The Origins of Today’s Fascist Tendency

In responding to the threat of today’s fascist tendency, an effective strategy depends upon a robust diagnosis. It is clear that right-wing populists, the harbingers of this tendency, are channeling the resentment and rage of substantial segments of national populations. But where precisely does the anger come from?

That the threat is real is certain, one indicator being the many articles in newspapers and popular journals that decry the politics of intolerance. “Strongmen” politicians who rhetorically champion the welfare and cultural preferences of the (usually white) majority, while scapegoating minorities, refugees and/or immigrants and purveying conspiracies and lies, are now legion. The longer-term threat is the hollowing out of democratic institutions and human rights, as intolerance, when unleashed, throws off constraints and finds new victims.

Consider the growing list of right-wing nationalist/nativist leaders and parties with national prominence:
• Vladimir Putin, who has become the patron saint of Western nationalists
Donald Trump
• Marine Le Pen
• UKIP in the UK, during and since the Brexit referendum
• Geert Wilders (Netherlands)
• Viktor Orban (Hungary)
• Jeroslaw Kaczyski (Poland)
• Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Turkey)
• Far-right parties in Greece, Germany and Scandinavia.
Some of these leaders, most prominently Erdogan, have already undermined basic political rights, while others show little respect for democratic institutions.

What accounts for the populist success? In each country, of course, one finds peculiar cultural and historical legacies that play some part in generating resentment. But it would be a mistake to claim that these peculiarities do more than provide a stylistic veneer. At a deeper level, all these national cases share a generic cause to be found in the global market economy.

Karl Polanyi’s analysis of European fascism of the 1920s and 1930s provides a good starting point. Fascism, together with Stalinist socialism in the Soviet Union, he argued in The Great Transformation (1944), “was rooted in a market system that refused to function” (p. 247). This thesis, though generally applicable to today, needs to be qualified in two important ways.

First, today’s nativist-populists are not full-blown fascists such as Hitler and Mussolini. Fascism, though a vague phenomenon, includes at least the following:
• A mass party led by a strongman that, if it attains power, obliterates civil and human rights in the name of realizing the will of the “people”
• An ideology that romanticizes the past, when the dominant majority was supposedly pure or strong or prosperous, and identifies “alien” minorities who have insidiously undermined that purity, strength or prosperity
• A rhetoric that celebrates masculinity and justifies violence as a means of returning society to its greatness.
Today’s populists do not fulfill these criteria; yet we may fear that one severe economic crisis, and the subsequent further polarization, will push them in a fascist direction. Hence, my reference only to a fascist “tendency.”

Secondly, the present threat does not stem wholly from “a market system that refused to function.” This is not an era of generalized economic contraction, though specific countries are suffering this fate (especially those, like Greece and Brazil, who are following austerity programs). Growth, though not robust, is the norm. Unemployment is not sky-high in most advanced capitalist countries. This is not yet a time of economic deadlock.

But, in another sense, this is a time of crisis. The market system is not functioning for large slices of national populations. The ideal of the self-regulating market returned with a vengeance with the shattering of the Keynesian consensus in the late 1970s. Liberal capitalism, whatever ideals it purports to represent, serves, as David Harvey observes, to restore the power and privilege of capital and its allies. In overplaying their hand, the ruling elites have set in motion cataclysmic forces they may be unable to control.

Polanyi’s “double movement” has resumed, but with a different dynamic than in the earlier period. The liberal movement to create free markets in labour, land and money nationally and unrestricted trade, investment and financial flows globally, inevitably sparked a countermovement of societal protection. The leftist element of the countermovement, however, has been weak this time. It is undermined by various factors: the failure and tyranny of state socialisms that collapsed in the 1980sm and 1990s, the discrediting of pliable social-democratic parties that adopted many neoliberal nostrums, and the difficulty of forging progressive class accords (akin to Keynesianism) in a context of a declining industrial working class, dissipating union power and a vanished socialist threat.

This weakness leaves the field open to the far right in responding to the resentment of people left behind. Flexible labour markets increase the power of employers. Global surpluses of unskilled and semi-skilled labour force workers to compete against each other in the global economy. Virtually unrestricted cross-border flows of scarce finance and investment capital empower financiers, bending governments to their dictates. “Land grabs” by large corporations and governments in areas of communal land rights (mainly in Africa) constitute a new enclosure movement that has driven tens of thousands off the land, many heading for Europe in lieu of better prospects. The results are vast inequalities of income, wealth and power, volatility of markets wreaking periodic devastation, environmental destruction, increasingly precarious employment in Western countries, the loss of industries exported to cheaper jurisdictions and unsustainably high levels of household debt as wages stagnate. In the absence of a strong left, right populists have harnessed the resultant sense of loss by blaming “aliens” and playing on the foundational myths of the dominant group.

Yet neoliberalism is not the whole problem. Polanyi was right to emphasize that fascism grows out of intolerable conditions created by a malfunctioning market system. But three further subsidiary factors contribute to the fascist tendency.

One is technological change. Without the revolutions in transport, communications and information-processing, the complex, instantaneous world of neoliberal globalization could not exist. And the development of artificial intelligence and robots is replacing occupations, including skilled ones, at an accelerating pace. Technological change, though not independent of the power structure whose interests it serves, is a powerful source of dispossession and insecurity world-wide.

A second contingency that plays into the hands of strongmen is international terrorism. People look to such leadership as their apprehension and physical insecurity grows.

Finally, high rates of immigration, when combined with fears of international terrorism, create opportunities for unscrupulous leaders. The workings of the global capitalist system are complex and hard to penetrate. It is therefore easier to focus resentment on culturally dissimilar immigrants who are said to steal jobs, undercut wages, assault national values and perhaps harbour security threats.

If the basic problem is the malfunctioning of the global economy, these three issues interact with it to form a fertile groundfor far-right populism.

If this diagnosis is basically correct, what are the strategic implications for the left? Space limitations allow me to allude only to the most central.
• Class compromises represent surrender under current conditions while a socialist revolution is unrealistic, leading to the conclusion that an “in-between” strategy is called for
• Left parties will have to choose between, on the one hand, a defensive nationalist strategy aiming to neutralize the leverage attained by capital through treaties and global governance institutions, and, on the other, an international strategy to change the rules of the global economy. Or they can try to do both.
Labour movements must be rebuilt as social movements in which workers play a role in deciding their own tactics and strategy. The new working class movement will be multicultural in most cases, no longer male-oriented, and service sector based.
• Policies must be class-based to be effective, but this cannot mean ignoring identity issues. Some identity-based social justice issues cannot be subsumed in a class approach.
• Civil society is the ultimate defense against tyranny. Networked action among grassroots–based social movements, whether their focus is the environment, civil liberties, aboriginal rights, gender rights, gay rights, immigration, spiritual uplift, labour rights and so on, is essential where democratic constraints are being transgressed.

Protesters worldwide have chanted in many languages that “the people united will never be defeated.” And yet they were. Faced with incipient fascism today, we must work to ensure that defeat does not happen again.

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2 thoughts on “The Origins of Today’s Fascist Tendency

  1. S.J.Schneider

    Thank you for an interesting description of past and present socio-political alignments and trends. The consideration of fascism omits (in my view) the cult of death, death in combat as sacrifice and triumph, a fascist theme prominent in militant islam today. Umberto Eco described this element, if I remember rightly, in an essay titled something like ‘Eternal Fascism.’

    1. Richard Post author

      It is difficult, with a concept as fuzzy as fascism, to know what to include and exclude in the definition. But I do take seriously your point about the cult of violence.


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