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Populist Fascism
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American painter, printmaker, and educator Harry Sternberg’s 1947 visualization of fascism as a “hree-headed monster in armor trampling on religion, literature, and culture amid death and devastation.” Courtesy of Harry Sternberg/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division


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When people become fascists

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In 1938, Austria was annexed by the Nazi army. That same year, they built a new concentration camp at Mauthausen, near the city of Linz in northern Austria. This camp is known as one of the most fearful concentration camps built by the Nazis in various parts of Europe. Between 1938 and 1945, about two lakh people were imprisoned here. About one lakh of them were killed. In addition to those who died of starvation and diseases, many more were killed by inhaling poison in the gas chamber. Both the sick and the well were subjected to brutal medical examinations here. The medical records in this camp is an important source for those who study how scientific research has helped fascism and in turn, what role fascism has played in the development of modern science. Numerous experiments studying the body's reactions to extreme heat and cold, brain research, are just some examples.

Many journalists and historians have inquired the reaction of the Mauthausen inhabitants when such a concentration camp was operating near their village. While liberating the camp, most people responded that they were unaware of the atrocities taking place here. But further investigation revealed that at least some of the natives knew what was going on in the camp. Numerous reports indicate that those who delivered supplies to the camp and those who lived nearby only to hear cries from the camp must have had a rough idea of ​​what was going on in the camp. However, many researchers later found that many of the locals were actively involved in the running of the camp. In 1944, about a thousand Soviet soldiers were brought here as prisoners of war. They were housed in a special cell with high security inside the camp.

On February 2, 1945, about 500 prisoners escaped to the forest behind the camp. Fifty people trapped inside the prison due to illness were killed by S.S soldiers that night. Fifty people were killed in the clashes during their escape from prison. About 400 people escaped into the jungle. The same night, various military units were deployed to capture the escapees. They named the search 'Rabbit Hunt'. The commander of the camp, Francis Series, ordered his militants to kill those were found. Francis decided to seek the help of the locals as the search was not helpful for the first couple of days. Although he did not have high hopes for the cause, Series noted in his confession, which was also his death note, that he was surprised by the response from locals.

Not only members of the organisation such as Hitler Youth but also many ordinary locals took part in the 'rabbit hunt'. All except 11 of the prisoners were found and killed. The reactions of many who went back to that time a few years later are recorded in the museum set up there. The summary is almost as follows: "none of us knew any of the prisoners, and many were convinced that they were enemies, so we did not worry about what was going on there. No one remembers the faces of any of the prisoners. The name rabbit hunting probably inspired some. Things would have been different if someone knew any of the prisoners."

There are various inquiries going on as to what social processes are enabling and sustaining the fascist system in India. Most of these inquiries explain the role of the state in general, the government, the courts, the executive and the electoral process in particular. The role of the so-called common people in maintaining and strengthening the fascist system is also equally important. Many who have analyzed the history of the Nazi dictatorship in Germany, such as Hannah Arendt, have discussed it in great detail. They underscore the limitations of understanding the influence of fascism only in the sense that the people are misled by the state. Therefore, this post contains some very subjective and limited ideas about the relationship between fascism, people and democracy, questioning an indistinguishable and abstract concept of people, as an introduction to further studies.

Modern governments (regardless of whether they are elected or not) generally justify their authority by focusing on two things. One is the good of the country and the other is the good of the people. In principle, the concept of democracy considers the good of the people to be the good of the country, while modern-day fascist regimes justify themselves by focusing on the good of the country. (Justification here must be underlined. Justification is how one presents oneself in front of others. Therefore, one's own perception of what others believe will determine this justification. One may or may not believe in it.) The first example is the assessment of a country's condition using certain criteria, such as the Human Development Index and per capita income. The latter is an example of justifying power through law and order, boarder protection or the conquest of an enemy state, or the protection of a culture that claims to belong to a nation. In that sense, the people are not an essential element of fascist regimes.

But in this context, Michel Foucault's observation that the rule of all kinds of government in the modern world is aims the population as opposed to the monarchy which considers the power they retain to be God-given, can be recalled in this context. Modern religious governments, which believe that it is their responsibility to uphold divine justice, and the dictatorial governments led by the Communist Party, who see the state as a dictatorship of a particular class, claim that the welfare of the people is the main goal of governance. At the same time, in such countries, it is not generally assumed that the people play a greater role than those who govern. The authoritarian power of the people is usually recognized only when they react against the governments here. We come to this conclusion from the fact that there is nothing in common between the people and fascism.

The above conclusion is not entirely correct in the case of fascist governments that come to power through elections. In a country like India where such a situation exists, it is necessary specifically look at what is going on between the people and fascism. For example, the people cannot be seen as a mob subject to power in a situation where a critical section of the people believe in the elimination of the minority in the society and the political party that leads it wins the election.

Thinking about people in the modern world often begins as citizens of a nation. The modern concept of democracy, which is separate as individuals with rights and at the same time united as a people under the concept of nation-state, exists through two types of processes. The first is a process of building people through decentralisation, from top to bottom. It is a system that molds people in specific ways through government institutions and media, such as the courts, police, hospital and school. We clearly know how this process leads to fascism. One of the most important things Benedict Anderson says about nation-building is that when you imagine a country, people think of themselves as an abstract community. Let them never know each other, people in many places who are unlikely to see each other are seen similar,

It is a phenomenon in which they do not know exactly what they are, but imagine that they are sharing something. This is possible by imagining another group of people whom we do not know and have never seen as our enemies. Objectively speaking, if a Malayalee imagines a Punjabi who has nothing in common with himself, it is possible by considering himself and others into the abstraction of being Indian. This is how Punjabis in Pakistan, are considered an enemy. The abstract map of the nation-state and its boundary line help to remember their own people and the enemy here. For this to be possible, the aforementioned exercise of power from top to bottom is inevitable.

We also know that Hinduism was formed during the colonial period by translating the caste system into the abstraction of the nation-state. The above abstraction is essential for the reconstruction of Hinduism as it exists as a religion of a nation and not on the basis of customs or belief in God. Many have explained how governmental activities, beginning with the census process and ending with historiography and appointments, play a crucial role in this. These activities have today become one that directly aids the fascist system.

The second process is the one which is not given much attention. It is the activities of different sections of the people outside the state. This process is not something that exists independently from the first. But both processes have different approaches and methods. There may be the backing of the law and the police, but without expecting that, there are some tangible social conditions that motivates a person to kill his own daughter just because someone from a lower caste or a Muslim loves her. These activities are often perceived as a problem of law and order, lack of education and inadequate modernization. Therefore, it may seem as an over- reading to see these intolerances of individuals as fascism. But when we realize that fascism does not exist only in the form of military dictatorship, or when fascism becomes a way of life, beyond a state process, we will realize how essential it is to have the backing of a intolerance and hatred.

Does this mean that the possibility of a fascist lifestyle will disappear in situations where the concept of people becomes tangible? Such a conclusion cannot be drawn from the fact that the atrocities of the caste system took place in a society where face-to-face relationships exist.The identity of the caste is maintained through the daily routine and the power exercised in it. This becomes clearer when one considers the barriers to consensus for the abstract category of Dalits. In a way, perhaps people understand themselves and each other on the basis of sub-caste identities. Just because such self-understandings are tangible does not mean that they resist fascism. It is very clear, how the BJP is exploiting the power differences of the sub-castes not only among the upper castes, but also among the Dalits and OBCs in the elections. This happens by turning hatred into a basic way of life.

This can be compared to the opinion of some of the natives of Mauthausen that the situation would have been different if someone they knew had been a prisoner. Like the term 'rabbit hunting', the term 'urban naxal' and 'tukda tukda gang' are used here by fascist forces to instantly acknowledge state terrorism and create animosity against those who respond to it. At least some Mauthausens think that the lack of a familiar face, or the lack of a concrete relationship, led them to hate. But here, while the very existence of the caste itself is based on contempt and hatred of the lower castes, it is doubtful whether a familiar face in a similar context would have any kind of sympathy for its own caste or not. Therefore, it cannot be assumed that tangible relationships will necessarily lead to tolerance. At the same time, it is doubtful whether this problem can be tackled by consensus on race or any other abstract category as human. The hatred of casteismdoes not lie within the perception that the other is also a human being or that he is a worker.

Anti-fascist activities today are often centered around trying to change the abstract categories created by fascism or to create different lessons for them. Even though needed, these are not an adequate defense. The different readings of the Ramayana and interpretations of nationalism and Hinduism does not significantly affect the construction and reconstruction fascism in everyday life. Fascism cannot be stopped only by campaigning against a party or by the electoral defeat of that party. An example of this is the activities of the RSS in Kerala.

Hindutva fascism gains strength in Kerala through the efforts of the RSS, which organizes persistent intolerance on a subtle and tangible level. This is not hindered by electoral defeats or the influence of leftist thinking in the population. For example, the RSS is not undertaking a strong campaign against beef anywhere. But they are very effective in their campaign to abstain from eating meat on all occasions. Most of the caste communities who used to have meat on various occasions from marriage to Onam, are now becoming vegetarians on these occasions. By doing so, the RSS is also positioning itself as a Hindu against the obligation to eat meat on special occasions for Muslims and Christians. It is clear that these subtle actions of turning differences into hatred though slow, are surely showing results. At the same time this atmosphere of a general intolerance is very conducive to building hatred. An example of this is the strengthening of RSS in places like Kannur despite the lack of a strong BJP presence in Kerala.

Anti-caste activities at the local level are not on the agenda of any mainstream political party today. It is no wonder that tens of thousands of women took part in the struggle against the entry of Sabarimala for women. It is clear that this is due to the long-running propaganda of the RSS about Hindu rituals centered in local temples. In Kerala, the capture of temple committees is seen as a remedy by the CPM. There is a perception that the activities of the RSS in association with the temple are not related to the devotion of the people and are being used for something else (for example electoral politics). Their plan is that through the activities of this Temple Committee, a closer relationship with the local people can be established and it can be used for electoral politics. But even if they think in the depths of the Communist Party logics, even if they win the election, it is certain that such activities will not help them influence the communist ideology. Moreover, its sense of Hindu identity is gaining more acceptance and visibility. This identity building is important for the RSS. Through this construction of Hindu identity, they aim the upliftment of the lower castes and the construction of anti-Muslim sentiments. In other words, Hinduism does not need to be 'misused' specifically for politics, given that it was politically formed during the colonial period. It is in this sense that Ambedkar's last political activity was the conversion to Buddhism.

The description so far can be concluded as follows. State power is essential for the Hindutva forces in building abstract national identities along with the Hindu identity and thereby maintaining a fascist system. But Hindutva fascism consolidates its popularity by creating hatred and intolerance on concrete and subtle levels. Fascism will not be able to maintain its long-term influence among the people without this intolerance. In other words, the mentality of one who hates the neighboring Muslim, especially for no other reason (or for abstract reasons), cannot necessarily be considered fascist.(We hear a lot now that tearing down posters of the opposition is to save the 'real' fascism.

Though there might be a slight truth in it.) But in the absence of such attitudes, fascism cannot produce the necessary hatred and intolerance. Not to mention the importance of democracy in the struggle against fascism. In a way, the very definition of fascism is anti-democratic. But when democracy is reduced to its formal definitions, its ability to resist fascism is largely weakened when it is seen only as a governing process. At a time when fascism is becoming a way of life, the only way to fight fascism is to make democracy a way of life. It is based on the respect for differences.

Particular attention should be paid to the popularization of hatred in the special context of Hindutva fascism in India. One thing that makes this possible is the abstraction of people. It is through this abstraction that one thinks that Muslims in general are dangerous, even when a neighbor is a Muslim friend. It is the same with the direct acquaintance of a large number of Dalits who do not have social power, and who feel that Dalit communities achieved something unworthy through reservation. Here, Dalits and Muslims are either just a bunch of faceless people or completely disguised as a stranger. While the administrative process plays a crucial role in this discrimination and dressing up, it is also important to construct casteism and anti-Muslim sentiments through daily activities. Pointing a finger at the government or any party to oppose them is not enough. The popular support for fascism can only be resisted when the fascist habits of the people themselves are questioned. When examined alone, the microscopic powers, which may seem insignificant, spread through the roots like water and nourish the trunk. So just cutting off some twigs will not be of any use and the base itself will have to be burned.

(This article was published in Anti-Fascist Republic edition of Madhyamam Weekly 2021 marking the present day India, which is falling into the abyss of tradition, inequality and oppression under the direct rule of Hindutva. This was translated by Ibthisam)

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TAGS:Fascism Populism Right Wing Populism Hindutva 
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