My own politics was forged in the crucible of 1968. I was 19 years old. It was the year I left my suburban home in Willowdale, Toronto, to join the hippies protesting the Vietnam War in the United States. I had grown tired of my classes on Chaucer, Beowulf, and Elizabethan drama at the University of Toronto and was inspired by the underground literature that made its way into my library and those of my friends. A few weeks after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, I left for the United States. It was only my second visit to our neighbouring country south of the border, the first taking place when I was ten years old after my mother succumbed to my demands for a Davy Crockett outfit and took me to Buffalo, New York. I hitchhiked half the way to my destination, the Haight Ashbury neighbourhood of San Francisco, and took the Greyhound bus for the second half of the journey. On the bus, I conversed with an African American woman slumped in her chair, engrossed in a book titled The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which she gifted me after she had finished reading. I spent hours talking to an indigenous passenger named Navajo Joe, who gave me the name of a friend who ran a house where draft resistors could spend the night in their attempts to elude the FBI. I became a guest at that house for nearly a month, rent-free. Raids at the house woke me up in the middle of the night, and I was frisked and questioned until my face was matched to my Canadian driver’s license.
I travelled frequently between Los Angeles and San Francisco, where I met Alan Ginsburg, the poet, sat starstruck in an aisle across from George Harrison at a diner on Sunset Boulevard, and spent an evening in conversation with Timothy Leary at the Carousel Ballroom until he produced purple pills from his pocket that we ingested which reduced our conversation to overeffusive, dissolute gushing. After a handful of hours, during which time Leary’s eyes had exploded into golden sunbursts, he handed me a piece of paper upon which he had scratched the words, Diploma: You Are Now Free. I ended my visit to the United States with a visit to Oakland, where I met some Black Panthers, and then the Berkeley campus, where I read some of my poetry and slept in the basement of a church along with a cadre of anti-war activists. Shortly after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, I returned to Willowdale, more inspired than ever to join the Civil Rights Movement and fight for the cause of socialism.
I dreamed of moving to America and joining activists I had met during my visit, but it seemed impossible at the time. My wish eventually came true when I was recruited by Miami University of Ohio as a professor of education, where I spent eight years, and then recruited by the University of California, Los Angeles, after the Rodney King beating, where I spent twenty years, until I took up my current position at Chapman University, in Orange, California. During my time at UCLA, I spent time speaking and working on projects throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, which included visits to Venezuela, where I met Hugo Chavez and began my support of the Bolivarian Revolution.
As divisive as America was in 1968, it seems to me to be much worse today. The Civil Rights Movement has been set back to the 1950s. Jim Crow has certainly reappeared in attempts by many southern states to restrict voting for African Americans. Two figures dominate the ideological airwaves: Donald Trump and a former advisor to Trump, Steve Bannon. Scorpio is rising in the heartland of America and well beyond its borders. Political figures from the world of fascism – from Donald Trump, to Victor Orban, to Vladimir Putin, to Jair Bolsonaro and others – are enjoying a robust appeal, with their fawning hellions eager for tribal war collapsing at their feet in paroxysms of irascible adulation. One man, in particular, has been waiting eagerly in the darkness for this ideological interregnum to occur, for a time where the supports that once gave ballast to America’s founding values had disintegrated by rot, a time when the instruments of rule had been cleaved by a political party that had succumbed to the madness of the mob, impecunious and angry citizens dedicated to reproducing the hive. This man has stepped from anonymity on the sidelines into the warped arena of American politics, wrapped in the dark wings of mystery and intrigue. I am talking, of course, about Steve Bannon.
Bannon, who helped shape Trump’s America First campaign that guided Trump into the White House in November 2016, was fired from his position as a senior White House adviser in August 2017 after just seven months. Bannon may have left the White House, but the ideology that has become known as Bannonism did not, placing the world at great peril. It was reported that Bannon clashed heads with Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, as well as other high-level Trump advisors. Trump was not pleased when Bannon took credit for his election victory. In addition, Bannon, the savvy former head of the storied right-wing media corporation Breitbart News was accused of leaking stories to the press. Once he returned to oversee Breitbart he retorted: I’ve got my hands back on my weapons.’ ‘It’s Bannon the Barbarian.’ While Donald Trump has repeatedly boasted that the success of his presidential campaign should be squarely attributed to him and not Bannon, Bannon was clearly the mastermind behind Trump’s electoral victory. He now faces criminal charges for refusing to appear before the Jan 6 Committee investigating the insurgency involving Trump supporters attempting to de-certify the electoral victory of Joe Biden by attacking the Capitol building in Washington DC.
Bannon, the favourite son of Latin-loving Tridentine Catholics, graduated from a private military high school, Benedictine College Preparatory, and later earned degrees from Virginia Tech, Georgetown University and Harvard. He served as a US naval officer, investment banker, Hollywood producer, co-founder of Breitbart News, and is now an infamous podcaster. He is, however, best known for serving for a brief period as chief strategist to President Donald Trump. His trademark multi-shirt and barn coat attire has been the butt of jokes but less humorous is his role as chief influencer of a far-right political ideology known by the cult faithful as Traditionalism. Bannon clearly resembles a dishevelled offspring from J. Edgar Hoover’s bloodline and was nicknamed ‘Sloppy Steve’ by Trump. CNN’s political analyst, Stephen Collinson, describes Bannon as ‘the ex-President’s political arsonist,’ ‘the outsider wrecking ball,’ a ‘firebrand populist podcaster’ whose ‘inflammatory podcast … pulsates with lies about the 2020 election.’
Contemporary Western colonizers such as Bannon no longer wear a ruff, a doublet, breeches, hose or a cape, write sonnets, and sail to the shores of the United States from Southampton on square-rigged sailing ships. Instead, they wear Brooks Brothers seersucker suits with maximum pucker on their way to their Republican Party fundraisers driven by Uber drivers with heavy accents. Bannon prefers the politico grunge look. These charlatans like to huddle in their breakout groups, drafting into legislation red meat and hot-button cultural issues such as anti-critical race theory legislation and anti-mask mandates to appease Trumpists who are already convinced that the Democrats are reptiles from another solar system disguised as humans turning their vulnerable teenagers into raving Bolsheviks, transforming them into Manchurian candidates, or paedophiles kidnapping their children whom they rape and then skewer on a spit, after harvesting their adrenochrome and mixing it into a potent Moloko Plus with which they toast Satan. And this last sentence is not meant to be metaphorical – Trump’s QAnon adherents actually believe it.
The hardwearing strain of Bannon’s voice is compellingly frail, resembling more the poised aggression from a dream-state phantom than the knife-wielding menace of a Candyman. Politically, his unshaven bluster lacks the ripping, propulsive energy of a B-side fascism we have come to expect from Trump’s bearded big-riggers and biker-type miscreants with their hydraulic smiles, stomp and grind masculinity and fist-pumping bravado. A tin-pot potentate, a raving revenant from medieval lore, Bannon confounds any pretence to reason by confusing his own image with that of a Byronic hero while having more in common with the ideology of a Roland Freisler, head of Nazi Germany’s People’s Court. Lacking Freisler’s shrill invective, he burrows into the brainpans of his listeners through the gratuitous violence of his fellow conspiracy peddlers, lamenting through billowing vapours of disingenuousness that there is no more room for dialogue in the court of opinion and that death sentences can no longer be appealed. Trump is the measure of all things bright and beautiful. Bannon is pure whining pomposity dressed in a Gothified revenge drama where he succumbs to enticements by the devil to his more noble qualities only to wreak havoc on the living.
It is easy to imagine Bannon ensepulchred in the misty necropolis of his Italian monastery, reanimating the dead corpse of Nazism. His War Room podcasts recruit our best sentiments into the service of his dark mission through a succession of hair-brained guests such as Margorie Taylor Greene, who is perfectly cast in the role of Igor to any number of fiendish villains Bannon may choose as his guests. Bannon cannot wait for the final chaos to erupt. Bannon is the epitome of what I call state-capitalist America. Bannon, of course, is an ally of Putin. No surprise here. Bannon’s podcast, The War Room, loves to invite guests who condemn ‘woke’ liberal culture – transgender rights, LGTBQ rights, voting rights, cancel culture and critical race theory, the current bugaboos of the Republican right. Bannon is joined at the hip with Putin, as far as the culture wars are concerned. Both are Traditionalists, and both see themselves as the inheritors of the empires that they represent. Both are anti-socialist, certainly anti-Communist. Bannon argues that Biden is responsible for the war in Ukraine. He believes the kleptocratic Biden family stole from the American people (remember Hunter Biden and his laptop?). He gleefully praises Putin’s toughness and retorts that Putin has called Biden’s bluff, after Biden supposedly turned Ukraine into a colony. This is Bannon bluster to the full.
Of all the responses that I have seen to the various responses of the left to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the perspectives shared by the International Marxist Humanist Organization (IMHO) have been the most cogent. I simply wish to share why I feel this to be the case and why I believe it is important to support Ukraine’s right to self-determination. Allow me to iterate some of the positions set out by the IMHO. First, as the IHMO notes, we need to make an important distinction between neoliberal capitalism and state capitalism – the former removing the brakes from any and all regulation and the latter a very destabilizing form of planned value production. The US operates through state-capitalist social relations of production. Even in the former USSR, the value of a commodity was determined not by the actual amount of labour time needed to produce it but by the average amount of time that is socially necessary to do so on the world market. Yes, the USSR abolished the free market through the nationalization of private property, but it did not abolish alienated labour, since Soviet workers performed labour that was measured by an abstract standard that was not dictated by themselves. This was an insight that animated the work of the great Marxist humanist philosopher Raya Dunayevskaya.
Today we are not dealing with Soviet forms of state capitalism but rather contemporary forms of state-capitalism, both sharing elements of neo-liberalism and neo-fascism, both producing alienated forms of praxis which, in turn, provokes forms of resistance among workers that involves their self-organizing capacities and practices – their praxis – which can involve movements designed to resist racism, sexism, and anti-LGBTQ practices. After all, state capitalism takes different forms in different contexts, just as it did in statist communist countries and Western capitalist countries after WWII.
But it is important to recognize state capitalism operating globally today. The United States is no exception. Gone are the halcyon days of Keynesianism when the state propped up effective demand by redistributing revenue from capital to labour. Now we are facing a state that directs monetary value to private capital. Just look at the bailouts and stimulus spending that has occurred during the pandemic. We always think about capitalism in terms of its free-market variants. That is a problem with many on the left – capitalism is conceived solely as the private ownership of the means of production. This ignores the role that the state is playing in capital accumulation. The state is maintaining capitalism like never before. We cannot ignore the inequalities that are emerging from the role of the state in subsidizing businesses and corporations – a process that underscores the extent to which we are not dealing with private ownership but rather with a ‘shareowner democracy.’ This whole nefarious process is at the expense of the working class. The state is now functioning as a debt servicing station for its population, and it doesn’t take a Vegas card shark to recognize that the state is generating massive amounts of fictitious monetary capital through sleight-of-hand stock buy-backs and the like. Corporations are benefiting from this, not your average working stiff. People have no real safety net. Healthcare workers, teachers and service industry folks are undervalued and resented by their employers. The IMHO rightly describes ‘caregiving’ as having been ‘stripped of its value-monetary integument’ with disastrous consequences and its workers – teachers and nurses, for example – are marginalized and pushed aside. Millions of workers have quit their jobs in a mass rejection of alienated labour – a rejection of abstract universal labour time, in Marx’s terminology.
This version of state-capitalism that centres on racism and misogyny cannot be separated from the growth of neo-fascist governments around the world, in Europe and the global South. Ruling classes are trying to erase political democracy in a brutal attempt to both augment and protect their wealth. There were pro-democracy movements with broad working-class support in Belarus and Kazakhstan. We saw massive protests involving 26 million people in the US against racism and police abuse after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Protests against the cruelty and mendacity of state capitalism saw workers engaging in new forms of labour organizing. Democracy movements against fascism – through the self-activity of the masses – increased globally, such as the Farmers’ Movement in India as one example. It is this type of self-activity that so threatens Putin, especially movements for democracy in Russia’s periphery as well as within Russia. We can’t forget the 20,000 Russian citizens that took to the streets in recent weeks to protest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, risking severe and lengthy prison sentences.
As the IMHO reminds us, Marx and the greatest Marxists always maintained support for democratic republics because they understood it to be ’the terrain best suited for waging the class struggle to a successful conclusion.’ The class struggle is best fought within democratic republics. Let’s not lose the war for political democracy. It doesn’t mean we stop at bourgeois democracy. We want to transcend bourgeois democracy. And we do this through our struggle to create socialist democracies worldwide.
Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine is causing worldwide food shortages, rising prices, and a continuation of suffering among Ukrainians. This deflects our attention away from the Saudis, who continue to bomb Yemen with US armaments, and from the Turkish military, who continue to attack the Kurds, believing that the war in Ukraine has given them some kind of cover. A Russian defeat of Ukraine will be devastating for pro-democracy movements worldwide. Reactionary administrations will be strengthened worldwide. But we must remember that support for Ukraine must involve support for developing a socialist alternative to both ‘free market’ and neo-fascist state-capitalism. That is the lesson of the IMHO. And that was one of the important insights from Marx, the humanist.
Bannon and his ilk will always lurk in the shadows, primping, readying themselves to enjoy the chaos. They recognize that their time has come, and they are preparing to strike the final blow against what remains of democracy here in the US. And there are Bannons all throughout the continents, skilfully plying their trademark propaganda, which is why we must continue our fight for a social universe absent of capital’s value-form. We can only imagine what awaits us if we lose our will.