I grew up in England during the ‘80s and ‘90s. I was born in London, and my parents are from Yorkshire. I often think of England as a kinder, gentler place. It wasn’t, of course, but there were certainly fewer people who thought it was their duty to tell you what you should and shouldn’t say, and more people who encouraged independent thought. It was also a place with a strong sense of its past. There were hints of conflict in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa, which were all referenced in the news bulletins. I was taught about this in history lessons from an early age.
As with any growing boy, I had my ups and downs. I cried a lot when I was young, maybe even too much. I worried a lot about things that didn’t seem important. I was never particularly interested in politics, which my parents considered to be ‘men’s work’, but I did get a First in Politics at Oxford University. However, even then, I never saw myself as a politician. I wanted to be a public intellectual. I suppose you could say I’m an academic, although I’ve never actually taught.
I began writing about art, culture, and literature, and was soon published in national newspapers and magazines. This led to a number of prestigious awards and fellowships. But, like many successful people, I also had my dark days. I was lonely and unsatisfied. I questioned the meaning of success and questioned what was important in life. I became fascinated by Nietzsche and his philosophy of ‘superhumanity’. For a time, I even considered studying for a PhD in philosophy. I was attracted to the idea of becoming an expert in fascism, which at the time was gaining popularity both in the mainstream media and among academia. Some viewed it as a radical and positive alternative to neoliberalism. In my opinion, fascism is inherently violent and oppressive. However, this was years ago, and since then I’ve developed my own nuanced view. As I mentioned, I was never particularly interested in politics, preferring to study history and social theory. But it was during this time that I really began to think about the role of art in politics. It was then, too, that I started to question many of the seemingly obvious assumptions that we make about modern art.
Is Modern Art Really Different?
Inevitably, when we think about modern art, we think about the ‘60s and ‘70s. These were the decades during which modern art first developed as a separate entity. It was also a time of tremendous social upheaval, as we know, and there was a greater emphasis on personal freedom and independence. But is this really how we should remember that period? Did it represent a true break from the past, or was it simply an echo of everything that came before? Was it a positive or negative development? Was there anything unique about the ‘60s and ‘70s that we should remember and celebrate? Was there something special about this period, this place, or these artists that put them in a distinct category?
If we go back even further, we can see that art has always been closely tied to politics. Art has been used to spread propaganda, support one side in a conflict, or even just to highlight the inequalities in society. There’s been plenty of visual and linguistic inspiration from the leaders of nations and historical events, whether they’ve intended it or not. But why should this be seen as a bad thing? Should we never look to art for political guidance or should we only ever do so in order to question why certain people or groups of people have been historically associated with politics and the political? Is this still the case today, or do we consider art for art’s sake?
Fascism, Neoliberalism, And The ‘New’ Art
These are some of the questions that I pondered as I began to study art and politics. I came to the conclusion that there is no simple answer to these questions, as the issue is far more complicated than one could reasonably hope to resolve in a short blog post. This is also the reason that I consider myself a ‘fascism scholar’, not a ‘fascist’. I have a great deal of respect for the history of fascism, and a great admiration for many of its ideas and theorists. But just because someone is interested in or studies fascism, this doesn’t mean that they advocate, promote, or endorse it. In some ways, I consider myself an heir to this tradition, someone who wants to continue the search for knowledge and understanding of this most unusual and extraordinary political movement. I want to leave you with a better understanding of what fascism is, and why it should be regarded as a problem, not a solution. And perhaps, in some small way, this blog post will help you to grasp this as well.
Fascism can be defined as a form of socialism that promotes the interests of the corporate elite against those of the working class. It uses aggressive nationalism and racism as a means of dividing and conquering its opponents. Its proponents often claim that art and literature are inextricably linked to politics, so it was, perhaps, inevitable that I would study this fascinating subject as well. This is partly because of my admiration for Nietzsche, whose philosophy permeated the ‘20s and ‘30s, as well as the German artist, Heinrich Heine, who was a noted philosopher and a poet. (1)
The beginning of my inquiry into fascism was a chance encounter with a stranger on the internet. We were both exploring the same website, which happened to be a forum for people who discussed and shared their research on fascism. It was at this point that I discovered that I was not alone. There were others who were also deeply passionate about this topic, and we began a correspondence. This stranger introduced me to a world that I had never really known existed, a world of dedicated researchers and students who wanted to learn more about it. It was like I had found a community, but it was only after we began exchanging letters that I discovered that this community was largely made up of academics who had been excluded from the mainstream ‘discourse’ on politics.
To cut a long story short, fascism was never really a problem that disappeared with the ‘70s. Neoliberalism has created a world where fascism is never mentioned without being negatively associated with it. However, many people, myself included, believe that there is a distinct difference between the two terms, and I want to make it clear from the outset that I am not equating fascism with neoliberalism or any other economic theory. I prefer to see them as two very distinct and opposing political movements, and the reason for this will become clear in due course. First, let’s examine the basics: what are they?
Fascism Vs Neoliberalism: What Is the Dichotomy?
Fascism stands for ‘fascist’, and it is the philosophy and ideology of Benito Mussolini and other European fascists, during and after World War II. Derived from the ‘socialism’, or more precisely, the ‘national socialism’, of the early twentieth century, fascism can be described as a form of authoritarian socialism that defends corporate capitalism and the social and political status quo against all forms of political change. (2)
We should immediately point out that not all fascists are bad. Indeed, there are many good and decent people who support and defend the system. However, they are the exception rather than the rule. Fascists are often highly educated, and they are attracted to both the intellectual and the political aspects of the ideology. (3)
Fascism was originally used, by those who opposed it, as a derogatory term. A contemporary example can be found in the writings of the late Italian journalist and historian, Enzo Emanuele. In his essay, ‘Fascism’s Last Stand’, which is worth reading, Emanuele argues that fascism is a political ideology that collapsed due to its inherent defects. In his view, fascism is a flawed ideology and a dead end. He also accuses those who continue to use the term of “historical illiteracy, obfuscation, [and] defamation”. (4)
There are many other examples of people who have been historically associated with fascism, but choose to ignore, or even deny, the fact. This trend is known as ‘fascismoligarchic denialism’. Some prominent examples include: