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.
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.