How Fascism Links Local Anxieties to International Narratives and Archetypes

By Ali Yasin

As an ideology, Fascism is rooted in the unprecedented material and social change characteristic of modernity. Traditional boundaries and hierarchies across Europe had been greatly undermined by the spread of enlightenment philosophy, the cascade of revolutions it inspired, and the concurrent economic transition from locally based feudalism to an increasingly globalized capitalism. Fascism represents one of several reactions to this disorientating tendency of modernity, which attempts to secure an ostensibly necessary hierarchical order by reimagining the nation as a homogeneous ethnically bounded collective, with the totalitarian state as its guarantor.  While this clearly explains Fascism’s protectionist tendencies both economic and otherwise, is fails to account for its perplexing and somewhat paradoxical relationship with internationalism.

Unlike the reactionary archconservatives of the 18th and 19th centuries whose political aims were largely confined within a national perspective, the fascists of the early 20th century understood the objectives and aspirations of their political agenda as being intrinsically international in scope. A common feature of the rhetoric and propaganda produced by the fascist regimes which came to power during interwar period, was the association of local anxieties to an international and transhistorical polemic narrative. Both Italy and Germany were dominated by atmospheres of pessimism and unrest during this period. The loss of national prestige that accompanied their disappointing fortunes during the First World War, was quickly followed by the rise of the radical labour movement in the aftermath of the Russian revolution and civil war. Rather than simply attributing these developments to “subversive” domestic elements as its predecessors had done for centuries, fascism extends this persecution narrative and its associated paranoia to the international arena.  

As described by Ruth Ben-Ghiat in Fascist Modernities: Italy, the Italian public was gripped by fears that Italy risked being relegated to a subaltern position as it continued to face internal political and economic turmoil. In addition to ruthlessly suppressing the budding Italian socialist and labour movements as many of his conservative counterparts were also doing across Europe, Mussolini and his fascist cohort further argued that the national revival of Italy required the “Italian race” to reassert and redefine itself on the international stage. According to the regime’s propaganda, Italy found itself in a disadvantage position within the European community not because of its delayed industrialization or political unification, but rather because the Italian people had abandoned their status as the archetypal “race of hard edged conquerors” who commanded respect and authority. It was the desire to revive this international reputation more so than any concrete strategic or economic objectives that motivated the brutal Italian invasion and colonization of Ethiopia. Portraying the invasion as a crusade of modernization, the regimes propaganda described the Italian colonial project as a synthesis of natural ethnic hierarchy and the modern progression of technology. Through Italy’s colonial domination of Ethiopia and its native population, the fascist regime claimed that the Italians would not only bring out the regions full productive potential by integrating modern infrastructure and bureaucracy, but also simultaneously reinsert themselves within the transhistorical archetype of the civilizing conqueror that originated with the Roman empire.

Works Cited:

How Fascism Links Loc Ruth Ben-Ghiat, “Conquest and Collaboration” in Fascist Modernities: Italy, 1922-1945 (University of California Press, 2004), pp. 17-45.

Paul Hanebrink, A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism (Harvard University Press, 2018), pp. 1-10, 11-45.

Understanding the Historicity of Populism and Fascism.

By Ali Yasin

One of the most prevalent challenges faced by academics when attempting to analyze/interpret the ideologies of fascism and populism, is distinguishing them as a historical phenomenon from their common use as pejorative political labels.  As Victoria de Grazia notes in “What we don’t understand about Fascism”, the use of the terms fascist and populist to stigmatize one’s political opponents has been almost ubiquitous in the modern political landscape since the end of the Second World War. Movements across the ideological spectrum including the social democratic Jeremy Corby and Bernie Sanders factions of the Labour and Democratic parties respectively, as well as the wing right nationally conservative regimes of Viktor Orban in Hungary and the Law and Justice party in Poland, have all equally been described as populist. Likewise, the term fascist is frequently used not only to describe actions of many governments by their opponents, but also by those same governments to characterize the nature of their opposition and subsequently delegitimize them.

Frederico Finchelstein convincingly attributes this problematic tendency to inclination of scholars and the public to regard fascism and populism as ahistorical concepts, in his introduction to “From Fascism to Populism in History”.  Rather than understanding both political systems as the outcomes of historical processes and both the material and ideological evolution of the modern nation state, they are instead often seen as spontaneous aberrations appearing only as temporary detours from the overarching historical narrative of ever expanding liberal-democracy This inevitably reduces them from empirical phenomenon with concrete historical causes and characteristics, to vague transnational metaphors for a number of contradictions faced by the contemporary neoliberal global hegemonic order.  Furthermore, it also obscures the historic and theoretical relationship between the development of both fascism and populism.

Both fascism and populism can be described as a reactions to the political and material crises created by the simultaneously liberal and imperialist Anglo-American led global order of the 19th and 20th centuries. They differ definitively however on their relationship to and potential place within the spectrum of democratic governance. Fascism with its open embrace of both political violence and totalitarian leadership, is intrinsically antithetical to any form of democracy, liberal or otherwise. Although fascist movements routinely built on the theoretical approaches established by the early populists of the mid to late 19th century, they radically departed from their predecessors with their holistic rejection of democracy as a source of political power. The success of the fascist agenda inherently necessitates a complete dismantling of the democratic process and concurrent institutions. By contrast, populism with its tenants of majoritarianism and antagonistic repoliticization, conceives of itself within a democratic paradigm. While populist leaders like their fascist counterparts, often portrayed themselves as quasi-messianic figures with the privileged and often exclusive position of being able to speak on behalf of “the people”, they legitimated their authoritarian rule on the basis of majoritarian representation rather than socially Darwinian understanding of the ethnic nation and its relationship with outside groups. They also claim that a powerful leader is needed not to bypass the democratic process entirely, but to counteract the corrosive effect of the elites on democratic representation. These distinguishing characteristics have defined populism as a political ideology distinct from fascism both before and after its emergence in the early 1920s. Therefore, populism can be better understood as a form of authoritarian democracy that thrives in highly unequal political/economic systems, rather than a public relations driven recharacterization of fascism for the post-war era.

Works Cited:

Rogers Brubaker, “Why Populism?” NUPI Podcast (51 minutes)

Victoria de Grazia, “What We Don’t Understand about Fascism” Zocalo Public Square hitler-20th-century/ideas/essay/

Federico Finchelstein, “Introduction: Thinking Fascism and Populism in terms of the Past” in Federico Finkelstein, From Fascism to Populism in History (University of California Press, 2017).