One of the challenges in trying to understand fascism is that it touches on so many different aspects of human experience, from the brutality of mass imprisonment and killing to the pageantry of a political rally; from the calculations of geopolitics to the intimacies of family life. Spectres of Fascism: Historical, Theoretical and International Perspectives (London: Pluto Press, 2020) approaches this challenge by taking an interdisciplinary approach. Edited by Samir Gandesha, a scholar of Frankfurt School critical theory—a dynamic school of radical thought that coalesced in the 1930s—the collection takes inspiration from that tradition in two respects. First, the book follows the Frankfurt School’s recognition that analysis of class struggle and crisis in capitalism is only part of understanding fascism’s rise, and that an analysis of subjective factors, such as culture and psychology, is also needed. Second, like the school’s organizational home, the Institute for Social Research, the book assembles scholarship from many different fields, with contributors representing political science, philosophy, economics, sociology, anthropology, law, history, psychoanalysis, and aesthetics.
Spectres of Fascism grows out of the lectures and discussions in a year-long “free school” of the same title that Gandesha organized in 2017 as director of Simon Fraser University’s Institute for the Humanities. The collection seeks to make sense of the recent upsurge of right-wing authoritarian populist movements, parties, and governments in countries as varied as the United States, Italy, Hungary, India, Brazil, Turkey, and the Philippines. (See the Winter/Spring 2020 “international” issue of The Public Eye to read more about some of these countries.) In the introduction, Gandesha argues that today’s authoritarian populist Right represents not a simple return to fascism as it emerged in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, but a reworking of fascist elements in new forms and under new conditions. For example, while classical fascism attacked liberal democracy head on, contemporary fascism erodes or suffocates it gradually from within. And while 1930s fascism emerged as a counter-revolutionary response to mass working-class radicalism in an era of rival colonial empires, Gandesha argues that today’s fascism is shaped by other factors, such as the dominance of finance capital, automation, climate change, and international mass migration.
Some of the book’s range of disciplinary approaches can be seen in the three essays that I consider to be its strongest, at least from the standpoint of helping us understand today’s authoritarian Right. In “The Outsider as Insider: Steve Bannon, Fourth Turnings, and the Neofascist Threat,” philosopher Joan Braune details the far-right ideological influences that have helped shape former Trump administration strategist Steve Bannon. Notable among them are the apocalyptic mysticism of the Traditionalist School (whose ranks included neofascist philosopher Julius Evola) and Jean Raspail’s racist novel The Camp of the Saints. The title of Braune’s essay highlights her argument that Bannon’s populism is rhetorical cover for an elitist, anti-egalitarian worldview.
In contrast to Braune’s ideological focus, Gandesha’s own essay, “‘A Composite of King Kong and a Suburban Barber’: Adorno’s ‘Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,’” explores the social psychology of fascism. As Gandesha relates, Adorno argued that adulation of and identification with the leader caused people to give up their individuality and even their interest in self-preservation. (Think mask-less Trump rallies in the age of COVID.) Adorno emphasized the role of mass-produced culture (at the time, radio and film) in promoting “the authoritarian personality” by teaching people to be passive—a dynamic Gandesha sees extended in an era of social media algorithms and fake news.
Going beyond Adorno, Gandesha also argues that neoliberalism has sharpened the contradictions that make fascism appealing, by increasing people’s sense of individual responsibility for their own success, while depressing wages and slashing social services so that the vast majority of people have fewer resources with which to realize their individual goals. The resulting guilt, frustration, and anger can be readily exploited by populist agitators and channeled into racist scapegoating and exclusionism. There’s a lot in Gandesha’s essay that speaks to our current situation, but the essay also points to questions that Gandesha does not address. For example, how do we parse the social psychology of neoliberalism to understand its effects not just on “the vast majority” of people, but on specific groups within society? And how do we square the charismatic role of the traditional populist agitator with the fundamentally decentralized (and often anonymous) nature of internet meme activism?
Authoritarian populism’s roots in the contradictions of neoliberalism also figure centrally in the third essay I want to highlight, “Populism, Fascism, Neoliberalism: Theorizing Contemporary India” by political scientist Ajay Gudavarthy and economist Vijay Gudavarthy. While Braune’s focus is ideological and Gandesha’s psychological, the Gudavarthys foreground class dynamics and economic policy in addressing the question: how does Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government manufacture consent? They trace how neoliberal policies of deregulation and privatization have intensified rural inequality and displaced millions of tenant farmers into migrant labor, disenfranchising them and disrupting their social ties. Hindu nationalism, with its fascistic vision of a unified and reempowered Hindu community, speaks to these grievances, while bolstering policies that feed inequality and disproportionately benefit big business. While many studies of right-wing populism focus on its exclusionary dimension (us versus them), the Gudavarthys focus here on its efforts to forge political unity among disparate groups with conflicting interests—in this case Indians divided by caste and class.
Unfortunately, the remaining essays in the collection are less useful for illuminating the threat of fascism or right-wing authoritarianism today. Some are strong essays that nonetheless tell us more about the preconditions for studying fascism than about fascism itself. For example, in “Which Came First, Fascism or Misogyny? Reading Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies,” media theorist Laura U. Marks rightly urges us to examine fascism’s relationship with misogyny in historical rather than essentialist terms, but she doesn’t offer any guidance on what such an approach would tell us. In “Decolonizing the ‘Contemporary Left’?: An Indigenous Reflection on Justice in the New World Order,” legal scholar Patricia M. Barkaskas argues that the Canadian state and legal system are built on and deeply connected with the dispossession and violence of settler colonialism. Her essay is a powerful indictment of liberal democracy and describes a key part of the context in which North American fascist politics develop. But while Barkaskas notes in passing that settler colonial violence is related to fascism, she offers no specifics about how a right-wing authoritarian version of settler colonialism might differ from a liberal democratic one.
The collection would also be stronger if it included greater attention to right-wing voices. Only a third of the essays cite any works by current-day Rightists. That may be fine if you’re writing about the socioeconomic impact of neoliberalism, but not if you’re trying to understand far-right ideas. In “The Future of Futurism: From the Avant-Garde to the Neo-Avant-Garde, or, How to Imagine Communism by Other Means,” art historian Jaleh Mansoor draws directly on the words of F.T. Marinetti and other Futurist artists to thoughtfully explore the complexities of Futurism’s relationship with fascism in the interwar period. Unfortunately, in the last part of the essay, Mansoor argues that Futurism can help us understand the current-day Alt Right but doesn’t consider what Alt Rightists themselves have to say on the subject—despite the fact that one Alt Right website, Counter-Currents, alone has published scores of articles on Futurism.
Right-wing voices, of course, need to be placed in context. In “Are the Alt-Right and French New Right Kindred Movements?,” political scientist Tamir Bar-On generalizes about the Alt Right almost entirely from a close reading of one document, Richard Spencer’s 2017 manifesto, “What It Means To Be Alt-Right.” The result captures some key points, such as the Alt Right’s antisemitism, desire for ethno-states, and use of metapolitical strategy. Yet Bar-On’s approach exaggerates Spencer’s role within the movement and presents a misleading portrait of its political activity, by focusing on conventional propaganda while saying nothing about the Alt Right’s pioneering use of internet memes and online harassment campaigns. These shortcomings are to some extent mitigated by the fact that other essays in the collection highlight the movement’s reliance on social media and memes such as Pepe the Frog.
Spectres of Fascism starts from a valuable basic concept: to illuminate Rightist authoritarianism by approaching it from multiple angles, perspectives, and disciplines. It’s a success for this vision that the book’s best contributions explore dramatically different dimensions of fascistic politics (ideological, psychological, and socioeconomic). Yet the concept could have been realized more fully if more of the book’s essays focused on its central topic squarely and in depth.