THE FUTURE IS FASCIST
The abrupt appearance of fascist, ultranationalist, racial separatist, and authoritarian movements throughout the world in the last five years—and their success in coming to power through “democratic” electoral processes—is truly terrifying. At no time since the 1930’s have we seen not only a comfort but a deep lust for authoritarianism in so many people: closed borders, immigration raids, direct and brutal violence against political opposition, flagrant displays of racism and male chauvinism, popular referendums towards national separatism, and an almost jubilant erosion and revocation of civil protections for minorities.
Multiple theories have arisen as to precisely why this is happening. Unfortunately, none of them suffice to explain the actual causes, only assure us that what has arisen throughout the world can be fought or stopped. In general, these theories usually label these fascist impulses as “reactionary,” meaning that they are conservative at their core and wish to turn back the clock on social progress or stop an inevitable flood of civil rights expansions.
For instance, most explanations of this rise of fascism assert that the Liberal Democracies of the world have finally reached a point where equality for racial minorities, for women, for people with variant gender and sexual expressions, or others who have been “locked out” of access to wealth and political power is finally obtainable. In this view, fascism is a “reaction” to this progress by those who will lose privileged access to wealth and power as others finally get theirs. Thus, increased violence against gays, or Black people, or women in these societies is their reaction to these changes, a brutal but futile attempt to claw back democratic “Progress.”
It’s no mistake that this is the dominant theory on fascism amongst leftists and liberals in the United States and to a lesser extent in the United Kingdom. We can easily see why this is the case: it allows the election of Trump in the US and the passage of the “Brexit” referendum in the UK to be described as sudden “interruptions” to what otherwise seemed progressive nations. In the US particularly, the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and many apparent expansions of Liberal Democratic rights (gay marriage, affordable health care, proposed paths to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, amongst many others) gave the sense that things were “getting better” and would continue to do so. Donald Trump’s election thus seemed particularly shocking to those who’d been convinced of this narrative, a sudden interruption or step backward in the steady march towards eventual equality.
So in this view, Trump (and Brexit), as well as the many increasing instances of street violence by nationalists and racists and explicit hatred for trans, queer, immigrant, and other vulnerable groups are all last-ditch efforts from people who have realized they were losing. These fascists then are counter-revolutionaries attempting to stop the slow but inevitable march of progress towards liberal utopia. They are people looking backwards towards an imagined past because they refuse to learn someone’s pronouns or not sexually-harass women. They’ve seen the writing on the wall, the prophetic end to patriarchy, white supremacy, and all the other systems which privileged them over all others, and they’re trying to stop their downfall.
This is a beautiful, comforting narrative. It offers hope to those directly suffering from such violence that things will once again be better and even more so. “We are winning,” it whispers to us, “this is just a temporary setback.” And thus we organize against fascism as we if are engineers attempting to put a train back on its tracks, to move our societies again in the direction they were heading in the first place. We treat these apparent interruptions as not so much an emergency but a temporary inconvenience. Once we’ve set things right again—by which is often meant “get a Democrat in office again”—we’ll have our rights and freedoms and security and can finally be on our way again towards the future destination of equality.
The Myth of Social ProgresS
If this has been your view of fascism, I apologize for the rest of this essay. Yet I suspect you, as I have, possess a felt sense that the engineers don’t have the current “interruption” as under control as much as they suggest, that there is no regularly-scheduled programming to which we can return.
Fascism is the new normal.
The dominant view of fascism—that these explosions of nationalist and racist acts and political wins are mere “reactions”—relies on a highly-selective conception of the recent histories of Liberal Democracies such as the United States. This conception filters out the actual material conditions of our societies (that is, it does not look at access to wealth, stagnation of wages, accessibility of housing and other resources, nor the conditions of the environment itself) and instead narrates our lives according to what social rights we perceive ourselves to have.
To put this a simpler way, while a gay person can get married in the United States in 2019 but could not in the year 2000, that same gay person’s ability to support themselves (get housing, healthcare, eat, etc) has not gotten easier. In fact, in most places in the United States, especially for those working for minimum or low wages, their lives have gotten much harder despite receiving “rights” and “protections” from the government. The same is true for every other group that the dominant narrative claims fascists are “reacting” against.
Not convinced? Go ask a trans person, a Black mother, or undocumented immigrant friend how easy it was for them to pay their rent in the US in 2016, just before this supposed fascist “interruption” began. And if they’re old enough, ask them if it was really all that easier than it was in 2000.
Taking a longer view of history and refusing to ignore the material conditions which affect people reveals a different narrative than the one we’ve generally come to accept about fascism as interruption to progress. Looking at these conditions, over multiple nations and over a longer term, shows that the general state of Liberal Democracies has been a slow, creeping crisis. Wealth has become concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people each year, while the greater portions of these societies struggle harder to survive, work longer hours, get themselves into deeper debt, live in increasingly dense and suffocating cities, and find themselves renting out parts of their lives through “sharing economy” apps or engaging in relentless “crowd-funding” social media campaigns to pay rent, buy groceries, pay for necessary surgeries and even to afford funerals for loved-ones.
Socially, however—sure. It appears things are (or at least were) getting better. Social Justice movements, #metoo, Black Lives Matter, and many other organic movements (all facilitated by capitalist social media) definitely have given us a sense that progress is happening or is at least possible. But none of these have actually changed the material conditions of life for the people the fascists are supposedly reacting against. We have gotten better at asking people’s pronouns and policing social media posts for oppressive language, but this has not improved material conditions for anyone.
This is not to say that the rights doled out by governments or won through cultural change are irrelevant or should be abandoned. I’m a gay immigrant married to his husband: the rights against which fascists are supposedly reacting are vital to my life, as they are to many others. So when I suggest that these rights are only “aesthetic changes,” I do not mean they are irrelevant or unimportant. However, they do not change the actual material conditions of my life, only my ability to be in certain places and with certain people. They do not make me any more able to survive in a capitalist system, nor feed myself or pay rent.
It is important to underline this problem because if all these current fascisms are supposedly reactions to an increase in rights, than fascists are merely acting like spoiled children, upset that they’ve been forced by their parents to allow another child a turn with their toys. While it’s comforting to infantilize opponents this way, there’s an unseen mediator that this conception doesn’t address: the state.
The Rise of the Authoritarian Surveillance State
When the state appears in most theories about fascism, it’s seen as a passive actor. Like a parent attempting to intervene between siblings, our way of looking at the state’s role in the rise of fascism presumes it to be a neutral tool the fascists wish to seize for their own will. As with other aspects of this narrative, this view ignores the profound increase in police and surveillance powers that the governments of the world have enacted for the last several decades.
These increases have occurred as much (and sometimes more) under centrist, liberal, and even “leftist” governments as they have under conservative or right-wing governments, particularly in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany since 2000. For instance, the longest state of emergency in France was declared (and extended 6 times) by a socialist president, François Hollande. Gerhard Schröder in Germany and Tony Blair in the UK also implemented significant expansions on security and surveillance powers for their respective governments, and President Barack Obama in the United States not only failed to dismantle the massive power-grab implemented by the Patriot Act, but he expanded many of its internal and external policies ( including an increase in drone warfare and the legalization of “extra-judicial” killings of American citizens abroad).
We should note that these were all leaders generally seen as champions of civil rights. Both Hollande and Obama presided over governments that allowed same-sex marriage, for instance (while in the United Kingdom and Germany this was done during conservative governments). That is to say, that while the state appeared to be doling out freedoms, it was simultaneously taking away many more by accumulating surveillance and policing powers we usually associate with authoritarian regimes.
In fact, if we take this accumulation into account, we get a completely different picture of what has been occurring. The state which the fascists seem to want to seize is far from neutral. The governments of the world have become increasingly authoritarian and increasingly powerful, reducing the overall freedoms of the people they rule despite offering up a few new freedoms to select minorities.
Besides completely undermining the basis for the theory that fascism is a reaction to progress, this forces us to ask whether fascism is actually a “reaction” in the first place. That is, rather than being backwards and regressive, what if the demands for tougher controls on the movements of people (immigration laws, border walls, deportations, etc), the popular support for far-right political leaders, and the increase in racist, nationalist, and other identity-based violence is actually the true “progress?”
What if the pull towards the future isn’t one of equality but of increased inequality, of even more complex oppression and deeper subjugation of peoples?
At least for the previous twenty years, but arguably for the last forty, the general movement of governments and societies has been one of increased control, not of increased freedom. It has also been a movement towards increased concentration of wealth for the rich and increased debt and poverty for an ever-expanding base of the poor whose material conditions only get worse, never better.
More terrifyingly, the very resources upon which our existences rely have become increasingly scare. Catastrophic climate change isn’t stopping or even slowing—it’s accelerating. More species die each year than the previous, CO2 levels in the atmosphere continue to climb, disruptions to major weather patterns trigger increasing heat waves, storms, and floods: all this puts additional pressure upon the poor across the earth, creating food, water, and energy crises that threaten the stability of governments everywhere.
Fascism and the Climate Crisis
Therein, though, is the hint as to what is actually behind the increasing authoritarian trends, whether those be state-led or populist. Because fascism is a reaction after all, but not a reaction against an aesthetic increase in social rights for select minorities. Instead, it is a reaction to an emergency.
Fascism—by which I also mean authoritarianism—is a way of managing civilizations during emergencies. Laws against dissent or political opposition during war time, for example, are justified as necessary because the very existence of the government is under threat from foreign powers (real, or as in the cast of the “wars against terrorism,” mostly manufactured and imaginary). During both World Wars, the United States (and all other major governments involved in the war) implemented increased surveillance, incarcerated or interned entire people groups, and harshly prosecuted property crimes and other offenses by the poor. Similarly in the last two decades, authoritarian power-grabs in response to “terrorism” such as the Patriot Act in the United States were used to prosecute environmentalists, war-dissenters, and civil-rights activists, a practice that continues up to the present day.
So if this increasing trend towards authoritarianism throughout the world is a reaction to an emergency, we must ask ourselves what that emergency is. Here we need to drop all pretenses that our Liberal Democracies are marching towards some utopian future of equality, or that there is any real progress being made to better our material conditions. Instead, we are forced to look at those very material conditions themselves and realize that they actually cannot get better.
Several hundred years ago, the way most humans had lived (relatively unchanged for thousands of years) shifted abruptly with the birth of factories and the exploitation of coal and oil. This led to explosions in population growth accompanied by massive deforestation, desertification, and most of all an exponential growth in carbon dioxide expelled into the air. All of this was seen as “progress,” the factory was the future, and because the earth on which we live possesses a deep resiliency, few of the effects this destruction caused became evident until last century.
No one should be surprised that the modern-nation state and the birth of surveillance and policing technologies also occurred at the exact same time. Such an explosion of economic and population growth required new strategies for maintaining power against the poor, especially since they were promised liberation through the illusions of democracy.
But here we are now, having reached the limits of earth’s resiliency and the resources used to build our civilizations—especially oil. There are no other easily-available energy sources to maintain—let alone expand—modern society, and anyways the time to have transitioned to more sustainable methods was several decades ago. So now every people group in the world sees the certainty of impending scarcity and in some cases genocide through starvation, flooding, drought, or war.
Every government of the world is now facing the undeniable question: how do we hold on to power in the face of catastrophic climate change? China has already found its answer, through increased surveillance and management of its people through a “social credit” system. In that system, every individual will eventually be tracked according to social, financial, legal, and commercial data and scored accordingly, with a low score (including political dissent or jay-walking too often) barring you from international flights and economic assistance.
While easy to dismiss from an orientalist standpoint as a dystopian project that cannot happen in the “enlightened West,” we must remember that such a system doesn’t arise out of nothing, nor is it meant merely to punish. The purpose of the social credit system in China is to manage resource availability: people who do not conform to the system lose access to economic goods and mobility itself, and access is granted only to those who do conform.
Here we can see that China is responding to the same emergency (dwindling resources) to which Emmanuel Macron was responding when he implemented his highly unpopular diesel tax. This tax was born not from a mere desire to punish people but to avoid an impending petroleum crisis by discouraging people from driving. While the Gillets Jaunes protesters in France have many justifiable reasons to criticize Macron’s introduction of the “environmental measure,” the problem remains that France both continues to pump out absurd amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, and also faces potential fuel shortages in the next few years. These are far greater crises than an increase in diesel costs.
Similar problems are occurring everywhere. Brexit, for all its racist and nationalist rhetoric, was an understandable response for a nation finding its economic power dwindling. So too the election of Jair Bolsonoro in Brazil and Donald Trump in the United States: previous centre-left governments had failed to address any of the actual impending economic crises and instead relied on political chicanery and heavy doses of optimism to opiate the masses. Germany is also facing a similar situation, with its centre-right leader Angela Merkel barely holding on to power against threats from several proto-fascist parties.
The situation we are in can perhaps best be seen with Trump’s proposed border-wall between the United States and Mexico. As awful as Trump is and as racist as the wall will be, it’s too easy to forget the actual logic behind the thing. The point of the wall isn’t to keep people out now, it’s to keep out the millions of people fleeing drought and starvation due to catastrophic climate change later. It is not about a racist present, but about a fascist future.
With this lens we can also look at other changes in the way the United States has been governed before the current president and see that there’s been no interruption at all, only a continuation. President Obama, for all his charming aesthetics of progress, continued and expanded military occupations in the Middle East while increasing the militarization of police within the United States. The answer as to why someone supposedly so committed to equality would do such a thing should now be obvious: the military actions were necessary to ensure the United States had continued access to oil reserves, and the militarization of police was to ensure the government could withstand internal challenges to its sovereignty…including by poor Black people.
In Our Past Is Our Future
By now perhaps you’re wondering why such a longer view isn’t included in many of the dominant theories about fascism. In fact, such a view might also strike you as a little too apologetic for these authoritarian impulses. To both of these points I can only answer by invoking the legacy of two anti-fascist thinkers from the middle of last century, Georges Bataille and Walter Benjamin.
Georges Bataille was a French artist and writer who lived through the Nazi occupation of France. Walter Benjamin was a German Jewish historian and writer who fled through France into Spain, where he died (by suicide, or potentially by assassination). They were also friends, sharing a passion for mysticism and other heretical ideas that caused them both to be accused of fascism themselves.
Bataille’s primary work on the subject, The Psychological Structure of Fascism, is almost never quoted in discourse around fascism. This is unfortunate, but also unsurprising: besides being a difficult text, Bataille argues uncomfortably that fascism is a revolutionary force, one that seeks to establish order in times of political crisis in order to perpetuate the order. That is, for Bataille, fascism is a way of renewing a society, of keeping it going, uniting it and resurrecting it so it can progress into the future. From Bataille’s view, Trump’s slogan “Make American Great Again” is not so much about the real past as it about a utopian future. The rise of fascist movements now can also be seen not as attempts to return to a mythic past but to create unity to survive a tumultuous future.
Because of the way he rejected the myth of utopian socialist “progress,” Bataille’s ideas were labeled dangerous and even sympathetic to fascism by others. So, too, were the ideas of his friend Walter Benjamin, who had the unfortunate distinction of being one of the few men of that time wanted dead by both Stalinists and Nazis for his ideas.
For Benjamin, the rise of fascism was exactly the pull towards the future which I suggest we be fearful of. Highly critical of the way that industrialization had changed our conception of reality (for example, through the mechanical reproduction of art) and how it turned politics into aesthetic, Benjamin argued that “progress” was not some great destination towards which we must valiantly march, but a terrible destination over which we had no control. In his remarks about a painting in his possession (hidden from the Nazis on his behalf by Bataille), he wrote:
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
And in a footnote in that same work, he outlines a theory of revolution as anti-future:
“Marx said that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps things are very different. It may be that revolutions are the act by which the human race traveling in the train applies the emergency brake.”
For both Benjamin and Bataille, then, fascism was not a reactionary impulse, nor an attempt by those losing power to regain it. Instead, fascism is the inevitable future of civilizations built upon capitalist exploitation of people and the earth, the final point of “progress” for industrial society. And though neither were nearly as aware of how dire the situation in the world is now, their words feel much more prophetic—and true—than the comforting yet false idea that fascism is merely reaction to social progress.
Their ideas point to an awful truth: it is no co-incidence that the authoritarian impulses of governments and people are exploding around us at the very same time that catastrophic climate change has begun manifesting itself. In fact, the racist, nationalist, and fascist movements that arise everywhere now are a response to the impending resource crises caused by that climate change.
Though this is not the future we were promised nor the progress we were hoping for, this was always the only future that was ever possible for our industrialized civilizations.
But this doesn’t mean this is the only future possible for humanity or the earth. There were other futures before, other futures still—but only for different kinds of societies, ones not dependent upon dwindling resources for their perpetual growth. It has always been possible to live without petroleum and coal, without deforestation and extinctions, without international finance capital and instant digital commerce, without immigration laws and border walls, without corporate and state surveillance and militarized police.
To get to such a future, though, we need to pull the emergency brake on this future first. Then we can do the work of remembering how to survive without all these things, the way humans have done for thousands and thousands of years. While the future of our current civilization is fascist, our past is full of other futures, other hopes, and other ways of being with each other. It’s to this past we must look, even as the wreckage of history piles up. We must resist the storm of false “progress,” awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.