Authoritarianism today is undermining institutions in electoral democracies, not just in military dictatorships
It’s political party conference season in the UK. Not the usual time to be thinking about fascism.
The spectre that wreaked havoc on the world a century ago was consigned to oblivion and far off fringes by World War II, wasn’t it? How to Stop Fascism, a brilliantly incisive new book by Paul Mason explains why the answer is not just a simple no, so I go to hear him explain further at a press launch. Afterwards, the party conferences seem less significant.
Besides, while those always get plenty of media coverage, they rarely grab the wider public imagination. This year looks no different. It counts little how much ammunition the Conservative government provides for opposition criticism; the most vigorous challenges Boris Johnson is likely to face come from his own MPs.
Whilst rising gas prices augur a pipeline of negative economic news over the coming winter, there is little sign of the Labour Party being able to be seen to be setting, rather than reacting to Johnson’s agendas.
On to the F word then. In his 1970s youth, Mason was a member of the Anti-Nazi League and like-minded organizations that mobilized to help drive fascist agitators off British high streets. He grew up thinking racism and fascism were evils of the past with no future, but today notices their rhetoric rehashed by people of the same age and background as himself.
Fascism is a threat to the world today he says, not because it is strong, popular, or running many nation states. It is because authoritarians and/or right-wing populists are representing the interests of contemporary fascism by undermining institutions within electoral democracies, not in military dictatorships and isolated states like North Korea.
With global crises evolving as they are and inequality and distrust on the rise, the cynicism of contemporary populist leaders is providing the space for more extremist fascist ideas and parties including fully-fledged violent racists to develop and take root. Mason warns: “The illiberal democracies in Turkey, Russia, Hungary, India, Israel, and Brazil will survive without Trump. Each of these regimes holds power because people elected them, tolerated them, and shrugged their shoulders at the misery and injustice they inflicted. As they face a democratic challenge in the 2020s, they will certainly resort to the tactics Trump adopted between his election defeat and the Capitol Hill riot.”
His perspective is global. He describes as a state-run pogrom the targeted violence against left-wing activists and Muslims in India which followed peaceful protests about the Modi government’s discriminatory 2019 migrant citizenship law. (He notes also how the BJP used its networks to support Donald Trump’s failed 2020 re-election bid.)
Mason writes engagingly about how the online world provides a zone to incubate and spread some of the threads that link modern global fascist ideologues. Notably hatred of liberal democracy, love of power worship, and finding and inventing scapegoats to fear as threats and to obsess about -- most frequently Jews, migrants, and Muslims -- with the dual aim of making followers think they are victims of the scapegoats and to henceforth give them a “justification” to plan mass murder against their chosen “other.”
The internet enables new catchphrases and codewords like “cultural Marxism” and “replacement theory” to proliferate around the world, often among people who don’t spot their origins. Followers can “self-create” variants and self-radicalize, a phenomenon also seen among, similarly fascistic, Islamist terrorists.
At the Q and A, Mason notes a group of self-professedly racist, far-right Americans cheering online the recent Taliban takeover in Kabul. Unsurprisingly, they share the latter’s misogyny and fantasize about replicating their win in DC. With “incels” carrying out mass shootings, Mason worries a shared hatred of feminism may become a more unifying thread for global fascist groups than mere racism(s).
The book’s introduction imagines Nazi scientists discovering time travel and arriving in 2020. It suggests while they would be horrified by much about the modern world (this was their predisposition anyway,) they would also find much to relish and use. Remarkably then, over half the book is an analysis of academic writing about the history, economic factors, philosophies, and public psychologies that drove the emergence of Mussolini and Hitler. And of why and how more numerous centre and left parties failed to stop them taking over.
Of course, fascist ideologies sound insane, that’s the nature of the beast. Ethno-nationalism, racial separation/supremacy, or reviving colonialism, are nutty, intrinsically unpopular, and unable to withstand scrutiny. Without societal collapse, they cannot grab power, and without violence they cannot keep their grip. Hence some fascist ideologues yearn for climate chaos to exacerbate floods and famine to help them cull the black, brown, and poor.
Mason’s warnings matter because the apparatus of modern nation-states and technology available to those in charge is more absolute and lethal than 100 years ago. After the Nuremberg trials, “never again” became a universal slogan. Sadly, while fascist ideology was defeated by WWII, Nazi-like methods of slaughter, ethnic cleansing, chemical weapons, mass bombing and genocide, never actually went away.
If latter-day fascists dream of ever more apocalyptic visions of a new world order amid global collapse, then even if they only have the slimmest chance of power, Mason’s prescription of electoral alliances, and nurturing an ethos of anti-fascism to rebut their propaganda makes simple common sense.
By the way, Boris Johnson is included in the book’s rogue’s gallery of right-wing populists playing with fire. Startling because the UK has an engrained belief history makes it immune from the extremes and revolutions that have afflicted other European countries.
The many dystopias set in Britain in books like 1984 and Children of Men, are just fiction preventing, not predicting the future, aren’t they? Only up to a point, I think.
Beneath Johnson’s many charm offensives the trajectory of his government portends more economic uncertainty and a stoking up of culture wars. Some of his supporters also believe an independent Scotland wouldn’t be bad because it would bequeath Tories a bigger head start to a majority in England. They seem oblivious that decades of one-party rule, identity politics, and gerrymandering, is what preceded the Troubles close by in Northern Ireland.
It’s a sunny September afternoon in London. Maybe I will go to a conference after all. Or at least the one by the seaside. But I suspect I’ll learn more by sitting down with a good book.
Niaz Alam is London Bureau Chief of the Dhaka Tribune.