With the US Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs Wade, women’s fundamental rights are under threat across the country in a way that would have been difficult to imagine only a few years ago. These laws are not “abortion bans” as such; they are not the “moderate, European-style compromise laws” we sometimes hear about: these new laws criminalise women’s reproductive health and direct the police powers of the state against them in cruel and perverse ways. It is likely the states that ban abortion will also employ all the means of technological surveillance and control, even pursuing those who try to get abortions in other states, in the manner of some new Fugitive Slave Law. Women have been advised to delete their period-tracking apps. We are witnessing the creation of a new form of federalised tyranny, in some ways more dire and ideologically informed than the dangers and hypocrisies of pre-Roe America. These new laws imperil women’s ability to exist as free and equal members of American society.
Americans should be concerned for all of our liberties, now. In his concurrence on the ruling, the Supreme Court’s Justice Clarence Thomas writes, “… we should reconsider all of this court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell” – the legal decisions upholding privacy, contraception and same-sex marriage. This, then, is a threat to the entire architecture of the so-called Rights Revolution, the postwar process through which Americans acquired the civil rights many of us took for granted. It once felt like an impossibility that these fortresses would fall, but now the right is moving against all of them in rapid succession, dazzling and demoralising their defenders with the swiftness and completeness of its advances. How could this be possible? The attackers were daring, opportunistic, and motivated while the defenders grew slack because these cases were such imposing edifices they never imagined they could be assaulted head on.
American liberalism has been organised around the notion that its hegemony was contestable in detail, but not in its fundamental propositions: progress was a fait accompli and eventually, on all issues, conservatives would have to adjust themselves to it, fight rearguard actions or accept the pluralism of compromise. This attitude appeared to be confirmed by the tactical and strategic compromises the right had to adopt from time to time, but the core idea was always to slowly drive a stake through the heart of the liberal consensus – or “to break the clock of the New Deal… to repeal the 20th century”, to quote the late US paleolibertarian economist Murray Rothbard.
Establishment liberals grew complacent, believing that their ideals were simply American ideals tout court and that conservative counterparts were merely partners in government. Mainstream conservatives seemed to play occasional lip-service to radical notions such as repealing Roe, and were happy for a time to share both in the responsibility of governing and the spoils of DC. But they were always ferociously attacked from their own right. What conservatives understood is that in politics, there is no such thing as reality – it is up to politics to define and change reality. As Hannah Arendt wrote in 1971, “the ability to lie, the deliberate denial of factual truth, and the capacity to change facts, the ability to act, are interconnected; they owe their existence to the same source, imagination”. No one would seriously contest that the Democrats today lack political imagination, perhaps above all else.
The Democrats did sometimes make appeals that the fundamentals were at risk, that elections were urgent or dire. But then they acted in such a lackadaisical way as to make it difficult to believe they were sincere. As the New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie wrote the other week, our ageing Democratic leadership ascended in the period of liberal hegemony and took progress to be inevitable, if slow and subject to backlashes that could be waited out or ameliorated with clever political sidestepping. “Trust the process, trust the system.” Some on the left concluded that alarmed warnings about the risk to basic rights and liberties and of democratic backsliding were manipulative: mere scaremongering, a way to distract from looking at more pressing social issues. They reasoned that Republicans would never really go after rights enjoyed also by rich and upper middle-class people. Others just believed, with more credibility, that the establishment Democrats were no longer up to the task of defending democracy.
Mostly everyone was convinced in the ultimate permanence of modern social liberalism, the combination of individual rights and some basic modicum of public services – a strange thing to believe given that from the moment of its inception with the New Deal, liberalism has been under constant assault and been successfully reversed in many cases. But continued signs of progress, in the extension of liberal rights and tolerant attitudes, convinced us these reactionary moments were merely healthy signs of tolerable pluralism, not really part of some wholesale attack on the democratic project. (To their credit, many feminists warned that Roe was seriously in peril with Donald Trump’s victory in 2016.)
What was allowed to ossify and go undefended was a certain consensus that developed after the Depression and the Second World War and which extended its scope during the civil rights era and the great society, which I call the antifascist hegemony. Its governing ideals were labour rights, basic social welfare, civil rights and liberties, voting rights, an increasingly inclusive and tolerant cultural atmosphere for immigrants and minorities, and the fear and hatred of tyrannies, both foreign and domestic. It was imperfect, incomplete, restrictive and hypocritical; it relied too much on elite consensus and not enough on mass mobilisation but, for a while at least, the right’s attempts to resist those columns of liberal power seemed doomed: it would eventually have to accept or co-opt these principles in some form another.
While critics of neoliberalism and Cold War liberalism have said that antifascist hegemony put a damper on the left, the reality is that it was more of an obstacle to the far right, and they deeply resented and shrieked against its strictures. All of the far right’s wild braying and bucking was its attempt to escape the antifascist hegemony that restricted it to the fringes. It constantly attempted to reinvent and adjust itself to avoid the charge of fascism.
The stink of “fascism” still clung to figures such as David Duke and Pat Buchanan, but when it was Trump’s turn to lead, the memory of the Second World War had become so faded and the antifascist hegemony so internally damaged and corrupted that it no longer could do its job. Its personnel had become either too old, too complacent, too corrupt, or too cynical to take up its defence. Sometimes, people either didn’t believe in it enough or they believed in it too much, that the strength of its “ideas” alone would prevail.
[see also: Is fascism the wave of the future?]
What conservatives also understood is that “ideas” without institutions are powerless. The vague miasma of cultural influence is not sufficient. The antifascist hegemony in its heyday relied on civil society, on activists, on unions, on party building. It’s also possible that some of the defences are still intact after the assaults of the past few years. We still don’t know how the public will react. In his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci, wrote, “In war it would sometimes happen that a fierce artillery attack seemed to have destroyed the enemy’s entire defensive system, whereas in fact it had only destroyed the outer perimeter; and at the moment of their advance and attack the assailants would find themselves confronted by a line of defence which was still effective. The same thing happens in politics… the defenders are not demoralised, nor do they abandon their positions, even among the ruins, nor do they lose faith in their own strength or their own future.” We cannot afford demoralisation; we have to once again man the trenches of civil society and government.