I must be getting older. My tendency to reminisce about my younger days, including those when I was a student at Georgetown are peppered throughout this blog.
In the second semester of my sophomore year, I took 20th Century Russian History as taught by Dr. Stites. My sophomore year, if you know my age, could not have been a better time to take a class on 20th century Russian history, given the extremely significant event that literally took place between the fall and spring semesters of that year.
And Dr. Stites was a particularly good person to help guide us through history as it happened. I remember one of his lectures as we discussed the failure of the communist experiment that was the Soviet Union. Communism is messy. Capitalism is messy. But capitalism works, at least a little bit better.
If you google the phrase “capitalism in crisis“, you can see multiple essays — from both left-leaning and right-leaning sources — from the past ten years or so, making arguments that capitalism is (or may have been) in crisis.
Eighty five years ago, Soviet philosopher Nikilai Bukharin wrote an essay that makes a compelling, if facile, argument that when capitalism is in crisis, that inevitably leads to fascism.
I call it “facile” because it’s convenient to say it, given the era in history when it was written. The crisis that we now know as The Great Depression coupled with the terms of the Treaty of Versailles definitely allowed for the rise of Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler. But the reality is this was the era when the phrase itself was coined.
The Panic of 1893, for example, didn’t really give us any fascist dictatorships that weren’t already authoritarian rule somewhere in the world.
The beauty of Marxist theory, as I’ve pointed out before, is that he took the Hegelian dialectic (e.g. you start out with a thesis. An antithesis arises and eventually the two points clash. The result of the clash is the synthesis of ideas, which, over time, becomes a new thesis, and the process repeats) and applied it to economic history. And he was absolutely right.
From feudal lords and the peasants, through the French Revolution that gave us the Bourgeoisie, which was countered by the proletariat, you can see it repeating over and over throughout history. And even though my example is very Eurocentric, we saw it around the world.
And then we have to ask ourselves, exactly how modern crises of capitalism actually manifest themselves. Ten years ago, we had the bursting of the housing bubble and the resulting recession. Now, the bigger crisis is income inequality, but that’s been slowly building for nearly forty years now.
Furthermore, the governing body that appears most consistent with a fascist worldview — the Taliban in Afghanistan — can be thought of as a lot of things, but their ascendancy certainly did not stem from any crisis in capitalism.
I think Barack Obama nailed it with a comment that won him a fair degree of criticism at the time:
And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
If there is one thing you need to enable the rise of fascism, it’s angry people goaded on by their religion. Indeed, if there’s something we can rely on to allow authoritarian (if not fascist) rule to rise, it’s when conservatives fear losing power and they combine forces with religious leaders. (Although it sometimes happens within the religion itself, as happened with the Baptists forty years ago.)
The question is what makes them angry. It could be economics (or capitalism in crisis), that much is true. But it doesn’t have to be.
I think of the old entry on this blog back in May of 2016, about the way Breitbart mischaracterized a Harvard Law professor’s essay about the so-called culture wars. The Breitbart article was designed to generate outrage, not enable honest discussion.
Professor Jack Balkin (the subject of that Breitbart article) wrote that the culture wars were over. Sadly, they most certainly are not. Professor Richard Stites (my old college professor) may have been too generous to the efficacy of capitalism.
But they’d both agree that their visions of the future are far preferable to the fascist / authoritarian streaks we see in modern conservatism as bolstered by religion.