CAPITALISM & CRISIS
by Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen
With Donald Trump’s defeat in the US presidential election in November 2020, people all over the world drew a sigh of relief. In the final months of his presidency more and more politicians, commentators and intellectuals had been asking whether Trump was in fact a fascist. In the pages of magazines such as the New York Review of Books and The New Statesman, scholars debated the pertinence of historical analogies, comparing Trump to interwar fascist leaders such as Mussolini and Hitler.
With militias in the streets, the Border Patrol deployed by the presidency against the will of state governors, and finally the attempt to stop Congress from certifying the results of the presidential elections, more and more boxes could be ticked off the fascism checklist. The noted historian of fascism Robert Paxton declared that he had hesitated to call Trump a fascist, but the failed insurrection of January 6 pushed him to do so.
Analyses of the dramatic rise to power of extreme right-wing movements in the US, Brazil, India, France, Denmark, Italy, Hungary, Poland, and beyond have tended to compare these contemporary movements to the fascist movements of the 1930s. It is obviously important to understand contemporary politicians and phenomena in regards to fascist politicians and their actions in 1930s Europe, but it might prevent us from seeing and combating new forms of fascism that are emerging today. We need to historicize and analyze fascism beyond a narrow Eurocentric focus on interwar fascism with a view to the function of fascist tendencies in contemporary crisis-ridden capitalist society.
Fascism is different today. It is still violent ultra-nationalism aimed at protecting the structure of private property through the exclusion of socially constructed others, but its forms, myths, and temporality have changed and have been adapted to a different historical situation — a crisis-ridden networked late capitalism. Trump is the obvious example; a flamboyant property speculator and proprietor of bankrupt casinos with no mass movement of his own, but who — thanks to his skillful use of social media and decades of neoliberal austerity — was capable of becoming president in the US running on a high-pitched, contradictory anti-establishment program that promised a return to an imaginary post-war US utopia before globalization.
But the fascist dream of national rebirth is far less grandiose today. We are confronted with thin fascism: there are no città nuove — the new cities Mussolini built — or the monumental Thousand Year Reich imagined by Hitler architects. For today’s fascists in the Global North, the dream is the return of the White welfare state in Northwestern Europe and North America — that is, the world before the global student uprisings of May ’68, the African American revolts in the US, before decolonization and before mass migration to the West. Fascist aesthetics have been replaced by media provocations.
After four decades of faltering accumulation and the imminent threat of an ecological catastrophe, the institutions of liberal democracy are so hollowed-out that only culture wars and xenophobia seem capable of creating any semblance of a demo. Under these circumstances, it is pivotal that the left does not content itself with fighting the new fascist parties and gets sidetracked into defensive struggles against the far right. Instead, the left has to articulate a radical anti-capitalist project that unites the subaltern in a rejection of capitalism and its forms of domination, even if this means abandoning the established national democracies and its party politics.
UNDERSTANDING FASCISM TODAY
We are living through a political rupture. The financial crisis 2007-2008 dealt a heavy blow to neoliberal globalization and exposed a 40-year-long underlying economic contraction. Our governments are incapable of dealing with the complexities of a crisis-ridden capitalist society marked by stagnating economies amidst an escalating climate emergency. That the pandemic did not cause a total collapse was not the result of decisive actions by national governments, but rather of the resilience and mobilization of civic organizations. Democratic institutions are failing us and it is difficult to use the mobilizations we have seen during the pandemic — from mass protests to mutual aid groups — as a starting point for more radical political gestures.
The new parties and movements representing 21st-century fascism have emerged in opposition to a national democratic political system that is in crisis and seems unable to deliver on its promises of economic growth. They are a reaction against the long and slow neoliberal dismantling of the post-Second World War social state — or a certain idea of the world of that time. Its political leaders, from Trump to Salvini to Messerschmidt to Orbán, conjure an image of that mythical time before unemployment, globalization, and the emergence of new political subjects that threaten the patriarchal order.
These parties protest against the system by rallying around the idea of a lost “original” ethnonational community that can be made anew by targeting and excluding migrants, Muslims, Jews, people of color, leftists, feminists, and other groups that are singled out as the causes of a historical and moral decline. These are all represented as enemies of a national community that is in need of protection. The late Michael Rogin called this a process of “political demonology”: when the political class is creating an image of dangerous demons who are threatening the nation. Through this process, it becomes possible to translate the economic divisions of capitalist society into social divisions based on racism and xenophobia.
New fascist parties have stepped in and are paradoxically upholding the political institutions they are allegedly protesting against. This is the case in many different places: in Italy with Lega and Brothers of Italy, in Denmark with the Danish People’s Party and New Order, in France with Eric Zemmour and Le Pen’s National Rally, and in Holland with Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom, as some of the most prominent examples in Europe.
Contemporary fascism is also a reaction against the countless protests, occupations, and uprisings against austerity and corrupt leaders for social, racial, and environmental justice that have been taking place across the globe since 2008.
As George Jackson argued, fascism is a preventive cancellation of the possibility that a more radical opposition against neoliberal globalization and the capitalism–nation-state nexus might emerge. Fascism aims to block the genuine anti-capitalist front we can see prefigured in the many protests, riots, occupations, and assemblies we have witnessed over the past decades.
It is necessary to move beyond the fascist checklist and a narrow political understanding of fascism. If we understand fascism only as a question of politics and politicians, we will forget that it did not really magically disappear after the defeat of the European fascist regimes in the Second World War, but actually lived on in the form of the “fascist zones” identified by George Jackson in his analysis of the US carceral system in his 1972-book Blood in My Eye. The prison-industrial complex in the US was a place of racialized rightlessness that mirrored the racial terror of inter-war fascism. Jackson, therefore, concluded that fascism really never disappeared, but continued unabated in the former colonies and in the margins of the national democratic societies: in the prisons, in the ghettos, and, later, in the migrant detention centers. We can think of it as a kind of slow violence; a violence that is out of view or not deemed to be of central importance to an analysis of a political situation or an era.
Anti-colonialist thinkers like Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon along with revolutionary prisoners like Jackson knew well that fascism never went away and was constitutive for the “post-colonial” world. Excessive violence is used not merely as a last resort but as a normalized, even mundane facet of the reproduction of the social hierarchy and of capitalist accumulation. Fascism is a ghost in the machine, the machine being capitalism. As Jackson wrote: “We will never have a complete definition of fascism, because it is in constant motion, showing a new face to fit any particular set of problems that arise to threaten the predominance of the traditionalist, capitalist ruling class.”
THE HOLLOWING OUT OF PARTY POLITICS
Let’s be clear: fascism is not a radical break from democratic nation-states. We know from Walter Benjamin that not only is the state founded on its exception from the law, it actively employs extra-legal measures whenever there is a crisis. In a situation of crisis, the state ignores the law it has created and is designed to uphold; it imposes a state of exception in order to re-create order. The War on Terror was an example of such a crisis situation: the sovereign, George W. Bush, introduced a series of “anti-terror” decrees that curtailed public and private freedoms, the procedure took precedence over law and exception became the rule. The Patriot Act and the Military Order made it possible for the state to detain people who were suspected of terrorist activity for an unspecified period of time, completely revoking these persons’ legal statuses.
When Trump became president in 2016, he thus inherited a gigantic imperial war machine, a carceral infrastructure of enormous proportions, and a racist police force armed with military equipment. He heightened the repressive and exclusionary politics that are integral to the US empire abroad and at home, but he did not in any way misuse his executive powers. Trump’s trespassing on democracy and the constitutional state is just Trump using his powers as sovereign and US president in the way they were designed to be used. It was telling that, when Trump decided to employ his own storm troopers against the will of local governors to crack down on Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, they consisted of a combination of neo-Nazi militias and the Border Patrol. And the Border Patrol was merely doing what it has in fact been doing for more than a century at the border and what the US army has been doing all over the world since the Tagalog Insurgency in the Philippines in the early 20th century.
The Biden presidency is not a departure from this. Just as Obama was not really a shift from Bush’s war on terror. After all, Obama increased the number of deportations and launched ten times more drone strikes than Bush. It has been a relief to get rid of Trump and his rambling tweets that explicitly gestured to fascist militias. But Biden is already doing his part to expand the mass incarceration and imperialism that forms the core of the US state. One or two stimulus packages have not changed that. Both the Republican and Democratic parties subscribe to the carceral state, just as they do to the imperialist project.
The decomposition of the national democracies has opened the door to a new kind of fascism. This was referred to as the “hollowing out of party politics” by the late political scientist Peter Mair in the mid-2000s, identifying a process where politics is turned into technocracy and blind obedience to austerity. This is not only visible in the outrageously xenophobic and fear-mongering politics of contemporary far-right leaders, it is also becoming a permanent marker of the “extreme center” that is trying to keep up with the fascist parties and their ability to address the economic crisis by reifying the abstract logic of capital into personified enemies of the people, be they migrants, Muslims, “cultural Marxists,” Jews or CRT scholars.
THE FASCIST GEOGRAPHY OF VIOLENCE
For a brief period in the second half of the 20th century, the ruling classes in the West were able to persuade a large part of the local working class to let go of any revolutionary aspirations. At the same time, it was aggressively intervening in the former colonies, brutally destroying nascent decolonial movements vying for independence and autonomy. Sweet-talking the national working classes through jobs, culture, and commodities and the killing of revolutionaries in the former colonies went hand in hand. It is this geography of welfare in the North and violence in the South that is currently being remade.
The two worlds were obviously intimately connected all the way through. But, for a short period in the booming post-war period, it seemed as if the violence of the capitalist state was waning, or was being replaced by something different, something more subtle. Deleuze’s control society thesis was an analysis of this shift where power was internalized and the institutions of disciplinary society dissolved. Deleuze of course knew this was not the case: the brutal crackdown of the ’77 movement in Italy and the fate of the Black revolutionaries like Jackson in the US had shown that the violence of the state had not gone away.
It is important not to isolate the post-Second World War era in the North, but to see how it has been part of brutal fascist geography of violence and counter-insurgency. Deleuze was hugely inspired by George Jackson, who was very clear about the connection between a local US fascism that locked up or simply shot Black people and the imperialist US military abroad in places such as Vietnam. They were two aspects of the same state that allowed protests and a certain level of freedom to white people in the US but killed militant African Americans and rebellious Vietnamese. There is no way to separate the two; it was the same capitalist state which gave local (white) workers jobs and killed the revolutionaries in both the ghettos and in the jungle.
When the economic foundations of the Fordist class compromise disappeared and the financial bubbles started exploding, fascism became visible in the North again. For a short period in the second part of the 20th century, during the booming post-war economy, the fascist zone was reserved for the most rebellious subjects, but most people could dissent and protest as they saw fit. This is no longer the case. Fascism has re-emerged as a preventive anti-rebellion regime destroying the grounds for a revolutionary alternative. In order to prevent a real shift in perspective, where people turn away from what poet and left communist Giorgio Cesarano termed “the stabilized animal society” — that is, the apparatuses and ways of life that mold our species into an animal that can reproduce only through wage labour and capital — fascism emerges as a fake protest against neoliberal globalisation mobilizing the social forces of a fragmented mass society through aggressive nationalism.
ADDRESSING THE ROOTS OF THE PROBLEM
Because fascism today is not isolated in specific fascist parties, but is spread out in everyday culture and is becoming an almost obligatory part of the functioning of the nation-state, any attempt to oppose this formation has to combine anti-fascism with anti-capitalism and a critique of the nation-state. Critiquing fascism means attacking the authoritarian and racist turn of late capitalism with a possible view to superseding the money economy and the state form. It is obviously important to defend oneself against fascism, but we will only be capable of defeating fascism if we address the conditions that make fascism possible.
Antifascism, therefore, has to be radical in the sense of going to the roots of the problem: true antifascism means embedding opposition to fascist parties and the fascination of society in a project that envisions a radical break with the present order of things, that is a crisis-ridden capitalist society. The task is to remove the conditions in which fascism emerges. Antifascism in the 21st century is about more than merely opposing the fascists in our streets: it is about envisioning and building an anti-capitalist project that brings together the subaltern in their opposition to the supposed inevitability of capitalist domination.