“On Your Knees”: The Pyrrhic Victory of Kevin McCarthy
Shortly before midnight on January 6, after his 14th attempt to become Speaker of the House failed, Kevin McCarthy walked over to Matt Gaetz in a last-ditch attempt to find the votes. As he rose, a Democratic representative shouted that McCarthy should do the negotiation “on your knees.” That humiliation was followed by a tense confrontation (all on live television) between McCarthy’s allies and Gaetz — the leader of the far-right Republicans who refused to back McCarthy — which culminated in one of McCarthy’s allies having to be physically separated from Gaetz. Meanwhile, Marjorie Taylor Greene — a member of the Far Right who backed McCarthy — waved around a phone with Donald Trump on the other end, trying to get the rebels to talk to the former president on the phone in an attempt to whip the votes for McCarthy. All this chaos — plus a mass Republican flip-flop on a vote to adjourn the vote — finally resulted in McCarthy limping to victory as Speaker a little after midnight on January 7. It took 15 votes to get him there, the most since 1854.
McCarthy emerged from this four-day rebellion bruised, weakened, and publicly humiliated. For days, the country watched him repeatedly lose — putting the lie to any claims of unity within the Republican Party. For days, it was clear that the right wing of the Republican Party — increasingly radicalized and anti-establishment — was the one calling the shots. They effectively used the Republican majority’s small size to impose their demands on the party and on the House of Representatives. This right wing now seems poised to have an outsize impact on the dynamics within the regime in the months to come.
The McCarthy affair is but an opening shot to the coming period. The far-right wing of the Republican Party has declared itself a major political actor, one that is willing to stand in the way of the government functioning to win its demands. The establishment faction has already bent the knee to this radicalized wing and given concessions — for example, McCarthy agreed to give any single member the ability to demand a vote on replacing the Speaker, which, while democratic on its face, will keep McCarthy on his toes and remind him that the right wing can make his life hell at any moment, essentially holding him hostage. McCarthy may have won the speakership, but he did so, as the Democratic jeer indicated, on his knees.
The Organic Crisis in the McCarthy Affair
Since 1923, every Speaker of the House has been elected on the first ballot. But this year it took 15 ballots — more than any contest since the mid 19th century. For days, government ground to a halt as deals had to be cut between members of the same party. Some floated the idea of a “unity government” with a candidate voted by moderate Republicans and Democrats. It was the most multiparty the U.S. Congress has ever looked in modern memory. For those days, there were functionally three parties in the U.S. House: the Democrats, the Republicans, and the Freedom Caucus.
This is an expression of the deep political crisis unfolding within the regime. Battered from four years under Trump, the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, two decades of endless war, declining hegemony abroad, and multiple “once-in-a-lifetime” economic crises, the public’s trust in the institutions of the U.S. regime are at historic low levels. This loss of trust has opened a crisis in which the masses (the “represented”) no longer feel that their politicians and institutions (the “representatives”) share their interests. This, of course, is true. The institutions of the U.S. regime and the bourgeois politicians who manage them don’t work for the masses; they work for the wealthy. Their job is to ensure the smooth operation of capitalism and clear the way for capital to advance. Of course, there can be disagreement within the bourgeoisie about how to do this — this is why there can be such fierce debate among the bourgeois political parties (and within the parties themselves) — but, at the end of the day, the institutions of the state and the politicians of bourgeois parties belong to the rich. So the crisis of faith in these same institutions is warranted.
Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci coined the term organic crisis to describe situations like these, in which there is a growing crisis between the represented and the representatives — this phenomena can benefit both the Left and the Right. As people increasingly (but not fully or en masse) realize that the U.S. state, the established parties, and the current system do not serve their interests, they will increasingly look for alternatives. This causes the established parties (in this case, the Democrats and Republicans) to scramble over themselves to figure out how to reorient themselves to the developing situation. To return to Gramsci, he wrote of the organic crisis that
when such crises occur, the immediate situation becomes delicate and dangerous, because the field is open for violent solutions, for the activities of unknown forces, represented by charismatic “men of destiny.” … The traditional ruling class, which has numerous trained cadres, changes men and programmes and, with greater speed than is achieved by the subordinate classes, reabsorbs the control that was slipping from its grasp. Perhaps it may make sacrifices, and expose itself to an uncertain future by demagogic promises; but it retains power, reinforces it for the time being, and uses it to crush its adversary and disperse his leading cadres, who cannot be very numerous or highly trained.
In this quote, we can see the McCarthy affair play out. The crisis opened by the failures of neoliberalism — represented first and most clearly by the 2008 financial crisis — created an opportunity for charismatic “men of destiny” to emerge and capitalize on the crisis of authority from the Right. These figures have used the crisis to position themselves as part of the regime while representing themselves as opposed to it. This allows them to disrupt the superstructure in order to pursue their reactionary agenda. In the McCarthy affair, we can see, in some sense, what Trump paved the way for: a combative, far-right, anti-establishment wing that has fast radicalized and grown in power. While Trump may have helped open the door for this advance, the wing that held up McCarthy’s victory was not acting of its own accord, showing that, in some sense, it is the next iteration of this phenomena. In this moment, the establishment could regain control — for, indeed, it had much better trained political operators on its side than the 20 rebels did — but it had to make sacrifices to retain control. These sacrifices are setting up an even more polarized and chaotic situation in the coming weeks and months.
A Proto-fascist Wing
The political character of the right wing of the Republican Party is a complex one. It is complex, on one hand, because the Democrats have made much hay (and gained many votes) by painting them as existential threats to democracy that can be combated only by supporting an increasingly right-wing Democratic Party, which is presenting itself as the chief defender of the regime’s institutions. On the other hand, it is complex because the wing itself is eclectic and driven, in many cases, by personalities — from Trump to Gaetz to Taylor Greene, many of the key political leaders of this sector are gaining prominence as charismatic (wo)men of destiny more than for as nuanced political thinkers with detailed policy proposals.
For now, we can characterize this right wing of the Republican Party as proto-fascist. In other words, they are “pre” fascists. They are not yet “full-blown” fascists yet. Fascism is the bourgeoisie’s last refuge after it becomes clear that the normal mechanisms of bourgeois rule are no longer sufficient to keep down the working class. This, historically, has been a response to the failure of the proletariat to seize power after a moment when it seemed it might be able to — for example, the aborted revolution in Germany in 1918 or the factory occupations in Italy in 1920. This failure leaves the seat of power open for fascism to enter as the bourgeoisie’s savior, one that the bourgeoisie is willing to make concessions to in order to protect its own power.
Fascism abolishes bourgeois-democratic aspects of the regime, strengthening the state apparatus and launching massive attacks on working-class organizations (going as far as liquidating them when possible). Fascism’s relationship with the state is key. In the words of Clara Zetkin, from her totemic report on the rise of fascism in the 1920s, fascism is
an asylum for all the politically homeless, the socially uprooted, the destitute and disillusioned. And what they no longer hoped for from the revolutionary proletarian class and from socialism, they now hoped would be achieved by the most able, strong, determined, and bold elements of every social class. All these forces must come together in a community. And this community, for the fascists, is the nation. They wrongly imagine that the sincere will to create a new and better social reality is strong enough to overcome all class antagonisms. The instrument to achieve fascist ideals is, for them, the state. A strong and authoritarian state that will be their very own creation and their obedient tool. This state will tower high above all differences of party and class, and will remake society in accord with their ideology and program.
Today, the economic and political crisis is sizable, but it is incomparable to that of Spain, Italy, or Germany in the lead-up to the fascists’ seizure of power in those countries. Class struggle is not at a level where the bourgeoisie will need to rely on fascism to liquidate workers’ organizations, nor has the crisis of authority reached the extent to which large sections of the masses will side with, in Zetkin’s words “a sham revolutionary program.” But as Zetkin goes on to explain, fascists can “[link their program] up in extremely clever fashion with the moods, interests, and demands of broad social masses.” While, certainly, the current program of the Far Right of the Republican Party doesn’t currently rise to the level of “sham revolutionary,” we can see that they are trying to connect their proto-fascist program with “the moods, interests, and demands of the broad social masses” by taking up demands specifically aimed at interacting with the larger crisis of authority.
Another key element of fascism is that it has a mass base organized along military lines. To put this another way: fascism is bolstered with support from para-military groupings that help them, in the words of Zetkin, “suppress [the working class] with armed force and terrorist means.” These groupings are central to helping fascists obtain and maintain power. Groupings of this sort, at this scale, do not yet exist in the U.S. We can see, however, some embryos of what could grow into these with the rise of far-right groups carrying out acts of terror. For example, the proto-fascist wing of the Republican Party has a much more fluid relationship with the organized Far Right than other wings of the party. Starting even before Trump, sectors of the Republican Right have made more and more gestures toward bringing right-wing extremism inside the party tent. From Trump telling the Proud Boys to “stand by” to Kyle Rittenhouse being offered internships by Gaetz and Boebert to candidates doing events with white supremacists, we can see how the right wing of the Republican Party has sought to align itself with the fringes of the Far Right. These are the embryos of what could become a more “private army” type of formation for a more developed fascist movement in the future.
This proto-fascist wing, then, has emerged stronger from the McCarthy affair. This is so both objectively (in terms of seats on key committees, power within the House, etc.)— and subjectively (they are clearly viewed as the agenda setters in the new Congress). To understand this characterization, we must understand them within both the Republican Party and the larger political scenario.
The Republican Party has settled on a program consisting of four points, all of which position the party to address the social, political, and economic crisis brought on by neoliberalism:
1. Anti-immigrant. They strongly favor “border security” and try to shift the responsibility for the economic crisis onto immigrants, using immigration to attack not only the Democrats but also the project of globalization more generally.
2. Anti-“woke.” They oppose the advance of social and legal rights (and support the stripping of these rights in extreme ways) for a wide variety of minority groups, as evidenced by their attacks on trans, Black, and Brown people, and specifically focusing on the trans community. These attacks are part of a broader political strategy to use opposition to social progress to mobilize those sectors of the white middle and working class who fear that their “way of life” is under attack. These attacks frame any recognition of structural racism as anti-American and the existence of trans people as an inherent threat to children.
3. Anti-China. Opposition to China is one of the most unifying aspects of the bourgeois programs right now. The Democrats and Republicans are united in viewing China as a key strategic and economic adversary. So, both to oppose this key rival and build on Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric, the Republicans are making opposition to China a key part of their profile. This means that although they favor austerity measures, there is bipartisan support for increasing government spending on the military.
4. Anti–social spending. They are proposing a sweeping program of austerity that will slash social spending in an attempt to resolve the economic crisis by putting the cost on the working class.
In these four points of agreement, the Republican Party stands united. But as the McCarthy affair indicated, the party is in a moment of deep polarization and internal tension. Given this, in addition to the four points of unity outlined above, the right wing of the party represented by the 20 rebels adds a fifth point, which is that they are (unlike the establishment wing of the party) anti-institutional/anti-establishment.
This wing takes up Trump’s rhetoric of “draining the swamp” and uses that politics to respond to the organic crisis. Specifically, they are attempting to challenge the liberal sector — represented by Biden — who, they argue, have become elites lording over the rest of society and who have clung to power for decades. This is a direct response to the shifts within the Democratic Party, which, especially since 2008, is technocratic and whose leaders (such as Pelosi and Biden), having held power for decades, are in the pockets of “special interests.” The rhetoric of “drain the swamp” is a response to real phenomena but, of course, offers no real solution.
While its main targets are the “liberal elite,” this criticism sometimes spills over into attacking other Republicans, whom the insurgents view as playing the game of bipartisanship and maintaining business as usual in government. As an example: on the House floor, Gaetz attacked McCarthy for being the “LeBron James of special interest fundraising” and said McCarthy had “[sold] shares of [himself] to the lobby corps, and [does] their bidding at the expense of the American people.”
Yet, of course, once we look at where these nominally “anti-special interest” Republicans find their money, we can see that they are also on the payroll of the capitalist class. Specifically, they are being bankrolled by finance capital. From Peter Thiel to the Koch brothers to smaller investment firms, this right wing of the Republican Party is being propped up by a specific branch of capital. So, even though they pretend to be helping protect the “average American” from “special interests,” these Republicans are just as tied to the capitalist class as their establishment opponents.
This wing criticizes some elements of the bourgeois-democratic regime, but not of the bourgeois state itself. In other words, for all their criticisms of government interference, they strongly support increasing state power. This wing champions Blue Lives Matter, wants to crack down on crime, wants to increase police funding, and strongly supports harsh legislation limiting bodily autonomy. These Republicans are fight to increase policing at the border and to increase the power of ICE.
When they do raise many critiques of the regime, this proto-fascist wing proposes a variety of right-wing “reforms.” Some of these (like defunding the FBI) are attempts to link their reactionary politics with broader shifts in the mood of the masses, specifically the loss of faith in institutions. They seize on the loss of faith in institutions to fight to limit voting rights (building off the loss of faith in the outcome of the elections). This proto-fascist wing also supports anti-protest laws and, of course, the January 6 riot. The justification for both of these is based on establishing “order.” The protest laws will keep these dangerous antifa/BLM terrorists at bay, and January 6 was an attempt to combat the “stealing” of an election by the institutions. In this politics we can see how, to advance their reactionary program, they are cleverly positioning themselves along the broader shift in feeling of the masses.
The base of this wing is also important. These politicians are specifically taking up a program of protecting middle-class interests — though some in this wing are trying to make rhetorical outreach to sectors of the working class that are growing disillusioned with the Democratic Party, their program is undeniably designed to appeal to middle-class concerns and interests. Their program is based on seizing upon a real decline in material conditions thanks to the failings of neoliberalism, but reframing it as a result of social progress. To put this another way, it seeks to tell the middle class that their lives aren’t getting worse because of capitalism but because of minorities. Importantly, this sector is also united with the rest of the Republican Party in trying to limit the rights of workers to fight for themselves. They advance attacks on the NLRB and want to make it harder to unionize.
As an example of this, we can look at this wing’s program on schools. The hysteria around critical race theory, “gender ideology,” etc., is all framed around the idea that parents are losing control over their children and that we need to “give schools back to the parents.” This is an attempt to reestablish social control through the structure of the bourgeois family via “force” (legislation and policy enforcement) without addressing the material economic conditions which led to the decline of the family as a structure of control — i.e., parents having to work more, greater access to information via the internet, longer working hours, both parents having to work, etc.
Build a Working-Class Party with a Socialist Program
The above section may well make readers nervous. Indeed, it is natural and healthy to be deeply concerned by the strengthening of the Far Right — both in the U.S. and around the world. So, then, the situation demands that we answer the question: How do we fight the Right?
Let us begin with how we cannot fight the Right. Time and again, we have seen that voting doesn’t defeat the Far Right. It didn’t defeat the Far Right in Germany when the masses voted for the conservative Hindenburg against the fascist Hitler, since Hindenburg appointed Hitler as his chancellor. It didn’t work in 2020, when Biden defeated Trump but Trumpism and the Far Right persisted. It didn’t work in 2022, when many far-right candidates were defeated at the polls but the far-right attacks on trans people, workers rights, and our democratic rights continue. It doesn’t work, particularly when those votes are being cast for capitalist parties. The failure of the Democrats to resolve these crises is what is creating the breeding ground for the Far Right. Putting another neoliberal in power isn’t going to resolve the crisis because this is precisely what created the crisis. Nor can we wait until the next election cycle to begin fighting the Right. We must begin that fight in the here and now, not in November 2024.
In this fight, we must rely on ourselves as workers and members of oppressed groups. We are the ones under attack, and we are the ones who will defend ourselves. We can’t trust the capitalists to defend us because they have already proved that they won’t. Both historically and contemporarily, we have seen that the capitalists and their politicians will turn a blind eye to the rise of the Right (except when it benefits them politically) and give concessions to them right up until they hand them the keys to the kingdom. We have too much at stake to place our trust in those whose class interests are fundamentally opposed to ours.
Rather, we must build our own organizations to fight the proto-fascists. Self-organization of the working class must be our key demand as we build and fight for militant unions that will unite the fight to defend workers with the fight to defend the oppressed. The right wing has established that it will continue to push its agenda, so we must organize ourselves against these attacks. This organization should take place in our workplaces and through a mass movement that should include protests, workplace actions, and strikes. Our unions and workplaces will be key places to take up this fight because it is in the workplace where we hold our greatest power as workers. We must fight to make our unions democratic institutions, rejecting bureaucratic business as usual and orient our organizations for the coming moment. Workplace committees can also be a vital means of beginning worker self-organization, which, in turn, will allow us to mount self-defense if we ever need to do so.
As workers and the oppressed, we need to unite the struggles against the Right in a party that doesn’t rely on capitalists who encourage or turn a blind eye to the rise of the Far Right to organize these struggles. Socialism is a program and politics that can unite these struggles. By fighting the Right, we can begin to convince the masses that only socialism can bring about a world where the factors that lead to the rise of the Far Right cannot fester.