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5 December 2023

New millennium fascists

The 2020s are not the 1920s, but fascist “potentials” remain in what passes for democracy.

By Oliver Eagleton

What is at stake in the debate about whether to describe today’s right-wing populism as a variant of fascism? The tendency to seek historical analogies in Nazi Germany rarely yields a sober analysis of contemporary conditions. In casting lumpen racists like Donald Trump as the Führer redux, it overlooks the gulf between the early 20th century, characterised by mass political parties, voluntary associations and class conflict, and the atomised world of the early 21st. It also enables quietism by presenting an otherwise discredited centrist politics as the last line of defence against the “fascist threat”. Once expectations have thus been lowered, establishment politicians have a free pass to pursue policies that facilitate the ascent of toxic nationalism: spending cuts, wage repression, military intervention and migrant-baiting.

But there are similar problems with positing a hard division between the interwar experience and our own. Confining fascism to the past may obscure its potential or incipient presence within capitalist democracies. Exceptionalising the former could mean normalising the latter. It could produce an equal sense of complacence by validating the mythology of Western leaders for whom the defeat of old authoritarianisms, right and left, inaugurated an era of market-driven progress. Arguably, a classical definition of fascism, which insists on the chasm between the 1920s and the 2020s, risks neglecting certain institutional and psychological continuities between the two – and failing to guard against them. As Theodor Adorno wrote in 1959, “I consider the survival of National Socialism within democracy to be potentially more menacing than the survival of fascist tendencies against democracy.”

One encounters difficulties, then, in seeing fascism either as an omnipresent danger or as an unrepeatable event. In his new study of reactionary politics, the Italian philosopher Alberto Toscano is careful to avoid these twin traps. Rather than making a straightforward case for or against the applicability of the term, Late Fascism traces the myriad ways it has been deployed over the past 100 years, mining each of them for parallels with the present. The author seeks out diagnoses of the fascist virus that resonate with the current profusion of nativism, even if they do not fully reflect it.

Towards this end, Toscano recapitulates the method used in his previous major work, Fanaticism (2010): a genealogy of its eponymous term, spanning the Peasants’ War to the War on Terror, which laid waste to received wisdom on its meaning. There, his polemical target was the official discourse that divided the religious fanatic from the moderate liberal. Here, he sets out to unravel an ideology that presents fascoid firebrands and respectable statesmen as irreconcilable opposites. In both cases, his approach combines the patience of a scholar with the imagination of a theorist: trawling through the archives, finding forgotten strands in the vast corpus of literature on fascism, and weaving them into a strikingly original narrative of this political perversion.

Toscano begins by noting that any comparison between far rights past and present must recognise that fascism itself is perpetually “out of time”, asynchronous with its own period. If capitalist development is always uneven, working at different tempos in different places, this creates a varied social landscape in which – during the 20th century at least – one could find certain practices, memories and desires from an era before market domination. This was particularly true of peasants and artisans. The ploy of traditional fascism was to harness the utopian impulses in these temporally dislocated communities and turn them against a politics of emancipation. Through its authoritarian rule, it moulded their fragmented experiences into “pseudo-unities and false totalities cemented by discourses of racial, ethnonational and religious supremacy”.

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In so doing, fascism invoked a lost golden age, a time of organic harmony and purity; yet this was nothing more than a self-conscious fiction. Mussolini was explicit that his image of the Italian nation was never a “reality”, but rather “a goad, a hope, faith, courage”: an incitement to action. Fascism looked not to the past but to the future: to a set of abstract concepts (Fatherland, Family, Volk) that it hoped to make concrete. Realising them justified the destruction of any actually existing community, any extant tradition or culture. Unlike conservatism – or, for that matter, socialism – it promised to sweep away such obstacles in the name of racial revolution and rebirth. Its cult of violence was based on the notion that only war and bloodshed could turn the national spirit into flesh.

[See also: What it means to be Jewish now]

The Nazis and Mussolini’s squadristi thereby affected the appearance of “capitalism without capitalism” – replacing the staccato rhythm of commodity production and financial crisis, acutely felt after the First World War, with one of simple palingenesis: the fulfilment of a timeless racial ideal. In truth, though, they were more interested in “capitalism saving capitalism from capitalism” – using a form of sacralised violence, infused with all the frustrations of an oppressed population, to guard those structures of oppression against an egalitarian alternative.

An avowedly “liberal” economic philosophy, fascism was concerned with shrinking the state to its repressive and ideological functions while clearing the way for private competition. “We want to strip the State of all its economic attributes”, thundered the Duce a month before his March on Rome. “Enough with the railwayman State, the postman State, the insurer State. Enough with the State operating at the expenses of all Italian taxpayers and aggravating Italy’s exhausted finances.” Toscano rejects the rubric of “totalitarianism”, whose only purpose is to conflate fascism and communism, and suggests that fascist politics were, in essence, technocratic. Mussolini spoke of reducing the “monstrous and vulnerable” public bureaucracy to a streamlined apparatus, capable of carrying out whatever “mission” was decreed by elites, particularly from the sphere of big business. This was not an all-encompassing form of government. It was a nimble administration that could carry out discrete projects in the interest of its class.

Nor, as the book demonstrates, did fascists merely centralise power in an unaccountable cabal. They rather diffused it throughout the body politic. “Nazism,” as Michel Foucault remarked, “never gave people any material advantages, it never handed out anything but power… When you think of the power an individual could possess under a Nazi regime as soon as he was simply SS or signed up to the party! You could actually kill your neighbour, steal his wife, his house!”

Those that doubt the shared heritage between fascism and the contemporary far right stress that the first had a mass participatory character, thanks to its formidable “party-movement”, whereas the second relies on a passive mode of political engagement, via the internet and ballot box. For Toscano, however, fascism was never a genuinely collective phenomenon. Though it used racism to generate “pseudo-unities”, at bottom its subjects were depoliticised and disorganised. They were forcibly prevented from exercising shared agency. Fascism instilled a feeling of “impotence” in the “humiliated individual” by presenting him with “an enigmatic totality imagined as a limitless conspiracy”. By way of consolation, it also gave him the power of life and death over those seen as complicit in that conspiracy.

Has fascism, thus conceived, survived into the new millennium? Toscano observes that as the market has rendered society increasingly homogeneous, the far right has lost its ability to exploit pre-capitalist impulses. Today, figures like Marine Le Pen simply hark back to “the affluence of the trente glorieuses”, the zenith of the industrial worker. There is little basis on which to construct the fiction of an organic order that can be wielded against the disordered present. A “deficit of heterogeneity and non-synchronicity” prevents such demagogues from accessing “the utopian and the anti-systemic”.

[See also: The Washington consensus is dead]

Alongside the absence of an imaginary past there is also a lack of orientation towards the future. Fascism promoted its idea of the nation at moments of dramatic upheaval – military defeats, economic shocks and class warfare. Imminent disaster provided the impetus for its project. Now, though, we are living through a slow-motion breakdown as opposed to a perpetual emergency. The nature of our historical crisis is more distended. As a result, “contemporary fascisation is generally far slacker, more ambivalent, more conservative than revolutionary in its fantasies”.

Still, the other features of fascism that Toscano identifies – the state as armed guard for monopoly capital, the “organisation of disorganisation” in its citizenry, the racially selective sanctioning of violence – are present in supposedly liberal-democratic societies. Writers in the American black radical tradition have long described the carceral system as a fascistic entity that targets particular groups with routine terror and repression. The political theorist Nikhil Pal Singh lists the “zones of internal exclusion” that have appeared throughout US history – plantations, reservations, ghettos, prisons – where supposedly universal constitutional principles do not apply. This is what one might call standpoint epistemology at its best: an analysis of the state from the engaged perspective of its racialised strata, who are subject to the arbitrary brutality of public institutions. Toscano reconstructs this line of thought to argue that fascism is less “a particular configuration of European parties, regimes and ideologies” than a mutable process: a response to capitalist crisis that aims to protect liberalism through “illiberal means” and “fantasies of domination”.

Through this lens, the right-wing forces that surged over the past decade could be said to have hardened or accelerated certain fascist “potentials” – the word recurs throughout Late Fascism – in what passes for democracy. They do not have the same counterrevolutionary purpose as their predecessors, since the radical left today is marginal, and they can no longer offer an idealist vision of “capitalism without capitalism”, but the process through which the state, threatened by crisis, reestablishes hierarchies of identity and entrusts select groups with their enforcement is active now as then. It is likely that this dynamic will intensify in the coming years. Environmental collapse will embolden not only the fossil nihilism of the Trump campaign; it will also fuel the “blood and soil” ruralism on display in Rassemblement National’s “Nouvelle Ecologie”, as well as the neo-Malthusianism that motivated the 2019 mass shootings in New Zealand.

Toscano’s book is a stark reminder of such possibilities. Yet it is worth noting that contemporary fascism, as he describes it, remains confined to particular institutions or affective states. In countries like the US and Brazil, where far-right leaders have captured the central government, their most authoritarian impulses have not been generalised throughout society. They have, in fact, been met with resistance from the bulk of corporate elites, who are unconvinced that volatile nationalism is the best means to improve their profit margins. And they have so far been forced to accept the consequences of electoral defeat, however grudgingly.

This is the kind of sociological point that Toscano sometimes skirts, in focusing on the content of reactionary politics rather than its context. Even if, as he writes, there are tendencies in capitalism that could be considered fascistic, whether they can grow into a totalising condition of fascism depends on a number of concrete factors: the interests of capital’s most dynamic sectors; the amenability of state actors such as the judiciary and army; the sturdiness of the electoral system; the strength of the nationalist political apparatus; and the general population’s receptivity to racism. In other words, the finite character of “parties, regimes and ideologies”, which Toscano relegates in favour of a more expansive account of fascist “processes”, bears directly on our present conjuncture. This is a blind spot in Late Fascism. Yet the light it casts on far-right agitation, and its echoes in mainstream political culture, remains dazzling.

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[See also: The case for an Atlantic Union]

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