Fascism, Umberto Eco argued in his often quoted essay Eternal Fascism, does not have a political philosophy, only rhetoric. Its features cannot be organized into a system. Fascism appeals to unreason, not to reason. In The Authoritarian Personality, a widely-read study published in 1950, the team of researchers – Theodor Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford – developed and popularized the F scale (“F” for fascist). Created to gauge the psychological predisposition for fascism among the democratic citizenry, the F scale charted the devolution of the individuated and autonomous liberal subject into an irrational, frenzied mob. Equipped with a set of criteria by which to identify fascist features, the decades that followed individuated and pathologized fascist violence, depoliticizing it. The current resurgence of fascism under figures such as Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte or Donald Trump has been narrated along these lines, as a descent into lunacy or outburst of unfocused anger, spilling into the public sphere, running rampant over middle-class civility.
Published in 1950, the same year as The Authoritarian Personality, Aimé Césaire’s essay Discourse on Colonialism argued that what in Europe is called “fascism” is just colonial violence finding its way back home. Settler colonialism, Césaire contended, is not something that happened in our past; its logic still structures forms of formal and informal rule and presides over the differential distribution of benefits and burdens. Rather than the absolute opposite of totalitarianism, social democracy can accommodate a totalitarian dimension. The so-called golden decades of social democracy in the West were coterminous with racial oppression at home and colonial violence abroad. And many of the elements that define fascism, like state-sanctioned terror, processes of racial ascription or extrajudicial killings, recur, albeit in a disaggregated form, in our present-day societies.
Yet Césaire’s warnings went unheeded. While the relation between settler colonialism and fascism remained under-theorized and poorly understood, the cold war reduction of the political to an epic battle between the forces of freedom and unfreedom allowed the West to elide the colonial question and the struggles of the third world, ultimately conflating fascism and communism under the blanket designation of “despotism” or “totalitarianism.” By the late 50s, fascism became another generic term denoting an undifferentiated evil, leaving the postwar consensus to settle on the notion that fascism was a negation or distortion of modernity, not one of its constitutive features.
Fascism, The White West: Whose Universal? conference contends, is not a psychology and it is not anomalous, either. Fascism is a structural aspect of modernity.
Opposing the tribal and primitive, resistant to progress, to those who embrace it, the modern era is usually defined by the belief that the future would be different from the past. But this articulation of difference hinges on, and intersects with, another articulation of difference: racial difference. Denying its own spatiotemporality, modernity becomes a mission developing in tandem with, and against the backdrop of, the expansion of the frontier. Enlightenment and Imperialism come together here. Intolerant of otherness, universalism crowds out others. The distribution of futurity becomes the distribution of territory, and hence the distribution of life.
To this day, the legacies of colonialism tend to find expression in a language contemporary audiences find familiar and compelling, and hence remains largely unquestioned. Saturated by colonial formations, principles like openness, universalism, humanism, freedom and individualism, function in lockstep with the development of a globally-integrated economy rooted in Western hegemony. Without the will to confront the racial schemas that undergird Western epistemologies, appeals to universal values or principles, whose structural inconsistencies only allow for a partial or distorted critique of racial capitalism, will continue to open an equivocal space in which a great many quasi-political positions can be inflected in the direction of fascism.
The White West: Whose Universal? is an attempt to engage the overlaps between metaphysical predicates and colonial legacies, as well as the undertheorized continuities between fascism and settler colonialism.
Kader Attia, Anselm Franke and Ana Teixeira Pinto