When writers on the left debate whether X individual or Y political party is a fascist, we do so for specific reasons. In the last hundred years, the richest countries of the world have with one exception been free from civil war, genocide and even direct military conflict. The major exception was fascism. It follows that fascist parties are an exceptional form under capitalism, which are capable of talking all the hatred and the violence on which capitalism thrives but concentrating and taking them further; much further than is possible under any other form of politics. All sorts of practical conclusions (indeed the whole anti-fascist tradition, in all its varieties) follow from this premise.
For at least two years, we have been living through a moment of far-right advance, which has included victories for the right in major powers (which are therefore capable of emulation): Brexit, Trump, the thirty-three percent of the vote won by the Front National in the second round, etc. But until very recently, these victories were being won by forces which were clearly closer to conservatism than what we ordinarily understand as fascism. The key personalities, Farage, Trump, Le Pen, were electoral politicians with neither fascist political nor a base of sup-port (a mass movement) outside the electoral sphere. With the likely victory of Jair Bolsonaro in tonight’s election that changes; very many Brazilian socialists regard Bolsonaro as a fascist, he uses a language of authoritarianism and makes promises of violence whose sadism seem to make him a definite step to the right compared with what has gone before – not just in Brazil but internationally. Here, I am not going to attempt my own definition of Bolsonaro’s movement – readers who want that detail are directed to the pieces I linked to at the start – rather what I want to do is make some general points about the period we are living in and what it means even to ask whether a particular movement is fascist.
Why Bolsonaro is unlike fascism:
There have been many political authoritarians in history who were not fascists
Part of the claim that Bolsonaro is a fascist rests on his frequent invocations of the military rule of Brazil’s generals and his attempts to eulogise that regime including its use of torture. If the judges stand up to him, he says he will send the army to crush them. He calls on the existing repressive institutions of the state to destroy the liberal ones. But the twenty-year dictatorship of the Brazilian generals was not a fascist regime. It was a top-down, anti-democratic regime but it did not practise violence against its own population on the scale of the interwar regimes. It is horrible and offensive to have to think like this, but of the different estimates for the numbers killed by the generals the most common are in the hundreds or the low thousands. Compare, for example, the terror experienced in Spain after Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War, during which at least a hundred times as many people were killed. In terms of its economic policies, it was a corrupt developmentalist dictatorship well within the bounds of conservative politics.
When writers on the left have attempted to define fascism, one common argument has been it is a form of politics which emerges outside traditional regimes, and seeks to organize a mass movement against the existing capitalist class, and it is this outsider quality which enables it to govern more aggressively than conventional right-wing politics. If Bolsonaro introduces a personal form of rule which goes on to recreate the social content of the Brazilian military dictatorship, then his is a regime which must be urgently resisted. But it will not be fascist.
Part of what makes fascism is a commitment to certain core ideas (the leadership principle, sexism, anti-semitism, the identification of the left as the movement’s antagonist, autarky, the creation of a new fascist man…)
On this score as well, Bolsonaro’s ideas seem to be closer to ordinary right-wing thinking. His economic advisers are neoliberals rather than advocates of national protection. They (and he) speak of recreating Pinochet’s Chile rather than the 1930s.
But how did fascism get to be fascism?
Part of the danger when making these arguments is that, even if they are “correct” they rest on static categories when what is taking place before our eyes is a process: the birth of an international movement combining different elements. So, Brexit (which was not in itself a step to the far right even if it had some of those qualities) contributed to the rise of Trump (whose conservatism edges much closer to what we think of as far right) and then gave impetus to Le Pen whose party had been set up in order to convey the false impression of normality on what were initially a fascist leadership). Trump’s support, and the last-minute intervention of Steve Bannon, both contributed significantly to the success of the League in Italy. Different right-wing elements are boosting and competing with each other to be the most violent and the most influential movement on the right.
This process has an affinity with the rise of fascism which saw parties of different origin (the plebeian fascists of the NSDAP; the reactionary Catholics of Franco’s regime and in Romania…) competing with each other internationally to be the most aggressive, and in that way moved them from one point on the political spectrum to something new. Even the fascism of the 1930s was considerably more radical than the fascism of 10 years before.
This is the only possible or even most likely outcome, there are other models of right-wing convergence: Thatcher and Reagan 1979-80, for example, which fell far short of fascism.
The limits to how far convergence goes does not depend only on the context (post 9/11 authoritarianism, the 2008 economic crisis), or even on the starting-point of the various right-wing figures, but also on how quickly the left finds new ways of reinvigorating itself in response to them.
There is indeed no reason to assume that the murderous authoritarians of the future will be fascists. If we assume that capitalism is going to last for (say) another century – despite dictatorships, environmental degradation … – then it is likely that all sorts of violent political forms will emerge which will be in various ways unlike what has gone before.
Finally, fascism remains a despised tradition. And while the presence of fascism in our collective memory has declined compared to previous generations (a process which makes life easier for the violent right), fascism is still a tradition which offends as much as it attracts. For that reason, it is more likely that even a party which wanted to occupy much the same political space as fascism would give itself a new name.