Liberal Democracy’s Fascist Shadow
In my last three essays, I detailed several aspects of Liberal Democracy and its current crisis. The first described the power-structure and myths which hold Liberal Democracy together, as well as its relation to Capital. The second explained the violence which is the essence of Liberal Democracy, and the way we become complicit in it. And the third essay delved into how the attempts by the non-revolutionary left to make Liberal Democracy more equal actually sustain the violence of the State and make it more powerful.
This essay’s about Liberal Democracy’s shadow: Fascism.
For most, whether conservative or liberal, left or right, Fascism seems like something in the far past, an unfortunate and inexplicable accident in the course of human civilization which was finally defeated. We think of the concentration camps, the mass imprisonment of dissidents and minorities, the bloody wars and mass political rallies…and we shudder, or shake our heads.
How could that have happened? How could it ever happen again?
Rather easily, actually.
The Fascism That Was
the early half of the last century, every Liberal Democracy was in a crisis not too different from our own now. Terrorist attacks in the middle of cities by foreign-born radicals–attacks meant to kill industrialists, bankers, and politicians–claimed hundreds of lives. Very wealthy Capitalists stopped investing in new factories and industry in their own countries, holding on to their money or looking abroad for less-risky ways to make a profit. Refugees from wars flooded the cities, pushing down wages for workers who were already struggling to afford necessities. Mass populist movements shut down streets and cities, racial and other minorities demanded more rights and threatened violence if they didn’t get them.
And then an economic collapse happened throughout every Western nation-state. The ‘Great Depression’ in the United States (and the similar collapses elsewhere) displaced millions, creating people so poor that laws about theft and private property no longer really mattered to them. The last great monarchist country in Europe, Russia, had just fallen to a popular revolt, and the ideas of that revolt were inspiring the lower classes elsewhere, while in other countries of Europe, a new popular movement was growing.
Born as a critique of both Liberal Democracy and Marxism, Fascists invoked a deep and mythic Nationalism to transform society and the State. Watching the chaos, strife, insecurity, and economic collapse of their countries, Fascists like Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, and Francisco Franco created popular movements not based on Marxist egalitarianism and internationalism, but on strict hierarchies and national loyalty.
Though very right-wing, Fascism positioned itself as a new center, appealing both to disaffected people on the right and the left. Its Traditionalism and calls for a return to ordered and hierarchical society spoke deeply to conservatives who opposed Marxist and Anarchist movements, as well as their alienation from the ‘degeneracy’ and ‘decadence’ of the cities (where homosexuality, prostitution, occult and non-Christian religions abounded). Fascism also appealed to many on the left as well, by embracing some socialist policies like minimum wage, 40-hour work weeks, and equal footing for (fascist-led) unions and employers.
The appeal to both the right and the left didn’t end there, though. Both Marxists and Conservatives had become increasingly critical of foreign Capitalists, bankers, and international agreements (like the Treaty of Versailles) which increased immigration, crippled national industries and punished working-class people under the guise of Progress.
Liberal Democracy was the primary target of Fascism. The Weimar government in Germany was a masterpiece of Liberal Democratic ideals yet failed to create prosperity; in Spain, a left-wing coalition (made up of Communists, Socialists, Republicans, and Liberals) called The Popular Front founded a republic based on Liberal Democratic ideals but failed to stop right- and left-wing violence. And most of Mussolini’s manifesto, “The Doctrine of Fascism,” directly attacks the failures of Liberal Democracy to create the world it promised.
The liberal century, after piling up innumerable Gordian Knots, tried to cut them with the sword of the world war. Never has any religion claimed so cruel a sacrifice. Were the Gods of liberalism thirsting for blood?
From “The Doctrine of Fascism,” by Benito Mussolini and Giovanni Gentile
Hitler, Franco, and Mussolini each recognised what Liberal Democracy tries to hide about itself: the promises of peace, prosperity, and equality are actually contradictory under Capitalism. Nation-States need to subjugate weaker nations if their citizens are to have access to cheap goods, they must heavily police their lower classes to keep order, and there can be no true equality if Capitalism and the State are to function.
Anarchists and communists had been pointing to the same thing, but rather than abolish both the State and Capital (the anarchist answer) or put all Capital in the hands of a worker-led State (the Communist answer), Fascists argued for a State fully-aware–and unapologetic–of its violent and hierarchical nature.
In a Fascist State, Capitalism would serve the entire Nation: foreign Capitalists would no longer steal wealth from the people, and local Capitalists who served the nations’ goals would be backed up by a powerful State.
To appeal to Conservatives and Traditionalists, Fascism argued for a return to high moral ideals, including loyalty to family, to superiors, to ‘God,’ and to the State. All three Fascist states in Europe officially banned prostitution, homosexuality, and pornography, and initiated new cultural celebrations and programs. To appeal to the poor and workers, new social programs were instituted, wages were raised and work duties were standardized.
From this new ‘center,’ each of the fascist movements in Europe then manipulated the political goals of Liberal Democratic parties against an enemy both political movements shared: leftists.
Liberal Democracy’s Gambit
Every Liberal Democracy faced an internal threat from Marxists and critics of Capitalism. The United States headed off a revolt by implementing Nationalist social programs (the “New Deal”) while arresting anarchists and communists en masse, the United Kingdom faced off powerful left-wing unions; leftists managed to control the government in France for a few years before toppled by extremely organized Fascists. In Germany, Italy, and Spain, well organised anarchist and Marxist trade-unions consistently shut down factories, mines, and transportation.
In each of these places, ‘Liberal’ parties (be they Social Democrats, Liberals, or Progressives) found themselves with a decision: side with an increasingly radical left-wing movement and possibly find their countries going communist? Or side with the Capitalists who funded them, even when it meant using State violence to stop worker uprisings?
If Liberals took the side of the workers against the owners, Capitalists would withdraw their support of the State–and they had all the money.
Despite hating the goals of the Fascists, the supporters of Liberal Democracy in Italy and Germany sided with them against the communists and anarchists in order to protect the interests of Capital, even helping to arrest and kill left-wing activists (for instance, Jewish and Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxembourg was tortured and executed by Social Democrats, not by Fascists).
Their choice to side with Capital over the workers drove significant support away from them so that, by the time Mussolini’s blackshirts seized power in Rome and the Nazis swept into power in Berlin, Liberal Democracy had no more allies.
Liberal Democracy tells a story about itself and the progress of humanity that, if we accept it, makes it nearly impossible to understand how Fascism could ever happen again. According to it, Liberal Democracy is the end-point of history, the final evolution of society from primitive and violent to modern and free.
In 1940, while hiding from the Nazis in occupied France, Marxist philosopher and Jewish mystic Walter Benjamin published his Theses on the Philosophy of History to address such a problem:
The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism.
One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge–unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.”
Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History
Benjamin was attacking both the progress narrative of Liberal Democracy and the failure of historical materialism (which made him an enemy of Stalin as well as Hitler).
While Hegel had said that history repeats itself, Marx had expanded this, adding ‘first as tragedy, then as farce.’ But looking at history that way, we can easily miss dangerous events in the present because they don’t appear as precise repetitions.
Rather than looking at history as a cycle full of repeating processes and events, it’s better to see history as full of repeating forms. African slavery, for instance, wasn’t a repetition of Roman slavery, nor was Irish indentured servitude a repetition of either. However, all three were forms of slavery, and from such a view we can then see that slavery is a repeating form throughout history, while still comparing individual instances in their separateness.
Fascism now won’t look the same as any fascism that’s existed. We’d be making a mistake if we looked for the next charismatic fascist leader to be wearing a military uniform like Mussolini. But the forms that birthed fascism can birth it again. So, what are those forms?
A Crisis of Capital
The last time Liberal Democracies faced an existential crisis, there was a World War. Many theorists on both the left and the right resoundingly agree that the war of 1913-1919 was driven by the need of Capitalists to expand their markets. Each State involved faced crises of Capital that couldn’t be resolved through trade negotiations, and thus World War I became an imperialist trade dispute fought with chemical weapons and tanks.
That war meant the end of several empires, the birth of the first Communist State in Russia, and a powerful new enemy of Liberal Democracy, the Fascist.
Capital functions well within Liberal Democracies, because Liberal Democracy offers both a strong state apparatus to keep revolt in check while offering its citizens enough rights to make up for their loss of economic freedom. But these two tactics can clash when workers begin to demand more economic (that is, material) equality, rather than social equality.
In the early part of the 20th century, many leftist movements arose demanding exactly that. Unsatisfied with the ‘bread and circuses’ approach of Utopian Socialism and unwilling to wait for the messianic promise of better wages, workers threatened the profits of the Capitalists, and Liberal Democracy was forced to reveal its true alliance.
Nationalism as an Antidote to Chaos
The brutality of Fascism in Germany is most harrowing: millions of Jews deported, imprisoned, and then killed, along with Roma, disabled people, the ‘work-shy,’ and many others. In Italy, the concentration camps started later for Jews and other minorities, and in Spain they were reserved primarily for political dissidents.
The Nazis didn’t come up with racial hatred, though. European peoples had a very long history of targeting Jews, Roma, immigrants, homosexuals and others, and much of this violence was either initiated or later supported by rulers. The reason for this is quite simple: it creates order.
As Silvia Federici has shown in Caliban & The Witch, the scapegoating and violence against women during the birth of Capitalism helped pacify uprisings against the aristocracy and the rulers–so much so that city rulers would often legalize rape and strip women of rights in order to channel the rage of the poor towards an easier target. The outsider status and refusal to integrate of Jews and Roma likewise made them easy targets, facilitated by a moral regime (the Church) which taught such groups were primitive, sinful, evil, and dangerous.
Fascists used the same mechanism in Germany and Italy. Fascism doesn’t require anti-semitism or racism to function, but it made national unity a lot easier in Germany and Italy (Italy didn’t become fully united as a nation until 1871; Germany was born that same year and wasn’t a nation with its current borders until 1918).
Fear of the Foreign
Internal racism was used to create national identity, but so too was the fear of foreign economic and political threats. Anger over the imperialist demands of the Treaty of Versailles after World War I helped inflame nationalist hatred against foreign governments and economic interests. Foreign and international bankers (particularly those of Jewish descent) became favorite scapegoats for the economic and social ills in Germany.
In Italy, Germany, and Spain, the fear was also that of the Bolsheviks, who had recently overthrown the repressive aristocracy in Russia (and, horribly, later replaced it with something just as repressive). The threat of Bolshevik communism had both a xenophobic and anti-Semitic connotation….especially since so many Marxist philosophers were, like Marx himself, Jews.
The fear of international and foreign conspiracies to destabilize society were not conjured out of thin air: Lenin and later Stalin took over the international communist organisations and used their state power to influence radicals in Europe. But Fascists like Mussolini began before the Russian revolution, so their employment of conspiracy theories about foreigners were based instead on anti-Semitic conspiracy theories which produced propaganda like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
In all cases, the existential threat to ‘the nation’ was an ever-shifting network of enemies who existed both outside–and within–the borders of the nation.
The Moral Decay of Society
All three fascist regimes mentioned share another common trait, one which gets much less mention than many others. All three sought a moral revival of the Nation against the ‘decadent’ and ‘degenerate’ trends found in cosmopolitan areas.
One photograph from the Nazi period, found in almost every history textbook in American schools, has become rather iconic of fascism:
The image is from the Nazi-ordered destruction of the books contained in the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, the research library founded by Magnus Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld started the field of sexology, studying and openly embracing homosexual, bisexual, transgendered, and many other variant forms of sexual and gender expressions which the Nazis saw as ‘degenerate.’
In Italy and Spain, similar moves to restore society to more conservative morality resulted in the arrests and deaths of academics, artists, homosexuals, queers, and many others. The political rhetoric which led to this repression focused heavily on the decadence of urban environments, particularly as opposed to the more folkish and morally-upstanding rural and village folk.
Berlin at the time of the Reichstag fire had a 1% church attendance rate, was an enclave of sexual, gender, occult, and social experimentation, and represented for the fascists all that had gone wrong with the Nation. People had become weak, feeble, consumerist, and polluted by the degenerate ideas of the cities. Civilization was in a fallen state, and both Mussolini and Hitler made great use of this ideology, iterated by ‘Traditionalists’ such as Oswald Spengler, Julius Evola and others now known as ‘esoteric fascists.’
The Crisis Now
Many Liberal Democracies have adopted extreme austerity measures in the last few years, aiming to decrease their social assistance budgets. In many of these countries, infrastructure like water, rail, and energy have either been privatized or decay in awful states of disrepair.
While many are quick to blame “neoliberalism” or Free Market faiths as the culprit for austerity and crumbling infrastructure, few delve much deeper than this. Why would Liberal Democrat governments abandon their promises and risk public revolt merely for an ideology?
The answer is that they have no choice.
As mentioned in previous essays, it is the Capitalists who primarily fund Liberal Democracies, either through the taxes they pay or through the taxes paid by their workers. If Capitalists don’t profit, they withdraw their support, and even the most progressive and socially-democratic government eventually has to do what they say or go bankrupt.
The wealthiest Capitalists profit either from financial speculation, resource extraction, or by selling consumer goods in wealthy markets that were made by workers in impoverished markets. In all cases, though, the workers in Western Democracies have less access to waged jobs, the only means by which one can legally make a living if you’re not a capitalist.
But if those workers have no jobs, they have no money to purchase products, which means the Capitalists earn no profit. But likewise, Capitalists won’t hire workers at traditional wages in Liberal Democracies for the same reason–they won’t profit. Capitalists, therefore, are holding the leaders (and the people they are supposed to represent) hostage, relying on the state to reduce the living standards of their citizens (and back this up with violence) in order to decrease wages.
“Immigrants Stealing Our Jobs”
One of the other ways wages are deflated is immigration, a fact non-Marxist Liberals and Progressives don’t like to talk about much.
Immigrants (and especially refugees) who come from poorer countries are willing to work for lower wages in their new countries (especially if they are without status). But as wages start to decrease and the sorts of jobs non-foreign workers were used to finding disappear, they blame what looks like to them the obvious culprit: the immigrants.
Liberal Democracies know they need more immigrants to keep Capitalism alive. But as poor workers grow increasingly resentful and the supporters of Liberal Democracy (including social justice advocates) side with Capital, only nationalist political parties seem to offer a ‘true’ analysis of the situation.
Thus, Brexit. Thus, also, the appeal of far-right parties in Europe, like the Front National in France or Golden Dawn in Greece. Thus, too, the increasing right-wing turn even of the traditional ‘liberal’ Democratic party in the United States, and the hard right-turn of Libertarians and other variants of conservative political parties.
Immigrants are caught in a horrible position. Brought in by Liberal Democracies to undermine the power of left-wing labor movements, leaving (and often fleeing) from countries devastated by trade and military policies coming from the same Liberal Democracies where they now live, they have very few allies.
The Social Justice narrative gives them some leeway, but in order to be fully accepted they must buy in to the rest of the program, including adopting cultural forms they lived their entire lives outside of. For instance, in Germany, a Turkish immigrant declined to shake the hand of his child’s female teacher, an event now repeated ad nauseum in German newspapers as proof that immigrants are anti-women and don’t belong in Europe.
If Liberal Democracy were truly the enlightened end-point of history as it claims to be, then such criticism of immigrants would be logical. But as mentioned in my previous essay, what Liberal Democracy (and particularly Social Justice) celebrates as freedom and enlightenment is hardly universal. A lesbian soldier from the United States now free to kill on behalf of the State could never be seen by the widows or children of the man she killed as a triumph of equality.
Terror in Our Midst
While anti-immigrant sentiment grows within every Liberal Democracy, terrorist attacks become more frequent. France–a stalwart of freedom and tolerance– has seen three such events since 2015, the latest just last week. Even before Daesh had claimed responsibility for this recent slaughter, the French government has already linked the event to Islamic radicalization.
The details are gruesome, the scores of videos taken by witnesses horrible to watch. Anyone who’s ever been in such a street celebration can imagine how awful it must have been, to be walking without care after a firework display and see your lover suddenly hit by a truck, to regard children and old people flying through the air like ragdolls when, just moments ago, they were having fun.
How do you fight such things? According to Liberal Democracy, you suspend civil rights, give police more powers, and attack an unrelated country. Consider the early response from the President of France, François Hollande:
…the president announced a three-month extension of the state of national emergency, which allows police to conduct house raids and searches without a warrant or judicial oversight and gives extra powers to officials to place people under house arrest.
He insisted: “Nothing will make us yield in our will to fight terrorism. We will further strengthen our actions in Iraq and in Syria. We will continue striking those who attack us on our own soil.” (link)
Passport controls were re-instituted between France and other EU countries (supposedly eliminated by the Schengen treaty), the number of military reservists were doubled, and the State of Emergency, due to expire in just a few days, was extended for another three months. But for political leaders on the far-right, these weren’t enough, and the President was loudly booed by mourners at a memorial service for the victims.
The problem is that Liberal Democracy cannot actually respond effectively to terrorism. It is impossible to keep people from enacting horrific violence, be it in the name of religion, ideology, nationalism, or mental-illness. Taking guns away doesn’t help when airplanes and trucks can be used as bullets and bombs, and there is no amount of police or military that can be everywhere at once.
So the promise of the Liberal Democratic State as the final arbiter of violence and justice is impossible to keep. The State doesn’t have a monopoly of violence, and can only become more repressive to combat potential terrorism. This, then, means that it can no longer claim to guarantee civil rights, either, without constantly invoking states of exceptions or emergency.
The State of Emergency
Fortunately, a man named Carl Schmitt outlined for them a legal justification for such suspensions of rights. His theory was that sovereignty (political power, or the right-to-rule) doesn’t derive just from the social contract that Hobbes outlines, but from the very fact that the government has the ability to suspend the contract at will:
Sovereign is he who decides on the exception
(At this point, I should probably also mention Carl Schmitt was the primary legal theorist for the Nazis.)
As his primary critics at the time (Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt) and a later critic (Georgio Agamben) all noted, Schmitt’s reasoning on the exception has already been adopted by Liberal Democracies. War, internal uprisings, natural disasters and economic crises have all been used by Liberal Democracies to suspend civil rights and guarantees.
This trend has only increased in the last 20 years in response to “Terror.” Endless ‘elevated threat levels,’ extensions of States of Emergency, extrajudicial killings (including drones), and increased repression of left-wing dissidents and minorities have all become not the exception, but the rule of Liberal Democracy.
That is, Liberal Democracy has adopted much of the political program of fascism already…but it’s not enough.
The Resurgence of the Fascist Right
Hollande’s response to the mass-murder of celebrants in Nice was met with intense criticism from the right and far-right political parties in France–not because it is too harsh, but that it is not harsh enough. Marine le Pen, the leader of the Front National (a racist, Nationalist, and anti-immigrant party with increasing membership in France) called for a declaration of war against Islamist Fundamentalists, the shutting-down of mosques, and the deportation and reversal-of-citizenship for those who hold radical views. Nicholas Sarkozy, the former right-wing president of France, has demanded that Muslim prisoners who’ve finished their sentences must then go to ‘de-radicalization’ centres until they’ve been certified as harmless. And other right-wing leaders are demanding the formation of new police agencies, stricter border controls, and more State power to suspend civil liberties.
All of this, of course, before any Islamist group had been shown linked to the attack.
In the United States, groups of armed men have been forming to protect a presidential candidate from Black Lives Matters protesters, calling them “a terrorist threat.’ A few weeks ago, three Pagan writers (two who have written for this site, a third for A Beautiful Resistance) attended a protest where a neo-fascist threatened the protesters with a loaded gun. And a Fascist Pagan candidate–Augustus Sol Invictus, is running openly for office in Florida.
In Europe, political parties such as PEGIDA, the Golden Dawn in Greece, the Front National and Nouvelle Droite in France, and the UKIP in the United Kingdom have increased their anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim campaigns, with their supporters often enacting violence against their targets.
In all cases, their criticisms are near identical to the early Fascists. The State is too weak on criminals, foreigners, degenerates, immigrants, and minorities. Likewise, they all share an intense hatred of Marxist and Anarchist critiques, particularly those regarding equality.
Many (though not all) employ some degree of antisemitism, though some (like the FN in France) have attempted to whitewash their earlier hatred by courting Jews against the Muslims.
Worst of all, they are all much better organized–and better funded–than most leftists groups in their countries. Part of their funding derives from their ability to court Capitalists who have become panicked about their ability to profit, but their superior organisation to leftists has much more to do with Liberal Democracy’s long suppression of anti-capitalists than anything they’ve done themselves.
It’s this last bit which should trouble us most.
When the Nazi party began actively recruiting, they were met with fierce and violent opposition from leftist groups, many of whom were the first to be arrested when the Nazis finally gained power. Similarly, Mussolini’s rise was constantly thwarted by Socialist and anarchist syndicalists in Italy until he made stronger alliances with the Catholic right. And when Francisco Franco attempted to overthrow the Socialist Republic of Spain, the result was a three-year civil war against an initially united front of anarchists, communists, and Liberal Democrats.
Where would such a resistance come from now? What hope could we possibly have of fighting the new fascists? To such a question I’m tempted to answer as Walter Benjamin did, quoting Kafka in his journal as he faced the choice of certain death at the hands of the Gestapo, the Stalinists, or his own:
“There is plenty of hope. But none for us.”
But I won’t end this here.
As I write these final words, I am sitting at a table in an apartment in Berlin, Germany. I’m the guest of an anarchist friend who curates a museum for refugees next to a refugee camp filled with the very same people the Fascists want us to fear.
It’s also Gay Pride week in this city. There are over a hundred gay bars, restaurants, cafes, clubs, darkrooms, cultural centers, and sex shops in this city, many of them located in neighborhoods with high Turkish and Muslim populations.
There’s art everywhere, graffiti and wild gardens. Grapevines and trees grow in the cracked pavement where once bombs fell to defeat a regime which saw Berlin as the height of degeneracy. The very way of living the Fascists tried to crush resurged back more fiercely than before.
The other day I walked with a friend through the holocaust memorials in this city (most of the pictures accompanying this piece are from there). One, particularly, has haunted me ever since I saw it.
It’s a large black monolith, flat and polished on all sides, with a small black window on one face. As you approach, you can see there’s something moving inside, a black&white film of two young men.
They’re standing in the same spot as the monolith, near the entrance to a massive park. You can see the same trees, the same massive rocks in the distance.
They’re facing each other. They look around, a little worried they might be watched.
But then their fear fades away, overcome by something more urgent. One whispers in the ear of the other and then they kiss as you watch through the black window, entranced, aware of how what they are doing is still dangerous despite all the promises of Liberal Democracy to protect them.
There is plenty of hope.
And also for us.
Next: Gardens From Ashes
Rhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s been trekking about Europe for the last two months, with more to go. His most recent book is A Kindness of Ravens, and you can follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.
A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here has a lot more essays, poems, and art like what you see on Gods&Radicals. Order it here.