Fascism, Fascisation, Antifascism
All over the world, from the United States to Brazil and India, Italy and Hungary, the question of fascism has returned to the forefront. Not just because of the advance – or electoral victories – of far-right organisations, but also because of undeniable authoritarian thrusts and accelerating policies of destruction of workers’ rights, coupled with the rise of identitarian nationalisms and processes of radicalisation and legitimisation of racism.
In recent years, this dynamic has been particularly visible in France: as witness the hardening of police and judicial repression (against migrants, immigrant neighbourhoods and social mobilisations), the systematic nature (and impunity) of police violence and the inability of the state to even acknowledge its existence, or again the media and political mainstreaming of Islamophobia even at the highest political level, as seen in the current pseudo-debate on ‘separatism’.
Ugo Palheta, author of La Possibilité du fascisme (La Découverte, 2018), offers elements for reflection on fascism (past and present), on processes of fascisation and on the antifascism that is needed, in the hope that this may contribute to a wider understanding of present and future battles.
1 – On fascism
Fascism can be classically defined as an ideology, a movement and a regime.
It designates above all a political project for the ‘regeneration’ of an imaginary community – generally the nation1 – involving a vast operation of purification, in other words, the destruction of everything that, from the fascist point of view, is seen as hindering its phantasmagorical homogeneity, impeding its chimerical unity, depriving it of its imaginary essence and dissolving its profound identity.
As a movement, fascism grows and gains a wide audience by presenting itself as a force capable of challenging ‘the system’ as well as re-establishing ‘law and order’. It is this deeply contradictory dimension of reactionary revolt, an explosive mixture of false subversion and ultra-conservatism, which allows it to seduce social strata whose aspirations and interests are fundamentally antagonistic.
When fascism succeeds in conquering power and becoming a regime (or more precisely a state of exception), it always tends to perpetuate the social order – despite its ‘anti-systemic’ and sometimes even ‘revolutionary’ pretensions.
This definition allows us to establish a continuity between historical fascism, that of the inter-war period, and what will be called here neo-fascism, that is to say, the fascism of our time. As we shall go on to see, asserting this continuity does not imply blindness to differences in context.
2 - Crisis of hegemony (1)
If its rise requires the background of a structural crisis of capitalism, economic instability, popular frustrations, deepening social antagonisms (class, race and gender) and identity panic, fascism is only on the agenda when the political crisis reaches such a level of intensity that it becomes insurmountable within the framework of established forms of political domination, in other words, when it is no longer possible for the ruling class to guarantee the stability of the social and political order by the ordinary means associated with liberal democracy and a simple renewal of its political personnel.
This is what Gramsci called a crisis of hegemony (or ‘organic crisis’), the central component of which is the growing inability of the bourgeoisie to impose its political domination through the fabrication of majority consent to the order of things, i.e. without a significant increase in the degree of physical coercion. In so far as the fundamental element characterising this crisis is not the impetuous rise of popular struggles, let alone an uprising that creates deep fissures within the capitalist state, this type of political crisis cannot be characterised as a revolutionary crisis, even if the crisis of hegemony can, under certain conditions, lead to a situation of a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary type.
This inability on the part of the bourgeoisie proceeds, in particular, from a weakening of the links between representatives and represented, or more precisely, of the mediations between political power and citizens. In the case of neo-fascism, this weakening results in the decline of traditional mass organisations (political parties, trade unions, voluntary associations), without which ‘civil society’ is little more than an electoral slogan (think of the famous ‘figures from civil society’), encourages the atomisation of individuals and thus condemns them to impotence, making them available for new political affects, new forms of enlistment and new modes of action. Yet, this weakening, which makes the formation of mass militias largely superfluous for neo-fascists, is precisely the product of bourgeois policies and the social crisis they unfailingly engender.
3 - Crisis of hegemony (2)
In the case of the fascism of our time (neo-fascism), it is clearly the cumulative effects of the policies carried out since the 1980s in the framework of ‘neoliberalism’, the response of the Western bourgeoisies to the revolutionary upsurge of 1968 and after, which led everywhere – at uneven rates depending on the country – to more or less acute forms of political crisis (increasing rates of abstention, gradual erosion or sudden collapse of ruling parties, etc.), creating the conditions for a fascist dynamic.
By launching an offensive against the organised workers’ movement, and methodically breaking all the foundations of the post-war ‘social compromise’, which depended on a certain relationship between classes (a relatively weakened bourgeoisie and an organised and mobilised working class), the ruling class became progressively incapable of building a composite and hegemonic social bloc. To this must be added the very strong instability of the world economy and the difficulties encountered by national economies, which deeply and durably weaken the credit of ruling classes among their respective populations, and the confidence of these in the economic system.
4 - Crisis of hegemony (3)
To the extent that the neoliberal offensive has made it more difficult to mobilise in the workplace, particularly in the form of strike action, weakening trade unions and increasing precariousness, this disaffection increasingly tends to be expressed elsewhere and in different forms:
– a growing electoral abstention everywhere (though sometimes less so when a particular election happens to be more polarised), reaching levels often never seen before;
– the decline, either gradual or sharp, of many of the dominant institutional parties (or the emergence of new movements and figures within them, such as the Tea Party and Trump in the case of the Republican Party in the United States);
–the emergence of new political movements or the rise of formerly marginal forces;
– the emergence of social movements developing outside traditional frameworks, i.e. essentially outside the organised labour movement (which does not mean without any link to the political Left and trade unions).
In some national contexts, neo-fascists manage to insert themselves into broad social movements (Brazil) or generate mass mobilisations themselves (India); their ideas may also permeate certain fringes of these movements. However, this is generally not enough for neo-fascist organisations to become militant mass movements, at least at this stage, and extra-parliamentary struggles tend more towards ideas of social and political emancipation (anti-capitalism, anti-racism, feminism, etc.) than towards neo-fascism. Although they lack strategic cohesion and a common political horizon, sometimes even unified demands, these mobilisations generally point towards the objective of a break with the social order and the practical possibility of an emancipatory advance.
In every case, the political order is profoundly destabilised. Yet it is clearly in this type of situation that fascist movements can appear – to different social groups and for contradictory reasons – as both a basically electoral response (at this stage at least) to the decline of the hegemonic capacity of the dominant classes and an alternative to the traditional political game.
5 - Crisis of the alternative
Contrary to popular belief (in part of the Left), fascism is not just a desperate response of the bourgeoisie to an imminent revolutionary threat, but the expression of a crisis of the alternative to the existing order and a defeat of counter-hegemonic forces. While it is true that fascists mobilise fear (real or simulated) of the Left and of social movements, it is rather the inability of the exploited class (proletariat) and oppressed groups to constitute themselves as revolutionary political subjects and engage in an experiment of social transformation (however limited), that allows the far Right to appear as a political alternative and win the adhesion of very diverse social groups.
In the present situation, as in the inter-war period, confronting the danger of fascism implies not only defensive struggles against authoritarian hardening, anti-migration policies, the development of racist ideas, etc., but also (and more profoundly) that the subaltern – exploited and oppressed – manage to unite politically around a project of rupture with the social order and seize the opportunity presented by the crisis of hegemony.
6 - The two moments of the fascist dynamic
In the first stage of its accumulation of forces, fascism seeks to give a subversive turn to its propaganda and present itself as a revolt against the existing order. It proceeds by challenging the traditional political representatives of both the dominant classes (the Right) and the dominated classes (the Left), all supposedly guilty of contributing to the demographic and cultural disintegration of the ‘nation’ (conceived in a phantasmagorical way as a more or less immutable essence). The Right is alleged to favour ‘globalism from above’ (to use Marine Le Pen’s words), that of ‘cosmopolitan’ or ‘stateless’ finance (with the anti-Semitic overtones that such expressions inevitably carry), while the Left supposedly fuels ‘globalism from below’, that of migrants and racial minorities (with the whole range of the far Right’s traditional and inherent xenophobia).
By making the ‘nation’ the solution to all ills (economic crisis, unemployment, ‘insecurity’, etc., being invariably attributed to what is considered foreign, especially everything related to immigration), fascism claims to be an ‘anti-systemic’ force and a ‘third way’: neither right nor left, neither capitalism nor socialism. The bankruptcy of the Right and the betrayals of the Left give credit to the fascist ideal of a dissolution of political cleavages and social antagonisms in a ‘nation’ at last ‘regenerated’ because politically unified (i.e. in reality under the control of fascists), ideologically unanimous (i.e. deprived of the means of publicly expressing any form of protest), and ethno-racially ‘purified’ (i.e. rid of groups considered intrinsically ‘allogenic’ and ‘unassimilable’, ‘inferior’ but ‘dangerous’).
In a second phase, however, when what could be called its ‘plebeian’ or ‘anti-bourgeois’ moment has passed (a character that fascism never totally renounces, at least in discourse, which is one of its specificities), fascist leaders seek to form an alliance with representatives of the bourgeoisie – usually through the mediation of bourgeois political parties or leaders – to seal their access to power and use the state for their own benefit (for political purposes but also for personal enrichment, as all fascist experiences have shown and as legal verdicts against figures of the far Right regularly illustrate), while promising capital the destruction of all opposition. Nothing remains of the initial claims to a ‘third way’, since what fascism proposes is precisely to make capitalism work under a regime of tyranny.
7 - Fascism and the crisis of relations of oppression
The crisis of the social order also presents itself as a crisis of relations of oppression, a particularly acute dimension in the case of contemporary fascism (neo-fascism). The perpetuation of white domination and the oppression of women and gender minorities is indeed destabilised and even endangered by the rise on a global scale (although very unevenly from country to country) of anti-racist, feminist and LGBTQI movements. By organising collectively, by revolting respectively against the racist and hetero-patriarchal order, by speaking with their own voice, non-whites, women and gender minorities are increasingly constituting themselves as autonomous political subjects (which in no way prevents divisions, especially if a political force capable of unifying subaltern groups is lacking).
This process inevitably arouses a reaction in terms of racist and masculinist radicalisations, which take various forms and directions but find their full political coherence in the fascist project. This project combines the delirious representation of relations of domination as being already reversed (with the various mythologies of ‘Jewish domination’, ‘the great replacement’, ‘reverse colonisation’, ‘anti-white racism’, ‘the feminisation of society’, etc.) with the fanatical desire of oppressor groups to maintain their domination whatever the cost.
While far-right extremists are everywhere opposed to feminist movements and discourses, and never break with an essentialist conception of gender roles, they may occasionally adopt, depending on political needs and national contexts, a rhetoric of defending the rights of women and sexual minorities. They may even go so far as to tone down some of their traditional positions (ban on abortion, criminalisation of homosexuality, etc.), so as to enrich the range of their nationalist discourse with new tones: in this way, ‘foreigners’2 and/or “muslims” are held responsible for the violence suffered by women and homosexuals. Femo-nationalism and homo-nationalism make it possible to target new segments of the electorate, to gain political respectability, and in passing to divert any systemic criticism of hetero-patriarchy.
8 - Fascism, nature and the environmental crisis
The crisis of the existing order is not simply economic, social and political. It also takes the form of an environmental crisis, particularly given the ongoing climate collapse.
At the moment, neo-fascism appears divided by the morbid phenomena associated with the capitalocene. A large part of neo-fascist movements, ideologues and leaders notably minimise global warming (or even deny it altogether), arguing for an intensification of extractivism (“carbo-fascism” or “fossil fascism”). On the other hand, some currents that can be described as eco-fascist claim to offer a response to the environmental crisis, but do little more than revive and disguise as ‘ecology’ the old reactionary ideologies of a ‘natural order’, still associated with ideas of traditional roles and hierarchies (such as gender) and of closed organic communities (in the name of ‘purity of race’ or under the pretext of ‘incompatibility of cultures’). Similarly, they often use the urgency of the disaster to call for ultra-authoritarian (eco-dictatorship) and racist solutions (a neo-Malthusianism that almost always justifies increased repression of migrants and an almost total prevention of immigration).
While the latter remain largely in the minority compared to the former and do not constitute mass political currents, their ideas are undeniably developing to the point of permeating neo-fascist common sense, so that an identitarian ecology emerges and environmental struggles become a crucial terrain of struggle for antifascists. This divide also refers to an intrinsic tension in ‘classical’ fascism, between a hyper-modernism that exalts heavy industry and technology as markers and levers of national power (economic and military), and an anti-modernism that idealises land and nature as the home of authentic values which the nation needs to reconnect with in order to find its essence.
9 - Fascism and social order
Especially when fascism is emerging and developing, it wants to appear as an alternative to the existing order (and it succeeds at least partially in this), even sometimes as a (national) “revolution”. But when it comes to power, fascism appears not simply as a spare wheel for the current state of affairs, but the means to suppress all opposition to ecocidal, racial and patriarchal capitalism; in other words, an authentic counter-revolution.
Unless we take literally – and thus validate – its claims to stand on the side of the ‘little people’ or the ‘unskilled’, to mobilise ‘the people’ and advance a programme of social transformation in their favour, or unless we adopt a purely formal/institutional definition of the concept of ‘revolution’ (reducing this simply to regime change), fascism cannot in any way be described as ‘revolutionary’. On the contrary, its entire ideology and practice of power tends towards the consolidation and reinforcement, through criminal methods, of relations of exploitation and oppression.
At a deeper level, the fascist project consists in intensifying these relations in such a way as to produce a social body which is extremely hierarchical (in terms of class and gender), normalised (in terms of sexualities and gender identities) and homogenised (in ethno-racial terms). Imprisonment and massive crime (genocide) are therefore by no means unintended consequences of fascism but potentialities inherent in it.
10 - Fascism and social movements
Fascism, however, has an ambivalent relationship with social movements. Insofar as its success depends on its ability to appear as an ‘anti-systemic’ force, it cannot be satisfied with frontal opposition to protest movements and the Left. Fascisms both ‘classical’ and contemporary constantly borrow some of their rhetoric from these movements to shape a powerful political and cultural synthesis.
Three main tactics are employed in this sense:
i) the partial recapture of elements of critical and programmatic discourse, but deprived of any systemic dimension or revolutionary aim. For example, capitalism is not criticised in its foundations, i.e. as being based on a relation of exploitation (capital/labour), presupposing private ownership of the means of production and coordination by the market, but only in its globalised or financialised character (which makes it possible, as mentioned above, to play on old anti-Semitic tropes of classical fascist discourse, which still have their appeal to certain sections of the population). From this point of view, it is understandable that criticism of free trade, and even more so the call for ‘protectionism’, if they are not coherently linked to the goal of a break with capitalism, have every chance of ideologically strengthening the far Right,
ii) hijacking the rhetoric of the Left and social movements for use as a weapon against ‘foreigners’, i.e. in fact against racial minorities. This is the logic of femo-nationalism and homo-nationalism referred to above, but also of the ‘nationalist’ defence of secularism. While the far Right has throughout its history opposed the principle of secularism as well as women’s and LGBTQI rights, some of its currents (notably the current leadership of the Rassemblement National but also the Dutch far-right) now claim to be its best defenders, which has meant a complete redefinition of secularism in an aggressive sense towards Muslims, including discriminations (inseparably ethno-racial and religious) that are unavowed and presented as a defence of major republican principles threatened by an alleged Muslim ‘separatism’ or ‘communautarism’.
iii) the reversal of feminist or anti-racist criticism, claiming that the oppressed have become the oppressors. Thus, we see the whole cloud of reactionary ideologues, at an international level, asserting not only that racism and sexism have disappeared, but that it is women, non-whites and LGBTQI who today not only exercise domination over men, whites and heterosexuals respectively, but also contradict the natural order of things. This type of discourse is the best way to call for a supremacist operation of white or masculine ‘reconquest’ without being too explicit.
11 - Fascism and liberal democracy
Liberal and fascist regimes are not opposed to each other in the same way as democracy and domination. In both cases, the submission of proletarians, women and minorities is achieved; in both cases interwoven relations of exploitation and domination are deployed and perpetuated, along with a whole series of forms of violence inevitably and structurally associated with these relations; in both cases, the dictatorship of capital over the whole of society is maintained. In reality, these are two distinct forms of bourgeois political domination, in other words two different methods through which subordinate groups are subdued and prevented from engaging in an action of revolutionary transformation.
The transition to fascist methods is always preceded by the successive abandonment of certain fundamental dimensions of liberal democracy by the ruling class itself. Parliamentary arenas are increasingly marginalised and bypassed, as legislative power is monopolised by the executive and methods of government become ever more authoritarian (decree-laws, ordinances, etc.). But this phase of transition from liberal democracy to fascism is above all marked by increased restrictions on the freedoms of organisation, assembly and expression, and on the right to strike, but also the development of state arbitrariness and police brutality.
This authoritarian hardening may take place without great proclamation, making political power rest increasingly on the support and loyalty of the repressive state apparatuses and dragging it into an anti-democratic spiral: increasingly tight patrolling of working-class and immigrant neighbourhoods; prohibition, prevention or harsh repression of demonstrations; preventive and arbitrary arrests; summary trials of demonstrators and increasing use of prison sentences; increasingly frequent dismissals of strikers; reduction of the scope and possibilities of trade-union action, etc.
To assert that the opposition between liberal democracy and fascism is between political forms of bourgeois domination does not mean that anti-fascism, social movements and the Left should be indifferent to the decline of public freedoms and democratic rights. To defend these freedoms and rights is not to sow the illusion of a state or a republic conceived as neutral arbiters of social antagonisms; it is to defend one of the main conquests of the popular classes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, i.e. the right of the exploited and oppressed to organise and mobilise so as to defend their basic working and living conditions as an indispensable basis for the development of a class, feminist and anti-racist consciousness. But it also means asserting an alternative to the de-democratisation that is the very essence of the neoliberal project.
12 - Fascism and liberal democracy (2)
Fascism characteristically proceeds by crushing all forms of protest, whether revolutionary or reformist, radical or moderate, global or partial. Wherever fascism becomes the practice of power, i.e. a political regime, within a few years, or sometimes just a few months, little if anything remains of the political left, the trade-union movement or forms of minority organisation, i.e. of any stable, lasting and crystallised forms of resistance.
While the liberal regime tends to deceive subordinates by co-opting some of its representatives, incorporating some of their organisations into coalitions (as a minor partner with no voice) or negotiations (so-called ‘social dialogue’ in which trade unions or voluntary associations play the role of stooges), or even by integrating some of their demands, fascism aspires to destroy any form of organisation which is unassimilable into the fascist state and to uproot even the aspiration to organise collectively outside the fascist or fascisised organisational frameworks. In this sense, fascism presents itself as the political form of an almost complete destruction of the self-defence capacity of the oppressed – or its reduction to molecular, passive or clandestine forms of resistance.
It should be noted, however, that in this work of destruction fascism cannot ensure the passivity of a large part of the social body purely by repressive means or discourse targeting this or that scapegoat. It only manages to stabilise its domination by actually satisfying the immediate material interests of certain groups (unemployed workers, impoverished self-employed, civil servants, etc.), or at least those within these groups who are recognised by the fascists as ‘truly national’. In a context of the abandonment of the working classes by the Left, the power of attraction of a discourse promising to reserve jobs and social benefits for the so-called ‘truly national’ (who, it cannot be sufficiently stressed, are defined in the fascist or neo-fascist vision not by a legal criterion of nationality but by an ethno-racial criterion of origin) cannot be underestimated.
13 - Fascism, ‘people’ and mass action
If fascism is sometimes falsely described as ‘revolutionary’ because of its appeals to the ‘people’, or because it proceeds by bringing ‘masses’ into action (in a superficial analogy with the workers’ movement), it is because very different things are mixed up under the terms ‘people’ and ‘action’.
The ‘people’, as the fascists understand the term, designates neither a group which shares certain conditions of existence (in the sense that sociology speaks of popular classes), nor a political community including all those unified by a common will to belong, but an ethno-racial community fixed once and for all, grouping together those who are ‘really from here’ (whether the criterion of belonging to the people is pseudo-biological or pseudo-cultural). This basically amounts to the social body stripped of supposed enemies (the ‘foreign party’, as the leading French neo-fascist ideologue Eric Zemmour follows the 19th century anti-Semitic polemicist Édouard Drumont in saying) and traitors (the Left) who have taken the side of this ‘foreign party’.
As for fascist action itself, it oscillates par excellence between punitive expeditions led by armed squads (extra-state gangs or sectors of the repressive state apparatus that are already or in the process of becoming autonomous),3 military-style marches and electoral plebiscites. If the first of these attack social struggles and more generally the oppressed (striking workers, ethno-racial minorities, women in struggle, etc.), in order to demoralise their adversaries and to clear the ground for fascist implantation, the second aim to produce a mass symbolic and psychological effect, in order to mobilise affects in favour of the leader, the movement or the regime, while the third aim to make a group of atomised individuals passively ratify the will of the leader or the movement.
If fascism does have this kind of a mass appeal, it is by no means by stimulating autonomous action on the basis of specific interests, favouring for example forms of direct democracy where people discuss and act collectively, but by enlisting support for fascist leaders and giving them a weighty argument in negotiations with the bourgeoisie for access to power. Popular participation in fascist movements, and even more so under fascist regime, is for the most part ordered from above, in its objectives as well as in its forms, and presupposes the most absolute deference to those chosen by nature to command.
Nevertheless, forms of mobilisation from below can be found in the initial moment of fascism, on the part of the plebeian branches of fascism that provide its shock troops and take seriously its anti-bourgeois promises and pseudo-anticapitalism. Nevertheless, when the political crisis deepens and the alliance of the fascists with the bourgeoisie is sealed, tensions inevitably arise between these branches and the leadership of the fascist movement. The latter then inevitably seek to get rid of the leadership of these militias,3 while at the same time channelling them by integrating them into the fascist state under construction.
In reality, fascism has never offered the masses anything in terms of action but the alternative between acquiescence, noisy or passive, to the desires of the fascist leaders, or the manganello,4 i.e. repression (which, in fascist regimes, often goes as far as torture and murder, even against some of its most fervent supporters).
14 - A posthumous and preventive counter-revolution
Fascism constitutes a ‘posthumous and preventive’ counter-revolution.5 Posthumous in the sense that it feeds on the failure of the political Left and social movements to rise to the level of the historical situation, to establish themselves as a solution to the political crisis and engage in an experience of revolutionary transformation. Preventive because it aims at destroying in advance everything that could nourish and prepare a future revolutionary experience: not just explicitly revolutionary organisations but also trade-union resistance, anti-racist, feminist and LGBTQI movements, self-managed living spaces, independent journalism, etc., in other words the slightest form of contestation of the order of things.
15 - Fascism, neo-fascism and violence
It is undeniable that extra-state violence, in the form of mass paramilitary organisations, has played an important (though probably overestimated) role in the rise of fascists – an element that distinguishes them from other reactionary movements that did not seek to organise the masses militarily. Yet, at this stage at least, the vast majority of neo-fascist movements are not built on the basis of mass militias and do not have such militias (with the exception of the Indian BJP and to a lesser degree, in terms of mass implantation, the Hungarian Jobbik and the Golden Dawn in Greece).
Several hypotheses can be put forward to explain why neo-fascists are unable or do not aspire to build such militias:
– the delegitimisation of political violence, especially in Western societies, which would condemn political parties with paramilitary structures to electoral marginality;
– the absence of equivalent experience to that of the First World War in terms of the brutalisation of populations, i.e. habituation to the exercise of violence, which would provide fascists with masses of men willing to enlist and exercise violence within the framework of armed fascist militias;
– the weakening of workers’ movements in their capacity to structure and organise the popular classes, in trade unions and politically, which means that the fascists of our time no longer have a real adversary in front of them, which they would imperatively have to break by force to impose themselves, and which would necessitate equipping themselves with an apparatus of mass violence;
– the fact that states are much more powerful today and have at their disposal instruments of surveillance and repression of a sophistication that is out of all proportion to that of the inter-war period, so that the fascists of our time may feel that state violence is quite sufficient to annihilate all forms of opposition, physically if necessary;
– finally, the strategically crucial necessity for neo-fascists to distinguish themselves from the most visible forms of continuity with historical fascism, and especially this dimension of extra-state violence. In this connection, we should recall that parties such as the FN in France or the Austrian FPÖ were created on the basis of strategies of ‘respectabilisation’ developed and implemented by notorious fascists, who had collaborated very actively in Nazi domination during the Second World War.
These hypotheses make it possible to conclude that the formation of mass militias was made necessary and possible for fascist movements in the very particular context of the inter-war period. But neither the constitution of armed bands, nor even the use of political violence, is the hallmark of fascism, either as a movement or as a regime. While these were centrally present, other movements and regimes not belonging in any way to the constellation of fascisms also resorted to violence in order to gain or maintain power, sometimes by murdering tens of thousands of opponents (not to mention the legitimate use of political violence by liberation movements).
The most visible dimension of classical fascism, its extra-state militias, are, in fact, an element subordinate to the strategy of the fascist leaderships, who use them tactically according to the demands imposed by the development of their organisations and the legal conquest of political power (which presupposes, in the inter-war period and still more so today, that they appear to be somewhat respectable, and thus distance themselves from the most visible forms of violence). The strength of fascist or neo-fascist movements is then measured by their ability to wield, depending on the historical conjuncture, both legal and violent tactics, both ‘war of position’ and ‘war of movement’ (to use Gramsci’s categories).
16 - Fascism and the process of fascisation
The victory of fascism is the joint product of a radicalisation of whole sections of the ruling class, out of fear that the political situation is escaping them, and a social entrenchment of fascist movement, ideas and affects. Contrary to a common representation, well suited to absolve the ruling classes and liberal democracies of their responsibilities for fascists’ rise to power, fascist movements do not conquer political power by a purely external action, in the way that an armed force seizes a citadel. If they generally manage to obtain power by legal means, which does not mean without bloodshed, it is because this conquest is prepared by a whole historical period that can be called fascisation.
It is only through this process of fascisation that fascism can appear – obviously today without saying its name, and by disguising its project, given the universal opprobrium that has surrounded the words ‘fascism’ and ‘fascist’ since 1945 – both as a (false) alternative for various sectors of the population and as a (real) solution for a politically desperate ruling class. It is then that it can go from being essentially a petty-bourgeois movement to a real mass, inter-class movement, even if its sociological heart, which provides its cadres, remains the petty bourgeoisie: self-employed, liberal professions, middle management.
17 - The forms of fascisation
Fascisation is expressed in many ways, through a wide variety of ‘morbid symptoms’ (again using Gramsci’s expression), but two main vectors can nevertheless be highlighted: the authoritarian hardening of the state and the rise of racism.
While the former is expressed mainly through the repressive state apparatuses (the police trade unions being a specific actor of fascisation), we must not forget the primary responsibility of the ‘extreme centre’s political leaders. And, if police violence is part of the long history of the capitalist state and the police (generally welcoming the most racist and authoritarian elements), it is the crisis of hegemony, that is to say, the political weakening of the bourgeoisie, which makes it more and more dependent on its police and increases both the strength and the autonomy of repressive state apparatuses:6 the Minister of the Interior no longer tends to direct (and control) the police, but rather to defend them at all costs, increase their resources, etc.
The rise of racism also combines the long history of the state, particularly in the case of the old imperial powers in which colonial and racial oppression continues to occupy a central place, with the recent history of the political field. Faced with a crisis of hegemony, the far Right and sectors of the mainstream Right – on the understanding that these political forces represent distinct class fractions – have the project of solidifying a white bloc under bourgeois hegemony, capable of establishing a form of social compromise on an ethno-racial basis through a policy of systematic ousting of non-white people: in other words, racial preference. Moreover, by constantly pointing out the danger that migrants and Muslims represent for both public order and the cultural integrity of the ‘nation’, these forces justify the licence given to the police in immigrant districts, the increase in the repression of social movements, in a word, state authoritarianism.
We can indicate here what Aimé Césaire called a ‘savageification [ensauvagement]’ of the dominant class, visible above all through practices and mechanisms of repression aimed first of all at ethno-racial minorities and then at social mobilisations (gilets jaunes, trade unionists, anti-racists, antifascists, ecologists, etc.). However, this ensauvagement is also increasingly common in the form of public declarations of ideologists calling for the use of lethal weapons against social mobilisations and immigrant districts, and those who have turned media and editorial Islamophobia into a flourishing industry.
18 - What fascisation of the state means
The fascisation of the state should, therefore, under no circumstances be reduced, especially in the first phase before the fascists conquer political power, to the integration or rise of recognisable fascist elements in the apparatus of law and order (police, army, justice, prisons). It functions, rather, as a dialectic between endogenous transformations of these apparatuses, as a result of political choices made by bourgeois parties over nearly three decades (all oriented towards the construction of a ‘penal state’ on the ashes of the ‘social state’, to use the categories of the sociologist Loïc Wacquant), and the political power – mainly electoral and ideological at this stage – of the organised far Right.
To put it simply, the fascisation of the police is not expressed and explained primarily by the presence of fascist militants among them, or the fact that the police vote massively for the far right (in France and elsewhere), but by their reinforcement and empowerment (especially in those sectors assigned to the most brutal tasks of maintaining order: in working-class and immigrant neighbourhoods, against immigrants, and secondarily in mobilizations). In other words, the police are becoming increasingly emancipated from the state and the law, i.e. from any form of external control (not to mention the non-existent popular control).
So the police are not fascising in their functioning because they are gradually being subverted by fascist organisations. On the contrary, it is because the entire functioning of the police is fascisised – obviously to unequal degrees depending on the sector – that it is so easy for the far Right to spread its ideas and establish itself within them. This is particularly visible in the fact that the last few years (in France) have not seen a growth of the police union directly linked to the organised far Right (France Police-Policiers en Colère) but rather a double process: the rise of artificial mobilisations coming from the base (but shielded from above, in the sense that they have not been subject to any administrative sanctions) and the right-wing radicalisation of the main police unions (Alliance and Unité SGP Police-FO).
19 - A contradictory and unstable process
Insofar as it derives primarily from the crisis of hegemony and the hardening of social confrontations, the process of fascisation proves to be eminently contradictory and therefore highly unstable. There is by no means a royal road for the fascist movement.
The dominant class can indeed manage, in certain historical circumstances, to have new political representatives emerge, to integrate certain demands coming from the oppressed and thus build the conditions of a new social compromise (which allow it not to have to cede political power to the fascists in order to keep its economic power).7 It is nevertheless unlikely in the present context that the dominant classes will be led to accept new social compromises without a sequence of high-intensity struggles imposing a new balance of power less unfavourable to the working-class.
If the process of fascisation does not necessarily lead to fascism, it is also because both the fascist movement and the ruling classes face the political Left and the social movements. The success of the fascists ultimately depends on the ability – or, on the contrary, the powerlessness – of the subaltern to successfully occupy all the terrains of political struggle, to constitute themselves as autonomous political subjects and impose a revolutionary alternative.
20 - After an electoral victory of the fascists: three scenarios
If the fascists’ conquest of political power – and we repeat again, generally by legal means – constitutes a crucial victory for them, that is not the end of the story. A period of struggle necessarily opens up in the wake of this victory, which – depending on the political and social balance of power, on the struggles fought or not, on whether they are victorious or defeated – can end up with any of the following outcomes:
i) the construction of a dictatorship of the fascist or military-police type (when popular movements suffer a historical defeat and the bourgeoisie is politically too weakened or divided);
ii) bourgeois normalisation (when the fascist movement is too weak to build an alternative political power and there is a popular response that is strong but not enough to go beyond a defensive victory);
iii) a revolutionary sequence (when the popular movement is strong enough to coalesce major social and political forces around it and engage in a showdown with bourgeois forces and the fascist movement).
21 - Antifascism today (1)
If antifascism appears initially and necessarily as a reaction to the development of fascism, therefore as defensive action or self-defence (working-class, anti-racist, feminist), it cannot be reduced to hand-to-hand combat with fascist groups; all the less so since the tactics of building fascist movements in our time give less room for mass violence – except perhaps in India as mentioned above – than in the case of ‘classical’ fascism (see thesis 15). Anti-fascism makes the political struggle against far-right movements a central axis of its struggle, but it must also set itself the task of promoting the common action of the oppressed and halting the process of fascisation, in other words, undermining the political and ideological conditions in which these movements can flourish, take root and grow, and breaking down everything that promotes the spread of fascist poison in the social body. Now, if this double task of antifascism is taken seriously, it must be conceived not just as a struggle against the organised far Right, waged independently of other struggles (trade union, anti-capitalist, feminist, anti-racist, ecological, etc.), but as the defensive complement to the struggle for social and political emancipation, or what Daniel Bensaïd called a politics of the oppressed.
22 - On antifascism today (2)
There is obviously no question of making the constitution of an antifascist front conditional on adherence to a complete and precise political programme; this would in fact mean renouncing any unitary perspective, as it would then be a question of each force imposing its own political and strategic project on the others. It would be still more unwise to demand that those who aspire here and now to fight fascism or the dynamics of fascisation mentioned above should present proof of revolutionary militancy. However, anti-fascism cannot have as its sole compass opposition to far-right organisations if it really aspires to roll back not just these organisations, but also and above all the fascist ideas and affects that spread and take root far beyond them. It cannot renounce linking between the anti-fascist struggle with the need for a break with racial, patriarchal and ecocidal capitalism, and the goal of a different society (which we here call ecosocialist).
This is a complex matter, as it is not enough for antifascism to assert its feminism or anti-racism, to criticise neoliberalism or call for the defence of ‘secularism’, to make the reactionary character of neo-fascism apparent. Insofar as the far Right have taken over at least part of the anti-neoliberal discourse, increasingly tend to adopt a rhetoric of defending women’s rights, use a pseudo-antiracism of defending ‘whites’ and set themselves up as the protectors of secularism, anti-fascism cannot be satisfied with vague formulae in this area. It is imperative for it to specify the political content of its feminism and its anti-racism, and explain what it means by ‘secularism’, otherwise it will leave blind spots that neo-fascists unfailingly occupy (‘femo-nationalism’, denunciation of ‘anti-white racism’ or falsification/instrumentalisation of secularism), and will also risk following in the footsteps of the neoliberals (who have their own ‘feminism’, that of the 1 per cent, and their ‘moral anti-racism’, generally in the form of a call for mutual tolerance). Likewise, it must specify the political horizon of its opposition to neoliberalism or its criticism of the European Union, which cannot be that of a ‘good’ national capitalism that is properly regulated.
Moreover, the last few years have brought to light the need for antifascism to be fully involved in the political battle against the authoritarian thrust, which is necessarily a unitary one. Whether this is waged against thousands of Muslims, dragged through the mud, registered, surveilled, discriminated against, publicly discredited, sometimes imprisoned because they are suspected of ‘radicalisation’ (thus of being ‘enemies of the nation’, real or potential), against immigrants (disenfranchised and harassed by the police), against the inhabitants of working-class and immigrant neighbourhoods (policed by the most fascisised sectors of the forces of repression, who enjoy impunity in these areas), or against social mobilisations that are increasingly severely repressed by the police and the judiciary (movement against the French labour law, gilets jaunes, etc.).
We can see now how the challenge for antifascism is not simply to forge alliances with activists of other causes that leave each partner unchanged, but to redefine and enrich antifascism from the perspectives that emerge within the trade-union, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, feminist or ecological struggles, while nourishing the latter with antifascist perspectives. It is on this condition that antifascism will be able to renew itself and progress, not as a sectoral struggle, a particular method of struggle or an abstract ideology, but as a common sense permeating and involving all emancipation movements.
Originally published at:
N.B. I would like to thank the members of the editorial comrades of Contretemps, in particular Stathis Kouvelakis, for their many remarks and suggestions based on earlier versions of this text.
Translated by David Fernbach for Historical Materialism
- 1Civilisation – ‘white’ or ‘European’ – can also play this role, as can race (‘Aryan’ in Nazi ideology), even if the latter has been made politically untenable on a mass scale by the genocide of the Jews of Europe.
- 2An eminently extendable category since it includes all those who, whether or not they have the nationality of the country in question, are not considered genuine natives (in the case of France the so-called ‘indigenous French’, ‘true French’, etc.). From this point of view, a recent European immigrant – whether naturalised or not – is viewed by the far Right as less foreign, at least if he or she is white and of Christian culture, than an individual born French in France to parents who were themselves born in France but whose grandparents came, for example, from Algeria or Senegal.
- 3In this respect, reread Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.
- 4The name for the club with which Italian fascists beat up working-class militants or anyone else who opposed them. The manganello and its use were the object of a kind of cult in fascist Italy.
- 5Here we take up the formula of Angelo Tasca in his classic book The Rise of Italian Fascism, 1918-1922.
- 6This allows them, in the French case, to attack political forces directly (for example, a demonstration by police unions in front of the headquarters of the main left organisation La France Insoumise), and to demonstrate without authorisation, often hooded, with weapons and service cars, without risking any administrative or judicial sanction.
- 7For example, the case of Roosevelt and the New Deal in the United States in the 1930s, which did not really succeed in overcoming the crisis of US capitalism (that was not until the war), but suspended the political crisis.