How the first four elements interact over time is my fifth element–periodization. To visualize this we can use a picture frame to view our subject matter; the mortise and tenon joint is comprised of the first four elements, the whole frame is the era.
These eras are:
Classical Fascism 1921-1945
Cold War Fascism 1945-1990
21st Century Fascism 2010–
In another sense I am just focusing attention on what was happening within and to fascism during this long span of history. Elsewhere I will situate that effort within Régis Debray’s broader medialogical history of ideas (a frame around a frame, if you will) although with a caveat–that the current era we are in is not the videosphere, but the Bitosphere, a part of the Bit Revolution.
We can see why such a periodization is important in understanding the threat of fascism today by noting what can happen when some other frame, often unacknowledged, is used.
Christopher R. Browning’s “The Suffocation of Democracy” in the New York Review of Books (October 25, 2018) is exhibit one. To be fair, Browning is an historian of classical fascism, in particular the holocaust, who wrote the article cited above at the prompting of friends and colleagues who wanted, as we all do, satisfactory answers to two questions: What are the parallels between fascism then and now? What are the differences? Not unreasonable questions. But the very framing of the questions conditions the answers.
Browning extrapolates from a definition of fascism rooted in the classical period forward to the present. In doing so he does what virtually everyone else does, he skips what happened in between. He reasons from a definition of fascism 70-100 years ago to the present, with a frame of liberal democracy vs the twin totalitarian threats. In this he mischaracterizes the nature of fascism, perhaps not so badly in its classical phase, but wildly so today.
Projected out across a sea of time and space this approach to the problem of fascism is ahistorical. In this his broad sweep of history doesn’t hold up.
But he is not alone. It is a rarity for anyone to discuss fascism during the Cold War era because the common wisdom has it that fascism died with Hitler in the bunker, leaving the ‘free world’ to fight communism. Fascism didn’t do anything over that time period because it was dead. Its reemergence in the 21st Century, if one even concedes that it has re-emerged at all, is ex-nihilo. And herein lies the problem: this operation, repeated add nauseam throughout the liberal and socialist press serves narrow political goals (fighting republicans, supporting a narrow anti-capitalism, encouraging a split from Die Linke over ‘open borders’, etc.,) but at the expense of history and thereby a viable revolutionary socialist project.
From a reasonable question (fascism then vs now) comes an analytical movement of staggering stupidity and often breathtaking dishonesty. But, as I noted above, this is not confined to liberals.
Exhibit two. Here’s the same nonsense from Bhaskar Sunkara’s “A Thousand Platitudes: Liberal Hysteria And The Tea Party” (New Politics, June 2, 2011).
“Though many of its shock-troops have come from lumpenproletarian elements, fascism has historically been a petit-bourgeois movement that can only be understood within the context of a militant left. German and Italian fascists disrupted strikes and physically attacked left-wing meetings. This historically specific brand of reaction implies that there was a vibrant workers’ movement challenging capitalist class rule, forcing elements of those on top to attempt to gamble on empowering the fascists in order to ultimately preserve the existing class structure. The American left is a marginalized and besieged political force, not exactly ready to storm the barricades.”
“Historically”, “within a context”, “historically specific brand.” As in waaay back when, not now.
Restated, Sunkara argues: Fascism can only exist if workers pose a credible threat to capitalist rule. Workers pose no threat to capitalist rule. Therefore fascism cannot exist.
If Sunkara insists that the far right represents an episodic readjustment of capitalist command and control, Browning relies on a fairy tale of the post war era so as to isolate the phenomenon of 21st century fascism from it.
“Today, President Trump seems intent on withdrawing the US from the entire post–World War II structure of interlocking diplomatic, military, and economic agreements and organizations that have preserved peace, stability, and prosperity since 1945. His preference for bilateral relations, conceived as zero-sum rivalries in which he is the dominant player and “wins,” overlaps with the ideological preference of Steve Bannon and the so-called alt-right for the unfettered self-assertion of autonomous, xenophobic nation-states—in short, the pre-1914 international system. That “international anarchy” produced World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Great Depression, the fascist dictatorships, World War II, and the Holocaust, precisely the sort of disasters that the post–World War II international system has for seven decades remarkably avoided.”
Setting aside his characterization of the Bolshevik Revolution as a disaster, note that other disasters of this splendid post war era –Hiroshima, Nagasaki (with which it was inaugurated) the obliteration of North Korea, the Vietnam Invasion, Apartheid, and Jim Crow, Rwanda, etc., are apparently separate from the peace and prosperity he cherishes.
So the liberal in part protects what is by defining fascism as entirely separate from it; the patrician socialist attacks what is but cannot make the leap to something else because of blindness to what also, through different means, blocks its path.
The question restated: what the fuck was fascism doing from 1945 until 1990? What has happened within fascism from 1990 to the present?
That obliteration of an important slice of history serves a purpose: to obscure the true nature of fascism as a desperate exit strategy from the contradictions of capitalism in favor of a future oriented nostalgia that reinforces the worst aspects of that system.
Let’s cue Chomsky–not on fascism, which I think he misunderstands also, but on this notion of framing. Every time someone does this on the subject of fascism–extrapolates across 70 years–they perform an analytical operation similar to that of characterizing the slaughter that was carried out from 1961–1975, on the part of the United States, in Indochina as ‘the Vietnam War’ the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ or ‘Vietnam Quagmire’ but never, ever, ‘The Invasion of Vietnam’. A mistake. A missed opportunity. A failure. Never the predictable results of deliberate policies carried out with bipartisan consensus.
Conservatives draw a somewhat different lesson. My favorite runs like this: fascism was incubated within relatively liberal and democratic polities, (Italy, Germany) yet fascism itself was illiberal (anti democratic) and took aim at that same civic society. Those civic institutions responded in the only way they could–by strengthening those selfsame institutions. This, paradoxically, fertilized the soil for fascism to grow. Ugh. Vicious circle, right? Wrong. Why?
From here it is but a short hop to this conclusion: fascism is a creature of the mob, of the dangerous classes, of the hoi polloi, of an excess of democracy. Fascism comes about through polarization and the collapse of a moderate center, rather than racism, nationalism and war. The stifling of civic society and the intensification of inequality, become necessary evils.
The upshot is this: We all need a little irritating authoritarianism with our morning breakfast so as to avoid the painful bowel movement of totalitarianism in the afternoon. But that’s a steady diet of nothing in the service of the status quo, not an analysis a socialist should respect, much less use.
Browning says, however, that there is a divergence between then and now:
“The fascist movements of that time prided themselves on being overtly antidemocratic, and those that came to power in Italy and Germany boasted that their regimes were totalitarian. The most original revelation of the current wave of authoritarians is that the construction of overtly antidemocratic dictatorships aspiring to totalitarianism is unnecessary for holding power. Perhaps the most apt designation of this new authoritarianism is the insidious term “illiberal democracy.” Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Putin in Russia, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and Viktor Orbán in Hungary have all discovered that opposition parties can be left in existence and elections can be held in order to provide a fig leaf of democratic legitimacy, while in reality elections pose scant challenge to their power. Truly dangerous opposition leaders are neutralized or eliminated one way or another.”
So the threat is these ‘authoritarians’, growing everywhere who “aspire” to “totalitarianism”.
Browning then dissolves everything into the plaintive cry of the sappy liberal:
“The racial division, cultural conflict, and political polarization Trump has encouraged and intensified will be difficult to heal. ”
That’s as eloquent and empty a summary of the politics of liberal bullshit as any has ever written. Note how ‘fascism’ has totally supplanted ‘populism’ in this treatment–but the use of the term as an epithet denuded of explanatory power remains.
Browning ends with the obligatory environmental apocalypse coda, and just in case you aren’t sure if you are reading this in the NYRB, he reminds you: “No wall will be high enough to shelter the US from these events.”
I agree–that fucking wall won’t be high enough to protect the masters from the hordes. But we won’t wait for rising sea levels to tear it down, we will do it sooner, along with all that “post war peace and prosperity” you have inflicted on us.