A common meme of mainstream news equates the ongoing nationalistic movements in Europe, the US and other places with fascism. Trump’s government has frequently been called neo-Fascist. European nationalistic leaders like the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders and France’s Marine Le Pen are sometimes called fascist, but more often labeled “far right.”
The term fascist is a slippery one, coined in Mussolini’s Italy. But Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, the two chief members of World War Two’s Axis Powers, are generally seen as varieties of fascism. Oddly enough, the 2014 American led anti-Russian putsch in Ukraine wherein neocons, funded by the Orwellian named National Endowment for Democracy, installed an openly neo-Nazi government, in collaboration with other fascist parties, is rarely referred to as fascist.
Since the development in the nineties of the institutions of neoliberal (or unregulated) globalized capitalism, nationalistic reactions against this powerful world system have drawn extremely negative reactions in neoliberal dominated mass media. These are generally equated with fascism and racism. Indeed these derogatory terms are often projected onto contemporary nationalistic movements in general. But nationalism has no such historical connotations.
Eighteenth century American nationalism was forged in an independence movement against the British Empire which created the first modern republic. Nineteenth century nationalism in places like Latin America and Italy were liberal movements for self-government. And as recently as the period following World War Two, former European imperial possessions in Africa and Asia gained their independence in liberal, egalitarian movements.
While much of the American press at the time supported these movements, it was not uncommon later on if a newly independent government went to the left, for the CIA to take it out in a coup, replacing the popular, egalitarian leader with a tyrant who catered to US corporations. An example was the killing of Patrice Lumumba, the charismatic Congolese leader in 1961 and his replacement by the mass murderer, Mobutu.
Hence nationalism is most often a movement of a people for self-determination. The neoliberal hegemony of transnational bankers and corporations over national governments has in recent years given rise to a popular and largely healthy reaction. Nationalistic movements against financial/corporate imperialism can be on the left, as is Spain’s Podemos and Greece’s SYRIZA, or right, as in Le Pen’s or Wilders’ movements.
Just as the left movements are not communist, neither are the right movements fascist. It helps to remind ourselves of fascism’s distinct characteristics. It is above all “the corporate state,” that is a state wherein big business and government work hand in glove. We see that much more in the neoliberal world order than in the nationalistic movements against it.
The European Union is governed remotely by bureaucrats in Brussels. The most powerful entity determining its economic policies has been the German Central Bank. Since the faltering of a top heavy world economy, these bureaucrats and bankers have imposed austerity economics throughout Europe, which has compelled shrinkage of welfare states and primarily hurt the poorer economies in the South.
Another key characteristic of fascism is its mission of world domination. That is very much a factor of neoliberalism, with its practice of worldwide hegemony under the World Trade Organization imposing a free trade regimen that enables ruling plutocrats to move capital at will and maintain huge pools of worldwide, highly mobile dirt cheap labor (migrants).
At the same time as economic doldrums caused high unemployment exacerbated by financially imposed austerity, US imperial oil wars initiated in 2001 created chaos, laying waste to much of the Middle East and Central Asia. Refugees from the Second Iraq War flooded Syria, destabilizing the country and leading to its civil war. The “Arab Spring,” led mainly to civil wars without democratization, including NATO’s destruction of a thriving, cosmopolitan Libya and the murder of its leader, Muamar Gadhafi. The latter had been developing an African currency which Washington saw as a threat.
US wars in the Middle East have flooded Europe with Muslim refugees during hard economic times. Is it any wonder that particularly working class people, many of them out of jobs, or barely getting by, are attracted to movements to limit or curtail immigration? This is not racism. It is the direct result of neoliberal economics of inequality and US oil imperialism.
The Brexit movement which pulled England out from under EU bankers was a move for self-determination which could culminate in progressive Labor politician Jeremy Corbyn’s election. In the US, which now lacks an authentic labor left due to loss of effective unions, the result of decades of corporate offshoring, a right wing populism emerged under Donald Trump.
Trump demagogically capitalized on a degraded working class’s fears of displacement by immigrants, together with fear of Islamist terror resulting from decades of oil wars. While he echoes right wing Republican ideology, Trump is no fascist. He took a swing at the neoliberal order by canceling the immense TPP trade agreement, which likely would have continued US de-industrialization. And he sought détente with Russia, vastly unpopular with the imperialist establishment.
The true fascists, immensely powerful in Washington and media, are the neocons. Their prevalence and obsession with world domination has convinced Russian generals the US is planning a first nuclear strike. Trump’s recent warlike posturing is a response to neocon pressure. But as he lacks their ideological fervor, they can never trust him. Hence all the Russia-gate nonsense.
Stephen Berk, PhD is Emeritus Professor of History, California State University Long Beach, author of two books on US History, and political columnist for a Pacific Northwest monthly newspaper.