By Arama Rata
Last month, a dozen white boys saluted Hitler while marching the streets of Melbourne. A week later, a highly-organised, well-financed group, who believe themselves a holy nation within a nation and plan to install their leader as the head of a new religious order, gathered in their hundreds in the middle of Auckland. The term ‘Nazi’ or ‘Fascist’ was used by mainstream media in relation to only one of these groups. With Far Right extremism on the rise, Arama Rata draws on the work anti-fascist intellectuals to dispel common misconceptions, and provide tools to identify and fight fascism.
In recent decades, colloquial usage of the terms ‘Nazi’ and ‘fascist’ has become common and imprecise. Anyone considered bossy or even obstinate could have these labels hurled at them. Indeed, as online vitriol escalated in the mid-1990s, ‘Godwin’s Law’ was created to describe how as online arguments persist – whether it is feminism at issue, school parking etiquette, or My Little Pony canon – the probability that someone will be compared to Hitler approaches certainty.
At the same time, openly fascist movements operating today may avoid recognition as such, because those using the term fascist precisely often work from definitions focused on the specific ideology and aesthetic of movements that arose in Italy and Germany in the interwar period, when the term fascism was first coined. According to such definitions, fascism and Nazism are synonymous with anti-Semitism, white supremacy, nationalism and authoritarianism, and with symbols such as the black sun, rising sun, and swastika. Without minimising the abhorrence of these ideologies and symbols, this limited conception of fascism misses the point entirely when it comes to identifying the forces that give rise to fascism, and its larger objectives.
Why do fascist movements arise?
The rise of fascism is often attributed to hateful Far Right ideologies that spread through social networks, without due consideration given to the political-economic factors that produce fascism. George Jackson astutely identified the core attributes of fascism as its ‘capitalist orientation’ and reactionary agenda. During times of economic crises, people lose faith in the economic system and seek the radical redistribution of wealth and power. Socialists seek the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, and push for the collective ownership of property and resources. Fascists, on the other hand, seek to re-entrench exploitative, capitalist social relations, but with themselves at the top, through more violent forms of class repression.
The class composition of fascist movements, along with their populist, ‘anti-elite’ rhetoric can conceal the pro-capital agenda of fascism. Fascism serves the interests of capital, in that it is a Far Right reactionary movement against the socialist alternative, that re-entrenches capitalist social relations. Yet membership of fascist movements tends to comprise, for the most part, lower-middle class people (such as small business owners), as well as the ‘unclassed’ (e.g. long-term unemployed people, and those living in extreme poverty). The lower-middle class are attracted to fascist movements as the small privileges offered to them under capitalism begin to slip away, and they seek the re-entrenchment of their relative privileges. The unclassed, on the other hand, suffer the worst impacts of economic recession. As their interests are not served by ruling elites, they are attracted to the ‘anti-Government’ and ‘anti-elite’ agenda of Far Right movements. Their relative deprivation means they are also easily incentivised and enlisted to the front lines of fascist movements by those with more resources.
A core feature of fascism is para-state violence, which can take forms such as insurrections, pogroms, militias, and vigilantism. Contemporary Far Right violence will tend toward different forms depending on whether the ruling regime is viewed as advancing their Far Right agenda. Far Right violence will be predominantly ‘system-loyal’ (e.g. citizen-deputies) when they perceive their agenda can be advanced through state institutions, but will be predominantly insurrectionary (e.g. the January 6th storming of the US Capitol) when they perceive their agenda will not be advanced through state institutions.
Who is this para-state violence directed at? Despite ideologies that implicate shadowy elites in the downfall of society, Nazis and fascists tend to ‘punch down’. In addition to occasional insurrectionary violence, they scapegoat groups who are already the most marginalised and exploited. In this way fascist ideologies will flexibly adapt to a given context. In Nazi Germany, among those targeted were communists, Trans, Queer people, Jewish and Gypsie peoples. In the global north today, migrant, Muslim, Jewish, Indigenous, and Queer and Trans communities are among those targeted.
Nothing to see here
We may like the version of history that reassures us fascism arose in Europe and was defeated in WWII by the allies. In truth, however, as Hitler himself noted in Mein Kampf, the white-supremacist imperial project of Nazi Germany was directly ‘inspired’ by the racist statecraft and genocidal expansion of the US into native territories . Nazism was the violence of colonialism ‘coming home to roost’, as Aimé Césaire made clear. There was no need to establish new fascistic movements in the US, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand in the interwar period because, as J Sakai noted, “white settler-colonialism and fascism occupy the same ecological niche.”
How to spot a Nazi
To summarise, key identifying features of fascism (including Nazism) are that they:
● arise when capitalism is in crisis (e.g. during economic recession)
● are pro-capitalist (anti-worker, anti-socialist)
● are anti-elite (anti-bourgeois, anti-transnational capitalist class)
● tend to comprise the lower-middle class (or petite bourgeoisie, including small business owners) and the unclassed (or lumpenproletariat, e.g. long-term unemployed)
● ‘punch down’, seeking to re-entrench social hierarchies (along the lines, for example, of race, religion, nationality or migration status, gender, sexuality, ability, etc)
● engage in, or prepare for the use of para-state violence
Having a precise definition helps us understand and use the terms ‘Nazi’ and ‘fascist’ correctly. Focusing on fascism’s core features (i.e. that it is a pro-capitalist, anti-elite, reactionary movement that seeks to re-entrench social hierarchies through the use of para-state violence) avoids fixation on arbitrary features of its historical presentations. This helps us avoid using the term inappropriately when it doesn’t apply (e.g. to groups such as the Mongrel Mob whose symbology included the swastika from their founding as a youth gang ). It also helps us assess groups whose ideologies and symbology differ from those of Hitler and Mussolini, but who meet many or all of the criteria of fascism. For example, Destiny Church and Hindutva nationalists in New Zealand should be assessed against these criteria to determine whether these terms reasonably apply. As J Sakai highlights, the common misconception that only white racists can be fascists means that fascist forms based on “cooked up religious ideology” might walk right by, undetected.
In recent decades, the class composition of Māori society has undergone significant changes. The working class has contracted with the emergence of a Māori middle class, and with many ‘unskilled’ jobs either being moved offshore, or being filled by temporary migrants who themselves are racialised and exploited. Changes in the way Māori self-identify have also occured, with the group label ‘Māori’ becoming more popular over time. These factors contribute to the diverse class politics evident in Māori society, as in all nations.
The presence of Far Right and fascist ideologies within Māori society is not, however, coincidental. Some of the policies and political rhetoric most harmful to racialised groups in recent decades has been pushed by Māori politicians such as Winston Peters, Paula Bennett, and David Seymour (to say nothing of the Destiny Church’s political wing, Vision NZ). Political parties may rely on their Māori members to push such agendas, on the assumption they will receive less criticism from anti-racists. Similarly, fascist groups often recruit members of communities they are hostile to, and put those individuals forward as spokespersons as ‘evidence’ of the fascist group’s inclusivity.
Finally, nationalism is concommittent with fascism. While the national liberation movements of colonised peoples do not typically take fascist forms, as J Sakai notes, “all nationalist movements have inherently both liberating and repressive possibilities.” Fascists may coopt the language of national liberation movements to recruit from among the oppressed. Anti-racist and Indigenous sovereignty movements must therefore vigilantly and strongly oppose Indigenous fascists.
If fascism is not opposed, it will continue to intensify as the economic recession deepens. Fascists’ anti-democratic agenda to further marginalise already exploited communities, coupled with their propensity for violence means they pose an unacceptable risk to society. So how can these movements be resisted?
Firstly, we must refuse to be drawn into debates on their terms. The Far Right do not enter into debate in good faith. Their ideologies uphold social hierarchies: they seek to re-entrench divisions between an oppressor class and the oppressed. When an oppressed group asserts their rights, the Far Right responds to those demands as an encroachment on their own ‘rights’ – in this way the Far Right presumes the ‘right’ to oppress others.
Far Right appeals to ‘rights’ and ‘free speech’ are insincere. They have no genuine interest in social justice, and these terms are deployed only to advance their anti-democratic agenda. By presenting conflict between oppressors and the oppressed as simply an issue of competing ‘interests’, debates with the Far Right only serve to normalise their ideologies, and to distract us from the point at which our focus must remain: on identifying and challenging unequal, exploitative power relationships.
Effective strategies to oppose fascism are those that: disrupt fascists’ attempts to recruit; that show solidarity and support for targetted communities; and that rehabilitate former members of fascist groups. Tactics to oppose fascism include: creating educational resources that identify fascist actors and organisations (such as those produced by Understanding NZ Far Right) ; no-platforming fascist speakers (often through social media campaigns and appeals to venue owners); doxing (i.e. publicly identifying individuals involved in fascist groups); disrupting financial operations (e.g. appealing to banks to close fascists’ accounts, or having their charity status revoked on the grounds of discrimination); and rehabilitating former members of fascist groups by providing social support.
Finally, to eliminate fascism, we must end the conditions that give rise to fascism. As noted earlier, the foundations of fascism in New Zealand include racial capitalism and settler-colonialism. These structures created antagonistic, unequal power relations that intensify during economic recessions. Broad-based coalitions to end these structures are required, and in the interim, there is urgent need for progressive social reform (including livable incomes for all; debt relief; social housing; and free healthcare that includes mental health, violence prevention, and addiction services).
As J Sakai observed, Nazism arose as, “a movement for failed men… failed not because of themselves, but because bourgeois society had failed them in a dishonorable way.” Humiliated, dislocated classes, “feel they have nowhere to turn to restore their status… except towards fascism.” To resist rising fascism we must provide for the needs of the people. For those desperate to escape poor prospects, becoming a Nazi must be the least attractive of a range of social and political options.
Arama Rata (Ngāruahine, Taranaki, Ngāti Maniapoto) is an independent researcher. Her current projects include WERO (Working to End Racial Oppression), and RIRI (Research to Interrupt Racism and (In)equity). She is steering committee member of Te Kuaka.
This is an edited version of a piece first published in the WERO blog.