“Žižek observes that while many thought this kind of politician was an anachronistic oddity in mid-2000’s neoliberal societies, Berlusconi may actually have been an archetype of the future.”
The emergence of what I call post-modern conservative movements around the globe has prompted a great deal of commentary about the rise of fascism in the early 20th century. There have been an endless series of opinion pieces, video essays, and imagistic art analyzing and trying to form such a connection. One of the better treatments of the subject is historian Timothy Snyder’s excellent short book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twenty Centuries. Snyder argues that there are eerie parallels between what is going on now and what happened in Italy and Germany decades ago, and he contends that we need to be on guard against preventing right-wing radicalism from gaining more power. Also, of great interest is the work of Jason Stanley, a Yale philosopher of language who has written extensively on the topic of fascism and propaganda. Stanley gives perhaps the clearest argument for making comparisons between post-modern conservatism and fascism. He claims that there are three parallels between traditional fascist movements and Trumpism.
Stanley argues the formula for fascism is “surprisingly simple.” Firstly, politicians conjure up a “mythological past,” which was destroyed by various progressive groups. Mussolini often referenced the desire for a new Roman empire, while contemporary figures like Erdoğan refer to the greatness of Turkey’s Ottoman empire. Then there is the claim, of course, in the United States to, “Make America Great Again.” This creates an overwhelming sense of nostalgia for a time period that really only ever existed in the reactionary imagination. It is also one that is racially or ethnically pure, oriented by steadfast traditions, and patriarchal. Never mind that the United States has always been riven by ethnic and racial conflict between oppressive groups and their victims—or that the Ottoman failure to innovate was at least partially responsible for the empire’s decline and fall. Fascist leaders then go on to claim that they—and they alone—can restore this past and the chosen group to its position of power. Without them serving as a patriarchal figure, the “system” will fall apart. Secondly, Stanley argues that fascist politicians (and their contemporary progeny) feel compelled to “sow division.” The chosen group is presented as under threat by enemies who impede its progress. Typically, these are some kind of ethnic minority, from Jews in Germany to Latin Americans in Trump’s United States of America. Finally, fascists and contemporary right-wing populists launch an all-out assault on the concept of truth. Particularly, they adopt an emphatic “anti-intellectualism.” This attack is motivated because standards of truth are central to a “free democracy.” When individuals are no longer able to arbitrate between truth and falsity, they turn to conspiracy theories (discussed here)—and what philosopher Harry Frankfurt might call “bullshit,” which enables the replacement of critical thinking with dogmatism and ideological fanaticism.
It is often said that history does not repeat itself but it does often rhyme, and Stanley’s argument makes a compelling case that the present often echoes the fascist past. In particular, it is not difficult to draw comparisons between 20th century reactionary efforts to obfuscate truth through mythologizing the past and demonizing already vulnerable groups and what is going on now. But I think that we also need to be careful in distinguishing carefully between these earlier movements and what is occurring in the 21st century. That is because changing social and technological conditions have resulted in quite a different cultural and political landscape, which does not enable a one-to-one comparison with life in early 20th century industrial economies. To understand where these differences lie, it makes sense to look a bit at fascist thinking and practices to showcase where there are breaks with contemporary post-modern conservatives.
The Totalitarian Terror State
“A fundamental difference between modern dictatorships and all other tyrannies of the past is that terror is no longer used as a means to exterminate and frighten opponents, but as an instrument to rule masses of people who are perfectly obedient. Terror as we know it today strikes without any preliminary provocation, its victims are innocent even from the point of view of the persecutor. This was the case in Nazi Germany when full terror was directed against Jews, i.e., against people with certain common characteristics which were independent of their specific behavior….We are not concerned here with the ultimate consequence of rule by terror—namely, that nobody, not even the executors, can ever be free of fear; in our context we are dealing merely with the arbitrariness by which victims are chosen, and for this it is decisive that they are objectively innocent, that they are chosen regardless of what they may or may not have done.” – Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
One of the characteristics of fascist rule was indeed, as Stanley points out, the mythologization of the past. Like all reactionaries, fascists saw the present and future as the erasure of everything and everyone who was of highest value and its replacement by vulgar egalitarianism. Fascists would generate comprehensive historical and even cosmic narratives to explain both their theory of value and why it was being replaced by liberal permissiveness and the cult of mediocrity in the present day. Sometimes, the dimensions of this decline were ethnic and cultural, resulting from the promulgation of liberal and left-wing values by intellectuals, artists, and hedonists. For many, this was also given an explicitly racial connotation, with these aforementioned cultural degenerates belonging to racially stigmatized groups who wish to reject the natural hierarchy between races. Hitler expresses this principle with typical malice in Mein Kampf, where he associates the “Jewish doctrine of Marxism” with a decline in the, “aristocratic principle of Nature.” This decline may bring about the end to the human existence, Hitler argued:
“The Jewish doctrine of Marxism rejects the aristocratic principle of Nature and replaces the eternal privilege of power and strength by the mass of numbers and their dead weight. Thus it denies the value of personality in man, contests the significance of nationality and race, and thereby withdraws from humanity the premise of its existence and its culture. As a foundation of the universe, this doctrine would bring about the end of any order intellectually conceivable to man. And as, in this greatest of all recognizable organisms, the result of an application of such a law could only be chaos, on earth it could only be destruction for the inhabitants of this planet.
If, with the help of his Marxist creed, the Jew is victorious over the other peoples of the world, his crown will be the funeral wreath of humanity and this planet will, as it did thousands of years ago, move through the ether devoid of men. Eternal Nature inexorably avenges the infringement of her commands.”
Pointing out that this doctrine is a mass of falsities (how is Marxism a Jewish doctrine?) and hyperbole (why is some aristocratic principle the foundation of the universe?) is obviously crucial to undermining its credibility, but this risks missing the point of its appeal. For many, reactionary personalities provide a comprehensive vision of the world, cementing their own place as a wronged “aristocratic” group who have been overthrown by lesser specimens. It also postulates an apocalyptic future where, unless the racially worthy are restored to their place of power—and the degenerate egalitarians and sub-races defeated and liquidated, humanity itself may perish. It is precisely these paranoid stakes which generate the ideological justification for the formation of the total “terror state” described so vividly by Hannah Arendt and others.
One of the characteristics of Nazi Germany, like the Soviet Union and arguably Mussolini’s Italy by the late 1930’s, was the establishment of a totalitarian terror state. This was a condition where the ruling party sought complete control over its citizenry, down to their very thoughts. While previous authoritarian regimes had been content to insist on mere obedience, the totalitarians sought to erase even the cognitive capacity of individuals to believe anything other than the party’s mutilated vision of the world. In the case of right-wing totalitarianism, this necessitated the use of terror to both suppress deviance and to constantly generate an atmosphere of fear towards undesirable groups. One of the most glaringly contradictory messages in fascist propaganda was its presentation of ethnically and racially dangerous groups as both inherently inferior and a constant danger. As Slavoj Žižek points out, in Nazi Germany Jews were presented as both sub-human and incompetent, as well as puppet masters of a gigantic conspiracy which dominated the globe. The dissonance required to mediate these contradictory viewpoints was provided by the ideology of terror, which insisted that if you could not believe both of these positions simultaneously, you were both unaware of the danger posed by these groups and at risk of the total state punishing you. The ideology of terror was, of course, instantiated by constant policing and brutality, climaxing in the evils of the concentration camps where enemies of the party were sent to suffer and die alongside the unworthy groups.
Post-Modern Conservatism and the Showbiz State
One of the features of contemporary post-modern conservatism missed when commentators are drawing parallels with fascism is the absence of such a terror state. This is not to suggest, of course, that the former regimes have not done terrible things. Everything from Trump’s decision to deepen Obama era crackdowns on immigrants to Victor Orbán’s increasingly overt authoritarianism should give us serious pause. But, by and large, these efforts have been directed towards marginalized and already vulnerable groups. Civil society, dissent and criticism are still very possible under post-modern conservative regimes. Indeed, in Trump’s America defending and criticizing Trump is virtually a hobby for different partisans.
To account for this difference, we need to look at how the governance of contemporary right-wing regimes differs from the totalitarian past. Here, I think Žižek is again on point when he invites us to look less at Mussolini and Hitler and more at a lesser known figure: Silvio Berlusconi. By way of reference, Berlusconi was an Italian businessman turned politician who lead a variety of right-wing parties to victory (and defeat) between 1994 and today. He was well known for his sensationalistic rhetoric, willingness to enrich himself while holding office, and blurring the line between the state’s interests and his private political interests. Despite blatant corruption, Berlusconi remained popular enough to repeatedly win elections and stage dramatic comebacks when liberal commentators repeatedly insisted the people had had enough. Žižek observes that while many thought this kind of politician was an anachronistic oddity in mid-2000’s neoliberal societies, Berlusconi may actually have been an archetype of the future. As he put it in his 2009 essay “Berlusconi in Tehran” for the London Review of Books:
“Berlusconi is a significant figure, and Italy an experimental laboratory where our future is being worked out. If our political choice is between permissive-liberal technocratism and fundamentalist populism, Berlusconi’s great achievement has been to reconcile the two, to embody both at the same time. It is arguably this combination which makes him unbeatable, at least in the near future: the remains of the Italian ‘left’ are now resigned to him as their fate. This is perhaps the saddest aspect of his reign: his democracy is a democracy of those who win by default, who rule through cynical demoralisation. Berlusconi acts more and more shamelessly: not only ignoring or neutralising legal investigations into his private business interests, but behaving in such a way as to undermine his dignity as head of state. The dignity of classical politics stems from its elevation above the play of particular interests in civil society: politics is ‘alienated’ from civil society, it presents itself as the ideal sphere of the citoyen in contrast to the conflict of selfish interests that characterize the bourgeois. Berlusconi has effectively abolished this alienation: in today’s Italy, state power is directly exerted by the bourgeois, who openly exploits it as a means to protect his own economic interest, and who parades his personal life as if he were taking part in a reality TV show.”
In hindsight, this now looks more like prophecy than alarmism. And it helps us understand how right-wing populists today need not forge terror states—and can even talk about maintaining increasingly illiberal forms of “democracy” with some credibility. The goal of post-modern conservatives isn’t to rule through terror but through “cynical democralisation.” They carry out their illegal corrupt acts and brazen dishonesty in public, even daring liberal elites and other critics to try and stop them. The result is often moralistic outrage, which helps cement the post-modern conservatives status as a victim of “Presidential Harassment” or a George Soros-funded conspiracy against the people. When presented with arguments about the actual “facts” concerning what they do, these figures either deflect by pointing to the bias of the “fake news,” accuse opponents of hypocrisy, or simply ignore them and continue propagating untruths. When done effectively, this essentially neutralizes any efforts to contain their action (at least amongst the post-modern conservative’s base who are already primed to regard any assault on the leader’s personal behavior or policies as an attack by the “enemies of the people”). Much of this has far more in common with show business than the “dignity” associated with classical politics in the civil state. The hyperreal optics of antagonism and group identity gradually erase any connection with a real world where actions should matter and statements are to be judged on their honesty.
Conclusion: Impotent Bigness and Right Wing Populism
These practices are quite different from the totalitarian fascist states of yore. To a certain extent, the totalitarians remained alert to the distinction between the truth and falsity they were trying to blur. Indeed, they implemented a massive terror state precisely to demand subjects submit to the party’s vision of the world at the price of liquidation. For Hannah Arendt, the supreme point about the totalitarian regime’s use of violence is that they displayed not strength but impotence. The impotent bigness of the regime’s posturing was constantly transgressed by its paranoid need to use terror to quash even the slightest dissent. Despite constant displays of power and supremacy, the paranoid quality of such a politics revealed its utter inability to imagine or realize any political future which wasn’t defined by a covert but deep yearning on the part of the masses to overthrow the party and its fantasies. In a word, the use of violence and terror displayed that the totalitarians couldn’t even believe their own propaganda.
Post-modern conservatism is ridden by many of the same kinds of paranoia. But how they realize themselves is quite different from what was seen in the past. In practice, they are entirely indifferent to the truth—either of how the world is, or the consequences of their actions on others. For someone like Trump, a promoter of “truthful hyperbole,” the point is to play to people’s “fantasies” by getting them to believe in someone who thinks “big.” This is also reflected in the different approaches to governance. The impotent bigness of these movements is displayed through rhetorical hyperbole mediated through modern technologies, grandiose policy claims which have little possibility of being realized, and denigration of all opposing groups as equally or more corrupt than post-modern conservatives. The effect of this largely isn’t to terrorize opposition but to render it ineffective and confused. In such a situation, all that is required are various soft anti-democratic measures to hedge the electoral system ala Republican gerrymandering and voter suppression techniques—or the executive trying to simply ignore the demands of representative legislatures by governing with impunity. So far, these techniques have worked quite successfully, though there are signs that cracks are beginning to form. In Israel, the United States, and the United Kingdom, post-modern conservatives have faced a growing array of legal and political troubles related to their personal corruption and demagogic behaviors. It might have been easy to dismiss these developments if they had the unbridled support of a majority of the population, but various polls suggest this will be difficult to achieve as the pressure and accusations mount. What consequences this might have will be quite interesting to see in the coming months.
Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on Twitter via @MattPolProf.