What Is Fascism?
the word fascism has been bandied around a lot recently and it’s not really surprising given that far-right movements are literally on the march across Europe, and America has just elected a demagogue known for calling for deportations at his mass rallies. For anyone with half an eye on history, that’s pretty alarming. But nonetheless, there’s still a lot of confusion surrounding what exactly we mean by the term. In 2016, fascism was the most looked up word in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, and a lot of people with a lot of PHDs spend their lives battling it out over this question. So we’re not going to settle it here, but it is worth delving into the terms of the debate to try and clear a little ground to figure out what fascism is what it looks like and what it does. There are a couple of ways of approaching this. On one hand there’s a simple answer, the fascists are the one’s wearing the swastikas, attacking mosques, killing MPs and, in many ways there’s a lot of strength to that argument because these guys are dangerous and if people are telling you they’re Nazis, its probably in your best interest to believe them. But this over simplified analysis obscures the fact that in reality there are as many fascists with nice suits as there are fascists with shaven heads and moreover, it doesn’t give us an insight into what fascism does at a macro-political level and that’s the question I really want to tackle here. Let’s take a look at this tweet from back in November just after the election of Trump. “The racist, fascist extreme-right is represented footsteps from the oval office.” Now that wasn’t some pinko lefty that was John Weaver who is a top political consultant for the GOP Republican Party. So clearly, even for a top dog of a political party crammed with racists and xenophobes and bigots of every stripe, the election of Trump marks some kind of break from business as usual now whilst he’s wrong to distance himself entirely, the Republican Party has a lot of responsibility to bear when it comes to fostering the kind of bigotry that fueled the Trump campaign. He is not wrong to mark some kind of rupture, because fascism isn’t just the extreme end of a simple left-right political spectrum, it has particular characteristics that mark it out as something distinct. Whilst the term fascism is now pretty toxified and rightly so, the term was invented and popularized by people who would proudly call themselves fascists. The idea comes from political movements that sprung up in early to mid-twentieth century Europe. We’re talking Italy under Mussolini, Germany under Hitler and Spain under Franco. You also probably need to throw in the Vichy government of France the Occupied government of Norway during the war, and let’s not forget Britain’s own Oswald Mosley who was determined to bring Mussolini’s methods to UK soil These political settlements were of course very different spanning different time periods, different countries different cultures, but there are some striking continuities, some striking points of similarity that it’s definitely worth paying attention to. The first of these similarities is of course authoritarianism, by that i mean harsh state control of the lives of citizens. This usually involves heavy policing, harsh penalties for crimes, surveillance, censorship. Its also packaged along with crackdowns on institutions that could provide a counterweight to state power such as independent media, trade unions international organisations, civic institutions, that kind of thing. The second of these features is the idea of a fall from grace. Fascism is underpinned by the mythology of a golden past from which we’ve now fallen into political, social and moral decline. The need to write these wrongs provides a key justification for authoritarian policies. Where conservatives promise stability, fascists promise to totally overhaul a failing system. According to this mythology its not just the state that week and failing and in need of change, its also the people who are weak and failing and in need of change. This gives the green light to policies that clamp down on frilly emasculating affectations like LGBTQ rights or women’s liberation. It gives the green light to policies intended to reforge a strong pure people, this can range from anything to control of school textbooks to a creepy focus on the fertility of white women, to mass deportations, to actual ethnic cleansing. So who’s responsible for this fall? Well that’s where the third similarity comes in to play. It’s no secret that fascism fuels and is fueled by hatred for a racialized other scapegoated for all of society’s problems. That’s the invading force of the foreigner, the immigrant, the Muslim, the Jew. This invading external other faces horrendous levels of discrimination and violence under fascism, but in addition to this external other there’s also someone else to blame. A kind of internal other. This is a corrupt decadent alliance of liberals or socialists who collude with the invading force of the external other in the downfall of society. Think “political correctness gone mad”. While the external racialized other tends to have it far worse, it’s important to remember that fascism poses itself as fighting a war on two fronts, both against the invaders and against the cultural marxists who let them wreak havoc. The fourth aspect is that fascism constructs itself paradoxically both as populist and as elitist. It appeals to the flight of an honest hard done by white working-class man, and indeed some people believe that fascism is the condition endemic to the working classes but in reality the fascist governments we’ve been talking about where all administered by and for the upper classes. To paraphrase the writer Berlet, elements of ostensible support for the working and agrarian classes, were belied by a forging of an alliance between elite sectors of society. A last point of similarity I want to raise here is the fact that fascist ideas reliably gain traction in moments of economic crisis, depression and rising inequality. When people get more desperate, fascist ideas tend to look more attractive. Stop me if any of this sound familiar. When it comes to these economic crises, fascists in the past have propounded a wide variety of solutions. The National Socialists in Germany and some modern Scandinavian fascists push for large subsidies of industry, national ownership of infrastructure, that kind of thing. Franco and arguably UKIP, want to liberate industrial capitalism from the yoke of regulation and paying their workers a decent wage. Le Pen and Trump on the other hand vary wildly between some kind of protectionism and support of the free market. But this raises an interesting question right? Economics is inseparable from politics, and so if these movements, if these government’s propose quite different economic policies then how can we really call them the same thing, how can we really consider them as different manifestations of the same political project? Some people say you can’t, some people say that the word fascism draws a false allegiance between very different forms of right-wing thinking. I would disagree, i think there’s a connection between these things that goes beyond these guys wearing the same uniforms and reading the same books. And to see this connection its worth asking ourselves why these features keep cropping up again and again in the same kind of configuration. There’s no necessary connection between them they don’t always go together and you can see this by the fact that different governments that we wouldn’t necessarily want to call fascists have one or two or even three of these features. There are authoritarian governments all over the world, and for the left wing populist parties cropping up all over Europe, they do seem to appeal to some kind of fall from grace. Wherein that golden era was the welfare settlement of the fifties sixties and seventies, and of course racial scapegoating is nothing new. So clearly these different aspect can be separated, and yet they seem to go so nicely hand-in-hand. Put together they do an especially good job of one thing, and that’s managing the capitalist crises that gave rise to them. They’re perfectly equipped to try and placate the sense of disaffection whilst protecting profit margins and pretty much ensuring that the economy rolls on as usual. Remember that in times of economic crisis such as the one we’re seeing, with falling productivity, industry threatened by technological change and global competition. In these kinds of times it’s not just ordinary people who are desperately scrabbling around for solutions, it’s also business owners, landowners and bankers. Authoritarian crackdowns are pretty good at managing this kind of social unrest whilst doing away with the troublesome unions that might pose problems for businesses in this delicate time. The mythologisation of a golden past explains away the indignities of falling wages, exploitation and disaffection as a temporary embarrassment that can be blamed on the enemies of society. It says that the goal for society should not be genuine transformation but a return to an era characterised by booming industry and rising profit margins. Gestures towards populism promise to restore some sense of power or dignity to disaffected populations and its a power that can be won without making trouble for landowners or businessman. And of course racism and scapegoating has always been a handy way of managing class conflicts by dividing the working class amongst themselves. It papers over widening economic division in the wake of the crisis by persuading the white worker that they have more in common with their white landlord than they do with that black neighbour. Fascism in particular deploys a kind of bogeyman that appeals to the stereotypical fears of both working class people and upper-class people. So you get the kind of Schrodinger’s immigrant that both steals your job and manages to laze around on benefits at the same time. You get the Jewish person who is somehow both a member of the feral underclass and secretly ruling the world at the same time. And by casting socialists or even moderate reformists as a kind of internal enemy, fascist ideology protects the interests of business by expunging the possibility that the solution might just lie in economic reform rather than letting business run rampant and tank the economy, again. You’ll notice that fascists rarely invent the ideas that they use. Hitler didn’t invent anti-semitism, Trump didn’t invent Islamophobia and he certainly didn’t invent anti-globalisation discourse and kind of populism he appeals to, but rather these ideas are sort of borrowed as sticking plasters to patch a bourgeois hold on power at times of social unrest. Mussolini called fascism a kind of reaction, and I think that’s a pretty useful way of thinking about it. Something that evolves as a matter of political convenience recruiting old tropes to mobilise hatred and forging alliances where the interests of nationalist capitalists and racists collide. Therefore fascism doesn’t so much propose a new politics as it does protect an old one. The fascist economic strategies we’ve talked about, whether that’s massive subsidies for failing industries or deregulation of business, are all designed as patch and stitch solutions to haul capitalist economies out of crisis of their own making. This is why as writer Corey Robinson recently pointed out, under the so-called National Socialists, German industrialists actually enjoyed massively increased profit margins. And the same goes for Franco’s regime. Similarly, although the Trump campaign was fueled by everyday bigotry it was bankrolled by real estate tycoons and businessmen more likely to actually profit from his policies. So perhaps this is a useful way of thinking about what fascism does at a macro political level. It’s an extraordinary response to an extreme historical economic moment. It manages the morbid symptoms of capitalism whilst allowing the disease to rage through the body politic. This analysis might give us a clue as to what a genuine alternative to fascism might look like in the contemporary political arena. It doesn’t look like trying to cravenly triangulate racism it looks like trying to build long-lasting sustainable economic solutions the crisis that don’t trade in the lives of many people to protect the position of a privileged few. In 1916 Rosa Luxemburg wrote that society stands a cross-roads between socialism and barbarism. It’s still time to choose.