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Nov 16 2012

The New Fascism

This past Sunday, I went with my partner to our city’s Remembrance Day ceremony, which I do every year. My brother has served two tours in Afghanistan with the Canadian forces, and a tour in Bosnia after the civil war there, and many other members of my family have also served. I’m not one for overt expressions of nationalism, and I have numerous issues with the overly Christian-themes on display there, but for me, Remembrance Day is about my brother and the sacrifices he made. I think about his friends – some of whom did not make it home alive – and I remember that whether I agree with the mission in Afghanistan or not, the government that represents me sent them there. If nothing else, it reminds me of the absolute necessity of striving to elect people who understand the concept of ‘Just War’, and who recognize the heavy cost of sending young people to fight and die in our name. When we decide that the past is no longer something to remember and learn from, the old, crappy ideas that caused so much damage begin to seem a lot less crappy, and they start to be rediscovered by a whole new generation.

The next day, while guzzling down the barely-sweetened, caffeinated tar that is my morning coffee and reading the news, I received chilling, yet unsurprising confirmation that in some parts of the world, we aren’t just in danger of forgetting the past; we’re in danger of foolishly trying to repeat it. I’m talking about the that grim horror-show that is modern-day Greece, a nation so badly beaten down by the economic crisis now facing Europe and the rest of the world that many of its citizens have decided – against all hope of reason – that perhaps Hitler wasn’t so wrong after all; maybe all Greece needs is a sharp dose of fascism* to stop its slide into anarchy.

Enter the Golden Dawn, a ridiculously melodramatic name for a modern-day reincarnation of a very old spectre. In the minds of the party leaders, Greece’s real problem is that immigration has diluted the character of the Greek nation, and if all immigrants could be forcibly deported, Greece’s woes would be solved. If we were to believe the spin of some of the party’s top members, illegal (or rather, all) immigration into Greece has resulted in crime rates skyrocketing, and they’ve used a few well-publicised events to push that rhetoric.

Of course immigration into Greece is not the reason why the state has been unable to cover its debts; one of the main causes for that lies in the almost militant indifference on the part of many Greeks to pay their taxes. It’s a rather simple piece of economic arithmetic: if governments rely on tax revenue in order to pay for services and to balance their cheque-books, and if less than a third of Greek citizens and businesses actually pay their taxes, then the state cannot pay its bills, and the government grinds to a halt. Contrary to the assertions of libertarians everywhere, when national governments cease to function, the markets don’t just ‘step in’ to fill the gap; they begin to destabilize as well. The tremors spread outwards from the state into the international monetary markets, which react by throwing up firewalls around the troubled state – selling off Greek holdings and demanding the Greek state begin to make good on its international debts, while refusing to lend any more funds, etc. If the state cannot get its financial house in order – by say, raising revenue through tax collection – then its credit is downgraded, its ability to maintain the scope and quality of its services decreases, and necessary public institutions begin to fail. Once the process starts, it becomes exceptionally difficult to stop it; state collapse becomes as inevitable – and inexorable – as the collapse of a building after a severe fire. So what does this have to do with the Golden Dawn? Well, quite a lot, actually.

Historically, xenophobic and ultra-nationalist movements rarely gain popularity during times of plenty; when the going is easy, no one needs a scapegoat to blame their troubles on. But once the good times end, and social, political, or economic crises arise, the anxious and troubled pall that hangs over society provides perfect cover for radical and extremist movements that, like fungi, grow and moulder in the dank, shit-filled corners of the state. Their ideas are rarely original; they find a population or sub-group within society – usually an already marginalized one like immigrants, ethnic, or religious minorities – and they blame them for society’s woes. They cite flawed studies to support their arguments or, if they’re lazy (and many of them are, at least intellectually), they simply make shit up in order to cast their targets in as poor a light as possible. They chant slogans and hold rallies – often martial and aggressive in nature – where they proclaim their simplistic, reductionist solutions to complex problems, and offer themselves up as the panacea for all that ails society. And that’s just the beginning.

Groups like the Golden Dawn (or like the Nazis and the Klan before them) often cultivate unofficial relationships with law enforcement agencies and other organs of the state – often at the local or municipal level at first – which they use to both act on their agendas, and to garner for themselves a veneer of legitimacy. And, inevitably, they seek to gain real political power, as they are desperately trying to do in Greece.

As I’ve said – forcefully – to many of my friends, colleagues, and audiences of the various talks I’ve given on the subject, these groups are not to be taken lightly; their rhetoric is simplistic and offensive and their members are often clumsily, laughably foolish, but given the right circumstances, they can grow quickly and come to wield real power. These groups are dangerous; they are malignant. They show us all the importance of holding true to our dedication to acceptance, inclusions, and solidarity (at least, those are principles I happen to hold and idealistically hope others do too). It’s simple to keep to our convictions when doing so is easy, or when times are good; but history has shown us again and again just how quickly many of us can soften our dedication to our principles when times get rough. There is a reason why groups like the Golden Dawn always emerge in troubled times; the loss of hope in society often goes hand in hand with an increase in desperate searches for solutions – the simpler the better.

When I speak with the Veterans I meet at Remembrance Day ceremonies, I see in many of them the cost of ignoring groups like the Golden Dawn. I remember that many of them, while here to witness the ceremonies alongside their fellow citizens, left many of their friends behind on battle-fields all over the world, where they fought in opposition to the ultimate expressions of xenophobic, bigoted hate and “racial pride”. The pogroms, genocides, and atrocities of the early and mid-twentieth century aren’t history; they’re still with us, if we’d take the time to see it. Our elders are our society’s memory, and many of them remember the horrors of fascist and totalitarian regimes and what it took to stop them. We’d do well to ensure that their memories do not die with them.

Lest we forget.

* This is an often-misused and misunderstood word, and I wish that people would stop using it as a synonym for ‘Conservative’ or ‘person whose beliefs I don’t happen to like’. For an absolutely fascinating examination into the attitudes, beliefs, and practices of early and proto-fascists, I’d suggest reading “Male Fantasies” by Klaus Theweleit.

25 comments

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  1. 1
    composer99

    The only thing I would quibble on is that I do not agree that there is such a thing as a just war.

    Necessary wars, yes. But not just.

    Other than that, excellent article.

  2. 2
    jb

    Excellent article indeed. And I look forward to reading that book ‘Male Fantasies’.

  3. 3
    Stacy

    Male Fantasies is an excellent book (actually, two books)!

    Theweleit looked at the subculture of the German Freikorps between the World Wars (they had their own pulp fiction and everything,) and what it reveals about the fascist mentality. He showed their obsessions and phobias: IIRC there’s a lot of fascinating and insightful material on the misogyny and sex-phobia inherent in fascism.

  4. 4
    jesse

    Agree with your bit about misusing the term fascism. I haven’t read Theweleit, but I would say that there are some very specific pathologies that characterize fascism that have been on display in the Republican Party.

    – An idealization of a mythic past
    – Obsessions with purity of state/ culture
    – Scapegoating the ‘other’
    – Contempt for the process of politics; “why can’t we just get things done”
    – hierarchical, patriarchal program
    – Violent rhetoric; eliminationist rhetoric
    – Paramilitary trappings (the Minutemen were one part of this)

    That’s just a few. But as they say, if it looks like a duck…

    I should also add that informal relationships with law enforcement happen because the culture of any law enforcement group lends itself to fascism. They are hierarchical and cultivate an “us vs. them” mentality a lot of the time. A useful example is France. The local law enforcement didn’t have to turn in anyone to the Germans. But they did. Non-cooperation goes a long way, especially if it involves just not doing your job. THe French — and other countries’ — police forces agreed, generally, with the fascist governments.

    And by the way, if you don’t believe me about non-cooperation, I’ll tell you from experience I saw what it can do. It helped collapse the USSR and the old Warsaw Pact by making stuff just not work.

  5. 5
    Pen

    They show us all the importance of holding true to our dedication to acceptance, inclusions, and solidarity (at least, those are principles I happen to hold and idealistically hope others do too).

    I rather fear that fascism takes hold among populations who have no particular commitment to any of those principles and yet no particular gripe about other people as long as they are content.

    The other problematic section of the population is the people who are committed to those principles but stuck for some means of positive expression that’s as direct, appealing and easily grasped. What’s needed is something like Remembrance Day in fact. At the moment there is virtually no symbolic or organised celebration of multiculturalism in Europe though judging by the Olympic ceremony, Britain just might be starting to edge closer to one.

  6. 6
    lirael_abhorsen

    One very small rhetorical quibble. Just as “fascism” and “fascist” are commonly misused, so are “anarchy”, “anarchism”, “anarchist”, etc. We should stop using anarchy as a sloppy synonym for chaos, devastation, and so on.

    I am not an anarchist (like yourself, I’m closest to being a social democrat). I know and participate in a lot of activism with anarchists. Anarchists are a major part of the relief and rebuilding efforts in post-Hurricane-Sandy NYC (which I have also participated in). Anarchists were largely responsible for Common Ground Relief, the famous post-Hurricane-Katrina relief/rebuilding operation. Anarchists are largely responsible, at least around here, for Food Not Bombs, which feeds homeless people and political activists. And anarchy, in fact, fought fascism during the Spanish Civil War.

    Obviously, there have also been anarchists who have committed bombings, assassinations, etc. And there are individual strains, such as French illegalism (which was mostly a 19th-century thing), that seem closer to the popular understanding. But the visions of most prominent anarchist strains are mostly about social justice and how to achieve it in society.

  7. 7
    Edwin

    Thanks for the comment! I would counter your assertion that wars can never be ‘just’ by arguing that in cases where, for example, an act of genocide can only be halted by war, that such a conflict might in fact be considered ‘Just

  8. 8
    Edwin

    I really hope that you check it out; it’s long (it’s two volumes), but it is one of the most important examinations of proto-fascist and fascist ideology I think I’ve ever read.
    Cheers

  9. 9
    Edwin

    He showed their obsessions and phobias: IIRC there’s a lot of fascinating and insightful material on the misogyny and sex-phobia inherent in fascism.

    Spot on. Fear and hatred of women (Specifically the “Red Women” – Commies, ‘temptresses’, etc) was a source of a massive amount of tension and violence. Also, his description of male-on-male sexual violence within the Friekorps was incredibly disturbing.

  10. 10
    Edwin

    I tend to agree (with a few small reservations) about your characterization of law enforcement agencies and their predisposition to adopting or endorsing fascist or proto-fascist associations, but I would be cautious about ascribing fascist pathologies to the Republican party as a whole. Despite the current strain of social conservatism running through the party, there are a number of key pro-fascist factors missing from the Republican party, such as an ideologically explicit embrace of the use of physical violence against specific, vulnerable populations. Is there anti-immigrant or xenophobic rhetoric being lobbed from some (many) quarters of the party? Sure. Are there explicitly endorsed acts of physical violence directed against Mexican or Latino immigrants by the party – or by militarized wings of the party? Nope. Republicans (and I’m talking here about the party’s stated ideology) are quick to defend Americans’ right to bear arms, but they are equally quick to point out that such a right may only ever be used for lawful purposes.

    The Republicans are deeply fractured at the moment; they are undergoing what an old professor of mine routinely calls a party’s “ideological time in the wilderness”, where they struggle internally to redefine what they are about, and many voices within the party are calling for the adoption of a more moderate and inclusive platform – one that seeks to recognize and support the struggles of immigrant populations. I know, it’s weird, but listen to what Bobby Jindal has been saying lately.

    Thanks for your comment!

    Quick edit: I should also point out that groups like the Minutemen and other militia groups are not generally associated with the Republican party – either explicitly or implicitly. Most of the militiamen I’ve spoken with or studied are rather suspicious of the Republicans and are often more likely to vote third party (so, Ron Paul, rather than Mitt Romney).

  11. 11
    jesse

    I don’t know if you are up on Joe Arpaio, who is far from a fringe figure. He has called for violence against vulnerable populations, via his explicit support to the Minutemen on the border in Arizona via an endorsement of Russell Pearce.

    Arpaio — or Bachmann, or West — isn’t some fringe nut, the National GOP has had him at the convention and he got top billing at several Arizona GOP events this year.

    And those Minutemen have killed. (Look up Brisenia Flores).

    I think the proto-fascism is certainly there, if only on that basis. I might add that the violent rhetoric may not be on the GOP party platform yet, but their definition of “lawful” use of arms differs from your or mine I think. The GOP has also explicitly endorsed “stand your ground” laws, which basically mean that it is perfectly legal to shoot non-whites whenever you “feel threatened.” I’ve read the text of that law, it’s scary.

    If that doesn’t count as endorsing and calling for violence against vulnerable populations, what does? I have very little confidence that the saner heads in the GOP will prevail, since the response to the electoral loss seems to be to turn up the crazy.

  12. 12
    Edwin

    I am most definitely familiar with that walking shit-pump, and I can’t stand him; he’s definitely someone who I would consider to harbour any number of fascist or pro-fascist beliefs, but he is not the Republican Party and despite his appearance at the GOP convention this year, he’s not really a power-player in the party, and he certainly doesn’t set policy for it. Neither does Bachmann or Allen West – who at last glance seems to have lost his seat in the house. GOP policy-makers recognize the importance of snagging far Right voters, but the reality of the 2012 Presidential election has made many of the GOP leaders realize that unless they moderate and ‘de-crazy’ their message, they might just slip into irrelevance.

    Political cynicism more than anything else might be the force the drives the Republicans closer to the center. I’m no fan of the Republicans, and I am absolutely, completely opposed to the bullshit social conservatism that has infected their ranks over the last decade or two (but primarily since the ‘Contract with America‘), but I remain rather hopeful that the next few years will see a Republican purge of their more radical elements. They’ve done it before when they kicked the Birchers out of the party in large part thanks to the influence of William F. Buckley.

    Things like ‘stand your ground’ laws don’t really pass muster on the ‘checklist of fascism’; while they might disproportionately effect people of colour, they are not explicitly aimed at doing so. They do not make it legal to ‘shoot non-whites’; if they were that explicit, then yes, they would certainly be sliding into the ‘fascism’ zone.

    Again, while there are any number of issues in the Republican Party, and while it certainly contains a large number of people who hold some pretty racist beliefs, it is a far cry from a ‘fascist’ party. It is patriotic (even nationalist), xenophobic (to an extent), and stained with social conservatism, but it is not fascist. This is a fascist party.

    I tend to think that the Republicans – if they aren’t careful and if they let the more wildly radical voices hold sway – will be in danger of shifting farther to the right, maybe even into more pro-fascist territory, but currently I’m just not seeing it. Right now all I see is a Right-wing American political party in deep existential crisis.

  13. 13
    smrnda

    Thanks for a great article. I’m definitely reading the recommended book as soon as I can get my hands on a copy.

  14. 14
    jb

    Man, sounds totally creepy!

    Does this also partially (or even wholly) explain why Nazism has been so easily fetishized? That it was set up that way from the start? More or less :P

  15. 15
    Edwin

    That’s a really great question, and I honestly don’t know the answer. My hunch is that the epistemological structure of fascism – how fascists are ‘supposed’ to think about the world – does have a pretty strong influence on the ease with which fascist ideas are adopted and internalized. But you’re also right, I think, when you used the word ‘fetishized’ to describe the retention and spread of fascist and Nazi ideology.

  16. 16
    jb

    I tried to search for the book using google and all I got were xxx porno links haha:P

    I should have known better!

  17. 17
    Valde

    Ya’ll might get a kick out of this video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JEle_DLDg9Y

    Mitchell and Webb, making fun of nazis :)

  18. 18
    jesse

    I hope you are correct, Edwin, I really do. But Buckley’s dead.

    And you may not be aware, while Arpaio himself doesn’t decide GOP policy — he is, to be sure, more a state-level figure, the Romney camp thought the Arizona law was a fine idea, even going so far as to publicly endorse it. This isn’t the fringe; it’s the mainstream.

    Bachmann lost her bid to be chairman of the Republican Conference Chair, but she got backing from several other congressmen for the post, and they weren’t fringe people either (many were longtime members of Congress in powerful spots, like Rep. Peter King). She’s on the Intelligence Committee, for god’s sake. You do realize what that means when it comes to passing laws?

    Yes, West lost. Unfortunately h isn’t the only one. Again I do hope you are right.

  19. 19
    theophontes (恶六六六缓步动物)

    ‘Thus the class-war plunged Greek society into every kind of moral evil, and honesty, which is the chief constituent of idealism, was laughed out of existence in the prevailing atmosphere of hostility and suspicion. No argument was cogent enough and no pledge solemn enough to reconcile opponents. The only argument that appealed to the party momentarily in power was the unlikelihood of their remaining there long and the consequent advisability of taking no risks with their enemies. And the stupider the combatants, the greater their chances of survival, just because they were terrified at their deficiencies, expected to be outwitted and outmanœuvred, and therefore plunged recklessly into action, while their superiors in intellect, who trusted to their wits to protect them and disdained practical precautions, were often caught defenceless and brought to destruction.’

    Thucydides (Peloponnesian War iii.83) was on the nail for describing how the likes of “Golden Dawn” can bring their lies and obtuseness to bear in situations like the current. (‘Merkins might also feel adressed.)

    It is not always so that the people described in the OP and above necessarily lie. Where the truth they speak is crude or cruel they can be quite open. Hitler announced he would go after the Jews once in power and did exactly that.

  20. 20
    theophontes (恶六六六缓步动物)

    Alternative (and yet more apropriate) translation of last bit:

    In this contest the blunter wits were most successful. Apprehensive of their own deficiencies and of the cleverness of their antagonists, they feared to be worsted in debate and to be surprised by the combinations of their more versatile opponents, and so at once boldly had recourse to action: while their adversaries, arrogantly thinking that they should know in time, and that it was unnecessary to secure by action what policy afforded, often fell victims to their want of precaution.

  21. 21
    simonsays

    Sorry, I’m coming to this article a bit late, but I don’t see a source for your stat that “less than a third of Greek citizens and businesses actually pay their taxes”.

    And I also know that you’re trying to be concise but to blame tax evasion alone for the Greek debt crisis and subsequent Depression is to fundamentally ignore the systemic problems of the EU as well as the subsequent handling by the EU/IMF Troika in making the situation even worse.

  22. 22
    Edwin

    You’re right, of course; Greeks’ failure to pay their taxes is not the only factor in this crisis, but it is certainly a powerful vector (and one more for good measure) There are of course massive structural problems throughout the EU and particularly in how the EU chooses to handle debt crises, but it is a simple fact that failure to pay taxes absolutely results in the inability for a state to make good on its debts, and can lead to the sorts of crises Greece is currently facing.

    I’m not arguing that EU/IMF deals have exacerbated the situation, and I absolutely reject the idea that fiscal austerity is a good thing; I’m merely pointing out that if more Greek citizens had chosen to pay their taxes, things might have looked a bit different.

  23. 23
    simonsays

    You do realize how condescending you sound right? What’s next, excoriating Greeks’ work ethic? You say you give talks on this subject, I really hope you’re not giving talks on anything relevant to Greece.

    OK, “Greeks” (no qualifier there, we’re all the same I suppose) just needed to pay their tax. It’s all so simple. Oh wait, Christine Lagarde had said something to that effect: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/may/25/payback-time-lagarde-greeks

    Just as condescending, poorly researched, and simplistic are the articles you provided. No mention of the EU policy on refugees. Nothing about Greek government failures over decades to do anything about that. No mention of government corruption in collusion with business elites. Nothing about over-lending by large French/German banks. Nothing about shipping magnates and their un-taxed wealth. Nothing about the 2008 US debt crisis. No quantifying of the scale of tax evasion in comparison to other countries. Not even simple arithmetic about how this revenue would have actually stopped the 2010 debt crisis. Nope. It’s all very simple in Edwin’s world.

    Even your main premise about the state “getting it’s house in order” has at best very little do with Golden Dawn’s popularity. We know this because in 2009 GD got a total of 0.3% of the national vote. Even in the 2010 municipal elections (the first after the initial bailout) all they got was a single seat on the Athens City Council. According to opinion polls it was not until 2011 that they started to approach any kind of critical mass. And this was over a year into the original EU/IMF policies which were dictated entirely by Merkel et al.

  24. 24
    Edwin

    Even your main premise about the state “getting it’s house in order” has at best very little do with Golden Dawn’s popularity. We know this because in 2009 GD got a total of 0.3% of the national vote. Even in the 2010 municipal elections (the first after the initial bailout) all they got was a single seat on the Athens City Council. According to opinion polls it was not until 2011 that they started to approach any kind of critical mass. And this was over a year into the original EU/IMF policies which were dictated entirely by Merkel et al.

    Maybe I’m missing the point that you’re trying to make, but it seems that this trend you’ve pointed out pretty much confirms my point; as economic conditions – and the attendant social crises – worsen, groups like the Golden Dawn gain in popularity. By reversing that trend – by providing basic goods and services for its population and by stabilizing troubled economic systems, a state can help to mitigate that growth in popularity. The mere fact that an openly fascist party gained even a single seat is incredibly worrying. Maybe you don’t think so; maybe you’ve got a different threshold than I do. How many seats – at any level – does a party like the Golden Dawn have to win before their popularity becomes a serious problem for you?

    Also, I’m sure that you noticed that the articles I provided discuss at some length the problems of endemic corruption in Greece – you must have noticed it, because it was part of the reason I chose them. And yes, despite your worry that I appear condescending, I maintain my original position; the failure on the part of so many Greek citizens to pay their taxes directly contributed to the financial crisis currently being faced by Greece. Did the US housing market collapse have an effect? Of course; it was the event that kick started the whole thing. But to claim that poor Greece has simply been at the mercy of all of these external forces and has had no part to play in its own problems is fundamentally untrue. What exactly do EU immigration policies have to do with the fact that so few Greek citizens paid income taxes? How does the problem of ‘Greek shipping magnates’ take away from the fact that said magnates are part of a massive segment of Greek society that simply refuses to pay? The existence of corruption in the Greek state, while serving as an explanatory factor in non-compliance, does not alter the fact that many Greeks simply do not pay taxes – the chief source of revenue in a modern state.

    How is me saying that many Greeks don’t pay their taxes any different from saying that many Canadians are opposed to abortion? The term “greeks” is pretty broad; it refers simply to Greek citizens. Is there something wrong with that? How is it being condescending, or overly reductionist?

    How do insensitive and actually condescending statements made by Lagarde take away from the empirical fact that Greece has some of the highest rates of non-compliance with regards to taxation in the European Union?

    Do you have some sort of counter-argument to rebut my points? Does this argument come with evidence? Care to link it to show me just how wrong I am? If you’ve got access to some scholarly works, I’d love to see them.

  25. 25
    simonsays

    Er, I could have sworn I wrote a response to this. Was it stuck in moderation?

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