Noam Chomsky on Trump: The worst is yet to come

This administration’s legislative agenda is uniquely cruel, even for the far right

Noam Chomsky on Trump: The worst is yet to come
(Credit: AP/Nader Daoud)
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


Renowned linguist and author Noam Chomsky believes today’s Republican Party is “more dangerous than ISIS,” whether or not Trump voters will ever be willing to admit it. According to one May 31 poll, 68 percent think America is on the right track.

Chomsky, on the other hand, believes the country has been on the wrong track since it adopted a neoliberal economic model several decades ago — and things are about to get a whole lot worse.

During the opening of the first zero net energy building at UMass Amherst on April 13, Chomsky began his lecture by explaining why the despair that has ravaged Trump country is a phenomenon unique to America.

“[There’s been] a dramatic increase in mortality among middle-aged white Americans without college degrees, beginning in 1999, recently documented by [Princeton professors] Anne Case and Angus Deaton,” he said.

Case and Deaton found the pattern has spread nationwide in the past two decades, with no end in sight.

“It’s a phenomenon unknown apart from war and pestilence,” Chomsky said. “They have an updated current analysis where they attribute the increase in mortality to despair and loss of status of working people under the neoliberal miracle, which is concomitant [with] heightened worker insecurity.

Thus, during the 2016 presidential election, “the same sectors of the population that are suffering increased mortality turned for rescue to their bitter class enemy, out of understandable, but self-destructive desperation.”

Trump’s 2018 budget, introduced in late May, would prove especially damaging to his working-class voters, due to its deep cuts to social programs. In its most recent analysis, the Congressional Budget Office found that the GOP’s American Health Care Act would strip 23 million Americans of their health insurance over the next decade.

“The consequences for working people are now being exhibited behind the facade of Trump/Bannon/Spicer bluster before the cameras,” said Chomsky. “This is the systematic enactment of the [Paul] Ryan legislative programs, which are unusually savage even for the ultra-right.”

On June 1, Neil Gorsuch joined his Supreme Court colleagues for their first group photo.

“There’s probably worse to come, as further blows to working people are authorized by the Trump/Roberts Court,” noted Chomsky. “Now with Gorsuch on board, who will probably decide to destroy public sector unions on fraudulent libertarian grounds.”

Why Trump Was Inevitable — But Recovery Isn’t

Or, Why the Great Leaders Theory of History is Wrong











Every weekend, I read countless variations on the same theme. “If only we could remove him from power…things would change.”

It’s what I call the Great Leaders Theory of History. That is, Great Leaders make all the difference, are all that really matters in a society, hence, the trick is removing bad ones, to make room for good ones. It’s wrong — because it’s backwards.

Let’s think very clearly and analytically about society, leadership, and human prosperity for a moment.

Great Leaders are made. They don’t just magically appear. By structural and institutional conditions. Bad leaders are an effect before they are a cause — an effect of people who are ready to self-destruct. They don’t arise in a vacuum. Hitler didn’t come to power ex nihilo, from the void — nor did Trump. Just as a demagogue rising in a collapsing, hyperinflationary Germany was on the cards, so too Trump was inevitable.

Why? Because the American social contract is broken. A social contract is unlike a legal contract in one important way. It can be ripped up. In what way is the American social contract broken? In the truest way of all: Americans do not expect — or get — minimally good lives anymore. Their life expectancy, income, savings, and so on, down to nearly every last indicator of well being, are all falling.

What do people whose lives are getting worse do? They rip up the social contracts that are failing them. That is rational. It is what maximizes their (falling) payoffs, rewards which have become only punishments. Hence it is a truism of history. It is what we usually call “revolution”. It is what the French did in 1789, what the Bolsheviks, Maoists did — and now what the Trumpists have done. They have ripped up the social contract that failed them. Trump is just the tiny hand tearing the paper.

Many so much so that they have turned into the rich world’s extremists, and now reject the idea of society altogether. Like the modern GOP, they do not “believe” in the idea of a government at all. Yet that way lies absolute collapse into anarchy Somalia — or relative collapse into autocracy like Turkey. I put believe in quotes because government is not really a belief, but a process.

When we employ the Great Leaders Theory of History, we fail to see all the above. We ignore the great and simple truth that a society’s historic leaders are made by its structural and institutional conditions. And by ignoring this truth, simply yearning for Great Leaders to save us, we remain paralyzed and blind — and vulnerable to Caesars, whether they are named Julian or Vladimir.

Angry, unhappy people demand bad leaders, who tear up social contracts. Happy, healthy, sane people don’t. Thus we must produce better followers today if we want better leaders tomorrow. What does “better followers” mean? It means people who aren’t ready to self destruct. Who can think beyond hyperrational, narrow self interest, partisan politics, aren’t ruled by greed, anger, and hate, whose lives aren’t one long sequence of disinformation, pain, and reaction. You can hardly blame people with lives like that for turning into Trumpists — and just blaming them is besides the point entirely.

How do we make such followers? It’s pretty simple, isn’t it? A society must give everyone the possibility to live a genuinely good life. Whether it is as mayors or CEOs or investors, or even just brothers and cousins and neighbors and friends. Then organizations, whether they are cities, towns, corporations, families, and so on, are less likely to rip up the social contract, reject the idea of society, and turn to demagogues. But if a society cannot make happy, healthy, sane people, then of course the result will just be the vicious cycle of angry people demanding bad leaders.

Here’s the takeaway. All the above is a way to say: what working societies really need are thousands of tiny genuinely good leaders. Not one “Great Leader”. A good leader is just someone with a powerful positive agenda and vision for a human organization — as big as a society or as small as a family. If we are mayors or CEOs or investors or neighbors and so on who can do the above in small ways, we are good leaders in a little way. And we are doing more than enough.

(If you wanna put it more formally: good leaders produce better followers who prevent society from demanding the wrong Great Leaders. Go ahead and put it in an differential equation if you want.)

A good leader, no matter how small, is worth far more than a great leader, no matter how bigly. Why? Because the former must precede the latter. Without thousands of tiny good leaders, societies don’t ever really go anywhere at all, no matter how many bombastic great leaders they have.

Great Leaders don’t make history. They just make headlines. History is really made by thousands of invisible tiny leaders. People who change organizations, whether families, cities, towns, or corporations, in small and often unremarkable ways. When those invisible leaders are good, people are sane and wise enough to follow paths that lead them to human possibility. When those leaders are bad, people are reduced to following the path of human folly.

It is up to all of us to be tiny but good leaders today. And to forget the Great Leaders Theory of History. That backwards theory is just another entry now in a long catalogue of American intellectual failures, from neoliberalism to segregation. It’s really just another to way say: they did it. The bad people. But they didn’t. Not alone. We did this. In us is the lack of a thousand tiny good leaders.

And only we can undo it.

June 2017

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Noam Chomsky: Neoliberalism Is Destroying Our Democracy

How elites on both sides of the political spectrum have undermined our social, political, and environmental commons. 

For 50 years, Noam Chomsky, has been America’s Socrates, our public pest with questions that sting. He speaks not to the city square of Athens but a vast global village in pain and now, it seems, in danger.

The world in trouble today still beats a path to Noam Chomsky’s door, if only because he’s been forthright for so long about a whirlwind coming. Not that the world quite knows what do with Noam Chomsky’s warnings of disaster in the making. Remember the famous faltering of the patrician TV host William F. Buckley Jr., meeting Chomsky’s icy anger about the war in Vietnam, in 1969.

It’s a strange thing about Noam Chomsky: The New York Times calls him “arguably” the most important public thinker alive, though the paper seldom quotes him, or argues with him, and giant pop-media stars on network television almost never do. And yet the man is universally famous and revered in his 89th year: He’s the scientist who taught us to think of human language as something embedded in our biology, not a social acquisition; he’s the humanist who railed against the Vietnam War and other projections of American power, on moral grounds first, ahead of practical considerations. He remains a rock star on college campuses, here and abroad, and he’s become a sort of North Star for the post-Occupy generation that today refuses to feel the Bern-out.

He remains, unfortunately, a figure alien in the places where policy gets made. But on his home ground at MIT, he is a notably accessible old professor who answers his e-mail and receives visitors like us with a twinkle.

Last week, we visited Chomsky with an open-ended mission in mind: We were looking for a nonstandard account of our recent history from a man known for telling the truth. We’d written him that we wanted to hear not what he thinks but how. He’d written back that hard work and an open mind have a lot to do with it, also, in his words, a “Socratic-style willingness to ask whether conventional doctrines are justified.”

Christopher Lydon: All we want you to do is to explain where in the world we are at a time—

Noam Chomsky: That’s easy.

CL: [Laughs]—When so many people were on the edge of something, something historic. Is there a Chomsky summary?

NC: Brief summary?

CL: Yeah.

NC: Well, a brief summary I think is if you take a look at recent history since the Second World War, something really remarkable has happened. First, human intelligence created two huge sledgehammers capable of terminating our existence—or at least organized existence—both from the Second World War. One of them is familiar. In fact, both are by now familiar. The Second World War ended with the use of nuclear weapons. It was immediately obvious on August 6, 1945, a day that I remember very well. It was obvious that soon technology would develop to the point where it would lead to terminal disaster. Scientists certainly understood this.



Four years later, “Breaking Bad” remains the boldest indictment of modern American capitalism in TV history

The show’s visual style is the greatest-ever rebuke to the gory hold neoliberalism has over our minds and bodies

Spoiler alert: This essay reveals major plot points in “Breaking Bad.” If you still haven’t watched the show, maybe you should go do it right now. 

Gliding o’er all, through all,
Through Nature, Time, and Space,
As a ship on the waters advancing,
The voyage of the soul — not life alone,
Death, many deaths I’ll sing.
— Walt Whitman

It’s not plot, it’s the visual style that matters.

Much of the critical attention paid to “Breaking Bad” — to my mind, not only the greatest television show but arguably the most sustained accomplishment in the history of the cinematic medium — remains centered on the shallower dimensions of character and plot. Now that enough time has passed since the end of the series, we should be able to have greater appreciation for the show’s artistic accomplishments, which elevate it beyond any competition for the best of the best.

“Breaking Bad” is not just the chronicle of an individual’s breakdown, but a global map of modern Western civilization: from its roots in a Lockean/Newtonian liberalism founded in empiricism and hands-on innovation all the way to its contemporary denouement in an abstract capitalism of runaway corporations unresponsive to human ideals. The series unflaggingly maintains the highest cinematographic standards — at the level of a Buñuel, Godard or Antonioni — for not just a couple of hours but for more than 60 hours. In doing so, it translates the abstract chronicle of the rise and fall of empire, and of the various classes of people who are part of it, into visual material that will outlast its moment.

Admittedly, “Breaking Bad” does not exploit alienation effects — the full range of high modernist techniques — to the extent that Vince Gilligan’s crew (particularly director of photography Michael Slovis and production designer Mark Freeborn) were undoubtedly capable of. Though there are occasional glimpses into how much farther the creators could have gone, usually they choose a light hand. This makes the techniques they did use all the more effective, absorbing the default Hollywood narrative style with more conviction.

The primary means by which “Breaking Bad” distinguishes itself is repetition: It is the method that pressures the visual aura to become uncontainable, lending space and time extra-worldly dimensions. Repetition in “Breaking Bad” is not just a stylistic tic, a shortcut to conventional foreshadowing or retrospection, but the marker of a philosophical continuum among all the different lifestyles possible under capitalism.

Each season concerns itself with a dominant mode of capitalism; the motifs, colors, sounds and the whole organization of the visual field emphasize the qualities of that particular mode. There is a season-by-season progression from bourgeois professionalism and petty entrepreneurship to medium-scale enterprise to multinational enterprise and monopoly capitalism, all the way to the final brutal form of empire ending in self-destruction.

Along with progression in the modes of economic organization, there is progression in the psychology of the individuals carried along by the unstoppable waves. It entirely misses the point to analyze Walt (Bryan Cranston) or Jesse (Aaron Paul) or Skyler (Anna Gunn) in terms of good or evil, or conformity to the norms of society that realist art traffics in. The only way to understand these characters is as functionaries within the evolving modes of capitalism. Again, it is repetition — foreshortening or expanding as necessary — that keeps us always in two minds about the unfolding reality. Good and evil have little to do with it.

No other American visual production has been this smart about defamiliarizing ordinary locales in which we conduct our daily business. The White home at 308 Negra Arroyo Lane leads in this defamiliarization by uncanny repetition, but every other location functions similarly: the Schrader home at the end of a cul-de-sac at a higher elevation; the various labs (from Walt’s high-school chemistry lab to the early makeshift one in the RV to Gus Fring’s elaborate setup underneath the industrial laundry to the one in the Nazi compound); the DEA office; the hospitals and clinics, the desert (where various sub-rosa activities take place, from mass killings by foreign intruders to the manufacture of meth and the burial of money to Western-style shootouts and train heists); and even the hardware store, the site not only for home improvement but for procurement of the materials of drug production and corpse disposal.

Every place of activity — from a car to an office to a physician’s consulting room to a fast-food restaurant — appears and reappears in shifting guises, never having the same look, redefined each time by lighting and color and sound, to give us no single privileged site from which to exert our own morality over the narrative. The meaning of each location is caught up in its vanishing moment of existential reality; therefore, the only place of safe observation is the formal aesthetic, that is to say, to put ourselves in the shoes of the creators. Capitalism’s physical realities are offered in so much plenitude that our only choice is to extract ourselves from its seductions and retreat to a formalist posture.

Let me look at a couple of episodes to put some bones on my argument about “Breaking Bad’s” devastating critique of neoliberal capitalism functioning through highly stylized cinematographic techniques.

Season 2, Episode 10: “Over” (written by Moira Walley-Beckett, directed by Phil Abraham)

Sometimes the episode teasers are flash-forwards, consistent through a season, with variations providing partial information. In season 2, it is the falling of the plane over Albuquerque, with parts and bodies landing on the White residence. This particular cold open is in black and white, like the other times the flash-forward occurs this season, in episodes 1, 4 and 13.

White is the dominant color in this episode. We are used to seeing Walt and Jesse dress in yellow hazmat suits with masks on when they cook meth, but here NTSB workers are salvaging evidence from the swimming pool in white hazmat suits. In a later season Skyler will feign drowning herself in the pool, and later in this episode Walt Jr. will throw up in the pool when Walt makes him drink too much. The show is teaching us to see this quintessential suburban space as a locus of dramatic intensification (at the end of season 4, after killing Fring, Walt will sit alone by the pool, contemplating his total victory).

The plastic packages and boxes of evidence will recur in a different form at the beginning of season 5, when Walt engineers a plot to destroy the evidence captured from Gus Fring at Albuquerque police headquarters. The fuchsia hair of the drowned teddy bear is the only color that stands out in the black-and-white tableau, with the one eye popping out ominously. In characteristic fashion, the pink teddy bear appears at different times throughout the series (and also has echoes in the colors of the masks Walt and Jesse wear), as does the missing eye of the teddy bear Walt finds and saves.

Each season of “Breaking Bad” breaks toward an apocalyptic ending (from Tuco and Fring’s deaths to the finale with Uncle Jack’s gang of Nazis), but in the second season, one of attempted domesticity — for Walt and Skyler (after Walt’s cancer goes into remission), for Jesse and Jane (as they try to conquer their own addictions) and for Hank and Marie (as she works through her neuroses) — the confrontation is not with some malevolent external force but Walt’s own growing comfort with violence. This particularly means seeing Jane die, which leads in a convoluted manner to the plane exploding above his neighborhood. In a literal visualization of the chaos effect, Walt invites the world to crash over his head when he makes the choice to let Jane die in Jesse’s bed.

As the rescue workers collect the evidence from the pool, at first it looks — because of distortion and superimposition — as if they were walking upside-down underwater. We quickly realize that we’re seeing their reflections in the pool. The exterior of the White home always appears different. Its relationship to neighboring houses and the street is perpetually redefined: The texture and color and lighting reinterpret the house each time, based on the relationships within the White family or Walt’s state of mind. As we zoom out over the driveway, we see that glass has been shattered; it turns out to be the windshield of Walt’s Aztek. Two body bags are duly marked and laid out next to the car. Since we don’t yet know about the airplane crash, we wonder if these might be Walt and Jesse’s bodies — or any other pair of bodies from the show. Whether or not Walt and Jesse end up precisely like this, we sense that they are already marked men.

The teaser has set the opposition against the “live” action to unfold before us, inviting us to step into the philosophical abyss of death. The rescue workers are performing the same authorized rituals on behalf of industrialized death — the dominant characteristic of capitalism — that Walt, in his own hazmat suit, performs at great risk. The White residence is most white (capitalism = whiteness) in the moment when bodies are being salvaged. “Breaking Bad” feels most alive when capitalism is being acted out violently, rather than the veneer of domesticity of the middle seasons, suggesting that it is in capitalist domesticity that we are least energized. Walt is strongest against cancer at his most ruthless. Hence the constant urge, when Walt has a chance to rest, to keep running to the hardware store to fix the water heater or to take care of the “rot” underneath the floors.

Much of today’s great art seems to be in conversation with Daniel Defoe’s individualist/empiricist philosophy in “Robinson Crusoe.” “Breaking Bad” constantly discovers ways to overturn the narrative incongruity of an individual’s development aside from society, something Defoe made literal by setting his novel on a remote island. “Breaking Bad” represents the stage where the human mind has been completely absorbed by capitalism’s logic, and forays into romanticism cannot but be absurd appendages to the overwhelming movement of capitalist destruction.

“Breaking Bad’s” frequent fish-eye views — humans witnessed through the bottom of objects used in industrial or domestic processes — abrogate the primacy of the human gaze. Skyler becomes distant toward Walt because of his penchant for secrecy, yet makes silly advances toward Ted Beneke, who represents an earlier phase of American capitalism, the manufacturing base of a hundred years ago.

The first shot after the prologue is a closeup of Walt’s weatherbeaten hand; the possibility of working with one’s hands is often a focus of “Breaking Bad.” On Walt’s first day of rest, the bedroom is illuminated by morning sunlight (how different from when the Salamanca twins wait for Walt to emerge from the shower to kill him!), but there is no real option to rest, as we see in the next scene, when Walt meets Jesse at a nondescript restaurant to tell him the good news about his remission.

Walt’s uncertainty is suggested by the wandering camera, the bland blue walls (hazy compared to the assertive blue that will emerge in the final season) and the lack of an identity for the restaurant, or even faux-friendliness, unlike Pollos Hermanos. The only bright color is the red chairs. The camera rotates during the entire scene, taking the men in from multiple directions, never settling for long on one angle. The scene begins and ends with a view of Jesse and Walt occupying the right half of the screen, while the left half is taken up by a plant standing in a dark closet. That there can be no stable point in communication is conveyed by the horizontal lines that always seem to be angling up or down.

The next scene continues this inner quandary. At the party thrown to celebrate the good news about Walt’s health, unlike the party in the pilot episode when Walt was physically embosomed (flabby but wanted) by friends and family, Walt stands very much apart, and reluctantly offers a short, nihilistic speech. This apartness continues at the pool, where he sits away from the crowd, in a corner with Hank and Walt. Jr., and encourages Walt Jr. to drink shot after shot of tequila. We notice more bushes and branches behind where they are sitting than at other times, and what appear to be mythological symbols on the walls.

Meanwhile, at Jesse’s apartment, his attempted domesticity with Jane is the mirror image of Walt’s own handyman efforts. The red plates and red ketchup stand out against a background of white furnishings. Later, as Jesse seeks emotional certitude with Jane, the floor, cabinets and blinds are bathed in white. When Jane’s dad visits unexpectedly and breaks into their domestic bliss, the shot of the back of the duplex highlights the division — Jesse’s side and Jane’s side — despite the nostalgic bath of Southwestern adobe colors. At the front door the hanging plants frame the visitor in deceptive calm. When Jesse leaves, disappointed by Jane’s refusal to acknowledge their relationship, his red car stands out as he hurries past the red stop sign. When he returns home, anxious, his apartment is dominated by red and rust chairs and furnishings. Jane makes her apology by drawing “Apology Girl,” in black and white, of course.

The show persistently brings up nostalgia for the era when masculinity had its place in the culture, only to nullify it. Beneke’s attempt to keep the family manufacturing business alive evokes this, though unlike Walt and his urge to provide for his family (an ideal the show deconstructs when, for example, Fring coaxes Walt out of retirement by arguing, in the later “Green Light” episode, “What does a man do, Walter? A man provides for his family”), Beneke can only resort to accounting tricks.

As with every location — Walt and Jesse’s homes, the DEA office, Saul Goodman’s office, Los Pollos Hermanos, the industrial laundry, the car wash — each variant shot of the Beneke headquarters suggests new interpretations. We see it in the surrounding industrial milieu, not particularly bleak but removed from the life of the city, despite the up-to-date office interior; this mode of capitalism is obsolete. The lunchroom calls up similar nostalgia, as Skyler and Ted pursue an old-fashioned office flirtation. The episodes involving domesticity and nostalgia tend to have little extra-diegetic sound. The quietness of industrial-age America contrasts with the loudness at the end of the episode when Walt warns a pair of low-life competitors (downscale versions of himself and Jesse?) to “stay out of my territory” — to the aggressive tune of DLZ’s “TV on the Road.”

Walt putters around in the heater room (a “lab” for the handyman?) with rusty liquid on the floor foreshadowing Victor’s blood in the superlab when Fring kills him, or the floor of the same lab when Walt kills Fring’s employees after doing away with him. On Walt’s first visit to the building supply store, rows of white heaters (the same shape as barrels, of course) are on display. The camera expertly brings objects to our attention rather than the people around them. The distancing toward the hardware store is at one with the interrogation of nostalgia toward golden-age suburbia, which sways even Jesse for a while. The re-envisioning of ordinary American venues seems to me “Breaking Bad’s” greatest stylistic accomplishment, which the show does without venturing into extreme experimentation. For example, the shot of the White residence framed by the discarded heater at the curb in front subtly devalues suburban quietude.

On his next visit to the building supply store, when Walt leaves we see his car framed in a wide shot, the texture of the scene corresponding to the wide view of the Beneke headquarters earlier, and also the texture when Jesse leaves the duplex. Walt converts his basement into a lab of sorts, once he discovers “rot” while fixing the heater; fixing one mechanical problem only leads to discovering another, in an endless chain. When we see Walt Jr. staring at the hole underground while Walt lies prone on his back, it foreshadows the later “Crawl Space” episode, which is the last chance Walt will have to make a clean getaway — except he can’t because Skyler has blown the $600,000 to bail out Ted from the IRS. It also foreshadows the final shot of the concluding episode when we are shown Walt’s prone body from high above, after he has (lovingly) caressed the Nazis’ lab equipment.

Walt Jr.’s look at his father resembles the way we view someone we have just buried, though there is no room in capitalism to allow for such prolonged glances of curiosity. Capitalism promises to eradicate all the cancers, keeping people busy doing that and nothing else. Hence, Walt tells his son, “[I have to] just cut it [fruiting bodies, fungus] out and start fresh,” which makes Walt Jr. wonder, “Is the whole house going to collapse?”

The buzz of Walt’s saw transitions seamlessly into that of the vacuum cleaner at Beneke’s, where a different kind of rot (Ted’s IRS shenanigans) is what Skyler will try to cut out to give the company a fresh start. When Skyler lets Ted clasp his hand over hers, it is over white account ledgers (which can’t be balanced in the old economy), even as Ted counsels her about her marital situation, saying, “Being that rock takes everything you’ve got.” Here, as so often, the dialogue is an ironic counterpoint to the visual field, a continuous verbal montage interrogating our ways of understanding reality.

The connections with the cold open now become more explicit. Walt is dressed in the same white hazmat suit as the rescue workers once he gets serious about taking out the rot. The mise-en-scène of the breakfast table is visualized umpteen different ways, this time with prominent white mugs and salt shakers, as Walt tells Skyler he can’t go to work because “Skyler, there’s rot!” Walt is in remission, after having almost lost his life, yet Skyler can’t wait for him to get to work: Breakfast is a ritual denial before we start each day.

We overhear news about the housing market collapse, then cut to the Beneke building’s external surroundings, presented more bleakly now. Earlier, when we saw Skyler with Ted shortly after Walt’s restaurant rendezvous with Jesse, the railing leading to Skyler’s office seemed unstable, the lines echoing those of the restaurant. Now, as Skyler is more certain, the horizontal lines of the railing appear steady and a single stem with white flowers again dominates Skyler’s office. Walt, on the other side of town, is busy underground, accompanied by red rags (and plenty of rusted horizontal pipes).

Walt’s next visit to the hardware store is dominated by bunches of white containers of “KILZ,” which is labeled “white pigmented, odorless.” The textual signifiers throughout the series seethe in the visible trappings of a culture (perhaps the only one in the world) that gives everything away at every moment. The public address system queries: “Why can’t the grass always be greener on your side?” The shopping carts are red, the sale signs are in red, and there are red containers and red caps over bottles of chemicals. When Walt encounters the ruffian trying to get meth supplies, at first he is solicitous. He might have continued helping him out, but his cowardliness incites Walt’s manliness. Framed by the red, white and blue flag over the checkout counter, he decides on his course of action. At night the hardware store’s parking lot has turned ominous, as Walt issues his aforementioned warning to his competitors. No house can exist without an extended “territory” going along with it; the myth of privacy is foundationless, and there is no choice but to exert power (of some kind) within a given territory.

Season 5, Episode 8: “Gliding Over All” (written by Moira Walley-Beckett, directed by Michelle MacLaren)

In the teaser, the fly — which we remember from the earlier eponymous episode, where Walt was driven to a frenzy in the superlab from fear of contamination — now appears because of the proximity of Mike’s corpse in the car trunk. Bodies are substitutable and keep finding themselves in similar predicaments: In season 2, Walt and Jesse were locked in the trunk of Tuco Salamanca’s car, on their way to Mexico. Now Walt has just killed Mike Ehrmantraut, and awaits Todd’s return after the disposal of Mike’s car in the usual manner: Cars are flattened into pancakes, computers are rendered useless with magnet attacks and bodies are always being dissolved in barrels of acid. As Todd views Walt from behind, a large white safe is illuminated. The Vamonos Pest Control office recalls others (such as Chow’s, or Fring’s in the back of Pollos Hermanos) where capitalism’s dirty work bubbles up: No safe can store the Faustian knowledge Walter White possesses.

We are not given much time to focus on the fly, or the disposal of Mike’s body, because season 5 is the culmination of the speed, mercuriality and inhumanity of multinational globalization, the visual style capturing it all. There is a fleeting glimpse of the chart Walt had been studying when Todd arrives; it is one describing various species of flies. A fly is not just a fly, it belongs to a classification system, which is the job of science to elaborate. The full meaning of the fly episode, this recurrence suggests, is not meant to be understood. The fly is not necessarily a symbol for anything; our very existence in capitalism, our very pursuit of “scientific” knowledge, is the problem. “Breaking Bad” wants to take us beyond death to existence as the unsolvable worry. Mike’s corpse is disposed in a white plastic barrel, as we’re reminded that not long ago he was the enforcer; thus, all the enforcers in capitalism with inflated ideas about their own importance are going to be dissolved, including at last the very system of enforcement.

The first episode of season 5 establishes the textural overtones from which it never varies. Locations like Madrigal’s headquarters in Germany, or the café Lydia likes to frequent to make her deals, are the epitome of post-postmodern insensateness, dominated by a cool blue and background noise associated with gentrification. With season 5 we enter the notion that there is no normal in neoliberalism, so Todd (the old-style Nazi) fits in well with the modus operandi of abstract multinational corporations.

Walt’s house will soon be the scene of attempted destruction (like the Schrader home), and when the overhead shot offers a view of his bald head and body as he takes a shower, we are invited to think of the “showers” at Nazi concentration camps. We notice that Walt has left Gale Boetticher’s inscribed copy of “Leaves of Grass” in the bathroom, but it would be a mistake to think of Walt’s hubris causing Hank to discover his identity by way of Whitman; the visual style should have persuaded us by now that no possibility of assigning guilt or credit exists.

When Walt meets Lydia at the café for the first time, the contrast with Pollos Hermanos’ bright ambience (the Southwestern fast-food décor amid which the old-fashioned meth empire flourishes) couldn’t be starker. These are the venues where neoliberal destruction, on a planetary scale defying imagination, is silently plotted. The café is dominated by vertical lines and columns, and its particular shade of blue is a continuation from the season-opening “Madrigal” episode. Lydia’s enticement of Walt has more meaning in the pacified setting. After Lydia brags about moving millions of metric tons, the view expands and we see the complete figures of the patrons, after having glimpsed mostly partial images of them: Our entire bodies are dedicated to the abstract movement of finance, that’s the whole picture.

The café architecture has emptied modernism of its electric charge; it is the sort of open structure that goes back to Milan’s Galleria but has no humanist quality. The vertical lines appear more prominent as Walt makes up his mind. When he’s thinking of delivering the ricin to Lydia, we hear soft piano music, but it grows louder as Lydia writes down the names of the nine doomed men in prison, and the two shake hands over their deal. In one of this episode’s numerous allusions to earlier events (to make the point that neoliberalism is the summation of all the forms of capitalism that have gone before), Lydia echoes Tuco’s exact words when she says, “We’re going to make a lot of money together,” just as Walt echoes Mike’s words when he says, “Learn to take yes for an answer.” The scene ends with an ever-widening shot, and we get the largest view yet of the entire restaurant, including the counter at the other end.

Walt meets the Nazis to plot the prison murders in chilly darkness in a motel room. He concentrates on the mass-produced painting on the wall (as with the music at Lydia’s café, both respectable and sordid locations share the deadness of “art”). “Breaking Bad” insists that the emotional highs in our civilization occur when we engage in various competitive, violent or selfish games; it is not art but violence (think of the excitement of the train heist) that turns us childlike, even if it means murdering actual children. Walt, like everyone else on the show, is most robust, for example, in the climactic episodes of each season, when capitalism’s murderous game is most intense.

This emotional intensity comes across in Walt’s concentration on the picture, while the Nazis sprawled next to him are reflected in the mirror next to the picture. So we have a sideways view of Walt, and the picture he’s staring at, next to the reflection of the Nazis. The underwhelming color is camouflage green, as Walt wonders aloud how the pictures get distributed. The camera’s gaze bestows bleak heroism upon the murderer who notes things that are not so much distractions as iterations of the industrialized processes that reduce us to ciphers.

There is a time-lapse shot of the Motel Hacienda, followed by the calm of the Albuquerque prison’s barbed wire. As Walt expects news of the murders within the designated two-minute window, his house is shown in the richest brown hues we’ve seen so far. The objects are sharply defined in deep focus, and we notice (Oriental) screens; we’ve never seen his home look so classy, so old-world, with richly textured bookcases. Walt’s expensive watch — with the same blue face as Lydia’s blouses, and with red hands and white hours — ticks away during the prison murders montage. The montage, like the meth cooking or distribution montages, is accompanied by Nat King Cole’s “Pick Yourself Up,” suggesting the light energy when we, in our own ways, commit everyday murderous deeds. Afterwards, like Walt’s home, Hank’s home has also never looked so classic and sturdy — with rich wood and marble, sturdy bookshelves and cabinets; this only heightens the total loss of purpose Hank is feeling at the moment.

Later in the episode, when Walt visits Jesse to finally give him his share of the profits, we see Jesse’s house as bereft of the solidity of Walt and Hank’s house (though his spirit is stronger). The focus in Jesse’s living room is the futon. Jesse has never wavered from his small-business mentality (in the end he even has to undergo a period of slavery); he doesn’t have others’ ambitions. (Walt: “I’m in the empire business.”) In Jesse’s house, devoid of furnishings, the two are able to let loose and reminisce about their improvisatory history with the unreliable 1980s Fleetwood Bounder RV that served as their mobile lab early on. We are invited to consider that Walt’s exit from the drug trade might have provoked a downward health spiral, rather than the other way around; the question is never explicitly answered, because one of the metaphysical dilemmas of capitalism is that we never know such answers.

Walt depositing the bag of money at Jesse’s home is to metaphorically recall him to death. We watch the Walt-Jesse interaction in Jesse’s living room from high above (the death POV, if you will), whereas when Walt interacts with Lydia, for example, we see them at eye level, in conventional medium shots. Walt and Jesse’s relationship, with the father figure attempting to raise his student’s ambitions, is different. As always on “Breaking Bad,” there is continuity between all the realms of life, without any of the artificial separations protecting the lie that capitalism is not ruining us at every moment.

When Walt lifts his head after bending down to take a drink in Hank’s living room, the jump cut reveals him merrily being the meth producer again. The montage that follows, with the song “Crystal Blue Persuasion” at last making its appearance, is a highly sped-up integration of production, distribution and finance in global business, every act occurring almost simultaneously. The montages in “Breaking Bad” are excellent instances of making the passage of time a conundrum, fatally altering space and vice versa; this is the quality of film that distinguishes it from other art forms.

In this particular montage, the desert is at a remote distance, miniaturized as though its threats were suddenly manageable — or so global capitalism would like us to think. While Saul has a leisurely drink, we realize that at last everything in this global network Walt has plugged into is efficient. Walt on his own is shown from above, while the money being stacked by him and Todd is usually seen from a low angle. Skyler’s blue blouse and red cup, along with a view of her legs, transition to a view of Lydia, also wearing a blue blouse (the same cornflower blue top in which she will take the ricin in the final episode) and drinking from a red cup. The cut from Skyler to Lydia in the montage makes us ask: Who is Walt’s crucial relationship with, Skyler or Lydia? The car-wash office has been transformed into a moneymaking operation that exceeds its actual potential, the aspiration of every business. An aerial view of suburban sprawl shows us house after house on each block draped with the Vamonos tent, cover for meth-making; this shot continues until we reach the very edge of the desert.

Exiting the montage, Holly is shown taking her first steps on Hank’s lush blue rug, suggesting that she will grow up implicated in the same web. When Louis calls Walt Jr., we’re back to nostalgia for the heyday of the American middle class, with leisure opportunities for each family member. Marie and Skyler engage in the same layers of family deception, offered as confession, that Hank and Walt engaged in earlier in the same setting; again, it’s repetition that keeps collapsing the artificial boundaries of respectability. Marie, as is her wont, engages in therapy talk, telling Skyler that she worries they’re “enabling” her, and that it’s time to “repair the family.”

My worry with “Breaking Bad” was always whether it would succumb to the valorization of the family — a staple of reactionary American filmmaking for at least 50 years — but this never happens, because family is fatally caught up in the financial dynamics that ruin every sphere of life. To the extent that “Breaking Bad” is a relentless attack on capitalism, it mounts the same kind of attack on the psychological structures that support the modern nuclear family, the base of capitalism.

To show Walt that their family has been preserved for good, Skyler takes him to the storage unit with all their money. The bright blue hues in the storage facility are more metallic, more disturbing, but it’s the same blue of Madrigal and of gentrified postmodern capitalism. Walt’s $80 million is covered with bed sheets; the money is literalized as the bed one lies in, a form of eroticism, when Skyler asks, “How much is enough?” The next scene after the preposterous stack of money (on which Huell and Kuby will soon lie, as though on a bed) is Walt lying on the MRI bed. Again, Walt is seen from above, an intimation of God or death seeing us, and true also of the folklore of so-called near-death experiences. Here is modern medicine (a subset of capitalism) observing Walt’s prone body, as in the crawl space when his sole offspring watches him.

The escalating physical crisis for Walt is reinforced by a typical time-lapse montage of Albuquerque, as we go to the final scene, where Hank at last discovers Walt’s true identity. The yard is dominated by earth tones, as Holly is being pushed around in a blue and red cart by Walt Jr. This is Walt and Skyler’s last attempt to return to earth; in this scene there are more rocks strewn around the yard than we’ve ever noticed before. The pool — which looked enormous when Skyler was feigning to drown in it or when Hank and Walt fought over Walt Jr. — looks tiny now, the smallest it has appeared; the corresponding psychological attempt is to get past the issues that remain submerged, to miniaturize them.

Likewise, the family chatter over the everyday uses of science is of a different quality (the sound is very muted) than in the past. As Hank enters the master bathroom, where he will make his devastating discovery, it appears larger, calmer and more spacious than ever before, in all its lavender glory. This is another deception against what is about to happen, yet another way to creatively imagine the same locale.

“Breaking Bad” will stand the test of time in the way of the greatest art

The short Walt Whitman poem which serves as my epigraph, and is the source of the title of the episode above, might as well be “Breaking Bad’s” aesthetic philosophy compressed to a nugget: The cinematic style “glides over all” (looks from a massively detached point of view at the whole of the neoliberal economy), making us see nature, space and time, and the dimensions of death we all have to face, in a new way.

“Breaking Bad” was a historic show because it took the biggest strides toward the “cinematization” of American television. When critics focus on character development in a realistic vein, they miss nearly everything that is unique about the show. Character in “Breaking Bad” is interesting to the extent that it is developed through visual style, for example, in the way teasers compress time in an open-ended commentary on a season’s (as yet unknowable) thematics. The show makes a mockery of the neoliberal myth of changing one’s reality by changing one’s body; that’s one meaning of Walt assuming the Heisenberg persona and altering his physical appearance accordingly. In the Walter/Heisenberg dichotomy we have a parody of social media reinvention, as is true also of Marie’s assumed identities. We seek to redefine time and space by denying mortality, fantasies capitalism feeds in order to keep its real ventures going without opposition.

What takes place off-screen in “Breaking Bad” is so vast that it defeats a critic trying to fit the show within any given genre. It is not merely a rehash of various genres, but it reaches for a meta-narrative that absorbs each of the genres it encounters: That’s what “Breaking Bad’s” visual technique is always trying to accomplish, from the desert scenes (rewriting the classic Western and the spaghetti Western) to reimagining the inherent melodrama of the suburban setting. It is the malleable character of people that gives places reality: Thus we see the White residence 16 years earlier, when they are considering buying it, empty of character and unrecognizable; the same unrecognizability pervades in the scenes at the end when the house has been taken away.

“Breaking Bad” imagines how it is to inhabit a place when the economy seeks to define you in particular ways: Does your self-definition follow from that, or is there something internal that cannot be absorbed in the economy? That’s the source of Walt’s endless anger, the artificial separation between legitimate and illegitimate occupations, legal and illegal ways of making money and acquiring power. Gray Matter Technologies and similar outfits can peddle legal pharmaceuticals to the tune of billions of dollars, whereas there are strict rations to health care, even for Hank when he is injured, beyond which the neoliberal economy won’t go.

Corresponding to forms of permissible and impermissible power are public spaces versus hidden spaces, a constant preoccupation for the show: The heater closet and the crawl space evoke subterranean nightmares we must heed. When liberal democracy was getting started, novels imagined science as a savior; now science is amoral, fatally implicated in empire and domination, a facilitator of new waves of fascism. In this economy of amorality, a would-be small entrepreneur such as Jesse (like his friends Badger or Skinny Pete) has little chance; Jesse is kicked out of his home by his own mother, and at a low point in his life seeks shelter for the night in his and Walt’s RV. Which raises the question whether Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz of Gray Matter Technologies have freedom under neoliberalism or are just as disposable as the insecure small businessman. Are they too fatally reliant on constant PR — just as is the DEA, just as is Walt’s high school, just as are Beneke and Goodman?

“Breaking Bad” is not a popular culture reflection on crime and punishment. Neoliberal crime is sophisticated, but the show’s tension consists in visualizing remnants of pre-neoliberal production, distribution and finance — storage rooms full of cash, car washes for money laundering! — uneasily meshing with neoliberalism’s abstract sphere. The visual style never veers from keeping this tension in sight, and the variations within repetition make us realize the gaps, which are really hypocrisies, in the narrative we tell ourselves about the economy in which we all think we have a rightful place. Had Walt (and Saul and Skyler and Mike) not had to deal with piles of cash, the crime would have remained forever undetected.

Detection itself is a paranoid impulse, when crimes of far greater magnitude (involving trillions of dollars and implicating the health of all living species) are not even recognized, let alone punished. “Breaking Bad” deconstructs criminality, and therefore also liberal bourgeois virtue, because if the definition of crime is overturned then so is the meaning of the virtues that support legal ventures. We are all (neoliberal) entrepreneurs now, even Skyler with her car wash, with all that this implies. The solution to any crisis, under neoliberalism, is to become an entrepreneur and sell yourself. The DEA is parasitic, facilitating the credible monopoly of legalized addictions, while prosecuting those operating outside the arbitrary monopolies.

One of the questions neoliberalism presses on us most urgently is that of masculinity in an economy that has no use for any of the definitions of masculinity that went with the rise of liberalism and industrialization. “Breaking Bad’s” stylistic innovations let us think critically about the crisis of masculinity (which also means the crisis of feminism), one of whose final manifestations (as we’ve seen repeatedly in the past century and as is unfolding again) is Nazism. Neoliberalism disposes human bodies as callously as Walt does in barrels of hydrofluoric acid. Science always bails out Walt — even Jesse, his once-inept pupil, begins to have total faith in Mr. White’s ability to get them out of any scrape through some scientific improvisation — including in the final episode. “Breaking Bad” suggests that the scope for this kind of individualist science has been extinguished, professionalized big science having removed scientific capability from the grasp of anybody not seeking to make monopolistic profits. Scientific rationality (formerly an aspect of masculinity), in the way that we collectively endorse it now, is the only inescapable trap, which has merged into neoliberal domination today.

In this context, it is naive to study Walt’s morality from a bourgeois realist point of view (like Hank talking about “chasing monsters”), when neoliberalism compels a fetishization of the family that removes it from liberal democratic concerns. The protection of the family at all costs (from neoliberal ravages) is the clue neoliberalism has already given us, and has always kept in plain view, as the means to our own self-destruction. It is playing with these evident clues, in plain sight, that constitutes “Breaking Bad’s” stylistic innovation: The savagery we think we see so often, as in the prison-murders montage, is the rule neoliberalism wants us to epitomize as the definition of crime.

All of “Breaking Bad’s” visual inventions have one aim: To show that there is no single turning point in neoliberalization, that it is a continuous and endless process. So for critics to wonder about this or that juncture, such as the hardware parking lot scene, as the inflection point where Walter “breaks bad,” is futile. We are not proper Heisenbergians (able to think post-philosophically, post-morally, post-democratically) because our minds are not wired that way. “Breaking Bad’s” visual style superimposes our primitive brain (which seeks comfort in small affections) over the abstractions of contemporary economic life, creating constant moral openings where we can see the duality of things and therefore interpret our conundrum. All of us have doubles, or we wouldn’t be neoliberal subjects; all the characters in “Breaking Bad” — Gus as the DEA supporter and meth kingpin of the Southwest, as much as Jesse’s little brother or Wendy the drug addict — visually represent this merger. Time and space must collapse to uphold our mythology of unity, and “Breaking Bad” does this over and over again so that we may justify our (realist) ethics to ourselves.

Anis Shivani is at work on a novel called “Abruzzi, 1936.” His most recent books are “Karachi Raj: A Novel,” “Whatever Speaks on Behalf of Hashish: Poems” and “Soraya: Sonnets.” “Literary Writing in the Twenty-First Century: Conversations” comes out in April 2017.

The GOP’s biggest budget lies

Debt isn’t a big problem and it’s not caused by social spending — and Republicans aren’t better economic managers

The GOP's biggest budget lies: Take these down, and progressives will start to win

Mitch McConnell; Paul Ryan (Credit: AP/Evan Vucci//Getty/Mark Wilson)

In mid-March, President Donald Trump’s “skinny budget” proposal drew widespread criticism for its short-sightedness,senseless cruelty and betrayal of his base. It was bad for science, education, the environment and public health, and even for Norman Rockwell-style popular programs like Meals on Wheels. Congressional Republicans freely criticized it immediately, despite its red-meat military spending hikes. “These increases in defense come at the expense of national security,” said renowned hawk Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., referring to Trump’s proposed deep cuts to diplomatic and foreign aid programs. But in early May, the budget deal to keep the government open was a clear victory for Democrats, leading Trump to call for a government shutdown in frustration.

That’s hardly the end of the budget fight, though. Both Trump and congressional Republicans are preparing to do it all over again, despite how unpopular the first go-round was, and despite how damaged they are politically by the widening Trump-Russia scandal. Which is why it makes sense to take a step back and look at some of the big-picture lies shared by all Republicans — and far too many Democrats as well.

Three of these in particular completely disorient any attempt at sane, sensible budget discussions: First, the idea that the debt is a huge problem and should form a framework for budgetary decision-making. Second, that the debt is due to social spending, mostly on the welfare state. Third, that Republicans are “more responsible” and “better managers” than Democrats. For Democrats and progressives to win this fight — both short-term and long-term — they will have to take on these big lies. Let’s examine each of them in turn.

The idea of the federal debt as a huge problem has a very long history. Andrew Jackson was the only president to ever get rid of the debt — which he hated especially because of his own personal experience — but that lasted less than two years. The dominant rhetoric — echoed by President Barack Obama in 2011 — is to see national debt as household debt writ large, reflected in the title of his weekly radio address on Feb. 12 of that year, “It’s Time Washington Acted as Responsibly as Our Families Do.”

Obama framed his address in terms of a story told to him in a letter from a woman named Brenda Breece, a special-ed teacher in Missouri whose husband had to take early retirement after nearly four decades working at a local Chrysler plant. They had to scrimp and save, but that’s not all. “Like so many families, they are sacrificing what they don’t need so they can afford what really matters,” putting their daughter through college, Obama said. Then he continued:

Families across this country understand what it takes to manage a budget. They understand what it takes to make ends meet without forgoing important investments like education. Well, it’s time Washington acted as responsibly as our families do. And on Monday, I’m proposing a new budget that will help us live within our means while investing in our future.

My budget freezes annual domestic spending for the next five years — even on programs I care deeply about — which will reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade.

At Washington Monthly’s blog, Steven Benen said it showed “how to use the wrong comparison the right way,” since Republicans were bound to invoke that very same “family budget” metaphor, but without the emphasis on investing in the future. It was a valid point, of course, and surely reflected how Obama himself must have felt. But that’s really only a defensive parry, and fundamentally at odds with the sweeping promise of “hope and change” on which Obama was elected in 2008. Benen passed over that, but he did point out how fundamentally wrong this rhetoric was:

The line has a certain intuitive charm that much of the public likes, which masks how wrong it is — the government needs to step up even more to keep the economy going when families and businesses pull back. It’s how FDR and Democrats ended the Great Depression in the 1930s, and how Obama and Dems prevented a sequel in 2009.

The need for government to spend more when private spending falters is one of the most basic insights of macroeconomics. It goes to heart of why macroeconomics and microeconomics are different fields, each with its own logic. How whole economies work differs from how individual economic entities do, just as team performance differs from individual performance in any team sport.

The insight — long neglected — dates back to Bernard Mandeville’s controversial 1714 book, “The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Public Benefits.” Thrift might be individually virtuous, Mandeville argued, but general prosperity was increased by expenditure rather than by saving. It was actually a difficult struggle for Franklin D. Roosevelt to realize this. A brief summary page from the FDR library tells the tale: “FDR: From Budget Balancer to Keynesian.” Roosevelt started out as a conventional thinker, in basic economics:

Roosevelt believed that a balanced budget was important to instill confidence in consumers, business, and the markets, which would thus encourage investment and economic expansion. As the economy recovered, tax revenues would increase making budget balancing even easier. This traditional view that deficits were bad was also supported by public opinion polls.

But these beliefs simply didn’t match the dire conditions of the times. So for years Roosevelt maintained his fundamental belief, bracketing it with the recognition that he faced an extraordinary situation:

From 1933 to 1937, FDR maintained his belief in a balanced budget, but recognized the need for increased government expenditures to put people back to work. Each year, FDR submitted a budget for general expenditures that anticipated a balanced budget, with the exception of government expenditures for relief and work programs.

All through this time, Roosevelt assumed that once the emergency had passed, things would return to normal, the extraordinary measures would be put away and a balanced budget would return. He argued passionately for the basic human decency of the path he embarked on, in a speech during his 1936 re-election campaign:

To balance our budget in 1933 or 1934 or 1935 would have been a crime against the American people. To do so we should either have had to make a capital levy that would have been confiscatory, or we should have had to set our face against human suffering with callous indifference. When Americans suffered, we refused to pass by on the other side. Humanity came first.

It was only after that, however, that Roosevelt had his own rude awakening. In 1937, he did as he had always promised, based on how much things had improved:

From 1933 to 1937, unemployment had been reduced from 25% to 14% — still a large percentage, but a vast improvement. FDR’s reaction was to turn back to the fiscal orthodoxy of the time, and he began to reduce emergency relief and public works spending in an effort to truly balance the budget.

The result was a renewed economic plunge — the recession of 1937-8. It was only in response to this unexpected turn of events that FDR finally adjusted his fundamental frame of reference. Some of his advisers still pushed for the conventional balanced-budget approach, but others accepted the theories of John Maynard Keynes, who argued that “permanent budget deficits or other measures (such as redistribution of income away from the wealthy)” were necessary “to stimulate consumption of goods and to maintain full employment.” Consequently, it was “the reduction of federal spending that these advisers viewed as the cause of the recession,” and FDR came to agree. In is 1938 annual message to Congress, he defended his decision, noting how self-contradictory his critics were:

We have heard much about a balanced budget, and it is interesting to note that many of those who have pleaded for a balanced budget as the sole need now come to me to plead for additional government expenditures at the expense of unbalancing the budget.

With the onset of World War II, opposition to deficit spending vanished, and full employment ensued. By the end of the war, public views had changed as a result:

The obvious connection between deficit spending and economic expansion was not lost on many Americans, including business leaders who much preferred large deficits to Keynes’s alternative of massive redistribution of wealth through taxation as a way to sustain America’s prosperity in peacetime.

Four decades later, Reaganomics would represent a perverse twist of this realization. Despite lip service to the contrary, Reagan produced record deficits to sustain prosperity while dramatically concentrating wealth. Although Reagan claimed he would magically balance the budget in four years, he actually did quite the opposite. From Harry Truman through Jimmy Carter, every presidential term but one — the Nixon/Ford term from 1973 to 1977 — had seen the debt shrink as a percentage of GDP. It fell from a peak of 117.5 percent during World War II to to 32.5 percent by the time Reagan took office, and has never been anywhere near that low since. It jumped more than 20 percent during Reagan’s two terms, and Bill Clinton has been the only subsequent president to reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio.

But let’s not lose sight of what Roosevelt accomplished, in creating the foundations for America’s broad middle class, which had never existed before on such a scale:

FDR’s support for deficit spending was yet another shift in the relationship between the government and the people that took place during his Administration. President Roosevelt expressed his vision for a country where each citizen was guaranteed a basic level of economic security most eloquently in his Economic Bill of Rights speech on January 11, 1944:

“We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”

These were the hard-won lessons of the Great Depression and World War II, but as so often happens in history, those who did not live through that suffering only learned the lessons second-hand, and never knew them in their bones. So we lost our way again, which is why we got Reagan in the 1980s and now have Donald Trump. We need to remember what made the American middle class great in the first place: a commitment to activist government spending money on public needs when the private sector fell short. Short-term debt-obsession was the enemy of everything Roosevelt accomplished — not a guide to sound economics.

Now for the second big lie, that the debt is primarily due to welfare-state social spending. Here I’d like to quote myself from 2011 (“Enshrining the lies of the US’ 1%“):

Indeed, as Thomas Ferguson and Robert Johnson explained just over a year ago, in their paper “A World Upside Down? Deficit Fantasies in the Great Recession”, all of the US long-term federal debt is due to just three oligopoly sectors: the military-industrial complex (the backbone of empire, with bases all around the world and almost half the world’s military spending), the medical-industrial complex (with twice the per capita costs of other systems), and the financial sector (which has recently cost trillions of dollars in lost wealth and economic activity).

All three of these are enormous cash cows for the one per cent, and equally enormous cost-centres for the 99 per cent. Without the costs imposed by lack of competition, regulation and accountability in these sectors, the US would have no long-term debt problem. We would be paying it down, rather than running it up.

In that paper’s abstract, the authors write:

In an era of unbridled money politics, concentrated interests in the military, financial, and medical industries pose much more significant dangers to U.S. public finances than concerns about overreach from broad based popular programs like Social Security, which is itself in good shape for as many years as one can make credible forecasts.

Concerns about Social Security are vastly overblown, they note, and uncertain worries about two decades from now should not dominate our attention. Medicare is another matter, only because the American health care system as a whole is so expensive. They drew on an analysis by Dean Baker, which compared projected health care costs in the U.S. with projections based on the cost structures of other countries.

The U.S. spends a far higher percentage of its GDP on health care than any other country. It also gets less health for it than any other major country, in the sense other countries do just as well or better on most health indicators, though they spend much less.

Why is no mystery, despite all the sound and fury of the health care “debate.” The U.S. health care system is in no sense a competitive marketplace. Instead, it is a chain of private oligopolies connected to each other by streams of payments administered by a vast, non-competitive private insurance network and the federal government. Producers and insurers together dominate government policymaking, at both federal and most state levels.

The rate of cost increase has been reduced under the ACA since the paper was written, but we’re still far from universal coverage, and the problems of oligopoly remain — most notably in the way insurers have withdrawn from some marketplaces. The failure to even include a public option in the ACA left insurers in positions of tremendous coercive power. And GOP repeal plans could wipe out all the ACA gains and leave us facing a grim future.

The military-industrial complex, the authors note, is commonly taken to make up about 20 percent of the budget, but if we include all related functions — homeland security and intelligence agencies, plus significant parts of other departments, including Energy, Transportation and State — with the military share of the debt, that total nearly doubles: “One careful effort at a more comprehensive reckoning suggests that perhaps 39% of the proposed Fiscal Year 2011 budget goes toward defense.”

Finally, there’s the enormous costs inflicted by the financial meltdown of 2008, triggering the Great Recession, and the high probability of future such disasters. These costs are obviously more difficult to assess than the excessive costs of the U.S. health care system. But they are certainly much greater than the amounts involved in the Social Security system, much less Meals on Wheels.

This sort of realistic appraisal is not a popular perspective among political elites, who are largely funded by the oligopolies involved. But it is popular with the public — see Bernie Sanders’ approval ratings as one indication. Yet, these major sources of long-term debt pressure never seem to enter the deficit-cutting debate.

Now for the third big lie, the claim that Republicans are “more responsible” and “better managers” than Democrats are, an assumption that permeates the air whenever the economy is discussed. I’ve already referred to the fact that Republican presidents since Reagan have been terrible at managing debt reduction, but the point at issue is a broader, more fundamental one: There is no aspect of economic management where Republicans do as well as Democrats. None whatsoever. Here, the best single source is a slim volume, “They’re Not Even Close: The Democratic vs. Republican Economic Records, 1910-2010“ by Eric Zuesse. As explained in the publishers’ synopsis:

The Democratic and Republican Parties are virtual opposites of each other in their economic records, going back to the earliest period for which economic data were available, around 1910. More than a dozen studies have been done comparing economic growth, unemployment, average length of unemployment, stock market performance, inflation, federal debt, and other economic indicators, during Democratic and Republican presidencies and congresses, and they all show stunningly better performance when Democrats are in power, than when Republicans are. These studies are all available online, and they are all summarized and discussed in this path-breaking book, which settles, once and for all, the question of whether there’s any significant economic difference between the two Parties. Not only is there a difference, but — shockingly — it always runs in favor of Democrats in power.

Democrats are superior for the economy as a whole — GDP growth, unemployment rate, inflation — for the stock market, and for controlling government deficits too. One example Zuesse cites is from Kevin Drum, back in September 2002. Responding to a story in Slate reporting that since 1900, Democratic presidents have produced a 12.3 percent annual total return on the S&P 500, but Republicans only an 8 percent return,” Drum wrote:

This is actually an old story, and Slate doesn’t know the half of it: Democratic administrations, it turns out, manage virtually every facet of the economy better than Republicans.

Drum analyzed the three main statistics cited above — GDP growth, unemployment and inflation — from 1948 to 2001, and included a time-lag. “In the same way that a pitcher is responsible for runners left on base even after he’s been replaced,” he wrote, “presidents should be responsible for a few years of economic performance after they leave office.” Choosing a variety of time-lags, the results were all the same:

3 Yrs 4 Yrs 5 Yrs
GDP Growth

No matter what time-lag you choose, Democrats post higher GDP growth, lower unemployment, and lower inflation.

This is just one of multiple examples, and the value of Zuesse’s book is that it brings them together. “The myth that conservatives are better for the economy than are progressives, is driven not by the masses but by the elite, the insiders who benefit from this deception,” he writes. But even that’s a dubious proposition sometimes, when — as under George W. Bush — things really go off the rails.

Whatever happens in the months ahead, whatever specific gambits the Republicans trot out, it will always serve us well to keep in mind these three big lies, and remind others why and how they are so wrong: Debt is not a dominant economic problem and should not frame our budgetary decision-making; debt is not primarily due to social spending; and Republicans are not “more responsible” or “better managers” of the economy than Democrats. Take down the big lies, and the little ones will fall apart much more easily.


Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

Is this the Death of Neoliberalism?

Invasion of the Putin-Nazis

So, here we are, a little over one hundred days into “The Age of Darkness” and the “racially Orwellian” Trumpian Reich, and, all right, while it’s certainly no party, it appears that those reports we heard of the Death of Neoliberalism were greatly exaggerated. Not only has the entire edifice of Western democracy not been toppled, but the global capitalist ruling classes seem to be going about their business in more or less the usual manner. The Goldman Sachs vampires are back in the White House (as they have been for over one hundred years). The post-Cold War destabilization and restructuring of the Middle East is moving forward right on schedule. The Russians, Iranians, North Koreans, and other non-globalist-ball-playing parties remain surrounded by the most ruthlessly murderous military machine in the annals of history. Greece is being debt-enslaved and looted. And so on. Life is back to normal.

Or … OK, not completely normal. Because, despite the fact that editorialists at “respectable” papers like The New York Times (and I’m explicitly referring to Charles M. Blow and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman) have recently dropped the completely ridiculous “Trump is a Putinist agent” propaganda they’d been relentlessly spewing since he won the election, a significant number of deluded persons, having swallowed their official vomitus (i.e., the vomitus of Blow and Krugman, and other neoliberal establishment hacks) like the hungry Adélie penguin chicks in those nature shows narrated by David Attenborough, are convinced (these deluded persons are) that the Russians are waging a global campaign not only to maliciously hack, or interfere with, or marginally influence, free and fair elections throughout the Western world, but to control the minds of Westerners themselves, in some Orwellian, or possibly Wachowskian fashion. Worse yet, these deluded persons are certain, the Russians are now secretly running the White House, and are just using Trump, and the Goldman Sachs gang, and capitalist centurions like General McMaster, as a front for their subversive activities, like denying Americans universal healthcare and privatizing the hell out of everything.

If you think I’m being hyperbolic, check out #MarchforTruth on Twitter, or its anonymous Crowdpac fundraising page, which at first glance I took for an elaborate prank, but which seems to be in deadly earnest about “restoring faith in American government,” uncovering Trump’s “collusion” with Russia, and reversing his “subversion of the will of the people.” The plan is, on June 3, 2017, thousands of otherwise rational Americans are going to pour into the streets “demanding answers” from … well, I’m not sure whom, some independent prosecutor, or congressional committee, or intelligence agency, or whomever is responsible for ferreting out the Putin-Nazi infiltrators that “respected” pundits like Blow and Krugman (and stark raving loonies like Louise Mensch) have convinced them are now controlling the government. Weirdly, these same “respected” journalists, the ones who have been assuring the world that The President of the United States is a covert agent working for Russia, have failed to even mention this March for Truth, and are acting like they had nothing to do with whipping these folks up into a frenzy of apoplectic paranoia.

Incidentally, one of my colleagues contacted Mr. Blow directly and inquired as to whether he’d be vociferously supporting or possibly leading the March for Truth, and was chastised by Blow and his Twitter followers. I found this reaction extremely troubling, and asked my colleague to contact Mensch and suggest she check with her handlers at The Times to make sure the Russians haven’t gotten to him. However, just as he was sitting down to do that, the “Comey-firing” brouhaha broke, which seems to have brought Blow back to the fold, albeit in a less hysterical manner than his Rooskie-hunting readers have grown accustomed to. We can only hope that both he and Krugman return to form in the weeks to come as Russiagate builds to its dramatic climax.

Oh, yeah, and if Russiagate isn’t paranoid enough, apparently, the corporate media is now prepared to deploy the “Putin-Nazi Election Hackers” propaganda in any and every election going forward (as they did in the recent French election, and as they tried to do in the Dutch elections, and presumably will in the German elections, and as The Guardian appears to be retroactively doing in regard to the Brexit referendum). Any day now, we should be hearing of the “Putin-Nazi-Corbyn Axis,” and the “Putin-Nazi-Podemos Pact,” and video footage of Martin Schultz and a bevy of former-East German hookers engaging in Odinist sex magick rituals in an FSB-owned bordello in Moscow. Soon, it won’t just be elections … no, we’ll be hearing reports of Russian shipments of rocks, bottles, and pointy sticks to the “Putin-Nazi Palestinian Terrorists,” and … well, who knows how far they’re willing to take this?

All joking aside, as I’ve written about previously, what we’re dealing with here is more than just a lame attempt by the Democratic Party to blame its humiliating loss on Putin (although of course it certainly is that in part). The global neoliberal establishment is rolling out a new official narrative. It’s actually just a slight variation on the one it’s been selling us since 2001. I could come up with a sixteen-syllable, academic-sounding name for this narrative, but I’m trying to keep things simple these days … so let’s call it The Normals versus The Extremists, (the Normals being the neoliberals and the Extremists being everyone else). The goal of this narrative is to stigmatize and otherwise marginalize opposition to Neoliberalism, regardless of the nature of that opposition (i.e., whether it comes from the left, right, or from religious, environmentalist, or any other quarters).

Now, as any professional storyteller will tell you, one of the most important aspects of the narrative you’re trying to suck people into is to make your protagonist a likeable underdog, and then pit him or her against a much more powerful and ideally incorrigibly evil enemy. During the Cold War, this was easy to do — the story was Democracy versus the Commies, traditional “good versus evil”-type stuff. Once the U.S.S.R. collapsed, the concept needed major rewrites, as a new evil adversary had to be found. This (i.e., the 1990s) was a rather awkward and frustrating period. The global capitalist ruling classes, giddy with joy after having become the first ever global ideological hegemon in the history of aspiring global hegemons, got all avant-garde for a while, and thought they could do without an “enemy.” This approach, as you’ll recall, did not sell well. No one quite got why we were bombing Yugoslavia, and Bush and Baker had to break out the Hitler schtick to gin up support for rescuing the Kuwaitis from their old friend Saddam. Fortunately, in September 2001, the show runners got the break they were looking for, and the official narrative was instantly switched to Democracy versus The Islamic Terrorists. This re-brand got extremely good ratings, and would have been extended indefinitely if not for what began to unfold in the latter half of 2016. (One could go back and locate the week when the mainstream media officially switched from the “Summer of Terror” narrative they were flogging to the new “Invasion of the Putin-Nazis” narrative … my guess is, it was early to mid-September.) It started with the Brexit referendum, continued with the rise of Trump, and … well, I don’t have to recount it, do I? You remember last year as clearly as I do, how, suddenly, out of seemingly nowhere, the Putin-Nazi menace materialized, and took the place of the “self-radicalized terrorist” as the primary target for people’s hatred and fear. OK, sure, at first, there were no Putin-Nazis. It was just that the Brexit folks were fascists, and Trump was Hitler, and Bernie Sanders was some sort of racist hacky sack Communist. But then the Putinists poisoned Clinton, and unleashed their legions of Russian propagandists on the gullible, Oxycodone-addicted denizens of “flyover country,” and, as they say, the rest is history.

In any event, here we are now … stuck inside this simulation of “reality” where Putin-Nazi hackers are coming out of the woodwork, a partyless neoliberal banker has been elected the President of France, Donald Trump is an evil mastermind or a Russian operative, depending on what day it is (as opposed to just a completely incompetent, narcissistic billionaire idiot), and neoliberal propaganda outfits like The New York TimesThe Washington Post, MSNBC, CNN, The Guardian, NPR, et al., are perceived as “respectable” sources of journalism, as if their role in generating and occasionally revising the official narrative weren’t so insultingly obvious. Personally, I am looking forward to the upcoming German elections this Autumn, wherein Neoliberal Party “A” is challenging Neoliberal Party “B” for the right to continue privatizing Greece (and any other formerly sovereign nations the banks can get their hands on) in a demonstration of European unity, and fiscal austerity … and, you know, whatever.

If this is the Death of Neoliberalism, just imagine what awaits us at the Resurrection.


Trump and Mussolini: 11 Key Lessons from Historical Fascism

Italian fascism provides a better model for our moment than Nazi Germany—and the comparison is not encouraging.

Photo Credit: By Muzej Revolucije Narodnosti Jugoslavije (USHMM Photograph #89908) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Fascism is a religion. The 20th century will be known in history as the century of fascism.
— Benito Mussolini

I’d like to draw some comparisons and contrasts between our present situation and that of fascist Italy between 1922 and 1945. I choose fascist Italy rather than Nazi Germany because it has always seemed to me a better comparison. Nazi Germany was the extreme militarist, racist and totalitarian variant of Italian fascism, which was more adaptable, pragmatic, rooted in reality and also more incompetent, ineffectual and half-hearted, all of which seem true to our condition today. Italy was the original form, while Germany was an offshoot. Although there have been many European and some Latin American varieties of fascism since then, the Italian model was the first and the one that has had the most lasting influence.

Mussolini drew on strong existing left-wing European currents such as anarcho-syndicalism, wanting to offer the world an alternative to what he saw as the failures of the Western democracies. His was a revolutionary agenda, designed to turn the world order upside down, rooted deeply in romantic and even avant-garde sensibilities. To see fascism as stemming ultimately from liberalism might sound surprising, but this is true of both socialism as well as fascism, because finally it is liberalism’s principle of human perfectibility from which these impulses derive. Fascism, we might say, is liberal romanticism gone haywire. In its healthy state, liberalism gives us constitutional democracy, but in its unhealthy state we end up with totalitarianism.

Futurism, one of the leading modernist movements of the time, fed easily into fascism. F.T. Marinetti, who believed in war as “hygiene,” was a keen Mussolini supporter, as was the playwright Luigi Pirandello, though he had a different aesthetic tendency. Many philosophers, academics and artists were already sick of the mundane, transactional, enervating nature of democracy under leaders like Giovanni Giolitti, prime minister several times in the two decades preceding fascism.

Benedetto Croce, on the other hand, was the great Italian idealist philosopher, an optimistic Hegelian who believed that liberal constitutionalism was forever on the move, boosted by the Italian Risorgimento (unification) of the mid-19th century, even if its progress couldn’t always be detected. Mussolini never openly persecuted Croce, partly for reasons of credibility — some internal criticism had to be allowed, to preserve the façade of diversity of opinion — but mostly because, with a slight twist, Croce’s Hegelian logic can easily lead to fascism.

To discuss Italian fascism in the context of Trumpism is not to draw silly one-on-one comparisons, because many material factors are different today, but to understand current developments there must be some historical basis for analysis. What this exercise attempts is to show that the myth of American exceptionalism is just that, a myth, and that we have traveled so far from our national founding impulses that other tendencies, namely forms of what used to be considered peculiarly European anxieties, have now become the defining features of our polity.

1. Fascism rechannels economic anxiety

The German condition in the 1920s, with the economic instability then prevalent, is well known, but this was also true of European countries in general in the wake of World War I. Especially after the Russian Revolution, the urgent question for all of Europe became: Was socialism the right path, or capitalism? And in either case, was a new political order required?

In Italy, socialism became quite popular after the war, making industrialists and large agriculturalists very worried. The fascist squads, which at first had arisen spontaneously, came in handy to break the back of socialist cooperatives, both in industry and agriculture, particularly in northern Italy which was more advanced than the south. In the early part of his career, the opportunist Mussolini was anti-war (he didn’t want Italy to join the war), as were socialists in general. But during the course of World War I he changed his tune. Evidence shows that he was financed by oligarchic foreign interests who wanted Italy to get into the war, which of course it did.

For the same money men, the question became, after the war, what to do with the mobilized energy of the arditi, or the squadrists? The original fascists, Mussolini included, were very socialist in inclination, and their manifestos reflected that. Mussolini’s initial program for fascism could pass, with some changes, as an egalitarian dream. The founders of fascism were big on workers’ rights, expropriation of leading industries and even women’s right to equality. The violent contest between socialists and fascists in the countryside had already abated by the time Mussolini came to power. Yet the oligarchic powers sought, in Mussolini, a figure to permanently channel and mobilize the violent social energy on behalf of capitalism.

The most recent phase of globalization, which took off during the 1990s, has created similar anxieties around the world as the class dislocations did following World War I. For the elites who propagated the “Washington consensus” in the 1990s, supported by such popularizers as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, there was nothing complicated about globalization: Incomes would rise around the world, inequality would fall and liberal tolerance would flourish. This rosy picture is so far from reality as to be laughable, and it is a truth evident to the world’s peoples, except for the transnational elites still beholden to the abstract propositions. Thus the question arises again, with as much urgency as in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution: What shall be the world’s economic order? Is it possible to conceive, at this late date, of globalization with a human face? Or is something more revolutionary needed?

The problem today is that socialism, unfortunately, became discredited in the eyes of liberals in the West because of the failed Soviet experiment. Socialism did not have to go the authoritarian route, but that is sadly how it turned out. So today we have a clear problem, i.e., burgeoning inequality on an almost unprecedented scale, and no ideological solution in sight, at least not one that majorities of liberals can agree on.

Into this vacuum, fascists all over the Western world are entering to redirect the majority white population’s nervousness into xenophobic and imperialist aims. Each country, depending on its power structure, will pursue these aims, once it succumbs to the fascist virus, differently. It is worth remembering, however, that it was liberalism, with its absurd triumphant mentality in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, that took away movement toward any form of socialism as a legitimate path, and therefore made the rise of fascism inevitable.

2. Liberal institutions have already been fatally weakened

We are currently lamenting Trump’s evisceration of the media and other institutions of democracy, but he would not be having such success, at least with half of the population, if those institutions were not already seriously compromised. It is easy to dismiss his mockery of the “fake media,” but before Trump did anyone take the media, with some venerable exceptions, seriously anyway? The mass media have never been interested in the nuances of policy, and are focused instead on personality, celebrity and spectacle. Most of the print media are also compromised because of loyalty to American exceptionalism.

It is no coincidence that Trump has merged his critique of the “fake media” with exceptionalism, because it allows him to present the media as tools of a discredited ideology. Before Trump, the media were tied, as a general rule, to the consensus on neoliberalism, and their bias became all the more evident during the last campaign. When it comes to telling the truth about power, the media have not been interested in doing so for a long time. They may now be reacting viscerally against Trump, because of the crude way in which he takes on their shallowness, but it doesn’t mean anything to his supporters. Trump’s critique of the media applies to all our liberal institutions prior to his arrival on the scene.

Mussolini’s fascist program landed in the middle of deep disillusionment with liberal institutions. Italy had experienced a rapid spurt of growth due to industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but the rewards weren’t equally distributed. The south was poor and undeveloped, overcome by feudal values, while the north was unsure about empowering labor to share the fruits of growth. The strong labor movement started shading into anarcho-syndicalism, quite similar to the original fascist manifesto. The situation is not exactly comparable today, because ours is a mature economy with declining traditional industrial sectors, while Italy’s was an emerging economy with growing industries. But the sense that the institutions of democracy were failing to support a fair standard of living was widespread.

The Italian parliamentary system was marked by a tendency toward transformismo or “transformism,” to which our strongest parallel would be Bill (or Hillary) Clinton’s triangulation. In many ways Clinton can be seen as a parallel to Giolitti, with the same ability to throw doubt on the health of liberal democracy, even as deals are cut right and left). Transformismo, or triangulation, appeals to career civil servants, politicians and media people, but its chameleon-like tendency to absorb the ideas of the opposition and to neutralize them and make them invisible leaves a profoundly disillusioning aftertaste. Ideology desperately wants to make a comeback, which was true in transactional Italy, and is certainly true of America now.

3. Internal strongmen tussles don’t mean anything

In the beginning Mussolini didn’t seem the most obvious choice to lead the fascist movement. Italy’s best-known provocateur, Gabriele d’Annunzio, a flamboyant writer with a continental reputation, beat him to it by organizing a militia to lay siege to Fiume, a small territory on the northeast coast, part of the unredeemed lands claimed by the irredentist movement. In his short-lived siege, d’Annunzio perfected a fascist style — harangues prompting back-and-forth exchanges from balconies overlooking vast public squares, the symbolic elaboration of the myth of martyrdom in the cause of the nation and the articulation of an emotional method for communicating reality — that Mussolini, and all later fascists, would adopt. D’Annunzio — a legendary womanizer and decadent — was one of the most colorful of all Europeans, and his peculiar interpretation of Nietzschean values has become a permanent challenge to liberal democracy.

But when push came to shove, Mussolini was seen as the more pliable agent of fascist change by his corporate benefactors, and Mussolini was quick to sideline d’Annunzio’s claim to leadership. There were always more assertive fascists around than Mussolini — for example, Roberto Farinacci, the ras (or leader) of Cremona, who later became fond of Hitler’s henchmen — but Mussolini was able to keep them in check. He was a master at playing one competitor against another, exploiting their vulnerabilities to always stay in power. The squadrist militias under control of the provincial ras, like Farinacci and others, were at first used by Mussolini to send terror into the hearts of wavering capitalists and later, in different stages, were controlled and even neutralized as competing power centers, all of them absorbed in the mostly subservient National Fascist Party (PNF).

At the moment, Trump is our Farinacci, the most assertive of the ras, compared to whom all the Cabinet secretaries — even the ones who most frighten us for their racism (Attorney General Jeff Sessions) or Islamophobia (Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly) — seem tame in comparison. No matter the insanity of the secretaries in charge of the environment, education, energy or other departments, none seems as willing to openly flout the rule of law as Trump. Or we can say that in our case the showman d’Annunzio has taken power, rather than a more grounded journalist-turned-politician like Mussolini. We confront the speculative exercise of trying to imagine how it would have turned out for fascism had d’Annunzio, not Mussolini, been the leader.

Nonetheless, we ought not to be swayed by the temporary ascendancies of this or that group within the fascist hierarchy, whether it is Steve Bannon or Michael Flynn who rises or falls. Fascism is greater than the individuals who make up its core at any given moment. Fascism requires the strongman at the center to make it move, yet if a given personality fails to do the job, another can be found as replacement.

4. Fascism keeps mutating

Before fascism was formalized by Mussolini in 1919, organizing the scattered energies of the displaced combatants, it was in many ways an aesthetic movement. It was certainly radically socialist in orientation, with a strong attraction to equality for workers. Then, just before taking power, it became a movement for capitalist law and order, suppressing the demands of socialists. Once in power it adopted some of the modes of parliamentary behavior, but with great irritation, as it sought to preserve a democratic façade. After the consolidation of the dictatorship in 1925, it became almost a developmental state, strongly interested in Italy’s economic growth. A corporatist state, with strong autarkic goals (such as the “Battle for Wheat,” to make Italy self-sufficient, or the reclamation of the Pontine Marshes), was clearly articulated, eliciting approval from the world’s leading capitalist powers.

With the onset of worldwide depression, however, fascism realized the intractability of economic problems and turned its attention to imperialism. The PNF, which had become relatively quiet during the period of capitalist development, was revived as a harsh ideological force, with growing tentacles in every part of Italian society. This phase began in the early 1930s and lasted until defeat in World War II. Fascism was not particularly racist to begin with, as Mussolini, like most Italians, took exception to Nazi anti-Semitism; but as Italy threw in its lot with Germany in the late 1930s, “scientific” racism became a central fascist platform. After Mussolini was overthrown by his own Grand Council in 1943, for the last two years of the war he held fort in the Republic of Salò, in the northern part of Italy, supported by Hitler’s fading power. The Republic of Salò backtracked to the original socialist principles enunciated at the formation of fascism.

What this shows is that fascism is highly adaptable to different needs and conditions, just as its opposite, democracy, is similarly flexible. This also suggests that fascism is a viable ideology just like democracy, because it can appear in different guises at different times, even under the same leadership, without losing credibility. In considering Trump and the movement he has sparked, we would be better off looking at the overall aims of the regime, rather than get carried away by feints in one direction or another. Their aim, it should be clear, is to end democracy, since that is the energy fascism feeds on.

Trump is fully capable of showing an apparently “presidential” side, for example in his first speech to Congress. The priority has shifted from eradicating immigrants to passing the neoliberal agenda on taxation, social spending, education, energy and the environment, so a slightly modified relationship is needed with the corporate world and the media for the immediate future, which Trump should easily be able to accomplish. Mussolini, though an inveterate atheist, made peace with the Vatican, in the famous Lateran Accords of 1929, abandoning his most cherished beliefs in order to gain the complicity of the Catholic church. Earlier in the 1920s, he installed corporate-friendly ministers to work with Italy’s industrialists to enact an agenda they could be comfortable with. Such mutations are par for the course for fascists, they’re nothing to get excited about.

5. Fascism is eternally recurring

Just as democracy is eternal, so is fascism. There have always been authoritarian or dictatorial responses to democracy since the beginning of modern civilization, but fascism, with its imprint of spectacle, theater and mass communication, was a particular permutation that arose once the Western democracies had been consolidated. Italy and Germany were two of the late bloomers, but democracy had mostly been attained by the time they turned to fascism. Fascism could not have arisen were democracy still an evolving condition, as was true of parts of the West in the 19th century. So fascism is an indication of maturity, once democracy’s initial bloom is off.

Many historians were eager to write off Italy’s fascist experience as an aberration, as something so abnormal that it did not properly belong to Italian culture, but the opposite is true. Fascism will often borrow the symbolism, legal architecture and academic norms of pre-existing society, rather than throw them overboard. In Italy’s case, all the existing tendencies of aesthetic modernism came in handy, as well as the legacies of socialist, anarchist and syndicalist cultures. In northern cities like Turin and Milan, fascism flourished side by side with avant-garde political and cultural thinking. Once the dominant liberal culture succumbed, it wasn’t as difficult to impose fascism’s content upon the less democratic south’s institutions.

Fascism was not an aberration for Italy, nor is this the case anywhere it occurs. It is inherent in the DNA of any given culture, an authoritarian side that goes along with, and is even a necessary prop for, democracy. The interwar years marked industrialization’s maturity in the Western world, which had been preceded by a huge burst of globalization, leading up to World War I. A fascism drawing energy from the masses employed in industrialized occupations, as was the case between the wars, is going to manifest very differently than the post-industrial environment of 21st-century America. But the differences are more stylistic than foundational.

6. Of course it’s a minority affair

To note that Trump did not win the popular vote (as was true of George W. Bush in 2000), does not take away from the power of fascism. Given civilized norms in a democratic society, it is always going to be difficult for fascists to muster an outright numerical majority. The point is their relative strength in terms of raw power. Moreover, in periods of emergencies (such as Bush after 9/11 and in the lead-up to the Iraq war), more than a majority can usually be cobbled together. This speaks strongly to the hidden patriotic foundation of what passes for liberalism, its inherent weakness which can so easily be converted to mass militarism.

Mussolini, though he established his regime on the myth of the March on Rome, was actually appointed by King Victor Emmanuel III when Mussolini seemed like the only figure, compared to the discredited liberal politicians, who could bring order to the country. Trump too is trying to make predictions of chaos and violence a self-fulfilling prophecy, but this is a staple of all fascist regimes: They bring about and thrive on the disorder that they then claim to be the only ones to be able to suppress. There was actually no such thing as the March on Rome; the king had already invited Mussolini to Rome to come and form the government when the march took place. Had the king given the order — and this looked possible until the last fateful moment — the army would easily have crushed the ragtag bunch of nobodies who had showed up from all parts of Italy.

Only a small minority need give overt consent. The rest can be quiet, or complacent, or complicit, unless they feel their personal security threatened, for example because of war that might spin out of control. That is all that’s needed for fascism to go on its merry way, so it’s quite beside the point to argue its minority status. Most bloody revolutions are minority affairs.

7. There is an ideology behind the chaos of ideologies

Just as Italian historians after the fact claimed that fascism was an aberration that didn’t belong to Italy’s history proper, contemporary observers often insisted that there was never a fascist ideology. Partly this is because of the mutational aspect of fascism. But primarily this is due to intellectual laziness. Liberal scholars, after all, are not likely to credit their mortal opponent with ideological clarity. We too, lazily, ascribe the same lack of ideology to Trumpism, and interpret events in terms of personality and contingency. I would say that fascist ideology has always, since its inception a hundred years ago, been so strong that it takes democracy an extremely favorable environment, and a huge amount of luck, to sustain itself.

Fascist ideology aims for nothing but to weaken and end democracy. It is democracy’s successes, whether in Weimar Germany, or in a strange way in Giolitti’s Italy, or in countercultural America of the 1960s, that breed the opposite tendency which wants to swallow it up.

Mussolini pursued imperialistic goals in wanting an empire in North Africa, East Africa and the Balkans, but was his pursuit of empire (the New Rome) the same as Britain’s, for example, in the 19th century? For Britain, the empire made financial sense. For Italy, all its wars were financially ruinous (and this has been true of our own wars after 9/11 as well), exerting unsustainable pressures. To the extent that the wars undermined democracy, breeding fascism at home, they were certainly successful. In our present and future wars, that is the criterion we must keep in mind. It’s not what a particular policy is doing to the budget or our diplomatic standing or the state of the culture, but how a policy serves to undermine democracy.

8. Its cultural style makes no sense to elites

This is where I felt the Bush incarnation of fascism fell short, and this is where Trump too is having a difficult time. Milo Yiannopoulos proved in the end to be too exotic even to his sponsors at Breitbart, and the campy, decadent d’Annunzian style, of which Milo is an heir, has its limits in evangelical America, committed to bourgeois verities despite the fascistic overlay. Our homegrown brew of Fox News, Breitbart, Alex Jones, border militias like the Minutemen, millenarian Christianity, the Tea Party and gun culture, combined with simplistic beliefs in “free market” capitalism and American exceptionalism, seems to me a particularly tame cultural concoction. It doesn’t have traction with anyone with the least amount of liberal education. Mussolini was working with more resonant cultural stuff, as the emergence of industrial capitalism since the Risorgimento had set up a cultural platform that was malleable enough to work for fascism.

Trump and his successors will have to work with less potent stuff. So-called conspiratorial thinking is a unifying strand — I already mentioned Alex Jones — which connects many of the strands of ultra-conservative ideology throughout the past century. The Reds become Jews and then Muslims; the substitutions are not that difficult to make. But although the elites will remain incredulous toward fascism’s cultural style, there seems to be enough of a momentum, with all the tendencies beginning to attain critical mass together. Thus the successful transition from Bush to Trump, which suggests that our homegrown fascist style is strong enough now not to need a leader.

Masculinity — or shall we say faux masculinity — is an important part of this cultural style, perhaps the principal reason why Yiannopoulos couldn’t last. It is a reaction to the perceived effeminacy of liberalism, and is a blast (along with racism) against what is seen as the failed order. Fascism relies on activation of our most atavistic, violent and primitive selves, by wanting to return women to invisibility, along with condemning the darker races. Needless to say, Italian fascism reconstructed women as facilitators of warrior-masculinity in all the active fields of life, depriving women of organizational visibility even when they were outstanding fascists.

9. Fascism leads inexorably to suicidal war

It’s possible to argue that Mussolini was sucked into World War II against his will, He knew it was going to end his regime since Italy was not prepared. We might credit it to Hitler’s powers of manipulation over Mussolini that Italy entered a disastrous war. The truth is that from the beginning Mussolini had been biding his time to exert Italian power abroad. He had no respect for diplomats, exactly like Trump, and chose to go his own way, believing himself to be a master strategist. He made increasingly assertive forays into war-making, from the little adventure in Corfu in 1923, all the way to the massive commitment to the Ethiopian war in 1936, along the way proclaiming himself “protector of Islam.”

Fascism, like all forms of government not based on the consent of the majority, requires more and more energy to keep the population under control as time goes by. Once the façade of virile domesticity starts getting exposed, war becomes the only option to keep the regime going. Fascism always claims that war is not of its choosing, that it is forced into war by others, but it is a voluntary, even eager, action to perpetuate the regime. At some point, the boomeranging negative energy — violence inflicted upon the fascist power in return — is so great that the tide of opinion turns. Even if war might be fought to an end, the internal consensus, including among fascist believers, is gone. We are, obviously, a long way from that.

10. Racism is inherent to fascism

It is absolutely key that Trump began his campaign by proclaiming a genocidal manifesto against Mexicans — and then Muslims and Arabs — and has continued to keep it as his central point of action. Because fascism is not competing on an even ideological terrain — most people in any civilized country are not given to violence — it must imagine enemies powerful enough to sustain a majority reaction.

Mussolini and his lieutenants used to mock Hitler’s racial animus, both before and after he became chancellor, holding that Italians had no anti-Semitic sentiment, which was quite true. Some of Mussolini’s most ardent early supporters were Jewish, and he had prominent Jewish lovers, like his biographer Margherita Sarfatti. But after the goodwill from the Ethiopian war started fading in the late 1930s, and a closer alliance with Germany became inevitable, Italy turned around and instituted an official anti-Semitism that deprived Jews of their honor, property and basic rights. The situation never got as bad as in Germany, with most Italians harboring deep suspicions toward the newfound anti-Semitism and the construction of Italians as a superior Aryan race, but the damage was done.

Just as war is inevitable, so is virulent racism. Both go together in fascism. One provides an external enemy while the other provides an internal enemy. If they can be linked together — the worldwide Jewish banking conspiracy, or the worldwide Islamic terror conspiracy — so much the better. War becomes more comprehensible, for fascist supporters, when the internal enemy is attached to the endless cycle of wars abroad, which is said to stem from the same root threat to virile nationalist probity.

11. No form of resistance works

Finally, how do you fight fascism? Is there a magic formula, has anything ever worked? Or are we, too, assuming that we are launched on our own fascist cycle, doomed to repeat the familiar pattern until the end? Can liberalism awaken itself in time, once it recognizes the mortal danger, to defeat fascism? Will the citizenry in a liberal democratic nation, once prompted to the threat, find resources it hadn’t counted on before to invalidate and eventually suppress fascism? Can violence, in short, be defeated by nonviolence? We would have to presume this to be true, unless we accept that liberals would take up arms to defeat fascism, which is not likely and probably defeatist anyway.

The Italian press, when Mussolini took over the country, was extremely vigorous. Political parties of every persuasion were highly energized, and they all had their vocal newspapers. Mussolini himself had run socialist newspapers — first Avanti! and then Il Popolo d’Italia — for the majority of his adult career, and knew that to neutralize the press was his first order of business. He did so in stages, eventually ushering in a regime of complete censorship after 1925, particularly after failed assassination attempts gave him the excuse. He installed fascist stooges at all the newspapers and carefully monitored their every word for the rest of his regime. Loyalty oaths were likewise instituted everywhere, from higher education to civil service. The institutions appeared the same; they were not abolished, but they had been hollowed out.

The press went underground, numerous political activists went into exile, particularly in France, and the communists, socialists, conservatives, liberals, monarchists and Catholics bided their time, engaging in resistance when they could, hoping for an awakening of mass consciousness. Neutralizing the church with the Lateran Accords, and thereafter depoliticizing Catholic Action — the organization competing with Mussolini’s numerous social and leisure organizations — was important, and the church never regained its full voice. Exiles abroad were killed or injured in large numbers; many died in the Spanish Civil War. It was not until Mussolini’s own Grand Council deposed him in 1943, when it was clear that Italy had lost the war, that the country divided into two and the partisans emerged to slowly recover Italian democracy in stages.

Italians tried every form of resistance we can imagine, including getting themselves and their families killed or imprisoned, as countless lives were lost in the fascist tyranny. Nothing worked. Nothing ever works until fascism’s logic, the logic of empire, stands discredited to the point where no denial and no media coverup is possible anymore.

Some final thoughts

The thing to notice is that fascism, in all the places it’s been known to arise, converts an admittedly minority point of view into a mass energy that soon overwhelms every civilized instinct. Perhaps Trump doesn’t need to do this footwork; perhaps much of this foundational work was already accomplished in the Bush era. What should really concern us is that fascism now seems to have a certain stability that we have not seen in earlier models that relied on a single charismatic leader. Despite the Obama interlude, Trump has resumed where George W. Bush in his most feverish mood had left off. This suggests that fascism has become permanently stabilized in this country. It is the most worrisome aspect of the present situation.

Fascism would never have gotten such traction here had liberalism not already succumbed, over the course of 40 years, to various abridgments of rights in the name of community or security or risk-aversion, which defines much of liberal discourse today. Fascism cannot thrive on true individualism, which is inherently opposed to mass delusions, but liberalism took the lead long ago in giving up individualism for forms of imagined community. This is ultimately the breeding ground for fascism, and this is why it is an affair that envelops all of us, not just a certain segment of the population that we can condemn as fascist and be done with it.

One remarkable similarity — among many others — between Trump and Mussolini is their total preoccupation with coverage in the media. Trump regularly consumes the “shows,” apparently getting most of his news and information from TV, and has little use for time-consuming memoranda and policy documents. He obsessively monitors what the media says about him. Mussolini, it could be said, was almost a full-time journalist during his 23 years of power. Just as Trump’s Oval Office desk is littered with the “papers,” so was Mussolini’s time taken up with controlling every word that was printed about the regime. Obsessively detailed veline went out every day to the country’s newspapers, instructing them on how to interpret every event. There were to be no pictures of Mussolini appearing in less than heroic posture, no mention of crime or poverty or violence, no disparagement of the fascist regime.

The inordinate amount of time Mussolini (and Trump) spent cultivating his image does not have anything to do with a personality disorder. It has to do with democracy’s failure to live up to its egalitarian ideals, so that the lie about equality becomes more important than actual equality. The liberal democratic and fascist authoritarian versions of this lie have much in common. It is futile to look for tanks on the street as a marker of fascism; there were no tanks in the streets in fascist Italy either. What is important to notice are the weak spots of liberal democracy, which fascism exploits, such as the gradual loss of faith in our voting and electoral systems. What is important to notice is the symbolic order, which becomes more and more different until one day it becomes a vehicle for a different ideology than the majority ever bargained for.


Anis Shivani’s books in the last year include Soraya: Sonnets and Whatever Speaks on Behalf of Hashish: Poems. His book Assessing Literary Writing in the Twenty-First Century comes out in early 2017.