He was a leader who held a nation in his thrall.
From the excesses of empire and occupation, he arose with a voice so clear it could not but give his people hope, give his people dreams. He arose and gave them such ravishings of riches never before imagined. He had no fixed ideology, only a vision, and an acute sense of what would work or not. He used coercive methods, stoked the fears of communist plots. But he did arise democratically. Later, he discovered that the law could be used to stop the Opposition from entering parliament. The law could be used to maintain dominance, to do wrong. Entirely legal, entirely legitimate. It helped to have an extravagant propaganda machinery in his hands.
And he followed his vision as long as the destination was a nation strong and free.
Although he upheld the principles of private property, and his people given an illusion of private ownership, most of it belonged to the State. That is, after numerous land grabs and forced evictions. The state colluded with private capital, chanelling economic growth through top-down regulations and contracts, through prolonged working hours and suppressed wages. State-owned enterprises controlled the economy, the labour movement was quelled in the name of unity, and the capitalist class was feted accordingly. This nationalist autarchy was an efficient blend of capitalism and socialism, a Third Way ahead of its time, a shining emblem of a corporate state. By necessity, the masses were reduced to a kind of serfdom. Hostage to the state, servants to capital. But no matter, for the means justified the ends.
This was a society based on the doctrinal trilogy of order, discipline, and hierarchy. Based on the elites of the few and the mobilization of the masses. To this end, the elites – belonging to a certain race – had to be born. Their births and citizenship were encouraged. On the other end, the inferior had to be prevented. Their births were reduced, residency curtailed, and some others sterilized. Of course, homosexuals were persecuted. An elitist, racist, and sexist society was thus nurtured by a state-wide eugenicist programme, determining marriage, immigration, and first birth. So as to proliferate the favoured types and races, so as to achieve a nation strong and free.
Such a nation naturally needed a strong leader. A father of founding fathers the mantle of legends and myths. And how indeed he made good his promises to make his people strong again. How triumphant they were, how prosperous, and how they loved him so. The father embodied in one people and one nation, exalted in its youths and cultivated in its men.
Such were his people then, like a flock waiting for their messiah, for national rebirth, such stirring, incandescent passions, that they were willing to condone the wrongs that he did and the evils that he wrought. Such was the compelling power of his particular fascism, the extent of their dehumanization, to have his nation so ravished by riches, so enthralled by visions, so fascinated by the always present, always beautiful fantasy of unity, of sacrifice, so as to achieve a nation strong, glorious, and free.
And know this story of Hitler well. The tragic intoxication of a nation with his dreams. The imperative of war. The gas chambers. A solution, as long as it worked. The means justified the ends. Even better if they were within the law – his laws. The unimaginable possibilities of evil. But he did not live happily ever after, thankfully, and gone with him was his particular fascism.
Today, even though patently-fascist organizations operate in many countries, they are few in number, generally weak, and virtually ostracized by mainstream society. To garner electoral support, they have to first de-fascistize themselves and become more moderate – such is the ideological dilemma that they face. (This containment, though, is only effective in functioning democracies.) Nonetheless, it will be difficult for another Hitler to emerge. The times have changed. Gone are the days of great wars, racial domination, and imperial conquests – conditions that created a certain kind of fascism. Today, Hitler is a lesson to be learnt, but not an example to be followed.
This does not mean, however, that fascism does not manifest itself in other forms, in lesser degrees, certain qualities adopted, changing and moving along with the times. Fascism’s definitions have always been fluid; it has never been a coherent set of philosophy. Look more closely, less literally, and you might just detect its presence; transformed and reproduced into other morphologies, lambent, like a dark promise.
There is, above all, the amazing stereotyping of all the fascist propaganda material known to us. Not only does each individual speaker incessantly repeat the same pattern again and again, but different speakers use the same clichés. Most importantly, of course, is the dichotomy of black and white, foe and friend.
- Theodor Adorno, Anti-Semitism and Fascist Propaganda
And the essential face of fascism remains the same: the cult of leadership and its coterie of yes-men, elite rule and mass mobilization, authoritarianism and a depoliticized bureaucracy, assertive nationalism, statist economics, a propagandistic mass media, and an emasculated labour movement (thereby enjoying the support of the rich). More dangerously: the ruling elites’ belief of an innate human inequality, of socio-biological eugenics, state-sanctioned executions, the inculcation of military virtues, the insidious sense of siege, a nation if not preparing for war, at war, then ever-ready to wage a war – all inoculated in the name of efficiency and advancement. Of survival. Totalizing state power for an ultimate vision of utopia, for fascism is after all a politics of vision.
So the stirring mass displays of precision and one-ness, the impressive weaponry and grand infrastructure, the fireworks that swathe the sky and surge one’s heart, and of course, always, the timeless image of the messiah. In all these, the youth on the centre-stage, the Father’s youths, for fascism exalts the youth. Like the National Day 2009 music video “What do you see?” with a curious, conspicuous absence of the old, as if the nation consists only of young, smiling boys and girls, precious children of the State. Like the old who ‘would not conveniently die off’, labeled too, inhumanely, as a ‘silver tsunami’. Such illuminating connotations of obstinacy, of recalcitrance, of catastrophe associated with the elderly.
Once more from Adorno:
[A]ll fascist agitators dwell upon the imminence of catastrophes of some kind. Whereas they warn of impending danger, they and their listeners get a thrill out of the idea of inevitable doom.
Or else, or perdition looms. The nation is always in peril.
In fascist regimes, where individual lives are insignificant, it is unsurprising that citizens are treated with contempt, offenders punished punitively, criminals executed swiftly, for brutal regimes breed a brutal people. Of course, the people soothe themselves (but what else can they do?): it’s a necessary evil, it’s for the greater good, lest the great nation falls. It’s that smell of blood and the thrill of doom.
But fascism doesn’t just flourish in authoritarian regimes. 20th century European fascism did thrive in an era of democracy; and as recent as 2008, Austria's far-right Freedom Party continued to win seats in its parliament – such are the disturbing signs of the times. While mainstream Austrians and the international community expressed their alarm at this development, they could do little to prevent George W. Bush’s post-9/11 America from racially profiling its citizens, passing the Patriot Act, and continually invoking the fantasy of a united nation – the fascist inflections in democratic America. But at least there were critical awareness and vigorous debates in those countries.
Compared to times past, much of contemporary fascism is subtler, more banal – it has avoided its previous mistakes, adopted its best practices. It helps authoritarian regimes to better themselves.
As a diffusion of capitalism – and capitalism having become a celebrated ideology the world over, splendent in its neo-liberal variant – fascism remains a potent poison. No longer just administered by military adventurism, or even the more contemporary ‘wars’ of religious extremism and the fears of terrorism, there is also now the lure of consumerist comfort. A politics of fear combined with a culture of contentment to lull us into embracing a dictatorship of competence (fascism as blithely defined by Pierre Bourdieu).
Thus, to be rich is glorious, and life is after all incomplete without shopping. In certain quarters, it can be dressed up as ‘good governance’. Fascism by any other name now comes in even more attractive versions. But fascism is fascism however demure it appears.
Thus, before we can curb what Susan Sontag has called the ‘fascist longings in our midst’, for fascism is always compelling, always alluring, we have to first be willing to countenance its banality of riches, to recognize its swastika in yet another guise, and to call it by its only rightful name. For before one submits to temptation, the temptation to its unimaginable possibilities, one is first susceptible to it. Fascism inures, it inoculates, it makes one susceptible.
Compared to its versions of past failures and full regalia, ours is a fascism that holds us tighter in its thrall. And it is not just because one lives in an authoritarian state. But that this time, it is ribboned with a smug, enticing smile: Ours is a fascism that bestows us the good life. Ours is a fascism that works.
This is the lyre and the legacy of fascism. From Third Reich to First.