The Red-Brown “zombie plague” PART ONE

 

 

The Red-Brown “zombie plague”: how fascist ideas are becoming popular on the Left – PART ONE

By DAPHNE LAWLESS

 

is this marxist

This is part one of three of a major article to appear in Fightback’s June issue on Fascism and Anti-Fascism. Please contact fightback.australasia@gmail.com for subscription information.

Preface

This analysis follows on from that in three previous articles of mine which have previously appeared in Fightback publications:

The second and third articles are collected in our Fightback pamphlet What is Conservative Leftism?. In what follows, references to articles in that pamphlet will be cited with WiCL and the page number.

Introduction: Conspiracy theories and “pod people”

When I wrote “Against Conservative Leftism” just over two years ago, I considered it disturbing that socialists would rally to support New Zealand’s colonial-era flag. If I was disturbed then, there are no words left to describe how to feel in an era when committed revolutionary activists – people who have an honourable track record of struggle in favour of a classless society and against all oppression – are happy to argue that the recent chemical warfare attacks against rebel-held towns in Syria are a “false flag”, something faked by the US state or its allies to justify an invasion. Even one of my favourite musicians has recently repeated such baseless slander from the concert stage.

It’s a toss-up whether this version is more sickening than the alternative line, that the attacks were real but were carried out by the rebels themselves – that is, the rebels murdered their own children in order to manipulate foreign opinion. This is not the place to take these conspiracy theories to pieces – this has been admirably done already by many sources, for example Bellingcat or Snopes. The British ecosocialist writer George Monbiot also ably dismantled previous Syrian regime chemical warfare denial last year. The question – among others – that I wish to deal with here is of the similarity between this behaviour and the behaviour of the Right-wing conspiracy theorists who regularly yell FALSE FLAG to every mass killing in the United States – from the 9/11/2001 attacks in New York to the depressingly regular mass shootings in schools.

It’s common sense in liberal and Left circles that ideas like “9/11 Truth”, the theories that Barack Obama’s birth certificate was forged, or that the victims of the Sandy Hook or Parkland school shootings were “crisis actors”, are wild fantasies either made up by the bigoted and ill-informed to justify their prejudices, or else false narratives being deliberately fed to such people (for profit or political gain) by unscrupulous media operatives such as FOX News or Alex Jones’ InfoWars. We are appalled when parents of school shooting victims are harassed by unhinged strangers calling them conspiracy operatives and telling them that their dead children never existed.

And yet this is precisely what much of the Western Left has been doing to the people whose children died of chlorine poisoning in the basements of Douma, Syria. Experienced Western journalist Robert Fisk even took a trip to Douma – courtesy of the Syrian government – to find an anonymous doctor who would confirm such fantasies. This, while actual Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inspectors were still barred from the site, so that the regime and its allies could make the evidence disappear.

The motivation is clear. “False flag” theories are based on the idea that elaborate lies are being told by a secret conspiracy to manipulate public opinion, and that mainstream sources are part of this conspiracy. Alex Jones claims that school shootings are arranged/faked by the US state (or a secret faction within it, known as the “Deep State”) to take away US citizens’ rights to bear arms. The Left argues the same about atrocities in Syria, only the goal of the conspirators is to build support for a “regime change” invasion of Syria. Similar stories are currently circulating on Leftist social media about the protests against social welfare cuts in Nicaragua, and their murderous suppression by that country’s government (search “Nicaragua CIA” on Twitter). The far-Right and the Left end up with the same narrative – there is a conspiracy within the current US State to fake atrocities and protest movements so as to expand its influence, which must be pushed back. In fact, American fascists are just as keen as any on the US Left to deny chemical attacks in Syria – the Snopes article cited above reproduces a tweet from alt-right celebrity and star of the famous “punch in the face” video, Richard Spencer, doing just that.

The question is not whether states have ever faked attacks to justify interventions (there is evidence that the US intervention in Vietnam began with one. The question is the willingness of the Left to act like FOX News or InfoWars followers, to use the logical fallacy known as the “argument from consequences” to deny inconvenient facts and reporting. The fallacy goes like this: if X is true, it would lead to political consequences I oppose; therefore, X cannot be true. And any evidence that X is true is, as Donald Trump would put it, “FAKE NEWS”. If all we wish to do is to oppose US intervention in the Syrian war (ignoring for the moment that the US has been involved in the Syrian war since 2014, launching over 1000 air strikes against the “Islamic State” group), then denying the Assad regime’s chemical warfare atrocities is simply not necessary. All we have to do is argue that US attacks on the Assad regime would not prevent such atrocities, or otherwise make things worse.

Robin Yassin-Kassab, co-author of the essential text on the Syrian conflict Burning Country, recently discussed his run-ins with Western activists bending his ear about how “the Rothschilds” or “pipelines” were the secret behind all Middle-Eastern conflicts, and commented:

Arabs and Muslims are notoriously vulnerable to conspiratorial thinking, in part because in a previous generation so much politics was actually done by conspiracy, and in part through intellectual laziness. It’s always been simpler to blame ‘the Jews’ or ‘the Shia’ for all ills than to actually address the ills. But not really simpler. Conspiracy theories don’t merely promote complacent inaction, they create new tragedies too. In north western Pakistan, for instance, where word spread that the polio inoculation was a UN poison to render Muslims infertile, a new generation has been stunted by the disease.

Perhaps there’s more excuse for conspiracism in regions where the people are subject to the traumas of poverty, dictatorship and war. If so, its increasing prevalence in the educated, prosperous West is more difficult to explain.

So, what is behind the enthusiasm of the Western activist Left for these denialist narratives? The argument that I wish to make in this article is as follows:

  1. the growing willingness of Left activists to believe ideologically-convenient conspiracy theory over well-supported reporting is part of a growing convergence of Leftist and farright rhetoric, in particular around the ongoing war in Syria. While – with some exceptions to be discussed – Leftists do not openly or consciously align themselves with fascists, many increasingly accept ideas that are disquietingly close to fascist narratives. The idea of a politics which unifies Leftists and fascists has historically been known by many names, including Strasserism, Third Position or Querfront (German for “cross-front”). In this article I will use the well-established term redbrown; brown taken from the Nazi “brownshirts” (stormtroopers).
  2. This “Red-Brown” convergence is based on a political misrecognition of neoliberal globalism as a conspiracy of the US and other Western countries for global domination, rather than a strategy adopted by the global capitalist class as a whole. This has led the Left into an “anti-imperialism” which is in fact nationalism under another name; which leads to programmatic unity with fascists who support authoritarian “ethno-states”.
  3. This is a problem which cuts across the “revolutionary/reformist” division on the Left. A strong base of this thinking is found in the revitalised “Marxist-Leninist” (ML) trend on the Internet, but the acceptance of nationalism, traditionalism and anti-rationalism which I have previously called “conservative leftism” has a long history in both the social-democratic and Communist traditions on the Left, including the support base of British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
  4. This convergence is encouraged by the propaganda/intelligence branches of the Russian state, for its own geopolitical reasons. But it is also perpetuated by an unwillingness for socialists (who have lived through decades of isolations) to struggle among themselves over political line; or, worse, a more-or-less conscious rejection of international solidarity in favour of keeping the biggest “broad front” at home. Finally, there is a small contingent of people associated with the Left who have discarded anti-fascist principle and now actively support a Querfront (with the Russian state, the US “alt-right” and even the Trump administration) against neoliberal globalism. While this explicit alliance makes up a minority of the left, it must be actively fought.’

Some Leftists on social media have expressed their bemusement at their erstwhile comrades coming out with conspiracy theories in support of the brutal authoritarian regime in Syria. Some have jokingly used the term “pod people” – an image taken from the old horror film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where people are replaced by clones grown in pods by alien invaders. I prefer to use another science-fiction trope – that of a “zombie plague”. As I see it, Red-Brown politics is the intellectual equivalent of an infectious disease that has taken hold in a lot of the Left and led to a lot of good comrades taking up positions which have led to them supporting fascist positions. I continue to believe that there is a “cure” for this plague, that good activists can be won back from such positions, and that articles such as this one may play a part in doing so.

Class politics or geopolitics? – against “alt-imperialism”

In a piece from August last year, British-Pakistani academic and journalist Idrees Ahmed ably summed up what he calls as the “alt-left” trend in Western politics. His article is worth reading in full if you’re not already aware of the situation () but here are some salient extracts:

…a strain of leftism that sees liberalism rather than fascism as the main enemy. It is distinguished mainly by a reactionary contrarianism, a seething ressentiment, and a conspiracist worldview.

In its preoccupations it is closer to the right: More alarmed by Hillary Clinton winning the primary than by Donald Trump winning the presidency; more concerned with imagined “deep state” conspiracies than with actual Russian subversion of US democracy; eager to prevent a global war no one is contemplating but supportive of a US alliance with Russia for a new “war on terror”.

Like the right it disdains “globalists”, it sees internationalism as liberal frivolity, and its solidarity is confined to repressive regimes overseas….

For the alt-left, Hillary Clinton’s call for a no-fly zone to protect Syria’s civilians was proof that she wanted a global war. Donald Trump on the other hand was going to protect America from WWIII because of his “non-interventionist mindset” (Glenn Greenwald).

Jill Stein and Susan Sarandon both insisted that Trump was “the lesser evil”. Even his bombings were “consistent with the particular ‘non-interventionist’ outlook” (Greenwald & Tracey).

These arguments turned out to be convincing to a small but significant minority of the US voting population – which was enough to set us down the path we are on now. 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.

As suggested above, I do not believe that this kind of politics is becoming more and more prevalent because of a conscious softening to fascism (in the majority of cases). In part, it is an outcome of the developing logic of the “conservative leftist” arguments which I have argued have become hegemonic on the Western Left – arguments based on nationalism, traditionalism and anti-rationalism. But more recently, these ideas have been assiduously propagated by extremely well-resourced media networks (both state-directed and corporate), which has led even staunch anti-fascists to adopt positions and arguments which agree with fascist principles.

The most pressing issue, as I see it, is that a sizeable part (perhaps a majority) of liberal and Left opinion in the West has adopted a one-sided view of imperialism, which has more to do with fascist ideas than the socialist tradition. In Vladimir Lenin’s classic analysis, made against other socialists who thought that capitalist globalisation would lead to world peace, imperialism is “the most recent phase (also translated “highest stage”) of capitalism” Against Karl Kautsky, who believed that capitalist globalisation might lead to an end to war, Lenin argued that the international expansion of capitalist firms and their fusion with state power would inevitably lead to military rivalries for markets and resources.

However, it seems much of the Left has (openly or quietly) has instead adopted an idea that “imperialism” only applies to the United States, or the group of advanced capitalist countries of which the US is generally seen to be the leader. States like Russia or China, by this analysis, cannot be imperialist by definition. And as neoliberal globalisation is seen as only the latest ploy by US-centric imperialism to achieve global domination, neoliberalism, globalisation/“globalism”, imperialism and “Western” power are all collapsed into meaning the same thing. This conspiratorial analysis of neoliberal globalism views the phenomenon as a ploy of one state, faction of states, or actors within a state to gain global domination. On the contrary, a systematic analysis of neoliberal globalism, following on from Lenin’s, reads neoliberalism and globalization a reaction of the global capitalist system as a whole to expand its profits. The latter points towards global solidarity of the oppressed; the former puts the Left in the same camp as fascists. (I will discuss what I see as the intellectual origins of this interpretation of “imperialism” on the Left later on in this article.)

The most obvious “outbreak” of this Red-Brown zombie plague is the debate on the ongoing conflict in Syria. Since the foreign policy of the US state under President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (the high point of neoliberalism to date) was to confront Russian expansion and give support (if half-heartedly) to the “Arab Spring” liberation movements, then these movements have become seen as enemies (“US proxies” and/or “terrorists”) by many Leftists. To be blunt, for much of the “anti-imperialist Left”, for Bashar al-Assad to gas children to death in a basement is preferable than for the United States or other Western countries to interfere with this in any way. But Russian or Iranian interference to support Assad is not a problem worth talking about, let alone demonstrating about. In this, the “alt-imperialist” Left is precisely mimicking the arguments of the fascist Right – as seen when fascists march alongside Left anti-imperialists against Western intervention in Syria, both carrying pictures of Assad and Putin.

In what follows, I wish to take a deep dive into a couple of articles from Leftists – not among those consciously supporting the Assad regime or Russian foreign policy, but what are on the surface “anti-fascist” articles repeating as common sense the very ideas that have allowed fascist activists to walk hand-in-hand with anti-imperialist Leftists on the Syria issue.

My first example is respected US Marxist John Bellamy Foster. In the middle of a generally excellent article arguing that the Trump administration is indeed neo-fascist, the author gives the following summary of US foreign policy over the last decade:

The push of NATO into the Ukraine, supporting a right-wing coup in the attempt to check Russia as a reemerging superpower, led to a Russian pushback under Vladimir Putin, with the annexation of the Crimea and intervention in the Ukraine along its borders. Russia further responded by aggressively intervening in Syria, undermining the attempt by the United States, NATO and Saudi Arabia to bring down the Assad regime by supporting surrogate pro-Salafist forces (committed to the creation of a fundamentalist Sunni state) … The main part of the ruling class and the national security state was strongly committed to a new Cold War with Russia, with Hillary Clinton vowing to introduce no-fly zones in Syria, which would have meant shooting down Russian as well as Syrian planes, bringing the world to the brink of global thermonuclear war. (emphases added)

The talking points emphasised above – that the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych’s government by the “Euromaidan” movement in Ukraine in 2014 was a “right wing coup”; that the Syrian rebels are “pro-Salafist… fundamentalist Sunni”, and that a pushback against Russian support for the Assad regime would risk “thermonuclear war” – could have come straight from a Russian Embassy press release. A cursory Google search will show that they are at best misleading half-truths and at worst nothing but Russian propaganda. To give an obvious illustration, Turkish forces shot down a Russian plane over Syria in 2015 – and Donald Trump conducted missile strikes against Assad regime targets in April 2017 and in April 2018. Yet, curiously, thermonuclear war hasn’t broken out yet.

Similarly, Australian anarchist academic Ben Debney approvingly quotes Gary Leupp writing on the website Counterpunch, a website which has been a source for a lot of Assadist propaganda over the last five years, that among good reasons not to support Hillary Clinton over Trump were:

various U.S. interventions during the “Arab Spring;” the U.S./NATO assault on Libya that destroyed that modern state, etc. (emphasis added)

Debney goes on to argue that “the fifty-three percent of white females who voted for [Trump] might have felt that having a woman president of the order of a Neocon [neo-conservative] by Any Other Name wasn’t the most liberating option on the table for women”. Similarly, Bellamy Foster argues that the Obama/Clinton pushback on Russia led to a pro-Russian split in the ruling class, whose interests are expressed through Donald Trump.

The argument that both writers are making is that the rise of Trumpist neofascism, or protofascism, was in part fuelled by the neoliberals’ “hawkish” foreign policy. By this, they mean supporting the insurgency which brought down Muammar Qadhafi’s dictatorial, murderous “modern state” in Syria; supporting certain rebel forces in Syria (some of whom but not all could be described as Islamist or “Salafist” [i]); or pushing against Russian interests in Eastern Europe.

Worse yet, 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. Every bomb dropped on “Islamic State” targets such as Raqqa is fine by Leftists who are only concerned about whether Russia supports such mayhem or not (and it does). One particularly confused American Marxist-Leninist organisation put it like this:

… a Clinton presidency would have been more dangerous for the international working class and the oppressed peoples of the world… A President Clinton could have led in short order to a major war between Russia and the USA… (Ray O’Light Newsletter, November-December 2016, p. 4).

Fascism as a lesser evil to confrontation with Russia? Firstly, as American journalist Charles Davis has written on several occasions (for example), Trump’s foreign policy was openly more militaristic than Clinton’s. He actually promised before the election to expand the existing US/allied bombing campaign against “Islamic State” targets in Syria. No-one who had a principled position against US military interventions could have supported Trump over Clinton. But it was certainly possible if you supported Russian policy in, for example, Ukraine and Syria, and wanted the US to fall in line with that policy.

Curiously absent, too, from these criticisms of neoliberal “hawkery” is any concern with the interests and agency of the people of the territories concerned themselves. NATO intervened to support an uprising against Qadhafi; but why was there an uprising? Why would Syrians form armed factions, even ones with a conservative “Salafist” programme, in opposition to their regime? Why would many Ukrainians support parties seeking to join the NATO imperialist alliance as a “lesser evil” to domination by Russian interests? Surely that’s the first thing that socialists or anarchists, devoted to radical democracy from below, should be asking? (I will return to this “Orientalist” view of the Middle East later.)

Writing 20 years ago, the late American socialist academic Moishe Postone set out the argument against this kind of politics:

What the Cold War seems to have eradicated from memory … is that opposition to an imperial power is not necessarily progressive, that there were fascist “anti-imperialisms” as well. This distinction was blurred during the Cold War in part because the USSR aligned itself with authoritarian regimes, for example, in the Middle East, that had little in common with socialist and communist movements, that, if anything, had more in common with fascism than communism and that, in fact, sought to liquidate their own Left. Consequently, anti-Americanism per se became coded as progressive, although there had and have been deeply reactionary as well as progressive forms of anti-Americanism.

Examples of pre-Cold War “fascist anti-imperialism” could be Imperial Japan’s appeal against British and French imperialism to justify its expansion into east Asia, or Lehi, the Zionist paramilitary group in British-ruled Palestine who were explicitly fascist at some stages and Red-Brown at others.

What Postone is calling out here is what I have previously called out as “campism”, but which could also be called RedBrown antiimperialism – or even, on the model of Idrees Ahmed’s “alt-leftism”, altimperialism. This is the politics where imperialism is seen only as coming from one country, or one alliance of countries, and is contrasted to the “national sovereignty” of various regimes – no matter how autocratic, rather than in favour of the self-determination and autonomy of peoples. Lebanese journalist Joey Hussein Ayoub has given the name “essentialist anti-imperialism” to the same phenomenon: “defined solely in relation to [one’s] own governments rather than on the basis of a universal opposition to all forms of imperialism.”

Amar Diwarkar argues that this is not so much a conscious embrace of Fascist politics, but:

a tactical tolerance of the far-right’s nativist anti-establishment logic to accelerate the dissolution of the ruling order and bring about a transitional phase preceding social transformation. However, by eliminating the dimension of the international from its purview, what remains is a strikingly non-radical relativism. Its underlying logic is one that is infused with a colonial unconscious; a conviction that Western agency is the eternal subject and locus of motion – the prime mover of History.

Thus, although Debney is an anarchist who strongly criticises the Soviet state in Russia, his arguments about how “neoliberalism helped lead to Trump” are in fact in line with that very state-centric Cold War leftism which supported the USSR as the “lesser evil” against capitalist imperialism. Struggles of ordinary people in the Middle East and Eastern Europe are seen in this framework entirely through the lens of whether US “power” is extended thereby. The governments of Assad in Syria, Qadhafi in Libya or Yanukovych in Ukraine are not seen in relationship to the people over whom they claim authority, but whether they support or oppose the supposed designs of United States foreign policy. The argument is not over “militarism”, but of instinctive support for any state which is seen to oppose US foreign policy – and if they are supported by Russian foreign policy, so much the better.

Bellamy Foster and Debney demonstrate that even those Leftists who recognize the warning signs of fascism in his “base” see Trump as a possible counter-balance to those parts of the US federal government who supposedly plot global domination via neoliberal globalization. In another recent example of this, Senator Bernie Sanders, the great “left-wing” hope in the 2016 election against Clintonite neoliberalism, expressed qualified support for Trump’s protectionist economics. Whether the bad guys are called the “military-industrial complex” or “the Deep State”, the 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”.

Bellamy Foster and Debney both make arguments that, in one way or another, “neoliberals did it to themselves”. This also mirrors an argument made by pro-Trump and other far-right forces. The Rightist version of the argument is to point to any support for multiculturalism, feminism or queer/trans rights and say: “This is why people voted for Trump” (Google that phrase for examples). A subtler one – heard on the Left as well as the Right – is the rightly-mocked “economic anxiety” argument, that Trump voters were motivated by poverty and insecurity caused by neoliberal economics. All these narratives have the same ideological basis – to provide an alibi for Trump voters, to argue that Trump voters didntreallysupport their candidates stated xenophobic, militaristic platform and his misogynist behaviour.

The final word has to go to Ray OLight Newsletter, who agree with Debney and Bellamy Foster, in a simpler and more extreme form:

In our view, a fascist was elected U.S. president, but strong elements of fascism had already arrived here long before Trump’s election… 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. (November-December 2016, pp. 4-5).

In other words, the German Communists’ boast: after Hitler, us!, updated for a 21st century audience.

Thus we see 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 or even that opportunities are opening up for the Left. They share a belief that Western imperialism is the great threat to the world, rather than Russian or Chinese expansionism or smaller authoritarian states; they agree that democracy is not to be trusted if it might be exploited by Islamist movements. They are state-centric (even anarchists such as Debney, or Noam Chomsky) and prize “stability and order” against democracy and self-determination. Their main interest in the growth of far-Right and Fascism movements globally is to use it as a stick to beat neoliberalism with. It’s as if 1933 never happened.

Still to come: Vectors and Germs of the Red-Brown Virus


[i]                       “Salafist” or “Salafi” means a “fundamentalist” Muslim who wishes to return Islam to the practices of Prophet Muhammad and his Companions (salaf). However, in popular articles about the Middle East it is used generally a “snarl word”, meaning any devout Sunni Muslim of whom the author does not approve. Michael Muhammad Knight’s Why I Am A Salafi (2014) is a good introduction to these issues: see a review here.

 

 

Advertisements

Comments

  1. Great work, Daphne.

  2. Reblogged this on Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist and commented:
    Great analysis from a New Zealand socialist.

  3. Bravo! Medium’s favorite Russian sympathizer Caitlin Johnstone (and others) are part of a historical (not to mention hysterical) tradition. The left that tries to make peace with far right nut jobs isn’t doing anyone any favors–except those who see a benefit in the west’s division.

  4. Reblogged, love it. My DSA chapter takes this very seriously. We have a Syrian comrade and our former cochair died serving in the YPG.

  5. Yehya Mamdouh says:

    Summed up what I was saying for years but could not but could not put it down in such a well written and articulate piece like yours. Thank you for the amazing analysis!

  6. I’ve put together a response to the series here: https://nothingiseverlost.wordpress.com/2018/05/22/red-babies-brown-bathwater-a-response-on-the-zombie-plague/ It’s quite critical in some places, but definitely coming from a shared position of wanting to oppose the red-brown convergence, so if I scrutinise your ideas quite harshly it’s because think we’re more or less on the same side, and so it’s worth maintaining high standards, if that makes sense?

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: