Brexit, the unchallenged pile of lies which enabled it, and now Trump. If you are not scared, you haven’t been paying attention. There are many visible reasons to be scared, but more worryingly, there are hidden reasons as well. I think that the hidden reasons need to be exposed, and will try to do so below. [Spoiler: I will need to start from the good side of fascism, because yes, it does have one.]
Anti-fascism of the wrong kind.
As a result of Brexit, it is well known and widely acknowledged that the British right wing media feels bold enough to openly promote fascistic ideas. Concurrently, the UK government is busy promoting policies that don’t smell much different, while making it very clear that they don’t find the media coverage alarming.
In this context, many are blowing the whistle, in fact, it is reassuring to see how many do. However, I fear that all the whistle-blowing is falling on deaf ears. My worry is that both the UK and the US have demonised fascism so thoroughly that they have effectively become unable to detect and repel it efficiently. The so-called elites can recognise it without difficulty, but their recognition seems to produce little or no effect. Why? Because fascism has been labelled as pure (supernaturally) evil for much too long. In fact, those who haven’t actively tried to understand what fascism is may easily recognise what is good in the current rhetoric and be consequently blinded to its fascistic stench. In particular, it seems that many are simply unable to believe that what they perceive as benevolent (maybe of the “tough love” sort) is in fact the devil personified. It can’t be. And guess what? It isn’t. Fascism solves problems (temporarily), in fact, it appears to solve lots of problems, that’s the sad and dangerous truth. It also generates its own problems, just like everything else. The reason why fascism is bad is “merely” that the problems it generates are incommensurably bigger and nastier than the ones it (temporarily) solves.
To see why, I’ll paint a brutally over-simplified historic picture (with apologies).
An historic fable.
It’s the beginning of 20th century (before and after WWI), Britain rules most of the planet, has vastly superior technology and an efficient internal organisation. This translates to superior military force and Britain is not particularly shy when it comes to using it. Immediate competitors have the real and present need of catching up. It’s important to note that at the time, imperialism was normal, actually, it was more than normal, it was what the European ruling classes unanimously recognised as desirable. If France, Germany, Spain and Italy wish to “do well” they need to establish or retain their own colonies, and to do so, they need to be powerful enough to fend off the British when needed. France has republican/democratic inheritance, so the allure of fascism finds less traction, but the others don’t.
A problem that Germany, Spain and Italy all face is industrialisation: the economy needs to be transformed, and transformed fast (for Spain and Italy, the problem is that the economy is solidly pre-industrial, for Germany, it is strangled by sanctions). For all three, the prospect of letting the economy grow towards full industrialisation (driven by vanilla capitalism), in the presence of strong protectionist measures, simply doesn’t work. Markets are primarily internal, market players can keep competing with one another, but their ability to invest is limited by the relative small size of the market, making it hard to find fast paths towards full-blown industrialisation. What can be done? Simple, an alliance between (some) big capitalists and the government can accelerate the economic wheels. The state can invest at levels that private citizens can’t; concerted action can alleviate internal competition, and thus free even more capital for private investment. For all this to happen, the state needs to be able to offer guarantees, the government will call the shots, ask for capital to be invested on concerted efforts, but investors will have adequate guarantees.
The system that emerged was able to provide such guarantees, and did so by ensuring the stability of the political scene. Fascism called for a nation-wide coming together: workers will enjoy better services and their basic needs will be met, with the help of the state whenever necessary. In exchange, political rights will be limited, allowing the government to act as and when required. The system needs to be stable and trustworthy for long years (an industrial revolution doesn’t happen overnight) so social conflict has to be sedated. At the same time, capitalists need to trust the government, and know that their investments will pay off, so once again, stability is required: big changes of policy based on a change of government are simply not an option. Otherwise, capitalists would simply hold on their capital and defend their turf as before. It is worth noting that in this context the judiciary needs to serve the government, it cannot be truly independent: once again, for the system to work, investors need to know in advance that the state will deliver what it promises, which may not happen if people can sue the government and, for example, block for years the proceeding of a new road or railway.
Enter propaganda: for all of the above to work, minds and hearts needed to be won. Thus, what was offered had to be pretty convincing. At its root, the offer of fascism was to use the power of the state to eliminate internal conflict. Working people would have better employment and better services in exchange of stopping their class war against capitalists. Capitalists will get more controllable workers, and central direction for investment, earning better return guarantees and a reduced need to compete with one another. The fascist state acts as a central hub, protecting the welfare of the people and allowing capitalists to make predictable money. The result was sold as the idea of a newly found national consciousness, where the whole nation coordinates the efforts towards the common good. Crucially, for this system to work, internal conflict needs to become irrelevant. For this aim, the rhetoric becomes “if you are not with us, you’re against us”. Overall, the picture is convincing and it does also seem to work in practice: people bought into the idea because it made sense, a lot of sense. Instead of wasting time and effort in petty fights between small interests, whole nations managed transform big chunks of their economic fabric. At the same time, a sense of shared purpose was established and nurtured: people found purpose in the effort, and relief in living in a far less conflictual society. Collaboration was offered in lieu of conflict: since the economy is (very much!) not a zero-sum game, (almost) everyone got to live better in material terms, but (almost) everyone also got the crucial added benefit of sharing a common purpose, a sense of truly (visibly, demonstrably) working for the common good. What is not to like?
[Note: we now know very well why fascism shouldn’t be trusted, but at the time little or no historic precedents existed, so it was much easier to buy into it. Only the few blessed with the gift of clear-headed foresight managed to recognise the error, and frequently paid a terrible price for it.]
Herein lies my problem. The allure of fascism is strong, because it does work (for a while).
Let’s recap, and indulge once more in an exercise of over-simplification. What defines the fascist ideology?
- National identity is established by glorifying the will of the people, channelled via the state. Generalised consensus is a hard requirement, even if it may be merely perceived and not factual.
- Dissent is immoral, because it hinders progress towards the common good. Internal conflicts, all of them, are deemed wrong, repulsive.
- Since the focus is on efficient, concerted efforts, the government cannot be impeded in its decision-making. Thus, counterbalancing powers are depicted as conflictual and at best, morally irresponsible.
Aside: proper, historic fascism achieves the above while retaining notional markets, private property and private investments. Fascism of the (nominally) communist variant differs a little: private property, private investment and markets are removed, while the core elements of fascism (1-3) are retained.
Before summarily looking at what makes fascism a bankrupt ideology, I wish to fast forward to today and have a look at present-day Britain (I suspect many similarities can be drawn with the US as well, for obvious reasons).
What are Brexiteers shouting from every podium they can exploit? That the people have spoken, that “Brexit means Brexit” and that whoever quibbles is betraying the democratic mandate (the will of the people). That’s point 1 for you. 52% of who voted (37.47% of the whole electorate voted to leave) urgently need to be perceived as expressing the unique, unquestionable will of the people, and the government is its only legitimate interpreter.
Remainers are branded Remoaners, asked to stop complaining and start collaborating for the common good. Dissent is immoral and should be silenced. Whoever points out problems and inconsistencies is playing Britain down, constraining our ability to proceed towards the common aim. Point 2? Check!
What is really worrying, is that even the necessary democratic counterbalances are actively being demonised. For the Daily Mail (and the whole right-wing block of newspapers), the high court judges who dared to interpret “the rule of law” (their job) and conclude that parliament has the right and duty to hold the government to account are “enemies of the people”. That is point 3, without compromise. Shouted out without fear, guilt or shame.
Why is this even possible? Because the allure of fascism is powerful. People recognise that internal conflicts are costly: a less conflictual society, where we could all share a common sense of purpose is naturally (and understandably) perceived as a good thing. Therefore, all the people shouting “but that’s fascism” must be wrong: if something is recognisably good, it simply cannot be the apex of all evil. Well, the inference is correct: fascism has good sides, it is not exclusively bad, and that is why it is dangerous. What is wrong, and the reason why I’m writing this, is the depiction of fascism as entirely evil. It is indeed very bad, but that doesn’t mean 100% bad.
The conclusion is inescapable: Britain and, worryingly, the US as well, is experiencing a resurgence of fascist or at best proto-fascist ideas. It is happening, the evidence is on the first-page titles, it is not a matter of opinion.
Wait, fascism really is a bad idea.
We come to the easy part: considering all the upsides of fascism, and considering how much better our lives would be without so much conflict and competition, why is this resurgence a bad thing? Because a fascist state is always, inevitably oppressive (from the start) and destined to become dysfunctional. The combination is the most toxic that has been ever experienced, it never leads to good outcomes, ever.
Why Oppression? It should be obvious. If a whole nation is supposed to collaborate towards common goals, whoever disagrees with the aims needs to be marginalised. Their voice needs to be irrelevant, otherwise collaboration degenerates into inefficient debate and a battle of conflictual visions emerges instead. How dissent is made irrelevant may vary, but the oppressive drive is necessarily always present.
Dysfunctionality, is it inevitable? Let’s say that in the 21st century the powers of technological progress make it “magically” possible to have a form of benign fascism, in which dissent is made irrelevant without the need of hurting anyone (a best-case scenario, which is impossible, but illustrates my point). What happens when the all-powerful government decides to implement the wrong policies? It happens that whoever can spot the error and wishes to correct it may be labelled as a dissenter, as such, whoever understands a problem that has been overlooked will be immediately marginalised. Result: the error will not be corrected. Everyone makes mistakes and governments are made of fallible people. Therefore, a fascist society is able to keep orderly moving towards the wrong destination until the bitter end, it actually does so with ruthless efficiency. History provides countless examples of the degeneration of fascist regimes: if all goes well they crumble under their own dysfunctionality, if things go wrong, they drive whole nations into the abyss.
[Note: real-world fascism has always been extremely nasty to dissenters. This is enabled whenever opposition is successfully labelled as immoral (a pre-requisite): the morality claim calls for punishment. Therefore, all fascist systems carry at the very least the danger of becoming violently repressive. As far as we can tell, they either are oppressive from the very start or do become nasty quickly enough.]
Present-day fascism promises to solve the problems created by liberal democracies, mainly by providing a more efficient (and gratifying) way to coordinate efforts. Unfortunately, it comes with the upfront cost of being oppressive (despite my example, I don’t think benign oppression will ever be possible). This should be enough to repel it. Who wants to live oppressed?
If that’s not enough, the secondary effect of silencing dissent is an inherent inability to detect and correct mistakes. As a result, fascism promises to solve some problems, but is only able to deliver this promise at its onset: sooner or later, inefficiency necessarily prevails. In other words, fascism merely appears to solve the problems in question, but in fact it postpones them without resolving them, allowing them to grow out of control. In short: fascism is a problem that you really don’t want to have.
Am I saying that Britain and the USA are inevitably sliding into fascism? No. I’m saying that the danger is real, and it is real because many people who sincerely believe that fascism is bad may be unable or unwilling to recognise the current trend. They are, because they have been told lies, (mostly well intentioned) lies about fascism, in this case. Therefore, I’m trying to follow my own advice and expose these lies as much as I can.
In the next post, I plan to discuss how much we should worry and what we should do about it.