by Eric J. Weiner
In a recent article in The Atlantic, Shadi Hamid, contributing writer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, states reproachfully that “Donald Trump’s election (in 2016) led to a whole cottage industry of thinking that fascism is near, right here at home.” For many scholars and writers in this proverbial “cottage industry,” Joe Biden’s victory will do little to change their minds regarding what they see as the growing threat of fascism in the United States. For Hamid, this is a mistake with serious implications. He is concerned that people who reference fascism to describe what is happening in the United States, either as a warning of the unforeseen terror to come or as an analysis of what is already happening, are confused about what fascism actually is. To highlight the dangers of relativistic thinking in regards to fascism, he quotes George Orwell who wrote, “I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.” Orwell’s point and Hamid’s fear is that when words/concepts become relative—when signifier and signified float willy-nilly along the shifting winds of power and ideology—they risk undermining the critical capacities of language. More specifically, Hamid argues that the relativity of the term is causing these scholars and commentators to ignore examples of “real” fascism when they occur. The consequence of this ignorance, he argues, negatively impacts the people who are struggling to survive fascist violence throughout the world. Hamid writes,
Words matter because they help order our understanding of politics both at home and abroad. If [Senator Tom] Cotton is a fascist, then we don’t know what fascism is. And if we don’t know what fascism is, then we will struggle to identify it when it threatens millions of lives—which is precisely what is happening today in areas under Beijing’s control. Chinese authorities have tightened their grip on Hong Kong. And while the world watches, they are undertaking one of the most terrifying campaigns of ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide since World War II in Xinjiang province, with more than 1 million Muslim Uighurs in internment camps, as well as reports of forced sterilization and mass rape.
In the face of Hamid’s concerns, and in the wake of Joe Biden’s victory, what should we make of the scholarship and academic journalism that resurrects and reconstructs the concept of fascism to explain what is currently happening in the United States or to warn people about what is politically probable if the Nation doesn’t radically change course?
Most of the serious scholarship about the rise of fascism in the United States suggests that the threat doesn’t end with Trump’s exit from the White House. On the contrary, his loss might signal a new, maybe more dangerous stage in its development. With 70 million votes cast in support of Trumpism–a white nationalist, crony-capitalistic, autocratic, militaristic ideology–there is obviously strong support in the country for its fundamental political principles. But to Hamid’s point, do these warnings about the growing and continuing threat of North American fascism, regardless of who is president, undermine our ability to name and critique, for example, China’s particular brand of totalitarian fascism? How might the focus on Trump and Trumpism in these references to fascism potentially limit our ability to see what is happening in the United States and abroad? With Biden’s win, does the scholarship about the rise of North American fascism become irrelevant and even more of a distraction?
Using China as a contemporary example of true fascism, while referencing Nazism as the exemplar model from history, Hamid argues that in order for an authoritarian system of control to be considered fascist it must include an “attempt to suppress all dissent, public or private, in the name of the nation; it is the expression of a regimented society that elevates order as both the means and end of all political life.” Does his definition equate to a form of historical amnesia by denying important connections not only between the past and present, but between different political systems?
In thinking about fascism in the United States, we must determine if there has been a fundamental shift in the way the United States is restructuring its formative cultural, political, and economic institutions that is best explained through a discourse of fascism. From the means by which the three branches of government “check” each other against the tyranny of the majority to the power of media oligarchies and private techno-monopolies to commodify as well as manufacture consent, are we experiencing a paradigmatic shift in the nature of government, the role of the military in domestic life, and the illicit force of what Walter Benjamin called “mythic violence” in all aspects of our lives? More to the point, how does the political machinery of fascistic power drive the evolutionary refinement of neoliberalism?
It’s true that neoliberalism has always been an ideology that is hostile to deliberative forms of democracy and deliberative democracy, in turn, is an ideological foil to neoliberal hegemony. As Cornel West correctly points out,
when everyday folks can participate in all of the decision-making processes and institutions that guide and regulate their lives, they’re not going to choose poverty. They’re not going to choose decrepit schools. They’re not going to choose lack of health care. They’re not going to choose rat-infested housing…Democracy from below takes seriously those voices as they’re wrestling with social misery and suffering, and allows them to shape their destinies in such a way that lo and behold, their children might be able to go to quality schools like the ruling class. That their mothers and fathers might have health care like the power elites. So democracy from below is a threat to any hierarchical power, be it in the political realm or the economic realm.
In this brave new world in which 70 million people voted for a neofascist, neoliberalism was almost released from the constraints of democracy. In spite of the election’s final outcome, what’s becoming clear to many scholars and intellectuals is that there is a new morphology of fascism taking shape in the United States, one that is integrated into, and supportive of the broader political logic of neoliberalism. As such, we must find a language to distinguish this “North American” form of fascism without it taking away our ability to acknowledge and distinguish, for example, China’s commitment to a form of fascism that supports its particular totalitarian system of globalized “free” trade, abuse of human rights, and denial of individual liberties and their implied protections.
The risks of relativism and the incoherence that follows, as Hamid suggests, are real and threaten in particular the Left’s political legitimacy (the Right, and Trumpism in particular, has shown itself to be much more in tune with the demands and possibilities of power in this political world than the Left). But so are the risks of defining dangerous ideologies too narrowly or ignoring how old ideologies are resurrected and reformed for new times. Ironically, Hamid’s concern that fascism is becoming or has already become nothing more than a relative sign might point to a converse reality; that is, within the morphological historicity of liquid modernity, the building blocks of fascism have already been laid on the neoliberal foundations of alienation, social Darwinism, atomization, moral relativism, “negative freedom” and plutocratic rule. If you are not a Trumpist, it’s hard not to look at one of his political rallies and not recognize in the sea of MAGA paraphernalia and chants of “lock her/him up!” what Walter Benjamin saw in German society during the slow rise of Nazism; a “self-alienated community who has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” Although written in 1939, Max Horkheimer’s insights about the rise of fascism in Germany in response to the Weimar Republic, not in spite of it, is are still instructive: “The masses were not activated for the improvement of their own lives, not to eat, but to obey — such is the task of the fascist apparatus…” What all this means, as Brad Evans and Henry Giroux remind us, drawing on Hannah Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism, but which Hamid’s analysis rejects, is that “Fascism is never entirely interred in the past and…[it] can crystallize in different forms…Saying that we can’t discuss fascism today because it doesn’t look like the worst expressions of the quintessential fascisms of old is like saying we cannot talk about Chinese communism today because it doesn’t look like the Khmer Rouge.” With this in mind, Biden’s win doesn’t signal the end of the fascist threat. Quite the opposite. If anything, its growth and development in the United States will now become harder to see and maybe even harder to stop.
Evans and Giroux recently published a paper entitled “American Fascism: Fourteen Deadly Principles of Contemporary Politics,” in the journal Symploke. It is an extraordinary analysis of the state of contemporary politics in the United States and answers many of the concerns expressed in Hamid’s essay as well as some of the questions I bring up in the preceding paragraphs. Their work is the result of years of research and provides a deeply nuanced and compelling account of why the concept of fascism should be revised to distinguish it from older definitions associated with the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini while also avoiding a form of historical amnesia. They provide a definition in genealogical terms that is specific to the neoliberal ideology of North America while still acknowledging the traces of 20th century fascist history as they echo through the halls of 21st century culture and politics. Intellectually malleable yet grounded, their work on fascism avoids both the pitfalls of facile relativism and dogmatic universalism; they recognize the need to contextualize how the concept is being utilized to bring attention to more generalizable experiences of violence, censorship, domination, and militarization. Beyond the scope of this brief essay, their work has important implications for the future of public education in the United States. As was true during Reconstruction in the United States as well as in Germany after the defeat of the Third Reich, schools represented a critical sphere for re-education. Whether the country just avoided an “official” turn to North American fascism with Biden’s victory or whether Trump’s vast support signals its birth in the Nation, it’s never too soon to think about what the re-education of fascist America might look like.
Because of the role of individual freedom and human rights in North American ideology, their work on fascism cannot be cut whole cloth and superimposed on other governmental systems in which personal liberties and human rights are denied philosophical and political legitimacy. Indeed, it is the essential problematic of fascism in a North American context that demands we understand how its formidable principles are not in contradiction to neoliberalism but instead are part of a broader mechanics of obfuscation, rationalization, and reproduction. Quite simply, neo-fascism’s political principles of domination, “mythic” violence, inequity, exploitation, militarization, atomization, and state sanctioned violence are increasingly required to maintain the hegemony of neoliberalism. Not an issue of false consciousness or some other mechanistic veil of ignorance, North American fascism requires a degree of individual freedoms and rights in combination with the perception that these rights and freedoms are inalienable by the state. In the intersection of practice and perception on one hand, and aesthetics and ideology on the other, fascism starts to make sense as a way to map the political morphology of neoliberalism. From this theoretical vantage point, there is no contradiction between fascism and neoliberalism. The former is the natural political endpoint in the evolution and refinement of a brutal opportunistic economic system that both ignores geopolitical borders in terms of flows of culture and capital while at the same time depends on those same borders for the policing of human capital and the legitimation of state power. Indeed, as James Martel says in an interview with Brad Evans in the LARB, “Walter Benjamin shows us that it is the state itself, the veritable fox guarding the henhouse, that is the source of violence in our life.” Stanley Aronowitz and Peter Bratsis in their book Paradigm Lost: State Theory Reconsidered (2002) come to a similar conclusion, albeit in a 21st century historical context.
The neoliberal state, once released from the ethical constraints of democracy, can no longer be conceived as a safe haven in which citizens can expect protection from state violence and domestic acts of terrorism. Instead, citizens only recourse against state violence is juridical. As these spheres become infested with fascistic ideologues in sheep’s clothing, i.e., originalists, conservatives, fundamentalists, the courts become less reliable havens upon which citizens can find safety. In the name of freedom, the fascist state rationalizes its domination over the individual through appeals to law and order, negative freedom, traditional family values, and love of country. Mythical and mythological, fascism is the most rational state mechanism for the reproduction and defense of neoliberalism. In concert, they represent a sutured disciplinary system of political economy unique to the United States whose genealogy begins and ends, not with questions of opportunity, rights, or justice, but with the central questions of uberpower, i.e., how to obtain, reproduce, extend, and protect it at any cost, regardless of what or who gets hurt or destroyed, and, importantly, without apology.