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14 October 2022

“Justice cannot be the lodestar of a new society”

The American sociologist Dylan Riley on fascism, thinking as therapy and the crisis of capitalist democracy.

By Gavin Jacobson

In the summer of 2020, as Covid-19 ripped through the American public and the Trump presidency sunk further into depravity, Dylan Riley’s family received the devastating news that his wife, Emanuela, had cancer. Accompanying her to appointments with doctors, waiting in chemotherapy wards and in hospital car parks, Riley, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, took handwritten notes as a way to try and make sense of the emergencies – epochal, political and personal – unfolding around him.

Emanuela died in January 2022. Over the preceding months, Riley’s commentaries – some only a few sentences, others longer – began to range across politics, sociology, history and daily life. Untroubled by the scruples of formal methodology, he penned his thoughts in a direct, more compact way than was usual for an academic whose essays are known for their rigorous critique and commanding exposition. Writing by hand, without instant access to the scholar’s arsenal – books, search engines, libraries and online journals – Riley avoided what he calls the “cycle of self-destructive correction” and the temptation to overwork ideas. His reflections on the pandemic, the state, capitalist democracy, the left, Donald Trump, and much else, were raw and immediate, drawing theoretical lessons from individual experience and vice versa.

As a member of the New Left Review’s editorial board, Riley shared his notes with the journal’s editor, Susan Watkins, as well as its former editor turned éminence grise, the historian Perry Anderson. They encouraged him to publish them as a single volume. The result is Microverses, a series of provocative and moving observations on the crisis-conjuncture, and a transcript of an embattled soul.  

Born in 1971 in Baltimore, Maryland, Riley was raised 600 miles southwest in Louisville, Kentucky. His mother was a school teacher and his father a doctor. As Riley put it to me, speaking from his home in Berkeley, both his parents were “quite liberal in the American sense”. One of his earliest memories, he recalled, was watching Richard Nixon’s resignation speech from the Oval Office in August 1974. Louisville – the largest city of a former slave state and the hometown of Muhammad Ali – had a significant civil rights movement throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Although Riley’s parents weren’t politically active, they were deeply sympathetic to the movement. Growing up, Riley read books by the usual gateway authors of the left, such as George Orwell and Noam Chomsky, before turning to Huey Newton and the Black Panthers. From an early age he was also fascinated by the USSR, buying copies of Soviet Life, a magazine sold in local bookshops that reported on cultural happenings behind the Iron Curtain.

Riley’s intellectual development really began at the New School for Social Research in New York, where he arrived in the early 1990s to study for an undergraduate degree in history and philosophy. There he was taught by Ferenc Fehér, a Hungarian philosopher who, Riley said, “was hugely influential on me just because of the seriousness of his intellect”. He was also supervised by the political scientist Ira Katznelson, who first gained recognition with his book City Trenches (1981), which tried to account for the distinctive formation of the American working class and explain the absence of socialist parties in the US. It was Katznelson who suggested that Riley pursue his postgraduate work at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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UCLA during the 1990s was home to some of the world’s leading radical historians and sociologists. Robert Brenner, who had set the terms of debate on the origins of capitalism, published Merchants and Revolution (1993), a formidable work on commerce and the English Civil War. Michael Mann completed the second volume of The Sources of Social Power, his massive tetralogy providing “a history and theory of power relations in human societies”. Rebecca Emigh and Ivan Szelenyi were authorities on modern capitalist society. Carlo Ginzburg had pioneered “micro-history” with his classic The Cheese and the Worms (1976). And despite having stepped down as the NLR’s editor in 1983 (he would return to the helm in 2000), Anderson was a totemic presence on the intellectual left.

Riley arrived at UCLA a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. As the states of eastern Europe slipped their Russian suzerains, the issue of the day remained the economic transition from planned economies to capitalist ones. Within their Californian redoubt, Anderson, Brenner & Co were well-primed to theorise and debate it all. “There were all sorts of arguments,” Riley explained, over the future of the economy and society. “It was an exciting place to be.”

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California’s most famous Marxist resident had been Theodor Adorno, the German philosopher and member of the Frankfurt School, who lived in Pacific Palisades between 1941 and 1949. He is perhaps best known for Minima Moralia (1951), a book of 153 miniature essays, fragments, theses and aphorisms on life under capitalist modernity. Adorno, who composed the book during his American exile, and dedicated it to Max Horkheimer, an intellectual collaborator and fellow fugitive from the Third Reich, argued that capitalism left no aspect of existence unharmed.

It was Anderson and Watkins who reminded Riley about Minima Moralia as a possible model for Microverses, though when we spoke Riley underplayed any comparison between himself and Adorno, whose other works included Dialectic of Enlightenment (co-authored with Horkheimer in 1944), Negative Dialectics (1966), and a battery of essays on music and the culture industry. “I do want to be clear about this,” Riley quipped, “I don’t have the literary, cultural and philosophical range of Adorno! So the parallel is a little bit embarrassing.”

One difference between them is thematic. Adorno was far more interested in the quotidian – interior decoration, housing, humour, sport, art, entertainment, toys, grammar and tact – than Riley is. There is also a difference in vantage point. As the intellectual historian Peter E Gordon has noted, not unlike the Essays by the 16th-century humanist Michel de Montaigne, “Adorno’s book is not only a series of philosophical experiments but also an exercise in self-portraiture.” Like Adorno, Riley believes that subjective experience is a condition of intellectual enquiry, and Riley’s personal entries, such as “Potenza”, about listening to his teenage son play the cello, induce greater sympathy than Adorno’s more disaffected tones. Yet Riley does keep his readers at a greater distance than Adorno: the subtitle of Microverses, “Observations from a Shattered Present”, is markedly cooler than that of Minima Moralia, “Reflections from Damaged Life”. Riley lacks Adorno’s nostalgia, too. In Microverses there is little that resembles Teddie’s fond recollections of childhood, such as receiving books from his parents’ friends or hearing Brahms from the crib.

There is also an epistemological distinction. One of Minima Moralia’s most inscrutable maxims is “the whole is the false”, which can be read as Adorno’s rejection of explaining phenomena in a closed sum of knowledge. For Riley, however, “things need to be reinserted constantly into a broader network of relationships to be understood”. In other words, he embraces sociology’s grander mission, as he writes in the book, to take “the totality of social existence as its object… For sociology, as for Hegel, ‘the true is the whole’.”

There are some resemblances between Adorno’s wunderkammer and Riley’s own cabinet of curiosities. Both were written under conditions of loneliness – the first in exile, the other in lockdown – which explains their melancholic registers. Adorno argued that suffering and discomfort were the preconditions for glimpsing the truth – “the splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass”. Riley is less explicit than that, but Microverses nonetheless mourns a future-past stolen. “What lies in store? This gnaws at me incessantly,” he writes. “The advice I’ve gotten, which seems sensible, is to live in the present – to orient to time in a new way. But the problem is that the future is so much a part of what the present or the now is that it is impossible to follow the advice.” Riley makes the trauma of his wife’s diagnosis an incitement for thinking, and even at the peaks of abstraction he does not efface the work’s origins in familial tragedy.

The overlap between Minima Moralia and Microverses could have been greater still given the authors’ shared intellectual preoccupation with fascism. Adorno saw fascist potential even in the most mundane fragments of everyday life. Meditating on American door handles, he described the experience of trying to open or close them as evidence of the rise of fascism. “What does it mean for the subject that there are no more casement windows to open, but only sliding frames to shove, no gentle latches but turnable handles, no forecourt, no doorstep before the street, no wall around the garden?” The answer, he thought, was obvious: “The movements machines demand of their users already have the violent, hard-hitting, unresting jerkiness of Fascist maltreatment”. For Adorno, barbarism resided in the banal.

Riley is more reluctant to trigger the F-alarm. In 2018 he published an essay in the NLR titled “What is Trump?”, which compared the then incumbent American regime with the interwar fascism from which Adorno had escaped in the late 1930s. Riley’s first book, The Civic Foundations of Fascism in Europe (2010), was a comparative analysis of 20th-century fascisms in Italy, Spain and Romania, which drew on Antonio Gramsci to take down Alexis de Tocqueville. Riley rejected the assumption, articulated most powerfully by Tocqueville in the 19th century, that civic associations were the bedrock of democracy because they encouraged citizen participation in political life. Riley showed that fascist regimes had actually prospered not in places of social atomisation but where civil society had been strongest.

In “What is Trump?” Riley mounted a critique of the “explosion of historical analogising” that observed parallels between Trump’s presidency – as well as reactionary governments in Hungary, Poland, India, the Philippines and Turkey – and fascism. Trump’s style of leadership may have been “norm-breaking”, Riley argued, but it had nothing in common with interwar fascism. It was rather a kind of neo-patrimonial style of rule reminiscent of 19th-century Bonapartism, in which a charismatic figure emerges from the conditions of a fragmented and weak civil society. The essay received both praise and condemnation.

“I think I was basically right,” Riley told me when reflecting on the four-year old argument. “But the essay wasn’t always fully understood. People seemed to think that because I was saying this wasn’t interwar fascism there wasn’t anything to worry about, which is not true. I think capitalist democracy is in very deep trouble.” Remarking on the so-called “fascism debate”, a series of intellectual engagements over whether there has been a rebirth of extreme-right ideologies, Riley said that we can learn much about our contemporary period by studying historical fascism, but “a lot of it will be learnt by way of contrast rather than commonality”. “The point about the fascist regimes,” he went on, “is they emerged in the context of intense inter-imperialist competition. In both the German and the Italian cases, these are rising second-rate powers facing a British hegemon that is declining and what that means is that the mobilisation for mass warfare is built into these regimes.”

The violence at the US Capitol on 6 January 2021, when Joe Biden’s defeat of Trump was being formalised, invigorated the fascism debate. In some cases those who had originally disavowed the analogy changed their minds. Robert O Paxton, the doyen of fascism studies, wrote that Trump’s incitement of the invasion of the Capitol “removes my objection to the fascist label”.

“I have enormous respect for Paxton’s scholarship,” Riley said, “but clearly, he has reached the conclusion that as a political matter it is important to use ‘the fascist label’ with respect to Trump. I disagree, but this is not an intellectual disagreement, it is one about political strategy.” In Microverses, Riley demonstrates his contrarian style, arguing that “in their own view the insurrectionists were small ‘D’ democrats acting as Jeffersonian tyrant-slayers. They viewed the Capitol as an iniquitous den of corruption. Are they wrong?” What liberals saw as the insignia of fascism – embroidered American and Confederate flags, tactical vests and helmets adorned with far-right trimmings – Riley describes as “the banal decorative paraphernalia of US nationalism”. Even the rioters’ common enemy – a kraken-like peril of socialism, communism and Marxism – “shows their lack of originality since the condemnation of the socialist tradition is shared across the entire political and intellectual spectrum”.

If Microverses suffers from being a bit too much about its Covid moment – in a way that may make the book ultimately less timeless than Adorno’s – it continually reveals Riley’s bracing iconoclasm. The Civic Foundations flew in the face of the penitent and mind-numbing literature on civil society, while his takedowns of liberal mahatmas such as the late historian Tony Judt and the historian-turned-podcaster David Runciman flouted the near-universal celebrations of their work. Of Judt, Riley wrote that his histories were “crude and shoddy”, “littered with Cold War grotesqueries” and “extraordinary philological howlers”, concluding that he “lacked the most basic requirement for any student of intellectual history: the ability to grasp and reconstruct an idea with philological precision… Even summaries of figures to whom he was well-disposed were slapdash.” And as explanatory analysis, he wrote, Runciman’s The Confidence Trap (2013), lauded in many reviews, simply “flops”. Even Katznelson, his former supervisor, hasn’t escaped potent reprimand; Riley judged his book Fear Itself (2013) as having provided a narrative of Roosevelt’s New Deal “that is complacently self-congratulatory”. What seems to connect these blistering appraisals isn’t just impatience with intellectual sloppiness and unoriginal argument, but the tendency, especially among liberal authors, to indulge in myth and boosterism, whether it’s the European social model (Judt), the West under US leadership (Runciman) or the redemptive powers of New Deal America (Katznelson).

His trenchant critique is evidenced in the many aperçus in Microverses, especially those on liberal assessments of the far right. Riley was doubtful that Trump would return to front-line politics, and thought the Republican Party would elect someone like Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, as their new presidential challenger, a politician “who is every bit, if not more, dangerous than Trump”. Trump’s fall in 2021 drained some of the urgency from the fascism debate but recent elections in Europe – in France, Sweden, Hungary and Italy – suggest the danger of the hard right has not abated. Again, though, Riley has held fast. Remarking on Fratelli d’Italia’s electoral success in September, he explained that “there’s always been this type of party in various iterations in the Italian political spectrum – the Movimento Sociale, and then the Alleanza Nazionale. Now we have Giorgia Meloni, who is a more noxious and more competent and intelligent exemplar of the same politics. It’s a slightly harder version of Berlusconi. It’s historically linked to fascism but it is not really fascism in the interwar sense – it’s terrible in its own special way.”

“It’s clear that in Europe,” he continued, “we’re going through a hard-right cycle. I’m sceptical as to its staying power because they don’t have real answers to the malaise afflicting almost every European society. And I think that in the US it’s quite possible that the Democrats do quite well in the mid-term elections.” Despite this, he thinks there is “a real crisis of capitalism” that will continue to put stress on, and may eventually capsize, the democratic regimes of the west.

The question for Riley is how democracy – a system based on universal suffrage – has been compatible with capitalism – a system where the means of production are in private hands. Or, in a way that Adorno might have put it, why has the working class, instead of freeing itself from capitalism, embraced it? As the Polish-American scholar Adam Przeworski has shown, since the Second World War what has made capitalist democracy function has been the compromise between the working class and capitalists. Workers had a material interest in supporting the system so long as capitalists continued to be profitable and invest some of that profit to produce economic growth. Accumulation meant profit, profit meant growth and growth meant jobs.

But the story of capitalism is of a sclerotic system. As Robert Brenner has shown, since the 1970s falling rates of profitability have led to a decline in rates of economic growth. What happens when global economic growth slows, capitalists don’t invest, and the great worker-capitalist compromise collapses? What is to become of democracy once its material foundations die? “I think we’re living in a period where there is a hegemonic crisis of capitalism, but there’s no answer to it because the left is so weak,” Riley said. “Gramsci pointed to some aspects of this in his writings on Caesarism – there is a crisis of authority, and it’s not clear that either the right or left are proposing a way to break out of this, and so you get an extreme personalisation of politics and the emergence of the Caesaristic leaders like Trump or Meloni.”

In the context of this degenerate hegemony, Riley thinks there is a transition underway to what he calls “political capitalism”, whereby capitalists move away from investing in production but use political means to generate and increase their profits, such as deploying police powers to evict tenants who fail to pay the rent, securing monopolies over intellectual property rights and using legislation to enforce the interests of capital. In many ways, this notion of politically enabled expropriation – what Marx called “extra-economic” exploitation – resembles recent definitions of neo-feudalism associated with economists such as Cédric Durand.

How should the left respond? The issue for the left, as Riley sees it, is that it has become far too focused on redressing past wrongs at the expense of proposing solutions to the problems of humanity. “I don’t want to be dismissive of either Black Lives Matter or other mobilisations for redistribution, but there is no alternative for what a new kind of society as a whole would look like. What rushes into the vacuum is the concern over justice, and the problem is that justice is firmly backward-looking in its orientation. It’s not that justice is unimportant but it cannot be the lodestar of a project of a new society. As a strategy, it makes the left seem like a group of moralisers, which is not a political winner. Leftists would do well to remember that point, and more generally Marx’s profound scepticism about the very idea of justice.”

[See also: Decoding the UK’s economic crisis]

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