Why Fascism is Rising Again (And What You Can Learn From It)

We thought it was gone forever. We were wrong. Here’s why.

Here’s a tiny thought. If I’d told you last Christmas that the leading contender for President of the richest and most powerful country on the globe had openly said that he was OK with armbands, internment camps, extra-judicial bans, and blood rights, unless you were a card-carrying member of Conspiracy Theorists International, you probably would have laughed at me.

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And yet. Here we are, in precisely that reality. And it’s not just Trump. The darkest spectre of global politics, the one that we thought exorcised, has somehow been summoned and reborn: fascism is resurgent. What I’ll call in this short series of essays New Fascism is a global phenomenon. Marine Le Pen, the most openly extreme politician contesting national leadership since Hitler…triumphed, winning a third of the vote, in recent French elections. The world stands poised on the precipice of a Dark Age of New Fascism — it is rising, Cerberus-like, from Scandinavia to Europe to Turkey to Australia.

I believe New Fascism is the single most important political development in our lifetimes. It is a critical moment for global society — a turning point. Like every turning point, it is a test. A test of the best of us: whether or not civilized societies can in fact stay civilized, in the most essential sense of the word — or whether we risk plunging once again into an era of world war and genocide.

Does that sound far-fetched to you? Then re-read the first paragraph of this essay again, and ask yourself if you expected a would-be President to call for…internment camps…just one short year ago. The very first thing you must understand about the rise of fascism is that it defies your expectations of a sensible world. Nobody expects, as Monty Python famously said, the Spanish Inquisition.

Hence, in this series of essays, I’ll discuss New Fascism. In this first essay, I will explain its rise. In the second, I will discuss its dynamics: why it grows with such speed and fervor, catching many by surprise. In the third, I will discuss how to fight it — if, indeed, it can be fought.

How, then, did it rise? My explanation is simple — but it will require you to think carefully. I’ll argue that fascism is a product of extremism — of both the left and right. That extremism broke the center — which created a vacuum in which rose New Fascists, who combine the worst elements of both left and right.

To begin, let me outline a tiny model of four stages fascism of every kind ascends through. It is surely incomplete and oversimplified. My point is not to write a categorical history of fascism: merely to present a crude portrait we can use to understand which stage we are at.

Here is the incipient stage of fascism: let us call it stagnation.

Fascism is always a product of economic inopportunity. Inopportunity creates a burning sense of injustice. The pie of prosperity shrinks, molders, decays. Societies begin squabbling over to whom the slices, getting smaller and smaller, growing moldier and moldier, belong.

Here is the second stage of fascism: let us call it demagoguery.

A contest erupts amongst leaders to do something about the problem of stagnation. Both left and right grow more and more extreme. And so the center breaks. The vacuum at the center creates room for a new kind of politician entirely — one usually restrained by left fighting against right, but now free to combine the worst of both left and right.

Soon, a demagogue arises, who cries: the pie belongs to the people — and only to the people! He is the worst of both left and right. He is a socialist, but only for the right people. Yet he is also a nationalist, but doesn’t merely claims dominion over resources, like land: he claims the superiority, by blood or god, of a people over resources. Hence, the paradoxical term “National Socialism”.

The demagogue’s dangerous appeal is this: he locates the source of stagnation in those who do not belong, who are inferior, not just morally, but existentially, and points his finger at them at the poison within society. It is much easier to believe society is being poisoned by a corrupt set of people who do not belong than to believe that the social contract is broken, and must be rewritten— and so the demagogue rides a rocket to power.

Now we have reached the third stage of fascism: tyranny.

But who are these “the people”? Who is truly inferior, and who is superior? Who deserves the fruits of National Socialism — the right to consume the shrinking pie, which is what all this ideology is really about? And so emerges the notion of the volk: the true inhabitants of the land, the inheritors of destiny, birthright, superiority. But how should we define them? After all, it’s a slippery question, which admits no easy certainties. Are you deserving of the Nation-Society’s resources merely because you have been born there? Because you have lived there? Or is it because your grandparents were born there? Nation-Society, Na-Zi, begins to devote its resources to precisely this question. Huge bureaucracies are formed, papers trails are created, investigations are carrried out.

Now we reach the final stage of fascism: self-destruction.

There is a search for who is “truly” a citizen. Then there is a search for who is “truly” a member of the volk, by birth or by blood. And then there is search for who is “truly” a person at all. This is the abyss. For by this logic, if you are not a member of the volk, you must be subhuman. That is what it means to be not just morally, but existentially inferior. The subhumans, the not-volk, are not just a drain on the Nation-Society’s dwindling resources, who do not deserve any of Nation-Society’s shrinking slices of pie — indeed, they are why the pie is shrinking in the first place. So now they are a problem. A problem to which the volk must find a “solution”. The leaders scratch their heads, and then they realize. Temporary solutions to permanent problems do not do any good at all.

What is needed is a final solution.

Society is now destroying itself. For no civilized society can obey the commandment of expelling, jailing, or murdering its citizens for no good reason and stay civilized. But the fascists, who by now compose the majority of the people, the volk, cannot see that. They see only purity, perfection, glorious destiny.

All this is what Umberto Eco called “Eternal Fascism” — the dynamics every fascism creates, no matter which society it arises within. So now let us to turn to the specific. Where is New Fascism in my little model of Eternal Fascism? What stage are we at?

From 1950 to 1970, the US found itself in a Golden Age. It wasn’t just the world’s richest, safest, most technologically advanced, most educated country: the average household was, too. That is, it had crafted a historically unique social contract, where economic growth was shared broadly by the average.

But then something went wrong — badly wrong. Incomes began to stagnate. The average household began to suffer, and soon fell behind the rest of the advanced world in simple human terms like healthcare, education, and savings.

Why did living standards begin to stagnate in the 70s — and then continue for nearly half a century? Here is the explanation. The US became, uniquely amongst advanced economies, consumed almost totally with an extremist right wing economic ideology. Trickle-down economics, for short. The idea, simply, was that prosperity at the top would rain down on those at the bottom. Hence, crucially, income was redistributed from the bottom to the top — in the belief that it would benefit those at the bottom tomorrow. How was that redistribution accomplished? Simple: by cutting taxes at the top severely, by slashing bargaining power for those at the bottom just as severely, by financializing the economy, that is, deregulating Wall Street, so that those at the top could invest the gains they were reaping.

Needless to say, all of this was at odds with reality. The middle and bottom never benefited — nor was there a shred of evidence that suggested they would. The US essentially ripped up the social contract of its golden age for the sake of extreme ideological belief.

And while stagnation took hold, institutions and leaders bickered over how to rewrite the social contract — but they did not rewrite it. Thus, stagnation continued, accelerated, and the middle class begin not just not to prosper — but to actually shrink.

Recently, the US has reached a historic tipping point: for the first time, the middle class is a minority. Neither you nor I can say that this “proves” in academic terms that fascism is caused by it. Yet we can say with confidence the following. Fascism is always a product of inopportunity. In the US, the middle class, and its living standards peaked around 1970. Since then, the middle class has shrunk steadily. And today, fascism is rising at precisely the moment when the middle class has hit the turning point from majority to minority.

Has the middle class been failed by it’s leaders and institutions? Is it rightly anxious about and desperate for prosperity? Yes. But that is besides the point. The point is simply this: the middle is reacting to its own decline by supporting New Fascists.

But that is only half the story. Here is the other half.

While the right was not just promulgating an unproven extremist economic faith, the left didn’t even understand what it was fighting. A generation of leftists decided instead that the true opposition wasn’t a right-wing economics locally — but a global politics they called “neoliberalism”. But much of neoliberalism, in stark opposition to trickle-down economics did in fact lift millions across the globe out of poverty, misery, and despair. Why? Because liberalism, however you choose to define it, is not trickle-down economics: it is precisely the opposite — investing in institutions, people, and societies, so that gluts do not pile up at the top.

Yet, the left began targeting and protesting the very institutions that were defending the globe from trickle-down economics — the World Bank, the IMF, the UN. Of course, I’m sure that those of you who are leftists will quibble with me vehemently here, and call me a Terrible Person. But the simple fact is that the IMF and World Bank were created by Keynes precisely to prevent wealth piling up at the top — and that is precisely what they did. So you are only really proving your own dire and profound ignorance of economic history. I’m sorry to be harsh, but we must speak in blunt realities now.

And that tragic, historic, colossally stupid mistake — to confuse trickle-down economics with liberalism, left with right — damned the left to a path of total irrelevance. Instead of fighting the right, the left began fighting…itself.

If you don’t believe me, let’s ask the question: where is the left now? It will fight nobly and bravely for the cause of…trans characters in video gamesgender pronounsgender free bathrooms. But it is silent on the issue of New Fascism. It organizes demonstrations, protests, and movements against the former…but not the latter. WTF! See what I mean? The left is fighting itself, fighting a more and more extreme fight against the left. But it is not fighting the right. Reasonable people can disagree over gender-free bathrooms — but reasonable people cannot disagree about interment camps. Yet, while the left is consumed by sexual identity politics — fascist ideas are beginning to take over societies wholesale (for example, 47% of Americans approve of Trump’s proposal to “ban” Muslims). What can I liken all that to? It’s like getting a manicure…while gigantic oozing bacterial gangrene eats your leg…because you want a date.

The real cause of the rise of New Fascism, then, is extremism. On both sides — left and right. We may call the extremism of the right fundamentalism, and that of left narcissism. But it is extremism all the same. Neither side focused on rewriting a working social contract — only on squabbling over their dwindling share of a shrinking pie.

Thus, the growth of extremism on both sides caused the center to break. Left and right do not restrain one another from their worst excesses anymore. Thus, the disease that combines the worst of both is free to rise, and the name of that cancer is fascism.

To answer the question: which stage in my tiny model are we at? I would say that we are about a third of the way through fascism’s arc. We are already past it’s opening stages. Having considered all the above, we are past the stagnation phase, and nearing the end of the demagoguery phase — for a leading demagogue has already emerged. We are not merely in danger of it “happening here” in some improbable far-fetched future.

My story is nuanced. I have tried to distinguish between proximate cause, and ultimate cause. The ultimate cause of fascism is the right — but the proximate cause is the left. More simply, the origins of fascism are in the right’s extremism — but it is the left’s self-imposed irrelevance that allowed it to rise, and perhaps propelled it. You may disagree with my story, and you are welcome. It is just one synthesis among many. And yet, I caution you against the oppositional extremism that so defines our age. To fully account for fascism’s rise, because it is the most poisonous alloy of both, we must speak openly and honestly about the failures of both the left and right.

For in the story of the rise of New Fascism, we see precisely the same elements at work as in Eternal Fascism. The pie shrinks. Leaders and institutions squabble — while the pie keeps shrinking. And then, the critical moment. The center breaks. The demagogue is free to sing his song of darkness. Night falls. And the golden age of the volk, the long march to the promised land, through the valleys of blood and despair, begins.

I have written too much. I am tired now, as are you. So let us stop here to pause and reflect. Fascism, the poisonous admixture of the worst of both left and right, is a cancer that may infect the body politic at anytime that body is dulled and slowed, rendered infirm and frail, by stagnation. And the obligation of all reasonable people is to fight it. Not just because it destroys, and calls destruction glorious destiny, nor because it kills, and calls murder noble justice. But because in its glorification of destruction is the end of all that civilization can be said to stand for. Not just the fabric of our societies, but the possibility of our humanity.

December 2015