/ 7 October 2022

Beware of sleepwalking into fascism

Graphic Tl Shoki Fascism Website2 1200px
(John McCann/M&G)

Giorgia Meloni’s rise to Italy’s top government job is causing a stir. The hard-right coalition amassing the most votes in the country’s parliamentary elections includes Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, Matteo Salvini’s League, as well as ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. 

The Brothers not only look favourably on Italy’s dark, fascist past but have direct ties to it (Rachele Mussolini, a municipal councillor on the Brothers’ ticket for Rome, is Benito’s granddaughter). 

Before sweeping Italy, this right-wing tide buoyed the nationalist Sweden Democrats to an impressive electoral performance in Sweden’s parliamentary elections, where it leads the coalition that won a narrow victory over the left.

The reception to these results has lacked the flurry of the histrionic Trump era; there have been no pearl-clutching declarations of the collapse of liberal democracy from the mainstream. Hillary Clinton, in fact, remarked “the election of the first woman prime minister in a country always represents a break with the past and that is certainly a good thing” (spawning “girl-boss fascism” memes). 

What happened in Sweden virtually passed unnoticed. And Piers Morgan, the world’s most annoying concern troll, took special care to remind every­one that Meloni, au contraire, is apparently “what she says she is, centre-right”. For all its idiocy, Morgan’s comment suggests a dark truth — the far right has become normalised.

It is tempting to watch the West’s backslide and consign it to a problem happening far away, with little relevance for the continent (except, perhaps, for the prospects of enhanced fortification of Europe against African migrants). Owing to its original incarnation in 20th century inter-war Europe, we associate fascism, and far-right politics more generally, as the province of white supremacy, revanchist Christianity and hawkish, regimented mass movements. 

Granted, Africans have known authoritarianism and repression but bar the Afrikaner ethnocracy of apartheid South Africa (which lives on through Afriforum), fascistic governance hasn’t percolated in any obvious way.

Today, the fascist descriptor has become enormously slippery. In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the US presidency, it became the preferred word to describe Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Narendra Modi in India, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. 

But, as various authors have shown, the quickness to deploy the label exceptionalises the antidemocratic and antisocial tendencies of contemporary politics and makes them particular to certain leaders or regimes. Its overuse has resulted in exhaustion, to the extent that even Meloni is escaping the accusation.

If there is an argument for fascism being an inappropriate category for grasping today’s political disorders, it is that the conditions which gave rise to fascism proper, compared to today’s imitations, are vastly different. 

Tellingly, Meloni ascended to Italy’s premiership in an election that yielded a historically low turnout. The story of modern politics is declining membership in political organisations, waning civic association, sinking levels of voter turnout and generalised social atomisation.

Whereas once the masses marched into fascism, today, we are sleepwalking into it.

This is why we should be paying even more attention. Parsing these trends with any authority is hard to do in Africa precisely because there are no obvious precedents to draw from. The reason the apartheid regime comes closest is that it constituted the underlying logic of fascism, as Gaspar Tamas defined it, “a break with the enlightenment tradition of citizenship as a universal entitlement; that is to say, with its assimilation of the civic condition to the human condition”.

Apartheid was premised on a clear system of citizenship for some, and non-citizenship for others, in the same polity. 

Granted, European settler-colonialism continent-wide has often been analysed as fascistic, and recall Aimé Césaire’s line that fascism was “colonialist procedures applied to Europe”. Or, we could ask, like Albert Memmi: “What is fascism,  if not a regime of oppression for the benefit of a few? The entire administrative and political machinery of a colony has no other goal.” 

But the upshot of treating colonialism as the epitome of fascism in Africa is that it makes it harder to conceive of indigenous expressions. If colonialism defined citizenship using distinctions between settler and native, today’s manifestations distinguish survivors and foreigners. 

As Sisonke Msimang once astutely observed: “South Africans may not always like each other across so-called racial lines, but they have a kinship that is based on their connection to the apartheid project. 

“Outsiders — those who didn’t go through the torture of the regime — are juxtaposed against insiders. In other words, foreigners are foreign precisely because they cannot understand the pain of apartheid, because most South Africans now claim to have been victims of the system. 

“Whether white or black, the trauma of living through apartheid is seen as such a defining experience that it becomes exclusionary; it has made a nation of us.”

The theorist of fascism Carl Schmitt reduced politics to the friend-enemy distinction, and in South Africa, a consensus is fast building that foreigners are a threat to the hard-won fruits of the postapartheid period. Besides the ANC government that seeks, as is the wont of failing post-liberation governments, to scapegoat foreigners, so does the rest of the political field.

As Christopher McMichael captured about the ambitions of Operation Dudula (the notorious paramilitary-styled, xenophobic organisation), what they want is “the current and dysfunctional status quo exclusively reserved for South Africans. Their modus operandi parallels European parties like the Sweden Democrats. Once overtly neo-Nazi, they have now recalibrated themselves as a parliamentary organisation that protects public welfare, such as health, from immigrants.”

The terrain giving succour to this politics of scarcity is the failure of neoliberal governance and the incapacity of the postcolonial state. Still, despite its radical dress, the latent demand inherent in right-wing populism today is not for economic redistribution. If anything, it is to obscure class-based antagonism, which would obviate such demands. 

For now, there is little evidence that this rightward shift has popular resonance in South Africa. 

The reality of the state’s absence from so many people’s lives is simply so profound that it is not persuasive to just talk about. 

Even parties like the Economic Freedom Fighters, which some authors have characterised as “black neofascist” or the Democratic Alliance, which increasingly echoes the preoccupations of the country’s white right (such as farm murders), have not made sizeable electoral inroads or are actively losing support. 

Newer formations, such as ActionSA and the Patriotic Alliance, have the upper hand in the discourse but, nonetheless, have yet to find a proper foothold among the South African masses.

So, to herald a fascist danger might come across as alarmist and confused. Still, even if we don’t call it fascism, there is much to worry about in the return of a political vernacular underpinned by blood and soil ethno-nationalism, machismo, obsessions about community decline, law and order, plus the valorisation of violence in political confrontation. 

That reactionary politics today lacks a mass character is what makes it so dangerous. Absent the presentation of any viable alternatives, it is simply the terrain shifting right and the effect of political resignation that will normalise today’s trajectory as the only natural one.

Watching Brazil’s election, all assumed that Lula da Silva would amass a much more substantial lead than Bolsonaro. Again, we assumed automatic support for a progressive social agenda. And, again, we were disappointed. 

As Africa is a Country contributing editor Benjamin Fogel summarises: “The far right is here to stay, it is popular, it controls much of the country and it is a solidified electoral bloc with a clear ideological vision: to dismantle what remains of Brazil’s diminishing state capacity by handing over the country to the police mafias, evangelical capos, big agro and all sorts of other dodgy private interests that form the Bolsonarista support base.”

It is time to wake up to the terrors ahead and to be prepared for a long fight.

This is an edited version of an article first published by Africa is a Country. William Shoki is the deputy editor of Africa is a Country. He is based in Johannesburg.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.