Fascism is back – how do we stop it? asks Paul Mason in his new book
When my generation chanted “Never again!” at Nazi skinheads in the 1970s, we assumed this was a fact, not an aspiration. Fascism was history: the product of social hierarchies that could never return, triggered by a type of economic crisis that could never be repeated.
We had good grounds for believing this. Ernst Nolte, the German historian who began the comparative study of international fascism in 1963, had declared the phenomenon “dead”. We have seen all possible variants of fascism, said Nolte: it is a finished episode.
As the digital age arrived, breaking the monopoly over information held by states and companies, it seemed that elites could never again manipulate public opinion in the way Hitler and Mussolini had done. As late as 2008, the historian Giuseppe Finaldi could write, in a university textbook on Mussolini: “Fascism has little to say now and many of its obsessions seem not just absurd but incomprehensible.” We assumed that, because we had recorded the truth about fascism, it could never re-emerge.
It is now clear that every one of these assumptions was wrong. Over the past decade, three political movements have flourished to the right of mainstream conservatism: far-right extremism, right-wing populism and authoritarian conservatism. A whole sub-discipline in political science is dedicated to studying the differences between them, producing numerous typologies, definitions and labels.
Far-right extremists typically advocate race war, commit violence and openly fight for the dissolution of democracy. Right-wing populists attack human rights, victimise minorities and stage mass mobilizations, but are usually non-violent and focused on winning elections, often through new political parties. Authoritarian conservatives, meanwhile, borrow the rhetoric of populism but operate within mainstream parties, elite networks and the traditional institutions of the state.
That’s the theory. The problem is that, in reality, the three movements have begun work in conscious synergy. Since the 1990s political scientists have assumed that right-wing populist parties would act as a firewall against real fascism. In fact, the opposite has happened. The firewall is on fire.
Since 2008, movements to the right of the mainstream have developed a shared language, a shared online space and a shared goal: to create illiberal democracies that can keep coalitions of populists and authoritarians permanently in power, erode the rule of law and torch the rules-based global order.
In the 2010s three of the most populous democracies on earth – the USA, India and Brazil – were rapidly and seriously undermined. More than half of the world’s developed countries have seen the quality of their democracy decline over the past fourteen years. “Functioning of government, freedom of expression and belief, and rule of law are the most common areas of decline,” says the monitoring group Freedom House. This process, labelled “democratic decay” has both weakened our defences against full-blown fascism and opened up a space for fascists to operate in.
The French neofascist Maurice Bardèche, who devoted his life to denying the Holocaust, predicted as early as 1961 that fascism would return in a different form:
“With another name, another face, and with nothing which betrays the projection from the past, with the form of a child we do not recognise and the head of a young Medusa, the Order of Sparta will be reborn.”
It was not the stormtroopers and the torture cells that formed the essence of the fascist project, Bardèche insisted, but its concept of “man and freedom”. Today, whatever you are searching for on YouTube, Facebook or Twitter, the fascist concept of man and freedom is only a few clicks away.
So my generation was wrong. Fascism, it turns out, was not rooted in the specific class dynamics of Europe in the 1930s. It does not take mass unemployment to produce it. It is not reliant on defeat in war or the existence of state-run radio stations. It is a recurrent symptom of system-failure under capitalism.
Extract from How to Stop Fascism: History, Ideology, Resistance by Paul Mason (Penguin). Buy a copy here.
Paul Mason is a special guest on A Drink with the Idler on Thursday 25 November. Register here.
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