New Statesman this week, Yanis Varoufakis compared the President elect of the United States to the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Others in the same magazine disagreed.
This mirrored several recent debates about whether the populist, far right movements sweeping the western world can be called fascist. Some say yes, others, like Paul Mason, say no.
Whatever the truth, it seems to me that understanding the fascist movements of the past can help us better understand current political developments.
The forces that gave us Brexit and Trump represent mass movements, and mass movements seek a transformation of the world. In The True Believer, Eric Hoffer pointed out that such movements share a number of characteristics that give them a family likeness. They are driven by the ‘frustrated’ or ‘disaffected.’ Whilst superficially democratic, mass movements tend to be populated by those who are intolerant of dissenters, eager to subsume their individuality into the mass, and willing to sacrifice the present, and sometimes their family and friends, for the promise of a better tomorrow.
Fascism represents a particularly unpleasant kind of mass movement, and has a number of characteristic features. In Introducing Fascism, Hood and Jancz note fourteen:
1. A political philosophy that is a mix of mysticism or the occult, radical ideas and conservative politics.
2. A strong state with a powerful executive.
3. A hatred of communism and socalism.
4. A mass party that is formed on paramilitary lines.
5. A love of (masculine) power and a cult of violence.
6. Highly authoritarian, with submission, conformity and discipline emphasised.
7. Fundamentally irrational, promoting emotional impulse over logical thought.
8. Nostalgia for a lost or legendary past.
9. Hatred of intellectuals (although this does not preclude support by some intellectuals).
10. Idealises the dignity of labour.
11. Love of masculinity, women in a subordinate role.
12. Subsidised by industrialists and landowners.
13. Mostly supported by middle class, especially the lower middle class.
14. Need for scapegoat enemies or ‘Others.’
It is not necessary for a movement to have every single one of these features to qualify as fascist. What matters is the general pattern of features.
Although the current movements of the authoritarian right lack the organizational structure and paramilitary aspects of fascism, it seems to me that they share enough ideological affinities for us to be worried.
That these sort of features cluster is not surprising. They possibly result from the ‘strict father’ model that George Lakoff has suggested forms the basis of (ultra) conservative politics.
Hood & Jansz also outline a number of persistent conditions that allow fascism to flourish, that seem very relevant to our current situation.
These include industrially advanced economies hit by a recessionary slump, a discredited left, dissatisfaction with an inefficient or corrupt legislature, the end of consensus politics, racism provoked by ‘job stealing’ immigrants or other scapegoats, a respectable right and nostalgia for a strong state.
It seems to me that every single one of these conditions exists today in the US, the UK and continental Europe. The financial crisis of 2008, and a series of catastrophic failures of governance, have left us vulnerable to far-right populism that at the very least constellates broadly with fascism.
There are some who seem to think that one might use fascist ideas in a reasonably benign way, and avoid the less pleasant features. But this sort of ‘fascism lite’ is unworkable and dangerous. I think that you probably cannot have a strong, authoritarian, hierarchical power-worshipping political regime that doesn't subjugate women, despise weakness and attempt to violently destroy its opposition.
The spokesperson for the Leader of the Front Nationale in France, responding to Trump’s victory, said recently that ‘[the liberal] world is collapsing. Ours is being built’ (New Statesman, 18—24th November, 2016, p. 3)
This may well be so. But a world built with the bricks of isolationist, racist nationalism or even worse, neo-fascism, is not a stable one. Not only would such a world significantly increase the odds of a Third World War, but it would also render useless attempts to offset civilization-wrecking climate change.
A human future dominated by the far right would be dark, brutal, destructive and probably short–lived. Those of us who want a sustainable, mature, long-lived global civilization cannot let these sort of forces triumph.
This opposition should primarily be through through education, and also efforts to prevent the radicalisation of young people. It could also involve the promotion of more positive alternatives, one of which I will discuss next time.