In a democracy ‘Fascism’ can be fought by insistence on ‘Rule of law’ and by music and humour
In this third and concluding part of her essay on Fascism, Sonali Ranade discusses how Fascism can be resisted in a democracy
Fascism is a self-perpetuating pathology that feeds on itself. Once it gains power in a democracy, it so disrupts and defeats the checks and balances that are essential to keep power in check, that it crushes all dissent, making any opposition to its ideology impossible. In time the only competition for power comes from within the fascists; and here demagoguery ensures that power eventually goes to the most extreme in the group, until the ugliest wins.
The first two parts of the essay can be read here:
This implies that, as fascism takes hold in a democracy, the pathology cannot be reversed. On the other hand, right wing populism, which is fascism adapted to an electoral democracy, remains dependent on periodic elections, to legitimise its rule. Howsoever, attenuated, this reliance for legitimacy on popular support of people, opens up some space for forces within such a democracy to rein in and defeat fascism. Whereupon, fascism either graduates to a totalitarian regimen based on a personality cult, or reverts to some sort of electoral democracy, where space for contestation between fascists and democrats exists.
We have seen such attenuated democracies play out in Latin America. It is therefore well worth our while to examine how these work, and how regimes change under such a system, to understand how fascism can be defeated before it graduates to totalitarianism.
WHY FASCISM AND HOW IT WORKS
Let us begin with a recap of the argument so far from parts I & II:
- The philosophical basis of fascism lies in its basic anthropological assumption that man is intrinsically evil. The only way to keep this evil in check is constant supervision, and a continuous application of force where necessary.
This is in direct contrast to the liberal assumption that man is not evil by nature. Rather he is a rational being, in pursuit of self-interest, and can be deterred from evil by the self-realisation, that his evil would invite similar evil from others, making all worse off than before.
2. A person’s identity is determined and defined by making a distinction between his friends and enemies, on the basis of a political antagonism, strong enough to motivate him to kill his enemies or be killed by them. This antagonism is defined by a group collectively, and binds everybody. The friend is a public friend, and the enemy is a public enemy. There is nothing in between. An enemy is never a friend. The two categories are mutually exclusive.
The liberal position in contrast puts the individual at the center of the polity, free from any collectively defined, and publicly binding, friend-enemy binary. Instead, the individual is free to choose her associations and friends. There is no public enemy. Her obligations to society are defined by law. Once these are met, her freedom is guaranteed by a state, subject only to the freedom of other individuals.
3. The prevailing political imperative, creates an enemy, who has an external, and an internal dimension. In case the enemy is also internally present in significant numbers, his or her suppression and marginalisation takes priority over all else. The internal enemy is an existential threat. There can be peace with him/her, but no inclusion. He must be isolated and confined in a panopticon to ensure peace.
4. The antagonism that defines the friend-enemy paradigm need not be constant. A new antagonism can be adopted to create another combination of friend and enemy. Thus, fascists can seamlessly switch from hatred of say Muslims one day, to hatred of Dalits next. However, only one antagonism prevails at a time, in order not to confuse the polity, and to keep its energy focused.
5. The marginalisation of the enemy proceeds along all dimensions, personal, social, economic and political. Every stratagem that serves to mark the enemy, confine him into a panopticon, deny him resources and limit his access to power, is justified and brought into use.
This does not entail legislative changes unless absolutely necessary. Fascism is operationalised by low-level muscle, & militias or “senas”, who dutifully interpret and operationalise dog whistles from the top leadership.
The whole apparatus is immersed in a 24/7 continuously running propaganda script, and defines the enemy, paints him negatively, magnifies the threat he poses, and justifies every action against him as the highest good for a patriotic citizen.
CULTURE OF CEASELESS PROPAGANDA
“The practice of untouchability, cruel as it was- the broom tied to the waist, the pot hung around the neck- was the performative, ritualistic end of the practice of caste. The real violence of the caste was the denial of entitlement: to land, to wealth, to knowledge, to equal opportunity.”
― Arundhati Roy, Annihilation of Caste
Our own history offers numerous examples of such immersive scripts used to marginalise the defeated and the broken - like Dalits, mentioned by Roy in the above quote. The point to note is that this propaganda script is so immersive and pervasive that it becomes part of the culture.
The purpose of such marginalisation of the internal enemy is to deny him resources for growth as Arundhati Roy so eloquently explains. Denial of lebensraum is accomplished by restricting access to education, jobs, mates, living spaces, land; or whatever can be denied, including liberty, as in Assam.
If that sounds outlandish, consider the Hathras rape or the Shah Bano cases to see how foot soldiers of the fascist forces close ranks among upper castes or Hindus, over atrocities to protect their own, or to contain damage, and are able to progressively pull in resources of the State, when necessary. All this happens at ground level, while the top leadership connives and keeps mum, confining itself to inane pro forma statements for public consumption at best.
This point is crucial. Coercion under fascism is privatised and violence is no longer a state monopoly. Lower-level foot soldiers - private ‘senas’ under various names - actually, and visibly, share state’s monopoly over coercive violence, and use it to effectively bend other citizens to their will, in blatant violation of the law.
Nevertheless, the State actively connives and colludes with such extra-legal privatised violence, through fascist control over police and the administration. A private citizen is simply crushed and bludgeoned into submission by such a combination of fascist forces arrayed against him. The net effect is, that the State can go on claiming the fiction of rule of law at some macro level aggregate, while the reality at ground level is that personal liberty of dissenting individuals simply doesn’t exist.
As another example of such privatised violence, consider how counter-mobilisation by dissenting individuals is squelched.
Here we have two singers from Ghazipur, UP, doing nothing more than composing and singing songs such as “Ek the Hitler, Ek the Jhootler”, nothing incendiary, to make Dalits aware of the web of injustice in which they find themselves snared. Many of them are so wretchedly ensnared that they are not even conscious of how the system works against them. However, the fascist foot-soldiers - all upper caste men - combine to destroy the singers’ home, and to send them into hiding, and while shutting down their enterprise. All this happens while the law and the media look on. The cops do nothing to prevent such incidents.
While the State doesn’t budge to protect free speech, an example is made of the singers, and every other dissenter learns what happens to those who don’t fall in line. This is how fascism actually works: low level, extra-legal violence, used selectively against dissenters, by private militias empowered by active patronage from the top. Any plan to fight fascism must take into account such privatised violence by the fascists.
This then is the actual anatomy of the fascist state - its privatised capacity for violence against dissent, empowered by the state’s connivance, and active collusion where necessary.
In passing, we may note here that BJP/RSS have long had this capacity for privatised violence from RSS’ inception in 1925. In fact, the organisation was born with the object of creating such a capacity for the Hindu Maha Sabha. However, it never had the backing of the state for its various private ‘senas’. But now RSS/BJP are effectively, and visibly the state. In riots, we have seen militia members of such organisations actually patrol streets along with the police, using firearms. So, the private militias now are but an extension of the State; though outside the legal constraints that apply to such forces.
WHAT IS FASCISM’S GOAL?
As we saw in Part II of this essay, this coercive apparatus is extensively deployed against individuals, as well as political opponents, to squelch opposition, in order to maintain an unjust and unequal society, which otherwise could not exist due to counter-mobilisation by those oppressed.
Furthermore, the need for creating and maintaining an unequal society flows from the imperative of trying to maintain an exalted and elevated status for elites in an economy, where the overall cake is stagnant, or not growing as required.
Elites compare their living standards with those of elites in other advanced nations, and not in relation to the average earnings of a domestic citizen. So, if the President of the United States of America has two Boeing Jumbo jets for travel, and an office-cum-residence in the center of Washington DC, so must our local Big Chief.
This comparative opulence sets standards from top to bottom. But given the overall paucity of resources, such opulence at the top can only come from depriving those at the bottom. So, the fascists create a whole national level apparatus for mulching the powerless at the bottom of the social and economic pyramid, to maintain the opulence of those at the top, and sell this oppressive apparatus as “nationalism” and “patriotism” for the greater glory of the state, behind whose facade, they hide their own greed and extravagance.
No fascist model, whether like those in the many countries of Latin America, or South African Apartheid, or that of Germany under Hitler, has been any different. The most obvious and blatant example of using fascism to maintain an unequal society was Apartheid in South Africa. We know how it was done using an extensive police state to squelch dissent, and curb resistance from those oppressed. We know how that created economic stagnation, and made it worse, as the oppression killed all enterprise. At the end, the whole apparatus had to be dismantled, but not before a long night of murder and mayhem that lasted some 50 years.
In our own case, just maintaining the inequality, and injustice, intrinsic to the caste system, has debilitated our society for thousands of years; opening it to various invasions for which we paid a heavy price. Today our civilisational state, the sacred land of Vedas, lies in nine separate pieces, all riddled with irreconcilable mutual antagonisms. And yet, here we are repeating the same mistakes of trying to contain the natural aspirations of those at the bottom of the pyramid, with an oppressive fascist model of governance. Who can accuse us of having learned anything from our 2500 years of history?
THREE THINGS THAT SUSTAIN FASCISM
Our brief review of the actual mechanics with which a fascist state tries to oppress those at the bottom of the pyramid, and contain their natural aspirations for equal opportunity and progress, shows the model has three essential processes that need to be disrupted in order to fight back fascism in an electoral democracy.
First, consider the propaganda script that keeps those already converted to the fascist cause, loyal to it. This propaganda often appears nonsensical, even trivial, to those not aware of its vital purpose.
For example, we all know the nonsense about super-natural powers attributed to cow-dung etc. Yet the Sanghis persist with it. Why?
The reason is that RSS has a core constituency of believers who actually subscribe to such superstitions. Their faith must be validated. And the main purpose of such propaganda is to validate the nonsense by using the authority of the state, backed up by dubious “scientific research” sponsored by the State. This not only keeps the faithful in utter bliss, but also provides validation and purpose to the bone-headed muscle-men, that make up the ubiquitous militias that enforce the fascist writ, through sharing state’s monopoly over violence.
FIGHTING FASCISM WITH HUMOUR
The case for fighting this kind of propaganda is often relegated to the dustbin. The propaganda’s utter nonsensical value, the sheer disbelief regarding its rational utility makes us ignore it as unworthy of contestation.
This is a myth we need to fight because this part of the fascist apparatus is a vital cog in the overall machinery. It is easy to debunk, the case for debunking it with humour, mockery and irony is very strong, and one can be very persuasive. The fascist hate comedians take up this vital task. We need to encourage more comedians, give them better and more persuasive platforms, and protect them from privatised fascist muscle. Where the law itself jumps in, such comedians must be defended against persecution.
This is absolutely vital. Not because it will cause the faithful to lose faith; not even because it will prevent new recruits from joining the ranks of fascists; but because this helps dispel the general doom and gloom, and atmosphere of fear and hopelessness that fascists generate, to cow down people, and to make them incapable of resistance even in thought. Nothing deflates the con of a fascists more than robust mockery in public.
As long as the man on the street knows there are many others on the street like him who know the fascist propaganda is bunk, it empowers him to resist bullies. In fact, humour, mockery, ballads and songs are the key weapons to deploy against fascism because they empower and raise the morale of the oppressed. Fascists use visible violence to depress the morale of the oppressed. Humour counters this by not only building morale, but by rendering use of violence by fascist counter-productive. Humour is an overlooked weapon in the armoury of liberals against fascism.
Next only to maintaining morale, in the face of constant attrition by reason, rule of law is the biggest hurdle that fascists face in enforcing their writ through private militias.
The problems that fascists face are formidable. The foot-soldiers are of low quality, questionable commitment, and are either mercenaries or criminals who live by predation on others. No doubt they are led at higher levels by more ideologically committed and better educated leaders, but these too tend to be predatory in attitudes, and mercenary in outlook. Purely ideologically driven leadership, who understand the farce fascism is but still support it in public for power, come in only at the party’s senior levels - say district leaders and above.
That being so, it becomes very important to protect such goons from the law enforcement authorities, especially when the latter cannot be suborned. Fascists therefore spend considerable time, energy and resources in insulating their foot-soldiers from the vagaries of the law.
RULE OF LAW AND RULE BY LAW
This is a vulnerability that can be exploited by law-abiding citizens by insisting on rule of law. While a vigilant press helps in such cases, the fact is the press is poorly equipped to understand and highlight issues, especially at ground level, where public opinion directly impacts the families of various players, making them uniquely susceptible to pressure of public opinion. If your daughter is going to face a social boycott at school, for what you do as cop, you are doubly careful in what you say and do.
For this you need enormous amount of money, and a battery of lawyers and activists, who are willing to spend time fighting court cases and providing factual material to press & others regarding fascist atrocities.
Fascists have tried their utmost to squeeze funding of such activists, be they Teesta Setalvad or independent activists in the field.
We need to restore funding for such activities in a decentralised manner, but with verifiable audit trails. The best way to do so would be to crowd fund a central corpus, in a trust managed by an impeccable group of eminent liberals, and public intellectuals.
This fund can then be made available to local chapters of such a body, organised and constituted in every state where they are needed. The funds can be used to pay for lawyers and other legal expenses in defending comedians, other victims, or making sure than goons are properly prosecuted. The fund can also be used for legal intervention in matters of public interest in courts.
The key here is crowd-funding at regular intervals, local leadership, and manning at state/district levels, through a committed cadre of legal professionals prepared to fight deserving cases pro bono.
The fascists have a very limited number of high-quality lumpen leaders, and these are used repeatedly to organise their “campaigns,” legal or not. These people need to be documented, their case histories maintained in a central data base, and their activities monitored by activists. Given proper information, the activities of such leaders should be disrupted by every legal device available, including litigation in multiple courts across cases.
The devil is in the detail. While we have no dearth of people who sound off against fascism, what is needed is dedicated people willing to get down with detail and effective execution. Rule of law is actually waging a war by legal means against fascists at every level from Thana to the SC. Crowd funding is key. So is the selection of the panel to head the trust and manage its affairs. We shouldn’t rule out multiple trusts once one gets going.
CRAFTING A MORE POWERFUL NARATIVE
The biggest challenge that fascists face is in reconciling the lofty rhetoric of national glory that they assiduously create and cultivate, with actual performance on the ground, that people can see and experience.
Fascists spend considerable resources and effort in designing their rhetoric of greater national glory in terms where they cannot be pinned down to metrics. Their claims are usually tall, and are made without a context that enables reasoned comparison. Every effort is made to keep the rhetoric emotive to bypass reason.
Fascist rhetoric is a very carefully constructed emotive cocktail, not easy to disrupt unless you know the key to its disruption. For the most part present day politicians have still not found the language to disrupt such a narrative. But it is not that difficult if you approach the problem logically avoiding the emotive traps.
First of all, fascists can never deliver on actual performance. Their very ideology limits individual initiative, enterprise and risk taking. Their rhetoric must reward collectives, and the nation for success, not individuals who actually innovate and change, in order to induce change around them. The lack of political & economic freedoms spells doom for creativity and innovation, limiting growth. This is especially true in a knowledge driven economy that now obtains.
There is still a residual notion in India that a state can create global champions by concentrating resources on two or three favoured tycoons to enable them to scale up. This largely comes from a misunderstanding of the Japanese, South Korean and the Chinese models of growth.
Be it the Chaebols, the MITI promoted Toyotas or the Deng backed entrepreneurs like Jack Ma, the States there did not choose champions like Modi has done. Instead, it threw all of them into the international pool, asking them to compete with global players. The winners in this competition were then backed by state capital to grow internationally in order to scale up, while keeping key design & technology at home in order to create high value jobs and maintain control.
Modi has chosen his cronies using some unknown alchemy, and decided to favour them in the domestic market, while protecting them from overseas competition through high tariff walls. That is the exact reverse of the Chaebol process, where the State backs champions who prove their competitiveness in the international arena first, albeit at a modest scale, and are then helped to scale up and grow.
Secondly, while knowledge economy is the future, and our technology companies have already proved they are internationally competitive over a 30-year cycle, Modi has chosen brick and motor, smoke-stack industries to back at home, rather than the knowledge economy. Not only that, Modi is taxing the most competitive parts of the economy - the technology exporters who are internationally competitive - and giving away these resources to sunset smoke stacks in power, airports, roads, refineries, and telecoms. This is the reverse of what one should be doing.
But then these wrong choices flow out of the ruling elites desire to preserve privilege, rather than venture out and earn more. So quite naturally, they are less bothered about being internationally competitive, and more concerned with establishing local dominance through monopolies.
Given this brief overview on fascist compulsion to follow a sub-optimal growth strategy, the gulf between lofty rhetoric and actual performance can only widen with time.
However, to exploit this Achilles’ heel of fascists, you need a deft idiom that is both emotive, but also compels thought on the part of those hooked emotively. The diminishing rate of economic growth has a number of drastic fallouts at lower levels of the social and income pyramids that is squeezed in two ways.
Firstly, the aggregate growth is lower, creating fewer jobs and other income generating opportunities, for those at the bottom. The second is a more than proportionate reduction in such opportunities for the weak, as the bulk of the benefit from any growth are appropriated by those at the top of the pyramid. Recall fascism exists only to facilitate such transfer of wealth and privilege from the bottom half of the pyramid to the upper half.
This fallout can be concretised into two or more specific factors of which I will consider only two.
Firstly, job opportunities at the lowest level of the pyramid shrink rapidly. The effect at the margin is like the visible parched land at the edges of a lake in summer. The margins show the shrinkage with vivid clarity, and this creates huge emotional turmoil at lower levels of the income pyramid. For a sensitive politician, this is something fairy easy to channel as a mass movement because those who experience joblessness for a prolonged period of time will not listen to the empty rhetoric of national glory.
The second most emotive fallout of shrinking opportunities at the bottom is impact on the future of children. As education gets rationed at the bottom, job opportunities shrink, and capital with the lower middle class gets eroded; even as cost of education spirals up, and anxiety about the future of children grows exponentially.
Children’s future drives parental energy; more so in India where they are the social security of aged parents. In furtherance of the fascist project, the future of children of those in the lower half of the income pyramid has to shrink. This then becomes the second prong of the counter-struggle against fascism. Mind, the motivation for this also stems from a direct experience with shrinking opportunities, and is therefore immune to the fascist greater national glory rhetoric.
Combine these two, and you have one of the most potent, emotionally driven, platforms to counter fascists. However, this should not be made an all-out leftist program because leftist ideas are intellectually bankrupt when it comes to growing the national cake, rather than sharing it equitably.
So, you need to take these two factors and combine it with a similar slogan to that of fascists but with a twist: which is why can’t we compete globally?
What do we innately lack that we should be afraid of global competition? The reason is crony capitalism, and a clever politician can make mincemeat out of the fascist’s penchant for crony capitalism; their bread and butter.
In the quest for global competitiveness, you capture the fascist greater national glory argument and rhetoric; and turn it against them in light of poor performance caused via globally uncompetitive firms created by crony capitalist. Thus, you hang the fascist on their own petard.
NEW IDIOM IN NEW CONTEXT
So that’s the formula in brief:
- We are not doing well, there are no jobs, the future of our children is bleak, we must change.
- Our performance is weak because nepotism, preference to privilege and crony capitalism militate against true merit.
- Let us build a better, globally competitive India, that is merit driven and where the poor have equal opportunity, starting from schools, to college, to jobs and starting a business.
By building on such a narrative, backed by active field work, fascism can still be defeated, both in terms of ideology, and facts on ground.
Those are three axes along which the fascist malignancy must be fought:
- RIDICULE & MOCK THEIR FAKERY
- INSIST ON DEFENDING RULE OF LAW & RULE BY LAW
- CREATE AN ALTERNATIVE, “GREATER, MORE GLORIOUS INDIA” WHERE THE CHAMPIONS ARE GLOBALLY COMPETITIVE FIRMS IN KNOWLEDGE BASED INDUSTRIES AND NOT SMOKESTACKS SET UP BY CRONY CAPITALISTS IN SUNSET INDUSTRIES