Why Is Fascism Growing? How Can We Stop It?

IN FOCUS, 12 Feb 2024

Boaventura de Sousa Santos | Z – TRANSCEND Media Service

Wikimedia Commons

28 Jan 2024 – To understand the emergence and growth of far-right parties around the world, and especially in Europe, we need to go back to the end of the First World War and analyze the turbulent course of liberal democracy since then. Liberal democracy emerged triumphant from the First World War, but the triumph was short-lived. The strength of the left was fatally hit by the split between socialists and communists; Lenin’s dissolution of the Russian constituent assembly in 1918, despite the Bolshevik party being in the minority, put an end to hopes of a non-capitalist democracy (Rosa Luxemburg’s great bitterness). By the end of the 1920s, political debates were dominated by the right, a right that since 1918 had always been more anti-communist than democratic. The pre-eminence and divisiveness of the parliaments, political instability and the inability to make the new social rights effective in the face of the dominant liberal economic ideology, the dominance of the big private financiers and the persistent economic crisis all contributed to this. If the real power lay with the bosses and the unions, the popular conclusion was that the parliaments were of little use.

After the great trauma of the war, the population wanted peace, security and improved living conditions; the peasants wanted land reform. But liberal democracy had mainly brought social polarization. Democracy was being deserted, both by those who didn’t see it contributing to improving their lives and by those, especially young people, for whom liberalism had lost touch with the contemporary world. In 1934, the Portuguese dictator António Salazar (who retained only a vestige of parliamentarianism) stated that in twenty years’ time there would be no liberal legislative assemblies in Europe. Two rival proposals aroused enthusiasm: communism and fascism/nazism (the latter sometimes combined with a conservative Catholicism whose collectivism consisted of defending the family). Both proposed a “New Order” and a “New Man”. But their attraction stemmed above all from the failure of democracy, the weakness of the liberal state and the apparent suicide of capitalism (hyper-inflation, unemployment, the Great Depression). The ultra-liberal (later called neoliberal) proposals of the Austrian economists Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises were very much in the minority and even ridiculed, and would only be rehabilitated forty years later, in Pinochet’s Chile (1973), and have since become the dominant economic orthodoxy. In the 1930s, liberalism glorified selfish individualism and neglected community feeling and the demands of a new collectivist era. An authoritarian atmosphere dominated Europe and the era of democracy was said to be over – a recurring theme.

At the end of the Second World War, democracy made a triumphant comeback, although now in a Europe divided, in the context of the Cold War, between the Western capitalist bloc and the Soviet communist bloc. It’s worth remembering that denazification was much more effective in the Soviet bloc than in the Western bloc, and that the conservative Western governments were much tougher on the far left (some communist parties were outlawed and all were kept under surveillance) than on the far right (the neo-Nazi parties were outlawed, but many Nazis, especially technicians, were integrated into the new German governments or were hired by US agencies). Meanwhile, democracy was now different: oriented towards the well-being of citizens (Welfare State), with strong state intervention in the economy, high and progressive taxation, collective bargaining, and economic growth and prosperity as key words to make the class struggle go away. The new consumer society represented a certain Americanization of Europe, but state intervention in the economy and social rights distinguished European capitalism from North American capitalism. Obviously, both were colonialist.

From the 1970s onwards, everything began to change. Laissez faire, which had seemed buried in the First World War, and the Hayek-Mises duo came back to stay, the class struggle reignited, but this time as a struggle between the rich and the poor and middle classes. Anti-statism emerged combined with an authoritarian mentality (from the protective state to the repressive state), the right began to dominate public opinion and foster social polarization, and democracy once again went into crisis. This is the context in which we find ourselves.

History never repeats itself. There are many important differences in Europe compared to the world of a hundred years ago and these differences have different repercussions in the global South, especially in the South that is more politically and culturally dependent on the global North.

The end of the communism-fascism/Nazism alternative

The first difference is that of the two alternatives that excited the youth of the 1920s and 30s – communism and fascism/Nazism – only the second seems to be on the political agenda of desires. This difference has enormous significance. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t alternatives to capitalism today in the name of democracies that are more transformative than liberal democracy. But such alternatives are not yet capable of synthetic and aggregating formulations, nor are they capable of mobilizing large masses of young people, except perhaps on the ecological theme.

Throughout the 20th century, the far right has always had two distinct versions. In the 1920s and 30s, by far the most important was fascism proper, based on charismatic leaders, nationalist, racist, sometimes combined with conservative Christianity (the value of the family), driven by a populism of destruction directed against individualism and the weakness of the state, an extreme right that wanted to acquire the dynamics of the mass party. It was a different kind of populism from today’s, but one that was just as focused on destruction. Today’s versions are, for example, the “anti-system” in the USA, the “anti-immigration” in Spain and other countries of the Global North, the “cleansing” in Portugal, or the “chainsaw” in Argentina. The populism of construction was more abstract and vague – Mussolini’s or Hitler’s “New Order” imposed by an authoritarian state – just like Trump’s “Make America Great Again” or the Vox party’s “Make Spain Great Again”.

The second version of the far right, although very much a minority in the early decades of the 20th century, proposed replacing the force of the state with the force of the market. It was a hyper-liberal far-right, transcribed from the neoliberal proposals of the Hayek-Mises duo, which saw the state as a cost to be minimized, taxes as theft, and privatization as the solution for everything that can make a profit; it was an internationalist, anti-charismatic, individualist, hyper-modern, elitist far-right, which saw poverty as an individual issue that had nothing to do with impoverishment resulting from economic and social policies. While the first version claimed to be socialist (national socialism) and wanted a strong state, the second, although residual, was there, was hyper-capitalist and wanted to make the market the main regulator of economic and social relations, in other words, it wanted a minimal state focused on maintaining order.

These two versions had the same objective: to use popular discontent at the ineffectiveness of democracy as a strategy for power and the affirmation of capitalism against communism. Traditional fascism used democracy to come to power, but once in power, it neither exercised it democratically nor abandoned it democratically. This is as true of Adolf Hitler as it is of Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil) or Donald Trump (USA). The neoliberal version of the far right admitted the collapse of democracy as collateral damage of its economic policies, the implementation of which was by far the most important. Hayek, for example, wrote to the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 1977 to protest against the paper’s unfair criticism of the Pinochet regime in Chile; Hayek considered Pinochet’s Chile to be a political and economic miracle and railed against Amnesty International, considering it “a weapon for the defamation of international politics.”[1]

Aware of its own interests, big business has always been attracted to both extreme right-wing proposals, and things haven’t changed much in the last hundred years. The big difference is that in the 1920s and 30s, the threat of communism was real and the two versions of the far right were both considered effective antidotes to what was then seen as capitalism’s suicide in the face of the crisis and social protest that the attraction of communism would boost. Now that communism is not on the political agenda, the far-right forces have to invent it, considering all state intervention to reduce social inequalities to be communism. To do this, they build the ideology of anti-communism based on two pillars: almost complete control of the corporate media and social networks; and conservative political religion, mainly evangelical, but also Catholic and Zionist, which once again builds the apocalypse around communism and turns it into the anti-Christ. This difference from the beginning of the last century makes the future of democracy even more problematic.

The normalization of fascism

The second difference compared to the 1920s and 30s is fascism’s ability to normalize itself as a democratic alternative, thus no longer having to resort to coups d’état (as happened with Hitler, Mussolini, Salazar and Franco). The paradigmatic contemporary case is the current Italian government led by Georgia Meloni. President since 2014 of the neo-fascist Fratelli d’Italia party, Meloni heads a country whose constitution forbids the apology of fascism. Such an apology, however, was blatantly made during her party’s annual conference (Atreju, 2023). Hundreds of black shirts gathered in military formation in front of the headquarters of the neo-fascist party that emerged after the war (Italian Social Movement), giving the fascist salute. Meloni prevented any repression of this demonstration. Basically, the normalization stems from the rapprochement between right-wing and far-right policies in Europe. In the case of anti-immigration and anti-minority policies, for example, there are no differences between the positions of Meloni and Rishi Sunak, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Normalization is sometimes the result of subliminal propaganda. For example, the fundamentally left-wing slogan of “Gay pride” is now used to promote “Italian pride”. Normalization presupposes support from the corporate media, which has not been lacking for Meloni, as it had lacked not for Berlusconi (they are the same TV channels) and includes the criminalization of dissident journalists and politicians, without raising any alarm bells. Roberto Saviano, the great fighter against the mafias, has been the target of criminal persecution. Normalization reaches a new level when it goes beyond the political class and becomes part of everyday life, for example when a restaurant prints the Duce’s face on the bill.

The Welfare State

The third difference between the two eras seems, on the contrary, to remove the danger of fascism for the time being. In the case of Europe, conditions are now very different and do not seem to favor extremism. The welfare state that was built in Europe after the Second World War, and in Portugal, Spain and Greece after the democratic transitions of the 1970s, has shown a certain robustness despite all its crises and has enjoyed popular support. Margaret Thatcher tried to destroy it in the UK and failed. The welfare state has helped to create broad middle classes that are not prone to extremism. It’s no surprise, then, that the far right in Europe is not investing directly against social policies today (only in the US does the far right see these policies as the ghost of communism). It invests against the taxes that finance them and the corruption of the state (sometimes real), hoping in this way to insidiously achieve its goals more easily. To the extent that progressive political forces consent to the destruction of the welfare state, for example through the privatization of healthcare, education or the pension system, they will be paving the way for 21st century fascism. Even more dangerous are disguised privatizations such as public-private partnerships in healthcare, school vouchers in the case of education or capping in the pension system.

The internet and social networks

The fourth difference between the two eras is more ambivalent when the future of democracy is at stake. I’m talking about social networks and the internet, which didn’t exist a hundred years ago. The corporate media are losing control of public opinion to social networks and this loss represents a generational divide. There is now a consensus that conservative forces know how to use social media better than progressive forces, among other reasons because they have large amounts of funding that progressive forces don’t have. But social networks create volatile loyalties and don’t sustain myths for long. In fact, they can lead to sudden changes of direction, both from left to right (see the case of Brazil in 2013, from the demand for free transportation to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff) and from right to left (in the case of Colombia, from the 2016 plebiscite that the right, using fake news, won against the peace accords, to the student movement and later other social, indigenous, women’s and trade union movements that brought Gustavo Petro to power in 2022). Obviously, the two movements don’t carry the same weight, given the proprietary (private) nature of the networks and the lack of democratic regulation. See how the change in ownership of twitter immediately determined the change in relation to US presidential candidate Donald Trump. The ambivalence of networks lies in the fact that they are more useful in the assault on power than in sustaining power.

Social movements

The fifth difference vis-à-vis the 1920s-30s is the emergence of post-colonialist (indigenous and anti-racist), feminist, and environmentalist social movements. This is also an ambivalent difference concerning the future of democracy. Just after the First World War, the workers’ movement was a giant political player and the issue of political reform was on the agenda. Liberal democracy, then called bourgeois democracy, was opposed by workers’ democracy. Conflicts between socialists and communists and state repression (police and judicial) against supporters of workers’ democracy weakened the workers’ movement, and what was left of it was destroyed by the dictatorships that followed.

Today’s social movements more or less uncritically accept the idea that there is only one type of democracy – liberal democracy – an idea that, until the 1970s, was far from consensual. With this limitation, today’s social movements are generally a guarantee of the preservation of democracy and even of its deepening, since they fight for individual and collective rights to be extended and effectively fulfilled. These movements are generally harassed by the far right, but the fight against them has used strategies that can neutralize the democratizing potential of social movements.

In the case of the feminist movement, the far right’s strategy has consisted of condoning (sometimes actively supporting) the agendas of white, middle-class feminisms because they don’t question the capitalist order. Identitarianism, i.e. gender (or racial) identity conceived as the main and exclusive objective of social struggle, isolates the demands of these movements from the struggles for the redistribution of wealth and social justice. By isolating themselves and not questioning the class content of modern capitalist domination, these movements are neutralized in their transformative potential, and sometimes end up on the same side as the struggles led by the extreme right. Feminisms from the global South (black, indigenous, Arab), when they manifest themselves in the metropolises of the global North through immigrants, sometimes two-generation nationals, they question the capitalist order and are therefore openly harassed, not only by the far right, but also by other conservative political forces.

In the case of anti-racist movements, the far right is openly hostile and sometimes violent. Racism is at the heart of the far-right, even if today it manifests itself in indirect ways, for example in its opposition to immigration, in its highly repressive border control, in the disproportionate punitivism with which it attacks racialized individuals, communities, and publics, in its privileged defense of the demands of the police forces, and in its trivialization of police brutality.

As far as the environmental movement is concerned, the far right’s strategy is denialism. The ecological crisis is considered to be an invention of the left to prevent the development of capitalism. The environmental movement, although very diverse, today has the potential to question the triple dimension of modern capitalist domination – class, race and gender – and, in this sense, to make anti-systemic proposals in its multiple dimensions (economic, social, political and cultural). To the extent that they engage in this kind of struggle, they will be defending democracy in its broadest sense, including in the democratization of life the democratization of relations between human and non-human life. They will certainly be harassed, not only by the extreme right, but by all institutional political forces.

To conclude

Fascism is on the rise

  • a) because the social policies of the welfare state have been increasingly underfunded, resulting in growing social inequalities and the social polarization they can give rise to, to which the state only responds with repressive policies;
  • b) because social movements, by failing to question capitalism (social injustice, class struggle), have contributed to normalizing and trivializing the most grotesque social inequalities as if they weren’t anti-democratic;
  • c) because fascism disguises itself as a fight for democracy with the support of the corporate media, which are generally favorable to it, in particular by amplifying fascist anti-immigration demands, xenophobia, the promotion of the police, the corruption of the welfare state, and tax cuts;
  • d) because the other political forces, both right-wing and left-wing, have not been able to counter the neoliberal orthodoxy in force that prevents the expansion of social policies, which will eventually turn democracy into a policy of malaise that does is not worth the enormous cost of keeping it in force;
  • e) because traditional fascism today appears as part of a very broad hyper-conservative family, which includes ultra-conservative religion, especially evangelical, Zionist and Islamist;
  • f) because the lawfare by a conservative judicial system against progressive policies and politicians, by increasing social instability, has been an effective lever (because it is not political in appearance) to promote the extreme right;
  • g) finally, fascism is growing because consumerism and social networks have transferred the concerns of individuals from public to private life; the justification of apathy towards democracy (it’s not worth voting because the policies are always the same) is quickly transformed into the enthusiastic justification of the anti-system.

In view of this, halting the advance of fascism – an imperative for all democrats – is a complex and difficult political task, above all because it has to be carried out at various levels and in different spheres of social life and not just in the political sphere. It is, however, possible because nothing is determined in advance. The mother of all conditions is that democracy has a concrete material content, a positive impact on the lives of the working classes (individuals, families and communities) that gives them back hope in the possibility of a more dignified life, a fairer society and more equality with nature. For this to be possible, the short-term precondition is that public social policies are maintained, diversified, expanded and linked to the practices of solidarity, reciprocity and care that exist in society and communities. This is the only way to avoid deepening inequalities and social discrimination in increasingly complex and culturally diverse societies. Given the fascist drift underway, I believe that only broad and pragmatic alliances between the different political forces on the left can guarantee the survival of democracy in the medium term.


Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Professor of Sociology Emeritus at University of Coimbra (Portugal), and Distinguished Legal Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA. He earned an LL.M and J.S.D. from Yale University and holds the Degree of Doctor of Laws, Honoris Causa, by McGill University. He is director of the Center for Social Studies at the University of Coimbra and has written and published widely on the issues of globalization, sociology of law and the state, epistemology, social movements and the World Social Forum. His project ALICE: Leading Europe to a New Way of Sharing the World Experiences is funded by an Advanced Grant of the European Research Council. His most recent book is Decolonizing the University: The Challenge of Deep Cognitive Justice. bsantos@ces.uc.pt

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