Political Capitalism and Ideology

The Brenner-Riley Controversy, Part II

Race dominates American politics. From human rights to foreign policy, it permeates everything.

Roma and fascists. 2017 elections, Berlin.

For a country founded by European slaveholders, where Blacks were private property and the indigenous inhabitants ethnically cleansed, everything starts with race.

This is why organised labour in the United States never developed into a national movement.

As Mike Davis’s writings from the early 1980s convincingly show, racial divisions were crucial influences in the formation of America’s labour movement.

For this reason, Dylan Riley and Robert Brenner’s account of the politics of the white working class in the era of right-wing populism seems an odd fit with the historical trajectory of race in the United States.

The tactic of using xenophobia to convince poor whites to vote against their own material interests has a long history, even before George Wallace brought it to the forefront of presidential politics in 1964.

However things stand with that question, Riley and Brenner’s theses need to be examined in both time and space: i.e. when do they apply and where?

Whether political capitalism is an actual feature of the current order of late(ish) capitalism has been (and continues to be) a topic of extensive discussion.

Another question is whether this is a specifically American phenomenon. Is political capitalism also a European event, and if so, to what degree?

The standard is set by Riley and Brenner’s claim that political capitalism amounts to “a new regime of accumulation”, capitalism unburdened by regulation and the welfare state.

Its links with the neoliberal fantasy of small governments and big markets of the Reagan-Thatcher era, where the economy takes over from the government, are clear.

For Riley and Brenner, this has nonetheless produced a new kind of politics in which class is more dominant than ever but is never addressed, reflecting the decline of the organised left.

This is exceptionally transparent in pivoting centre-left parties away from economic issues and advocating on behalf of labour.

Riley and Brenner use the phrase “non-class but robustly material” to describe this politics. What they mean is a politics that promotes class society but not class consciousness.

In Europe, this corresponds with the decline of social democratic parties and the long run of centre-right governments in the UK and Germany since Angela Merkel entered office in 2005.

The 2022 Italian election victor, the ‘post-fascist’ Fratelli d’Italia party, and wins in Finland and Sweden by proto-fascist parties show where political capitalism is headed.

These elections also cast a helpful shadow on France and Germany, where far-right parties such as Alternative für Deutschland and Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National are advancing.

Both countries are facing the challenges of nationalist movements which leverage racial and cultural anxieties as though they are about class – which they are.

For example, the neurotic obsession with the “threat” posed to working-class Germans by Arab refugees has driven the rise of the AfD, especially in eastern regions of the country.

These lander, once part of the Communist DDR, have been economically weak since reunification and have no experience of the diversity common in the West.

In France, the electoral successes of Rassemblement National and its persistently high ratings in opinion polls reflect similar obsessions.

The difference is France’s longstanding Muslim population, which can’t be tarnished with the migrant brush like the AfD stigmatises Middle Eastern and Afghan refugees.

Still, the scapegoating and the way it covers for economic competition between lower-class, Gilets Jaunes whites and banlieue-dwelling Blacks is very much the same.

BAME French are still stigmatised as newcomers intent on carrying out a great replacement of the indigenous population as though they were alien to France’s body politic, not a part of it.

This insider-outsider incitement replicates a typically classist xenophobia, without it being about class, but religion and race, “non-class but robustly material”, to use Riley and Brenner’s words.

The often repeated American claim that white workers are pursuing rational economic interests is hard to square with the effects of Trumpism (or Bidenism) on the US economy.

Voters for far-right European parties don’t necessarily see things that way, as the economic arguments made for voting for parties like the AfD and RN focus on migration and religion.

While this may be good for keeping voters engaged by making them fear so-called foreigners, there is no latent class politics in the waiting, which needs a bit of racism to prepare them for.

There is a lot of overlap between the politics of the United States and Europe. Many of Riley and Brenner’s theses can apply in both contexts.

While much of what they have to say about politics in the United States rings true, what is lacking is a coherent account of why it is accumulation has become fundamentally political.

Both Europe and the US are caught up in long-term sluggishness. There is a lot of political influence regarding capital formation and the privileging of some economic powers over others.

However, the current regime of accumulation in the United States and Europe has more to do with oligopolistic markets than with globalisation and the threat of refugee arrivals.

One is reminded of Schumpeter’s claim in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy that socialism would arise due to the increasing size of enterprises rather than the contradictions in capitalism.

This is a claim that shouldn’t be taken too far. For example, one does not have to believe, as Schumpeter did, that Marx was right for the wrong reasons.

It’s like believing what’s going on in the United States and Europe has more to do with monopoly capitalism than political capitalism.

None of this amounts to or aspires to a refutation of Dylan Riley and Robert Brenner.

It’s not that they are wrong, but something seems to be missing from their account of capitalism. Like ideological synonyms for class, such as race and religion.

What remains to be seen is if pieces can be added to it that, like the centrality of racism to American and European politics, point to a new version of neoliberalism.

Or what comes after. The jury is still out. But some pretty obvious pieces are falling into place.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.