Bernard E. Harcourt | Epilogue on the Abolition of Capital

By Bernard E. Harcourt

The debate within the Frankfurt School over the nature and character of German National Socialism in the early 1940s—especially between Friedrich Pollock’s diagnosis of a new stage of capitalism, which he called “state capitalism,” and Franz Neumann’s view that Nazi Germany was the inevitable consequence of late-stage monopoly capitalism—is a debate that, in many ways, interpellates us still today.

We discussed with Martin Saar the many dimensions of the contemporary relevance of those earlier debates at Abolition Democracy 6/13, but there is one more that I would like to focus on in conclusion.

Franz Neumann describes Nazi Germany in his magisterial book, Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism (1942), in a way that frighteningly recalls the past four years in the United States and Donald Trump’s presidency. In arguing against Pollock’s interpretation that National Socialism represented a “new” form of “state capitalism,” Neumann strenuously argued that the political system of the Third Reich could not be considered a state because it had no coherent or rational political theory, did not abide by a rule of law, in fact did not even create a realm of law.

Nazi Germany, Neumann maintained, was a government by decree, with no cohesive justification, that contained “elements of every conceivable philosophy”[1] jumbled together, purely for the purpose of maintaining absolute power in the hands of its leader, Hitler. Mixing together, incoherently, “idealism, positivism, pragmatism, vitalism, universalism, institutionalism” with “blood, community, folk,” and “the charisma of the Leader, the superiority of the master race, the struggle of a proletarian race against plutocracies the protest of the folk against the state,” etc., National Socialism embraced, in Neumann’s words, “an opportunistic, infinitely elastic ideology” aimed at domination and control.[2] Naturally, there were identifiable coherent strands in Nazi ideology—Aryanism, the master race, the most exterminative anti-Semitism; but those strands mingled with myriad opportunistic ideologies and chaotic messages, all under one simple overarching ambition: power for the leader.

It is for this reason that Neumann appropriated the term “Behemoth” from Hobbes to describe, as Hobbes had the period under the Long Parliament, an “anti-rational” “non-state” “chaos” that was “characterized by complete lawlessness.”[3] Neumann writes, synthesizing his view:

These considerations lead us to conclude that National Socialism has no political theory of its own, and that the ideologies it uses or discards are mere arcana dominationis, techniques of domination. If that is true, it must, in my opinion, be granted that the German leadership is the only group in present German society that does not take its ideological pronouncements seriously and is well aware of their purely propagandistic nature.[4]

Now, whether Neumann was entirely right is open to debate. Some, like Giorgio Agamben, saw a more coherent political theory in National Socialism based on the writings of Carl Schmitt. We could debate this issue at length, but I prefer to set it aside for a moment—and take the analysis on its own terms.

The parallel to Donald Trump’s presidency is striking. Many have tried to impose coherence on Trump’s mode of governing. I have described the way in which he deploys a counterinsurgency warfare mode of governing, creating internal enemies to win the hearts and minds of the masses.[5] I have described the white supremacism that characterizes his form of counterrevolution.[6] I have traced the white nationalism that he has elaborated over the past four years and this election cycle, and plied into the Republican Party.[7]

But all of those strands, themselves coherent, do not capture the full, intentionally non-rational, opportunistic, and elastic ideology that he projects–the chameleon nature of his reality-TV presidency. There is no doubt that Trump is prepared to say anything and do anything that works—that draws attention, brings in dollars, keeps him in power. Trump was determined to be on the front page and trending on Twitter every single day of his presidency. That could only, inevitably, create a random assortment of purely instrumental, opportunistic propaganda that blended together those other ideologies of white nationalism and counterinsurgency warfare.

We have all been embroiled in a long debate whether to ascribe the term “fascist” to Donald Trump—with my friends Jason Stanley and Federico Finchelstein leading the charge, David Bell and others resisting the temptation, and Samuel Moyn cautiously arbitrating the dispute, getting pulled in different directions. But I am now beginning to think that the long fight over the applicability of the term “fascism” to Trump is almost a distraction from what could have been slightly more enlightening. There is probably a sufficient repertoire of white supremacist and white nationalist history and analysis in the context of American history to not necessarily dip into the discourse of fascism; plus, there are probably sufficient differences in the institutional and aesthetic context to avoid using a term that might elide important dimensions of Trump’s mode of governing.

But even setting that aside, this particular description by Franz Neumann, to me, seems perfectly on point. What Neumann was describing, I believe, was not fascism in general (note his contrasting discussion of Mussolini at 462-463), but specifically Hitler’s hold on power. Hitler’s form of governing. I recognize that form perfectly in Trump. To borrow from Neumann, I also believe that Trump and his revolving-door coterie “is the only group in present [American] society that does not take its ideological pronouncements seriously and is well aware of their purely propagandistic nature.”[8]

If this is right, it raises questions for us about our present as well: What kind of authoritarianism are we faced with today, by contrast to earlier forms like National Socialism? How has advanced capitalism or neoliberalism been transformed by this elastic ideology of the arcana dominationis? What stage are we at in terms of political economy, neoliberalism, and capitalism, given these past four years of random, propagandist, dominationis policies? What alternatives can we propose to this non-rational instrumental neoliberal form of governing, given that late-capitalism offers little attractive alternative? And what might this all tell us about the fight ahead?

These are indeed the most important questions—and there are three of them, when you boil it all down:

  1. How can we properly understand our current stage (circa December 2020) of capitalism?
  2. What alternative direction can we offer for our political economy?
  3. How are we going to get there?

1.   Diagnosing our stage of capitalism

The first question would take a lifetime to properly answer at the necessary empirical and theoretical level—it would take at least four new volumes, each thicker than Marx’s massive volumes of Capital. Given the exigencies of the moment—and this is the whole point of trying to push critical theory toward praxis—I do not think we have time to write those four volumes. Faced with resurgent white nationalism in this country, we need to act, so we need to address questions 2 and 3 immediately—and engage in a dialectical confrontation of theoria and praxis. We need to persistently act, but simultaneously confront action and critical theory.

As a placeholder for now, I would argue that we are currently experiencing a form of tournament dirigisme, marked by neoliberal discourse and practices, and infused by a white supremacist, white nationalist ideology, thanks to Donald Trump’s opportunistic exploitation of racial hatred, jealousy, and competition in a post-industrial, late-capitalist, service economy.

2. For Coöperation

As for the alternative direction, I would argue, now, immediately, for the abolition of capital and its replacement with institutions of coöperation. My major intervention, today, is that the key concept that should guide us is not the common, it is not socialism in all its versions, utopian, communist etc., but rather, it is coöperation. I believe that the concept of coöperationism is at the heart of the constructive space that opposes itself to capitalism. I try to begin to spell this out in a first draft of For Coöperation and the Abolition of Capital.

How do I get to the core concept of coöperation? you may ask. From praxis? There is something to that. Much of Dardot and Laval’s argument for the common, as I read it, originates from what they observe as the various forms of resistance to neoliberalism: from the Seattle movements of 1999 to the Spanish indignados movement to Occupy Wall Street. Those are the practices that inform their notion of the commons.

From critical theory? There is something to that too. Marx, I would argue, backed into his earlier call for revolution in the Communist Manifesto through his analysis of surplus value in Capital. Proudhon militated against property on the basis of his critique of natural law. Du Bois also argued for a separatist Black coöperative nation within a nation on the basis of his assessment of white labor.

But perhaps more convincingly, from the confrontation of praxis and critical theory. What I saw at Occupy Wall Street, for instance, was not a common so much as coöperation. The occupiers disagreed over all frameworks, including the common space and its use (who got to be where, doing what, etc., recall the struggles over the drumming circles…), but agreement to work together to support each other. Moreover what really binds together notions of the common, of the dictatorship of labor, of the resistance to Trump’s white nationalism is the ambition of coöperation. The notion, in fact, was central to Proudhon and to Marx. One can read this clearly on the page of What is Property?, especially around page 91. One can hear this well in chapter 13 of the first volume of Capital. Instead of any directionality, our work on coöperation has to be a back-and-forth, from praxis to theory, from theory to praxis, with a constant confrontation and an appreciation for that confrontation.

It also requires a sensitivity to place, context, and history. So, for instance, in the United States, it is impossible to talk about the “common” without having to defend against Soviet communism; but that is a vain exercise. There is an acute national and historical setting, and discourse, that trumps the theoretical diagnosis pure. In the United States, there is the central, incontournable history of race, slavery, lynchings, and Jim Crow—and it is impossible to engage in critique and praxis that does not place race at its heart. I would argue that in Europe, it is inconceivable to be thinking about the “common” without having to address the legacy of colonialism in the way that it is structuring French or German society.

In this country, at this time, in the face of white nationalism, the only possible way forward that is not merely a retreat to democratic neoliberalism, is to rely on a homegrown tradition of coöperation tied to abolition democracy. And to trace it not only to Benjamin Franklin and his establishment of the first coöperative fire insurance, or two milk farmers in Wisconsin, but to DuBois and the tradition of Black separatist coöperatives.

It is for this reason that I place the ambition of coöperation within the framework of abolition democracy. For more on this, please read the draft in progress, For Coöperation and the Abolition of Capital in Open Review.

3.  The Fight Ahead

The final question is: how are we going to get there?

The question is especially fraught because of the stakes of the struggle today, especially in light of the resurgence of white nationalism, but also because the American people are now warring over truth. We are living a rare moment of deep social disagreement—a replay of the battle over Reconstruction.

Today, as back then, accusations of lying, fraud, and conspiratorial thinking are launched back and forth. Democrats and progressives highlight the QAnon conspiracy and, now, the unfounded conspiratorial theories of massive election fraud during the 2020 presidential contest. They underscore Rudy Giuliani’s unsubstantiated claims of systemic voter fraud in Black urban centers, like Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Atlanta, and Sidney Powell’s wild assertions that weaponized algorithms switched 8 million votes from the Trump to the Biden column. Meanwhile, at the other end, President Trump, Fox News, and the Republicans have turned mainstream American media into “Fake news” and constantly accuse the Democrats of the conspiracy to delegitimate Trump through persistent investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections and the impeachment proceedings.

Conspiratorial thinking and accusations of conspiracy theory are everywhere. Tucker Carlson at Fox News, for instance, debunks “the left and virtually every single person in the news media” for taking the position that claims of widespread, systemic voter fraud are pure conspiracy theory because they themselves are conspiracy theorists. “That’s right,” Carlson emphasizes, dismissing his opponents: “the very same people who swore that Vladimir Putin’s agents controlled the U.S. government called it a conspiracy theory.”[9] It’s become layer upon layer of accusations of false conspiracies.

Americans are living two different truths. They are operating in two parallel universes. That’s how bad things have gotten. There is no middle ground. Truth is, indeed, as Dumézil reminds us, “one of man’s most formidable verbal weapons, most prolific sources of power, and most solid institutional foundations.”

With the resurgence of white nationalism, the stakes could hardly be higher. In this political confrontation, we can hear what Foucault called, in the last sentence of Surveiller et punir, “le grondement de la bataille.”

My turn to interrupt the writing here—and turn back to finishing the essay titled “The Fight Ahead,” forthcoming at the Boston Review… I will have more for you as soon as that is done!

Notes

[1] Franz Neumann, Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, 1933–1944 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1942), 462.

[2] Neumann, Behemoth, 462-63.

[3] Neumann, Behemoth, 459.

[4] Neumann, Behemoth, 467.

[5] Bernard E. Harcourt, The Counterrevolution: How Our Government Went to War Against Its Own Citizens (New York: Basic Books, 2018).

[6] Bernard E. Harcourt, “How Trump Fuels the Fascist Right,” The New York Review, November 29, 2018, https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/11/29/how-trump-fuels-the-fascist-right/.

[7] Harcourt, “The Fight Ahead,” Boston Review, forthcoming.

[8] Neumann, Behemoth, 467.

[9] Tucker Carlson, “Time for Sidney Powell to show us her evidence,” “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” Fox News, Nov. 19, 2020 , available at https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/tucker-carlson-rudy-giuliani-sidney-powell-election-fraud

Fonda Shen