Samir Gandesha (“Spectres of Fascism”, Pluto Press, 2020) is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities.
Samir Gandesha: “Today’s fascism is based on our need for meaning in life”
InterviewIn our interview with Samir Gandesha we discuss the relation between authoritarianism, colonialism, and crisis – the climate crisis, the crisis of masculinity, and the crisis of the left, among others. In this context, “social anxieties become transformed into political fears through populist rhetoric”, Gandesha claims. But for him, authoritarian tendencies aren’t limited to the far-right; they are also at the very core of the moralizing spirit of the “woke” left.
Samir Gandesha (“Spectres of Fascism”, Pluto Press, 2020) is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Director of the Institute for the Humanities at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada. His research focuses on critical social theory in relation to recent authoritarian developments, social philosophy and political theory, theories of technology, and contemporary aesthetics.
You tend to refer to contemporary phenomena of authoritarianism not with the more common terms such as “populism”, “post-fascisms”, or “neo-fascisms”, but instead you use the striking term “spectres of fascism”. What dimensions of current authoritarianism do you intend to address with this term?
Samir Gandesha: What the idea of spectre suggests to me is that we are in some way being haunted by fascism, which means that there is a kind of play of presence and absence. When you’re haunted there’s something there, but also not there. There’s something uncanny about fascism today, something strangely familiar. The idea of spectre is associative, metaphorical. But it enabled me to think about how the fascism of our present is not the same phenomenon that we saw in the 1920s and 1930s. At that time, a very serious capitalist crisis looked to be the possible endpoint of capitalism, and the beginning of something very different. It was a revolutionary period in Europe. There was a genuine worry amongst the ruling classes that capitalism was in mortal danger, and it was then a matter of bringing the working classes over to the side of capital. And I think that the extreme form of nationalism that fascism represented was a key aspect of that. But today you couldn’t say that this is the nature of the crisis. The recent militancy to the contrary notwithstanding, the working class is weak, disoriented, the rates of trade union membership have been declining for the past three or four decades. Productivity has been rising, while wages have been stagnant, and that is in part a function of the weakness of the working class and its ability to articulate and achieve its demands.
So then the question remains: where does fascism come from? Why does capital produce its fascist tendencies at this particular conjuncture?
I think it has to do with a number of things. It’s not that the ruling classes require a counterrevolutionary movement to address an imminent transformation of capital, but rather that what the ruling classes do require is a continuation of capitalism. It’s not necessarily a revolutionary working class or social contradictions that will threaten the future of capitalism. It’s the climate crisis and what’s going to be required to maintain social coherence. The climate crisis is key. It breeds a subjective sense of insecurity amongst the global population. And it has created conditions within which there are growing numbers of so-called “climate refugees”, and this is only going to worsen in the near and middle-term future. So there’s a hardening of borders, and that responds to a kind of hardening of identities. This is becoming increasingly clear in Europe today.
There have also been shifts in the productive capacity of the Global North. You have a shift of industrial capital to the Global South, and that has been a very important factor in generating a crisis of masculinity. Likewise, women are participating in the economy and in higher education in ever greater numbers. So there’s a crisis of masculinity, and the left is not helping by seemingly equating toxic masculinity with masculinity per se. The only place where masculinity, especially the toxic kind, is embraced is on the far right. So you have a kind of pipeline, from adolescence, youth, and early adulthood of young men into right-wing spaces. What is the left’s counter-response? There isn’t one, as far as I can see. There’s no productive and progressive model of masculinity for young men to pursue into the left. And I think this is a very serious problem.
Likewise, it seems as if today mainstream left parties have abandoned the working class, while there’s been a real realignment of left and right. In one of his speeches, Donald Trump was musing about the possibility of an American “Workers’ Party” — and that is a bit chilling because it does sound a lot like National Socialism from the 20s and 30s, which was an explicit attempt to organize the working class in a profoundly top-down and controlled way. And this is part of the meaning of fascism: bringing together big labour and big business in the state, in such a way as to maintain the subordination of the working class. So the right has gone after the working class and has done so quite successfully. And the left, it seems, has abandoned it. The emblematic statement of Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” shows exactly that. The elites want to be progressive, but they want to be progressive without the working class. And that gives you a kind of neoliberal, managerial identity politics.
In Spectres of Fascism you state that fascism translates these material insecurities into cultural anxieties. How does this mechanism work?
The way I would put it is that there are socio-economic anxieties that circulate through society — and they are anxieties precisely because they’re diffuse. They are atmospheric, they don’t have a particular object. When one is living a precarious life, one is anxious all the time. But one doesn’t simply say: “It’s the boss’s fault”, or “it’s the state’s fault”, or “it’s my co-worker’s fault”. Not at first, anyway. There’s just the sense that you are living a very hyper-exploited, hyper-insecure life. What right-wing populism and nationalism do is to say “we understand and we feel your anxieties, we feel your pain. And the source of your pain is this object here”. Now, this object can be a trans person, the gay or lesbian community, it can be the refugee, the asylum seeker — it’s just never the capitalists, never the ruling class. So social anxieties become transformed into political fears precisely through a kind of populist rhetoric.
I discuss this in an article called “The Political Semiosis of Populism”, which addresses the idea of strangers becoming enemies. Social strangers aren’t necessarily figures that one ought to be fearful of. Historically, strangers have been seen as a kind of adjudicator, an impartial judge, somebody who’s welcomed and has some wisdom to share with the community. But the social stranger has been taken up in populist discourse and transformed into what Carl Schmitt calls the “enemy”. And that establishes the force field of the political, and this for me is exactly the essence of populism. The contradictory logic of populism presents the stranger — typically the figure of the “Jew” — as an entity that is both weak and powerful; possessed of low and extremely high social status. For example, today migrants are at once depicted as a lowly criminal element who are particularly threatening to girls and women, and as high achievers in the realm of, say, education, who threaten the educational chances of children of citizens of European or North American states.
In one of your articles you describe a particular mechanism that is key to understanding this point, which is the identification with the aggressor. In what sense do you read this concept politically?
The concept of identification with the aggressor initially emerges in the work of Hungarian psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi. He was the one to abandon the seduction theory and take his patients’ indications of trauma seriously. And he held that one response to the trauma of abuse isn’t disavowal or negation of the abuser, which one would reasonably expect, but that the exact opposite happens: there is this kind of identification with the desires of the aggressor, to the point where the aggressed comes to think, perversely, that the abuse was their desire and therefore their responsibility.
There’s one way of understanding this socially and historically, when the working class takes on the blame that was assigned to it by the ruling class in the late 70s after the OPEC crisis and the growth of inflation. The working class was blamed for its excessive demands, and it accepted it and got in line. This, I have argued, constituted a form of historical trauma that has induced the working class not to challenge the power of capital but to increasingly bow down to it and embrace the entrepreneurial logic of new liberalism. This is brilliantly dramatized by Ken Loach’s 2019 film Sorry We Missed You, which shows the extremely damaging effects, particularly on intimate familial relations, of the idea that we are what Michel Foucault calls “entrepreneurs of the self”. Historically, this fits in with the account of the authoritarian personality of somebody who subordinates themselves to the powerful and is excessively cruel and brutal to those who are less powerful. So they stand in this middle position, very much like the middle class or the petty bourgeoisie which is historically anti-proletarian, willing to bend themselves to the will of capital even though it is not in their interest.
You argue that this mechanism of identification doesn’t belong only to the right but also to the moralizing spirit of the left, especially in what is known today under the term “woke”. Could you explain to us which role this mechanism plays for this moralization of left politics?
Wokeness is based on a notion of standpoint epistemology, which means that the oppressed have particular insights into the conditions of their own oppression. That’s reasonable, but it also means when they set forth their insights and make arguments, they ought not to be criticized because those insights come from their experiences. If you criticize those particular insights, you’re criticizing the oppressed themselves, because apparently you’re criticizing their experiences. You simply have to listen to the oppressed on their terms. There’s an authoritarian core at the very heart of this: some people get to speak, others don’t. But then who speaks on behalf of the Black community, on behalf of Indigenous communities, on behalf of migrant communities? And what democratic mechanisms produce these spokespeople? There are none. This is authoritarian.
The standpoint epistemology that underlies identity politics entails a certain paradox: It is the very condition of oppression that gives the oppressed a voice. However, it is precisely this condition that gives the oppressed a vested interest not in the transformation but in the maintenance of such conditions, lest they lose their voice and fall silent once again. The oppressed are driven, as it were, to identify with the aggressor, that is, with conditions of their own domination, which are presented as an immutable law of nature. This might explain what could be regarded as the melancholy attachment to the conditions of one’s own victimization and the consequent block this places on social transformation. This is what the late Gillian Rose calls “the paradox of empowerment,” which means the empowerment of identity groups can correspond with a disempowerment of individual members of these groups as they must fall into line with the norms of these groups.
This brings us to another discussion, which is that of the role of coloniality in current authoritarianism. How would you characterize the colonial dimension within authoritarian populism today?
I see at least three dimensions. One dimension would be the actually existing relations of power between the metropole and the periphery. For instance, if you look at France and its relationship to its ex-colonies, there are still massive transfers of wealth between French-speaking African countries and the French state. This then relates to a second dimension: the forms of internal colonization. In France, we’ve just seen what kind of sparks can ignite massive mobilizations against the state. There was an incredible eruption of anger and hatred, in a situation of first and second class citizenship which is spatially organized and maintained through violence. And this is a dynamic that, as a third dimension, feeds into the logic of right-wing populism, like when the Front National [now the Rassemblement National, or National Rally] says: “this is exactly what we get with migration, these people don’t belong here, they’re not French and should be sent home”. And of course the mainstream political formations move ever further right, police forces are emboldened to crack down even harder on these precarious communities, and the whole vicious cycle just deepens.
But there’s another aspect which is interesting to note, which is the idea of endocolonialism. When Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, and more recently in Spectres, my friend and colleague, the Métis legal scholar, Patricia Barkaskas, and others were writing from the Global South, they said: “Yes, fascism must be taken seriously, but we’ve been experiencing something like fascism in the colonial world for hundreds of years. Now it has come home to Europe”. There is a sense, as Enzo Traverso has suggested, that fascism is really a colonial form of domination applied to Europe itself — this is what endocolonialism means. You can observe this in North America today, where especially because of the need for a cheap supply of energy there has been a kind of redoubled colonization. There have been increasing incursions into Indigenous lands in the pursuit of raw materials. Everywhere in Canada there’s been an attack riding roughshod over Indigenous rights to manage their own traditional territories. Like the colonization projects in the past, endocolonialism has labour power, raw materials and resources very much at its very heart.
There is a famous sentence from Walter Benjamin that says that behind every fascism, there is a failed revolution. This idea understands fascism as a reaction to a general sense of crisis — a crisis of modernity, of progress in the future, of civilization. Do you think that there are similarities between our current situation of crisis and its authoritarian outcomes and the crisis that Benjamin referred to?
Yes I do. There’s a way of thinking about fascism as a response to the failed revolution that was also shared by more conservative intellectuals such as Max Weber, for example. Weber delivers his famous lectures on science and politics as vocation at the University of Munich just as the German Revolution was coming to an end. And he’s responding exactly to these revolutionary impulses. And then you have Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, and Ernst Jünger who are all responding in different ways to these problems that Weber identified about modernity, rationalization, and disenchantment. What they are identifying is that modernity is an ever more abstract way of living, a society which unlike the feudal order is based on an abstract and anonymous form of domination, a society that is ruled increasingly by abstractions. And these three thinkers — and you could put Giovanni Gentile in, as a fourth, fascist philosopher — are all trying to provide a counter to abstraction, an abstraction that in the Nazi ideology was attributed to the figure of the Jew. But there is some truth to the idea that we need to get back to some kind of concrete experience. And so Jünger’s experience of the trenches in World War One, Schmitt’s experience of the political and the enemy that comes into view, Heidegger´s return to the so-called “meaning of being”, are part of this seeking for meaning in a context of an existential crisis.
We’re all now suffering economic and social crises, but we don’t think about the crisis of meaning, and the right does that very well. They articulate a kind of fascism based on the need of the people for meaning in their lives. So with Jünger, Schmitt, Heidegger, and Gentile, you have this emphasis on meaning against the increasingly nihilistic meaninglessness of modernity. I think the crisis of meaning is something we — the left — have overlooked, and it’s something that I think people deeply feel. And what are they feeling? They’re feeling a desire for meaning, not for security. Or let’s phrase it differently: meaning provides ontological security. And this is why there is a turn to identity politics on the left, for people to find a meaning, even if it’s in the sense of oppression and abjection without end, as you find in the Afropessimism of Frank B. Wilderson III. As Nietzsche said, people would rather will nothingness than not will at all.