous semi-erudition of petit bourgeois pundits struggling to rationalize capitalism we will occasionally see what the antifascists of the Frankfurt School had in mind.