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It is not only economic insecurity that helps create a mass base for fascism but also fear or the sense of physical insecurity. Practically alone among Filipino politicians in his quest for the presidency in 2016, Rodrigo Duterte appealed to “rampant criminality” as his main, indeed, only road to power. A blistering five-fold increase in reported crime and a marked decline in effective law enforcement were recorded in the years prior to the elections and a generalized sense of lawlessness took hold in the public consciousness, especially among the “aspirational middle class, who benefited from concentrated growth in the retail, real estate, and business outsourcing sectors, but now worried about their basic safety,” noted analyst Richard Heydarian.

This conjoining of economic insecurity and physical insecurity was deadly, and, with his instinct for the jugular, Duterte seized on it, his most memorable campaign statement being his promise to cut up common criminals and drug dealers into small pieces and feed them to the fish in Manila Bay. Duterte’s success in stoking crime as the path to power is a grim reminder of Hobbes’ counterthesis to Locke’s on the state: that at its origins it is a primordial contract between a people who are willing to hand over their rights and a sovereign who promises to protect their life and limb.

The Social Psychology of Fascism

Economic conditions and fear, however, cannot fully account for the emergence of fascist movements. There are other factors, social psychological in nature, that fuel them. One is the sense felt by many white males of being adrift in a world where the traditional gender hierarchies are being shaken, the binary gender classification is being abandoned, women are gaining control over their bodies, and the traditional norm of the heteropatriarchal family is being put into question by new familial arrangements. One of the drivers of far-right politics, especially in the white nationalist movement is what Patricia Ventura and Edward Chan characterize as “besieged and aggrieved white manhood.”

Counterrevolutionary patriarchal attitudes usually come together with the most salient drives of far-right mobilization: racism, ethnocentrism, and anti-immigrant sentiment. These behavioral or ideological drives are the burning core of the fascist project, which is to create a cross-class solidarity based on skin color, religion, language, or culture by defining as the Enemy or the Big Other, those who are perceived to be different. It is not accidental that Hitler’s project was called national socialism—that is, it was “equality” but only for those of the same race and not for the Other.

In Europe today, the Big Other is no longer the Big Brother of the Cold War era but non-white migrants that, in dark conspiracy theories like the Great Replacement Theory, treasonous liberal elites are allying with and using to destroy one’s imagined community. One of the signature expressions of this theory is provided by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, with the EU and its immigrant quota system that the far right despises, in the role played by Washington’s liberal elite in the United States:

The situation…is that there are those who want to take our country from us.  Not with the stroke of a pen, as happened one hundred years ago at Trianon; now they want us to voluntarily hand our country over to others, over a period of a few decades.  They want us to hand it over to foreigners from other continents, who do not speak our language, and who do not respect our culture, our laws or our way of life: people who want to replace what is ours with what is theirs.

But just to show how ethnocentrism and racism have made inroads in the European consciousness, it was no less than the foreign policy chief of the European Union itself, Josep Borrell, who bared the subliminal fears driving the continent when in a speech in 2022 he pontificated that “Europe is a garden” but “most of the rest of the world is a jungle, and the jungle could invade the garden.”

In the United States, white nationalism or white supremacy is the main ideological expression of the fascist project. Racism has always been ideologically reproduced by a social structure in which racial domination has been as central as class domination. Since the late 1960s, the Republican Party, with its color-coded or “dogwhistle” politics and programs, has been the preferred vehicle of the white majority, with white non-Republicans being increasingly the outliers. White nationalism has been exacerbated in recent decades, by perceived gains made by minorities, in particular, the black community, in the last few decades, notably the election in 2008 of Barack Obama as president of the United States.

To the fear of blacks gaining at the expense of whites was added the popular conspiracy theory that immigration is a plot by liberal elites in Washington to make the white majority the minority by 2042. This set the stage for the man that CIA analyst Barbara Walter called “the biggest ethnic entrepreneur of all,” Donald Trump. According to her, “No Republican president in the past fifty years had ever pursued a more racist platform, or championed white, evangelical Americans at the expense of every one else.”

In the mind of Trump, America is an exclusively white creation. This was in full display in Trump’s acceptance speech as presidential candidate at the 2020 Republican National Convention, where he said that what was unique to America was the spirit of the conquest of the land and the West by white “ranchers and miners, cowboys and sheriffs, farmers and settlers,” a white world made possible by the likes of “Wyatt Earp, Annie Oakley, Davy Crockett, and Buffalo Bill.”  Those names of television characters that Trump apparently loved as a child reflected nostalgia for the lost white America of the 1950s and a subliminal unwillingness to reconcile with the post-Civil Rights America that succeeded it.

But the fear of the Other of Trump and his enrages, goes beyond nostalgia for a lost Jurassic world. According to Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, white nationalism, “rather than being fueled by a fear that new immigrants will fail to assimilate into American culture, is fueled by a fear that they will assimilate all too successfully.” Drawing on the work of Marcel Detienne, they write that,

[T]he implication of successful assimilation is that the cultural identity of natives is not a genetic inheritance but, instead, something disturbingly superficial and relatively easy for newcomers to adopt.  If those with an entirely different genetic inheritance can internalize the cultural legacy of multi-generational inhabitants of their host country, then national identity does not really reflect a blood bond tying the current generation to its dead forefathers.  If true, Detienne’s thesis helps explain the roiling emotionalism  of anti-immigration politics.  It stems, on this account, from an unspoken fear of identity theft.  Subconsciously, we can speculate, white nationalists fear that recent arrivals, with biologically unrelated ancestry, will expose the embarrassingly shallow roots of their cherished but fictional national identity.

In India, a veritable witches’ brew of resentments, from a sense of Hindus being despised for being a non-martial race to insecurities related to a demographic decline relative to Muslims, one that is said to be actively abetted by “love jihad,” has been skillfully exploited by the BJP, RSS, and Sangh Parivar, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to pursue a strategy of electoral polarization cum violence that has proved eminently successful in the drive to turn India from a secular democracy into an “ethnic democracy,” to use the term coined by Christophe Jaffrelot.

Whether in India, Europe, or the United States, It is this heated base motivated by a mix of economic insecurity, physical fear, ressentiment, or pure hatred, disseminated by conspiracy theories on the Internet that accounts for the fact that fascism, not liberal democracy, and certainly not socialism, has momentum globally today. Opportunistic fascist leaders are certainly a good part of the explanation, but if Trump, Orban, Modi, Duterte, Bolsonaro did not exist, they would have to be created. Indeed, this is the reason why although they are no longer in power, Duterte, Bolsonaro, Poland’s Law and Justice Party, and, of course, Donald Trump won’t fade away and can be returned to power.

Take the United States. The 2020 election of Joe Biden drew a sigh of relief from quarters concerned with the health of democracy in the United States. But 11 million more Americans voted for Trump in 2020 than in 2016, while 70 percent of the Republican Party believed against all evidence that he won the election. Today, Trump faces 91 felony counts across two state courts and two different federal districts, any of which could potentially produce a prison sentence. Yet he’s left all his Republican rivals in the dust in the drive to challenge Joe Biden for the presidency in 2024, and he’s leading Biden in the polls in the swing states that will determine who will win this year’s elections. Imitation is the greatest compliment, and Trump’s competitors for the Republican presidential nomination tried to project an image of being more Trumpist to trump Trump. The Republican base, however, overwhelmingly prefers the original, and they are determined to bring him back to power this year, whatever the electoral results of the November 2024 elections will be.

Fascism and Big Capital

Fascism cannot be reduced to a conspiracy by Big Capital to repressively stabilize society and promote its interests, as traditional Marxists saw it. Fascists are not mere instruments of the capitalist class. In fact, their rhetoric is not only anti-democratic or anti-liberal but also often anti-capitalist or anti-Big Business. Witness how Trump and his followers claim that they are anti-Big Tech or against the “hypercapitalists,” as Steve Bannon calls them. Fascists, however, do not seek to overthrow Big Business; they merely want an accommodation with Capital to serve their movement’s own interests, but with them in the driver’s seat. Fascism in power, in fact, often has detrimental consequences for Capital.  To cite a classic case, in return for protection from a militant labor movement, German Capital allowed itself to be hijacked by Hitler, and this led to its near destruction serving as a tool of his expansionist war.

During “normal times,” the far right and Big Capital can sometimes have different stands on some issues, as, for instance, in the case of today of “woke capitalism,” where corporations piously assert that corporate policies should be “pro-environment” or “politically correct” in hiring practices when it comes to race and gender. However, these differences are transient and minor, and when Capital is threatened by movements that cut into their profits or threaten their economic hegemony, it welcomes efforts by fascists to stabilize or “sanitize” the social order.

Fascism and Violence

Fascists can come to power through elections, as Hitler, Trump, and Bolsonaro did. In fact, the closer they come to power, the more they try to project a constitutionalist or moderate image, as Giorgia Meloni did in Italy in the run-up to the 2022 parliamentary elections and Geert Wilders did more recently in the Netherlands.

But once in power, they often seek to remain there through the use of force or violence. Violence is the main instrument by which fascists want to carry out their revolution or counterrevolution to “purify” society to assert or reassert the supremacy of the traditionally dominant majority defined by skin color, ethnic identity, or culture. Thus, in India, while they are reshaping the institutions of the country via their parliamentary majority, the Hindu nationalists see their power as based in the final analysis on their capacity for violence, which they periodically unleash to remind subordinate communities like the Muslims of their “inferior status,” as they did in the Gujarat massacre of 2002.

As for the United States, Moira Donegan of the Guardian reminds us,

America is no stranger to political violence. But usually, it comes from the right. Mass shootings are routinely carried out in public in America by men with far-right political agendas, who massacre church worshippers, grocery shoppers or high school students in the service of a cause; the death toll from these explicitly political atrocities has been assimilated into our social fabric, hardly registered as assaults made on behalf of a movement. Meanwhile, far-right militias, from the polo-wearing Proud Boys to the masked and khakied Patriot Front, hold parades meant to intimidate their political enemies and the populations they consider undesirable. Sometimes, they threaten or beat people; sometimes, they surround state capitols with guns on display. Once, they stormed the Capitol. Rightwing political violence is likely to shape the 2024 election, and barring the emergence of a dramatically different political settlement, it will be a feature of American life for the foreseeable future.

Blatant espousal of violence is now common, even among elected members of the Republican Party. For instance, Marjorie Taylor Greene, a leading member of the far right in Congress, has told the Republican base that “the only way you get your freedoms back is [if] it’s earned with the price of blood.”

How to Counter Fascism

Let me end by switching from the analytical to the normative, from being the academic to being the activist.

First, we need to stop resorting to easy explanations about the rise of far right, like the claim that trolls are responsible for it, and acknowledge that far-right personalities and movements have a critical mass of popular support.

Second, we must acknowledge that in being able to mobilize people using the most up-to-date methods available on the internet, the fascists are far ahead of us. To cite just one example, in 2020, Modi, who was among the top five most followed world leaders on social media, had 45.9 million followers compared to opposition leader Rahul Gandhi’s 3.5 million on Facebook.

Next, we need to find ways of stopping the extreme right from coming to power in the first place, like building broad united electoral fronts, even with non-fascist groups we may have differences with. It’s much harder to remove the far right once they’re in power.  Even if they lose elections after they’re in power, their work in reshaping democratic institutions may be very difficult to undo.  As New York Times commentator Michelle Goldberg, notes, with respect to the transition in Poland from the Law and Justice regime that lost the October 2023 elections to the new liberal government led by Donald Tusk, “The new coalition government has a mandate to rehabilitate [government] institutions, but the former rulers aren’t ceding control willingly, and often there’s no consensus about who has the authority to settle conflicts related to the transition. For Poland’s new leadership, roadblocks to reform are everywhere.”

Fourth, we need to make sure we have at the leading edge of our resistance those movements that have a great deal of resonance among broad sectors of the population including the middle classes, such as the movements to stop climate change, promote gender equality and reproductive rights, and advance racial justice. Again, the example of Poland provides encouragement. As Goldberg points out, playing the key role in the electoral outcome of the October 2023 elections was  “public revulsion toward a far-reaching abortion ban.” Likewise, the result of the U.S. presidential elections later this year may well hinge on the resistance of women to the threat posed by the far right to their control over their bodies.

Fifth, we must fiercely defend human rights and democratic values, even where–or especially where–they have become unpopular. This will involve aggressively championing people and groups that are currently persecuted, with majority opinion being whipped up against them, like Muslims in India and non-white immigrants in both the United States and Europe. International solidarity with the persecuted is an essential element of the anti-fascist project. Compromise here will only encourage the fascists. Moreover, equality, human rights, democratic rights, and due process are the cornerstones of the democratic world view. When it comes to freedom of movement, of course, every country has the right to manage migration in an orderly manner. But this is very different from virtually sealing off its borders for racist, chauvinist, or religious reasons that are disguised as “protecting our values” or “preventing disorder” or “saving jobs.”

Sixth, let’s not fear to see what we can learn from the extreme right, especially when it comes to the politics of passion or the politics of charisma, and see how our values can be advanced or promoted in passionate and charismatic ways. We must unite reason to passion and not see them as being in contradiction, though, of course, we must not violate our commitments to truth, justice, and fair play in the process

Seventh, if history, especially of the United States, is any indication, one must not preclude the possibility of violent civil war, and should that become a real threat, to take the appropriate steps to counter it. CIA analyst Barbara Walter is not crying wolf when she writes:

Where is the United States today? We are a factionalized anocracy [a degenerating democracy] that is quickly approaching the open insurgency stage, which means we are closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe. January 6 was a major announcement by at least some groups—such as the Oath Keepers–that they are moving toward outright violence…In fact, the attack on the Capitol could very well be the first series of organized attacks in an open insurgency stage. It targeted infrastructure. There were plans to assassinate certain politicians and attempts to coordinate activity.

Given her background, it is not surprising that Walter suggests that part of the response might involve “engaging in targeted retaliation…where governments should arrest, prosecute, and seize the assets of insurgents” and pursuing “a strategy of called ‘leadership decapitation,’ which involves imprisoning the leaders of a terrorist group to hasten its collapse.”  But this raises the question of how far partisans of democracy should cooperate with the institutions of the state and still preserve their commitment to protecting basic freedoms and due process. Anti-fascists must protect democratic freedoms but ensure that actions to protect those freedoms do not turn into state-directed repression.

But, probably most important, we need to have a transformative vision that can compete with that of the far right, one based on genuine equality and genuine democratic empowerment that goes beyond the now discredited liberal democracy. Some call this vision socialism. Others would prefer another term, but the important thing is its message of radical, real equality beyond class, gender, and race. Our gamble is that that side of human beings that values cooperation and, yes, love, will triumph over that side that seeks a regression to Nietzsche’s blonde beasts.

Rosa Luxemburg, the martyred German Marxist, wrote that the future belonged either to socialism or barbarism. In the twentieth century, barbarism was stopped in its tracks. Will that also be the case in the twenty-first century? Let me end by saying that there is no guarantee that fascism will not triumph, but it will certainly win unless we put ourselves, body and soul, fully and smartly, on the line to stop it.

This is the second of two parts. The first part is available here.

Source of original article: Foreign Policy In Focus (
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