latent fascism



Reflections on historical fascism and its manifestations in contemporary times

Is there, in fact, a fascist drift underway in Brazil? There is certainly little doubt about the toxic combination of authoritarianism and irresponsibility that is destroying the already vulnerable republican institutions among us. Which is no small feat, if we consider that genuine authoritarianism strives to display the brand of responsibility, preferably invested in a well-identified leader. Failing that, the consequence, as in our case, is the worst of both worlds: absolute but concealed evil, expressed in anonymous death and destruction. Less clear is the affinity of this state of affairs with the aggressive right-wing regime originally known as fascism.

It all starts with the difficulty of defining what we are talking about when we say “fascist”. This is no longer easy when dealing with historical examples from the period 1922 to 1945 in Italy and Germany, and it turns into a labyrinth when the reference is to the later period up to the present time. Maze to be traversed, however, and with eyes wide open, as it has much to show about trends in progress and to be fought. Strictly speaking, to speak of fascism is to speak of the Italian case, when the term was invented to evoke the greatness of classical Rome as an inspiration for the construction of national greatness seen as degraded. It was also when, along with the central idea of ​​greatness, the term “totalitarian” was adopted in Italy to designate a national unit based on a State strong enough to incorporate society into its action.

It is worth remembering, in passing, that there is a frontal contrast with the socialist project, aimed at the reincorporation of the State in the society from which it had separated in the modern historical process. The German case takes fascism to a paroxysm, and in this it also accentuates the ambivalences if not contradictions already present in the Italian case. Both regimes embody an unresolved tension between the traditional and the modern, translated into the combination of a positive appreciation of technological advancement and innovation (also in the field of art, as in Italian “futurism” with its cult of power and speed) and ultra-conservative stance on patterns of social relationships such as the family, along with strict doctrinal controls on education and culture.

This manifests itself in both cases in a conception of the political movement conforming to what has been called (by Jeffrey Herf) “reactionary modernism”. However, when speaking of “reactionary” in these terms, the most direct reference would be what German ideologues (such as Hans Freyer) defined as “revolution by the right”. This, however, means change and not mere reaction. It should be remembered that fascism uses conservative means for its ends, but it has nothing reactionary about it, and it is from this ambiguity that it derives part of its attraction for social groups lost and frightened between mere continuity and change.

So far, similarities can still be found between those European conditions and what has been shaping up here. However, a clear difference can be detected. It is the fascist emphasis on the nation as a political reference and as a value, in an extreme nationalism. None of this is found in Brazil today, with a basic aggravating factor. While in classic fascism national autonomy is a fundamental desideratum, the Brazilian authoritarian pattern is marked by subordination to well-defined external forces, centered in the USA. This from the beginning complicates the approximation between the two standards. Even more so when classic fascism has a constructive purpose, in its own way, while among us the mockery of a regime has a destructive effect, in its own way too.

It is, then, in order to further examine the nature of classical European fascism. (Here the reference to fascism encompasses both the Italian dictatorship and German Nazism.) There are two ways to do this. The first consists of an examination centered on the institutional dimension, with emphasis on the composition and functioning of State apparatuses, on party organization, on apparatuses for mobilization and repression through terror, on the relations between economic forces and the regime, and so on. The classic example of this is the study of the German case as “totalitarian monopoly capitalism” by Franz Neumann.

It examines how the intertwining of economic and political forces in the regime, far from forming a harmonious unit, corresponds more to a kind of organized chaos with limited conditions of survival, far from the “millennial kingdom” desired by Hitler. Indeed, the simultaneous presence of chaos and organization constitutes one of the central areas of tension in the functioning of the regime, when organization, the central objective of the supreme command, proves to be only feasible through the maintenance of the closest accomplices and the business entities associated with them. in a state of constant conflict dependent on arbitration.

What is essential in Neumann is the explicit reference to capitalism, which tends to disappear in later literature. In this regard, he has an incisive formulation: “What is the strength of this [National Socialist] economy: power, patriotism or profit? We believe we have shown that it is the profit motive that plays a decisive role. But in a monopoly system, profits cannot be made or appropriated without totalitarian power, and this is the specific characteristic of National Socialism.”

The second path opens up after the war, especially from the 1960s onwards, when this search for the specificity of the German and Italian cases based on the pattern of political and economic relations shaped by the weight of the large industrial and financial conglomerates was replaced by a more “generic” conception, according to the term adopted by the authors involved. Classic fascism appears in this as a particular case of a larger phenomenon, which transcends national borders, and the ideological dimension comes to occupy a central position. The initial step in this was taken in 1962 by the conservative German historian Ernst Nolte, who sought by this means to soften the specific character (and thereby the responsibility) of the German regime, with special emphasis on the thesis of similarity between Nazism and Communism.

Later, in the 1980s, the preference for a generic analysis of fascism – already free of Nolte’s “historical reformism” (which had raised controversy in which Habermas strongly participated) – gained the format of basic orientation of the research, even more so when the collapse of East Germany, the GDR, and the purge promoted in its universities by the winners of the Cold War ended the cycle of strictly Marxist research in the area.

This all gained momentum when what was called the new research consensus was formed, largely thanks to the work of the Englishman Roger Griffin. This successful thesis consists of two points. The first focuses on the defense of that generic view and not just punctual and restricted to classic European cases, centered on dictatorial autocratic power, on the police state of generalized terror, on violence, on militant racism and homophobia, on the forced mobilization of the population and on traits alike. This as a condition to include in the analysis the particular cases – somehow discrepant from each other – of manifestation of the phenomenon.

The second and main point alludes to what could be taken as the significant core that gives fascism its specific structure, as a conception of the world underlying it in all cases. This nucleus consists, according to Griffin, of the conception he called “palingenic”, that is, the idea that society is experiencing something like a rebirth from ruins and demoralization. A regeneration, anyway. For Griffin, this idea, which is very present in Italian Fascism and German National Socialism as regimes that are built from the serious crises after the war of 1914 to 1918, constitutes the “non-eliminable axis” of the whole. At this point, a comparative reference to the current Brazilian situation is in order. Here, it is the other way around: the destructive crisis is not given in advance, but is provoked by the very operations of the State, something that intrigues Griffin.

It makes sense, in effect, to point out this conception of a way out of the crisis through the reconstitution of the entire body politic (it is difficult to avoid the image of the rise of the prostrate Leviathan). He is a powerful figure of political rhetoric, which, however, only gains full meaning when associated with two others, to which Griffin and his followers pay less attention. Among these, one is especially powerful and could very well occupy a central position, along with the first. It is the idea of ​​purity, with its development in the extremely acute idea of ​​purification (of the nation as “soil and blood”, of the race, of man). It should be noted, in this regard, that the perception of the importance of this is not so much due to scientific analysis, but is more present in a remarkable cinematographic documentary about Nazi Germany, The Architecture of Destruction.

These two components only gain full force when driven by the great driving force of the whole, hatred. Being directed, in general, to the polluter, such hatred gains both in intensity, when directed to anything that threatens the double movement of purification and regeneration that gives it the aura of sacredness, and in flexibility, when multiplying the cases possible infringement. It is worth examining better, moreover, the complex dynamics of hatred, which figures like Goebbels and still today the “political strategists” inspired by him, like Steve Bannon in the USA. As the organizing principle of the whole set, there is the idea of ​​unity, to which those of people and race are associated, thought of as a compact molding of a harmonious and monolithic entity. In a peripheral but not insignificant register, these themes are also evoked in Brazil, for example when at the height of the attacks against then-President Dilma Roussef, insignia such as “Brazil passed cleanly” appeared.

That character of monolithic harmony does not, however, mean a radically undifferentiated set. It means the authoritative selection of what must remain different (for example, gender distinctions) in contrast to what must be integrated into the whole, either according to the traditional pattern, as an “organic” unit with natural ties of a community or “mechanical” type, on the modern side, where coordination prevails (the German term invokes something like “forced equalization”) through close ties between those included and rejection or, at the limit, elimination of the undesirables. At this point, what is somber about fascism reaches its deepest level, when traditional and modern criteria merge in the previously mentioned theme of purity from the angle of purification. At its deepest ideological core, therefore, is the paradigmatic combination of unity and purity. For this very reason, combined with the idea of ​​regeneration, the opposite face of the idea of ​​purity is not limited to that of impurity, but takes the form of corruption in its exact meaning, as wear and tear and degeneration, in contrast to regeneration (and not as a simple purchase or exchange of favors, as its trivialized version suggests).

At this point, the central opposition in this ideological complex is found, which is the relationship between degeneration and regeneration. Taking this line of argument to the limit, we have, in short, that the synthesis of the fascist ideological organization, especially in its most elaborate Nazi version, consists of the idea of ​​unpolluted unity. Here we have the core of an ideological complex of extraordinary power, never to be underestimated, not only because of its synthetic character and therefore susceptible to unfolding, but also because of its ability to penetrate, in different ways, deep layers of the psyche of those who are at your reach. It is not easy to find the right strategy for dismantling a symbolic apparatus so shielded against any influences and so capable of generating derived forms (just think of the polysemy of a term like “corruption”).

In summary terms, we can identify two major ideological cores in the contemporary period, both already feeling the wear and tear of time, but robust enough to surpass their exact moment. On the right side, regeneration; on the left, the revolution. The intricate game between these two poles has marked the XNUMXth century until the present, when the question that arises is which side will have the strength (material and symbolic) and initiative to face the present historical imperative, that of rethinking the world and Act upon.

It constitutes a characteristic feature of that regime, rigid in ideas but in practice tied by loose threads that allow its direction in one direction or another by the rulers at the top at all times, that the purity invoked at the core of the ideological binding is not so obeyed in the relations of domination effective. Thus, the motto “anti-capitalist and anti-bourgeois” does not prevent the close and growing alliance with these forces, as already shown by Neumann. Similarly, in competition with forces on the left already established in parties and unions, he does not hesitate to cannibalize opponents' names and symbols, such as the salute with raised arms, the background color of the flag and, above all, the reference to workers in the name of the party.

The doctrinal mishmash in the name of the German party well expresses the tactic of confusion adopted. It is the “National Socialist German Workers' Party”, a designation in which the qualifiers “national” and “Germans” are in reality decisive, but go hand in hand with nominal references, designed to confuse. It is significant that we do not speak of the people, tacitly represented by the workers, not least because the category people has no substantive reference in that ideological construction, but occupies the position of founding myth of the compact unit of the community (central term) invoked therein, always qualified as German. It is doubtful, therefore, to speak of “populism”. It is not by chance that the fascist jurist (more out of opportunism than out of conviction) Carl Schmitt defines democracy with reference to the unity of the people, not only to distinguish it from liberal fragmentation but also to sever its association with sovereign popular power in the Republic.

Of course, this permeability to opportune interpretations helps to give a certain flexibility to the versions of the generic matrix that are developed in the period after the classic. Here more than anywhere else variations on the generic model are important. And it is necessary to recognize, however carefully one applies to the thesis of the relevance of the fascist or neo-fascist model to the current Brazilian case (which among us is found with closed argumentation in a recent article in a Marxist register by Armando Boito on the website the earth is round) that Brazilian society is proving to be fundamentally saturated with this destructive impulse. With the aggravating factor that within it there are those who diligently seek preferential targets for their exercise, which is close to the classic model.

This takes the form of a political party, the PT (which, by the way, uses the inviting red color on its flag) and similar associations. A circumstantial yet significant event involving that party scapegoat provides an example of this socially rooted authoritarianism (as analysts such as Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro have been pointing out for some time). This is a phrase by the then senator Konder Bornhausen when the PT federal government was against the ropes in the so-called “mensalão” case, starting in 2005. It would be necessary, he said, “to put an end to this race” for 30 years. End this race. In a society like ours, this is part of the racist vocabulary of slave extraction. Nevertheless, it remits to the same pattern as the Nazi vocabulary. We have in this embarrassing, however, eloquent example of unbearable affinities, which warns us of something fundamental. This vocabulary ferments without respite in society.

At this point, it is worth highlighting an important distinction between classic fascism and the slippery authoritarian variant underway in Brazil. It's just that in our case we don't have the creation of something new, but the explanation of something actually present in society, although not uniformly in it. In the classic fascist case, however, the impulse goes more towards the exacerbation of traits supposedly found in society, such as the Jewish eagerness for profit or the red peril. It should be remembered that fascist propaganda, especially in its Nazi version, did not invent its enemies (Jews, communists or others), it only reserved for them in advance and with no chance of contestation qualities that were convenient to it.

It is necessary to recognize, however, that the idea of ​​explaining what is already given in the background, as in the Brazilian case, points to something especially disturbing. Admitting a drastic formulation, if we can speak of a variant of classical fascism here, it will be worse than the original in several respects. It will be more ingrained and more resistant to identification and combat, due to its intrinsically concealed character and, for that very reason, more dependent on vigorous attention and action within society. It would not be recommended without risk of serious embarrassment to find out who routinely killed and tortured the most, the Gestapo political police and SS stormtroopers in Germany or police agencies and militias in Brazil. Better to act without doing casualty accounting.

The point here is that one can speak of a strong parafascist trait among us; it will not be found directly in the State apparatuses as it was in Germany, but diffused in society. Decisive in this is that it is in a latent state; ready, therefore, to come to the fore as soon as favorable conditions arise (for example, after the 2022 elections). It is possible, from now on, to have a measure of that deterioration in relation to classic fascism (which, let's face it, just doesn't sound ridiculous now because of the unspeakable fact of explicit genocide). This is possible because we already have a way to compare our current situation with that of the dictatorial twenty years (a little less than the Italian fascist regime and eight years beyond the much more radical German regime).

The argument, at this point, is that the difference between the current situation and the previous open dictatorship is proportional to the one that could or will be able to verify between the full validity of what is now latent here and on the verge of becoming manifest and European fascism. classic. This is not the time to fight the ghost of the old fascism, which has already been left behind. It is a confrontation with the other regime lurking among us, right-wing authoritarianism in its pure state that is being formed, as brutal in action as it is viscous and elusive in characterization. If the practical principle of classical fascism consists in making the corresponding regime public and manifest, what is glimpsed in our case is a kind of mirror game, faithful to the basic principle of “make-believe”.

Nothing corresponds to what is advertised; everything is possible in the background, and the hand of power – heavy or sneaky depending on the occasion – strikes anyone who takes appearances too seriously, which are also occasional. There were already those who predicted the rise to power in Brazil of a figure as caricatured as destructive as Berlusconi in Italy or more, barely imagining that beyond an accidental episode this could signal the possibility of a tendency to be contained. The fear is not without reason. The figure of Berlusconi, based on the pattern of his government, centered on the figure of the leader for the benefit of interests that are similar to him and always equivocal as to his positions, portrays an international trend that deepened in the following period. He sets the tone for the extreme right with regard to the already fragile institutions of representative liberal democracy, while at the same time he strives to pulverize opposing forces. Different experiences on a global scale demonstrate that the damage thus caused is profound and long-term and, above all, depends on the mobilization of segments of society in support of institutional reconstruction efforts.

It will always be said, and rightly so, that fascism in its conventional version has been defeated. Here, however, a distinction already suggested before, and of the greatest importance, imposes itself. On the one hand, we have the dimension that we can call “institutional”, related to the State's way of functioning in its relations with society: basically, in the fascist case, the organs of control and management of interests, of legitimation through propaganda and of continuous mobilization through terror. On the other hand, we have the “ideological” dimension, which concerns the management of current ideas and the corresponding modes of conduct.

Let's consider that the first dimension is more properly political and the second has a more social character. It is visible at first glance that it is relatively easier and with faster effects to intervene in the first (rewrite or annul the Constitution, for example) than in the second (eliminate entrenched convictions and behaviors or create new ones, for example; hence, in regimes authoritarianism, the use of terror). In classic European cases, the political dimension was defeated, but after some spectacular spasms, the social field as the seat of culture and ideology was neglected. As a whole, the most important new datum is that the institutional dimension (which we could also think of as the hardware of the regime) has been undergoing important changes since the middle of the last century, which increase its effectiveness on the side soft (especially information and conduct controls by electronic means).

This makes it possible to dispense with a growing part of the heavy instruments of consolidation and continuity of the regime (overt physical violence, replaced by psychic or symbolic violence, for example). At the same time, the importance of the ideological dimension increases, which directly benefits from technological advances and scientific research (artificial intelligence, for example) in the light area of ​​operation of the regime. All this paves the way, in the absence of contrary tendencies and strong resistance, for ever new forms of profound authoritarianism of a fascist nature, less spectacular, less noisy and less bloody, but many times more effective than in historical examples. In these circumstances, the struggles inherent to social and political polarization are transferred to lighter areas, transferring the battle for control of the streets to the dispute for access and control of digital communication, always with the advantage of the more aggressive side capable of mobilize new-type militants, equipped to ensure their own communication and obstruct that of the adversary.

This means that the reference to the defeat of the classic fascist regimes must be qualified. Yes, the institutional side of the regime was defeated. This, however, did not simply involve the elimination of its social aspect, as the following decades strongly suggested. The concentration of controlling power is a fact to be faced with all means. This will not be done only in direct confrontation with state agencies and with the almost impregnable strongholds of megacorporations. It also requires the work of an ant to corrode in every corner the ropes that tie people to their digital “applications” of all sorts and make them subject to all kinds of abuse.

An authoritarian order of a fascist nature seems, at first glance, something that, once set in motion, installs itself quickly and irresistibly. However, the long march through the institutions makes its way through a viscous environment, whatever its orientation. The problem is not getting there first, it is implanting yourself deeper, knowing how to face the challenge of time. Fascism in its German version turned its gaze to the question of destiny, of what defines the final target and establishes the conditions for achieving it. In its Italian version, the focus is different, with a long viscerally political tradition since Machiavelli. At stake is the right opportunity for action, which depends on the ability to capture the right moment and know how to act. Fatalism of fate, opportunism of will. Between these two rocks there is ample space to navigate, as long as the use of reason allows the route to be drawn on good maps.

Fundamental, however, is that resistance to the consolidation of persistent forms of authoritarian domination is possible, as long as the dismantling of its institutional frameworks are combined with the reform of its obscurantist legacy, with precise blows on the one hand and tenacious persistence on the other. The paradigmatic case is Germany (considering, due to its warning and advice, only West Germany, with a capitalist and liberal-conservative profile, since the East GDR, socialist and authoritarian, would require a separate analysis). The first and spectacular measures to eliminate Nazism without leaving a trace barely served to hide the difficulty of such a radical result. Many less prominent former militants of the movement remained in their public positions (or were at ease in the mega business organizations, especially in their South American branches), even as a result of the intensification of the cold war, in which the two sides looked at each other with look paranoid and preferred to close their eyes to many things.

The essential, however, concerns what was actually done. Against strong signs of indifference or even hostility from those remaining among the vanquished, a vigorous movement of “reworking the past” was carried out since the 1950s by groups and parties opposing the conservatism of the Konrad Adenauer era and by eminent intellectuals, many of them returnees. from exile. It was about facing up to what had been done with citizen courage and creating by all means an environment of anti-fascist reflection and re-education, in a model enterprise. There were no miracles, of course, and everyone involved at the bottom knew that they were setting in motion a long-term process, two generations at least, and on land mines.

It is true that even the most committed among them, Theodor Adorno, for example, on several occasions were taken by disbelief in the possibility of launching themselves in a society with as many authoritarian marks as the German one, the foundations of effective citizenship, without which all other efforts indeed they would be in vain. In the atmosphere of that period this sentiment made sense. However, seen a little more than two generations ago, it becomes easier to recognize that, with all its shortcomings, this attempt to intervene in a democratic register did not go unnoticed and proposed issues and procedures to be taken very seriously here and now. What was done in the German case, however, is not similar in other societies and would never have been done without the vigorous action of these combatively democratic groups, which did not back down even in the face of exaggerations by their allies.

This is an exemplary case of proper action after disaster strikes. In less traumatized societies (for now) the example is set. The effective fight against authoritarianism, also in its extreme forms, has society as its stage and as opponents the often disguised and elusive forms of rancorous prejudices. If this is not taken care of, institutional change and even the judgment of the culprits will prove to be insufficient. This experience teaches that action of a democratic nature does not consist in annulling or forgetting the past in a coup, but in taking seriously the reality of memory, knowing how to face it without fear and without resentment. The first and most arduous task of the German anti-fascists was precisely to honor the dignity of memory. There is little point in insisting on repudiating Italian or German fascism after its defeat and then sweeping them from memory as a task accomplished. She barely started.

The challenge is to build the ground for the formation of citizens instead of followers of leaders. What those Democrats knew is that the deadline for doing so is long and that's why it's necessary to start soon. Never again death camps like Auschwitz, proposed as a motto an intellectual strongly engaged in that effort. Perhaps here we can soon come to say, against political forms analogous to fascists or worse, never again Bolsonaro, with everything that this figure represents in terms of making explicit the so persistent dark side of our society.

*Gabriel Cohn is professor emeritus at FFLCH-USP. Author, among other books, of Weber, Frankfurt. Theory and social thought (Quicksilver).

Article developed from the participation in a round table with Dylan Riley and Bernardo Ricupero in the seminar, “Fascism: yesterday and today?”, on November 4th. Available in


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