When should we start worrying about incipient fascism?

Brexit and those pushing for it have displayed almost every element of Müller-style populism.

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I’m old enough to remember left-wing demonstrations in the UK when “Fascist!” was a standard chant. On most occasions back then it was a ridiculous accusation, and as such it was rightly laughed away. But times have unfortunately changed. With authoritarian regimes in some Eastern European countries, Trump’s election and subsequent behaviour, and far-right parties gaining ground in other countries, fears of a return of something like fascism are no longer a laughing matter.

When Andrew Marr interviewed David Lammy a week ago, he suggested Lammy talking about appeasement of the ERG in the same terms of Hitler or apartheid was “unacceptable”. Not ludicrous, but unacceptable, and by implication something that Lammy should apologise for.

Quite rightly, and so refreshingly for a Labour MP in the glare of TV lights, Lammy was having none of this. He said his comments were not strong enough. When Marr protested that these were elected MPs he was talking about, Lammy reminded him that the National Socialists had elected MPs. In 1932 they were the largest party in the Reichstag.

Nigel Farage is not an MP, yet the BBC seem happy not just to give the launch of his new party considerable airtime, but also to do so in an uncritical manner. After the BBC had chosen the soundbite from his speech about putting the fear of god into MPs for what they had done to us, no one was given airtime to warn about how dangerous that kind of speech was; or to note that one MP had been murdered by the far right, another plot foiled, and about many other serious threats to MPs made. I think it is fair to say that the launch of the Brexit Party was news and had to be covered, but to provide no kind of critical balance whatsoever was a strange decision.

Discussions of incipient fascism go in the wrong direction when direct comparisons are made to fascism in the 1930s. Equally, ticking off check lists of signs of fascism just beg the question of how many ticks mean we should be worried. There is no generally accepted definition of fascism. We need to be more analytical, but also to update the analysis to the circumstances of today.

Much of the academic discussion of this issue takes place under the umbrella of studying populism. I think this is a little unfortunate, because the populism umbrella can be spread very wide to include any political party that challenges an existing party political structure.

If you are interested in incipient fascism a better conceptualisation of populism is expressed by Jan-Werner Müller. You can tell a populist by whether they claim to represent “the people”, which is certainly not all the people, but instead just the “real people”. The real people quickly becomes those that support the populist leader. The others, especially immigrants or minority religions or races, just don’t count, or worse still are “saboteurs” trying to thwart the “will of the people”. Populists of the Müller type will be strong on nationalism, as well as threats from within and without. Intimidation and violence against opponents is never far away. Populists will talk about the elite that has been leading the country astray, and how they as leader has to constantly battle against this elite, even though they themselves are often part of that elite.

I think a critical aspect of Müller’s account is that populists are prepared to overturn the institutions of pluralist democracy, if they believe they are frustrating what the populist leader perceives as the will of the people. Authoritarian populist leaders deny the necessity of democratic pluralism, such as an independent judiciary or an independent media. The people, as expressed through the populist leadership, takes precedence over all other elements of pluralist democracy, and these elements must be made to bow before that will or be replaced by those who embody that will.

A clear example of what Müller is talking about is Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. He has pledged to create an illiberal state like Russia or China. Perhaps as a result, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at a 2015 EU summit dispensed with diplomatic protocol to greet Orbán with a “Hello, dictator.”

To further this aim Orbán has gone about controlling the media and courts either directly or through placement of allies, with complete success. This, together with a lethal combination of extreme nationalism, scaremongering about migrants and antagonism against Muslims and Jews, keeps him popular. NGOs have been attacked, which has led to legal proceedings by the European Commission. A host of public bodies like its fiscal council, the central bank, and the national elections commission, have been abolished or their independence limited. An international university in Budapest has been forced to close down.

Yet Hungary is still a democracy in the sense of having reasonably genuine elections. When occasionally the opposition does win a local election, Orbán unleashes the full might of his nationalist, “enemies at the door, enemies within” narrative at them. With almost total control of the media and civil institutions, he can make life very difficult for the opposition. He won his last election with ease.

I would argue that this is the incipient fascism of today. It is possible that Orbán’s nationalism and control of the media and other parts of the state will allow him to maintain total control for many years. If at some point in the future a unified and effective opposition does arise, we will see if Hungary moves back to democracy – or to something worse than the elected dictatorship it now is.    

It is also easy to see many of the traits of a Müller populist in Donald Trump. He is impatient with the constraints of the judiciary, and is more than happy to fill vacancies with barely qualified or unqualified individuals who will do what he wants. He plays up threats from within and without. He has a penchant for dictators in other countries. He endlessly criticises the “fake news” that comes from an independent press, and instead favours the Republican/Trump propaganda that comes from Fox News. When asked whether he was concerned about death threats that followed his disgraceful attack on one of only two Muslims in Congress he basically said no. His own Republican Party provides no check on his actions.  

But in what sense can any of this be applied to the single political project called Brexit? The ERG are a disparate group of MPs, whose common cause is to push for the most extreme form of Brexit. There is no single authoritarian leader among them. So can Müller’s concept of populism still apply to this project and some of those who push it?

Let’s begin with what happened shortly after the 2016 vote. That referendum did not specify how we left or under what circumstances Article 50 should be triggered; but May decided that she uniquely understood what the referendum meant and parliament did not need to be involved. The Prime Minister wanted to start the Article 50 process without consulting parliament. The issue went to court, and when three judges decided parliament did have to approve the decision, the Daily Mail described them on its front page as enemies of the people.

The Brexit press and those promoting Brexit frequently talk about the will of the people, thereby excluding the 48 per cent who did not vote for it. Indeed Remainers are often accused of sabotaging Brexit, and being the elite that those carrying out the will of the people have to defeat. EU citizens living here are effectively ignored, and were not even allowed to vote in the referendum. When the costs of Brexit are mentioned, we will often be reminded of how the British stood alone in WWII and came through the hardship of war. This is nationalist imagery at its most potent and dangerous. At one point the Daily Telegraph managed to find common cause with the authoritarian regime in Hungary and the far right in the US by scapegoating the same wealthy Jew for his “plot” to stop Brexit.

To sum up, Brexit and those pushing it have displayed almost every element of Müller-style populism. I have not even needed to refer to links between various Brexit politicians and the German AfD, Steve Bannon and various far right groups. Or about law breaking in order to win the vote, and the lack of enthusiasm shown by the police in investigating this. Brexit displays the same populist characteristics that you see in Victor Orbán or Donald Trump. Add the violence that Brexit has inspired and the pro-Brexit right encourage with their talk of treason and we have every reason to warn about incipient fascism, as Michael Heseltine pointed out.

It is also naive to imagine that all this will stop if we end up leaving the EU. Steve Bannon is creating a network of far-right parties that will use immigration and Islamophobia to undermine existing parties and then pluralist democracy. Islamophobia has already been employed by the Conservatives in trying to stop Sadiq Khan becoming mayor of London. Brexit of the kind proposed by May will undermine living standards for working people that have hardly grown for a decade. This stagnation, coupled by unfettered and growing inequality, is the kindling that Bannon and his network hope to set alight.

In my view this has become so dangerous partly because the political centre fails to see it. The Brexiters are appeased by May rather than isolated as John Major did. Those termed political moderates fret about the leader of the Labour party as much if not more than incipient fascism.

I cannot quite decide whether the BBC is just blind to all this or if elements within actively promote it. A lesson of history is that the far right is at its most dangerous when it is appeased by a centre that is more concerned about the threat from the left.  

 Simon Wren-Lewis is Emeritus Professor of Economics and Fellow of Merton College, University of Oxford. He blogs at mainlymacro.