Every now and again I get an image appearing in my Facebook news feed. It is of a man standing amid a crowd of people making a Nazi salute. His arm is not raised. The caption usually says something like “be this guy”.
What kind of message is conveyed by this photo and accompanying text? The first time I saw it, I thought it reminded me a bit of the Milgram experiment, of the way in which only a few of those tested were able to resist the urging of formal authority figures to inflict pain on subjects, and, when they did, it happened after quite a lot of inner conflict. And so the message of the photo seemed to be: disobey, because that is how you stop evil systems from taking hold.
And then I thought about the photo a bit more. “Be this guy”. This is a person appearing at a particular moment and place in history, in which mass fascist rallies had a purpose to them: they cemented the authority of the leader and the fusión of the united people with the leader, their complete identification with him, their recognition that he was the one who would restore them to freedom and enjoyment and rightful glory. If fascism emerged again as a mass phenomenon, would it take this particular form? I don’t really know.
How did that guy get to “be this guy”? Being “this guy” could mean waiting for a massive wave of violent and totalitarian compulsion to take hold, and then staging your lone, momentary act of disobedience that doesn’t make a jot of difference in the overall scheme of things but immortalises you in a photographic image.
These days, all kinds of things get classified as fascist, because fascism is still considered -in its Nazi form at least, if not in its contemporary Ukranian or Greek forms- as the antithesis of our good society, our liberal democracy, our democratic capitalism.
Whenever the US decides it wants to invade or bomb somewhere or overthrow a government, a whole range of Nazi analogies and comparisons proliferate in media debate. Hence ‘Islamofascism’, or the single transferable Hitler label, applied to Khomeini or Gaddafi or Daniel Ortega or Saddam Hussein or Ahmadinejad or Hugo Chávez. Anyone who stands opposed to this amorphous kind of fascism is always already on our side. That is why right-wing racists with funding from billionaires presented Barack Obama as a Nazi on posters in the United States.
Fascists are the ultimate bad guys, and this creates strange historical confusions. A while ago I watched a Captain America cartoon. In the Captain America comics I used to read in the 1980s, Captain America’s arch enemy was the Red Skull, and the Red Skull was very much a Nazi, with a swastika, on the side of Hitler. The cartoon I saw a while back, which is from the 2000s, represents the Red Skull, at roughly the time of the Second World War, as part of a tentacular force emanating from the general direction of Russia, and engulfing the European continent. The new cartoon version of history has it that there is no difference between the USSR and Nazi Germany, and it uses images eerily similar to how Nazism represented the ‘Judeo-Bolshevik’ threat.
Here in Spain, where the country is ruled by a caste that has never renounced its fascist past, a ‘Nazi’, from the regime point of view-is he or she who publicly blocks the implementation of policies designed to immiserate the working class on behalf of the financial sector.
In this scenario, what does it mean to “be this guy”? When this photo is circulated on social media -without any kind of context- it strongly suggests that “being this guy” means seeing oneself as the solitary hero, the rugged character beloved of liberal individualists and fascists alike. Be a man. Stand out from the crowd. Do your own thing as society goes down the toilet. Be your own unique selling proposition.
In fact, “being this guy” – being unafraid to take a stand and speak one’s mind when everyone else is slavishly toeing the line – is standard fare these days for politicians and commentators who make a living from demonising minorities and calling for political and social repression.
It shouldn’t need to be pointed out that Nazi Germany did not fall due to minor and individualised acts of insubordination, but through an enormous military mobilisation. Confronted with this image, however, this is precisely what needs to be pointed out.
But this image, in the way it gets circulated, invites us to think otherwise: that there is an individual flame of righteousness carried by anyone anywhere, and all that is needed is the willpower to light it.
It is a fantasy that we can ‘be someone’ purely of our own volition. If we find it within ourselves to speak out against something, or stand up against something, it is because others have put it there and developed it with us, out of habits we develop socially, feelings we hold in common with others, social institutions of which we are a part.
The idea one can simply ‘be this guy’ is a ‘product of liberal economic calculus – the basic element of the Nazi-fascist mass‘.