Theses on the Political Crisis — Rafael Khachaturian

[This set of points was written in the immediate wake of the far-right attack on the US Capitol on 6 January 2021. It attempts to theorize and reflect on what was then a rapidly unfolding situation, placing these events within the larger trajectory of the protracted crisis of the US state during the 2015–20 period. The closing of this phase of the crisis marks the opening of a new conjuncture, one whose parameters are discernible but whose outcome remains to be determined.]

1. By political crisis we mean a crisis of the state. The capitalist state is a social relation through which relations of production and reproduction in a social formation (together comprising class struggles) are coordinated and modified. The state is both one of the institutional terrains on which class struggles unfold and the condensation of those struggles. [1] However, it is not a neutral terrain, since the dynamics and boundaries of class struggles and state policies are conditioned by the capitalist mode of production and its distinctive features: private ownership of property and the means of production, the wage relation, commodity production, and capital accumulation.

2. The political crisis is a process whose rhythm and timing is structured by the parameters of the capitalist mode of production and the specific social formation in which it takes place. A crisis in relations of production does not necessarily need to precede or provoke a political crisis. Conversely, a political crisis may take place without provoking a crisis in the relations of production. The relationship between political and economic crises is one of relative autonomy and temporal contingency, rather than a stagist and necessary movement from the economic to the political.

3. A political crisis is not caused by a single primary contradiction, for example between “elites” and “the people” or between the capitalist class and the working class (or more abstractly, between capital and labour). Nor is it confined to the most proximate or visible expression of the dominant contradiction in a particular conjuncture. Instead, it is an overdetermined fusion of a plurality of contradictions, each with its own temporality and pertinent domain, distributed across all levels of a social formation. The timing and manner in which these contradictions are articulated into a specific, conjunctural crisis depends upon the relatively autonomous trajectories of these processes in each of the levels of a social formation. [2]

4. A crisis of the state involves the breakdown and modification of the relationships that make up the hegemonic power bloc. By hegemony is meant any specific condensation and articulation of the relations of “consent” (the ideological) and “coercion” (the repressive) that together stabilize a social formation. By power bloc is meant a contradictory unity under the dominance of a hegemonic class fraction, concentrated at the level of the state. Through the state, the organizational role of the power bloc is to operate on behalf of the collective class interests of the ruling class as a whole, while simultaneously incorporating the key elements of the dominated and subaltern classes into the common hegemonic project. [3] The nature of this incorporation varies depending on the degree of class struggle in a social formation, which is itself partially determined by the legacy and sedimentation of past institutional forms and hegemonic projects.

5. The protracted political crisis of the American social formation has its proximate cause in the 2015 Republican primaries. However, its roots are in the 2008 financial crisis and the Great Recession. On the ideological level, between 2009 and 2014 the economic crisis resonated as the exposure of the hollowness of the neoliberal consensus on which the bipartisan centre was based. On the political level, it initiated the erosion of the bipartisan power bloc at the centre of the state, organized around the finance, insurance, and real estate (“FIRE”) sector and the national security apparatus, and facilitated the growth of the far-right social movements that eventually coalesced into the Trump presidency. Finally, this year, the dual shock of the coronavirus pandemic and the anti-racist rebellions prompted a general political crisis of the state as a crisis of legitimacy and governability. This last phase of the political crisis in the period between the November 2020 election and the January 2021 inauguration culminated in a brief but violent crisis of the transition of power.

6. The crisis is a symptom of the disjuncture between the balance of social forces and their expression through existing political institutions. Parties do not represent social constituencies and blocs to the state, as pluralist-corporatist theories of liberalism suggest. Rather, they consolidate and represent the interests of particular fractions of capital to the state and, in turn, the state to an amorphous and fragmentary “society”. [4] The protracted political crisis (2015–21) was preceded by the gradual breakdown of the hegemonic bloc and the fragmentation of the coalition of political elites across the two parties over the past decade. Political fissures between the parties, expressed as polarization at the level of mass public opinion, increasingly became articulated at the parliamentary level as zero-sum conflicts over “economic” issues like the national debt and “cultural” issues like abortion. A common modus operandi of largely bipartisan governance forged in the wake of the Cold War and the War on Terror gradually broke down into a political and ideological antagonism.

7. The economic recovery from the crisis of 2008 thus had the effect of displacing the contradictions of neoliberal governance to the political. The breakdown of the hegemonic power bloc of the Obama years and its reconfiguration under Trump both took place against the background of the persistence of the neoliberal economic consensus. The power bloc at the core of the Trump administration, which consolidated the fractional interests of immobile and extractive capital, manufacturing, big retail, and an acquiescent FIRE sector, enjoyed economic growth and stability under the terms largely established by the previous neoliberal regimes. [5] At the same time, the hegemonic crisis became more pronounced, as the fissures between the governing parties, including about the funding and running of the state itself, became more irreconcilable.

8. The prolonged political crisis has been characterized by fissures not only within the state’s representative institutions (consent), but also within the repressive state apparatuses (coercion). The rhetorical assault on the “deep state” was a symptom of the political crisis that resonated and was expressed on the ideological level. Trump’s alienation of the national security and military circles—now designated as the “deep state”, alongside the rest of the state bureaucracy—prevented him from using those existing power networks as spaces for the reorganization of a new, post-neoliberal hegemonic bloc. In their place, the role of the repressive-ideological state apparatuses at the centre of the hegemonic bloc was instead filled by the police, border patrol, and the institutions of the carceral state. The importance of these apparatuses was given additional weight by the racialized and federalized nature of the US state, on which the uneven regional dominance of the Republican Party rests, as well as their permeability to reactionary parastatal and militia elements. [6]

9. The post-election interregnum underscored the near unanimous opposition to Trump’s political destabilization among the different fractions of the capitalist class, and their support for the procedural transition of power to a unified Democratic government. This, in turn, opens the possibility for a hegemonic reconfiguration aiming to close the fissures opened by the political crisis. [7] In this context, the institutions of the national security state offer a natural organizational node around which the reconsolidation of the post-Trump bipartisan centre may take place. The balance of political forces may shift from the familiar partisan opposition of the 2008–20 period to a new axis of polarization, one between a bipartisan power bloc of “authoritarian neoliberalism” and a weakened but undefeated post-Trumpian radical right. [8] Naturally, the stability gained from a hegemonic reconsolidation of the centre around Biden would be offset by the potential volatility of this reconfiguration of forces in a new conjuncture.

10. In losing its foothold in the national state, the Trumpian far right has currently lost the key channels of mass organization it would need to challenge the authoritarian neoliberal consensus. The Republican Party remains an imperfect, and at best temporary vehicle, for further cultivating the radicalization of the political crisis. The irregular paramilitary organizations, for their part, are currently not disciplined and coordinated enough to challenge a restorationist power bloc of the centre. However, the crisis of the parties as channels of legitimacy and representation, and the inherited counter-majoritarian institutional framework of the US constitution and state, both provide space for ongoing far-right organization. In particular, a new phase of the political crisis would be distinguished by the police, border patrol, and carceral institutions becoming the primary organizational nodes for a post-Trumpian radical right.

Rafael Khachaturian is Lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and Associate Faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.

[1] Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, trans. Patrick Camiller (London: Verso, 1980 [1978]).

[2] Salar Mohandesi, “Crisis of a New Type“, Viewpoint Magazine (13 May 2020).

[3] Nicos Poulantzas, Political Power and Social Classes, trans. Timothy O’Hagan (London: Verso, 1978 [1968]).

[4] Peter Mair, Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy (London: Verso, 2013).

[5] Mike Davis, “Trench Warfare” 126 (2020) New Left Review 5; Dylan Riley, “Faultlines” 126 (2020) New Left Review 35.

[6] Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007); Marie Gottschalk, Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).

[7] Rafael Khachaturian and Stephen Maher, “The Washington Riot Was a Defeat for the Far Right, Not a Triumph” Jacobin (8 January 2021); Rafael Khachaturian, “Trump Has Left the Building, but the Foundations Are Still in Place” The Nation (21 January 2021).

[8] Ian Bruff, “Authoritarian Neoliberalism and the Myth of Free Markets” ROAR Magazine (Winter 2016); Ian Bruff and Cemal Burak Tansel (eds), Authoritarian Neoliberalism: Philosophies, Practices, Contestations (Abingdon: Routledge, 2019).