Fascist politics poses a major challenge in the years ahead. “How do we maintain a sense of common humanity,” asks Jason Stanley in his brilliant How Fascism Works , “when fear and insecurity will lead us to flee into the comforting arms of mythic superiority in vain pursuit of a sense of dignity?” We may know the danger exists, but at what point do we take it seriously?
The challenge arises gradually. Fascist politics aim to dehumanize the targeted outgroup – whether ethnic, racial, religious or cultural. The rhetorical abuse escalates periodically, and abuse is joined by isolated violence against “them”. At each step, critics express outrage while many others turn away in disgust. The danger, however, is that the escalation “normalizes” the abuse. People shake their heads, return to private concerns, focus anger on the supposed left “extremists”, or complacently expect democratic institutions to curb excesses. One day it is too late: a xenophobic dictatorship takes hold.
Stanley’s point is that this sequence has happened before – not just in fascist Europe of the 1920s and 1930s but, for instance, in Rwanda leading up to the genocide in 1994, in Myanmar today, and incipiently in several other countries worldwide. At what point do we – those of us who find fascism abhorrent – recognize the full measure of the threat? And when we do, what is to be done?
These questions become menacingly pertinent as the socio-political and ecological crisis unfolds. Stanley refers often to the United States under Trump, and with good reason. Readers of this post will be aware of Trump’s increasingly blatant appeals to white nationalism, both in his rhetorical attacks on people of colour and in his immigration policy. But the fascist challenge is not just a Western (or northern) disease; it infects various countries of the global south as well.
To meet the challenge, we need to understand it. That is Stanley’s contribution. He focuses on fascist politics, not fascist regimes. Fascism, he concisely summarizes, is “ultranationalism of some sort (ethnic, religious, cultural) with the nation represented in the person of an authoritarian leader who speaks on its behalf.” What animates How Fascism Works is the strategy and tactics fascist movements use to gain and maintain power.
I’ll note one ambiguity at the outset. “Fascist politics,” he claims, “does not necessarily lead to an explicitly fascist state.” Okay, but what else can it lead to? Stanley might have usefully clarified the nature of far-right politics, by elaborating his notion of fascism and relating it to right-wing populism. What are the differences and similarities? Does the latter often lead to the former?
I think it is consistent with Stanley’s approach to resolve the ambiguity in this way. Elements of fascist politics may, individually, be relatively harmless. Or some may combine to produce right-wing populism, as in contemporary Russia, Hungary or Poland. But when all the elements come together in a party or movement, the danger of xenophobic authoritarian populism – a fascist state – is acute.
What then are the main elements of fascist politics? I put them together in the following schematic way, which is not precisely Stanley’s approach. The fascist strategy is to divide society into “us” versus “them.” It portrays “them” as a threat to the integrity, security and prosperity of “us,” the genuine nation. Fear, insecurity and hate among the majority group, whether defined by ethnicity, race or religion, enables the fascist movement and leader to assume all power and destroy opposing forces, in the name of national rejuvenation.
What are the tactics to achieve this goal? In brief:
- Portray a mythic past of the victimized nation, a Golden Age that ended owing to the machinations of “them;”
- Manipulate conspiracy theories and fake news to arouse anger among “us” and direct it toward “them,’ accompanied by propaganda to discredit the purveyors of facts in journalism, academia and science;
- Use phony science to legitimate a hierarchy of group worth, with “them’ (the outgroup) at the bottom – Social Darwinism with vengeance;
- Claim that “we” are the victims, not “them;” we are virtuous, industrious and the bearers of noble traditions, whereas they are cunning free-loaders (taking advantage of the welfare state and political rights), criminals, exploiters, and/or basically lazy;
- Affirm patriarchal authority through attacking women’s rights and gender equality;
- Undermine and destroy independent trade unions, progressive associations and socialist organizations in order to negate the possibility of a class-based community and foster an atomized society dependent on the leader.
Each of these tactics reinforces the others, creating a distinctive pattern. Fascist regimes differ markedly in cultural terms, yet they all engage the same strategy and tactics in attaining power.
Stanley aptly insists that fascist politics is powerful. It simplifies a complex reality. It identifies a devious “other” who is responsible for what is wrong in society. it empowers the dominant group to feel superior to others, no matter how wretched and low in status they may be. Fascism appeals to humankind’s worst instincts.
Although How Fascism Works aptly fulfills the promise of its title, it falls short in explaining the circumstances in which fascist politics becomes more than a marginal movement. Why do fascists move from the crazy fringe into the mainstream? True, Stanley does refer in passing to the importance of immigration and uncertainty, especially as impelled by climate change. But a more complete explanation is needed for us to assess the danger in our times.
Does fascism primarily gain momentum as a result of cultural backlash or economic crisis, or some combination of the two? Fascist leaders may appear clownish to us (like Mussolini and Hitler in their time), but many others take them seriously. Why, and how should we respond?
One thing is clear: we cannot dismiss fascist leaders as a joke, or the joke may turn into a horror show.