Global Crisis and the Specter of 21st Century Fascism

2 April, 2012


William I. Robinson

The global economic crisis is generating social conflict and political turbulence around the world and deepening the already immense structural inequalities of the global political economy. How much longer can such inequalities be contained through consensual mechanisms of political authority? Is it possible that a neo-fascist response to the crisis will gain traction as global elites find it impossible to counter the erosion of the system’s authority? Below, I want to explore the nature of the global economic crisis before turning to the threat of what I refer to as 21st Century fascism.

The crisis we face is not a cyclical one but a structural one—a restructuring crisis, such as we faced in the 1930s and again in the 1970s. Whether it becomes a systemic crisis, in which only a complete change in the system itself will resolve the crisis, will depend on how social agents respond and on the unpredictable element of contingency that always plays a role in historical outcomes.

While the current crisis shares a number of aspects with the earlier crises, it also has several unique features that in my view make this a perilous period for humanity. One is that the system is fast reaching the ecological limits of its reproduction; we may, in fact, have already reached a point of no return. Another feature is the magnitude of the means of violence and social control. Computerized battle, drones, bunker-buster bombs, Star Wars, panoptical surveillance systems, and so forth, have changed the face of warfare, normalizing and sanitizing it for those not directly on the receiving end of armed aggression. A third is the limits to the extensive expansion of capitalism, in the sense that there are no longer any new territories of significance that can be integrated into world capitalism. Deruralization is now well advanced, and the commodification of the countryside and of pre- and non-capitalist spaces has intensified, converting them in hothouse fashion into spaces of capital, so that intensive expansion is reaching depths never before seen.

A fourth feature is the rise of a vast surplus population. The International Labor Organization estimates that some one third of the global working age population is unemployed or underemployed. Millions, perhaps billions of people inhabit a “planet of slums,”1 alienated from the productive economy, thrown onto the margins, and subject to sophisticated systems of social control and to destruction by a mortal cycle of dispossession, exploitation, and exclusion. A fifth is the disjuncture between a globalizing economy and a system of political authority that is based on nation-states. Transnational state apparatuses remain in an incipient stage and have not been able to play the role of what social scientists refer to as a “hegemon,” a leading actor wielding sufficient power and authority to organize and stabilize the entire system.

To understand the current conjuncture we need to first look back to the 1970s. The globalization stage of world capitalism we are now in itself evolved out of the response of distinct agents to previous episodes of crisis, in particular, to the 1970s crisis of social welfare or redistributive capitalism. In the wake of that crisis, capital went global, allowing an emergent transnational capitalist class and its political representatives to reconstitute their class power by breaking free of nation-state constraints to accumulation. These constraints—the so-called “class compromise”—had been imposed on capital as the result of decades of mass struggles around the world by popular and working classes contained within national borders. During the 1980s and 1990s, however, globally oriented elites captured state power in most countries around the world. They used that power to promote capitalist globalization, to shift the correlation of class and social forces worldwide sharply in their favor, and to undercut the strength of popular and working classes around the world in the wake of the global rebellions of the 1960s and 1970s.

Globalization and neoliberal policies opened up vast new opportunities for transnational accumulation in the 1980s and 1990s. The revolution in computer and information technology (CIT) and other technological advances helped emergent transnational capital achieve major gains in productivity and restructure, “flexibilize,” and shed labor worldwide. This, in turn, undercut wages and the social wage and facilitated a transfer of income to capital as well as to high consumption sectors around the world that provided new market segments fueling growth. In sum, globalization made possible a major expansion of the system and unleashed a frenzied new round of accumulation worldwide, thus offsetting the 1970s crisis of declining profits and investment opportunities.

But periods of hyper-accumulation inevitably become crises of over-accumulation. The current global crisis is one of over-accumulation, or the lack of outlets for the profitable absorption of surpluses. The 2008 collapse of the global financial system, what some have called the Great Recession, was years in the making. The system had been stumbling from one lesser crisis to another since the mid-1990s–the Mexican peso crisis of 1995, the Asian financial meltdown of 1997-98, the recession of 2001 and the bursting of the dot-com bubble. By the new century two major mechanisms for unloading surplus emerged to provide a perverse lifeline to the system: militarized accumulation and financial speculation.

The US state took advantage of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011 to militarize the global economy. The cutting edge of accumulation in the “real economy” worldwide shifted from computer and information technology to a military-security-industrial-construction-engineering-petroleum complex that accrued enormous influence in the halls of power in Washington and elsewhere. Military spending sky-rocketed into the trillions of dollars through the “war on terrorism” and the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, acting to throw fresh fuel on the smoldering embers of the global economy. The spin-off effects of this spending have flowed through the open veins of the global economy—that is, through the integrated network structures of the global production, service, and financial systems.

Financial speculation made possible by deregulation of the financial industry, together with the introduction of computer and information technology, gave rise to a globally integrated financial system. The “revolution in finance” of the past few decades has included all sorts of financial innovations and securitization mechanisms—a vast and bewildering array of derivatives, from swaps, futures markets, hedge funds, and institutional investment funds to mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, Ponzi schemes, pyramiding of assets, and more. These innovations make possible a global casino of transnational financial circuits based on frenzied speculation and the ongoing expansion of fictitious capital. The sequence of speculative waves in this global casino since the 1980s has included real estate investments in the emerging global property market that inflated property values in one locality after another, wild stock market speculation leading to periodic booms and busts, and the phenomenal escalation of hedge-fund flows and currency speculation. Frantic speculation in global commodities markets, especially energy and food markets, has provoked repeated spikes in world prices, sparking “food riots” around the world.

As speculation in the global financial casino reached a feverish pitch following recovery from the 2001 recession, the “real economy” was kept momentarily afloat by means of a massive increase in consumer debt (largely credit cards and mortgage refinancing) and by federal deficit spending in the US, which together converted that country into the world’s “market of last resort.” The Federal Reserve’s decision to reduce interest rates to about one percent in 2003 as a mechanism to overcome the recession triggered a wave of speculation in the US mortgage market, prompting investors to indulge in the infamous subprime lending spree. The bottoming out of the subprime mortgage market in 2007 triggered the collapse a year later of the global financial system headquartered on Wall Street.

Yet in the perverse world of predatory transnational finance capital, debt and deficits themselves became new sources of financial speculation. This explains, in part, the latest round of crisis as manifested in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and elsewhere. Government debt is now being portrayed as “spending beyond means” and used to justify austerity measures and cuts in social spending. At the same time, however, this debt has become a major source of profit-making for transnational finance capital—its latest financial fix—even as social consumption continues to decline as a source of accumulation. The global bond market, which stood in 2009 at an estimated US$90 trillion, constituted the single biggest market for financial speculation in the wake of the 2008 collapse. Gone are the times when such bonds were bought and held to maturity. They are, instead, bought and sold by individual and institutional investors in frenzied 24-hour worldwide trading and are bet on continuously through such mechanisms as credit default swaps that shift their values and make bond markets a high stakes gamble of volatility and risk for investors.

While transnational capital’s offensive against the global working class dates back to the crisis of the 1970s, the Great Recession of 2008 was in several respects a major turning point. Crises provide capital with the opportunity to accelerate the process of forcing greater productivity out of fewer workers. Spatial reorganization through globalization has helped transnational capital break the power of territorial-bound organized labor and impose new capital-labor relations based on the fragmentation, flexibilization, and devaluation of labor. Moreover, although the mass of “supernumeraries” is of no direct use to capital, in the larger picture such surplus labor is crucial to global capitalism insofar as it places downward pressure on wages everywhere and allows transnational capital to impose discipline over those who remain active in the labor market. According to one report, for instance, in the current crisis the largest employers in the US “have emerged from the economy’s harrowing downturn loaded with cash thanks to deep cost-cutting that helped drive unemployment into double digits….and [resulted in] huge gains in worker productivity.” 2

In Europe, North America, and elsewhere, the money mandarins of global capitalism and their political agents are utilizing the crisis to impose brutal austerity measures and attempting to dismantle what is left of welfare systems and social states. The budgetary and fiscal crises that supposedly justify spending cuts and austerity are a consequence of the unwillingness or inability of states to challenge capital as well as their own predisposition to transfer the burden of the crisis to working and popular classes. Global mobility has given capital extraordinary structural influence over state managers who seek economic reactivation and macroeconomic stability. As the crisis spreads it is generating a veritable global humanitarian catastrophe, and as a result social and political conflict has escalated worldwide.

21st Century Fascism as a Response to Capitalist Crisis
The structural crisis of the 1930s was resolved through the creation of a new model of Fordist-Keynesian or redistributive capitalism, and that of the 1970s was resolved, at least temporarily, through capitalist globalization. “Resolved” does not mean that things got better for the mass of humanity but rather that restructuring allowed for the resumption of sustained accumulation. Crises, however, open up the possibility of changes that can go in many different directions. The current crisis is resulting in a rapid political polarization in many parts of the world, and in the global system as a whole. Both right-wing and left-wing forces are resurgent. In the current conjuncture three identifiable responses to the crisis can be identified.

One is a reformism from above that is aimed at stabilizing the system–in saving the system from itself and from more radical responses emanating from below. Transnational elites have proposed state stimulus programs, tighter regulation of global financial markets, a shift from speculative to productive accumulation, and limited redistributive measures. In the years following the collapse of the financial system in 2008, however, it would seem that these reformers have been unable to prevail over the power of transnational finance capital.

A second response to the crisis is popular and left-wing resistance from below. Although often in fits and starts, this resistance appears to be resurgent, yet it remains spread very unevenly across countries and regions. The mass uprisings in EU countries in the wake of sovereign debt crises in 2010-2011 and the imposition of draconian new austerity programs are a reflection of this resurgence, as are the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, the turn to the left in a number of Latin American countries, and the revival of labor militancy in the US in the face of relentless antiunion and austerity campaigns by Republicans and other right-wing forces.

However, crises of state legitimacy and vacuums in institutional power provide an opening not just for popular forces from below but also for far-right forces that compete with reformist and radical responses to crisis. This third response is 21st Century fascism. The ultra-right is a resurgent force in many countries—in Latin America, for instance, in Colombia, Mexico, Honduras and elsewhere, in a number of EU countries, and in the US. The telltale signs of such a neo-fascist project include the fusion of transnational capital with reactionary political power; escalating militarization and extreme masculinization; economic destabilization and concomitant social anxiety among privileged strata of the working and middle classes; the drive to organize a mass base among economically insecure and socially disaffected sectors, animated by a fanatical ideology, race/culture supremacy, xenophobia, and the embrace of an idealized and mythical past; repressive methods of social control; a racist mobilization against scapegoats, such as immigrant workers and Muslims, that displaces and redirects social tensions and contradictions; and charismatic leadership among far-right forces.

The accumulation and legitimation functions of the capitalist state—always in tension with one another—cannot both be met under current conditions. Economic crisis intensifies the problem of legitimation for the dominant groups; as a result, accumulation crises produce spiraling political crises. In essence, the state’s ability to function as a “factor of cohesion” within the social order breaks down as capital becomes globalized and the logic of accumulation or commodification penetrates every aspect of social life; as the social fabric frays, “cohesion” requires more and more social control.

We see, therefore, a shift from social welfare to social control or police states. The state abandons efforts to secure legitimacy among the broad swaths of the population that have been relegated to surplus labor. Unrest, spontaneous rebellion, and organized political mobilization among the structurally unemployed, the marginalized, and the downwardly mobile pose potential threats to the system and must be controlled and contained. In 21st Century fascism, the imperative to contain real or potential rebellion on the part of the dispossessed and disenfranchised replaces, in some respects, the drive to crush the organized working-class movement towards socialism that helped propel 20th century fascism. This need to assure mass social control of the world’s surplus population and of rebellious movements from below gives a powerful impulse to the project of 21st Century global fascism.

Hence, the state responds to those who are dispossessed, expelled from the labor market, and locked out of productive labor not with expanded social welfare and protection but with coercive exclusion, criminalization, and repressive social control and containment strategies. These strategies include mass incarceration and prison-industrial complexes, pervasive policing, repressive anti-immigrant legislation, and the manipulation of space in new ways so that both gated communities and ghettos are controlled by armies of private security guards and technologically advanced surveillance systems. At the same time, “culture industries” are mobilized to dehumanize the victims of global capitalism, depicting them as dangerous, depraved, and culturally degenerate “Others,” as criminal elements who pose a threat to society. In the US, for instance, dominant groups have for decades waged systemic cultural and ideological “law and order” campaigns in order to legitimate the shift from social welfare to social control. Viewed analytically, these processes can be seen as taking the place of concentration camps, in so far as they conjoin with legal changes—such as anti-drug and “three strikes” laws—that criminalize the marginalized, especially youth of color. They subject a surplus and potentially rebellious population of millions of people to concentration, caging, and state violence.

More broadly, and alongside new modalities of social control, the culture of global capitalism attempts to seduce the excluded and abandoned into petty consumption and fantasy as an alternative to placing social or political demands on the system through mobilization. These campaigns deflect attention from the sources of social deprivation and channel the insecurities associated with capitalist globalization onto marginalized groups, helping political representatives of the ruling groups organize electoral coalitions and construct consensus around the new order (e.g., anti-immigrant and get-tough-on-crime campaigns). Internationally, Third World victims of abandonment–as in Somalia, Haiti, the Congo–are portrayed, at best, as passive and incompetent victims eliciting paternal sympathy, if not simply as inferiors to be dismissed and relegated to death and oblivion.

Militarization as Social Control and as Accumulation
If the imperative of social control gives powerful impetus to the militarization of global capitalism, militarization has another key function, that of sustaining global accumulation in the face of stagnation. Militarization as a response to the crisis of global capitalism achieves the simultaneous objectives of enabling social control and repression and of coercively opening up opportunities for capital accumulation worldwide, either on the heels of military force or through the state’s contracting of corporate capital for the production and execution of social control and war. For instance, the US invasion of Iraq integrated that country into global capitalism and opened up vast new opportunities for transnational capital.

Much of warfare itself and of the related processes of social control and repression has been privatized and semi-privatized. Well beyond the traditional linkage between state warfare and corporate capital—that is, the procurement of weaponry, equipment, and military technology—militarized accumulation now ranges from the replacement of state soldiers by mercenary armies (“private security firms”), to the subcontracting of reconstruction projects, military engineering, the construction of military and conflict related installations, the supply of food, consumer items and services to occupation armies, the construction of private prisons and “security walls,” and even the subcontracting of torture and interrogation.3

Hence the generation of conflicts and the repression of social movements and vulnerable populations is an accumulation strategy independent of specific political objectives. By way of example, undocumented immigrant labor in the US is extremely profitable for the corporate economy, in a double sense. First, it is labor that is highly vulnerable, forced into a semi-underground existence and liable to deportation, and therefore subject to super-exploitation. Second, the criminalization of undocumented immigrants and the militarization of their control not only reproduces these conditions of vulnerability but also generates vast new opportunities for accumulation.

The private immigrant prison-industrial complex in the US is a boom industry. Undocumented immigrants constitute the fastest growing sector of the US prison population and are held in private detention centers and deported by private companies contracted by the federal government. As of 2010 there were 270 immigration detention centers, confining on any given day more than 30,000 immigrants. Under the Obama administration, more immigrants have been detained and deported than at any time in the past half-century. Since detention facilities and deportation logistics are subcontracted to private companies, capital has a vested interest in the criminalization of immigrants and in the militarization of control over immigrants–and therefore, more broadly, a vested interest in contributing to the neo-fascist anti-immigrant movement. It is no surprise, for example, that William Andrews, the CEO of the Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private US contractor for immigrant detention centers, declared in 2008 that “the demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts… or through decriminalization [of immigrants].”4

The masculinist and militaristic culture that accompanies militarized accumulation has reached unprecedented heights. The fusion of militarization and extreme masculinization–masculine fear of female power, misogyny, and homophobia, what Goff calls “martial masculinity”–has invaded the sphere of mass culture.5 An increasingly fascistic pop culture combines this celebration of militarization and masculinity with fantasy, mysticism, and irrationality, as epitomized in the mass appeal of extremely violent computer games, the proliferation of reality TV shows, and the glorification of military aggression, social violence, and domination in Hollywood movies. Mainstream cinema draws in enormous audiences, achieves record profits, and wins Academy Awards with such “true grit” films as The Hurt Locker which, even if they fall short of formal endorsement of violence, depoliticize and normalize it, even glamorize it. Videogaming of war and violence for pure entertainment–as in the widely popular HAWX video game–normalizes and aestheticizes the militarization of culture and everyday life as never before.

Neo-fascist movements such as the Tea Party and neo-fascist legislation such as Arizona’s anti-immigrant SB1070 have been broadly financed by transnational corporate capital. The far-right-wing billionaire brothers, David and Charles Koch, whose combined fortune of some $40 billion is exceeded in the US only by those of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, are the prime bankrollers of the Tea Party as well as a host of foundations and front organizations, such as Americans for Prosperity, the Cato Institute, and the Mercatus Center, that have pushed an extreme version of the neoliberal corporate agenda, including the reduction and elimination of corporate taxes, cutbacks in social services, the gutting of public education, and the total liberation of capital from government regulation. Less well known is the fact that the Koch brothers have raised funds for the Tea Party and other organizations from dozens of the largest transnational corporations operative on the US political scene.6 The actual programmatic content of the Koch brothers and the organizations and movements they finance and help lead is a deepening many times over of the neoliberal “counter-revolution” of radical free market global capitalism, and converges perfectly with the interests of transnational capital.

It must be stressed that a 21st Century fascism would not look like the 20th Century variety. Among other things, the ability of dominant groups to control and manipulate space and to exercise unprecedented control over the mass media, the means of communication, and the production of symbols, images, and messages means that repression can be more selective (as we see, e.g., in Mexico or Colombia), and also that it can be organized juridically so that mass “legal” incarceration takes the place of concentration camps. In addition, the vast new powers of cultural hegemony open up new possibilities for atomizing and channeling grievances and frustrated aspirations into escapism and consumerist fantasies. The fashion and entertainment industries market anything that can be converted into a commodity. With this comes depoliticization, at best, and at worst the channeling of fear into flight rather than into fight-back. The ideology of 21st Century fascism often rests on irrationality–a promise to deliver security and restore stability is emotive, not rational. 21st Century fascism is a project that does not–and need not–distinguish between truth and lies.

The counterweight to a 21st Century  fascism must be a coordinated resistance by the global working class that would involve rebuilding working class organizations, including independent trade unions and democratic socialist movements, and extending cultures of social solidarity and transnational resistance. The only viable solution to the crisis of global capitalism is a massive redistribution of wealth and power downward towards the poor majority of humanity along the lines of a 21st Century democratic socialism, in which humanity is no longer at war with itself and with nature. And the only way such redistribution can come about is through mass transnational struggle from below. Otherwise, humanity may be headed for what Sing C. Chew, among others, has termed a new Dark Ages.7

1. Mike David, Planet of Slums. London: Verso, 2007.
2. Tom Petruno, “Corporate Giants Awash in Cash as Economy Picks Up.” Los Angeles Times, 24 March 2010: A1, A8.
3. On the US state integrating Iraq into global capitalism, and on militarized accumulation more generally, see, inter alia, William I. Robinson, “Beyond the Theory of Imperialism: Global Capitalism and the Transnational State,” Societies without Borders, No. 2:5-26, 2007; Robinson, “The Crisis of Global Capitalism: Cyclical, Structural, Systemic?,” Op. Cit. On the privatization of warfare, see, inter alia, Jeremy Scahill’s noted work, Blackwater: the Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army (New York: Nation Books, 2008), as well as Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Picador, 2008).
4. See Tom Barry, “The National Imperative to Imprison Immigrants for Profit,” Center for International Policy, Americas Program, posted at CIP Americas Program webpage on 10/3/2009 and accessed on 11/16/2010 at http://www.cipamericas.org/archives/1662
5. Stan Goff, “Sowing the Seeds of Fascism in America,” Truthdig (internet magazine), posted on October 3, 2006, and accessed on 7/21/07 from
http://www.truthdig.com/dig/item/200601003_white_supremacism_sexism_militarism/
6. See, inter alia: Jane Mayer, “Covert Operations: the Billionaire Brothers who are Waging a War against Obama,” The New Yorker, August 30, 2010; and the documentary Billionaire Tea Party, directed and produced by Taki Oldham and released by Larrikin Films, 2010 (see website at http://www.billionairesteaparty.com).
7. Sing C. Chew, The Recurring Dark Ages: Ecological Stress, Climate Changes, and System Transformation (Landham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2007).