Interview: Akeel Bilgrami

On fascism and the ‘movement vacuum’

Print edition : March 17, 2017

Akeel Bilgrami Photo: Kunal Shankar

Interview with Akeel Bilgrami, professor of philosophy at Columbia University.

THE Narendra Modi-led government is pathologically authoritarian in a way that approximates fascism, says Akeel Bilgrami, the renowned academic who teaches philosophy at Columbia University in New York. Describing the debate on whether the Central government is fascist or a government with fascistic tendencies as arcane quibbling over semantics, Bilgrami says the time has come for forging a broad centre-Left alliance of secular parties of the type that emerged during the Emergency, to fill what he calls a “movement vacuum”.

In a wide-ranging interview with Frontline in Hyderabad, Bilgrami reflects on the rise of the extreme Right worldwide, from Donald Trump in the United States to Nigel Farage in Britain. He was in the city to deliver a lecture on “Threat of Fascism”, organised by Hyderabad Collective, a network of professionals attempting to create a space for debate and analysis on pressing issues facing India today. Excerpts from the interview:

Narendra Modi’s ascendancy to the Prime Minister’s chair in New Delhi came amidst a string of right-wing parties rising to power globally, almost mirroring the Europe of the 1930s and 1940s. Must we be worried? Is this the sign of a great churning that could lead to disastrous consequences?

This is, of course, worrying. You are right that it is a global trend. In fact, it is more of a global trend now than it ever was in the 1930s and [19]40s when it was restricted to Europe. Speaking at a highly general level, the trend is prompted by two things—a chronic crisis of capitalism, and the failure of the Left to find an adequate response to it. It is a reaction to capitalism in its neoliberal mode of the last few decades: its inability to create sufficient employment, its generating acute and seemingly irreversible inequalities, its systematic destruction of the bargaining power of labour, its undermining of national sovereignties over their own economies, its making immigration, which could be a source of strength for national economies, into a source of deep anxiety and complaint among working people…. And the failure of the Left to mobilise an adequate response to these crisis conditions creates what we might call a “movement vacuum”. You know, people talk of a power vacuum; well, this is a movement vacuum, and so extreme right-wing nationalist movements have stepped into this vacuum.

In India there has been some debate on whether the right-wing nationalism of the Modi-led Central government could be characterised as fascist or as a government led by a party with fascistic tendencies. What is your view on this?

This government has a compulsively authoritarian thrust. A safe generalisation we can make from the history of nations in the last century is that capitalist democratic states, unlike authoritarian states, achieve their effects through what Gramsci called “hegemony”, by which is meant that a ruling class gets to have its way by convincing all other classes that its interests are the interests of all other classes.

Authoritarian states need to be authoritarian precisely because this form of consent by all to pursue the interests of the ruling class is missing. If something like this generalisation is true, then we must infer that the present government either lacks the popular consent that is characterised by the notion of hegemony that it so boastfully congratulates itself of having, or it has that consent from a broad spectrum of classes and so its authoritarianism is pathological in some way that approximates what we may rightly call “fascism”.

Let us ask why fascism is so puzzling to us. I think that is so because we cannot explain it in the usual way as being a product of capitalist tendencies. The crisis generated by and within capitalism may be one of the prompting conditions for fascistic developments, as I said, but I don’t think the tendencies of capital are sufficient to explain them.

I’ve just read an important book on imperialism by Utsa and Prabhat Patnaik which demonstrates how imperialism is at the heart of the tendencies of capitalism. But I think part of why fascism is more mysterious to us than imperialism is that the tendencies of capitalism do not suffice to explain it. You have to bring in a significant other or further factors to explain it.

That is a large background theoretical point. And in the foreground there are several specific observations we can make of the similarities between fascism and what we are witnessing in India today: above all there is the powerful paramilitary organisation of the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] shaping the ideological outlook of the government (no other right-wing nationalism in the world, so far as I know, has this, so we are the closest among them to fascism); then there is the menace of a vigilante youth group (the ABVP, or the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad) mimicking the Balillas in Mussolini’s Italy, bullying students on campuses who raise deep questions about caste or about economic inequality or about Kashmir or…; then there is calling critics of the government “treasonous” and “anti-national”, another hallmark of fascism; then there is a worldwide trend but, especially in India, of finding of an external enemy within the country and subjugating it and despising it (Jews then, Muslims now); and finally there is the “fusion” of the interests of the corporations and the state which was Mussolini’s explicit definition of fascism and which is exemplified in the strident neoliberal aspirations of the Indian government. And so on.

‘Competing power elites’

You pointed out the vacuum of social or political movements. Is not the groundswell of support for Bernie Sanders in the U.S. a positive sign? He was seen as a person around whom a progressive movement was coalescing, as opposed to Hillary Clinton, who was seen as an establishment figure.

[Hillary] Clinton is about as establishment a figure as you can find in the United States. That was part of what gave Trump his election victory. Unlike India, America has a two-party system, and there is, by and large, consensus between them on the fundamentals. They are, as C. Wright Mills put it, “competing power elites”. While they compete with each other, overall there’s agreement on the fundamentals. So it is very hard for anybody to break in. Sanders went as far as anybody has gone from within one of the two parties, but predictably the Democratic Party pulled the plug on him. Throughout the primaries the party worked against him in subtle ways, and then more openly, when he began to get a lot of support. They wanted Hillary Clinton to get the nomination. So did Wall Street. So did all of the liberal media. It is, among others, working people who saw some promise in Sanders, who did not trust Hillary Clinton and the party orthodoxy. Why? Well, they produced the financial crisis of 2008 and in response to the crisis they saved the bankers who were responsible for it, not the working people, who were hurt by it.

Days after Obama was elected in 2008, he appointed people like Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner to his economic team, figures associated with the creation of the crisis. During his campaign, he had a wide circle of economists advising him, which included Joseph Stiglitz and Robert Reich. But immediately after he got elected, he zipped himself up in a Clinton suit and froze them out. Right from the beginning it became clear that Obama was going to be part of the political establishment. And Hillary Clinton was his anointed successor in the party. So, when working people feel that they have no options from either party, they turn to mavericks on each side (Sanders was a maverick from the point of view of the orthodoxy of his party, as Trump is for Republicans).

Spontaneous protests broke out across the country, for example, the protest right after the visa ban on seven Muslim countries, or the Women’s March in Washington. Is that not a healthy sign?

Some things are obvious. Trump is a combination of a xenophobe, a racist, a misogynist, and, I suppose, as we have been witnessing in his pronouncements, something of an idiot. So, of course, people are understandably shocked and dismayed and the protests are most heartening. The deeper issues, however, are not about how terrible Trump is, but about why he got elected in the first place. What does his election signify about the electorate’s instincts and dissatisfactions? Everyone knows that his constituency is the working population. And I suppose that from the point of the view of the Left, it looks like a classic case of false consciousness—I mean to expect a Trump-led government to address these dissatisfactions. But, you should also remember that there was an even more classic form of false consciousness when the African-American population voted in far larger numbers for Hillary Clinton rather than Sanders. That was sheer identity politics dominating over material interests. Sanders would have done much more for working and workless blacks than Hillary Clinton. Don’t forget that Bill Clinton signed an infamous Bill that took away welfare provisions from the blacks. And Hillary Clinton subscribes to exactly the same economic ideology. It is true that the Clintons are not racist in the social sense, but from the material point of view, Sanders’ economic policies were much more in their interests. Sanders honourably refused to play identity politics and he paid the price for it. If African-Americans had voted in large numbers for Sanders, he would have won the primaries.

Here is my worry about the reaction to the Trump victory today. The hand-wringing and the hysteria about his election and post-election pronouncements, though perfectly understandable and justified—since he is monstrous on a whole range of issues—nevertheless may have the effect of giving the impression that there was some real intrinsic merit to the political establishment that Hillary Clinton represents. That would be complacent. My own view is that it should go without saying that Hillary Clinton would have been better than Trump, but if it goes without saying, then don’t say it. Because to keep saying it may give rise to the complacence that the political establishment in the U.S. has intrinsic merit. The far better form of resistance to the abomination of Trump’s victory is to work to rejuvenate the Democratic Party and steer it away from the orthodoxies that Clinton represents. But, alas, that may well not happen, not only because that party’s learning curve is flat, but also because there is this constant sneering about Sanders’ populism by the orthodoxy.

Populist movements

Populism seems to be a phenomenon that is widespread around the globe in the last few years, and the kinds of populist movements we see are alarming, are they not?

Yes, some of the same questions arise about Brexit, for instance, though of course there the questions are about the working class’ relation to the European Union. That is a good example to focus on to get clear about the issues that we face and also for why “populism” has come to mean something pejorative. What prompted the larger part of a voting population to opt for Brexit? Well, let’s step back and ask a more fundamental question about Europe. Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a working (or workless) person in the Thames Estuary (or for that matter in Madrid or Seville or Athens or Crete). Suppose such a person were to ponder the humane policies that some nations in Europe came to embrace since the Second World War, policies which provided safety nets (whether of health or education or housing) for people like him. He might ask: what was the site where these safety nets were administered and implemented? And he would answer: well, the site of the nation. He might scratch his head and wonder: Has there ever been a supranational site at which welfare was ever administered? What would a mechanism that dispensed it at a supranational site even so much as look like? Now, as Joseph Stiglitz says in his book on the European Union, there are two ways to respond to the present crisis that prompts the populist response in Europe—to withdraw from the union or to strengthen the ties with the union. But given these excellent questions that this working person in the Thames Estuary is asking, why would he acquiesce in the strengthening of the links with the European Union? Those questions reflect the good side of populism, the side of populism which is the opposition by ordinary people to the elites, in the case of Europe the banking elites.

Now, of course, such a person might go on beyond these shrewd questions to associate supranational affiliation with immigrant hordes that not only deprive him of economic opportunities but dilute the centuries-long national culture of which he is so proud. But there is no logical link between those excellent former questions and these latter trumped-up anxieties. One may rightly ask the questions without having these anxieties. The linking of the two is quite confused and uncompulsory and it is the bad side of populism.

But the link is constantly being made. Why?

You are right, there has been a pervasive compulsion to make that uncompulsory link among the electorate that voted for Brexit (or for that matter Trump). But here we must resist the temptation to blame the people themselves. The assumption they make of such a link is not due to their feebleness of mind but to a wide variety of distortions not only by the media they read and watch but by the political class, and not just the extreme elements of that class but the political establishment. We cannot forget that the British Prime Minister’s “Remain” campaign ratcheted up the immigration theme to prevent it from being owned by his more extreme Right opposition, just as Obama in his first campaign was far worse on immigration than John McCain, again with a view to gaining ownership of a Republican platform for electoral gains.

So the lesson is this. Even if we identify what we recoil from in populism as the uncompulsory linking of sound questions with unsound anxieties, this cannot simply be attributed to an intrinsic incapacity in the judgment of ordinary people but must be attributed to the failure of public education provided by the media and the political class. One cannot believe in democracy and dismiss the electorate as vile or stupid. For the electorate is shaped by what knowledge it possesses.

For twenty hundred years, philosophers have said that the central ethical question is: What ought we to do? But in our own complex time, the more crucial prior question has become: What ought we to know?

Left initiative

So how does the Left or any movement for that matter bring about this clarity and regain the good side of populism? Do you see that happening?

The difficulties for the Left to mobilise movements in the neoliberal period are well known. First of all, the old-style movements based on trade union activism is hardly possible because labour has been generally beaten down by neoliberal economic policies. Chronic unemployment, contractualisation and impermanence of employment have undermined the bargaining power of unions. And second, ever since the tremendous increase in the mobility of capital after the Bretton Woods institutions were refashioned, even if a working class movement throws up the possibility of progressive policies, those possibilities mostly can’t really be implemented because of the fear of capital flight. Lula [da Silva], as a result of a working class movement, got elected on a very progressive platform in Brazil, if you recall, but was not really able to implement it out of fear of capital flight. I mean if they were to be implemented and there was capital flight (quite apart from the hardship caused by that to working people), movements would have to be waiting at the place to which capital flies.

So is there a need for a global initiative?

I don’t think that form of international solidarity in the global labour force is a realistic possibility. I don’t even know how to think about what it would take to forge such solidarities.

Even companies from India (like the Adani Group) are not looking at only the mining sites in Jharkhand or Odisha. They have cast their eyes on coal reserves in Australia because energy needs of India seem endless.

Yes, the capitalist political economy is global, there is financial globalisation, but the mind boggles at the idea of a serious possibility of global labour movements to oppose global capital. I think that is just fantasy, a fantasy expressed by some political theorists such as Hardt and Negri with such terms as “multitudes”. I think what is more plausible is what is being suggested by Prabhat Patnaik recently—that countries of the South, suffering from the oppressiveness of neoliberal policies in our period of financial globalisation, would be better off delinking (at least partially) from the global economy and getting sovereignty over their own nation’s political economy. Such ideas need to be explored in serious detail. They may require partial South-South relinking so as to protect some of the smaller economies of the South. These are all under-explored ideas worth thinking about.

You were talking about how the two-party system in the U.S. is a hindrance to the emergence of an alternative. In India, regional parties are thriving. Also, do you think the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which is in power in Delhi and has made considerable inroads into Punjab, could be a real counter to the Bharatiya Janata Party?

Yes, but no one party can do it. The Congress can’t do it; the AAP can’t do it, nor the Left. It cannot be any one group. It will have to be the coming together of a secular, centre-Left opposition, including regional parties. Certainly, the Left can’t do it on its own. And so the purist idea that the Left must not join forces with a whole range of secular parties is quite unrealistic. The idea that the Left can remain pure and hope to make a dent on this domination by the Hindu Right is just unfeasible. We are lucky that unlike in the U.S., we have a multiparty system, where multiparty alliances can be formed and, given the urgency of opposing the present government, such a wide spectrum of united front opposition is the only option.

But the counter by the Left has been that it has ceded ground to regional forces—say in Tamil Nadu or here in Andhra Pradesh or Telangana—to the extent that they have come to represent the political establishment and that the logic of pitting varying capitalist classes—mainly the regional elite against their national counterparts—does not apply any longer.

I agree that it can’t be a permanent position. When parties got together during the Emergency, they weren’t looking at it as a permanent alliance. They got together to simply overthrow an authoritarian regime. And that’s how we have to look at it now, because that’s what we have now—as I said earlier, a pathologically authoritarian extreme right-wing nationalist government that bears down like a thug on its own people and promises no prospects whatsoever to working people and minorities and oppressed castes and tribal people, and only illusory hopes to the middle class.

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