8th May, 2021
By Gavin Walker
There is no such thing as the ‘spontaneous knowledge’ of the dominated classes; or, more exactly, we could say that any such ‘spontaneous knowledge’ has no fixed meaning that would tie it to this or that form of politics.
Didier Eribon, Retour à Reims
The question of fascism today is no longer of a principally theoretical character for thinkers of the Left, as it often has been since the upheavals of the long 1968, the “revolutions of 1968” in Immanuel Wallerstein’s terms. Today, it is rather a question not only of history and theory, but of practical political stances in the immediate moment, insofar as openly fascist political formations currently enjoy more currency than they have for decades in the advanced capitalist countries. From the global left, and especially in Europe and North America, our moment has seen remarkable new theorisations of fascism, from Enzo Traverso’s important discussions of “post-fascism” to Ugo Palheta’s new and powerful text here in Historical Materialism on “Fascism, Fascisation, Antifascism,”1 along with his major recent work in French, La possibilité du fascisme. I am in a strong agreement with Palheta’s theses, not least because they place into dialogue a three-fold process expressed in his title: a reflection in theory (the concept of ‘fascism’ as such), a reflection in history (the process of what he calls ‘fascisation’, the ‘becoming-fascist’ of social and political phenomena), and a reflection on the immediate political situation (the tasks of contemporary ‘anti-fascism’, how it can be politically built and organisationally sustained).
Where I want to offer a contribution to this debate – for whose organisation and coordination I would like to thank Historical Materialism and for his invitation particularly Alberto Toscano, in his own right an important theorist of the new fascisms – is, fundamentally, not a rejoinder to or criticism of Palheta’s formulations, which I find both original and productive. Instead, I would rather simply to point to a missing or somewhat invisible element of this broad debate in texts from Palheta, Traverso, and many others: the relationship between fascisms today and the specific character of imperialism, both as a geopolitical force for the organisation of relations between states and national entities, and as a metapolitics derived from imperialism’s specific character as one historical regime of accumulation within the development of capitalism.
In thinking through the transformations of contemporary fascism – or ‘post-fascism’ – in relation to the question of imperialism, we would do well to remember a key watchword of Lenin:
Recognition of the present war as imperialist and emphasis on its close connection with the imperialist era of capitalism encounters not only resolute opponents but also irresolute friends, for whom the word ‘imperialism’ has become all the rage. Having memorized the word, they are offering the workers hopelessly confused theories and reviving many of the old mistakes of the old economism.2
The reason I want to think through the metapolitics – “whatever consequences a philosophy is capable of drawing, both in and for itself, from real instances of politics as thought”3 – of imperialism here is precisely to refuse it as an economism, in which we would simply say that fascism is a domestic political correlate to monopoly concentration and the export of capital to the colonies. Although a concrete economic imperialism persists as the broad stage of accumulation of world capitalism at present, and although this exerts an important effect on the geopolitical arrangement of the world, what interests me is why fascism should re-appear now, in the wake of decolonisation and the national liberation struggles, why fascist solutions appear to be on the agenda all over the advanced capitalist countries. And this, in my view, requires that we think about what happens when imperialism experiences a kind of cultural boomerang effect of many decades, when the consequences of the colonial laboratory of modernity transversally bisect the metropolitan political situation, a process in which we might even say tentatively that the metapolitics of imperialism is itself the process of racialisation.
I. The Relapses of Imperialism
In the opening lines to his Fascism and Dictatorship, Nicos Poulantzas famously replied to an injunction central to the theorisations of the Frankfurt School, and particularly one of its ‘master thinkers’, Max Horkheimer:
Horkheimer, reacting early against the whole conception of ‘totalitarianism’, wrote, ‘Anyone who does not wish to discuss capitalism should also stay silent on the subject of fascism’. Strictly speaking, this is incorrect: it is he who does not wish to discuss imperialism who should stay silent on the subject of fascism.4
As Poulantzas argues, the problem of dealing with fascisms can only be posed correctly when we take stock of “the political crisis to which the exceptional state is a response, and the particular kinds of political crises to which its specific forms correspond.” And this in turn requires “an analysis of the question of the historical period of capitalist formations within which these political crises and exceptional regimes occur.” (16) Echoing the demand for an approach structured by differing levels of analytical abstraction, Poulantzas emphasises that “the analysis of general historical periods to which exceptional regimes belong […] affects the conjuncture of the class struggle (political crisis), which alone provides an answer” to the question: why now? Why fascism? (16). And he delivers the fundamental crux of this parallel conception of imperialism’s relation to fascism in the following formulation:
Imperialism, considered as a stage in the ensemble of the capitalist process, is not in fact just a question of modifications in the economic domain, such as monopoly concentration, the fusion of industrial capital into finance capital, the export of capital, and the search for colonies for purely ‘economic’ reasons, etc. These ‘economic’ factors actually determine a new articulation of the ensemble of the capitalist system, thereby producing profound changes in politics and ideology. (19-20)
Poulantzas’s work is decisive, not least because he understood the crucial nature of this relationship between fascism in its expanded sense and the specific political and ideological character of the historical stage of imperialism as a regime of accumulation. However, Poulantzas did not fully carry through the determination of this question. His analysis, in Fascism and Dictatorship, is concerned principally with two factors: 1) the pressures exerted by imperialism on the domestic working class and its susceptibility to fascist solutions to the social and national questions and 2) the historical demonstration of the roots of this tension in the German and Italian experiences of fascism as a concrete problem of mass politics.
Where, however, there is an unspoken question, is precisely in the more general relationship between imperialism and fascism at the level of politics and ideology, not only for the domestic working class, but for a new relationship that characterises our contemporary moment: that between the general postcolonial condition, migration (and so-called ‘labour segmentation’) as a key element of working-class composition globally, and the political technologies of racialisation in the core imperialist countries. What precisely remains to be thought is this question for which Poulantzas’s work provided a historical analysis, but which remained an open problem in his thought: how to clarify the ways in which “these ‘economic’ factors actually determine a new articulation of the ensemble of the capitalist system,” not only in a directly economic manner, but also in more diffuse metapolitical terms, in which the nexus of imperialism as a historical regime of international references and hierarchies thereby assists in the production of new fascisms that are the results of “profound changes in politics and ideology,” not only in the ‘exceptional state’ but in the everyday ‘normality’ of the contemporary moment.
Certainly, his former teacher Louis Althusser would have been familiar with Poulantzas’s Fascisme et dictature, published first by Maspero in 1970. Some years later, as the European conjuncture was transformed by the movements of decolonisation sweeping Africa in the early 1970s, Althusser entered into a little-known written dialogue in 1975 with the Portuguese playwright Luiz Francisco Rabello. Exchanged some months after the Portuguese ‘Carnation Revolution’ put an end to the Estado Novo, and thereby one of the longest-lasting fascist governments in Europe – a situation that came to a head under the influence of the guerrilla struggles for independence in Angola, Mozambique, and elsewhere in Lusophone Africa – this important series of letters was published the subsequent year as Cartas sobre a revolução portuguesa, and to my knowledge, never subsequently released in French or English. In his letter of 17 August 1975, Althusser wrote:
It is thought with excessive complacency, in certain layers of the bourgeoisie and among certain intellectuals, that fascism (in Spain, Portugal, Greece) had become, from the point of view of imperialism, its monopolies and states, an "archaic", "outdated", "cumbersome" and "costly" process which no longer corresponded to the interests of an active and enlightened "neo-capitalism". Behind this judgment, it is easy to get the idea that a "normal" form of "modern" capitalism (i.e. monopolist capitalism or imperialism) would exist in itself, i.e. in all circumstances: the form of bourgeois parliamentary democracy, guaranteeing a certain number of individual and political freedoms. Now, I think that this judgement and this idea do not correspond to reality.
Fascism is by no means in itself an 'abnormal' or 'rendered abnormal' form of bourgeois rule. Historically, Italian, German, Japanese fascism, etc., constituted a bourgeois solution to the contradictions of imperialism between the two wars, especially after the crisis of the 1930s, and was mainly the instrument of the imperialist class struggle against the working class. Historically, fascism developed exploitation and accumulation prodigiously: it served the monopolies. After the war, fascism continued to be, albeit in a less visible way, one of the necessary forms of bourgeois rule: in certain defined conjunctures. Certain fascisms undoubtedly give particular features to the economy of the country they dominate, holding back the development of certain sectors, forcing workers to emigrate, and subjecting the working class, rural workers and poor peasants to unbridled exploitation. However, this fascism in no way prevents the national and international monopolies from developing and prospering: it even provides them with exceptional conditions of security and profit through the intense repression of the working-class struggle and the consequent increase in exploitation.5
This remarkable letter of Althusser, which should be more widely known, links together both the full-blown function of the high point of imperial-colonial power (the institutional existence of the formal colonial system) with its aftermath, what Sandro Mezzadra has long named ‘the postcolonial condition’. Althusser takes one step beyond Poulantzas’ analysis in emphasising not only the form of fascism as a political orientation of the ‘exceptional state’, but also as a generic solution in the domestic sphere for imperialism and its after-effects: migration, the creation of mass politics, forms of territorial and capitalist securitisation and more.
In this regard, we might recall the fact that the last 30 years have seen a renewed interest in the juridico-theoretical work of Carl Schmitt, but the focus of this attention has largely been on his famed reading of the political as a sphere of the friend/enemy relation. Less attention has been paid to his quite complex discussions of the specificity of colonialism and imperialism, discussions which in essence constitute a form of fascist introspection on the speculative future of the history of imperialism.
The special territorial status of colonies thus was as clear as was the division of the earth between state territory and colonial territory. This division was characteristic of the structure of international law in this epoch and was inherent in its spatial structure. Clearly, to the extent that overseas colonial territory became indistinguishable from state territory, in the sense of European soil, the structure of international law also changed, and when they became equivalent, traditional, specifically European law came to an end. Thus, the concept of colonies contained an ideological burden that affected, above all, European colonial powers.6
Now, the notion that the colonial sphere contained an ‘ideological burden that affected, above all, the European colonial powers’ appears at first glance to be a kind of inverted narcissism of the West, a fantasy that places the point of emphasis on the loss of a worldview for the colonizer, rather than a confrontation with the injustice of domination on the part of the colonised. But Schmitt’s statement bears some interesting connection to Poulantzas’s broader point: in the wake of the formal colonial system, the collapse of a clear political distinction between the legal status of the ‘mother countries’ and the ‘colonies’ augurs a new moment of civilisational, political, economic, and cultural contradictions. If the racial taxonomy of the world found its supposed ‘proof’ in the institutional division between metropole and colony, the only function of imperialism’s worldview that would remain in the wake of its institutional breakdown is the application of its techniques of division, taken from the macro-level of states and territories, to the micro-level of bodies, categories of citizenship, the policing of language, physiognomy, and markers of difference. In this sense, Schmitt, in exposing the fascist sentiment of the changing forms of ‘politics and ideology’ produced by the articulation of imperialism and fascism, shows us precisely that there is a clear historical pathway from formal imperialism and formal fascism to a new and informal post-fascism, whose essence is the internal application of previously external modes of governance, where the technologies and apparatuses of racialisation come to replace the former spatial imaginary of the earth. In this sense Traverso is correct to emphasise, in his formulation of ‘post-fascism’, the often-peculiar “contradictory co-existence of classical fascism with new elements that do not belong to its tradition.”
In turn, these technologies of racialisation, generated in the colonies within the imperialist regime of accumulation, today are re-routed to apparatuses of domestic control, none more central to imperial modernity than the police. Today, it is clear that policing is no longer simply an arm of governance, to be deployed as sovereign power sees fit in service of the social peace. Quite to the contrary, the last ten years in the advanced capitalist countries have shown us a form of the institutional unmooring of the police-function, and an intensification of its violence as an apparatus in the service of detecting ‘abnormalities’, ‘dangerous’ racial subjects, and ‘unruly’ workers. “In other words,” Palheta writes, “the police are becoming increasingly emancipated from the state and the law, i.e. from any form of external control (not to mention the non-existent popular control).” The colonial character of police power was once expressed in the typical division of the military dealing with the foreign, police with the domestic. An era of mass migration and postcolonial integration means that the police function is now a kind of centripetal military itself, spiralling inwards from the military “foreignised” exterior into the domestic interior, now a zone of the state hierarchisation that used to be applied to the “other space”. The antecedent of this process was the imperial reach of the colonial police – as imperialism transferred both those ‘exceptional spaces’ of its domestic sphere to the colonised territory, it also transferred its policing apparatus in a centrifugal movement, spiralling outwards from the policing of the interior of the “homeland” to the hierarchised militarisation of occupation, wherein the tasks of policing were no longer the enforcement of domestic law and daily regulations, but the physical-force shepherding of the ‘target population’ into a new status as colonised labour and colonial subjects of a second-class nature.
Ishay Landa, in a magisterial contribution to the thinking of fascism historically and theoretically, reminds us not only of the origins of fascism in liberalism, but, more specifically, the origins of fascism in a worldview and set of forces nurtured by the nexus of liberalism and imperialist expansion:
Tocqueville’s belligerent and expansionist foreign policy outlook cannot be separated from his understanding of internal social policies, allegedly benign and moderate. We should rather stress the symbiosis—indeed, one that would come to typify fascist practice—between imperialism abroad and severe social repression at home, embodied in the figure of the French general Cavaignac, whom Tocqueville supported almost unreservedly. Combating the insurgents of the 1848 June revolution, Cavaignac introduced in France the ruthless repressive methods he and other French military men first used in fighting the Arab ‘rebels’ in North Africa, and which were unprecedented in the history of European civil wars. In that way, the struggle against the actual Algerian Bedouins, in aims and methods, was transferred onto Paris, against the figurative ‘Bedouins of the metropolis.’7
The racial figuration of the object of police-military repression has been emphasised in recent anti-racist movements, from Black Lives Matter in the streets to new perspectives in political and social theory on the racial character of governance. We might even say, following Landa, that this relapse of imperialism onto the domestic scenario is the fundamental structural feature of fascism tout court. After all, we know that fascism’s greatest force lies not in charismatic leaders or prophetic visions, but in the everyday forms that allow it to capture the sphere of the normal, rather than the exceptional: “the true problem, the central secret of the political is not sovereignty, but governance, is not God, but the angel, is not the king, but the minister, is not the law, but the police — or, the governmental machine that these form and keep in movement.”8
2. The Lumpenproletariat Dreams of “Great Politics”
Lump ist sein Ideal, Lumpe sollen Wir alle werden.
-- M. Stirner
At the level of psychic tropes, two fundamental directions in the evaluation of contemporary fascism co-exist today: the first, which attempts to locate the roots of fascism in the material substratum, and the second, which attempts to understand or conceptualise the psychological and affective structure of adhesion to fascist ideas. The material substratum of the development of fascism – a form of politics inseparable from the transformations of a capitalist commodity economy – is a given for Marxists. But this does not mean that the second question is unimportant. After all, the material substratum of class positions is precisely what exerts an effect at the level of cognition, a kind of grammar of the psyche. And perhaps the most important sentiment of youth adhesion to fascism is a projected sense of loss. What distinguishes this attitude from forms of oppression or deprivation characteristic of adhesion to radical sensibilities otherwise expressed is that this, rather than an experienced loss felt in concrete material terms (to be poor, to be discriminated against, to be the target of racism and exclusion), is a loss that is anticipated, which induces paranoia, hysteria, a desperate search for solidity, and, above all, a kind of psychic creation of the loss itself as an act of recuperating something that has not yet been experienced.
If the ‘anticipated loss’ expresses to some extent the particular admixture of ressentiment, fear, and projection that characterises the psychoanalytic adherence to fascist solutions10 – the “ideology” in Poulantzas’s terms – the “political” side of this equation is often linked to the status of the nation. In commonplace utilisations of the term, the new fascisms of our moment are frequently expressed as one possible polarity of ‘ultra-nationalism’, an excessive and even racialised fixation on the national essence, with ‘nationalism’ in general here playing the role of the nurturing force of fascism. Palheta, for instance, sees fascism in its fundamental state as a “a political project for the ‘regeneration’ of an imaginary community – generally the nation,” a loose definition that is probably widely shared, at least in its broadest sense. But is this really the case? Perhaps this easy correspondence between fascism and the nation is not as straightforward as we might like, not least because the contemporary liberal or centrist appeals as much to the nation as the fascist, albeit for different reasons: one to emphasise the ‘normality’ of the typical function of the state, the other to appeal to a figure of legitimation purportedly dwelling in the misty historical past that could provide proof positive for the image of the socially-permissive, administrative liberal state as a betrayal of the national destiny. But where the Marxist tradition has always distinguished itself from the purely speculative character of other theories of social development, is precisely in its insistence that political-ideological forms are, one way or another, part and parcel of the historically-determined regime of accumulation and mode of production that dominates the social formation. In this sense, the Marxist clarification of fascism’s roots must take into account, but not begin and end with features of psychic life that are ungrounded in the conjuncture, but rather with concrete forces of social change, expressed in the hegemony of ideas that themselves depart from the material substratum. Landa reminds us of a crucial fact related to the historical function and emergence of fascism, when he remarks:
In the fascist axiological hierarchy […] the nation comes only after a fetishized Nature, whose graces are conferred upon those who are successful in the business of imperialism and capitalism, those “strongest in courage and industry.” […] The notion of “nationalism” or “ultra-nationalism” as defining “the fascist minimum” is thus largely devoid of meaning, unless one is willing to acknowledge the concrete class content of such “nationalism,” and the way the national “palingenesis” was itself predicated on the bedrock of imperialistic-capitalistic triumph.11
This point incisively recalls for us that, rather than simply a mystified theory of origin based on the national community, the ultimate figure of fascism is a fantasy of a Law of Nature, a sort of evolutionary narrative inhabited by “winners” and “losers,” whose positions are not historically mutable but rather etched in destiny by the great objective force of this “Law of the Strong,” which is nothing other than the modern conception of the market. To put it succinctly, it is not nationalism that is to blame for the rise of fascism, but capitalism, and especially a libertarian fixation on the quantifiability of all social phenomena, reduced down to the zero-sum sphere of a pure market, in which “winning” and “losing” can be the sole criteria of all social forms. Of course, it might well be argued that, in the fascist discourse, this ‘natural law’ is typically given its basis in a national or civilisational essence, made to correspond to “the colour line” of which DuBois so powerfully spoke. But in its most fundamental form, what preceded Trump in the United States, for example, was not waves and surges of fetishisation of the nation, but decades of libertarian political and ideological struggle towards the economisation, the quantification, of every aspect of life in terms of the Manichean scene at the foundation of the market. This discourse of the capitalist triumph, traceable, of course, to the neoliberal turn of the 70s, found its major spur in the turn of the centre-right to the literal denigration of ‘society’, a concept perhaps forever marked by the doctrine of communism, at least for the Reagans, Thatchers, Pinochets and others of our world.
This hatred of society – of ‘socialised’ Man, society as a miscegenated zone of non-quantifiable ‘encounters’, ‘mixtures’, losers copulating with losers, potentially corrupting ‘winners’ with their non-market life – is no direct derivation from the category of the nation; it is an effect of the telescoping of the concept of ‘the market’ into a kind of alternate form of sociality, in which there are nothing but ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. In such a schema, the Lump that we are all becoming can only dream of ‘winning’, not of emancipation, not of freedom, but only of a dwarfish and stunted vision of the classic Spenglerian (or Nietzschean…) “Great Politics,” the comic-book versions of ‘the imperialist-capitalist triumph’, whose rhetoric and figures of speech now trickles down to the lumpen masses: the politics of great achievements, proof positive for ‘virtue’, a kind of quasi-religious piety whose God is literally Mammon, and most importantly, for contemporary fascist tendencies, a form of racial taxonomy as a kind of ‘measure’, even itself a form of ‘money’ or ‘wealth’ – the proof of being a ‘winner’, and the fear that, since Natural Law dominates all, we might all become losers.
For the young American fascists of our time, Trump unleashed their imagination, and let them dream - dreams of winning, of being a ‘winner’, of triumphing over everything that stood in the way of the sentiment of accumulation. It was not enough just to ‘win’: the ‘losers’, whose communitarian belonging, etched into their bodies, had to be brought to heel, ‘civilised’ and adapted to the one true fascist God, the market. The ‘decent’ liberals, ever fearful of any break with the status quo, could not recognise that they shared the same God with Trump’s troops: the dollar, the number, the market, the empire. Of course, this love of ‘triumph’ and ‘winning’, this feature of making outlandish political claims solely on the basis of desire and the anticipated loss is not only a sign of collective delusion, social hysteria, and so on - it is also a symptom of an overall mass of immiserated people desperate for an idea, any idea, any myth, anything to feel part of a collective experience of politics, of life, after decades of austerity, the destruction of the trade-union movement, the wholesale devastation of communities by means of the emptying out of the last vestiges of the welfare state, the annihilation of any provision of means of subsistence outside the firm. Now, they see their fantasies and aspirations to be part of some grand narrative of human redemption crashing back into the timidity and hopelessness of centre-right technocracy. So long as the doctrine of the market – and its racialisation of the sphere of circulation as a relapse of imperialism’s predation of the rest of the world – remains at the centre of institutional politics, fascist solutions will emerge from this ground. It is in this sense that, even if the abandonment of myth and dreams to the Right by the Centre is nearly complete, the Left should refuse to fully cede this ground.
The good liberals will tell us: that is all well and good, but the young fascists, the Trumpists, the new FN voters, and more are overwhelmed with ‘misrecognitions’, they do not ‘understand’ the situation they are in, they refuse all ‘understanding’ and ‘deliberation’. They have no ‘rationality’. But is not emancipatory politics also a ‘misrecognition’, a refusal to make the status quo the measure of politics? A refusal to accept the capitalist rationality that would entomb any transversal line of emancipation from the existing order? Who would not want to ‘misrecognise’ this miserable society, the banality, cruelty, and evil of its ‘normal’ function? We must have an answer that does not negate the force of misrecognition, but that harnesses it to a principle of equality, a destruction of the market so that society can live, and a doctrine of communism, which means nothing other than: “freedom.”
Gavin WALKER is Associate Professor of History at McGill University, the author of The Sublime Perversion of Capital (Duke, 2016), and a member of the editorial collective of positions: asia critique. He is the editor of The End of Area (Duke, 2019, with Naoki Sakai), Marx, Asia, and the History of the Present, a special issue of postions: politics (positionspolitics.org, 2020), and The Red Years: Theory, Politics, and Aesthetics in the Japanese ‘68 (Verso, 2020), as well as editor and translator of Kōjin Karatani’s Marx: Towards the Centre of Possibility (Verso, 2020). His new book, Marx et la politique du dehors, is forthcoming from Lux Éditeur.
- 1. https://www.historicalmaterialism.org/blog/fascism-fascisation-antifascism
- 2. V.I. Lenin, “A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism,” originally published in Zvezda, nos. 1 and 2 (1924), reprinted in Collected Works, vol. 23 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), 28-29.
- 3. A. Badiou, Metapolitics (Verso, 2005).
- 4. Nicos Poulantazas, Fascism and Dictatorship: The Third International and the Problem of Fascism (London: Verso, 1974), 17.
- 5. Louis Althusser and Luiz Francisco Rabello, letter of 17 August 1975 in Cartas sobre a revolução portuguesa (Lisbon: Seara Nova, 1976). See reprinted excerpts from this letter at: <https://www.marxists.org/portugues/althusser/1975/08/17.htm>. My emphases.
- 6. C. Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum (Telos Press, 2006), 199.
- 7. Ishay Landa, The Apprentice’s Sorcerer: Liberal Tradition and Fascism (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 233.
- 8. G. Agamben, “Appendix: The Economy of the Moderns” in The Kingdom and the Glory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), p. 276.
- 9. Stirner, Der Einzige und sein Eigentum [The Ego and Its Own, 1845] (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1972), 129. I owe thanks to Yutaka Nagahara for reminding me of this remarkable formulation.
- 10. On especially the ressentiment of contemporary fascisms, see Harry Harootunian’s important essay “A Fascism for Our Time” in Mass Review, January 2021.
- 11. Landa, The Apprentice’s Sorcerer, op. cit. 320.