This article originally appeared in Counterpunch magazine
It is the contention of this article that we are entering into a new fascist epoch. Movements with outright fascist roots are winning elections and referendums in Britain and the USA, and mainstream electoral parties too are being ‘fascisised’ in the process. Even the left are being fascisised, with the movements against war and neolioberal globalisation increasingly falling under the hegemony of the new fascists. And yet, the term ‘fascism’ has for so long been used as a byword for any kind of brutality or state control to which one takes exception, that many seem not only to have forgotten what it means, but also to be failing to notice it how it is unfolding before their very eyes.
Part of the problem is that fascism has too often been conflated with particular elements of one or other of its historical manifestations, or even with perceived elements that have never, in reality, existed. Many, for example, conflate fascism with military dictatorship. Yet, dictatorships existed for centuries – if not millennia – before fascism, and, as Robert Paxton has noted, “most military dictatorships have acted simply as tyrants, without daring to unleash the popular excitement of fascism”: fascism, unlike most military dictatorships, is a genuine mass movement. Furthermore, fascist movements can still be properly be described as such before they have established any dictatorship. Hitler was a fascist for long before he became a dictator.
Others confuse fascism with ‘totalitarianism’; total state control of all aspects of social life. The very term is a deliberate piece of Cold War propaganda, brought into scholarly use by imperialist strategist Zbigniew Brzenzski in 1956 in order to besmirch communism by drawing a superficial – and, in my view, unsustainable – parallel with fascism. Yet not only is the term an anachronistic piece of propaganda, it, on closer inspection, cannot even be said to apply to fascism at all: fascist governments never gained ‘total control’, but rather, as Paxton has pointed out, “jostled with the state bureaucracy, industrial and agricultural proprietors, churches and other traditional elites for power”.
Even worse, some seem to think that to use the term fascist for anything less than industrial genocide is somehow an insult to the victims of the Nazi holocaust. This definition of fascism, therefore, excludes from its scope not only the entire pre-governing period of the Nazi party, but also the first nine years of Hitler’s premiership: fascism, by this definition, began not with the establishment of Mussolini’s party in 1919, nor with his coming to power in 1922, nor with Hitler’s ascendancy to the German chancellorship in January 1933, but on 20th January 1942, with the advent of the “final solution” at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin. This definition is the most dangerous, as it effectively serves to give a free ‘non-fascist’ pass to anything below the level of mass extermination.
Furthermore, whilst fascism is necessarily anti-liberal, it is not strictly ‘anti-democratic’. Dylan Riley has described fascism as ‘authoritarian democracy’, noting “the paradoxical incorporation of democratic themes into the fascist project”. Riley argues that democracy fundamentally boils down to “a claim that a certain type of political institution “represents” the people.” Fascists certainly made this claim, arguing that their institutions represented “the people” more perfectly than those they replaced. Indeed, the use of referendums and plebiscites by both the Italian and German fascist governments demonstrated that they took the claim seriously.
So what is fascism then? Let me offer a definition. Fascism is a mass movement, predominantly rooted in a middle class whose privileges are being undermined by capitalist crisis, and whose ‘national pride’ has been wounded by national decline and military defeat and humiliation. It is based on a promise to restore these privileges and national pride through, on a domestic level, purging ‘impure elements’ within the polity blamed for national weakness, and on an international level, restoring military prowess and ‘great power’ status. It is a ‘pseudo-revolutionary’ movement inasmuch as, whilst it adopts much in the way of imagery and policies from the radical left, it does not threaten fundamental property relations: rather, it redirects popular anger away from the capitalist class and towards vulnerable scapegoats in a way that actually serves the ‘elites’ it claims to oppose. It is sponsored and helped to power by powerful elements of the dominant political and economic classes. It opposes liberalism on the grounds that liberalism is unable or unwilling to deal effectively with those internal and external enemies deemed responsible for weakening the national polity.
Yet, first and foremost, as Mussolini’s magazine The Fascist, put it, fascism is “less a policy than a state of mind”. For communist theoretician Rajani Palme Dutt, “there is no theory of fascism, there is only its practice”. But what is the fascist state of mind, and what is it’s practice? Its’ state of mind is one of hatred towards those deemed responsible for ‘national decline’, however defined, and for the declining privileges of the (racially or nationally defined) ‘in-group’. And its practice is attacking these people. As Mussolini put it, “The democrats of [left-liberal newspaper] Il Mundo want to know our programme. Our programme is to break the bones of the democrats of Il Mundo”.
Italy’s fascist movement was founded in Milan on March 23rd 1919. It’s first ‘action’, three weeks later, was to attack the offices of the socialist newspaper Avanti, destroying its printing press, injuring 39 people and killing 4. Said Mussolini, the fascists had “declare[d] war against socialism…because it has opposed nationalism”. This war went into full throttle in 1921, when fascist squadristi went on a countrywide rampage against trade unions, farmers co-operatives and the socialist party, attacking their premises and beating – or killing – their members. These gangs, in an early demonstration of the complicity between fascism and the conservative establishment, were often hired by landowners and businessmen to destroy the wave of land and factory occupations that had gripped Italy in the aftermath of the first world war.
The German Nazis, too, considered the eradication of socialism – and specifically Marxism, “the fiercest enemy of all German and European culture” according to the Nazi professor H. Ludat – to be their principal aim. “I wished to be the destroyer of Marxism” Hitler told the jury in his trial following the failed Munich putsch, “and I will achieve this task”. Nine years later, on the eve of his accession to power, he reiterated this commitment at a meeting of leading German industrialists in Dusseldorf: “Yes,” he told them, “we have taken the unalterable decision to tear Marxism out by its roots”. The Nazis, like the Italian fascists, regularly indulged in the killing of communists, particularly in drive-by shootings, long before controlling the levers of power. Fascism, then, first and foremost, means the crushing of proletarian revolution by any means necessary.
On February 8th of this year, Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, a 36-year old mother of two who had lived in the US for 22 years, was arrested during her standard bi-annual check-in with immigration officials. She was immediately deported, leaving her two children (both US citizens) stranded. “I don’t think it’s fair that she was taken away from us,” her 14 year old daughter Jacqueline said. “Her only crime was to work here so she could support us”. Of course, working in the US of itself is not a crime; it is only criminal for certain nationalities. Her real crime, committed when she herself was a 14 year old in Mexico, was to have refused to accept the diktat of modern-day feudalism: that those born into high-unemployment, low wage economies ravaged by imperialism must also be condemned to die there. In this sense, the 14 year old Guadalupe was committing a revolutionary act. And it is a revolution which Trump is determined to crush at any cost.
In Reece Jones’ excellent book “Violent borders: refugees and the right to move”, he argues that ‘illegal’ migration constitutes a refusal “to abide by the global border regime… in the same way that Harriet Tubman refused to abide by the system of slavery and fugitive slave laws, Mahatma Gandhi refused to abide by the laws of British colonialism, and Nelson Mandela refused to abide by the South African system of apartheid”. For what are borders, after all? For Jones, they are nothing more than “artificial lines drawn on maps to exclude other people from access to resources and the right to move”. “One day,” he writes, “denying equal protection based on birthplace may well seem just as anachronistic and wrong as denying civil rights based on skin colour, gender or sexual orientation.” Moreover, it is precisely the system of state borders that creates the wage differentials underpinning the extreme levels of global inequality in the world today, in which, for example, a taxi driver in London is paid around 50 times a taxi driver in Delhi, whilst the average wage in Norway is around 300 times that in the Congo: “Restricting the movement of workers creates artificially low wages. If workers could move, wages would stabilise between the high wage in the US and the low wage elsewhere. This would allow the economy to produce goods based on the real value of work, without a low wage subsidy artificially produced by borders” (Jones, 140). Put another way, the global border regime sustains the split in the global working class, with that section ‘contained’ in the third world forced to subsist on artificially low wages, whilst the section in the western world are able to preserve their monopoly access to high-paid work. This divide has become so pronounced, argues professor Zak Cope, that we can no longer legitimately speak of a ‘proletariat’ amongst the citizenry of the western world at all, but rather a “middle class working class” which is paid well above the value of its labour power (that is, the cost of reproduction of labour power) and “which benefits materially from imperialism and the attendant super-exploitation of oppressed nation workers”.
Yet the proletariat – that section of the working class paid subsistence wages: that is to say, the working class of the global South – are revolting. They are revolting by refusing to accept the global border regime which keeps them in subjection, and they are doing so on an unprecedented scale: the UN estimated that there were 244 million international migrants in 2015, a 41% increase as compared to 2000. Around 350,000 attempt to cross the Mexican border into the US each year, and around one million tried to reach the shores of Europe in 2015. This, then, is a mass proletarian revolutionary movement, driven – like all revolutionary movements – by a realisation that playing by the existing rules will not put food on the table or allow a dignified peaceful future for one’s children. Yet, just like it did the middle classes who flocked to fascism in Italy and Germany, proletarian revolution disgusts the “middle class working class” of the West, who see it as a threat to their privileged monopoly of high waged work. That is why they elected Trump to crush it.
Garcia de Rayos’ arrest came about following an executive order stepping up the deportation of undocumented immigrants in the USA signed by Donald Trump two weeks earlier. This was his third executive order targeting immigrants, the others banning immigration from seven Muslim countries and ordering the construction of a wall between the US and Mexico, along with a further 15,000 border staff to patrol it. “We are living in a new era now,” said Garcia de Rayos’ lawyer, Ray Maldonado, following her arrest: “an era of war on immigrants.”
To be fair, today’s neo-fascists did not start this war. Deportations reached new heights under Obama, who deported a record 2 million undocumented immigrants. The much-hyped ‘wall’ between the US and Mexico effectively already exists, at least in the sense of a hard border, enforced with violence. And it was Britain’s Theresa May, along with her chancellor Philip Hammond, who played the major role in pressuring Italy to terminate its successful search and rescue programme in the Mediterranean in 2014 to ensure that refugees were left to drown as a message to others. Around 10,000 men, women and children have so far been drowned as a result of the policy – which was, significantly, first advocated by the British National Party, Britain’s main overtly fascist party, some years earlier. In total, Reece Jones estimates that no less than 40,000 people have been killed – shot, drowned or starved in the desert – at the borders of Europe and North America over the past ten years. This already marks the beginnings of a descent into fascism, which can also be viewed as a collapsing of indirect structural violence (in this case the structural violence of poverty wages imposed by the global border regime) into direct,
physical violence (shooting, drowning and starving migrants at the border) under pressure of proletarian revolution. Yet what Obama and the ‘mainstream’ parties did shamefacedly, ‘on-the-quiet’ and to the embarrassment of their supporters, Trump does openly, brazenly and with gusto, to the untrammelled delight of the movement that brought him to power. Again, this is fully in line with classical fascism, which did not, after all, invent the purging of communists, jew-baiting, rule by decree and so on, but rather turned all of this into a mass movement, stepped it up and systematised it – marking a qualitative difference in what had gone before in so doing.
Once we understand that all citizens of the western world are effectively bourgeois – net beneficiaries of (global) exploitation living, at least in part, off the labour of others – the parallels with fascism become clear. If the working class of the west is, properly speaking, a section of the global middle class, as Cope argues, then for all the ‘workerism’ espoused by Trump and his European bedfellows, their electoral basis is, just like the classical fascists, primarily middle class. Fascism has always had a special appeal to the middle class in periods of capitalist crisis, as it promises redemption from both the threat from ‘below’ – proletarian revolt threatening their privileged class position – and the threat from ‘above’ – the big capitalist industries and finance capital. Hitler chose the Jew as a very specific symbol designed to represent both of these threats simultaneously – the poor ghetto jew representing the communist threat, and the wealthy jew symbolising the ‘greedy banker’. By the same token, the Jew also represented both the internal enemy, ‘weakening the enemy from within’, as well as the external enemy – the Soviet Union, standing in the way of German lebensraum, and the ‘Jewish-controlled’ capitalist victors of Versailles – responsible for Germany’s decline. For today’s neo-fascists, the Muslim plays the same role. Whilst the poor Muslim immigrant represents the unwanted intrusion of the global proletariat into the white westerner’s monopoly of privileged access to jobs and services, the wealthy Arab sheikh represents the (foreign) capitalist responsible for pushing up house prices and rents etc. Likewise, the internal threat posed by the ‘jihadi terrorist’ is mirrored by the external threat of the rising global South, freeing itself from western domination, and both symbolised by the Muslim other. The promise to root out this impure ‘other’ internally – whilst reasserting dominance over it abroad – is at the heart of fascism’s appeal.
But also fundamental to fascism is that all of this comes dressed in pseudo-‘left wing’, ‘anti-establishment’ drag. The Nazis were forever railing against what Gregor Strasser called “the degenerate economic system” which would supposedly smashed by the fascists, who would “restore honest payment for honest labour”. Their 25-point programme promised the abolition of unearned income, the “nationalisation of all trusts”, the “breaking of interest slavery”, the “death penalty for usurers” and on and on – but in power, of course, none of this came to fruition. Just like Trump, far from executing the ‘usurers’, be brought them into his government: whilst Hitler made the head of Deutsche bank his economics minister, Trump has now broken the record for the number of former Goldman Sachs officials in Cabinet. For the Nazis, it was only the promises to smash Marxism and round up Jews, in the end, to which they were seriously committed, just as Trump’s anti-immigrant programme is the only major plank of his manifesto that has survived actually taking office. As Slavoj Zizek succinctly put it; “Hitler staged a spectacle of revolution so that the capitalist order could survive”. It is supremely ironic that Zizek now provides ideological cover for the neo-fascists himself, parroting their ‘threat to Europe’ rhetoric on immigration.
For Willie Thompson, fascism is defined as “pseudo-revolutionary populist nationalism”; and a more precise definition of today’s European far-right, Trump and Brexit movements would be hard to find. But the neo-fascist electoral model which has been so successful for these groups – immigrant- baiting, pseudo-workerism, plus a faux ‘anti-establishment’ presentational style – has now been established as THE electoral formula across the entire ‘western’ world, with mainstream parties seeking to maintain their position playing the same game. The fascist epoch is truly underway; history shows us the direction in which it is headed.