Thursday, 10 December 2015

Who Are You Calling a Fascist?

Fascism has been in the news lately, from Hilary Benn's tub-thumping via the Front National's success in French local elections to the furore arising from Donald Trump's latest inanity. This is unfortunate as the word is rapidly being devalued. We need to remember what Fascism means politically, before it simply becomes a euphemism for "murderer" or "arsehole". There's no single, agreed definition of the word, largely because of varieties in practice, but there are four common characteristics concerning the "organising principle" of society and the role of the state, all of which need to be present.

1. Fascism is always nationalist. It assumes a distinct, localised identity and a common interest, represented by the "national idea", which is held to be persistent across generations and latent within older state forms. Though this usually takes on an ethnic dimension, it is the idea of exclusivity that is key: we are different and blessed. In some cases the nationalism can overlay ethnic variety and even appeal to trans-national antecedents (e.g. the Italian Fascist employment of Roman symbolism as a way to counter separatism). It's the nationalism that's defining, not the racism or antisemitism.

2. Fascism exhibits resentment against modernity, a belief in recent national decline (even betrayal), and a paranoia about malign forces. It fears decadence within (the product of liberalism) and barbarians at the gate (destabilisation by foreign elements and the jealousy of lesser breeds). It is reactionary, even though it symbolically trades in revolution (it inherits the pre-1793 meaning of the word as the return to a natural order from a debased present). It glorifies the future, but one in which technology and progress serve the national idea, which is unchanging (so it simultaneously annihilates the future).

3. Fascism is totalitarian in its belief that there is an ideal social order that needs to be imposed from above and coordinated in all aspects of life. Though we think of this in the modern guise of technological surveillance and mass regimentation, it is a recuperation of the pre-Enlightenment concept of an omniscient God. Fascism deifies the spirit of the nation, which is why it tends to be tolerant of established religions so long as they are non-competitive. This totalitarian mindset not only rejects diversity and plurality, it obviates the need for democracy and privacy.

4. Fascism treats economics instrumentally, as a means to impose its preferred order and coordinate society. Consequently, it tends towards corporatist regulation, autarky and protectionism, but it also tends to accommodate the larger capitals so long as they are seen to support the national idea. Despite rhetorical sympathy for the little guy, Fascism usually privileges big business. In practice it entrenches oligopolies and is sanguine about monopolies.

Daesh is not Fascist. It satisfies criteria 2, 3 and 4, but that makes it a brand of extreme religious authoritarianism, not Fascism. Though many commentators have tried to fit the idea of the Muslim "Caliphate" into the form of a nation, there is little evidence that the organisation sees itself in national terms (Islam is held to be superior to ethnicity) while its identification with a particular patch of territory is contingent. There has been no attempt to "perform the nation" through theatrical rallies or the celebration of national (as opposed to religious) symbols. The performance of Daesh in its propaganda videos centres on apostasy and apocalypse. Compare and contrast with the more nationally-minded Iranians, who are usually defined as a theocracy. Islamofascism, as the clumsy yoking of the word indicates, is a category error.

In contrast, the French Front National is Fascist. It satisfies all four citeria. Its Islamophobia and (barely hidden) antisemitism springs from a belief in the need to preserve a mythical French ethnic identity and symbolically revenge the defeat in Algeria. It is anti-modern, declinist and prone to paranoia (something it shares with new best friend Russia). Despite Marine Le Pen's toning down of public intolerance in recent years, the FN remains determined to impose petty restrictions to reorder society, hence the obsession with dress codes and diet. It is institutionally corrupt and dependent on rich backers. That its supporters haven't carried out many terrorist acts lately, as the party pushes for electoral respectability, is irrelevant to its political nature.

In terms of the gradual transformation of the social forces that give rise to Fascism, Britain is more "evolved" than France. The real Fascists, i.e. what remains of the BNP et al, are a tiny minority. UKIP is weakly nationalist (its name is a giveaway), nostalgic and bigoted, but no more so than large swathes of the Conservative Party. It is more libertarian than authoritarian, and its economics are best described as eccentric (hence Farage is closer to Trump than Le Pen). The relative strength of the FN reflects the broad persistence of republican nationalism in France, the greater resilience of reactionary attitudes in la France profonde, the instinctive authoritarianism of the French state, and the continued hankering for a neo-corporatist economy among some wealthy business people.

French history since 1871 has been dominated by anxiety over the country's ability to "keep up", from empire through industry to the military. On the international stage, France's symbolic role often appears to be to prevent the UK looking utterly absurd in its pretensions. The domestic right, from Action Francaise onwards, has been fuelled by a rejectionist exasperation at the compromises necessary to modernise while preserving the idea of French exceptionalism. In the current context of the EU, the success of the FN owes as much to worries over growing German hegemony as the fear of the Muslim "other". France has been fretful for decades, oscillating between a "me too" neoliberalism and a desire for a collective duvet-day. This is the legacy of Francois Mitterand.

Donald Trump is not a Fascist. Though he has flirted with all four categories, he has also proven to be consistently incoherent. Basically, he isn't trying hard enough because he doesn't really care ("I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos"). He is a narcissist, but not a sociopath (though he acts as a lighting rod for many who are). He is a nativist bigot rather than an exclusivist racist; his anti-politics schtick is populist rather than reactionary (i.e. kick the bums out rather than fundamentally change the rules); his social prejudices are opportunistic and contradictory (the flip-flops are legion); and beneath the bluster his economics are driven by self-interest rather than social engineering. The most Fascist thing about him is the Mussolini pout.

Trump doesn't believe in anything other than the brand: "Even when his projects fail – his golf course in Aberdeenshire, to take one example, has lost £3.5 million over the last two years – he makes money through letting other people put his name on their projects: no risk, little work, just a licensing fee upfront or a share of the profits. He doesn’t actually own the Trump Taj Mahal or Trump Palace or Trump Place or Trump Plaza or Trump Park Avenue or Trump Soho, or the many Trump buildings throughout South America, Turkey, South Korea and the Caucasus. Developers buy the use of his name because enough customers believe in it: ‘It’s not even a question of ego. It’s just that my name makes everything more successful,’ he says". The problem for the Republican Party is not Trump, but their misguided "project" to promote a simultaneously authoritarian and anti-government politics.

There is some evidence that Fascism particularly prospers in the wake of financial crises, possibly because a fraction of traditional conservative support becomes disillusioned with establishment parties, however this effect normally seems to tail off after 5 years. The persistence of far-right support in Europe today probably owes more to the self-defeating nature of austerity, which has effectively extended the crisis, than it does to the rise of Daesh or immigration (which is actually at historically low levels). However, this does not mean that conditions are propitious for a Fascist political coup, either in Europe or the USA.

Fascism thrives when conservatives fear outright defeat and expropriation from the left, and are consequently prepared to make political alliances with the far-right. But this scenario should not be confused with conservatives adopting populist rhetoric or nationalist policies, as in Hungary. There is a lot of authoritarian practice in Eastern Europe (with pre-1914 roots) that falls short of Fascism. The neoliberal hegemonic recovery since 2009, as much as the modest ambitions of the modern left, means that Western European conservatives do not feel under threat, despite the concerns over stagnation. If anything, they are actively promoting Fascist or nationalist parties as threats to the left, not as allies on the right. In Britain, the mildness of UKIP's nationalism allows it to be advanced by centrist liberals to a similar end.

As part of the long, withdrawing roar of the nineteenth century reaction, Fascism (like programmatic racism) is historically doomed. The current resurgence of nationalism, which clearly flirts with Fascism in some countries, is a reflection of the success of globalisation and economic liberalism, not its weakness. There is no evidence to believe that we will see a return to widespread economic protectionism, or a Hobbesian war of all against all to secure key resources. The unravelling of Schengen, or even a Brexit, will not break the EU, and the substantive advance of the FN beyond local government appears unlikely (unless Sarkozy miscalculates, which is not impossible). The US and China will not be fighting a war any time soon, not least because they are economically co-dependent. The one country that has the necessary ingredients for a Fascist takeover is probably India, however even there the odds remain long.

Fascism promises struggle. The truth, long acknowledged by the broad socialist movement, is that modern societies do not want struggle, they want ease - i.e. not indolence, but what the Greeks called eudaimonia. What natural disasters in Ullswater and terrorist outrages in Paris teach us is not that our civilisation is fragile and vulnerable, but that the gulf between modernity and the privation required to enable a Fascist regime is now too great to be bridged by rhetoric alone. The point is not that we are "soft", but that heroic self-sacrifice in the national cause (or proletarian revolution) has lost its appeal for all but a tiny minority (which may in part explain why such people are attracted to religious extremism instead). In the neoliberal order, blood, sweat and tears have been commoditised into role-playing video games, gym workouts and confessional media.


  1. One product of showering the term 'fascism' too loosely is the concurrent injudicious use of 'anti-fascism', a concept that has been very debilitating for the left. This eagerness to unite against the far-right has often led to prioritising a very weak threat as the main enemy while effectively defending a decadent status quo.

    I suspect that, unless Hollande manages to pose convincingly enough as an anti-terrorist hard-man and defender of the republic, many on the French left will end up being urged to support Sarkozy in 2017, like Chirac in 2002.

  2. Has Hollande had any kind of ratings bounce since the attacks? Thatcher and Blair exploited militarism mercilessly, of course. But I wonder if the perfidious French are actually too cynical to fall for it.