Book Review: Revolution Today, The New Authoritarians, Into the Tempest

Susan Buck-Morss, Revolution Today (Haymarket Books, 2019)

David Renton,The New Authoritarians: Convergence on the Right (Haymarket Books, 2019)

William I. Robinson, Into the Tempest: Essays on the New Global Capitalism (Haymarket Books, 2018)

Reviewed by Chamsy el-Ojeili, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

(This is a prepublication version of this review. The published version will appear in Thesis Eleven Journal, available soon on the T11 Sage website)

These three recent works from Haymarket Books are united in a common reconsideration of the prospects of and tasks ahead for the Left, in the face of the rise of a more radical Right, and each is preoccupied by a particular element of contemporary social transformation – emancipatory social movements (Buck-Morss), capitalism (Robinson), the Right (Renton). Polemical, prophetic, and engaged interventions rather than carefully theoretical and analytical scholarly texts, all three authors seek to move beyond Left melancholy and defeatism.  

Despite these commonalities, the form of Buck-Morss’s volume is quite at odds with the other books under review here, lacking the on-the-ground detail of Robinson’s and Renton’s books. Revolution Today is a short, punchy manifesto, containing over 100 images that act, as the back-cover blurb notes, as “a chain of signifiers”. The influence Walter Benjamin exerts on the author is clear – the image as crucial to thinking in constellations, the focus on the “small fragments of recent history” (p. 2), the post-secular sensibility, the questioning of Necessity and progress. Of the last, Buck-Morss emphasizes the miraculous appearance of mobilizations outside of the “expected left-course of history” (p. 1), the end of modernizing-industrializing dreams of production in the East and consumption in the West, and the shattering of “homogenous, historical time that had provided the organizing frame of modernity” (p. 26).

These shifts are crucially linked to the double-edged transformations of globalization. On the one hand, the engine of globalization is the profit motive, which undermines sovereignty and the sovereign political imaginary in the interests of a new multinational, multiracial, multicultural elite, at the expense of an increasingly precarious majority below. This induces virulent populist nationalist fantasies and violence (“all wars today are civil wars” (p. 10)).

Another globalization, though, exists, visible in the multifarious resistant activity of emergent political subjects – the core transformatory concern of the book – clustered around anti-austerity, environmental, LGBTQI+, indigenous, peace, land, and democracy concerns. Celebrating and addressing these new subjects, Buck-Morss closes with 11 ultra-contemporary theses: abandon methodological nationalism for a trans-local frame; widen our demands; jettison the notion of a blueprint in history; think of revolution as laboratory rather than through a vanguardist optic; re-examine “the fragments of history that remain available to us” (p. 64) (Buck-Morss, for instance, draws on aspects of early Soviet avant-garde, dependency theory, and liberation theology), beyond the imaginary of progress; bury the notion of privileged subjects of emancipation, in favour of multiplicity and solidarity; remain visible to each other; refuse a warrior imaginary and any Left fetishization of violence; refuse, too, any fetishism of the law; and remember the importance of numbers, which are on our side.

Will Robinson, like Buck-Morss, emphasizes the global and acknowledges the proliferation of resistance movements. However, the Leftism in play in Into the Tempest is far more conventional, and, as the title suggests, it leans heavily in an apocalyptic rather than Buck-Morss’s hope-centred direction. 

While struggle is breaking out everywhere, such resistance is framed by Robinson as epiphenomenal to the “master process off our age” (p. 1), capitalist globalization. The transformations from the crisis of the 1970s are of the order of an epochal shift, a fourth epoch of capitalism, a “globally integrated production and financial system” (p. 52). Here, Robinson provides something of a detail-rich and far less cheery version of Hardt and Negri’s theses on Empire, in the process setting himself against world-systems analysis and more recent work, such as David Harvey’s, on the new imperialism.

The old state-centric maps of power must, for Robinson, be discarded. Capitalism today is centred on new global circuits of accumulation, a new global assembly line, and transnational finance. The ruling class agent of this new world is a newly hegemonic transnational capitalist class, whose interests are leading to the ”penetration of capitalist relations into all spheres of life” (p. 11). Extraordinarily class conscious, the worldview of this class is embodied in “hyperliberalism”, an ideology of limitless consumerism and cutthroat individualism. This is not to say, however, that there is not intra-ruling class conflict and rivalry, within this transnational class bloc, but also in challenges to this bloc by local, national, and regional factions of capital (although, increasingly, these are forced to “globalize or perish” (p. 69)).

Our world is not, then, characterized by unipolar American power. Neither is ours a moment of positional warfare between the US and China, or the US and the BRICS nations. Again, we do see tensions between different factions of capital; and, at times, nationalism is a mobilization strategy that is deployed to deal with increasingly tricky legitimation problems. But the nation-state-centric problematic of imperialism, old or new, has given way to “global capitalist imperialism” (p. 115).

In contrast to the state-centrism of Wallerstein, Robinson insists that, while the political lags behind the economic, an emergent transnational state is taking shape. This is not, though, about death of the state, but about its transformation and transnationalization, so that national states become nodes (transmission belts) in “an emerging network” (p. 82) of diverse institutions – the IMF, World Bank, Bank of International Settlements, the WTO, the WEF, the G7, and the UN. This emergent transnational state, says Robinson, is “a loose but increasingly coherent network comprised of supranational political and economic institutions, and of national state apparatuses that have been penetrated and transformed by the transnational capitalist class and allied transnationally oriented bureaucratic and other strata” (p. 34).

The meaning of this new state is a novel and brutal iteration of the dictatorship of capital. Here, Robinson’s vista is decidedly catastrophist: massive polarization and immiseration for the bulk of a trifurcated humanity – the 1 per cent, the constantly threatened middle class 20 per cent, the precarious 80 per cent (for whom the condition of immigrant labour is archetypal); an unsolvable crisis of accumulation leading to rampant financial speculation, plunder of the public realm, and new forms of militarized accumulation, “neoliberalism on steroids” (p. 200), threatening a future world police state and a 21st century fascism characterized by militarism, misogyny, extreme masculinization, and racism.

The catastrophism of this scenario is explained by the qualitatively new coordinates of the present crisis: the reaching of expansionist and ecological limits; the extremity of overaccumulation and polarization; the rise of permanently surplus populations; the scale of the means of violence and social control; the depth and irresolvability, under current conditions, of today’s crisis of legitimation. All of this means that we are currently standing “before the gates of hell” (p. 202). While he gestures to sources of hope in the resistant forces identified by Buck-Morss, in the next breath, Robinson launches into a critique of post-modern identity politics, in favour of a much older-seeming Marxist project, powered by the global working class – though with antiracism at its forefront.

While Robinson gives short shrift to the global centre-Left, Renton’s The New Authoritarians focusses, above all, on transformations taking place on the Right, as an important lesson towards the radical re-making of a mainstream Left. Centred on a crucial period between June 2016 and May 2017, in which the new authoritarianism emerged, Renton’s book is, like Robinson’s, a detailed intervention aimed at a wider, popular Left audience, and less fussy about theorizing and careful analysis.

Seeking to untangle the various forces in play on the Right, Renton distinguishes between conservatives, the non-fascist far-Right, and fascism, arguing that we are currently seeing a convergence between the centre- and far-Right, rather than – as numerous alarmed Leftists have suggested – the stirring of a new fascism. Fascism has, in fact, been subordinated. Here, Renton makes some important claims. In the West, World War II played an important cultural role in the period 1970-1985. In and immediately following that period, a number of fascist-leaning forces sought a new direction, distancing themselves from fascism – for instance, the French New Right or the Italian Social Movement (MSI). Today, however, the Second World War is a “diminished presence” (p. 34) in the West, particularly for the under-35s, and collective memory of the attacks of September 11 have become an important hook for the Right, bolstering white identity politics, and mobilizing passion around the threat posed by Islam. Newly focussed, too, on appeals to the working class, armed with a language of moral restoration, and bypassing existing political structures, we see the growth and normalization of the non-fascist Right, and transformed connections across the Right, in which fascism is marginal but the mainstream Right has become more radical. 

These contentions provide a backdrop to chapters on Brexit, the Republican Party and Trump, and the French National Front. In these chapters, Renton is attentive to the various linkages between different parts of the Right over time – looking, say, at the origins, ties, and trajectory of UKIP, the milieu around Breitbart, and the pioneering culturalist shift of Alain de Benoist. Renton also devotes a chapter to international linkages across the Right, which have thickened considerably over the past few years and have been crucial to the global radicalization of the centre-Right. Renton is at his best in looking in some detail, often absent in accounts of the contemporary Right, at these entanglements.

In explaining these trends, Renton foregrounds the impact of global neo-liberalism.  Plutocracy and polarization, the stagnation of wages, welfare cuts – these are crucial. But, above all, for Renton, the central explanatory factor is the neo-liberal convergence of the major centrist parties, and, especially, the accommodations of the mainstream Left to the wealthy and to the market. Into the future, Renton argues, first, that, in facing today’s transformed Right, crying fascist is the wrong approach – given the reduced resonance of the term. Instead, the Left should work harder at exposing the Right’s racism, and at breaking the alliance between the conservative Right and the far-Right. Second, the Left must re-occupy the terrain of economic debate, the mainstream Left allowing itself to be renewed, as the centre-Right have, by their more radical wing, rebuilding, in the process, a large and powerful Left committed to redistribution, expanded welfare, affordable housing, better wages, and stronger opposition to sexism and racism.

All three books provide something of a signal of what Badiou has called the “rebirth of history” and of what he imagines as the passionate experimentation characteristic of a new iteration of “the communist hypothesis”. Strategically focussed, accessible, attentive to the need for dialogue and the sustenance of activist energy, lacking concern for sectarian and orthodox verities – these are decidedly useable, as well as very readable, works that are governed by moral and political concerns, rather than attempts to mine for novelty and prestige in the academic marketplace.

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