What fascism is, and isn’t

Trump’s America doesn’t even come close to fascism.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

It is probably futile now to argue for the proper use of the word fascism. To rail against the transformation of ‘fascist’ into a casual insult. To insist that fascism doesn’t mean ‘evil’ or ‘illiberal’ or even ‘demagogic’, but rather has a more specific meaning, and a more profound one.

The f-word has been destroyed through overuse, its original sense and power diluted by a million op-eds branding unpleasant politicians ‘fascists’ and by radical marchers hollering ‘fascist scum’ at anyone who irritates them: President Donald Trump, UKIP leader Nigel Farage, the cops. On the right, too, the accusation of fascism has become a Tourette’s-style cry. It’s the left who are the real fascists, they say. Ugly alt-right barbs like ‘feminazi’ and ‘eco-fascist’ confirm that right-wingers are now as likely to scream ‘fascist’ as they are to have it screamed at them.

The wise thing to do would be to accept that the term fascist is beyond repair. It’s a dead word. It now means bastard. It’s an emotional insult, expressing a sense of powerlessness on the part of the person making it, whose belief that he faces a fascist threat grows in direct proportion to his own inability to make sense of political developments. The insult of ‘fascist’ speaks far more to the insulter’s own sensation of impotence than it does to the insulted’s actual power, or ideology, or ambition.

And yet, let’s have one more try. Let’s make a likely forlorn stab at saying what fascism is. Not to be pedantic, but to differentiate between historic periods; to clarify what happened back then as a way of illustrating that it simply is not happening today. For fascism does not exist now, no matter how much they say it does.

Perhaps the most irritating thing about the ‘Trump is fascism’ argument is how hackneyed it is. This yelling of the f-word at politicians we don’t like has been happening for years. It was said about Nixon, Reagan, Thatcher. For decades, both liberals and leftists have been flinging the word about. In 1969, the American Trotskyist George Lavan Weissman said ‘liberals and even most of those who consider themselves Marxists are guilty of using the word fascist very loosely’. They use it as ‘an epithet… against right-wing figures who they particularly despise’, he said. George Orwell noted a similar overuse, and misuse, of the word as far back as 1944, when fascism most certainly did exist. He called on leftists and others to use the word with ‘circumspection’.

Weissman and Orwell would be horrified by the fascist mania of 2017. There is no circumspection. Orwell was worried that the word would lose its ‘last vestige of meaning’ if people insisted on applying it to everyone they disagreed with  –  and that has happened. The word is now used with an ahistoricism and thoughtlessness that are genuinely alarming. And among the upper echelons of society, not merely by scruffy protesters or online blowhards. The Archbishop of Canterbury says Trump is part of the ‘fascist tradition’. Prince Charles has warned darkly of a return of the atmosphere of the 1930s, and we all know what that means. ‘Yes, Donald Trump is a fascist’, says New Republic, a magazine that once considered itself a voice of reason among the paranoid style of American political life. But everyone’s paranoid now. Everyone now sees fascists.

In recent weeks, the corrosion of the meaning of fascism that Weissman and Orwell worried about has intensified to a shocking degree. We seem to be witnessing the falling apart of historical categories; the unhinging of political language from reason; a profound break between historical experience and political expression. That people can openly talk about a return of the 1930s  –  as if that decade were some kind of free-floating thing, an attitude, rather than a specific, grounded moment in history   –   shows how meaningless the idea of fascism has become. That people feel haunted by the 1930s   –   we’re being bruised by ‘deeply disturbing echoes of [those] dark days’, says Prince Charles   –  is a testament more to their own moral destabilisation, to their own experience of political disarray, than it is to any return of fascism.

This is most pronounced among the political class. It is their sensation of being under assault, of the ebbing away of their technocratic, judicial, evidence-based authority over society following the decidedly political jolts of Brexit and Trump, that has led them to resuscitate the fascism frenzy. The omnipresence of that word tells us little about a return of fascist terror, but a great deal about the political class’s own feeling of terror at recent political events.

The stability, or stasis, of the technocratic era, with its hostility both to ideology and to change, has led some to see all political upset, and even politics itself, as terrifying. One consequence of technocracy is that it denuded people, especially influential people, of the means of politics, of the very language of politics, of any ability to read the world politically and to understand that politics is the clash or interplay of competing interests, not, as they had imagined it, a managerial process of ensuring the relatively healthy maintenance of social and bureaucratic life. They are utterly unprepared for politics, and so the return of politics, the very political statements of Brexit and Trump, has convinced them not simply that they face a political challenge but that their entire class and worldview and even their existence is under threat.

Having retired political life, having relinquished political language, having retreated from the sphere of ideology into the comfort zone of expertise and technocracy, they now lack the political resources to deal with change, or even to understand it. And so they see terror and horror  –  and fascism  –  where in fact there is only political confrontation, a revolt; where there is simply the business of politics.

It is no accident that the technocratic elites have reached for the fascism spectre to describe recent events, or at least to express their terror at these events. Because it was fundamentally the experience of fascism that convinced much of the political class in Europe that it should insulate the political process from the excesses of popular and public opinion. These elites drew precisely the wrong lesson from the experience of the 1930s and 40s: not that concentrating power and militarising the state and dismantling law and liberty were wicked and dangerous things to do, but rather that ordinary people’s passions, their apparently authoritarian impulses, were ill-suited to political life and would only nurture more Nazi-style horrors. And so in the postwar period, politics came to be more fettered, more divorced from ordinary people. We saw the rise of judicial intervention in political decision-making, quangos, new kinds of checks and balances, and of course the EU: the clearest manifestation of the postwar elites’ desire to insulate politics from the rabble.

Having divorced politics from popular opinion as a way of keeping in check the presumed fascist tendencies of the masses, it is not surprising that the political class views the public’s recent attempts at ‘taking back control’, at joining back together opinion and democracy, as a return of fascism. Their great fear is that the lid they put on the masses’ latent fascism, their distancing of the political machinery from public prejudices, has been lifted. They are screaming ‘fascism’ because they see fascism in us, in ordinary people. Thus the accusation of fascism expresses a profound hostility towards democracy itself, and to the demos. It is pure elitism to see fascism in the new politics. Which is why the most elite sections of society   –   archbishops, princes, heads of global institutions   –  are often to the fore in the fascism frenzy.

And of course, what they describe as ‘fascism’   –  Brexit, people worried about immigration, Trump   –  is nothing of the sort. These things don’t even come close to fascism. As Weissman argued, even ‘dictatorship, mass neurosis, anti-Semitism, the power of unscrupulous propaganda, the hypnotic effect of a mad-genius orator on the masses, and so on’ do not necessarily constitute fascism. Fascism, he said, was something different to all that, something more than all that. Fascism, in essence, is a mass, paramilitary movement that acts as a stand-in for normal politics and normal statehood when that politics and statehood cannot deal with a threat it faces, primarily the threat of revolution or of organised, agitating labour.

As Trotsky put it, fascism occurs when the ‘police and military resources’ of a society, and its parliamentary process, ‘no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium’. In such circumstances, as happened most notably in Italy and Germany, the rulers of society give way to, or rather push to the front, a mass violent movement fashioned to crush the threatening force. Fascism, basically, is when a society in crisis green-lights civil war or class war as a means of stabilising itself in the longer term.

This fascist movement is made up from the ‘crazed petty bourgeoisie and the bands of declassed and demoralised lumpenproletariat’, in Trotsky’s colourful, cutting phrase. Brought to ‘desperation and frenzy’, this mass, paramilitarised section of society sets about ‘annihilating’ workers’ movements and of course executing anti-Semitic savagery. The consequence is that ‘a system of administration is created which penetrates deeply into the masses and which serves to frustrate the independent crystallisation of the proletariat’   –   ‘therein precisely is the gist of fascism’, said Trotsky.

This is why those who say ‘the Nazis were left-wing, you know’ are wholly wrong. Fascism fundamentally represents the violent marshalling of a certain strata of society to the end of crushing the left and the working class. Yes, the Nazis in particular used socialist terms, even calling themselves the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. But as Trotsky says, that was merely the means through which a mass movement could be built. Fascism’s leaders ‘employ a great deal of socialist demagogy’, he said, for this is ‘necessary to the creation of the mass movement’.

Nothing even remotely like this exists today. None of the conditions or groups that makes fascism, and which makes it distinct from hatred and demagoguery and even from dictatorship, exist in Europe or the US in 2017. There is no powerful workers’ movement posing such a threat to the stability of capitalism that it needs to be destroyed. No ‘crazed’ petty bourgeoisie is being armed and goaded into civil or class war as a means of ‘annihilating’ vast numbers of their fellow citizens. People  – well, ordinary people   – have not been whipped into a frenzy. Indeed, it is the patience of Brexit and Trump voters in the face of incessant defamation by the media and political set that is most striking.

It is a fantasy to claim fascism has made a comeback. And it’s a revealing fantasy. When the political and media elites speak of fascism today, what they’re really expressing is fear. Fear of the primal, unpredictable mass of society. Fear of unchecked popular opinion. Fear of what they view as the authoritarian impulses of those outside their social, bureaucratic circle. Fear of the latent fascism, as they see it, of the ordinary inhabitants of Nazi-darkened Europe or of Middle America, who apparently lack the moral and intellectual resources to resist demagoguery. As one columnist put it, today’s ‘fascistic style’ of politics is a creation not so much of wicked leaders, as of the dangerous masses. ‘Compulsive liars shouldn’t frighten you’, he says. ‘Compulsive believers, on the other hand: they should terrify you.’

In short, not leaders but the led; not the state but the people. This, precisely, is who terrifies them. This, precisely, is what they mean when they say ‘fascism’. They mean you, me, ordinary people; people who have dared to say that they want to influence politics again following years of being frozen out. When they say fascism, they mean democracy.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

Picture by: Getty

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Topics Politics


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