Eugenics is an ideology which many had hoped is now something spoken of in hushed tones, a sinister intellectual dead-end that was forever abandoned with the fall of Nazism. But, as fascism merely evolved into new forms, so, too, did eugenics.
The Olympics have provided a backdrop for a resurgence of ideas of racial essentialism, with a Channel 4 documentary promising to shed light on the “controversial truth” behind why white men have not won the 100m sprint event in over three decades. In a similar vein, before the men’s 200m final, the BBC ran a short piece discussing eugenics and offered an evolutionary reason to support the perceived success of athletes of West African descent in sprint events. In both, the answer proposed was this: the people who survived slavery could run faster, and therefore their descendants are faster.
The BBC explicitly linked the argument to the old eugenic arguments for selectively breeding people so their offspring will have more “desirable” traits, going so far as to include footage of Hitler at the Berlin Olympics.
Arguments for race essentialism and genetically desirable traits being bred into groups over relatively short periods of time are alive and well, glossing a pseudoscientific veneer over stereotypical beliefs about race. The thinking behind this specific argument is revealing because, when attempting to explain a phenomena relating to Black people, it pivots instantly to slavery as a likely cause as this is, from a white Western perspective, one of the few things that is known about the history of Black people. This instinctive equating of Black people with the slave trade in order to explain the (supposed) anomaly of strong genes ignores the fact that history is littered with examples of the enslavement and slaughter of particular ethnicities or nationalities. Native Americans, aboriginal Australians and Indians descended from the former British Empire, for example, are not disproportionately favoured at the Olympic Games and, because the mass abuse of those groups occupies a less prominent place in Western cultural memory, people are not looking to those events to explain the current genetic properties of those groups. Though at first glance the idea that a mass slaughter event like the African slave trade would leave only those with the strongest genes to survive and reproduce appears scientifically plausible, it is ahistorical, culturally insensitive and based on a poor understanding of Darwinian science. Put simply, the genetic traits that might make a person good at sprinting do nothing to help them survive in the hold of a slave ship or from being killed by a slave owner. We must reject the core idea of this argument that people died during slavery because their genes were weak or unsuited.
In its earlier incarnation, eugenics was accepted by the liberal and socialist left as well as the fascists: outspoken socialist writer H. G. Wells was a proponent, as were many members of the Fabian Society in the early 1900s. In its modern form, this still appears to be so, with people who self-identify as left-wing claiming that we cannot dismiss the science, or that we just need to have this conversation, as unpalatable as it may sound.
When talking about eugenics, it is very difficult to engage in an argument without, implicitly, engaging with the politics behind this school of thought, namely that (1) there are essential differences between people of different races and (2) that selective breeding can amplify or reduce certain traits. This is a discussion which need not be had: even if true (and these arguments have a tendency to be highly fallacious), these points are immaterial.
To endorse the first point is to endorse countless stereotypes, both positive and negative. Proponents should recognise the equally pernicious corollary to this purely genetic explanation for Black success in sport – that genes also explain a lacking intelligence in a Black ‘race’. The temptation to look towards genes rather than social and economic conditions to explain difference should not be confused for ‘progressiveness’, rather it betrays a highly dangerous ontology. We need only look towards history for the logical conclusions of this. Those who seek to suggest eugenics was corrupted by the Nazis ignore the fascism inherent to it.
To dress up the airing of these sentiments in the guise of a debate that needs to happen does nothing more than lend credence to these fascistic tropes.
… one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups. In our time, when the old “proletarians” are becoming petty bourgeois (and the lumpen are largely excluded from the political scene), the fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.
Fascism exists in British society in many forms. Some of these we are historically primed to recognise: the EDL, an often violent street movement based explicitly around ‘defending’ a national identity, is so obviously and overtly fascistic that it frequently serves as a distraction from other forms. Similarly, the increasing militarisation of the police, especially in the capital, fits readily with our common expectations of how state fascism may initially manifest itself. There is another form, though, which demands our attention and, while it has historical precedents, does not necessarily look like what we think fascism looks like (which makes it all the more dangerous). Crucially, it cannot be ghettoised to the ‘far-right’, but dominates centrist and liberal left discourse too. As Eco predicted some years ago, this ‘fascism of tomorrow’ emerges from ideas of majority and socio-economic class.
Fascist ideologies have traditionally been structured around the designation of an ‘in’ group and an ‘out’ group; the ‘legitimate’ and the ‘illegitimate’, ‘us’ and ‘them’. It is not simply enough to highlight difference though; ‘they’ must be shown to be, often by their mere presence, harmful to ‘us’. For those who do not subscribe to these fascistic dichotomies, the ‘out’ group can be considered a scapegoat, blamed for problems they do not create while the legitimate members of society are unified in their opposition. One of the key ways that this separation is currently presented is between tax payers and benefits claimants.
‘Taxpayer’ is perhaps the broadest term possible which still allows for an identifiable ‘out’ group (and so invites proto-fascistic populist majoritarianism) and taxpayers have long existed as an economic ‘class’. We are currently witnessing an increasing trend towards ‘taxpayer’ as a political identity, a label which people readily and proudly adopt for themselves. Unlike the libertarian understanding of this political identity, for example, which holds that the taxpayer is the involuntary victim of an exploitative relationship between state and citizen, or the socialist conception of tax as wealth redistribution providing for the unprivileged, status as a taxpayer in the rhetoric of contemporary fascism takes on an explicitly moral dimension. Being employed and paying taxes are referred to, in the passive-aggressive language of David Cameron, which is rapidly taken up across the political spectrum, as ‘doing the right thing’. It follows, therefore, that failure to pay taxes is doing the wrong thing.
If it seems unfair to consider this to be fascism (or at least to be proto-fascistic), consider it as a product of history. Fascism never died, and so was always going to re-emerge from its relative dormancy in some form. It was inevitable that any fascism that arose at this juncture would be in response to economic crisis, and so would have an explicitly economic dimension. Not only is this a form of fascism, but it is perhaps an inevitable one: all fascisms seek to unite those seen as contributing against those seen as diminishing. These notions of contribution and diminishment are usually more conceptual and metaphorical; people may be accused of helping or harming national security, the sanctity of the family or racial purity, for example. The structures of taxation and state benefits simply provide a literalised form, in which the flow of money betokens one’s worth as citizen.
This fascist approach comes most directly from, or at least is more visible in, the tabloid press. Words such as ‘scroungers’ and ‘cheats’ are consistently used with the apparently deliberate intention of cultivating a widespread sense of hostility from tax payers towards benefits claimants. Of course, salient facts (most benefits claimants also pay tax; much more is lost through corporate tax avoidance than benefit fraud, etc) do not serve as an impediment to the tenacious formation of this fascistic narrative. This overt effort to engender suspicion and resentment in readers reaches its zenith with the Sun’s ‘Beat the Cheat’ campaign (or, in their own language, ‘crusade’). The campaign, in which people are invited to report neighbours and acquaintances who might be committing benefit fraud, is firmly couched in the nationalist rhetoric of helping Britain and the British public by acting against an undesirable minority which is harming them – ‘End Fiddles And We All Benefit’ runs one headline. Similarly, the pun ‘Calls of Duty’ elevates ringing up to inform on others’ behaviour to the level of national service. The accusations of ‘fraud’ that the paper champions as civic duty are often based on little more than seeing someone who claims disability benefits doing something suspiciously active, or even leaving the house at all. The Sun is reinforcing the idea that if someone’s existence is to be subsidised by ‘our’ taxes, ‘we’ have a right to know (and perhaps to dictate) how they should behave (needless to say, this authoritarian moralising is grounded in complete ignorance of the realities of disability). In addition to the direct problem for those who will now be investigated by the Department of Work and Pensions, the effects of this agenda are more far ranging – many disabilities charities have observed a sharp increase in resentment and abuse (including physical assault) on people with disabilities. This hostility focuses on the key tropes of tabloid coverage – that people with disabilities are a burden on (and separate from) tax payers and that they are faking their conditions. The DWP itself seems to be courting this press reaction, strategically releasing benefits figures to enable more stories and tailoring its own rhetoric to better match that of the tabloids. Any contemporary discussion of emergent fascism should consider the viciousness, misinformation and ‘othering’ of benefits claimants, especially those with disabilities, from the government and large sections of the popular press. Despite its unifying agenda, fascism is necessarily divisive.
At a time when there is an apparently deliberate campaign to demonise all benefits claimants, and when this is done through such familiar tropes as the language of disease and impurity, of conceiving some as illegitimate citizens, of presenting certain groups as being the enemies of economic recovery, it must no longer be considered hyperbolic to talk of fascism. This notion, the artificial divide between givers and takers, is one of the most important for understanding the nature of fascism and intolerance in modern times. It exists across the political spectrum, it exists in our own attitudes, and we must resist and challenge it. Various disabled rights groups have adopted the black triangle of the concentration camps as an emblem of the persecution they now feel. An onslaught is being felt across the disabled community and we must recognise it for what it is.
In the run up to London’s Mayoral election, HOPE Not Hate have published and distributed a free paper to spread their message of anti-racism, specifically in opposition to the British National Party. It is an unconvincing response, however, and is riddled with its own prejudices and rampant nationalism. Moreover, it typifies a number of current responses to fascist racism, which fail to consider the root causes of these problems.
“Vote for OUR Britain Not Theirs”
Rather than seeking to counter the BNP’s nationalism, HOPE Not Hate seek merely to replace it with their own – they find nothing objectionable about the notion of articulating and defending a national identity, they just want it to be done on their terms. HOPE Not Hate are, rather than opponents to the BNP’s nationalism, merely rivals to it. Much of this nationalism currently focuses, perhaps inevitably, on sport (as we have observed before), and the paper is saturated with contrived slogans and cliches of nationalist rhetoric; “We Are All Team GB”, “come together behind the Union Jack”, etc. The emphasis on defending British national identity extends into society though, with the quasi-nostalgic fetishisation of “Great British Street Parties” (an increasingly common expression), and the somewhat unsettling vision that “we believe we can change Britain neighbour by neighbour”. Of course, HOPE Not Hate claim only to oppose racism, but we argue that turning to nationalism is an inherently flawed response. The approach of HOPE Not Hate is encapsulated in the claim that:
“For racists, the Olympics must seem like a nightmare, all those athletes of different ethnic backgrounds united behind our flag. Because it’s not their flag – it’s ours.”
In this approach, racial diversity is instrumentalised as a sign of the superiority of one nationalist agenda over the other: the increasingly hostile claims to ownership of the flag betray the same attitudes of division and ‘in groups’ & ‘out groups’ which are inherent in racist, nationalist and fascist thought. The ideological opposition to an external ‘Other’ (ethnic, religious, etc) that forms a linchpin of fascist thinking is reproduced here in national terms.
Focusing on the BNP
One article opens with:
“IMAGINE A BRITAIN run by the British National Party (BNP). It’s hard and it’s frightening and it’s probably unlikely.”
Here is, perhaps, one of the most important issues with current centre left responses to fascism. The BNP are not going to win this London Mayoral election, and are not about to start running the country. This paper, and HOPE Not Hate as a group, are (because of being almost entirely focused on the BNP) not addressing urgent concerns. Fascism, nationalism and racism are not phenomena which exist among small sections of society who helpfully identify themselves by joining certain groups. Rather, they are political forces whose influences can be detected in every official and unofficial political channel and power structure. This is one of the impulses behind our own project; to recognise that to be anti-fascist is not simply to counter the BNP (or similar groups) but rather to critically consider and repudiate fascism as an ideology, no matter who espouses it. HOPE Not Hate wishes to oppose racism and violence at the Mayoral elections and beyond, and yet fails to address the inherent racisms and violences of our current political processes. In responding to the BNP’s divisive politics it presents an impression of unity which is otherwise starkly non-partisan. Perhaps a more useful document, for those who believe that racism can be combated at the ballot box, would have addressed the racial politics of the candidates who actually stand a chance of winning, and accepted that rather than being the unacceptable ideology of an unpopular fringe party, racism is the endemic condition of our society, and must be tackled as such. A country run by the BNP is frightening and probably unlikely; a country which is still firmly in the grip of white hegemony is a frightening reality, and while local electoral politics are not going to change that, it would be appropriate to address the issue.
“HOPE NOT HATE speaks out against all extremism.”
HOPE Not Hate dogmatically occupies the centre ground (and, perhaps, seeks to attract a more conservative audience) with frequent declarations that all forms of extremism are wrong, seeking to counterpose ‘far-right extremists’ and ‘Islamist extremists’ as though there exists an equivalence between the two. This is, obviously, a view which allows for no nuance, no understanding of the nature of violence and bears no relevance to racial antagonisms as they are experienced in people’s daily lives, as it continues to relegate the causes for concern to the peripheries, rather than the core, of our social existence.
HOPE Not Hate assures us that “We will campaign against all extremism and we believe in this we are in tune with the vast majority of society”. Claims to represent the will of the majority in objecting to minority political opinion do not have a particularly noble history, and while we want to avoid any glib comparisons, the overlap between this rhetoric and notions of the ‘silent majority’ and the language of the BNP itself is unavoidable.
It is worth considering the word ‘extremist’. In a political moment marked by protest and civil unrest, the branding of ‘domestic extremist’ is being applied ever more liberally by the state and the media. By echoing this, and by reinforcing the notion that all ‘extremist’ politics are inherently wrong, and equivalent to the EDL or Islamist terrorists, HOPE Not Hate are allowing the continued dismissal of dissenting voices. This is an inherently conservative document; it instructs us that “you do not fight one form of extremism with another”, but its calls for moderacy can do nothing but preserve the status quo, and while the BNP won’t be elected, we are also under no threat of having our existing power structures challenged. Without wishing to be unfair to HOPE Not Hate, any response to racism which is based on a majority’s superiority to a minority is entirely inappropriate, any response which resorts to competing forms of nationalism is dangerous, and any response which locates racism in the extremes rather than addressing it in our own politics is futile.
If we are to critically evaluate the state of fascism in the UK today, we must look at the role played by ‘anti-fascist’ groups. Functionaries of united opposition against fascism serve their capacity in a purely performative sense. In this way, as far as groups such as UAF represent the antithesis to the EDL, BNP and no doubt the newly formed British Freedom Party, they are more rightly termed ‘counter-fascist’ than ‘anti-fascist’ as this is the role that they in fact perform. The primary activities of the UAF, and those with a more militant critique, are composed of reactive responses to fascist demonstrations (though some acknowledge the inherently reactive nature of their tactic). The fascists move first, and the allied opposition move to counter. In a very real sense, like a match day scrap between rival firms, they meet their enemies in the streets to perform a duel, a battle that has been played out many a time before, and each time, just as the last, is merely a battle re-enactment that both sides know well.
No re-enactment would be complete without the appropriate regalia. The aesthetic of modern day fascists, just as that of their historical predecessors, is a caricature; whilst the trope of the past may have been jackboots, fascist costume of today (at least in terms of the EDL et al) is very different, but equally recognisable. Yet, this is a highly naïve form of recognition where class prejudices betray themselves: the ‘Chav’ is demonized far beyond what Owen Jones may imagine. Tracksuit bottoms, a football shirt, the St George’s flag and, above all, the white working class stereotype become the new black shirt. Not only is this popular perception of the modern fascist naïve in its plain prejudice, but also in its failure to recognise a true popular fascism of our time. Nevertheless the aesthetic is there and conceptualised as stated.
The various counter-fascisms have their uniforms too. Some recall the radical history of scuffles between anarchists and fascists and employ the Black Bloc look, while others wear items such as keffiyehs, appropriating the cultural symbols of prominent targets of fascism out of a sense of solidarity. Other costumes are less antagonistic, attempting to present a ‘respectable’ face of anti-fascism – one which reduces it to bland, non-confrontational sloganeering, concerned more with absolving oneself than genuinely tackling fascism.
Beyond the literal costumes of counter-fascists, there is a wider issue of presentation. Counter-fascism is presented as a broad coalition of everyone who is not part of a recognised fascist group; a coalition ranging from the ultra-left to David Cameron (whom UAF can count amongst their founding signatories). This presentation is useful to certain actors within counter-fascism, as it allows the belief that fascism is an aberration, the practice of a small group that can be neatly contained within a police cordon, and not something that permeates into respectable society.
Presented with the costume, stage and protagonists, we of course cannot help but chose sides in this narrative, and of course the only true option is to appoint the counter-fascists as our hero – one we see the flaws in, but nevertheless, the hero. This leaves the fascists with only the role of villain to play. And what a sinister sort they are too. But, it still remains that in this performance, just as in any other, we see the humanity in our villain. Even as it tries to destroy everything that is popularly held to be human, we recognise something that is worthy of understanding – never worthy of a modicum of compassion, but understanding nonetheless. We try to understand why such evil came to be because we must, if only for our own sake, but perhaps also in the hope that a morsel of understanding may rub off onto our villain.
Yet, we have the sense that this performance is now simply a script being animated from memory, never diverging from an extremely formulaic narrative. As each encounter comes and goes we know that only a third protagonist, the state, represented in the performance by the police, continues to gain anything from the rehearsals and re-rehearsals. Whilst encounters between fascists and counter-fascists simply serve to negate one another, for the state each new meeting is a purely creative force that provides the necessary conditions for a continuing extension of its power. When the much anticipated meeting between the EDL and UAF in Tower Hamlets provided Theresa May the pretext to ban protest marches in five London boroughs for an entire month, we saw that the state’s ability to intervene does not represent a victory for either side, nor in fact the communities that counter-fascists suggest they are protecting. Similarly, street mobilisation gives the police their own pretext to extend their power on the ground: the Tower Hamlets protests provided the Met with the opportunity to employ a prefigurative Total Policing, and more historically the Battle of Cable Street lead to the introduction of the Public Order Act 1936.
With this understanding our task becomes abundantly clear: to break out from a iterative process that simply reflects a cyclical exchange of performances and no real victory for combating fascism; to stage a coup de théâtre where a true anti-fascism that recognises that fascism does not manifest itself in the entirely predictable form currently being rehearsed can be developed. We shall not see another Cable Street, a situation where fascism can be defeated on the street, and so there is little point in returning to this physicality that is stuck in its time – beyond the immediate protection of communities.
A debate on abortion is in the process of flaring up. It is a debate which seems to be deliberately provoked by a few specific agents: the Conservative Health Secretary Andrew Lansley and backbench MP Nadine Dorries; the Daily Telegraph (and, inevitably, other elements of the reactionary press) and religious campaign groups such as 40 Days for Life and Abort 67. The suddenness with which the Telegraph’s investigations and the government’s raids have occurred (and the speed with which they are being formally processed), along with the coincidental appearance of anti-abortion protesters in many cities, strikes many (including us) as suspicious, and indicative of a coordinated agenda. It seems that, knowing that legislative efforts to reduce abortion rights will meet strong opposition, pragmatic attempts are being made to limit access to abortions in other ways; by creating an impression that abortion clinics are acting illegally, are putting profit ahead of patient care and are not to be trusted, and by getting doctors suspended and clinics shut down on legal grounds.
The technicalities of these charges can be elaborated elsewhere by other writers; we simply start with the understanding firstly that authorities do not investigate and prosecute all offences with equal enthusiasm, and so the choice to attack abortion providers (and to go looking for offences in places where no complaints have been received) indicates a certain political will; and secondly that in various instances in the past of people attempting to mount a full scale assault on something, they will often start by drawing attention to its most controversial aspects. Few people will object to doctors who are breaking the law being investigated, but from there the anti-abortion agenda can be more firmly established and broadened. This is why Lansley talks of doctors’ “professional and ethical responsibilities”. The emphasis is ours; he just dropped the word in casually along with the concern over professional standards.
A slew of articles are already being published in response to this debate, and further investigation into both abortion providers and their dogmatic opponents will surely follow in the coming weeks. Our concern, of course, is fascism.
When people are arbitrarily throwing around the word ‘fascist’, we must be careful how we tread. It is common for those who support abortion rights to be labelled as ‘pro-abortion’ and to be painted as eugenicists and therefore fascists. Abortion, it is claimed, is a way to engineer a more desirable society by terminating certain potentially problematic potential citizens before they are born. Likelihood of being born with a disability is one reason for termination, the Telegraph’s undercover investigation centred around sex-selective abortion and there are accusations in America (where we have imported a lot of our rhetoric from already) that abortion is a racial issue. The argument runs that abortion allows for a form of social dominance by privileged groups and represents an attempt to breed undesirables out of existence. The problem with this approach, though, is that it views pregnancy not as a personal issue but as a social one, and anti-abortion groups want termination to be a social (read: government or Church) choice, not one made by individual pregnant women. It suggests, even, that women have a duty to continue pregnancies that they don’t want in order to contribute to society. Pregnant women, far from being prospective mothers who must make (and must be allowed to make) their own choices with regards to the continuation of their pregnancy, are reduced to the means by which new citizens are created, their own bodies subordinate to a higher social authority. Though it should be of concern to us that various marginalised social groups are more likely to seek abortion than continue a pregnancy (presumably evidence of social and financial pressures which require urgent attention), to sacrifice women’s individual rights for the sake of a wider social agenda is absolutely fascist.
We see fascism on the rise in the UK, in various forms. Birkbeck students recently mobilised to force an openly fascist candidate to pull out of a student union election. He himself is a proud supporter of 40 Days for Life, the Christian pressure group which protests outside abortion clinics, and joined them in Bloomsbury. This is a trivial detail, but the compatibility of the anti-abortion agenda with other, more obviously recognisable forms of fascism is worth considering. One of the most constant elements of fascism as it has appeared in various places at various times is a focus on ‘the family’, which in practise translates to an attempt to coerce women into traditional maternal roles.
Many fascist regimes banned abortion, including Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany (at least, for “Aryan” babies, the termination of which carried the death penalty) and Franco’s Spain. Indeed, when Hungary’s arguably fascist far right government forced through a new constitution in 2011 they included a clause which critics fear could endanger abortion rights (as well as considering giving extra votes to people with more children). As with recent American legislation, this is couched in terms of extending state protection of the foetus to the within the womb, and similarly regards women as little more than incubators. As with the anti-abortion movement we face today, authoritarian attempts to control women’s access to abortions (and so control the course of their lives) have been balanced with (and facilitated by) propaganda which emphasises the family and indicates that bearing and raising children is a service to the strength of the wider society. This perhaps reached its apotheosis with the Nazis awarding the Cross of Honour of the German Mother to women who had and appropriately raised four or more children, but can be seen much more prosaically throughout modern right wing politics, especially in the religiously motivated anti-abortion movement.
If there has been a hesitancy from pro-choice community to term anti-abortion campaigners as fascist, this is nothing compared to the almost total failure of anti-fascist groups to mobilise around this issue. While ‘anti-fascist’ activism continues its narrow obsession with ultranationalist street movements and political parties, the defence of women’s reproductive rights is inevitably a feminist battle. Of course, many of the same people will be involved in either camp, but the banner under which we choose to fight back is of political significance, and defines the battleground. There is a very real need to address the current anti-abortion movement in terms of its fascism. An assault on women’s reproductive autonomy, either through legislation or more underhand tactics, is an authoritarian attempt to coerce us into certain social roles. Anti-fascism must meet this assault head on.
We are living in a time of economic crisis. History indicates to us that this experience will prompt a rise in political and social Nationalism, expressed in discourse and aesthetics. Why this should be is debatable, but it seems reasonably clear that these Nationalist responses to crisis can be grouped into two types (which we might crudely regard as hostile and benevolent): attempts to reject an internal and/or external ‘other’ (however such a group may be conceptualised), on whom our problems can be blamed, and attempts to unite the citizens in pursuit of the nation’s interests.
Exacerbating the growth of ‘benevolent’ nationalism in Austerity Britain this year is the coincidence of a series traditionally patriotic events, with the rugby Six Nations, the European Football Championships, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics occurring in quick succession (as well as the first flushes of posturing over the referendum on Scottish independence), preceded of course by last year’s Royal Wedding. Union Flag bunting, figured in both sincere and faux-ironic retro deployments, will continue to appear alongside ‘KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON’ variants and commemorative memorabilia of royal events with increasing prominence throughout the early Summer, until clashing awkwardly (perhaps antagonistically) with the first anniversary of last year’s riots in August. British flag designs are currently appearing on an innumerable array of products, sometimes with a wartime, ‘finest hour’ chic and sometimes with post-modern subversions, but more often presented entirely sincerely. To take one example almost at random, Montezuma, a chocolate manufacturer which has traditionally marketed itself on its ethical credentials is now producing a ‘Great British Pudding’ range, “in honour and celebration of being British”, with suitably re-designed packaging.
Though presented as a benign, even apolitical icon, national symbols in daily life denote an often complex set of relationships and assumptions. In understanding the social and political function of these generally harmless images, social psychologist Professor Michael Billig’s notion of the ‘waved’ and ‘unwaved’ flag is useful:
“…one can distinguish between the ways in which national flags are treated. Some are consciously waved and saluted symbols, often accompanied by a pageant of outward emotion. Others – probably the most numerous in the contemporary environment – remain unsaluted and unwaved. They are merely there as symbols, whether on a forecourt or flashed on to a television screen; as such they are given hardly a second glance from day to day.”
Michael Billig, Banal Nationalism
To illustrate this distinction in Britain 2012, the flags will be ‘waved’, that is to say they will be consciously deployed as a patriotic or nationalist image explicitly displayed to demonstrate support for the nation, for us to identify with, at times such as Jubilee celebrations, Olympic events and soldiers’ funerals. The flag appears ‘unwaved’, existing as an unremarkable image in the peripheries of every day thought, on chocolate wrappers, bags, clothing, pens and countless other products, adverts, programs etc. Of course, the flag is only one symbol of the nationalist spirit; the essential sentiment appears in many forms, such as this poster from the Chewing Gum Action Group:
At the crux of it, as well as an obvious reference to Olympic athleticism, is the commonly understood idea that everyone belongs to a nation, and that people should go out of their way to contribute to the well being of ‘theirs’. While it is clearly absurd to regard putting chewing gum in the bin as a demonstration of patriotic values, there is a level on which this does make sense to us; we accept the premise of the advert, which suggests that keeping the streets clean will benefit the nation, and what benefits the nation benefits us all, as citizens.
But what purpose do all these little flags and slogans have? One effect is that they create a cumulative sense of national belonging which translates into a vision of ‘patriotic’ responsibilities (beyond such benign instructions as to Keep Britain Tidy’). Consider, to take one of many examples, the response to Len McCluskey’s recent comments about workers disrupting the Olympics with industrial action in protest over their conditions and the wider program of austerity, and the language used by politicians. David Cameron issued a statement, saying:
“‘The Olympics are a great opportunity for this country to show everything that is great about the United Kingdom and advertise ourselves to the world. It is completely unacceptable and unpatriotic what he [McCluskey] is proposing. Most people in this country, including members of that union, think the Olympics is a great occasion for the country and wouldn’t want to see anything happen that would disrupt it in any way.”
Though it barely needs to be pointed out how politically useful nationalism is to Cameron’s political agenda here, it is worth stating explicitly what he is claiming: workers should accept conditions that they are not happy with, because to take industrial action for improvements would be to harm the nation. In this political rhetoric, the interests of Britain are not the interests of the working class but rather the success of a piece of sporting spectacle.
Calling to mind Samuel Johnson’s scathing epithet that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’, Ed Miliband (the Labour leader, lest we forget), echoed Cameron’s attitude:
“Any threat to the Olympics is totally unacceptable and wrong. This is a celebration for the whole country and must not be disrupted.”
Miliband also caused a minor stir recently when he became an ‘unlikely flag waving champion of British business’, calling for a more prominent ‘Made in Britain’ label on products. His exhortation was odd, though; he did not call for specific action, but rather appealed to a more vague sense of patriotism:
“This is not about a backward-looking Buy British campaign. This is not about making consumers feel bad if they don’t buy products from British business, it’s about something else. We cannot recognise or celebrate our strength in manufacturing unless we know what is designed, invented or made here.”
Miliband is not in a position to demand anything from the public (especially since he does not necessarily buy British himself). He cannot afford to alienate people with specific calls to action, but rather insists on ‘something else’. This ill-defined sentiment that Miliband appeals to is nationalism; the (baseless) idea that we as consumers or citizens should feel some kind of affinity with ‘British’ businesses. It is telling that what Miliband calls for to promote British businesses, rather than a campaign by consumers, is a more prominent symbol – that is, for people to be constantly, subtly, almost subliminally reminded of the ‘Britishness’ of what they buy (and through that to be reminded of the ‘strength’ of the nation). Miliband, perhaps wisely for a nationalist, wants us to understand the products that we buy and use every day through the (relatively arbitrary) prism of nationhood (rather than, say, value, quality, usefulness, environmental impact etc).
What is the ultimate effect of all this nationalism? What is the result of encouraging people to mentally divide things into ‘British’ and ‘not-British’, and of proliferating the Union Flag or other national symbols and slogans? It must be undeniable that one consequence is the rise of ultra-nationalist sentiment on the fringes of accepted patriotism; this emerges as xenophobia, racism and fascism and can be seen in organised groups such as the BNP, the EDL and the Freedom Party. Arguably, these bodies simply push the mainstream discourse of patriotic nationalism to its unsavoury extremes, making overt the implicit subtext of more prosaic, unremarkable forms, and are only able to exist because of the general background of national pride.
This is not the only result of a constantly reproduced sense of nationalism though, and one could make the argument that such a sense is deliberately cultivated. Consider the following posters for BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin, photographed in January at Westminster tube station:
The posters are unremarkable; unobtrusively existing in the periphery of the commuters’ journey, and yet through their use of nationalist symbols they contribute to the constant process by which we are conditioned (and condition ourselves) to identify as British. As the possibility of a war with Iran looms ever closer, it is essential to critically consider the role of national identity in the assertion of state power, and the role of incidental, unremarkable symbols in the assertion of national identity. We do not suggest that there is some Machiavellian conspiracy, from Ed Miliband to the Chewing Gum Action Group, with the intention of setting Britain at war, but rather that the rhetoric of patriotism and national pride which is increasingly underpinning so much of our popular discourse is the same rhetoric that is exploited by fascist groups and governments alike to win support for their cause.
We see, as we watch television and walk around our cities (especially in London), a litany of subtle reminders about our national identity. Though this has long been the case, it has recently risen sharply and continues to rise – whether in the context of austerity restoring our nation or the Olympics enriching it, whether a celebration of monarchist tradition or of capitalist prospects for future growth, the nation (and our role as nationals) is a persistent force in modern life. This nationalism is banal, mundane; it is seldom something we are consciously aware of; and yet it is the same ideological sentiment that leads to mass outpourings of emotion and pageantry. When the British public cheer on an army or a sports team, when they take to the streets in celebration of the Royal family or xenophobic protest, that sentiment does not spring from nowhere. Nationalism exists unnoticed, unremarked on, unchallenged, in a thousand familiar images in a thousand peripheral glimpses in everyone’s daily lives. From time to time the wind will catch the flags, their colours will be proudly waved, and we will see extraordinary eruptions of ultranationalist action.
Surely there can be no easy or definitive answer to this. The term has moved beyond the expressed ideologies of the Partito Nazionale Fascista which ruled Italy from 1922 to 1943 and other self-identified “fascist” groups which were associated with it. Fascism, like great art, is often approached with the mantra “I know it when I see it”, and so a variety of governments, parties and movements have been widely identified as ‘fascist’ based on an interpretation of their politics, practises, rhetoric, aesthetics and so on. In approaching a genuine definition, though, it may be necessary to dispense with specific historical examples and instead attempt to identify the inherent attitudes of fascism which lead it to manifest in the various ways it has. This kind of definition is perhaps more useful for diagnosing proto-fascist tendencies in our current situations; accepting that fascism looks different each time it rears its head, we will fail to recognise its next incarnation if we expect it to conform directly to historical patterns. In a 1995 essay, Umberto Eco defines such tendencies as ‘Ur-Fascism’ or ‘Eternal Fascism’.
“Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier for us if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Blackshirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances — every day, in every part of the world.”
Fascism is a mercurial force; it can coincide with values traditionally ascribed to both the ‘left’ and the ‘right’, it can be reactionary, radical and conservative. Attempts have been made to produce pithy definitions, extended considerations or checklists of characteristics, none of them wholly satisfactory. People have manipulated the term to include their political enemies and excuse their allies; it is uncritically applied to any right wing group, to any nationalist ideals, to any authoritarian government. Someone using the word ‘fascist’ to describe anything other (anything more banal) than Blackshirts or the EDL is likely to be branded hysterical and reactionary, or to fall afoul of Godwin’s law.
Some insight to building an understanding of fascism can come from the word itself. It is derived from the Roman symbol of the ‘fasces’, a bundle of wooden sticks with an axe blade protruding from the middle. We see, in this metaphor, an emphasis on unity and conformity, in the interests of mutual security (a single rod is easily broken, but all the rods bound together are much stronger), all things purposed into a deadly tool of authoritarian discipline. From our own historical perspective, the image of many things bound together provides a useful tool for understanding the way in which disparate, sometimes contradictory ideologies and practices can be found aligned in common purpose, each contributing to a single composite weapon, Fascism.
For these problems with popular usage George Orwell in 1944 reasoned that the term was ‘almost entirely useless’, but as current events constantly draw us back to it we are forced to respond that while there exists a phenomenon which can be defined as fascist, there exists a need for such a term, however problematic. This project does not start with a certain definition of fascism and judge current developments according to it. Rather, an understanding of fascism is an ongoing endeavour which is in informed by that which we see around us.