By Jeff Shantz
It is important that fascism is openly being named and opposed in the present context. Yet the mechanisms of fascist flourishing and spread in current period require some further understanding. And on levels that are not often considered (beyond the visible manifestations of explicit fascist creeps mobilizing). There is too a soft ground of support and sustenance for the more overt manifestations of fascism.
French psychoanalyst Felix Guattari presented an article in 1973, when few were thinking actively about a present fascism entitled “Everybody Wants to be a Fascist.” Guattari recognized in 1973 that fascism was still very much “a real political problem” and not merely a pure theoretical matter (154). In any event as Guattari asks: “Besides, isn’t it a good idea to discuss it freely while we still can” (1973, 154). And we need to talk about it in ways that go beyond the standard or typical features to understand how fascism survives, reproduces, and recurs.
This was an early discussion of micropolitics and fascism. No one should feel that it is all over and the good guys won. For Guattari: “Through all kinds of means—in particular, movies and television—we are led to believe that Nazism was just a bad moment we had to go through, a sort of historical error, but also a beautiful page in history for the good heroes” (Guattari 1973, 166).
Elements of fascism leap transhistorically across generations. They proliferate in other forms. They adapt to new conditions. They move intergenerationally. There are different types of fascism. Italian, Spanish, German, etc., but there are also continuing threads. Fascism is not renewable like a complete artifact. Fascism is in constant evolution.
Guattari takes neither a historical nor sociological approach. He seeks a micropolitical examination of the molecule of fascism. Fascism is dangerous and molecular. This can be massified but not as a totalitarian organism.
Guattari makes a provocative move in his analysis. He suggests that fascism is an internal part of desire. It is immanent in desire, not something that comes from without, for Guattari. It emerges at a microphysical scale. It is not located in individuals but in sets of relationships. Whenever there is desire there is a microfascist potential.
We need to address the in/visibility of fascism that is (and has been) everywhere operative in the present. The Trump campaign was a lightening rod for tendencies that have been long in play. As Guattari warned at that time, we do indeed need to talk about fascism while we still can. And we need to talk about it more fully.
Micropolitics and Macropolitics of Desire
In works of Felix Guattari and his colleague Gilles Deleuze, desire is the key economic concept. Desire is both political and psychological as well as financial. The “eco” in economy draws from the original Greek for household or habitat, or milieu in Deleuze and Guattari. For Deleuze and Guattari, desire is productive. Desire involves and structures a specific milieu. Desire acts within social context, the situation. Guattari notes a distinction between desire and pleasure. While one might speak of a revolutionary desire, it would appear odd to refer to a revolutionary pleasure.
For Guattari, fascism is, in fact, a key theme for understanding the issue of desire in the realm of the social. In Guattari’s view, you cannot put pleasure in the same sentence with revolution (1973, 154-155). You cannot talk of a “pleasure of revolution” but can readily speak of a “desire for revolution” or a “revolutionary desire” (1973, 155). The reason Guattari gives is that the meaning of pleasure is connected to, inseparable from, an “individuation of subjectivity” (1973, 155). On the other hand, desire is not intrinsically linked to this individuation.
There is a macropolitics of desire, which acts on larger social groupings. At the same time there is a micropolitics of desire. Guattari emphasizes the micropolitical. His goal is “to put in place new theoretical and practical machines, capable of sweeping away the old stratifications, and of establishing the conditions of a new exercise of desire” (156).
Guattari goes beyond the association of psychoanalysis with the small scale (the person and family) and politics only with large social groupings. Rather there is a politics that addresses itself to the individual’s desire and a desire that manifests itself in a wider social field (1973, 155). For Guattari, this politics has two forms: “either a macropolitics aiming at both individual and social problems, or a micropolitics aiming at the same domains (the individual, the family, party problems, state problems, etc.)” (1973, 155-156).
Macropolitics has been given the dominant emphasis. But politics works at micropolitical levels as well. In his terms, molar and molecular. Not a dichotomy. Not dialectical.
The self is a multiplicity of “desiring machines.” How they operate and what they produce are as crucial as what they are. In Crain’s words: “One’s sense of personal identity is itself a product of desire related to a broader social structure” (2013, 3). As Crain suggests, one does not simply desire an iPhone, one desires being seen as someone with an iPhone.
Desire produces not only objects, but rules. What you want structures your behavior (Crain 2013, 3). The desire for an iPhone produces new desires—taking pictures of trivia, posting them to Facebook or Instagram. Checking repeatedly for likes and follows. These new desires form habits. And these habits form rules governing our actions (Crain 2013, 3).
How do these minute habits and rules relate to your political actions? For Deleuze and Guattari, there is no fundamental difference. Except that one affects others (Crain 2013, 3). This is the notion of micropolitics. The habits and rules speak to desire investing itself in the world (Crain 2013, 3).
Macropolitics draws from “small interpersonal dealings with one another” (Crain 2013, 3). If the macropolitical structure becomes repressive how is it drawing from and organizing desire (Crain 2013, 3)? And why would “we” (specific people in a specific context) desire fascism? This gets to the heart of the growth of fascism, in a particular desiring form of the so-called “Alt Right,” for example, and the rise of Trump.
For Deleuze and Guattari, fascism only emerges because it is wanted, desired. Micropolitics is a sense that others should follow the rules that our own habits have produced. The desire is for others to follow your rules. This is the imposition of desire on others.
Written large you get Trump and “Make America Great Again”—make others follow your rules of an America that you desire (in a context where you perceive the existing rules not working in your favor and where others express diverse views, habits, or rules).
One might ask about the molar level and identity. White supremacy and the figures of Steve Bannon, Richard Spencer, and David Duke. The Authoritarian Personality (of Theodor Adorno and Frankfurt School fame) speaks of the winning loser who is obsequious to those above while being brutal to those below. White rage and hatred of Obama is directed at the Affordable Care Act which hurts mostly the poor (overwhelmingly poor whites).
State fascism always seeks homogeneity (even in a context of diverse microfascisms) (Crain 2013, 4). Fascism seeks to impose an order on the chaos of desire. It is ultimately suicidal. Homogeneity is only realized in death (Crain 2013, 4).
In pursuit of his labors, Guattari develops a typology of fascism. Guattari identifies three approaches that have been undertaken. Of the three approaches, the first two maintain the distinction between small and large social groupings for Guattari. Only the third attempts to move beyond this distinction (1973, 156).
First is “sociological analytical formalist thought.” This seeks to identify and classify “species.” It seeks common elements while distinguishing differences. The first re/produces sociological types. These focus on national, historical types of fascism. Italian, German, etc. Each has specific phenomena that mark it.
Sociological. On one hand this approach minimizes differences to pull out a common feature. In this way it will distinguish three types of fascism—Italian, German, and Spanish. On the other hand, the approach will magnify differences to construct species, as between fascism and Western democracies (1973, 156). Guattari finds little of interest in this approach.
Second is a “synthetic dualist neo-Marxist thought.” This puts forward a collective representation of the desire of the masses expressed through the party and ultimately the state. The second, Marxist approach, distinguishes revolutionary desires of the masses and the Marxist categories imposed on them. This “massifies” mass desires.
There is a dualism. A code wielding political class and a passive mass of followers. This is viewed in relation to the power of the state. What type of state does it produce?
The dualist neo-Marxist approach encounters another gap then. This is between the reality of the masses’ desires and the supposed representation of those desires.
The Marxist system poses itself as the collective representation of the masses’ desires, rather than failing to recognize the creativity and desire of the masses as occurs in sociological thought. Sociology reduces social objects to things. It is reifying. While Marxism recognizes the existence of revolutionary desires, in contrast to the sociological, it imposes mediations on them—Marxist theory and the representation of the party (Guattari 1973, 157).
The differences that flow through the desires of the masses become “massified”—turned into standard formulations viewed as necessary for class and party unity (Guattari 1973, 157). There is a dualism between representation and reality, between the party leaders and the masses. Bureaucratic practices flow from this. The oppositions revolve around a third party—the state.
Third is “political analysis” in a “connection of a multiplicity of molecular desires which would catalyze challenges on a large scale” (156-159). Political analysis speaks to a “univocal multiplicity” rather than the mass (159). Micro-groupings offer challenges and there is no necessary unitary content. For Guattari, the “unification of struggles is antagonistic to the multiplicity of desires only when it is totalizing, that is, when it is treated by the totalitarian machine of a representative party” (159).
Desire creates itself when saying is doing (1973, 160). When saying is doing, as Guattari puts it, the division of labor between the specialists (in saying and in doing) ends (1973, 160).
Guattari is not interested in representing the masses and interpreting their struggles. You do need some political analysis though. Guattari seeks a conception of desire that does not have an object or a center. It does not distance as in representation or interpretation. Mediation must be bypassed.
This is done in the third approach, political analysis. for Guattari, this political analysis “refuses to maintain the disjunction between large social groupings and individual problems, family problems, academic problems, professional problems, etc.” (1973, 158). It does not reduce struggles to alternatives of classes or camps (Guattari 1973, 158). Theoretical and practical truth are not the domain of the party.
A micropolitics of desire, in this way, would not present itself as representing the masses and interpreting their struggles (Guattari 1973, 158). In Guattari’s perspective:
“It would no longer seek support from a transcendent object in order to provide itself with security. It would no longer center itself on a unique object—the power of the State, which could only be conquered by a representative party acting in lieu of and instead of the masses—but rather, it would center on a multiplicity of objectives, within the immediate reach of the most diverse social groupings.” (1973, 158)
Challenges are catalysed on a larger scale by “a multiplicity of molecular desires” (Guattari 1973, 159). There is a “univocal multiplicity of desires” rather than an “ideal unity” representing and mediating multiple interests (Guattari 1973, 159). What Guattari suggests has relevance for thinking about contestational risings, of resistance among diverse forces. In his words:
“This multiplicity of desiring machines is not made of standardized and regulated systems which can be disciplined and hierarchized in relation to a unique objective. It is stratified according to different social groupings, to classes formed by age groups, sexes, geographic and professional localizations, ethnic origins, erotic practices, etc. Thus, it does not realize a totalizing unity. It is the univocity of the masses’ desire, and not their regrouping according to standardized objectives, which lays the foundation for the unity of their struggle.” (1973, 159)
The threat to the multiplicity of desires comes when the unification of struggles is totalizing. As when dealt with by the totalitarian form for the representative party (Guattari 1973, 159). Desire always wants to go “off the track.” It wants not to “play by the rules.”
By Guattari’s own claim he seeks not reductivist comparisons but to complexify the models in terms of fascism, for example. In his words, “[T]here are all kinds of fascisms” (as all kinds of bourgeois democracies, for example) (Guattari 1973, 161).
The groupings break up once one considers “the relative status of, for example, the industrial machine, the banking machine, the military machine, the politico-police machine, the techno-structures of the State, the Church, etc.” (Guattari 1973, 161). So, as Sinclair Lewis famously said—” “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”
The Nazi party changed. Himmler’s SS was not Rohm’s SA. They operated in specific domains. And, as Wilhelm Reich suggests, they each bore a specific relationship to the revolutionary desires of the masses.
Yet, simplifications should not interfere with grasping “the genealogy and the permanence of certain fascist machineries” (Guattari 1973, 162). This is the same fascism that operates under different forms. And which, for Guattari, can continue to operate in families and in schools.
Totalitarian systems produce formulas for the collective seizure of desire (Guattari 1973, 163). These depend too on productive forces and the relations of production. At the same time, and despite his contributions, Guattari drifts into totalitarian analysis (a la Arendt) and shares some of the limitations of that approach.
Guattari stresses that what fascism set in motion continues to proliferate in contemporary social space (1973, 163). Today’s productive forces unleash a whirlwind of desires. Guattari looks at the continuity of the fascist machine in different forms. For Guattari, it is important to confront totalitarian machines in their micropolitical aspect. Otherwise “you find yourself a prisoner of generalities and totalizing programs, and representative instances regain their power” (164).
In Guattari’s view: “Molecular analysis is the will to a molecular power, to a theory and practice which refuse to dispossess the masses of their potential for desire” (164-165). In Western capitalism the totalitarian machine lives in “structures capable of adapting desire to the profit economy” (171). Western capitalism is subversive in this way of molecularization. It gets “under the skin” (we simply have to have the newest newness).
Thus, the bureaucratic systems must “miniaturize their repressive machines” (Guattari 1973, 164). We could see this today in debates over micro-aggressions or in the minutia of memes.
Desire gets away from encoding. It avoids containment. There is no dichotomy between saying and doing. There is a process of connectivity. Machines.
Disobedience, disruption, resistance to demands of stakeholders. Micropolitics of desire: Refuse any formula to slip by at whatever scale. Fascism in family, political structure, etc.
There is a capacity of fascism to spread throughout the social body. Memes. IRC. The meme machine and the circulation of memes is able to coalesce desire in particular ways. In the present period the oddest portions of the Internet become politically important. The memeification of Pepe. “Pepe for President.” Pepe the frog says “It feels good, man.”
4chan was launched in 2003. 4chan is hyper-err-production. It decenters the individual as both source and lack. In 4chan anonymity is a goal. It is keeping individuation at bay. No one wants celebrities or personal benefit in that space. The anonymity of social dislocation, unfamiliarity, market forces.
The aim is to release intense flashes of desire and intention. It is delirious and incoherent. Trump rolls the joy of winning and the despair of losing into one. He is the loser who won.
The fascist party is organized like a police force. In this it compartmentalizes the masses in a way a straightforward military dictatorship cannot (Guattari 1973, 165). A military dictatorship does not draw on libidinal energies in the manner a fascist dictatorship does.
In response to the question of why German capital did not simply turn to military dictatorship after 1918 or 1929 (“Why Hitler rather than General von Schleicher?”) Guattari turns to libertarian socialist Daniel Guerin in suggesting that big capital did not want to “deprive itself of this incomparable, irreplaceable means of penetrating into all the cells of society, the organization of the fascist masses” (1973, 165).
For Guattari, the coming together of four libidinal series in the figure of Hitler crystallized a mutation of a “new desiring mechanism in the masses” (1973, 165). First was a “plebeian style.” This gave him a handle on the people. Second, a “veteran-of-war style.” This allowed him to somewhat neutralize the military elements and gain some of their confidence. Third, and most relevant for the Trumpist figure, “a shopkeeper’s opportunism.” Guattari expands on this: “a spinal flexibility, a slackness, which enables him to negotiate with the magnates of industry and finance, all the while letting them think that they could easily control and manipulate him” (1973, 166). Finally, and crucially, “a racist delirium.” This was “a mad, paranoiac energy which put him in tune with the collective death instinct released from the charnel houses of the First World War” (Guattari 1973, 166).
We should have little question of this in relation to Trump after Charlottesville, his response to it (“on many sides,” alt Left,” etc.), and his pardon, a short week after, of the sadistic Sheriff Arpaio.
Hitler tried to forge a compromise among different machines of power that sought their own autonomy—the military, police, and economic machines (Guattari 1973, 167). Trump, like the early fascist regimes, will provide some economic solutions to current issues. A phony boost to the economy or markets, a dip in unemployment, a public works program (of Brownshirt infrastructure as I have already discussed elsewhere). And these will be compared favorably by the administration to the feeble efforts of Obama.
Note the similarities of Trump’s language in this regard with the language used by Guattari to describe fascist rhetoric—“The socialists and communists had a bad program, bad leaders, a bad organization, bad alliances” (1973, 168). One might add to this, in Trumpist style: “Sad.”
And remember, a section of the bourgeoisie only rejected fascism because it stirred too powerful forces of desire in the masses and was too unstable. Global capital could only consider the elimination of fascism in the presence of other means to control class struggles (including Stalinism) (Guattari 1973, 167). The United States could ally with Stalin because his form of containing mass turmoil was more stable than that offered by Nazism.
Lessons for the Left and Desire
There is a very real (non-metaphorical) social war that is being waged in the United States. It goes by names like neoliberalism and involves cuts to Medicare and the Affordable Care Act, the increase in military spending, the tightening of borders, growing detention and deportations, cuts to education spending, increases in incarceration, etc. Historically fascism responds to political and economic crisis. The crisis of 2007 and 2008 was an economic crisis. It gave rise to some resistance in the form eventually of Occupy Wall Street.
The Left today is extremely divided amongst itself presently, unlike the lesser divisions that marked much of the 1930s. The rallying cry of a more united Left in Spain was “Let Madrid be the tomb of fascism.”
Guattari reminds us that at the very beginning the Leftist organizations in Italy and Germany had been liquidated. This is always the aim of early fascism. It is the aim of the alt-Right and the anti-antifa today.
Still, as Guattari suggests, we need to ask why these organizations collapsed like houses of cards. His answer is that these organizations never offered the masses a real alternative, one that could tap their energies of desire (or even direct it away from the fascist draw) (1973, 168. Guattari follows Wilhelm Reich in suggesting this.
Wilhelm Reich notes too how an element can change into its opposite under certain conditions. So the anti-capitalist rebellions of the mass of German people, in acute contradiction to the objective functions of fascism, became interwoven with that function and transformed for a period into its own opposite—a reinforcement of German capital and its rule (1972, 29-30). Social democratic support of capital as a defense against fascism.
Mechanistic communism as in the Comintern, overlooked the revolutionary tendencies of the fascist mass movement, where revolutionary and reactionary tendencies were temporarily combined in fascism (Reich 1972, 30). The Comintern could not turn the revolutionary tendencies to its own advantage.
Desire. The micropolitics of desire sparked by the anti-capitalist rebellions, flowed into the revolutionary tendencies within fascism. Especially as the Leftist movements faltered. This is not to say, as some contemporary liberals might, that the Left caused fascism. Rather it is a reminder to the Left to finish the job.
Reich notes, commenting in the 1930s, that:
“In Germany there were, at the end, some thirty million anticapitalist workers, more than enough in number to make a social revolution; yet it was precisely with the help of the staunchest anticapitalist mentality that fascism came into power. Does an anticapitalist mentality qualify as class consciousness, or is it just the beginning of class consciousness, just a precondition for the birth of class consciousness? What is class consciousness anyway?” (1972, 285-286)
Reich points out the challenge of desire for socialists. The average worker in Germany, he says, was not interested in Soviet Five Year Plans or their economic achievements except inasmuch as they present increased satisfaction of the needs of workers (1972, 293). Reich describes the thoughts of the workers as follows: “If socialism isn’t going to mean anything but sacrifice, self-denial, poverty and privation for us, then we don’t care whether such misery is called socialism or capitalism. Let socialist economy prove its excellence by satisfying our needs and keeping pace with their growth” (1972, 293).
Even as sections of the masses acted against their own interests in lifting Hitler to power (Reich 1972, 283). As Reich says:
“While we [communists] presented the masses with superb historical analysis and economic treatises on the contradictions of imperialism, Hitler stirred the deepest roots of their emotional being. As Marx would have put it, we left the praxis of the subjective factor to the idealists; we acted like mechanistic, economistic materialists.” (1972, 284)
In different terms, for Guattari:
“By reterritorializing their desire onto a leader, a people, and a race, the masses abolished, by means of a phantasm of catastrophe, a reality which they detested and which the revolutionaries were either unwilling or unable to encroach upon. For the masses, virility, blood, vital space, and death took the place of a socialism that had too much respect for the dominant meanings.” (1973, 168)
And in this is a lesson (an old one) for today. The Left must not be afraid to go beyond the traditional terrain of politics. It must seek more than reformist liberal democracy or politics as usual. And it must make its uprisings all the way, not part way. Lest it dig its own grave.
“It can be said of fascism that it is all-powerful and, at the same time, ridiculously weak. And whether it is the former or the latter depends on the capacity of collective arrangements, subject-groups, to connect the social libido, on every level, with the whole range of revolutionary chains of desire.” (1973, 171)
This again echoes the insights provided by Wilhelm Reich in the 1930s. We might think of this in terms of the collapse of the alt-Right, and its confidence in its desires, after Charlottesville. And we might reflect on this before becoming too confident it will not recover and regroup.
Capitalist machines tap the working class potentials for desire. In Guattari’s words: “These machines infiltrate the ranks of the workers, their families, their couples, their childhood; they install themselves at the very heart of the workers’ subjectivity and vision of the world.” (1973, 169). Guattari makes a point, easy to overlook, that industrial capitalism decodes all realities. This liberates greater waves of desire. We might think of this in terms of the desires in trolling, fake news, sarcasm, and nihilism expressed today and which rise along with, as part of Trumpism. Capitalism always needs to search for new formulas for totalitarianism to control struggles of desire (of migrants, of racialized people, of prisoners, etc.).
Political practice is at an impasse. A social totality is locked in inertia. Despite the best intentions of those involved. There is a surplus of information and a lack of action. The Right personalizes national ills. The Left does not personalize. Rather it looks at structural forms. The Right looks for and focuses on particular groups that can be vilified.
Fascism is the charismatic leader with a cult following and religious fervor. It is the regular refusal of all philosophical positions. This is so throughout its various incarnations. On deception Reich suggests:
“A worker trained in the class struggle is not often deceived, but many, very many, have been ideologically softened up. Only a minority are trained. The majority, thanks to the free trade unions, have never known a strike. There is hardly a “dangerous worker” left in the factories. And so the average worker may have a correct sense of what is happening, but he is without leadership and is forced to fall back on the hope that Hitler means well, after all, and that “he’s doing something for us workers.” He accepts the pittance without realizing that he is really the master and nobody has any presents to give him.” (1972, 311)
The fears of anonymous society give rise to a desire to submerge oneself—maintain anonymity—in the figure of the leader—who is known and even famous. The leader carries one’s desires forward for them in a way that takes the heat—so you can remain anonymous and not have to be accountable. Even if they are wrong or get hammered they are respected because they have put themselves out there and taken the heat—for you.
Modern society is marked by docile, passive interchangeability. Anywhere, anyone. This is not revolutionary anonymity. It is rather an anonymity to blandness. The mask of democracy and interchangeability of voting or polls.
The black bloc is a visceral response to the phony transparency of liberal democracy. Also the use of minimal violence to expose much deeper and extreme violence. It rests on masking. That is both its strength and its weakness. Transparency gets you clobbered.
Modern citizens are too comfortable, but not comfortable. They are isolated, detached, fragmented, lonely, exposed. This relates to their susceptibility to social phobias. As Reich puts it: “Such a man is psychically so deformed that simply being told he is a “fully valid member of society” will make him feel better, especially if he is given some kind of uniform to wear” (1972, 310). He wants an impossible comfort.
Trumpism and the end of comfort. Fear based politics related to climate change. First impacts of climate change. Reflected in fear of the refugee. Fear of the “outside invasion.” Which will only increase as the climate crisis increases.
Affect. Trump projects symbolic disarray that only the symbolic leader can address. Support for Trump is acknowledgement that the bet will never be placed. Giving your money and knowing it will not be placed. You will be ripped off. The more it goes off the rails the more it works and the more people join. Trump does not hold together well—and that is a big part of his appeal. The euphoria of empty promises. Finding solace in distress. Alterity and alternative facts. For Guattari, the more it breaks down, the better it works. Unlike totalitarianism it liberates the desires o the masses for their own death. It is an escape that is suicidal.
Crain, Caemeron. 2013. “Microfascism.” The Mantle
Guattari, Felix. 2009 . “Everybody Wants to be a Fascist.” In Chaosophy: Texts and Interviews 1972-1977. New York: Semiotext(e), 154-175
Reich, Wilhelm. 1973. Sex-Pol: Essays, 1929-1934. New York: Vintage Books.