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Fascism 101: Why We Need To Spell It Out

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

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni,

Donald Trump’s electoral defeat in 2020 and Jair Bolsonaro’s loss to Lula in Brazil in 2022, along with Rodrigo Duterte’s leaving the presidency of the Philippines last year, gave some quarters hope that the far-right or fascist wave had crested globally.

Two political earthquakes, taking place just in the last two weeks, have shattered this illusion. In Argentina, Javier Milei, a Trump-like, self-described anarcho-capitalist who brazenly denies that human rights abuses took place in that country during the so-called dirty war waged by the army in the late 1970s was overwhelmingly elected president. Two days later, in the elections in traditionally liberal Netherlands, the Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders emerged as the country’s biggest party. A Trumpist long before Trump showed up, Wilders wants to ban the Koran, describes Islam as the “ideology of a retarded culture,” and calls Moroccans “scum.”

When far-right personalities and movements started popping up during the last two decades, there was, in some quarters, strong hesitation to use the “f” word to describe them.  Indeed, as late as less than three years ago, I had to defend the use of the word fascist in the Cambridge Union debate against academics who were squeamish about employing it to describe far-right movements in Europe, the United States, and other parts of the world. What Donald Trump and the Jan 6, 2021, insurrection have shown, however, is that the distinction between “far right” and “fascist” is academic. Or one can say that a “far-rightist” is a fascist who has not yet seized power, for it is only once they are in power that fascists fully reveal their political propensities.

A movement or person must be regarded as fascist when they fuse all or most of the following five features: 1) they show a disdain or hatred for democratic principles and procedures; 2) they tolerate or promote violence; 3) they have a heated mass base that supports their anti-democratic thinking and behavior; 4) they scapegoat and support the persecution of certain social groups; and 5) they are led by a charismatic individual who exhibits and normalizes all of the above.

I would like to focus on some people, aside from Trump, who fit the “f” word.  In the Philippines, after warning before the 2016 elections that Rodrigo Duterte would be “another Marcos,” I wrote two months into Duterte’s presidency that he was a “fascist original.” I was criticized by many opinion-makers, academics, and even progressives for using the “f” word.  Over seven years and 27,000 extra-judicial executions of alleged drug users later, the “f” word is one of the milder terms used for Rodrigo Duterte, with many preferring “mass murderer” or “serial killer.”

Narendra Modi has made the secular and diverse India of Gandhi and Nehru a thing of the past with his Hindu nationalist project, which relegates the country’s large Muslim minority to second class citizens.  Currently, he is carrying out the most sustained attack on the freedom of the press by putting progressive journalists in jail and bringing charges against noted writers like Arundhati Roy.

In Hungary, Viktor Orban and his Fidesz Party have almost completed their neutering of democracy.

In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro lost the 2022 presidential elections to Lula da Silva by a slight margin, but his followers refused to accept the verdict, and thousands of people from the right invaded the capital Brasilia in an attempt to overthrow the new government, in a remarkable replication of the January 6, 2021 insurrection in Washington.

Europe is the region where fascist or radical right parties have made the most inroads. From having no radical right-wing regime in the 2000s, except occasionally and briefly as junior partners in unstable governing coalitions as in Austria, the region now has three in power—one in Hungary, the government of Giorgia Meloni in Italy, and the Law and Justice Party in Poland, which is trying to hold on to power despite having lost the October 2023 parliamentary elections. The far right is part of ruling coalitions in Sweden and Finland. The region has four more countries where a party of the far right is the main opposition party. And it has seven where the far right has become a major presence both in parliament and in the streets.

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Social Conditions that Breed Fascism

Leaders are critical in fascist movements, but social conditions create the opportunities for the ascent of those leaders. Here one cannot overemphasize the role that neoliberalism and globalization have played in spawning movements of the radical right. The worsening living standards and great inequalities spawned by neoliberal policies created disillusionment among people who felt the liberal democracy had been captured by the rich and distrust in center-right and center-left parties that promoted those policies. These resentful, discontented masses are the base of fascist parties. It is this heated base motivated by a mix of economic insecurity, resentment, or hatred that accounts for the fact that although Duterte, Bolsonaro, and Trump are no longer in power, they can stage a comeback or be replaced by a new leader of the same type.

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 next year’s elections. Indeed, his competitors for the Republican presidential nomination are trying to project an image of being more Trumpist than Trump.

Economic conditions, however, cannot fully account for the emergence of fascist movements.  Racism, ethnocentrism, and anti-immigrant sentiment also fuel them. In fact, these behavioral or ideological drives are central to 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. This Big Other is said to be the source of the crisis or the problems of one’s imagined community. In the United States today, white nationalism or white supremacy is the ideological expression of the fascist project, and in both Europe and the United States, strong feelings against non-white migrants are a key feature of fascist consciousness.

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 elite. 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 “plutocrats.” 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.

During “normal times,” fascists and Big Capital can sometimes have different stands on some issues, as, for instance, in the case 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.

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, as they did in the Gujarat massacre of 2002.

How to Counter Fascism

Let me end by proposing several moves we can take to deal with the fascist threat.

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.

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.

Third, we need to make sure we have at the leading edge of our resistance those movements which 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 advance racial justice.

Fourth, 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.

Also, 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.

Sixth, 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.

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.

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.