Over several years now, ghosts of fascism have escaped their 20th-century crypts and come to haunt our present. With the global COVID-19 pandemic, however, we face the prospect of the US's own 'Reichstag Fire' moment. This was an arson attack on the German legislature exactly four weeks after Adolf Hitler was sworn in as chancellor, which the Nazis immediately claimed was the result of a communist plot. It became the pretext for their seizure of power (Machtergreifung) and total co-ordination of the state (Gleichschaltung).
As noted recently by The Economist, close to a dozen states from Azerbaijan to Togo have already used the pandemic to arrogate more power to themselves. Indeed, this development has been particularly visible in Washington, Budapest, and Delhi. If the pandemic could be seen as our Reichstag Fire moment, then the attacks on the Capitol on 6 January 2021 might be regarded as Kristallnacht, portending the catastrophic violence to come.
Nevertheless, as I argue in the introduction to my book 'Spectres of Fascism' (Pluto, 2020), one must always be careful when using the word “fascism”. The term is often used so indiscriminately – especially on the Left – to vilify one’s political opponents, that it is in continual danger of losing all meaning. In what sense, then, can we say that what we are witnessing throughout the globe is the re-emergence of fascism?
Writing in the pages of the New Left Review three years ago, Dylan Riley argued trenchantly that if we compare 20th-century fascism with contemporary authoritarians such as Trump across four axes – geopolitical dynamics; the relation between class and nation; developments within civil society; and political parties – there is no persuasive evidence that what we are confronted with today is anything approaching fascism. Indeed, according to Slavoj Žižek’s influential gloss on Walter Benjamin, the authoritarianism that we see around us today does not arise in response to what could be called a “failed revolution”. Of course, there were the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements, but these did not come remotely close to challenging the domination of capital.
A fundamentally biased system
Perhaps the one image of a failed revolution that might portend fascism is precisely that which is taken to signify its apparent defeat. This is the inauguration of Kamala Harris as Joe Biden’s vice-president. But surely, liberals will retort, such a claim is at best far-fetched, at worst preposterous and a little dangerous. How could the vice-president of the most powerful nation on the face of the earth (at least for now), the daughter of an Indian woman, Shyamala Gopalan and a Black Jamaican man, Donald Harris, possibly represent continuity rather than a clear break with the Trump administration?
How could the vice-president... possibly represent continuity rather than a clear break with the Trump administration?
Well, ghosts and spectres, as Freud has shown, are a species of the uncanny, or das Unheimlich, which signifies that which is both strange and all too familiar. The uncanny is also the preserve of the figure of the double.
Kamala Harris – the former San Francisco prosecutor and California attorney general who infamously could scarcely contain her glee as she announced her intention of jailing parents for the truancy of their children – has a rather striking double. More than her highly contested claim to progressive credentials, the key thing about Harris’s past, as Briahna Gray, writing in The Intercept, points out, is that:
“To become a prosecutor is to make a choice to align oneself with a powerful and fundamentally biased system. As Paul Butler, a former prosecutor and the author of 'Chokehold: Policing Black Men', told The Guardian, "as a lawyer who went to law school with a goal of helping Black people and using my legal skills to make things better, the realization that the law itself was a mechanism to keep African-American people down was frightening.”
In need of an ambitious agenda
Harris’s double, then, is none other than Angela Davis, a woman whom the US government sought to convict on three capital felony charges over the infamous Marin County insurrection, which is the topic of Shola Lynch’s brilliant 2012 film 'Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners'. Had she been convicted, Davis would have been executed.
A former longstanding member of the US Communist Party, Davis has since devoted the greater part of her life to what has become one of the most pressing questions in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter movement: abolishing what she has called the “prison-industrial complex”.
Kamala Harris’s own radical parents were part of the legendary Berkeley reading group on the Black Radical tradition out of which the Black Panthers were formed in the early 1960s, a time when global revolution was very much on the agenda. As Princeton historian Donna Murch reminds us in her book, 'Living for the City: Migration, Education and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California', in 1969 J. Edgar Hoover, then the head of the FBI, called the Panthers the single 'greatest threat to the US state' and set about murderously eradicating its leadership.
The radical potential of what the Combahee River Collective famously called “identity politics”, in which the valence of class, race, gender, sexuality and other aspects of identity coalesced in a genuine challenge to the structure of US racial capital, has now become transformed, as commentators such as Adolph Reed Jr. and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor have pointed out, into a project to place “Black faces in high places”. Fully incorporated and neutralized, it has become little more than a neoliberal career strategy for the managerial class.
Therefore, if the Biden administration lacks an ambitious agenda of redistributing power, wealth and opportunities, the anger and frustration that has been building over the past four decades, immeasurably bolstered by the intersection of the effects of the attacks of 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2007-09 – a glimpse of which we witnessed on 6 January – will be truly cataclysmic.
This piece was first published in the February edition of Splinters.