The demise of liberal democracy has given rise to political regimes that some people equate with fascism. The phenomenon is not classic fascism, but fiasco: fitful authoritarianism tempered by incompetence.
Liberal democracies end either with a bang or with a whimper. The 20th century is full of examples of such demise –mostly by resort to military coups d’état. In this century we witness more gradual erosion –until what is left is a shell and a sham. Recent books by academics have explained the decline in rather clear terms, surprisingly in non-obfuscating language. The big question before us is: What follows?
The rise of right-wing populism has led many to equate the current change with a return to vintage fascism –a movement and a political system that was seemingly buried with the end of WWII. Yes and No. The rise of “illiberal democracies” both validates and invalidates the claim.
On the one hand the gestures, the xenophobia, the search for scapegoats, the confusion of governance with campaigns, the demagogy, the defeasance of traditional parties, the calls for referenda, and the assertion of nostalgic national pride are points in common with Mussolini’s and Hitler’s promises to make their respective nations great again. And so is the celebration of military might in preparations for war.
On the other hand, globalization today is easier to repudiate in words than to dismantle in deeds, much as Mr. Trump and other demagogues proclaim the return to autarky and dog-eat-dog –a Hobbesian fight of all against all. Moreover, the culture and institutions of advanced democracies have automatic defenses against autocratic or authoritarian rule –although with time and enough crises would-be dictators may overcome them. Herein lies the difference between old fascism and the new creature. Unfortunately, the comparison favors the old kind. So far, and despite their worst instincts, team Trump has had a difficult time being good fascists.
Sociologically, Italian fascism first and Germany’s national socialism afterwards were quite successful cousins of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Before war ended their fateful experiments in totalitarianism, Mussolini literally drained the swamps, destroyed the mafia, promoted workers’ rights and gave them opportunities for sports (dopo lavoro), achieved full employment, and supported scholarly research in such institutions and think tanks as the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa. Hitler gave Germany full employment, the autobahn and the VW, the worker’s car. Both systems supported science and public works. Above all, fascism and Nazism centralized power and expanded greatly the role of the state –the ostensive state and the administrative state.
To make Italy great again the Italian fascists had to rummage for appropriate symbols in the ruins of ancient Rome and its state power. Totalitarianism (a term coined by Mussolini) consisted in the coordination (in German Gleichschaltung) of the administrative state, not in its slapdash deconstruction. The intrigues and infamies at the top of these regimes did not undermine the efficiency of muscular states below (witness the efficiency of the Wehrmacht under an erratic Fuehrer). In America, by contrast, the hard right displays a hatred of the state, especially of central government, and not just of the liberal state. It wants an anemic state, not a strong state. “Starve the beast” is the motto of the right, and it is a far cry from the worship of the state that characterizes historic fascism. It is a cover for sloppiness, parading as strength.
True, at the beginning of the fascist movement in the Italian 1920s, “me ne frego,” which means, “I don’t give a damn” (or naughtier variants thereof) was a nihilist motto of the supporters of Benito Mussolini. It was the revolutionary phase of fascism, soon to give way to a cult of order and a command economy. Later on, periodic bouts of paranoia led the leaders of the fascist and other totalitarian powers to attack their own “deep states” –with disastrous results for their policies. Examples: Hitler’s rows with the German High Command, Stalin’s decimation of his own officer corps at the start of the great patriotic war, and later of the Soviet medical establishment. On the left, Mao’s Cultural Revolution was a cruel disaster for the People’s Republic. Dictators and would-be dictators are paranoid: they tend to drive the vehicle of the state with their eyes fixed on the rear mirror –a habit that leads to a crash. Their ardent followers, in their hatred and ignorance, hail the destruction of autonomous institutions and fear the cold impartiality of the state. But their rants do not work and they don’t last. Ultimately the followers too, not just those they persecute, suffer the consequences. The best analogy is from medicine. What appears as a salutary purge is in fact an autoimmune disorder. The body attacks and damages its own tissues.
Some attitudes in the voting populace of the West today seem to repeat the nihilistic moment of vintage fascism. There is a parallel between Italian menefreghismo and trumpism today. In terms of indifference to others, and the desire to “shake things up” and “tell it like it is” without decorum, many Americans are fast approaching Italian and Eastern European levels of popular dismissal of democratic niceties. Militant vulgarity is the flavor of the day. But history does not repeat itself.
If there is a phrase for which Marx shall always be remembered, it is not “workers of the world, unite!” but “history repeats itself; first as tragedy, second as farce.” In the countries where the nationalist right has come to power, governance has suffered from disorder and incoherence. The transactional style of these newcomers to statecraft is volatile and inconsistent, favoring the ad hoc, the ad hominem, and the short term over the long view. The abandonment of treatises, multilateral understandings, and a true international system will lead to multiple and unnecessary conflicts, and to a new world disorder. In this context, the lament of a seasoned geo-strategist is well placed. In a recent article published in The Atlantic, Henry Kissinger ends his reflection on the new technologies of artificial intelligence and the decline of strategic vision with a passionate plea for the survival of enlightenment: “The U.S. government should consider a presidential commission of eminent thinkers to help develop a national vision. This much is certain: If we do not start this effort soon, before long we shall discover that we started too late.” But his plea assumes that the US has a government, not a disorderly mis-government. National populism is not a vision; it is an unreflecting reflex. Moreover, the planet requires not just a national vision, but also an international vision and a global architecture.
When we look at the world no longer from the messy, contentious, and polarized ground of everyday politics, but from the heights of geo-politics, we can appreciate the predicament in which the planet finds itself. Since I am a sailor, I’d like to cite other sailors in their discussion of a long-range sailing race:
Strategy we will define as sailing in response to wind,
weather, and current. Strategy involves decisions
aimed at getting the boat around the race course or to your
next landfall quickly without regard to other boats. […]
Tactics, on the other hand, are defined more narrowly as the
moves and countermoves you make to get ahead of other boats
when you are racing. To put this another way: Strategy has
to do primarily with the laws of nature; tactics primarily with
the laws of humans, some might say the laws of the jungle.
Geopolitics is about strategy. Tactics come second. Strategy is what Kissinger calls a national vision. One must not confuse it with short-term gains and “the art of the deal.” To use another favorite Kissinger analogy: it is not playing poker; it is mastering the game of go.
While the new hard-right governments in the West claim they are the best in defending their countries against alleged external enemies –be they other powers or immigrants—their biggest enemy has become their inability to run their own countries well. In their misguided bully tactics they forget strategy. Along the way, they discredit the very model of competent governance and the values that once gave their countries a geopolitical edge. In the words of Martin Wolff: “The US administration’s view –that the unilateral exercise of US power is all that is needed—will fail. It will not manage the global commons that way, not that the Trump ad ministration cares about that, at all [no me ne frega un cazzo!]. It will also not achieve stability: if it doubts that, it should look at the cauldron that the Middle East has become after endless interventions.”
The US invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq is a textbook example of “deconstructing the administrative state.” The Trumpians dream of repeating such feat in Iran, and engaging in regime change at home as well. The project begins with F but is not fascism. It is fiasco.
 Henry Kissinger, “How the Enlightenment Ends,” The Atlantic, 20.05/18, p.10.
 Dennis Conner and Michael Levitt, Sail Like a Champion (1992, New York: St. Martin’s Press), 233.
 Martin Wolff, “How the west should judge a rising China,” Financial Times, 16 May 2018.
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