Why “is this fascism?” is the wrong question: a foray into the everyday life of political concepts

Why “is this fascism?” is the wrong question: a foray into the everyday life of political concepts

Street art, Oaxaca City, Mexico. 2007. Photo: Ryan Anderson.

By Louis Philippe Römer

Activists, politicians, and public intellectuals have turned to the word “fascism” to analyze the intensified mobilization of the far-right and the radicalization of the GOP during the Trump presidency. Others vehemently object and see this new usage of “fascism” as incorrect. This already heated debate further intensified after the United States Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021.

Much of this debate revolves around the prescriptivist premise that there is a correct language for naming and describing political reality. Using the “right” word makes that reality clear and transparent, while the “wrong” word obscures it. Proceeding from this unexamined prescriptivist premise, the debate moves on to litigate whether the past four years’ developments match this or that academic definition of fascism. One such effort proceeded to adjudicate the correctness of fascism by comparing the Trump presidency with conditions during the 1930s and -40s when Mussolini and Hitler came to power. After coming to the unsurprising conclusion that 2021 is not 1933, we are told that it is incorrect to use fascism to refer to current events. The critiques seem to “run out of steam” (Latour 2004) when the debunking ends and the time comes to introduce other concepts that would shed more light on the current predicament.

These arguments, and their premises, overlook an important truth about language: that the meaning of words emerges from their use patterns. The prescriptivist debate about whether the use of fascism is “correct” sidesteps fundamental questions about what people are using fascism to refer to in the present, what analyses and diagnoses of the current situation are motivating people to turn to fascism as a signifier, and what impacts people hope to have on themselves and others by using this term. Shifts in patterns of use and changing political stakes of using the word might well result in fascism gaining new meanings only tangentially related—if at all— to the past historical conditions that have introduced the term into our political vocabulary.

Attending to the patterns of use of the word “fascism” in the present, to the people and their motivations for using that word would direct the conversation toward what effect they hope this naming will have on themselves and others, and what specific analysis, diagnosis, or understanding of the current political reality they are attempting to name. In short: what does the word fascism do—analytically, politically, and even emotionally—for those who use it? What do they hope to make sense of by naming something as fascism? What does the increasingly prevalent usage of “fascism” as a descriptor say about our current political situation?

To indicate what such an account could look like, I want to turn to one encounter I had with what I call fascism. With the description of this event, I hope to tease out the specifics of what fascism did as a concept for me to interrogate some assumptions about how and why people are using this political vocabulary in their everyday life.

One cold overcast winter evening, I boarded a local train in Rotterdam departing for Utrecht, where I used to live. I was almost alone in the train car after people exited the train at a local stop. Almost alone, that is, except for a group of young men sitting two seats behind me. I noticed they were pointing at me and talking amongst themselves. After taking a glance at what they were wearing, I realized that I probably was being targeted by neofascists. I was not going to waste any time second-guessing this assessment. I got up and headed slowly and deliberately to the doorway that led into another train car, trying my best not to let them realize that I noticed they were there and were watching me. I figured my odds of coming out of this unharmed would increase if there were more people around. Walking into the next car, I saw more people and sat down again. The group of men followed me into this next car. Not wanting to arouse suspicion, I carried on pretending as if I had not noticed that they had followed me into this car. My heart was beating in my chest for the rest of the train ride, but since I knew what I was potentially up against, I knew I needed to stay calm. When I got out in Utrecht, they left the train and started following me again. I walked up the escalator and headed toward the exit. I avoided running because I did not want them to realize that I knew that they were following me. They followed me out of the station. I walked towards the taxi stand and jumped into a cab that was waiting. As I shut the door and told the driver that I was being followed and to step on it, I saw them out on the taxi stand staring at me in the car as we drove away. This event happened during the early 2000s, a time in the Netherlands that is much like 2021 US, when right-wing politicians were injecting xenophobic rhetoric into the public sphere, thus inciting people to engage in acts of stochastic violence against others in everyday life. Through a combination of visceral knowledge about how to react to these situations and sheer luck, I escaped what could have become a dangerous situation.

What did the word fascism do for me then, and what might that tell us about the possible ways people encounter and use the concept as they navigate their everyday lives in the United States in 2021? I associated with the word fascism, a body of knowledge that I have internalized in my life leading up to that moment. That knowledge probably saved my life that night. Fascism entailed a kind of knowledge that was at once a visceral and embodied attunement towards certain behaviors, habits, and gestures that could anticipate as potential threats, and at the same time familiarity with the symbols, stock phrases, tropes, and scripts used by people that I needed to regard with vigilance. By naming and recognizing the group of men who followed me as “fascists,” placing it in a field of family resemblances with all the other gangs, mobs, regimes, and movements past and present that bear the label “fascist,” they became knowable. Family resemblance does not mean complete and total sameness: I understood that these are not Spanish Falangists nor the Italian fascists from Mussolini’s era, much like the liberals that exist now in the United States are different from the liberals in 1790s France.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot reminds us to be mindful of the cognitive and political functions of comparison; the more we insist that something is without comparison, the more unthinkable and inscrutable it seems. Inscrutability can provide various political projects with a tactical cover (1990). By calling them “fascists,” they no longer seemed so exceptionally, inscrutably terrifying. They were now in a category of political gestures, idioms, scripts, modes of mobilizations, and regimes with family resemblances, which were not all identical but of a kind (Eco 1995). Labeling them “fascist” broke the spell. I understood why they were after me and knew what to do to maximize my chances of escaping a potentially dangerous situation.

While a common assumption is that people are using the word fascism right now in 2021 because they are fearful and outraged about far-right mobilization during the Trump presidency and thus are trying to compare the present with a singularly frightening image of the past, my experience has shown me that this need not be the case. For me, knowing that my chasers were fascists set me at ease. To be followed by a group of strangers was already scary. Labeling them as fascists did not make them more frightening. It made them seem less so.

In contrast, publicly stating that something is fascist is a lot more harrowing and fraught.

I risk being seen as overreacting—when in the actual moment, I did not overreact at all. My experience with neofascists remains hard to write about years later. I never reported the incident. After all, it was a non-event because I managed to escape, and my status as Black Dutch from the former overseas colony meant that I was not likely to be believed. As Cesaire (2001) reminds us, European fascism was the fruit of colonial violence and racial terror whose legacies still loomed like a shadow over my everyday life in the Netherlands at the time.

As I write this account for an American audience in 2021, I anticipate all the ready-made rhetorical moves that I have observed being used to trivialize others who see what is happening in the United States as a resurgence of fascism. There is greater urgency to evaluate the labels used name the phenomenon we are witnessing than there is to parse what is moving people to use those labels. Is this itself not a symptom of the political dangers we are facing?

With this brief foray into the everyday usage patterns of the word fascism, I wanted to show a glimpse of what is possible beyond a prescriptive approach to political concepts. Responding to these changes in usage with a prescriptivist debate about their correctness misses out on an opportunity to explore what the everyday life of this political concept is at the current moment. Attempts to settle the correctness of calling something “fascism” in 2021 through comparisons with the past might be entirely beside the point when current uses of the word might have very little to do with historical analogies to 1930s Europe.

What anthropologists have to offer to the debates around American fascism are fine-grained accounts of patterns of use that unsettle the unstated premises framing the discussion of American fascism. Opening these up to scrutiny will lead that debate into more expansive, generative directions.

Louis Philippe Römer is Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Vassar College. where he has taught in Anthropology and Africana Studies since 2016. Professor Römer holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from New York University. His current research focuses on race & class, discourse, and media in the Caribbean and the Atlantic World. He tweets @lromeranth

References

Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism. Translated by Joan Pinkham. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001.

Eco, Umberto. “Ur-Fascism.” The New York Review of Books, June 22, 1995. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1995/06/22/ur-fascism/.

Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2 (2004): 225–48. https://doi.org/10.1086/421123.

Trouilliot, Michel-Rolph. “The Odd and the Ordinary: Haiti, the Caribbean, and the World” Cimarrón: New Perspectives on the Caribbean 2, no. 3 (1990): 11, 3, 4.

One Reply to “Why “is this fascism?” is the wrong question: a foray into the everyday life of political concepts”

  1. generally sympathetic to this kind of reminder that meaning is in use and that we should avoid reification but have serious questions about “What anthropologists have to offer to the debates around American fascism are fine-grained accounts of patterns of use” how fine-grained can such investigations be, how much context is needed to grasp any localized event, and how much can one then generalize from any such sampling? Seems more of a de-constructive value to be had in any such examination of what’s actually occuring than a constructive one that can serve the public/common good.

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