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Can Fascism Return? A View from Argentina

Can fascism return? The rise of strongmen leaders across the world, the latest being Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, has seen this question being asked with increasing frequency. In this article, Diego Sztulwark argues that we need a fully historical analysis of fascism which asks into the political and historical forces and circumstances that give rise to fascism, and about the conditions of possibility for a non-fascist life.  

Diego Sztulwark23 January 2019

Can Fascism Return? A View from Argentina

Can fascism return? The discomfort that arises from this question is rooted in the necessary ambivalence of any reflection that aims to think both about fascism as a situated historical phenomenon and as a persistent configuration that continues to be updated in different conjunctures; as an unrepeatable event, to the extent that the conditions that made it possible are already too distant from the coordinates that define our present, and as a repetition of frightening features associated with that experience that do not cease to triumph a bit everywhere. Neither Trump nor Le Pen, nor Bolsonaro, are in conditions to establish a fascist state, and, at the same time, we cannot avoid seeing in them the human archetypes of a certain type of postmodern fascism, a specific type of vitalism that is affirmed in its purity – be it ethnic, class, or national purity – through intolerant violence and by treating entire populations as inferior. The question about the possibility of a contemporary fascism supposes then, an exercise in characterizing the political and historical forces and circumstances and about the conditions of possibility for a non-fascist life.  

I. What is “historical” fascism?

The Marxist Debate

From the point of view of the Marxist debate about the State and politics, fascism does not include merely any government with authoritarian or conservative features, but corresponds to a certain conjuncture: monopoly capital, centralized large capital, mobilizes the middle class in its support, seeking to displace the circles of the dominant classes that block its expansion, thus affirming its domination over the whole. In the polemic between Nicos Poulantzas and Ernesto Laclau, fascism (a phenomenon that also includes Nazism) is characterized as a phenomenon that mobilizes society against the socialist worker threat, as well as that part of the old ruling bloc that, as occurred in Italy and Germany in the 1930s, hamper the development of its hegemony. Racist, nationalist, militaristic ideology, the politicization of the petty bourgeoisie, and the interpellation of the popular are, in the fascist state, inseparable from large capital’s strategic direction and need for expansion. Fascism’s revolutionary appearance is false but effective. According to Alain Badiou, it is because it fights and destroys the effects of the revolutionary event – the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 – that it confronts, through an inverted appropriation of its forms. Following George Sorel, who theorized fascism as the agent of a mobilizing myth, the Peruvian Jose Carlos Mariategui perceived a certain play of mirrors between fascism and Bolshevism, both possessing the mobilizing myth, to the detriment of parliamentary democracy. In a classic text from the 1930s, Walter Benjamin warned of this inverted mirror game in terms of the relationship between aesthetics and politics: the Bolshevik politicization of art, that questioned class differences, was responding to the “aestheticization of politics” that pointed to a warlike specularization that kept the relations of property and production intact.

¿What does tradition teach us about fascism?

Years later, when fascism had already triumphed in much of Europe, Benjamin returned to the issue, this time to denounce the mechanisms that condemned social democracy to impotency when it came to confronting fascism. In his thesis VIII of “On the Concept of History,” written in 1940, the following can be read:

‘The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the "state of emergency" in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that accords with this insight. Then we will clearly see that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against fascism. One reason fascism has a chance is that, in the name of progress, its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are "still" possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge—unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.’

In other words, if the European left could not defeat fascism it is due “in so small part” to its belief in the “historical norm” founded on the idea of “progress.” Instead of starting from the specific tradition of the oppressed – knowledge of the exception as the only norm –, it allowed itself to be confused by that of the oppressors – a linear temporality of an evolutionary type –. Marxism, reduced to a discourse about the productive forces (more factories, more workers, more votes for the socialist parties, etc.), runs the risk of adopting that norm from the tradition of the oppressors. There is a clear price to pay for adopting an “anti-philosophical” point of view (being astonished at the existence and growth of Nazism as anachronistic, as an archaism that should no longer exist).

For Benjamin, the task is to conceive of history from a point of view that allows for expanding the exception to the entire social field. The surprise at phenomenon such as Bolsonaro in Brazil, should produce politically useful knowledges, without remaining trapped in philosophical scarcity when faced with the fact that the things we are experiencing are “still” possible in the 21st century. Thinking about fascism then and now supposes, therefore, keeping our guard up in respect to what as proposed as the normalized state of things in each era.

II. Are we governed by a fascist right today? How has the right changed?

In a recent book by the historian Enzo Traverso, The New Faces of Fascism: Populism and the Far Right, he characterizes the rise of the right-wings in Europe and the US (from Trump to Le Pen) with the term “post-fascisms.” It is a category that can be reproached for its imprecision – it only determines an “after” fascism – but, on the other hand, it has the advantage of proposing, for each case, a concrete analysis of the mixture of racist, authoritarian, and xenophobic features of those movements that denounce financial elites, with whom, however, they maintain close ties. In this sense, Traverso affirms that Trump embodies, like no one else, a “neoliberal anthropology.” The expression “post-fascism” thus attempts to name a complex set of continuities and discontinuities, to be established in each case, in respect to historical fascism.

It is particularly interesting if we apply this formulation to the more general discussion about how to characterize the right that arrived to power in Argentina with the election of Macri. The disjunctive was played out on the streets. In practical terms, should we chant, in marches, the slogan: “Macri, piece of trash, you are the dictatorship”? Chanting it supposes an erroneous characterization, to the extent that the Cambiemos Party came to power within the framework of the rule of law and a constitutional state. Not chanting implies, on the other hand, ignoring the continuities between different historical processes. But chanting on the street does not seek to accurately characterize a complex phenomenon, but rather to revive a historical memory in the body. And both things are equally necessary. The problem comes into view: is it possible to characterize a modern right, which wins elections, as the continuity of state terrorism, whose central protagonist was the military party that denied and did not win elections?

From Massera to Macri

In the history of Argentina, historical fascism did not occur as a dominant form. Certain sectors of the left and liberalism tried, and failed, to denominate the movement created by Juan Domingo Peron as such. But, as León Rozitchner explained, Peron did not express the path to domination through open war, but rather through truce. Time and not blood. The murder and torture as a way of restructuring power relations that the military carried out were very different. In 1977, Admiral Massera (or Admiral 0, the name with which this high official participated in the gang that disappeared popular activists) gave a speech in the Jesuit University of El Salvador in the occasion of receiving an honorary degree. Massera, then a member of the military junta that governed the country, elaborated on the motivations that drove the Western Christian Crusade to the war waged in the depths of the ESMA: defending private property against Marxist ideology, defending the family against Freudian perversion, defending absolute values against Einsteinian relativity. The practice of extermination in the clandestine torture centers and the death flights, the fundamentalist Catholicism of many of its cadres and its undeniable links with the Catholic Church, along with the strict defense of the traditional family and private property, made the Terrorist State – a category elaborated by Eduardo Luis Duhalde – the best heir to fascist violence in our country.

Is there a non-fascist right?

The situation is very different today when we hear Macri’s chief of staff mix, in his talks, neocapitalism with Buddhism, the ideology of rock and the aesthetics of transgression, and consequently, we can only assume that there is no possibility of tracing a linear relationship between the right and fascism. Is there then a new right, that is different from state terrorism? The question was forcefully raised with the forced disappearance and later death of Santiago Maldonado, and then with the parliamentary elections in October 2017 with a favorable result for the government. It was the journalist and political scientist José Natanson who attempted to provoke discussion with his book Por qué? La rápida agonía de la argentina kirchnerista y la brutal eficacia de una nueva derecha (Why? The rapid agony of Kirchnerist Argentina and the brutal efficacy of a new right). There he refers to a “democratic” right – undoubtedly a historical novelty – which we would have to understand in new terms. And he is right about that.

Due to a problem of intellectual and affective comfort, the conventional left, whether Kirchnerist or not, has reacted to Macrism more than once as if it were the direct continuity of the dictatorship. This type of frozen affect blocks the comprehension of what we could, following Traverso, call the “new faces,” the capacity to innovate, the historical discontinuities with what we call the Argentine right. The murder of Mapuche activist Rafael Nahuel, who was shot in the back by security forces shortly after the appearance of Maldonado’s body, confirmed the obvious: the defense of land as a commodity within the framework of new businesses – primarily related to energy – defines the new enemies of the state and promotes a practice and a legitimization of physical annihilation. The advantage of Traverso’s method – considering variations and continuities at the same time – allows for organizing discontinuities and innovations along with the structural type of prolongations, such as those linked to the dismantling of politics as class struggle, a hierarchical vision of the world, and a confidence in the articulation between capitalist initiative, an idea of “security” conceived around (private, concentrated) “property,” and a perception of poverty in terms of contention and danger. Therefore, neither fascism, nor new “democratic right” on their own are appropriate terms.

III. Is there a postmodern fascism? Is their fascism on the left?

In 1972, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari wrote in Anti-Oedipus that political phenomenon cannot be reduced to the dimension of class interests or consciousness, but that they also include different relations with processes related to desire. The premise according to which, in certain circumstances, the masses can desire fascism, introduces a concern among militants for micropolitical types of analyses, attentive to the fact that desire is not a natural or spontaneous variable but one that is produced. This emphasis led Foucault to read this book as a treatise on ethics, an “introduction to a non-fascist life,” that should have also alerted the left about the reactionary modes of desire within its own ranks. According to Foucault, Anti-Oedipus teaches us to distinguish the presence of fascist elements in leftist groups, be those of “the political ascetics, sad militants, the terrorists of theory, those who would preserve the pure order of politics and political discourse,” or in “the bureaucrats of the revolution and civil servants of Truth,” and in the “poor technicians of desire – psychoanalysts and semiologists of every sign and symptom – who would subjugate the multiplicity of desire to the twofold law of structure and lack.” Although for Foucault, historical fascism continues being “the strategic adversary,” it must not be limited to the memory “of Hitler and Mussolini” – who were able to “mobilize and use the desire of the masses so effectively – but also the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.”

Postmodern Fascism and Hatred of Equality

Fascism, in its political and/or desiring forms, implies a passion for inequality and a phobia of differences that is not at all incompatible with very modern and neoliberal phenomenons such as the subsumption of life to the connective dynamic of the market. The absolutist character of this submission has given rise to forms of micro-fascism that swarm and plug the pores of the parliamentary city. Racism, sexism, and classism take root in what Santiago López Petit has indicated as the persistence of a type of “postmodern” fascism that acts by repeating one of the fundamental features of historical fascism: total mobilization. It is no longer about ideals, but about a complete mobilization of life under the force of the obvious. In the moment when capitalism is revealed as no longer a simple factory of commodities, but a complete factory of subjectivities, the need to establish a correlation between economy, desire, and politics is raised as never before. An equation in which desire for revolution leaves room for an intense desire for normality that the left seeks to codify as social inclusion and rights as meritocratic integration into the market. The reverse of that desire for the norm, as the theater piece Diarios del odio (Diaries of Hate), directed by Silvio Lang shows well, is a general disinhibition of the passion for hatred of equality.

Warning from Brazil

Days before the first electoral round, Vladimir Safatler – Brazilian philosopher and teacher – analyzed his country’s conjuncture faced with the imminent elections polarized between the main candidates – the postfascist Jair Bolsonaro and the Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad –, classifying it as “low-intensity civil war,” carried out against the popular movements that create obstacles for the privatization of public services and the financial system, as well as the labor reform.  According to Safatler, the current situation is determined by the reactionary reconstruction of the power block that was behind the 1964 coup, that aims to violently overturn the limits and obstacles that Brazilian society imposed on capitalist valorization during recent decades. Behind Bolsonaro’s foul language, an even more fearsome enemy stands: the decision of that power bloc to violently unblock the relations of force, faced with a left that is in crisis that seeks to electorally reunite the political center of the country, around a conciliation pact that Safatler considers to be unfeasible at this point.

The myth of meaning

We can look to Spinoza for a complete argument about the central mechanisms that allow us to understand the diverse forms of what we generalize under the name “fascism.” In the Appendix to the first part of Ethics, he explains that humans, finite and desiring beings, project our appetite over the causal order of things, to the point of activating an authentic delirium: believing that our free will exists indeterminately. This denial of all understanding of causes in favor a blind belief in one’s immediate subjectivity is at the basis of common sense and the belief that everything has a purpose. As we also have a language capable of crystallizing this meaning that provides us with comfort in the face of what we do not understand, the capacity for critique tends to be displaced and seen as a threat. According to Spinoza – in part III of Ethics –, these projections always put in play and displace the border from which we consider “similar” others (“we feel sympathy not only for the object we have loved but also for that for which we previously did not feel any emotion, as long as we consider it similar to ourselves”). Would it be going to far to say that fascism is determined in each case as an updated version of the construction of dissimilarities? In any case, the Spinozist argument (“for the mere fact of imagining that a thing, that is similar to us and for which we have not felt any affect whatsoever, is affected by some emotion, we are affected by something similar”) helps to raise one of the specific problems of this conjuncture. In effect, while Spinozist communism – defined in Part IV – consists of affirming the common utility on the basis that “there is nothing unique in the nature of things that would be more useful to man than the man who lives under the guidance of reason,” in other words, absolute similarity. The current situation confronts us with its opposite: an articulation between the mechanisms of individualist neoliberal types of subjection in crisis and the production of an extremely restrictive and reactionary order of similarities.

This is the line followed by Alain Badiou in his philosophy of the encounter, at least in two particularly important texts in which he argues that fascism is a reaction against the creation of new universals, creators of unlimited equality. In his book about Saint Peter, Badiou associates Christian universalism with Bolshevik militancy. According to him, the resurrection of Christ is a universal message: believing in it is enough to accommodate every and any one in the good news. He detects precisely the same operation in the formula “workers of the world, unite.” Communism is the universal event of our time. In the other text, The Century, Badiou explains that fascism, as a thinkable phenomenon, is a darkening of this revolutionary opening: where Leninism struggles in favor of universalism – an event open to everyone –, the fascist call closes the meaning, it sutures it based on the exacerbation of an element (the Aryan, the white, the Catholic, or whatever it is) as a foundation, saturates the meaning and blocks its unfinished, revolutionary potential.

Fascism in its different varieties, both its vitalist, bodily variant based race, blood, ancestry, and the purely business variant that coerces life to the point of making it completely dependent on market categories, operates, according to Badiou, as a retreat of thought over a biological instance. That is probably what leads to the spiritualizing reaction that drives his “Idea of communism” and suppresses, in a very Christian way, any reference to sensitive material as the space for recomposing a common project. But this is not our issue for the moment (or is it?).

In fact, the problem of the denial of the real dimension of the body to the detriment of the virtualization of the world itself due to financial globalization is one of the most important arguments of post-fascism. Its strength lies in the imaginary satisfaction of desires that have been largely frustrated by the unfulfilled promise of a semiocapitalist paradise (an expression that we take from Franco – Bifo – Berardi). The discontent accumulated over decades of the capitalist multiculturalism identified with the Clinton-Obama cycle – that was incapable of conceiving ways to publicly regulate finances – seems to have occurred through a certain of the real – the effectiveness of the factual, of bodies – supplied by the new rights-wings. It is a reactionary presentation of unresolved libertarian questions (be it the crisis of the global market, hatred of equality, atrophy of the sensitive, exacerbation of sexual morality and ethnic purity, the vindication of the nation as an exclusive privilege), a new chapter of the Benjaminian surprise without philosophy.

IV. Is a non-fascist life possible? Interruption and Diversion

Postmodern fascism is the articulation of certain features of historical fascism with neoliberal hegemony (and with neoliberalism in crisis). In the heart of this dispositif of dispositifs there is a normalization of historical time, a prefiguration in which the future is deduced based on the fears of the present. Thus the importance of the Benjaminian experience of the exception. Whether through a rupture, flight, or overflowing, a non-fascist life becomes inseparable from interrupting the mechanisms of prefiguration.

A non-fascist life is a life that takes up the exception. Along a similar vein, León Rozitchner wrote that: “If war exists in politics as violence concealed in legality, it is a matter of deepening politics to find collective forces in it that, through their real entity, establish a limit to power. War is already previously present, only hidden. Therefore, we say: it is not a matter of denying the necessity of war, we only affirm that it has to be found within politics, and not outside of it. Because what politics is about is arousing the collective forces without which no apparatus can, on its own, win the war.”

This counter-power, that Rozitchner mentions as capable of imposing certain limits, entails a cognitive potential – a type of Machiavellian work, of discovering the violence dominant in democratic politics. This is projected both as the critical comprehension of the relation between war and politics – that is, the way in which the violence concealed in conventional politics degrades democratic potentials – as well as the practical task of rousing collective forces aimed at deactivating that violence. The recent South American experience (the crisis of neoliberalism in the 1990s, the protagonism of popular movements, the experiment of the so-called progressive governments) raises these questions again in a pressing way. The gradual subordination of that collective power of contestation which Rozitchner referred to, to the restricted game of a precarious mediation (the regulation of a restrained inclusion through consumption, an attempt to moderate the most savage repressive impulses), narrowed the strategic field of popular organizations, which were increasingly compelled to prioritize their capacity of containment over that of interruption.

The declining validity of these precarious mediations determines, to a large extent even today, the possibilities of a collective power that could perhaps be reactivated based on the double bind with which Benjamin imagined, in the aforementioned text about the concept of history, the generalization of the exception: on the one hand, the eruption of a new generation of struggles (a “weak messianic power,” a certain potential for transformation that “cannot be settled cheaply); and, on the other, a certain “gift of fanning the spark of hope” characteristic of one who is convinced that “not even the dead will be safe from the enemy if he wins.” Currently both tendencies or motivations can be found equally in the political field (the impetus of new generations of activists – feminist, labor, neighborhood, cultural movements – coexists with the urgent awareness of the need to stop the disaster – impunity for violence and policies that favor community dispossession, the liquidation of collective rights and exclusion from participation in collective expectations and wealth). Perhaps this allows us to conclude that what is at stake today is precisely the slow and difficult process of this articulation, that is played out entirely in its capacity to create a method of convergence that is able to organize its complexity without crushing it, of historicizing (not essentializing) an awareness of enmity, and of selecting a leadership that meets the ethical requirements that any genuine political transformation demands.

* Diego Sztulwark (Argentina) coordinates study groups about political thought and philosophy. He is a regular contributor to Lobo Suelto and author of numerous articles and books about political philosophy and social analysis. He was a member of Colectivo Situaciones and is an editor of Tinta Limón Ediciones. He is a columnist on the La Tribu Radio and an associate member of the Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales.

*Translated by Liz Mason-Deese

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