Tuesday, May 26, 2009
A few points about fascism posted by Richard Seymour
The first point to make about fascism is that, as Robert Paxton, the great historian of Vichy France argues, it possesses no coherent ideology or philosophical system. It is no accident that there was no Fascist Manifesto. There is a great gulf, not only between what different fascist movements have said, but between what they have said and what they have done when given the opportunity. Fascists have had few shared assumptions, or shared enemies. European fascists were often hostile to Christianity, but this was not true of Franco or Petain. Indeed, Marrus, Paxton and Hoffman's book, Vichy France and the Jews, points out that Petain sought the approbation of the Vatican for his anti-Jewish policies (which he received), and was sensitive to even the relatively restrained criticisms that came from some Catholic clergy. Similiarly, while fascists from the northwest and east of Europe directed their most deadly ire against Jews, mediterranean fascists were far more conscpicuous in their hostility to the Left and colonized peoples. As for ideological inconstancy, Mussolini's 1919 programme promised sweeping social change, from the eight hour day to workers' involvement in industrial management. The 'Twenty-Five Points' of the Nazis in 1920 boasted hostility to all forms of non-artisanal capitalism. In neither case did the programmes prefigure the regimes, both of which involved coalition with conservative elites.
The second, related, point is that the difference between fascist programme and action is by no means reducible to the corruption that the achievement of power supposedly exerts on all political programmes. As Paxton points out, fascism is unlike Stalinism in the sense that fascism "never produces a casuistic literature devoted to demonstrating how the leader’s actions correspond in some profound way to the basic scriptures. Being in accord with basic scriptures simply does not seem to matter to fascist leaders, who claim to incarnate the national destiny in their physical persons." (Robert O Paxton, 'The Five Stages of Fascism', The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 70, March 1998) Fascists dissimulate about certain core tenets, but not about programme for they have none. If fascists were 'revolutionaries', their actions would have been different. They would not have come to power on the basis of an alliance with conservative elites or formed such effective coalitions with concentrated capitalist power. In truth, however, they could not have come to power otherwise; they would not have been able to take power except in a counterrevolutionary pact with the ruling classes. This counterrevolutionary function, moreover, preceded accession to power: the main way in which early fascist paramilitaries acted was to violently attack the left, particularly the revolutionary left, and the organisations of the insurgent working class. The main goal once in power was not to 'transcend' social conflict, as the sociologist Michael Mann would have it, but to suppress it by any means necessary. It was recognised, in fact, that such conflicts of interest would continue to exist, but the point was to protect the national state from its effects.
Thirdly, European fascist parties tend to emphasise their willingness to use the state to assist (white) people. But for all its emphasis on what Mann refers to as the 'fetish-object' of the nation-state, for all its corporatism, the statism of fascism, particularly as regards the economy, is over-stated. Such state intervention as was practised was highly conditioned by the exigencies of economic collapse and the need to develop an efficient war machine. It was often aimed at disciplining labour and reducing incomes. And efforts to coopt the working class were always curtailed by the fascists' hostility to social equality and their social Darwinist belief that the success of industrial capitalists was meritocratic. The 'four year plan' of the Nazis, the technical details of which were drafted by IG Farben, represented not an attempt to contain capitalist development but the on-going fusion of sectors of capital with the state. It was succeeded, moreover, by a sweeping wave of privatizations. Moreover, the most barbaric successes of fascist doctrine were created in those spaces where the party either trumped or escaped the national state - in wars of expansion, most obviously, during which highly efficient regimes of mass destruction were created without the simultaneous creation of effective administrative structures.
This is just by way of disputing any reading of European far right parties as being in some sense the necessary beneficiaries of the collapse of social democracy, as being the 'natural' home for alienated left-wing constituencies, of the 'white working class'. Such claims are not only patronising (just as patronising as the Archbishop's claim that the BNP might be a natural resort of people riled by the expenses scandal), they are also extraordinarily dangerous. But some of the above might also help explain a few apparent peculiarities about the fascist threat today. We are used to fascists posing as defenders of the welfare state and trade unions, opponents of privatization and so on. This is what the BNP do when they address working class audiences, it is what Le Pen did to woo French workers, and historically the whole rebarbative conjugation of 'national socialism' was in the first place an attempt to win over the German working class. But we are entitled to ask: how did we end up with parties of the far right positioning themselves as defenders of liberalism? I'm not just talking about the late 'Pim Fortuyn List', but the way in which European fascist parties are increasingly taking up the mantra of 'free speech', 'civil liberties' and so on (in opposition to supposed 'outside' threats to them). Why do they attempt, however unconvincingly, to disavow or attenuate some of their most reactionary stances (on homosexuality, for example)? And why are European fascists aligning with Israel while ostentatiously shedding their antisemitic stances in public - the effort is insincere, but why bother? It is tempting to see all this as pure dissimulation, an accomodation to certain fortuitous conditions provided by the 'war on terror'. But I don't think the support for Israel is actually just a pose: it makes perfect sense in the current global alignments for the far right to support Israel, and it by no means entails that they give up their antisemitism. The language of a 'clash of civilizations' is, moreover, entirely compatible with the colonial assumptions embedded in fascism. On the other, it makes perfect sense for movements whose hallmark is to appropriate 'traditions' supposedly belonging to the 'communities' they valorise, to adopt certain liberal cynosures without actually being liberal themselves.