Or ‘Faeces on Trump 2½’
Or ‘Fasces on Trump’
So, a lot of people seem to be talking about fascism these days. It’s the ‘next big thing’ stateside, they say. There are even some people who say it could catch on here in the UK. So I thought I’d take a moment to have a look at it and tell you what I think. So here goes.
First, a disclaimer: There are many perspectives on fascism. I’ve just written down mine. I have not gone into others here which I don’t agree with. Because they’re wrong, and the people who hold them WILL be punished.
Oh, and another disclaimer: Fascism shouldn’t be reified into a ‘thing’ that can be easily and neatly classified. Fascism is a spectrum, not a discrete alien phenomenon. Fascism has contained many variations which have almost as many differences from each other as they do similarities: Italian Fascism, German Nazism, Spanish Falangism, possibly even Japanese militarism (this is hotly debated and I know comparatively little about it… which is my eurocentricity showing). Even so, certain essential common features can be delineated.
Fascism is distinctively a mass movement. It is not just normal reactionary politics in that it carries an active, energetic, and usually violent grassroots movement behind it. It doesn’t necessarily represent the will of the majority, but of a sizeable and active chunk of the population.
Fascism tends to opportunistically use electoral politics, but the big fascist takeovers are not generally the result of winning elections outright. Mussolini had been elected as a member to the Chamber of Deputies, and his fascists were part of a coalition government along with various other groups including liberals, but he was appointed head of the government by the king. Hitler’s Nazis never won a democratic election. They were, at one point, the largest party in the Reichstag, but failed to achieve the majority necessary to form a government under the proportional representation system. At the peak of their electoral success, the Nazis were vehemently opposed by a third of the electorate who voted for left-wing parties. The Nazis’ vote was on the decline from its peak when Hitler was helped into power by bourgeois and reactionary politicians who hoped to use him and his movement as a bulwark against the left. Franco came to power as the head of a military coup and counter-revolution against the revolutionary Spanish republic.
Like Franco, Hitler and Mussolini both rode a wave of counter-revolution and reaction in response to revolutions in their respective countries. Fascism is, at base, a counter-revolutionary movement.
Fascism is a coalition, at times when a capitalist nation is in economic and political crisis, between the domestic petty bourgeoisie, the middle classes, small businesspeople, officials, elements of the police, etc, and domestic big capital. In Germany, Italy and Spain, the middle classes which provided the fascist the base were caught between two powerful groups: big capital above and a powerful workers movement below. One of the quintessential traits of those groups attracted to fascism – including the relatively narrow layer of workers and unemployed who went for it – was their lack of a unified and distinct class consciousness. They had no awareness of themselves as part of a larger group with common interests. Fascism breeds in isolation from unified and collective organisation along class lines. This is what permits and fosters the passionate nationalism. Nationalism substitutes itself for class consciousness, with the middle classes identifying themselves with ‘the nation’. The big capitalist class, by contrast, has a clear and common set of interests as a class, and loads of institutions and structures through and in which they can express those interests, quite aside from the interests of the nation. (This is true even in imperialist capitalism, where big capitalists’ interests fuse with those of the nation state and the two become ever more integrated.) In much of the Europe of the early 20th century, this was true of workers too. Unions and left-parties were big and rising. The German working class was the biggest, most advanced, most organised, most confident, most class conscious in Europe. The SPD (German Social Democratic Party – formally Marxist; ultimately left-reformist in practice) was very powerful, commanded the lion’s share of the workers’ votes, and had great pull on workers’ time, energy and thinking through its many sub-organisations (it was precisely this that the Nazis deliberately set about emulating, albeit in a glass darkly). Fascism in Italy came as a reaction to a near-revolution known as the ‘biennio rosso’ (the two red years) in which the workers of Italy arose in mass strikes, and factory and land occupations. The middle classes who are attracted to fascism are the layer without a clear class consciousness of their own, not themselves big property owners but separated from the workers by their relatively-privileged position and thus their identification with the system, frightened of losing their tenuous grip on their position and falling down into the lower orders, caught between the power of big capital above and the power of the workers below.
Fascism is a ‘scavenger ideology’ which will appropriate, support, denounce, or attack pretty much any idea. Fascist ideology can be atheistic or religious, monarchist or anti-monarchist, etc. It often incoherently combines contradictory impulses within itself, such as vulgar versions of both modernism and traditionalism, or puritanism and licentiousness. Fascism can even sometimes encompass homosexuality, but secretly and within ‘male warrior’ cult behaviour, as with Röhm and sections of the the SA (Sturmabteilung, i.e. the Stormtroopers, i.e. paramilitary street thugs) in the early Nazi Party. It can even be not explicitly racist (at least for a while), as with the early Italian Fascists, who were intensely nationalistic but not, for instance, explicitly anti-semitic. But the ideas it plays with must fit into an overarching reactionary framework. It is never internationalist, only ever supporting international cooperation between rulers, for the sake of alliances, sometimes through the lens of imagined kinships based on biological or culturalist racism.
It is never really anti-capitalist. It can employ anti-capitalist rhetoric, but only ever from the standpoint of the resentful middle classes, never from that of the working class – and always temporarily and opportunistically. Again, such anti-capitalism as fascism dabbles with is often coupled with reactionary ideas, such as when Nazism saw finance capital as a Jewish conspiracy.
But the really distinctive feature of fascism, far more than any of its ideology, is the form of the interaction between the ideology and the mass movement. Unlike normal forms of reactionary politics, fascism can enact actual enforcement of reactionary ideas, independent of the state, precisely because it is a mass movement and has its own foot soldiers. It can therefore come to the aid of the state in times of revolt. Fascism distinctively arises at moments when the normal hegemonic ideological consensus in a capitalist society is breaking down under the pressure of a crisis followed by a revolution.
Like normal reactionary politics, fascism is a coalition around the defence of privilege. It has distinct family relationships to the normal way in which a blatantly pro-capitalist, pro-wealth party like the Republican Party rallies support from a base of the non-wealthy and non-capitalist voters. This is achieved by the linkage of the maintenance of the privileges of the middle, or the harnessing of some lower down who aspire to privilege, to the privileges of the really rich and powerful. The politics of identity plays a huge role precisely because racism and sexism can be mobilised at all levels of society, but always fundamentally aid the interests of the people at the top, precisely because capital – because class itself – is built on racial and gender hierarchies. Fascism takes this and runs with it, and the key factor is the creation of an active army of mass support. This is why fascism always depends on paramilitary organisations when organising and growing. It mobilises sectors of the usual support into active fighting forces. The crisis and revolution is what enables it in this. Fascism always works in the interests of capital because erosion of privilege always comes from resistance from below, from the protests and demands of the oppressed. Fascism is thus inherently anti-working class because those who are oppressed in capitalist society are pretty much always, in some form or another, part of the working class (or part of a peasantry which has many basic interests in common with the working class). This is not to reduce sexual, gender and racial oppression to class oppression, but hopefully to show that they are essentially the same thing viewed from different angles.
In the specific circumstances of early 21st century capitalist democracies, the erosions of privilege that the reactionaries are currently panicking over are coming – at least on the surface – from largely ideological resistance to racial, gender, and sexual injustice. Again, this is inherently a class issue because it is class society (the currently dominant form of which is capitalism) which generates racial, gender, and sexual oppression. (This is the rational kernel to the simplistic idea that economic anxiety directly produces reaction. The deeper truth is that class society produces racial, sexual and gender hierarchies.) Capitalism in particular has historically worked by exploiting differences in humans and turning them into hierarchically arranged faultlines, into tracks along which its cars can run.
Less generally, such political battles over identity are linked to class because, as noted, the oppressed are generally people who have to work for a living, and the rise of oppositional voices – even centred on issues like identity – is linked to class factors. In short: you’re more likely to revolt against the racial/gender/sexual oppression you experience if you are less protected by wealth, and consequently more vulnerable. The Great Recession has been a distal cause of much resistance, even along apparently non-class lines, because the pressures it has created, as a result of the ruling classes’ vicious and fearful and opporrunistic response, have intensified oppression on many fronts.
As noted, fascism appropriates revolutionary language, which is one reason why elites often initially fear it. But it has a built-in mechanism for making sure it never really challenges the rule of capital. Fascism’s middle class base might resent the big capitalists when they feel squeezed, and see the rich and powerful looking unsqueezed, but they have no actual desire to destroy capitalism precisely because they have a stake in it. They are in the movement to protect their stake, not destroy it. Fascism raises itself on their bristling backs and then on their inbuilt conservatism, their awareness of their own interests, and their class inability to lead. As soon as they get fascism where it needs to be, it starts catering to the interests of big capital instead. The middle classes, upon whom the fascist movement is built, don’t want to expropriate or destroy the ruling capitalist class, they want to become part of it.
Broadly, this is the mechanism by which fascism works. In times of crisis for capitalism, fascism brings a fighting mass-movement of the disaffected middle, with revolutionary language to express their deep anxiety at their own insecure situation, to bear on the threat (real or perceived) that the working class poses to capitalism’s existence. In a paradox that would be delicious were it not so dangerous and tragic, fascism thus unconsciously acknowledges the truth of a central insight of Marxism that, historically, it has usually been at pains to vigorously deny: that the working class contains within itself the potential power to dethrone capitalism and remake the world.
The subconscious awareness, followed by the denial, of this truth is enacted openly in the usual way that fascism contains contradictions within itself between a Left and Right. Fascist parties tend to have a ‘left wing’ which takes some of the left revolutionary rhetoric too literally, and expects some serious redistribution of wealth, away from big capital and into the hands of the squeezed middle, after the fascist ‘revolution’. This ‘left’ then clashes with the dominant ‘right’ once power is achieved, precisely because power is usually achieved with mainstream establishment collusion, with the non-fascist elites hoping to use the anti-revolutionary core of fascism, complete with its fighting force, against challenges to their power. In the Nazis, this internal conflict was manifested in the bitter quarrel between Hitler in power and his erstwhile besties in the SA, led by Röhm. It led to the Night of the Long Knives, when Hitler settled the argument by having Röhm and his other internal critics and opponents murdered. The German establishment generally applauded, or at least tolerated this act of gangsterism, thinking that it showed Hitler removing the wrong kinds of elements from his party. The Nazis then settled into the role of being the defenders of big capital and the friends of the imperialists. But the internal contradiction remained, even if it had been politically suppressed.
This sort of thing was one reason, alongside the normal drive of industrial capitalism towards imperialism, why fascist countries were inherently expansionist. The demands of a layer of society who expected fascism to provide material abundance needed to be addressed. Indeed, that demand was politically and psychologically central to Hitler and other Nazi leaders. They were, after all, themselves generally from a ressentimental middle layer which felt itself hard done by (though generally not by capitalism itself) and which expected a resettling of accounts in their favour. It could not actually take the form of wealth redistribution from within national capitalism. On a simple and crude level, fascism tends to be rather well funded by sectors of big business and monopoly capital, and you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Rather, the national status quo needed to be raised by imperialist acquisition. The needed abundance had to be taken from elsewhere, from the primitive accumulation of aggressive imperialism and colonialism. Again, the logic is essentially that of capitalism, but concentrated and aggravated by a governmental form which emphasizes vicious and ruthless urgency, and extreme nationalism, in the face of internal crisis, or the perception of internal crisis, or the fear of the return of crisis. Without such methods of suppressing the contradictions, fascism retains the Achilles heel of internal disaffection from those who take the pilfered and repurposed revolutionary rhetoric at face value.
Once again, we can see a similar logic at work in the normal functioning of capitalism. The capitalist system staved off crisis and revolution in the post-war 20th century by providing a certain level of security and social wealth for the workers of the advanced capitalist nations. It did this through a long economic boom, which was the product of a permanent arms economy which kept up a constant economic stimulus. The organising logic of the arms economy in America, the biggest capitalist nation, was imperialism and the Cold War.
This summary is indebted to the great Marxist literature analysing fascism, and in particular to David Renton’s book – imaginatively entitled Fascism – which is a handy account and synthesis of the various currents of Marxist theorising on the subject… though, of course, any mistakes are mine not his.
More to come…