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Know Your Enemy: Counterrevolution in a Time of Coronavirus

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For those who lived through Reagan and Clintonite reaction, just as for those of us radicalized by the imperial triumphalism of the Bush years, the early 2010s presented a cascade of miracles. Class and income inequality were pushed back to the center of political discourse as Occupy protestors held down mass encampments and called for a general strike in the imperial core. A few years later, Black Lives Matter proclaimed that the police remain nothing more than the enforcers of white supremacist capitalism and reminded the world that the oppressed can bring even the most militarized cities and freeways to a halt.

Then, a democratic socialist who had languished isolated in the U.S. Senate for years somehow, against all reasonable predictions, became a viable candidate in the primary of a party of which he wasn’t even a member. A ruling consensus and a common sense that pushed emancipation to the margins of popular imagination was broken in a way that had not been true for decades.

It seemed for a moment that though we had not yet, we would surely win.

And then the crash

But the more transcendent the high, the harsher the comedown. And the crash was bad. The election of Donald Trump has enshrined white nationalism and Islamophobia as governing ideology so explicitly that it would make past bigoted politicians blush. Migrants die in border camps. DHS prepares mass deportations of DACA recipients. And Trump has created an electoral base so strong a second term seems more than possible.

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Even before the current crisis, the anti-war and alter-globalization movements’ critiques were largely coopted by the Trumpian right, leaving mainstream Democrats appearing on the evening news to promote free trade deals and North Korean brinkmanship as progressive ideals. And now, the spread of coronavirus has given the luster of scientific fact to nativist calls to seal borders between a globally segmented global working class. An economic depression looms with the proletariat literally trapped in place, while the bourgeois states led by rightist leaders arm themselves with more and more emergency powers.

It was a few years of wonder, followed by escalating tragedy mixed with ongoing farce.

The weight of dead generations

The standard story Americans tell themselves to understand right-wing authoritarianism is, almost exclusively, that of Nazism. This is unfortunate for two reasons.

First, the defeat of Nazi Germany has become so central to American self-understanding it’s become a cheap morality play, with Hitler as Satan and America as the great redeemer. Such a flattening conveniently downgrades Nagasaki, and Dresden, wartime quotas on Jewish immigration, and the Red Army actually taking Berlin. It is a cherry-picked myth of all-American good versus evil, which of course is the whole point. And if Adolf Hitler is the ultimate evil, comparing any living leader to him is definitionally disproportionate, histrionic, uncalled for, meaning that any attempt to use historical analogy to understand the present is thrown out as an overstatement.

Second, we need more examples than Nazism because people and movements in a 21st century nuclear-armed global capitalist superpower don’t have that much in common with the residents of Weimar-era Germany. There are some lessons in examining the way the Nazis’ rose to power, but there is precious little that maps cleanly onto today’s political situation in the U.S.A.

To gain a better grasp on the perils we face and the dynamics at work requires a broader understanding of far-right movements in history and around the world.

Walden Bello’s new book, Counterrevolution, fills in many of the blanks.

A catalogue of defeats

Bello’s volume presents six comparative case-studies of victorious right-wing movements. He calls counterrevolutionary those fascist, authoritarian, and far-right movements which fought working-class formations, such as the Italian Fascists against the Socialist Party, or the Chilean coup against Allende’s Unidad Popular government. Bello also includes counterrevolutionary movements targeting not revolutionary or reformist underclasses, but rather political status quos deemed insufficient or unnatural. This second category includes the contemporary elections of both Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Narendra Modi in India.

Counterrevolution also covers the 1960s liquidation of the Communist Party of Indonesia and the 1976 and 2014 coup d’états in Thailand. In analyzing each of these six cases, Bello highlights the class dynamics of reform and reaction while avoiding crude economic reductionism. For instance, he writes that fear pushed the Chilean middle class to decisively support the counterrevolutionary coup, though Unidad Popular had assumed they would support a socialist program aligned to their ‘real’ class interests.

As part of Practical Action Publishing’s Agrarian Change and Peasant Studies Series, Bello’s book pays special attention to rural dynamics often missing from accounts of right-wing uprisings. It is often overlooked, for example, that before taking the cities, Italian squadristi pacified the countryside, first allying with landowners against the rural peasant leagues.

Global south and global north

Each chapter summarizes the broader historical, political and economic context for a given country before relaying the narrative of its counterrevolutionary movement. Bello does a wonderful job condensing the key factors leading to rightist hegemony in each country, given the brevity of the text. His analyses of the Philippines, Thailand, and Chile are informed by his own fieldwork in each country. Such a concise, empirically grounded overview of diverse rightwing movements is a true service at this historical conjuncture, especially one that forefronts the historical particularities of each case.

The chapters close with a list of the biggest lessons from the country in question. This helps to keep the major points clear to a rushed reader, though also imparting a bit of the feel of a Buzzfeed listicle-meets-term paper. And though Bello’s attention to the specific dynamics of each case is refreshing, his comparative approach takes each country as independent, as if 20th century left and right-wing movements were not responding to some of the same political and economic factors, to say nothing of outright communication and coordination. This is to say: it can be hard to see the empire for all the trees. The trade-off here is that Bello can therefore pay greater attention to the particular circumstances of each case, a useful corrective for left histories which paint local despots as mere accessories to a near-omnipotent CIA.

A more pressing problem than these stylistic qualms and methodological limitations would be that a study of agrarian dynamics of rightwing coups in the Global South might be of little practical interest to those of us involved in movement work in the contemporary United States. We should therefore appreciate the concluding analysis of counterrevolutionary movements in the United States and Europe.

Like Modi’s BJP in India, the Trumps, Le Pens, and Orbáns we face do not seek to depose working-class governments but rather seek to overthrow the norms of elite democratic capitalism. Their critiques are grounded in xenophobia and white privilege but also, Bello emphasizes, the abandonment of class politics by the left-liberal establishment. After the alter-globalization movement was eclipsed by 9/11, it was only the right which stepped into the breach to denounce neoliberalism in force.

The danger of left demobilization is hammered home by an epilogue looking at the election of Bolsonaro in Brazil, attributing the Workers Party’s failures in large part to the dismantling of its grassroots base after seizing electoral power.

Bringing the war home

As a global pandemic heightens nationalism and amplifies calls for extraordinary state intervention in the service of capital, it becomes incumbent upon the left to orient ourselves politically, historically, organizationally. What lessons can we learn from Bello’s wide-ranging study of global right-wing insurgencies?

First, a decentering of the city as the pivotal site of reaction and resistance is particularly useful for our political thinking. Rural areas of the U.S. voted overwhelmingly for Trump. Some are largely homogenous; others, like California’s Central Valley or the Deep South, have Black and Brown majorities coupled with mass disenfranchisement. Meanwhile, working class people are being ejected from gentrifying cities to surrounding exurbs and suburbs. And as of this writing, many urban areas are under effective lockdown because of COVID-19. Counterrevolution is a welcome reminder of how often the fight has progressed beyond the limits of the metropole and serves notice that we must remain attentive to new forms of struggle beyond the urban core.

Second, we are called to remember that this fight is not metaphorical, and will not merely be fought through opinion polls and ballot boxes. Left opposition to Trumpism has taken two independent forms. On one hand, a democratic socialist wing organizing behind the Sanders campaign hopes to remove the president electorally. On the other hand is a largely anarchist wing which focuses on direct confrontation with far-right groups through deplatforming and physical confrontation.

Too often, these poles have operated independently of each other, allowing dual errors to arise for many. The electoral left rightfully denounces the belief that street fighting alone will scale up to take down the repressive forces of an empire. At the same time, there is a diametrically opposed electoral fantasy that a presidential win is the ultimate objective, as if a decisive victory at the polls could rip out American reaction at the root.

Raising the stakes

Bello’s book includes the examples of Italy, Indonesia, and Chile, where counterrevolutionary movements rose against not communist insurrections but electoral socialist movements who sought to use legal avenues to take state power. The legality of left-wing maneuvering in these cases did not pre-empt a violent rightist response, and it did not save their lives. In the Indonesian example, this included the wholesale physical massacre of Indonesian Communist Party supporters.

We must think of victory not on the scale of blocks and intersections at mobilizations but cities and regions over the course of decades. We must also remember that the election of a socialist politician would be if anything a stage, not an end goal, and the demobilization of popular forces in the event of electoral victory has proven to be a truly fatal mistake.

Today, we are at a moment of unprecedented opportunity and unthinkable danger. In the past two weeks, Newsweek published an article sanguinely outlining the military’s plans for direct rule should civilian government become incapacitated while, on the other side, a left-leaning pundit for DC newsmagazine The Hill openly called for “temporary communism.” This latter call was echoed by pop sensation Britney Spears’ Instagram repost of Mimi Zhu’s art in favor of a general strike.

With nations paralyzed and states on emergency footing, political polarization continues at breakneck speed, only to looking to intensify as the election looms. To gain political footing in uncertain times is critical. Counterrevolution is a wide-ranging, incisive, and above all, useful text for us today, one which highlights the possibilities and risks we face.