In the wake of the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s victory in the US Presidential election, Getintothis’ Jono Podmore looks at the rise of extremism – and what can be done to prevent it.
The Full Definition of fascism taken from the Merriam-Webster dictionary is as follows:
- a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition
- a tendency toward or actual exercise of strong autocratic or dictatorial control
Back in the early 80s, the fascism of the Second World War seemed so distant it had begun to become a joke. The term was used so freely by post-punk juvenile liberals that it became watered down to mean anything you didn’t like; an extension of the second definition above to cover any authority or any discipline.
Rik Mayall’s character in The Young Ones was almost entirely built around this idea:
The defeated fascist dictators of the 30s and 40s had become a laughing stock or simply short hand for any generalised evil, culminating in Godwin’s Law.
Fascism was so distant, so much the concern of our parents and grandparents that it had, through repetition like a skipping rhyme, lost all its meaning.
True enough, there were in the 80s tiny and marginalised extreme right wing groups like the National Front and the British National Party who made a lot of noise and could make life unbearable for minorities, but they appeared to be utterly marginalised, practising their hateful behaviour powerlessly on the fringe. There was also endemic institutionalised racism, but, dangerous and vile as it was, it was considered a symptom of ignorance and post-colonialism rather than, as in fascism, a central tenet of the prevailing political ideology. It was believed it could just be educated away with a little political correctness.
But it was exactly then that the seeds were being sown for fascism entering the mainstream in the way we’re seeing today.
With Ronald Reagan’s presidency in 1981, the neoliberal agenda was firmly adopted by many of the world’s democracies. The term had been coined as early as 1938, and economist Milton Friedman referred to himself as a neoliberal as early as 1951, but it wasn’t until the accepted Keynesian economic model of public investment began to falter in the 70s that, with the help of powerful right-wing investors, the neoliberals began to gain control of classical conservative democratic political parties.
As George Monbiot has argued, after Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan took power, the rest of the package soon followed: massive tax cuts for the rich, the crushing of trade unions, deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing and competition in public services. Through the IMF, the World Bank, the Maastricht Treaty and the World Trade Organisation, neoliberal policies were imposed – often without democratic consent – on much of the world. Most remarkable was its adoption among parties that once belonged to the left: Labour and the Democrats, for example. As Stedman Jones notes, “it is hard to think of another utopia to have been as fully realised.”
There are problems with this neoliberal utopia so profound that it is leading us as it progresses in to catastrophe.
Sounds like hyperbole?
After 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union there was no one to stop the neoliberals. Essentially our governments were no longer there to protect us from the worst that the unregulated economic piracy of the markets could inflict upon us; they were there to assist the process. The shareholders, the investors, the media became the true constituency of our politicians while year-by-year the rights and conditions of the population were being slowly ground away. Yes, there were more foreign holidays for some, even trips to Disneyland, at what cost? Zero hours contracts and the end of the welfare state. Working into your 70s and 80s as your pension is worthless. Extortionate private healthcare run for profit rather than the health of the population.
Communities and families broken up as people get more desperate for work and security.
Politicians began to look and sound the same; unable to utter anything that would spook the markets, appearing so untouchable, so elite, so ready to be bailed out like their friends at the banks.
Then came the banking crisis of 2008 – the corrupt, unpoliced financial sector at the heart of the neoliberal project collapsed, astonishingly giving way to an even more profound form of neoliberalism – the austerity programme. Funding for the state that we all pay for through taxation was diverted directly to private businesses to cover their losses, leaving little or none for our public services. By reducing this down to a perversely inadequate analogy of good housekeeping (a nation is NOT a house, the finances function totally differently) it became possible to present this direct siphoning off of our money as a necessary evil, named quantitative easing. The neoliberal strategy of reducing the state to the servant of the markets was reaching its zenith.
Meanwhile, people suffering in conditions which have deteriorated since the neoliberal onslaught began in the 80s have run out of patience, have no-one to turn to and are voting for anyone that appears to be outside the system that has failed them so completely.
And what do we have now?
An ignorant racist bully as president elect, Britain cutting our ties to our closest trading partners in a frenzy of xenophobia; France looking down the barrel of a fascist president; and emboldened extreme right wing and openly fascist parties across the whole of Europe.
If we look at the definition of fascism again then this catastrophe seems modulated to fit our times.
Our contemporary fascism “exalts nation and often race above the individual” without doubt. Make America great again, Mr Trump? Taking control of our country back, Mr Farage?
“Forcible suppression of opposition?” This is how the Republican Party deals with its opponents these days: with threats of incarceration.
“Centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation” look different for our contemporary fascist. Much of this is now covered by market forces. It’ll simply be common sense to bring in the VR trained militarised police to restore calm to the markets when the riots begin. The shops will be open again in no time.
But where are the dictators? Putin may have some of the threatening cult status of the dictator, but Trump doesn’t look so enthusiastic.
This is where the extreme right who have exploited the hardships inflicted on people by neoliberalism have really learned a trick from history. They don’t front themselves with uniformed messiahs with the believer’s manic glint in the eye any more. They go for the ordinary guy or gal. Common sense people who call a spade a spade. They may be millionaires but they talk and think just like us, while pointing the finger all the time away from themselves to whom they want us to recognise as our real enemies:
The foreigners (come to steal our jobs and inflict their way of life on us)
The judges (denying the will of the people)
The gays (out to pervert our children)
Soon, if not already, it will be time for the common sense solution to just get rid of these stones round the neck of our Great-Again™ society. Send our well-trained police force, brimming with national pride to round up these enemies of the state, and their kids. Get them out of their beds, screaming in the middle of the night. Take them to the edge of town and get rid of them, once and for all, we don’t care where, and make our countries great again.
How great will our nations be then? Mr Trump? Mr Farage? Mr Johnson? Madame Le Pen? Mr Wilders?
Those people think that would be great. They’d be happy to impose that on you and your neighbours. And they will get there, step by legitimised step, unless we can stop them.
There is another newer, equally catastrophic consistent thread in contemporary fascism that isn’t part of the definition. All the reliable data collected over 30 or more years and even our personal experiences demonstrate the reality of climate change as a result of human behaviour. And yet our new fascists are all united in denying climate change, as if, like a religion, embracing the irrational, credo quia absurdum bolsters the belief system.
This alone has led Noam Chomsky to refer to the Republican Party as “the most dangerous organisation in world history” with good reason. Trump has promised his administration will no longer ratify the Paris Agreement, flying the face of the World Meteorological Organization which reported on November 8 that “the past five years were the hottest on record. It reported rising sea levels, soon to increase as a result of the unexpectedly rapid melting of polar ice, most ominously the huge Antarctic glaciers.
“Already, Arctic sea ice over the past five years is 28 percent below the average of the previous 29 years, not only raising sea levels, but also reducing the cooling effect of polar ice reflection of solar rays, thereby accelerating the grim effects of global warming.”
On Sunday November 13, Remembrance Sunday, the BBC broadcast an interview with Marine Le Pen, leader of the French Front National which was previously led by her openly racist, anti-Semite, brutal father.
She appeared perfectly normal. No horns, uniform or Dr. Strangelove ticks. Whether you agreed with her policies or not, she appeared, under the auspices of Mr Marr, to be a totally legitimate politician. The interview revealed that she has, like many of the current crop of contemporary fascists, learned to keep calm and spread her divisive message of hate seductively. Even left wing Brexiteers will find Le Pen’s views on the EU perfectly reasonable, thereby normalising other aspects of her politics.
Anything can become normal and legitimate if the circumstances are created.
Herta Oberheuser was trained as a doctor and had dedicated her life to healing the sick, specialising in dermatology and venereal disease. She was born in Cologne, Germany in 1911 so was in her 20s when the war broke out. In 1940 she accepted a job working for the state at the Ravensbrück and Auschwitz concentration camps. There was a war on after all, so she had to do her bit. She did her bit most imaginatively.
“She killed healthy children with oil and evipan injections, then removed their limbs and vital organs. The time from the injection to death was between three and five minutes, with the person being fully conscious until the last moment.
“She performed some of the most gruesome and painful medical experiments, focusing on deliberately inflicting wounds on the subjects. In order to simulate the combat wounds of German soldiers fighting in the war, Oberheuser rubbed foreign objects, such as wood, rusty nails, slivers of glass, dirt, or sawdust into the cuts.”
After the war she was put on trial for war crimes – footage from her trial is available here:
She seems so normal.
Her nice middle-class, educated lady’s voice, quivering with fear and vulnerability. For her, everything she did in the camps was legitimate. The brutality, the incalculable viciousness of her methods were all acceptable behaviour to her peers and encouraged by her superiors. Nevertheless she was condemned to 20 years imprisonment for her crimes, only to be released after 10 for good behaviour. She then practised as a paediatrician in the picturesque lakeside city of Plön, treating children and their families until she was recognised by Ravensbrück survivors. Her licence revoked in 1958.
Our media and our democracies are making enormous mistakes right now. In the interest of fairness, openness and understanding they are normalising the agenda of people who don’t give a toss for those values but will use the platform given to them to make their behaviour appear, like that of Frau Doktor Oberheuser, utterly legitimate. And once normalised, their nastiness makes sense to those of us who have suffered the most from the neoliberal agenda.
So what do we do?
Publicity is lifeblood to these people. They know how easy it is for hate to get under someone’s skin when they are angry and scared, as so much of our population is today. Can we just cut off the supply? The Andrew Marr interview on Remembrance Sunday was shamefully conducted and served as a promotional tool for a vicious islamophobe and anti-Semite.
We shouldn’t ignore them, but every ounce of publicity given to them should be under the glare of intense, factual interrogation of their vile and essentially irrational views. How would Britain, America or France really be if the migrant labour who are so productive in our societies without us having paid for their education and upbringing, were rejected, or sent to camps, or simply murdered? How would it be if all the gay men and women in our media alone were rounded up and sent for conversion therapy as Mike Pence, vice-president elect would happily endorse?
So we don’t ignore them – we chase them down and expose their policies and beliefs as unworkable and irrational, derived from fear and hate. We shine the searchlight on them.
What about the people they have conned? The working class people who are now prepared to believe this class of millionaire fascists are on their side more than the Sikh man who drives the bus that they ride to their zero hours jobs? The people who decided parts of Liverpool are now Nazi controlled zones? The poor saps that will join their leader to try to undermine British law with this demonstration?
We shine the spotlight on them too; attend their marches and rallies. Not to beat them up, or threaten them; not to make them more afraid. Tempting as that might be, it is after all their strategy.
We need to inform them that they are not the victims of handfuls of immigrant teenagers from the camps in Calais. They are the victims of the only winners in this game: the millionaires in the gold lift. Millionaires who no longer have to worry about working class people taking their place, demanding fair pay or battering through their golden portals because the workers are too busy putting razor blades through Mr and Mrs Patel’s letter box, or reporting the Mexican family next door, or throwing bricks through the window of the Algerian cafe. Millionaires who took the money that the worker’s parents and grandparents dutifully paid in taxes over centuries and put it in bank accounts in Panama after the state gave to them directly as quantitative easing or indirectly by subsidising low wages.
Even that message isn’t enough. There has to be a genuine alternative too, a set of ideas that can be offered to these people that doesn’t appear to be part of the neoliberal status quo that has left them with shrinking income and fading hopes.
The current Labour Party leadership here and left wing parties across Europe are mounting opposition, but to be credible they will need all our support. An email I received from Labour HQ with text by Jeremy Corbyn begins “Last week’s US Presidential election result was a global wake-up call…”
He’s right – we need to wake up to this threat to our society and make a coherent, unified response to these empowered fascists. No more back-biting about media strategy or electability, we need to unify to get the idea across to people who might be seduced into thinking the likes of Farage, Trump, Le Pen, Wilders represent them.
We need to legitimise and normalise another idea – that there are viable alternatives to the polarised, unjust, brutal and culturally bereft societies that these new leaders will inevitably bring.