On the precipice of 21st century fascism

On the precipice of 21st century fascism
Comment: The rise in violent rhetoric, the scapegoating of minorities and the quashing of dissent all points in one direction, writes Vijay Prashad.
7 min read
24 Feb, 2016
Fascism feeds on a culture of fear and racism [Getty]
Several major democracies - India, Turkey, and the United States - are standing on the cusp of a new 21st century fascism.

Matters are cruder in India and Turkey because they have a less-developed liberal tradition, but liberalism in the United States is also on the run.

The Republican Party candidates are harsh in their rhetoric. Their view of the world is fierce. Family and Nation are the coordinates of their social vision. The Father in the family and the Father of the Nation are to be obeyed as the human face of the Divine Father.

Narendra Modi, Recip Tayyip Erdogan and Ted Cruz/Donald Trump are pretty much interchangeable. Combined, they are the face of this new fascism.

India is in turmoil. A student event at its top educational institution - JNU in New Delhi - prompted the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, the elected president of the students' union.

Kumar was charged with sedition. The Home Minister directed the action. When Kumar was to be brought to the court, lawyers on the far right attacked students and teachers who had gathered there. Several journalists were also beaten.

The attackers, all thought to be members of Prime Minister Modi's far-right BJP party, accuse everyone who opposes them of being "anti-nationals". The next day, the men once again attacked people outside the court.

The country is divided. There are many people who accept the view that "anti-nationals" should be given no quarter. This is the mentality of the lynch mob. It does not care for legal proprieties, for the architecture of liberalism. It wants revenge - stoked on by an irresponsible media and the gleeful far right.

And in Ankara

So much of what is happening in India is mirrored in Turkey. The assault on journalists who "disrespect the president" or who point out flaws in the government's Syria strategy has become routine.

Can Dündar, the respected editor of a major newspaper - Cumhuriyet - remains in prison, along with his Ankara bureau chief, Erdem Gül.

They are charged with membership of a terrorist organisation, espionage and the publication of confidential documents. All false, trumped-up charges. This is much like the charge of sedition against Kumar in India.
Fear of arrest is a general condition. But arrest is the least of the problems

CHP deputy Barış Yarkadaş recently said that the imprisonment of Dündar and Gül was designed to intimidate those who would oppose Turkish policy in Syria. But the purpose has been wider than that - it has had a chilling effect across the country.

The curfews against majority Kurdish towns in the country's southeast have barely been reported. Fear of arrest is a general condition. But arrest is the least of the problems. The AKP's new organisations - JÖH (Gendarme Special Operations) and PÖH (Police Special Operations) - are quite capable of the mysteries of political murder. They sharpen their knives in the shadows.

Meanwhile, in Washington

In the United States, the rise of "friendly fascism" is far less apparent because the assault is not against the media or against organised student politics. It is an entirely class based attack - harsh police techniques against the working-poor, with a sharp emphasis on African Americans and Latinos.

Police no longer merely carry guns. They are armed for military combat, patrolling streets of the working-poor as if they were on patrol in Kandahar or Baghdad. The Guardian noted that in 2015 the US police killed at least 1,140 people - that is three police shootings a day.

When the Black Lives Matter protests began in the US against the epidemic of police shootings, Republican politicians - such as Ted Cruz - suggested the movement had instigated and celebrated the murder of police officers.

Harsh arrests of protesters and violence against journalists in Ferguson continued to set the tone.

Read more comment from Vijay Prashad: Cracks in democracy - the Turkish and Indian examples

What is going on here? Why are these democracies cracking under the strain? It is too easy to throw out the term "fascism", which since the 1930s has become the most effective way to tar an opponent.

Fascism is a precise political concept. During times of great economic turmoil, worker unrest breaks the legitimacy of the political order. No one believes that the government can answer the problems of the people.

Many of these movements, in the 1930s, tacked toward the left - under the leadership of the socialists and the communists. To defend itself against this onslaught, sections of the power elite backed right-wing populists who echoed the anger of the left - but proposed an alternative narrative for the crisis.

They scapegoated minority populations, and they attacked constitutionalism as a hindrance. This was fascism.

Today, the economic crisis is no less extreme. Erdogan's government in Turkey and Modi's in India have attempted to rein in worker movements. The smell of violence in Soma, Turkey, is fresh on the nostrils.

In India, Modi's government has weakened labour laws. In both Turkey and in India, threats from the left - one of the homes of the working-class – appeared in elections (in Turkey, with the rise of the HDP) and in street protests (in India, when 150 million workers went on strike last September).

The left is not as powerful in these countries as it was in Germany and Italy in the 1930s. The far-right represented by Erdogan and Modi does not need to wield the hammer against these movements, which are themselves in crisis.

But it is a habit of the far-right to resort to violence. They know that the left - even if organisationally weak - offers an alternative to their vision. It is the left that has to be crushed to inaugurated a thousand years of rule. To draw wide support, these far-right movements scapegoat minority populations - who face the harshest attacks - such as the Kurds in Turkey and Muslims in India.
The power elite of the United States is protected from threat of unrest

Vitriolic attacks must be levelled at the left and the liberals - those who fight for minority rights and who organise workers. A scared public in a disorganised society takes refuge from the fear subsequently generated in the comfort of the far-right.

This is 21st century fascism. 

The power elite of the United States is protected from threat of unrest by the grave weakness of the labour movement and the fractious left. It has nothing to fear. Fascism in the United States need not bare its teeth too widely; it is enough to hiss its offensiveness through its teeth.

Donald Trump is seen as a buffoon for saying plainly what the others say with "moderation". All of them harshly attack minorities, all of them pillory government intervention in the economy - with Senator Bernie Sanders being the notable exception.

The red light of caution shines bright in these democracies. India and Turkey, with the weakest liberal traditions, are most in danger of slipping into the deepest trough of despair. In the United States, the culture of liberalism remains somewhat intact, although here the rot of racism makes 21st fascism operate on racial lines.

White liberals are cushioned from its impact. They have little to worry about. But once the foundations are weakened, the edifice will collapse. None of these countries are immune from the dangers of social chaos.

In 1937, the German Marxist dramatist Bertolt Brecht said: "We didn't realize quickly or directly enough that the destruction of unions and that of cathedrals and other monuments of culture meant the same thing."

Today, it is not cathedrals that are being torn down, but the culture of minority populations and the cathedrals of education and progressive thought. The defence of these institutions is a fundamental component of the resistance to the far-right.

What is not so clearly considered is the need to defend and expand the democratic culture of workers. The far-right is not only against democratic norms, but it is at war against the culture of popular democracy.

Vijay Prashad is a columnist at Frontline and a senior research fellow at AUB's Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs. His latest book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2014 paperback). Follow him on Twitter: @VijayPrashad

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.