Fascism, of course, always had a lot more in common with classical liberalism than most people realise. Fascism was built around the defence of private capitalism. Far from being the ideologically ultra-statist economic nightmare of right-wing mythology, fascist economics was complex and opportunistic. It sometimes used nationalisation as well as privatisation. Indeed, as Germa Bel has shown, the Nazis did so extensively, to the point where one could call them forerunners of neoliberalism. But there’s no denying that statism was a part of the Nazi economic strategy… but then so did liberalism always use the state as a way to protect and extend capitalist interests. Indeed, fascism – being a product of twentieth century capitalist imperialism – is the product of an era when the interests of the state fuse, to a large extent, with the interests of blocs of domestic capital, thus making state-run imperialism essentially a form of public-financed ‘primitive accumulation’ on behalf of national capitalists. Many big capitalists – generally from heavy industry, for material reasons, as Daniel Guerin pointed out – understood this and sympathised with and/or subsidised fascist movements. But more generally, fascism emerges from the liberal capitalist epoch, and shows the family resemblances.
In this connection, a reader recently reminded me of the work of Ishay Landa. I need to re-read, but I seem to recall that Landa makes a strong case, in The Apprentice’s Sorcerer (2012), that fascism emerges from the Western liberal – i.e. capitalist – tradition and is in continuity with it, at least as much as rupture.
This is a good review of Landa’s book which brings out the main points. As the reviewer says
Landa begins by identifying as a historical precondition for fascism “the inherent tension between the political dimension of the liberal order and its economic one” (21). That is, the European bourgeoisie of the eighteenth century demanded representative governments in order to free the markets from feudal protectionism, but they were followed later by the lower classes who, in turn, demanded access to the franchise themselves in order to protect their own interests, pitting the original economic liberalism against emerging political liberalism. Where John Locke defended democracy as shoring up capitalism, Vilfredo Pareto, whose works inspired Benito Mussolini, lashed out at democracy “entirely on the premises of economic liberalism,” such as “its restriction of the ‘free movement of capital,’ and its encroachment on private property via progressive taxation” (53).” Similar strains of thought were current among German thinkers of the interwar period, most notably Oswald Spengler, and Adolf Hitler’s animus against German democracy was based upon the belief that “the [Weimar] Republic signifie[d] the unlawful and pernicious political interference in the economy”…
An interesting irony that Locke, who provides the basis for Rothbard’s ethics and metaphysics of property, is in favour of democracy (broadly), instead of resolutely opposed to it like the Austrians. And it’s also telling that Hitler’s fundamental objections to Weimar democracy were couched in terms that would be congenial to Hayek et al (via Carl Schmitt, etc).
The reviewer goes on to note that
Landa confronts four “myths” about fascism. Regarding the first, that fascism constitutes the tyranny of the majority, Landa illustrates how supposed liberal defenders of democracy, from Alexis de Tocqueville to Benedetto Croce, preoccupied themselves primarily with the supremacy of the propertied classes, while other thinkers such as Ludwig von Mises…
Oh hello! (I seem to recall that Landa has quite a bit to say about Mises and Hayek, actually.)
… proposed that dictatorship might be necessary to defend liberalism. Secondly, against the notion that fascism fostered collectivism while liberalism fostered individuality, the author observes “that both fascism and liberalism were in fact shot through with irresolvable ambivalence in their approach to individualism” (251-2); indeed, though fascism regularly employed the rhetoric of collectivism (raising unto the highest the nation, race, or society), it also fetishized individualism in the form of the “great man” and dismantled democracy in the name of individualism. The origin of the “big lie” comes up for scrutiny next, and Landa locates it within a long liberal tradition of esoteric writing which aims to support elites while hiding the truth from the “vulgar” and “gullible” masses. Finally, regarding allegations that fascism constituted a nationalist attack upon liberal cosmopolitanism, Landa finds fascists having exhibited some of the same ambivalence about the idea of nation as they did about individualism (after all, it is through the nations that the masses have their rights), though for Germany the nation did provide “the necessary platform, from which to launch a capitalistic expansion campaign”.
Sounds odd to hear fascists described as ambivalent about the concept of nation… but accurate, I think. They always use nationalism as a kind of populist springboard into a mystical narrative about ‘people’, ‘blood’, ‘folk’, etc. The very fact that one of the Nazis’ slogans was “blood and soil” indicates that soil alone – i.e. nation, home – was not enough. It had to be joined to blood, to the mystical concept of inherited identity and inherent biological unity. Race, in other words. This is because, while the nation state is of immense use to capitalism under normal conditions, is is vulnerable to distortions such as democracy, with all that majoritarian meddling in the prerogatives of property that so distresses the Austrians and libertarians. The nation state can, under certain conditions, be a guarantor of democratic rights and freedoms, and such things can get out of hand. The fascist moment of rupture is the breaking of that capacity within the liberal capitalist state, while drawing on the continuity by which the liberal capitalist state was always an instrument of class rule. It is the class rule taking precedence over the class compromise.
Relatedly, fascism was essentially an extension of liberal capitalism’s imperialist/colonialist practices and ideologies to Europeans. We must never forget that fascism is a ‘ramping up’ and relocation of the same practices that saw – for instance – the Belgians and pre-Nazi Germans commit genocide on the African continent in the cause of profit from commercial colonial exploitation, and the British Empire rule India in such a brutally profitable way that Hitler considered it a model – alongside the extermination of the Native Americans and the Jim Crow laws in the US – for how he would rule Eastern Europe.
Having used authoritarianism to rescue the capitalist system from crisis – stabilising the economy using heavy state subsidy; merging with the state to put down revolutionary challenges from socialists and communists, etc – fascism went on to pursue the national interests of certain European countries within Europe, using the methods which European capitalist imperialism had previously used in Africa and Asia, etc. The scientific racism which justified such imperialism among the non-white ‘races’ was adapted by fascism to also justify similar imperialism against ‘Slavs’ and ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’, etc. The ideological practice of ‘race-making’, which helped to justify European imperialist expansion and settler-colonialism, and which played such a role in the hierarchical ordering of multiethnic capitalist America, was adapted to European conditions. Thus, joined with the older discourse of anti-semitism, which had been a key ideological discourse of feudalism, the scientific racism of capitalism was used to make ‘the Jews’ of Europe into a different race, despite their (general) ‘whiteness’.
Again, this was not essentially a conspiracy, knocked up by people who knew what they were doing and why. Fascism was a synthesis of various pre-existing ideological narratives, many of them offshoots of the ideology of European imperialism. Aryanism, a key precursor and component of Nazism, originated in the ideology of the British Empire. Fascism assumed state power in several parts of Europe because, in crisis, it acquired a sufficient following to achieve a degree of mass power, and was avowedly anti-communist – and was thus deemed useful. Its initial success was owing to its ability to actually synthesise successful outcomes for national capitalisms, in the conditions of the time, with its mixture of ideological coherence and enforcement, social spending, state support of private capital, suppression of communism, suppression of labour unions, and – funding all these – exploitation (and, later, colonial domination) of those citizens of competing European territories whom it had successfully ‘othered’ using scientific racism, etc.
As Richard Seymour put it:
Trotsky’s Fourth International considered Fascism “a chemically pure distillation of the culture of imperialism”. Aimé Césaire, the Martinican anti-colonial rebel and poet, famously ascribed the origins of European fascism to its earlier application to non-Europeans, as did Fanon. Enzo Traverso traces some of the origins of Nazi violence to the colonial era. Sven Lindquist’s Exterminate the Brutes is dedicated to tracing the rise of fascism to the military doctrines and practises of colonialism. It is a connection made explicit by Hitler himself in his table talk. There is a significant and growing body of literature on the connections between the colonial experience and modern fascism, both in general and in specific – Germany’s extermination of the Herero people in South-West Africa provided some of the experiential backdrop to the later Nazi programme of conquest and extermination, while Italy’s colonial successes radicalised the fascist regime.
To quote Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism:
…we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism; and we must show that each time a head is cut off or an eye put out in Vietnam and in France they accept the fact, each time a little girl is raped and in France they accept the fact, each time a Madagascan is tortured and in France they accept the fact, civilization acquires another dead weight, a universal regression takes place, a gangrene sets in, a centre of infection begins to spread; and that at the end of all these treaties that have been violated, all these lies that have been propagated, all these punitive expeditions that have been tolerated, all these prisoners who have been tied up and “interrogated”, all these patriots who have been tortured, at the end of all the racial pride that has been encouraged, all the boastfulness that has been displayed, a poison has been distilled into the veins of Europe and, slowly but surely, the continent proceeds toward savagery.
And then one fine day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific boomerang effect: the gestapos are busy, the prisons fill up, the torturers standing around the racks invent, refine, discuss.
People are surprised, they become indignant. They say: “How strange! But never mind – it’s Nazism, it will pass!” And they wait, and they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves, that it is barbarism, the supreme barbarism, the crowning barbarism that sums up the daily barbarisms; that it is Nazism, yes, but that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples; that they have cultivated that Nazism, that they are responsible for it, and that before engulfing the whole edifice of Western, Christian civilization in its reddened waters, it oozes, seeps and trickles from every crack.
It’s worth stressing that, just as fascism is not really that different in ideology and praxis to European imperialism and settler-colonialism outside Europe, so is it also not really that different in ideology and praxis to the forms of imperialism which continue today. Fascism is not an aberration; it is a point on a spectrum. And is itself a spectrum.
I raise these issues to make it clear how and why it is possible for today’s alt-Right to exist as a synthesis of ideas inherited from both fascism and classical liberalism, filtered through libertarianism, assimilated into outright conservatism via paleolibertarianism, itself built on key points of contact.
As we’ve already seen, classical liberalism in the person of Locke was the inspiration behind Rothbard’s whole concept of ‘natural rights’, and Locke’s ideas were an ideological justification of the imperialist project of land-theft and slavery. His defence of democracy did not extend to everyone – but then it is in the nature of such Enlightenment revolutionary democracy to exclude as many as it includes in its universal promises. The project Locke supported was, in historical overview, the same project the US Founding Fathers wanted to expand as they declared universal brotherhood: imperial/settler-colonial expansion in the cause of capital accumulation, and thus the accumulation of a nation built on, and dedicated to, the very property relations which demand such things. This is the very essence of the colonialism and it looks, to any impartial observer, suspiciously like a forerunner of fascism, long unrecognised as a moral horror by Europeans because it was practiced by Europeans against the non-white world. This is surely the axis along which the ideological synthesis runs.
It is by no means a harmonious or coherent synthesis. But how could it be, given the complexity of history? And it doesn’t need to be a harmonious or coherent synthesis anyway. Moreover, it never has been… especially not in the annals of fascism, which has always been an opportunistic and scrambled ‘scavenger ideology’. While generations of non-fascist reactionaries have expended much ink devising complicated philosophical rationales and justifications for the link between the expansion of liberty (for some people to own lots of stuff, that is) and the expansion of slavery, genocide, etc, the fascist impulse which emerges from the same process is to cut through that gordian knot with a knife. The trouble with this metaphor is that the ‘knife’ is itself comprised of an even more tangled and incoherent version of the same ideas it cuts through.
At the comical end of the spectrum, YouTube reactionary ‘Sargon of Akkad’ describes himself – illiterately, but not entirely illegitimately – as a classical liberal while regularly spewing forth the kind of rhetoric which makes the English Defence League publicly praise him, and Richard Spencer describe him (alongside Milo Yiannopoulos, Lauren Southern, and Gavin McInnes) as a “great entry point”. (He also claims to be a Hayek fan, despite also persistently claiming to be somewhere on some mythical ‘authentic left’ free of SJW-distortions.)
This sort of thing can work because the alt-Right (and its attendant miasmic cloud of fellow travellers, like Sargon) is not actually a set of policy programmes. It isn’t meant to be. It is an agitational project. It is an ideological project. (One fairly good way to judge the extent to which any form of reactionary ‘classical liberalism’ has trundled towards the fascist pit is to try to measure the confusedness of the ideas against an axis of the insistence with which they are constantly restated. Any glance at today’s ecology of blithering but shrill reactionaries – from Prager to Rubin to Shapiro to Peterson and on to the YouTube crowd – tells us what time it is.) If granted a shot at power, this ideological project would ditch any and all scruples of ‘principle’ to grab that shot. Indeed, something of a comic rehearsal of such a thing is already unfolding with the Trump administration, his links to the alt-Right, and the alt-Right’s triangulations to accommodate his compromises. It’s such a good rehearsal, it might slide into being the actual performance before anyone notices.
Trump’s deviations from the letter of alt-Right orthodoxy might cause distress in some of the more visible quarters, but the movement is still behind him. (Much as, to the fash, Brett Kavanaugh is a moderate, but they’ll defend him to the hilt because they know a wedge when they see one.) MRA window-licker Mike Cernovitch had amusing hissy fits on Twitter about Trump’s betrayal when he (Trump) did what any sane person must’ve known he would do and began ordering missile strikes on Syria. Trump, enmeshed within a pre-existing and largely autonomous imperial system, and predisposed towards macheesmic authoritarian savagery, went with the flow and flexed America’s military muscles, despite his notional (opportunistic) alignment with the alt-Right’s opposition to foreign entanglements. He is now soaked in blood from imperial engagements. (Again, such notional opposition to such things is inherited from libertarianism… though the stance has precedents in the history of US fascism and its fellow travellers, i.e. Lindbergh.) Even so, and despite many such hissy fits from many such people, the bulk of the alt-Right is still behind Trump, lots of griping notwithstanding. Much as many of them supposedly want to be ‘isolationist’, the fascist impulse towards racism and sadism means that they can always reconcile themselves to imperialism. And again: where else can they go? No other politician within the power system, however right-wing, represents the rupture with imperfect but real democratic and constitutional norms that Trump does.
In this respect it’s worth remembering that fascism typically gets adopted by constitutional capitalist powers, as a sword and shield against crisis, at a moment when the normal system finds its various parts in institutional deadlock. This very deadlock, in slow-mo, is the ongoing, almost-unnoticed story of the American empire in decline since the Iraq debacle, and especially after the crash of ‘08. Indeed, that era was itself only the sharpening of contradictions and deadlocks which go back to the end of the post-war boom, to which neoliberalism itself was essentially an authoritarian response by the capitalist system… one which, in recent years, has failed to be effective. The entire Obama era was the gentle and masked story of the deadlock tightening as, in the wake of the Great Recession, neoliberalism stopped working as a response to the long slow crisis. The election of Obama, with his high level of activist engagement – followed by the rise of Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the Arab Spring, and then the unexpected popularity of Bernie Sanders – was set against (and emergent from) the backdrop of the hidden crisis of the US empire and US capital accumulation in accelerating decline. This was enough to convince the system – at least in its most intransigent and reactionary aspects, which are increasingly hegemonic as both inequality and reaction intensify – of an existential revolutionary threat. It triggered, in slo-mo and in miniature (so far), a relatively subdued but still terrifying American version of the same process that started in Germany between the wars, as it reeled from imperial defeat, revolutionary upheaval, and financial crisis. For all the differences that result from different eras, places, contexts, degrees of intensity, backdrop, etc, the essential process is the same. This was the common context in which both societies – powered by pressures from below and above, all traceable back to a similar underlying social basis – selected populist right-wing demagogues, and offered institutional support to both him and the extreme reactionary movement he headed.
The fact that, in both situations, the fascist or fascistic reaction incorporated aspects of anti-establishmentism does not mean that they ever posed any threat to the actual establishment, i.e. the rule of capital. Neoliberalism itself used anti-establishment rhetoric and was always an authoritarian project in service of the establishment. Indeed, the anti-establishment rhetoric of Trumpism, and the superfluousness of coherence and principle revealed by Trump’s imperial flip-flops, reveal Trumpism’s essentially fascistic mechanics. (Just as his essential blankness – he’s a generic, vacuous, Fox News-watching grampa who happens to be a very rich crook – reveals the essential emptiness and contentlessness of the ‘movement’ around him.) It is a hallmark of fascism that it will talk a good anti-establishment game when out of power – even down to criticising the imperialism of the mainstream – and then jettison such talk when in power. Fascism does this sort of thing on many levels. Parroting the socialism it was born to destroy, it will talk about workers rights and spout anti-capitalism while powerless (guzzling the money of big business all the while… and Trump, already a billionaire businessman with shady deals all over the place, is only a simplification of this same process), and then ban independent trade unions and socialist parties, and protect the prerogatives of domestic capitalists, when powerful.
(The right-wing fad – seen, for instance, in the ludicrous meanderings of Jonah Goldberg and Dinesh D’Souza… and lately, in the UK, of Norman Tebbit – of claiming that fascism is left-wing, is not just a slur on the left; it is also an attempt to hide the essential anti-left, anti-worker orientation of their own incipiently fascist movement. This is, similarly, why they consistently try to drive a wedge between the working class and the emergent left discourses about oppression, identity, and privilege. The last thing they want is for a resurgent left-wing class politics to join up with left-wing politics of identity.)
Similarly, the alt-Right – especially the more it merges with America’s underbelly of fascists and white nationalists – takes Koch Brothers money (old libertarians, those two), and Trump in office, far from being concerned with the little guy, pushes health care reform bills that are basically tax cuts for the rich. And it’s worth remembering, once again, that Trump represents an uneasy alliance between the alt-Right (itself an alliance of libertarians and fascists of various stripes) and the mainstream conservatives of the Republican party. That party has been drifting rightwards for years, and has done as much to meet the extremists as the extremists have done to meet it. Trump was a happenstance that happened to bring the two into merging earlier than they might otherwise have managed. Like Pandarus bringing together Troilus and Cressida, he may end up despised for a ‘marriage’ that doesn’t last long and brings only misery to both parties. We can’t know. All we can know with certainty is that, in the process, he will certainly bequeathe us his diseases.
But again, and to draw back to the point, we can’t pretend that this process wasn’t already underway. In a broader sense, capitalism – dependent upon a form of state it is always ambivalent about – exists in a kind of permanent version – sometimes latent, sometimes active – of the deadlock mentioned above. More broadly, there’s the recent context listed above.
It would be very unusual for an event like Trump to occur ex nihilo, whatever the liberal mainstream likes to say about him being an inexplicable shock. As I say, the mainstream of US conservatism has been drawing rightwards for a long time. Its ranks are infested various varieties of reactionary radicals. In the early 2000s it was the ‘statist radicals’ (to use Chomsky’s phrase) of the neoconservatives who enjoyed their time in the sun – bought, let’s not forget, with a more or less open attack on the sovereignty of US elections. But Bush himself showed how mainstream extreme evangelical Christianity is in the GOP, as did the neocons’ creature John Ashcroft – and those two are by no means the extent or limit of far-Right Christianity in that party. Also present are the libertarians, paleolibertarians, Randians, etc. Even if many Republicans don’t openly or explicitly identify with such ideological groupings, many of them will admit inspiration from those quarters, or spout rhetoric that could easily come from Rand or Rothbard.
It’s probably a side-effect of neoliberal dogma becoming the mainstream, establishment viewpoint. If you, as a hopeful career reactionary in a world where power is wedded to a form of free-market extremism, want to mark yourself out as a dissident, an anti-establishment rebel – and such is a perennial dream and strategy of the Right – then the only direction for you to go is further down the road on which established power is travelling. You can’t go the other way without ceasing to be a reactionary, without ceasing to support the power that will get you elected as its servant, so you double down on power’s rhetoric, you reject the establishment’s creed as too soft, too left. That’s the kind of rebellion that can get the rebellion hired by the man – again, the classic fascist strategy. A near-autonomous dialectical process gets ignited whereby the establishment is pushed rightwards by its own hiring process.
A very good example of all this is Tucker Carlson. But we’ll come back to him.