Until recently, we could talk about “the politics of climate change”. The belief was that climate, like trade, was an “issue,” a problem that could be contained and addressed by targeted institutions and regulations. This view is no longer tenable. We have crossed a threshold – it’s not that climate change is the only “issue”, but rather that nothing escapes it. All politics are climate politics.
The upshot of this is an inchoate condition of permanent emergency, and the extraordinary uncertainty that follows. Economic growth projections and demographic models are still based on the assumption that the next century will be much like the last, but no one really knows what is going to happen to the world over the coming decades. This is especially true for the social impacts of global temperature changes. How will human communities be organised? How will societies react to climate-induced “shocks” as they accumulate? Will existing political and economic institutions and relations survive? That the effects of planetary warming will vary across time and space only makes these questions harder to answer. Who will live, how will they live, and who will decide? No one knows.
This uncertainty produces fears, even expectations, of a dark age. Climate-induced scarcities, mass migrations and desperation will only intensify existing trends and disorders: Europe’s far-right ethno-nationalist parties vie for power; demagogues rule in India, Brazil and Russia; totalitarianism consolidates itself in Xi Jinping’s China; and unabashed white supremacy saturates the US Republican Party. Add “climate chaos” to all of this and the prospect of an incipient “fascism” seems credible – and if we aren’t exactly sure what we mean when we say fascism, we are sure we will know it when we see it. As the Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano said when surveying the Latin American dictatorships in 1974, “if all this is not fascism, let’s acknowledge it looks a lot like it”.
For some historians, the problem is not that fascism can never happen again, but rather that it has specific characteristics. Donald Trump’s brutal buffoonery seems particularly ill-described: as the intellectual historian Enzo Traverso argues, “Trump is as distant from classical fascism as Occupy Wall Street, the 15-M movement in Spain and the Nuit debout movement in France are from the communism of the 20th century.”
[See also: American hubris]
Yet what if such confident dismissals about the present-day threat of fascism lets us relax, precisely when we shouldn’t? What if an “incipient” fascism turns out to be more than a few hundred white boys with home-made swastikas glued to their boy scout uniforms? Maybe every past fascist “success” was preceded by a refusal to acknowledge the scale of the threat on the horizon: in No Name in the Street (1972), the American writer James Baldwin recounts that listening to liberals intellectualise over cocktails the perils of McCarthyism brought to mind, “German Jews sitting around debating whether Hitler was a threat to their lives until the debate was summarily resolved for them by a knocking at the door.” If the price of anticipating (and preventing) fascism is mislabelling not-quite fascism, there is good reason to set aside analytical quibbles.
The problem with demanding a precise definition of fascism is that it exaggerates both the “exceptional” character of fascist politics, and the distance between us and its historical calamities. In thinking about fascism, we can’t just be on the lookout for its original form as it emerged in interwar Europe – dandies and thugs pursuing the renewal of the racial-national body through party-organised violence and imperialism. Nor does fascism necessarily require a historical rupture or crisis moment such as the economic and political chaos after 1918, even if those conditions helped Mussolini and Hitler rise to power. Fascism can be, and today is quite likely to be, far less precise, less total, and far more “everyday” than that.
The banality of fascism was highlighted in the decades following the Second World War, when anti-colonial thinkers identified the terrifying parallels between the supposed historical novelty of European fascism and the colonialism that long pre-dated it. In 1950, Aimé Césaire, the Martinican poet, playwright (and later, politician), declared that the quotidian barbarism of colonisation had “ensavaged” Europe, so much so that Europeans became immune to their own barbarity: “And then one fine day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a powerful choc en retour: the gestapos are busy, the prisons are filling up, the torturers around the racks invent, refine and discuss.” Ten years later, Frantz Fanon asked: “What is fascism but colonialism amid the traditionally colonial countries?”
The centuries-old domestic fascism in the US has also been widely noted. The prison abolition scholar and activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore and the Italian social theorist Alberto Toscano have recently shown how, from the 1960s, the black liberation movement saw fascism as a “preventative counter-revolution” – similar to the capitalist response to the communist movement in Europe after the First World War. The difference is that unlike Nazism or Italian fascism, which were organised around a movement or party arisen in an act of defiant reaction, American fascism is a long-standing and violent project to dominate and exploit black and indigenous people – to deny them freedom and autonomy; to keep them as close as possible to death.
The black radical militant and intellectual Angela Davis always insisted that “blacks and other Third World peoples are the first and most deeply injured victims of fascism”, and neither Algiers nor Philadelphia required some of the integral features that defined European fascism in the 20th century to produce their regimes: there was no obvious crisis-trigger (a lost war, hyperinflation, and a depression), nor an animating vision of an idealised New Man in a purified nation reborn. Instead, there was a robust and responsive structure of state-sponsored or state-coordinated racist violence and terror that could be effectively militarised when a conflagration called for it: think of the century-long “pacification” of Algeria, or the US police-prison system. Fascism on this count does not even necessarily need an openly fascist state. Some Europeans noted the same possibility after 1945: as Theodor Adorno remarked in 1959, “the survival of National Socialism within democracy” is likely “more menacing than the survival of fascist tendencies against democracy”.
[See also: The return of American fascism]
This is where an attachment to a “precise” definition of fascism misses the point. It is not that the defining features of mid-20th century fascism are not fascist, but rather that fascism can be far more boring and indeterminate, a “fuzzy totalitarianism”, as Umberto Eco put it. It can easily become part of the everyday rhythms of history. Lynchings, pogroms, seemingly “random” violence, the detailed bureaucratic schemata of hierarchy, category, punishment and death: all are catastrophic for those subjected to fascist oppression, but they are hardly unfamiliar to the fascist going about his day, nor to the citizens of many a liberal democracy. In Canada, where I write, the government continues its militarised invasions of unceded indigenous land to ensure the construction of another gas pipeline; there are now restrictions in the US state of Georgia on providing water to citizens waiting in line to vote; and a teenage white supremacist, Kyle Rittenhouse, was invited to meet Donald Trump after he killed two Black Lives Matter protesters in August 2020. These are commonplace features of life in “Western Civilization”. In these conditions, it is easy to be a non-fascist fascist.
This is potentially the most troubling possibility in the internecine conflict between “Western Civilization” and climate change. As Adorno also said, “For countless people life was not at all bad under fascism. Terror’s sharp blade was aimed only at a few and relatively well-defined groups.” For many of the people outside those groups, one had merely to get out of the way and get by. With far-right political movements ready to take advantage of conditions easily presented as an existential threat, expectations of fascism hardly seem far-fetched.
Writing in 1943, John Maynard Keynes’ colleague, the Polish economist Michał Kalecki, argued that fascism has always promised the most radical fix to the threat of capitalist collapse, a stability that virtually no other order can deliver: “In a democracy one does not know what the next government will be like. Under fascism there is no next government,” Kalecki wrote; “one of the basic functions of Nazism was to overcome the reluctance of big business to large-scale government intervention.” Keynes himself once called fascism “the capitalist branch of the totalitarian faith”, which has always involved a coordinated relationship between the state, elites and big business. As the Swedish activist-scholar Andreas Malm and his co-authors in the Zetkin Collective make terrifyingly clear in White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism (2021), the extreme right’s commitment to fossil fuel-based corporate capitalism means that the larger its role in politics today, the more likely climate catastrophes become.
On bleak days, then, it can seem as if there’s nowhere to run, with fascism the darkness at either end of the tunnel. In the permanent emergency, either we let society descend into the crisis conditions that have solicited fascist violence in the past, or we reconstruct society so thoroughly it demands a form of total and unyielding state power to see the project through. Fossil fascism or climate fascism: either would surely involve the imposition of violent order, partly through the vilification of an internal enemy – immigrants, but also other oppressed or outcast peoples – whose very existence must be contained, even obliterated, in the interests of protecting fascism’s true subjects.
The point is that fascism’s advance does not solely depend on a world of increasing fires, floods, and droughts. In the capitalist societies that dominate the planet, in conditions of uncertainty and instability, a radical programme to mitigate the effects of climate change – one that does not involve the redistribution of political and economic power – could well take fascist form. A perusal of the ideas behind so-called eco-fascism, such as the “patriotic ecology” of the Rassemblement National’s “green” wing, “Nouvelle Écologie”, or the evil Malthusianism behind the 2019 massacre at the Al-Noor mosque in New Zealand, make it clear that for some, radical climate action does not involve Green New Deals or international climate cooperation, but rather cages, vigilantes, and border patrols facing refugees across snarls of barbed wire.
All of these phenomena already exist, and are proliferating at border crossings and ports. Many of the key features of what we might call fascism in the age of climate change are things we, in the West, already do.
As climate-related calamities intensify and become more prevalent, so too will the political institutions and rationales with which governments “manage” them. There is no reason to expect that contemporary fascisms will not organise the response to climate change. Insofar as climate politics need not be principally about climate, they are already doing so. Immigration and pandemic policy, for example, have become two of the principal mechanisms for dealing with mass population movements that are in many cases substantially climate-driven, especially by drought and acute weather events.
Those arriving in northern Europe and the southern US from the Middle East and Central America confront harsh and unforgiving policy environments that are in many ways ethno-nationalist climate policy by another name. The far right of Europe and North America has, of course, long justified anti-immigration politics as a defence of “nature” from hoards with no connection to the land. But in the era of climate change and the shrinking of the planet’s “climate niche” where humans can live – to which migration is obviously one of the most important adaptation strategies – increasing barriers to immigration has also become a key mechanism for distributing the impacts of global heating.
The greatest risk is that as these kinds of institutional models proliferate, many will accede to the progress of fascism in the same way they have accepted the draconian policies that precede it. And if, as Keynes said, many of us love order more than we hate fascism, we might also sympathise with this acceptance, even if it makes us ashamed to admit it. We can, of course, denounce the injustice, proclaim with Greta Thunberg that “history will judge”. But that is an empty admonition when it is clear that many have no intention of sharing others’ histories, and even resent the idea that history should be shared. The fascist’s is a eugenicised past, the one Baldwin saw in a photograph of 15-year-old civil rights pioneer Dorothy Counts bravely making her way to a white school through a seething mob in North Carolina in 1957, an “unutterable pride, tension, and anguish in that girl’s face as she approached the halls of learning, with history, jeering, at her back”.
This is a world in which any emergent fascism draws much of its energy from the dark and bitter nostalgia that fuels the contemporary right. For all its “Make X Great Again” sloganeering, the fascism of our times is no longer committed to the rebirth of classical fascism’s New Man, but to the reverse engineering of history and a cartoonish, mythical past, when France was French, or Britain belonged to the British. When you could be proud of the empire, feel no guilt about your gas-guzzling car, and no shame in being white.
In stark contrast to the most compelling demands of contemporary climate movements, which emphasise a moral obligation to future generations and the non-human world, today’s emergent fascism is a political programme that indicts the present as a crime against the past. For much of its white base, the point is that the life they have “always lived” was not a disaster, that they are being “replaced” on the stage of history, that progressive politics turns what was a source of pride into an object of shame.
As Republican legislatures across the US enact laws attacking voting rights, criminalising protest, and limiting school curricula, the philosopher Jason Stanley has argued that the US is now in fascism’s “legal phase”, a reminder that history can just as readily jeer us as judge us. Climate change is in some ways the ultimate rebuke to the promises these competing pasts made to the future, a jeering history none of us can escape, even if for many it was never their own, but imposed upon them.
But if nothing else, it is also a reminder that history, however much some might try to take it for their own, is something we must live with together. Whatever the future holds, however a changing climate leads us to push and pull our individual and collective lives in unknown directions, the task of entangling and interweaving our histories will be essential to the struggle against fascism. The one thing fascism cannot survive is a world in which the parts understand themselves as inextricable from the whole. This condition is also essential to our attempts to come to grips with climate change; at this moment in history, the fight against fascism is also a struggle for climate justice.
This article was originally published on 11 February 2022.