William E. Connolly
Author, Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming (forthcoming with Duke).
In a prescient review of how fascist movements intensified in numerous countries during the 1930s Karl Polanyi points to the international, self-induced collapse of market capitalism as the key. Millions were thrown into poverty and/or insecurity; confidence in democracy and market capitalism faltered together. The fascist movements did not merely have local causes, then. Otherwise so many of them would not have arisen in dispersed places at the same time. Here are a couple of things Polanyi says in The Great Transformation:
“The fascist solution of the impasse reached by liberal capitalism can be described as a reform of market economy achieved at the price of the extirpation of all democratic institutions, both in the industrial and in the political realm. (p. 245)
“All at once, the tremendous industrial and political organization of labor and of other upholders of constitutional freedom would melt away.” (247)
“It was in the third period—after 1929—that the true significance of fascism became apparent. Until then, fascism had hardly been more than a trait of Italy’s authoritarian government.” (252)To this preliminary diagnosis we must add the role of the Big Lie in those movements; we also note an insight from Deleuze and Guattari about how fascist movements on the way gather momentum. “But fascism is inseparable from a proliferation of molecular focuses in interaction which skip from point to point before beginning to resonate together in the National Socialist State. Rural fascism and city or neighborhood fascism, youth fascism and war fascism, youth fascism and war veteran’s fascism, fascism of the left and fascism of the Right, fascism of the couple, family, school and office; every fascism is defined by a micro-black hole that stands on its own and communicates with the others before resonating in a great, generalized black hole.” (ATP, 214)
As I began to argue in Aspirational Fascism a few years before Trump became a candidate and Thomas Dumm continued to explore in The End of Boehner in October 2015, the situation in the United States today deviates from those delineated above while resonating with them in disturbing ways. We have not gone through another Great Depression, but under-regulated financial markets in the U.S. did propel a massive, international meltdown. In several countries the decades’ long stagnation of the white working class was rendered more visible and painful, and they remain largely closed out of the recovery. Anti-semitism has been shuffled into the shadows by the new fascism, though it remains and could erupt at any time. The general idea is to place a white Christian nation at the center of things with other tolerated minorities ranged obediently around it. . So militant anti-Islam moves front and center around a call to reinstate a bellicose nation. Identification with right wing policies in Israel now becomes a convenient way to concentrate Anti-Islamic sentiments.
The Big Lie also re-emerges. This is a strategy by which you bury truths revealed by others about you by telling large lies about them. Control the News Cycle by following each expose of you with a Big Lie. The Big Lie is designed to capture attention as it focuses resentment and revenge on vulnerable targets. It is not that you always expect your audience to believe the Lie; it is, rather that you expect them to enjoy the charge, to love how it outrages “the liberal media”, and to draw sustenance from it to exacerbate their will to revenge upon vulnerable targets. I am thus not sure how many people who love the Trump charge that Obama is really a Kenyan actually believe it in the privacy of their bedrooms. Rather, many use it to crystallize the sense that this highly intelligent African American is not American in the way they define the essence of America. His very competence doubles the assault against that demand. Similarly, though a few demented souls would do so, most would not themselves act upon the dangerous call for violence against Hillary Clinton hidden beneath a thin veneer of deniability. But they love the way the call allows them to vent against her. They also respond to Trump’s loud declarations at his rallies that he would love to beat up protesters. And they groove on his justification of torture in the name of American greatness and on the thinly veiled celebration of racism in urban police departments flying under the flag of law and order. I am also not sure that all of those who applaud loudly really think a wall between the States and Mexico would work or that Mexico would pay for it. But they love the way it allows them to voice resentments against job insecurity at home and Mexicans both here and there who threaten their sense of a white nation. In these matters Belief is less important than an Outlet for calls to rebuild an even more bellicose nation.
The problem--and danger--is that as such calls and appeals proliferate they harden further the will and demeanor of those who digest them. The very things they may laugh off in private become forces that work on the visceral register of cultural life, making it more crude and tolerant of violence. The raucous laughter aimed at others eventually works on the sensibilities of those who vent it. Fascist rhetoric has spiral like tendencies built into it.
Some people like to make fun of Trump’s speaking style. I hesitate to give in to that temptation. The style is not designed first and foremost to articulate a policy agenda. It is designed to draw the dispersed rhetorics of nationalism, militarism, law and order, white supremacy, working class grievances, trade laws, and anxiety about the changed place of the States in the global economy into a collage that energizes working class resentments, provides targets of displacement for them, and mobilizes a dispersed populace around a small set of angry priorities. His phrase clusters form collages in which the elements flow and fold into each other, as the collage deepens anger and fosters identification with an authoritarian figure who would eventually demand unquestioning obedience from his followers. The first line of associations often links the dangers of feminity, disability, weakness, responsiveness, vulnerability and dissolution; that line is then treated as if it can only be countered by a line of associations between alpha-masculinity, self assertion, violence, boundary closure, and ruthlessness. The self and the nation must erect the same sharp boundaries. Trump is a rather skilled rhetorician of the new fascism, not a failed teacher or public speaker. Given the propitious circumstances for the movement he leads we are lucky he is not more skilled. He may not capture a majority now, but he does mobilize and organize a core minority with potential staying power.
Such comparisons between earlier fascist movements and those now could (and should) be developed much further. For instance the similarities and differences between the movements in the United States, France, the UK, Germany and Turkey deserve close scrutiny. But my question today is this: Now that such a movement is underway big time, now that its resonances roll across large swaths of the white working class, urban police departments, small town residents, recovering neoliberals, veteran organizations, the right edge of evangelism, rural outposts, and other sites, what can be done to pull some of those constituencies in different directions and to improve strategic responses to those that remain. Because even if Hillary Clinton wins this election—a result not at all certain given the contingency of events and her major vulnerabilities—the resonances Trump has crystallized may well remain a potent force. He is on the verge of transfiguring the evangelical/neoliberal/fossil fuel/financial/judicial/dog whistle machine that has been so powerful in the States for several decades into a neofascist resonance machine that refigures a few neoliberal priorities to draw the white working class, veteran groups, small town residents, and rural constituencies more robustly into its orbit. The old machine will not be replaced, then, but transfigured, with a few old free market priorities jostled to mix an intensification of nationalist, supremacist, protectionist, and Christian forces more explicitly into it.
Here are a few thoughts about how to fight off this combination. Others are surely needed:
First, while structural racism is the most severe injustice in this regime, the less severe but real plight of the white working class must also be addressed. It has been caught between weak state efforts to respond to the neglect of urban areas, policies that siphon most of the income and wealth advances into the hands of a very small minority, and pluralizing forces that pass it by. Bernie Sanders started pursuing policies that would speak to the white working class, African Americans and other minorities together. Those of us who care about all these constituencies must now press actively for programs that reduce income inequality, support job security, universalize retirement benefits and support universal health care. Perhaps the best place to start is to work closely with labor unions, urban leaders, and public school teachers on these issues, as well as to work to restructure the infrastructure of consumption (see # 4). For fascist drives become exacerbated when economic insecurity grows, labor unions are demeaned and public education is weakened. Such a condition fits the U.S. today, in a situation where neoliberal courts give extravagant freedom to corporations while regulating and confining labor severely. Moreover, Bernie was right in his call to convert free trade laws into fair trade agreements. The existing agreements have played a role in the deindustrialization of America. New laws, for instance, could make it impossible for a corporation to leave the town or city that had invested so much in it until it paid back those subsidies. The bias of bankruptcy laws against workers and in favor of corporations also requires overhauling.
Second, the rhetoric of fascism must become a topic of close exploration, as more of us also learn how to work on the visceral register of cultural life in ways that generate nonviolent counter-energies and aspirations. Close study of how talk shows on the Left do their work is indispensable here. Freeze framing, repetition, concentration on the gestures and facial demeanor of neofascist speakers, those are merely some the techniques to study. Freeze frame that Trump triumphant smile to expose the narcissism and ruthlessness it expresses. The Left also needs to nurture more prophetic and charismatic leaders of its own. Bernie, Cornel West, and Elizabeth Warren provide effective role models here, but many more voices are needed. The worst idea is to laugh off fascist rhetoric. For, as some previous antifascist movements have found to their deep dismay, there is never a vacuum on the visceral register of cultural life. If we don’t become better at working on that register in non-manipulative ways other parties will move in during times of high anxiety.
Third, it is essential to call out thinly veiled appeals to violence, urban police cover-ups, and military violence whenever they emerge. This, perhaps, is the one task that has been pursued most effectively during the recent campaign.
Fourth, the corporate media, with the exception of key figures on Fox News, does resist some of the most severe modes of nationalism and white triumphalism. But have you noticed how seldom labor leaders, local community organizers, etc., are called upon to diagnose issues and expose new possibilities? Rather, we get a proliferation of party hacks and retired security analysts. I exempt Democracy Now from these charges, but sustained pressure is needed to get democratic activists onto the key news networks as we also participate in and improve the visibility of internet engagements.
Fifth, it is a difficult but imperative task to publicize how radical changes in the state supported infrastructure of consumption can simultaneously expose how much the state is already involved in the corporate organization of consumption options, help poor and working class people to make ends meet, take an important step toward reducing inequality, and respond to the generic peril of climate change. Ecology and climate change are not merely white middle class issues; they are Urban, African American, White Working Class, Native American, and Rural issues too. Activists such as Naomi Klein, Wangari Mathaii, Rob Nixon, John Buell and others have pushed this insight. The disasters in Flint, Michigan and other urban zones dramatize it. The task now is to bring these lines of development into closer coordination with one another.
Fascist movements percolate and resonate during times of high anxiety when several previously entitled constituencies have been left holding the bag. The movements are organized around exclusionary nationalism, a police state mentality, white supremacy, bellicose militarism, exclusionary rhetoric, and assaults on democracy. They can be countered and transcended, but electoral politics as usual is not sufficient to the task.