Worried about the return of fascism? Six things a dissenter can do in 2016

‘Commentary misses the point: the legitimacy of Trump or Le Pen comes not from the sudden appeal of a new brand of right-wing populism, but their legitimisation by mainstream politics.’

by Ben Hayes via Transnational Institute

2015 was the year that concerns about the return of fascism went mainstream, thanks to the popularity of the likes of Donald Trump, who leads the polls to be the Republican presidential candidate in the US, and Marine Le Pen, whose Front National topped the polls in the first round of the French regional elections (before defeat in the second).

How should we understand and respond to these phenomena?

1. See the bigger picture

For all the liberal soul-searching, most of the commentary missed the key point: the legitimacy of Trump, Le Pen and the like comes not from the sudden appeal of a new brand of right wing populism, but the wider legitimisation of their core views by mainstream politics. Ben White summed this problem up perfectly:


  • When you dehumanised the people of Afghanistan and Iraq so that their fatalities weren’t even worth counting.
  • When you applauded drone attacks on nameless “combat-age men”.
  • When you insisted that we really *must* have an “honest conversation” about “Muslim extremists”.
  • When you asked in total ignorance “where are the Muslim voices condemning X, Y and Z”?
  • When you singled out something called the “Muslim community” as having a “problem” with “radicalisation”.
  • When you justified all of the above by swearing you weren’t against *Islam*, just *Islamism*.
  • Yes, Western liberals, when you did all of this and more, you were the warm up act for the main show now being brought to you by Donald Trump.

Muslims have long borne the brunt of the new fascism, but a greater political decoupling predates their current predicament. Before the collapse of the USSR, Western liberal democracy had to be seen to embody a genuine alternative to Soviet authoritarianism. That included civil liberty, free movement and respect for international law and universal human rights. As Tony Bunyan explained after 9/11, following the triumph of capitalism over communism and the end of the Cold War, the West did not have to live up to these ideals to anything like the same extent, if at all.

And so it was that the “end of history” has been characterised by rampant neoliberalism, a creeping authoritarianism, a hollowing out of democracy, the degradation of international law, and latterly a return to racist populism. Gary Younge and others are spot on in pointing out that Trump and his ilk are the product of this shift, not the cause. Until the mainstream recognises this, the neo-fascists will continue their ascent.

2. Resist the “war on terror“

The declaration of a global “war on terror” was a blank cheque to proto-fascist democracies and dictatorships everywhere. With too many of the guardians of the international legal order now more concerned with devising and disseminating international “counter-terrorism” standards than the founding principles of the UN or EU Treaties they are supposed to uphold, it is the gift that keeps on giving. But in failing to seek or find international consensus on what “terrorism” does and does not entail, we have simultaneously empowered governments across the world with new tools of political repression and left those governments entirely at liberty to decide who the “terrorists” are.

At a stroke, the GWOT thus legitimised Israel’s occupation and apartheid in Palestine, Sri Lanka’s merciless extermination of the Tamil Tigers, Turkey’s relentless attacks on legitimate Kurdish demands for basic self-determination, even Saudi Arabia’s beheading of its political opponents (to name but a fraction of those cashing-in on George Dubya’s largesse). The flagrant disregard for international law and human rights statutes in the name of counter-terrorism by Western countries is particularly ironic given those statutes are the very product of the “flagrant violation of human rights by Nazi and Fascist countries [which] sowed the seeds of the last world war”.

While counter-terrorism has become a servant of tyranny, the narratives underpinning the “war on terror” have filled the troughs of the neo-fascists. Arun Kundnani has demonstrated with peerless clarity the way in which government counter-terrorism messages have developed in symbiosis with the reinvention of neo-Nazism as a “counter-Jihadist” movement. With the emergence of the Islamic State group and the morphing of the “war on terror” into a wider (and much more pernicious) “war on extremism”, their messages are increasingly one and the same.


  • There are two kinds of Muslims: moderates who practise their religion in a peaceful way and share our values, and extremists/Islamists who interpret Islam as a political ideology, believe in rejecting our values and aim to impose sharia law on Muslims and non‐Muslims;
  • Political correctness and multicultural tolerance have weakened the defence of our values and thereby aided extremist Muslims;
  • We have suffered terrorism because of Islamist extremism;
  • We now need to put aside multicultural sensitivities and be tougher in opposing Islamist extremism.

This crib sheet is now shared by democrats, racists and fascists everywhere. If we want to counter the appeal of the latter, we have to start with the embrace of the “war on terror” by the former. This includes the outright rejection of Bush’s greatest triumph: the premise that “you’re either with us or with the terrorists”. Oppose the bombing of Syria? You’re a “terrorist sympathiser”. Believe that the prosecution of the “war on terror” (at home and abroad) is itself among the drivers of “radicalisation”? You’re an “apologist”. Uncomfortable with the glorification of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons? You’re a “victim-blamer” (who hates freedom).

The endless reinforcing of these preposterous binaries by populist politicians, the gutter press and an army of “terrorologists” is creating a political culture that cannot tolerate any discussion its of own culpability in helping to fuel the very things it claims to counter. The problem we face after 15 years is not just that the “war on terror” is as intellectually bankrupt and counter-productive as ever, but that the censorship and repression it has spawned has now permeated our universities, the arts and even our playgrounds. This is what a “war on extremism” looks like – and this where it leads. Dissent and you too must be an extremist who should fall in line.

It is something of an aside, but when your own citizens can’t express religious or ideological beliefs, or study or debate terrorism without fear of a visit from the police, forcing a parliamentary debate on banning Donald Trump from Britain for his vile politics is the hollowest of victories for anti-fascism. Ban the poisonous shitweasel by all means, just don’t be surprised when today’s “no platform” politics forms the basis of tomorrow’s immigration policy. Oops, spoke to soon.

3. Demand rights for refugees

Among the stand-out high points for progressive politics in Europe in 2015 was the outpouring of solidarity towards refugees. European citizens who organised transport, delivered aid, and declared refugees welcome in their millions. All of this while their elites – with honourable exceptions – consigned the progressive ideals on which the European Union was founded to the dustbin by continuing the pandering to the Far Right that created “Fortress Europe” in the first place. In doing so, they took European immigration policies much closer to their logical, nationalist destination.

Yet as beautiful as it is to see ordinary people acting with such humanity, our charity is a mere a sticking plaster on a gaping wound inflicted by racist politics. As Steve Cohen argued a decade ago in Standing on the Shoulders of Fascism, there is a linear ideological and political connection between the popular acceptance of the brutality and repression of immigration controls and the softening-up process that that enables other authoritarian legislation to be enacted.

Right now refugees need political change more than loose change. The outpouring of solidarity toward them provides a foundation that must now coalesce around political demands for rights and justice. This means nothing less than full respect for the rights to which they are entitled under the Geneva Convention on Refugees to seek and find asylum. The alternative is a world in which that convention continues to hurtle towards the shredder.

4. Deliver for Ed Snowden

History tells us that fascists arrive promising to sort out your immigrant problem before occupying and expanding the coercive arms of the state and stripping back the checks and balances that restrain their innate authoritarianism. So if you are at all worried about the return of fascism, probably wise not to entrust the most powerful surveillance apparatus the world has ever seen to the would be fascist rulers of the 2020s.

Why anyone who cares about democracy and human rights would trust today’s generation of sprawling, secret intelligence agencies with the unchecked powers of Orwell’s nightmares is beyond me (because of things like e.g. this, this and this). But I’ve met far too many people who either do hold that trust or don’t care enough to believe that in the current climate anyone other than software developers and principled tech companies are capable of giving Edward Snowden anything like the legacy his revelations deserve. This is because the balance of political and economic power is so massively weighted in favour of mass surveillance.

Support the organisations fighting surveillance and avail yourself of privacy enhancing technologies – or just sit there feeding the surveillance machine. Just don’t do anything naughty.

5. Beware the boots on the ground

Walking around Paris in December I was shocked if not especially surprised by the sheer number of heavily armed soldiers and Front National posters. As France moves to change its constitution to accommodate the demands of its state of emergency – with the support of all main political parties – you don’t have to be a political scientist to see the direction of travel.

Of course, France is but a terrorist atrocity or two ahead of its EU counterparts, and those who orchestrate such atrocities know this perfectly well. They know too that the far right marched from strength to strength in 2015, and seeks to use democracy to destroy democracy. So when the next horror show materialises, we would do well to think very carefully whose interests our responses serve, and act accordingly.

6. Confront fascism on the streets

“There are so many Nazis, I’ve come out because I want to stop them,” said a teenager on an anti-fasicst demo at the weekend. “If their side gets bigger, our side needs to”. And so it must.

This article was prepared for the Transnational Institute’s “Outlook for 2016”