A global rise in fascism and other forms of nationalistic authoritarianism is a rather predictable phenomenon in a world moving towards ecological and economic collapse caused by an extractivist capitalism that is unsustainable for both people and the planet. As the world economy becomes more and more unstable and as our natural environment and the climate become more and more hostile to a flourishing human civilization, leading to increasing conflict from climate change induced scarcity; it becomes easier to move people with the propaganda of fear and even hate. The desire among many for “strong” authoritarian leaders who will protect them and provide quick and simple solutions to their problems and fears grows stronger as they long for a greatness that they perceived has been lost in a world that feels more and more uncertain, unsafe, and chaotic.
The compelling message of fascism in times like ours is that it creates simple explanations of the challenges we face that build on inherent racism and prejudices in society while providing simple (though most often extremely evil) solutions to those challenges. Fascism promises to protect the “people” from the “other.” It is always the “other” – other religions, other races, other ways of thinking, that are responsible for what is wrong. If the “people” just ban together and control or eradicate the other, then the problems will dissipate they are told. The “other” is responsible for our economic problems, for taking our jobs, for our crime and violence they are told. It is all based on a lie, a big lie, yet is a rather simple lie, a lie that a large number of people are ready and willing to believe.
We have seen the effectiveness of the big lie of fascism before in the 30s and 40s of the 20th Century. In a time of deep economic insecurity, in a country of deep racism and antisemitism that had been decimated by World War I, Hitler used the German “people’s” longing for a lost greatness to get them to believe his big lie that he could fix Germany by getting the people working again and by solving the “Jewish Problem.” The Jews are not good people he told the German people; they are not really Germans he told them; they are the cause of our problems he told them; if we eradicate the Jews, it will make Germany great again he told them; and the white Christian Germans followed Hitler down the path of ever increasing evil towards the Jewish people and others – suppression of the press, forced public identification and tracking of persecuted groups, restricted areas of living and movement, forced deportation, detention camps, concentration camps, slave labor, starvation, torture, firing squads, gas chambers.
As Hannah Arendt, the 20th Century philosopher and historian of totalitarianism, writes, “It was the nature of the Nazi movement that it kept moving, becoming more radical with each passing month, but one of the outstanding characteristics of its members was that psychologically they tended to be always one step behind the movement – that they had the greatest difficulty in keeping up with it, or, as Hitler used to phrase it, they they could not ‘jump over their own shadow’ ” (Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 63). Whether its followers were a step behind or not, we all know that the Nazi movement quickly led them to some of the worst expressions of evil ever experienced in the history of humankind; and this expression of fascism was only defeated through a second World War and at the cost of millions of lives.
The current form of fascism being led and encouraged by the President of the United States and being emboldened globally by the president and his supporters has already moved into the stages of attacking the press, scapegoating other ethnic groups and persons of other religions, implementing travel bans, increasing forced deportations, creating detention camps, the emboldening of fascist organizations and activities, attacking the rights and equality of persons who are LGBTQIA, increasing violence against Muslims and Jews, and even the separating of children from their parents at our borders. The current fascist movement in the United States and around the world is becoming more radical with each passing month, and perhaps the typical MAGA devotees are still psychologically one step behind the movement, unable to jump over the shadow of their MAGA caps, but the movement keeps progressing to more radical and dangerous levels nonetheless.
We know from history that the only way fascism was defeated in the last century was through a horrific World War, It is difficult to know when or how fascism of the 20th Century could have been stopped before it gained its grip on power and made war inevitable. What we do know is that no other compelling vision or political strategy was able to convince or empower the German people and the people of Germany’s fascist allies to reject and overcome fascism internally before it was too late.
This is the great challenge we face today – how do we overcome fascism internally before it becomes too late to do so peacefully and through constitutionally prescribed political processes? How do we create effective political strategies and a compelling vision of a new way to be as a people that will address the economic uncertainties and ecological challenges that are leading so many people to listen to the message of fear and hate rather than the message of hope and love?
One thing is certain, we will not be able to fight fascism by simply doubling down on an adherence to economic and political systems that are leading the world to both economic and ecological collapse. Capitalism may have been effective at creating tremendous wealth and economic growth, but it has done so in a way that has treated non-human life, our ecological community, and often people themselves merely as commodities while ignoring the limits of the carrying capacity of the planet. Whatever benefits of economic growth capitalism has created are greatly overshadowed by the sixth great extinction and climate chaos it is unleashing on our world.
If the political answer to the rise of global fascism is simply more of the same extractivist and unsustainable capitalism, things are only going to get worse… a lot worse, and more and more people will be drawn to more extreme and often evil solutions to our problems. If we cannot figure out how to live within our planetary means and maintain a livable climate, the evils of the 20th Century might end up being eclipsed by the evils of the 21st.