If this is ‘anti-fascism’, count me out

If this is ‘anti-fascism’, count me out

Paul Mason’s new book is batshit crazy.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
Editor

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Topics Books Brexit

We all need some mirth in these fearful, diseased times. So I am grateful to Paul Mason for his unwittingly hilarious explanation of how he came to reinvent himself as an intellectual warrior against fascism. His Damascene realisation that fascism has made a comeback occurred at a ‘peaceful pro-Remain rally in Whitehall’, he says. There was Paul and his middle-class chums innocently marching for the overthrow of the largest democratic vote in British history, for the destruction of the ballots cast by millions of working-class people and at least eight million women, when they were set upon by a bunch of gruff twats. ‘[We were] surrounded by quite violent Brexit supporters, who turned out to be Tommy Robinson fans’, a startled Mr Mason recalls. These rotters branded Mason a ‘Marxist’ and a ‘traitor to our country’. And it was then that everything fell into place for our brave Newsnight reporter turned leather-jacket-sporting Marxian tweeter: fascism has returned.

It is such a brilliant anecdote, and for literally none of the reasons Mason thinks it is. Just savour the scenario. Mason and thousands more of the reactionary middle classes were on the streets demanding the thwarting of the democratic will. They were calling on the government to enact what would have amounted to the most extreme act of authoritarianism in living memory in the UK – the obstruction of a democratic vote, the suspension of democracy itself. And yet Mason saw ‘fascism’ not in the intolerant, classist cries from these blue-painted sons and daughters of privilege who were so archly hostile to democracy, but rather in the yelps of a handful of wankers from the Tommy Robinson fan club. Imagine being part of a 100,000-strong mob agitating for the most severe retraction of British people’s liberties since we got the franchise a hundred years ago and believing that it is a few score morons with beer bellies who threaten to upend Western values.

Nope, this doesn’t mean I think Mason is ‘the real fascist’. Of course he isn’t a fascist. The Remain mob was not fascistic either. Unpleasant and a noxious menace to the hard-won democratic rights of the masses, absolutely. Fascistic, no. As someone who believes that language should be used carefully, and that we risk minimising the crimes of mid-20th century Europe by branding everything we dislike as ‘fascism’, I refuse to go around hurling that F-word at people. Yet Mason’s self-conscious juxtaposition between the behaviour of the anti-working-class anti-democrats he had come to associate himself with – which is apparently ‘progressive’ – and the cries of ‘Marxist scum!’ from tiny numbers of hard-right loons – which is apparently ‘fascistic’ – is just too intellectually delicious not to comment on. Indeed, it captures everything that is messed up about contemporary ‘anti-fascism’, and everything that is wrong with Mr Mason’s new book.

It is hard to know where to start with How To Stop Fascism. Parts of it are just batshit crazy. Let’s start at the beginning, where Mason asks a burning question: ‘What if the Nazis invented a time machine?’ That is literally the opening sentence. He imagines that if they swung by 2020 they would initially feel upset. They would behold the ‘ultra-liberalism’ of Western society and black American music’s conquering of the world and they would sob into their leather gloves. There is something about Paul Mason sitting in his study picturing a time-warped Joseph Goebbels tut-tutting as Lil Wayne plays on the radio that is just very funny. But then, Mason says, our time-travelling brownshirts would realise that all is not lost. They’d look at India and see a country run by a Hindu extremist. They’d see far-right parties doing well in Europe. They would go online and see ‘a cartoon frog saying “Honk Honkler”’ and this would ‘make them smile’. I’m not making this up. This is in the book. And then they’d twig: fascism lives!

You’d think that with such a cranky opening – Pepe the frog giving hope to Hitler, shoot me now – the only way for the book to go would be up. Alas, Mason finds a way downhill. His theory, such as it is, is that various crises – economic downturn, Covid, climate change – have crashed together to create a volatile political moment. And three kinds of fascist-adjacent political movements are exploiting this moment: actual fascists, natch, right-wing populists and authoritarian conservatives. These dangerous political actors all live within the ‘thought architecture of fascism’. What is the thought architecture of fascism, you ask? It’s this: the belief ‘that majority ethnic groups have become the “victims” of migration and multiculturalism; that the gains of feminism should be reversed; that democracy is dispensable; that science, universities and the media cannot be trusted; that nations have lost their way and need to become “great” again’.

Oh, let me say it one more time! Isn’t it Mason and his classist comrades in the Remain mob who were the most vociferous proponents of the idea that ‘democracy is dispensable’? And does that mean that they also inhabit the ‘thought architecture of fascism’? We’ll leave Mason to answer this question, at some point, hopefully. Anyway, the even more striking thing about Mason’s outlining of these ideas that apparently make up ‘the core of fascism’s belief system today’ is that they could be applied to almost anybody. I think the media often cannot be trusted. A lot of lefties believe that, or at least they used to. Are we fascists? Many people would like Britain to become a better nation. Fascist scum! As to the ‘gains of feminism’ – today, that would include allowing blokes into women’s spaces (thanks a lot, third-wave feminists), and some actual feminists (second-wavers) want to put a stop to that. Fascists?

The danger here, as is so often the case in contemporary discussions of fascism, is that fascism comes to be so broadly defined as to be rendered meaningless. This has been going on for a long time. It is more than 50 years since the American Trotskyist George Lavan Weissman argued that ‘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. Mason does that. Sure, he exercises caution every now and then. He says Trump wasn’t a fascist, for example. But his description of Bonapartist regimes like Bolsonaro’s in Brazil or right-populist governments such as those in India and the UK as being expressions of a culture of fascism is a very anti-intellectual endeavour. The problem with throwing around the word fascism like political confetti is that it makes it more difficult to understand the specificities of our own time and it exhausts people’s tolerance for understanding what was truly unique about the Nazi era. If everything is fascism, nothing is.

Mason gets around this problem by redefining fascism. He takes aim at both conservative historians and radical leftists who hold to the view that fascism is a specific historical phenomenon that emerges in narrow, particular circumstances. These people are too obsessed with the idea of fascism as ‘an ideology, a movement and a regime’, he says. When actually it is better understood as ‘the outcome of a process’, specifically ‘a process of socio-economic disintegration that leaves millions of people’s lives in turmoil, their self-image in doubt, longing to believe a pack of lies, and indeed to take an active part in creating and spreading the lies’. Fascism is not a historically specific experience – it is a ‘recurrent symptom’ of life under capitalism, he says. (His italics. He’s proud of that one.)

Mason is engaging in linguistic contortionism. He is pursuing a disturbingly cavalier crusade against the specific meaning and understanding of the phenomenon of fascism. And the aim of his attempts to uproot the word from the meaning, to ‘liberate’ the term fascism from the historical experience of fascism, seems to be an alarmingly cynical one – to ensure that the term fascism is no longer a mere descriptor of certain regimes in mid-20th century Europe but rather can be transformed into an all-purpose narrative for political events that Mr Mason finds disorientating. To plunder the crimes of history for words with which you might express your very 21st-century bourgeois angst with populism and the masses’ rejection of technocratic expertise is, in my view, a very bad thing to do.

And it is, indeed, the masses who seem to worry Mason most. If there is a thread to this meandering work it is a sense of disdain and even fear towards ordinary people who have turned their backs on establishment politics. Parts of the book drip with contempt for the inhabitants of mass society. So Mason might say Trump is not a fascist, but he follows it up with this – ‘but there is a plebeian mass base for American fascism and Trump [chose] to lead it’. So the problem was less Trump’s extremism than the extremism lurking within sections of the masses. Mason seems obsessed with the plebeian problem. He has also wrung his hands over Britain’s ‘mass plebeian movement of racists and violent misogynists’. How to suppress the more vile instincts of the plebs is, remarkably, a core question of the book.

Mason sees the impressionable throng, thrown into moral and economic disarray by system collapse, as a key problem of our time. These are the people who, in his words, are willing ‘to believe a pack of lies’ – that is, to allow themselves to be marshalled, bovine-like, by unscrupulous populists. He reports that socialists in working-class towns now often feel like they are ‘drowning in a sea of racism’. Hate abounds in these former industrial, now forgotten heartlands of the UK, he claims. Working-class folk in the 1980s ‘grumbled about everything but rarely expressed hatred’, he writes. But ‘expressions of hate are everywhere’ these days. He visits the north and hears discussions about the need for ‘ethnic cleansing’ to get Romanians out of the UK. Really?

There are some parts of the book that make me want to say to Mr Mason: ‘I dare you to come and say that in the working-class community I come from.’ For example, this: ‘Over the past 10 years, a political culture has emerged in some working-class communities defined by xenophobia, white supremacy, anti-feminism and Islamophobia.’ These oiks are most hostile to ‘“wokeness”, political correctness, and what the Sun newspaper in Britain calls “luvvies”…’, he says. The temerity of the lower orders in making fun of luvvies. Can you imagine.

Mason’s feverish concerns about the hatreds and prejudices swirling around working-class communities lead to the most extraordinary part of the book. I read it three times to make sure I was not making a misinterpretation. He argues that working-class people will in the future make the most natural fascists. He makes the now quite well-known point that the middle classes made up the backbone of the fascist movements in Germany and Italy in the mid-20th century. But things have changed, and now it is the less well-off who are more susceptible to the hateful, violent temptations of fascism, he says. Let’s quote it at length, so that you can see just how real this is:

‘In both Italy and Germany, the moment when fascism began to mobilise serious numbers from the middle class was pivotal. In both cases, panic about the Big Threat / Big Other energised middle-class people to embrace a radical antidote, casting aside all reticence at being associated with a movement based on organised violence. In the 21st century, where class distinctions are overlaid by cultural rivalries, the psychological traits that were once associated with the urban middle class – volatility, individualism, respect for authority and a preference for charismatic leaders – have cascaded down into the lives of working-class people and the urban poor. An episode of middle-class panic today, parallel to the one that drove Hitler’s electoral breakthrough in 1930, would look more like a “panic of the unorganised”…’

There you have it. I knew the Remain elites felt a visceral hostility towards the working-class communities that ensured a victory for Brexit, but even I did not know that it ran this deep, that it was giving rise to a new theory of fascism that views the working classes as the likely key component in the next mass panic of authoritarianism. This explains Mason’s hostility to democracy. Even in this book in which he lists the view of democracy as ‘dispensable’ as a core fascistic belief, Mr Mason cannot help but expose that his fear of populism is at root a fear of the democratic will. He slams the charismatic leaders of the new right for fetishising the ‘will of the people’. He laments this redefinition of democracy in ‘explicitly populist terms’, and argues that the idea of the popular will must not be ‘allowed to override the checks and balances of the constitutional state’. It’s a funny Marxist who wants the state to make rules and regulations to temper the beliefs and passions of the masses.

Mason once posed, unconvincingly, as a media revolutionary. This book, however, is deeply conservative and even reactionary. It is an argument not for revolution, but for restoration – restoration of the checks and balances that hold the popular will at bay, of respect for the media, experts and scientists, even of appreciation for luvvies. It is a cry to restore the ancien regime of technocracy dressed up as a radical treatise against fascism. It is now very clear that for many on the contemporary left, ‘fascism’ is little more than the stage upon which they can play out their own psychosocial dramas and release their rage about the direction democratic politics is taking. To Mason, ‘fascism’ seems to mean little more than ordinary people not doing as they’re fucking told.

Mason doesn’t only seek to redefine fascism. He also wants to redefine the working class – to redefine them virtually out of existence. Disappointed by the hate and idiocy in some working-class communities, he proposes that the left embrace a new ‘agent for change’. Where ‘classic Marxism defines the working class as everybody who lives off their wages and doesn’t own assets that generate substantial incomes’, what we need now is an appreciation that all sorts of diverse groups are exploited by the financial system, he says. We should ditch the old Marxist definition of the working class and instead see the working class as ‘everybody exploited by capitalism, through data, finance, rent and monopoly pricing as well as work’. And hey presto, suddenly the working class would include middle-class students, well-off web-users, small business owners and pretty much everyone else.

The new left is so disappointed by the working class that they are literally trying to create a new one. They have, amazingly, acted upon Bertolt Brecht’s satirical poetic cry against the tyrants of the GDR: ‘Would it not in that case be simpler / for the government / To dissolve the people / And elect another?’ The dissolving of the working class and its replacement with the middle classes who hold supposedly better, more respectable views – this is the 21st-century Labour left summed up. It is a poisonously elitist project. If fascism were ever to return, I know who I would trust to stand against it – not Mason and the other cushioned, comfortable loathers of democracy who make up the supposedly radical left, but rather ordinary working people who oppose extremism, are wary of experts who claim to have all the answers, and who believe that national sovereignty is really worth fighting for.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

How to Stop Fascism, by Paul Mason, is published by Allen Lane. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

Picture by: Getty.

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