OVER THE PAST several years, if not decades, ghosts of fascism have escaped their 20th-century crypts and come to haunt our present. With the global COVID-19 pandemic, however, we face the prospect of our “Reichstag Fire” moment. The fire was an arson attack on the German legislature exactly four weeks after Adolf Hitler was sworn in as chancellor, allegedly carried out by Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch council communist. The Nazis immediately claimed that the fire was the result of a communist plot and it became the pretext for their seizure of power and total coordination of the state. As was recently pointed out by The Economist, close to a dozen states, from Azerbaijan to Togo, have already used the pandemic to arrogate more power to themselves. Indeed, this development has been particularly visible in Washington, Budapest, and Delhi.
Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, having previously curtailed the autonomy of the courts, has essentially suspended the legislative branch of government until he sees fit, eliminating in the process the key liberal-democratic principle of institutional limits on executive authority — he now rules by decree. The RSS in India — the quasi-fascist Hindu nationalist (Hindutva) force behind Modi — has, in a classically fascistic move, characterized its Islamic “enemy” as the abject carrier of the COVID-19 virus. The hashtags “CoronaJihad” and “BioJihad” have proliferated via Twitter, as Jason Stanley and Federico Finchelstein have recently indicated via Indian journalist Rana Ayyub. The targeting of Muslims comes in the aftermath, of course, of the unconstitutional annexation of Kashmir and changes to the Citizenship Act that explicitly and unapologetically discriminate against this oppressed and reviled minority community. And, in response to uprisings that were sparked by the executions of three Black people by the police or ex-police officers, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, Trump has responded in a characteristically heavy-handed way. Presenting himself as the law-and-order president, he has quoted late racist Miami Police Chief Walter Headley (“when the looting starts the shooting starts”) and has told state governors that protestors must be “dominated.” He has also called on the military to quell the protests, though it has, to date, demurred. Perhaps the defining photo of his presidency will be the image of him outside of St. John’s Episcopal Church holding up a Bible after tear-gassing protestors. Perhaps the ghosts of fascism are now materializing in the “land of the free.”
Be this all as it may, one must always, nevertheless, be careful when using the word “fascism.” The term is often used so indiscriminately — especially on the left — to vilify one’s political opponents that it is in continual danger of losing all meaning. In what sense, then, can we say that what we are witnessing throughout the globe is the reemergence of fascism? Writing in the pages of the New Left Review two years ago, Dylan Riley argued that if we compare 20th-century fascism with contemporary authoritarians such as Trump across four axes (geopolitical context, the relation between class and nation, economic crisis, and the character of civil society and political parties) there is no persuasive evidence that what we are confronted with today is anything approaching fascism. Yet as Samir Amin perceptively argued in 2014, fascism does not have to entirely conform to the 20th-century mold and may be simply understood as comprising two essential elements. The first is that it is the response to the crisis of capitalism. The second is that it constitutes a categorical rejection of “democracy” by way of an appeal to collective identities — often condensed in the figure of a “strong” leader — tied to a notion of the “people.”
The question of the relationship between fascisms past and present has received many different and contested answers. Yet in addressing this question, too few have considered Aimé Césaire’s theory of endocolonialism, or the idea that fascism represents the application of modern European techniques of colonial domination to Europe itself (important exceptions are Hannah Arendt and Enzo Traverso). If we look at the present through that lens, we see how contemporary fascism is grounded in extractivism, and not anti-humanism but post-humanism. Anti-humanism refers to the way in which 20th-century fascism was geared toward, among other things, rolling back the universalist legacy of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Contemporary fascism, in contrast, is based on a “post-humanism” insofar as it is based upon the seeming obsolescence and disposability of entire categories of persons. The present COVID-19 pandemic makes this imminently clear and police murders of Black people drive the point home with particular force.
Present-day fascism takes refuge in the past as such: in a supposedly “great” America before the Civil Rights Act (if not before the Civil War); in an authentic homeland of the Magyars in Hungary; and in a purified India for Hindus (Hindustan). In other words, in an era of its ecologically planned obsolescence, contemporary fascism does not even bother to make claims on the future. There is no new order to speak of, simply a tightening of the existing one ever more rooted in the extraction of resources from the earth and extraction of rent or interest from assets. Indeed, massive financial investments in oil and gas, which today have never looked so precarious, threaten to cancel the future outright by way of “locked-in climate change.” This brings us back to Césaire’s reflection on the deep connection between colonialism and fascism. Just as surplus labor time is extracted by capital from an increasingly internationalized, racialized, and precarious workforce, so too are resources forcibly extracted from the earth via continued forms of primitive accumulation (as Glen Coulthard argues in his book, Red Skin, White Masks). These processes disproportionately affect societies located in the Global South and Indigenous communities across the globe.
We see this even in the willingness of the Canadian state — that model of kumbaya “liberal multiculturalism” — to deploy the logic of the exception to permit ongoing large energy infrastructure projects (hydro, LNG, and bitumen) under conditions of a COVID-19 lockdown. Recalling the weaponization of disease in the earliest days of contact between Indigene and Colonizer, this exception puts already vulnerable Indigenous communities at serious risk of a health catastrophe. The term “endocolonialism” might appear to be inappropriate in the Canadian context which may seem, instead, more like a clear case of settler colonialism. However, what I wish to emphasize is an explicit undermining of aspects of the settler colonial state’s own legal norms — for example the use of an injunction to override the Supreme Court of Canada’s own decisions. In other words, what comes under attack is the rule of law and corresponding overreach of executive power. The same logic can be discerned in the Modi government’s resource-extraction agenda driving the war on India’s tribal peoples (Adivasis) in Chhattisgarh, as well as in Jair Bolsonaro’s iron-fisted developmental program in the Amazon basin.
Endocolonialism is evident in the militarized policing of Indigenous, anti-pipeline resistance movements at Standing Rock and in Wet’suwet’en territory, in British Columbia. As UBC Métis law professor Patricia Barkaskas has recently stated, commenting on a spate of anti-Indigenous police violence in Canada: “We have a long history as Indigenous people with the RCMP as the military arm of the Canadian state that is meant to eradicate us, and those histories don’t disappear.” Endocolonialism also, of course, becomes palpable in the complicity between the police and members of armed far-right militias out patrolling the streets during the ongoing protests against structural inequality, racism, and the over-policing of Black and Brown communities. This is another clear form of endocolonialism in which the repressive arm of the state, militarized police forces, and the national guard constitute literal armies of occupation in predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods.
In contrast to its anti-human 20th-century form, contemporary “post-human” fascism centers on a deepening of resource extraction on the very precipice of massive deskilling of labor, and widespread automation and employment of robotics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence — the prospective obsolescence of humanity itself. Such a logic entails what, in Critique of Black Reason, Achille Mbembe calls the “Becoming Black of the world,” the creation of “abandoned subjects”:
There are no more workers as such. There are only laboring nomads. If yesterday’s drama of the subject was exploitation by capital, the tragedy of the multitude today is that they are unable to be exploited at all. They are abandoned subjects, relegated to the role of a “superfluous humanity.”
This superfluousness now becomes clear as governments, by omission or commission amid the pandemic, put members of society deemed surplus, as well as workers, particularly people of color, at grave risk of contracting or even dying from the virus (a recent UCSF study conducted in San Francisco’s Mission District showed that 95 percent of positive cases were Latinx). Of course, it could be argued that human labor has never appeared more “essential” than in this historical moment. Yet, states are also showing themselves quite willing to put essential workers at such an extreme risk as to even die en masse for want of PPE, for example. MTA conductor and writer Sujatha Gidla reports her co-workers as saying “we are not essential, we are sacrificial.”
In what is taken to be a depiction of the aftermath of a nuclear war in Endgame, Samuel Beckett depicts the destruction of nature as taking a specific spatial configuration in which time itself has seemingly come to a standstill. He represents in unsentimental though often ribald terms the obsolescence of human beings, reduced as they are to mere existence, and subordinated to the inscrutable machinations of geopolitical forces beyond their understanding. The effects of the social division of labor are crippling: Hamm cannot stand; his servant, Clov, cannot sit. “Every man his specialty,” declares Hamm. Once they’ve outlived such social utility, Hamm’s parents are reduced, figuratively, to history’s dustbin, having been confined, literally, to garbage bins.
Today, this painfully calls to mind nursing homes, which have become funeral parlors for the living who await an end to the excruciating game of waiting. Amid this newest aspect of the ecological crisis, states seem prepared to sacrifice the elderly, the infirm, the poor, the indigent, Black and Brown, to the logic of the market. But its domination was always already discernible with each breathless press release from myriad corporate head offices of massive downsizings producing inevitable, dramatic rises in the prices of their shares. The Republican lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, suggested to Tucker Carlson on Fox News that the elderly might consider sacrificing themselves for their grandchildren, which is to say for “the economy.” “Go and see is she dead,” Hamm directs Clov toward his mother. The capitalist market lives on death.
If we take as our definition the classic account of fascism as that revolutionary mass movement composed of an alliance between industrial capital and the petite bourgeoisie ranged against the working class and its political organizations, in the context of imperialist rivalries and capitalist crises of overproduction, then it is far from clear that what we face today can be described as “fascism.” But after the defeat and recomposition of organized labor, a certain ghost of fascism nonetheless continues to haunt our present: there remains precious little resistance to dead labor’s machinic extraction of surplus value from living. Such a defeat clears the way for redoubled colonization and endocolonization, racism, militarism, and, ultimately, war. This is the contemporary face of the ghost of fascism that seems to be quickly materializing.
Yet, as dire as the situation may be, there are hopeful signs of growing labor militancy, as was recently demonstrated by striking workers at Amazon, Instacart, Shipt, and Whole Foods on May Day, who protested what they considered to be their employers’ woefully inadequate responses to the pandemic. The recent uprisings in the United States and across the globe against inequality, systemic racism, and police brutality, particularly against Black and Indigenous people, suggest that meaningful change is afoot amid calls to defund the police. The global health emergency, moreover, has demonstrated that the integrity of societies can be indexed to the prosperity and well-being not of its most affluent but of its most indigent members. It has decisively shown that health care cannot be tied to conditions of employment but must be understood, as Bernie Sanders repeated over and over again in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, as a basic human right. It has highlighted the nihilistic illusions of the “possessive individualism” on which shifting sands of the entire neoliberal order is based. It has seriously revived, with great urgency, the discussion of the admittedly fraught and contested idea of universal basic income. The pandemic has doubtlessly constituted an opening for a further authoritarian consolidation of power built around extractivism, endocolonization, and the becoming superfluous of the human being but, at the same time, it has also opened space for imagining a very different kind of society. Which path we take will be a matter of organizing.
Samir Gandesha is associate professor and director of the Institute for the Humanities at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada. He is the editor of Spectres of Fascism: Historical, Theoretical and International Perspectives (Pluto, 2020).