Gingrich and Bonapartism

Perhaps the best way to understand the Contract on America is in terms of the 18th Brumaire.

A lot of the liberal elements of the US ruling class are perplexed by the undemocratic nature of the new Congressional right-wing. They wonder why Gingrich and company would want to undermine such respectable institutions as the National Endowment for the Humanities or Public Broadcasting. They also are mystified by the unwillingness of the reactionaries to allow them to help decide the fate of welfare, affirmative action, etc. The complaint, basically, is that Gingrich is acting like a petty dictator.

Marx examined another petty dictator, Louis Bonaparte, in rather close detail in the pages of the 18th Brumaire. Marx commented, "If by its clamour for tranquillity the parliamentary Party of Order.. committed itself to quiescence, if it declared the political rule of the bourgeoisie to be incompatible with the safety and stability of the bourgeoisie, by destroying with its own hands in the struggle against all other classes of society the conditions for its own regime, the parliamentary regime, then the extra-parliamentary mass of the bourgeoisie, on the other hand, by its servility toward the President, by its vilification of parliament, by the brutal maltreatment of its own press, invited Bonaparte to suppress and annihilate its speaking and writing section, its politicians and its literati, its platform and its press, in order that it might then be able to pursue its private affairs with full confidence in the protection of a strong and unrestricted government. It declared unequivocally that it longed to get rid of its own political rule in order to get rid of the troubles and dangers of ruling."

The similarities are striking. Finance capital in 19th century France and late 20th century America relies on buffoons to help consolidate and centralize its rule while at the same time appearing superficially to undermine its own power and interests. Bonaparte attacks parliament, while Gingrich attacks the executive branch, and both assume the guise of middle-class "revolutionaries" all the while acting on behalf of big capital. Marx notes that Bonaparte suppresses and annihilates the speaking and writing section of the bourgeoisie; Gingrich and his network of right-wing radio and TV allies also go on the attack against symbols of Eastern, old-money elite rule: the NY Times, PBS, Ivy League universities, etc.

Bonaparte and Gingrich both wear the colors of the petty-bourgeoisie. Bonaparte relied on the peasantry while Gingrich and his ilk appeal to frightened, insecure middle managers at Fortune 500 corporations. Marx observed that "the small peasants form a vast mass, the members of which live in similar conditions, but without entering into manifold relations with one another. Their mode of production isolates them from one another, instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse." Furthermore, they are consequently incapable of enforcing their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or through a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, as an unlimited government power that protects them against the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power subordinating society to itself."

Substitute the word "middle-manager" for peasant and you will understand the process that is unfolding today. It explains the popularity of figures such as Perot as well as the ascendancy of Gingrich.

Of course the difference between the period Marx is discussing and today is that it is the legislative branch, rather than the executive branch, that is "subordinating society to itself". A Republican victory in 1996, with Phil Gramm as President, will signal a shift back to concentrated executive power such as that typified by the Reagan "imperial" presidency.

Gingrich, like Bonaparte, would like "to appear as the patriarchal benefactor of all classes. But he cannot give to one class without taking from another." So you will eventually see a counter-reaction to Bonapartist rule. Gingrich's plummeting popularity is understandable in these terms. The middle-class, as well as the working-class, is now waking up to the brutal reality of the Contract on America. 10,000 students marched on City Hall in New York yesterday, protesting budget cuts enacted by our Gingrichian governor George Pataki. Politics may turn out to be interesting over the next few years. Re-read your Marx but also dust off your marching boots. The mass movement, as well as Marxist literature, can also be a great educator.

Louis Proyect