(Why) We Need to Radically Change How We Think About Fascism if We Want to Stop the New Wave of Fascism Sweeping the Globe
How, exactly, in the 21st century…just like the baseball cap above…did…bona fide fascism…become just another normal, grim everyday reality to shrug at? How did the evil become banal, just as a great mind once warned us of? I ask, because, well…
America has a hundred thousand kids in concentration camps. China has a million people or more. India recently made it illegal for an entire religion to be naturalized for citizenship. Britain lost the most critical election of a lifetime because hated Europeans were blamed for all of Britain’s self-made problems. What the? America. China. India. Britain. I could add many, many more. Turkey, Russia, Poland…the list is nearly endless.
Call it fascism’s revenge. A neo fascist wave is surging across the world like a tsunami. Increasingly, the right just means authoritarian-fascist parties who claim the land for the pure of blood. And the center and left lost, over and over again, because they’re bewildered as to how to fight it.
Let me pause to note that “a fascist wave” is not some kind of hyperbole. Who else puts little kids in cages in camps? Americans don’t want to admit they’re becoming a fascist society — who would? — but they are. The mirror image is true elsewhere. (Many) Indians scorn and genuinely hate their minorities now — but see it as patriotism, not fascism. Brits don’t see how blaming hated minorities for their problems is a classic protofascist pattern of collapse. And so on. This wave is the stuff of real fascism. It is growing in fury, rage, vehemence, and violence, by the day. Why?
It is happening here. Only here is everywhere, this time around. The world is plunging backwards, repeating the 1930s, global economic stagnation triggering the vicious cycle of poverty leading to hate leading to fascism, culminating in disaster, atrocity, and catastrophe. Yes, really. Just five short years ago, America didn’t put kids in cages in camps. China didn’t have a million plus people in camps. India didn’t ban entire creeds from citizenship. Today, these things are the stuff of everyday reality — and perhaps you, like many, simply shrug. So what? No wonder, then, the fascists are winning.
What all that says to me is something very different than you might expect. Our whole understanding of what fascism is, where it comes from, and what it means, has to change. Our way of thinking about fascism is lacking, absent, thin, weak. And so we are left weak-willed, minded, and spirited, too many of us easy meat for today’s neo-fascist movements. We can’t fight what we don’t understand.
What do I mean? If I ask you the question, what was the world’s first fascist movement, you’ll probably say: “the Nazis”, because that’s what you were taught. But the more that I’ve come to think about this, the more I think it’s dead wrong.
The history of fascism didn’t begin with the Nazis. It stretches back into the dawn of time. The Nazis took not just inspiration — but literal guidance — from America’s “race laws”, it’s gruesome slave empire. They studied how Americans had made black people subhumans — and literally used that as a model for their step-wise extermination of the Jews. The Nazis weren’t the first fascists. They looked to…America. So were Americans the first fascists?
Let’s think about the part of the world where my origins lie, the Indian subcontinent. There, for millennia, a caste society has existed. At its bottom are untouchables — people literally considered too filthy and dirty and dangerous to touch. They were long thought of as subhumans. The rest of society was free to exploit and abuse them mercilessly. It was perfectly fine to kill, rape, and enslave them, for most of history. Isn’t that fascism? Any sane person would have to say: yes, yes it is.
But that understanding conflicts badly with the way we’re taught to think about history: a march of democracy, in a straight line, upwards. So perhaps that way to think about history is badly, badly wrong. Because it’s easy to see, if we think about it, that fascism is a very, very old problem. It’s modern incarnation is new, sure. But fascism’s true origins have been with us since the very dawn of this thing we perhaps mistakenly call civilization. It has been around as long as we care to look at the world — the institutionalized dehumanization of hated others, who are enslaved, exploited, and abused.
(Let’s consider Britain and America again. Together, they created an international slave trade. They literally sent boats halfway around the world, plundered a whole continent’s bodies, and used them as labour. The “industrial revolution” that Western historians speak of is somewhere between rank ignorance and a bad joke: it’s true power was the muscle of the slave. Wasn’t that fascism, too — raiding an entire continent, in order to enslave it, because it wasn’t full of people, just subhumans? And wasn’t it fascism when we told the tale that we never really did any of that — as we still do — that our history is one of pioneers and inventors and geniuses, not also one of monsters, villains, and slave-owning capitalists?
Or think about European peasantry. The peasant wasn’t really a human being — his “noble” rulers could do more or less anything they liked to him, from taking his wife to his land to his children. He had to fight bitterly for centuries for anything remotely considered personhood. That culminated in the true birth of European democracy, which granted the average person natural rights. But for most of history, the average European wasn’t a person — he was a subhuman, in a stratum of subjugated subhumans, enslaved, exploited, abused. Wait — isn’t that a lot like…fascism?)
That brings me to my second point. Our definition of fascism is so lacking it’s “not even wrong”, as the saying goes. It’s inadequate. Thin, weak, ahistorical, lacking power and meaning and resonance to fight it with. The definition of fascism I was taught at school went like this: “fascism is the concentration of state and economic power.” Wait, what? How come that ignores…camps, genocide, hate, violence, brutality? That is a fascists’s definition of…fascism. Do you see the irony? We teach this foolish definition in our societies because they are still tainted by historical fascism, and have never really outgrown it.
The whiff of fascism lingers everywhere in our societies. In the way that in America blacks are now poorer than during the age of civil rights. In the misogyny women face. In the way minorities are marginalized. In the way that one must do violence to be a “real man.” In the way that the realness of a person correlates perfectly with their whiteness. Our societies have never really stopped being fascist societies. Only European societies, perhaps, have, and I’m sure there are many who’d debate that.
So here is a better definition. Or at least the beginning of one. Fascism is the institutions of the state used to dehumanize hated others, so that they can be exploited, abused, stripped, and dispossessed. Of their money, wealth, homes, belongings. Of their rights and privileges. Of their place in society and culture. Ultimately, their personhood itself is removed. And then anything is fair game. Let me simplify that.
Fascism is institutionalized supremacy, misogyny, and bigotry: which begins by defining certain hated people as subhumans, and ends with mass violence against them. But when has that ever not been a part of the human story? When we define fascism that way, things instantly become a lot clearer.
Fascism is the oldest problem in human politics — not the newest one. Fascism has existed, as I’ve suggested, since the dawn of time. In Eastern caste societies. In European peasantry. In Anglo-American slavery. It isn’t a new problem — it’s a very, very old one, which has defined most of human existence. There’s another way to say that. Fascism is the grim and terrible mean that human politics reverts to, over and over again, when better choices seem to be absent.
Fascism isn’t just the Nazis. It’s literally hidden in plain sight: everywhere around us in our everyday reality, too — and it always has been. It’s been normalized so long, really rejecting it is what’s abnormal. Fascism is much broader and more pervasive than we think it is. It runs deeper in us than we suppose. The incels wanting to rape and kill women is fascism. But so is Ross Douthat in the New York Times endorsing the idea of state-sanctioned rights to sex for lonely men. But so is the Trumpists casual indifference to kids in concentration camps. But so is the idea that women are weaker, and minorities are dumber, because they have lower IQs. All of that is fascism. Misogyny, bigotry, supremacy — don’t those permate our societies to the core, still? They are just all-too-often polite, acceptable faces of fascism, and they always have been. Fascism is the cultural matrix that we live in — and it lives on in and through us.
There have almost never been any truly non-fascist societies. The norm for human society is fascism — not the exception. When I define fascism this way — which I think is the truest way — then I struggle to think of a single society in human history that hasn’t been fascist, apart from modern European societies. America fails that test. Most of the Islamic world fails that test. Most of Europe itself failed that test for much of history, too. And so on.
Fascism is the eternal fatal flaw in human politics, the ancient trap that always lies in wait for societies to fall into — and any period of stagnation and regress theferore brings with it the chief danger of fascism. If it’s best to see fascism as the oldest problem in human politics, which has existed since the dawn of time — then we must be eternally vigilant, too. And we must begin to see it as something whose danger is ever present, not something that’s ancient and distant history, which we can safely lament for a moment, and then ignore.
There’s a simpler way to say that.
It can always — always — happen here. Or there. Or everywhere. Any society and every society is one short spell of stagnation and regress away from fascism. That should be understood as the true price of progress. When it stalls, things go backward. But go backward is in a way to begin from the beginning. To say, for many people, “Let us go back to the oldest ways! When they were subhumans — and we were on top!!” Progress brings with it a kind of curse. If progress ceases, for too long — and that “too long” isn’t very long, just a decade, maybe two, definitely three — nations revert to the mean, which is fascism.
Fascism is winning not because it’s emerging, but because it’s resurging, as a great and terrible force of history. It’s what always happens when nothing else seem to work. We’ve entered just such a period in the world. The global economy is slowing down, sharp and fast. Progress has become stagnation and regress for many. It’s not a surprise then that fascist movements are carrying the day. But there is a much deeper meaning to their victory than we think.
That is why when we look at so many societies today, fascism is winning, fast, hard, seemingly unstoppably: it is what is bound to happen, like gravity, in the absence of a force for upward motion. Nations are reverting to the mean of history, which is fascism — because in this age, the dominant global model for progress is failing. It is one of history’s most powerful forces, reasserting itself, in the absence of the other one — progress, modernity, civilization. Nations are going atavistic, regressing back to older forms of order, since modern ones — namely America’s capitalist global economy — are failing. They are reverting to what worked in the past. In Britain, that’s British hypernationalism. In China, it’s an ethnically pure super state. In India, it’s a caste society.
This is the age of fascism’s revenge. We’ve had a good spell. A hundred years of progress, perhaps. For the lucky ones. But now fascism is coming back with a vengeance, an ancient phantasm, following us from the mass graves of history, haunting us, taunting us, prodding us. “Hate them!”, it cries, “those dirty, filthy subhumans! They are responsible for your decline and suffering! You must do what we did! Expel them, exterminate them, eliminate them — the impure, the infected, the hated!!” That is what the ghosts of history say.
But the soil and the leaves, from which the bodies of the dead are made, whispers something else. “this way led nowhere, but self-destruction. You must exorcise these demons. You must put these ghosts to rest. Please. Please. You must be the ones. You must be the ones, at last.”
We must begin to understand fascism for what it truly is if we hope to fight it. Or else we will surely lose. And that part, my friend, is up to you.