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‘A cat in hell’s chance’ – why we’re losing the battle to keep global warming below 2C

By Andew Simms.This article was first published on The Guardian.

A global rise in temperature of just 2C would be enough to threaten life as we know it. But leading climate scientists think even this universally agreed target will be missed. Could dramatic action help?

Under threat: a polar bear tries its weight on thin sea ice in the Arctic. Photograph: Mario Hoppmann/AFP/Getty Images

It all seemed so simple in 2008. All we had was financial collapse, a cripplingly high oil price and global crop failures due to extreme weather events. In addition, my climate scientist colleague Dr Viki Johnson and I worked out that we had about 100 months before it would no longer be “likely” that global average surface temperatures could be held below a 2C rise, compared with pre-industrial times.

What’s so special about 2C? The simple answer is that it is a target that could be politically agreed on the international stage. It was first suggested in 1975 by the environmental economist William Nordhaus as an upper threshold beyond which we would arrive at a climate unrecognisable to humans. In 1990, the Stockholm Environment Institute recommended 2C as the maximum that should be tolerated, but noted: “Temperature increases beyond 1C may elicit rapid, unpredictable and non-linear responses that could lead to extensive ecosystem damage.”

To date, temperatures have risen by almost 1C since 1880. The effects of this warming are already being observed in melting ice, ocean levels rising, worse heat waves and other extreme weather events. There are negative impacts on farming, the disruption of plant and animal species on land and in the sea, extinctions, the disturbance of water supplies and food production and increased vulnerability, especially among people in poverty in low-income countries. But effects are global. So 2C was never seen as necessarily safe, just a guardrail between dangerous and very dangerous change.

To get a sense of what a 2C shift can do, just look in Earth’s rear-view mirror. When the planet was 2C colder than during the industrial revolution, we were in the grip of an ice age and a mile-thick North American ice sheet reached as far south as New York. The same warming again will intensify and accelerate human-driven changes already under way and has been described by James Hansen, one of the first scientists to call global attention to climate change, as a “prescription for long-term disaster”, including an ice-free Arctic.

Nevertheless, in 1996, a European Council of environment ministers, that included a young Angela Merkel, adopted 2C as a target for the EU. International negotiators agreed the same in 2010 in Cancun. It was a commitment repeated in the Paris Climate Accord of 2015 where, pushed by a new group of countries called the Climate Vulnerable Forum, ambitions went one step further, agreeing to hold temperature rises to “well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5C”.

François Hollande and Ban Ki-moon at Paris climate accord in 2015

French president François Hollande (right) and UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon (second left) celebrate the Paris climate accord in 2015. Photograph: Francois Mori/AP

Is it still likely that we will stay below even 2C? In the 100 months since August 2008, I have been writing a climate-change diary for the Guardian to raise questions and monitor progress, or the lack of it, on climate action. To see how well we have fared, I asked a number of leading climate scientists and analysts for their views. The responses were as bracing as a bath in a pool of glacial meltwater.

Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies has an important place in the history of climate-change research. Hansen was its director from 1981 until 2013. Donald Trump is set to strip the institute of funding for climate research. Its current director, Dr Gavin Schmidt, is categoric that we are no longer likely to stay below 2C. “The inertia in the system (oceans, economies, technologies, people) is substantial and … so far the efforts are not commensurate with the goal,” he says.

Sabine Fuss, of Germany’s Mercator Research Institute, on Global Commons and Climate Change says emissions are currently “not aligned” with the 2C target and will need to “come down more quickly”. Joanna Haigh, co-director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and Environment, thinks there is “no chance whatsoever at current levels of carbon emissions”, and her Grantham Institute colleague, Prof Sir Brian Hoskins, is not “confident” that temperature rises can be held below 2C.

Prof Andrew Watkinson of the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia thinks it “unlikely” and Prof John Shepherd, a physicist at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, calls it “not very likely at all”. Stuart Haszeldine of the School of GeoSciences at the University of Edinburgh says we have “very little chance”, and Prof Piers Forster, director of the Priestly International Centre for Climate at the University of Leeds calls it, “on the fanciful edge of plausible”. Glen Peters, senior researcher at Norway’s leading climate change centre, Cicero, is unambiguous, saying: “We have emitted too much already.” And these sentiments are echoed by Prof Alice Larkin, of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at Manchester University, and Dr Chris Vernon, a glaciologist and former scientist at the Met Office’s Hadley Centre for Climate Science. Only one influential scientist preferred their comments to remain anonymous, but they too said we were off-target, because the “international negotiating process is disconnected from national policymaking”.

In short, not a single one of the scientists polled thought the 2C target likely to be met. Bill McGuire, professor emeritus of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, is most emphatic. “My personal view,” he says, “is that there is not a cat in hell’s chance.”

The most positive response came in the guarded words of Chris Jones, head of the Earth system and mitigation science team at the Met Office’s Hadley Centre, who says that current levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere “don’t preclude” successfully achieving the target. Prof Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, would “only confirm that it is still possible to keep global warming below 2C”. The last point, however, is contentious, for precisely the reason the target exists. Namely, to prevent global warming from feeding off itself by triggering long-term, potentially irreversible environmental domino effects, such as ice loss and forest die-back, and the weakening ability of things such as our oceans to absorb carbon. “The open question for me is not whether we will breach the 2C target,” says Prof Barry McMullin of Dublin City University, “but how soon.”

In addition, the temperature target is a global average, and local variations matter. In November 2016, the Arctic was already experiencing extraordinary anomalies. Temperatures were 20C above normal. A global average rise of 2C implies higher temperatures still for the Arctic, sufficient to push long-term ice loss and trigger other potentially uncontrollable climate changes. At the other end of the world, a development more bizarre than extraordinary is touching the Antarctic. Gambling with our future used to be largely a metaphor, but it is now possible to place bets on when the next giant iceberg will detach itself from the Larsen C ice shelf. At the time of writing, betting company PaddyPower is offering odds of 7/2 in February 2017 or 12/1 in August.

Hoskins says: “We have no evidence that a 1.9C rise is something we can easily cope with, and 2.1 is a disaster.” But Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, one of the countries most vulnerable to warming, warns in stark terms of the failure to stick to a much lower target: “The consequences of failing to keep the temperature below 1.5C will be to wilfully condemn hundreds of millions of the poorest citizens of Earth to certain deaths from the severe impacts of climate change.”

A rift in the Antarctic peninsula’s Larsen C ice shelf

A Nasa photograph of a massive rift in the Antarctic peninsula’s Larsen C ice shelf, observed in November 2016. Photograph: Nasa/EPA

“I think we actively chose to forgo the carbon budgets for a likely chance of 2C many years ago,” says Kevin Anderson, currently professor of climate change at Uppsala University in Sweden. “Judging that rate at which our emissions would need to be reduced was too politically challenging to contemplate.”

The one thing agreed by all the climate scientists was the need for immediate and dramatic transition to a low-carbon economy, at a scale and speed we have not yet remotely approached. And the truly striking thing is that a huge number of the actions we need to take are things that bring enormous economic, social and environmental benefits. Rationally, we would be choosing to do them anyway. Where there are challenging shifts in behaviour required, they mostly affect only a small, wealthy proportion of society. Take flying, for example: 70% of all flights by UK residents are accounted for by just 15% of the population.

So, what scale of change are we looking at to stay below 2C? Being optimistic about what might be achieved in terms of saving forests from being cut down and cleaning up industry, especially the production of steel and cement, Anderson estimates globally we can afford to emit around 650bn tonnes of carbon dioxide in total from energy systems. Currently, the world pumps out about 36bn tonnes every year alone. Starting from today, and assuming that poorer and industrialising nations see a peak in the emissions from energy use by 2025 and go zero carbon by 2050, Anderson calculates that this leaves a rich country such as the UK with the challenge of cutting its emissions by around 13% per year.

Chris Goodall charts the remarkable rise of renewable energy and its equally dramatic falling costs. But renewables have to substitute for fossil fuels, not merely add to overall energy supply. In the meantime, it matters as much that we reduce our total energy use. You will hear a lot of talk about technologies to capture carbon from the burning of fuel and prevent it entering the atmosphere. Most of the climate models used to project what will happen to our atmosphere rely heavily on the assumption that they will be used at large scale. While most climate scientists see these so-called “negative emissions technologies” for carbon capture and storage (CCS) as essential parts of the toolkit to tackle climate change, many are sceptical of hope being placed in them. It is easier not to burn the carbon in the first place.

“There is no guarantee that CCS will work at a sufficiently global scale,” says Dr Hugh Hunt, a Cambridge specialist on climate engineering. “These technologies will take decades to reach any meaningful scale.” Tellingly, as an engineer, he argues that our top priorities are to stop burning fossil fuels and for the biggest consumers to live less extravagantly. And, it seems, moderate shifts by the most profligate could yield huge climate dividends. Currently about half of all global emissions are the responsibility of just of just one in 10 of the global population.

Traffic on a Los Angeles freeway

Climate threat: traffic on a Los Angeles freeway. Photograph: Dan Chung for the Guardian

If just this group reduced their carbon footprints to that of the average, barely impoverished European, argues Anderson, global emissions would be cut by around one-third.

There are many ways to reach a 2C world, according to Prof Diana Ürge-Vorsatz, of the Central European University. “Their common characteristic is that they all require rapid and transformational action,” she says. Small, incremental changes won’t do it.

Retrofitting existing buildings in rich countries can save 70-90% of the energy used to heat and cool them, she adds. And such a move also tackles fuel poverty, creates local jobs and reduces deaths from cold. Switching transport from fossil fuels to electricity power by renewables cuts emissions but also removes the air pollution that is responsible for an epidemic of lethal respiratory disease. In Europe alone, about half a million people suffer premature deaths each year due to air pollution.

In November 2016, many, mostly low-income countries, from Bangladesh to Tanzania and Guatemala, committed to switching entirely to renewable energy by 2030-50 at the latest. Costa Rica, aided by favourable geography, has already managed to power itself for extended periods, relying just on renewables. Portugal has managed the same for shorter periods. But great leaps forward are happening elsewhere, too. China is installing more new wind energy capacity in a single year than the UK has in total.

So, adding to the prevailing global strangeness, the edifice of international climate policy rests on a target that no one believes it is likely can be met. And some think even that insufficiently ambitious. Yet, among climate scientists, there is a consensus that swift action is vital, and with it the target remains, at least, possible.

With the amount of carbon burned by humans, we have now created a climate not experienced on Earth since the Pliocene era, 2m-5m years ago. We are daily rolling the climate dice with the odds stacked against us. But we are also clever, quick and innovative when we want to be. Now that we understand the game better, the question we face is whether we will choose to change it, fast and enough, so that we can all have better lives.

Andrew Simms is co-director of the New Weather Institute, author of Cancel the Apocalypse and a research fellow on rapid transition at the University of Sussex.


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Chelsea Manning, cabinet picks and poverty

By Informed Rant. This article was first published on Soundcloud.

This week on Informed Rant, we look at the long list of terrible Trump picks for cabinet positions and their confirmation hearings in a conversation with journalist Kevin Gosztola, from Shadowproof.  We then explore Chelsea Manning's commutation and the fate of other incarcerated people under Trump, with lawyer and author of The Passion of Chelsea Manning, Chase Madar.  We end the show with a personal discussion of poverty and how people are at risk of sliding into this trap in an interview with screenwriter, author and journalist Ruth Fowler

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Trump EPA pick: still 'some debate' over human role in climate change

By Oliver Milman. This article was first published on The Guardian.

At Senate confirmation hearing to lead Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt defends his relationship with fossil fuel industry

Scott Pruitt testifies on Capitol Hill. The Oklahoma attorney general has sued the EPA 14 times over regulations. Photograph: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Scott Pruitt, Donald Trump’s pick to lead the US Environmental Protection Agency, has claimed there is still “some debate” over the role of human activity in climate change and has defended his relationship with the fossil fuel industry during a combative Senate confirmation hearing.

Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general, has sued the agency he is now set to lead 14 times over the EPA’s smog, mercury and other pollution regulations. Several of these cases are still ongoing and Pruitt said he would recuse himself in dealing with these cases if instructed to do so by the EPA’s ethics board.

In testy exchanges with senators including Bernie Sanders and Ed Markey, Pruitt said there was “some debate” over how much influence human activity has upon the climate but rejected the president-elect’s claim that climate change is a “hoax”. Pruitt also said the EPA had a “very important role” in regulating carbon dioxide.

“Science tells us that the climate is changing and that human activity in some manner impacts that change,” he said. “The ability to measure with precision the degree and extent of that impact and what to do about it are subject to continuing debate and dialogue ... so it should be.”

Last year was the warmest on record, scientists announced on Wednesday, with Nasa and Noaa both stressing the primary driver of the warming trend is the burning of fossil fuels and other human activity. Of the 17 hottest years on record, 16 have occurred this century.

Pruitt also seemed uncertain over how much lead can be safely ingested by children, in the wake of the toxic water crisis in Flint, Michigan. “I don’t know,” Pruitt said. “I’ve not looked at the scientific research on that. That’s not something I’ve reviewed nor know about.” The EPA itself states that any amount of lead consumption can be harmful.

Democrats on the Senate committee on environment and public works questioned Pruitt over his repeated challenges to the agency he now seeks to head, as well as his ties to the fossil fuel industry. The oil giant Exxon and coal firm Murray Energy have both given the maximum allowable amount of money to Pruitt, with the Oklahoma attorney general siding with donors 13 times in court cases against the EPA.

One Oklahoma firm, Devon Energy, even drafted a letter for Pruitt that he sent on to the EPA in 2011 under his letterhead with minimal alterations. The letter criticized federal regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas producers. A boom in gas fracking activity in Oklahoma has contributed to a surge in earthquakes in the state.

Questioned over this letter by Democrat Jeff Merkley, Pruitt said: “I was representing the interests of the state. It was protecting the interests of the state, it wasn’t sent on behalf of any one company. It was particular to an industry – there’s an oil and gas industry that is vibrant and vital to the state.”

In his opening statement, Pruitt said: “We must reject as a nation the false paradigm that if you’re pro-energy you’re anti-environment and that if you’re pro-environment you’re anti-energy. In this nation we can grow our economy, harvest the resources God has blessed us with as well as being good stewards of the land, air of water by which we’ve been favored.”

Pruitt said he wanted a better partnership with the states, which he said had been subject to “duress and punishment” from the EPA. He said the states had the “resources and expertise” to safeguard America’s environment but accepted that pollution does cross state lines.

Republicans on the committee backed Pruitt, with Senator James Inhofe, who once brought a snowball to the senate floor in an attempt to disprove global warming, citing Pruitt’s fighting of “federal overreach” as praiseworthy. Fellow Republican attorney generals from other states have also supported Pruitt’s nomination.

However, Christine Todd Whitman, who was EPA administrator under George W Bush, warned there may be “war” within the agency unless Pruitt adopted a more conciliatory posture.

“I wish he hadn’t been nominated,” Whitman, a Republican, told Guardian US. “Mother Nature doesn’t care about states’ rights. You need some area of federal oversight to protect human health and the environment. You can’t just turn it back to the states; most of them don’t have the budget to do the scientific research.

“I think this new administration will try to back down some of the regulations and slow down enforcement of the regulations they don’t like. They will starve the agency for money.

“I would hope that Scott Pruitt will understand how important and complicated the EPA is once he gets in there but EPA people are assuming it will be a war. That won’t be pretty for anyone. Unless he makes real strides to outreach and respect the mission, it will be war.”

Thirteen former state EPA chiefs have urged the Senate to reject Pruitt, citing his “deeply troubling” position on climate change and his repeated courtroom challenges to EPA clean air and water standards.

“Rather than EPA acting as our partner in state-led efforts to ensure clean air and water for our residents, we fear that an EPA under Mr Pruitt would undermine the rules that help to make sure that our state regulations are successful,” the group wrote in a letter to the environment and public works committee.

More than 170 environment groups, including the Sierra Club and the Clean Air Task Force, have written a separate missive to senators decrying Pruitt’s views that “run counter to the EPA’s critical mission to protect our health and the environment”. The letter also calls for the Senate to reject the Oklahoma attorney general.

Pruitt is the “worst nominee ever tapped to lead the US Environmental Protection Agency”, according to Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“He doesn’t have a single environmental achievement to his name, doesn’t believe in the agency’s mission, and has made a career out of suing the EPA to try to block it from doing its job as the guardian of our environment and health,” she added.

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The Syrian Cause and Anti Imperialism

By Yassin al-Haj Saleh, Translated by: Yaaser ElZayyar

While my blog is mostly for my own articles, I do very occasionally put up something else I think is exceptional. This is definitely an example. Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a well-known Syrian leftist dissident who spent 16 years in Assad’s torture chambers for having an opinion. When you read his opinions, you can see why. This is a masterful essay, and should be read from start to end by anyway concerned with these issues.

Posted on May 5, 2017

In memory of Michel Seurat, our martyr.

I was in Istanbul for about ten days when I met a Turkish communist who explained to me that what was going on in Syria was nothing but an imperialist conspiracy against a progressive, anti-imperialist regime. The Turkish comrade’s talk contained no novel information or analytical spark that could suggest something useful about my country, and everything I tried to say seemed utterly useless. I was the Syrian who left his country for the first time at the age of fifty-two, only to be lectured about what was really happening there from someone who has probably only visited Syria a few times, if at all.

Incidents like this are repeated over and over in both the real and virtual worlds: a German, a Brit, or an American activist would argue with a Syrian over what is really happening in Syria. It looks like they know more about the cause than Syrians themselves. We are denied “epistemological agency,” that is, our competence in providing the most informed facts and nuanced analysis about our country. Either there is no value to what we say, or we are confined to lesser domains of knowledge, turned into mere sources for quotations that a Western journalist or scholar can add to the knowledge he produces. They may accept us as sources of some basic information, and may refer to something we, natives, said in order to sound authentic, but rarely do they draw on our analysis. This hierarchy of knowledge is very widespread and remains under-criticized in the West.

There are articles, research papers, and books written by Westerner academics and journalists about Syria that do not refer to a single Syrian source–especially one that is opposed to the Assad regime. Syria seems to be an open book of a country; anyone with a passing interest knows the truth about it. They particularly know more than dissidents, whom they often call into question, practically continuing the negation of their existence which is already their fate in their homeland. Consequently, we are denied political agency in such a way that builds on the work of the Assad regime, which has, for two entire generations, stripped usof any political or intellectual merit in our own country. We are no longer relevant for our own cause. This standpoint applies to the global anti-imperialist left, to mainstream western-centrists, and of course to the right-wing.

The Western mainstream approaches Syria (and the Middle East) through one of three discourses: a geopolitical discourse, which focuses on Israeli security and prioritizes stability; a culturalist or civilizationalist discourse, which basically revolves around Islam, Islamists, Islamic terrorism and minority rights; and a human-rights discourse, which addresses Syrians as mere victims (detainees, torture victims, refugees, food needs, health services, etc.), entirely overlooking the political and social dimensions of our struggles. These three discourses have one thing in common: they are depopulated (Kelly Grotke), devoid of people, individuals, or groups. They are devoid of a sense of social life, of what people live and dream.

The first two discourses, the geopolitical and the culturalist, are shared by the Western right as well.

But what about the left? The central element in the definition of the anti-imperial left is imperialism and, of course, combatting it. Imperialist power is thought of as something that exists in large amounts in America and Europe. Elsewhere it is either nonexistent or present only in small amounts. In internationalist struggles, the most important cause is fighting against western imperialism. Secondary conflicts, negligible cause and vague local struggles should not be a source of distraction. This depopulated discourse, which has nothing to do with people’s lived experiences, and which demonstrates no need for knowledge about Syrians, has considered it unimportant to know more about the history of their local struggles.

The Palestinian cause, which was only discovered by most anti-imperialists during the 1990s, has paradoxically played a role in their hostility towards the Syrian cause. From their far-off, transcendent position in the imperialist metropoles, they have the general impression that Syria is against Israel, which occupies Syrian territory. Thus, if Syria is with Palestine and against Israel, it is against imperialism. At the end of the day, these comrades are with the Assadists, because Syria has been under the Assad family rule for nearly half a century. Roughly speaking, this is the core of the political line of thinking which can be called ivory-tower anti-imperialism. That Syrians have been subject to extreme Palestinization by a brutal, internal Israel, and that they are susceptible to political and physical annihilation, just like Palestinians, in fact lies outside the clueless, tasteless geopolitical approach of those detached anti-imperialists, who ignorantly bracket off politics, economics, culture, the social reality of the masses and the actual history of Syria.

This way of linking our conflict to one major global struggle, which is supposedly the only real one in the world, denies the autonomy of any other social and political struggle taking place in the world. Anti-imperialists, especially those living in the allegedly imperialist metropoles, are most qualified to tell the truth about all struggles. Those who are directly involved in this or that struggle hardly know what’s really going on – their knowledge is partial, “non-scientific”, if not outright reactionary.

During the Cold War, orthodox communists knew the real interests of the masses, as well as the ultimate course of history. This was sufficient reason for a communist worldview to be always in the right, without fail. But this position, which looks down on history, has placed itself in an overly exalted position with relation to the masses and their actual lives, and in relation to social and political battles on the ground. In fact, this position can be accurately described as imperialist: it expands at the expense of other conflicts, appropriates them for itself and shows little interest in listening to those involved or in learning anything about them. The distinguishing feature of most Western anti-imperialists is that they have nothing but vague impressions about the history of our country; they cannot possibly know anything about its potential adherence to –or noncompliance with– “the course of history.” This makes their meddling in our affairs an imperialist intervention in every sense of the word: interference from above; depriving us of the agency and capacity to represent our own cause; enacting a power relation in which we occupy the position of the weak who do not matter; and finally the complete absence of a sense of comradeship, solidarity, and partnership.

This remains true even when the anti-imperialist left stands with the Egyptian or Tunisian revolutions. It stands by their side on the basis of stereotyped and simplistic discourses that are inherited from the Cold War era. The anti-imperialist comrade is with the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt for the same reason that led him to “resist” alongside the Syrian regime: to stand in opposition to the great amounts of imperialist power that are concentrated at the White House and 10 Downing Street. Whether in Tunisia, Egypt, or Syria, people are invisible, and their lives do not matter. We remain marginal to some other issue, the only one that matters: the struggle against imperialism (a struggle that, ironically, is also not being fought by these anti-imperialists, as I will argue below).

The anti-imperialist left remembers from the Cold War era that Syria was close to the Soviet Union, so it sides with this supposedly anti-imperialist regime. Consequently, those who resist this regime are “objectively” pro-imperialists. Framing imperial power as something that only exists in the West ascribes to the anti-imperialists a Western-centric tendency, which is no less severe than that of imperialist hardliners themselves.

The response to this discourse need not be to point out the truth, that the Assadist state is not against imperialism in any way whatsoever. First and foremost, the autonomy of our social and political struggles for democracy and social justice must be highlighted and separated out from this grand, abstract scheme. It should be said that this particular mode of analysis, which belongs to the transcendental anti-imperialism, is a belittling imperialist tendency that should to be resisted. There is no just way, for instance, to deny the right of the North Koreans to resist their fascist regime on the basis of such an abstract scheme. Instead, such a scheme can only serve to silence them, just as their regime does.

It is absolutely necessary to rebuild an intellectual and political foundation for criticism and seeking change in the world, but metropolitan anti-imperialism is totally unfit for this job. It has absorbed subordinating imperialistic tendencies, and it is fraught with eurocentrism and void of any true democratic content. A better starting point for criticism and change would be to look at actual conflicts and actual relationships between conflicting parties. This could involve, for example, thinking about how the structure of a globally dominating Western first world has been re-enacted in our own countries, including Syria. We have an “internal first world” that is the Assadist political and economic elites, and a vulnerable internal third world, which the state is free to discipline, humiliate, and exterminate. The relationship between the first world of Assad and the third world of “black Syrians” perfectly explains Syria’s Palestinization. Imperialism as such has shifted from an essence that exists in the West to a major aspect of local, domesticated power structures. Ironically, the power elites protecting this neo-imperialism may well draw on classical anti-imperialist rhetoric in order to discredit local dissidence and suppress potential political schisms. This is especially true in the Middle East, the world’s most heavily internationalized region. It is characterized by an extensive and aggressive imperialist presence that is directed mainly at suppressing democracy and political change.

From this perspective, working to overthrow the Assadist state is a grassroots struggle against imperialism. Conversely, the victory of the Assadist state over the revolution is a victory for imperialism and a consolidation of imperialist relations in Syria, the Middle East, and the world. Meanwhile, thetranscendental anti-imperialists continue to be mere parasites who barely know anything, practically contributing to the victory of imperialism by opposing the Syrian revolution.

In short, it must be stressed that individual struggles are autonomous, and that their internal structures and histories should be understood, rather than dismissed and subordinated to an abstract struggle that looks down on whole societies and people’s lives. Only then would it be meaningful to state that there is nothing within the Assadist state that is truly anti-imperialist, even if we define imperialism as an essence nestled in the West. Nor is there anything popular, liberatory, nationalist, or third-worldly in the Syrian regime. There is only a fascist dynastic rule, whose history, which goes back to the 1970s, can be summed up as the formation of an obscenely wealthy and atrociously brutal neo-bourgeoisie, which has proved itself ready to destroy the country in order to remain in power forever. As I have just mentioned, in its relationship with its subjects, this regime reproduces the structure of imperial domination; this is a thousand times more telling than any anti-imperialist rhetoric. Significantly, there exists a strong racist predisposition that is inherent to the structure of this neo-bourgeoisie and its ideology, which celebrates materialist modernity (the modernity of outward appearance and not of relationships, rights, values, etc.). This privileged class regards poor Syrians –Sunni Muslims in particular– just like Ashkenazi Jews regard Arab Muslim Palestinians (and even Sephardic Jews, at an earlier time), and just like whites of South Africa regarded the blacks in the last century. The colonized groups are backward, irrational, and savage, and their extermination is not that big of a deal; it may even be desirable. This attitude does not exclusively characterize the Assadist elite. In fact, the regime and its supporters are emboldened by identification with an international symbolic and political system in which Islamophobia is a rising global trend.

It is well known that the Assadist state has succumbs throughout its history to what can be assumed as imperialist preferences: guarding the borders with Israel since 1974, ensuring stability in the Middle East, weakening the Palestinian resistence independency, treating Syrians as slaves, and destroying all independent political, social, and trade organizations. Indeed, the Assadist state is an integral part of what I call the “Middle Eastern system,” which was founded upon Israeli security, regional stability, and the political disenfranchisement and dispossession of our countries’ subjects. Herein lies the secret of Arab/Islamic exceptionalism with regards to democracy – in contrast to the popular interpretations of cultural critics in the West. Imperialist self-fashioning in such a regime, or the reproduction of imperialism therein, invalidates the conventional notion that imperialist power only exists in America, or in both Europe and America. This suggests that the anti-imperialist left has deep anti-democratic and patriarchal tendencies and suffers from intellectual primitiveness.

We have our own local anti-imperialist communists who adhere to the Assadist state, the Bakdashists. They are named after Khalid Bakdash, who was the Secretary-General of the official, Moscow-aligned Syrian Communist Party since early 1940s up to his death in early 1990s (his wife WissalFarha inherited his post after him, and their son Ammar subsequently inherited it after she passed away). These communists are exactly those who were faithful followers of the Soviet Union within Syrian communism during the Cold War. Today, Bakdashists are middle-class apparatchiks, enjoying a globalized lifestyle and living in city centers, completely separate from the social suffering of the masses and utterly lacking in any creativity. While a diverse array of Syrians had been subject to arrest, humiliation, torture and murder throughout two generations between the 1970s and the 2010s, Bakdashists have persisted in recycling the same vapid anti-imperialist rhetoric, and have paid nothing in return for their blindness to the prolonged plight of their country. This plight has included a sultanic, patriarchal transformation of the regime, the outcome of which was turning Syria into what I am calling the Assadist state, a country privately owned by the Assad dynasty and its intimates. This demonstrates a clear example of the collusion of transcendental anti-imperialism with domesticated imperialism.

In the third place, i.e. after stressing the autonomy and specificity of each conflict, and then emphasizing that nothing about the Assadist state is anti-imperialist, the anti-imperialists should be questioned about their own struggle against imperialism. I do not know of a single example of someone from Western anti-imperialist circles who has been subjected to arrest, torture, legal and political discrimination, travel ban, dismissal from work, or deprivation from writing in his “imperialist” country. I believe that these deprivations do not belong to their world at all, and that perhaps they do not know what a travel ban, deprivation from writing, or torture could possibly mean. They are just like the African who does not know what milk is, the Arab who does not know what an opinion is, the European who does not know what shortage is, and the American who does not know the meaning of “the rest of the world,” as in/goes the famous joke in which four people were asked their opinion about food shortage in the rest of the world. I have never heard of an anti-imperialist comrade who is resented, persecuted, personally targeted or subjected to smear campaigns by imperialism. Actual and moral assassination had actually been common imperialist practices until 1970s. This was especially true in the third world, but also true to a certain extent in the West. Names like Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, Mehdi Ben Barka, and Angela Davis, among others, come to mind.

Neither does it seem that these comrades are aware of how privileged they are compared to us Syrians. I do not wish to evoke the guilt of traditional Western leftists. I am merely asking them for humility, to direct their eyes downwards to the laymen in Syria and elsewhere, not towards murderers like Bashar al-Assad and his ilk, and not to a bunch of hypocritical Western journalists who grew bored with London, Paris, Berlin, Rome and New York and now find amusement and a change of scenery in Damascus, Cairo and Beirut– knowing that their monthly multi-thousand dollar salary allows them to live wherever they wish.

As democratic Syrians, we do not wish upon them that they lose the rights to travel and freedom of speech that they enjoy. But how can they not be required to stand in solidarity with us, we who are deprived of such rights, and to denounce the junta that persists in subjugating us?

What I am arguing based on the three points discussed above is that, our comrades are making three major mistakes, all of which are unforgivable: they appropriate our struggle against a regime with which imperial sovereignty in the Middle East is perfectly in peace, for an alleged struggle against imperialism to which they are not even remotely close, supporting an extremely brutal and reactionary bloc about which they are utterly clueless. I will conclude that their anti-imperialist tendencies signify a desirable identity-form for these groups, not an actual mode-of-action in which they are engaged. The transcendental anti-imperialist left today is but a small, bigoted sect, which is not only incapable of taking power, but is also arrogant, reactionary, and ignorant. Gramsci deserves better heirs.

The root of these three mistakes lies, in my view, in the worn-out nature of the essentialist theory of imperialism, which reduces imperialism to Western hegemony. This theory fails to recognize imperialism as a system of international relations that manifests in different ways throughout the various spheres of political and social conflict that span all countries and regions. Syrians live in one of the cruelest forms of this relational system, deprived of political liberties and exposed to a corrupt and criminal junta, which has turned Syria into a hereditary monarchy owned by a dynasty of murderers.


I mentioned above that there is something imperialistic inherent in leftist anti-imperialism. The Syrian struggle is a good example of this.

The US administration, along with Russia’s autocratic regime, denies the Syrian struggle an independence from the war on terror. The Obama administration has done everything to avoid doing anything that the Syrians could benefit from in their struggle, even after Bashar al-Assad broke Obama’s red line. Why? Because this administration preferred the survival of Bashar al-Assad –Israel’s favorite candidate for the rule of Syria– to a transfer of power that would not be fully controlled by them. It was not in favor of Syrian citizens steering political change in their country. The United States has been involved militarily in Syria since September 2014, targeting Daesh and al-Qaeda. The anti-imperialists do not seem to object to this war, however, as much as they did when the Obama administration considered punishing Bashar al-Assad for violating the red line (not for killing Syrians, by the way) in August, 2013. This is despite the fact that US officials rushed to say that the strike would be limited; John Kerry stated in London in the beginning of September, 2013 that the potential strike would be an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort!”

The root of all of this is that the US administration has annexed the Syrian conflict to its own war on terror. It has tried to impose its battle on Syrians so that they will abandon their own battle against the tyrannical discriminatory Assadist junta: This is what imperialism has done.

In this regard, the anti-imperialist promulgators of the concept of terrorism fail to realize that the war on terror is centered around the state; it is a statist conception of the world order which strengthens states and weakens communities, political organizations, social movements, and individuals. It is furthermore a war in which Bashar al-Assad, who has been in direct conflict with his people for two years, is made partner in a cause that favors the continued domination of the world’s powerful. But perhaps it is not just a matter of realizing or not realizing. There is an inherent statist component in the structure of the anti-imperialist left, which has originated since the Cold War era. This statist quality confirms the observation that the typical anti-imperialist leftist has a geopolitical mindset. Perhaps this is why Trotskyists and anarchists, who are less state-centered and more society-oriented, have stood by Syrians in their struggle.

In the record of this endless fight against terrorism there has not been a single success, and thus far three countries have been devastated over its course (Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria). Yet this record is not surprising, considering that these imperialist forces are characterized by arrogance, racism, and immunity vis-a-vis the crimes they commit and the destruction they leave behind in foreign societies.

The anti-imperialist left, just like imperialism itself, has supplemented the Syrian-struggle to something else, “regime change.” From the point of view of anti-imperialist comrades, regime change in Syria appears to be an imperialist plot. This is a hundred times worse than any mistake. This is an insult to Syrians, to our struggle over two generations, and to hundreds of thousands of victims. This is an insult to a struggle that most of these comrades know nothing about.

I repeat: imperialism, and the Americans in particular, have not wanted to change the regime at any time. Following the chemical massacre in August 2013, they strived to invent reasons not to hurt it, despite the fact that, at the time, they had a very strong justification had they wanted to change –or simply hurt– the Assad regime. The change in Syria is our initiative, and it is our project. Anti-imperialists must consider us agents of imperialism, then. Some are not far from saying so outright – a few months ago, a number of Italian “comrades” attacked an exhibition displaying photographs of the victims of Assad’s killing industry. Otherwise, any change to any regime is a bad thing and serves imperialism. But isn’t that a rather wonderful definition for reactionism?

Annexation is a fundamental aspect of imperialism, and the anti-imperialist activists who deny the autonomy of our struggle and supplement it to their pseudo-struggle are no different from imperialist powers. The two parties find common cause in the denial of our struggle, our political agency, and our right to self-representation. Practically, they are telling us that they are the ones who can define which struggles are in the right; and that we are not worthy of either revolutions or the production of knowledge. But isn’t that a wonderful definition of imperialism?

It is worth mentioning that subordinating our struggle for another one is the defining characteristic of the Assadist rule. For almost half a century, and in the name of yet another pseudo-struggle against Israel, the Assad regime has not ceased to suppress the rights and freedoms of its subjects and to crack down on their attempts to assume political agency in their country. Meanwhile, it has showed a great willingness to wage two hot wars inside Syria, the first of which resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, and the second in hundreds of thousands of deaths, up to now. Additionally, subordinating our struggle to something else is also a feature of Islamisms that have worked to appropriate the Syrian struggle for political agency (freedom) in the name of something external to this cause (sharia law, Islamic statehood, and a really imperial caliphate).

Here we have four specific cases of our cause’s subordination; the American government and its followers, Russia and its followers, and Iran and its followers all making our revolution secondary to endless war against terrorism; the Western anti-imperialist left making our opposition secondary to its struggle against imperialism, understood as something practiced only by Western powers; the Assadist rule making our emancipatory aspirations secondary to a struggle with Israel that it has never been engaged in; and Islamists making our common struggle secondary to their own sectarian leanings. The four cases have one thing in common; a patriarchal view. Each of these powers acts like a archetypal father who knows everything, and decides alone what is proper for us, the little boys. Those who reject being infantilized in this manner are considered ignorant, agents of the enemy, or infidels, deprived of speech and of political action. They may even be deprived of life itself, annihilated by chemical weapons, barrel bombs, starvation, or an organized death industry in prisons and hospitals.

The basis of these reactionary patriarchal attitudes by our fellow anti-imperialists contains two important issues. The first is the transformation of the communist left and its heirs into the educated middle classes, which is separate from human suffering and incapable of creativity, just like our local Bakdashists. This is in part due to economic transformations in the central capitalist countries, deindustrialization, the decay of the industrial working class, and the emergence of the “campus left,” which does nothing and knows very little despite its position within academia. There is no longer anything revolutionary or emancipatory in the formation of the contemporary left, and it is not engaged in any real conflicts. The second important issue that underpins these patriarchal attitudes is the intellectual maps that have been inherited from the Cold War (knowledge by recollection, following the Platonic method), added to intellectual sterility and a severe lack of creativity.

Among the main sources of knowledge about Syria for this left are the likes of Robert Fisk, the embedded journalist who accompanied the regime tanks as they stormed Darayya and killed hundreds of its inhabitants. His work later evolved into interviewing notorious murderers such as General Jamil Hassan, of Air Force Intelligence. He publishes his pieces in what are supposedly pro-democratic independent platforms such as The Independent. Another main source of information is Patrick Cockburn, who is Fisk’s partner in friendship with the Assadist junta, and who I doubt knows a single Syrian leftist dissident, just like Fisk. Also in their ranks is Seymour Hersh, who was spoiled by the Pulitzer Prize he had received, becoming fixated on thinking exclusively about “high politics” and seeing nothing down below. In fact, Bashar al-Assad himself is a source of knowledge for this left, as he is frequently interviewed by Western media and visited by delegations from the Western left (and fascists and Western Christian rightists as well), enjoying a status that he had not dreamed of before killing hundreds of thousands of his subjects.

This left no longer has a living cause of any kind. It merely intrudes upon causes like our own, about which it hardly knows and to which it ultimately does a great deal of harm. This left feels guilty because it lacks nothing, so it directs its disordered anxiety at Merkel, Teresa May, Obama, and Trump. It stands with Bashar al-Assad after it has convinced itself that this vile person is against those Western politicians. It is far less knowledgeable or curious about the fate of Bashar al-Assad’s subjects, about whom it knows nothing other than confused impressions it draws from watching TV or reading newspapers.


None of the above is to suggest that Western leftists should not interfere in our affairs or should not comment on what we say about our conflicts. We want them to interfere. In turn, we do and we will interfere in their affairs. We live in one world, and universality must always be defended in both analysis and action. What we expect is that they become a bit more humble and willing to listen, less eager to give lessons, and that they develop knowledge that is not based on recollection. We expect them to be democratic, not to make our conflict secondary to others, to take our opinion into account on the subject of our affairs, and to accept that we are their equals and peers.

Neither am I suggesting that we, the Syrian democrats opposed to the Assadist state, are correct in everything that we say simply because our cause is just, or that we do not accept criticism from others. We want to be criticized and advised, but our critics do not seem to know anything about us or to even be offering criticism or advice. They do not see us at all. Their lofty perspectives render us invisible. Had they been more open over the years to the realities of the Syrian conflict, its dynamics and transformations, they would have been in a better position to synthesize more informed perceptions and to offer more nuanced criticism. Our leftist partners in the West, a multitude of radical democrats, socialists, anarchists, and Trotskyists, have come closer to the grassroots Syrian world and have listened to Syrian narratives. None of them has shaken the blood-stained and pillaging hands of the likes of Bashar al-Assad and the murderers and thieves that constitute his circle.

We are not simplistic, and we do not reduce our struggle to the single dimension of bringing down the Assadist junta. There is another dimension, the struggle against nihilist Islamic organizations. But only among us, the people who are involved in the Syrian struggle on a democratic and emancipatory basis, can radical democratic politics be formed regarding Islamists. We do not approve of essentialist hatred of Islamists, which may be driven by class or sect, and which is definitely reactionary and most probably racist. The most optimal position for a struggle against Islamism is undoubtedly the revolutionary democratic position that also resists Assadist fascism.

Having said that, we are not unaware of a third dimension to our struggle, which pertains to various interventions by conventional or emerging imperialist centers; interventions which are carried out either directly or through regional proxies, in the form of states or sub-state organizations. Here, too, we find that the most coherent and radical position against imperialism is that which takes internal, Assadist colonization into account, and takes sides with the weak and disadvantaged, in Syria and the region at-large. Those who think that Bashar al-Assad and his junta are supportive of the struggle against imperialism are insensible fools at best, and anti-democratic racists at worst.

This three-dimensional struggle defines universality for us, and perhaps for the world as a whole.

Moreover, I am not suggesting that we have no short-comings, or that what we say about these causes and others should be the final word. We work and we learn. Our greatest shortcoming is that we are dispersed and our forces are unorganized. This has been exacerbated by the conditions of detention and killing under torture, which have mainly targeted the social base of the revolution; by the condition of displacement and the extensive destruction of Syrian society by the tyrannical andsectarianAssadist junta and its imperialist partners; and finally by nihilist Islamist organizations. Our efforts are constantly at odds with the shocking and unprecedented extremes that the Syrian tragedy has reached. But we continue to work.

In short, for us, Syrian democrats and leftists, the struggle is a fight for independence. First, we seek the independence of our country from colonial powers, which have donned false masks that boast about sovereignty, territorial unity, pluralism, or the war on terror, much like all colonial powers have throughout history. Second, we seek the independence of our struggle from other colonists, who don equally false masks, such as anti-imperialism and also the war on terror, demanding that we stay silent or act as local copies of them.

This criticism of Western and non-Western anti-imperialist left is both a contribution to the struggle for independence, that is, for freedom, and an effort to own authority over our own discourse. It remains open to partnerships that are based on comradeship and equality.


This article is part of a book about Syria, edited by FouadRoueiha and due to be published soon in Italian

Against Liberal Nostalgia

by Stephen Maher. This article was first published on Jacobin.

The Left shouldn’t counter the logic of “Make America Great Again” with nostalgia for an idealized liberal democracy.

Andrew Carnegie visiting the Chamber of Commerce with a French delegation in 1912. Library of Congress

“Restore our democracy” has become a mantra among American progressives. Populist writers are desperately trying to shake people from their passivity amidst mounting political and ecological crisis. But in crafting a vision of a better future they often appeal to idealized, romantic notions of America’s past.

Chris Hedges recently attributed the rise of Donald Trump to a “corporate coup” that happened “more than two decades ago,” leaving Trump in command of a state devoid of meaningful democratic input or checks — a situation he refers to as “fascism.” His antidote is the Green Party, whose leaders Ralph Nader and Jill Stein “saw this dystopia coming” but were foiled by “elites” and “so-called progressives” who “succumbed to the idiotic mantra of the least worst.” Similarly, Bernie Sanders’s recent op-ed in the New York Times ends with a call for the Democratic Party to “break loose from its corporate establishment ties and, once again, become a grass-roots party of working people, the elderly and the poor.”

These kinds of interpretations rely on naive civics-textbook notions of the history and workings of the American state; they support political strategies of either reforming the Democratic Party or voting for the Green Party, while concealing the shortcomings these approaches entail.

Looking back over American history, it is clear that no “corporate coup” has taken place. The American state is a capitalist state and has been since at least the late nineteenth century. Indeed, in some respects, the state is more democratic than it has been at many points in the past.

Still, Trump’s far-right nationalist chauvinism could present capital with a far-right path to cope with the crisis of neoliberalism. At base, the rise of Trump’s authoritarian populism is the result of the social dislocations wrought by thirty years of neoliberal devastation visited upon working-class communities. But it is also a consequence of the failure of the Left to formulate a credible transformative strategy — a failure evident in the ahistorical romanticism of Hedges and others.

The logic of “Make America Great Again” must not be countered with more nostalgia. We need a bold vision for the future that honestly accepts the uncertainties it entails.

Neoliberalism: A Corporate Coup?

It is easy to understand why populists, on both the right and the left, rely on an idealized American past in laying out their vision for the future: it makes the struggle ahead appear more realistic — as simply regaining what we once already had rather than pursuing an untested utopian vision. But getting somewhere better will require an honest assessment of the structures of US power.

The idea that neoliberalism is the result of a “corporate coup” echoes the classic “pluralist” view of the American state which dominated mainstream scholarship from the 1960s until it was decisively refuted by neo-Marxist state theorists Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas in the 1970s. According to the pluralists, competing interest groups — including business and labor — organize themselves within “civil society” to influence a passive, neutral state. Power is polyarchic, with no one group dominating the “political system.”

Populists assume that this system worked more or less as advertised until a few decades ago, when corporations’ superior organizational cohesion and command over resources allowed them to essentially take over the state, corrupting an otherwise ideal liberal democracy.

This framework is a fantasy. The American state is a capitalist state whose function is and has been to organize the political hegemony of the capitalist class. Since individual capitalists are motivated by the pressures of competition rather than broad class-wide concerns, a relatively autonomous state is needed to secure the long-term interests of the system as a whole.

The historical trajectory of the American state demonstrates this role. The US state has played a dynamic and active role in politically organizing corporate power — the opposite of the pluralist view assumed by the populists. This has included playing a leading role in forming “lobby” groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable. Liberals often assume these entities organize themselves and act upon the state independently, but this is a misreading of history.

The modern American state began to take shape in the late nineteenth century, a process that corresponded with the organization of large bureaucratic corporations. Though its initial weakness forced it to rely upon bank-dominated cartels and trusts to stabilize highly volatile markets, state capacities steadily expanded, evidenced by the establishment of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887 and the Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903.

Granted, those staffing the new commerce department quickly found that their lack of resources and capacities required them to rely heavily on the input of bankers and corporate managers, who they sought to integrate within the policy-making process by facilitating the organization of the Chamber of Commerce in 1912. But as the state grew stronger, its ability to play a proactive and independent role in organizing capital was steadily enhanced.

By the New Deal period, the US state was strong enough to intervene to reduce bank power within corporate governance systems, empowering internal managers instead. Amid the most severe capitalist crisis to date and intense class upheaval, Roosevelt established the Business Advisory Council by executive order. Made up of top executives from the nation’s largest firms and funded by corporate donations, the BAC became a valuable tool to organize support for the massive deficit spending and institutional expansion Roosevelt deemed necessary (even though he found the body “useless from the point of view of facts and policies”).

The need to produce war material led the state to deepen coordination with the largest manufacturing firms, administered by the War Production Board and later the Office of Defense Mobilization. General Electric CEO Charles Wilson (or “Electric Charlie”) became so powerful in his position at the head of the ODM that the press referred to him as the “co-President.”

But the state’s function of organizing capital was by no means limited to periods of crisis. Despite the “de-control” of private enterprises after the war, the emergence of a state-capital institutional complex comprised of the leading state agencies and the largest corporations, now multinational in scope, was unmistakable. The development of new technologies for military and consumer purposes required greater integration among state agencies, universities, and corporations — a process planned and encouraged from within the state defense and science policy apparatus. The most dynamic corporations have continued to rely heavily on this state-led “innovation system,” spinning off technologies paid for by taxpayers into consumer and industrial products.

Later, the abject failure of Nixon’s and then Carter’s wage and price controls to break the 1970s inflation crisis by disciplining workers into accepting wage restraint brought a need for new ideas. It was within increasingly prominent agencies like the Treasury and Fed that a resolution was devised, based on integrating global financial markets and internationalizing production to break the power of unions and restore profitability. Coordinating internationally integrated production networks also meant empowering finance, which became increasingly politically and economically hegemonic as institutional barriers to the movement of value were dropped.

Developing a framework wasn’t enough: these agencies also needed to organize capital in support of it. This occurred most prominently with the formation of the Business Roundtable in 1972 at the encouragement of Secretary of Treasury John Connally and Federal Reserve chairman Arthur Burns. In the end, the roundtable succeeded in building a consensus among the most significant representatives of the capitalist class around the neoliberal framework largely advanced by Treasury and the Fed.

The tilt of the Democratic Party toward neoliberal reforms must be understood in this context, as a consequence of what James O’Connor identified in the 1970s as a “fiscal crisis of the state.” The sustainability of state spending on social programs was always dependent on long-term growth. When this slowed, a fiscal crisis emerged which, in the context of inflation, could only be resolved by increasing taxes or making cuts. Democrats pursued the latter choice. And as the globalization of production and corporate attacks weakened the labor movement, workers were increasingly unable to mount any serious opposition.

In short, the neoliberal variant of capitalism was not the result of a a “corporate coup.” It is the result of the familiar, systematic workings of a capitalist state seeking to resolve a crisis and restore the system to “health.”

Trump’s Rise

However, to say that the last thirty years of neoliberal policy were not simply the result of a “corporate coup” does not mean that Donald Trump is simply a “boilerplate” Republican. If he were, how could we explain the tremendous fight the GOP establishment waged against him?

Trump did not receive a single donation from a Fortune 100 CEO, while a broad range of top military brass and establishment Republicans — including George Bush, Mitt Romney, Colin Powell, Paul Ryan, Hank Paulson, Bill Kristol, and others — either endorsed Clinton or suggested they couldn’t support Trump. All this indicated a wide-ranging consensus among the capitalist class behind Clinton, founded upon maintaining the status quo abroad (“free trade” and militarism) and multicultural pluralism at home — a consensus which involved rejecting Trumpism as unacceptable.

But in the face of the delegitimization of neoliberalism, and the crisis of the state that has accompanied it, people did precisely what mainstream elites told them not to do. They elected Trump.

Yet Trump’s victory was hardly a bolt from the blue. Neoliberal restructuring laid the administrative, institutional, and social groundwork for the emergence of his authoritarian populism, including the erosion of liberal democratic institutions, the concentration of state power in the executive, increasing precarity and middle-class decline, and the delegitimization of the media system and state mechanisms of political representation.

Key state agencies — especially the Federal Reserve — have been carefully insulated from democratic oversight that could corrupt their “technocratic” management of competitive markets. Indeed, central bank “independence” and regulatory “autonomy” have been central to the neoliberal program for state reorganization.

Similarly, what Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin call the “internationalization of the state” has further concentrated power in these agencies and hollowed-out democratic institutions. Over the past three decades these agencies have become deeply entangled with transnational institutional regimes established through “free trade” agreements. These agreements effectively “constitutionalize” neoliberalism, locking states in to protecting corporate and investor rights against the environment and labor, regardless of the will of the population.

The rise of the Clintonite–Democratic Leadership Council wing of the Democratic Party cemented bipartisan support for the neoliberal variant of capitalism, a political expression of both the corporate consensus and the weakness of labor. And since, as Chomsky and Herman have shown, the corporate press is systematically confined to the range of elite political views, this neoliberal consensus was hardly contested within mainstream discourse.

But dissatisfaction with the elite consensus was by no means eliminated. It was registered first from the right in the form of the Tea Party, which emerged in consequence of the decades of hollow nationalism emanating from the GOP that did little to improve the lives of its “base.” But the 2008 financial crisis created an opening for the Occupy movement to promote a more progressive narrative of class struggle, illustrating the failure of both parties to present meaningful alternatives to increased working-class indebtedness and precarity. This sharply accelerated the delegitimization of neoliberal ideology, both political parties, and the media system.

In the run-up to November’s election, this crisis was on full display. While Bernie Sanders was suppressed and sidelined by the Democratic Party, Trump found fertile ground to articulate and nurture the popular anger and anxiety that accompanied these huge structural changes but could not find expression within hegemonic political discourse. In conditions of typically low turnout — 50 percent of the country did not vote at all — Trump was able to assemble enough of a base, mostly white men, to win the election.

A Risky Gamble

The electoral success of Trumpism has offered capital a tempting new ideological means to cope with the legitimacy crisis of the state: an authoritarian populism that can enable hard-right market-building policies, but which also provides space for the mobilization of fascistic political movements.

Yet, the incoherence of Trump’s policy paradigm — in some ways contradicting neoliberal capitalism, in others reinforcing it — makes it a risky gamble for a capitalist class seeking to hold the neoliberal project together despite mounting contradictions. Moreover, given the American state’s indispensable role in “superintending” global capitalism, the possible impact of Trumpism on its ability to manage and contain economic crises is also a serious concern.

The key question for capital is the degree to which it is willing to accommodate Trump’s extreme nationalism, which may threaten the international economic integration that has been central to the neoliberal project. But despite the widespread opposition of the capitalist class to Trump’s electoral bid, capitalists appear to be discovering that they can work with Trump.

For his part, Trump is clearly trying to appeal to dominant sectors, especially finance. As one Goldman Sachs executive recently put it, “If I’d have known how good Trump was going to be for Wall Street, I’d have campaigned for him.” The executive was referring to Trump’s emerging policy agenda, which has also triggered what market analysts are calling a “Trump rally” as the S&P 500, Dow Jones, and Nasdaq indexes all hit record highs in the weeks after the election.

That Trump seems ready to take up the regulatory agenda of the financial sector indicates how unlikely it is that his isolationist rhetoric will be reflected in the erection of barriers to the free movement of capital that has been the hallmark of the post–World War II American empire. Instead, Trump’s statist authoritarianism — restrictions on immigration, intensified policing of poor people, and a crackdown on internal dissent — will likely go hand-in-glove with market-oriented restructuring.

Famed Keynes biographer and political economist Robert Skidelsky recently compared Trump to the fascist regimes of the interwar period, suggesting that “Trumpism may be a solution to the crisis of liberalism.” This is particularly true if he is able to resume economic growth by implementing his promised $1 trillion infrastructure expansion program which Senate Democrats have indicated they may be willing to support. This could help solidify his base and earn him support from broader segments of both capital and labor.

It would also follow in the footsteps of European fascist regimes of the 1930s, which were organized by capitalist classes who had no other path out of crisis. By foreclosing democratic institutions, these regimes were able to protect the power of capitalist classes by implementing policies only possible under conditions of extraordinary state autonomy. Hitler was a great Keynesian.

But Trump’s economic program will not be carried out in twentieth-century Weberian bureaucratic fashion. It will bring not the return of Keynesian macroeconomic management, but rather the expansion of market mechanisms.

Trump’s infrastructure program, if implemented, will be market-centered and conducted through “public-private partnerships.” This would create massive state-subsidized investment opportunities for Wall Street in privatized public infrastructure, which can remain a stable source of profits long into the future — similar to the program currently being carried out by the Trudeau government in Canada.

Moreover, far from enlarging welfare state protections that could redistribute wealth and strengthen labor, these policies will be accompanied by tax cuts and the further marketization of social services, including Medicare and public education. This will result in the upward redistribution of wealth and larger deficits — the latter of which can later be used politically to further impose austerity.

But Trumpism — now amplified by the state apparatus and increasingly “normalized” — will certainly open space for the neo-fascist right to mobilize and build. The discursive power of the presidency to frame reality has diffuse, decentralized social effects, forming a lens through which people see and understand the world around them — instigating and encouraging dynamics and logics that appear to emerge “from below.” And if he fails to deliver, his regime is likely to move to the right, a scary prospect indeed.

So even if Trump’s rhetorical bluster becomes simply another way to implement familiar economic policies, these will have taken on an alarmingly authoritarian and chauvinistic ideological apparatus to support them. The foundations of neoliberalism have included right to individual self-expression, pluralism, multiculturalism, freedom of the press, and so on — all things Trump has expressed strong antipathy toward.

Given this, the degree to which the political-discursive shift represented by Trumpism could be called “liberal” in any sense is strongly in doubt. If Trumpism is a liberalism, it is one that has given up on most limits on state infringement upon individual freedoms in order to protect the power of capital. As Trumpism is “normalized” within the state ideological system, the taboos that led capital to initially eschew Trump are broken and the political culture changes.

Indeed, though the political conditions may not quite resemble those of 1930s Germany, one should not underestimate the suddenness with which liberal institutions — dependent to a tremendous extent not merely on formalized processes but also an informal “political culture” — may deteriorate.

While it appears Trump is ramping up for a massive voter suppression effort, the extent to which he may be willing and able to discard constitutional protections is deeply frightening. David Clarke Jr, who has been interviewed for the job of Homeland Security Secretary, has suggested subjecting up to one million Americans deemed “enemy combatants” to military tribunals and detention. He has also publicly argued that the Black Lives Matter movement “will join forces with ISIS.”

As internal dissent is increasingly labeled in this way, the reactionary statism of Trump and those around him could take on terrifying dimensions. This is especially so given that Obama has left Trump a state with power more concentrated in the executive than ever before. This includes a vast, secretive intelligence-security apparatus increasingly beyond institutional constraints like judicial oversight.

The 2012 National Defense Authorization Act signed by Obama authorizes the indefinite military detention of American citizens deemed “terrorists” by the president without a shred of due process. The act was later amended to assert the right of the president to maintain secret “kill lists” of those (including US citizens) to be targeted for death without charges or trial — so long as they are not on American soil. What will these powers mean for President Trump?

No Nostalgia

The lesson is clear: we cannot simply “restore our democracy” by voting for either the Green Party or the Democrats. Only a strong, class-based movement capable of clarifying the causes and consequences of neoliberal capitalism can defeat the Right and put a progressive break with the political and economic program of the past thirty years seriously on the agenda. Moreover, only a party grounded in such a movement has any real hope of capturing and transforming the state.

For Hedges, the answer is easy: vote for Jill Stein. But this fails to offer a convincing explanation for why the Greens have been unsuccessful. The simple truth is that the Green Party has forsaken the kind of organizing necessary to build a serious base in favor of presenting the “right” arguments every four years, when they suddenly appear to contest presidential races.

This strategy assumes an ideal liberal conception of the state: that elections are expressions of the democratic will of the population, in which she who makes the most persuasive case wins. Moreover, without the support of a broad social movement or party structure, it is almost unthinkable that a single individual placed in the White House could do much.

Sanders’s call to return the Democratic Party to an earlier state as a mass people’s party is equally fanciful. Though democratic institutions have been hollowed out in the neoliberal period, the role of the state has always been to organize the capitalist class. Moreover, the expansion of the New Deal welfare state in the postwar period, and the rising standards of living associated with the “Golden Age” of capitalism that lasted until the 1960s, were the result of class struggle and unionization, not an imagined mass-popular character of the Democratic Party that has somehow disappeared.

Seriously contending with the looming social, ecological, and political crises — and the potentially rising neo-fascist tide that threatens to worsen them — means doing much more than restoring an idealized American democracy. Nor is it enough to simply beg people to vote for the Greens in the hope that somehow this will eventually build “on its own” to a level where Stein (or whomever) has a chance to win office.

Instead we need to organize a socialist movement from the ground up that cannot simply be sucked into electing establishment Democratic candidates every election cycle. This is where the conversation needs to begin — a conversation that progressives are still largely failing to seriously engage in.

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