How To Stop Fascism by Paul Mason: review

“Feasta’s core values include racial, gender and LGBTQ equality, as well as emotional well-being. We take it as given that sustainability must benefit everyone, rather than merely those who are financially or otherwise privileged.” Feasta’s Theory of Change and mission statement. So hints of a slide towards fascism or authoritarianism set off loud alarm bells.

Since his days as Economics Editor for Channel 4 in the UK (which he left in 2016), Mason has been offering commentary near the edge of the Overton Window, sometimes slightly outside it. Starved of any radical discussions, as we are outside of social media, his voice remains an important one for those bent on the challenging task of introducing the political classes to the real world.

The hypothesis of Mason’s new book is that a descent into fascism is already underway and will accelerate and spread unless active measures are taken. Although he is from the Marxist/ Marxian(?) tradition he has no truck with the historic inevitability of socialism and capitalist decay Marx mapped out, and seeks to mobilise action-oriented opposition to fascism and write its script. Rather than to wait for the allegedly inevitable.

The early part of the book is historical. It considers alternative definitions of fascism (where the main message is the danger of paralysis-by-analysis and definition-wars). But on balance he gets more mileage out of ‘signifiers’ than via definitions – if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…. The chapters on the rise to power of Hitler and Mussolini are researched in impressive depth and peppered with insightful stories and quotes thus helping Mason to home in on exactly the signifiers we might be watching for. These sections also inform Mason’s plan that we should learn from the lessons of past failures – he zones in to the question as to how the two dictators could have been prevented from taking power, looking at particular points when different behaviours might have resulted in different outcomes. In macro terms these opportunities missed almost all boil down to a lack of cooperation between the ‘progressive’ further left and the democratic socialists. Indeed the book as a whole can be read as a heartfelt plea to the loose-left-and-centre to set aside their differences and work together before it’s too late.

In terms of signifiers, the core fascist take – contrasting a superior ethnic group with outsiders/ immigrants/ foreigners – is addressed a number of times in different historical settings, and the interwar years in Italy and Germany are described in fascinating and insightful detail as the elite and the mob progressively join forces. But reactions to this book, as always, will depend on the baggage the reader brings with them. To me, Mason highlights three signifiers which I had either not associated with fascism at all or had hugely under-appreciated as key elements of it.

First there is the feature of ‘performative violence’ – violent acts that are symbolic and prefigurative – that tell a story of how things could be in the future; where the participants are co-creating a myth using their own subtexts and signs. This shared experience of violence helps cement the belief that the ethnic war can be won and the participants can be part of that achievement and separate themselves from the passive masses.

Second is the planned absence of plans – what Mason describes as governance chaos. Not only does this give opposition nothing to bite on, it enables fast changes or reversals in actions and ‘policies’, wrongfooting opponents. It also permits multiple interpretations and narratives and facilitates division. And finally it creates a vacuum between the leaders and the acolytes allowing the more extreme disciples to push the boundaries and trail outrageous behaviours ahead of their leaders. Ring any bells Boris?

Third is the need to push back feminism. In the 20s there were signs of a culture war as the support for modern art and jazz, liberated sex and feminism started to rub up against the increasing numbers of have-nots as unemployment rose. Hitler created a brand that mobilised the prejudice and panic that resulted. Since then the world has changed dramatically due largely to the availability of widespread contraception and the development of reproductive rights policies. While we are nowhere near gender equality, the results look like a feminist utopia to a 21st century fascist, to whom ‘men should fight to reverse the social, cultural and legal gains women have made’. Cue misogyny, rape and domestic violence – all in the cause of improving breeding effectiveness for the ethnically preferred.

Before 1968 when Ernst Nolte ended up ‘in a dark place’ as an apologist for Nazism, he wrote insightfully about the factors behind mass fascism in ‘Three Faces of Fascism’. Mason, pleasingly, separates the man from his work and quotes him extensively. Nolte thought those classes devoted to a more ‘stable’ social hierarchy and wary of the idea that freedom was for other people too, naturally formed an alliance with the have-nots scared of technological progress in a ‘practical resistance to transcendence’.

Fascism in short is a movement of people unwilling to think beyond the present. So there you have it – energise, cooperate and transcend.

Featured image: girls riding bicycles to school (suggested as an alternate measure of progress to GDP by Katherine Trebeck). Image source: https://www.reshot.com/free-stock-photos/photo/students-wearing-backpacks-NGmQzQ/ Image author: @radu62.

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