It was the Martinican poet and anticolonial fighter, Aime Cesaire, who tried to point out to Europeans that what they called Nazism, they had been practicing with a free conscience in the colonial world for decades. And that this relationship was not incidental.
In fact, the conscience of the European was never free. Octave Mannoni, the French psychoanalyst who famously psychoanalysed the colonial situation, once suggested that there was a surprising pervasiveness of the colonised, in the dreams of Europeans who had never left the continent and never seen such a person. Today, one wonders if provincial, sedentary English men and women dream of the Muslim.
If they do, these hauntings allow them to dissociate: that is, to project all their destructive impulses (the death-drive) onto someone else. It also allows them to dream that, since there is this other figure who isn’t fully human, they are guaranteed full humanity, a plenitude of being, by their whiteness. A certain cosmic prestige. Remember D H Lawrence in his ecstatic passions about nature — the dandelion is a nonpareil, foolish, foolish, foolish, to compare it to anything else. This was also a racist metaphysics of a great chain of being, in which he judged life more vivid in him than in his Mexican driver.
A lethal anxiety can be provoked when the principle of race seems to collapse. Because then you might have to take back your projections. What’s more, you have to confront the emptiness of your identification with whiteness. You may remember the racist tram passenger, Emma West, emotively excoriating black passengers and saying, “my Britain is fuck all now!”
In the summer of 2011, David Starkey complained that the whites have become black. This was his explanation for multiracial, anti-police riots that flared across English cities. Well, five years later, Thomas Mair gave that anxiety the force of arms. In the middle of a Brexit campaign which dramatically represented the country as being at a “Breaking Point”, where that break was clearly linked to race, Mair sought out a 'traitor' to whiteness — just as Breivik did — for murder.
The Breiviks and Mairs, lone wolves of 21st century fascism, are also canaries in the coal mine. They don’t tell us that fascism has arrived, but they do show us what it means.
The question, “Is Fascism On the Rise?,” could too easily provoke us to offer glib answers. Trump isn’t a fascist, Farage isn’t a fascist, so we might think we can set the whole question of fascism aside. But we can only do that if we treat fascism as a scholastic typological question, rather than an historical one.
History is a process, and we need to understand the processes through which fascism arises. There is a traditional schema according to which economic crisis equals polarisation equals extremism. Things are more complicated. There’s a particular sequence which we should pay attention to.
Yes, economic crisis is important, but it has to be metabolised by the state somehow. A crisis of capitalism, has to be a crisis of its political institutions and of its ideological claims. That crisis must manifest itself in a deadlock of political leadership of the ruling class. If, typically, one of its sectors leads (say, the City of London) and imposes its imperatives as being for the good of all, that leadership will come into question.
There will be a crisis of representation, as the link between parties and their traditional social base breaks down. As governments flounder, the state apparatuses will achieve a higher degree of autonomy and salience. There will be profound and pervasive distrust of the existing ideologies and the media outlets which purvey them.
The Left will be weak, and retreating. The labour movement will be weak, employers on the offensive. That offensive will have severe consequences not just for workers but also for the lower ends of the middle class, who suddenly risk being plunged down into the ranks of the poorest — or worse, being made equal to the racialised outsider. The whites will become black.
And then, internationally, the state will be either in some state of relative ‘backwardness’ (as was the case for imperial late-comers Italy and Germany) or in some state of relative competitive decline. A decline which metaphorises the decline of all the downwardly mobile social strata in the nation.
In that context, of comprehensive crisis and left weakness, a fascist organisation can take power.
The traditional way of doing this would be to exploit democratic politics while building paramilitary strength; to forge networks of elite support and covert state alliances while posing as anti-establishment.
But in most cases, no mature fascist organisation exists. The closest we have come to seeing that in recent years was the Golden Dawn years in Greece, where they assembled mass support and rival centres of legitimate violence on the streets, alongside links to state allies — but the confrontation with bourgeois state power came too soon. They were crushed, for now.
But the fascism of the future doesn’t have to be traditional. Nor does it have to respect the sequences observed in the interwar years, or reanimate old cultures. It could even adopt a patina of edgy cool, as with the alt-right: we should never underestimate the erotic glamour of fascism and its appeal to the death-drive.
Nor does it have to always be on the brink of a putsch. Let us not forget the strategy of the Front national, to win mainstream credibility by demonstrating the ability to govern within liberal constraints. The attempt by Bannon and Miller to force a rupture in the American state was premature and voluntaristic. A more competent germinal fascism would take its time, patiently exploiting the fascist potential within the liberal state, to incubate and nurture the fascist monster of the future.
We face a parlous situation. The instability of capitalist democracies will produce both exhilarating breakthroughs and morbid symptoms. Recent polls across Europe showed that surprisingly huge numbers of young people would be up for a revolt against their government. This can be a radical groundswell, but let us not underestimate the space or pure negativity, the possibility for an identification with pure destruction. Polls around the time of Charlie Hebdo showed a surprisingly large reservoir of sympathy for Daesh among young French people — not just Muslims, as was inaccurately reported. How can the Left harness the best and head off the worst — if not to channel it through pointless social media blood-lettings? We know how the Right will respond; by racialising it, and by calling down the force of an authoritarian response ten times more lethal than what it is supposed to repress.
We on the Left are having a good campaign about class and economic issues right now, but to an extent we seem to want to have anti-fascist conversations without seriously addressing the centrality of race, nation, war and the colonial legacy. The national question, which in Britain is always a racial question, has become more and not less central. We would not be facing a Tory electoral behemoth now, had Brexit not completely transformed the terrain. Too much of the Left, including some of the Corbynite Left, would rather not have that conversation for reasons of electoral expediency. It would simply cost too much to have that conversation in the short run. What they don’t realise is what it will cost them in the long run not to have that conversation.
I return to Cesaire, talking about that troubled conscience of Europeans:
“it is Nazism, yes, but before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples; they have cultivated that Nazism, they are responsible for it, and before engulfing the whole edifice of Western, Christian civilization in its reddened waters, it oozes, seeps and trickles from every crack.”