In the last post, I’ve discussed the allure of fascism, and why it is something we should all keep in mind. Worryingly, we tend to dismiss fascism as manifestly abominable, and therefore we run the risk of not recognising it when it is still in its infancy. What I did not discuss is whether the situation in the UK, Europe and USA is indeed able to favour the rise of new fascistic regimes. In what follows, I will briefly argue that the answer is “maybe”, and that therefore we should indeed worry, and make our views known.
For a brief, oversimplified account of what allowed fascism to rise in the last century, you may consult my previous post, or, if you feel adventurous, you could follow the suggestion I received from Dougald Hine and read this series of posts from John Michael Greer (I promise it’s well worth your time). The take-home message is clear: for fascism to take hold, it is necessary to simultaneously glorify and trivialise of “the will of the people”. That is, a couple of (false) things must become commonly acceptable in public discourse:
- Pretending that “the people” can have one, single and identifiable “will” must become normal. Of course, there is no such thing as a unique will of the people: different people will have different aspirations, and will also change their mind from time to time.
- The government must be understood to be the sole legitimate interpreter of such will. Naturally, democratic systems have many institutions, all explicitly designed to counterbalance each other precisely because no single monolithic institution will ever be able to do such a thing.
With these two wrong premises in place, it naturally follows that opposing the decisions of the government is equivalent to betraying the will of the people. Therefore, it becomes acceptable to punish dissent, as dissent itself becomes depicted as an immoral act.
The first reason to worry is that we have been flirting with the first (false) premise for far too long. It seems to me that the over-simplifying rhetoric of much of the national and international media has gone unchallenged for decades, preparing the cultural background for a rise of totalitarianism (in case you wonder: yes, I am saying that all populist propaganda is inherently proto-fascistic). The echo chambers generated or facilitated by social media also contribute: people can get exposed to multiple voices of fellow citizens, and find that they all broadly agree. This happens all the time, because hidden algorithms are doing their best to find voices that we are willing to engage with, and therefore they actively hide the ones we are likely to vigorously disagree with.
The second reason to worry is that belligerence is self-sustaining: if Nation X starts to treat Nation Y in manifestly inimical ways, Nation Y would be justified in doing the same. Thus, when fascistic discourse starts rising, since it is inherently tied to a national identity, it is likely that it will define itself also by depicting some other national entity as both entirely distinct (always a false over-simplification), and inimical to “our people” (a self-fulfilling prophecy). Doing this facilitates whoever is trying to build their own political fortune on the same premises, but in the supposedly “inimical” state (Is this part of Putin’s plan? I wonder). This isn’t good, because it ignites a self-sustaining feedback (see my last example here, for a glaringly obvious case) – it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of war and misery.
Finally, judging on the feedback I’ve collected on the previous post, it seems that indeed people are not ready to recognise simplistic appeals to the unique (and identifiable) “will of the people” as proto-fascistic. Thus, premise 1 is being allowed to flourish, carrying us half way through.
If my analysis isn’t badly mistaken, premise 1 has almost taken hold in the UK and is on the rise elsewhere (I will not concentrate on the situation in the USA because I cannot claim to understand it well enough). The trend is very clear, Britain is currently becoming more fascistic/authoritarian, France might follow shortly, and the US is probably in an even more compromised state. This should be enough to warrant my main claim: yes we do need to worry, and more importantly, we need to stop the current trend before it becomes self-sustaining.
On the other hand, for the second premise to become possible, the first one needs to be firmly established and widely accepted. Thus, two differences between the first rise of fascism, as opposed to the present day, may turn out to produce enough resistance to the current trend. The first is that we now know why fascism is bad. Unfortunately, as discussed previously, this difference can backfire, so we can’t and shouldn’t trust that it is all that’s needed. Fascism may rise again, especially if it will manage to grow while remaining undetected.
The second difference is that financial capital is now internationalised by default. In the early 20th century, Italy, Spain and Germany had most of their capital held and invested within their national borders, but this is certainly not the case now. Therefore, whoever has lots of money right now might not be too eager to support the rise of new nationalism and the consequent rise of punitive custom duties, limiting trade and mobility of capital. However, someone will do their own maths and conclude that it’s not a bad idea (for themselves, see Trump, if you doubt it): as long as it is clear to them that they will be able to ride the tide and profit from changes ahead, some big capitalists will undoubtedly favour the current trend. As a consequence, I don’t think it is possible to know whether the 0.001% richest people on the planet will ultimately favour or resist the rising nationalist and authoritarian drives. Moreover, if we assume their motivation is straightforward selfishness, it is clear that they will not openly resist the trend if and when premise 1 will become firmly established: it would mean jeopardising their status, so you can bet that most won’t.
Overall, it is true that there are many differences (I’ve blatantly ignored many more!) between the world as it is now and how it was in 1920-30. However, these differences are emphatically not enough to consider the rise of new totalitarian and fascistic regimes as impossible. In fact, the trend indicates the opposite. Thus, anyone living in (precarious and always imperfect) democracies, currently has a choice: do nothing and hope for the best, or actively resist the current trend. We (Westerners, in Europe and the US) are lucky enough to be able to do so legally, therefore we really don’t have any good reason not to. We can and should make sure that premise 1 never becomes viable, and by doing so, stop the current trend before it becomes too dangerous. How? There are three things that each one of us can do, and luckily, the first two are easy. Yes, it may be an overreaction, after all we don’t know if the current trend is already destined to stop before it’s too late. But so what? Would you rather risk to live knowing you didn’t try to act when it was possible to stop fascism without resorting to violence?
Make sure your dissenting voice is heard. To dispel the illusion that “the people” have one single voice, all that’s needed is that many different voices must be heard. It really is that simple: when a media outlet espouses a totalitarian and/or fascistic view, leave a comment, or tweet back, expressing your dissent – if anyone will notice, your (small) effort will not be wasted.
When someone does espouse questionable views in person, make the effort of expressing you respectful disagreement (see also below).
Contact your democratic representatives, manifesting your concern, and asking them to uphold the basic principle of Democracy: as Merkel reminded us (“[Parliamentary democracy] tolerates – no, it requires – dissent and criticism“). Dissent isn’t an annoyance, it is an essential resource of democracy.
You may also choose to join public rallies, but please do also consider the note* below (in some cases, it may be counter productive).
Overall, we can invert the current trend because we are the trend.
Use your democratic rights. Vote, and vote wisely. These are dangerous times, our democratic rights are being challenged, if not progressively eroded. Therefore, one and only one voting criteria must currently override all others (if/when it does apply): do not vote for anyone fool or dastardly enough to promote proto-fascistic ideologies. In fact, if at the next elections only one party will actively stand for Democracy, you should vote for it, even if you disagree with many more of their policies. If you won’t, the next time the ballot may have only one party to vote for.
As per the previous point, let the candidates know your intentions well ahead of the next elections.
Take your time, but do try to win hearts and convince minds. As we’ve seen before, this is slow, painful and hard. But it must be done. Democracy is degenerating because people are being duped, systematically and effectively – as a result, populist propaganda can and does attract significant amounts of consent: instead of forcing people to recognise their mistakes (accepting a pile of lies as the unquestionable truth), it offers simple (and wrong) reasons to remain hopeful.
If you are willing to go thus far, please remember: the usefulness of dissent cuts both ways. We all feel that our views are obviously right, even when we are wrong. Thus, our aim shouldn’t be to change the minds of those who are getting it wrong: we should be visibly (and publicly) willing to explore our disagreements, in order to all learn from the exchange. I’ve written about this before, please see the full argument for the details.
The current trend is clear, and should leave us all scared shitless. No one can tell if it will lead to a new kind of fascism – one or more new regimes where disagreeing will become illegal, but it is clear that it may happen in many European countries (Hungary, UK, France, Netherlands, Poland, Austria, the list is frighteningly long) and of course, the USA. Many other dangerous things are also happening, I don’t need to mention them, but I’m afraid that the rise of fascist-like ideologies is by far the most compelling danger. Why? Because once established, fascism will start getting constrained by its own web of lies. Thus, it is guaranteed that it will be unable to react appropriately to all the other problems of our time.
Daniele Silvestri is a well known (and really good!) Italian singer, author and all-round musician. The old song I’m linking to is partly responsible for making me write the last two posts. It helped me understand the value of dissent. Or, more precisely, it made me realise how much I already did value disagreements, better than any philosophical disquisition ever could. Grazie Daniele!
In case you are curious, I’ll (liberally) translate a portion of the chorus: “[…] I feel the urge to shout as well. But it’s your chanting that scares me, because slogans are inherently fascistic“.