25th Jun, 2021


Zeynep Gambetti

It is my contention that neither the violence nor the struggles that we are experiencing at the dawn of the twenty-first century have found their concepts yet. The problems and contradictions inherent in them have not yet been adequately exposed, particularly because we keep trying to subsume these experiences under known schemes, using known epistemic paradigms. I seriously think that we have to come to terms with the limits of a conventional type of (Marxist or non-Marxist) praxis as well as theorising.

In this respect, I welcome but would also like to challenge Ugo Palheta’s precious attempt to rethink fascism in the light of contemporary conditions that are significantly different than those in the 1920s and 30s.1 It is precious because, in most accounts of fascism, what goes amiss is the pre-history of the new fascist moment, which cannot be acknowledged by ossifying fascism, that is, by taking the inter-war circumstances of the twentieth century as the sine qua non prelude to its emergence. Would we identify democracy only in those conditions that replicate the ancient Athenian polis or insist that only the presence of an aristocracy would justify calling any discourse “conservative,” since conservatism is the product of a nineteenth-century counter-revolution by the aristocracy against otherwise uncontainable working-class demands? Hanging obstinately on to former instances of any -ism results in a failure to take into account the massive political, economic, cultural, technological and societal transformations undergone ever since they emerged. These transformations have modified all other ideological discourses and practices (we talk of neo-conservatism as well as of multiple permutations of modern democracy). So why should not fascism change? Palheta’s questions, as to whether fascisation will necessarily involve the formation of armed militias, or whether the forces standing against fascisation should not be enlarged to include not only the proletariat but also contemporary struggles against racism, sexism and precarity, are therefore pivotal in determining how fascism may and will evolve. In short, contrasting earlier cases of fascism with potential signs of a fascist revival today in order to debunk the latter risks leading us astray. We need to be much more attuned to the troubles inherent in our own times.

I nevertheless note with surprise that Palheta does not fully pursue the implications of his claim that the abandonment by the ruling class of liberal democratic discourses precedes present-day fascisation. He too tends to distinguish between fascism and neoliberalism, failing to think through the fascistic nature of the neoliberal transformation. Although today’s fascistic trends do reflect a crisis in political hegemony (to use the Gramscian terms Palheta espouses), the crisis dates back to the 1970s, long before far-right movements started regaining traction. The neoliberal doctrine of monetarism was advanced during that period, mainly by Chicago School economists, to overcome both the OPEC oil crisis and the shrinking GDP share of the bourgeoisie in advanced capitalist countries having adopted Keynesian or other forms of welfarism.2 The bourgeoisie itself brought about the collapse of the social welfare state through the Washington Consensus, leaving liberal political discourses (rule of law, human rights, checks and balances) largely incongruent and impotent in justifying the great neoliberal transformation. It is then that neoconservatism (or the New Right) emerged as the most appropriate ideological project with which to stitch back the layers of social tissue torn to shreds by the neoliberal assault on rights, social security, public services and class cohesion. But, not before having donned fascist attire. We tend to forget all too easily that the neoliberal experiment was initiated in Chile with a bloody coup as early as 1973. Likewise, in Turkey, the military junta seized power in 1980 to implement neoliberal reforms while at the same time eradicating revolutionary unions, left-wing parties and all other opposition movements. Neoliberalism was fascist at the onset. The complicity between neoliberalism and neoconservatism in core countries momentarily postponed the fascist moment that was instantiated in its naked form in the periphery.3 Put bluntly, my thesis is that new fascisms should be inscribed within the lineage of neoliberalism. These are not two distinct phenomena, but two sides of the same coin.

As opposed to the idea that fascism must necessarily consist of a militarised solution to the crises of capitalism, Palheta’s endorsement of the term fascism (instead of authoritarianism or populism, the euphemistic alternatives) opens up much needed debate on what the F-word entails in our day and age. Euphemistic alternatives are usually preferred by scholars, since the erosion of the bourgeois principle of rule of law and the rise to predominance of the executive branch of government are rightly identified as belonging to a whole range of authoritarian practices that are not specifically fascist – dictatorships, monarchies, Bonapartist instances also excel in eliminating so-called checks and balances. But then, here is the problem: this same argument can be turned against the definition espoused by Palheta and many others. Does fascism consist in “a political project for the ‘regeneration’ of an imaginary community – generally the nation – involving a vast operation of purification, in other words, the destruction of everything that, from the fascist point of view, is seen as hindering its phantasmagorical homogeneity, impeding its chimerical unity, depriving it of its imaginary essence and dissolving its profound identity”? One objection among several others would be that the construction of imaginary communities goes as far back as the idea of nationhood and that the purification of phantasmagorical unities is not specific to fascism.

I contend that, as distinct from other forms of authoritarianism, the distinguishing feature of fascism must be sought in its ability to move masses to actively desire to undertake internal cleansing and external expansion, as Robert Paxton has suggested.4 Once we overlook this mobilising desire that fascism generates, we tend to confuse it with militaristic or dictatorial regimes of oppression. The problem of desire prompts us to ask questions that cannot be resolved by identifying particular ideological elements that supposedly make a movement or regime fascist. Among such questions, the following seem crucial to me: What kind of power does fascism wield? What kind of governmental strategy may effectively mobilise masses into desiring the eradication of legal and ethical restraints? And apart from its obvious historical manifestations, where else could we locate analogous forms of governing? Such inquiries are important, since conditions once referenced as fascism may have assumed new forms in today’s social configurations.

What I am getting at is that we need a new theory of fascism from the Left.5 We need to revisit previous insights into the connections between colonialism, capitalist imperialism and fascism, and deduce from them a number of techniques of government that would enable us to identify similar prospects within the biopolitics-security-neoliberalism nexus.6 If historical fascisms emerged from the permutation and crystallisation of societal transformations throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we must concede that new fascisms will entail the permutation and crystallisation of neoliberal modes of dehumanisation involving new technologies, not the exact same ones used in the twentieth century.

To begin with: the abandonment in the neoliberal era of the Taylorist model of production should urge us to inquire into potentials for violence inherent in practices such as outsourcing, flexibilisation, dislocation, and precaritisation. Taylorism coincided with the centralised state and allowed for centralised ideologies and struggles between classes. In the post-Fordist model of production actually preponderant under neoliberal conditions, struggles as well as forms of political and economic power are both dispersed and pervasive.

Palheta notes that the inability of the bourgeoisie to impose its political domination “proceeds, in particular, from a weakening of the links between representatives and represented, or more precisely, of the mediations between political power and citizens.” A powerful explanation resides in the observation that the neoliberal bourgeoisie dissolved traditional institutions and mass organizations, but failed to replace them with cohesive forms of adhesion. Fascism inserts itself into this “organic crisis” by calling the state, the nation and other phantasms of strength and unity back in. What is missing in this analysis, despite its brilliance, is the alternative explanation as to the results of decades of neoliberal transformation: instead of forcing the state to withdraw from the economic and social spheres, neoliberalism can be said to have successfully summoned hegemonic consent to expand the field of governmental interventions by public as well as private actors. The Washington Consensus was not solely imposed by force; it was also globalised through discursive mechanisms that whetted the appetite of not only the bourgeoisie, but also large portions of the middle classes and proletariat. All aspects of social life were henceforth made to bow to (mainly financial) market imperatives. The political instance no longer retains even a semblance of autonomy vis-à-vis the economic instance, nor do ideological state apparatuses (to borrow Althusser’s terms) enjoy relative autonomy. As Palheta also underlines, both repressive and ideological state apparatuses have undergone an endogenous transformation. Thatcher’s infamous slogan “there is no alternative” (TINA) ominously heralded the merger between state, civil society and the private sector. Whether on the left or on the right, political parties acquiesced to remaining within the parameters of neoliberal market economy, thereby effacing the differences between political ideologies.7

If political power and economic power have merged in complex ways in such a way that hegemony is cemented not so much from above, but from below and from all sorts of other directions, then do we have any reason to assume that “popular participation in fascist movements […] is for the most part ordered from above, in its objectives as well as in its forms” as Palheta claims? After all, what command does any societal instance (or state apparatus) have on, say, the derivatives market where not only debts are traded as though they were assets, but also where a whole chain of hedge funds make tracking of algorithmic transactions extremely difficult, if not impossible? Or what command do states have on metadata collected by private corporations that preside over the most effective means of consent formation in our day and age? Fascistic tendencies arise as much from below as they do through political parties and leaders, owing to the filter bubbles and anonymous chat sites enabled by the digital revolution. Theoretically speaking, the passage from formally institutionalised (and hence ramified, compartmentalised) societies to informal, dispersed and multiple flows of capital, information, labour and subjective investment, must urge us to rethink the possibility of centralised command over violence.

Likewise, the reason why working-class cohesion has waned cannot be solely imputed to the weakening of labour unions and left-wing parties. Neoliberalism has devised new techniques of internal and external expropriation that are deployed across the globe in more or less similar ways, despite contextual differences. We would have to accept that neoliberal financialisation is not a mere extractive practice or a parasitic form of capitalisation. On the contrary, financialisation is constitutive of neoliberal capitalist relations – and, as Kawashima remarks, today’s “fascism is fundamentally financial in nature.”8 The principal medium through which contemporary valorisation takes place is finance rather than the production process where labour is the measure of value. Debt is the stable continuum (future bind) in an unstable and discontinuous labour market. Debt is what conditions and disciplines the now and the here.

The expropriation and colonisation of the included takes the form of the precaritisation of salaried workers and, consequently, the colonisation of their life-worlds. Neoliberalism produces a peculiar type of morality that makes individuals abandon notions of equality and solidarity because they internalise the idea that “losers” are responsible for their own failure. In other words, risk and uncertainty allow neoliberalism to capture individuals from within. It produces radically individualist desires, moving individuals away from the notion of the commons, not towards it.9 Salaried employers have no other option than to become “shareholders,” that is, actors in the financial sector. This new form of subjectivation is not only subjective, it has a material basis and so it cannot be remedied without transforming that basis.

The expropriation of the excluded works through the colonisation of the life processes of marginalised portions of the population: non-salaried or informal workers, migrants, domestic workers, sweatshop workers, the majority of which are women, particularly in the global South.10 These categories are simultaneously the products and the victims of the neoliberal system. But they are also subject to a form of inclusion through debt. There are several incentives that facilitate obtaining credit cards, micro-credits, and bank loans for personal consumption or for housing, irrespective of whether one has a regular salary or not. Payment by instalments is also a very common form of inciting the marginalised to consume now and pay later. More sinisterly, government subsidies and social assistance now target the marginalised in such a way as to integrate them, not through labour into the production sector, but through debt into the finance sector. In fact, I ask whether the inclusion of the marginalised is not the purest instance where capital radically colonises life itself. Primitive accumulation is at its crudest here: the very bodies and life-reproducing activities of the marginalised, especially in “developing” societies like Turkey and Argentina, become crucial relays of colonisation through finance. Contra Palheta, therefore, I argue that it is not the disaffection of workers that attracts them to reactionary movements. It is rather their material and subjective (re)investment into the system.

In short, the capitalist law of population does not solely consist in the creation of a reserve army of labourers. Constant displacement and replacement, disinvestment and reinvestment, inclusion and exclusion, “war of position” and “war of movement” (Palheta) are techniques of governance that are absolutely necessary for the neoliberal project to succeed. This project is the ground upon which the new fascisms of our century will emerge. The latter will appear to discursively pose as an alternative to neoliberalism, but will deploy the very technologies of government that the neoliberal order has devised in order to perpetuate it, as Kawashima convincingly argues. These technologies are not liberal, but specifically new. It must also be said that contra Traverso, I strongly believe, that the neoliberal anthropological model is in fact a project for society, proposing a new “civilisation” in which certain characteristics of historical fascisms will be drastically transformed.11

For instance, militarism in the twenty-first century does not have to be exercised through the national state; it can be outsourced or trans-nationalised. Instead of national armies, private military companies like Blackwater are enough to do the job. 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. Are dramatic acts such as the March on Rome or a Reichstag fire even necessary in an era in which citing anti-terrorism laws or security concerns produces a mass desire for extraordinary measures and the willingness to assume vigilante functions? The so-called “war on terror” has proved to be an incredibly efficient dispositif for criminalizing non-compliant portions of the population and preventing popular scrutiny of governmental power. It simultaneously enables the brutal institution of markets in domestic and international sites left outside of the global economy. And do we really need masses to attend enormous militarised rallies in an era of social media campaigns, online lynching, and large armies of trolls and bots, some of which can be operated from overseas or through algorithms? Unlike the armies of the twentieth century, an army of trolls is invisible yet scandalously successful in provoking states of mass hysteria. Social media and artificial intelligence have become overwhelming powers that the Left will have to take into account when analysing political hegemonies.12

           Or take, for instance, securitisation. The concern for security is an indispensable component of market fundamentalism, which is predicated upon the production of disposable bodies. Racism today is biopolitical, working through the population principle that postulates a hierarchy in the right to existence. But indirect killing, murder by proxy, asphyxiation through refugee camps, 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.”13 The “dehumanisation of death” by the new capitalist laws of population is not legitimised by resorting to the language of eugenics and social Darwinism. Letting die is rather couched in moralising terms: those who are killed or left to die are “infrahuman” in that they are unable to compete or they pose an abstract threat that must be pre-empted. Securitisation produces the desire for fascism, not only at the state level, but also in the form of micro-fascisms.14 As micro-violences augment and reach unprecedented levels, the demand for militarization comes from below. Thus, focusing only at movements, parties, leaders, state actors will not do. What needs to be theorised is not only the fascisation of the state but also the fascisation of society.

            Securitarian neoliberal governmentality does not produce an “iron band” binding masses together, but is best captured by the metaphor of “network.” 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.”15The network centrifugally organises and allows for the development of ever-wider circuits. Unlike the “iron band,” the network points to a kind of “fascism from below.” Processes of fascisation might be “eminently contradictory and therefore highly unstable,” as Palheta notes, but they are fascisations all the same.

In short, normalisation today involves the coexistence of normality and destruction, identification with imagined communities and disaffiliation. Facing this dilemma, the most important task of the Left, in my view, is to ask what the alternatives are and who will become the collective subject that will embody these alternatives. To repeat Balibar’s question: who are the communists today and what vision of the future do they propose?16 Let us admit that satisfactory answers are yet to be produced.

Given this shortcoming, the best option is for the Left to find ways of collectivising existing struggles and cultivating a mode of political transversality by interlinking all the modes of value production as well as exploitation and extraction. It should, at least, engage in producing the desire for alternative economies and forms of belonging. Against neoliberalism’s capacity for abstraction, left theories must be as concrete as possible. They must (1) make clearly visible the structural causes behind the frustration felt by thousands who revolt across the globe today; and (2) make clearly visible how fascism, xenophobia, racism, white supremacy, and anti-gender reaction are illusory solutions to illusory problems. In this, I agree with Palheta when he writes: “We can see now how the challenge for antifascism is not simply to forge alliances with activists of other causes that leave each partner unchanged, but to redefine and enrich antifascism from the perspectives that emerge within the trade-union, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, feminist or ecological struggles, while nourishing the latter with antifascist perspectives.” I would like to add that these myriad struggles would have to urge us to rethink who or what the proletariat is (in addition to what fascism is) in our day and age.

Zeynep Gambetti is Associate Professor of Political Theory affiliated with Bogazici University, Istanbul. She is the co-editor of Rhetorics of Insecurity: Belonging and Violence in the Neoliberal Era (New York University Press, 2013), and of The Kurdish Issue in Turkey: A Spatial Perspective (London and New York: Routledge, 2015). Among her recent publications are Judith Butler, Zeynep Gambetti, and Leticia Sabsay (eds), Vulnerability in Resistance: Politics, Feminism, Theory (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).

Image: "Trump Maga Rally in Charlotte, North Carolina" by The Epoch Times is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0


  • 1. https://www.historicalmaterialism.org/blog/fascism-fascisation-antifascism
  • 2. David Harvey, A Brief history of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
  • 3. The neoconservatives in the US administration were formulating the strategy of the “New American Century” long before fascist movements took on noticeable proportions.
  • 4. Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004)
  • 5. I do not have time to elaborate at length, but I want very quickly to note that in order to avoid the historicist definition, I use fascism to denote a form of power or a form of governing (not a regime). Fascism designates those socio-political formations that disrupt hitherto established references and transgress external limits while constantly fabricating internal boundaries by setting bodies up for liquidation.
  • 6. Cf. my “Exploratory Notes on the Origins of New Fascisms,” Critical Times 3(1) (2020): 1-32.
  • 7. Let us remember that it was Mitterand’s Socialist Party rule that broke the post-war social welfare agreement in France.
  • 8. https://www.historicalmaterialism.org/blog/fascism-reaction-to-capitalist-crisis-stage-imperialism
  • 9. Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (New York: Zone Books, 2015).
  • 10. Cf. Veronica Gago, Neoliberalism From Below: Popular Pragmatics and Baroque Economies (Durhan and London: Duke University Press, 2017); Achille Mbembe, “The Society of Enmity,” Radical Philosophy 200 (Nov/Dec 2016); J.K. Gibson-Graham, The End of Capitalism (as we know it): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy (Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996)
  • 11. Enzo Traverso, The New Faces of Fascism: Populism and the Far Right (London: Verso, 2019) and https://www.historicalmaterialism.org/blog/universal-fascism-response-to-ugo-palheta
  • 12. Cf. Christian Fuchs, “Information and communication technologies and society: a contribution to the critique of the political economy of internet”, European Journal of Communication 24(1) (2009): 69-87; Bernard Harcourt, Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2015).
  • 13. One might object that there’s a renewed demand for boundaries that reinstate national sovereignty. But even the construction of thick borders (as in Gaza, the US-Mexican border, or the Turco-Syrian border) follows a model of threat, which is legitimized through highly equivocal notions of the “enemy.” The “enemy” today is not a concrete menace, but a potential one. Security is defined probabilistically: even when there are no imminent attacks to thwart, there are probable ones. And probability suffices as justification for chastisement.
  • 14. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London: Continuum, 2004).
  • 15. Tiziana Terranova, “Another Life: The Nature of Political Economy in Foucault’s Genealogy of Biopolitics,” Theory, Culture & Society 26 (6) (2009), p. 243.
  • 16. Etienne Balibar, “Communism as Commitment, Imagination, and Politics” in Slavoj Zizek (ed.), The Idea of Communism 2: The New York Conference (London: Verso, 2013).