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.