Fascism is making a comeback in Europe. Donald Trump is a Fascist/Nazi/Orange Hitler. I would source that but it’s hard to link to the friend you had that conversation with in the pub last weekend. My social media feeds abound with articles, both from serious outlets and clickbaity sites that kindly ask me to turn off my adblocker, decrying the resurgence of fascism or pointing out the similarities between Trump policy and Nazi policy. I am not here to defend Trump or deny that the racist, sexist, vile far-right is on the rise in Europe, America and the rest of the world. Instead what I’m going to do, in a slightly nitpicky fashion, is take issue with the word ‘Fascism’. There are doubtless similarities between the alt-right, new far-right, Trumpists or whatever you wish to call them and the Fascist regimes that terrorised and oppressed the world during the mid-Twentieth Century. But there are also distinct differences. And it’s in those differences that we see that the far-right of 2017 is something new and a potentially greater threat to freedom. The rise of the alt-right is not a return to the politics of fascism but the culmination of a gradual acceptance of tyrannical, authoritarian politics on both sides of the political spectrum and in the public more generally.
Fascism is something that’s very difficult to define. But I do think there are certain historical regimes we can point to and say, yep, that’s a Fascist alright. For example when I think of Fascism I think of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Francoist Spain and Pinochet’s Chile. These regimes will be awarded the dishonourable title of fascist benchmarks to judge the modern far-right.
The new Far-right doesn’t entirely represent a break with the past. There are certainly similarities between the Fascism of yesterday and the alt-right of today.
Economically the new far-right continues to follow a traditionally Fascist line. A particularly brutal form of capitalism where the force of the state is used to extend corporate power over the working class and the society in general. Chile under General Pinochet was subjected to a destructive series of privatisations of state owned industry and the army was used to beat a potentially troublesome poor into submission. Contrast also the response of the democratic United States and fascist Nazi Germany to the great depression. In the United States democratic forces were able to pressure the state into greater intervention on behalf of working people. Nazi Germany’s response to the great depression conversely saw a growth in corporate power and a greater share of wealth moving into corporate hands. After taking power the Nazis sold off state assets to enrich their corporate backers, themselves and increase spending on the army. The term privatisation was actually first used to describe the economic policies of Nazi Germany. While it is still early in the Trump Administration it is almost certain he will spend the next four years pursuing a pro-corporate agenda. The strong corporate ties of Trump’s cabinet, many of whom are former businessmen themselves, suggest they will run a government designed to benefit their own class. A majority of Americans see the result of Trump’s Presidency being an extension of corporate power.
However, taking the side of capital against labour is not enough to condemn a regime as fascist. Certainly this position is nothing unusual in the liberal democracies of the West. From the 1980s onwards it became business as usual for governments to act in the interests of capital. We can see this in our own country with the Thatcher government’s mass privatisation of state owned industry and brutal destruction of the trade unions, which were essential for working people to democratically agitate for their rights. For decades conservative, centre-right and supposedly centre-left governments have pursued policies of deregulation, privatisation and union busting. Brutal capitalism has become normal.
Another feature of old style fascism we can see in the modern far-right is its appeals to a historic nationalism. German nationalism, a need to make the nation strong, was a key source of legitimacy for the Nazis to justify their repressive regime and eventually engender a fear of the other sufficient to allow for the horrific crimes of the holocaust. In Italy Mussolini appealed to a sense of Italian nationalism by pledging to rebuild the Roman Empire. Essentially to Make Italy Great Again.
It’s not hard to see echoes of a fascist historic nationalism in the ideological underpinnings of Trumpism. The use of ‘Make America Great Again‘ as slogan and headgear is an obvious appeal to nationalist sentiment. Trump’s decision to justify his nationalist program in a fear of the other, particularly Mexicans and Muslims, has clear parallels in racially discriminatory fascist regimes. While not a regime of government Brexit was also seen as a victory for political nationalism and fear of the other. But this appeal to patriotic nationalism isn’t unique, in the modern world, to the far-right. Even centrist former Labour leadership contender Owen Smith criticised Jeremy Corbyn for failing to use patriotic nationalism to appeal to the electorate. Nationalism is just another part of fascism that has entered the political mainstream.
But Sam, so far you’ve only told me why Donald Trump and Brexiteers are fascists. I already know that. My friends in the pub last week told me. I thought you were going to tell me why it’s not fascism coming back?
Well here’s where the differences come in.
New And Dangerous
Firstly one difference between Trump and the old Fascists is their relationship with the military. Old-style European Fascists had a corporatist relationship with their militaries. Serving the military first and cutting other vital services in order to spend more on the army. Trump meanwhile has, if anything, weakened the cosy relationship between the United States’ government and its army contractors. Lockheed Martin was forced to cut the price of the f-35, a fighter plane whose exorbitant price was seen as a glaring example of the military industrial complex, after Donald Trump attacked them. However, this is more trivia than troubling.
What’s really troubling about Trump is that he was elected at all. In the past the far-right has always had to seize power through violent and non-democratic means. Mussolini, Franco and Pinochet took over their countries through violent insurrection and military coups against democratically elected governments. Contrary to some popular opinion the Nazis were not elected. Instead, in the last elections before Hitler was appointed Chancellor, the Nazis won a mere 33% of the vote. From here they came to power by manipulating a weak constitution. The German President was convinced by conservatives and business leaders to make Hitler Chancellor so they could use him as a blunt instrument against rising Communists. Now, with the position of Chancellor in a coalition with conservatives, Hitler was able to take advantage of the burning of the German parliament building, the Reichstag, and grant himself emergency powers that allowed him to dismantle the democratic state. Doesn’t sound like an electoral triumph to me.
This is why the new far-right is different and why it scares the hell out of me. It’s popular and it’s starting to win elections. Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. Yes, he may have lost the popular vote, but this is not required to win the American Presidency. Playing by the constitutional rules Donald Trump was able to get himself elected without violence. And he may not be alone for long. Across Europe far-right parties are climbing the polls and gaining popularity with their electorates. The ironically named far-right Party For Freedom has, for the last year, held a pretty consistent lead in polling for the next Dutch election. Marine LePen, leader of the French far-right party the National Front, has looked for a long time like she would easily win the first round of the French Presidential election. She may not win the second round but the odds of her doing that are getting shorter rather than longer. Brexit was also an electoral victory for nationalism, winning a democratic referendum with a turnout higher than any British General Election since 1992. No government since I was born has received the kind of democratic mandate Brexit has. This turn towards elected authoritarianism is not limited to the West. After the Arab Spring many of the new democracies created by that revolutionary moment elected as their governments the Muslim Brotherhood and other authoritarian Islamist parties. Turkey’s march towards a highly religious as well as nationalist authoritarianism has seen Turkish President Recep Erdoğan use democratic means and high levels of popular support to dismantle the democratic character of the state and in its place build an oppressive, totalitarian regime.
In democracies all over the world the mainstays of far right politics are moving into the mainstream. Authoritarianism is electable. Oppression is called common sense. We are living in the era of Popular Authoritarianism.
But how did we get here? How did we reach a point where authoritarianism is not only acceptable but electorally desirable?
Since his election last November there have been numerous appeals from the liberal press and commentators not to ‘normalise‘ Trump and the far right. But the truth is Trump has already been normalised. The new far right didn’t come out of nowhere. Trump isn’t an aberration. Rather, over the last three to four decades, we have seen a move towards authoritarian politics on both the left and the right. We were slowly weaned off freedom. The narrative was changed. Authoritarianism was no longer to be feared but was necessary to keep us prosperous and safe. Trump and the new Popular Authoritarians are the culmination of this movement.
I’ve already talked about how the 1980s saw a wave of privatisation and the expansion of the power of capital across the world. Unions were busted and the state became a tool of capital to keep the working class in line. The gap between rich and poor skyrocketed and workers’ rights were eroded. Brutal capitalism is no longer challenged in the mainstream. Instead a pro-corporate, pro-privatisation, anti-welfare, anti-employee, state power at the disposal of businessmen version of capitalism is called ‘common sense‘. No rationale has to be provided for why things are or have to be this way. They just are. They’re ‘common sense’. And it is this aura of ‘common sense’ that generates broad support for far-right economics in the general public and prevents alternatives from gaining ground. Authoritarian economics are well and truly established, accepted by our political parties on the centre-right and centre-left.
Civil Liberties were next on the chopping block. First in the 1980s the police were granted the right to use excessive force against striking miners to facilitate the imposition of authoritarian economics. But this wasn’t all. The Thatcher government also saw the introduction of the police being able to arrest people without a warrant and restrictions on the rights of people to assemble for political purposes. The end of the 1980s and the election of more centrist leaders like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton was meant to herald a new age. But instead of leading to a resurgence for the idea of freedom the advent of the war on terror saw only an acceleration and deepening of attacks on civil liberties. The United States saw the introduction of the Patriot Act, a piece of legislation that allowed the state unprecedented powers of surveillance. It was supposed to be used against terrorists, but in reality has been used liberally against innocent citizens. Likewise New Labour was more than happy to violate civil liberties and its own Human Rights Act in the name of fighting terror. The Blair government instituted, among other things, extended detention without charge, increased stop and search powers for the police, restrictions on peaceful protest and a raft of new surveillance measures on letters, e-mails and phone calls. Former Director of Liberty, now Shadow Attorney General, Shami Chakrabarti even called the Blair government “one of the most authoritarian ages in living memory”. The darlings of the so called ‘soft left’ Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton don’t come off that well when it comes to civil liberties either. The Obama Administration may have rolled back torture of foreign prisoners but it continued mass surveilance of US citizens through a liberal interpretation of the Patriot Act. Hillary Clinton’s legislative record reveals her as a supporter of the Patriot Act and other restrictions to free speech, such as laws to criminalise flag burning.
And yet, despite these dramatic reductions in civil liberties, there was very little backlash. When New Labour passed its anti-terror laws where was Tony Blair’s Brutus?
Well, as with authoritarian economics, restrictions on civil liberties enjoy broad public support. When Tony Blair was asked to defend his anti-terror legislation he didn’t deny it was an assault on personal freedom, he merely said the public was with him. To the public their freedom was secondary to catching criminals. The latest assault on personal liberty in Britain, the Snoopers’ Charter, enjoys broad public support with polling showing the general public wants more surveillance, not less. The message has been, for decades now, that draconian policies are needed to keep us safe from terror and crime and we’ve started to believe it. What would have once been unthinkably far-right restrictions on personal freedom are mainstream. Would it even be possible in today’s political culture for a party to champion personal liberty and still be taken seriously on security?
It’s not just our governments that have embraced totalitarian solutions. It seems that more and more we are living in a pro-authoritarian culture with people on the right and left embracing authoritarianism.
I’ll deal with the right first as it should be less of a surprise to find an authoritarian streak there. However, while we would expect there to be a certain contingent of pro-authoritarian voters on the right, the sheer size of this group is staggering. Authoritarian Populists, a group of voters first described in the 1980s as part of Margaret Thatcher’s support base, believe in an aggressive foreign policy, are hostile towards human rights laws and are against immigration. Essentially a combination of nationalism and totalitarianism we’ve seen again and again on the far-right. In 2016 this group made up 48% of the British electorate making them far larger than any other individual group.
If only if it were just this 48%. That would still be horrific and terrifying but at least authoritarian attitudes would be limited to the right. I now have to talk about my own people, the left, and please forgive me if I get a little emotional during this bit because seeing authoritarian attitudes on the left frankly makes me feel a bit sick.
What the hell happened? How did we let the right, the far right no less, present themselves as the defenders of free speech? How the **** did we let that happen? The far-right aren’t the defenders of free speech. I know that. You probably know that. Censoring dissenting speech and the press has always been a tactic of the far-right. Donald Trump is already talking about imposing legal restrictions on speech he doesn’t like. But the far-right has been allowed to build the narrative that we’re all tyrannical ‘SJWs’ who hate free speech. What the hell guys?
The sad thing is these accusations don’t come out of nowhere. A poll conducted for the Economist on the attitudes of young people showed that, while a pleasing majority supported equal rights of same-sex couples and transgender people, less than 50% of them believed that people had a right to non-violent free speech that might be considered offensive. The spread of practices like ‘no platforming’, refusing to allow distasteful views a forum to speak, and the creation of ‘safe spaces’ where no potentially offensive speech is allowed have all contributed to the perception that we hate free speech.
Now it’s horrible to sit here and feel like I’m about to defend anything that can be called hate speech but, please, give me a chance. I understand that urge to lash out against hatred. I detest, truly detest hate speech. But trying to ban it? To make it illegal to voice any view no matter how contemptible? And to apply this principle not just to hate speech but to silence any opinion that someone might consider ‘offensive’? Is that really the best way to protect our freedom, to agitate for causes we support or protect our own free speech? In 1795 English radical Thomas Paine wrote “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.” Essentially Paine is warning us that if we establish that it’s acceptable to limit free speech then were right wing totalitarians to gain power it would be very easy to extend that principle to censoring progressive, left wing ideas. It’s not just governments who could exploit the idea that free speech is limited. Far-right snowflakes are already trying to silence debate by claiming that speech that questions their vile ideas is ‘offensive’.
It’s difficult to think of a right more basic or vital than free speech. Enshrined in the US Bill of Rights, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention of Human Rights. It is the first freedom that allows us to fight for all others. Without it political agitation for a better, freer, more equal society would be impossible. It allows us to exchange ideas, debate the merits of ideas, question the truth and question our governments. That even the left would be willing to say there should be limits on this very basic freedom lends considerable power to the acceptability of authoritarian ideas and bringing them into the mainstream.
We Must Stand For Freedom
Donald Trump and the Popular Authoritarians didn’t come out of nowhere. They’re not a shock to our political system but the natural next step in a process that has been going on for years. Once unthinkable far right ideas like totalitarian anti-worker economics, restrictions on civil liberties, nationalism as a way of generating political support, restrictions on human rights, restrictions on free speech and mass surveillance have slowly worked their way into the mainstream. First in our political parties and from there into the wider public. We were softened up for the far-right as mainstream conservative and New Labour style moderate left parties adopted their ideas. It’s not that the far-right started sounding like mainstream parties. Mainstream parties started sounding like the far-right.
It’s my sincerest hope, that now it’s moving from mainstream parties with far-right policies to actual neo-fascist parties heading for power we will wake up, realise what’s been happening and our politicians will recommit themselves to personal liberty. But I doubt this will happen. That’s not how ‘moderate’ parties work. Instead, I think it’s more likely they will see the success of the far-right and try to emulate it, allowing totalitarians to continue dictating the political culture.
The fight against Popular Authoritarianism must come from below, but it will not be easy. Not only will we have to unseat the totalitarian governments in question but we have to work to change the culture from one where authoritarianism is desirable into one where it’s unacceptable. Only then can ideas of personal liberty be brought in from the cold and start to make headway again in our politics.
Let the battle of ideas be joined. Let’s demand that our leaders stand up for civil liberties rather than buying into the idea that tyranny is the only route to security. Let’s stand for a universal humanism instead of exclusionary ideas like nationalism. Let’s stand for an economy where the tyranny of corporates is as hateful as the tyranny of the state. And let’s debate these ideas not on our social media pages but against fascists on the stages we’ve tried to deny them. Personal freedom, human rights and free speech are radical ideas and it’s time for the left to reclaim them. Let freedom be our battlecry, rather than a lie of the right.