Rehabilitating fascism and electing authoritarians: how it happened

By Jim Dagg

In “1984”, George Orwell wrote “who controls the past controls the future”. We are seeing this over and over again in this course. Bull’s article in this week’s readings positions “counter memories” as a commonly used and powerful tool of populist parties. With her focus on Italy, she highlights Berlusconi’s work in the 1990s vilify the left, which he has simplified to “communist”, and to which he assigned false blame for the Bologna massacre (at least). This was part of his work to rehabilitate the AN (heirs to MSI, and hence Mussolini). The second part of the “1984” quote is “who controls the present controls the past”. That part applies to Berlusconi – the media tycoon – just as aptly.

Bull’s notion of an “empty signifier” – what a great term! – is new to me. The signifier really is empty to begin with. Using Berlusconi as the example again, he co-opts “freedom” and fills it with the specific meanings that will appeal to a sufficient coalition of the population. In the winter of 2022, we in Ottawa saw the same term “freedom” used in precisely the same way by the trucker convoy. 

The Kalb chapter was dense and powerful.  He described the devastating effects of neo-liberalism on workers in former Soviet satellites. Then he showed how the reaction produced today’s populist authoritarianism in Hungary and Poland especially. While notionally western parts of the individual Visegrad countries have become important manufacturing centers for Europe, the eastern parts of these countries have fallen behind. Easterners in Hungary were then hurt badly by the financial crisis of 2008 and turned to populists for the answer. Orban was elected in 2010 and transformed Hungary into an “illiberal national workfare state”. The idea spread to Poland next.

 Kalb believes that, in transition to open markets, there grew a rift between the self-perceived “deserving” and “undeserving” workers. He claims this undermined possible solidarity among workers and was a missed opportunity. His description of conflict and hierarchy-seeking makes sense, but would broad solidarity among workers in eastern “provinces” have made any difference to their prosperity – or their precaritization 😉?

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