Although the aftermath of Britain’s Brexit vote still dominates the news, it’s not the only story unfolding in Europe right now. A shadow has been cast across the continent, a shadow that has stretched from the Turkish border to the arctic circle. This shadow is the return of fascism to Europe.
Nationalism, xenophobia and authoritarianism are rising at an alarming rate in Europe. In Greece there is the Golden Dawn, in Hungary we have Jobbik, France has a newly resurgent National Front, Finland has the True Finns and in Britain the remnants of the BNP and EDL are coalescing around Britain First. The rise of such parties is a serious problem that should terrify anyone who believes democracy and liberty.
The question is, what has caused this sudden rise of authoritarian parties? Is it because capitalism has become so unjust, and mainstream politicians so impotent, that voters are turning to extremes? This seems unlikely, as we have not seen a corresponding rise support for radical anti-capitalist parties. Is it that the memory of past fascist regimes has faded to the point where voters have forgotten the danger they present? Unlikely, as the memory of fascism in Europe runs deep.
Is this just an expression of human cruelty, people refusing to recognise the humanity of others and trying to make their lives more difficult? What is happening seems like more than sadism unleashed; it is organised and popular. The simple truth is that the defenders of democracy have no response to the return of fascism, because we do not understand its causes.
Fascism itself is difficult to identify, partly because overuse of the word has muddied its meaning. ‘Body fascist’ and ‘kitchen fascist’ are two such overuses cited by writer and broadcaster, Jonathan Meades, in his masterful documentary Ben Building on Benito Mussolini, as examples of how the word has lost all meaning. Fascism is not a perversion of the politics of the far right - or even the far left. Meades says: "if the extreme right is a race horse and the extreme left is a cart horse, what sort of horse is fascism? It is the sort of horse that is called a combine harvester, which is not a horse". This is the essence of what makes fascism different.
The problem is we think of fascism as a political system; it does not have an ideology. Every time Mussolini was asked what fascism was, he defined in a different way that was convenient to him at that point. Fascism is so new that it eradicates the past, but it also deeply rooted in the traditions of the past. Fascism desires total control through authority. Fascism does not accept criticism. Fascism does not object to murder or even mass death. Fascism turns its leaders into living gods. Fascism desires total war. Fascism glorifies death, especially death for country and leader. This is the anatomy of fascism, but it is not an ideology. Fascism is not the perversion of a democratic system. It is an entirely different system, like a monarchy or theocracy.
Are the collections of far right, nationalist and authoritarian parties I mentioned above fascist? They all have elements of fascism in them, but it is hard to tell if they are truly fascist because fascism is not one thing.
Across the Atlantic, Donald Trump has become the Republican nominee for President by stirring up nationalism, racial strife and refusing to accept any criticism. The debate about whether he is fascist continues, as fascism is difficult to spot until you are in the midst of it. I would say that Trump has elements of fascism - certainly his authoritarianism, and refusal to accept criticism - but he is not a true fascist. Given more power and less oversight he could evolve into one.
If fascism is one thing then it is against democracy and individual liberty, and seeks to overturn these in its parallel system of government. What we are seeing across Europe in the rise of these new parties is a movement to suppress the liberty of certain people. These people are the Other. The migrants; the people who are different from the “indigenous population”. If liberty trumpets the rights of the individual, and fascism suppresses the rights of the individual, then the suppression of the individual rights of one group of people is as much fascism as the suppression of the rights of all people. It is in the racism of these new nationalist parties we can see origins of fascism.
Is modern fascism like old fascism? The essence of fascism is its totalitarian control of all of individuals. Vladimir Putin has created a cult of personality and effectively eliminated opposition in Russia. This is the direction many of these proto-fascist parties want to move in. They appear to be modern democratic movements, but their goal is to move their countries outside the democratic process so that they can brutalise the people they do not like. Fascism may have changed its face, embraced social media and contemporary crises in Europe, but at its root is still the desire to control others through aggression.
Pointing at people who are odious (like Trump) and calling them a fascist does not bring us any closer to understanding what fascism is or what these new authoritarian, aggressive and nationalist movements are. Those opposed to fascism and its constituent parts of hatred, violence, egomania, war and tyranny have no response to the return of fascism because of this lack of understanding. To defend democracy and liberty we must first understand what threatens it. Fascism should not be dismissed; it should be a warning sign that this is something we need to pay attention to.
Defenders of democracy and liberty need to think about what has brought us to this dangerous cross roads, where fascism has returned to Europe when we thought it had been banished to the history textbooks. Understanding fascism is the route to fighting it, and we need a means of fighting fascism.