NOVEMBER 7, 2016
POPULAR CULTURE IS REPLETE with cartoonish depictions of Nazism. Hitler seems to emerge suddenly, as if he had been waiting in the wings as a fait accompli. One moment it’s Weimar decadence, really good art, and Stormtroopers and communists fighting in the streets. The next, Hindenburg is handing Adolf the keys to the kingdom and it’s all torchlight parades, Triumph of the Will, and plaintive Itzhak Perlman violins. Hitler rises above a reborn Reich as a kind of totalitarian god. All aspects of life come under his control through the Nazi Party’s complete domination of German life. Of course, this is not really how it worked.
Before Hitler achieved his genocidal powers, there were years of what we would now call “intense partisan bickering,” decreasing prosperity, and violence in the streets. In the end, Hitler cobbled together a rickety coalition of business-minded technocrats, traditional conservatives, military interests, and his own radical ethno-nationalists into a plausible government. As the new government consolidated its power, thousands of communists and trade unionists were subjected to harsh suppression and were among the first to be shipped away to what would eventually become the concentration camps. And yet for a time, life for the overwhelming majority of Germans — even briefly for German Jews — went on largely as it had in the Weimar era. There was clearly a new regime in town, but most Germans got up in the mornings in the mid-to-late 1930s and went to work, just as they had in the 1920s. January through March of 1933 was not 1776, 1789, 1791, 1917, or even 1979. Far from the world turning upside down, things were strangely continuous for many Germans as though nothing much had happened at all. For a few Germans, things were astoundingly better.
With the global rise of demagogues of the far right like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orbán, Narendra Modi, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, “fascism” is on the tip of everyone’s tongues. Water-cooler conversations turn around these strongmen or strongmen-in-waiting and their potential to tower over the political landscape of the 21st century. Second- and thirdhand versions of Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno have become a welcome addition to the American media landscape. We are all deeply invested in the ideology and psychology of fascism.
Yet, for all this talk of fascism in the air, it’s remarkable how much we have come to accept predominantly ideological and psychological — as opposed to formally political and economic — frames for our arguments. Few people want to talk about how fascist societies like Nazi Germany actually functioned, how they were built, who made them work, and why. But when we do, a much sharper image emerges, in which an idiosyncratic economic and political structure is more clearly visible.
In Nazi Germany, economic history shows us a rapid change in the distribution of income and the emergence of a managerial elite who obtained an outsized share of national income, not just the now-proverbial one percent, but the top 0.1 percent. These were Nazi Germany’s equivalent to today’s so-called “supermanagers” (to use Thomas Piketty’s now-famous term). This parallel with today’s neoliberal society calls for a closer examination of the place of supermanagers in both regimes, with illuminating and unsettling implications.
Behemoth: The Political Economy of Nazism
Thinkers like Adorno and Arendt tended to approach Nazism through the lens of philosophy. They accepted Nazi self-assertions of “totalitarianism”; that a total, unified society was bound together through identification with party and leader, that all was driven through a Volksgemeinschaft (national community, or the consciousness of being part of an “authentic” national community). The reality was considerably messier. Adorno’s colleague Franz Neumann considered the same questions from the vantages of political economy and law. Far from “state capitalism,” where the profit motive is eliminated and production is under the complete control of the state, Neumann noted that under Nazism, business — especially large corporate interests — was given extraordinary leeway. They did not have perfect free rein, but large business interests were relieved of many previous social democratic restrictions. Independent labor organizations were crushed, and business was allowed to coagulate into massive, profit-generating monopolies as long as it produced the necessary goods and services the party and the army required.
The closer Neumann looked at the day-to-day operations of Nazism, the less convinced he was that one could call Nazi Germany a “state” in any traditional sense of the word. Along with his fellow Frankfurt School colleague Otto Kirchheimer, they noted that power, authority, and responsibility were not, as propaganda would have it, bound up entirely in the person of the Leader, but rather were confusingly diffuse throughout a disjointed and irrational system. Everyone (that is everyone included within the national-racial community) was to fall in line or develop themselves through Führerprinzip into autonomous self-starters, entrepreneurs, and pioneers of the national spirit in whatever sector they worked. Even as a rump state maintained the appearance of a heavy bureaucracy, with a great deal of actual organization still left to technocrats, industry was given wide berth. Society was dominated by myriad (in the parlance of our time) “thought-leaders” with overlapping and competing fiefdoms. The party itself maintained personnel connections within nearly every sector, and its own areas of control, particularly over racial questions — the sine qua non of Nazism. A deal was struck whereby the armed forces, still bruised and feeling “betrayed” by German surrender from World War I, came to an internal balance of powers agreement. Hitler was in charge, to be sure, but only through a constant negotiation between these sectors and their own mini-sovereignties. And even Hitler wasn’t the sovereign decision maker both his fervent supporters and adamant critics wanted him to be; Hitler’s office was more of a clearinghouse, often receiving conflicting positions in, sometimes sending conflicting positions out to be resolved by some other, smaller leader elsewhere. Certainly, the Führer was a dictator, but he was first among many, neither the striding colossus of Nazi propagandists nor the all-powerful, mini-mustachioed evil of moralistic Western popular culture.
In his final analysis, Neumann realized that Nazi Germany was not really a state in any recognizable sense at all. Far from Hobbes’s Biblical Leviathan — a mechanistic vision of a commonwealth functioning collectively for the safety and flourishing of its individual subjects whose power is bound up, expressed, and represented in the person of a monarch or ruling council — Neumann saw in Nazi Germany Hobbes’s alternative vision, the rumbling horror of the land monster Behemoth, a beast for Hobbes composed of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, the Long Parliament, and Puritan businessmen taking on the appearance of a new state but in reality a mere disjointed assemblage of military, economic, and even restrictive sexual power that in Hobbes’s analysis spelled out the essence of anarchy in Britain and the utter devastation of Ireland. The German Behemoth under Nazi rule was a similar amalgam. Famously, it was only with the handshake agreements of traditional conservatives, the new far-right nationalists, the army, and, most importantly, the business elite, that the Nazis were given a shot at “governing.” Several of the business elite had to personally petition Hindenburg to appoint Hitler in the first place.
Profits and Salaries in Dark Times
Neither Neumann (nor Hobbes for that matter) should be misunderstood. A “behemoth”-like structure can be highly efficient. Nazi efficiency in disenfranchisement, slavery, and genocide was unparalleled in terms of their speed and thoroughness. But such a structure functionally overturns the most basic logic of the state; it is diffuse sovereignty.
In this diffuse sovereignty, soaring profits went not simply to the one percent of its day, but to reinforce the power of a nascent class of executives across different economic and social sectors. Even while internal regulations on, say, labor conditions were dismantled, external quotas and quality controls were implemented. These regulations often had the blessing of business, especially big business, which used such controls to crowd out small- and medium-sized firms that could not meet the substantial party, “state,” or military demands. And this meant that large German business did well. So well, that the only real Nazi-era restriction (before they were removed altogether at the start of the war) on profit was a 1934 rate cap of six to eight percent on dividends and even then, the surplus beyond this was merely redirected into short-term government bonds which would pay out against the taxes owed by the firm. But, as Neumann noted of profits in the Nazi-era, “profits are not identical with dividends. Profits are, above all, salaries, bonuses, commissions for special services, over-valuated patents, licenses, connections, and good will.” These profits went to the “supermanagers” of the Third Reich.
Men (and they were almost always men) like this were the linchpin of Nazi society. After soaring, inflationary highs during World War I, and an unsurprising loss in the subsequent crash compounded by the Great Depression, the share of income of the top one percent in Germany began to return to relatively normal levels during the Weimar years. But once the Nazis consolidated power, the fortunes of the Thousand Year Reich’s one percent truly took off. This was particularly the case for those supermanagers at the very top, the 0.1 percent. From just under four percent in 1930, their share of the national income under the new Nazi order would nearly double by the eve of World War II.
In contrast, during roughly the same period, the United States saw not only a drop for the top 0.1 percent but a choppy and precipitous one, from above eight percent before 1930 to below four percent by the middle of World War II. These figures refer to the top share of labor income alone, excluding return to capital. Despite similar counter-cyclic spending, whatever was so richly rewarding for Nazi-era Germans in the highest income group did not correspond to their American counterparts. This is not peculiar to the United States; similar trends can be observed in, for example, France and Sweden. A new “managerial class” appeared in nearly all developed economies, but clearly it was in some way less valued in social democracies (or for that matter, in the Soviet Union) than in the new fascist societies.
Over the last 35 years, our own “neoliberal” society has developed some rather unexpected parallels with Nazi Germany. In his much celebrated work Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty noticed an odd feature of our contemporary economy: though income inequality levels in the United States are today similar to those that existed at the beginning of the 20th century, there has been a change in how high-income earners derive their income. In Piketty’s overall argument the vast economic growth, stability, and equity of the postwar to mid-1970s era, the Trente Glorieuses, was due to the historic idiosyncrasy of rebuilding after the World Wars, pumping economic output in North America, Europe, and Japan far above where they “naturally” lie at about 2.5 percent. Yet the general tendency is for the return on capital (historically stable at around four to five percent) to always exceed the growth of the economy. This has the distributional consequence of allocating a higher share of national income to investors (capital income) relative to workers (wages), and will gradually lead to societies characterized by high income and wealth inequality (i.e., a kind of neofeudalism). In such societies, it makes more economic sense to marry into wealth than pursue any kind of a career because income disparities are primarily driven by inherited wealth and the significant advantage of earning a return on capital over earned wages. However, the odd bit that pops up in Piketty concerning our contemporary economic situation is that the gradual increase in income inequality over the past three decades is the direct result of a surge in top wages, rather than a revival of capital income — this is not the “idle rich.”
The salaries of the top one percent have increased from roughly eight percent of total income in the 1980s to a staggering 18 percent of total income today. While wages for the vast majority of Americans have remained largely stagnant for the past 35 years, the top one percent has seen growth by nearly 140 percent and of that massive income — so large as to actually exceed capital returns — nearly three-quarters goes to the tiny top 0.1 percent. The bulk of these “star salaries” do not come from, say, high-earning celebrities (artists, actors, athletes), but rather from individuals such as corporate executives, hedge fund managers, university presidents, etc. Piketty calls the individuals who comprise this top 0.1 percent “supermanagers.”
How do we explain this explosion in salaries? We could begin with the theory that high pay reflects a supermanager’s productivity and skills (i.e., large contributions to corporate profits), yet this does not hold up to scrutiny. To begin with, there is a very sharp discontinuity of salaries between those at the very top and those immediately below, where one would have expected a gradual increase if qualifications or professional experience were the key driver. Executive pay has been found to rise when sales and profits increase for reasons that are beyond a manager’s control (e.g., price fluctuations). Further, given the size and complexity of the modern corporation, it is difficult to determine what share of a firm’s performance can be directly linked to the skills of any particular executive manager or officer as opposed to the rest of workers. Controlled experiments (e.g., determining the performance of a different manager in the same environment) are impossible. Assessing performance on the basis of some “objective” measure, such as shareholder value, also proves difficult.
If “star salaries” can’t be explained by contribution to the productive enterprise, high managerial compensation would appear to be what economists call “rent” — essentially, profit extraction. Managers could quite simply have their “hands in the till,” or be facilitated in their ability to extract rent through bargaining power and market power (including a manager’s ability to bring to the table things that cannot easily be replaced or commoditized, like personal connections, or to make it costly for any potential replacement to take over). Piketty concludes that the rent element is probably high, with high pay for supermanagers an institutional practice shaped by social norms.
In our view there is another way to understand the rise of the supermanager in terms of value (though in a rather unconventional sense) produced for the firm. The supermanager is neoliberalism’s governance mechanism, a way to negotiate and smooth over differences between sectors of power in society, just as the supermanager avant la lettre did so in Nazi Germany.
Supermanagers provide a very specific kind of governance needed in very specific kinds of regimes. The supermanager and their seemingly outsized share of national income is not merely a phenomenon of our own neoliberal era, from the Reagan/Thatcher “revolutions” to the Clinton/Blair era. It was a conspicuous feature of Nazi Germany (and although the data is thinner, it would seem 1920–’30s fascism in general). The most plausible explanation for this compensation draws not from any particularly radical theory of value, nor from moralistic parables about corruption, nor from fairy tales about superheroic capacities. The most plausible explanation is that supermanagers are paid for governance where the state has been redeployed elsewhere or, even, effectively dissolved.
One could think of this as a peculiar kind of rent extraction for the ability to shift seamlessly at the boundaries of these sectors — from one board, to another, from a corporation, to a foundation, to a university, to government, to a think tank and back again. One could think of this in a rather perverse way as real marginal added value, compensation for the difficult work of governance without a Rechtsstaat — without a rational, sovereign state, or with a receding or redistributed one. Seen in this light, the ability to provide political backing through connections is a highly remunerated component of this type of governance. What we think of today as the “revolving doors” between corporate offices, consultancies, government regulatory agencies, think tanks, media, etc. were part of everyday economic, political, and social life in Nazi Germany. The heightened and more powerful form of interlocking directorates commonly observed in advanced capitalist economies were, for the Nazis, highly formalized as powerful supervisory boards and chambers between sectors and firms. Firms who were heavily invested in the party before the Nazi takeover (only about one-seventh of total firms but, taking into account the size of firms, over half of the total German stock market) saw immediate gains of six to eight percent by mid-1933 already. Comparable levels of remuneration for direct political connection are found only in developing and advanced neoliberal states.
The parallel between the Nazi “revolution” in the 1930s and the neoliberal “revolution” in the 1980s and ’90s goes much further. The Nazis were also pioneers in what was then the uncharted economic waters of “privatization.” In the face of the Great Depression, states across the world — including the Social Democratic led Weimar Republic — nationalized key industries and, in some cases, like Germany, nearly the entirety of the financial sector. The Nazis — despite early propaganda indicating otherwise — were the unique exception. Not only did they avoid further nationalization but they innovated a process so idiosyncratic at the time that it required coining a German neologism: Reprivatisierung.
Quickly transferred into English as “reprivatization,” the phenomenon and its potentially salutary effects were observed by such notable organs of liberal economic thought as The Economist and mainstream outlets like Time magazine. Before Margaret Thatcher began the privatization of council housing and long before welfare reform was a twinkle in Bill Clinton’s eye, the Nazis were turning heavy industries, nearly the entirety of the financial and banking sector, and even some social services over to private hands and to new, innovative public/private hybrids. Even before this process was “enhanced” by “Aryanizing” previously Jewish held property, rates of privatization were as high the European average would become some 70 years later when neoliberal reforms began on the continent.
The resulting market concentration, the decrease of small businesses and the growth of monopolies and cartels in Nazi Germany are well documented. It’s no surprise that supermanagerial governance would go hand in hand with the consolidation of large industrial and financial interests, as the value it provides is enhanced when sectors and market power are concentrated. This is another interesting parallel between the Nazi era and our own. Today we find that antitrust and intellectual property laws have favored the concentration of market power in a handful of companies in key sectors such as pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, media and entertainment, not to mention the financial sector. And we find that unsurprisingly, today’s supermanagers thrive, in particular, in large, profitable firms. A recent study finds that during the period 1978–2012, a large share (two thirds) of wage earnings inequality was driven not just by the deepening of pay differentials (between those at the very top and the rest of workers) throughout all firms, but also by the emergence of higher-paying large, profitable firms.
The parallels don’t end with political and economic power but stretch, horrifyingly, into the everyday. As Kirchheimer wrote of the Nazi-era police force in a report for the OSS in 1945:
The general “task” presumed to have been given to the police in the Nazi state — that of safeguarding the state and regime against any disturbance — implies the supremacy of any of its actions (whether in the form of decree, directive, internal instruction, or pure action) over any existing law […] Thus, the police becomes “a function whose activities are determined solely through what is politically necessary […] This means that the police as such can do whatever it deems necessary, without being restrained by legal authorities.
Just as it was for fascists, neoliberals depend on the arbitrary power of the police, only to be checked, if ever, by post-facto political considerations. Far from cowering in fear of cartoon Hitler in the 1930s and ’40s or for that matter in the face of the Constitution today, police are deeply empowered, with almost no enforceable judicial or legislative check on power. This is the necessary “on the ground” counterpart — learned well from colonization abroad — to supermanagerial control of the endlessly complex, newly “marketized” governance apparati, public-private initiatives, and the labyrinthine overlapping jurisdictions between sectors in the neoliberal state.
Different Raisons d’Être
The numerous parallels between neoliberalism and fascism — particularly when looking at these kinds of political and economic structures — can tempt analysts to overstate the case and claim that neoliberalism and fascism are one and the same. But this downplays the tremendous differences that exist between these regimes and misses the power of their particular similarities. Both fascism and neoliberalism are utopian political projects with different ends, overlapping means and similar causes. The raison d’être of Nazism, for example, was the colonization of Eastern Europe, the internal purge of Jews, homosexuals, the disabled, and other “undesirables,” and the defeat of communism and the left writ large. All of the parties committed to establishing and maintaining the regime were extremely excited at the prospect of the first and the third of these goals, and at least indifferent (but frankly often enthusiastic) about the second. Colonization would be good for business, restorative to the military, and provide Hitler his much-desired Lebensraum for “racial health” and prosperity of the Aryan-German people.
The raison d’être of neoliberalism, however, is to extend market relations and principles to every facet of society, from “the economy” itself to the state all the way down to redefining basic understandings of the human being. Citizens become consumers; humanity becomes “human capital,” people become amorphous, reinventing, endlessly flexible, resilient, risk-taking individuals. Even beyond the human, there are cellular processes, algorithms, and chemical compounds rife for market optimization. Neoliberalism — far more than 1930s-era fascism (although this does appear to be changing with the new and alt-right) — is also a transnational and evangelical project. Instead of only the reliance on brute force that characterized fascist expansion in both its plans and practice, neoliberalism also employs interlocking international regulatory, banking, and trade organizations. Neoliberalism (a term nowadays nearly always disavowed) is confusingly nested in layered combinations of treaty obligations, memberships, and, above all, the private power of capital and finance — as in the European Union. Despite its propaganda, it doesn’t actually seek state annihilation or even the formal end of parliamentary procedure that we saw in Nazism. Rather, it captures and transforms the state, such that its sovereignty is reduced and its power rescinded in some areas (for example, in the retraction of business and finance regulation, even in its ability to collect taxes), but radically expanded in others, regulating labor organization, setting up particular patent processes that can only be maneuvered by a few key corporations, requiring citizens to partake in private economic activity, and even, as a much more basic level, the ever-increasing direct and restrictive governance of the individual. This can range from the pushes and nudges of taxes, tax incentives, restrictive “zones” for, say, “free speech” whether political protest or religious observance, to the domination at the daily level by the police with a seeming free hand especially over specific subject populations.
There are numerous, stark differences, to say the least. Nazism is unimaginable without the ideological commitment and technical capacity for racial elimination. In contrast, neoliberalism prefers a kind of constrained, elite cosmopolitanism with racialized power — critical for internal policing and for intervention in non-neoliberal states — portrayed as incidental, a sideshow. Put in slightly different terms, neoliberalism would never really want to “solve” the “Jewish Question.” Neoliberalism constrains national sovereignty in the direction of transnational “free trade” (favored trade for concentrated capital). Nazism and fascism pushed for a kind of export-driven autarky. Nazism gave capitalism a partially reluctant embrace — as a kindred, social Darwinian worldview, a kind of continuation of national tradition and order, and a necessary means for the renewal of the German economy in general, and for the rearmament of the nation. In contrast, neoliberalism — consolidated at least intellectually in the immediate postwar era — explicitly seeks the extension and protection of capitalism at all costs.
The Crisis of Democracy
The key to the political economies of these regimes is the question of democracy. One need not be particularly radical to recognize the fundamental contradiction between democracy and capitalism, or put different between democracy and economic liberalism. As far back as Aristotle it was always the assumption that democratic polities would be ones inclined to redistribute goods. It only made sense: if power is truly distributed on a broad basis even approaching equality then surely communities would choose to at least exercise democratic control over “property” if not to just democratize it all straight away. Both fascists and neoliberals — born out of crises in capital demanding a political response — have different answers to the modern version of this classical dilemma.
In a meeting with German business leaders in 1933, Hitler declared that “democracy” (i.e., actual parliamentary control) was fundamentally incompatible with a free-market capitalist economy, a truth far more widely acknowledged in that era. Following Hitler’s speech, Göring presented the Nazi case in blunt terms: support the Nazi party and parliamentary democracy would end. The threat to free enterprise from communism, socialism, organized labor, and even basic formal democracy would be over. Göring concluded: “the sacrifices asked for […] would be so much easier for industry to bear if it realized that the election of March 5th will surely be the last one for the next 10 years, probably even for the next 100 years.” These “sacrifices” were the millions of Deutsche marks that Schacht proceeded to collect from the room.
This does not mean that fascism was completely “un-democratic” either. Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco all based the legitimacy of their rule on fundamentally “democratic” principles. They claimed to represent the “true” vox populi, the spirit of the Volk, the will of the nation. Thus, far more interesting than its electoral crawl to building a minority coalition government, the democracy of fascism is better reflected in its attempts to mobilize the population and involve German-Aryans in raising their voices through mass actions, demonstrations, and affinity groups.
In contrast, neoliberalism’s prime reaction to the contradiction between democracy and capitalism has been to reshape and redeploy government functions and services through “marketization” and hybridizing, and to refashion the entire concept of politics itself as yet another market. Indeed, by neoliberal standards, non-participation can (and is) often argued to be perfectly “rational” in a kind of homo-economicus argument pushed ad infinitum. Reducing “democracy” to its most transactional structure — votes exchanged for services rendered, the formal motions of a liberal republican state for at least a plurality of citizens — neoliberalism achieves a feat that the great revolutionary and reactionary movements of the 19th and 20th century never achieved: unique among critiques of parliamentarianism, neoliberalism discourages participation without undermining legitimacy.
One of the key differences between neoliberalism and fascism is that, more and more neoliberalism relies not on a claim to democratic legitimacy but on a kind of “naturalism”; “there is no alternative,” Margaret Thatcher famously quipped. This is a seismic shift. For nearly the whole of political modernity, some form of democracy — whether in the shape of formal mechanisms, nationalist identity, or egalitarian ideals — had defined the range of political legitimacy, right or left, authoritarian or anarchistic. Pro-forma liberal rites are held onto as the tepid nod to democratic legitimacy when the truth of the matter is that neoliberalism doesn’t want participation or democracy of any kind. It doesn’t want youth wings or national mobilizations (even for its many wars), but rather would maintain its citizens and workforce in a state of insecurity and anxiety. Either it has better use for your time (maximum productivity) or no use for you at all (except as an economically helpful surplus population, perhaps best controlled through racialized mass incarceration). Just as with the Nazi decimation of the formal state, the neoliberal “restructuring” of the state requires the large scale, expansive and expensive rule of supermanagers. The dismantling of democratic oversight and control, for example, although often framed as “efficiency,” inevitably creates either more bureaucracy or more arcane structures.
Relieved of the burden of democracy, and born of a clearer purpose, the Supermanagerial Reich would seem a contender to last a thousand years were it not for its own endemic crises —particularly financial instability and ecological catastrophe. Nazism responded to the worldwide financial crisis and the aftermath of World War I by promising prosperity and dignity through national unity. Neoliberalism grew from the “supply shock” (i.e., oil crisis) and capital strike of the 1970s (the ecological crisis may prove to be the quicker catastrophe for neoliberal rule depending on political outcomes; a prospect that absolutely no one should celebrate). In fact, although neoliberalism draws on intellectual tools developed going all the way back to the end of the World War II, it can be helpful to think of it as an extension of the power of that capital strike into its own form of society. If colonization and eradication were the promises that Nazism would not break — even to its dying minutes — a devotion to solutions found only in the market is the line that neoliberalism cannot cross. Its intellectual and institutional structures are built precisely to prevent the kind of widespread prosperity that was seen by the late ’60s, near full employment in particular.
Neoliberalism has now clearly outlasted the 2008 financial crisis, and further consolidated and entrenched both its forms of governance and the concentration of wealth and income for the top 0.1 percent. But chinks in the armor of the new Supermanagerial Reich are visible. One of the biggest is the rise of neofascism nearly the world over, with its promises of economic and ethno-nationalism to deliver prosperity, or at the very least representation. To deliver, in other words, what neoliberalism never could.
In 1939, Max Horkheimer famously wrote, “whoever is not prepared to talk about capitalism should also remain silent about fascism.” As a recent Jewish Marxist refugee from Germany, he was in a better position than most to opine on the dangers of fascism. We argue that this dictum still holds, while it perhaps needs a 21st-century update. Anyone who takes seriously the threat of the newly empowered reactionary right, must take seriously the role neoliberalism has played in laying out the red carpet for its arrival. Instead of handwringing over liberal dead letters, we must come to terms with the fact that we have already been living in a form of deeply destructive authoritarian liberalism for nearly four decades now.
While there is much gnashing of teeth over our own, cartoonish Hitler wannabe, too many political actors seem more than willing to turn their heads away from our own Supermanagerial Reich. Like mid-1930s Germans, too many are quite simply comfortable with the rolling slow-motion horror that has been neoliberalism. They view the Trumps and the Le Pens and the Erdoğans, and so forth as a new crisis, a sudden shock to the system. Many in the United States fear a Trump election because there might be an explosion of state repression against the vulnerable, particularly against specific racial and ethnic minorities. And yet, the neoliberal state has already created a penal system to rival the world’s most authoritarian dictatorships. The United States imprisons more citizens (total and per capita) than any other country on Earth, and African Americans and Latinos at a vastly over-represented rate. Many fear Trump would bring massive deportations of undocumented immigrants. And yet, the neoliberal state already engages in mass deportations, at the level of millions during the current administration, with countless more waiting in dire conditions in the world’s largest network of immigrant detention camps. Many fear a Trump election would bring mass persecution, surveillance, and restrictions for American Muslims. And yet, the neoliberal state already spies on Muslims, administers religious tests at borders, and polices Muslims for nothing more than their religious practices. Many fear a Trump election might bring economic ruin, and yet, for most Americans, wealth is vanishing, wages stagnant, real unemployment steady.
While their economic nationalisms are doomed and their ethno-nationalisms are abhorrent, the Trumps, Le Pens, and Farages are correct that the “established order” is not delivering for the vast majority of people. Furthermore, people do not simply feel more and more disenfranchised, they quite simply are. Trump would probably bring an erratic, unpredictable foreign policy. And yet, all that the neoliberal state has delivered in this arena are unending wars of aggression, intervention, and destabilization for political and economic gain. Many call Trump a fascist. Yet it is the crime of wars of aggression that is considered the principle or greatest charge in the Nuremberg Charter, the crime which sets the stage for “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity.” If there is going to be a politics that overcomes the new fascist threat, it must address the fact that the crisis is not now, the crisis has already been for some time. By focusing only on the threat of our homegrown Hitler caricature we have failed to notice the facts right in front of our faces: the uniquely parallel structures, the same winners, the similar losers, the crimes, the human degradation. We are already living in our very own, cruel 21st-century Supermanagerial Reich.