I spent a little time going back and forth with someone who took issue with my single-item list of early warning signs of fascism (the only item on the list was ‘capitalism’). The context for the list was a host of things I’d seen getting shared outlining this or that feature that was supposed to indicate that fascism could be on its way, but none of them made mention of capitalism. This particular individual maintained that there was no evidence for the claim that fascism arises from capitalism, that capitalism was a pre-requisite for fascism.
As it’s Twitter, it is quite easy to ignore the obvious (for example, that there is no fascism pre-dating capitalism, and that fascism has reached its highest expression in capitalist societies) and try to compel your interlocutor to answer things on your terms.
Also, given the brevity of the medium, it is quite difficult to make more elaborate points concerning such things as the class structure of capitalist society and the kind of world-views and orientations that wind up lending support to fascism.
The individual maintained that fascism was in fact anti-capitalist, and, therefore, how could capitalism give rise to fascism? Here, capitalism, by his lights, was not a historically specific social form (the term is Ellen Meiksins Wood’s) but rather an array of certain things -private property, market competitiveness, voluntary exchange (obviously ignoring any consideration of labour power), accumulation of capital- that laid the basis for the kind of society he viewed as desirable.
Moreover, part of the oppression conducted by Nazism in particular, as he saw it, was ‘oppressing and controlling the market’, ‘the market’ thus conceived as the instrument of human freedom.
The anti-capitalist rhetoric of Italian fascism and Nazism was treated as decisive evidence that fascism was anti-capitalist in character (corrollary: fascists always tell the truth) and even when I was pointed out how big business had been supportive of Hitler in the drive to eliminate the labour movement, his contention was that this had nothing to do with capitalism as such.
This kind of stance is a curious mirror image of the kind of criticism often levelled at socialists and communists: such that you can’t get off the hook for atrocities committed in the Soviet Union by claiming that it was not really communism, the insistence being that such societies really were communist and hence any actions carried out there were eo ipso communist.
If, from this viewpoint, the drive to liquidate the labour movement, for example, can be considered nothing to do with capitalism, one can imagine that slavery, colonialist expansion and imperialism can all be treated as by the by as well.
Capitalism, by these lights, is not a system based on class exploitation, but at best a set of instruments, political and economic, by which true freedom is guaranteed. Capitalism and human freedom, then, are roughly one and the same.
All this flies in the face of actual historical evidence, but given formats such as Twitter, the need to consider historical evidence is too all too tedious and trivial.
What prevails from such quarters, in its strongest expression, is the idea of capitalism as a reflection of human nature but one that by its own workings constrains the worst excesses of human nature and tends towards greater freedom. In weaker expressions, capitalism is a system that is good overall but since no system is perfect, there will always be adjustments to be made.
Moreover, if some of these adjustments, historically speaking, had to be won by organised labour and popular mobilisation, it is tacitly understood that there is no need for this kind of business nowadays since market rationality really has everything covered. By the way, this is the kind of argument capitalists made 200 years ago about the need for guilds and the like.
What also comes with this -and such was the case with my interlocutor- was the conception of fascism and communism as two sides of the same coin, or, too use a more popular image nowadays, two ends of the same horseshoe. Both are extreme ideologies into which the proper order may keel if one is not too careful, if one is insufficiently moderate. ‘Both ideologies’, according to him, should be viewed with ‘equal opprobrium’.
I imagine this all sounds quite familiar to a lot of readers, since it really just echoes standard representations in public debate, and prevailing common sense regarding contemporary history.
What was interesting, though, was that the individual in question, when I eventually looked at his bio, was of an atheist-rationalist disposition. And the timeline had a fair few links to stuff about wearing the hijab (bad), Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and also approving stuff about the Liberal Democrats, Ken Clarke on Brexit, some anti-Trump stuff too.
Standing back from it, it is a heady concoction: an atheist liberal centrist disposition that hunts out ‘extreme’ ideologies, seeing them at work in the heads of individuals, at a remove from historically specific material conditions and social arrangements. It is, however, a concoction at work throughout state security forces, political parties, newspapers, social media.
At one point I offered an excerpt from Neumann’s Behemoth to outline the importance of the profit motive in Nazi Germany, and the response was: well he would say that, wouldn’t he? That is, Neumann, a Marxist Jew who had fled the Nazis, was an unreliable source. No doubt any Nazi who read Behemoth would say something similar.
Perhaps the distance between a far-right preoccupied with invading Muslim hordes and ‘Cultural Marxism’, and a ‘centre’ that claims to uphold liberal democracy and moderation, is not as great as we might prefer to think.
What is more, this idea that ideology is mainly a matter of what goes on in people’s heads implies, as Lefebvre has it, ‘the private consciousness’, ‘deprived of a consciousness of the practical, historical and social whole’.
‘Turned back upon himself, secure within some imaginary inner fortress, he is the plaything of every hallucination, every spontaneous or deliberate ideological illusion. The ‘thinker’, self-taught or not, concocts his own little personal philosophy; the ‘non-thinker’ interprets what he reads in books (or preferably in newspapers) as best he can; and then one day individualism begins to collapse (and not as a result of a crisis of ideas or ‘world views’, but because of a material crisis, both economic and political), and these erstwhile individualists rush headlong to form a crowd, a horde, urged on by the most insane, most loathsome, most ferocious ‘ideas’, leaving the last vestige of human reason behind, caught up in a collective mental fever: and we have Fascism, the Fascist ‘masses’ and Fascist ‘organization’.’