As the depredations of Donald Trump’s immigration forces continue in the USA and his visit to the UK is supported by nakedly mendacious propaganda in the Daily Mail (see right), it is fashionable to make dire warnings of the rise of fascism both here and there. There is a quote from George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier which I saw posted on Twitter yesterday:
When I speak of Fascism in England, I am not necessarily thinking of Mosley and his pimpled followers. English Fascism, when it arrives, is likely to be of a sedate and subtle kind (presumably, at any rate, it won’t be called Fascism), and it is doubtful whether a Gilbert and Sullivan heavy dragoon of Mosley’s stamp would ever be more than a joke to the majority of English.
Last month the Irish commentator Fintan O’Toole wrote in the Irish Times of the treatment of child detainees in American immigration detention as a “trial run” for fascism as, in an established democracy, “it is not easy to get people to give up their ideas of freedom and civility”; people’s moral scruples need to be worn down and their boundaries pushed back again and again.
I think it is dangerous to over-emphasise the danger of fascism as such in the rise of Trump or the machinations of Britain’s Brexiteers. It is a distraction from much more immediate dangers. Yes, one of the features of a fascist regime is the controlled media which is used as a vehicle for propaganda by the state and the ruling party, and seeing the Daily Mail use its front page to lionise the government and its widely loathed and ridiculed foreign guest while portraying the leader of the Opposition as a “pygmy”, using a crude bit of photo cropping to make Jeremy Corbyn look small, does rather look like the behaviour of a sycophantic newspaper in a dictatorial state rather than part of the free press in a democracy. But we are still a democracy, parliament is still active and still sovereign and there are no odd greetings, larger-than-life statues or pictures of Theresa May in every public place and no uniformed militias marching down streets.
When we speak of fascism, we generally mean an authoritarian or totalitarian state with a pervasive personality cult or state ideology, widespread censorship and propaganda, heavy government hand in the economy, no functioning democratic institutions (or none at all), a militaristic culture and a police state. The best examples of such states in recent times were the Baathist states (Iraq and Syria) and Iran, and to a lesser extent Egypt. The chief crime of fascism most people can name off the top of their head is the Holocaust, the genocide of the Jews of Europe through an apparatus of death and slave-labour camps before and during World War II. Yet there were other countries at the time with regimes that called themselves or could be called fascist — Italy, Spain, Portugal, Argentina — and none pursued policies of genocide. They were often racist, but they were principally authoriarian. While a genocide on the same scale as the Holocaust would probably take a dictatorship and a police state, it does not take a full-blown fascist state to perpetrate mass murder or extreme violence against people on the basis of their race, ethnicity, religion or any other aspect of their status or identity.
There have been cases throughout history of countries with representative systems of government denying rights to some of their subjects. Many US states denied Black people the vote for several decades in the late 19th and early 20th century, using such tricks as literacy tests (which could be manipulated to ensure they failed, if all else failed by asking an unanswerable question), grandfather clauses (such that only people descended from Confederate veterans could vote, which for obvious reasons almost no Black person was) and straightforward violence and intimidation. Members of the Ku Klux Klan occupied positions of state such as police officers, representatives and judges; Black people could find themselves thrown in jail or murdered as a result of any confrontation with a white person, or because a white person coveted their property; lynchings were public occasions and photographs were taken and some remain; areas of Black prosperity were destroyed by mob violence on numerous occasions.
Today, the largest democracy is India whose prime minister is Narendra Modi, who rose to power through a Hindu supremacist movement which is widely identified as fascist by its opponents and even some of its supporters will proudly call themselves that. During its time governing India, Muslims have been murdered on suspicion of such things as keeping or slaughtering cows, which are sacred according to the majority Hindus from whom the support for the supremacist party mostly comes. In 2002, while Modi was first minister of the state of Gujarat in north-western India, members and supporters of the same supremacist movement went on the rampage in the state, killing Muslims, raping Muslim women, destroying their homes, businesses and places of worship. While Modi was cleared of personal involvement in the attacks, he has been alleged to have made such remarks as that Hindus should be allowed to “vent their anger” (after an attack on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims, known for harassing other passengers and station vendors, which killed 58 people; Modi immediately pointed the finger at Pakistani intelligence, without evidence) and that Muslims needed to be “taught a lesson”. Modi went on to win two further elections and is now prime minister of India; in the decade or so after the violence, he was banned from visiting western countries but since becoming prime minister, he has been welcomed with open arms by politicians in Europe and the USA, with an audience at Wembley stadium for which a Labour MP, Keith Vaz, boasted of donating his bonus to help finance.
The country is still a parliamentary democracy and Muslims have not lost the vote. But politicians can openly justify or threaten violence against a minority and win; having been in power when three days of rioting killed hundreds or thousands of people should ensure that a politician is never elected again but in modern India is no black mark on a Hindu politician’s record. This is the thing we should be looking out for in the West and particularly in Trump’s America. There is not the support in the country for the outright suspension of the democratic process; why would they when they are already able to gerrymander electoral districts and suppress minority voters to ensure that their side wins key seats, when they can stack the Supreme Court with judges who will rule that their abuse of prisoners, immigration detainees or whoever is not cruel or unusual or torture (we are still seeing courts rule that using electric shocks on autistic people who are not even prisoners for various disability-related acts of trivial disobedience is not torture, for example; that hasn’t got to the Supreme Court yet), when pardons can be used to free their people on the off-chance that they are convicted, when police officers can kill unarmed Black civilians, even children, and know with 99% certainty that they will not be indicted, let alone convicted, and when the existing constitution (prior to amendment) sanctioned slavery and then the Jim Crow régime for nearly 200 years?
Fascism in the sense of a party committed to authoritarian rule and the destruction of democracy which is the actual hallmark of fascism is not a major threat in the western world now. In fact, in the entire period since World War II, parties commonly called fascist in the UK have been principally racist rather than fascist — yes, they praise or defend Hitler, deny the Holocaust and the thug outfits like Combat 18 use Nazi salutes, but they capitalised on public fears about mass immigration and were about keeping Britain white rather than attacking the idea of democracy. In countries that have known parliamentary rule for centuries, or since their foundation, the majority are unwilling to give up their democratic rights for the “glory of the Nation”, for a thousand-year Empire, or any other nationalist cause even if they will deny them to minorities.
Yes, the far-right or alt-right — the likes of Steve Bannon — have some things in common with fascists; their disregard for the truth when it suits their purposes (note his description of the serial criminal Steven Yaxley-Lennon, AKA Tommy Robinson, as the “backbone of this country” today, as noted by the political editor of the mostly right-wing British radio station LBC) being an important one. However, the major danger we face from the White right is racist violence, both from below (mobs and possibly militias in the US) and from above (police, immigration services etc) as well as openly or covertly discriminatory policy and the legal and judicial persecution of prominent members of minorities, some of which, as already demonstrated both under Bush’s and Trump’s presidencies, courts will sanction and the popular media will justify. The US is further down that road than we are here, but the economic instability that will inevitably follow if Brexit goes ahead opens up the risk of racially-targeted violence as people look for others to blame when their jobs disappear and the prices of food, fuel and other essentials go up.
We need to stop pretending that there is a threat of fascism as such. We need to talk about the rise of racism and of intolerance and prejudice against any minority and under whatever pretext. A democracy can be oppressive — even liberal opinion in the west, to say nothing of white conservative opinion, continues to indulge Israel’s occupation and denial of rights to Palestinians two generations after the 1967 war, which in my opinion conditions westerners to accept such things here, especially when the minorities concerned here are linked in one way or another to the occupied there — and can tolerate mob violence, pogroms and other extreme violence, even when people with fascist heritage never win so much as 5% of the vote. So let’s not talk of the clothes English or American fascism will wear when it appears, or the manner of their marching. The more likely scenario is that it will wear the same flag as the state already uses, the one everyone swears allegiance to each morning in the American case, and there will be elections after the massacre, the party supported by the perpetrators will contest it and they will perform healthily or even win, while the press blames the victims for provoking it. Call this the 21st century version of fascism if you like but it will not be very familiar to anyone who experienced, or even studied, the original version.
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