The threat of fascism

Violence and unfettered capitalism are destabilising the world.

Fascism is back on the streets, clawing at minorities with bloody nails. The biggest danger, however, comes not from the sad, sick outcasts who are sniping at society from the gutter. There are three threats: street fascism, state fascism and the fascism of credal fanatics. The first is the feeblest. Its recrudescence ought to alert us to the menace of the others.

If we want to contain fascism we have to begin by recognising it for what it is: not just the delusion of a lunatic fringe, but a habit bred by the kind of societies we live in. It is a way of feeling and doing: you know it by the smell of its fear, the stamp of its heel. It cannot be countered by rational argument or repressed by force. Like the dinosaurs, it dies only when the environment changes - the economic climate, the moral ecology. It starts on fringes and in slums but does not stop there: that is how it grew, historically, after the First World War, among demobbed soldiers and victims of recession. A generation later it almost took over the world. Now the same transformation could happen again.

Fascist political strategy works by making disorder worse and cashing in on the reaction. The "white wolves" slaver at the prospect of heavy- handed policing and an over-responsive press. At every bombing, officious bobbies force bystanders off the streets and oblige innocent businesses to close, while newscasters sow fear and advertise violence. Street fascism is not like ordinary thuggery. Instead of the buzz of local notoriety, the gangs are secret. Instead of the thrill of face-to-face terror, they long to be universally feared. This is an important distinction: if fascist cells were like other hoodlums, who flash their savagery and swagger through their neighbourhoods, they would be caught at once. Everyday gang violence has to be brazen to be effective. The bomb kit, however, empowers political hooliganism with a method which is more sly and satisfying to its practitioners.

Furtive hooliganism has the potential to take power through the momentum of terror. The Irish experience shows how effective criminal talents can be in a political cause. The mobsters of the IRA fouled the streets with fear and the Government and security agencies over-reacted in the classic way. The thugs proved that violence could change the way the country was run. They began their job in a laborious way: killing their hate figures, members of the "Prod" elite. They have been able to expand into more effective ways of hurting their enemies: wrenching away their power, savaging their pride and threatening their identity. The fascists in mainland Britain have smaller, cheaper weapons than their Irish exemplars: but all terror- groups start small. Nowadays, an arsenal of everything from poison gas, through Kalashnikovs to homemade atom-bombs, is little more than a mouse- click away.

Compared with the world's successful terrorists, the nail-bombers have a narrow "sea of support" to swim in: but no one should underestimate the potential of racism to mobilise masses, or the power of envy to arouse the poor. Elite opinion hurries our society towards multi-culturalism and moral relativism: stragglers are left, resenting blacks and Asians, mistrusting "alternative lifestyles" and misunderstanding gays. At present, in most of the pluralist West, we are trying to construct just societies by privileging some of the deprived at the expense of the rest. This is creating a constituency for fascism.

So is our economic system. Every time we let the wealth gap widen, we alienate more of the poor, and accelerate the politics of the down escalator. The macro-economic lurches of capitalism elbow losers off the sidewalk. If we want fewer fascists, we must have fewer human failures: les enrages hate society, or select victims for hatred, not usually because they are naturally vicious but because they crave success. In fascist gangs, scum rises to the surface, but we have to recognise that a lot of misdirected, unrecognised and under-exploited talent finds a home in extremist groups.

The fascism of the white underclass is only a small part of the problem. Fascism is not just a white vice: you can and do have black fascists and Islamic fascists. Nor is it just a secular perversion: religious fundamentalism has much in common with it and can edge into it. The "classic" fascism of the pre-war world has been mistaken as anti-religious. Nazis denounced traditional religion precisely because they were in competition with it. Nazism was a new paganism which worshipped blood and soil, a new liturgy with its rituals and chants, a new mysticism with its racial avatars, a new millenniarism with its prophecies of a 1,000-year Reich. Japanese militarism expressed itself in the language of Shinto, with appeals to the sun-goddess and imperial divinity. Franco in Spain showed that fascists and religious traditionalists could be crowded into the same cause. Peron in Argentina combined the rhetorics of fascism and social Catholicism: the voters never spotted the contradictions. Some of the most threatening forms of quasi-fascism today are sanctified by ayatollahs and tele-presbyters. Radical Protestant sects in the "moral majority" proclaim gospels of social discipline and moral uniformity. Some of them supply armed militias or mobilise voters for the extreme right. Like fascism, fundamentalism demands a closed mind and the suspension of critical faculties. It attracts the desperate and the dim. The huge allegiances it commands are proof of the strength of revulsion from moral chaos. When fundamentalists get power, they usually use it to persecute everybody else.

Nor is fascism just a movement of the socially excluded: the biggest threat today is "institutionalised fascism": the "law and order" current in the political mainstream, governments' lust to manipulate opinion, and the state-sponsored or state-exploited rise of nationalism, which feeds on inter-communal hatred. Inside successful democrats, demagogues itch to get out. The moral effects of modern progress have been disappointing. The liberal analysis, which blames barbarism on misery, has been challenged by pessimists who regard human nature as incorrigible. A powerful wave of conservative social philosophers has made us aware of how little politically engineered change can do for society. The most widely familiar form of the debate is trivial: sterile political cross-banter about whether unemployment is responsible for crime and whether the underclass is genetically doomed. At a deeper level, however, the drift of opinion has dangerous implications. Those who begin by deprecating change may end by indicting it. When we lose faith in freedom, we may get fascism instead.

At some levels of government policy- making, we are getting it already. Fascists maintain that violence in the people's interest need not be constrained by law: Nato says the same thing about Kosovo. Whether the blasts are made by smart bombs over Serbia or nail-bags in Brick Lane, you can hear the same evil echoing in the explosions. Every time Jamie Shea goes on the air or Blair and Clinton moralise about their bombs, the gutter-fascists get a lesson in how to justify violence. We already victimise the vulnerable. Refugees are locked out, asylum-seekers locked up, innocent mental patients restrained. Embryos, for extermination and experiment, are the "persecuted minority" of legislatively licensed inhumanity. The sanctity of life, a principle which is our best protection against the ultimate tyranny of the all-powerful state, is widely despised; for human life is regulated by laws of supply and demand, and is cheapened by glut. When we stop striving for life, we license to kill. Looking back from a violent future, the massacre of undesirables will be seen to have started in our own times with the unborn, the elderly, the afflicted and the terminally ill. Death is an attractively cheap way of disposing of the criminal, the unconforming and the otherwise unwanted.

The authoritarian right will start the new millennium with a near-monopoly of moral absolutism. It will have the advantage of the appeal of certainty in an uncertain world. In Europe and North America, political toughs are prospering from public anguish over insecurity in the streets. Copybook- conditions for a fascist revival exist all over the world: frustrated nationalisms, corrupt economies, deracinated populations, discredited ideologies, impover- ished classes. Even in more privileged countries, we depend for survival on rapid revolutions in values and on a pace of change forced by breakneck technology. This is unsettling to most people and bewildering to many. Our complex societies struggle to cope with rising expectations, gigantic and intractable collective projects, and gooseflesh-fears of crime and violence. In these circumstances, it is tempting to predict what will happen: order and social control come to be more highly valued than freedom. Baffling demographic imbalances, unfamiliar ethnic mixtures and terrifying external threats encourage people to turn to "noisy little men" with loud solutions - which include "final solutions". In recoil from the problems of pluralism, people demand uniformity. Trapped in "future shock" by the fear of unprecedented, uncontrollable change, voters reach for deadly certainties, "men of destiny" and prophets of order. A crash programme to a worldly utopia leaves bodies strewn in the streets. We have constructed our society with spaces for fascist cells. We have encouraged the bombers. Now we have to start sweeping up the shrapnel and soaking up the blood: we shall be doing so for a long time.

Felipe Fernndez-Armesto's book 'Millennium' is being made into a television series for CNN and BBC.

Arts and Entertainment
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
Nigel Farage arrives for a hustings event at The Oddfellows Hall in Ramsgate on Tuesday
voicesA defection that shows who has the most to fear from the rise of Ukip
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Life and Style
Brave step: A live collection from Alexander McQueen whose internet show crashed because of high demand
fashionAs the collections start, Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    IT Teacher

    £22000 - £33000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: ICT TeacherLeedsRandstad ...

    Graduate C#.NET Developer (TDD, ASP.NET, SQL)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Graduate C#.NET Developer (TDD, ASP.NET, SQL) Su...

    Junior SQL DBA (SQL Server 2012, T-SQL, SSIS) London - Finance

    £30000 - £33000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior SQL DBA...

    C# Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, MVC-4, HTML5) London

    £35000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Web Develop...

    Day In a Page

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution