Ippolito Caffi, “Interior of the Colosseum”, 1850s, National Gallery
Fascism has been frequently defined as “the merger of state and corporate power.” This phrase is commonly attributed to Mussolini, though there’s no evidence he said it. Regardless, this soundbite has resonated exists as the most common coherent definition of fascism and works well as a still object against which I can attempt to measure society’s current rapid motion.
The current fascist consolidation isn’t the same as the one that rose in the first half of the 20th century. The earlier fascism rose in a cultural moment of technological ascension that was genuinely convincing. The possibility of utopia seemed real in concrete ways that hadn’t prior; in just a generation the material constraints that had defined humanity had lifted. This possibility also contrasted with what historians of WWI have dubbed “the possibility of total annihilation” and that Eric Hobsbawm discusses in The Age of Extremes-the act of warfare was now the possibility of complete annihilation without even a corpse as a remnant. This tide of fascism was effectively bookended with the ultimate realization of total physical annihilation-the atom bomb. While regional fascisms continued after WWII, fascism in toto was seen until recently as a response to the interwar period. Until 2016 anyway.
What has changed in the interim and how do we need to adjust our understanding of fascism so we can effectively respond to it? I feel like the current situation is primarily driven by two factors: 1) A population that consciously/subconsciously understands that there is a very strong possibility of an extinction event or at least severe version of what evolution science calls “a bottleneck”. 2) The overt merger of corporate and state power being caused by the transition/collapse of capitalism into what I would call competitive feudalism.
Both of these subjects could and have been the core of numerous long books. For brevity’s sake I’m going to lay out the bones of my argument in numbered observations:
1. Fascism in its initial incarnation was Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism/Maoism’s mirror image. Each saw the possibility of social perfection in the broader project of mass industrialization but defined utopia differently. Nazism was aesthetically an attempt by a society to embody the orderly image of standardized mechanical production, as opposed to Stalinism/Maoism’s attempts to rapidly industrialize so that industrialization could be (at least in theory) harnessed for the good of the majority population. This note is strictly referring to the projected self-image of these three movements and not their actualities, which, as we all know, were far messier and eventually catastrophic. The “alt-right” fascism of 2016 was born out of chaos and is happy to project an outward image of chaos-Donald Trump’s bizarre self-contradiction and embrace of domestic terrorist organizations not directly under his command is much closer to Mao’s tactics for consolidating power during the Chinese Cultural Revolution than Hitler’s deification of orderly militarism.
2. The new fascism has grown in a period defined by the proliferation of very possible (probable?) end of human civilization, and possibly life on Earth itself. This would be either through a third world war going nuclear or an unseen multiplier effect to climate change. This isn’t an argument on the probability of either event-their omnipresence in discussion and mass consciousness is more than enough to engender complex and bizarre effects. Increasingly erratic weather can’t help but give a morbid pall to even sunny warm days, particularly when they’re falling in the middle of February. Pretending that the chaotic novelty of recent politics isn’t related to climate change or the clear end of the viability of capitalism just because its adherents claim not to believe in climate change or the potential that capitalism could ever end is ridiculous. The zombie-neoliberalism-professionalism of the Democrats and the lulz-racism-deathcult of the Republicans are both clearly responses to the constant obvious reminders of the very real possibility none of us are going to reach our sell-by date. The Democrats think that rigid adherence to capitalism as it was will rise a dead thing, or worse that technological accelerationism will save us just in the nick of time. The Republicans/neo-fascist parties worldwide think that if they can ritually cleanse society of people/things that annoy them or their constituents (everything from the guy serving them at McDonalds having an accent to invented wars on Christmas) they can return to an imagined and fictional happy equilibrium. Confusing correlation with causation isn’t a result of ignorance but a psychological tool for releasing cognitive dissonance. The feeling of “powerlessness” among young white men is not solely attributable to economic prospects declining but to the larger cultural sense that there very well could not be a future.
3. The new fascism is not a politics of possibility but a politics of exhaustion. It’s not founded in the shadow of imagined utopia but in the shadow of imagined extinction. Hitler had Speer drawing up plans for a grand new Berlin, Trump can’t even say whether he’s going to actually do any of that infrastructure whatever he was vaguely talking about.
4. The ready accessibility of more information than can possibly be processed even by people who spend all day trying to make sense of what’s going on, compounded by the strong probability most of this information is fake or misleading compounds this sense of helplessness. The internet has shifted from an object of liberation hopes to one of Orwellian control that Orwell didn’t have enough of the puzzle pieces to put together. Instead of a TV that watches us, we have a dispassionate TV where we flail up and down to get its attention-several thousand people do this for a living now. Social media as a primary distribution outlet for information is incompatible
5. The best way to measure this breakdown of public trust in well…the very concept of trust: satire requires a social narrative with clear boundaries regarding what can credibly be accepted as real. These boundaries have broken down. This is the age of #nottheonion, an age featuring traits both of Baudrillard’s simulacra and Debord’s Spectacle, where reality has finally outpaced speculative fiction. We are in the thing after satire and after capitalism, not because either collapsed but because both have triumphantly ascended to omnipresence and by doing so lost the other whose differance defined them.
6. The way that power is distributed through media, due to #4, is basically a thing that can only be mastered by a small group of people with extremely specialized skill sets. Social media as a primary distribution outlet for information is incompatible with representative democracy. The famous line is “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Now that everyone ostensibly owns a printing press, outside of the questionable credibility of something going “viral”, access to readership is pretty much entirely a matter of training in and adherence to what were once termed counterinsurgency principles or the money to continually push posts. Access to the kind of AI/data crunching capabilities that allow someone like Robert Mercer to get Donald Trump elected or get Britain to decide to leave the EU cost several million dollars at the bare minimum and is limited to those who have the infrastructure and the highly qualified/extremely limited number of individuals that can run such an operation. The more polarized and scared the country is, the more money Facebook makes.
7. Accordingly, the practice of psychology has revealed itself as being a tool of mass control first and a sort of therapeutic thing second. The part that benefits the ruling classes is not the therapeutic part and much of the “progress” that has occurred in the last 150 years both in the social and hard sciences rewrite society in a manner more akin to Adorno’s Negative Dialectics than a coming tech utopia or “luxury communism”.
8. The fact that the current business model of the largest companies in the country is “disrupt and then take advantage of however long we can maintain a monopoly” speaks to the fact that there isn’t any more space for capital to expand. The fact that the capitalist warlords can directly govern now instead of ruling through proxies speaks more to where the country was already headed than any huge seismic shift caused by Trumpism. Much of the country feels powerless because in terms of the broad levers of power, they are. The struggles going on between the tech and oil/old-new money takes on an apocalyptic Twilight of the Idols feel. They’re fighting over who gets to own the pie when the turnover of capitalism settles into a single totalistic owner-subject state not given over to whatever struggles of consolidation in the marketplace are still left.