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Federico Finchelstein, Fascism, and Populism

Federico Finchelstein, Fascism, and Populism

Richard Cândida Smith, Society for U.S. Intellectual History (24/05/2020)

THE BOOK | From Fascism to Populism in History. University of California Press, 2017; 330 pp.; A Brief History of Fascist Lies. University of California Press, 2020; 133 pp.

THE AUTHOR | Federico Finchelstein

THE REVIEWER | Richard Cándida Smith is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Berkeley. He has published seven books, most recently Improvised Continent: Pan-Americanism and Cultural Exchange (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017) and over forty essays in publications from the United States, Brazil, Mexico, Spain, France, the Netherlands, and Britain. His work has explored arts and literary networks, movements, and institutions in the United States, with an emphasis on international connections and exchange. Long active in oral history, for the last six years he has been working with Voices of Contemporary Art offering two-day workshops on the artist interview. He sits on several editorial boards and committees. He has been helping organize U.S. participation in the Trans@tlantic Cultures: A Digital Platform for Transatlantic Cultural History (1700 to Now), an international project under the direction of historians from France and Brazil bringing together scholars from every part of the world. He is a contributor to Ekphrasis, an interdisciplinary, international project based in the Netherlands exploring the poetics of text and image.

Federico Finchelstein has previously published on fascism in Argentina, exploring its international connections and its influence on Peronism, a populist movement that redefined Argentinean society after 1945.  From Fascism to Populism in History broadens the scope of this earlier work to consider the relationship of fascism and populism as global phenomena.  He has much to say about the many countries where, in recent years, populists have taken power.  Of Trump and his supporters in the United States, Finchelstein concludes that very little is new or surprising.  The bulk of the book provides historical frameworks for understanding this conclusion.  A Brief History of Fascist Lies extends the argument by examining the fascist conception that lies are necessary to reveal hidden truths, a view that Finchelstein argues has little in common with how other politicians, conservative, liberal, or socialist, mobilized their supporters or addressed the challenges of governing.  The concluding chapter skips from the fascist period to the current moment to argue that how contemporary populist leaders relate to truth and untruth reveals how deeply connected fascism and populism have been. Finchelstein states simply that, after 1945, “populism is fascism adapted to democracy” (Brief History of Fascist Lies, 6).  Nonetheless, Finchelstein warns against reducing populism to fascism.  He takes populism as the primary form, with fascism a variation that was preeminent internationally between the two world wars, with aspects of fascist ideology such as a need to lie and a fascination with violence continuing in postwar populism.  He traces three phases in the longer history of populism.

(1) Before 1920. In the mid-nineteenth century, Finchelstein argues that classic populist movements took root in France, the United States, and Russia.  In both the United States and France, populists were drawn primarily from small producers—farmers and self-employed mechanics—who reacted against industrial capitalism and a restructuring of production and distribution driving independent producers out of business.  Populists advocated political reforms to assure greater citizen participation in government and demanded economic policies that protected the interests of small producers.  Often but not universally, US populists viewed the country as properly a homeland for white Protestants, whose way of life corporate capital threatened in many ways, including by importing cheap foreign laborers in large numbers.  French populists more consistently combined their quest for popular democracy and protection of local enterprise with xenophobia and cultural chauvinism.  In both France and the United States, the more conservative wings of the populist movement entered into government and many populist demands were enacted in ways that promoted the reconciliation of small producers with corporate and finance capital.  Russian populism was a movement of middle-class intellectuals who viewed the peasantry as the heart of the Russian nation.  Populists left the cities to settle in peasant communities and learn rural ways of life while mobilizing for a revolution.  The tsarist government repressed the populists, but the ideas remained influential in Russia through the 1917 revolution.  In most other countries, Finchelstein sees lower-middle-class movements that he prefers to call proto- and pre-populist because they organized primarily around xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and national cultural identity rather than the democratization of politics and the economy.  These quasi-populist movements provided the most important base for fascism after World War I.

(2) 1918-1945. With the Bolshevik revolution, many left-wing populists around the world joined new revolutionary communist movements.  Wherever militant socialism became a force, right populists, focused on national identity, formed alliances with other conservative groups to combat and eradicate the left.  Fascism as a distinct ideology redefined the far right globally after Benito Mussolini seized control of Italy in 1922.  While fascists held absolute power only in Europe, they served in conservative governments in Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia.  Fascist parties in the United States remained insignificant, but the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan and the formation of the American Legion reflected the turn of US populism towards reactionary violence.  Lynchings and race riots (meaning white mobs roaming the streets attacking blacks, Mexicans, and/or Asians) were persistent events in the United States from 1919 to 1945, as were vigilante attacks on labor activists of all races and backgrounds.

(3) After 1945: The defeat, rather than the crimes, of Germany, Italy, and Japan discredited the fascist model.  Former fascists and fascist sympathizers, such as Juan Perón in Argentina, turned to mass mobilization of the popular classes to continue the fight against liberals and communists, both deemed traitors to the nation in service to foreign powers.  Much as Italy provided a blueprint for international fascism because it was the first state where a militarized version of populism took power, Perón’s rise to power in Argentina in 1945 was the prototype for a new nationalist authoritarianism that differed from fascism by requiring legitimation through democratic elections instead of violence.  Perón convinced both small producers and the working class that he understood their needs.  He identified foreign capital and socialism as enemies allied with the aristocratic elites governing the nation since independence.  Peronists promised to protect the country’s Catholic heritage while building a more egalitarian nation with greater economic and political opportunities for working people.  In less than a decade populist movements making similar appeals spread across Latin America, providing an alternative model for how formally independent but economically subordinated countries could assert self-determination.  The model mutating as it became global took root as well in Asia, Africa, and southern Europe.

After 1945, the “global south” was the dominant location of populist movements, which whether of the left or the right mobilized around anti-imperialism and grew by challenging the global institutions the United States and its closest allies constructed. That Donald Trump imitates Juan Perón in many ways, no doubt unconsciously, suggests that in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, a new phase in the longer history of populism may have begun as populist movements reshape the politics of the world’s wealthiest nations.

The brevity of the two books combined with their long historical span and geographical breadth makes for concise but necessarily schematic arguments.  Finchelstein structures his account around his assessment of the historiographies of fascism and populism.  He notes that most scholarship has treated fascism as a European rather than a global political movement.  Populism as well is usually treated solely in its North American and European contexts.  Finchelstein draws most of his evidence from Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia, supplementing his arguments with supporting evidence from the United States and Europe.  By treating postwar populism as a phenomenon particular to the world’s peripheries allows him to identify the links connecting it back to fascism.  By grounding the story in Argentina and then tracing the echoes of Peronism throughout the global south, Finchelstein easily shows that xenophobia often took, and continues to take, ostensibly anti-imperialist forms aimed primarily at the United Kingdom and the United States, liberal societies dominating the global economy for two centuries and intervening over and over again in the affairs of virtually every other nation in the world.

Finchelstein identifies five consistent aspects distinguishing post-Peronist populism:

  • a plebiscitary conception of democracy that legitimates authoritarian rule, including the curtailment of basic rights and the subordination of the legislature and judiciary to executive authority
  • identifying “enemies” as the ultimate source of national problems instead of systemic economic or political factors
  • magical conceptions of truth that puts the persistent use of lies at the center of populist propaganda
  • fascination with violence as ultimately necessary to purify the nation
  • political programs that are inconsistent if not incoherent and thus generate instability

The most distinctive feature of postwar populism has been reliance on a plebiscitary conception of democracy that did not eliminate but did limit parliamentary democracy and rule of law, both critiqued as foreign ideas that elites imposed on dependent countries to gain control over markets and resources.  Populists insisted that by combating the corruption inherent to liberal democracy, they were restoring genuine popular democratic rule.  Juan Perón told his people that he had no regrets for his love of Mussolini, but mistakes were made, and now Perón understood that democracy was the best form of government.  In some countries, majorities of voters responded positively.  In many others, voters were more evenly split and plebiscitary democracy contributed to polarization.  The distinction between populist democracy and fascist dictatorship, Finchelstein argues, remained blurry in practice because populists generally argued that democracy requires strong, “overpowering” leaders able to force opponents into submission.  If the satisfaction of private interest necessarily diminishes the common good, conceptions of democracy that stress negotiation between competing perspectives will be seen as inherently antithetical to the common good.  The idea of “checks and balances” is inconsistent with popular sovereignty, which, in the most absolute versions of populist ideology, means that the leader overrides judicial decisions, determines what the constitution means, and curtails or expands the rights of individuals and/or groups to conform with his determination of national interest.  Ideas such as “rule of law” or “freedom of the press” are dangerous and unpatriotic because they assume that the people are not united in mystic ways that a true leader intuits and articulates in incontrovertible terms.

In opposition to the structural critiques that socialists and communists offered of liberal societies, populist leaders focused on identifying enemies whose particularities threatened national unity: racial and religious minorities, foreigners (whether wealthy investors or impoverished migrant workers), communists, political and cultural radicals, drug traffickers, gays, transgenders, and so on. The target of the moment was always shifting, but the need for a target made violence endemic to movements for popular sovereignty.  Political power could be measured in actions taken to harm those whose basic identities were defined as noxious to national health.  The identification of enemies generated acts of violence, sometimes from government authorities, sometimes from organized mobs, sometimes from spontaneous mobs inspired by a leader’s appeals. Too much violence, however, destabilizes society and works against the protective role populist leaders claim.  Nor can populist leaders use violence in ways that could undermine the integrity of the democratic procedures that legitimized their authority.  Weakened leaders of course have often used their power to assure reelection, but, as recent crises in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua demonstrate, populist governments cannot govern and frequently face military coups when only core supporters believe election results.

The distinct focus of A Brief History of Fascist Lies is the conception of “truth” that fascist and populist movements share.  Lying is of course a commonplace feature of politics and government everywhere.  Fascist lies were not simply tactical, however Finchelstein argues, but existential.  Fascist leadership held what he calls a magical or mythic conception of truth.  What they imagine is always more valid than observable truth because what ought to be true must be true even when not factually or logically demonstrable.  Treating desire as potential reality points to basic dynamics in modern societies that go far beyond fascism or populism.  Without a displacement of truth into the realm of the imagination, no revolution of any kind can take place.  Whether early Christians confronting daily realities of the ancient Mediterranean, industrialists pondering how to produce more at less cost, physicists pondering how an electron can occupy two spatial positions simultaneously, or the people of a colonized country demanding independence, the new emerges into the world because imagination suspends the authority of immediately observable circumstances.  A lie in non-revolutionary, what we might call “normal,” politics is useful not because it negates what is true but because it helps a politician maneuver around a limited problem.  There is no appeal to the existential demands of imagination to correct a poorly made world.  On the other hand, fascist appeals to deeper truths necessarily foment violence because only extreme force can destroy the deceptive realities of surface appearance or create a void to be filled by hidden realities made concrete.

The fascist leader claimed unlimited personal authority, particularly the right to articulate truth.  His imagination filled the hearts of his people and ennobled them.  Postwar populists could not go so far because they imagined the people selecting a leader who best expressed what they knew and wanted.  When they heard his lies and agreed, he had to be saying what they already felt.  In the populist conception of democracy, the people’s opinion on any matter must govern, whether it is right or wrong.  Populism shares with fascism an emphasis on politics as primarily a state of emotion flowing from a longing for something absent, rather than as rational acts in pursuit of self-interest.

As a result, “dissociation of politics from reality” (Lies, 26) has plagued every populist regime.  They tend towards instability that grows more chaotic the longer the populists govern.  After the euphoria of the people’s choice sitting as chief executive passes, the country lurches from crisis to crisis as the contradictions inherent to wishful thinking accumulate.  In Latin America, a feature of the populist period was the frequency of military coups to bring a halt to the chaos and to restore a stability that a polarized electoral process could no longer provide.  The alternation of populist government, military dictatorship, liberal government, populist government, military dictatorship turning increasingly more repressive, and so on, a feature of Argentinean politics since 1945, echoed with variations around the world in other countries where populists took power.

Finchelstein warns that critics who ask whether fascist or populists leaders actually believed what they said fail to understand a unique dynamics of political mobilization.  To view fascists or populists as “normal” politicians or their followers as “normal” citizens seeking advantages through “normal” manipulation of the facts is to misread and misunderstand these movements, to imagine that the liberal self and liberal polities actually are transhistorical, rather than historically situated and hence like other political formations vulnerable to their own contradictions, one of which is belief in the arc of progress that demonstrates the transhistorical universality of liberal institutions.  Exposing the lies of the leader has long been a typical response to a type of politics alien to liberals. Critiques of leaders appealing to facts and logic only strengthened the passions of the followers, who did not hear a leader make descriptive statements of what is, but promises that what should be will come to pass, in effect will annihilate “what is.”

In the United States, populism has a distinct history because while populism turned to the right, it never merged with fascism.  The roots of the Tea Party and Donald Trump’s path to the White House lie in the Ku Klux Klan, the American Legion, McCarthyism, as well as many other expressions of white nationalist populism, including Protestant evangelicism.  Finchelstein views the Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and Ross Perot presidential campaigns as incomplete turns towards electoral politics held in check by the stability of cold war political structures.  Yet, the historical specificity of the United States notwithstanding, the concluding chapter of Brief History of Fascist Lies details the many ways in which Trump’s actions as president resonate with what populists inherited from fascism, particularly governance as a continual fabrication of alternative realities, but he notes these tendencies have so far remained within the limitations of a Peronist conception of democracy as ratification of who speaks for the people united.  Perhaps for this reason, Trump has needed to exaggerate the scope of his victory in 2016 even though winning the electoral college but losing the popular vote in no way undermines his legal authority as president.  George W. Bush certainly understood this simple fact, but he was no populist even if he appealed to populists for their votes.  From an ideological perspective particular to post-1945 populism, Trump’s authority to “impersonate the people and [be] their only true representative” remains uncertain because it has never been confirmed (Lies, 95).  Until a populist candidate wins a clear majority, the institutionalization of populist electoral politics in the United States will remain uncertain, object of fear and desire, more blurry fantasy than actual program for governing.  For this reason alone, the current moment in the United States is tentative and destabilizing, but even should a candidate in a future election secure a popular mandate, Finchelstein’s account stresses that populist success at the polls across the global south led primarily to chaos.  Populist regimes have emphasized intuition and authenticity over programmatic initiatives, which when they appeared were generally poorly devised.  Programs, Finchelstein suggests, are counterintuitive for populists because they return politics to questions of interest.  In effect practical politics and practical governance do not combine well with the greatest strength of populist leaders, connecting with the emotions of supporters often more interested in knowing that they are “represented” in the halls of power than in what those they put into power can do for them.  Both those who wish to turn the clock back to before 2016 and those who want to turn the corner and see the rise of a whole new politics that is inclusive and fair need to pay attention to the lessons to be learned about the redefinition of politics and governance inherent to populism.

These two books seem to describe well the current moment.  Not surprising, Finchelstein in both volumes is writing a usable history that helps understand what Brexit and Trump say about the present moment in two countries that supposedly were immune to such radical disruptions.  The immediacy of what Finchelstein views as a disaster, continuing to echo in countries as diverse as Brazil, the Philippines, or India, may contribute to his descriptions feeling more apt to the present moment than perhaps they should be.  That said, the historical analysis is solid throughout, returning always to sources and the reconstruction of events that he demonstrates are easily readable as instances of long-term processes still at play in the contemporary world.  I wished for more on left populism in particular, found in Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela and Evo Morales’s Bolivia, but also a major force in Argentina since the 1950s.  The necessarily brief comments—Hugo Chávez claimed to be the “symbol of a homogenized popular will” (From Fascism to Populism, xxv)—stress that left and right populism have many more commonalities than differences.  Finchelstein suggests that both lead to equally chaotic results and are, despite the left’s socialist rhetoric, equally reactionary, because both derive ultimately from efforts to salvage fascism by reforming it.  Historians of the United States will encounter a convincing though not exhaustive discussion of a political force that emerged in the postwar world order this country sponsored, flourished despite its many contradictions, and is currently sinking roots across US society.

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