The Reaction against the Reaction: The Voice That Is Raised against the Raised Hand
IN FOCUS, 2 Apr 2018
23 Mar 2018 – Yes, they have come back, as if history has not inflicted them a chastisement. They call themselves populists but they are fascists from old and new strains. They are reactionary and popular. Against this movement, as always, what stand up are the voice of reason and the report of the lie that parades in the name of the people. As almost always, the voice of reason is impotent, except as testimony and warning. I want to add my voice to such voice. Against fascism, together with Miguel de Unamuno, we must say: “You will win because you have enough brute force, but you will not convince. To convince you need to persuade and to persuade you need something you lack: reason and right in the fight.”
To Unamuno I add Leone and Natalia Ginzburg, Federico Fellini, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, Thomas Mann, Alexis de Tocqueville, Johan Wolfgang Goethe, Jose Ortega y Gasset, Paul Valery, Max Scheler, Stephan Zweig, Menno Ter Braak, Primo Levi, Theodor Adorno, Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Giorgio Bassani, Albert Einstein, Edmund Husserl, Palmiro Togliatti, Sigmund Freud, Robert Paxton, Franz Neumann, Paul Celan, Roland Barthes, Robert Musil, Jan Patocka, Rob Riemen, Tony Judt. The list is long and incomplete.
I quote them in adamant disorder. Nothing seems to unite them. They seem distant in space and time. Their opinions were diverse. Political positions they chose or that, by chance, they had to subscribe were not only different but even opposite: conservatives, liberals, socialists and communists. Most were called reactionaries. Among them, we recognize church-people, atheists, scientists and humanists. Some came to power. Others were persecuted. Several died as silent martyrs. Among them, there were those who survived the holocaust they did announce. Others were the victims of the surrounding mediocrity. Exile did not exempt them from pain. Plato used to say that the library is the pharmacy of the spirit. I wish my readers would allow themselves to get lost in those shelves. In the chaotic arrangement of its reading there is the antidote for the poison that the present time brings on us.
What unites such a different crowd is the talent and sensibility for detecting the root of political barbarity, or better said the fascist virus that has been and is still latent in every contemporary society, without exception of the so-called advanced or consolidated democracies. In its Roman meaning, latent is the active participle of the most irregular verb of the Latin grammar (fero, fers, ferre, tuli, latum), which means “carry” or “bring along.” Another meaning says that the word comes from the verb lateo, which means “living hidden.” It is clear that both verbs, fero y lateo, are related.
The historical fascism was categorically defeated and by force in WWII. After the armed conflict ended, those defeated were forced to undergo a democratic reconstruction that was, in general, successful. Italy, Germany, and Japan joined the club of Anglo-Saxon democracies and adopted the institutions that support such democracies. Communism was the only rival that confronted liberal democracies. But, even in this case, state socialism enthusiastically adopted the democratic and anti-fascist motto.
Democracy won but under the condition of always being labeled: liberal democracy, popular democracy, guided democracy and—this expression is very new and comes from Hungry—illiberal democracy. Fascism was condemned to be insulting and antiquarian. For many years, it lived hidden, in latent condition, and only today it reemerges, but even then it still keeps certain shyness, it does not want to pronounce its name and it hides behind populism—term that is accepted in the universe of the discourse around us.
“One of the most ridiculous aspects of democracy will always remain—as Dr. Goebbels used to mock it—the fact that it has offered to its mortal enemies the means by which to destroy it.” The fasces of the Roman lictors, the raised hand, the night marches with torches, and the goose step, might be out of fashion (though every fashion is circular and repeats itself), but they were more than just a febrile manifestation of a larval state that continues today. More than the colorful manifestations of fascism what interests me the most is its breeding ground.
To explore this breeding ground I have reread Ortega y Gasset. Before the Phalange triumph in Spain and the fascist boom in Italy, Ortega wrote two series of essays, published in two books. The first one was called España invertebrada (Invertebrate Spain, 1921) and the second one La rebelión de las masas (The Revolt of the Masses, 1929). The first one deals with regional separatism in Spain. Ortega considered Basque and Catalan nationalism as symptoms of a larger fragmentation (of classes, strata, and identity groups) and the secular decadence of Spain. His reflections have great present relevance today, when the project of a European Union is in crisis and nationalism in all its forms reemerges: in Scotland, Cataluña, Padania (Po Valley in Italy), Macedonia, Belgium, England, Italy, Eastern Europe—and I do not dare to continue.
According to Ortega, countries grow by the aggregation of different groups that join behind a “suggestive project of life in common.” When such project exists and seduces, a country or an empire (as the Roman Empire) enters a growing and additive phase. Where there is a lack of such project, then they enter a decadent and dispersive phase. Ortega said that empires are made by force, but they do not last if they do not seduce with ideas and models of organization. Roma was a predatory and military system, but it was also a project of universal organization, a way of doing that lasted in time and even survived the empire (for example: Roman law is the base of current European law). No one better than the Spanish author to summarize the thesis: “Groups that form a State live together for something: they are a community of purposes, desires, of large usefulness. They do not live together just to be together, but to do something together.” (España invertebrada, p.33). Without a superior law tradition, an appropriate management, a wealth of ideas that provide a superior brightness to life, a repertoire of new celebrations, a state or a confederation of states disarticulates itself. That is how Rome, the Spanish Empire, the Soviet Union fell and how the European Union and United States of America are falling today.
“Reactionary” is a term referred to ideologies or individuals that aim at establishing a previous status quo, especially when such state of things has been abolished by a revolution, or debilitated by innovation (scientific, social, or cultural). In the European tradition, such previous status quo was aristocratic, oligarchic, static and hierarchic. Those who defended it were, in sum, counterrevolutionaries. But among reactionaries there is also novelty. A fascist is a reactionary with popular support.
Fascism is a XXth century invention, with the emergence of mass society. Fascism is mythological: it is a closed system of thinking and action, with periodic unification and expulsion rituals of what is considered spurious. Masses are invited to participate in that ritual return to a fanciful past, provided they pledge adherence to the closed, purifying, and persecutory system of thought, so characteristic of preliterate societies studied by Mircea Eliade and Claude Levi Strauss. In the modern world, the return to the myth is a desperate expression of wanting to give sense to life without complicating such life. The myth is a terrible simplifier. Feeling superior despite being the bottom of the barrel: here is where the fascination with fascism resides. Those who do not surrender to its charm are enemies of fascism, and fascism knows it. It always chases them, because it knows they are the reaction against its reaction.
In Ortega’s work I found another gem that is important for understanding what is happening in our own world. The state, as the fish, starts stinking from the head down. National states, and supranational organizations, are in the hands of politicians, bureaucrats, and technocrats with no imagination. In the best scenario, they are professionals of administration that manage the public affairs with technical expertise. In other cases, they are opportunistic or corrupt politicians, and in the worst case they are simply kleptocrats and mobsters. Left to its own dynamic and without counterbalance, global capitalist system generates growing inequality, environmental disaster, and social injustice. No one from a power place invites people to do something worthwhile together: an ideal that could raise hope and justify some sacrifices. It is not surprising that when faced with the lack of a “suggestive project of a life in common,” the only thing that remains is “everybody for him/herself” and the refugee in some particularism of class, stratum, ethnicity or region.
Nationalism is the political expression of such dispersion. Masses are left at the mercy of demagogues and mythomaniacs that nominate outsiders as leaders and are ready to lead some stampede. As the poet Antonio Machado used to say “of ten heads; nine charge, and one thinks.”
To be fodder of such manipulation, the once mass society is now fragmented in a society of networks that tend to close up in watertight compartments, tribal compartments. This only makes matters worse. Discussion, insemination of ideas, and the search for a common project are eliminated. Ortega called such dispersion ‘decadence.’
Fascism arrives after as the false solution to this decadence. It aims at unifying all tribes in a wider tribe without universal calling or elevated ideals. It is just another particularism on steroids. Those steroids are: prejudice, pride, resentment and hate projected towards other, real or fictitious, communities. They cause the worst of enthusiasms: that of the hunting pack. There is no fascism without an escapegoat.
Together to assault, together to hate, together to reject and together to persecute; this is the degraded version of “the people” offered by fascists. Under national flags; the lowest common denominator. In their siren song, lying leaders characterize themselves as humble and close to the “common man.” Being with them, who present themselves as the forgotten, is like telling them: “it is okay not to think; it is okay to punish; it is okay to destroy; it is okay to envy.” And so the innocent pays for the sins of the guilty, bagged in just one term—the elite—and eventually entrapped in the same concentration camp. The concentration begins in the discourse of these new “populists,” for those who know how to listen.
The names I quoted at the beginning of this article are writers, artists, state persons, scientists, thinkers that knew how to listen to the siren song of fascism and its dangers without succumbing to its fascination. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about a new popular despotism for which he could not find a name. Wolfgang Goethe talked about a wayward youth, Albert Einstein about the stupidity that comes along any scientific advancement as its shadow. Friedrich Nietzsche, Edmund Husserl, Theodor Adorno and Robert Musil about the European nihilism, Franklin Roosevelt warned us about the danger of the culture of fear, Winston Churchill spoke of the frenzied barbarity in a cultivated country; Sigmund Freud and Miguel de Unamuno denounced the love of death; Max Scheler wrote about. resentment as the driving force behind mobilization; Stephan Zweig about the abdication of the European intelligentsia; Franz Neumann about the chaotic government of the Nazi pack; Roland Barthes about the prostitution of language, and so on, until arriving at Tony Judt and Rob Riemen in their recent testimonies of humanists facing the weakening of democracy. They all warned us about a terrible truth: fascism does not come from outside like a storm. We carry it within us. To truly defeat it, we have to know ourselves and develop our own defenses.
Furthermore, this new fascist era that afflicts the world will end as it started: in war. I close this article as I started it, with a reference to and a paraphrase from Unamuno. Today, in United States the dead and wounded from war are honored every day as heroes. Hardly a day passes without watching flags waving at half mast in honor of the fallen. Unfortunately, today we have too many dead and disabled people and soon there will be more if God does not help us.
 . N.T.: Goose Step: “a special marching step performed on formal military parades and other ceremonies. While marching in parade formation, troops swing their legs in unison off the ground while keeping each leg straight and unbent.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goose_step
Juan Eugenio Corradi – Professor at New York University, Brandeis University
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