This essay interrogates whether existent analytical tools remain adequate to identify and assess what is perceived as the revival of fascistic tendencies today, ultimately arguing that they are not. Fascism cannot be expected to assume the same forms it did a century ago. Class structures, resource distribution schemes, communication potentials, and modes of belonging and exclusion have undergone significant changes. To determine which of the traits of the contemporary power paradigm would foreground new fascistic tendencies, this essay first revisits some of the most crucial insights in Hannah Arendt's study of the origins of totalitarianism. Arendt's perspective is highly valuable in moving the discussion of fascism beyond the delineation of specific historical events toward a theory of fascist power. The point is to distill from Arendt's insights into the connections among imperialism, fascism, and totalitarianism a number of techniques of government that would enable us to repeat the gesture today, but this time within the biopolitics-security-neoliberalism nexus. The power paradigm that this essay (re)constructs is meant to contribute to identifying fascistic and totalitarian trends irrespective of ideological and historiographic differences.
An inexorable epoch is spreading over the world.
We forged it, we who are already its victim.—Jose Luis Borges
It is clear that we are witnessing a return of racist, sexist, xenophobic, and inimical discourses and practices today. A growing number of commentators are sounding the alarm bell to decry how democratically elected political leaders such as Trump in the United States, Salvini in Italy, Orban in Hungary, Erdoğan in Turkey, Modi in India, and Bolsonaro in Brazil can with full impunity resort to illicit tactics to undermine the rule of law and meddle with checks and balances. In Europe and in the United States, xenophobic constructions of otherness are generating a politics of fear and resentment. This in turn nurtures the demand for more surveillance, policing, and heavy-handed measures against categories of people who are marked as potential threats to the well-being of the population. Thousands of immigrants, refugees, and stateless people are refused recognition as rights-bearing persons by countries that used to pride themselves on upholding fundamental rights. Progressive values are being overturned, if not totally emptied of meaning, across the globe.
Given this backdrop, the conundrum that I want to address in this essay is whether and to what extent this so-called authoritarian and/or populist turn in world politics is a sign that we are entering a fascist moment. Many commentators believe that the F-word must not be used if we cannot show that history is repeating itself in exactly the same form. But, one might ask, is the world today the same as the one that gave birth to fascism? If we were to look back at the 1920s or 1930s to determine an ideal-type of fascism that would provide us with a model for identifying new ones, we would be assuming that history will repeat itself in predictable ways. We would be assuming at the outset what in fact is a challenge that has yet to be faced.
Such conundrums arise because scholarship on fascism tends to be more descriptive than theoretical. Most definitions of fascism presuppose the historical cases that then confirm the definitions. Frustrated by such circularities, historian Robert Paxton argues that definitions “succumb all too often to the intellectual's temptation to take programmatic statements as constitutive, and to identify fascism more with what it said than with what it did.”1 Obviously, twentieth-century fascism cannot be reduced to any of the known forms of dictatorship, hence the conceptual difficulties. Historical analyses reveal how the power practices that we call fascist are not merely repressive; for the most part, they solicit enthusiastic support and participation by the masses.2 The abolition of the rule of law and the predominance of the executive are not specific to fascism—dictatorships also excel in this. The distinguishing feature of fascism seems to be its ability to move masses to actively desire and to undertake “internal cleansing and external expansion.”3 But one wonders what kind of governmental strategy may effectively mobilize masses to this end, and at the same time eradicate “legal and ethical restraints.”4 What power paradigm does fascism point to? And apart from its obvious historical manifestations, where else could we locate analogous forms of governing? For conditions once referred to as fascism may not have disappeared but only assumed new forms in novel social configurations. Such conditions may be inherent in how specific types of power work to frame or restrain social relations and modes of thinking in such a way that the availability of alternatives is severely reduced.
Moved by such concerns, I ask what it would mean to cease to define fascism as a regime, a unified phenomenon with a center marked by a specific historical presence and therefore identical to itself. I instead choose as the object of analysis particular forms of governing that have tangible effects in that they structure societal relations, regulate behaviors, and produce frames of reference. Fascism would function as a marker that limns governmental practices whose constitutive elements extend both spatially and temporally beyond a presumed “fascist core.”5
This essay has two parts. In the first part, my wager is that the connections drawn between imperialism and fascist totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt contain significant clues as to the power structures that enable the exercise of a form of domination unparalleled in history. It is true that Arendt includes not only Hitler's Germany but also Stalin's USSR among the regimes that can be properly called “totalitarian,” while she leaves out Mussolini on grounds that Italian fascism “seized the state machine without drastically changing the power structure of the country.”6 But there are sufficient reasons to believe, as many Arendt scholars have argued, that The Origins of Totalitarianism is actually a book on Nazism.7 Despite historiographic and also theoretical problems associated with the concept of “totalitarianism,”8 Arendt's perspective is highly valuable in moving the discussion of fascism beyond the delineation of specific historical events towards a theory of fascism that is political rather than historical.9
Neither Arendt nor critical thinkers of the early Frankfurt School, for that matter, consider fascism to be historically limited to the regimes led by Mussolini or Hitler. Their narrative strategy consists in developing genealogies that reveal how the “normal” (and normalizing) functions of modern societies provide the context conducive to fascism. They challenge the view that fascism and totalitarianism are anomalies, grotesque errors in the otherwise salubrious march of progress towards liberal ideals. Arendt's critical approach is driven by the intuition that any reflection on the present is necessarily impaired if it neglects the uninterrupted processes of subjugation underlying the modern era. She intends to trace alterations in mindsets and power relations that precede what she calls a “novel form of government,” but that would not vanish when the regimes that embodied these crumble either:
If it is true that the elements of totalitarianism can be found by retracing the history and analyzing the political implications of what we usually call the crisis of our century, then the conclusion is unavoidable that this crisis is no mere threat from the outside, no mere result of some aggressive foreign policy of either Germany or Russia, and that it will no more disappear with the death of Stalin than it disappeared with the fall of Nazi Germany. It may even be that the true predicaments of our time will assume their authentic form—though not necessarily the cruelest—only when totalitarianism has become a thing of the past.10
Moreover, Arendt was among the first thinkers to relate fascism to colonialism.11 According to Pascal Grosse, Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism “is one of the constitutive books of postcolonial studies, though through a very specific avenue: National Socialism.”12 This is significant, since failing to implicate colonial practices of dehumanization, the modes of race-thinking that these produce, and Malthusian techniques of conquest, capitulation, and massacre in setting the stage for fascism results in an imperfect grasp of the “anthropological break”13 epitomized by that particular regime. My first move, then, will be to indicate the contours (albeit only the contours) of a power paradigm that was shaped within the nexus of imperialism, fascism, and totalitarianism, if by “power” we understand systemic forms of restraint and regulation that construct fields of action and intelligibility.14
In the second part of the essay, I ask whether we can repeat this gesture today, this time establishing the connections between emerging fascistic tendencies and specific ways in which power works in the neoliberal era. Neoliberalism has been singled out as particularly pernicious by a growing number of scholars. Neoliberal governmentality is considered conducive to de-democratization, illiberalism, populism, authoritarianism, and new forms of political repression; it produces a mode of governance that disciplines, marginalizes, and criminalizes opposition.15 Fascism might not be a departure from such trends inherent in today's neoliberal societies, but rather one of the ways in which these crystallize into subjugating and exclusionary apparatuses. If this is indeed the case, then we must stop thinking of fascism as a political configuration at odds with (liberal and neoliberal) forms of power operating in the today's world. We must move beyond generic definitions of fascism based on visible signs such as neo-Nazi insignia and instead try to discern the subterranean forces that reconfigure our modes of being in the world. Such an approach would not deny the singularity of the Holocaust or construct dubious equivalences between colonial violence, slavery, genocide, and fascism. It would rather contribute to delineating morphologies of power that produce analogous, if not fully comparable, effects.16
1. The Imperialism-Fascism-Totalitarianism Nexus
Tackling such a huge question in a satisfactory way is, of course, impossible in a short text. I will therefore be extremely suggestive and schematic, proposing explanatory notes rather than a full-fledged exposé. What I seek is in a sense “fascism before fascism.”17 This is why I prefer to turn not to historical studies of fascism, but to Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt attempts to capture the specificity of a form of governing that defies being subsumed under known political categories and regime types. While tracking how imperialist techniques of extermination have provided a field of experimentation that prefigured fascist totalitarianism, she claims that the former must nevertheless be distinguished from the latter insofar as they exert pressure on individuals from without. Her account of total domination grapples with a novel problem: how to conceptualize domination from within? The resulting endeavor to comprehend the “elemental structure of totalitarian movements and domination itself”18 makes it possible to construct a grid that accounts for a type of power involving both extensive expansion and intensive capture. Arendt intimates that, when compared with authoritarianism or dictatorship, the specific difference of Nazism resides in the novelty of the techniques of totalization employed. Only the unprecedented articulation of terror and ideology produces domination from within. A reconstruction of her intuitions would, irrespective of ambivalences and complications, contribute to outlining the structural elements of a fascist paradigm of power.
The methodological strategy employed by Arendt is to assume that an event illuminates its own past—and we might add, also its future. She refuses to claim that certain inchoate forms of domination that began to emerge in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries necessarily developed into full form in totalitarian regimes.19 Instead, her assumption is that totalitarian government did not constitute an object of analysis before it came into being as an event.20 Totalitarianism was the crystallization of “elements” whose nature can only be retrospectively deduced from the event of totalitarianism itself.21 This is why the acknowledgement that totalitarian domination was unprecedented does not prevent Arendt from constructing a genealogy of the techniques, practices, and modes of relating to the world that enabled the emergence of the most criminal regimes in history. She claims, for instance, that “[b]efore the imperialist era, there was no such thing as world politics, and without it, the totalitarian claim to global rule would not have made sense.”22 Likewise, a fascist regime would have been impossible without the emergence of mass society and techniques of mass mobilization. “Arendt's view is, as it were, the view from the concentration camp,” Richard Shorten emphatically writes.23 While she should be (and has been) reprimanded for failing to engage with the point of view of the colonized, her grasp of the ways in which colonial and imperial forms of violence devised in the colonies later converged in Nazi extermination factories is unique and indispensable for both postcolonial and fascist scholarship.
One of the most important theoretical insights of what Arendt calls “colonial imperialism” is that it generated, in the nineteenth century, an expansive form of power that worked by perpetually constructing and annexing an “outside.” “Power for power's sake” is the formula Arendt deploys to express how, in both imperialism and Nazism, practices of seizure and control of territories and populations ceased to be legitimized by reference to either law or profit. This paradoxical self-reflexivity emerged, in Arendt's view, when imperialism transformed expansion into an end in itself rather than a temporary means. Imperialism was productive of a new scheme of governance that justified itself solely through the motive of outwitting competitors in the scramble to carve up zones of influence in the world. It seemed to Arendt that a totalizing tendency was inherent in imperialist practices. Imperialism elevated expansion to the rank of the “permanent and supreme aim of politics.”24 It triggered a paradigm change in the way politics was conducted within nation-states and worked as a spatiotemporal destabilizer by virtue of the indefiniteness that characterized it. One of the consequences of the proliferation of imperialism's transgressive practices was the erosion of national political institutions. At its very inception, Arendt argues, the nation-state proved incapable of sustaining the boundless needs of imperialist capital because it is limited by territory and by the consent of the governed. The critical shift to fascist totalitarianism became possible when boundless conquest and exploitation started undermining not just the nation-state or the rule of law, but also the very distinction between law and exception, war and peace, soldier and civilian, perpetrator and victim, fact and fiction.
The importance of colonial and imperialist practices in the genealogy of fascist totalitarianism is underscored by Arendt's contention that two new devices for political organization and rule were invented in the colonies: “One was race as a principle of the body politic, and the other bureaucracy as a principle of foreign domination.”25 This is a curious formula, for it challenges the prevalent Weberian approach that distinguishes the rationality of bureaucracy from the irrationality of racism. In Arendt's view, these represented two sides of the same coin. Developed in imperial colonies (most notably in India), the administration of the “lower races” was a hybrid form of governance that was unprecedented. In a sense, racism and bureaucratic rule by decree were purely performative forms of power that paradoxically invented the conventions that brought them into effect. The racialization of administrative and moral standards resulted in such a self-reflexive performativity that the administrators “could discover no higher value than themselves.”26 This evidently contributed to the conceit and self-aggrandizement of the colonizers as well as to the transformation of race-thinking into racism. The decree was the main instrument of this new mode of governance. Decrees had a peculiarly ungrounded character: “The decree . . . does not exist at all except if and when it is applied; it needs no justification except applicability . . . There are no general principles which simple reason can understand behind the decree, but ever-changing circumstances which only an expert can know in detail.”27 Critically appropriating the term coined by Rudyard Kipling, Arendt refers to the “Great Game” on several occasions in an effort to grapple with what she considers an endless process that kept redesigning the rules of the game as it was being played. That this was not innocuous playfulness is evident in Arendt's implication of “colonial imperialism” in the field of possibility of Nazi crimes. When Europeans discovered that it was a “virtue” to be white in Africa, when the English started ruling India by decree, convinced as they were of their “innate capacity to rule,” when bureaucrats and spies started “playing the Great Game of endless ulterior motives in an endless movement,” many of the elements that later converged to create a totalitarian government were being set in place.28 The combined effect of racism and bureaucracy produced such aberrations as “administrative massacres” and “protective custody” initiated in the colonies under imperial conditions in the nineteenth century. These practices eventually came home to roost to undermine European political structures in the form of boomerang effects.
Building upon Arendtian insights, Paul Gilroy underscores the importance of this genealogy for understanding the colony not merely as a settlement or a place for (mis)adventure, but as “a laboratory, a location for experiment and innovation that transformed the exercise of governmental powers at home and configured the institutionalization of imperial knowledge to which the idea of ‘race’ was central.”29 The management of “imperial projects required new governmental institutions at home; it promoted a distinctive approach to the lives of all racial groups and to the ambiguous ideal of universal humanity that had been shattered by the shock of World War I.”30 Racialization drastically transformed the criteria for inclusion and exclusion within a given community or state—and, of course, within humanity. In an explicit endeavor to flesh out the project that Arendt began,31 Enzo Traverso adds that the notion of “living space” was not a Nazi invention, but had its roots in British practices in India.32 The result of the “fusion of social Darwinism and imperialist geopolitics” was racialization and dehumanization—not only of the enemy or of the colonized, but also of Jews, Bolsheviks, and proletarians across Europe.33 Traverso identifies a “qualitative leap” and even an “anthropological break” in the vast transformations underlying imperialism and the Great War.34 Taylorist methods of mass slaughter were biologized, opening up the “abyss of death without an aura.”35 These transformations shattered perceptions of human life informed by humanism or the Enlightenment and cleared the ground for unforeseen modes of violence against “infrahumans.” It goes without saying that it is not a matter of simplistically likening Nazism to colonialism, but of underscoring the importance of imperialism as a precursor to some of the processes of dehumanization that were to characterize Nazism later on.
The relationship between these new dispositifs of violence and control and the continental pan-movements is narrated in a highly synthetic manner in Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism. The counterpart of racism in Central and Eastern Europe, Arendt tells us, was the pan-movements of the early twentieth century (particularly, Pan-Slavism and Pan-Germanism). Both racism and the pan-movements were conspicuous since they introduced a circular mode of functioning that dispensed with legitimation or justification altogether.36 “The aim of these ‘movements' was, so to speak, to imperialize the whole nation (and not only the ‘superfluous' part of it),” she writes.37 Both colonial and continental forms of imperialism were irredentist. Both implied “a biological interpretation of culture, be it in terms of ‘race’ or in terms of ‘Volk,’ and a tendency to match bio-cultural traits with the geopolitical map.”38 Setting aside historiographic detail, what needs to be underscored here is that, in contrast to political parties that played the electoral game and were delimited by party programs and membership, the continental movements scrambled ends and means: “All that matters is embodied in the moving movement itself; every idea, every value has vanished into a welter of superstitious pseudoscientific immanence.”39 This vanishing, as it were, provided an ideal escape from political responsibility and the willing identification of the individual with anonymous forces that inexorably moved history forward. Movements carried an indefinite promise of unity and grandeur and appealed to the “rootless” in the “belt of mixed populations” in Central and Eastern Europe, just as racism and its “pseudomystical cloud of divine eternity and finality” appealed to the “uprooted masses of the big cities” in Western Europe.40
The main theoretical implication that can be drawn from this analysis is that continental imperialism was a paradoxical articulation of transcendence and immanence. The pan-movements transcended the finitude of national institutions, political parties, class affiliations, and interest-based politics (none of which Arendt favored), but they simultaneously functioned as the immediate incarnation of the Spirit of a people, according to which the individual “shrinks into a negligible quantity or is submerged in the stream of dynamic movement.”41 They effectuated a detachment of the individual and of forms of belonging from territorial and worldly grounds, and reattached these to boundless movements imagined to incarnate metaphysical truths. Structurally speaking, what is being described in these and similar analyses is an expansive set of practices that elude containment by any economic or political norm, that destabilize frames of reference and class-based ideologies, and provide a fictive “home” as a point of affective attachment for rootless masses. The implication is that before fascist parties gained momentum and seized state power, boundlessness (in the double sense of a lack of limits and a lack of territorial anchors) and endlessness (in the double sense of a lack of definite goals and a lack of culmination) characterized power practices as discrepant as capital accumulation, colonial domination, international relations, and the conduct of war.
How do these new forms of power and violence relate to the genocidal (and suicidal) practices of fascist totalitarianism? Arendt takes care to emphasize that totalitarian government constitutes a break in traditional forms of power and thought, such that our concepts fail to take account of it. The articulation of the protototalitarian elements inherent in colonial imperialism does not simply result in the radicalization of these elements. An altogether different form of power emerges from this articulation.42 What distinguishes totalitarianism from previous governmental paradigms is that it “has discovered a means of dominating and terrorizing human beings from within.”43
How should we reconstruct the specific practices that would serve to flesh out this claim? One must find the reasons for unconditional compliance either (1) in a predisposition, or (2) in a radical form of insecurity instigated by wider societal dynamics. The bourgeois belief in the primacy of private interests, writes Arendt, had created a type of private morality among the atomized masses that resulted in the will to sacrifice every belief and principle for the sake of safeguarding private lives.44 But this “predisposition,” as it were, plays a secondary role in her narrative. So does propaganda as an instrument of psychological warfare. The latter is akin to mass advertisement: it manipulates, but cannot grasp individuals from within. The decisive factor is the convergence of terror and ideology.
On the one hand, in Arendt's narrative the term “terror” serves the analytical function of designating the effects of violent practices. Domination from within is unthinkable without massacres and brutal demonstrations of power that hold populations in awe and severely punish dissidence. On the other hand, however, total power also (and perhaps most importantly) involves a radical transgression of limits and the destabilization of individual frames of reference: “Under conditions of total terror not even fear can any longer serve as an advisor of how to behave, because terror chooses its victims without reference to individual actions or thoughts.”45 Arendt contends that fear is the principal element through which tyranny functions. Fascist totalitarianism, in contrast, cannot depend solely on instigating fear. Without the creation and enforcement of a fictitious world that paradoxically becomes the only available operative reality, it would have been impossible—so goes the Arendtian narrative—to sever thinking from experience. Individuals do not merely submit to power for fear of punishment, but because for them the very distinction between fact and fiction becomes insignificant: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”46
It is important to note that this claim goes against the idea espoused by most historians that fascism rests upon convictions. Arendt argues that both the imperialist and the totalitarian transgression of rational, spatial, or temporal limits does not induce belief, but rather triggers severe cognitive crises. The latter are resolved by what Arendt calls “ideology.” She does not attribute any specific content to ideology, but instead constructs a morphological ideal-type of all “-isms.” “An ideology,” she writes, “is the logic of an idea.” The evacuation of content from the analysis enables Arendt to reflect upon the ways in which thinking is arrested and caught up in its own logical devices: “Ideologies always assume that one idea is sufficient to explain everything in the development from the premise, and that no experience can teach anything because everything is comprehended in this consistent process of logical deduction.”47 In her synthetic conclusion to Origins, Arendt implicitly concedes, however, that Nature (that is, racism) and History (that is, dialectical materialism) lend themselves exceptionally well to legitimizing the “laws of motion” instigated by Terror: “Terror is the realization of the law of movement; its chief aim is to make it possible for the force of nature or of history to race freely through mankind, unhindered by any spontaneous human action.”48 The tacit acknowledgment that racism is a specific type of “-ism” not quite like the others underwrites the biopolitical implications of Arendt's construal of the passage from imperialism to Nazi totalitarianism. As Shorten underscores, Arendt “certainly works with a notion of the ‘biologized’ other, which . . . we can only imagine was drawn out of her reflection on the Nazi experience, before she located it as present in imperialism.”49 What made Germany particularly prone to the emergence of fascist totalitarianism was the fusion between the new global pan-imperialist matrix and racialized anti-Semitism.50 The articulation of racist ideology and terror (conceived as governmental practices that effectively destroy conventional bounds and norms, including those of instrumental rationality) is what distinguishes Nazism from the colonial imperialist elements that prepared the ground for it. The gist of the narrative is that the vainglory of partaking of an existential righteousness makes moral compasses both redundant and futile: “Guilt and innocence become senseless notions; ‘guilty’ is he who stands in the way of the natural or historical process which has passed judgment over ‘inferior races,’ over individuals ‘unfit to live,’ over ‘dying classes and decadent peoples.’”51
I would nonetheless suggest that Arendt's argument concerning total domination would not have been convincing had she not inferred that the novel practices of power that she detects set everything into perpetual motion.52 “It takes power, not propaganda skill, to circulate a revised history of the Russian Revolution in which no man by the name of Trotsky was ever commander-in-chief of the Red Army,” she writes.53 An explanation must be found to account for the unconditional compliance that totalitarian regimes succeed in summoning through terror, a compliance that cannot be based merely on ideological modes of thought, class-based interests, or affective investment.
Albeit loosely, Arendt follows Franz Neumann's interpretation of the Nazi regime as Behemoth (instead of Leviathan) to argue that despite the rigidity implied in the designation “total,” a totalitarian regime has to be radically shapeless and elastic.54 It is a nonstate, rather than a state, since no form of stable institutionalization is permitted. “National Socialism's ideology is constantly shifting,” Neumann writes.55 And so are its organizational elements. This implies that unless all values, norms, and modes of belonging are subjected to perpetual motion, totalitarian destabilization would not be possible. Any return to confines and parameters would halt the self-perpetuating machine. Paxton expresses this well when he underscores how fascist programs were “casually fluid,” deprived of intellectual content and consistency, such that leadership and militants were constantly acting in response to political imperatives and the “tactical needs of the moment.”56
Moving beyond description to theorize this seeming instability and inconsistency, Arendt uses the metaphor of the “iron band” to express the effects of totalitarian governance. Total terror, she writes, “substitutes for the boundaries and channels of communication between individual men a band of iron which holds them so tightly together that it is as though their plurality had disappeared into One man of gigantic dimensions”57 This “One man” is a figurative description, not only of the incorporation of the will of the people into the will of the leader, but also of the destruction of plurality, of the distinct difference of each and every individual. In Arendt's narrative, the iron band is contrasted with the spatial metaphors of fenced space (rule of law) and desert (tyranny). It cannot be emphasized enough that totalitarianism implies a power paradigm distinct from tyranny: the laws of motion of the former are not the same as the arbitrary lawlessness of the latter. Tyranny removes the fences of law between individuals, leaving them in a desert where freedom cannot be exercised, but where bodies may still move around, albeit guided by fear. In contrast, total terror destroys the space between individuals. Implied is a distinction between command over political activity and command over any activity whatsoever.
The concrete implications of this, in my view, are twofold: Temporally speaking, the utter speed of mobilization taking place under totalitarian conditions hinders developing foresight and requires a constant catching up, such that no independent or oppositional stance can be developed, neither in public nor in any privately secured space. Not only the masses, but also party militants, are ceaselessly trying to decipher and act according to the will of the leadership. But the problem is that this “will” is radically inconstant: “the anti-utilitarian behavior of totalitarian governments . . . introduced into contemporary politics an element of unheard-of unpredictability.”58 Moreover, terror executes on the spot the dictates of the immutable laws of nature or history: since “lives not worth living” are eliminated without delay, no deliberation as to guilt and innocence is permitted. Inertia would transform totalitarianism into mere authoritarianism, which is a comparatively stable regime. Total power is instead exercised by literally filling up with movement any moment of inertness that would otherwise have allowed for a temporal gap within which reflection could take place. The drive to expand for expansion's sake is a technique of power that produces not only spatial but also temporal mobility, since expansion requires preparation, adjustment, and the reorientation of objectives. Likewise, perpetual militantism is a sine qua non of the constant (re)generation of the desire to live up to the endless aspirations of the party. The second, spatial dimension of movement consists in the fact that temporal destabilization is accompanied by constant shifts in the body politic—or quite literally, in bodies themselves—that make institutional stability impossible. Arranging layers of loyalty such that front organizations provide a screen for the circle of party members, who in turn screen the more radical militants and the leadership, has the advantage of keeping “the organization in a state of fluidity which permits it constantly to insert new layers and define new degrees of militancy,” Arendt writes.59
When taken together with boundlessness and self-referentiality, constant motion is a constitutive structure of totalitarian government. According to Arendt, neither conviction nor fear, but rather the radical loss of a compass, keeps the masses attached to totalitarian regimes:
In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true . . . The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.60
Besides being uncannily familiar in our own post-truth world, such analyses indicate that the unpredictability instigated by constant spatiotemporal shifts and the breeding of internal enemies keeps desires in motion while permitting power to be exercised on anyone anytime.
This is the most important reason why the production of superfluous bodies is the last structural element I would like to retain in reconstructing the paradigmatic shift in practices of power that underlies fascistic tendencies.61 Totalitarian governmentality is such that it does not only spell the death of legal protection, but also effectively brings about a collapse of morality and spontaneity. Arendt suggests that if the masses are to be seized from within and turned into willing executioners, they must understand that they too may one day become expendable, dispensable, and dehumanized. Not only does the regime shatter bonds of solidarity; it also destroys even the possibility of imagining a humanly meaningful relation with bodies marked as infrahuman. Values that one might strive to retain are constantly compromised and defeated through the interminable points of contact with power that totalitarian governmental practices produce. Since the social or physical death that becomes the fate of individuals or groups targeted by the regime is not justified by any intelligible principle or moral value, every act or word “becomes equivocal and subject to retrospective ‘interpretation.’”62 The blurring of the distinction between victims and perpetrators is conspicuous in concrete practices that render innocence impossible (the Greek mother must be made to choose which one of her children is to be sent to the crematorium). One is either a victim or complicit in the crimes of the regime (or both at the same time). Guilt becomes ubiquitous. This implies that unconditional compliance can only be expected in a world where both legality and morality lose their effectiveness in regulating individual lives, where every “body” may become disposable or complicit, and where no other contravening power is allowed to exist. It is in this sense that terror destroys spontaneity, the capacity to think and act independently of the leader, who is the sole site of stable power in a totalitarian cosmos.
This highly cursory reconstruction of Arendt's argument in Origins, as incomplete as it is, nevertheless hints at how fascism may be construed as the amalgamated effect of a set of techniques of government that tend toward the institution of a politics of pure presence in which the conditions of negativity—of spatiotemporal distance, transcendence, critical reflection and intervention—are radically reduced. Its conditions of possibility are inherent in the sinister undercurrents marking the nineteenth and twentieth centuries:
Loneliness, the common ground for terror, the essence of totalitarian government, and for ideology or logicality, the preparation of its executioners and victims, is closely connected with uprootedness and superfluousness which have been the curse of modern masses since the beginning of the industrial revolution and have become acute with the rise of imperialism and social traditions in our time.63
The question that needs to be asked at this point is how this paradigm, intended to develop an understanding of the type of power enabling total domination, can help us discern fascistic forms of governing in our day. Can certain elements inherent in the neoliberal era be singled out as particularly alarming, despite being at odds with more descriptive or generic definitions of fascism?
2. The Biopolitics-Security-Neoliberalism Nexus
We have good reason to believe that the typology of power that can be deduced from Arendt's analysis can help us see what specific features of the present social order make the re-emergence of fascism probable. The aim is to distill from the possible connections between imperialism, fascism, and totalitarianism various social dispositions that would enable us to see whether the gesture could be repeated today, but this time to explore how the convergence of biopolitics, securitarianism, and neoliberalism might be reproducing the conditions that gave rise to fascistic tendencies a century ago. The emphasis here is on the re-production (suggesting that the unusual paradigm of power identified by Arendt might once again be coming into predominance) as well as on re-production (implying that fascisms of the 21st century might not be merely imitative, but productive of unforeseen modes of capture).64
Very briefly, I use “neoliberalism” to designate a governmental rationality that aims to produce “practices and subjectivities enabling the generalized outsourcing and individualization of risk.”65 Risk is meant to signify a state of insecurity that is both productive and subjugating. I refrain from reducing risk to economic risk or to statistically calculable uncertainties. Instead, I employ the term to encompass a wide range of uncertainties, from market dispositifs to securitarian concerns with terrorism.
It must be underscored that the instruments employed to effectively open economies up to market competition blatantly contradict the ideals pronounced by neoliberal schools of thought.66 Instead of forcing the state to withdraw from the economic and social spheres, neoliberalism has created a whole new field of governmental interventions. We know that for more than forty years now the implementation of neoliberal norms across the globe has entailed violence and coercion to eliminate the obstacles standing in the way of the new regime of accumulation. An ensemble of coercive dispositifs, including but not limited to legislation, policing, and arm-twisting, was orchestrated through international organizations such as the IMF, WTO, the World Bank, and scheming leaders at Davos and G7 meetings.67 Trade union power, social rights, and political dissidence were suppressed through outright coups in certain parts of the world, Chile and Turkey being paradigmatic examples. Austerity packages, ethnic wars, or “wars against terrorism” were used to the same effect in others. To such an inventory, we need to add the sinister phenomenon of “disaster capitalism,” where social turmoil, natural disasters, and even stock market crashes become means of transferring capital and property from the stricken to powerful creditors.68 Neoliberalism became global through violent means and is still being sustained through violence.
It is also true that the term “neoliberalism” arouses suspicion for being used interchangeably with financialization, securitization, and governmentality.69 But there are apparent affinities among these terms, since they combine in varying ways to produce analogous effects.70 To make another long story short, I side with scholars such as Wendy Brown, who see neoliberalism as “an order of normative reason” and “a governing rationality,”71 but I also argue that massification and subjugation through the use of financial schemes as coercive and/or disciplinary tools are integral aspects of neoliberal governmentality. The financial market “is not a simple capitalist function insuring investment,” as Maurizio Lazzarato convincingly argues; it is rather a power relation.72
What I want to do here is to single out certain predicaments that will help us in assessing the specific ways in which neoliberal governmental strategies have a special affinity with authoritarianism, de-democratization, and dehumanization, all of which prepare the stage for new forms of fascism.73
To elaborate on the enlarged notion of risk that I defined above as a predominant vector of everyday life, I will turn to Michel Foucault, not to the lectures entitled The Birth of Biopolitics, but to those on Security, Territory, Population.74 I suggest that we think through the genealogy proposed by Foucault when he considers the shift from the juridico-political paradigm of power to biopolitical governmentality. I am particularly interested in how Foucault developed insight into the self-referentiality or lack of externality that characterizes what he calls the “techniques of security,” whose main purpose is to make the use of risk a governmental strategy.
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Foucault observes, the lawmaking power of the sovereign is increasingly displaced, such that it is neither legality nor legitimacy but rather efficiency that comes to justify governmental action. An indispensable method of governing through contingency, securitization is a technique that involves controlling incalculable flows or series by using other flows or series, either to offset them or to allow them to compete with each other until a desired state of equilibrium is reached. Foucault defines the specific biopolitical problem that security proposes to solve as follows:
I think that we can speak here of a technique that is basically organized by reference to the problem of security, that is to say, at bottom, to the problem of the series. An indefinite series of mobile elements: circulation, x number of carts, x number of passers-by, x number of thieves, x number of miasmas, and so on. An indefinite series of events that will occur: so many boats will berth, so many carts will arrive, and so on. . . . I think the management of these series that, because they are open series, can only be controlled by an estimate of probabilities, is pretty much the essential characteristic of the mechanism of security.75
To put it differently, instead of any self-evident truth, promulgated law, or rational norm existing prior to the practices that it governs, security starts out by observing average distributions in a given series, trying to measure “normalities” and to establish their interplay. Contrary to the simplistic idea of a self-regulating market, security calls for innumerable governmental interventions into the play of forces. Also, as distinct from disciplinary techniques, securitarian logic does not monitor individual bodies, but exerts a disciplining pressure by inducing aggregate behavior. The development of policing techniques in the eighteenth century and the control of pauperism and criminality in the nineteenth are as securitarian as insurance technologies are today, since all of these require indefinite and active policy.76
The complex, triangulated connection between security, biopolitics, and neoliberalism cannot be overlooked, not only in Foucault's work, but also in those post-1980 political and economic developments that Foucault was not able to witness. The neoliberal era marks a turn toward the “saturation of the state, political culture, and the social with market rationality.”77 Securitarian methods of governance, coupled with neoliberal rationality, have accelerated the undermining of democratic and progressive values. According to neoliberal logic, competitive behavior cannot be taken for granted; it should instead be instigated through law, social and economic policies, and securitarian interventions that produce aggregate desires. Neoliberalism cannot be operationalized without multiplying risks and inequalities in such a way that individuals can no longer depend upon political or social safety nets and are thus obliged to turn themselves into versions of homo oeconomicus. This raises the question of the morphological affinities between totalitarian terror and biopolitical techniques of security in the neoliberal era in that both seriously reduce options for exiting.
To begin with, one may assume that an extremely destabilizing pressure is being exerted on how we orient ourselves in the world. An important insight into the novel form of destabilization and bondage is obtained by considering how both biopolitical security and neoliberalism imperatively require “sacrificing” a portion of the population in view of achieving desired optimums.78 Critical security scholarship79 has shown how the political as well as social concern for security is an indispensable component of market fundamentalism, which is predicated not only upon the availability of surplus labor, as in the industrial stage of capital accumulation, but also upon the production of disposable bodies that are biologized. In his previous lectures, Foucault relates the new “regulatory power” to fascism, according to which the singling out of groups that may be left to die is believed to “make life in general healthier: healthier and purer.”80 Evidently, this sacrificial logic echoes but cannot be equated with the ways in which superfluous bodies were being produced under imperial and totalitarian conditions. Rather than outright violence by military or paramilitary apparatuses, different dispositifs are at work in neoliberal societies.
Part of the answer as to how the subject of rights turns into one desiring sacrifice can be found in a novel technique deployed since the 1980s to make rights conditional upon performance. Applying tailor-made standards of success and advancement to blue- and white-collar workers, government officials, academics, and unemployed persons alike, so-called “performance criteria” individualize the right to a bank account, a home, or a retirement pension. This technique enables the translation of aggregate societal incentives into disciplinary ones whereby each individual is monitored separately. The inability to attain performance standards, determined according to market imperatives, has subjective consequences in the form of a loss of self-esteem, and objective consequences in the form of material punishment (downward mobility, homelessness, or even imprisonment). A complementary technique is to reverse the welfare state policy of the socialization of risks (such as benefitting from universal social security coverage and mutual associations), so that each employee is isolated from others and turned into a peculiar type of capital.81 Left to securitize her own present and future (mainly through market-based health insurance and retirement schemes), the individual has no other option than to become an actor in the financial sector. Susan George likens neoliberalism to a game in which losers are those to whom nothing is owed any longer: “Anyone can be ejected from the system at any time—because of illness, age, pregnancy, perceived failure, or simply because economic circumstances and the relentless transfer of wealth [from bottom to top] demand it.”82 This involves a double bind: as performance criteria isolate individuals from one another in ways that undermine social bonds, individuals are also amassed under the self-propelling dynamics of neoliberal capitalism that determine their chances of securing their future. A major implication of the novel way in which risk is distributed, then, is that it generates a societal reorganization that entails both atomization and massification.
This is to say that neoliberal governing rationalities, like their fascist counterparts, capture individuals from within, although through entirely different dispositifs. Brown argues, for instance, that the transformation of the employee into a responsibilized form of human capital hinges upon a sacrificial notion of citizenship.83 According to her account, far from demanding respect for their own rights, citizens become willing to consent to austerity measures, personal and collective sacrifices, wage and budget cuts, and accept the unequal distribution of the burdens of the debt economy. One becomes a “shareholder,” willingly enduring the risk of losing one's share in the commonwealth. What determines each citizen's share in power is active participation in the game of neoliberal power. The “market game” is becoming the sole source of mediation between individuals, as was the case with the Great Game played in imperialist conditions, albeit on a micro scale and in everyday life. But this also means that notions of equality and solidarity must be evacuated from codes of conduct so that the portions of the population that are left to die do not provoke cognitive or moral dissonance in those who keep hanging in there. The inequalities that neoliberal governance produces are biologized and normalized within a scheme of merit-based competitiveness. The “loser” is the new “infrahuman.” This having been said, pointing fingers at the masses who desire authoritarianism will not do. We are all guilty, as far as our everyday practices are concerned, of reproducing some version of the neoliberal discourse that the weak are “worthless.”
The point here is not to lament the disappearance of rights and institutionalism, as if harking back to them would magically dissipate neoliberal processes. The gist of the argument is rather that neoliberalism does produce a peculiar type of normativity, albeit one that can no longer be characterized by convictions of either conservative or progressive nature. The “losers” are moralized and held responsible for their own failure to integrate into the system. The power of debt reorganizes the totality of social spheres so as to enforce on debtors “a way of life” that is compatible with the reimbursement of creditors.84 This way of life is self-centered: the individual is responsible for complying with the very same imperatives that overpower her, and no matter what moral compass she has (conservative or progressive), she necessarily plays a part in upholding that way of life.
Another analogy to be drawn between power practices in the neoliberal era and those that crystallized into fascism is that biopolitical security is boundless. Securitization as a technique of government constructs a “population” rather than a “people,” Foucault tells us. Note that the population is conceived as an impersonal, statistical entity, while the people have more often been construed as a collective subject—the political consequences of the nuance are not minor. Extending Foucault's analysis to present-day neoliberalism, Lazzarato writes that biopower is concerned “with the production and reproduction of the ‘life’ of the species, which is boundless, and in principle has no territorializing aim.”85 The lawmaking power of the sovereign as well as notions of collective sovereignty are displaced in the security paradigm, which has come to predominate under neoliberal conditions. This displacement is important for my purposes, since it denotes the construction of an immanent type of power and a peculiar form of “belonging” (to a population). The ramifications of this shift are too complex to elaborate here, but suffice it to note that a power diffused into the capillaries of society would significantly undermine the ground upon which collective resistance and struggle can be erected. As Deleuze indicates in his gloss on Foucault, power has become infinitely more complex as a result of the passage from disciplinary society (the mole) to the society of control (the serpent).86
The combined effects of neoliberalism, biopolitics, and securitarian technologies seem to be as boundless as they are detached from principles of legitimation such as law or predetermined norms. The paradox is that this limitlessness does not imply full license. On the contrary, it is highly regulated. Legal scholars have underscored how regulating the life of a population under conditions of neoliberal financialization requires a proliferation of regulations and administrative measures. These cannot be as categorical as constitutional rights and provisions, but must instead be flexible and adaptable: “Administrative law straddles the intersections between codified laws and agency rules, where agency rulemaking is virtually always concerned with the administration of conduct.”87 The predominance of administrative law is, of course, also a characteristic of the welfare state or the New Deal, but it was, as Arendt forcefully underlined, a principle of bureaucratic and hence impersonal governance that may potentially turn into a self-reflexive machine. An analogy with Arendt's insights may be drawn, considering how the governmentalization of administration and the neoliberal credo of “rolling back the state” have resulted, paradoxically, in the proliferation of spaces of discretionary rulemaking, including but not limited to the deployment of executive prerogatives. Raul Hilberg once remarked of the Nazi bureaucrats that they “could destroy a whole people by sitting at their desks.”88 Considering how natural resources are opened up to private investment through market-based profitability schemes or how neighborhoods are “gentrified” in large-scale urban restructuring projects that discount the lives and livelihoods of local populations, the same could very well be said of today's bureaucrats. In the neoliberal era, administrative flexibility has replaced the question of legitimacy with that of the efficacy of governmental policies.
In short, neoliberal rationality proves to be as compelling as “Nature” and “History” (Arendt) in putting economic, political, administrative, and social domains into perpetual motion while at the same time producing new modes of affective investment. It would seem that the question as to why the masses desired their own subjection would have to receive a new answer today.
Once we comprehend that the neoliberal game is not only one of desiring subjection, but also necessarily one of fear, if not terror, we realize how it clears the ground on which fascistic tendencies can flourish. As Thomas Lemke justifiably argues, “danger and insecurity (the threat of unemployment, poverty, social degradation, etc.) are not just unwanted consequences or negative side effects but essential conditions and positive elements of [neoliberal] freedom.”89 On the one hand, neoliberalism promises a futurity in which individuals prosper, express their personality and merits, and consume limitlessly. On the other hand, another futurity casts a shadow over dreams of comfortable existence or even minimum livability. This second futurity concerns the “what if?”—the fearful anticipation of joblessness, market crashes, and, not incidentally, terrorist attacks. Uncertainty generates a peculiar form of presentism or short-termism.90 The futurity presumed in both the entrepreneurial dreamworld and the nightmarish world of the “what if?” are actually revealed to be nonfutures.
Judith Butler argues that such practices as indefinite detention restructure temporality through the suspension of established law and due process. Foreseeable futures are indefinitely disrupted, left in the hands of the discretionary judgments of petty administrative sovereigns who manufacture law even as they perform such decisions as to how long a detainee's trial is to be delayed: “Governmentality is the condition of this new exercise of sovereignty in the sense that it first establishes law as a ‘tactic,’ something of instrumental value, and not ‘binding’ by virtue of its status as law.”91 This is exactly how uncertainty and equivocation become productive of a legality that is extralegal, one that was being invoked tactically so as to undermine the very principle of rule of law even before populist leaders sprang onto the political scene.
The convergence of neoliberalism and neoconservatism in the 1980s and 1990s should indeed prompt us to revise the prevalent scholarly perception of the incompatibility of neoliberalism and fascism. As Brown's insight into the tense but ominously productive alliance between the new brand of market fundamentalists and religious moralists indicates, “the moralism, statism, and authoritarianism of neoconservatism are profoundly enabled by neoliberal rationality.”92 Neoconservativism has invented and politicized a whole range of threats that effectively conceal social and economic problems by making them appear as military ones. In the hands of neoliberal-neoconservative leaders such as Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and especially George W. Bush, the neoliberal notion of risk transmuted into an ersatz Realpolitik notion of threat. The so-called “war on terror” has proved to be an incredibly efficient dispositif for criminalizing noncompliant portions of the population and preventing popular scrutiny of governmental power: “since 9/11, basic rights are no longer conceived as rights of defense against the state, but allow the state to intervene in realms that were formerly regarded as private spheres by referring to security as a ‘super right.’”93 The use of terms such as “terrorism,” “crime,” and “threat” has delegitimized certain social groups by referring to a law that is duly suspended in order more efficiently to thwart dangers that are presumed to follow from belonging to those groups. The very same terms simultaneously enable the brutal institution of markets in domestic and international sites hitherto left outside of the global economy. Securing “honest citizens” against abstruse threats (posed by undercover terrorists lurking within alien communities, by hoodie-wearing Black “losers” in the game of neoliberal competition, or by refugee swarms) is the rationale behind the production of “infrahumans” in today's world. The application of doctrines, such as preemption, developed in colonial settings is now becoming routine. Paralegal terms such as “battlefield detainees” and “enemy combatants” also reappear today because they help “to populate the exceptional judicial and governmental space that accommodates infrahuman forms that are familiar from earlier formations of colonial government.”94 As a mode of government that “naturalizes” hierarchies, racism spills over onto myriad domains to justify social and political conflicts. In short, new forms of superfluousness are being devised in the neoliberal era.
It may be asked whether the preponderance of fear and uncertainty has not led to a demand for boundaries and securitarian practices that reinstate sovereign modes of control. It can be argued, in response, that even the construction of thick borders (as in Gaza or at the US-Mexican border) follows a model of threat which, while reestablishing physical markers of separation, is simultaneously legitimized through highly equivocal notions of the “enemy.” The “enemy” is not a concrete menace, but a potential one, reflecting either a hypostasized projection of the “what if?” or an epistemological crisis that Richard Jackson describes as “the acceptance of a permanent ontological condition of ‘waiting for terror’ in relation to the next attack.”95 Security is defined probabilistically: even when there are no imminent attacks to thwart, there are probable ones. Probability suffices as justification for chastisement. Those citizens who are momentarily associated with “the people,” and to whom indirect acknowledgment is granted through impunity, claim for themselves full responsibility for the letter of the law and for monitoring “normalities.”96 Following Lazzarato, it can be said that today most forms of racism against Black people, immigrants, Muslims, or the homeless are “powerful phenomena operating through disgust and animosity that contribute to the constitution and fixing of territories and ‘identities' . . . which ‘capital’ lacks.”97
We might be faced with a shift in the definition of the criminal from a legal one, whereby the criminal is he or she who breaks the “social contract,” to a biopolitical and securitarian one. Social enemies are those who, by their sheer existence, might hinder the contingent processes governing the well-being of designated strata of the population. Under a generalized threat perception, all problems are reformulated as problems of “security”—or, as Butler has put it, as a generalized form of self-defense.98 The point is that danger is no longer attached to an identity; it could come from anywhere, everywhere. The phantasmal character of the threat is more effective in mobilizing support than if the menace were tied to a definite entity or a sovereign state. It is only under these circumstances that phantasms of an enemy who is nowhere and everywhere can be nurtured. While the notion of “post-truth” is too complex to treat in such a short space, suffice it to note that facts thereby lose their power to moor individuals onto stable ground.
As I hope is evident from this rough sketch, neither post-truth nor the volatility instigated by these new practices and techniques of power can be reduced to what has derogatorily been dubbed “postmodernity.” The deconstruction of norms upholding powers of subjugation is a critical exercise, while the destabilization underway in the neoliberal era gives rise to an uncritical cynicism that lends itself to appropriation by the axiomatic discourses of would-be fascist leaders.
3. New Fascisms from Below
If fascism designates those sociopolitical formations that tend toward disrupting references and transgressing external limits while constantly fabricating internal boundaries by setting bodies up for liquidation, then this is a fascist moment. But this moment is also significantly different than the twentieth-century one. Securitarian neoliberal governmentality does not produce an “iron band” binding masses together, but is best captured by the metaphor of “network.” Tiziana Terranova expresses this well: “As a mechanism of security, the totalization that can be achieved through a network will . . . be characterized by a kind of action that is immanent to that which it tries to regulate.”99 The network centrifugally organizes and allows for the development of ever wider circuits. Unlike the “iron band,” the network points to a kind of “fascism from below.”
If this insight is correct, then the question becomes: is it realistic to expect fascistic tendencies to condense into centralized and militarized political bodies today? Traverso asks a similar question at the beginning of his recent book, The New Faces of Fascism, but does not fully seize the opportunity to anticipate the novel forms of fascism that are likely to emerge from the “trenches” of the neoliberal era. Traverso's wager is that the historical concept of fascism is both indispensable and inappropriate to qualify new forms of fascism. To mark the semantic ambiguity between the old and the new, between continuity and transformation, Traverso opts for the term “postfascism.” He further distinguishes “postfascism” from “neofascism” to avoid conflating the new fascistic tendencies embedded in wider societal dynamics with the more narrow Alt-Right and neo-Nazi formations on the political scene in our day (for instance, Jobbik in Hungary or Golden Dawn in Greece). Neo-Nazis are fascists, full stop. They do not pose conceptual problems, as far as Traverso is concerned, although they do indeed pose political problems.
As to whether President Trump incarnates one of the transfigurations of fascism, Traverso goes on to draw thick boundaries to set postfascism off from historical fascisms: “Trump has not been raised to power by a mass fascist movement, but by his TV stardom. From this point of view, the better comparison is with Berlusconi rather than Mussolini. Trump is not threatening to make an army of black shirts (or brown shirts) march on Washington.” And further on: Trump “does not mobilise the masses but attracts a mass of atomised individuals, of impoverished and isolated consumers. He has not invented a new political style; he does not want to look like a soldier and does not wear a uniform.”100 It would seem that, for Traverso, historical fascisms are to serve as sine qua non standards for being able to qualify anyone as fascist today.
What, then, might the concept of “postfascism” designate? On the one hand, Traverso tells us that Trump “represents an authoritarian turn on the political terrain, but on the socioeconomic terrain he displays a certain eclecticism. He is both protectionist and neoliberal,” while “classical fascism was not neoliberal; it was statist and imperialist, promoting policies of military expansion. Trump is anti-statist and rather isolationist.”101 While admitting that “even classical fascism was characterised by incoherence, tension, and conflict,” Traverso nevertheless argues that what sets Trump apart from historical fascists is that he does not have a program. Fascism, Traverso tells us, “put forward a project for society, a new civilisation,” while Trump “embodies a neoliberal anthropological model.”102 We are thus prompted to see in Trump a “postfascist leader without fascism.”103 On the other hand, however, Traverso admits that the erection of “neoliberal Leviathans” implies that states of exception have become permanent. He qualifies the European Union as a “monster” that does not stop short of destroying the autonomy of the political by enforcing the complete submission of politics to finance. Today the “troika” (the IMF, the European Central Bank, and the EU Commission) exercises an overwhelming power that “does not emanate from any parliament or from popular sovereignty,” Traverso writes: “the European Union does not stand as a barrier to the growth of the far right but fuels it.”104 Postfascism, then, would seem to consist in some sort of neoliberal authoritarianism—whether of the neoliberal “elite” as represented by the members of the “troika,” or of leaders like Trump whose populism is compatible with “neoliberal anthropology.”
This raises a number of important questions: Are the militarization of politics and the construction of fascist Leviathans even necessary when an authoritarian neoliberal monster (more a Behemoth than a Leviathan, in my view) can already effectively stifle plurality and democratic representation? Why, furthermore, should we assume that fascism would need a state in order to function today? In the neoliberal era, there are several alternative “overwhelming powers” that can be seized and employed in the service of irredentism and racialized annihilation. Big capital and the executive “commissars” of nation-states, for instance, have chosen supranational and international organizations as sites within which to forge their alliance. Why would a worldwide alliance of Evangelists, financed and coordinated by Steve Bannon, not replace the state as the privileged tool of mobilization and oppression? And why should mediatized populism not count as an effective method through which to mobilize masses? Do we really need masses to attend enormous rallies in an era of social media campaigns, online lynching, and large armies of trolls, some of which can be operated from overseas or through algorithms? Unlike the armies of the twentieth century, an army of trolls is inconspicuous yet scandalously successful in summoning acquiescence and states of mass hysteria. But most importantly, why should we dismiss the “neoliberal anthropological model” as falling short of “a project for society” or a full-fledged program akin to the one espoused by historical fascisms?
That Traverso does not ask such questions is all the more curious considering that he explicitly underscores how historical fascisms were instances characterized by the permutation and crystallization of wider societal transformations. But if this is indeed the case, then new fascisms will most probably entail the permutation and crystallization of neoliberal modes of dehumanization involving new technologies. The abandonment in the neoliberal era of the Taylorist model of production, for instance, should urge us to inquire into potentials for violence inherent in outsourcing, flexibility, dislocation, and dispersal. Instead of Trump donning the black shirt, private military companies like Blackwater (or its Russian counterpart, Wagner) may be enough to do the job. Indeed, the question is whether dramatic acts such as the March on Rome or a Reichstag fire would ever be needed in an era in which citing antiterrorism laws or security concerns has the performative effect of producing a mass desire for extraordinary measures and the willingness to assume vigilante functions. “Terror” in the twenty-first century does not have to be exercised through the state; it can be outsourced or transnationalized. Irredentist wars need not take the form of territorial conquest, but of “operations” or “military sanctions,” as is the case in Turkey's incursion into northern Syria. Ethnic cleansing need not deploy poison gas, but can rely on check points, spatial compartmentalization, and blockades, as in Palestine, indefinite detention as in Guantanamo, or abandonment, infrastructural wars, or forest fires, as in Brazil.105 It is clear that the constant creation of “existential enemies” is an essential component of the biopolitics-security-neoliberalism nexus. Racism today is still biopolitical, working through the “population principle” that postulates a hierarchy in the right to existence. But indirect killing, murder by proxy, strangulation through walls and blockades, not to mention drone wars, are now among the arsenal of political leaders to do away with “lives unworthy of being lived.” Today, the “dehumanization of death” does not have to be legitimized by resorting to the language of eugenics and social Darwinism. Letting die can be couched in moralizing terms: those who are killed or left to die are “infrahuman” in that they are unable to compete or pose an abstruse threat that must be preempted.
My contention is that a new “anthropological break” characterizes the neoliberal era. This involves a significant reconfiguration of the forms of power at work in the imperialism-fascism-totalitarianism nexus. How such a drastic transformation will affect the mythologization of the past and the construction of fantasies of rebirth is yet unknown. Achille Mbembe's reflections on the “society of enmity” point to one of the potential directions that the mythologization of forms of violence specific to the neoliberal era might take: “Within the mytho-religious logic of our times, the divine (just like the market, capital or the political) is almost always perceived as an immanent and immediate force: vital, visceral, and energetic.”106 With the expansion of algorithmic reason, which is crucial for financialization, Mbembe foresees new modes of mytho-religious thinking that are related to novel technologies: “Contemporary psychic regimes have brought to a maximum level of exacerbation the exaltation of affectivity and, paradoxically, within an age of digital telecommunications, the desire for mythology.”107
Arendt once noted that what makes a regime totalitarian was its capacity to prevent “normalization from reaching the point where a new way of life could develop.”108 Normalization today involves the coexistence of normality and destruction as was the case in the prefascist epoch. Not only the masses or the members of neofascist formations, but we progressive folk are becoming unknown to ourselves. The techniques at work in the neoliberal era foreclose our individual and collective capacity to initiate new beginnings, form meaningful bonds, and generate power from below in such a way as to develop new ways of life. What we are lacking are communities “willing and able to guarantee any rights whatsoever,” as Arendt famously remarked, emphasizing not only willpower but also ability, that is, real power.109
And so, the fight against fascism cannot solely consist in pointing a finger at far-right groups or populist leaders. None of us is sheltered from fascism unless we devise modes of action and interaction capable of offsetting the destabilizing forces, cynical affects, and new technologies of power characteristic of the neoliberal era.
I would like to express my gratitude to Judith Butler, Wendy Brown, Eva von Redecker, Etienne Balibar, Robin Celikates, Rahel Jaeggi, Rosi Braidotti, the International Consortium for Critical Theory Programs, graduate students and colleagues at the Program in Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley, the Sociology Department at Binghamton University, the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis, the Political Science and International Relations Department at Boğaziçi University, and the Centre for Applied Philosophy, Politics and Ethics at the University of Brighton for generous comments, critiques, and encouragement at all stages of the writing of this essay.
See Finchelstein From Fascism to Populism in History; Sternhell, Sznajder, and Asheri, The Birth of Fascist Ideology: From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution; Laqueur, Fascism: Past, Present, Future; Griffin, A Fascist Century; Evans, Third Reich in Power; Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism, among others.
Owing to its emphasis on processes instead of events, I find Paxton's definition of fascism particularly helpful. According to him, fascism is “a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion” (The Anatomy of Fascism, 218).
Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, 257 (emphasis mine, hereafter cited as OT).
Shorten, “Hannah Arendt on Totalitarianism,” 179; Aschheim, “Nazism, Culture, and The Origins of Totalitarianism,” 126. Bernstein (“Origins of Totalitarianism,” 383) recounts that Arendt first thought of the book as one on imperialism. See Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt, 199–211, for how Arendt only started incorporating Stalinism into OT in 1948.
Bernstein (“Origins of Totalitarianism,” 399) cites Arendt as describing her book as a political, not a historical, one.
Grosse, “From Colonialism to National Socialism,” 48. Also of interest is the following point Grosse makes on Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism: “the title of the British edition in 1951, The Burden of Our Time, employed the classical imperialist phrase of ‘the white man's burden,’ but reversed the colonialist perspective by alluding to the legacies of National Socialism and colonialism as constituting the new burden for post–World War II Europe” (37–38).
Throughout this essay, I use the term “power” in a non-Arendtian sense to denote strategies and practices of governing. Arendt starts distinguishing power from violence from The Human Condition onwards, but she works with a strictly conventional sense of the term “power” in OT, as is evident in the subsection “Power and the Bourgeoisie” (OT, 135–147). The reason why I opt for this sense of the term is that it enables me to tease out a power paradigm (in the Foucaultian sense) from Arendt's insights into imperialist and totalitarian power.
See, among others in a wide range of literature, Brown, “Neo-liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy,”,Fassin, Populisme; Comaroff, “Populism and Late Liberalism”; Tansel, “Authoritarian Neoliberalism.”
For the distinction between “analogy” and “comparison,” see Traverso, New Faces of Fascism, 4.
I am thankful to Eva von Redecker for this formulation.
Arendt's avowed aim was not to “write a history of totalitarianism, but an analysis in terms of history” (Arendt, “The Origins of Totalitarianism: A Reply,” 78). The book, as a result, is not a historiographic accomplishment, nor does it intend to establish causalities.
Her decision to turn to colonial and imperial practices to foreground Nazism was informed by news of Auschwitz. See Arendt, “‘What Remains? The Language Remains,’” 13.
To repeat that gesture, for instance, I might very well have begun this essay in reverse chronological order, with the rise of new fascistic tendencies in the twenty-first century, in order to then trace their “origins” back to the totalitarian elements identified by Arendt. What prompts us to rethink past forms of fascism is the very appearance of these new tendencies.
Arendt, OT, xxi (preface to part 2).
See Traverso, Origins of Nazi Violence, especially 106–21, on how even class enemies were defined in terms of race by Nationalist Socialist ideology.
Although she does not directly address this conundrum, Hannah Arendt's implicit answer to the question of why British, French, or Belgian colonialism did not produce fascist regimes in the same manner as Germany did is to distinguish between overseas colonialism and the völkish aspirations of pan-movements in Central and Eastern Europe. See Grosse, “From Colonialism to National Socialism,” 45.
Arendt, OT, 249 (emphasis mine).
Stone, “Defending the Plural,” 50. See also in this text, Stone's appraisal of the “Arendtian moment” in genocide studies.
Arendt, OT, 467 (emphasis mine).
A similar point is made by Villa in “Genealogies of Total Domination,” 43.
Arendt, OT, 353 (emphasis mine).
Neumann, Behemoth, 39. While Leviathan denotes a centralized and autocratic state form, Behemoth represents an amorphous polity, the contours of which are not well defined.
Arendt, OT, 382 (emphasis mine). Neumann (Behemoth, 463) also makes this point: the so-called relativism of both Italian and German fascism, “has next to nothing to do with either philosophic relativism or pragmatism, [it] is nothing but cynicism and nihilism.”
Bernstein, “Origins of Totalitarianism,” 387, also underscores the centrality of superfluousness as a leitmotif that runs through OT.
Arendt, OT, 475 (emphasis mine). One could of course attempt tease out an Arendtian interpretation of how capitalist industrialization has played into the totalitarian drive from her diverse writings, but this would require a much more laborious reconstruction.
I will be leaving out, for lack of space and expertise, the equally important effects of information technologies and artificial intelligence, which are crucial in understanding the ways in which interpersonal relations and communications have been transformed and novel forms of subjectivity have been constructed.
Gambetti and Godoy-Anativia, “States of (In)security,” 4. I also strongly disagree with scholars who describe neoliberal governance as only having to do with austerity measures and government by a technocratic elite. See, for instance, Finchelstein, From Fascism to Populism, 4, 166; Müller, What Is Populism?, 97–99.
Whether neoliberal thinkers of the Austrian or Chicago Schools willed this or not is of secondary importance when attempting to distill from the myriad of practices developed in the 1970s and 1980s the contours of a novel set of power stratagems that produce neoliberal societal effects.
See, for instance, the compelling argument of Davis and Walsh in “Distinguishing Financialization from Neoliberalism.”
See Lavoie, “Financialization, Neo-liberalism and Securitization”; LiPuma and Lee, “Financial Derivatives.” While an indiscriminate lumping together of the diverse instruments of neoliberal restructuring would result in a conceptualization that imputes a dubious unity to neoliberalism, strained attempts to produce ideal-types of neoliberalism that set it apart from financialization, securitization, biopolitical governmentality, and other contemporary processes would in turn result in obscuring from view instances of mutual constitution, overlap, and combined effectivity.
See note 15 for references to literature on the authoritarian and de-democratizing tendencies in neoliberalism.
Foucault, Security, Territory, Population. Foucault's improper use of the term “liberal” and his lack of critical distance from neoliberal schools of thought should not be allowed to leave some of his premonitions critically unexamined.
Lazzarato, “Neoliberalism in Action,” 131 (emphasis mine).
Cited by Traverso, Origins of Nazi Violence, 42.
Lavoie, “Financialization, Neo-liberalism and Securitization,” 223. The uses and abuses of big data show that accrued statistical and algorithmic knowledge generated by computerization is not a reassuring remedy to uncertainty either.
See Butler, “Legal Violence.” Self-defense becomes the primordial “right” in a regime of security. This relates to the question of proximity and group identification, which becomes a justification for war (defending one's own).
See Winter, “The Siege of Gaza,” 311, on how the blockade and humanitarian calculations of minimum sustenance levels turn the Israeli siege of Gaza into a “biopolitical mode of warfare.”
Arendt, OT, 297 (emphasis mine).