Neopopulism as a Problem: Between Geopolitics and Class Struggle*

The English translation of the article first appeared on PPPR

Riots are born not because of little things but out of little things

Aristotle, Politics, V

Tackling the theme of neopopulism – a term that will be justified in the exposition – means to face off against a series of obstacles, that make very difficult a debate that can assume it as a theoretical-critical object. This is not only about the media and academic mainstream which – apart from some timid cues from political sociology[1] – is and remains incised in the liberal discourse, the more empty the more pervasive it is in public space. Nor just about the impossibility/incapacity of the left, be it liberal or radical, to reflect on the conditions of its own sunset. It is that any analysis of the phenomenon in a critical perspective does not have in front of it, and presumably will not have for a long time, a potentially political collective subject to leverage on, in order to make the analysis politically “expendable”. This problem is itself a non-exogenous variable of the phenomenon, but it falls within it to the extent that grasping its basic determinants means putting oneself in the perspective of the disintegration of a whole system of social relations, economic configurations, political and geopolitical perspectives and, also, of the subjectivities that one is accustomed to assuming.

Three Hypotheses

When a world ends, the background cognitive grids break, and a more visionary approach would be required at the very moment when, instead, the view becomes confused. It is then a question of finding at the base of the phenomenology of neo-populism in the West – which here we must assume[2] – an internal “logic” of its own, patiently returning to fundamental questions falsely taken for granted: what has become capital at the height of so-called globalization, what is based the current political nullity of the proletariat on, what are the signs of breaking this deadlock up to the contradictory and spurious phenomena like those before our eyes.

The point of attack, we believe, can only be a balance sheet of the last ten years, the years of the first trulyglobal crisis of the capitalist system. A crisis which, in depth and very close succession, has undermined the mechanisms of financial globalization, unleashed the geopolitical clash on a global scale – in particular between the United States and China – and put the dynamics of the social classes back into motion.

It is only within the overall framework of this systemic crisis – first trace of work – that the emerging phenomenon of neo-populism in the West can be tackled: a phenomenon that signals for the Western imperialist quadrant (and specifically for this) the non-contingent transformation of the class struggle from the 20th century forms of the classical workers’ movement to those of the current hyper-proletarians without reservations, in relation to a social reproduction now completely subsumed within the mechanisms of fictitious capital.

Starting from t­­­­his framework, the neopopulisms – this is the second track – must be questioned by placing them on the thread of time of the proletarian movement, however s/figured it may appear today, passing in particular through the dialectical interweaving between ‘68 and the assemblages of globalization. Taking care to focus on deep dynamics and substantial contents more than on the variegated and volatile containers of the moment, all the more so in the face of ambivalent forms of activation, in progress and with open results, which in reaction to a globalism in serious crisis but still capable of producing social disasters, have not so far gone beyond the claim, often only electoral, of a citizenism and/or sovereignism at risk of nationalist fallout.

Third track of work: it will be from the reciprocal intersection of systemic crisis, in its passages of acute geopolitical clash, and subjective class dynamics that will emerge in a sharper way than is now the great options of the future.

It is to this complex analytical machine that we refer – also drawing on the tradition of political realism, the realism of transformation that allows us to know the enemy in depth – when we speak of the geopolitics ofneopopulism as the current form of class struggle in the West in the wider context of the world capitalist system understood as imperialism (a term that has not by chance disappeared from the mental horizon of the left).

Financial Imperialism of the Dollar

What has broken, or at least strongly cracked, in the mechanism of globalization with the crisis that has shaken the world for a decade? To sketch a response, within the limits of space allowed here, it is important to refer back to the three fundamental factors which, in the midst of the convulsions of the capitalist crisis of the 1970s, constituted that global assembly which then became a system. First of all, the Long 68 in the twofold dimension of struggles in the metropolis – of the mass worker, young people, women, blacks in the States – and of anti-colonial struggles, which gave the trigger to the former. In the face of that formidable uprising and the disaster of the war in Vietnam, the United States finds in the Nixon-Kissinger couple the ability to outline an imperialist exit strategy capable of overturning weaknesses into strengths. There are two fundamental elements, one economic, the other geopolitical: in 1971, the end of the post-war international monetary regime of Bretton Woods with the release of the dollar from the fixed parity with gold; in 1972, diplomatic rapprochement with the Maoist China, itself in the process of escaping from the Cultural Revolution.

With the move of ’71 – second fundamental factor – a new standard of the world currency is in fact set by Washington that leverages on a freely floating dollar that remains however, thanks to the economic and strategic power of the United States, world means of payment and reserve currency.[3] This move means the permanent possibility of a monetization of the growing US debts borne by other world players, primarily the Western allies. Debts due to budget and trade deficits which, starting with military spending in Vietnam and social spending induced by internal social struggles, will then grow exponentially and irreversibly from Reagan onwards. At that point the geoeconomic and geopolitical world course will always pivot on the United States but, unlike the cycle after World War II, no longer as creditor but precisely as the main world debtor capable of capturing precisely in this way the flows of world value. This is the actual launch of financialisation by the creation of a bubble of floating dollars on world markets – Eurodollars, petrodollars, paper securities of all kinds, derivatives – in search of remuneration on a scale never seen before, to which the internationalisation of production and trade chains, that is globalization, will open the whole world and draw new maps of imperialism.

Third, the Sino-American rapprochement. On this side Nixon-Kissinger’s ability is to hook, for the least painful possible exit from the Vietnamese quagmire, the Maoist China that ten years earlier had broken with Moscow. The deal between Washington and Peking is, at first, purely geopolitical in anti-USSR function, but from 1979 onwards, it will acquire a geo-economic significance with the affirmation of the denghist course of internal economic reforms and controlled opening to the world market which will make possible the subordinate insertion of People’s Republic of China in the US-led globalization. While China becomes the world factory with hundreds of millions of men and women put to work at very low wages, this spatial dislocation of manufacturing production causes the downsizing of several industrial sectors in the United States in favour of services and finance and the disruption of the composition of the Fordist mass worker, protagonist until then of a wide and deep cycle of struggles. Geoeconomics, geopolitics and class struggle (here of the bosses) reunite.

‘79 is the year of the dramatic intertwining of these different processes, also a turning point in the world political and strategic equilibrium: launch of the Chinese reforms, Russian invasion in Afghanistan – the trap set by the eggheads of the American administration against the USSR – and Iranian revolution which marks a deep break in the 20th century revolutionary models. It is the year that preludes to Reagan’s electoral victory and marks the definitive trigger for the post-Bretton Woods financial architecture. With the sharp rise in interest rates and therefore in the dollar operated by Federal Reserve – the infamous Volcker shock – Washington is in fact carrying out a huge capture of capital flows on a global scale that not only cracks down on the domestic social front, but also unleashes the crisis of the Third World – which seemed to be able to constitute a new anti-Western economic order – by repeated debt crises punctually followed by structural adjustment plans of the International Monetary Fund.

From then on, the dollar will work like anaccordion: depending on the circumstances and the main adversary of the moment, the devalued dollar will serve to offload debts and inflation on the rest of the world, the revalued dollar will capture the flows of wealth. In both cases, Washington will act as the operational centre of the new financial-military complex, meeting Wall Street’s requirements. Dollar-based financialisation and geopolitics further tighten their weave in a new Great Game. Thus we arrive, from 80s to 90s, at the phase of ascending financialisation – not before the collapse of the USSR, which left the United States uncontested hegemon running around the world defending democracy and human rights, from the war on Iraq in 1991 to the interventions in the former Yugoslavia and beyond.

The new system – an informal Bretton Woods II, as it has also been called – thus focuses on a fundamental pillar: the exchange between trade surplus countries – new workshops of the world, first of all China where the US and European multinationals have invested and relocated and whose products end up on Western markets – and the United States in whose currency most of the surplus isrecycled on theTreasury Bonds marke, thus supporting the growing U.S. debt (and wars) or transferred to reserves (to date three trillion dollars between Japan and China). To complete the picture, towards Wall Street, and subordinately to the City of London, do flow the proceeds from the income of the oil monarchies – relevant from the price increases with the oil crisis of 1973 onwards, to the detriment of Europe and Japan – which, denominated in dollars (petrodollars), according to the strategic agreement between Washington and the Saudis, further sanction the role of dollar as international means of payment. Western Europe, which is in substantial subordination to Washington, but finds conditions and margins to exercise its imperialist role, does not of course escape this framework.

The end result is the capture of value of a production chain that for the first time in the history of capitalism brings about a international division of labour in re, overcoming the old-style imperialist configuration. The surplus-value produced by the Chinese working class, and not only that, pours in a decisive part on well-defined hubs of the West, both as a directly appropriate share by the multinationals, and as financing of the double US debt which has become essential for the capitalist development of the emerging countries. Running the empire through debt becomes the supreme art of U.S. imperialist politics.

It is this combination that allows the proliferation of increasingly complex financial instruments that over the years have given rise to a pyramid of infinitely replicable securities guaranteed by the underlying global chain. The flight towards speculation – the supreme spectacular fetish of Marxian fictitious capital[4] which appears as a relationship of itself to itself as money producing money – actually demands the increased pressure towards the proletarization of growing human masses, the reduction of the value of the labour force often below the minimum levels of reproduction, the increasing devastation of nature, the use of facilities well beyond depreciation times, the wear and tear of social infrastructures, the persistence of the mechanisms of the original accumulation with old and new enclosures. Finance, production and social reproduction are tightening in an increasingly inextricable nexus – which belies both the idea of a clear separation between financial speculation and the real economy dear to the Keynesians and the removal of the non-financial dimensions dear to the theorists of the indebted man.

From the geopoliticalpoint of view, the pivot of the system is given by the unique role of guarantor assumed by the United States after the end of the US-USSR bipolarism. Both in a political sense, as guarantor of the international order against any revolutionary uprising that would put the whole system at risk. And in an economic sense as a country that closes the circle of international liquidity circuits and forces all actors, in a differentiated way and not without economic returns, to keep solvent what has become the world’s largest debtor. This does not take away neither the contrasts between the different subjects, even if allies, nor theasymmetry of the relations that make Washington the maximum predator and the only one endowed with rewards of position and at the same time revisionist attitude with respect to the systemic equilibrium. A role that cannot easily be replaced, at least in the short and medium term, even for the other major capitalist poles unless there are total upheavals that nobody wants, much less Beijing or Moscow.

Global Crisis

As we can see, so-called globalisation is not exclusively or even primarily the product of political choices, but first and foremost a passage of capitalist development in its tendency towards the real subsumption of labour and the world market. These become the culture environments, so to speak, of fictitious capital, that is the upside-down expression of the quantitative and qualitative expansion of the productivity of social work which presents itself as a pro-rata participation of the multiple capitals, and indirectly also of the incomes of the classes that depend on them, in the overall social capital (the communism of capital). This passage is not easily reversible except at the cost of systemic disruption and in any case cannot be tackled within protected national systems. All the more so, as we shall see, that the composition of the working classes is profoundly transformed.

This does not mean that the crisis is no longer possible. And in fact, it has arrived making it unequivocally clear that capital is not failed, of course, but has failed in its promise of “the end of history”. Three, in extreme synthesis, are the underlying causes of the process triggered – only triggered, it should be noted – by the subprime mortgage crisis.

First of all, the internal contradictions of a system that exploits and extracts more and more resources on a global scale but tends to spiral, disconnecting and destroying the overall social reproduction, capable of growth butwithout real accumulation, at paroxysmal rhythms broken by devastating economic, social and political shakes. The rise of China, secondly, the real nemesis of the defeat inflicted by the imperialist bourgeoisie on the cycle of struggles of the Long 68, and the breakdown on mass worker: outsorcing from the West have allowed the escape from its economic and social crisis, at the same time providing the Dragon with access to technologies and a boost to development otherwise not feasible, at least in the time and scale. Which, third factor, has impulsed the formation of a formidable proletarian army that has in a certain way taken over from its Western counterpart, now defeated, the baton of the social-democratic dialectic social struggles/capitalistic development, in the broader framework of resistance in the global South – just think of Latin America in the last twenty years – against imperialist plundering.

Now, in the face of all this and the fact that the debtonation of 2007-08 brought the crisis, the more unexpected the more devastating it was, back to the centre of the world system, the response of the U.S. power was, in post-Lehman panic, to avoid at all costs the devaluation of the fictitious capital in circulation by placing the bailout on the state budgets – the state as a bad bank, in the face of the neo-liberal vulgate – and by initiating expansive monetary policies of the Federal Reserve to pay off debt with debt. As a result, the bubble that had immediately been re-created was discharged, partly “spontaneously” and partly as a strategic move, on the European Union, in particular on those links made weak by the financialisation in European sauce of the previous decade, putting the euro at risk.[5] In the meantime, it goes without saying, on both sides of the Atlantic, proletariat and middle classes have had to settle the promissory notes on the debts, the private ones that in the ascending financialisation had compensated for the fall in real wages, as well as the public state ones, vector of colossal transfers, via austerity policies, from work to finance. But not without social, and gradually political, costs within Western societies, as the emergence of the so-called populist moment will highlight.

The landslides that followed were not limited to the U.S.-Europe confrontation. It is the whole international structure that has resumed dancing to the rhythm of the crisis.

Geopolitical Landslides

The global crisis has, in fact, cracked the US/China axis of financial globalization in perspective. On the one hand, Washington – and on this point the continuity between the Obama and Trump administrations is almost complete – must continue to guarantee itself the levy on the value produced in East Asia, indeed it must increase it; on the other hand, it must preventively block any attempt by China to escape from the financial command of the dollar and from the prevalence of Western technologies[6]. Preventing China from moving up the value chain becomes an absolute imperative. Hence, geopolitically speaking, the anti-Chinese new containment.

Indeed, for Beijing, the crisis came too soon and risked derailing the strategy of peaceful ascent. The huge Keynesian-type infrastructural intervention of 2009 has avoided, also for the West, the catastrophe but, together with the liquidity put into circulation on several occasions, has also laid the foundations for very dangerous internal speculative bubbles. Here, then, is the change of pace: New Silk Roads, Made in China 2025, the change in the government with the presidency of Xi Jinping point to the need to accelerate plans for an accumulation less prone to Western economic and strategic interests. The internal democratic dialectic between the proletariat, the peasants and the State also demands it. All this means, therefore, a push towards extroversion which, even as a westward march[7]to avoid the direct confrontation with Washington, in fact cannot avoid it, as can be seen from Trump’s trade war on China and, more generally, from the geostrategic encirclement along the arc of Eurasian instability Beijing is now clearly subjected to.[8]

At the same time, the game between the loosening of the international geopolitical structure, with the questioning of all consolidated balances, and the U.S. aggressiveness is also at the basis of the hard internal contrasts of the establishment in search of a Grand Strategy. Roughhewn, there are two lines facing each other here. On the one hand, the internationalist (globalist) liberal-neocons one that aims at a double clash both with Beijing and Moscow, to which an EU, even if brought back into line, should subordinate itself in exchange for imperialist returns on its own. It is the front that has given the world, to limit us to the last few years, a whole series of colourful revolutions and/or attempts at regime change – from Ukraine to Libya, Syria, Hong Kong, Latin America – which find support in regional states, compradora bourgeoisies and social sectors, interested, deluded or even just passive. On the other hand, the realist and (for now) Trump’s front that aims to concentrate against Beijing, by isolating it from Moscow, and to bring the allies, in particular Berlin, more decisively into line, either by reducing its imperialist margins or by forcing them to finance Washington. Also on this front the strategy of geopolitical chaos is still there, albeit with different priorities (fragmentation rather than maintenance of the EU, more direct attack on Iran, relative rapprochement with Russia to be inserted in a subordinate position on the anti-Chinese front, etc.). The outcome of the clash is not a foreseeable, linked as it is also to internal social and political variables as well as to the trend of the crisis and the framework of international alignments.

In this complex and unstable framework, regional actors of medium power placed on geopolitical fault lines and/or pressed by precarious internal situations – typical the case of Turkey, but also Iran, Saudi Arabia, India, Brazil, etc. – are driven to an activism that may appear convulsive and confused, but which becomes inevitable in the face of the risk of weakening and disintegration. To some of these actors, Moscow is increasingly acting as a support in geopolitical terms, driven by the strategic Yankee “short-sightedness” to reapproach in recent years Beijing, also in an attempt to proceed to a dedollarized circuit of international trade.

Geopolitics à la Mackinder and defence of the privilege of the dollar: these are the two pillars of the new Great Game to which the U.S. power cannot renounce, otherwise risking the collapse of its global hegemony and internal implosion.

Global Impasses

This complex picture reminds us of three impasses that characterize the current global situation.

First of all, the need for Western imperialism, on pain of prolonged stagnation, to proceed to a far greater devaluation of fictitious capital than that triggered by the global crisis and yet immediately blocked with the policies of Quantitative Easing extended almost indefinitely. Blocked, albeit partially unloaded by Washington on the allies and emerging countries, because a more decisive devaluation would call into question the whole internal political set-up – what would a hard recession with failures of the numerous zombie companies trigger? – as well as a further escalation of inter-imperialist and inter-capitalist clashes. Furthermore, this would require a restructuring, particularly in the States, of the relationship between finance and industrial enterprise: but who, if it is still possible, is able to tackle this problem, with what resources, obstacles and repercussions? Trump’s extreme difficulty with insourcing is eloquent.

Second. The international system is shaken by the increasingly painful presence of two potentially contradictory situations. On the one hand, the intolerance of strong and/or relevant actors of the international system (China, Russia, Germany, other emerging countries) towards the international disorder produced by the United States. On the other hand, the fears of these same actors, even if they are breaking or friction with Washington, for the possible chaos without and against U.S. hegemony. In a nutshell: with the United States, globalisation is in danger of becoming deeply messy due to the defreezing of geopolitical fronts and the destructuring of entire state entities, without the United States in danger of breaking down for good. This explains the limits of multipolarist fascinations centered on the idea of the US decline that would leave the field to economic areas focused on regional hegemonic poles. The real question is rather whether, in addition to the already evident landslides, we are not moving towards a fraying, a disarticulation of the international system as a whole, definitively blowing up the dynamic of hegemonic successions that historical capitalism traced up to the mid-twentieth century – no global player today possesses all the power factors necessary to replace Washington – or in any case a relatively painless transition to a multipolar international order. All the more so because the United States cannot give up, without a very violent reaction, any significant shuffling of the cards. By no means, a Chinese century is in sight!

Third. In this situation only the opening of significant class struggle dynamics can, to stop us at the most important friction points, lead Germany and Europe to the breaking of the transatlantic axis or China and Russia to the formation of an anti-American counterbalancing alliance. Here the impasse: class struggle is the only factor that can unblock the situation, but at the same time it could contribute to trigger inter-capitalist clash dynamics that can no longer be governed by the means used until now. It is precisely the perception, though confused, of this by the masses, with the consequent fear of a general mess, that has – so far at least – blocked the radicalization of social reactions to the crisis, particularly in the West.

All this reflects a fundamental passage: the crisis has shortened, compared to the past, the distance between class dynamics and geopolitical dimensions, to the extent that the loosening structures of the international system amplify both the geopolitical constraints on the positioning and agency of social classes and, conversely, the potential systemic repercussions of the class struggle. The shapes of which, however, in the different quadrants, are very different, in some ways unrecognizable, compared to past cycles. Especially in the West.

Where has the Class Struggle been hiding? Since ‘68…

Let us take a step backwards, also to avoid a structuralist reading of the trajectory of the capitalist social relationship that today, in imperialist countries, sees with the emergence of neo-populism the demands of the exploited classes intertwined with sovereign and national claims as the terrain of an unprecedented class struggle. How did we get here?

We were saying above that the cycle of international struggles of the long Sixty-eight was a fundamental element in the constitution of global assemblages. Authoritarianism and top-down discipline in factory, in society, in family, in the state become unbearable in the face of a long economic recovery which, for the first time in the history of capitalism, broadens the base of consumption also of the exploited classes. Hence a general desire for autonomy from the existing forms of productive, social, family, political and religious relations. Class autonomy and autonomy of the individual appear necessary and possible, given the impressive development of productive forces that makes the liberation of the human being from the condemnation of forced labour in society and in the family and from the dependence of each person on his or her social role seem feasible. New social relationships, therefore, but also new relationships between individuals, released from the material and ideals cages in which they have so far been forced. Together, a possibility of a richer life than just dedication to work and reproductive and family tasks. The conflict that is produced on this basis reaches the point of opposing, at least in some relevant parts of the movement, the capital itself, but its actual dynamics on the material basis leads it, rather, to fight against a certain configuration of the capital social relationship that has become unbearable.

This movement – well beyond the movement that represents it in terms of political and cultural action – is faced with a capitalism which has not yet achieved complete domination over the whole of society and which therefore, in turn, perceives its old configuration as an obstacle to achieving the full and complete development of the value relationship. The uprising is thus resolved in the conquest of space within the system by different social and individual subjectivities, but also and above all in a decisive push towards further capitalist modernization.

All this paradoxically represents the beginning of the end of a whole configuration of the proletariat, with its distinct identity and organization, union and party, its class composition with margins of autonomy, its programmatic objectives. The very extension of the struggle to all forms of alienation, and not only to exploitation, is reversed in the separateness of individual issues and, ultimately, in the struggle for the specific identity of each of the new social movements, released from the declining worker identity. The profound effects of this strange defeat are readily used by the enemy.

The subsequent restructuring of social relations, triggered by the crisis of the 1970s, shatters the old class composition in the West – in particular the virtuous trigger between the factory as a large concentration of cooperating workers, as a working class community, and the conflictual dynamics – putting the Keynesian social compromise in crisis. In the meantime, real socialism is on the way to a melancholic and indecorous collapse and, in the rest of the world, the onslaught of globalization is either crushing or putting the anti-imperialist ideologies and practices of the anti-colonial cycle in extreme difficulty.

… to the Crisis of Proletariat

In this framework, the internalisation of the reasons for competitiveness by workers acquires in the new system of digital network machines a material basis that destroys the previous collective subjectivity. This results within production in atomisation, while at the level of consumption and reproduction, compensation mechanisms are established on the basis of an ambivalent individualisation, which create consensus in material and not only ideological terms. If so, there is no need for a theory of betrayal to explain the catastrophic parable of political reformism and, more generally, of the left.

These developments explain the ability of neo-liberalism to present itself and be accepted as a message of “liberation” – shattering the main instrument of the workers’ movement: the mass organisation – and at the same time the ability of power to create a broad consensus by resuming and deforming drives of radical transformation. The market can thus encourage individual self-activation in the form of human capital valorisation, self-entrepreneurship[9]. It’s true, many forms of self-exploitation of work emerge with the processes of abstraction and neo-taylorisation, while the debt condition constraints consumption and reproduction more and more. And yet, the call for the self-valorisation of cognitive and relational abilities persists, as well as that of virtual wealth, which is susceptible to resounding material feedback, to which everyone can aspire precisely starting from intelligence, a substitute in the first instance for the lack of initial capital. The closer link between production and consumption thus tightens the subjects already atomised in the workplace by subjecting them to a sort of material community[10] in which the commodity becomes the new religion of daily life.

The tendency towards total commodification remains in contradictory tension with the drives for the re-appropriation of times, goods, social relations that is the legacy of 68. The form of this intertweenig is, on both sides, the financialisationof markets and social life. Financialisation is the perverse but no less effective face of the new, incredible level of socialisation of work and life. Against the light, this is the constitution of the social individual whose wealth and productivity lies in social relations and in the ability to self-produce in a cooperation that – potentially, once liberated from capital – does not conculcate free individualities. Hence the deep ambivalence of the new ways of working and living: on the one hand, the put-at-value on the market of the whole life with effects of precarization and relational and cognitive impoverishment, as today is evident from the silly use of digital media; on the other hand, the search for self enhancement, the idea of playing on one’s own, in flexibility as a resource, the processes of precarization of work. Individuality becomes the terrain of this confrontation. From the search for class autonomy, we have moved on to the pursuit ofclassless autonomy. The individual is fully socialized on a global scale but for capital, the class tends to be dissolved in the neo-people.

From Global Citizenism to Neopopulism

On the level of conflict, which obviously does not disappear, there is a transition from the reformist democratic class struggle – interrupted but not overtaken by the Long 68 – to classless democratic struggle of the new social movements and of struggles for the recognition of identities. In particular with the no global movement, at least on its western side, the search for alternatives, exhausted the socialist myth, proceeds largely with the same ideational tools of the liberal matrix of powers that it criticizes. The subject that seeks to reunify is thus global civil society – symmetrical and opposed to neoliberal globalization – made up of the virtuous interweaving of territories that defend themselves against global flows. Democratic inter-classism overcome “outdated” classist ideologies. Local and global are thought to be easily reconciled in a framework of democratic citizenism from below, while capitalism is relegated to a deterritorialized dimension. There is no longer the working class against the bourgeoisie, but the search for a community that can realize – beyond the historical promises that have been disappointed by the collective proletarian organization – individual aspirations. But what community? And against what?

The global crisis does not give time to collectively elaborate these questions. With the resurgence of geopolitical conflicts and the brutal re-emergence of the classist aspects of globalized societies, it takes its revenge on the “no global” vision. But how do the western working classes get to the crisis? The internalisation of the neoliberal diktat is not only valid for the left political representation, but has deeply involved those same subjects who are now looking for new answers outside the left without representing an outside with respect to the processes of real subsumption, of hyper-industrialisation of activities[11], of real and symbolic submission to the integrated show intheform of fictitious capital. On the contrary, it is from this being completely inside the capital – unlike the old workers’ movement which kept its own identity distinct from it, a relative outsideof it which at first allowed to keep alive the dialectic of workers’ struggles/capitalist development but was then swallowed up by the same successes obtained – that the new proletariat, including sectors of middle class, finds himself increasingly transformed either into a citizen unheardof by power, the good variant of neopopulism, or into angry superfluous people, the bad variant. The point is that this internalisation could not remove the need to react to what increasingly appears to be the cause of the processes of impoverishment and downgrading, of social decline and moral and political disintegration: globalisation. At the same time, this reaction is initially a response to the disappointment with the vanished promises of that same neoliberal order rather than a break with them.

Hence the confused and convulsive search for solutions that can be defined as neo-reformist, but outside any perspective of the old left and its residual mediations. Therefore, ambivalent solutions that paradoxically resume the anti-globalist polemic inaugurated by the no global movement within a completely different framework: by context, from ascending globalization to its crisis; by values, from global solidarity to the search for protection within neo-sovranist frames; and above all by social references, connoted in a much more proletarian sense or in any case rooted in declining lower middle class. Within a deep crisis, which shows the traits of a very crisis of the capitalist industrial civilization, the social and political instances that were once classist have moved into the new people.

Thus, today’s neopopopulism partly plays the role previously occupied by worker-bourgeois reformism[12]. If the working class has lost its strong class identity, has no longer any distinct organization nor an alternative perspective, neopopulism definitively brings this process to completion but at the same time has to resume the left demands of a dissolved, liquid working class, but not to the point that it cannot react to the devastating effects of the crisis. In neopopulism do converge then democratic citizenist indignation, declined at the time of the crisis, and sovereignist reaction. The first is presented as a meritocratic claim of intelligence as human capital, aimed at democratizing capitalist platforms that, purified of “castes” and corruption, would work well in the service of the common good. The second is particularly directed against the financial world and supranational institutions. The two trends go along, intersect or diverge a little bit, overlap giving rise to shifts of opinion, often only moods, which are revealed in social media without leading to mass mobilizations.

The terrain is not exclusively that of denouncing the worsened living conditions, but directly that of politics, played on the slippery plane of us against them. The deep roots of this ambivalence, open to opposite outcomes, lie in the objective position of proletariat and middle classes within nowaday’s production system that has destroyed or subsumed the still autonomous spaces of material and symbolic reproduction of social life. This internality combined – in the West – with a relative margin of economic reserves even in the face of an increasingly black future, gives rise to a contradictory situation: the search for getting out of a crisis that refers not only to economics but also to meaning, goes in the direction of a community that is a first attempt to go beyond neoliberalism, but is still partly within this system of life and production, harbinger of risky contrasts between us and them according not to class lines but to national, ethnic, territorial, gender fault lines. The community, then, is sought, in the absence of effective alternatives, in the people, in the nation, in the territory, finally in the state. A state to regain possession of, to transform, to put at the service of people. The national flag as an emblem of anger and possible redemption, from below, almost the last shore in front of the disaster. An instance that is literally re-actionary, as oft in the past but with the difference that today a progressive exit from the situation is not in sight. The dialectics reaction-progress in the West has definitively broken down, as well as  between proletarian struggles/capitalist development. This is where we have to start again from, like it or not.

It then peeps out in that we the people a variegated and suffering humanity united by the fact that it is increasingly subject to those who move the levers of great capital. And there is also a growing number that is irreparably superfluous for the system, not even an industrial reserve army but a real surplus that is useless even as a mass to blackmail those put-at-work. Above all, there is a feeling that it is no longer possible to live as before, some kind of break-up becomes necessary.

That these confused dynamics, not yet actual movements with a program, are scornfully branded with the journalistic label of anti-system populism, deplorables, etc. says a lot about how much the margins of tolerance of global capitalist elites have objectively narrowed down with respect to any deviation from the expected path; but it also says about the deepening crisis of social and political mediation, of the ongoing disconnection from the mechanisms of globalist consensus, disrupted by social and environmental upheavals. If classical class contradiction disappears to make room for neopopopulism, this goes to the deep nodes of the systemic reproduction also to the extent that the involved social basis potentially goes far beyond the contours of the classical worker figure.

At the Top and in the Middle…

If neopopulisms are the product of profound changes in the proletarian social composition and of the non-contingent detachment of the masses from the elites, it is equally important to highlight the ways in which the demands from below, in the broadest sense of the working class, are combined or can be combined at the top with the demands of capitalist restructuring of economic, political, geopolitical structures which are clearly no longer adequate in the face of the crisis of globalization. The problem for the bourgeoisie, or at least for that part of it that is beginning to understand the irreversibility of ongoing processes, becomes how to transform and channel this neo-people, liquid but increasingly reactive, into a potential to be asserted in the growing inter-capitalist competition. Above, then, takes shape an internal clash within the dominant sectors on how to face the rising demand for change, which at the same time can and must be used precisely to reconstitute the new foundations of capitalist hegemony. And it is here, of course, that nationalism – implicit, along with a patchwork of many other trends, in the neopopopulist dynamics – returns to have all its weight, even in the West, after decades of globalist refrains, right-humanitarianism, etc. What is being prepared is a great return to the re-nationalisation of politics, with the consequent risk of fragmentation for the less solid nations.

It is in the light of this that we must also consider the increasingly bitter clash within the middle class sectors, the upper middle classes against the lower middle classes. On the one hand, it is a zero-sum game of unloading the costs of the crisis: capital needs further cutting off privileges, no one is exempt from it, even at the level of the professionals and intermediate classes. On the other hand, and as a result of this, there is an ongoing struggle to gain the consent of the people: old-style petit-bourgeoisie, different sectors of proletariat, youth, outcasts. Big capital is not indifferent to the dispute, worried about completely losing control of the middle classes, as a mass of maneuver, even if only electoral, but above all as an important vector of transmission of its hegemony to the bulk of society. Now, if this hegemony was up to now contracted, under the persuasive domination of the rising financial capital, to the driving social force of the upper middle class – which had grown out of all proportion in media, culture, politics, professions, higher education, etc. – capable of draggingbehind itself the lower layers with messages marked by postmodernist progressivism and network cultures – in the global crisis, this hegemony is decisively called into question. In particular, more and more numerous layers of the lower middle class in relative impoverishment, overturning the discourse made up to now by the left on identities and multiculturalism, are trying to coagulate around themselves a dazed proletariat. Of course, with all the national particularities of the case. Cutting off privileges of the high stratum of professionals is now a necessity for big business, but it can only be put into practice by unleashing lower middle class and proletariat against it. A new kind of social war is making its way, on the level of redistribution of income – often and willingly hidden behind attacks on the caste and the corrupt – as well as on that of international migrations – the work under cost of immigrants becomes the terrain of clash of opposing interests, globalist-NGOs against anti-globalist-sovranists – and others.

The real stakes for the forces that aim to keep control of the system is: how to make the confused neo-population in gestation a nation within the increasingly fierce competitive game on the horizon? In other ways it is remarkable, and promising, that the middle classes are meeting a real s-composition; neopopulism is important also for this.

New Fascism or Second Time of Neopopulism?

Are there then prodromes of a new fascism or a reactionary drift? The phenomenology of the re-emergence of racism and its institutional support, the change of tone in the non-globalist part of the media, even if still a minority one, in addition to the strictly political elements – extreme right-wing parties that are making their way by leveraging the growing discomfort of the populations – all this seems to justify this hypothesis. Which, however, leads us astray.

Historical fascisms were the product of the violent class struggle in the thirty years from Russian Revolution to end of World War II. A phenomenon of armed counter-revolution which, once revolutionary and reformist proletarian organizations were defeated and violently destroyed, was then used by big capital to centralize the State, the working masses and the entire society regulating the bourgeoisie itself. It is the transition from formal subsumption to full subsumption of labour and gradually of whole society under capital. Hence the first forms of welfare state, corporatism, policies to support the centralization of financial capital in the aftermath of the Great Crisis, militarism, etc. All under the banner of nation or race, in a competitive clash with democratic imperialisms – themselves ferociously nationalist and ruthless in preserving their colonial backyards – leading to the Second World War.

Fascisms could conjugate to ferocious anti-proletarian repression a anti-capitalist reactionary movement, not only a rhetoric, to the extent that the intermediate social strata, which represented its social base, were not completely sucked into the circulation of financial capital, against which, on the contrary, the fascist ideology claims the value of productive work and of the people anchored to a land. But it is precisely the transition to real subsumption, which the fascist regimes triggered by the creation of the labour community and imperialist policies, that erases the objective and social basis of the phenomenon. Post-war social democracy in the West resumes the main features of previous period by completing the capitalisation of the State, the absorption of the middle classes into the value circuits, the corporatisation of the proletariat and the statisation of trade unions under the aegis of the national economy. At the same time, not only does the proletariat – at first squeezed into the Cold War cage but gradually entangled, in spite of and through 68, in the persuasive networks of market – cease to represent a revolutionary danger for the dominant classes, but also changes profoundly the very relationship between labour and capital, as we have seen. While the residual proletarian autonomy in the sphere of social reproduction is totally sucked by the processes of commodification and financialisation, the middle-class-becoming marks the full absorption of the proletariat in the fictitious capital. Fascism is no longer necessary, neither to defeat it nor to discipline it, also because in its basic aspects – transition to real subsumption, totalitarianism, ability to orient social behaviour and to influence the formation of opinions and desires themselves, in the setting of individual and family ways of life, etc. – it has won and dominates unchallenged thanks to the affirmation of the fieldof freedom and democracy.[13]

Nowadays, the real issue is not the fascist danger but the dynamics inherent in neo-populism, both as unstable and quickly changing political representations and as subjects and social contents. The response they represent between citizenism and sovereignism based on middle-low social basis is destined either to flow back and disperse – should the normal course of capitalism resume, which is highly unlikely – or to merge into a political and social dynamic at the service of the revival of a popular national capitalism in the context of acute inter-capitalist competition. In this sense the current expressions of neopopopulism are destined to pave the way for other more consequent and harsher expressions of capitalism in a national-popular sauce. In this path, if today these phenomena are pointed out as the enemy by mainstream politics, tomorrow they can very well be recovered by the bourgeoisie to give a social basis to the needs that will be imposed by the continuation of the global crisis. We will then have a second time, more radical and dirty, of neopopopulism, a second phase in which organizations and contents will change in relation to the exacerbation of both social and geopolitical confrontation, while the nationalist content inherent in sovereignty will have to become explicit without losing the social connotation from below.

The point, however, is that it is not taken for granted that it will drag on this drift the subjects, or all subjects, who at the moment recognize or pass through it as an instance of resistance. The question then becomes: under what conditions will neopopopulism break down and can be overcome forwards? How will it contradict not itself but the instances and subjects who confusingly seek another way of life? How can we separate within such claims the sovereignist dimension of the attempt to regain power over one’s own life from the nationalist dimension, which is compatible with capitalism? Complex but unavoidable issues on which – to speak with Lenin – the game of who the friends of the people really are will be played, in a future perhaps not too distant.

To decide the direction of the movement – in the sense not only of radicalization of resistance but of its shift on potentially anti-capitalistic ground – will be the real forces that occupy and will occupy the scene on the level of mass movements and organized subjectivities. In the meantime, it can be said that the terrain of neopopopulism is here to stay for quite a while, its underlying reasons are not contingent if it is true that it has become an ambivalent incubator of class and national instances con/fused in a plot that at the moment is difficult to untangle.

Geopolitics of Class Struggle and its Fields

Neopopopulism therefore shows the recovery, in the post-democratic West, of plebeian democratic claim that is confusingly demarcating itsself from liberal field. It corresponds – as the social relationship of capital become full real subsumption of work and life is perceived as the natural community – to a first attempt of the exploited classes to divincolate from it in the impossibility of totally handing over their own reproduction to it, of becoming human capital without residual. Which explains the decline of the old class struggle and its mutation into new, surprising forms. In order to avoid misunderstandings, it should be reiterated that just as neopopopulism is not the beginning of a renewed fascistization, it is not even in itself the finally found form of an anti-capitalist reactivation of the proletariat in imperialist countries or even just a trend that could stabilize a new social bloc. Nor does it represent the only political front. The relative resilience of Western countries to the global crisis and the material and symbolic resources accumulated in decades of world domination explain the strength, at the top, and the social consensus, at the bottom, of the front that for brevity can be defined globalist (of which the Europeanist one is a variant). On this front, clearly impelled from above mobilisations – FfF on the so-called climate emergency is emblematic – find fertile ground not by chance both in real problems and in social sectors, first of all a part of the middle classes and students, which from the renationalisation of the geopolitical framework have, or believe they have, everything to lose. Hence, global but far from internationalist campaigns: both for the obliterating of issues related to the capital-labour relationship and for Western (and increasingly anti-Chinese) point of view.

It is significant, however, that to date in the West the only effective struggle with clear class connotations, that of the Jaunes Gilets, has taken place on neo-populist ground, in the terms we have tried to clarify. A “new” proletarian composition, without Left neo-reformist claims on an immediately political ground, instances of redistribution with an initial criticism of meritocracy and, more generally, of the forms of life subsumed to finance, hostility to supranational institutions (here the EU), are all signs of a push towards a new kind of repoliticization – not by chance impossible to intercept for the Left, institutional or antagonist as it may be – in search of a human community, not as a given but to be rebuilt. This, moreover, frightens not only the elites, but in a different way also those sovereign political formations that would like to limit the manifestations of discontent only to electoral moments in order to manage their scope in the shadow of a renewed social peace. The lines of development of this interweaving – partly opposition, partly overlapping – between social and political fronts in the West depend both on the eventuality that mobilizations of this kind will generalize, leading the neo-populist instances to express themselves through effective paths of struggle and therefore, to a certain extent, to overcome themselves, and on dynamics outside the West with their backlash.

Even outside the imperialist countries, in a nutshell, the crucial point is what the democratic claim has become in the face of the connection, much deeper than in the past, between local capitalist development and imperialist globalisation. Broadly speaking, we can then identify two further geopolitical and socialfields, the physiognomy of which is only possible here by sketching and obliterating the obvious differences within them.

The first one is of so-called  emerging countries, which exclusively in capitalist terms, are attempting a path of greater autonomy with respect to dollar imperialism. China is the economic pivot, Russia is the military one: other countries, especially along geopolitical fault lines, try to play a more autonomous regional role (Turkey, Iran, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, with India in a more ambiguous position). In this group China is the country that, in terms of resources and history, shows a clear (social)democratic dialectic between working class and peasant struggle on the one hand and party-state mediated capitalist development on the other. A dialectic intertwined, however, with a powerful external factor: Washington’s imperialist pressure to block Chinese rising, of which the internal middle classes – should the compromise that binds them to the state break down if economic growth stops – could become the vector through the democratic demand for economic and political liberalization (Hong Kong events, though with peculiar characteristics linked to its history as a former colony, are a wake-up call in this sense). This would be clearly opposed to a democratic claim by the Chinese proletariat as an instance of struggle and power which would not only be against the Chinese ruling classes and their state but also, objectively or even subjectively, against imperialism, which draws a fundamental part of the value circulated worldwide from the work of the Chinese masses.

The second field is the largely majority of the so-called backward countries that are unable to coagulate socio-political fronts and international alliances in the direction of a development more autonomous from imperialism, and precisely for this reason they are increasingly subjected, under the illusion of leverage, to dependence at the risk of their own destructuring. It’s not just about compradora bourgeoisie, though. Expectations towards the West come from large strata of the middle class and “middle class in formation”, that is students, if not also semi-proletarians and proletarians, who in the light of the failure of post-colonial attempts have “internalized” neocolonial dependence and therefore tend to attribute the cause of their misery to exclusively endogenous factors: corruption, political caste, etc. Western penetration has open doors here, not only tanks to its soft power, but for profound material reasons linked to the inextricable interweaving, in these countries, between imperialist robbery and internal capitalist mechanisms that have pervaded these societies. The “liberation” is then configured as a local variant of the meritocracy of intelligence rather than a reversal of the internal and international socio-economic structures; democracy is claimed against the constraints of post-colonial regimes and not, at the same time, against the West. Emblematic in this regard are Arab Spring and its outcomes completely detournated from the West, as well as in other ways illusory expectations of “refugees” fleeing Africa or current mobilizations in the Middle East.

In both extra-western camps – which, of course, are by no means separated by a Chinese wall – the heart of the problem lies in the extreme difficulty of reformulating the link between social struggle and the fight against imperialist oppression. This link is today more direct and more stringent than in the past, but at the same time it has become less visible to the masses of these countries, both because of the pervasiveness of financial mechanisms and of the lack of aspiration to an alternative model of society which, rightly or wrongly, had accompanied and supported anti-colonial struggles of the past. These, in fact, had not to immediately clash with the need, as they have today, to take on an anti-capitalist connotation, as on the contrary there still were then margins of economic and social development within the given framework. Moreover, the current weakness of class struggle in the West contributes negatively to all this. Neopopopulism represents here a first subjective, albeit weak, rupture of the proletariat with respect to the globalist framework that has dominated for over thirty years. This does not mean, as we have seen, that it would be able to bring this rupture to the end or to escape from the uprising anti-Chinese (and anti-Russian, anti-Turkish, etc.) mood which, starting from the United States, is spreading throughout the West. Indeed, it can fall prey to it just as, in its sovereignistic impulses, it can be reduced to a variant of the imperialist opposition to the rest of the world.

In the three outlined fields, it is clear that the linkage between geopolitics and class struggle has become thighter, all the more so as the globalization crisis is taking place on a level that remains global. It is this interweaving that makes impossible any workeristc or, conversely, third-worldist reading, but also any exaltation of an alleged “spontaneous” democratic movements. Unlike phases in which it was precisely the relative stability of the international system that allowed wider margins for hard social conflicts – as for the link between post-war bipolarism, on the one hand, and the struggles of the mass workers and anti-colonial movements, on the other, which merged in 68 – today we are faced with an immediate over-determination of the struggles by global and regional geopolitical dynamics. But the reverse is also increasingly true: without a strong revitalisation of class conflict, the ongoing geopolitical landslides do not by themselves precipitate towards effective turning points.

So, there will be any break down in cold circumstances. If and when this will arrive, it will not be thanks to linear radicalization of ongoing trends, but to an overall redislocation of the terms of the clash. Today’s confused interweaving of nationalist drives, tendencies towards state disruption (e.g. by secessions), weak signs of future revolutionary processes will have to dissolve its ambivalence. An index of maturity of these paths will probably be represented by the affirmation of large communities of struggle able to coagulate, amplify and clarify general claims against the world system of injustice, intertwined with hostility to U.S imperialism (even within the West).

The ground for such dynamics is potentially more advanced than in the past because it is closer to the deep nodes of the reproduction of capitalist society – increasingly hinged on the marxian social individual. At the same time, the ever-deepening disconnection between systemic reproduction and social and nature reproduction – true figure of ongoing crisis of capitalist civilization – will produce on all levels a growing chaos with outcomes that are not at all predictable. Hence the plot that will keep the opposite trends together for quite a while until the process will precipitate a series of decisive events.

Turin, January 2020


*This essay continues the reflection of my I dieci anni chen sconvolsero il mondo. Crisi globale e geopolitica dei neopopulismi (Ten Years that Shocked the World. Global Crisis and Geopolitics of Neopopulism), Asterios, Trieste 2018. I thank Nicola Casale for his precious comments on the text.

[1] However, at best, it stops at the rediscovery of the defeezing of electoral blocks.

[2] V. The ten years… Part three.

[3] Michael Hudson, author of the seminal Super Imperialism. The Origin and Fundamentals of US World Dominance, edited in 1972, talks about the Treasury-bill Standard in reference to the sale of US Treasury bonds which became the main source of funding for Washington’s foreign debt.

[4] Marxian category that is not possible to articulate here. For a first approach, also to the Marxist debate on the subject with particular reference to the work of Loren Goldner, see I dieci anni…, pp. 34-41.

[5] For a “provincialisation” of the Eurocrisis, against the vulgate, even left-wing, which sees its main if not exclusive cause in the behaviour of the German capital, see my I dieci anni…, at pp. 60-74. This may help to put the euro issue back on its feet. The No Euro do not see that the fate of the single currency will be determined primarily by U.S. strategy of unloading the crisis on other global players and that its eventual end will be an event that will fall on everyone’s heads, apologists and critics.

[6] Crucial issue that it is impossible to touch here.

[7] V. Wang Jisi, Marching Westwards, ISS, 73, October 2012.

[8] See Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Great Chessboard, 1997.

[9] It does not only apply to the West: what is the new Chinese course inaugurated by Deng if not the call for free activation of individual resources?

[10] J. Camatte, Capital and Community, London 1988.

[11] According to the lesson, mostly unknown, of the last Roman Alquati.

[12] Worker referring to class composition, bourgeoise to reformist politics.

[13] According to the lesson by Communist Left and particulary by Amadeo Bordiga and Jacques Camatte.

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