Seventy-two years after the end of World War II, the spectre of fascism is again haunting the globe. The important questions we should be asking are why, and what can be done about it.
The evidence of history suggests that fascism thrives in periods of severe capitalist crisis by redirecting fear and anxiety about socioeconomic dislocation onto easily scapegoated ‘outsider’ groups, who must be brutally repressed in order to reaffirm society’s ‘natural’ hierarchies and enable national rebirth. Just as Mussolini and Hitler capitalised on the economic and political crises of their time, so too contemporary fascists are endeavouring to tap into a deep and racialised popular anger that has emerged out of the crumbling ruins of neoliberalism and market globalisation.
Many commentators of a liberal democratic persuasion have dismissed such warnings as scare-mongering, and insisted that the most appropriate response to ‘populist politics’ is a renewed commitment to market globalisation with a ‘human face’. I maintain, to the contrary, that the only effective antidote to emerging forces of fear and hate is not less popular democracy but more.
Whereas contemporary fascists are giving voice to the ugly authoritarian and reactionary face of popular opposition to the political and economic establishment, an egalitarian and inclusive left popular radicalism can and must expose the real roots of festering social problems by speaking plainly and directly to ordinary people’s needs, without pandering to their worst prejudices and fears. In practical terms, this will require grassroots democratic organising of the sort exemplified by political forces currently leading the struggle against fascism and working to construct viable community-based post-capitalist alternatives, such as in Rojava and Greece.
At the level of ideas, it hinges on a reconnection with radical democratic revolutionary roots. Historically, the revolutionary ideas and social movements that are the very antithesis of fascism, and the only sure defence against it, have tended to emerge out of, and given ideological coherence to, popular democratic social forms. However, in our time once revolutionary ideologies and movements like socialism and anarchism have grown increasingly detached from their radical democratic roots, leaving a political vacuum that right-wing populists and demagogues have been quick to fill.
Walter Benjamin’s observation that every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution speaks poignantly to our current condition. It may be interpreted not only as a warning, but as a grimly realistic utopian hope that we still have a fleeting historical opportunity to act before it is too late.
Laurence Davis is a Lecturer in Government and Politics at University College Cork, Ireland, co-editor of Anarchism and Utopianism(Manchester University Press, 2014) and The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (Lexington Books, 2005). Editor of the Manchester University Press Contemporary Anarchist Studies book series.
It is important both not to overestimate and underestimate the extent to which fascism is making a ‘comeback’. There are reasons not to overestimate the ‘comeback’. Even in countries where fascist parties were legally banned, fascist movements did not disappear from the political scene and although their popularity was in relative decline over the second half of the 20th century, the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s and 1990s also coincided with the consolidation of major neo-fascist groups, such as the Front National in France or the Freedom Party in Austria.
There are equally reasons not to underestimate the ‘comeback’. The war on terror, the global economic crisis, increased austerity, or military interventions have all created breeding conditions for a resurgence and consolidation of fascism. Socially, racist ideas have been, if not altogether legitimised, at the very least banalised, contributing to the ‘dehumanisation’ of the migrant ‘other’. Politically, not only has the far right made real gains, in places like Poland, it has already begun a more profound overhauling of liberal democratic institutions. Legally, resistance and unrest has been met with increased repression and authoritarianism, as the recent normalisation of the state of emergency in France shows. ‘Walls’ or ‘policing’ have moreover saturated public spaces with symbols of division and suspicion.
The question is further complicated by shifting incarnations of ‘fascism’. Even parties like Golden Dawn, whose para-military violence, expansionist aspirations of a ‘Greater Greece’ or open embrace of Nazi symbols map quite neatly onto 20th century fascism, continue to reject the label, and some of their economic policies borrow dangerously from the Left’s anti-austerity agenda. Elsewhere, the far right is undergoing a more explicit process of ‘modernisation’. In that context, an analysis of the likelihood of a fascist take-over should seek to understand the specific forms of contemporary fascism in the wider context of their relationship to neoliberalism and the neoliberal crisis.
Eva Nanopoulos is a Lecturer in Law, Queen Mary University, co-editor of The Crisis behind the Crisis: The Euro-Crisis as a Systemic Crisis of the EU(Cambridge University Press) and author of The Juridification of Individual Sanctions and the Politics of EU Law (Hart Publishing), both forthcoming.
Let me first put the question in its historical context. To what extent could the recent rise of reactionary right-populism be designated as harbinger of fascism?
A fascist turn cannot be reduced to counter-revolutionary subversiveness, but it is a necessary and distinctive feature in fascism. By counter-revolutionary subversiveness I mean fascism’s tendency to mobilize and energize its support base through combining its chauvinistic and anti-socialist agenda with the promise/discourse of subverting the long-standing political/institutional and ideological arrangements of the bourgeois political establishment.
The crude anti-establishment discourse of such emblematic examples of right-populism as Trump, Le Pen and Nigel Farage has not yet been combined with such a radicalism. They rather tend to organize their chauvinistic political discourse around bringing back the so-called ‘strong’ and sovereign nation-state in an era of the crisis of neoliberal cosmopolitanism. They also do not build their political position on the emergent need to radically transform the existing balances of power in international relations.
The same does not necessarily hold true for the instances of populism in relatively ‘peripheral’ countries such as Turkey, Hungary and the Philippines. In these countries, counter-revolutionary subversive discourses and practices of the political powers are more obvious. However, there are some insuperable structural impediments for these political forces to fully ‘actualize’ and prolong such subversiveness particularly in the international arena due to their economic and political dependence on so-called ‘great powers’. If they had the chance to practise some elements of this ‘radicalism’ in their domestic politics this owes to and is a symptom of the yet unending precarious state and crisis of international order.
These assertions do not mean to say that these movements are not dangerous enough. Indeed, they are the most striking epitomes and also catalysts of capitalism’s reactionary predispositions in the contemporary world and this does not exclude the possibility of them embodying a full-fledged fascist character when the crisis of capitalism deepens further and the course of social struggles reach a new stage.
Cenk Saraçoğlu is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Ankara University, Turkey. Author of Kurds of Modern Turkey: Migration, Neoliberalism and Exclusion (I. B. Tauris, 2011) and numerous scholarly articles and chapters on politics and society of Turkey.
As an undergraduate in the late 1980s I recall one of my peers in political theory being told that his proposed dissertation title, ‘Fascism: A Closed Option?’, was misconceived because one could no longer write about fascism as a serious political alternative in Europe. Would anyone say that now? We can see an increasing number of regimes embracing some aspect of the fascist playbook: the rhetoric, the techniques of division, the elimination of dissent, the glorification of aggressive and violent solutions to complex social issues. No one yet says they’re a fascist, the closest we have come being Viktor Orban’s ‘illiberal democracy’. But from Trump, Xi Jinping, Putin, Duterte, Sisi, Erdogan – to name a few in power – to Le Pen and Wilders and ISIS, to name those who aspire to it, the language of blood and belonging, of purity, of crushing dissent, of sacrifice for the collective good, is visible once more. The macho politics of national or religious power and destiny have returned.
Why now? In some cases, fascistic government has never gone away even if it was legitimated in other terms – China, Russia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia would be examples. The shift is in the West where the seemingly invincible liberal social contract is foundering on the rocks of inequality, precarious employment, eroding white privilege, religious intolerance and demographic change. This has been fertile ground for those who would set ‘us’ versus ‘them’, who look for scapegoats amongst minorities and educated elites, who seek an end to political correctness and more open expression of feelings of distrust, dislike and disgust.
Having said this, we must remember two things.
Fascism is a continuum. At the everyday level, social fascism has never gone away for those who are different, alternative, outside the tyrannous norm. That such intolerance would become a mainstay of national culture would mark a major shift, yes. But we are always somewhere on the line between difference and enforced conformity, between social disapproval and state-led policy to eliminate diversity. This we can find on the Left, too – fascism is historically but not intrinsically a feature of the right. President Xi Jinping’s emphasis on blood as the basis of borders in China, alongside repression of individual freedoms other than the freedom to consume, is as fascist as any other form of rule currently on display.
And second, fascism comes on by stealth. It doesn’t have to be jackboots and uniforms and purges, but the silencing of dissent, the taming of judges, the legitimation of intolerance and of the bullying of those who will not, or cannot, fit a narrow stereotype of what constitutes a proper citizen.
The liberal social contract relies on forms of structural violence and embedded inequality. It needs a healthy dose of revivified social democracy. But the alternatives will sunder any hopes for freedom and lead us, inexorably, into war.
Stephen Hopgood is Professor of International Relations and Pro-Director (International) at SOAS, University of London. Author of The Endtimes of Human Rights (Cornell University Press, 2013), and Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty International(Cornell University Press, 2006).
With the US President tweeting Islamophobic material, Marine Le Pen gaining a third of all votes in a racist election campaign, and Polish extreme nationalists marching through Warsaw, we are right to be deeply concerned about a potential comeback of fascism. Far-right parties have gained ground in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden, Greece and Hungary. In the UK, the slogan ‘Britain First’ was shouted by the radicalized murderer of MP Jo Cox, in reference to the far-right organisation (whose videos were recently retweeted by Trump). Far-right movements have been mobilising, gathering support, and in some cases weapons, over the last decade.
Fascism is based on authoritarianism, and visions of a totalitarian, hyper-nationalist, all-encompassing state. In 2017, weakened states, self-serving bureaucrats and the failures of leadership by centre ground politicians, have disillusioned and damaged so many. The sense of betrayal and abandonment is clear and the far right’s fantasy of a fascist state feeds on it.
The threat of Islamist radicalization is also used by the far right – and by mainstream media – on a daily basis. For right-wing extremists, this plays into a toxic narrative of racial hatred. The focus on Islamist extremism, avoids discussion of the potentially far greater problem of violent right-wing extremism in the UK and beyond, with radical organisations such as Combat 18 or the Ku Klux Klan.
Tackling fascism will be the main challenge for all progressive, inclusive civil society movements and politicians across Europe. To succeed they will need to unite, to call out fascism, to listen to those left behind and to build solidarity and an inclusive vision for the future.
Fascism is making a comeback in many countries, primarily through its pre-cursor form of right-wing populism. Not all right-wing populist movements develop into full-blown fascism; and most fascist movements fail to grab and hold onto state power. Yet the rhetoric of right-wing populism is itself dangerous because it identifies scapegoats who are blamed for causing the decline of the nation, and the humiliation of the ‘real’ people who are the ‘legitimate’ and ‘proper’ citizens.
Roger Griffin defines fascism as:
a revolutionary form of nationalism, one that sets out to be a political, social and ethical revolution, welding the “people” into a dynamic national community under new elites infused with heroic values. The core myth that inspires this project is that only a populist, trans-class movement of purifying, cathartic national rebirth (palingenesis) can stem the tide of decadence (1991 xi).
Matthew N. Lyons and I wrote a book in 2000 about right-wing populism in the United States. Our analysis flowed from the work of many scholars, especially Canovan (1980), Fritzsche (1990), Griffin (1991, 1993), Betz (1994), and Kazin (1995). Since then scholars and activist researchers have expanded earlier analyses linking populist rhetoric to apocalyptic aggression, violence, and fascism.
Neofascism remains woefully undertheorized. Too many influential public intellectuals rely on language blaming ‘extremists’ and ‘hate groups’ instead of focusing on structural inequalities in a nation based on race, gender, and class. For current useful analysis see Cas Mudde, Ian Haney López, and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser.
Chip Berlet is an investigative journalist and independent scholar who coauthored (with Matthew N. Lyons) Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (Guilford 2000); and the revised entry on “Neo-Nazism” in the 2nd edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica.