Globalization sociologist William I. Robinson explains how global capitalism has been mired in a structural crisis since the 1970s, but especially since 2008, which has also led to a crisis of legitimacy, giving rise to neo-fascism around the world.


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Abridged Transcript (full transcript below)

As the impeachment trial of President Trump comes to an end, many are asking themselves, what was this about? Is it about stopping an authoritarian president from abusing presidential power, or is there something deeper at work? In other words, if the Republican and Democratic parties are, for the most part, merely representatives of different wings of the same US elite, that is of its business class, then perhaps the impeachment process is actually a big public spectacle of infighting within the US ruling class.

Professor William I. Robinson presents such an alternative conception of the Trump impeachment process. He’s a professor of sociology and global and Latin American studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He recently published an article for the Journal of Science and Society titled “Global Capitalist Crisis and 21st Century Fascism: Beyond the Trump Hype.”

We divided this conversation into two parts. In this first part we take a look at what 21st century fascism is, where does it come from, and how is it different from 20th century fascism, and how does Trump fit into this phenomenon? Then in part two, we examine the idea that the impeachment process is actually a struggle within the US elite.

With regard to the first part, and with regard to the rise of fascism, we have seen a tremendous rise of the far right and even of neo-fascist leaders and parties around the world in the past few years. The governments in Brazil, the Philippines, Hungary, Turkey, India, Poland, Italy, are all governed by the far right. Then, practically all countries in the world have far right political parties that have been on the rise. Now this rise of far right and even neo-fascist parties and movements is unprecedented since the 1930s. What is happening? Why is this happening now?

William I. Robinson: We have to look at the larger context here. We have to step back from the headlines, the impeachment headlines. We have to step back, for the moment, from the dynamics of Trumpism and we have to see that global capitalism is in crisis. It is in the deepest crisis at this point since the 1930s and that is the larger backdrop to all of these headlines around the world. That crisis has two dimensions. One is a structural dimension, and I’ll mention a little more about that momentarily, but the dimension of this crisis is one of state legitimacy in a capitalist economy.

What I mean by that is that the masses of people around the world no longer consider that the system is legitimate, that their governments are legitimate. There’s a growing popularity of socialism. And there’s this worldwide protest every day as we speak throughout Latin America and all throughout the world, this upsurge of popular rebellion from below. And the system cannot meet the needs of the majority and it is spiraling into this general crisis of capitalist rule.

So, the two forces that are on the ascent worldwide are on the one hand, these popular radical forces from below and the turn to the left. And then secondly, the rise of the far right that you mentioned in the introduction. We must see that fascism is at all times a response to capitalist crisis. It was a response to capitalist crisis in the 1930s and the 1940s and it is a response to capitalist crisis now in the early 21st century.

The ruling elites worldwide and the capitalist class worldwide has not been able to resolve this structural crisis and we know that global inequalities are reaching unprecedented proportion.

In this situation, capitalism enters into a structural crisis because the global economy is producing this massive amount of wealth, unprecedented wealth, and yet it cannot be absorbed by the global market because of the vast majority of moving downward and don’t have the income or the ability to really consume.  This leads to stagnation in the system.

How do you face up to this stagnation? How do you keep making profits and accumulating? And in the last 10 years since the 2008 collapse, but even before then, the system has turned to several mechanisms which are not resolving the structural crisis, they’re only prolonging it and one is unprecedented debt. Secondly, there has been this wild speculation in the global economy. A third mechanism has been investing all of these resources into the tech sector.

The fourth big way in which the global economy is moving forward in the face of this stagnation is militarized accumulation and accumulation by repression. Now wars and conflicts worldwide become major outlets for profit making or unloading that over accumulated capital in the face of these stagnation tendencies and they’re wildly profitable and not just worsen conflicts that we see all over, but also systems of social control and repression become wildly profitable. The persecution of immigrants and private immigrant detention centers become wildly profitable.

How do you control the global working class, which is rising up worldwide, which now sees the system as illegitimate? How do you resolve this crisis of legitimacy of capitalist hegemony? And this is where we want to start talking about 21st century fascism.

20th century fascism, is a triangulation of three things that came together. One was reactionary and repressive political power in the state. The second dimension was that political power aligned with and met the needs of national capitalist groups, an alliance of the state with capital around the fascist project. The third dimension of a fascist project in the 20th century, but this also holds for the 21st century, is a mobilization of fascist forces and ideologies in civil society.

But there’s a key difference between 20th and 21st century fascism. 20th century fascism brought together these repressive fascist governments and forces and civil society with national capitalist groups. Now, what we’ve seen in the age of globalization from the late 20th century and on, is that now capital is largely transnational. That’s why I speak about a transnational capitalist class. This fascist project is linking together with transnational capital, that’s one big difference. The other big difference is that there was a very powerful socialist and trade union and communist movements in the 1930s that were crushed by fascism. But now we have this mass rebellion from below, but we don’t have organized socialist and communist movements and trade unions are weak around the world. They’re gaining strength, but they’re now very weak.

One way to contain the grassroots is to create systems of mass incarceration where surplus humanity is locked up. But this other way emerging is this 21st century fascism.

What 20th and 21st century fascism share is the need that the fascist mobilization has for scapegoats. The fascist mobilization has to identify scapegoats to channel this social anxiety. The fascist project seeks to channel that social anxiety, those political tensions towards scapegoating communities.

Trumpism thus hinges around, for instance, the anti-immigrant rhetoric and the anti-immigrant campaign as a scapegoating. In the United States, significant portions of the white working class were quite privileged. They had rising standards of living and homes and secure jobs and so forth. Under capitalist globalization, there’s the majority of white workers who are moving with this downward mobility in this destabilization. Trump’s social base is really tenacious, and it is largely, not exclusively, but largely what were privileged sectors of the white working class that are now experiencing downward mobility and destabilization.

Full Transcript:

GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Arlington, Virginia.

As the impeachment trial of President Trump comes to an end, many are asking themselves: “What was this about? Is it about stopping an authoritarian president from abusing presidential power, or is there something deeper at work?” In other words, if the Republican and Democratic parties are, for the most part, merely representatives of different wings of the same US elite–that is of its business class–then perhaps the impeachment process is actually a big public spectacle of infighting within the US ruling class.

Joining me to discuss this alternative conception of the Trump impeachment process is William I. Robinson. He’s a professor of sociology and global and Latin American studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He recently published an article for the Journal of Science and Society titled Global Capitalist Crisis and 21st Century Fascism: Beyond the Trump Hype. Thanks for joining us again, Bill.

WILLIAM I ROBINSON: It’s a pleasure to be back.

GREG WILPERT: First of all, I want to recommend to our viewers the article in Science and Society that I just mentioned. I think it does an excellent job of outlining what the Trump phenomenon is about. We will link to the article in our website. Now, I want to divide this conversation into two parts. In this first part I’d like to take a look at what 21st century fascism is, where does it come from, and how is it different from 20th century fascism, and how does Trump fit into this phenomenon? Then in part two, I’d like to examine the idea that the impeachment process is actually a struggle within the US elite.

With regard to the first part, and with regard to the rise of fascism, we have seen a tremendous rise of the far right and even of neo-fascist leaders and parties around the world in the past few years. There’s governments in Brazil, the Philippians, Hungary, Turkey, India, Poland, Italy, all governed by the far right. Then, practically all countries in the world have far right political parties that have been on the rise. Now this rise of far right and even neo-fascist parties and movements is unprecedented since the 1930s. My question is what is happening? Why is this happening now?

WILLIAM I ROBINSON: We have to look at the larger context here. We have to step back from the headlines, the impeachment headlines, and I know we’ll be talking about that in part two. We have to step back, for the moment, from the dynamics of Trumpism and we have to see that the global capitalism is in crisis. It is in the deepest crisis at this point since the 1930s and that is the larger backdrop to all of these headlines around the world. So the things that you just mentioned in the introduction to the upsurge in popular radical struggles from below to the impeachment and so forth. And that crisis has two dimensions that we want to focus on. One is a structural dimension, and I’ll mention a little more about that momentarily, but the dimension of this crisis is one of state legitimacy in a capitalist antimony.

And what I mean by that is that the masses of people around the world no longer consider that the system is legitimate, that their governments are legitimate. There’s a growing popularity of socialism. I’m sure the Real News Network viewers have seen that a poll was just released showing that over 50% of women in the United States now prefer socialism over capitalism and that is remarkable. And there’s this worldwide protest every day as we speak throughout Latin America and all throughout the world, this upsurge of popular rebellion from below. And the system cannot meet the needs of the majority and it is spiraling into this general crisis of capitalist rule. And that’s the context in which we need to see the rise of 21st century fascism. But let me say something also that we’re seeing with this rise in 21st century’s fascism, also a sharp political polarization worldwide.

So the two forces that are on the ascent worldwide are on the one hand, these popular radical forces from below and the turn to the left. And then secondly, the rise of the far right that you mentioned in the introduction. So if we’re talking about this threat of fascism, we must see that fascism is at all times a response to capitalist crisis. It was a response to capitalist crisis in the 1930s and the 1940s and it is a response to capitalist crisis now in the early 21st century. And I’m going to, in a few minutes mention a concept which is very useful to understand this global police state. But before I go there, I want to go back to the structural dimension of the crisis. The ruling elites worldwide and the capitalist class worldwide has not been able to resolve this structural crisis and we know that global inequalities are reaching unprecedented proportion. I’m sure that many of the listeners and viewers know this data.

In fact, the Oxfam just released its most recent report on global inequality to coincide with the World Economic Forum Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. And they pointed out the 2,300 billionaires now have more wealth than 5 billion people, most of the people on the planet. But the more significant data Oxfam came out with three years ago, and it is that 1% of humanity controls over 50% of the world’s wealth. 20% of humanity, that would be that portion that might be able to survive in these new mean streets of globalized capitalism, but even they have difficulty surviving. They control 94.5% of the world’s wealth. That means that 80% of the world’s population has a near a 4.5% of the world’s wealth and so in this situation, capitalism enters into a structural crisis because the global economy is producing this massive amount of wealth, unprecedented wealth, and yet it cannot be absorbed by the global market because of the vast majority of moving downward and don’t have the income or the ability to really consume. So this leads to stagnation in the system.

And we know that the global economy has been, it entered into a major crisis in 2008 and it has been largely stagnant ever since and we’re teetering on the verge right now of another global recession. So the system has a challenge of how do you keep accumulating in the face of this structural crisis. And let me just remind you where I’m going with this. I’m going to get to the political dimension of this crisis and that’s where the threat of 21st century fascism comes in. But we first need to see its structural grounding. So the ruling groups have this challenge of how do you keep the global economy going? How do you face up to this stagnation? How do you keep making profits and accumulating? And in the last 10 years since the 2008 collapse, but even before then, the system has turned to several mechanisms which are not resolving the structural crisis, they’re only prolonging it and one is unprecedented debt.

We know that corporate debt worldwide, we know that state debt worldwide, and consumer debt worldwide are at all-time highs and it’s not sustainable. That debt, the mounting debt means that the global economy sputters forward, but that mounting debt is not sustainable. Secondly, there has been this wild speculation in the global economy. We can really call it a global casino. The numbers are just mind boggling that 1.4 quadrillion dollars are speculated each year compared to just 75 trillion. 1.4 quadrillion dollars compared to $75 trillion as the whole global production of goods and services. So this wild speculation cannot continue either. And then a third mechanism has been forming all of these resources into the tech sector. If you follow the economic headlines, you see that there are now companies that are valued, their stocks are valued at over a trillion dollars and there is a new round of digitalization taking place, but that’s not going to resolve this structural crisis.

So finally, and now this is going to be the link between the politics and the economics of 21st century fascism. The other big way in which the global economy is moving forward in the face of this stagnation is what I called in that article, but I quote more generally, militarized accumulation and accumulation by repression.And what do I mean by that? I mean that now wars and conflicts worldwide become major outlets for profit making or unloading that over accumulated capital in the face of these stagnation tendencies and they’re wildly profitable and not just worsen conflicts that we see all over, but also systems of social control and repression become wildly profitable. The persecution of immigrants and private immigrant detention centers become wildly profitable. All of the systems in place in the Mediterranean and being expanded in Mediterranean for refugees coming from North Africa and the Middle East. These are wildly profitable. They are forms of accumulating capital in the face of over accumulation in the face of this stagnation, the structural dimension of the crisis.

I could go on with that, but let me now shift focus to this accumulation by repression will so and the challenge that the system faces here is how do you contain this rebellion from below? How do you control the global working class, which is rising up worldwide, which now sees the system as illegitimate? How do you resolve this crisis of legitimacy of capitalist hedgemony? And this is where we want to start talking about 21st century fascism. And I would add that expanding systems of transnational social control and of repression is wildly profitable, but it is also aimed at containing that rebellion from below, including from surplus humanity. We know up to a third of the world’s population is simply locked out and made surplus.

GREG WILPERT: Before you go onto the issue of fascism, I want to clarify that term also. I mean, in the sense of, you talk about also there being a difference between 20th and 21st century fascism. So first of all, what’s the difference and how does 21st century fascism resolve the issues that you’re talking about?

WILLIAM I ROBINSON: Right, well, I mean, working backwards, it doesn’t resolve. It’s not going to resolve. I mean, the ruling groups are rudderless. They don’t know where they’re going with this. They’re not going to be able to resolve these issues, but certain groups are certainly trying with this fascist mobilization. So let me say that 20th century fascism, we can analyze it as a triangulation of three things that came together. One was reactionary and repressive political power in the state. So obviously you have the Nazis in Germany, you have Mussolini in Italy, you have Franco in Spain, but you also had in the 1930s, you had fascist movements in the United States and in other parts of the world. In many of those places, those fascist movements were not able to capture the state. But that’s the first element for the 20th century fascism where this reactionary and very repressive political power.

The second dimension was that political power aligned with and met the needs of national capitalist groups. So when we studied fascism in Germany, we know that Nazis controlling the state, did everything that a German capitalist needed to expand and make profit. And so you have that alliance of the state with capital around the fascist project. But the third dimension of a fascist project in the 20th century, but this also holds for the 21st century, is a mobilization of fascist forces and ideologies in civil society. So of course the Nazis were not just in the state, there was massive movements in civil society. The thing with Mussolini, the same thing now in the United States and now in India and in Palestine and Israel and around the world, which is why, Greg, and I know you will know, you’re both Latin American, spent many years in Latin America, which is why a lot of the far right regimes in Latin America, I would not say are 21st century fascist. You have a dictatorship in Honduras, but it’s not fascist.

So the key ingredient is when these three things come together and we do see a rapid fascist mobilization in civil society in the United States, everyone knows that if you just follow the headlines, not just the traditional Nazis and KU Klux Klan, but the far right militias, the nativist movements and so forth and so on. That is an expanding fascist mobilization in US civil society, very, very scary. And it is linking up with capital and Trumpism represents a far right and repressive political power. Now, I’m not saying that fascism already exists in the United States, but that three way coming together, the three way triangulation, these congealing in the United States and in different parts around the world. But you’re asking me what’s the difference with 21st century and 20th century fascism and there’s a few key differences, but before I get into that, Greg, I would like to just point out that if you look around the world, you see those three things coming together in the countries that you mentioned.

So in India we don’t just have a far right and repressive government in power. We don’t just have a government aligning with the needs of transnational capital in India, but we also have that fascist mobilization and that fascist mobilization of the RSS for instance, is an openly fascist organization and Hindu nationalist fascist mobilization in civil society. We see the same thing in Brazil in distinction, for instance, to Honduras, and we see the same thing in Europe, the countries that you mentioned or in Israel for that matter. But there’s a key difference between 20th and 21st century fascism. It’s a little bit more on the academic side. I don’t want to go into a lot of detail to confuse listeners, but 20th century fascism brought together these far, repressive fascist governments and forces and civil society with national capitalist groups.

So German capitalists benefited from German Nazis in their competition with British capitalists and French capitalist classes and US capital’s classes. Now, what we’ve seen in the age of globalization from the late 20th century and on, is that now capital is largely transnational. That’s why I speak about a transnational capitalist class. So this fascist project is linking together with transnational capital, that’s one big difference. The other big difference is that there was a very powerful socialist and trade union and communist movements in the 1930s that were brushed by fascism. The first thing that Nazis did in Germany was to wipe out the communist and the socialist and the trade unions. Then they went after Jews and gypsies and so forth and so on, and the same thing in Italy. But now we have this mass rebellion from below, but we don’t have organized socialist and communist movements and trade unions are weak around the world. They’re gaining strength, but they’re now very weak.

So the repressive juggernaut of this rising 21st century fascism is more aimed at containing the potential we rebellion and the growing rebellion of the working class from below, from the grassroots below, and they’re containing surplus humanity. Because we have a situation I mentioned, where about a third of humanity now is simply locked out and surplus. One way to contain them is create systems of mass incarceration where surplus humanity is locked up. But this other way emerging is this 21st century fascism. Now this is crucial, the next point I’m going to make and the distinction between 20th and 21st century fascism and what we’re seeing now. What they share is the need that the fascist mobilization has for scapegoats. Because remember, fascism is a response to capitalist crisis and masses of workers and the poor and the majority can respond to capitalist crisis by overthrowing capitalism, right? And threatening the interests of capitalist groups and their fascist representatives. And the fascist mobilization has to identify scapegoats to channel this social anxiety.

And because of globalization, because of that inequality I mentioned at the beginning of the interview where 80% of humanity and increasingly even more, that a 20% leftover is experiencing downward mobility, increased insecurity, increased destabilization, increased prospects of precarious employment and so forth. That generates tremendous social anxiety and political tensions. And the fascist project seeks to channel that social anxiety, those political tensions towards scapegoating communities. So Trumpism hinges around, for instance, the anti-immigrant rhetoric and the anti-immigrant campaign as a scapegoating. In India, the scapegoating is against Muslims and against lower castes and against other groups and Israel of course is against the Palestinians in Brazil is a deeply racist dimension to that scapegoating.

But the key thing is the crisis generates mass discontent and social anxiety and fascist projects scapegoat them specifically in the United States, Trump’s project has been to reconstruct what I can call a white racist historic block with this major dimension of racism in involving this China legal mass anxiety towards a racist consciousness among white sectors. But here’s the key thing, in much of the 20th century to now hone in on the United States, the significant portions of the white working class were quite privileged. They had rising standards of living and homes and secure jobs and so forth. Under capitalist globalization, there’s the majority of white workers are moving with this downward mobility in this destabilization. So Trump’s social base is really tenacious, and it is largely–not exclusively, but largely what were privileged sectors of the white working class that are now experiencing downward mobility and destabilization. So really Trump is charisma for his base, not for us, but for his base and his discourse and everything he’s doing really is targeting that social base.

GREG WILPERT: I wanted to get into exactly into those issues of the Trump’s base and who is fighting for them. But I wanted to do that in part two. So we’re going to conclude this part one of this interview with William Robinson, professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara, and I would like to ask people to join us for part two, which will follow right now where we’ll discuss in what ways the Trump impeachment also should be considered an intra elite conflict. Thanks for joining us.

WILLIAM I ROBINSON: Thank you so much.


Gregory Wilpert

Gregory Wilpert is Managing Editor at TRNN. He is a German-American sociologist who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University in 1994. Between 2000 and 2008 he lived in Venezuela, where he first taught sociology at the Central University of Venezuela and then worked as a freelance journalist, writing on Venezuelan politics for a wide range of publications and also founded Venezuelanalysis.com, an English-langugage website about Venezuela. In 2007 he published the book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government (Verso Books). In 2014 he moved to Quito, Ecuador, to help launch teleSUR English. In early 2016 he began working for The Real News Network as host, researcher, and producer. Since September 2018 he has been working as Managing Editor at The Real News. Gregory's wife worked as a Venezuelan diplomat since 2008 and from January 2015 until October 2018 she was Venezuela's Ambassador to Ecuador.