Fascists are also political chameleons

Peter Kennard, Walter Benjamin, 1990


The extreme right merely adheres to the mores of democracy as long as it lacks the monopoly power to do otherwise.

Right-wing extremists, some direct or indirect descendants of fascist parties, are coming to power in Europe – most recently in Italy, where Giorgia Meloni rose to the top of government. The black thread of your Brothers of Italy goes back to the “post-fascist” Alleanza Nationale and the “neo-fascist” Social and Italian Movement to what it is today. In Austria, the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ), whose predecessor emerged in the 1940s as a sort of ex-Nazi hangout, has tasted power more than once.

But even newly formed far-right parties like the Sweden Democrats,[I] on which the new right-wing government in that country depends, are not simply “populists”. To put it schematically, they have more in common with Benito Mussolini than they do with Juan Perón and the eponymous “ism” to which his populist-authoritarian rule in Argentina gave rise.


Avoid the word that starts with "f"

However, we abjure the word that begins with “f”. The new extreme right would indignantly reject the “fascist” label: they would insist, after all, that under their rule there would be no repression of dissent, lawlessness or violence in the streets or even concentration camps. Opposition to the extreme right also avoids the term, knowing intuitively that it would only be presented as further evidence that “the establishment” wanted to undermine his legitimacy and question his mistreated voters.

However, one problem remains: even historical fascists weren't all that "fascist" until they secured one-party rule; nor did they become so all at once. The Nazis legally disenfranchised Jews and labeled them among people – second-rate people with reprehensible character traits – before the climate was ripe for pogroms violent. O pogrom November took place in 1938, almost six years after Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor and more than four years after the referendum that granted him the status of Fuhrer.

Historical fascists were also political chameleons: Mussolini was formerly a socialist. At the turning point, there was an awareness of the lust for power: anger, hatred and even fear are much stronger political emotions than hope. Socialists mobilized hope, fascists the heady cocktail of fear and hate.


setting the agenda

Whether they are fascists or “just” right-wing extremists, it can be assumed that such forces will celebrate even more successes in the future. It is true that modern societies, especially the advanced economies and liberal communities of the historic West, are diverse in every respect: living conditions, social environments, political and ideological mindsets, and ethnic criteria. This means that even where the right has become highly radicalized and is very popular with its base, there are often majorities that vehemently reject it. But this right often sets the agenda, while its opponents remain on the defensive.

This can be attributed to the inability of the left, liberals and progressives in general, but there are probably deeper reasons. This has to do with frequently analyzed phenomena such as neoliberalism or the distancing of classic workers' parties from their traditional environments and the feeling of the working classes that they are no longer represented.

But now something else is added: a deep fear of global instability, decline, loss of prosperity. Depression is general and there is little optimism. This fatalistic frame of mind is the fuel for a narrow and aggressive mindset.


defensive reactions

Those who feel insecure want to defend what they have: they prefer to have walls around them to ward off the evils of the world. Hope has difficulty when change can only be imagined a situation for the worse. Interlinked economic and energy crises, war and inflation cloud the mood. So the defensive reactions favorable to the right are understandable.

“Today fascism is not expansive, but contractive”, writes Georg Diez on Day care in Berlin. Kia Vahland suggests No. Süddeutsche Zeitung that fascism is not only a form of government “but also an attitude. And that, unfortunately, is celebrating his comeback in various formations and political systems.

Today's extreme right does not want to conquer empires, but to say "stop the world: we want to go down". So how is it similar to historical fascism and how is it different from it?


a clever camouflage

Historical fascism was reactionary as a form of government, in its stated aims and in reality. He was explicitly against democracy and parliamentarism, and also in favor of an authoritarian cult of Leader. While invoking “common sense” and the supposedly unified opinion of the Volk [povo], he rarely appropriated democratic ideals. It was born out of war and shaped by the “discipline” of the military.

Today's fascism, on the other hand, invokes democratic values ​​and claims to be the voice of the great mass oppressed by a powerful minority “elite”. Its protagonists know how to use the values ​​of liberalism and hedonistic consumerism, which makes it propagate even in anti-authoritarian environments, such as pointed sociologists Oliver Nachtwey and Carolin Amlinger: values ​​such as “autonomy”, “self-determination” and “self-actualization” can integrate surprisingly well into authoritarian movements.

The far right is often cleverly camouflaged as a freedom movement against invading governments that ignore the wishes of citizens. Fascists learned to “use the principles of liberal democracy to undermine and abolish them”, as Georg Diez points out.

With disinformation and provocation, along with the distortion of reality and the radical simplification of its complexity, an us versus them polarization is fueled. From this synthetic war for the public mind, a spark is enough for the real violence to emerge, to which the apocalyptic political rhetoric has already given legitimacy.


change the base

In the golden age of postwar liberal democracy, the conservative right, when elected, obviously tried to impose its agenda. But even in its reactionary form, in the shadow of the Holocaust, it did not question the principles and functioning of democracy and accepted defeat when it lost. Currently, authoritarian conservatism and the fascist right do not. They try to change the foundations of democracy in such a way that it is practically impossible to eliminate them.

They are cracking down on independent media and the opposition, changing election laws, manipulating the electorate and invoking the fake democracy of daily plebiscites, from opinion polls to fake referendums. Where they have the necessary majorities, they use these undemocratic possibilities unscrupulously.

Think of Viktor Orbán's Hungary. think of the republicans “Make America Great Again”. Or the hunger for power of the far-right Austrian government under the theoretically conservative Sebastian Kurz in alliance with the FPÖ between 2017 and 2019, which still could have ended very badly if the government had not collapsed due to corruption revelations that affect the leader of the FPÖ, Heinz - Christian Strache and Sebastian Kurz himself. In general, the extreme right only adheres to the mores of democracy while lacking the monopoly power to act otherwise – such as during coalition governments.


the hate machine

The “pictures of the enemy” – Enemy images in the German-speaking world – are built without restraint and emotions are provoked. At the national level, the target is the supposed defenders of a “cultural Marxism” that intends to prohibit “normal” people from enjoying their lifestyles. In the outer firing line are “migrants”, especially refugees from predominantly Muslim countries, with entire ethnic groups stereotyped and scapegoated for crime, amid strident warnings of a “great replacement” of European Christians.

The internet has turned into a gigantic hate machine. The logic of business-oriented “social media” amplifies the outrage, exacerbated by competition within its bubbles, where participants radicalize to impress their own.

A fantasy world is established in which the local population – or at least the far-right electorate – can redefine itself as a “victim” so threatened that any form of resistance is justified. We feel threatened by the hordes and, as always in history – including in the first half of the last century – this fantasy threat legitimizes those captivated by it to inhuman acts that they would reject under normal circumstances.

The dumbing down is slow, gradual, an almost imperceptible slippery slope. Regardless of whether fascism is the right word for the threat, however, downplaying it would be a much bigger mistake.

*Robert Misik is a writer and essayist. Author, among other books, of Putin. Ein Verhängnis: Wie Wladimir Putin Russland in eine Despotie verwandelte und jetzt Europa bedroht (Picus publisher).

Translation: Ricardo Kobayaski.

Originally published on the website SocialEurope.

Translator's note

[I] Swedish ultranationalist anti-immigrant party founded in 1988.

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