What is Post-fascism?

G. M. Tamás
13 September 2001

One of Hungary’s leading anti-communist dissidents accuses Europe and the world of abandoning Enlightenment principles. He is now an unillusioned critic of a racialised global liberalism.

I have coined the term post-fascism to describe a cluster of policies, practices, routines and ideologies which can be observed everywhere in the contemporary world. Without ever resorting to a coup d’etat, these practices are threatening our communities. They find their niche easily in the new global capitalism, without upsetting the dominant political forms of electoral democracy and representative government. Except in Central Europe, they have little or nothing to do with the legacy of Nazism. They are not totalitarian; not at all revolutionary; not based on violent mass movements or irrationalist, voluntarist philosophies. Nor are they toying, even in jest, with anti-capitalism.

I should define what I mean by the term “post-fascist”. I take the term “fascism” to refer to a break with the enlightenment tradition of citizenship as a universal entitlement; that is to say, with its assimilation of the civic condition to the human condition.

It is this concept of universal citizenship that underpinned the notion of progress shared by liberal, social democrat and all the other assorted progressive heirs of the Enlightenment. Once the Enlightenment equated citizenship with human dignity in this way, its extension to all classes, professions, both sexes, all races, creeds, and locations was only a matter of time. Universal franchise, the national service, and state education for all had to follow. National solidarity demanded, moreover, the relief of the estate of Man, a dignified material existence for all, and the eradication of the remnants of personal servitude.

In 1914, fascism was able to undo this key premise of modern society, by playing upon the inherent contradiction in the concept – the fact that universal citizenship is at once “universal” and yet limited to the nation-state. Until then, governments were thought to represent and protect everybody within their borders. National and state borders defined the difference between friend and foe: foreigners could be foes, fellow citizens could not.

However, for Carl Schmitt, the legal theorist of fascism and political theologian of the Third Reich, those in power must judge who does and who does not belong to a given civic community. Citizenship became a function limited to his (or its) trenchant decree. Certain categories of people, representing types crucial to the Enlightenment project of inclusion, became non-citizens and therefore, non-humans: communists meant the rebellious “lower type”, the masses brought in, leaderless and rudderless, by rootless universalism, and then rising up against the natural hierarchy; Jews, a community that survived the Christian middle ages without political power of its own, led by an essentially non-coercive authority, the people of the Book, by definition not a people of war; homosexuals, by their inability or unwillingness to procreate, bequeath and continue a living refutation of the alleged link between nature and history; the mentally ill, listening to voices unheard by the rest of us – in other words, people whose recognition needs a moral effort and is not immediately (“naturally”) given, who can fit in only by enacting an equality of the unequal. You will doubtless reply that the Enlightenment project of inclusion is still on track, alive and kicking and being extended in significant ways. Many countries now have “honorary citizens” i.e. human beings, who are not fully-fledged citizens but who have rights: children, foreigners, mental patients, prisoners, for example. The argument is gathering that they should no longer be bereft of their civic rights.

People without citizenship

However, it is my contention that over and against this, a counter-argument is emerging. One conspicuous example of this is the ever-growing number of people who don’t possess any meaningful citizenship. These people are of course in various groupings. The many tens of millions of refugees are joined by hundreds of millions of people who live in territories where there is no state, no law, and therefore no liberty either – people living now in many territories of Africa, ex-Soviet central Asia and similar places, like Yugoslavia. They are unprotected from the might of the mighty, and terrorised by stormtroopers and by gestapos.

Everywhere, from Lithuania to California, immigrant and even autochthonous minorities have become the enemy and are expected to put up with the dimunition and suspension of their civic and human rights. The withdrawal of legitimacy from state socialist and Third World nationalist regimes has left only racial, ethnic and denominational bases for a “state-formation” claim (as in Yugloslavia, Czecho-Slovakia, the ex-Soviet Union, Ethiopia-Eritrea, Sudan etc).

The propensity of the European Union to weaken the nation-state and strengthen regionalism ethnicises rivalry and territorial inequality (see North vs. South Italy, Catalonia vs, Andalusia, English South East vs. Scotland, Fleming vs. Walloon Belgium, Brittany vs. Normandy). Class conflict, too, is being ethnicised and racialised, between the established and secure working class and lower middle class of the metropolis, and the new immigrant of the periphery, also construed as a problem of security and crime. The growing de-politicisation of the concept of a nation (the shift to a cultural definition) leads to the acceptance of discrimination as “natural”.

This is the discourse the right intones quite openly in parliaments and street rallies in eastern and central Europe, in Asia and increasingly in “the West”. It cannot be denied that attacks against egalitarian welfare systems and affirmative action techniques everywhere have a dark racial undertone, accompanied by racist police brutality and vigilantism in many places. The link, once regarded as necessary and logical, between citizenship, equality and territory is under seige.

But disenfranchisement also afflicts many other categories of citizenry in developed countries where, for example, because political alternatives are no longer on offer, citizenship and democratic participation become meaningless. This last is an ever-growing number. You only have to look at the election participation data in Great Britain… So there are many forms of the loss of a citizenship which people have been fighting for from 1642.

A personal position

I have an interest to declare. The government of my country, Hungary, is – along with the Bavarian provincial government (provincial in more senses than one) – the strongest foreign supporter of Jorg Haider’s Austria. The right-wing cabinet in Budapest is attempting to suppress parliamentary governance, penalising local authorities of a different political hue from its own, and busily creating and imposing a novel state ideology, with the help of a number of lumpen intellectuals of the extreme right. It is in cahoots with an openly and viciously anti-Semitic fascistic party that is, alas, represented in parliament. People working for the prime minister’s office are engaging in more or less cautious Holocaust revisionism. The government-controlled state television gives vent to raw anti-Gypsy racism. The fans of the most popular soccer club in the country, whose chairman is a cabinet minister and a party leader, chant in unison about the train that is bound to leave any moment for Auschwitz...

I am myself a half Jewish Hungarian, brought up in Romania by a family full of communists. My parents were in an illegal communist party, and spent a long time in prison for it. Basically they were very disappointed people, who didn’t like the regime very much, from a left-wing standpoint. Consequently, I had what I can call an impeccable anti-communist education at the hands of my communist parents.

So I grew up a dissident under a communist regime. I was finally shoved out of my job at the university of Budapest in 1980 for “dissident and oppositional activities” – I wrote an underground pamphlet and published it under my own name protesting the military coup in Poland – and went into internal exile for the following 10 years. From 1986 onwards, I was allowed to travel to teach abroad, which I did, in the US and Britain and other places. On 15 March 1988, when the civil movement really got started, I had the great distinction to be the first person in Parliament Square to call for free elections, a new constitution, a multi-party system and the departure of the Soviet troops. From then on I was sucked into politics by the people who formed Hungary’s first liberal party since 1918.

In the 1980s, I had become a Tory anarchist. (That was when I befriended people of the then still quite intelligent American-British right.) So it was that I became one of the leaders of the right-wing of my party, which seems rather curious now. I was duly elected to parliament in 1990, when the free elections took place, and was a party chairman for 4 years. I was officially rehabilitated as a Professor of Philosophy to boot – I got a rather rude phone call telling me I was expected to come and start teaching again (Hungary is a very unceremonial country).

In 1994, I decided not to stand again for parliament for many personal reasons. I didn’t think I was cut out to be a professional politician in this system, or any other kind of system for that matter. And I wanted to return to research and writing. But of course I remained a political activist. Then gradually, I found myself breaking away from my former party as my views changed, and theirs did also. Last year, I resigned from the party and found myself turning very sharply back to the left.

Why? Well, I’m a theorist. What I do is to write about “information”. I became convinced that the way in which we must judge democratic welfare states, their sovereignty and democratic participation, are closely linked to something which no longer exists under global capitalism. Globalisation has increasingly deprived people of the power to take decisions about their own state. This in turn has led me to re-evaluate what I thought about statehood and issues of equality.

In the end, I became ashamed of some of the things I once did and thought. So much so, that this February, in my new incarnation, when I was asked to speak at a trade union rally in Heroes Square against the new, very oppressive labour legislation, I took the opportunity in front of 50,000 people, to apologise and say that I was ashamed that, “it is only now that I am coming to you, where I should have been all along.”

In some ways, my life hasn’t changed that much. I have more pairs of trousers than before. But only a few. It wasn’t that I had ever forgotten about Enlightenment values. But it was relatively easy for me, in avoiding the dangers inherent in such well known enlightenment projects as socialist revolution, to err on the side of a cult of spontaneity, subsequently modified into a cult of tradition, non-planned human subjectivity, the market and so forth. In those days, what drove one’s subconscious was to be as far away from the Commies as one could possibly get. It was quite painful giving up that logic. But now, when I give a speech in public, I can look up and see among the faces of the people who are listening to me, Old Bolshies nodding in agreement… well what can I say!

Europe today

From my left-wing perspective, looking at Europe today, I can see the remnants of social democracy in French politics, and amongst the Italians, but where else? There has been a transformation of the political world, and especially parliamentary politics. Once upon a time, rebellious people studied philosophy because philosophy embodied the conviction that things are not what they seem: that there is a difference between surface and essence, opinion and truth or spiritual belief.

Political discourse of this kind in modern times was underpinned, for example, by the Marxist belief in the theory of commodity fetishism, that the commodity is not simply an object, but crystallised human activity. If you analyse it, you will find that these two things go together. The possibility of a political alternative goes hand in hand with this sense of a discrepancy between the surface appearance and reality.

Now, we have a new situation. We have Guy Debord and the society of spectacle, parodying Hegel, claiming that what appears is all that is true and that what is true is what appears. And everybody takes this to be the case – that these two things are no different any longer. The Blair project is simply the most extreme version of this. Socialism means capitalism. Social justice means privatization and a big brother kind of existence. Everything means its opposite, which indeed is possible if one only looks at the surface. On one end of this flat surface you have PPP, and on the other end you have the red flag still being used at Labour conferences. And there is no contradiction because contradiction exists only when you allow the possibility of real alternatives. So it is no wonder that this world is in decay.

Here, perhaps I should explain something about the communist system as I knew it. It was convinced that the working class and “real socialism” or whatever, were the inheritors of everything great. Being in touch with whatever was creative and deep and interesting was an abiding concern of the communist leadership. After all, there were no distractions: no sexual revolution, no holidays abroad, certainly no youth literature! What did I read when I was thirteen? I read Tolstoy. In Eastern Europe, this situation lasted until very recently. Dictatorship conserves. It was a very conservative, very Victorian world. Of course there was censorship. But censorship meant official criticism – not shutting things out altogether. When I became a young philosopher, analytic philosophy was all the rage, and all the branches of analytic philosophy were well known to me, in this very old fashioned, very Victorian world in which we lived.

So perhaps now you are in a better position to understand where I am coming from when I say that in today’s world a condition pertains to which I have given the name, post-fascism. What I mean to invoke by this term is not the claim that the SS is stalking Europe once more! But that all the aims of the right-wing totalitarian machine of the pre-war period – let’s name them – of the fascists – can nowadays be achieved and are being achieved by parliamentary and democratic processes.

Post-fascist governance

In so-called democratic countries, governments can get away with things now that have been impossible since 1945. Of course parliamentarism is to a large extent a sham. Even so, in constitutional systems, flawed as they are, power finally resides with the people. Representative governments are imperfect embodiments of the popular will, but they are an embodiment of a common aim, agreed at least in principle, by most people and by the system itself. Therefore people’s disenchantment with imperfect representation in the past has been justified. Democratic struggles and liberal struggles made perfect sense.

Now, you cannot elect a government of whatever kind that can really make decisions. I’ll give you an example of how these things work from my own country. 63 per cent of Hungary’s exports are processed by offshore companies. (The percentage in the Czech Republic is 15 per cent and the EU average is 2 per cent.) So this is quite extreme. And yet, this data about the amount of exports that are produced without any taxation is not mentioned by the Hungarian media at all. This figure was unearthed by a small left-wing publication that has a circulation of 600. I mentioned it on television and people just thought I was mad. Because it is unknown data. This fiercely nationalistic parliamentary majority, which damns globalisation and Americanisation, liberals, Jews and gypsies, had not thought fit to raise the issue at all.

So now the fight within the terrain of national politics is over a ridiculously tiny amount of the budget. And even that remaining part of the budget is controlled by financial interests to a very large extent. Parallel with the loss of democratic power by nation states and by political communities, citizenship, even in developed countries, therefore becomes more and more meaningless. And in poor countries it scarcely exists at all. So, we have on the one hand very small numbers of empowered persons and groups and occupations ranging from academics to the bourgeois. These people are as distanced from the preoccupations, deprivations and worries of the great majority of mankind as the weak aristocracy ever were before the democratic reforms of the 18th and 19th centuries – with one great difference. They possess none of the sense of noblesse oblige, however limited, which aristocrats still entertained.

This is also the main point of contrast between globalisation and imperialism. Imperialism, nasty as it was, (and racist as it was, with all its talk about the White Man’s Burden) was a state-driven, government-driven project. However nasty the imperialists may have been, they had to build something and they built roads, offices, railways stations, prisons and hospitals. Not enough, but some. They had some of the sense of duty that you will find in any government, even the worst. They set up a civil service and a teaching profession, and so on and so forth.

Globalisation doesn’t entail any kind of obligation. Global capital doesn’t build roads. So now the exploitation of the weak builds on person-to-person violence. It is all at a distance. Governments are not involved.

If in the present day political community, one could register the full scale of responsibility for what global capitalism does to weak and poor countries, people wouldn’t permit it. But there is no control and no information about it. This is why I think of it as a peaceful fascism. I must say that the original fascism and the original imperialism were very puerile, childish things. They spent so much, especially on the military. What is done now is done much more meticulously, and much more cheaply for those who are meticulous.

Nevertheless, the new Dual state is alive and well: a Normative State for the core populations of the capitalist center, and another State of arbitrary decrees for the non-citizens who are the rest. Unlike in classical fascism, this second State is only dimly visible from the first. The radical critique protesting that liberty within the Normative State is an illusion, although understandable, is erroneous. The denial of citizenship based not on exploitation, oppression and straightforward discrimination, but on mere exclusion and distance, is difficult to grasp, because the mental habits of liberation struggle for a more just redistribution of goods and powers are not applicable. The problem is not that the Normative State is becoming more authoritarian: rather, that it belongs only to a few.

So, what hope for the future?

I will refrain from making predictions. The Seattle movement and similar resistance movements are slightly encouraging. If people are willing to make sacrifices, they will get shot at, naturally, for their ideals. But that may provide further encouragement. However, I will say one thing. In the 19th century, socialism and feminism and such like were still part of an emancipatory project, linked to what people thought about the world – to scientific progress, technological progress, secularisation, individual liberation.

Now, the unity of the emancipatory project is fluttering away. The Seattle movement in its rainbow coalition character shows very well that people, who would of course have sympathy with proper emancipatory projects, are still fragmented. It is only now that we can see the importance of the workers’ movement for the modern world, where socialism or Marxism was the vehicle that helped unite all its strands. Think of the striving for knowledge and the examination of the culture which inspired those people. Look at the radical newspapers in the 1920s, read by factory workers. They were high quality, the broadsheets of the day, and needed great patience and dedication to follow them. The kind of pamphlets trade unions distributed, the kind of speeches people made to very poorly educated people, people with secondary school education at best, contrast strongly with the forms resistance take today, which is necessarily more instinctive, more subjective, more about single issues. It is inevitable that there is no unifying moment. This need not be the case for ever. But this is what we see now.

Global capital, on the other hand, does have a global project, motivated by a profound belief. It is not completely cynical. This is a deep belief in the possibility of human individuals cutting all links to their fellow human beings, and ending the constraints which moral and social undertakings to overcome evil and suffering place upon us. It is a belief in freedom without the interference of institutional procedures, which of course is mad. Nevertheless this is what people in the City think, and this is what new conservatives think. Of course this is a kind of utopia. It is an illusion, but it is a very forceful illusion and this is why it is successful. It promises something. It is not true that it doesn’t offer anything.You feel empowered as an individual. It gratifies your appetites without your being told off. This has something anarchical about it.

Multiculturalism is no answer

Domestic racism is gradually being supplanted by a global liberalism grounded in a political power that is also rapidly becoming racialised. Under these circumstances, multiculturalism, however well-meaning, is no answer. Multiculturalism I would define as a last ditch replacement of equality with social engineering, leaving intracommunal relations intact, and transforming questions of social and political equality into problems of cultural relations and educational budgets. It is an impoverishment of the old emancipatory project, including the old struggle for racial equality. I come from a minority myself.

Multicultural responses are desperate avowals of impotence: an acceptance of the ethnicisation of the civic sphere, but with a humanistic and benevolent twist. These avowals are concessions of defeat, attempts to humanize the inhuman. The field has been chosen by post-fascism, and liberals are trying to fight it on its own favourite terrain, ethnicity.

The problem about multiculturalism as the ideology and practice of weak groups is that it becomes a mutual aid society in which intra-group criticism and politics isn’t possible. Culture always reflects the conviction of the elders of a given community. So what happens if you feel the need to rebel within that community? You automatically become a traitor to your own community. You join the whites. This has nothing to do with emancipation. Indeed, it places a barrier between people and their own fight for emancipation.

Moreover, it is intrinsically sterile. Let me give you one example. I was watching Newsnight on television in Britain earlier this summer. There was a report about the race riots in Bradford. It was about how these Islamic faith-based schools are preserving people’s culture. What is this culture? Do they teach Urdu and Bengali in those schools? No, they teach Arabic. Is that their tradition? Of course not. It’s an abstract, fundamentalist teaching modelled on militant Protestant private schools in America. It has nothing to do with Pakistan or Bangladesh. Nothing at all. It is a sham.

I lived as an ethnic Hungarian-Transylvanian under the Ceaucescu regime, the mainstay of which was anti-Hungarian nationalism. I know what a fight for minority rights means. And it is not this. The Hungarians have one ethnic party in parliament. All the rest can choose between conservatives, socialists, communists. At best, that means that the Hungarians’ internal political life is confined to 2 million people, reduced to complaining, demanding and, if not getting, then sulking. It is infantile. It’s not sufficient. This is an enormously disadvantageous position to be placed in. Without new ways of addressing the problem of global capitalism, the battle will surely be lost.

Post-fascism’s contempt for the marginalised

Meanwhile, we are gradually reverting to a contempt for those who are not integrated, a contempt never seen since the 17th century. It is such a fantastic cultural reversal this, which is partly the result of the dissemination of commercial popular culture. What does commercial culture do? Well, it helps to integrate. We won’t exclude you, we just want to include you. Now proletarians and bourgeois alike will watch Top of the Pops, and Big Brother, and be entertained by the same kind of culture. Cultural ideals are leading to a shallow moralising of popular culture. If you cannot be included in this very soft world, then you must be really evil, and of course the formation of scapegoats builds on this – but not like before. Hitler fought a war against the Jews. Today’s post-fascists will say, “We won’t fight a war against anybody. But, what will we do about Islamic fundamentalists? They just don’t want to be part of our society. Isn’t that sad ?” These people don’t need to fight a war. That war is being fought for them by public culture itself.


The main point of my analysis of post-fascism today is this: once again, as in pre-modern times, citizenship is becoming a privilege, rather than part of the human condition. Of course we must differentiate between D’Alema and Fini, the Tory Party and the British National Party. Of course they all have their distinctive characteristics – the traitors of social democracy, the committed Nazis, and so on. But we have to recognize the common element here. There is a common project: the exclusion of masses of people from the benefit of citizenship. And all these people cooperate in bringing this about.

The real regress, historical regress, that is taking place among us today – is the acceptance that universal citizenship is no longer part and parcel of the democratic system, or systems which call themselves democratic. Although the economic, social and political administrative power of western democracies is greater than ever before, still they have reverted back to a pre-modern phase. And all emancipatory projects have suffered a great set-back as a result.

If I indulge in these very gloomy formulations, it is because I hope that it might incense people. Together, we can attain something through moral revulsion, which is beginning to be quite widespread. Thank God that it is so. I think global capitalism can be countered by internationalism. This is what the Seattle people have understood very well, instinctively. The global resistance movement must have a unified political project based on knowledge, and even natural science – how else can we understand what is going on, say, in the environment?

The passion of compassion

What we need is a social equivalent to what social democracy was before 14 August 1914, that first Great Betrayal (Tony Blair’s betrayal, after all, is the 47th Great Betrayal of social democracy. The history of every social democracy is a history of treason, of betrayals.) What was the social role of old social democracy and trade unionism? It was to build a counter-power and a counter-society. Now trade union halls all over the world are disappearing. They have been disarmed and dismantled. But a social equivalent must be found, and must be rebuilt. I’m perfectly willing to participate in whatever humdrum and everyday, reformist movements it might take to achieve this.

One final, cheering thought: Rousseau was surely quite right when he said that compassion itself is a passion. It is not a rational process. It is in us all. In abdicating from that deep-seated connection to others, we are falsifying our human nature. And these self-denials will not last forever. They cannot.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData