C17: Fascism – naming it, historicizing it

At the end of his intervention at the communist conference C17, Michael Hardt made a call for “opening up the topic of fascism” and Donald Trump. The issue was otherwise strangely absent at the conference, although Paolo Virno made some interesting remarks, as did Bifo. I’ll talk this over in this post to briefly cover questions of naming and historization as relating to the issue of fascism.

1. Let’s begin with Hardt, who made a few points.

First, Trump isn’t a fascist, Hardt said, but rather belongs to the sequence of new strongmen leaders like Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in in Hungary, Duterte in the Philippines, Putin in Russia. The platforms that these leaders push for do indeed have many characteristics of fascism, including racial purity as a basis for national belonging, suspensions of democratic freedoms, attacks against the press (and more, I missed some of the points while scribbling my notes). So, why not call them fascist?

Well, Hardt doesn’t really respond to this question. Instead he asks what happens when we evoke the name of fascism. Referencing Trotsky, and Gramsci on the one hand and the Red Army Fraction on the other, Hardt told us that the use of the word fascism means an end to politics. When fascism is diagnosed in a regime, only suffocating popular front politics (Trotsky, Gramsci) or armed resistance (RAF) remain. Fascism equals a state of emergency that suspends all other struggles and calls us for exceptional unity and exceptional means. And this is not the case for Trump, Hardt said, and as such his ascent does not signify the end of politics.

Instead, Trump and others like him are more a combination of a continuity of neoliberal policies and nationalism. These leaders want to run a country like a corporation with white-supremacist  overtones. Not that much new under the (black) sun then?

I think Hardt makes a useful point when he forces the question of the performativity of calling the name of fascism to the forefront. But he seems lost when drawing up his bestiary of far-right politics, using a rigid conceptual apparatus without historicizing fascism itself. (And honestly, the way he sums up the traits of the current conjuncture of reactionary regimes does sound an awful lot like fascism).

2. From this perspective, Paolo Virno offered a more interesting intervention. Leaning back on his 2005 text Theses on the New European Fascism,  Virno opens up the discussion on what he calls ‘postmodern fascism’, where “the pleasure of difference may become hierarchy”. The text is really excellent (and short) and worth a read for anyone trying to grapple with questions of antifascist organizing. I’ll briefly try to sum up the argument – which at times gets cryptic in the way Virno and other postoperaists often do.

Virno structures his text around a historicization (or maybe rather periodization) of 20th and 21st century. In this account, the rise, fall and second rise of fascism is intimately tied to how work and production have been organized and reorganized over the century . 20th century fascism was an expression of the “socialism of capital” that emerged as a response to the Russian revolution and that built on “hyperstatalism, the militarizing of work, public support for the effective demand and political Fordism”. Fascism was a sort of extrapolation of this mode. After the war, the antifascist safeguard that was established against was achieved through interconnecting working identity and democratic citizenship.

21st century fascism emerges out of the crisis of this interconnection as a crisis of both representation and work, “on the ruins of industrial democracy, or working democracy”. This new fascism “presents itself as civil war within the field of dependent work informed by the tempest of technology and post-Fordist ethics” and “very closely concerns mass intellectuality”. Unlike 20th century fascism, it “does not thrive in the closed rooms of the ministry of the interior, but rather in the kaleidoscopoe of metropolitan forms of life”. I’m sure Virno has never heard of 4Chan, Pepe the Frog or subreddits, but his diagnosis captures the evolution of the alt-right out of these ecosystems in a way that established definitions of fascism fail to do (here I’m thinking about Griffin and Paxton, for instance).

Virno’s analysis falls in line with the postoperaist notion of the collapse of the end of labor as a measure for the value of commodities in the 1970s. In the same process, work becomes something that cannot be reduced to a given or limited site, with the real skills needed to perform most jobs in the service and creative sectors “maturing in the vast world outside the time specifically dedicated to work”. The source of value production becomes the social cooperation that proliferates in the social networks that far exceed the times and places of actual wage labor. Postmodern fascism becomes the “terrifying double” of this cooperation, basing itself of the contemporary cult of ‘differences’ but turning it around into discriminatory and oppressive hierarchies, based on claims of an “artificial substantive foundation”. It’s worth to quote Virno at length here:

Fascism at the turn of the century, on the other hand, gives direct expression to the excess of cooperation, but gives it a hierarchical, racist, despotic expression. It makes of socialization outside work a feral and deregulated sphere predisposed to the exercise of personal domination; it installs the myth of ethnic determination, of rediscovered roots, of “blood and soil” supermarket rhetoric; it reestablishes in its folds familial links between sects and clans destined to achieve that disciplining of bodies which is no longer provided by work relations. Fascism at the turn of the century is a form of the barbaric colonizing of social cooperation outside work. It is the Grand Guignol parody of a politics finally not of the state.

So let’s just call Trump a fascist? Maybe, but two objections come to mind if we want to make this call based on Virno. Firstly, what Virno seems to describe are actually reactionary social movements more than this or that form of governance. The barrage of blood-chilling executive orders that Trump has launched in the few days of his presidency cannot be sufficiently explained in the framework provided by Virno. Secondly, towards the end of his paper, Virno clarifies what he is actually writing about:

Bear in mind, we are certainly not dealing with fascist “positions’ but with projects whose realization determines that empty space, which is to say that no-man’s land, in which fascism at the turn of the century can effectively become stronger.

If Hardt’s perspective raises the question of the strategic value of calling a name (‘fascism’), then what Virno does through his periodization is to raise the question of the function and social space that fascism has occupied during different historical epochs, in the light of shifts in the mode of production (I have explored classical Marxist approaches to this perspective together with Jemima Repo in this text).

This is the function of Trump: to occupy the no-man’s land that Virno describes and that all other political projects have failed to take over. In this sense, Trump has taken us into extremely dangerous territory and should be understood as playing the role of the fascist, whether or not he is a fascist. Maybe this is what Bifo meant, when he in his intervention called the Polish Law and Order regime ‘national workerism’ (and as a consequence calling upon himself furious critiques from many in the audience who were actual veterans of the Italian workerist movement of the 1960s and 70s)?

Interestingly, both Virno and Hardt call for the same strategy of response, which Hardt describes through three prongs (intersectional movements like BLM or NoDAPL, international migrant solidarity and electoral and union strategies) and Virno more abstractly as democratic, nonrepresentative institutions to give “full political expression to the current intertwining of work, communication and abstract knowledge”.

Are these adequate and sufficient responses? I don’t think so, but elaborations on that point will have to wait until a possible later post.

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