Liberalism is Dead

Silicon Valley’s techtopian libertarianism points to a disruptive left fascism for the 21st century

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, 2011
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Liberalism is dead. Like other dead historical forms, for example Christianity or cinema, liberalism lumbers around zombie-like, continuing to define lives and wield material power. But its place in the dustbin of history is already assured. It has no future; it is just a question of its long, slow slide into irrelevancy.
Liberalism, and its preferred governmental form liberal democracy, is collapsing because the nation-state—the concept that animated liberalism and gave it historical force through the European wars and revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries—has transformed from a necessary tool for capitalist development to a hindrance to growth. Capitalism won an epochal victory in the Cold War and has spread to all but the most distant reaches of the world. But it has done so amid a long crisis of profitability, beginning in the 1970s, that leaves the world system teetering atop elaborate debt and logistics structures. This increasingly brittle system relies on instantaneous modes of global transmission and constant access to world markets to keep money circulating. As a result, borders and nations have become most profitable through their absence. And so capitalism, to stave off its demise, has begun eating its favorite children.
Contra anti-materialist “leftists” who claim that the far right has risen in response to online identity politics, the resurgent ethnonationalist right has emerged in response to these dual collapses of nation and capital. This right looks to fill the political and libidinal void left by zombie liberalism and to reinvigorate and reorganize a “nation” capable of surviving the slow-burning capitalist crisis. As with all far-right projects, it seeks to achieve this by restricting the concept of the citizen and those favored with political and social rights solely to the straight white male property owner, as it was in the good old days of naked settler colonialism. Once sufficiently organized and empowered, such a nation of propertied men could happily flourish under a corporatocratic police state, a dictatorship of capital stripped of protections for the workers who produce their wealth and openly genocidal toward those not deemed true members of the nation.
This genocidal attitude toward “unnecessary” populations, a constant feature of American statecraft, has become increasingly visible of late in mainstream American politics. Republicans have been trying to murder millions of Americans via health-care “reform” in Congress while Trump turns dog whistles into air horns and an ethnonationalist movement sprouts like fungus in his shadow. The American right’s slide from crypto-fascism to out and out fascism nears completion.

This three-decades-long ideological and organizational transformation on the right has not been matched with an equivalent strengthening of American liberalism. Rather the 2016 electoral losses of the presidency, both houses, and most governorships illustrate the inefficacy of the liberal project and its empty vision. The Democratic #resistance, rather than offering a concrete vision of a better world or even a better policy program, instead romanticizes a “center” status quo whose main advantage is that it destroys the environment and kills the poor at a slightly slower rate than the Republicans’ plan. Liberalism isn’t failing because the Democrats have chosen unpopular leaders. It is instead a result of the material limits of the debt-dependent economic policy to which it is devoted. Neoliberal economic policy has produced growth through a series of debt bubbles, but that series is reaching its terminal limits in student and medical debt. Liberalism today has nothing to offer but the symbolic inclusion of a small number of token individuals into the increasingly inaccessible upper classes.

As liberalism collapses, so too does the left-right divide that has marked the past century of domestic politics in the capitalist world. The political conflict of the future will not be between liberalism (or its friendlier European cousin, social democracy) and a conservatism that basically agrees with the principles of liberal democracy but wishes the police would swing their billy clubs a lot harder. Instead, the political dichotomy going forward will be between a “left” and “right” fascism. One is already ascendant, and the other is new but quickly growing.
Jürgen Habermas and various other 20th century Marxists used “left fascism” as a generic slander against their ideological opponents, but I am using it to refer to something more specific: the corporatocratic libertarianism that is the counterpart of right fascism’s authoritarian ethnonationalism, forming the two sides of the same coin. When, in the wake of the imminent economic downturn, Mark Zuckerberg runs for president on the promise of universal basic income and a more “global citizen”-style American identity in 2020, he will represent this new “left” fascism: one that, unlike Trump’s, sheds the nation-state as a central concept. A truly innovative and disruptive fascism for the 21st century.

Rather than invoke Herrenvolk principles and citizenship based on blood and soil, these left fascists will build nations of “choice” built around brand loyalty and service use. Rather than citizens, there will be customers and consumers, CEOs and boards instead of presidents and congresses, terms of service instead of social contracts. Workers will be policed by privatized paramilitaries and live in company towns. This is, in fact, how much of early colonialism worked, with its chartered joint-stock companies running plantation microstates on opposite sides of the world. Instead of the crown, however, there will be the global market: no empire, just capital.

Fascism has historically and indelibly been associated with ultranationalism. The nation, a perfectly fungible and mythical construction, serves as an excellent tool in the hands of a fascist power looking to produce a cross-class alliance, unifying fragments of the middle and working classes with the rich against “enemies” internal and external. Jews, queers, Black people, immigrants, trans people, Muslims, communists, and whoever else is easily excised from a “nation” defined by and rooted in wealth produced by and through settler colonialism, empire, war, and capitalism. The Nazis pointed to a heroic and mythical “Volk,” organizing marches of citizens in peasant dress and sometimes advocating a syncretic Germanic paganism above and against Christianity. The Japanese state mythologized the historical role and importance of the emperor and military in order to create a unifying Japanese culture, while Mussolini’s fascists spoke of a “new” Italian man who could prove himself through glorious imperial expansion in Libya. 

But fascists will use any tool at their disposal to achieve their major aims: the total merging of the state and capital, the liquidation of independent civil society, and the suppression of the working class. That’s why in Italy and Germany the regimes at least initially used the language and some of the techniques of socialism, and both Hitler and Mussolini expressed an atheistic aversion to Christianity (though to differing degrees they ultimately reconciled their regimes with the church), while in Spain and Greece fascists positioned themselves as defenders of monarchy and church.

Fascism doesn’t need a nation-state, but it does require an ideological nation to capture the state. This was at least the theory behind ISIS’s caliphate, a theocratic movement that built a fascistic state based in a rhetoric of a global Muslim nation of the truly faithful, the ummah, rather than a state strictly based in location or ethnicity.

The nation-state has been the model for statehood for so long now that we often use the concepts interchangeably, but the left fascists of Silicon Valley have long looked at Singapore with awe and longing. The small, diverse, authoritarian city-state has created an incredibly wealthy class of managers by running the city not as a nation-state devoted to protecting or representing its citizens so much as a corporate haven for global capital flows. Silicon Valley’s “California ideology” of libertarian pseudo-anti-statism, famously analyzed and identified in the mid-nineties, has grown and expanded for decades now, as has the Valley’s material power. A world of tech-driven Singapores is already mostly built, as the idea of “global cities” has become a reality, and capitalists spend their time and do their business from a dozen pieds-à-terre spread across the globe.

The difference between state and nation-state will become increasingly clear as a new fascist politics of total corporate sovereignty comes into view. Its romantic dreams of fully automated factories, moon colonies, and seasteads mirror the old Italian fascists’ fetishization of technology, violence, and speed. Packaged with a libertarian opposition to borders and all-out wars, this left fascism will represent the new cutting edge of capitalist restructuring.

In America, the right fascists find their base in agribusiness, the energy industry, and the military-industrial complex, all relying heavily on state subsidies, war, and border controls to produce their wealth. Although they hate taxes and civil rights, they rely on American imperialism, with its more traditional trade imbalances, negotiation of energy “agreements,” and forever wars to make their profits. But the left fascists, based in tech, education, and services, do best through global labor flows and free trade. Their reliance on logistics, global supply chains, and just-in-time manufacturing, combined with their messianic belief in the singularity and technological fixes for social problems, means they see the nation-state mostly as a hindrance and the military as an inefficient solution to global problems.

Both sides agree that the state should be used to cut wages, police the mobs, and eliminate regulatory oversight. The right fascists, the more traditional of the two, want to solve the question of class war once and for all in a final solution of blood and fire, while the left-fash imagine they can disrupt the class war away by creating much smaller and more easily controlled states and providing basic subsistence.

One side sees the people as subjects; the other, customers. The difference between a dictator-subject relationship and a business-customer relationship is that the brutality and exploitation of the latter is masked behind layers of politeness and seduction, and so sometimes can be mistaken for generosity. We’ve already seen this confusion in action. Last February it was a big news story when Apple refused to help the FBI crack the company’s iPhone encryption. Most people understood this as Apple standing up for its customers, protecting their privacy rights. This was an absurd misreading that requires that one willfully forget everything else Apple does with customer data. In fact, it was a play for sovereignty, a move pointed at demonstrating the independence of Apple in particular and Silicon Valley in general from the state, a step toward the left-fascist politics of the future. In understanding the move as a form of protective noblesse oblige, Apple customers revealed nothing so much as their willingness to become customer-subjects of Apple Nation™.
The left fascists, then, will try in the coming years to wrest control of the Democratic Party. Some on the left will inevitably support them in this effort, as they will come bearing such policies as universal basic income, a loosening of border regimes, a multicultural society, and a multipolar world. Many will be bamboozled by these promises coming from the new tech billionaires, and they will provide cover for the left-fascist project of corporatocratic sovereign devolution.

It is a strange time, when fascists see the future more clearly than the revolutionary left. But the left has so long imagined its route to power comes through capturing the nation-state that it can’t see that such a method doesn’t even work for capital anymore. To crush fascism, we’ll have to dramatically reorient our understanding of the future. Revolutionaries have to get over their fetishization of both nation and state, and fast, if they hope to truly destroy this world, let alone having a shot at building a new one.