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If fascists are left unchecked, they will undo us

I never really paid much attention to fascism when I was younger. The notorious fascists of the early 20th century led the human race into a catastrophic world war before being finally vanquished. Given the consequences, I thought we were done with that part of our history. I thought we had all learned our lesson about never allowing fascistic thought to enter mainstream discourse.

How wrong I was.

Fascism has never really gone away. It just went underground, biding its time. And like a dangerous cancer, it rears up again and again in different parts of the body of humanity. Now that it is dangerously present and teeming in so many places across the globe, I thought it prudent to study it afresh.

First, what is this poisonous ideology? Fascism is characterised by extreme autocratic rule, usually by a dictator who becomes increasingly powerful, riding on a populism that places race and nation above the individual. Fascist regimes usually suppress democracy and freedoms, and are characterised by severe economic and social regimentation.

Mussolini and Hitler should have taught us that fascism only leads to ruin, but no. We have not learnt those lessons even after nearly a century of education and advancement. The multitudes can still be persuaded to support fascists, often very enthusiastically. Voters can be made to retard their own growth and development by the shrewd creation of myths and fables.

Fascism nearly always begins by planting a seed of hatred in a community: we are oppressed and disenfranchised; we are denied what is rightfully ours; we are at the mercy of these “others.” It rides on the economic hardships faced by a large group, and seeks to persuade them that their woes are caused by “outsiders”—those of other faiths, or immigrants, or wily foreigners.

This “otherness” is often framed as the story of a mythical past: an age of glory, where people like us were prosperous and exalted—until these evil others took away what is rightfully ours. The promise of the fascist is simple: I will bring back that golden age. I will tame these others and send them packing; I will restore your lost glory. Vote for me, follow me, fight for me. I will make us great again.

Fascists are very skilled storytellers and propagandists. Hitler used roof-raising speeches at rallies, posters and leaflets to build his base; modern fascists use social media and bot armies to propagate their message. Big businesses are often part of the game, participating in the distortion of the economy while funding the rabble-rousers.

The result is predictable: growing legions of gullible and desperate people who stand behind the grandstanding leader, ready to believe that their circumstances are someone else’s fault, ready to believe that salvation and glory lie in doing whatever the leader asks them to do.

Because fascism is based on hatred and resentment, it often leads to extreme violence, aided and abetted by the state. Populations are “cleansed” of others, usually in the most savage and barbaric ways, so that ethnic “purity” can be achieved. Neighbouring states are invaded, so that they can be subsumed in the greater glory of the fascisti. Human rights are ignored, because those being attacked are regarded as less than human.

None of this leads to any good. Fascism’s own contradictions usually bring it down. The removal of social and economic freedoms can lead to a hallucinatory period of rapid growth, but placing a nation’s economic decisions in a few misguided hands always brings ruin in its wake. Promoting or favouring specific ethnic groups might bring a few elites some oversized wealth for a period, but the resulting inequities eventually bring the edifice tumbling. Oppressing and suppressing people is expensive and counter-productive, leading to intergenerational strife and relentless conflict.

Most fascists tumble this way, after presiding over bloodbaths and retardation. The problem is, they usually fall after much death, trauma and discord. Those who supported the fascists are left more impoverished than before, but they might only learn this after decades of misconception.

Recent years have seen fascists return to the ascendancy in many important nations. Those who can see this trend for what it is must sound the alarm. It is primitive and backward, manipulative and pernicious. It concentrates power and wealth in the hands of a few, who take advantage of the naive resentments of a disillusioned majority. It is the opposite of advancement; instead of teaching people to better themselves, it lures them into entitlement and resentment. It makes humans smaller and weaker. If we cannot rise above such regressive thinking in a nuclear era, we will probably ensure our own extinction as a species.

(Sunday Nation, 13 March 2022)

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