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books How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them

This book is a liberal analysis and critique of fascism. Reviewer Shaw offers a critique.

How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them
Jason Stanley
Random House
ISBN 9780525511830

Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them is a succinct book of philosophy written for a popular audience. It might be the best-known contemporary book on fascism by a philosopher, if not the best-known contemporary liberal antifascist critique of fascism. Stanley focuses on how ‘fascist tactics [are used] as a mechanism to achieve power’ (xiv). He identifies a number of (often overlapping) discursive tactics common to fascist movements, all which function to distinguish a community (‘us’) against outsiders (‘them’) along supposed ethnic, religious or racial differences. Each chapter is dedicated to one tactic: the trope of the mythic past, the use of propaganda, anti-intellectualism, the erosion of common standards of reasoned debate, anti-egalitarianism, the cultivation of victimhood, law and order rhetoric, the sexual anxieties of heteropatriarchy, anti-cosmopolitanism, and fascist attitudes toward work (in short, their false theory of producerism and their opposition to unions). Many of the themes will be familiar to scholars and activists fighting fascism, and the point-by-point organization of the argument is similar to Umberto Eco’s ‘Ur-Fascism.’ Nonetheless How Fascism Works fails to integrate its compendium of instances of fascist tactics and wide erudition into a compelling and complete account of how fascism works and, crucially, how to fight it.

There are numerous threads within the argument that pose philosophical problems that Stanley fails to resolve. Instead, they are truncated by an assumption that is challenged by his own subsequent references and citations. He writes: ‘I have written this book in the hope of providing citizens with the critical tools to recognize the difference between legitimate tactics in liberal democratic politics on the one hand, and invidious tactics in fascist politics on the other’ (xvi). But we should reject the assumption that there is a clear demarcation between legitimate liberal norms and illegitimate fascist tactics­­ – especially in a settler-colonial society built upon the pillars of black slavery and indigenous genocide and dispossession. Given the long co-existence of liberalism and settler-colonialism, a better application of liberal norms is not enough to extirpate the threat of fascism. Instead, we need to extirpate the conditions that make fascism in countries such as the United States or Canada possible: settler-colonialism and capitalism themselves.

Though Stanley asserts a distinction between liberal norms and fascist politics, he himself builds a case that upends the assumption that there is a clear line demarcating liberalism and, given that fascism is a misleading term in this context, the systemic white supremacy that animates and perpetuates settler-colonialism. Upending this assumption is crucial, because there is a not insignificant portion of his readership who might be given to the belief that the threat of fascism is extinguished if Donald Trump is defeated in the next presidential election.

Stanley’s analytic method lapses into anachronism. By analytic, it can be understood that the author begins with a definition of fascism and then identifies which tropes, rhetoric or discourses are fascist on the basis of this definition. He defines fascism as ‘ultranationalism of some variety (ethnic, religious, cultural), with the nation represented in the person of an authoritarian leader who speaks on its behalf,’ and thus typically those statements that fulfil some condition(s) of this definition are henceforth considered to be fascist (xvi). Even if we grant that this definition correctly identifies fascism as an ideology, it omits any discussion of that feature which distinguishes it from something like ‘merely’ ultranationalist dictatorship: a relatively autonomous and insurgent (potentially) mass base. (This stipulation rests on arguments which I elaborate elsewhere on the basis of discussions between militant antifascists such as Don Hamerquist, J. Sakai, and Matthew N. Lyons) (Shaw 2020). We will return to this problem, but for the moment suffice it to say that once fascist rhetoric is untethered from its historical conditions, it becomes more difficult to disambiguate it from other forms of racism, heteropatriarchy and xenophobia. This problem, which is manifest in Stanley’s anachronism, undermines our ability to formulate how to fight fascism and systemic forms of oppression, because organizing to combat far-right social movements and organizing to fight systemic forms of oppression call for different strategies.

Stanley makes three notable anachronistic moves in his discussion of fascism; each refers to an instance of nineteenth-century American racism. The first occurs in chapter two, in the midst of a discussion of fascist propaganda. He notes that in the antebellum period, Americans commonly celebrated the United States as a beacon of liberty despite the ongoing dispossession of indigenous peoples and black slavery because they shared the belief that these nonwhite peoples ‘were not suitable recipients of the goods of liberty’ (30). He then immediately remarks that ‘this is classic fascist ideology with a hierarchy of value of worth between races’ (30). Next, in chapter four, when discussing how fascist ideology asserts social hierarchies as the product of natural law, he analyzes the speech, now known as the ‘Cornerstone Speech,’ that Alexander H. Stephens (the vice president of the Confederacy) delivered in 1861. Finally, in chapter six, while outlining how fascism cultivates the perception of victimhood among ‘dominant groups at the prospect of sharing citizenship and power with minorities,’ his first illustration of this phenomenon references Andrew Johnson’s justification for vetoing the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (95). Stanley observes: ‘As W.E.B. Du Bois notes, Johnson perceived minimal safeguards at the start of a path toward future black equality as “discrimination against the white race”’ (93).

The crux of the present intervention rests on how we interpret these anachronistic references to nineteenth-century American racism as fascism. They are anachronistic because, while numerous scholars categorize the first Klu Klux Klan (founded in 1865) as proto-fascist, Stanley draws the historical timeline backwards, past Johnson, past the Confederate Stephens, back to antebellum American ideology writ large – which is not a historical periodization shared within the scholarly consensus about fascism. It might be defensible (though, I believe, still wrong) if he provided argumentation in favor of this reclassification, but he does not. Indeed, he doesn’t acknowledge the anachronism. If we were more analytically-inclined (in the sense of the philosophical school), we might accept that Johnson or Stephens used fascist tactics but then debate how many instances of fascist tactics are sufficient for a fascist movement, but from our perspective such a debate makes two fatal mistakes. First, it conflates the conditions that make fascism possible in North America with fascism itself; e.g. it conflates settler-colonialism and anti-black racism with fascism, when the former are some of the conditions that make the latter possible. Second, such a debate assumes that fascist ideological tactics are sufficient for the emergence of a fascism, which occludes an analysis of fascism as an insurgent (potentially) mass social movement.

We might suggest an alternative, militant approach derived in part from the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, which is also a frequent point of reference in Stanley’s book. Although Stanley cites both Darkwater (1920) and Black Reconstruction (1935), he does not engage with the earlier book’s discussion of ‘the souls of white folk’ and summarizes only in passing the description of the ‘public and psychological wage’ of whiteness in Black Reconstruction (21-23). In Darkwater, Du Bois proposes that whiteness is a social category that signals both a right to dominion, sovereignty, or ownership (consider, for example, what grounds settler-colonialism has to dispossessing indigenous land other than assertions of white supremacy) and an entitlement to access to political and cultural power (access to prestigious forms of work or education). Furthermore, Du Bois argues that whiteness as we know it is the result of a late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century political compromise between the bourgeoisie and the white working-class against the ‘darker peoples’ around the globe – and, in a nutshell, this interpellation of ‘personal whiteness’ animates far-right and fascist movements.

There is a burgeoning literature within indigenous studies and critical race theory that begins from a critique of whiteness along the lines suggested by Du Bois, which demonstrates how whiteness as possession and entitlement functions in the ongoing dispossession of indigenous peoples and anti-black racism. In the American context, Cheryl Harris observes that ‘after legalized segregation was overturned, whiteness as property evolved into a more modern form through the law’s ratification of the settled expectations of relative white privilege as a legitimate and natural baseline’ (Harris 1993: 1714). In addition, prison abolitionists have argued that the prison industrial complex perpetuates the caste system of American segregation in a new form of Jim Crow.

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A truly emancipatory, militant antifascism must reckon with the conclusions of these fields and movements in both our organizing and our critique of fascism. Though Stanley touches on these themes, he nonetheless truncates his analysis of fascism, severing it from its settler-colonial roots. As a result, one the one hand, he conflates some institutional features of the North American settler-colonial project with fascism, while on the other, he inflates the antifascist credentials of contemporary liberal norms. By contrast, I contend that settler-state hegemony is constituted through a compromise between liberalism (or bourgeois democracy) and the forces of white supremacy (Shaw 2020).

In general, the present system of institutionalized white supremacy, capital accumulation, racism and heteropatriarchy poses a greater danger to our communities than the insurgent forces of fascist movements. But we also maintain that fascism emerges as a dangerous social force, with some degree of relative autonomy within broader settler-colonial hegemony, when white settlers perceive that their interests are no longer advanced by bourgeois institutions. I propose, therefore, the following thesis on the relationship between the far-right and settler-colonialism: Far-right movements are system-loyal when they perceive that the entitlements of white supremacy can be advanced within bourgeois or democratic institutions and they become insurgent when they perceive that these entitlements cannot. But whether they are system-loyal or insurgent, far-right and fascist movements demand the intensification and re-entrenchment of the settler-colonial project itself. There is no meaningful sense in which fascism can be defeated without overthrowing the conditions that make it possible – in North America, those include capital accumulation and settler-colonialism. Given their long historical imbrication in settler-colonialism, merely appealing for a return to liberal norms and ideals won’t make that happen.



  • Harris, Cheryl 1993 Whiteness as Property Harvard Law Review Vol. 106, no. 8, pp. 1701-1791.
  • Shaw, Devin Zane 2020 Philosophy of Antifascism: Punching Nazis and Fighting White Supremacy London: Rowman and Littlefield International