A great deal of attention is being paid to Steve Bannon, Donald Trump's new head of strategy. I suspect there is some misunderstanding about the amount of power that an ideologue like Bannon can have in Trump's administration and an exaggeration of the link that can be made between the past views of Bannon and the opinions of the President-Elect, let alone the views of those to be found expressed on Bannon's vehicle, Breitbart.
The liberal cultural wing of the 'American oligarchy' are having a bit of a hissy-fit at the moment and any straw is being grasped at to demonstrate that Trump is a 'fascist' or worse. Eventually cooler heads will prevail. In the meantime here are three things to note before we look at what Bannon may actually think.
Bannon as Employee and Populist
The first is that his job as chief strategist is a 'corporate' one - he no longer speaks for himself and now loans his talents to the President. He has been bought. If he fails to deliver or blunders, he will be disposed of. His job is now to support the President not because he believes in him but because he is paid to perform a function and that function is political. He has to think about practical outcomes - increasing the President's rating sufficiently to get him re-elected in 2020, assisting in building a coalition that will get the President's programme through Congress and maintaining the momentum of the movement that put Trump into power.
Instead of shouting agit-prop aimed at the slightly over half the population required to get into White House, he is now dealing with the structures of power and with a struggle for control of information flow and interpretation against a mainstream media ['MSM'] that must, out of class interest, aim to destroy him. His ownership of Breitbart represents a direct challenge to MSM authority and revenues, especially if Breitbart becomes the main means by which the Trump administration communicates to the mass of the population.
The second is that he comes into office not as part of the closed competing network of networks that makes up late liberal democratic representative democracy but because he controls a means of communicating with and maintaining contact with a populist movement. This is his strength but also his weakness. The strength is obvious - he can reach millions of Americans with a policy line faster than any political rival and he can help form their opinion and actions in a way that may be unprecedented.
Perhaps only Father Coughlan's radio broadcasts in the 1930s come close to this but Breitbart is providing data in real time and continuously. Of course, Bannon will be delegating control of this medium but it would be naive not to see this as part of his armoury even if indirectly. He has a reserve power that, if he is dismissed, lies in the possibility that this machinery may become a thorn in the side of the President that it has helped to elect.
The Paradox of Bannon's Populism
The third thing to note is that the claims of 'fascism' miss some very central non-fascist aspects of American populism. The confusion of populism and fascism is sending liberal critics down a blind alley, stopping them from developing an appropriate critique and strategy for countering it. By propagandistically using inappropriate terms, liberals are creating the very culture of resentment that partly led to their defeat in the first place, opening up territory for Bannon's Alt Right to conquer. One key difference from fascism, a difference also to be found in European right-wing populisms, is the approach to democracy and free speech.
Both are viewed as positive and dynamic forces whereas liberals are being caught out being anti-democratic (questioning the 'deplorables', intellectuals questioning democracy itself and, in the UK, maintaining a resistance against the majority vote in the Brexit vote) and opposed to free speech (promoting increasingly onerous anti-hate laws, limiting freedoms on the campus and often downright bullying of non-liberal dissidents). This is a complete detournement of conventional thinking about what it means to be right and left. It is central to the drift of many social libertarians from one side to the other despite the conservatism underpinning Alt Right culture.
Bannon's robust and aggressive populism might be framed as 'hate speech' amongst liberals but it is framed as 'free speech' amongst conservatives with some plausibility. The liberal MSM has tried to counter with the framing device of 'fake news' (extended from genuine abuses to cover political opponents who are often merely providing information that would be pre-censored as inappropriate or inconvenient by the MSM). The MSM's somewhat sinister interest in trying to place rival social platforms under pressure is obvious. Twitter has taken the bait (aware of the sympathy for liberalism of large consumer-driven corporations with products aimed at urban liberals and minorities) by removing 'hate' accounts although many of these accounts equally class themselves as 'free speech' opportunities.
In the pre-Trump world, the control of the total system under a liberal hegemony would have instantly marginalised the critics of liberalism but Bannon has contributed to the creation of an entire alternative information and communications political ecology whose success can be seen in the election of a President despite the massive post-nomination assault on his candidacy by every element within the hegemonic system. The cultural power of this parallel system has thrown the dominant structure into something close to panic. Almost every idea emanating from it stands against the assumptions and values of oligarchical liberalism.
What Liberals Might Like To Do
This is where it gets interesting. In any other period of history or under any other hegemonic system, the solution would be simple - authoritarian repression. When faced with an existential threat, the system forgets any 'rules of war' and suppresses free speech, jails opponents, if necessary tortures and kills. But the West no longer has these tools at its command - not only because of its own claimed values (though we wonder if this would be restraint enough) but because the rule of law cannot be deployed in this way (certainly not after January 20th and as Woodrow wilson deployed it) and because the infrastructure of the State cannot be relied upon to comply with such orders.
Trump is faced with his own problem in that it is clear state level law enforcement in some key states may resist some of his policy measures. Any push to survival by the hegemonic regime through repression would probably mean civil war and certainly extensive political violence. In other words, the liberal hegemony of the US has fallen into the same position as the communist hegemony did in the Soviet Union in 1991 without even the tools at the disposal of the reactionaries. Anti-liberal forces have seized control of the State using liberal methods and are now in command of Presidential power for at least four years and possibly eight or twelve.
Bannon, who has cited Lenin, appears to understand his position and that of Trump. Through sheer energy and exploitation of the undoubted failures of liberalism (which are not the subject of this posting), they have surged forward in under nine months from nowhere to capture control of supreme executive power with reluctant and nervous allies controlling the legislature and a real opportunity to set a conservative tone within the judiciary. This cannot be called a political revolution because the forms and substance of the American 'regime' remain the same. There are also many points of resistance from centres of power still controlled by the liberals (in the very broadest sense) which can slow down the Presidency and destroy his credibility with the centre-ground.
However what Bannon, Trump and others have achieved is the possibility of a cultural revolution in which they set the tone for American politics and society on terms to which liberals have to adjust to survive. It cannot be Leninist - in other words, it cannot be the imposition of one ideology on the rest of society by a minority - but it can be significant if it forces conservatives to take on the concerns of the population at large and if it forces the liberals to begin a self-critical appraisal of how they lost power (which they currently seem reluctant to do) and if they transform themselves to include the concerns of the voters who switched sides out of frustration with their neglect. How liberalism might transform itself post-Trump is for another time.
So, with these caveats and comments, that Bannon is not the President but the servant of the President, that he is only part of a movement which he guides but to which he does not dictate terms and that his room for manouevre is limited in any path to replacing liberal hegemony, what is it that Bannon believes? We don't have timer for an exhaustive analysis of his views or trying to work out what what views on Breitbart are his and what are those of his contributors.
We will take an analysis of his opinions to just one audience (a conservative religious group) in the summer of 2014 and see what it reveals. Of course, being a politician, Bannon is tailoring his opinions to the audience - the Human Dignity Institute at the Vatican - and that has to be taken into account. Yet we can see what values underlie his views and so what beliefs are going to be influential in advising the President (whose views may be different) and in squaring various political circles - appointments, deals with Congress, speeches and policies.
The Problem of Capitalism
Bannon's world view is fundamentally communitarian. This creates the space for a critique of capitalism that is not socialist but belongs to a parallel right-wing tradition. This originated with petit-bourgeois anarchism but became central to the corporatism of fascism and national socialism as ideologies. But it is also an ideological position held widely within the Catholic Church as a critique of the dehumanising aspects of treating persons as not souls but mere units of production within large-scale combines that are disruptive of social bonds, duties and obligations. It is this critique that matters to Bannon in his Vatican talk. This critique is not interested in liberal capitalism's undoubted achievements in driving progress and innovation because progress and innovation are not seen as good things in themselves - as they tend to be seen by most liberals (though not increasingly by the eco-conservatives within the ranks of liberalism).
Where capitalism is criticised from the Left (as it used to be until the 1990s), it is as an anti-progressive force that fails to make best use of human talents and is wasteful. Innovation is seen as something just as easily and better done by the collective. Marx had his own critique of the de-humanisation involved in capitalism but, unlike Heidegger whose critique is of technology, science and so technology are positive factors which socialists will be better able to understand and make use of. If Bannon quotes Marx it is to point up the dehumanising aspects (in his view) of capitalism and not to share his socialism. No more than the Vatican and the Proudhonists, Bannon is not remotely a national socialist, a very different hybrid of socialism and communitarianism presented as anti-Marxism, nor a fascist, a corporatism without a moral base.
Naturally, I do not share this view of Bannon's since I see all human development as being broadly enhanced by scientific understanding and technology. I would go further and say that the objectification and allegedly dehumanising aspects of capitalism are positive rather than negative precisely because they break apart social binds that are repressive (indeed oppressive) and permit new social forms to emerge in their place, forms that are more suited to individual freedom and to human progress as technology develops.
The criticism I would have late capitalist liberalism is that it has compromised far too much with conservative forces - historically-based identity politics, regressive environmentalism (rather than sustainability as strategy) and faith-based approaches to values - and that, while communism as a political system became sclerotic and inefficient as well as cruel, some form of scientific materialism is central to the forward-looking Left Project. In other words, the rise of the Alt Right has been partly predicated on liberalism's compromises with conservative forces because ground had already been conceded by Clinton and Blair for short term electoral reasons in favour of identity, sentiment and faith.
Cronyism & Fairness
Many Leftists will share Bannon's views on 'crony capitalism', the capitalism of the few creating wealth and value for themselves and not for the people. This is classic populism but it not only represents an ideal shared with the Left but liberals are now on the defensive because, whether under Blair or Clinton, they have bought into the spurious global trickle-down theory of development and have allied themselves with corporations and oligarchs on terms that seem to enrich leading liberal politicians more than those who elect them.
This is where Bannon, appealing to the moralism of faith-based communities, has probably scored his greatest political victories in the last year - in the comparison of the insecurity and anxieties of struggling families with the wealth and comfort of a liberal elite who seemed to care more about people in faraway places than their 'ain folk'. Framed as 'racism' or 'white nationalism', it was nothing of the kind. It was merely filling the yawning chasm left by liberal abandonment of the respectable working classes and lower middle classes who had failed to fall into a pre-set liberal identity category and who did not give a stuff about liberalism's cultural politics.
There is a 'fairness' in Bannon's critique both that is it is a fair criticism but also that fairness (a very ordinary sentiment) is a value. He sees liberals as being at the apex of an unfair system and this clearly makes him angry. In another age and time perhaps he would have been a socialist. Perhaps not. American liberals have not made generalised fairness an existential value but have particularised it within identity politics. Perhaps this is why they are now licking their wounds.
Fairness is important as a social value. It is something imbued in children during their own battle to be recognised when power lies elsewhere. They do not object to power so long as it is fairly applied. The child-like resentment at unfairness may be at the very heart of the Trump 'revolution' - it is not resentment at people with darker skins or who like the same sex but resentment at the unfair privileging of other people at their expense. And, yes, this is what liberals have done, often without realising they have been doing it. They have been 'unfair' at multiple levels towards many Americans in the political home and the political playground. Some of Bannon's anger is justified.
Securitisation & Moral Value
Bannon's attack on securitisation is perhaps the most interesting aspect of his critique of liberal capitalism. Let us take the ideological base in Judaeo-Christianity for granted (more of that in a moment). His analysis is questionable - almost sub-Tawney - but let it stand. When he complains about securitisation, he is doing two things. The first is to give us a theory of commoditisation that could have come straight out of the late Marxist Frankfurt School - another of many detournements of left-wing thinking to meet right-wing objectives.
But it is the moral underpinning of the critique that matters. The Frankfort School (though their arguments were often specious) were claiming to describe reality and moral responses only emerged out of the hysteria of the liberal Academy - you might call this a displaced morality or valuation in which belief uses intellect cover up its own sentiment. Bannon will have none of that. He goes straight to valuation. He observes what he thinks is a fact on the ground and then sees it through the prism of morality from the very beginning.
Jump back to the causes of 2008 and you see securitisation at the very heart of the crisis. Bannon takes something that is intrinsically immoral from his perspective - the commodification of humans, their deepest needs and attributes - and shows, in a religious morality tale, to people who can put two and two together that the collapsing nature of capitalism is essentially a problem of moral failure. It means that if we change our morals (or rather imbue a certain morality in the State and economic system), prosperity and order will return.
This is a classically populist argument. It is, of course, nonsense but it sentimentally works for many working and middle class Americans who have no alternative 'scientific' narrative, who are accustomed to framing difficult questions in terms of good and evil and who desperately want change. This attack on Wall Street is definitely not a progressive or socialist one but, since progressives are ineffective and socialists marginalised, the liberal acceptance of Wall Street and liberal lack of interest in commodification in economics (oh, the irony! - the interest seems only to be in persecuting sex workers and getting better jobs for urban middle class women), it is the most effective one, the last interpretation left standing for relatively poorly educated people under real pressure who liberals refuse to accept or help.
'The World Burns' & Freedom
Bannon adopts one aspect of fascism that is really no more than an emotional stance - the desire to tear things down and destroy the Establishment. I have some sympathy with this since this so-called Establishment (a system of interconnecting networks with its own shared ideology) has failed to solve so many real world problems, indeed compounded them. Such an emotional stance can be a productive one in creating the motivation for change under conditions of sclerosis. But do we take this seriously? I don't take seriously my own emotional impulses in this direction which I express more as approval for 'shocks to the system'. Only 'shocks' seem to capable of forcing liberals to change their ways and they may remove the older generation of failed liberals and put in a new generation with a better understanding of the situation. In Bannon's case, yes, I think we must take him seriously.
Whereas for a Leftist like me, the liberal project simply took a wrong turning just as the Russian Revolution was a wrong turning, things are not black and white. Our failed liberalism has still produced a more tolerant and open society which the best efforts of Bannon and the Alt Right cannot reverse, just as Sovietism provided some genuine advances for the Russian people and offered a valuable experiment in the achievements and limitations of socialism. In other words, I can attack late liberal capitalist democracy on its failures because I see it as blocking the forward advance of humanity but I would want to reform and control it rather than want to destroy it completely. It irritates the hell out of me but it is still part of the human condition that has to be accommodated. Bannon on the other hand wants, like Lenin, to replace one system entirely with another - he wants to reverse progress and re-stabilise humanity on conservative-communitarian lines.
And will he achieve this? Of course he will not. It is rhetoric. The resilience of the American Constitution, the resistance of 50% of the American population, the fact that there is no means for enforcing a 'gleichshaltung' on the many different centres of power within modern liberal democracies and the reality that most people actually want more freedom rather than less work against his revolutionary romanticism. Furthermore, he may have to come to terms with the fact that his President is an instinctive social libertarian and he is only a part of a mass movement whose key word is Freedom just as that of the liberals is Justice (when perhaps it should be Peace, Justice & Freedom).
For the leading edge of European populism and, we believe, for Trump, Freedom means economic freedom as conservatives view it but only more so. It is not just that - 'freedom populists' have determinative concepts of national or state freedom and individual freedom presented as private rights over public claims. This is not the ideology of Judaeo-Christian communitarianism which we will see is central to Bannon's position. We have here internal contradictions within populism - between communitarianism and libertarianism where the former is actually on the defensive. The unhappiness of Christian Evangelical conservatives at Trump's lack of enthusiasm for some of their views as he gets closer to the Oval Office is an expression that this is not a Christian conservative regime.
Bannon & Communitarianism
Bannon regards libertarianism (in the
US this is nearly always seen in economic terms) as an ally within
populism but contrasts it with his brand of Judaeo-Christian 'enlightened
capitalism', creating the core of that primary internal contradiction within American
populism between Freedom and Fairness. It is an internal contradiction that creates a point of potential conflict with Trump himself who is clearly not a man of faith and who equally clearly rather gets on very well with a typical European proponent of the Freedom agenda like Nigel Farage. Although we might suspect Bannon playing up to his audience at this point since he clearly likes and admires Farage, I think Bannon is serious and not playing to the crowd here. His belief in Fairness draws him to a particular view of economic relations that is not scientific but comes from Biblical revelation (ultimately).
This does not require some deep-seated faith in God but only a belief that the code of values created in Judaea in the Iron Age and adapted by Christianity provides a template for an economic and social order that sees integrity in a community as something to be preserved. For the West, Judaeo-Christian ideology is what Confucianism is for the East (though he does not mention China) - a text-based wisdom ideology that is fair but tough-minded, constraining human desire and ensuring the weak are protected by moral leadership. He is far from alone in this - there is an extensive network of Judaeo-Christian (and, interestingly, Islamic) conservative critiques of liberal capitalism that seek to preserve the market but on terms that permit the community to dictate the conditions under which it operates in the community interest.
Needless to say, as an atheist existentialist, the idea that some Iron Age text, let alone some Eighteenth Century constitutionalist text, is an adequate guide to the maintenance of justice, freedom and security in an age of rapid technological change, strikes me as absurd. The reality is that such texts simply become, and have done so since Constantine in the public sphere, cover for the political hegemony of whatever class happens to hold the levers of power at any one time. However, he is right that contemporary neo-liberalism, whose ideology of unfair and untrammelled power relies ultimately on economic libertarianism, does not protect the weak and vulnerable.
Neo-liberalism does destabilise societies. American liberals seem to have been unable to develop strategies adequate to the task of creating a strong society in which the weak and vulnerable are protected and in which the ordinary man or woman is not threatened with insecurity and anxiety. Naturally my answer is different from his - the radical democrat control of capitalism through reason and science - but I can understand why, having been failed by the Left and with historical cultures that emphasise the Bible, millions of anxious and insecure people have looked backwards to the past rather than forward to the future. If there is a failure in American liberalism, it is its constant living in its own present, denying the identities of those clinging to past forms but also unable to offer any grand vision of the future.
The idea that Bannon is a racist or white nationalist is convenient for liberal critics but not merely is it unproven, it is clear that Bannon has no interest in such ideologies. This would fit with his mainstream Judaeo-Christian ideology. What he is accepting is the fellow-travelling of such ideologies within the broad populist movement. Liberals can neither understand not forgive this. But the response implicit from Bannon is two-fold - everyone has a right to a voice ('Freedom') and these people don't really matter in the long run.
Both are actually cogent positions. The first points up the authoritarian instincts of liberals who like to ban things they do not like under the banner of 'Right Conduct, Right Speech, Right Thought'. There is yet another irony in this. The Left has adopted Iron Age Judaeo-Christian attitudes and it is Bannon who is offering Voltairean freedom. This really is beyond the mental capacity of many liberals to comprehend.
Whether these extremists matter is another story. We tend to agree with Bannon. Their existence boxes him in a bit and allows liberals some easy propaganda wins in the less sophisticated centreground but it could equally be argued that free speech is a value and that the minorities have now sufficient political force to defend themselves. The weeping hysteria over the rise of fascism has been over done.
Nevertheless, the fact that Trump has such fellow travellers (though there is no evidence of racism on his part) is as potentially damaging to him as having Communists as fellow travellers were to candidates of the Centre-Left in earlier periods. On the other hand, the cultural war on the Confederate flag was probably, in retrospect, a major blunder by liberals, mobilising a legitimate and not necessarily racist 'white identity' that had scarcely existed before. The rise of Trump can be told as a succession of own goals by arrogant and presumptuous liberals.
All this perhaps helps to explain one of the more absurd psychological turns of the New Right, its obsession with Islam. To the 'real' Leftist, Radical Islam is easily explained. I think rightly so. It is the partial creation of a long period of self-serving Western imperialism and is, in itself, obscurantist and has become dangerous: however, it is powerful in our lives only because we have panicked and made it powerful through our continuous interventions and the ease with which its atrocities trigger our own insecurity and anxiety.
Liberals have both indulged it by trying to accommodate faith-based views into their own political strategy and been panicked into illiberal measures by fear and special interests. The Alt Right fear and distaste for Islam, meanwhile, operates at many levels - in Europe, a xenophobia which has its roots in the reality of growing ghettos of poor people with a completely alien culture, amongst European intellectuals as a feared threat to free speech and the accommodation with that threat of liberals and, more in the US, an exaggerated fear of political violence (admittedly in an always potentially violent country where gun ownership is normal) from an enemy within.
These are all simplistic responses that reify Islam and often fail to pinpoint the real policy failures - in the handling of colonialism (by France in particular), the absurd early adoption for ideological reasons of free movement of peoples in Europe and the interventionism of liberal internationalists in the Middle East (although many liberals have become vociferous in their own right against this last) - but Bannon is going deeper, seeing Islam in almost medieval terms as a cultural rival to Judaeo-Christianity instead of (as we would see it) the third arm of three equally obscurantist but mostly benign Abrahamanic religions.
The Manichean view of religion can only take place if the critic takes religion seriously. Now, self-evidently, Bannon is speaking to an audience in the Vatican and so he may just talking his book to a particular audience but I do not think so. Everything I have written before this point hangs together to give us the picture of a man who may or may not believe in God but does believe in Judaeo-Christian communitarianism whether his boss does or not. In fact, it might be argued that the internal contradiction outlined above in populism is partially resolved by having a libertarian President with a communitarian ideologue in his ear whispering truths about half his country base and guiding his language to hold the movement together.
We are painting a picture of a highly intelligent man, who in the tradition of de Maistre, is not interested in creating a reasoned political philosophy but in expressing a more or less coherent and very flexible philosophy of political sentiments. In this regard he is a throw-back to the right-wing response to the French Revolution yet one where the radical has now adopted the central tenets of the Revolution - democracy and free speech - to overturn its values which (I think rightly) he sees as having, in any case, degenerated and given him his opportunity for his politics of sentiment. However, each sentiment is not just simple brute emotion.
Each relates to the other and each, on closer investigation, has 'just cause' - the anger and resentment are based on justifiable concerns about household and personal security and at the overweening sense of entitlement of the liberal elite. But part of the personality type involved - a testosterone and energetic male type of a certain age - requires an habitual gloomy apocalypticism, that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. It isn't, of course, (the Cold War was scarier and so were the 1930s) but it feels as if it is because lots of men of a certain age have seen no progress since 2008 and feel insecure. This means they get to feel apocalyptic. Once a word for women trapped into certain behaviours by their condition, hysteria now transfers easily to early and late middle aged men in the West as well as liberal snowflakes in the universities who send each other into paroxyms at the drop of a Tweet.
Bannon's apocalypticism (which he seems to enjoy) centres on two beliefs - that capitalism is in crisis and that we are at the beginning of a global war against Political Islam (which he calls Islamic fascism as most neo-cons and Israelis do). The first is partly true although it is not capitalism in crisis but the prevailing neo-liberal form of it: all that is happening is a challenge by national capitalisms to globalised regulatory capitalism on one side and a challenge to liberal accommodation with neo-liberalism (by both Right and Left) on the other. Looked at more closely, even a Trotsky-inspired radical like Shadow Chancellor McDonnell in the UK is not reviving any form of state socialism but doing little more than offering us his own brand of National Keynesianism that will probably have more in common with Trump's programme (insofar as we know it) than either neo-liberalism or state socialism.
The war with Islamic fascism is, however, pure hysteria since Political Islam presents serious threats to Europe in terms of incidents but little more than that - crush IS and you have no place where it holds sufficient state power to threaten any other State existentially. Any State it did seize control of (and Saudi Arabia is not an example of it) would be surrounded and pummelled if it did prove a serious threat. Only Pakistan with its nuclear arsenal is a country to be truly scared of in this context and a war on Political Islam in Islamabad is as likely to create the problem for us as resolve it. What it is about really is Israel but not quite in the way we may think. We have to go back to the ideology of Judaeo-Christian communitarianism to see why Israel is so important to Bannon. His Jews are not the cosmopolitan intellectuals so distrusted by Stalin or the combination of those and poor refugees and shtetl dwellers hated as the enemy within by Hitler but Judaic communitarian heroes of the Book who built a land of settled immigrants (ironically). Protecting Israel is protecting a strong global communitarian ally and so the communitarian transformation of the West.
The Putin Problem
The internal contradiction we have identified within populism represented by Trump's libertarianism and Bannon's communitarianism is exemplified by the different attitudes to Putin. I suspect Trump really does not care over much about Israel and only looks at it through the lens of political expedience. But Trump sees Putin as a deal-maker would see a rival businessman with whom he can co-operate on a major development.
Trump rationally sees that IS is the real threat to America insofar as Islamic radicals have already declared war on the country and that the only people fighting IS in Syria (as opposed to Iraq) are the Syrians and the Russians. He has a 'sphere of influence' view of international relations and, like any good businessman, weighs up the profit and loss of whether to be in one theatre or another. He probably sees the American Empire as over-extended and that it is time to dump some loss-making subsidiaries. That does not make him weak. It makes him pragmatic, rational and non-ideological.
Bannon however is idealistic, sentimental and ideological. He acknowledges Putin as a social conservative and traditionalist who appeals to many populist communitarians but he resists his charms (this evidence, of course, comes from the period before the current phase of the Syrian crisis and well before Trump announced his nomination). He sees Russia as expansionary (probably falsely since Russia is really only protecting a sphere of influence that is existentially threatened by Western expansion) and as an example of the crony capitalism that he excoriates at the centre of his ideology. He probably has limited understanding of Russia and fails to see that the 'kleptocracy' is a creation in part of the way Yeltsin responded to events, backed by the West.
After all, an American executive said in my hearing in 1992 in Moscow that the right strategy for Russia was to drive it into a robber baron phase in order to ensure capitalist development - Putin has been cleaning up stage by stage ever since. Nevertheless, from an absolutist point of view, Russia epitomises the sort of crony capitalism Bannon sees as a global problem that is destroying the basis for a legitimate or 'enlightened' capitalism that would be beholden to Judaeo-Christian moral values. The point is not whether he is 'for' or 'against' Putin at any one point in history but why he is critical - and it comes down to a less informed but wholly consistent critique that derives from his observation of American conditions. In the talk, Bannon admits his lack of knowledge of foreign affairs and it is to be doubted whether he has had time to become more sophisticated since then.
Where We Are
Bannon is important but he is probably not quite as important as liberals fear. Having said that, what he has done is bring Judaeo-Christian communitarian thinking into the inner counsels of the most powerful military and economic leader on the planet and we should take this seriously. Although his President undoubtedly has different values, that President is a pragmatist and the maintenance of his movement requires respect for Bannon's ideology even as he is challenged, in turn, by alternative visions from radical nationalists, economic libertarians and social conservatives of a more elite type.
Bannon's ideology is emotional, sentimental and ignorant in key areas (especially foreign affairs) but coherent and based on some political realities - that American liberalism has become corrupted, that capitalism is failing and in the hands of unaccountable elites and that the deep anxieties and insecurities of perhaps half the American population have been ignored at best and treated with contempt at worst.
As for responses to him, calling him a fascist is just plain ignorant and counter-productive. He sits within a Western right-wing tradition that may be said to include fascism but he is better described as the radical democratisation of traditional right-wing authoritarianism. It is that radical democratisation in substance and in method that has knocked liberals sideways.
Only weeks after the vote, most liberals still do not know what they are dealing with - that identity politics can be turned against them, that conservative religious interpretations of the decline of capitalism have force because Left critiques of capitalism were fully marginalised in the 1990s and that the new populism has proved more adept than liberals, not at campaigning per se (Clinton still got the majority of the popular vote) but at creating a sustainable movement during a technological revolution in the means of communication. Campaigns come and go but movements tend to stick.
But perhaps most interesting is that at the end of the Q&A in his talk to the Human Dignity Institute, he positioned his struggle as primarily (in 2014) one against the 'crony capitalist' conservatives in the Republican Party. If one was looking at the response of the Left in 2017, it would have to echo that of Bannon - the struggle is primarily against the 'crony neoliberals' in the Labour and Democrat Parties. If Bannon could do what he did for the Right, democratic socialists could do the same for the Left by the next round of critical elections in both the UK and US (2018-2020).