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  • Arthur Kleinman

Constructing a meaningful anti-fascist politics

“To forget a Holocaust is to kill twice”. On the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation, the words of Elie Wiesel, himself a survivor, remain as pertinent as ever. The custodians of the international community seem at least to be cognisant of this fact; more than fifty countries sent delegations to the memorial service dedicated to the genocide’s victims last January. Among the attendants - including Presidents Macron and Putin of France and Russia respectively - the sentiment was universal and unambiguous: we must never again allow genocidal fascism to emerge. However, taking a more holistic view of recent events, it is difficult not to feel somewhat morbid.

Throughout Europe in particular, a fresh strain of nationalistic populism is emerging. In lieu of this, many argue that such populism - embodied by political movements such as Italy’s Lega, France’s National Rally or even support for exiting the European Union here in the UK - is an irreconcilable entity to be met only with outright rejectionism, insofar as it may constitute a preliminary form of fascism. After all, appeasement was attempted in the past, and the consequences were indescribably horrific. Nevertheless, should we submit to fatalism? If our genuine desire is to prevent the re-emergence of fascism proper, we must be proactive. This doesn’t necessarily entail appeasement – rather, I would advocate what I term a process of critical engagement: acknowledging the irrevocable impulses that drive people toward populist movements, recognising the fact that they need not culminate in totalitarian, genocidal ideology, and once these two points have been established, taking resolute action against those who continually propagate racist and anti-Semitic dogma.

As is extensively accounted for in Matthew Goodwin and Roger Eatwell's National Populism: The Revolt against Liberal Democracy, this new populism has three prevailing characteristics: a desire to realise the popular will through democratic means, an emphasis upon what Goodwin and Eatwell term "plain, ordinary people", and a contrast between such people and "corrupt and distant" plutocratic elites. On the other hand, fascism is broadly characterised by a desire to realise the holistic nation, termed as a "spiritual community that demands total loyalty and devotion to its interests", the construction of a new fascist "man", embodied by a messianic leader (the mantle which Hitler and Mussolini sought to adopt), and an "authoritarian third way" in the economic sphere, fusing social unity, economic development and autarky.

Fascism and what Goodwin & Eaton term national populism are thus distinct entities; the former is driven by a fundamentally anti-democratic doctrine, insofar as democratic institutions are taken to undermine the development of the holistic nation and "new man" respectively, while the latter sees a deficit of dignity - derived both culturally and economically - manifest in demands for greater democracy, and a more proactive state which, while acting broadly within the existing socio-economic framework, nevertheless behaves resolutely in the interests of the hitherto neglected "common" man. In its contemporary form, these interests run a wide gamut – but, essentially they can be distilled down to three core points: an affinity toward national-cultural identity, which in turn fuels scepticism toward perceived attempts by the European Union to erode it; opposition to uncontrolled immigration; and, a desire to rebalance the economy away from elites.

Absent from Goodwin & Eaton’s analysis here, however, is how components of national populism harbour the latent capacity to morph into a more virulent, fascistic strain.

Take, for instance, the rejection of "corrupt and distant” plutocratic elites; this sentiment is to a certain extent legitimate, insofar as it pertains closely to dominant elements of the current socio-cultural discourse. Left-wing journalist James Bloodworth encapsulates this with his assertion that "an online echo chamber - middle class, metropolitan, politically correct - already decides what can and cannot be published in the left-wing media", and increasingly social media more broadly. Those who hold conservative cultural views (for example, a desire to restrict immigration) are often condemned outright as retrograde, ignorant or even racist, and are in turn often hounded out of the mainstream discourse. This is not to say that elements of the right aren’t also prone to intolerant, kneejerk behaviour; the current American President’s twitter tirades prove instructive in this respect. However, among many leading figures of the liberal left this type of behaviour is much more systematic, and has increasingly come to constitute a central component of their political strategy.

In this sense, the terms of the cultural discourse are ruthlessly set by what right-wing commentators relish labelling the "metropolitan, liberal elite". Additionally, many culturally conservative or "communitarian" voters - whether circumstantially or causally – reside in areas that have experienced the brunt of the damage dealt by globalised neoliberal capitalism, a fact which serves to only further amplify the acuity of such anxieties and resentments.

It is crucial at this stage to note the distinction between economic and cultural elites; there may be some overlap between the two, but membership of one camp doesn't necessitate that of the other. The right's simplified version of this narrative often implicitly subsumes the diverse, liberal urban middle and lower class under an amorphous elite – a stark mischaracterisation. Nevertheless, such voters, while certainly not benefitting from the prevailing economic arrangements, have much greater purchase in the cultural discourse as ordained by elite liberal orthodoxy.

To appropriate the terminology of the left, the deficit of dignity suffered by many of the voters attracted to national populism - post-industrial, instinctually conservative and working-class - is intersectional, insofar as it is constituted by the catalytic confluence of socio-cultural and economic factors.

Nevertheless, as you may have noticed, this aforementioned discourse of "corrupt and distant plutocratic elites" - while not necessarily anti-Semitic, and to a sufficient extent grounded in reality - harbours clear parallels to one of the most prevalent and insidious anti-Semitic tropes: that of the Jew as the bourgeois, "rootless cosmopolitan" conspiring against the “common” (implicitly white) man. It is this fact which necessitates a significant degree of vigilance. A majority of voters who come to support national populist movements don’t do so because they are racist and/or anti-Semitic, but the rhetoric employed by said movements certainly increases their proximity to racist and anti-Semitic conclusions, albeit subject to certain conditions (such as a severe economic downturn). At this stage, the task for liberals is clear: rather than abandoning such voters as a lost cause, we should instead pursue the strategy of critical engagement as outlined earlier. Blanket rejectionism merely serves to confer legitimacy upon and consolidate the narrative central to populism that a liberal elite is conspiring against and holds contempt for the “common man” – which in turn emboldens attempts by fascists to enter the political mainstream, with disastrous consequences for us all.

Various commentators, such as Theodore Isaac Rubin, have aptly applied the metaphor of a disease to describe anti-Semitism. However, in order to effectively treat a disease, it must be caught and proactively addressed in its early stages - otherwise it will mutate out of control until its symptoms are rendered irrevocable. In a similar fashion, blithe dismissals of the concerns of wide swathes of the public - while affirming the worldview of a liberal political class in the short run - ultimately serve to provide fascism with the oxygen necessary for its growth.

Any successful anti-fascist strategy - while not being naïve about its latent capacity to lead us in a dark direction - must reconcile with our fundamental desire for socio-cultural affirmation, such that its potential to sprout into a fascistic political movement is stunted and a meaningful alternative is provided. Its manifestation as national populism should consequently be taken by elites as a sign that the prevailing institutional arrangements aren’t working as originally intended and require drastic reform. In Britain, for example, it seems the political establishment has finally come to terms with the fact that, when offered an opportunity, the general public decided they weren’t so keen on remaining an EU member state. There is a debate to be had vis-à-vis the extent to which the Conservative Party has internalised the rhetoric of the radical right, but their decision to embrace the Brexit agenda nevertheless destroyed the latter as a political entity; the Brexit Party astoundingly only attained 2% of the vote in the recent election.

In short, engagement is required; although, as I have reiterated throughout the piece, this engagement must also be critical where necessary. When Matteo Salvini – the leader of Italy’s Lega – blithely laments that he “unfortunately” cannot deport his country’s Roma population, we should call it out for what it is: dog-whistle racism. However, if liberals are to win back the voters who have switched en masse to national populist parties, we must disaggregate them from the worst rhetorical excesses of said parties’ leaders, and initiate a genuine, substantive dialogue whose end goal isn’t to merely preach what many of us perceive to be the axiomatic qualities our worldview. Only by doing this can we assuredly safeguard our democracies, and prevent the horrors of the past from repeating themselves.

Image - Flickr (sergiok)

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