An analogy is haunting the United States – the analogy of fascism. It is virtually impossible (outside certain parts of the Right-wing itself) to try to understand the resurgent Right without hearing it described as – or compared with – 20th-century interwar fascism. Like fascism, the resurgent Right is irrational, close-minded, violent and racist. So goes the analogy, and there’s truth to it. But fascism did not become powerful simply by appealing to citizens’ darkest instincts. Fascism also, crucially, spoke to the social and psychological needs of citizens to be protected from the ravages of capitalism at a time when other political actors were offering little help.
The origins of fascism lay in a promise to protect people. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a rush of globalisation destroyed communities, professions and cultural norms while generating a wave of immigration. Right-wing nationalist movements promising to protect people from the pernicious influence of foreigners and markets arose, and frightened, disoriented and displaced people responded. These early fascist movements disrupted political life in some countries, but they percolated along at a relatively low simmer until the Second World War.
The key to all such movements who moves first to renegotiate the social contract:
The fascist solution ultimately was, of course, worse than the problem. In response to the horror of fascism, in part, New Deal Democrats in the United States, and social democratic parties in Europe, also moved to re-negotiate the social contract. They promised citizens that they would control capitalism and provide social welfare policies and undertake other measures to strengthen national solidarity – but without the loss of freedom and democracy that fascism entailed.
The lesson for the present is clear: you can’t beat something with nothing. If other political actors don’t come up with more compelling solutions to the problems of capitalism, the popular appeal of the resurgent Right-wing will continue. And then the analogy with fascism and democratic collapse of the interwar years might prove even more relevant than it is now.
History’s so many interpretations…