21st Century Fascism & Its Antecedents

Gregory Diamant
Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Thinking about modern liberal capitalism reminds me of the Alien movies. Horrendous monsters everywhere seem to be unstoppable; their sticky drool touches everything. No one seems to be safe. Yet our heroine, Ripley, never loses sight of the fact that there is an ultimate enemy: the mother who gives birth to the monsters and sends them out to make the world safe for her and her progeny.

Isn’t capitalism often pregnant with fascism and other stillborn monsters? Aren’t we, the people, exhausted by the imperatives of capitalism for the creation of more and more wealth; obscene wealth for the few, not much for the many? Gross inequality, racism and misogyny, work insecurity, the existential threat of climate collapse and the criminalization of poverty, aren’t these enough for many of us just to throw up our hands and retreat to an inner space, a sort of intellectual cocoon? How can we struggle to overcome these threats and the often pervasive feelings of powerlessness?

In 1939, Max Horkheimer, a philosopher and cultural critic and an emigre from Nazi Germany said, “whoever is not prepared to talk about capitalism should also remain silent about fascism”. Let’s now talk about both.

Fascism is a word often used to describe anything oppressive, a term of opprobrium that conjures up the odor of sulphur. But doesn’t using it that way muddle our thinking? It takes the political reality of fascism out of lived history and places it in an ahistorical zone that seems to float over our politics. Using it in this way thus masks the real nature of our political economic system (capitalism) and helps to unplug the will to struggle in a critical way for change. How can we posit a vision of the future if we don’t really understand our past and present? If so much that we characterize as bad is fascist, what does the word really mean?

Fascism was born in the womb of capitalism, as part of the ongoing struggle among classes. Its most immediate antecedents can be seen in the cultural pessimism of Europe in the late 19th century and a cultural modernism that took root at the same time. Cultural pessimism was an outgrowth of increasing wealth that had as one of its artefacts the decadence that was expressed in the arts and in social mores. Modernism in the arts also took root then and was in many ways a reaction to the perceived placidity of that time, and later found its expression in the new technology that had been developed (such as cinema) and was stimulated by the upheavals of the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution. In Italy, the Futurist movement exalted speed and metal and was a cultural forebear of the Mussolini revolution. In the new Soviet Russia similar movements developed but with an exaltation of the working man and woman.

In some ways, we can also see the form that the politics of classical fascism took from the left wing Jacobinism of the French Revolution. Mass mobilization, plebiscites, the concept of the nation and sacred soil; all these can be seen in revolutionary France and in one way or another were adopted and modified by 20th century fascism.

Post World War I Europe seemed to be a world turned upside down. The devastation of the war and the subsequent Spanish Flu epidemic that caused the crippling and deaths of millions, revolutions, change of borders with the resultant stranding of populations in newly created countries and then followed by inflation and the coming of the Depression; all contributed to the feeling that all bets were off, or as the Cole Porter song would have it, Anything Goes! But the impact to all of this topsy turvy change is that many people rightly felt they had no part in the creation of the new political and geographic reality: they were merely objects to be manipulated and not subjects. The elites made the changes and the people were crammed into the back of the train riding in the caboose, inhaling engine smoke. This led to an understandable reaction: the need for stability and order.

There is no doubt that at that time capitalism was in crisis. Despite the cultural promotion of the Roaring Twenties, wages were stagnant in the US for a majority of the population and there was a crisis in agriculture that exacerbated rural poverty. Farmers were in terrible debt and could not bring their produce to market in a way that allowed them to free themselves from financial chains. Debt peonage was thus rife in America. And this was also true of a majority of working class people. Of course, once the Stock Market crashed in 1929, all the weaknesses of American capitalism were laid bare. Overproduction led to warehouses full of unsaleable goods; small businesses and banks collapsed due to unpayable loans and unemployment and underemployment soared.

In the US, incipient fascist movements were developing as exemplified by the American Legion and the America Firsters. Among their historical antecedents is the anti-Catholic and anti-Irish party, the Know Nothings of the 1850s. Of course, there is no classical fascism without anti-communism and the Red Scare, the Palmer Raids, the violence against those doing union organizing not to mention the racism and violence of the Ku Klux Klan and other pernicious organizations were bubbling in the heart of American society. Huey Long of Louisiana was positioning himself as a populist leader and might have ultimately been a fascist in the Mussolini mold had he not been assassinated.

Today, we speak of classical fascism of the first part of the 20th century and newer outgrowths such as post fascism and neo-fascism. For a good overall definition we can say with Samir Amin that “Fascism is a particular political response to the challenges with which the management of capitalist society may be confronted in specific circumstances.” In simpler terms what that means is that it is part of the toolkit used when needed by the ruling elites in the ongoing class war to combat challenges to their hegemony. The classical fascism of Mussolini, Hitler, Franco and others was always willing to manage society and the government without challenging the fundamental principles of capitalism, whether they are the existence of private capitalist property or monopoly capitalism itself. Even though fascists often gave virulent speeches attacking plutocracy or capitalism (and we can hear that echo today) they were fundamentally blowing smoke in order to appeal to the masses. In fact, under fascist governments profits were generally up for major firms who were then able to buy out smaller ones who could not adhere to new regulations that were instituted as the countries prepared for war. In all cases where fascism ultimately became the dominant political form, the support of big business and other conservative forces such as churches were a crucial factor in the rise of fascism.

When a capitalist society is in crisis the clear fascist choice is the subversion and rejection of democracy. This rejection throws out the diversity of opinions, standard electoral procedures or the guarantee of the rights of a minority and instead inserts the principle of submission to a leader and his myrmidons. Ideas tend to be backward looking with the concomitant promotion of national myths and political and historical fairytales (as an example we can clearly see that today in India where the Modi reactionary government is downgrading the accomplishments of the Mughal Islamic period and rewriting history to falsely embellish Hindu rulers) as well as in other places where “race” and “nation” becomes touchstones of the ruling ideology. The reactionary nature of plebiscites becomes clear as their use destroys the process of collective leadership and instead substitutes a relationship between people and leader, the nation and the chief. They have the effect of reducing complex issues to a simple binary (a current example is the referendum in the UK regarding Brexit) in which the manipulation and twisting of facts becomes the locus of politics and victimhood is a theme carried to ridiculous extremes. The ruler, in his or her embodiment of the nation, becomes a victim in a perverse retelling of the story of the Christ. Witness Duterte in the Philippines complaining that the criticisms of women regarding his brutality and misogyny are a hurtful limiting of his right to speech. Poor Duterte is the victim: he who has advocated rape and the shooting of women in the vagina.

The spectacle (mass rallies, torchlight parades, simplistic speeches that negatively characterize “the other” and promote national myths) becomes another substitute for the exercising of a critical politics. The education of the young primarily consists of drumming in their heads the idea of overall submission to a leader and intellectual submission to the national myths propagated by the leading circles.

There is also a strong, reinforcing relationship between fascism and the irrational. Some of its features are the cult of combat; a romantic impulse to create a national mystique; the concomitant invention of a mythical past; and the creation of a modern (and toxic) masculinity with a circumscribed role for women as nurturers and birthing factories. Again, late 19th century cultural pessimism followed by post-World War I reactionary modernism helped to set the stage for revolutionary fascism and its marriage to the irrational.

As I touched on earlier, anti-communism is an essential feature of classical fascism. The aborted attempts at revolution outside Bolshevik Russia led to a growing fear of “Judeo-Bolshevism”. As Walter Benjamin pithily stated, “behind every fascism is a failed revolution.” This year marks the 100th anniversary of the murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the leaders of the failed Spartacus uprising in Berlin and surely Benjamin had that in mind. In Germany, the fratricidal struggle between the Social Democrats and the Communists fatally weakened the progressive forces and left an opening for the conservative forces to install Hitler.

The emasculation of unions and political parties that support workers’ rights also became a prime focus of the fascist political project. This focus, along with the loosening of regulations that may constrain businesses (other than those regarding production for the military) were a boon to the capitalist class.

One other important concept to explore is the relationship between coercion and consent. We all know that outright coercion (the fear of punishment, loss and death) can manufacture consent. This is clearly evident in the classical fascism of the 20th century. In our era, we will have to explore how more subtle uses of coercion (such as “there is no alternative”) can be used to manufacture consent.

But let’s turn to the 21st century. Some new terms have entered our political lexicon such as post-fascism and neo-fascism. Another word that has a longer pedigree extending back to the 19th century is populism. It has been and is being used to describe forces both on the left and the right. We need to explore these concepts in some detail.

Populism is never one set thing: it has many elements that are constantly changing and combining. In the United States 130 years ago, populism was seen as a revolt by the smaller agricultural elements against the bankers and major industrial combines. It also questioned the stability of the greenback and what lay behind the value of money. Today in the USA and Europe, populism is mostly viewed as a right wing phenomenon but much of its rhetoric rails against the elite and how they have ignored the common woman/man and to some degree is an echo of much of what was said by many in Occupy in the US and Podemos in Spain. However, the populist parties in Europe, for example, are characterized by xenophobia and racism and exist precisely to exclude the most marginal elements of society, particularly immigrants and non-Christians. “Marco Ravelli is thus right to define right-wing populism as a ‘senile disorder’ of liberal democracy, a ‘revolt of the included’ (i.e. white Christians) who have been pushed to the margins” (Traverso).

Left-wing populism, on the other hand, tries to be inclusive and supports the struggles of people of color and immigrants while also railing against the elite, the one percent and their institutions.

Right-wing populism gives lip service to democracy and participates in the electoral process but similarly to the fascism of old, gives pride of place to national myths and today feeds the flames of worry over demographic changes that they feel will see their societies overrun by a sea of brown, the others. Both left and right-wing populism for the most part do not either see a way to overcome the neoliberal project or they have made peace with it.

Populism is more a style than an ideology: it exalts the “people” (however defined) vs. the elite. Populism is against the “system” and it has as many snakes as Medusa’s head has. It can be applied to a plethora of groups and it says more about those who use it than as a political definition. It is extremely fungible and it tends to erase a clear definition between the left and the right.

The 20th century progressive revolutions have mostly been defeated and/or transformed. For most of us, elections serve as an interruption to our politically quiescent existence and do not usher in fundamental changes. Capitalism has not been transcended; it lives on, continuously throwing up contradictions that it has to overcome with new forms of consent and oppression. The Social Democratic parties (and that includes the Democratic Party) embraced anti-communism and neoliberalism and left the door open for alternative reactionary forces to appear. At this point, the radical right is the greatest force opposed to the “system”. It is xenophobic, Islamophobic, nationalistic and embraces authoritarianism, bigotry and social tyranny: but it is not anti-capitalist. In many ways similar to classical fascism, right-wing populism gives the masses the illusion of being actors as opposed to being spectators. We need only look at Orban’s Hungary and other autocratic states to see the truth of this.

Post fascism and neo-fascism: two words, two realities that were birthed by the same mother and describe some of the challenges we face. Post fascism can be seen as a magnetic field where different movements, parties and regimes can locate themselves. Steve Bannon is diligently working to create a right wing International that will serve as a nourishing womb for autocratic parties and regimes, where tactics and strategies can be devised to promote reactionary utopias in which nationalism is the civic religion and traditional religion can become a support for a reactionary hegemonic project. Right wing populism is part of this story and the lines between it and post fascism are increasingly blurred.

They do not (as classical fascism did not) seek to overturn capitalism and replace it with a different socio-economic system. They often will keep representative democracy as a “soft” way to help manage consent and for the most part will eschew outright violence and use the legal system and enforcement of old and newly created laws as a way of keeping people in line. Post fascism in Europe and the US is enriched by the soil of cultural despair and victimhood. Demographic changes, they say, are ruining the nation and uppity women are fomenting male impotence thus lowering the birth rate for the desired type of babies.

Spectacle will be an important part of the rule by reactionary forces; propaganda that exalts the nation and its myths along with the drumming into people’s heads that there is no alternative, that to dream progressive dreams is traitorous, will be weapons used to keep challenges at bay. Of course, if people begin to revolt and the ruling circles see that they may be in danger, “soft” tactics will give way to outright violence to enforce consent: suspension of civil liberties and the rule of law (however flawed) and the “hard” tactics of consent will come to the fore.

Neo-fascism is a term that can be applied to those movements who look to the past of classical fascism as their inspiration for the future. Not for them, the niceties of representative democracy or the fine edges of the legal system. For them, the cudgel is always near to hand and they make very little attempt to hide their racism. They want a leader who can embody their toxic ideas and apply them while inspiring the masses to crush the other. They even like dressing up in uniforms that echo those of Mussolini (Black Shirts) or Hitler (Brown Shirts) with badges that are slightly different from those worn by classical fascists. We can sometimes view them as ridiculous holdovers from the past but we do so at our peril.

Before concluding, I must take a little side journey. We live in an era when space has temporarily conquered time (Jameson). What does that mean?

It signifies a time when the citizen has been replaced by the consumer; when the city has become all pervasive both physically and culturally and where the old quotidian rhythms no longer apply. Sowing, reaping and harvesting are foreign to most of us. We are familiar with rats and pigeons but not so much with foxes and orioles. The contrast between the city and the country is no longer so defined. We leave the city to find ourselves in a suburban space of sameness where most of us are watching the same programs on television or landing on the same web sites and having many of our experience mediated by digital devices. In a way, time, as our forebears knew it, no longer exists. But time may yet have the last laugh.

In the wildly popular television program, Game of Thrones, there is the meme, “winter is coming”. For us, the meme should be, “the storm is coming” (Malm). Today, nature may seem to be vanquished by the ocean of concrete and glass that covers our land mass. But nature’s power has yet to be fully shown: it has unwittingly been augmented by the carbon and methane that we have pumped into the air and oceans over the last two hundred years. We have created our own super Godzilla that is ready to put paid to our pretensions of mastery.

But against this monster that is ready to lay waste to our world are a potential army of the young and the committed of any age that is ready to do battle with our own thoughtless selves. This army may yet find an ally in nature and time as it struggles to find a new balance for our planetary metabolism.

But let’s return from our short but monstrous side trip to consider our possible future as we struggle with the earthly, political monsters of late capitalism: reactionary populism as it grows into post fascism and the festering detritus of neo-fascism: all nourished by selfishness, misanthropy and austerity and overlaid by the reality of impending climate change. It has been said that when snakes begin to move to higher ground it is a harbinger of floods to come. So what are we to make of the 0.01% buying up homes in New Zealand or in decommissioned missile silos as “safe” havens?

The past 40 years of neoliberal policies has eviscerated the left. Unions and working class parties have either been terribly wounded or kept to the extreme margins. Left parties and movements in Europe are tearing themselves apart over the question of immigration. It is sad to say that today the left, for the most part, exhibits a critical thought as sophisticated as it is politically impotent. Still, there are many sparks of hope that are ready to burst forth in new types of progressive actions.

Awareness of the environmental challenges has grown immensely. The neo-liberal nostrums are beginning to lose their power over many people’s thoughts. Many of us are daring to dream again, progressive dreams to counter our rebarbative reality. Perhaps we will begin to worry a bit less about protecting differences and more about extending equality. Hope is slowly, tentatively spreading its wings to shelter us as we imagine a different type of future that in the past we took for granted. What will the confluence of environmental stresses and political reaction bring. Who can say? But I know that without hope and action to build a different future, crippling entropy will control us. We have to take action and be the subjects of our present and future reality.

I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist as both words imply a lack of thought; they are an emotional response to situations that require critical thinking, as painful and difficult as that may be. I have hope: but hope must be put into action, actions that will lead to transcending capitalism and closing off the path to neo-fascism and other stillborn monsters of late capitalism, among which we must include the environmental challenges we face. And yes, there is no alternative…under capitalism.

So let’s dream, let’s act progressively so that we can ensure that our future is not behind us.