When our Fringe Vectors project began, the key questions were around how 'everyday' communities may become intertwined with 'fringe' or 'radical' politics. Whilst this is a nice generic way of putting it, the clear concern for me was always more specifically to do with fascism and the far right. To me, overt cases of infiltration such as the Nazi Bronies, and the more subtle overlapping of assumptions and narratives ala cryptocurrency and their Eustace Mullins style concerns over federal banking, both indicate an underlying susceptibility within liberalism to these kinds of more extremist ideas. The illiberal racism of liberalism is absolutely related and worth discussion, but another time.
I was however keenly aware of two things. First, I didn't fully understand what fascism was. It was a kind of 'know it when I see it' but that kind of thing rarely holds water in academic work. Relatedly, I also didn't think other people really understood what fascism was either, and I had a hunch that this was by design and one key component of explaining its ability to weasel its way into unsuspecting communities.
Defining Fascism 📚
Having spent a lot of time reading around the more contemporary work on tech subcultures and some of the arguments regarding their proximity to the alt-right, cyberculture, racism, misogyny etc I wanted to try and escape reading these highly tech/digital focussed accounts. Firstly, you eventually reach a saturation point where the examples might change but broadly you're learning little new. Secondly, by switching to work that is either broader, more theoretically focussed, or simply older and prior to your more contemporary subject matter, you can find interesting synergies. Usually, it is in these synergies between the broader/older/more theoretical work and your contemporary accounts that you find what you're looking for. Luckily, I found a paper that hit all three criteria.
Roger Eatwell is a key name in the study of fascism and luckily for me, back in 1992 he wrote a paper that touches on a lot of these issues. Eatwell regularly gets cited in contemporary work on fascism, including Reid's Against Fascist Creep and the book The International Alt-Right: Fascism for the 21st Century written by researchers at Hope Not Hate, two books I had recently been poring over. Whilst Eatwell continues to write about contemporary fascism his paper, Towards a New Model of Generic Fascismpublished almost 30 years ago still, in my view, does a very good job of addressing why fascism is so difficult to define, and why it is so adaptable. Drawing on reams of historical documentation and synthesising the field of fascism research, Eatwell asks how researchers have tried to define fascism in the past, why fascism specifically is difficult to define, and how it might better be defined in recognition of this.
Eatwell's article is dense, but it does important work in building the picture of complexity and disharmony amongst those seeking to understand and define fascism as a political project. The unifying theme amongst them seemed to be apathy about whether it was even possible to define fascism as a political project given how distinctively different, and at times contradictory, different supposedly fascist movements were.
As Eatwell discusses, this contradictory nature of different movements, coupled with an apparent lack of intellectual foundation in the form of a 'great text' or key thinker rather undermined initial attempts to identify the underlying ideology of fascism, separable from fascism as enacted in historical context. This meant that for many others the focus was on fascism as arising from specific national characters (Italy and Germany) or as an aberration of a particular moment in time, in response to economic and political contexts. In these frames fascism existed as a series of loosely connected movements that arose in response to a particular European economic and political context.
It was clear they had a resemblance in some ways yet it also seemed that every characterisation or 'feature' of fascism could be disputed with reference to a different movement that took an opposite position. Nazism's traditionalism and focus on biology was not shared by Italian fascism who took a far more modernising approach and found the Nazi obsession with racial purity to odd to say the least. Eatwell's work is extensive in documenting these contradictions not only between the German and Italian fascism, but also though less prominent movements introducing the reader to the sheer complexity of the debate. The result is a palpable sense of why defining fascism was so difficult, but also an introduction to both the flexibility and the adaptability of fascism.
Fascists are Tricksy 🥸
What we know about contemporary fascist movements is their ability to shift and change, to adapt and to disguise their intent. Movements will proclaim themselves as simply responding to 'science' whilst ignoring the entire scientific community. They will call for free speech whilst systematically eradicating any narratives they dislike. They will frame themselves as concerned environmentalists to legitimate genocide. Eatwell recognises that previous scholars may have struggled in a coherent definition precisely because fascism operates in a way that is often incoherent if taken at face value and proposes four key distinctions to be maintained when thinking about a fascist movement.
- Between the ideology and the propaganda.
- Between the intellectual and the activist aspects of the movement.
- Between the principles and the context of a movement.
- Between esoteric and exoteric appeal.
The first distinction is perhaps the most straightforward, it could be summarised as the distinction between what they believe (ideology) and what they say they believe to gain support(propaganda).
Second, Eatwell argues that academics have tended to focus on the activism of rising fascist movements ignoring the intellectual aspects of movements which were not necessarily academic justifications but nevertheless existed in the movements' debates and critiques of current and metapolitical issues. Whilst different movements might seem distinctive on the surface, often these intellectual ties can help connect the dots between them.
The third distinction between principlesand context recognises that without a bulwark of 'great texts' behind them, fascist movements were often willing to make tactical compromises, to mutate in response to the context they faced. Equally, those that joined the movements may also not have done so because they were on board with the principles, but because they were opportunistically and pragmatically using the movement to bolster their own agenda.
The fourth and final distinction highlights the role of duplicity. The exoteric appeal of a movement is based on the communications seen by the public in their writings, podcasts, and interviews. This will differ from the esoteric communications within closed circles of converts and the appeal of the movement will be different to those converts. For our purposes we can also think of this as the distinction between what is said within a community being targeted by a fascist movement, and what is said afterwards back in their own private spaces.
Fascism as Synthesis 🏗️
In my mind what Eatwell is describing is a kind of backstage and front stage model of fascism. The backstage is the ideology, the intellectual debates, the underlying principles and the esoteric appeal of the movement. Yet out front we have the propaganda, the activism to bring about change, the context faced by the movement and the narrative woven for the public about what the movement represents. It also, in the third distinction, recognises the absolute importance of context, adapting to a context to meet the movement's goals. This is a form of political movement built around contradiction, performance, deception and esoteric knowledge. Once we understand that this is how fascist movements operate, we can better understand why any model of fascism must accommodate its contradictory nature, but crucially for our purposes, how it can appear to adapt itself so easily to infiltrate other communities.
Eatwell does of course develop a genericmodel of fascism, highlighting the principles that seem to be shared across movements. He refers to this as the Spectral-Syncretic model. Spectralreferring to the spectrum of, sometimes contradictory, positions. Syncreticmeaning the fusion or alliance between those things to form something new. I'll probably bring Eatwell's definition back in future discussions when we try to understand why particular assumptions of subcultural interests might be susceptible to 'fascist creep'. For now, the key value of Eatwell's work for this project is the recognition of how fundamental adaptation and duplicityare to the fascist project which should greatly help us to understand the mechanisms by which it can influence and infiltrate a disparate range of seemingly benign and even apolitical spaces online, with sometimes disastrous results.
This piece is part of our ongoing project, Fringe Vectors. It is part of our open research process and is not subject to peer-review. The piece should be understood as a form of open dialogue and part of the research process. I will get things wrong before I get them right. Please read in good faith.
For all posts related to this project check out the dedicated Fringe Vectors hub.