The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.
For the next year and three months, we can expect national news to be sodden with 2020 election stories. The Democrats indulge themselves in preening for all of the beauty contests that lie ahead, while Republicans either deliriously don their MAGA hats to crusade for Trump or quietly stay home because they cannot stomach the notion of voting for him again.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has trotted out an unprecedented host of candidates, some of whom have remarkable leadership potential, but none so far have spoken to the heart of the matter in the 2020 election. Oh yes, Marianne Williamson pontificates with arrogant sanctimoniousness about “the dark forces of history” and “healing the soul of America,” but even she is not daring to lay bare the stench of the elephant in the room whose excrement permeates every debate stage and every aspect of American culture.
Watching the Democratic debates, you would think it was 1970. “Business as usual” doesn’t even approach the mind-numbing obtuseness of the entire lot. Let’s talk about healthcare and creating jobs and racism and all of the so-called “kitchen table issues”—as if they have the luxury—as if the elephant were not consuming every centimeter of oxygen in the room.
The elephant of which I speak—the heart of the matter, is that the last fragments of democracy, the last tatters of the rule of law, the last brick in the edifice of a liberal democratic republic are being obliterated before our eyes.
Mueller testifies. A few more Congress members jump on the impeachment bandwagon. Prissy Pelosi begs for restraint. The current occupant of the White House foments his base. The nation teeters on the brink of Civil War 2.0. The Constitution is shredded. Witnesses ignore subpoenas. A river of frothy effluent runs from the White House to Capitol Hill to the Supreme Court.
Jared Diamond (you remember him from his Collapse book) writes that:
Much like in marriage, you also have to have political compromise in a country. During the last few decades, American elected representatives and our electorates succeeded in reaching compromise about difficult issues. However, political compromise seems to be breaking down today. This breakdown, Diamond posits, is the “most serious” problem the United States faces because it could precipitate the rise of a dictatorship in the country.
Diamond, along with other collapse writers, have speculated that the collapse of industrial civilization will unfold in authoritarian form. As the seams of a society unravel, the boundaries must be shored up with repression and loss of freedom—freedom of speech, press, assembly, religion, as well as the freedom to move about at will, the right to privacy, technological freedom, and economic autonomy.
In his “Archdruid Report” of February, 2014, John Michael Greer writes:
If a full-blown fascist movement of what was once the standard type were to appear in America today, it’s a safe bet that nobody except a few historians would recognize it for what it is. What’s more, it’s just as safe a bet that many of those people who think they oppose fascism — even, or especially, those who think they’ve achieved something by spray painting “(expletive) FASCISM” on a concrete wall — would be among the first to cheer on such a movement and fall in line behind its banners.
In “Trump’s Language Of Pollution Drives His Neoliberal Fascism,” Henry Giroux notes that:
What we are witnessing at the current moment is not only the emergence of dangerous, illiberal, anti-democratic ideologies that mimic the legacy of white nationalism but also the resurgence of a powerful affective and educational culture nurtured by false promises, anger, feelings of repulsion, hatred and the spectacularization of violence. What is alarming about this culture of intolerance, bigotry and violence is its alignment with the Nazi obsession with notions of cultural and biological pollution and their systemic efforts to purge society of those deemed contaminated. This language is not unlike Trump’s characterization of asylum seekers as vermin who will bring “large-scale crime and disease” to the United States.
But as we know from recent Trump utterances, describing asylum seekers as “vermin” is not the only context in which he has used the term. The recent verbal attacks on Baltimore by Trump are dripping with purity-of-the-Aryan-race assaults such as “infested,” (a word used by Trump on numerous occasions to describe communities of color) “disgusting,” and the declaration that “no human being would want to live there.”
Yet the most chilling aspect of the heart of the matter is not the language of a racist President, but the daily chipping away at the rule of law and the separation of powers between the three branches of government in a society where increasingly, our public schools in their bungling attempts to teach civics and US history, fail to clarify these concepts.
In terms of civic education, Giroux reminds us:
Against a numbing indifference, despair or withdrawal into the private orbits of the isolated self, there is a need to create those cultural apparatuses and formative cultures that do the pedagogical work of promoting civic courage, fostering the capacity to listen to others, sustaining complex thoughts and engaging social problems. We have no other choice if we are to resist the increasing destabilization of democratic institutions such as those regulatory institutions that provide for people’s basic needs and their personal and political rights. In addition, there is also the need to resist the increasing assault on reason, the collapse of the distinction between fact and fiction, and the taste for brutality that now spreads like a plague across a number of countries, including the U.S.
Yet what makes our current political predicament even more terrifying is that much of the Western world is trending toward fascism. As we know, countries such as Italy, Hungary, the Philippines, Brazil, and others are wildly embracing fascism and autocratic forms of government. How did this happen?
Yale history professor, Tim Snyder, and author of On Tyranny and The Road To Unfreedom opines that, “Russia has reversed what we arrogantly thought was the proper flow of ideas. Rather than the West taking liberalism eastward, the East is projecting right-wing ideas westward, perhaps distorting the liberal democratic system in the process.”
When asked: Is fascism, a term coined several generations ago, really adequate for capturing what’s going on?
Snyder clarifies that, “I think that, even at the time, as you know very well, fascism meant a lot of different things. And that fascist thought was realized unevenly. So, there were various proposals for fascist order, only some of which actually came about. And of course, when they came about, they didn’t necessarily reflect the ideas perfectly.
I’m comfortable with saying that we’re in a moment where fascist thought has returned. Because, as a matter of fact, the current Russian government, which is a very important government, cites figures who are unambiguously fascist and Nazi. This is an extreme example of a general trend: Steve Bannon cites Julius Evola, Donald Trump speaks of “America First,” and so on. There’s been a kind of renaissance of the 1930s which has crept up on us. But there are certainly differences.”
In his recent book How Fascism Works, Jason Stanley succinctly describes our current political situation:
No matter where they appear, “fascist politicians are cut from the same cloth.” The elements of his formula are:
- Conjuring a “mythic past” that has supposedly been destroyed (“by liberals, feminists, and immigrants”). Mussolini had Rome, Turkey’s Erdoğan has the Ottoman Empire, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban rewrote the country’s constitution with the aim of “making Hungary great again.” These myths rely on an “overwhelming sense of nostalgia for a past that is racially pure, traditional, and patriarchal.” Fascist leaders “position themselves as father figures and strongmen” who alone can restore lost greatness. And yes, the fascist leader is “always a ‘he.’”
- Fascist leaders sow division; they succeed by “turning groups against each other,” inflaming historical antagonisms and ancient hatreds for their own advantage. Social divisions in themselves—between classes, religions, ethnic groups and so on—are what we might call pre-existing conditions. Fascists may not invent the hate, but they cynically instrumentalize it: demonizing outgroups, normalizing and naturalizing bigotry, stoking violence to justify repressive “law and order” policies, the curtailing of civil rights and due process, and the mass imprisonment and killing of manufactured enemies.
- Fascists “attack the truth” with propaganda, in particular “a kind of anti-intellectualism” that “creates a petri dish for conspiracy theories.” (Stanley’s fourth book, published by Princeton University Press, is titled How Propaganda Works.) We would have to be extraordinarily naïve to think that only fascist politicians lie, but we should focus here on the question of degree. For fascists, truth doesn’t matter at all. (As Rudy Giuliani says, “truth isn’t truth.”) Hannah Arendt wrote that fascism relies on “a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth.” She described the phenomenon as destroying “the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world…. [T]he category of truth verses falsehood [being] among the mental means to this end.” In such an atmosphere, anything is possible, no matter how previously unthinkable.
So after more than a decade of writing about the collapse of industrial civilization and catastrophic climate change, why am I focusing just now so adamantly on fascism? Does it really matter, when our future may be so shortened and devastated by climate chaos? It matters to me. Does it matter to you?
You say you’re not political and that political conversations are just a waste of time in the light of climate chaos?
Hannah Arendt said, “Wherever the relevance of speech is at stake, matters become political by definition, for speech is what makes man a political being.” In other words, if you can talk, you’re a political animal.
As I have said many times, for me it matters because how collapse unfolds is just as important as the fact that it unfolds. A fascist dictatorship in any country will cause collapse to unfold in unique ways. My work has always been about educating and fortifying others emotionally and spiritually to cope with collapse more resiliently than we might without specific psycho-spiritual tools. The tools we need to navigate the protracted degradation and destruction of the natural environment where there is little authoritarian repression are different than the tools we need to live in a society where food and water might be rationed or we are imprisoned in a work camp or we are living in a constant state of domestic terror.
The heart of the matter is that when (not if) we are living in a full-blown fascist dictatorship, everything that we called America, namely, liberty, justice, the Bill of Rights, the rule of law, gender equity, marriage equality, equal opportunity under the law, and basic human rights, will fade more rapidly into the distant past than they already have.
I will vote in the 2020 election, but with a President who bends over and invites other countries to interfere in that election, I fear, and I want very much to be wrong about this, that that election has already been won by the autocratic forces of the current administration in collusion with Russia and other countries. Mueller testified that it is “happening as we sit here.” Watch “The Great Hack” on Netflix and tell me if you believe that free and fair elections are still possible in the United States, or any other place for that matter.
Nevertheless, I will vote for whomever is the nominee of the Democratic Party, realizing that that person will never be able to stop climate catastrophe, will never adequately purge and transform the corruption that engulfs this culture—will never be able to prevail against a tidal wave of burgeoning fascism. I do not know if there will even be an election in 2020, but I know that I don’t have the luxury of engaging in pissing contests over who is more or less progressive. I don’t have the luxury of arguing about Mueller and his dodgy FBI past. Nor do I have the luxury of not voting. We are far, far beyond those privileged options. We are so not in Kansas anymore. In fact, I will vote for the Democratic candidate’s car or bus or shoe if there is the slightest chance that fascist autocracy can be postponed a moment longer.
That is the heart of the matter. No candidate running for office has gotten there, and probably never will. But we can. That doesn’t mean go out and vote the way I would. It means: Do you know, do you get in the marrow of your bones that we are now catapulting into a fascist dictatorship alongside climate catastrophe? Are you fortifying yourself with tools that will enable you to navigate both?
Are you prepared to join a resistance movement that actually understands what’s happening and will strategize accordingly? Regardless of likely human extinction and the likely triumph of fascism in a collapsing world, are you committed to taking a stand for the Earth community and the human community?
I’m not talking about a stand that could get you a ghastly prison sentence. I’m talking about a stand that could get you killed.
Am I willing? I don’t know. Who knows what any of us will eventually be forced to choose? But I do know that I am willing to name the heart of the matter which is more than any American political candidate appears willing or able to do at this hour.