There’s something that people — especially pundits — are always surprised by, which doesn’t surprise me in the least. “Trump voters (Brexiters, the European fringe right) aren’t the poorest people in society! Why, they’re middle class, even sometimes affluent!!”
Now. What are we to make of this? Let’s leave aside the fact that not once in human history have we seen fascism arise during good economic times — only during depressions. What does history tell us about the rise of fascism? It isn’t the poor who are the greatest adherents of authoritarians and fascists. It is the downwardly mobile. You have to have something to lose to seek safety in the arms of a strong man. Fascism — as much as you might not think so, because we are not well educated about it — radiates outwards from the middle, not upwards from the bottom.
Do you think it’s merely a coincidence that American democracy is collapsing into authoritarianism at precisely the moment it’s middle class is shrinking into a minority?
In Nazi Germany, the future was a contest between communism and fascism — the center had given up. The poor, to oversimplify, were largely communist. But who were the fascists that they fought on the streets with? The declining middle and the industrial rich, the landed gentry and the bourgeois. Why? Precisely because they had something to lose. They had savings. They owned land and homes and property. They had investments. They held shares and bonds and titles and deeds. They were members of professions, who had invested in education. All these things were declining in value. There was something to be “made great again”, if you see my meaning.
It is an imploding middle that has once had upwards mobility which is the great, dangerous two-edged sword of modern society. A prosperous, stable middle class was a one of history’s most significant creations — but, it turns out, losing one can be a catastrophe, too, for just that reason.
Having once had upwards mobility, they might then want it back, by any means necessary, even excluding the impure from society, declaring war, and carrying out atrocity. The poor never really had much of it at all — and that was why, in Germany, many of them, peasant farmers, had already left for richer shores, like America.
Do you see the point? It is downwards mobility — or at least a lack of upwards motion — that lights the spark of fascism. But it is not the poor who are at risk of downwardly mobility, because they are already at the bottom. Fascism therefore takes root among the people who saw themselves as rich — or at least moving upwards — once. Hence, movements to “make things great again”.
Now. Doesn’t that downwards mobility coincide with today’s neo-fascist movements? It’s true to say that Trumpists aren’t always the poorest in society. So what? It’s truer to say that they live in communities where opportunities are scarce, careers are drying up, social bonds are blowing apart, and life is getting harder. They are not in places like Manhattan and LA — they are in Tulsa and Wichita. The same is true for Brexiters, isn’t it? They’re not the truly desperate — but they are concentrated in places at the greatest risk of declining standards of living. Downwards mobility. Falling from grace. Having something to lose. The implosion of the middle class, who once felt secure, safe, and stable.
So we should expect neo-fascism to be concentrated in places that were once the most solidly and proudly middle-class — but aren’t anymore — not just in places that have always been poor. The former has something to lose — but the latter doesn’t.
Fascism is so dangerous, then, precisely because it upends the traditional notion of “class war”. We are used to thinking of tensions within society as top vs bottom, rich vs poor — do you see mistake yet? Two classes, each opposed: not three, each in tension. But when we think that way, we have failed yet to learn the great lesson of the twentieth century. These were the tensions of the 18th and 19th centuries — of revolution by the working people against the bourgeoisie, whether in Russia or France. The tension of the 20th century was different: a society with a once prosperous middle class — which was a modern creation, something the world had never seen until the mid 19th century or so — could, if that middle class was allowed to implode, collapse into fascism.
Why? Because the downwardly mobile will trade democracy and sanity for prosperity, when they are truly desperate. Or at least prosperity’s counterfeit — a little bit more in the wallet today, at the price of their very own neighbors, society, rights, and future. To the man whose future is eroding this bargain makes perfect rational sense — even if it is not a moral or ethical compact a sane person should make.
So fascism exploded in the 20th century precisely because middle classes were a modern creation. Only then could societies run the risk of middle classes eroding, and the people in them turning to strongmen, as they gave up on the democracies that could not seem to nourish them, thus producing the dictators we remember today — Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and so on. But in just that way, we misunderstand fascism entirely if we look at the poor versus the rich, note that the poor are less authoritarian than we had thought they would be, and conclude, happily, that we are safe from the depredations of history. We have only misunderstood history this way: fascism is a product of decline, and decline is felt most savagely from the collapsing middle, not the bottom.
When we say that “poor people aren’t fascists!” we are also making another mistake, too. We are assuming that they are foolish and lazy and weak, in just a slightly more veiled way. Human folly is not limited by class, race, or creed. It is distributed in perfect equality. The rich are no more sensible than the poor — if they had been, then feudalism would have been the optimal human order, wouldn’t it? So we only reveal our own biases when we assume fascism will be distributed amongst society in a way that mirrors our own prejudices about the world.
That way — lies ignorance, and ignorance is a kind of complicity. The Trumpist or Brexiter or European neo-fascist is not likely to be at the extreme bottom of the social scale. Just as yesterday, fascism is likely to radiate outwards from the middle. We mustn’t be much surprised by that. One must have something to lose to have a reason to turn to strongmen. If one has nothing to lose, then one is not likely to care very much either way, for democracy or its discontents — or downward mobility, for one has never run the risk of being anywhere but at the bottom to begin with.
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