Book Review: How Fascism Works; The Politics of Us and Them

This book travels throughout the world and time to tell the reader a comprehensive account of a political tendency called fascism.

The contemporary time in which we live has been witnessing a series of political upheavals across the globe. Perhaps as some of the political commentators have observed, we are living in a time where liberal democracy, once thought the final destination of human civilization, is facing serious threats to its survival. One among the notable features of our contemporary history is the emergence of the far-right politics, often described in media as the Neo-fascist, in various corners of the world.

Similar upsurges of the far right are evident in many other major democracies as well. The landslide victory of Hindutva politics, an ideology seeking to establish the hegemony of Hindus and the Hindu way of life, under Narendra Modi in India is perhaps the best example from Asia. The Europe also has fair amount of far-right take overs in recent past such as the growing dictatorial regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and far right electoral gains in a number of European countries including Hungry, Poland, France, Spain etc. The recent victory of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil can be added to the list.

Jason Stanley’s book ‘How Fascism Works; The Politics of Us and Them’ is an academic insight into the working of fascism especially contemporary forms of fascism embodied in the recent far-right upsurges. The significance of Stanley’s timely book is in the sharp arguments it advances to decipher fascist tendencies or fascist politics, as he calls, in the otherwise considered ‘normal’ political discourses in the modern time.

As the title denotes the book is all about fascism and the ways in which it works in the modern world. According to Stanley, there are ten notable tendencies that have been repeating in every fascist movement. Creation of a mythic glorified unreal past, repeated propagation of false and half-truths, strong anti-intellectualism, attacking reality and replacing it with unreality, creating hierarchy thus attacking universal values such as equality and dignity, building a false victim hood based upon identity, using law and order as a means of creating ‘the other’ or the minority as criminals, sexual anxiety coupled with patriarchal notions of family, glorification of village life and animosity towards urban values and enmity towards labour movements are the ten characteristic tendencies of fascism dealt in this book.

Though it’s a take on fascism, it will not be proper to attribute this book with any original contribution in understanding fascism. There are a huge number of literature dealing with the working of fascism. Those works mainly focused on the historical fascism in the interwar period. In fact Stanley himself is heavily using academic works such as Arendt Hannah’s The Origins of Totalitarianism to make his case.

How to understand present day far-right upsurge in the context of historical fascism is the fundamental research question this book offers. For this, Stanley creates a distinction between fascist state and fascist politics. When we mention fascism, we usually denote to the fascist states came into existence after world war one such as Italy under Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler’s Germany, General Franco’s Spain and other regimes created through the occupation during the second world war. But in the contemporary world, according to the author, fascism is not working through state creation or the coups installing totalitarian regimes instead of democracy as we have seen during the interwar period. Instead the far right parties and politicians are using the fascist methods to advance their political ambition inside the liberal democracies. They are using the very democratic and other civic rights given by these democracies to destroy it. Or in other words, they use the constitutional provisions and the mechanisms it has created such as elections to destroy the constitution itself. This is the fascist politics dealt in this book.

The approach of the author throughout the book is worth mentioning. He unlike many political commentators is not a mere spectator, instead Stanley is taking clear opposition position against far-right politics, especially against the Trump administration in his own country. In the epilogue part in the book, he makes it clear that the forces of democracy have an inherent duty to oppose and defeat this politics. According to him they also have the duty to further strengthen the liberal democracy and its values. The language used in this book is really simple and easily comprehensible. At the same time author gives ample amount of evidences in the form of academic works to substantiate his points. The quality of the materials he used is commendable. It travels around various streams of knowledge such as linguistics, psychology, history among the many.

One of the possible criticisms that can be raised against this book is its lack of coherent explanation to the economic factors that led to the rise of fascist politics. There are well accepted arguments about the connection between economic stagnation and the rise of far-right populism. Even during the emergence of historical fascism during mid twentieth century, the collapse of economies fueled it’s path to power. Though the writer mentions the economic stagnation in certain instances, he does not go to extent of explaining it further.

The other problematic part is the broad categorization of fascist politics the writer creates. In this category he puts almost all the far-right movements and politicians together. Which is primarily problematic because each far-right movement has its own varying historical backgrounds and ideological positions. Their socio-cultural formations are also differing widely. For example, the Hindutva movement in India has a long history which span around hundred years. It has been transforming institutions in the independent India from its beginning onward. They have a well-articulated objective and plan of action supported by large number of organizations collectively known Sangh Parivar. Borrowing the idea from the original fascist movements in Europe, the RSS, the organizational force of Hindutva has created a para military force in similar fashion to the brown shirts of Hitler. Does the Donald Trump and his politics has the same historical background, objectives and plan of action that of Hindutva? No will be the answer obviously. In this proposition, giving every movement the same tag will be highly problematic and superficial.

With all its limitations and possible criticisms, on an overall reading experience, I will suggest this book to any person who is concerned about his democracy and its weaknesses. As Stanley notes, even the talk of fascism itself has become outlandish or over exaggeration in many political societies though in reality the threat remains very much alive. The normalization of fascism, as the author writes, “makes us able to tolerate what was once intolerable by making it seem as if this is the way things have always been”. When more and more ‘walls’ are created between nations and within nations among different groups this book is a reminder to the alarming condition. It travels throughout the world and time to tell the reader a comprehensive account of a political tendency called fascism which destroys all the values of democracy. One of the striking features of this book is the acceptability this book creates on wider political spectrum. That is anyone who stand opposed to far-right, be it a right wing liberal or central or even a strong leftist, this book offers plenty of resources to understand as well as resist far-right politics.

Assistant Professor, Legal Consultant. Writes on Law, Politics, Development & Labour Rights. Anti Imperialism | Class Politics | History | Political Economy