This evening, Nick Griffin, the leader of Britain’s neofascist British National Party, makes his debut on the BBC’s flagship panel discussion show, Question Time. A former Cabinet Minister (and longtime anti-apartheid campaigner), Peter Hain, is leading the charge against providing Griffin with such a platform. Others (including me) think that in a society based on free speech, the best approach to the BNP is to shine a bright light on it and expose its shameful policies for what they are – but worry that the format, presenter and panellists on tonight’s show will provide the party with a platform without managing to dissect and rebut its policies effectively.
Either way, the one must-read I’ve seen this week on emerging fascism comes from John Michael Greer on the other side of the Atlantic. Greer expresses fury at “the insistence, so often heard from radicals of the left and right alike, that America is a fascist state”. None of the wingnuts who make these wild claims really need fear being dragged out of their beds at night to ‘disappear’ into a mass grave, he observes – “and for today’s smug and pampered American radicals to wrap themselves in the mantle of victims of fascism, while relying on civil rights no fascist system grants its citizens, displays a profound disrespect for those who have actually suffered under totalitarian regimes”.
Imagine, he suggests, what fascism might really look like in America. Imagine:
that sometime in the next year or so you start hearing media reports about a rising new figure in American politics. He’s young and charismatic, a military veteran who won the Distinguished Service Cross for bravery under fire, and heads a vigorous new third party that looks as though it might just be able to break the stranglehold of the established parties on the political system. Some of his ideas come straight from the fringes, and he’s been reported to have said very negative things about Arabs and Islam, but he’s nearly the only person in American public life willing to talk frankly about the difficulties Americans are facing in an era of economic collapse, and his party platform embodies many of the most innovative ideas of the left and right. Like him or not, he offers the one convincing alternative to business as usual in an increasingly troubled and corrupt system.
Would you vote for him?
One of the problems with the continual use of fascism as a bogeyman by political extremists is that it becomes far too easy to forget how promising fascism looked in the 1920s and 1930s to many good people disgusted with the failings of their democratic governments.
But what really stands out in his piece is the observation that “such a figure could as easily emerge from the left as from the right” – perhaps even, he suggests, from communities like the peak oil or anti-globalisation scenes, which are rapidly losing faith in the capacity of mainstream politics to achieve results.
One popular DVD that circulated widely in the peak oil scene a few years back was called The Power of Community, a documentary about how Cuba survived its own equivalent of peak oil when Soviet fuel subsidies stopped at the end of the Cold War. It’s a worthwhile case study of how a society can weather an extreme energy shortage, but it finessed one of the key points that enabled the Cuban response, namely, that Cuba is a dictatorship. To impose the draconian restrictions on energy use that got his country through its “Special Period,” Castro did not have to mobilize public opinion, placate powerful special interests, and shepherd legislation through a fractious Congress riven by ideological splits and determined to defend its prerogatives; he simply had to impose them, and those who disagreed were welcome to spend the next few years discussing the matter at length behind bars with their fellow political prisoners.
A great deal of the American left seems to have seen nothing wrong in this curious definition of “community.” This in itself is troubling, as is the enthusiastic reception of David Korten’s The Great Turning, among the most antidemocratic books of recent years, by the same circles. Korten argues that certain people – essentially, those who share his background and values – are at a superior “developmental stage” to others and are therefore better suited to rule, and the only way to survive the spiralling crises of the present and near future is to take power away from the “developmentally inferior” people who now hold it and give it to the gifted few. The idea that these few might need to be subject to checks and balances to keep them from abusing their power, it hardly need be said, finds no place in Korten’s book – a point that has done uncomfortably little to decrease its popularity.
It’s from sources like these that a neofascism of the left could quite readily emerge on American soil. Of course a neofascism of the right is equally possible, and the most dangerous possibility of all – because the most likely to slip past social critics unnoticed – might well be a movement that places itself in the abandoned middle ground of American politics. There is a great deal of empty space where common sense and compromise once bridged the gap between the major parties, and those parties themselves have become increasingly detached from the values and needs of the people they claim to represent. That space could offer an unparalleled opportunity to an astute and ambitious demagogue. It’s not exactly comforting that Nick Griffin, the head of Britain’s neofascist British Nationalist Party, is now using images of Churchill and the Battle of Britain in place of the Nazi regalia his followers once sported; Griffin is no fool, and where he goes, others will likely follow.
The crucial point that has to be recognized, and is too little recognized just now, is that it’s quite possible to replace a bad system with one that is much, much worse. Historians generally agree that the Weimar Republic was a failure, but I know of none who would suggest that the regime that followed it was an improvement.