Proto-Fascism?

The idea that Britain and America could turn ‘Fascist’ soon is beginning to take a hold. Until very recently any suggestion of this kind tended to be dismissed as Left-wing paranoia. Now it’s part of mainstream speculation.

Those who deny its possibility probably have in mind a version of Fascism – Hitler’s – which was extreme and, yes, very unlikely to be implemented today. Few of us can envisage death camps in the English countryside or in the American Mid-West, for example. No-one is thinking of gassing immigrants, gypsies, communists or the disabled, let alone the Jews. But Fascism isn’t defined by these sorts of atrocity. In fact it’s a rather vague concept, which is why it can be employed so loosely on the Left.

The best definition – amongst all those I’ve googled – may be Merriam-Webster’s.

‘A political philosophy, movement, or regime 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.’

Even that, however, is too strong to characterise government under either Boris Johnson or Donald Trump. Its major flaw, for this purpose, is the bit about ‘economic and social regimentation’, which clearly doesn’t fit with America’s and Britain’s dominant neo-liberal philosophies, and their espousal by those on the Right accused of ‘Fascist’ tendencies.

Which is why I’m wary of employing the term in present conditions. If I use it at all (as I think you’ll find if you trawl back through this blog), it’s with the prefix ‘proto’ attached to it. For I do believe that there are (a) political circumstances arising today which are reminiscent of the situation in which the original forms of Fascism took root in the1930s; and (b) aspects of the present policies of both Trump and his great admirer Johnson which may be said to carry a Fascist potential.

The circumstances hardly need to be spelled out. They include economic depressions in both periods and the hardships for ordinary people resulting from them; feelings of national loss in both cases – empire in Britain’s, World War I in inter-War Germany’s, world-domination in America’s; fear of ‘alien’ invasions – ‘blacks’, Poles, Jews, Mexicans; growing inequalities; and declining trust in their forms of democracy and the ‘elites’ that had captured them, today dubbed ‘populism’. To meet these challenges Trump and Johnson are pursuing similar strategies, which verge on the authoritarian, if not the overtly Fascistic.

Both are overtly nationalistic, and hostile to internationalism. ‘If you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere’: that’s Theresa May, who had something of the proto-Fascist about her too. Both appeal to past national ‘greatness’: ‘Make America Great Again’; and Boris’s scarcely-disguised appeal to Britain’s ‘glorious’ imperial past. Both are impatient of the constitutional ‘checks and balances’ that stand in the way of their absolute power: judges and the House of Lords in Johnson’s case. This must indicate an authoritarian cast of mind. (Johnson long ago professed an ambition to become ‘World King’.) They both use the extreme language of ‘treachery’ to describe ordinary opponents: ‘enemies of the people’, and so on. Both seek to delegitimise their fourth estates – another constitutional ‘balance’; Trump with his ‘fake’ news accusations, and Boris – just yesterday – by restricting access to his press conferences to trusted media outlets. They both push domestic agendas which are widely regarded as reactionary. Both are – obviously – anti-socialist; or could this be at the root of it? Both employ lies and dirty tricks in their propaganda which might have made Goebbels blush. In the last UK general election 88% of the Conservatives’ propaganda has been shown to have been misleading, at the very least, as opposed to 0% of Labour’s; if this survey is to be trusted: https://metro.co.uk/2019/12/10/investigation-finds-88-tory-ads-misleading-compared-0-labour-11651802/. Both Trump and Johnson are notorious, and perhaps even unique in history, for their blatant disregard for the truth, and their gross amorality by most measures. Their electoral appeals are couched in as simple terms as possible, usually just three words, in order to attract the simpler-minded populists: ‘Make America Great’, ‘Get Brexit Done’. Both leaders – despite their obviously elite positions in their respective societies – make a great play of being anti-establishment, anti-elitist, and even anti-expertise. (Michael Gove once notoriously dismissed all ‘experts’; Trump insists he’s an expert on everything.) They pander to racism, and to racist groups, with Trump being ambivalent about his racist support (’fine people’), and Johnson’s Conservative Party apparently taking in 5000 new members from the extreme ‘Britain First’ movement just a few weeks ago: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/dec/28/britain-first-far-right-members-5000-have-joined-tories. Whether or not this can be directly attributed to them, the rise of each man has seen increased thuggery and violent attacks on foreigners and minorities in their respective countries. Fascism is always accompanied by violence. In Britain, Boris Johnson, not a great thinker himself, has a ‘Special Adviser’ in the person of Dominic Cummings who seems to come straight out of Machiavelli’s, if not Goebbels’s, book. Trump used to have Steve Bannon. American ‘Alt-Right’ ideas are gaining purchase in both countries, only feebly combatted by the Left. Is it unreasonable for the Left to fear these trends, for the proto- or neo- or even straight Fascism that is implied in them?

And – finally – why not a ‘Fascism’ that supports ‘free’ enterprise? Which is, after all, what Margaret Thatcher stood for: ‘a free economy in a strong state’. All Fascisms vary according to their localities. They are ‘national’ ideologies, after all. This could be the Anglo-American version.

*

PS. Even Sweden is not immune to this. We already have the ‘Sweden Democrats’, of course. And I was depressed the other night by a Swedish TV programme about an Alt-Right ‘think-tank’ that has just been formed in Sweden. It’s called ‘Oikos’: Greek for ‘home’, though the name might not go down well in Britain, ‘oik’ being Public School slang for a pleb; and numbers Milton Friedman and the late Roger Scruton amongst its heroes. (See https://www.tellerreport.com/news/2020-02-02—mattias-karlsson-(sd)-starts-conservative-think-tank-.S1x2JZ24GI.html.)  Proto-Fascism seems be getting everywhere.

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5 Responses to Proto-Fascism?

  1. Tony says:

    Johnson and Trump are unprincipled opportunists who swerve and dive according to what’s is likely to keep them in power, including setting up phoney ‘enemies’ as Johnson is doing with the EU. They may behave in an authoritarian manner at times, but the worrying thing is that it might (does?) a wider sympathy in society. Otherwise they will ditch them and try something else.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ‘A political philosophy, movement, or regime 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.’

    I think that Meriam-Webster’s definition is inadequate. For example, the definition describes to a great extent the character of Imperial Germany under the Kaisers; the authoritarian Prussian state, which preceded the united German Empire, also fits the bill. However, these were top-down political entities rules by well-entrenched elites.

    When fascism arrives in the time of Weimar, it presents itself as a novel political formation. Instead of calling for a dictatorship of the established elite, Nazism’s dynamism derives from its existence as a bottom-up social movement of the right. The movement was spearheaded by petty-bourgeois and proletarian paramilitary groupings like the SA and leaders like Hitler, who were initially spurned by the upper classes.

    The danger of fascism in the US is that Trump at some point might call on his rabid white supporters to take up arms against his ‘liberal’ foes. This could happen if Trump lost in November but decided that he was not ready to forfeit his power. The Second Amendment and the NRA have enabled the arming of a huge sector of the population, who could potentially constitute the kind of bottom-up force which might be used to overthrow America’s already weakened democracy.

    On the other hand Johnson is likely to give rightists in the UK everything they want. There is no need for a revolution from below in the conceivable future. The arming of the population has not been an issue in the UK as it has in the US. Johnson has been quite happy to use the votes of the lower classes to score a crushing electoral victory; however, his Eton heritage and upper-class English upbringing ensures that he would have little appetite for allowing the proles a share in his power.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Neil Shaddick says:

    Great post, Bernard; you have captured this horrifying political development with a historian’s care. There are many people saying now that to understand what is going on in soon-to-be-not-UK, you have to live abroad, or follow “overseas” news media. The strength of your blog is that you write not just to us emigres/expats/refugees (!) but as one of us. So lang may your lum reek

    Liked by 1 person

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