Racing to the Bottom

Switzerland on Trump. Mendrisio, October 2018.

Fascism is a state that capitalism sometimes occupies, but it is also a system of ideas. It is important to remember this because this ideological dimension generates dynamics in a turbulent landscape that cannot be unproblematically reduced to (or mapped onto) the underlying economic formation.

The recrudescence of 20th century fascist ideologies in the early 21st century has been, in part, facilitated by an unwillingness to name it as such. It is the complexity of the ideological origins of actually existing fascism that makes diagnosing the emerging patterns of authoritarianism so difficult to classify.

The historian Timothy Snyder has gone farther than most along in developing a conceptual architecture for analysing the threats from the right to liberal democracy. A scholar of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, Snyder has published several interesting and sometimes provocative texts. In 2010, he published Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, a text which established his bona fides as a committed liberal historian to turning a critical eye toward presumed distinctions between the Nazis and the Soviets in the hyperviolent space in which they collided.

This impression was reinforced two years later with the publication of Thinking the 20th Century, a series of conversations with the eminent liberal historian Tony Judt, undertaken while the latter was dying from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. In the course of these conversations, Snyder showed himself willing to assent in Judt’s defence of anticommunism. Granted, anticommunism (in the sense of anti-Stalinism) is in no way an unreasonable standpoint. But Judt took the position that any sort of leftist antifascism in the Cold War in practice promoted communism.

Snyder’s liberalism is of a moderate kind, rather than the more aggressive variant of the likes of Anne Applebaum. Unlike the latter, he’s not obsessed with showing that Stalin was worse than Hitler. Nor does he reproduce the errors of theorists of totalitarianism in simply eliding the profound differences between the two systems. But he has set out his stall as a critic of the idea, sometimes expressed on the left, that communism was in some meaningful sense less bad than fascism.

Snyder has also shown himself willing to express heterodox ideas, which is not always a welcome trait among historians of the Holocaust. In Black Earth (2015), Snyder presented an account of the Nazi war for race and space in the east in which the fear of environmental degradation played and unaccustomedly large role. This was not entirely convincing, but it should also be noted that Snyder in no way minimised the brutality of Nazism (i.e. by seeming to give the Nazis some sort of rationale for their actions).

Migrant children and anti-fascist flyer, Berlin, October 2017.

Lately, Snyder has taken up the cudgels in defence of liberal democracy. His 2017 pamphlet On Tyranny provided, in good liberal fashion, a series of lessons on resistance to the spread of authoritarianism drawn from European history in the 20th century. Snyder is clearly concerned by the threat posed to the liberal democratic institutions in the United States and Europe by the likes of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Alexander Gauland, Marine Le Pen, and especially Vladimir Putin.

The Road to Unfreedom, published earlier this year, takes this project a step further. Snyder’s project is twofold, with both segments focusing on the role of Putin in driving transformations in the modern political order. First, Snyder describes Putin’s affinity for overtly fascist thinkers, such as Ivan Ilyin, and modern Eurasianist fascists such as Lev Gumilev and Alexandr Dugin. Snyder makes clear the degree to which Putin is out of step with the political practices and mores of liberal democracy.

The central operative premise uniting these thinkers is a contempt for ascertainable truth, preferring instead whatever narrative justifies the actions of the state (and more particularly of Russia). The curmudgeons of left and right are fond of beating up on postmodernists (or poststructuralists or deconstructionists or whatever) for their propensity to discount objective truth. But the sins of the philosophers (if sins they are) pale in comparison to the overt and shameless willingness of Putin’s philosophical mentors to utter demonstrable falsehoods.

The paradigmatic case of this, as Snyder notes, is the shooting down of flight MH 17 by a pack of Russian army bunglers armed with a Buk surface to air missile system and cut loose in the Donbas region of southern Ukraine. In the wake of this atrocity, the Russian government issued a series of theories about the incident that were not only individually implausible but also mutually exclusive. Taken as a whole, it seems like an exercise in infochaffing, dropping bits of data around promiscuously in a way such as to create a fundamentally contradictory informational environment into which truth sinks without a trace.

The second element of Snyder’s argument might be described as the activist element of Vladimir Putin’s agenda. Putin is anxious to legitimate his regime, a project made all the more urgent by the thinly veiled policy of electoral manipulation that has kept Putin in power since the 2012 elections. Putin’s strategy, so Snyder argues, is to transform liberal democratic states into versions of the authoritarian, crypto-fascist kleptocracy that Russia has become under his rule. He has undertaken a number of means of doing so, from support of hardline right-wing parties and politicians (such as the AfD and Front National), to stoking xenophobia by weaponising refugees, to a public rhetorical strategy involving the assertion that it is Russia’s critics who are the fascists, rather than Russia itself.

Putin the winner. Russian propaganda poster, Berlin.

This last tool, which Snyder terms schizofascism, goes a long way to explaining the proclivities of Putin’s political proxies, Donald Trump not least among them. Indeed, no rhetorical strategy is more favoured by Mr. Trump than the assertion that it is really his foes (Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, the DNC, etc., etc., etc.) who are guilty of precisely the serial dishonesty of which he is (constantly) credibly accused.

Now, just to be clear, although Snyder does provide a lengthy chapter indicating connections between the Trump crowd and various Putin protégés and factotums, the argument does not, in fact, require that contention that there was any sort of substantial conspiracy, particularly of the kind involving kompromata. Indeed, it seems more likely that there has been a simple recognition of parallel interests, coupled with Mr. Trump’s well-known (and long-standing) attraction to ruthless, powerful men (of the kind he imagines himself to be). But what is clear is that Mr. Putin viewed the 2016 election as an opportunity to tip the scales in Russia’s favour by promoting the election of a candidate whose conduct was likely to do long-term damage to the institutions of democracy in the United States.

It is well worth noting that political institutions and culture in the United States were already moving toward oligarchy. Concentration of wealth at the upper end of the income distribution, coupled with widespread gerrymandering have aggravated the systemic tendency of American democracy to generate grossly unjust outcomes. But it is important not to conflate formally democratic structures, which can be used as a tool  by the forces of justice, at least in some measure comparable to the ways in which they are used by the forces of exploitation, with the suboptimal outcomes generated by a political class dedicated to the proposition that wealth must be ever more concentrated in the hands of those who already hold it.

As usual with Snyder’s works, The Road to Unfreedom is minutely researched, bearing the marks of the author’s extensive familiarity with the languages and literatures of Eastern Europe. It does, from time to time, suffer from Snyder’s need to assert his liberal centrism. This can been seen in his analysis of the Maidan Square protests in the Ukraine, during the course of which he argues that figures on left of the political spectrum (he cites John Pilger, Seumas Milne, and Katrina Vanden Heuvel) fell prey to the schizofascist assertions of the Russian propaganda machine and argued that the protests were an expression of (or simply controlled by) the Ukrainian nationalist right.

Snyder’s assertions are correct, so far as they go, and he does point out some inexcusable deficiencies in journalistic thoroughness on the part of the offending parties. But, as his own analysis effectively demonstrates, the power of the Russian propaganda machine was such that, in the moment, it was hard for those at distance from events to correctly parse the political tendencies at work. The claim that centrist liberalism constitutes some sort of prophylaxis against such misinterpretations is not terribly convincing.

Still, Snyder has produced an interesting and important book. It is certainly true that liberal democratic forms and institutions are under threat as they have never been since 1945. While it is easy to criticise these institutions for their manifold failings, it is nonetheless also worth looking with a jaundiced eye at critiques that simply make the current situation under Mr. Trump into a simple continuation of the political tendencies that existed before his rise. Snyder’s book sounds a useful note of warning relevant to those of any political stripe for whom the rebirth of fascism would constitute an unparalleled disaster.

If only Trump knew. Tel Aviv hotel entrance, March 2018.

Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.