Jane Frankish wrote a Letter from the Pandemic to Percy Shelley that was published in the Ormsby Review. The Photo was taken in the course of the Phra Rahu performance at the Huai Khwang Ganesha Shrine at Din Daeng during the Bangkok Biennale 2018. The letter can be read at the site linked below –
Donald Trump must not be treated as the cause of the recent debacle of American democracy – its attempted usurpation by fascistic forces. He may have been the catalyst for this ugly scenario but it arose from conditions that are endemic and systemic. We have to remember and accept that 73 million Americans voted for him in the last election. As Nolan Higdon and Mickey Huff explain, it is in fact the relentless bipartisan entrenchment of neo-liberal economics by both Republicans and Democrats that has brought this demon seed to fruit. Donald Trump has simply, “peel[ed] back the gilded veneer of democracy in America. His presidency has revealed what neoliberalism has wrought: a post-democratic U.S. ripe for fascism.”
The decimation of America’s public sector and its national industries in cynical programmes of privatization and globalization, as well as the hollowing out of American society by the depletion of support and services for its most vulnerable, have reduced American democracy to being a lifeless shadow of its imagined self. As Peter Fairman shows, while the Reagan administration pushed privatization forward as an overt political ideology, Clinton sold the privatization as a politically neutral management reform. Neoliberal devastation his has been a bipartisan adventure.
As Higdon and Huff go on to say, “Democracy ceases to exist unless the citizenry participates in and respects the process, put its faith in and defends public institutions, accepts verifiable electoral results, and attains the critical thinking and media literacy skills necessary to make well informed and sophisticated decisions.” While the United States of America is our case-in-point, I believe that these criteria are not met in numerous other failing democracies across the world.
Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, Papadopoulos’ Greece, Pinochet’s Chile, and Suharto’s Indonesia are the 7 regimes that Laurence W. Britt analyzed to develop his set of fascistic characteristics. Like Umberto Eco before him, he came up with 14 key characteristics, which he construed as fascist and proto-fascist means of obtaining, expanding, and maintaining power. He presented this list in an Op-Ed titled Fascism Anyone? in Volume 23, No. 2 Spring 2003 of ‘Free Inquiry’ as follows –
1. Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism.
2. Disdain for the importance of human rights.
3. Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause.
4. The supremacy of the military/avid militarism.
5. Rampant sexism.
6. A controlled mass media.
7. Obsession with national security.
8. Religion and ruling elite tied together.
9. Power of corporations protected.
10. Power of labor suppressed or eliminated.
11. Disdain and suppression of intellectuals and the arts
12. Obsession with crime and punishment.
13. Rampant cronyism and corruption.
14. Fraudulent elections.
While, as Daniel Malmer notes this list was not intended to be used to diagnose fascism in present governments, but rather characterize historical fascist governments, it is nevertheless interesting to see how many of these fascistic characteristic apply to the purported democracies of the world.
As a Malaysian, I find that the polity of my country seems to exhibit a good 11 of the Britt’s 14 traits. If this were not worrying enough for the long view, we have just joined a list of dysfunctional nations that have suspended parliamentary rule and instituted emergency powers in the context of the Covid-19 epidemic. This is the first such declaration of emergency since the aftermath of the race riots of May 13th 1969.
According to Bloomberg, the state of emergency was declared soon after some key leaders in the ruling coalition’s largest partner, United Malays National Organisation had called for a fresh election. They also report that the Pakatan Harapan opposition has admonished the Prime Minister for burdening the people with a declaration of emergency for the sake of saving himself. Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs has described the emergency as “totally unnecessary” and that “If you’re not careful, we will slip from parliamentary democracy into a rule by diktat.”
In an essay titled Ur Fascism, Umberto Eco lists 14 Fascistic characteristics. This essay appeared in the June 22, 1995 issue of the New York Review. I have taken the liberty of encapsulating Eco’s explanation of these characteristics as follows –
1. A penchant for traditionalism
2. The rejection of modernism
3. The cult of action
4. A prohibition of disagreement
5. A fear of difference
6. An appeal to the middle class
7. A belief in conspiracy theories
8. A feeling of humiliation
9. The glorification of war
10. A contempt for weakness
11. The cult of heroism
12. The cult of machismo
13. A charismatic populism
14. A stupefaction of language
It is instructive to compare, contrast and combine this list with Robert Paxton’s List from his The Anatomy of Fascism which I present in my post titled It’s Time to be Clear 3. It is imperative, given the unprecedented storming of Capitol Hill by Trump supporters, that Americans and, indeed, people of all nations consider their national polity in these terms. As we move deeper into the 21st Century, many other exemplars of democracy, albeit of less consequence on the world stage than the USA, will fare just as badly, if measured against these criteria.
For Americans, I suggest that this means more than seeking retribution from the Donald. While I do not doubt that he is culpable, I feel that such simplistic scapegoating, belies the true nature of American exceptionalism, of the bipartisan dialectic of its military-industrial project: War on Crime – Globalization – War on Terror – Yes, we Can! – Make America Great Again! The Republican Party will want to purge the memory of their willing Trumpian engagement from the record and the Democrats will want to foreground this entanglement for political advantage, but all this will distract us from their reciprocal complicity in their nation descent from democracy into oligarchy and authoritarianism.
Fascism must be distinguished from other kinds of authoritarianism and dictatorship and according to Gaetano Salvemini its key characteristic is the displacement of democracy and due process by what Robert Paxton has paraphrased as the “acclamation of the street.” Unlike other forms of oppression, fascism redirects the peoples’ passions into “an obligatory domestic unity” based on scapegoating within the nation and xenophobia without. In this definition the term ‘fascist’ can not be applied to even the most oppressive predemocratic dictatorships as it involves the idea of sliding away from free institutions in pursuit of a nationalist imperative.
In The Anatomy of Fascism Paxton proposes five stages in this decline. Stage One is the establishment of radical Right movements with some explicit or implicit link to fascism. He asserts that this has been the situation in “every industrial, urbanized society with mass politics” since the end of World War II. In Stage Two, these movements become rooted in their political systems as the mainstream elites start to cultivate and direct them against purported internal enemies. Stage Three is the seizure of power, Stage Four, the exercise of power and Stage Five involves the movements radicalization or entropy.
While Donald Trump’s escapade on Capitol Hill is a premature acting out, an impotent folly and a parody of Stage Three, it might also be a foreshadowing of more odious things to come in the United States of America.
While Trump has evoked some obscene human emotions in the USA, other world leaders like Putin, Oban, Erdogan, Bolsonaro and Modi have arguably been invoking the very same fascistic emotions in more sophisticated and impactful ways. Robert Paxton describes the “mobilizing passions” of Fascism thus –
• a sense of overwhelming crisis
• the subordination of the individual to the group
• a belief that one’s group’s victimhood
• a fear of the corrosive effects of liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences
• the need for a purer community
• the a natural leader capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny;
• the superiority of the leader’s instincts over reason
• the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will
• the right to dominate others
I invite you to apply Paxton’s criteria to evaluate your own political environment and to assess the mobilizing strategies of the politicians involved.
So what is Fascism? In The Anatomy of Fascism, Robert Paxton defines fascism as “a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”
While there is no doubt that Donald Trump and by implication the Republican Party have been flirting with White Supremacy, and thereby bringing the USA within the ambit of Paxton’s definition, as a Malaysian Tamil who has lived in the UK, I can not but think of the analogous forces that have given us Brexit, Ketuanan Melayu and Hindutva.
Further, as an immigrant to Canada and as a resident of British Columbia, I struggle to disentangle my new, welcoming and multicultural home from its White Supremacist provenance, and I wonder about the future.
Yesterday’s disturbing events at the United States capitol should give pause to democracies all over the word. Any nation that tolerates its mainstream politicians invoking and deploying extremist sentiments in their political agendas are, in my opinion, courting a similar eventuality. Communal and sectarian sentiments are present in society but they are generally innocuous unless they are exploited and exacerbated by politicians. When extremism is amplified to such an extent that it purports to usurp democracy, fascism must surely lie around the corner.
After decades of anticipation in the Tamil Nadu polity, SUPERSTAR Rajinikanth announced his entry into politics on December 31st 2017. Despite much toing and froing since then, he never did launch his party and then, on December 29th 2020, he announced with finality not to enter politics. For those of us who admire his charisma and spirituality but disdain the Hindutva politics he seemed set to bring into Tamil Nadu by virtue of his patent alignment with the BJP, this is a happy outcome! Thailava Valha! (Salutations to the Leader!)
Related Posts –
Makkal Sevai Katchi!
Rajinikanth’s Political Entry
Thani Vazhi (தனி வழி)
Who is Kaala dada?
Who is Rajinikanth Dada?
Yar Nee Ayah?
A Post-Traditional Polity?
Rajinikanth Glows Saffron
Gaikwad cries Jai Bhim
The above image from the series was shot at the Singapore Art Museum. It was shot during a performance at the site of my photographic installation which was part of the Singapore Biennale 2016. It is one of 12 images that make up the upcoming Kiasu Cowboys Series of the Koboi Project.
The Dari Pusat Tasek performance took place on the Lumut Waterfront, Perak under the auspices of the Percha Artspace on 25th Dec 2019. Sang Nabil Utama and I raised a 15 ft banner image of Anwar Ibrahim in a performance that was loosely based on a Perak Malay cleansing ritual using cut limes. I rubbed 7 points of my body with lime, then faced East and spat 7 times. I threw the remains of the limes towards the West direction saying, “Pergi-lah semua sial jambalang daripada badan aku dan dari tubuh negara, pergilah ke Pusat Tasek Pauh Janggi“ (‘Misfortune and spirits of evil begone from my body and from the body of the nation, begone to the Navel of the Seas!). Water was then poured over me in order to complete the cleansing.