My father attempted to do a PhD in Germany from 1937-39, but it became increasingly obvious that things were deteriorating rapidly in Nazi Germany and that war was coming. He returned to Dublin in July ’39, a few months after the British navy finally withdrew from its occupation of Irish ports.
He believed strongly that there was nothing intrinsically different about the Germans that made them more susceptible to fascism than other nations. He thought some form of fascism would return, but almost certainly not to Germany. I was instilled with the belief that “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” and that democracy was fragile.
I have been increasing uneasy about the politics in both the US and UK. The methods used by both Trump and the current Tory party increasingly resemble those employed by fascists.
I don’t expect gas chambers, but believe that in both countries amoral techniques are being used to gaslight the public and consolidate power in the hands of a very wealthy global elite.
The 26 richest people on earth in 2018 have the same net worth as the poorest half of the world’s population, some 3.8 billion people.
There is no question that many of the “elite” would like to keep things that way. This “elite” of course also includes mega-corporations, many with wealth greater than even middle-sized nations. Much of this wealth is hidden in offshore accounts and tax evasion and avoidance by the 0.01% is rife. Globally, the only organisation with the power and will to tackle this is the EU, which is why it has enemies on the right.
The EU is also a bastion of citizens rights. Workers rights, in particular, limit the profits that the wealthiest individuals and corporations can make. The “level playing field” is detested as it prevents a race to the bottom.
Standards, in quality of goods, food and environment, very much a part of “the level playing field” are also a brake on libertarian capitalism. The EU is by far the greatest champion of these issues globally and is increasingly effective.
There is good reason for the less scrupulous global elite to try to weaken or even destroy the EU. But how is this to be done? Could fascism or fascist techniques be used to do so?
The interview is striking as it frames fascism in a very useful way. It is aimed at an American audience, but here it is reframed for a British one.
What is Fascism?
Stanley describes fascism as a technique for gaining power – a methodology rather than an ideology.
I think of fascism as a method of politics. It’s a rhetoric, a way of running for power. Of course, that’s connected to fascist ideology, because fascist ideology centers on power. But I really see fascism as a technique to gain power.
The Tory party is, above all, a party that likes to stay in power and has redefined itself a few times to do so. The modern reincarnation indeed could most certainly be described as populist, but is a fascist label a stretch?
Key indicators of Fascism
The key thing is that fascist politics is about identifying enemies, appealing to the in-group (usually the majority group), and smashing truth and replacing it with power.
To get fascism to work you identify real or imagined enemies — in the UK’s case primarily the EU. The in-group is the “true people of England.” There is little appeal to the Scots and even less to the Irish (apart from the Unionist/Loyalist group who currently self-identify as British). You also need to smash the truth (more of this later).
Use of Victimisation
In the past, fascist politics would focus on the dominant cultural group. The goal is to make them feel like victims, to make them feel like they’ve lost something and that the thing they’ve lost has been taken from them by a specific enemy, usually some minority out-group or some opposing nation.
The primary imagined enemy is the EU. The EU is not our enemy, but now that we have left, will give priority to the interests of its citizens, not special treatment to those of the UK. Naturally, this will be decried as punishment.
There are also worrying signs of minority groups being othered, in particular Afro-Caribbeans, like the Jamaica 50, about whom David Lammy speaks very powerfully here. Other enemies will be needed in future to sustain the feeling of victimisation.
Nostalgia and Loss
This is why fascism flourishes in moments of great anxiety, because you can connect that anxiety with fake loss. The story is typically that a once-great society has been destroyed by liberalism or feminism or cultural Marxism or whatever, and you make the dominant group feel angry and resentful about the loss of their status and power. Almost every manifestation of fascism mirrors this general narrative.
The thing is, people willingly adopt the mythical past. Fascists are always telling a story about a glorious past that’s been lost, and they tap into this nostalgia. So when you fight back against fascism, you’ve got one hand tied behind your back, because the truth is messy and complex and the mythical story is always clear and compelling and entertaining. It’s hard to undercut that with facts.
The narrative is that the EU has stolen our sovereignty, impoverishes us by sucking vast amounts of money (£350m) per week. It is determined to destroy the British national character through legislation imposed from Brussels. Freedom of movement causes the country to be swamped by benefit cheats and criminals, causing “true Brits” to be belittled and impoverished. This, of course, is fantasy, and wrong on every point.
Growing nostalgia for an imaginary past is part of the delusion. An imagined 1950s or WWII when Britain stood alone against the might of the Nazis and triumphed against the odds, is endlessly invoked by a generation that remembers none of the reality. The greatness of the Empire is also there but more as background music.
The fact that the ’50s were in fact pretty dreadful in many ways, or that WWII was largely won by the combination of Soviet blood and American capital, amount to complexities that cannot be admitted as they spoil the exceptionalist narrative of the British, and the English in particular, being a race apart.
In the North of England, there is a deep sense that things have gone very badly wrong. This all the more powerful because it is true. Many of the once-prosperous industrial towns, such as Barnsley and Stoke on Trent, now have some of the worst deprivation levels in Europe. Successive governments rather than the EU caused this decline, but this has to be hidden. In fact, without EU structural funds, things would be even worse.
The appeal of Brexit is strong, almost visceral. Facts seem to ricochet off the impregnable armour of local convictions. But how has this been achieved?
Gaslighting and Propaganda
Truth is required to act freely. Freedom requires knowledge, and in order to act freely in the world, you need to know what the world is and know what you’re doing. You only know what you’re doing if you have access to the truth. So freedom requires truth, and so to smash freedom you must smash truth.
There has been a relentless campaign in the right-wing press to vilify the EU and vile headlines regarding immigrants are run periodically to ramp up anger, victimisation and resentment.
Fake news has been peddled, as Prof Mike Dougan says “on an industrial scale“. Falsehood has been elevated to the level of truth, given equal debating time on even the BBC. Absolute, objective truth has disappeared or become impossible for most to discern. As in Russia, “nothing is true and everything is possible.” Experts have been vilified as motivated by self-interest. Journalists have been bullied with threats of exclusion from access and faced with endless contradiction by unqualified grifters funded with dark money. The incessant political lying and attempts to discredit the integrity of anyone who might resist is chilling. The tactic of Steve Bannon of discrediting any media that might hold power to account by “flooding the zone with shit” — to disempower or simply weary the electorate who just “want it done” appears to work with the less educated and less capable of critical thinking.
The End Point
Part of what fascist politics does is get people to disassociate from reality. You get them to sign on to this fantasy version of reality, usually a nationalist narrative about the decline of the country and the need for a strong leader to return it to greatness, and from then on their anchor isn’t the world around them — it’s the leader.
A few years ago I used to say Brexiters lived in Cloud Cuckoo Land. I stopped arguing this. It just annoyed them and made them dig in (the Backfire Effect), but things are now far worse.
I’m less sure, however, if the strong leader narrative fits the UK today.
Do we have the “leader” in PM Johnson? I find him a buffoon, a man promoted far beyond his capabilities. He is however admired by a certain tranche of society. Can he, and does he wish to, get to the stage that “the will of the leader is the will of the people?“
Time will tell. Johnson is less far down the road than Trump, but both have a belief that they were born to lead. Johnson fancies himself as a reincarnation of Churchill. He seems to have surrounded himself by sycophants, which he may be able to bend to his will. Only a few, notably Gove and Cummings, seem to have much independent will or indeed ability.
One bright spot has been Julian Smith, the NI Secretary. He proved to be remarkably effective, surprisingly so given the ignorance and incompetence of his four predecessors. His willingness to be even-handed in his dealings appears to have cost him his job in the short-run (and his offence of outshining the master sealed it). In the longer term, if the Conservatives survive the explosion they are clearly intent on creating — who knows — he could emerge as a leader.
While writing this post, there has been a major cabinet reshuffle. In addition to Julian Smith, Andrea Leadsom, Ester McVey, Theresa Villers and Geoffrey Cox are out.
Far more dramatically Sajid Javid has resigned, reportedly because he was unwilling to sack his Special Advisors and have them replaced by Dominic Cummings shills. His replacement, Rishi Sunak, has no such qualms and once again more power is being further concentrated at the centre.
I am no fan of Javid, but concentration of power in the leader is a hallmark of fascism.
Prof Stanley’s framing of fascism is very interesting. It fits much of what has become manifestly evident in the UK over an extended period. I’m not sure it will result in power being concentrated in one person as seems to be happening in the US with Trump.
Certainly, we can now expect power to be more and more concentrated in the executive, with the judiciary, civil service and even parliament itself being sidelined.
EU27 citizens living in the UK will very much be an outgroup made to feel increasingly unwelcome. Citizens rights for minorities will become a key testing ground as Steve Bullock explains.
Fascist methodologies are being used. Time will tell whether this will further develop into a full ideology and what havoc will result before it ends badly — it always has.
It is not July ’39 in Germany as yet, but I will keep an eye on things. Certainly following my father’s footsteps and returning to Dublin gets more and more tempting.