“It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless…I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else……
Why, then, cannot we have a clear and generally accepted definition it? Alas! we shall not get one — not yet, anyway. To say why would take too long, but basically it is because it is impossible to define Fascism satisfactorily without making admissions which neither the Fascists themselves, nor the Conservatives, nor Socialists of any colour, are willing to make.”
–George Orwell, “What is Fascism?”
Those of us who criticize civilization, industrial capitalism, and the delusion of the Modern invariably encounter accusations that our critiques somehow link us to Nazism or fascism. Because we are not Nazis nor fascists, and perhaps because we mistake the mauvaise foi of our critics as honest confusion, we too often accept a mysterious sense and moral duty to respond. But is it not strange that we automatically accept our interlocutor’s premise that the rejection of civilization, industrialism, and modernity implies Nazism or fascism? Worse, is it not strange we feel obligated to provide a defense to such a false accusation?
Most us of who accede to the demands of our accusers that we must differentiate ourselves from those odious ideologies find ourselves drowning in the morass of contemporary political discourse. No amount of evidence is enough, no amount of repeated statements that we hate fascism ever suffices. Such a situation is akin to the anti-capitalist asked their opinions about gulags or Stalin, or the gay person forced to assure people that they don’t rape children. As in those situations, the critic who stands in opposition to modern, industrial, capitalist civilization—with its regimes of authority, its hierarchies of divided race and labor, its vapid and alienating aesthetic, and all the forms of its civic religion worshiping progress and destructive technology—is somehow to be held account for abhorrent political constellations to which none of us ascribe.
To fail to answer to is to be deemed guilty. Yet worse: to give answer is to assume the premise of the accuser and the moral authority to deem what is and is not an acceptable critique. Let this essay be our final answer.
We are neither fascists nor Nazis. But now that we have said this, we must now go further, because the question itself is wrong in its false constellation of fascism as anti-civilizationist, anti-modernist, or anti-industrial. The truth is quite the opposite. Except by the most inverted of logics, neither the 20th century Nazis and fascists, nor their 21st century counterparts, can possibly be seen as anything but fanatic devotees of the Modern, evangelists of industrialization, and fundamentalist defenders of civilization.
Consider the National Socialists. For all their deployment of romantic aesthetics and traditionalist rhetoric, Nazism was both essentially industrialist and modernist. The management logic of the early English industrialists, Fordism, and the “scientific management” of Taylorism found their full consummation in the pristine efficiency of the concentration camp: facilities in which humans were classified, examined, methodically tortured, “scientifically” vivisected, and then killed. Further, the transformation of the German population’s labor power towards the production of war machines—as well as the organization of German society and economic activity along avowedly Fordist lines—was explicitly industrialist and modern.
Nor were the Nazis anti-civilizationist by any means. Hitler’s fantasy of a Neuordnung Europas (“New European Order”) was a detailed plan to save civilization from what the Nazis saw as the barbaric, degenerate, inferior races by bringing all of Europe under their own enlightened civil order.
Neither can the organization of Italian and Spanish society under the fascism of Mussolini and Franco be painted as anti-modern, anti-industrialist, or anti-civilization. While neither reached the same levels of Fordist industrial efficiency that German society under the Nazis attained, industrial efficiency was a core aspect of fascist propaganda. “At least Mussolini made the trains run on time,” regardless of the fact it was unlikely true, is hardly a mantra that would appeal to someone who hates trains or the Modern religion of time-management. And as regards Spain, General Franco is even now still praised as a “modernizer,” and it was his industrialist economic policies which kept supposedly “anti-fascist” states such as the US on neutral terms with his regime.
No really-existing fascism has arisen within humanity that was not industrialist. This then begs an obvious question–why do those of us who oppose industrialization find ourselves being accused of being fascist? As George Orwell noted in his short essay, “What Is Fascism,” to get at a real definition of fascism would require even admissions others (including fascists) are not eager to make. That is, the answer is not a comfortable one for our critics, because fascism is hardly the only modern political ideology for which industrial production is a core, foundational value.
Take for example the majority of “Leftist” political ideologies born from European industrial civilization. The Authoritarian Communism of the USSR and China, which morphed later into State-Capitalism in both places, similarly organized the labor power of the people over which those ideologies ruled into wide-scale industrial production. In both iterations, rural populations which had lived in relatively static technological states for thousands of years were industrialized within mere decades, all in the name of making them more “modern.”
But lest we lay blame only at the feet of Marx, many anarchists too embraced the logic of industrialism. One need consider one of Kropotkin’s many glowing paens regarding the conquest of nature by machine, reproduced later in Bookchinite worship of technology:
With the introduction of machinery into economy, wings are given to liberty. The machine is the symbol of human liberty, the sign of our domination over nature, the attribute of our power, the expression of our right, the emblem of our personality.
While the actually-existing iterations of both Fascism and Authoritarian Communism organized the societies over which they ruled along industrialized principles, and many anarchist tendencies likewise fantasize about such arrangements, none of these political systems can claim to have birthed industrialism. That honor instead goes to the ideological system which founded Modernity and still dominates the world: Liberal Democratic Capitalism.
Industrialism started in England in the early 18th century with the birth and quick spread of textile mills, midwifed by the imperative of modernization articulated by Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes, and other Enlightenment philosophers. These philosophers were not merely the ideological architects of industralisation, however—they also formulated the “modern” and its civilizational structure itself. Nation-states ruled by representative government, individual rights granted by sovereign charter, enclosure, displacement, and private ownership of land, divisions of people through artificial racial categories, and the juridical, bureaucratic, administrative, and penal institutions required to implement and sustain this modern, “civilized” order: all this arose from the very same ideology which ushered in industrialised capitalism into the history of humanity.
Even Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto recognized the oppressive, authoritarian nature of this modernizing, “civilizing” drive:
The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.
That all the aspects of what even Marx recognised as “civilization” arose from the very same classes which created industrialised capitalism is no accident. Civilization, Modernity, and Industrialization are all part of the same delusion, a forced imposition of mechanistic logic upon the rest of life. Along with this logic comes all our other “modern” ideas of what a state is and should do, as well as what rights it must provide and what freedoms we humans are due. These are rights inextricable from industrialisation, the energy which propels it, and the damage it does to the earth. As post-colonialist historian Dispesh Chakrabarty noted in his essay, “The Climate of History,”
In no discussion of freedom in the period since the Enlightenment was there ever any awareness of the geological agency that human beings were acquiring at the same time as and through processes closely linked to their acquisition of freedom. Philosophers of freedom were mainly, and understandably, concerned with how humans would escape the injustice, oppression, inequality, or even uniformity foisted on them by other humans or human-made systems… The period I have mentioned, from 1750 to now, is also the time when human beings switched from wood and other renewable fuels to large-scale use of fossil fuel—ﬁrst coal and then oil and gas. The mansion of modern freedoms stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil-fuel use.
Of what value, we ask, is that freedom if it comes at the cost of the earth’s ability to sustain human life?
But we must go even further, because the rights offered by Liberal Democratic Capitalist (Modern, Industrial) civilization are themselves only an offer after conquest. As many contemporary critics of human rights discourse from India and Africa, including Makau Mutua, have observed, the concept of rights is inextricable from the existence of a state which defines to whom those rights extend (and do not extend) and enforces and exports those rights.
Let us be clear: the Modern idea of freedom and the equally modern reality of colonialism and slavery go hand in hand. The promises of an order in which humanity is entitled to peace, prosperity, and happiness and that human life must be preserved at all costs are not only false but are bound up in the logic that reduces the earth to ashes, purges the gods from the wild hills and deep forests, all while poisoning the very humanity that it claims to deify.
The gifts of modernity were never offered in good faith. Expand the length of life, but reduce the quality of that life. Kill the gods and worship humanity, but destroy and degrade human life like never before. Create technology that will remake the earth to serve us, but turn the earth into a barren wasteland that will literally boil us alive. Banish superstition and the irrational, but be governed by faith in technological progress and the market, neither of which you may question.
But let us entertain, briefly, the miracles modernity claims to have birthed into the world: medicine, rights, peace. These are the sacred proofs to the worshippers of the Modern, evidence that what the Modern has wrought in the world is Good and Just. Yet rarely is it mentioned how these things have been gotten. Much of modern medicine requires first the torture of some other living thing to give it its efficacy. We can cure syphilis thanks to experimentation on poor Black men, we can treat mental disorders thanks to the lobotomization of women diagnosed with hysteria.
When they speak of peace, they do not speak of the barrel of the gun and the threat of nuclear annihilation which gives the great modern civilizations their serene placidity. Peace means “peacekeepers,” military occupations, covert subversions and overthrows of governments elected by the same “democratic means” such violence is meant to protect. Civil order and peace within the cities are maintained by armed gangs called police, and it certainly appears to take quite a few prisons to ensure modern “freedom.”
And of rights? The right to property comes through the slaughter of indigenous peoples through colonial conquest. The right to wealth and even access to social safety nets both are funded through the exploitation of the poor outside the modern construct of Nation. Freedom to communicate through technological wonders built by near-slave labor from materials mined by actual slave-labor. And all the rest of these rights derive, as Chakrabarty notes, “from an ever-expanding base of fossil-fuel use.”
The Enlightenment claimed to banish the darkness within humanity and raise humans above the rest of nature. In so doing, it conjured a new darkness into the world, the Modern. Perhaps numbered among its chief conjurers were those who truly believed that science and technics could make the world a paradise for all. It has done nothing of the sort, but rather scorched the skies, melted the glaciers, poisoned the air, and further yoked nature–including the human–to the capitalists and their machine logic.
Indeed, the most delusional aspect of modern Liberal Democratic civilization is its claim to do all this in the name of the “human.” Human rights, human advancement, human wealth, human freedom, all this promised to us as benefits of civilization’s destruction of the rest of nature through factories, the assembly lines, the pipeline, the automobile, the urban, and the internet server. Yet even humans are ground up into bone and dust to feed the machines of progress, their lungs blackened, fingers broken, bodies crippled, minds subjugated, environments ruined, souls destroyed. How much more the myriad other parts of nature? The extinctions speak for themselves.
More probably, the Modern was yet another mere trick to consolidate power. Promises that humanity could be perfected, sorrow and suffering eradicated, inequality eliminated–all by men who themselves owned slaves, spread war and rape, and subjugated all that lives to their dominance. Upon the ancient shrines of forsaken gods of nature they placed the human, then proceeded to sacrifice not just the natural world but other humans themselves to their vain worship of the modern.
Let us make the admission the fascists, the socialists, and the liberal democrats refuse to make. Fascism could not have been possible without the worship of the Modern the Enlightenment birthed. Nazi doctors and scientists vivisecting and dissecting humans to find in their entrails the cause of their behavior merely continued the work begun by the Enlightenment. The efficiency of their war machine was only possible thanks to the humanist search in centuries past to perfect the movement of human in industry. And what else could we make of the Nazi organization of human society into taxonomies of race and degeneracy, but a mere perfection of the Enlightenment’s desire to discover and then make the world run according to “natural laws?”
Let us say yet more: to be against the modern is to be also against the fascist. But to be against the modern is also to be against the fascist’s twin, the State-Communist, and against the patriarch which birthed them both, the Capitalist-Democratic neueordnung. As with the three monotheist religions which together inform them, they each worship the Modern and merely disagree on how to implement Its will.
And let us say yet one more thing: it is not we who oppose the Modern, or industrialism, or civilization, who must answer our critics, but our critics who must answer us. Those who praise the Modern for its medicine must answer first for the Black and Indigenous people experimented upon to bring it forth into the world. Those who defend the Modern for its rights and freedoms must first answer for the colonial rape and slaughter which brings those rights and freedoms. Those who celebrate the Modern for the peace and prosperity of its cities must first answer for the homeless, the displaced, and the murdered. Those who sing paens to the Modern for its technological progress must first answer for the children mining the minerals to make computers and smartphones.
And especially, those who would call the anti-modern “fascist” must answer us. It is we who accuse you, defenders of the Modern and its industrial, humanistic delusions. It is you who must answer for the very reason we rage against the Modern, with its machine logic that mobilized entire populations to eradicate what once connected humans to nature and its gods. It is you who must answer for the Modern industrial camps in which humans were dissected, dismembered, and killed in the name of saving civilization from barbarism. It is not us but you who must account for the latest technology that sorted the deported and damned, for the most scientifically advanced chemicals which choked out their lives.
We have seen what your civilization and your progress really means. We have seen what your technology, your government, your orders of discipline and your machines are really for. In the slums, the prisons, the gutters, and the factories we have seen how fascistic your vision of humanity actually is, and in the dying forests, the rising seas, and the darkened skies we see what comes of people that forget its gods to become Modern.
This article was republished from Gods & Radicals.
Rhyd is one of the co-founders and co-editors of Gods&Radicals. His recently released collection, Witches In a Crumbling Empire, is available now. You can support him on Patreon, and listen to his podcasts with Alley Valkyrie, Empires Crumble.