Horkheimer is front left, Adorno front right, and Habermas is in the background, right, running his hand through his hair, Heidelberg, 1964. Wikicommons/Jeremy J. Shapiro at the Max Weber-Soziologentag.. Some right reserved.Two new worlds are now struggling to be born amidst the crumbling ruins of neoliberalism and market globalisation. The first is the waking nightmare now unfolding in the United States in the glare of the international media. A reality show with a cast of horrors, its politically successful mix of faux right-wing populism and neo-fascism has inspired and emboldened autocrats everywhere and threatens in the absence of an effective counter-power to become our new global reality.
The second, a just, compassionate, ecologically sound and democratically self-managed post-capitalist world, may be detected in what Colin Ward once described as scattered ‘seeds beneath the snow’. Deeply rooted in a rich soil of ideas and grounded utopian imagination nourished by countless counter-cultural critics of capitalism, industrialism and grow-or-die economics from William Morris, Peter Kropotkin and Elisée Reclus to Gandhi, Ivan Illich, Murray Bookchin and Ursula Le Guin – as well as a long history of popular movements from below working together to resist regimes of domination and develop progressive and sustainable alternatives to them – the tender shoots of another world are emerging all around us.
They are visible in a wide range of grassroots practices, movements, and practical utopias, from Buen Vivir in the Andes, Ubuntu in South Africa, Ecoswaraj in India, Zapatismo in Mexico, and the budding degrowth movement in Europe to solidarity economies, commoning activities, permaculture projects, re-localisation movements, community currencies, transition towns, co-operatives, eco-communities, worker occupied factories, indigenous people’s assemblies, alternative media and arts, human-scale technologies, basic and maximum income experiments, debt audit movements, radical democratic movements such as Occupy and democratic confederalism in Rojava, and emerging anti-fascist fronts and coalitions uniting immigrant solidarity groups, anti-racists, feminists, queers, anarchists, libertarian socialists and many others.
The great danger we now face is that newly empowered forces of reaction will use that power to repress progressive alternatives before they are able to coalesce as an effective counter-power, sowing seeds of hatred and intolerance instead.
Many commentators of a liberal democratic or centre-left political persuasion have dismissed such warnings as scare-mongering, and suggested that the most effective antidote to ‘populist politics’ is a renewed commitment to social democracy and market globalisation with a ‘human face’. Rather than seek to understand the complex mix of reasons why American citizens voted for a demagogue like Trump, they blame an undifferentiated ‘populism’ and advocate more elite democracy instead.
The breathtaking naivety of this commentary is perhaps matched in recent memory only by Francis Fukuyama’s equally naïve and now risible prediction in 1989 of an ‘end of history’, i.e. an end to mankind’s ideological evolution with the ‘universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government’.
Walter Benjamin, Paris, 1939.Now more than ever, it is vital that we recognise and articulate careful ideological distinctions between competing right and left wing varieties of populism, and that those of us committed to values like equality, democracy and solidarity take urgent action to oppose Trumpism and the rise of fascism not with more of the same failed elite-led liberal democracy, but with a bold left egalitarian and inclusive radicalism.
The Trump campaign gave voice to the ugly authoritarian and reactionary face of popular opposition to the political establishment. It castigated the elitism and corruption of the system, emphasised its ineffectuality in the face of sinister threats to national well-being posed by Muslims and illegal immigrants and other easily scapegoated ‘outsider’ groups, and maintained that Trump and Trump alone could ‘make America great again’. It succeeded by peddling false solutions and scapegoats for real social problems generated by the governance of interconnected political and economic elites.
By contrast, a bold and inclusive left populist radicalism would expose the real roots of festering social problems by speaking plainly and directly to ordinary people’s needs, without pandering to their worst prejudices and fears. It would offer a generous vision of a better world, and a sweeping programme for revolutionary social change that can be translated into everyday practice.
This will require a reconnection with revolutionary roots. Historically, revolutionary ideas and social movements have tended to emerge out of, and give ideological coherence to, popular democratic social forms. However, in our time once revolutionary ideologies and movements like socialism and anarchism have grown increasingly detached from their radical democratic roots, leaving a political vacuum that right-wing populists and demagogues have been quick to fill.
Walter Benjamin’s observation that every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution speaks poignantly to our current condition. It may be interpreted not only as warning, but as a grimly realistic utopian hope that we still have a fleeting historical opportunity to act before it is too late.