Pretend language of democracy

Thomas Klikauer and Norman Simms see the ugly old face of classic fascism behind the new social media veneer.

A man with first-hand knowledge of fascism and Nazism, Primo Levi, once said that 21st century fascism will be different from the 20th century fascism we know. Next to Chile under the mass torturer, Augusto Pinochet, the three foremost places where old fascism and Nazism came forth were Italy, Germany and Spain (a mixture of Catholicism and fascism). Francisco Franco and his dictadura franquista are commonly seen as representing a somewhat milder version of German and Italian fascism, but, as some historians have argued, the clerical fascists killed more people in the first few months after taking power than Germany’s Nazis did in their initial period in power - in fact, recent estimates suggest that 300,000 people were murdered.

Perhaps one of the striking differences between the old and new forms of fascism is the possibility of working within existing social structures, as the philosopher, Theodor Adorno, opined. In Adorno’s home country of Germany, this possibility came to the fore in the 1950s, when the openly neo-fascist Socialist Reich Party made its appearance. The SRP was followed by many other neo-Nazi parties in Germany, including the most notorious and successful National Democratic Party. The NPD was thriving until the Alternative for Germany appeared in 2015. Founded in 2013 and gaining popularity in the wake of Germany’s positive and successful refugee policy (2015), the AfD fully arrived in 2017, when a member of the party was elected to Germany’s federal parliament.

Moreover, modern fascism is not just transnational: it also has transhistorical features, as it shows its new, but yet familiarly ugly, face again in the 21st century.1 The mask of ‘populism’ has proved to be very transparent. While old-fashioned fascism had anti-Semitism and anti-communism as the main elements at its ideological core, today’s fascism has dropped anti-communism as a defining element. This is, of course, because communism - in the form of a strong, internationalist mass movement, well-organised trade unions and a solid party mechanism - ceased to exist with the fall and disappearance of the Soviet Union. Unlike Italy during the 1920s and Germany and Spain in the 1930s, contemporary communism no longer poses a serious threat to capitalism and the state institutions that secure its existence.

Apart from the decline of anti-communism, new fascism also differs from rightwing populism and cannot be taken as its synonym. Populism might be seen as a movement setting the pure people - in the German case, the Aryan Volksgemeinschaft - against a corrupt elite. However, the new fascism refers to more than a way of expressing populism’s propaganda methods. In fact, populism can be characterised as just that: a cluster of propaganda methods, and therefore more a style than a substantial political strategy. It cannot be credited with a full political ideology. By contrast, both new and old fascism do have very serious ideologies. For example, the new version of fascism reaches beyond rightwing populism’s xenophobia. Moreover, while rightwing populism will be found mostly in line with neoliberalism (eg, dominating markets with a weak state), the new fascism favours a strong, authoritarian state - something many rightwing populists detest.

Unlike rightwing populism, old and new fascism always drags along with it the idea of a national or, ideally, racial community. Like old fascism, new fascism puts forward a goal for a new racial community, based on a reawakened nation. Therefore, new fascism emerges as politically reactionary and socially regressive, since it wants to restore a so-called lost sovereignty based on the strength of racial purity. It also features economic protectionism, while defending an elusive (mythical) national identity - and claiming that such a race-based identity is under threat. Because of that threat, protection of the traditional ideal justifies violence. This is the white community that features in supremacist and in nationalistic slogans, and which speaks both explicitly and in the coded language of anti-Semitism.

New fascism’s racism and nationalism has the idea of the so-called ‘great replacement’ (Umvolkung) at its core. In Germany this is supposed to be a historical truism, embedded in the familiar symbols of the Aryan nation. In the recent American version, it also appeared in the gathering of white-nationalist, Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the thugs marched with blazing candles, carried banners proclaiming their hatred of the Jews and shouted, “You will not replace us!” Those were the would-be Nazis that Donald Trump called nice guys. In Europe, in sharp contrast to old fascism, the new fascists hardly come dressed up as Nazis. They no longer sport black shirts (Italy) or brown shirts (Germany). They do not wear uniforms at all, and may appear in business suits (ironically made by the very people they despise). This reflects a historic shift as much as an awareness of an impending marginalisation of new fascism, were they to show too many open similarities with old fascism. These dangerous folk are, in other words, wolves in sheeps’ clothing.

Identity politics

Today there is no newspaper called Stürmer or Völkischer Beobachter to publish openly racist screeds - and no Hitler screaming about eradicating the Jewish race in Europe or Mussolini bombastically thundering his hateful venom. Instead, new fascism employs political consultants, marketing experts and PR specialists. This new, slick fascism uses rafts of internet services to transmit its ideology. And it has also shifted from simple nationalism toward a national identity based on whiteness and race. As a consequence, we see the rise of the neo-fascist with a variety of names, and yet just below the surface there is the same old, same old vitriolic nonsense. You only have to listen for a moment to see right through to the core of their obnoxious values. As they say, a leopard cannot change its spots.

Yet new fascism skilfully seems to draw on the trendy modern (or post-modernist) concept of identity politics. For all its talk about globalism, multiculturalism and post-colonialism, identity politics, in this sense, is still a race-based and nationalistic form of exclusivity - an irrational notion of ‘pure’ identity is mixed by the new fascists with nostalgia for the Third Reich, the Romano-imperialism of Mussolini and the Catholic-fascistic order in Spain. Of course, all this comes with a strong dose of enemy ideology in the form of ‘us versus them’. It is a cuckoo concept of the civilised versus the primitive - ‘cuckoo’ because these grandiose terms have no depth and merely signal white versus coloured - and German, Italian and other white peoples versus foreigners, refugees and migrants. The new fascism lives in and feasts upon such political demagogueries. Everything is skin-deep, and has the same old putrid stench of self-deluded hatred as the pseudo-science of racial politics or the fake Romantic nationalisms of the 19th century always had. Nothing has changed except the most superficial, cheap varnish - you do not even have to scratch the surface to see that the patterns of hate have not changed either. Whether in the old fascism or the new, hatred remains a constant.

Thus the Great Leader in the White House defines as “very fine people” the followers of the new fascism - similar to “des gens très bien”, who, Alexandre Jardin reminds us, cooperated with the folk in Vichy and the Germans in Paris. These types are the nationalists, the anti-feminists, the homophobic, xenophobic patriots and the anti-Semitic protectors of civic order - with, let us not forget to add, a marked hostility towards the enlightenment, modernity, modern art, ecology and intellectualism. Nowadays, new fascism has added Islamophobia to old fascism’s anti-Semitism. Both modalities of hatred remain key defining factors of the new version. To Treitschke’s The Jews are our misfortune (Die Juden sind unser Unglück - 1879) the eternal migrant from the east has been added.

Of course, old fascism tormented and tortured Jews, communists, socialists, anarchists, gypsies, the handicapped, homosexuals ... in other words, virtually anyone who did not fit in with the purity of a Volksgemeinschaft - or Mussolini’s Italy renewed to Roman glory, or Franco’s clerical-fascistic Spain. When asked about his programme, Il Duce simply replied: “It is to break the bones of the democrats … and, the sooner, the better!” Brutality and torture had long been part of old fascism. As the philosopher, Jean Améry, once said, “It was precisely in torture that the Third Reich materialised.” New fascism is different - well, at least, so far. Until now, it has not opened concentration camps and run a regime of torture. And yet there is that horrendous case of the torture of a young Jewish man lured into the flat of a young migrant female and there beaten to death over a period of several days by her brothers, cousins and friends. No, we must admit, anti-Semitism has not yet died, not even in the birthplace of ‘Liberty, Fraternity and Equality’ - to wit, France.

Violence, brutality and torture divide the new from the old fascism, just as with the idea of imperial fascism versus occupation fascism. Imperial fascism is the conquering variety, the one that seeks Lebensraum, a living space for its Aryans, with other people either enslaved or exterminated - what we today call ‘ethnically cleansed’. By contrast, occupation fascism reveals itself as a form of government that assists the invading fascism: eg, Marshall Pétain’s Vichy in France and Mikloś Horthy’s regency in Hungary. Viewed from the imperialist-occupation standpoint, the new fascism is akin to neither. Nor does the new fascism seek to invade neighbouring countries - at least not openly. New fascism is less aggressive in military terms compared to its old-fashioned form.

Still, if old fascism offered an alternative to the historical crisis of liberal democracy during the 1930s, today’s new fascism works towards deepening the crisis of democracy. Recently, Freedom House called it “Democracy in retreat”.2 New fascism offers itself as an alternative to democracy. Not surprisingly, Germany’s semi-fascist AfD has labelled itself the “alternative” - in reality to democracy (although the AfD would always deny being against democracy, in the same way as Hitler did - until January 1933, of course). New fascism’s relationship to democracy remains instrumental. The key to understanding it actually comes from a prime representatives of the old fascism: none other than Joseph Goebbels. New fascism subscribes to Goebbels’ statement: “It will always remain one of the best jokes of democracy, that it gave its deadly enemies the means by which it was destroyed.” This is the whispered strategy of new fascism.

Nice people

Just like old fascism, new fascism too is not based on violence alone, verbal or otherwise. Old fascism and new fascism operate with the notion that what is denied can be done, so long as no-one questions the authenticity of the disavowal. In this way, new fascism is joined to sections of what it calls the silent majority. As a profile, a typical new fascist supporter might be someone who tends to be an older man, living in the countryside with limited income and educational experiences, but with internet access: he sees what he wants to see and hears what he wants to hear. Unlike social elitism, old and new fascism are systems of subterfuge, obfuscation and coded language. Everyone can fool themselves into believing - and butter (or whale blubber) wouldn’t melt in their mouths - that they are such nice people.

This kind of mass support is engineered by defining new fascism largely in negative terms: by what it obviously is not, and not by what its proponents actually say and do. New fascism is anti-liberal - and that’s OK, because you don’t have to hurt or insult anyone openly. It talks of itself as a vague and unexplained alternative to liberalism (which has been turned into a bad word that polite people do not use), and yet new fascism remains anti-communist, has a deep anti-female-gender bias, is anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-democratic, anti-individualist, anti-Semitic, anti-enlightenment and anti-intellectual. You can add as many more ‘antis’ as you like, so long as you do not have to say them out loud. The ‘nice people’ will know what you mean.

Essentially, the new fascism over-glorifies a racist and nationalistic culture - a culture of action, not of thought or critical deliberation. It fancies a culture of he-men (Übermenschen), of street battles and of manly (bully) fighting. Still, the street fights and thug brutalities of old fascism have largely been replaced. New fascism favours media battles for the stage on which to fight against today’s open, liberal and democratic culture. The new fascism seeks to install a fascist culture and so replace the politically correct. Today, new fascism mostly operates without the actual brutalisation of people, even though there has been a marked increase in the brutalisation of language and discourse, as well as of open debate and democratic exchanges under new fascism.3 Such a debasement of language and a deliberate manipulation of the visual media is followed by a brutalisation of people. It follows the old saying: “At first they burn the books, then they burn the people.” This was the trajectory of old fascism’s rise to power.

In this Kulturkampf (battle for the heart and soul of the people and the nation) of new fascism, electronic and digital communication, together with rightwing conspiracy myths4 (which actually are subversive and corrosive forces - especially when ordinary people have been ill-educated in the ways of propaganda and lulled into the false belief that social platforms and public broadcasters are objective and fair) have become key elements in this struggle. Where old fascism found its raison d’être in an outright rejection of 18th and 19th century enlightenment and science, new fascism rejects everything since the Paris events in 1968 - that year marking the birth of postmodernism, the new left and the educational and social reforms of a me-culture. Those were the years of the student revolts in the late 1960s.

Inside new fascism, this revolt created a deep hatred against many cultural, social and political achievements. For that reason, rightwing extremists detest 1968. New fascists seek a regression to the supposedly glorious days before 1968 and preferably a return to something even further back - just as old-fashioned fascists wanted to return to everything before 1789, the year of the French Revolution.

In such a return to the hyper-glorified ‘good old days’, new fascism runs on a mixture of racism, anti-Semitism, authoritarianism and conservatism. Even though many standard conservative ideologies might reject this mix, new fascism is nothing less than an extremely reactionary form of political conservatism. Both old and new fascism pan out as extremist versions of conservatism. How so? Historically, it was a German conservative, Franz von Papen (1879-1969), who appointed Adolf Hitler as Reichskanzler in 1933, even when the National Socialists lacked a parliamentary majority. And it was a conservative - the much-respected Reichspräsident, Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934), who backed Hitler’s rise to power.


Still we have to acknowledge that there are basic differences between conservatism and new fascism. Traditional conservatism seeks a passive - indeed an asphyxiated and static - society. Societies come to a complete standstill in the nightmarish hallucinations of traditional conservatism, which wants to preserve the status quo. By contrast, new fascism is reactionary. It wants to turn back the wheel of progress, imagining the rather illusive ideology of so-called traditional values.

Under new fascism, at least in their dreams (which are the same as their speeches), these supposedly age-old values will no longer need to be enforced through violence, because there is only one blood-soaked soil, one homogenous people and one mythical leader. As far as one can tell, if one were only to pay attention to their pious wishes and idealised policies, violence in the form of mass repression, torture chambers and extermination policies are no longer part of new fascism. The leaders of this movement know that to advocate a repeat of them would alienate a substantial group of voters and supporters. This is an extra layer of duplicity and self-delusion, added to the usual masquerade of ultra-rightist parties.

Since so many elements of old fascism have been inscribed into the national and even democratic heritage of the post-fascist years in Italy, Germany and Spain, today’s new fascism is able to utilise the underlying structures of language, imagery and gesture still found by scientific experiments to be operative at the unconscious level of behaviour and feeling/expression. Building on these subliminal structures, the new fascism is able to rehabilitate many elements of old fascism without openly advocating a return to Nazism and other brands of such authoritarian movements. As such, new fascism includes anti-Semitism, holocaust denial, the glorification of World War II as a purely militaristic experience and of its soldiers (on both sides, except for the Red Army) and a nostalgic romanticism for a past that never really existed. Simultaneously, to turn irony into grotesquery, one of new fascism’s key enemies - anti-fascism - is relentlessly attacked.

New fascism even uses the coded language of fascism to associate anti-fascism with discredited old fascism. It talks of, for example, “red fascism” when seeking to attack anti-fascism. Then it accuses anti-fascists of using fascistic means in its attempts to call attention to and oppose the horrible implications of their own words and deeds. In short, new fascism does everything possible to blur the lines between new fascism and anti-fascism in order to make new fascism acceptable - it amounts to the mainstreaming of fascism. We see this daily in the way Donald Trump tweets out insults and barks twisted pseudo-historical generalisations, each time projecting on others (scapegoats) his own faults and failings and trying to obfuscate and divert attention away from the crimes he commits in office.5 Of course, in a milder tone, compared to the 1930s, new fascism exploits, even as it seeks to create more, divisions among those opposing it.

In the 1930s, old fascism utilised a split between communists and social democrats. Today’s new fascism uses tensions between social democratic parties and more progressive parties, like Germany’s Die Linke or the Greens. Just before old fascism took over in 1933, one of Germany’s finest statesmen, Carl von Ossietzky (1889-1938) strongly argued for the coming together of communists and social democrats in order to fight fascism. Neither communists nor social democrats, tragically, were prepared to join forces in order to fight the rise of Hitler. Not long after, both parties paid a bitter price, with their comrades being tortured to death next to one another by Hitler’s SA.

This is something democrats need to keep in mind. When faced with new fascism, democratic parties cannot afford to make the same mistake again, otherwise new fascism - as a pernicious and reactionary form of anti-modernism - will inevitably take over. New fascism will install a totalitarian regime based on race and national identity. This will be the race-based and deeply anti-Semitic state the National Socialists established to last for a thousand years - the völkische Staat.

The new fascist state will certainly be a monolithic entity to the exclusion of anyone not seen as white and Aryan. Those despised outsiders, refugees and cultural minorities, Hitler’s Untermenschen, will be incarcerated, expelled or extinguished. In Germany’s version of new fascism, this has already been expressed by the AfD through the suggestion that refugees should be shot at borders. In other cases, men, women and children who were defined as undocumented were imprisoned as “illegal immigrants”, as Trump decreed at the US-Mexican border. Dehumanisation and demonisation of the other is deeply ingrained in new fascism, especially along racial hierarchies.

Old and new fascism do not differ in their willingness to destroy the heritage of Europe’s enlightenment, along with its Kantian tradition of modernity, rationality, tolerance, openness, liberalism, pluralism, universalism and, above all, humanism. Like the fascism of the 1930s, the new fascism of our own day is not inclined towards the free market. A free and open marketplace is precarious and could easily hand itself and humanity over to the ruthless dictates of what Friedrich Hayek calls neoliberalism. Though the new fascism is not following this ideology of a radical, neoliberal economy (nor any other systematic ideology), it prefers the ideal of a strong, ethnically-cleansed and authoritarian state - not the total market. In Theodor Adorno’s words, this is the closed space in which the individual’s function is to serve the fascist state.

In conclusion, new fascism and old fascism are not the same. In a way, new fascism has ‘modernised’ itself even though it remains a deeply anti-modern force. New fascism no longer operates with swastika flags, torch-marches, uniforms, street brutalities and the like. This is not to say that hard-core neo-Nazis to not do that - they do. But in new fascism’s modernised version, it has become less focused on violence and brutality - or at least wants the world to think so. It no longer comes to rallies in uniforms. Instead, it speaks the pretend language of democracy, play-acts normality to participate in the democratic process, acts as if it were following established rules, showcases an eagerness to debate issues with other parties, waits its turn to come to power, insists on free speech for all (that is, itself) and so on.

In the end, new fascism operates within a range of deceptive manipulations in order to hide its deeply fascistic character. But it can be discovered by listening closely to the tones in its speech and can be smelt by the stench of its ideals.

Thomas Klikauer’s forthcoming book on the AfD will be published shortly, as will Norman Simms’ Mentalities.

  1. See E Traverso The new faces of fascism London 2019.↩︎

  2. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2019/democracy-in-retreat.↩︎

  3. See V Klempere Language of the Third Reich London 2013.↩︎

  4. See Thomas Klickauer, ‘Theories that kill’ (Weekly Worker November 22 2018).↩︎

  5. https://truthout.org/articles/challenging-trumps-language-of-fascism.↩︎