In a recent series of articles published in the Journal of World-Systems Research (Part I and Part II), I examine why, in this current period of crisis, the contradictions of capitalism and its constituting ideology of liberalism have paved the way for fascism’s return. Though much marxist theory has explored the recurrent cycles and patterns of historical capitalism, not enough attention has been given to the tendency of moments of politico-economic crisis to become an ideological contestation between fascism and communism in the context of a crisis of liberalism. Following the work of marxist theorists who revisit fascism’s world-historical origins, I contend, we can better understand not only the politico-economic conditions in which fascism emerges, but also trace its reverberations through history to the present. In so doing, I identify three waves of historical fascism: 1922-1945 Classical Fascism; 1968-1989 Postcolonial Fascism; 2010s-present Postmodern Fascism.
Just as capitalism was born in Italy but then subsequently reached its full potential through the Dutch Republic-led systemic cycle of accumulation, fascism too first came into being in Italy, and then realized its full potential (and most destructive effects), in Nazi Germany. Fascism was invented in 1922, typically marked by Mussolini’s March on Rome, which signalled not only the end of Italy’s fledgling democracy but also a new politics that would fundamentally remake 20th century modernity.
The causes for fascism’s world-historical emergence in the early 1920s were economic, political, martial, and ideological. Southern Europe and Germany-Austria were characterized by fledgling democracies (and nations) disproportionately affected by the global economic downturn of the 1930s. These states were also late colonizers, but with well appointed militaries to engage in numerous colonial wars. In response to the economic downturn of the 1930s, structural adjustment programs were implemented, leading to social dislocations and capital flight. The states that were among the first to implement fascism–Italy, Germany, and Spain–were late to transition to monopoly capitalism and “both economically behind other links in the imperialist chain and in ‘advance’ of itself” (Nicos Poulantzas Fascism and Dictatorship (1974); See also Louis Althusser For Marx (1965)). These ‘advancements’ were primarily articulated as a well developed financial sector and colonial holdings despite a bourgeoisie mainly comprised of landowning classes. When we theorize fascism as emerging from the contradictions of imperialism in contexts of uneven transitions to modernity, we can better situate fascism in its world-historical context, better explaining why fascism doesn’t emerge until the early 20th century— several centuries after the emergence of capitalism.
Fascism is ultimately a result of macro-economic processes, yet its more immediate causes are ideological. While fascism emerges as a reaction against the depressive phase of a systemic cycle of accumulation it is a direct consequence of the failures of liberal ideology to explain, manage, and ultimately overcome the depressive phase of a systemic cycle of accumulation. Capitalism never truly solves crises, it simply implements temporary fixes and in this moment of the depressive phase, liberalism not only fails to satisfyingly explain the causes of the depression, but more importantly, liberal policies prove incapable of offering real policy solutions to manage the social dislocations resulting from the depression. These unsolvable structural crises further exacerbate an ideological crisis of the states that are both behind and advanced. In this chaotic moment of transition to a new systemic cycle of accumulation, and particularly in states that are unevenly transitioning to capitalism and imperialism, working class men whose social gains are eroded in the period of transition gravitate to solutions which provide political and ideological openings for fascism to crush the class struggle through an emphasis on nationalism.
The conflict between landowners and the emerging, but less powerful, bourgeoisie along with new ideological expressions of working class masculinity lead to a loss of legitimacy for the fledgling liberal democratic state. With this breakdown of legitimacy, emergent fascist authorities, police (who are likely to become fascist sympathizers), and the judiciary, engage in increasing violence or threat of violence against dissenters. This violence can stem from sympathy to the fascists or can be an expression of hostility towards the opponents of fascism who are often framed as un-patriotic. In such contexts where a democratic state loses ideological legitimacy and grows increasingly violent towards dissenters, democratic forces that do remain in control of the state, at this point, lose control of the police and military to the fascists.
After 1945, many observers believed fascism was defeated. In the postwar period, the United States, as part of the constitution of its new global hegemony began to tackle instead the ‘problem’ of anti-imperialist revolt. Central to the newly emerging U.S.-led global order, was a new global ideology; the promise of ‘development’. ‘Development’ was pitched as an alternative to British Imperialism, and furthermore, the means by which the United States would ‘liberate’ the rest of the world through free market capitalism. ‘Economic development’ as a concept, then, I contend, is inherently contradictory in that, as one of the defining ideologies of U.S. hegemony, ‘development’ both contests the dominant ideology of British hegemony–colonialism and imperialism–while also asserting the United States’ moral grounds for global rule. But at the same time, the ideology of ‘development’ allows the United States to assume the role of the world hegemon to which decolonizing and postcolonial states are economically dependent. However, the sprit of ‘development’ was also embraced by anti-colonial actors to create an anti-systemic challenge to nationalist movements, newly independent states, and generally to the new global order of the mid-20th century.
By the 1970s, it was clear that U.S. world hegemony was winning the struggle to define ‘development’ as growth, at the same time that many movements for decolonization that had the promise of bringing about world transformative, radical change descended into authoritarianism. With the first cracks in U.S. hegemony, many democratic states in Latin America, Africa, and Asia transitioned from democracy to authoritarianism. Examples of this wave of authoritarianism include: Chile under Augusto Pinochet, Uganda under Idi Amin, India during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, Indonesia’s New Order, Brazil’s military junta, Pakistan under Zia ul-Haq, Cambodia’s Khymer Republic, North Yemen, Argentina, Uruguay, Nigeria, and Sudan. This authoritarian moment of the 1970s illustrated that the realities of post-independent ‘development’ were different from its promises. In this moment, the veil of development was lifted to reveal that dictatorship is not the exception to capitalist modernity, but in fact, the very essence of capitalist modernity as seen from the 1970s Global South.
By the 2010s, macrostructural conditions around the globe ushered in a new period of systemic chaos that has similarities to the period of transition from British to U.S. hegemony. This conjuncture is marked by global war, economic crisis, austerity, and multiple social dislocations, particularly significant among them, the crisis of the labor and trade union movement which has left wages stagnant since the 1970s and significantly eroded the power of labor. The fascism of this wave can be understood as neoliberalism paving the way back to Nazism through austerity and structural crisis. Examples of postmodern fascists include: Russian President Vladimir Putin, former U.S. President Donald Trump, President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte; Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi; Turkish President Recep Erdogan; Italian Prime Minster Giorgia Meloni; former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro; Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and so on.
Postmodern fascism is a reflection of class maneuvering in the context of the ideological collapse of liberalism. Fascism is evoked by the dying faction of the capitalist class (in sectors like coal, construction, real estate, etc.,) to capture the state as their profit making opportunities through market mechanisms erode in the crisis moment. They succeed through legitimating their position in an alliance with the citizen male working class whose social gains have similarly been eroded. This alliance emphasizes shared masculinity and ethno-national, religious, and/or caste identity of the male working class and the dying faction of capital. This ideological plea to the citizen male working class is typically articulated through the vilification of groups who cannot be incorporated into the fascist vision of the nation taking shape as racism, sexism, casteism, and the targeting of people of a certain religion (contemporary fascist leaders have engaged in anti-semitism along with anti-islamic, anti-buddhist, or anti-christian rhetoric and actions, depending on the specific local context). In Europe, postmodern fascism has also tapped in to a nostalgia for lost colonial empires echoing Mussolini and Salazar’s evocations of colonialism as a cornerstone of the fascist project, while in India, for example, fascists express a similar nostalgia for the ancient Hindu Empires, reminiscent of Mussolini’s desire to relieve the glory of ancient Rome. Generally, the class alliance between the citizen male working class and the dying faction of capital is a nostalgia for privileges lost to neoliberal socio-economic dislocations.
Just as the 1930s ushered in a crisis of liberalism, multiple contemporary crises have brought about an ideological crisis of neoliberalism, and in this ideological vacuum, fascism has emerged as a rightist alternative. Yet one of the unique facets of postmodern fascism is the way it is evoked and articulated by its adherents. The incoherence, contradictions, and tension among different articulations of postmodern fascist ideology becomes an asset to their position. This incoherence from the perspective of outside observers allows contemporary fascists to disavow themselves from classical fascism, deflect most accusations of fascism, and largely evade detection as fascists. The incoherence of their rhetoric is exacerbated by the difficulty most popular observers have in discerning world-historically significant processes in real time. While mainline histories of the rise of fascism typically pinpoint a particular rally or march as the moment in which fascism emerged victorious over a democratically elected state, fascism is a process, not an event. Furthermore, the fascist process is not a linear one, but characterized by fits and starts endemic to the fascist movement, and also shaped by contestation with antifascists left and center. As such, the rise of fascism is difficult to discern in real time and therefore antifascists need to have well developed theories in order to better read the contemporary situation to inform strategy and praxis.
While the inability of contemporary fascists to coherently articulate their positions is one positive legacy from the defeat of Axis forces in World War II, world-history after World War II was indelibly marked by the post-fascist and the post-colonial. With fascism’s bizarre return (bizarre in the fact that it came back as big as it did, and bizarre in the manner that contemporary fascists perform their politics) around 2010, it became evident that fascism was never truly defeated in 1945. We might think of the ‘post-’ in post-fascism as analogous to post-colonialism’s ‘post-’, in that we take these ‘posts’ to mean after fascism and colonialism have begun, not as a means by which to signal their end.
While fascism emerges from the ideological and structural failures of (neo)liberalism as a legitimating ideology of the capitalist world-system, it is also well to remember that there is a complex tension between the fascist and the (neo)liberal. Liberals and fascists can and do coexist profitably. Neoliberals support, and even prefer, dictatorship if they can levy such dictatorships to achieve neoliberal objectives and thereby save ‘European civilization’ (or whichever ‘civilization’ they set out to ‘save’) from economic redistribution in moments of crisis. The inaction of contemporary liberals has similarly served to aid postmodern fascism’s successes in the current conjuncture. As Juan Linz (1978) contended, “a democratic regime should never be allowed to approach the point at which its survival will depend on the readiness of its supporters to fight for it in the streets”. Because police and military support goes either to the fascists or liberals (who may even support part of the fascist agenda), the left is resource poor and has little chance of winning an armed confrontation against fascists, especially in cases where the police and military are infiltrated with fascist party members. Developing precise and accurate theories of fascism and antifascism, therefore, is critically important for the left in structuring antifascists’ potential to defeating the fascist threat.
Kristin Plys is the J. Clawson Mills Scholar in the Director’s Office at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the 2023-24 academic year and an Associate Professor of Sociology and History at the University of Toronto.
This article summarizes the following research articles:
- Plys, Kristin (2022). “Theories of Antifascism in the Interwar Mediterranean Part I: Fascism in the Longue Durée” Journal of World-Systems Research 28(2): 344-358. [link]
- Plys, Kristin (2023). “Theories of Antifascism in the Interwar Mediterranean Part II: Autonomous Workers Movements and the Café Culture in Italy & Tunisia, 1922—1945” Journal of World-Systems Research 29(1): 125-148. [link]