Postfascism: Do the elites support the extreme right?

Postfascism: Do the elites support the extreme right?

How do the strongly growing extreme right-wing movements in Europe, the US and Brazil differ from the classical fascist movement? And what do they have in common? Historian prof. Enzo Traverso of Cornell University in the US answers these current questions in detail in an interview. 

This first episode is about right-wing populist rhetoric, various forms of racism and the nationalism that threatens European finance capital. On the other hand, right-wing governments are increasingly adopting the proposals of the extreme right, notes Prof. Traverso. The good listener will undoubtedly also recognize elements from the Dutch situation in the interview.

Elite are threatened

The current debates about fascism and populism often get bogged down in semantics. In The New Faces of Fascism go to work differently. You are more concerned about how these terms are used in the public debate and what they can reveal about the “public use of history.” Can you say something about the general inspiration for your book?

Interpretations from the past cannot be viewed separately from current public use. I am interested in analyzing fascism, but my work is neither purely historical nor politically ‘neutral’. For example, I make a distinction between fascism and populism: fascism means the destruction of democracy; Populism is a political style that can go in different and sometimes opposite directions, but usually within a democratic framework.

I do not know exactly how to dissect the concept of fascism today; it is often used incorrectly. The threat of the return of fascism was usually a concern from the left, but today it has become a chorus of the elites who are threatened by right-wing populism and post-fascism (think of Madeleine Albright and Robert Kagan in the US, or Matteo Renzi in Italy).

Behind the kind of “anti-fascist” united front to which the traditional elites are calling, however, lies their own responsibility for creating the conditions that allowed the new radical right to emerge from Eastern to Western Europe, and from the US to Brazil. could spread.

The general inspiration for my book lies in the question: what does fascism mean in the twenty-first century? Should we regard the worldwide rise of the new right as a return to classical fascism of the 1930s, or rather as a completely new phenomenon? How to define this and how to contrast this?

Nieuwrechts can go two ways

Based on the title, The New Faces of Fascism , people may think that your book is about ‘neofascism’. Instead, you claim that the move to the right in European politics is a “post-fascist” phenomenon, which is connected with classical fascism but is also far from it. Can you explain briefly why this difference matters?

Neo-fascism, the movements that claim to be connected with classical fascism, is a marginal phenomenon. One of the keys to the success of the new radical right lies in the fact that it depicts itself as something new. They either have no fascist origins (Trump and Salvini), or they have considerably broken with their own past (Marine Le Pen, who banned her father from the Front National).

The new right is nationalist, racist and xenophobic. In most Western European countries, at least where the radical right is in power or has become considerably stronger, it uses democratic and republican rhetoric. It has changed its language, its ideology and its style. In other words: it has given up its old fascist customs, but it has not yet changed completely. It is not yet a normal part of our political systems.

On the one hand, the extreme right is no longer fascist; on the other hand, we can no longer define it without comparing it to fascism. The new right is a hybrid thing that could once again turn to fascism or develop into a new form of conservative, authoritarian and populist democracy. The concept of ‘postfascism’ attempts to summarize this.

It is currently impossible to predict the future evolution of this. At this point the comparison with the twentieth-century interbellum is important: just like then, there is now also a lack of international order. The chaos after the First World War was the result of a collapse of the so-called “Unified Europe” – nineteenth-century classical liberalism – and that of today is a result of the end of the Cold War. Fascism and postfascism are born of this chaotic and fluid situation.

Money rules the EU

You call the French Front National a textbook example of post-fascism. Does the emergence of Vox in Spain and Salvini in Italy encourage you to nuance parts of the basic definition of postfascism, or does it confirm your general conceptual sketch?

The success of the extreme right in France, Italy, Hungary, Austria, Poland, and more recently in Spain and Germany, two countries that are generally regarded as exceptions, reinforces a general trend. The French Front National was a pioneer. Of course, the dramatic question about the future of the European Union is asked. I don’t think the EU can survive if these postfascist movements win the EU elections in the Western and Central European countries next spring. It is unlikely to disappear overnight, but in the medium term its collapse will become inevitable.

The rise of these reactionary and nationalist “europhobic” movements is a consequence of the policies that the European Commission has been pursuing for more than twenty years. The EU has become a financial capital instrument that has imposed its rules on all its governments, through a mandatory legal structure that consists of a complex system of laws that are sometimes enshrined in constitutions.

The most spectacular achievement of the neoliberal elites is the transformation of their own social bankruptcy – in 2008 they were rescued by the states – into a financial crisis of these states themselves. They have spent more money than they could afford and should now transform into profitable and competitive institutions. After two Commission presidents such as Barroso (now Goldman Sachs adviser) and Juncker (once leader of Luxembourg’s fiscal paradise), and after the Greek crisis and ten years of European austerity policies, the rise of right-wing populist leaders such as Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orbán is not at all surprising : “The sleep of reason produces monsters.”

We cannot fight effectively against post-fascism by defending the EU. By changing the EU, we can defeat nationalism and legal populism.

French jerk to the right

Many of your analyzes are focused on France. It almost seems that the new extreme right-wing parties there must be understood as a ‘return of the oppressed’. The mainstreaming of the Front National there would be a process that uncovers the authoritarian, colonial history that underlies the Fifth Republic. Is that right? If so, can this also apply to other countries struggling with extreme right-wing trends?

In Europe, the xenophobic and racist tidal wave against Asian and African immigrants inevitably has a neo-colonial background. The Muslim immigrants and refugees who are the target of this wave are from former European colonies. This wave is indeed a ‘return of the oppressed’, which impressively demonstrates the tenacity of the European colonial subconscious. However, the old colonial and racist rhetoric is left out.

The Front National is no longer a movement of the nostalgic quartermasters of l’Algérie française ; it now depicts itself as a defender of the French national identity that is threatened by globalization, mass immigration and Islamic fundamentalism. Republican and “progressive” attitudes can also be part of this neo-colonial attitude: on the one hand they want to protect the Christian roots of France and Europe against the Islamic “invasion”, on the other they pretend to be human rights (sometimes even those women and gays) against Islamic obscurantism.

These arguments are very popular in the French media, far beyond the ranks of the Front National: many public intellectuals who do not want to be confused with Marine Le Pen have become her most effective allies, such as Alain Finkielkraut, who recently joined the Académie Française . After the terrorist attacks of 2015, François Hollande and his Prime Minister Manuel Valls adopted the policy measures proposed by the Front National: the exceptional situation, the curfew, the massive expulsion of undocumented immigrants. They have even tried to adopt the principle of depriving citizenship of terrorists of two nationalities (ie French citizens of North African descent).

Destruction of democracy

Do you believe in terms such as “microfascism” or other concepts that view fascism as a transhistoric dynamic within capitalism?

“Microfascism” seems to be an inappropriate concept because we are dealing with a worldwide phenomenon. Since a true democracy requires social equality, we can say that capitalism, especially in this neoliberal era, consists of “undoing” democracy, which is well explained by Wendy Brown. This is a general trend of capitalism itself; not a pathology or degenerate form thereof.

Since the first half of the nineteenth century, a classical liberal thinker such as Tocqueville has understood that the development of capitalism has been a threat to what he considered the “chosen relationship” between market economy and democracy. This vision of the identity of capitalism and democracy became a myth in the second half of the twentieth century, in the era of the welfare state.

This “humanization” of capitalism was in fact a consequence of the October Revolution. After the collapse of real socialism and the end of the decolonization period, capitalism rediscovered its ‘wild’ character, social inequality exploded worldwide and democracy was gradually stripped of its content.

Fascism certainly has a ‘transhistoric’ character – think of the military dictatorships in Latin America in the sixties and seventies – and cannot be disconnected from capitalism, which was one of the conditions for fascism. But seeing fascism as a result of the global crisis of capitalism does not mean that we should see fascism as the inevitable outcome of it.

In the United States, the outcome of the crisis of capitalism was not fascism. That outcome was the New Deal. Fascism belongs to a historical era – the twentieth century – in which it has destroyed democracy. Today, post-fascism has lost the subversive dimension of its predecessors: it does not want to suppress parliamentarism or individual rights, but seeks to destroy democracy from within.

What can the left learn from the past?

How do the strongly growing extreme right-wing movements in Europe, the US and Brazil differ from the classical fascist movement? And what do they have in common? Historian prof. Enzo Traverso of Cornell University in the US answers these current questions in detail in an interview ( Jacobin , February 2019) about his book The New Faces of Fascism . We publish the full translation of this interview in two episodes.

This second episode is about the extreme right that fills the gap of social democracy. Left-wing movements must reinvent themselves, but also bring a completely different content than legal populism. For example, a different attitude towards refugees, says Prof. Traverso. The good listener will undoubtedly also recognize elements from the Dutch situation in the interview.

Traditional values

You write about ‘breaking the silence’ around open expressions of fascist or extreme right-wing political entities. You thereby acknowledge that the extreme right in Europe has gained some legitimacy by filling the gap of the losing social Democratic parties, but at the same time it seems to raise a deeper issue that touches on the idea of ​​what you call a “regime of historicity.” “calls. Can you elaborate on the connection you make between our ‘democracies without memory’ and the rise of the extreme right?

Postfascism is a worldwide phenomenon, but it does not always have the same characteristics. This explosive mixture of nationalism, xenophobia, racism, charismatic leadership, “identity politics” and opposition to globalization can take various forms.

For example, the radical form of neo-liberalism that Bolsonaro advocates is unknown in Europe, where post-fascism is fueled by anger and dissatisfaction with the EU’s neo-liberal policies. The fundamental condition for the rise of postfascism therefore lies, in my view, in the absence of a left-wing alternative to this neo-liberalism.

Both communism and social democracy, the most important models of the left in the twentieth century, have failed: real socialism has collapsed, paralyzed by its own contradictions, and social democracy – the instrument for the “humanization” of capitalism during the Cold War – lost its historical function when capitalism became neo-liberalism. Socialism must be reinvented.

In the competition between the left and the right, where both have to reinvent themselves, postfascism is one street ahead. But unlike its fascist predecessors, who were supported by the ruling classes on the European mainland in the 1930s, current post-fascism is not yet the most important option for the neo-liberal elites. It can become that after a general crisis of capitalism or a sudden collapse of the EU. The fear of communism, which was the main source of fascism between the two world wars, is no longer there.

In my book I speak of a neo-liberal ‘regime of historicity’, with the present as horizon. That, in turn, is a handicap for the right and left movements, because postfascism does not have the utopian horizon of its predecessors, nor does it attempt to capture the collective fantasy with the myth of a “New Man”, the “Millennial Kingdom” or a new civilization. The logic of postfascism is rather a “cultural pessimistic” logic: the defense of traditional values ​​and of “endangered” national identities; the demand for national sovereignty over globalization; and the search for scapegoats in immigrants, refugees and Muslims.

Trump and Bolsonaro

Your book is primarily about Europe. In addition, your brief discussions of American politics are primarily meant to refute that one could dismiss Trump as a fascist. Do you see a broader applicability of your general concept of “regime of historicity”? Does the Bolsonaro victory in Brazil not invite us to think about the global scale of the post-fascism phenomenon?

As many observers have noted, Trump displays typical fascist features: authoritarian and charismatic leadership, hatred of democracy, disregard for justice, display of power, disregard for human rights, overt racism, misogyny and homophobia. But behind him there is no fascist movement. He was elected as a candidate for the Republican Party, which is one of the pillars of the US political establishment. This paradoxical situation can only continue if the US democratic framework is also called into question.

A similar dilemma, even more dramatic and striking in form, is occurring in Brazil after the Bolsonaro election. He is more radical than his American or European counterparts. While Marine Le Pen has broken with her father’s anti-Semitism and switched to democratic rhetoric, Bolsonaro condemns torture and military dictatorship. While Marine Le Pen and Salvini want to re-establish protectionism, Bolsonaro is a fanatic neo-liberal.

As many Brazilian analysts have pointed out, behind Bolsonaro are three powerful conservative forces: “balas, bois e biblia” – the army, landowners and evangelical fundamentalism. But Petrobras, the pillar of Brazilian capitalism, is not behind him.

In other words, a true classical fascist movement would combine two things that Trump and Bolsonaro both miss: the mass mobilization and the united support of the elite. Is that right?

Yes, I think this is a big difference that sets them apart from the classical fascists, even though the ruling classes can meet them perfectly – especially in the absence of an effective alternative. However, this option is not on the agenda in EU countries.

In classical fascism, the militarized mass movements were the result of the dehumanization of politics caused by the First World War. The same has happened in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. But it has not happened in the EU countries, the United States or Brazil. That is why the predecessor of Trump and Bolsonaro is not Mussolini or Hitler, but rather Berlusconi. In many countries, however, the profile of the extreme right could change due to a new global crisis.


One of the most interesting parts of your new book is a discussion of the European school of “anti-anti-fascist” historians and their apparently “politically neutral” revision of history. Why do you see them as so dangerous? And why is it important to reaffirm the importance of anti-fascist historiography?

The dividing line between fascism and democracy is both moral and political in nature. On mainland Europe and later in Latin America, democracy arose from resistance and anti-fascism. Wherever this struggle has led to democracy, an “anti-anti-fascist” democracy can only be fragile, memoryless and unfaithful to its own history.

The left must not forget the genetic link between anti-fascism and democracy. Democracy cannot be reduced to a legal and political picture, to merely ‘the rules of the game’. Democracy is also not simply a consequence of the market economy; it is a historical achievement from political revolutions and anti-fascist struggles. Breaking or denying this historical connection is the most direct way to “lose the common people.”

Legacy from the left

You have described the recent “street movements,” such as Occupy Wall Street and the Spanish Indignados, as an attempt to invent a “new communism.” At the same time, you seem to suggest that without a critical consideration of “old communism” and the uncovering of some useful parts of that legacy, the left will remain helpless worldwide. Where are those useful parts of the communist legacy?

Occupy Wall Street and the Spanish Indignados have said they want an alternative, just like Syriza in Greece before it moved politically in the summer of 2015. Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and Podemos are currently proving that the left is looking for new ideas, new ways and a new hope. Sanders embodies a shift in the history of the left in the US, following the New Deal in the 1930s and New Left in the 1960s. He again legitimizes the idea of ​​socialism in a country where this has never prevailed. In the United Kingdom and Spain, Corbyn and Podemos symbolize a radical break with the long rule of social liberalism.

These experiences are steps towards a new model for links throughout the world. The old paradigms have failed, but have not yet been replaced. A new model should combine a critical interpretation of the world with a project for its revolutionary transformation, as expressed by Marx in his famous “eleventh proposition.”

Communism embodied this combination and provided a utopian horizon in the twentieth century. My only certainty is that a new, alternative left-wing movement for the twenty-first century will be anti-capitalist, but I don’t know if it will call itself “communist.” She will probably come up with new concepts and images – as socialism and communism have done in the past two centuries. But a new global left will not be invented as a tabula rasa . Whoever says that a historical break with previous models has occurred, does not mean that a leader of the global left can do without memory and historical consciousness.

A critical investigation into the defeats suffered is inevitable. What helped the Left to overcome its defeats, from the Paris Commune to the Chilean coup of 1973, was the conviction that the future belonged to socialism. That even extremely tragic failure was no more than a lost battle. This belief in a historical purpose has left the burden of a teleological dimension, but it has also given it an extraordinary power that it no longer possesses today.

The left has become “orphan.” It cannot claim or forget its past. It must overcome its past.

Populism as a label

You seem skeptical about the political utility of populism for the left. Because this term is often used in conflicting interests – for example, to combine La France Insoumise and the Front National – you suggest that populism eventually blurs the boundaries between left and right. It does not seem to fit in with your considerations that certain left-wing intellectuals and political parties have welcomed the label ‘left-wing populism’ in their attempt to set a course between ‘the street’ and the ‘polls’. Do you see room for left-wing populism in the fight against post-fascism?

In my opinion, populism can be used as a political style by leaders of different and even conflicting orientations, ie from the right and from the left in the political spectrum. But this style and rhetoric, which embody the virtue of the “people” who resist the corrupt elite, determine only the form and not the content of a political force. In Latin America, left-wing populism has used demagogy and has often adopted authoritarian traits, but with the objective of involving the lower classes in the social and political system. In Western Europe, legal populism is xenophobic, racist and calls for exclusion measures.

As Marco D’Eramo has emphasized, behind the stigmatization of ‘populism’ is in most cases an aristocratic and elitist disdain for the ‘people’. But if populism means that Corbyn, Sanders and Podemos are interchangeable with Salvini, Orbán, Trump and Bolsonaro, then this is a completely useless and even dangerous concept.

I know that some radical thinkers see populism as an alternative to the “outdated gap” between left and right, and that they often put forward valuable arguments for this. Under certain circumstances, this use of populism can indeed work, but in the global context of emerging post-fascist movements, it threatens to cause dangerous misunderstanding.

Close the borders?

Finally, we would like to ask you about the recent controversy surrounding the ‘left-wing argument for closing the borders’, which raised questions about sovereignty and its political use as a concept for the left. Do you have any ideas about that?

The advocacy of ‘closed borders’, in this age of ‘walled states’ and militarized borders against immigrants and refugees, seems to me extremely dangerous. This ultimately legitimizes xenophobia, a reactionary defense of “national identity,” and a return to national sovereignty – the refrain of postfascism. Thinking that capitalist globalization can be countered by restoring national borders is a setback in terms of ideas, because all crucial issues of the twenty-first century, from ecology to social inequality to population movements, require a global solution. Since its origins, internationalism has been part of the left, and I don’t think we can easily give up or reject universalism.

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