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Is fascism making a comeback? (Part 1)

Originally published: State of Nature on December 4, 2017 by Cihan Aksan & Jon Bailes (more by State of Nature)  | (Posted Dec 06, 2017)

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question. This month, we ask: Is Fascism making a comeback? The first set of responses is collected below. Click here for Part Two.

Chiara Bottici

In fact, fascism has never gone away. If by fascism, we mean the historical regime that created the name and embraced the ideology explicitly, then we have to conclude that the concept is only applicable to the political regime that reigned in Italy between 1922 and 1943. This, however, amounts to little more than a tautology: ‘the Italian fascist regime’ = ‘the Italian fascist regime’. History clearly never repeats itself, so any attempt to apply the category of fascism outside of that context would be doomed to fail. That may be a necessary cautionary remark for historians, but how about social and political theorists? Can fascism be a heurist tool to think about and compare different forms of power?

If by fascism we mean a political model that was only epitomized and made visible by the Italian kingdom during 1922-43, then we arrive at a very different conclusion. Consider for a moment the features that characterize that form of power: hyper-nationalism, racism, machismo, the cult of the leader, the political myth of decline-rebirth in the new political regime, the more or less explicit endorsement of violence against political enemies, and the cult of the state. We can then certainly see how that form of power, after its formal fall in 1943, continued to exist in different forms and shapes not simply in Europe, but also elsewhere. We can see how fascist parties continued to survive, how fascist discourses proliferated and how different post-war regimes emerging world-wide exhibited fascist traits without formally embracing fascism.

Coming close to our times, we can see how Trumpism, as an ideology, embodies a neoliberal form of fascism that presents its own peculiar features, such as the respect of the formal features of representative democracy, the combination of free-market ideology and populist rhetoric, and the paradox of a critique of the state accompanied by the massive recourse to its institutions. But it also exhibits features, such as the extreme form of nationalism, the systematic racism, the macho-populism, and an implicit legitimation of violence, which are typical of fascism. In sum, we should consider fascism as a tendency of modern power and its logic of state sovereignty, a tendency that, like a Karstic river, flows underneath formal institutions but may always erupt in its most destructive form whenever there is an opening for it.

Chiara Bottici is an Associate Professor in Philosophy at New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College (New York). Her recent books include Imaginal Politics: Images beyond Imagination and The Imaginary (Columbia University Press, 2014), Imagining Europe: Myth, Memory, and Identity (Cambridge University Press, 2013), co-authored with Benoit Challand, and the co-edited collections, The Anarchist Turn(Pluto 2013, with Simon Critchley and Jacob Blumenfeld), and Feminism, Capitalism and Critique (Palgrave 2017, with Banu Bargu).

Neil Faulkner

Is fascism making a comeback? Perhaps. But history is not predetermined. It presents us with a succession of choices.

What does seem true is that the film of the 1930s is re-running in slow motion. We face a world capitalist crisis that is probably more intractable than that of the 1930s, with economic stagnation, growing social decay, a breakdown of the international order, increasing arms expenditure and war, and imminent climate catastrophe.

The political and business elite has no solutions to any of the major problems confronting humanity and the planet. Parliamentary democracies have been hollowed out by corporate power. Authoritarian nationalist regimes are in control elsewhere. Fascist organisations are gaining in electoral support.

Labour movements – the unions and the mass socialist parties – have been weakened by 35 years of neoliberalism. Most working people, battered by the crisis, lack effective mechanisms for fighting back collectively. Social life is characterised by atomisation, alienation, and anomie. This is the seedbed for nationalism, racism, fascism, and war.

The Right has no solutions and nothing to offer. The essence of its politics, therefore, is to turn working people against each other, making scapegoats of women, the poor, the disabled, ethnic-minority people, Muslims, LGBT people, migrants, refugees, and so on. It takes different forms in different places. Trump in the US. Brexit in Britain. Le Pen in France. The AfD in Germany. But the essential message is the same. And this has the potential to harden into all-out fascism – the violence and repression of armed thugs out to smash the unions, the Left, and the minorities.

But fascism could have been stopped in the 1920s and 1930s, and it could be stopped today. It all depends on what we do. The challenge is extreme: we need nothing less than a radical programme of economic and social change to reverse a generation of financialisation, privatisation, austerity, and the grinding down of working people.

To stop the fascists, we have to show the great mass of ordinary working people that an alternative is possible: that if we unite and organise and fight back, we can challenge the grotesque greed of the super-rich rentier class that is currently leaching the wealth of society to the top, and remodel society on the basis of equality, democracy, peace, and sustainability.

Neil Faulkner is an historian, archaeologist, and political thinker. Author of numerous books, including A Radical History of the World (Pluto, forthcoming), Creeping Fascism: Brexit, Trump, and the Rise of the Far Right (Public Reading Rooms, 2017), and A People’s History of the Russian Revolution (Pluto, 2017).

Tim Jacoby

Fascism is not making a comeback because it never left. Contrary to the thinking of some nominalist historians, it didn’t begin in the 1920s and end in 1945. It is not an artefact, but alive, well and continuing to thrive.

The United States’ Directive JCS 1779 of 1947 facilitated the reinstatement of over 90 per cent of those German officials previously purged under de-Nazification measures – including Hauptsturmführer Klaus Barbie (before he fled to Argentina in 1951). In Italy, concerns over the strength of the indigenous communist party led the CIA to allocate more than $10 million to a Christian Democrat Party riddled with unreconstructed fascists. Having worked with former Nazi operatives to defeat a communist insurgency in Greece in 1949, the United States extended Marshall Plan aid to Salazar’s Portugal and normalised relations with the Franco regime, which reportedly viewed the resultant 1953 Pact of Madrid as proof that it had been right all along.

Germany’s Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands, which received between 500,000 and 750,000 votes in the general elections of 2005-13, is a direct successor to the Deutsche Reichspartei (founded by General der Flieger Alexander Andrae in 1946). In Spain, the Democracia Nacional, emerged from the Círculo Español de Amigos de Europa which included the former commander of the Walloon Schutzstaffel, StandartenführerLéon Degrelle, for whom Franco provided asylum and obstructed Belgian extradition attempts thenceforth. Degrelle’s close associate, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who attracted five million votes in the 2002 French elections, formed the Front National in 1972.

In the United States, the second Klan had achieved an estimated membership of around 4 million people during the 1920s (making it one of the largest civil society organisations in world history). This did not disappear after the military defeat of European fascism. It forged links with groups such as the American Nazi Party (founded in 1959) and the United Kingdom’s National Socialist Movement led by a former member of the British Union of Fascists, Colin Jordan, and the future leader of the British National Party, John Tyndall (who appointed Nick Griffin to the party in 1995). The key figure behind this trans-Atlantic collaboration was Harold Covington – whose influence Dylan Roof cited as a motive for the 2015 Charleston shooting.

Tim Jacoby is a Professor at the Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester. Author of Understanding Conflict and Violence: Theoretical and Interdisciplinary Approaches (Routledge, 2008), and Social Power and the Turkish State (Routledge, 2004), and co-author of four other books.

Rose Sydney Parfitt

There is, I think, no question that fascism is making a comeback. Clearly, the language, symbols and logic of fascism are being deployed today more overtly than at any time since the early 1940s. That is not to say, however, that fascism ever went away, or – in the context of our once-European, now-global legal order – that the kernel of fascism has not been with us from the beginning.

This suggestion, that fascism may be lodged somewhere in the DNA of the normative system we now take for granted, might seem odd coming from a legal scholar. After all, law, with its emphasis on equal rights and non-aggression, was violated systematically by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and their allies, and is usually understood as the most important weapon we have against far-right resurgence. We should remember, however, that inter-war fascism did not spring out of nowhere. On the contrary, fascism took almost 500 years of European colonialism, with its brutal expansionism and Social Darwinist logic (at the time, entirely ‘legal’), and turned it in on itself.

In the process of its transformation from a European to a near-universal system via decolonisation, ‘development’ and the collapse of Communism, the law by which most states are regulated today is supposed to have abandoned these discriminatory and expansionist tendencies. Yet its core premises remain the same. Law’s primary subjects(states and individuals) may now be more numerous, but they are still recognised as free only in a negative sense (‘free from’ not ‘free to’), and equal only in a formal (legal not material) sense. Likewise, law’s non-state, non-human objects continue to be regarded as ‘natural resources’, secured in unlimited supply by technology’s capacity to usher capital into ever-more obscure corners of the ‘market’.

Yet the supply of ‘resources’ is not, in fact, unlimited – as nineteenth-century imperialists and twentieth-century fascists insisted. As they also recognised – and celebrated – this means that the state cannot function as an egalitarian framework within which prosperous individual futures can be pursued in mutual harmony – or, at least, not unless some external ‘living space’ can be found wherein to harvest meat, fish, oil, gas, water, dysprosium, avocados and other ‘essential’ commodities. The state, in other words, is not a ‘level playing-field’ but a collective vehicle – a battering-ram – available for appropriation by those who are already winning the endless war of accumulation in which only the fittest (wealthiest, most powerful) have a right to survive. In short, fascism, seemingly the antithesis of the rule of law, may in practice be its apotheosis.

Let me, then, respond to the question posed with another question. In the context of a global legal order which views famine, poverty, exploitation and planetary destruction as consistent with universal ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’, will fascism ever go away?

Rose Sydney Parfitt is a Lecturer in Law at Kent Law School and an Australian Research Council (DECRA) Research Fellow at Melbourne Law School, where she leads a research project entitled ‘International Law and the Legacies of Fascist Internationalism’. Her book on modular history and international legal subjectivity is coming out in 2018 with Cambridge University Press.

Charlie Post

My answer is ambiguous. On the one hand, the social and political conditions for the re-emergence of fascism as a movement are ripening across the advanced capitalist world. The global slump that began with the 2008 recession has decimated the living standards of the working and middle classes – both self-employed and professionals and managers. The near collapse of the political and economic organizations of the labor movement, and the active collaboration of social-democratic parties in implementing neo-liberalism and austerity, have crippled the emergence of a progressive, solidaristic and militant response ‘from below’ to the crisis. Angry at both the large transnational corporations and seeing no alternative from labor, broad segments of the middle classes are drawn to racist and xenophobic politics that target both the ‘globalists’ and ‘undeserving’ immigrants and other racialized minorities. These politics fuel the electoral success of right-wing populist parties, which encourage fascist street fighters to target organized workers, immigrants and others.

On the other hand, the social and political conditions for a fascist seizure of power are not on the agenda in any advanced capitalist country. Capitalists have handed power over to the enraged middle classes organized in fascist parties only when the labor movement threatened radical change, but failed to follow through. For better or worse, it has been over forty years since the labor movement anywhere in the global North has posed a threat to the rule of capital. Today capitalists have little desire to hand power over to right-populist electoral formations, and have no need for fascist gangs.

While the prospect of a fascist seizure of power is not on the agenda, the labor movement and the Left need to mobilize whenever fascist groups emerge – to crush them while they are still weak.

Charlie Post is a long time socialist and activist in the City University of New York faculty union. Author of The American Road to Capitalism(Haymarket, 2012) and numerous articles on labour, politics and social struggles in the US.

Yannis Stavrakakis

Fascism is arguably making a comeback. There are places in the world where fascist or neo-nazi forces have managed to enter parliaments and install themselves as a more or less legitimate political option. Notice the case of Golden Dawn in crisis-ridden Greece! However, this does not necessarily mean that liberal democracy is currently facing a terminal danger due to this comeback, as in the 1930s. In particular, we should be aware of three crucial issues:

  • The issue of conceptual clarity is paramount. Today, almost everything we dislike is summarily denounced as ‘fascism’ – hence the conceptual confusion between fascism, populism, authoritarianism, etc. Notice the way the Donald Trump phenomenon is treated.
  • Even more troubling than fascism seems to be a particular way of dealing with it by more moderate political forces, by adopting its main messages and tropes, the so-called ‘Mainstreaming’ or ‘Normalisation’ of fascism. These ideas can become quite appealing to many of us, thus posing once more the issue of ‘Authoritarian personality’, of an ‘Inner fascism’ potentially present in all of us – hence the importance of a psycho-social approach to study this phenomenon.
  • Finally, it should not escape our attention that the main reason for the comeback of fascism and its increasing contemporary psycho-social appeal may lie elsewhere: in the reign of neoliberalism and the miserable failure of social democracy to offer any real hope to segments of the population facing incresing inequality and a downward spiral of social and economic mobility.

Yannis Stavrakakis is Professor of Political Discourse Analysis at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Author of Lacan and the Political(Routledge, 1999) and The Lacanian Left (SUNY Press, 2007), and co-editor of Discourse Theory and Political Analysis (Manchester University Press, 2000). Since 2014 he has been director of the POPULISMUS Observatory: www.populismus.gr

William I. Robinson

Fascism, whether in its classical twentieth century form or possible variants of twenty-first century neo-fascism, is a particular response to capitalist crisis. Global capitalism entered into a deep structural crisis with the Great Recession of 2008, the worst since the 1930s. Trumpism in the United States, Brexit in the United Kingdom, the increasing influence of neo-fascist and authoritarian parties and movements throughout Europe and around the world (such as in Israel, Turkey, the Philippines, India, and elsewhere) represent a far-right response to the crisis of global capitalism.

Twenty-first century fascist projects seek to organize a mass base among historically privileged sectors of the global working class, such as white workers in the Global North and middle layers in the Global South, that are experiencing heightened insecurity and the specter of downward mobility in the face of capitalist globalization. Fascism hinges on the psychosocial mechanism of displacing mass fear and anxiety at a time of acute capitalist crisis towards scapegoated communities, such as immigrant workers, Muslims and refugees in the United States and Europe. Far-right forces do this through a discursive repertoire of xenophobia, mystifying ideologies that involve race/culture supremacy, an idealized and mythical past, millennialism, and a militaristic and masculinist culture that normalizes, even glamorizes war, social violence and domination.

In the United States, emboldened by Trump’s imperial bravado, his populist and nationalist rhetoric, and his openly racist discourse, predicated in part on whipping up anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and xenophobic sentiment, fascist groups in civil society have begun to cross-pollinate to a degree not seen in decades, as they have gained a toehold in the Trump White House, in state and local governments around the country, and of course in the Republican Party.

But fascism is not inevitable. We stand at a crossroads and whether or not we slide into fascism depends on how the mass struggles and political battles unfold in the coming months and years.

William I. Robinson is Professor of Sociology, Global Studies, and Latin American Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. His most recent book is Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity(Cambridge University Press, 2014). Next year Haymarket books will publish his new manuscript: Into the Tempest: Essays on the New Global Capitalism.

Elena Loizidou

We find ultra-nationalist and fascist parties in the representative assemblies of countries such as Greece (Golden Dawn), Cyprus (National Popular Front), Hungary (Jobbic) and India (Bharatiya Janata Party). In the US, the Alt-Right Movement and its white supremacist ideology has found expression in the views of President Donald Trump. On the 12 of November 2017, around 60,000 Ultra-Nationalists marched in Poland on the country’s independence day, chanting ‘white Europe of brotherly nations’. We may conclude therefore that fascism or a contemporary version of fascism is gaining traction globally.

Still, whilst fascist parties and movements are on the rise we are yet to witness a widespread emergence of neo-fascist political regimes. We have not in other words seen the suspension of every democratic framework and the abolition of individual rights. Umberto Eco identified thirteen characteristics in authoritarian fascist regimes, amongst them the loss of individual rights, nationalism, the banning of critique, gaining traction through the exploitation of difference, and a call for traditional values. Of course, some of these characteristics have taken root in neo-fascist groups and ultra-nationalist parties, and even more disturbingly we notice that a growing number of people are becoming attracted to these types of thinking. Nevertheless, I would like to suggest that as long as people and political systems can counter such groups/parties, either by bringing them before the law or through debates that expose the irrationalism of their positions, then I think this interest in fascism may be just a passing trend.

We can counter the rise of fascism or totalising and undemocratic ideas within our societies. How? I agree here with Foucault[i] that to do so we need to be vigilant of the fascist within us that makes us desire power and its promises. We need therefore to be constantly questioning our very desires, either for political formations or figures that are lovers of power. In our contemporary western democratic societies, I would add the only way of sustaining a critical attitude requires us to find time and space to think alone and together. The biggest detractor of that is capitalism. If we are to stop the rise of fascism we need to retrieve the time that it is eaten up by capitalism and its various hands, managerialism, efficiency, profit and so on.

[i] ‘The strategic adversary is fascism … the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.’ (Michel Foucault, ‘Preface’ to Anti-Oedipus, 1977, p. xiii)

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