Steve Bannon, in a video clip circulating online, warns that
the oligarchs’ day is coming. Remember, we’re going to turn all the social media companies into public utilities — public utilities, and get like a 7% return …and the public has to have a voice in the control of it.
And predictably, an endless parade of liberals have been responding in the exact same way:
Even socialists, on occasion, will indulge in this line, I guess because they think it’s a clever way to distinguish themselves from folks on the right. But when Rick Wilson is saying it too, perhaps we should think twice! The primary function of this rhetoric in our discourse, as far as I can tell, has been to associate socialists with Nazis; it plays the exact same role as “horseshoe theory” arguments.
But aside from the guilt-by-association problem, it’s also worth noting that our so-called national socialists are never really socialists. This wasn’t true of the Nazis, and it isn’t true of Bannon today.
Steve Bannon’s economics
If you want to know what Bannon thinks about economics, you don’t have to notice that he worked for the Republican Party, or that he also worked at Goldman Sachs, or that he even launched his own investment firm. All you have to do is pay attention to what he has actually said. His most extensive comments came in 2016 comments delivered to a right-wing Catholic group called the Institute for Human Dignity.
In that call, Bannon distinguished between three “strands” of capitalism:
“One is state-sponsored capitalism…the capitalism you see in China and Russia…a brutal form of capitalism that is really about creating wealth and creating value for a very small subset of people.”
“[T]he Ayn Rand or Objectivist School of libertarian capitalism… a capitalism that really looks to make people commodities, and to objectify people...”
“[A]n enlightened form of capitalism…if you look at the leaders of capitalism at that time, when capitalism was I believe at its highest flower and spreading its benefits to most of mankind, almost all of those capitalists were strong believers in the Judeo-Christian West…their beliefs, and the underpinnings of their beliefs was manifested in the work they did.”
Bannon’s argument is that the first two strands “are very disturbing,” but that the third is ideal. He sees his politics as a “reaction to centralized government,” and even when he seems to be criticizing the rich he is really just criticizing “major corporations that are in bed with the federal government [that] are not what we’d consider free-enterprise capitalists.”
This speech also gives some pretty clear insight into Bannon’s comments about social media. He sees it as the central background for “an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism” that Christians must fight and win. At length, he talks about how ISIS is using Twitter and Facebook to fundraise and spread their message. He also explains that he helped found Breitbart News “to let people understand the depths of this crisis…of capitalism but really of the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian West in our beliefs.”
Should we be surprised, then, that Bannon wants the state to seize control of social media? There is no principled commitment to public control of the economy here; on the contrary, he sees this as a necessary step to advance the cause of capitalism. Again, his comments make this quite clear: “we are strong capitalists. And we believe in the benefits of capitalism. And particularly, the harder-nosed the capitalism, the better.”
This distinction between anti-capitalist rhetoric and a socialist political program is particularly important when talking about fascism. Robert Paxton made this quite clear a few years ago in his rebuttal to Jonah Goldberg, whose book Liberal Fascism attempted to conflate socialism with the Nazis:
Since the Nazis recruited their first mass following among the economic and social losers of Weimar Germany, they could sound anti-capitalist at the beginning. Goldberg makes a big thing of the early programs of the Nazi and Italian Fascist Parties, and publishes the Nazi Twenty-five Points as an appendix. A closer look would show that the Nazis’ anti-capitalism was a selective affair… nowhere opposed to private property per se or favorable to a transfer of all the means of production to public ownership.
Indeed, one of the demands in those Twenty-five Points was state “opposition to known lies and their promulgation to the press,” adding that “Publications which are counter to the general good are to be forbidden.” And once in power, it became clear what this meant for the Nazis: taking control of communist and socialist publications, which they regarded as opponents of their agenda, through various front-groups.
But this, again, had nothing to do with a socialist agenda. As Gerald Feldman puts it in The Economic Origins and Dimensions of European Fascism,
In economic terms, Fascism and National Socialism were advantaged by their theoretical opportunism and purely instrumental and decisionist approaches to economic problems. They were anti-capitalist enough to be threatening to private enterprise and property but flexible enough to take advantage of the efficiencies of capitalist enterprises…
This unprincipled instrumentalism is one of fascism’s defining features; if you see its habit of seizing the press as evidence of some ideological opposition to economic inequality and private property, you’ve grossly understood how fascism operates. There’s a reason why Bannon describes himself not only as a capitalist, but as “a very practical, pragmatic capitalist.” If you’re too busy trying to connect fascism with socialism to notice its completely pragmatic approach to the economy, you’re going to miss it.