“The speedy rise of fascism always seems to hit the world by surprise. Yet what we’re witnessing did not begin with the Bolsonaros, Trumps or Dutertes, just as German fascism did not begin with Hitler.”
“November 9 this year marks the 80th anniversary of what went down in history as “Kristallnacht” or the “Night of Broken Glass.” On the night of November 9, 1938, the Nazis burned down 1000 synagogues and 7000 Jewish businesses all over Germany. This orchestrated attack marked the beginning of the Holocaust, resulting in six million Jews killed in less than seven years. From surging white-identity terrorism and Trump’s brutal response to the migrant caravan in the United States to the atrocious “war on drugs” in the Philippines; from Israel’s “nation state law” to racist policies in Italy and Christian fascism in Brazil, we currently see history reverberating in the far-right movements rising to power at breakneck speed around the world. Is there still something we can do to stop the fascist takeover?”
“The worldwide massacres of our times conceal a pain that couldn’t be dealt with differently. And yet, it can be healed.”
– Dieter Duhm, psychoanalyst and futurist
Since the Brazilian election on October 28, Bolsonaro and his followers haven’t wasted any time. The day after the election, his militant supporters begun publicly denouncing leftist leaders and artists as “enemies of the people,” military police raided schools and universities for antifascist material and Indigenous groups in the Amazon were attacked and torched. Already prior to the election, dissidents were murdered and far-right mobs screamed countrywide that, “Bolsonaro will kill all queers!”
Huge crowds gathered in all major cities of Brazil to celebrate the victory of their leader. Hailing a new era of honesty, people told the Workers’ Party to “go fuck themselves,” while they cheered for a man who has praised torture and who openly states that the mistake of Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964–85) was that it didn’t kill enough people.
In one of his first interviews after the election, the president-elect repeated his intention to finish off activism in the country and to classify social movements, like the Landless Workers’ Movement, as “terrorism.” The following day, far-right lawmakers, who are now controlling the Brazilian senate, proposed a new law to criminalize protests.
While presenting himself as the anti-establishment candidate, Bolsonaro has enjoyed the support of big industry, multinationals and Wall Street throughout his campaign. When the openly fascist ex-paratrooper won the election, Big Money could hardly hide their jubilation. Brazilian stocks rose sharply in response and the Canadian CBS News celebrated that Bolsonaro “leans towards more open markets. This could mean fresh opportunities for Canadian companies looking to invest in the resource-rich country.”
Paulo Guedes, Bolsonaro’s economic advisor and upcoming economy minister is a Chicago economist of Milton Friedman’s free market orthodoxy. His universal recipe is, simply put, “privatize everything.”
Brian Mier, of Brazil Wire, writes, International capital and the US government now have exactly what they want in Brazil. All natural resources will be opened to exploitation from foreign capital. The US military will be able to use the Alcantara rocket launching base as a take off point for forays into Venezuela. Brazil’s participation in the BRICS is dead in the water and US Petroleum companies will be swimming in Brazilian oil.
Bolsonaro has vowed to forcefully appropriate Indigenous lands, which make up a staggering 13% of Brazil’s land mass, so that he can sell the Amazon to mining corporations and agricultural industry, such as beef production. “Minorities have to adapt to the majority,” he has often shouted, “or simply disappear.”
This displays nothing less than a crisis of civilization. The Amazon is the world’s biggest watershed and our most diverse ecosystem, home to half of the world’s plant and animal species. Right now, as 2000 trees are cut down in the Amazon rainforest every minute for beef, soy and mining, its water cycle is already on the verge of collapse. Bolsonaro seems determined to escalate this trend of destruction, ravaging one of the world’s most complex living systems for a few years of industrial profit before the depleted land turns into desert.
Brazil, of course, isn’t an isolated case. We see similar things happening in the United States, Colombia, India and much of Africa. We’ve reached a point where capitalism ends its liaison with democracy and increasingly embraces totalitarianism. This is not so much due to the personal evil or ideological preferences of the CEOs of big companies but rather to the rules of our global economy. It’s capitalism’s struggle for survival.
Capitalist economies need to grow at least 3% in GDP every year to avoid collapse. This means the exponential increase of logging forests, drilling for oil and mining for minerals. It entails making people work more for the same salary and making them buy more products. The only comparison to such uncontrolled growth in nature is cancer. In a world of ever scarcer natural resources, growing uncertainty and popular unrest, it’s no wonder that maintaining capitalist relations requires actual fascism in more and more countries. All over the world, we’re facing the same existential choice: growth or life.
A Tinderbox of Explosive Anger
The speedy rise of fascism always seems to hit the world by surprise. Yet what we’re witnessing did not begin with the Bolsonaros, Trumps or Dutertes, just as German fascism did not begin with Hitler. Why do far-right and openly fascist ideologies resonate so strongly with large parts of humanity? How come authoritarianism wins so easily, when the time is more than ripe for a positive revolution? Why does such an emotional movement seem so appealing to so many people?
To find an answer, we need to look into people’s inner lives. In our modern-day societies, people go to work, live their relationships and follow their daily activities as if everything is alright, yet when we scratch just a tiny bit beneath the surface, we find a tinderbox of confined anger in nearly every member of this society, no matter whether they’re at the top or the bottom of the social hierarchy. Anger against one’s boss or co-workers, against one’s partner, against parents and authorities… anger is everywhere. It’s so widespread that we don’t even ask ourselves what a life without anger might look like.
The capitalist system has corralled the lives of billions of people—forcing them into meaningless monotonous jobs, harsh competition with each other and a constant struggle for economic survival. The isolated condition of modern life creates social and spiritual fragmentation, paralyzing the masses in a contracted state of fear and anger. Under such systemic conditions, hardly anyone can express themselves authentically. Our creative, vital life energies cannot find expression and so are bottled up. Our needs for belonging, eros, intimacy, freedom and meaning turn sour in the clash with an anonymous society that equates value with utility. This is what most young people today experience as their initiation to adulthood. While people “function” in their daily lives and say, “I’m doing fine,” they’re left alone with immense frustration. Wherever people are prohibited from expressing their basic social and emotional needs, wherever they grow up and live in conditions of fear, mistrust and violence, the danger of fascism looms.
So long as societies can offer stability through regular salaries, social welfare, consumption and entertainment, people can tranquilize this latent aggression to a certain degree. Yet when social and economic structures crumble, releasing overwhelming fear and uncertainty, charismatic leaders find the perfect conditions to channel collectively suppressed emotions and exploit them in the interest of their hidden agendas.
People’s susceptibility to fascism is rooted in a brutal mechanism that has developed in humanity throughout millennia of systemic oppression, conquest and genocide: people have learned to hate what they originally most loved. For the sake of pursuing patriarchal power, communities were disbanded and lovers separated. Self-determined Eros, authentic spirituality and free thinking were banned worldwide. At some point, remaining faithful to what one loved became too painful. Through repeated loss, violent separation, disappointment and betrayal, people closed their hearts and began protecting themselves against renewed injuring by rejecting, ridiculing and destroying anything around them that could remind them of their original love. This drama happened all over the world. A collective human trauma developed that will continue to be passed down from generation to generation until we dare to understand and heal it.
The transformation of love into hatred often begins in childhood, when parents punish their children for expressing their vital drives of movement, curiosity and erotic sensuality. Children get confused when something that feels simply beautiful and alive within them is condemned as dark and evil. They get inescapably trapped between those they love and the truth of their bodies—a conflict which, if experienced time and again, will turn into structural neurosis. As they grow up, they will internalize the judging parental authority and hide their erotic truth, even though those vital energies running through them constantly still need somewhere to go. People full of drives with no possible creative articulation are constantly tense, irritable, burdened, blocked up and ready to explode. (It’s no wonder that much of today’s fascist movements are rooted in religious fundamentalism, given their particular prudery.)
If a charismatic leader shows up who understands how to tap into this boiling emotional substratum of the masses, telling them how to act and who to blame, the temptation will be hard to resist. The reason why fascist ideologies are so successful is that they perfectly correspond to the desperate inner conflict so many people find themselves in, by allowing them to both live their fixation to authority and channel their aggression while being part of a greater national mission.
As Hannah Arendt said, every form of totalitarianism is rooted in dehumanization. The more suppressed and unconscious peoples’ inner lives are, the more likely they are to buy into dehumanizing propaganda about those of another color, religion or ideology, because their immense anger and frustration need a suitable scapegoat to target. If hundreds, thousands, or even millions of emotionally suppressed people get together, hypnotized by the idea of being a superior race that’s been unjustly oppressed and can now take revenge on their enemies, there will be hardly any ethical limit. Many people won’t only tolerate, but will enthusiastically participate in violent excesses, which they often experience as cathartic. Finally, they can be someone that others will fear! Finally, they can take revenge for being cheated all along. In genocidal violence, many perpetrators experience an intensity of vitality and an almost erotic feeling of unity and bliss which, given their suppression, they couldn’t experience otherwise. The life energy they can’t express in trust and love now explodes in violence.
If we understand how the emotional need for relieving oneself through blaming another plays out, both in humanity and within us, we stop judging. This is because we recognize a drama that goes way beyond explicit fascist movements. We discover the fascist inclinations even within us and our interpersonal relationships. There’s hardly any type of social organization in our societies—from marriages and friendship circles all the way up to political parties and international organizations—that can create unity among its members without scapegoating a common enemy.
How to Respond?
1) Break the Cycle of Fear and Dehumanization
Resistance to fascism is of course necessary, but also highly delicate, because it’s hard not to fall for the game of fear and dehumanization ourselves. By reacting to fascists with fear and hatred, those resisting (unintentionally) feed the very dynamic of division in which fascists will always win. Corrupting one’s opponents by seeding hatred and division is part of fascist mass psychology. Take Trump, he’s a master in this. His enemies and the media are his biggest supporters as they share his daily deluge of divisive, hate-filled and often outrageous memes in their horror about them. If fascists are met with fear and hatred, then sooner or later everyone will gravitate around them, because wanting to beat fascists at their own game is a fight lost from the very outset. 80 years after Kristallnacht, most reactions to fascism are still as ignorant about its underlying root causes as back then. We need another way of responding. Genuine antifascism doesn’t contribute to the cycles of fear and dehumanization, but radically breaks them. We must disarm them by refusing to be their—and anyone’s—enemies. We need a “revolution in compassion,” as Tony McAleer calls it. The former frontman of the White Ayran Resistance turned anti-racism activist currently runs an organization called “Life after Hate” together with other ex-Nazis. Addressing far-right activists with empathy and forgiveness, addressing their broken humanity, they’re successfully assisting many to leave the scene.
No matter whether you are a fascist, a soldier, a banker, a liberal, a farmer or a refugee, there is something identical in all of humanity running far deeper than our ideological denominations: a universal longing to be accepted and seen, to love and be loved, to belong and to express oneself in trust and freedom; and there is a similarly universal trauma stemming from the suppression of these essential human needs.
What we need is a revolution that acknowledges these universal longings and establishes societal conditions where they can finally be met.
2) Promote Credible Alternatives
The far-right movements rising around the world are also an—albeit irrational and unconscious—expression of existential fear in the face of an increasingly disintegrating world. Lacking any positive vision for the future, people desperately try to protect themselves from change, holding onto anything that can promise stability, and so resort to the most violent ideas of the past.
Instead of attacking people for this reaction, we need to develop and share prospects for a future worth living on this planet. We need a credible vision for a new planetary culture which will allow people to embrace the inevitable transition ahead.
This vision is already emerging on the fringes of our dominant culture, in Indigenous and social movements around the world; in movements for ecological regeneration and radical social experiments; in transcendental experiences and an emerging post-materialist paradigm. What is lacking is a unifying narrative that fuses these thousands of experiences and insights into a shared worldview and a coherent power for global change. We must come together. The more the vision of a planetary culture of cooperation and trust awakens in the hearts of humanity and becomes visible in a growing number of places, the more we can bid farewell to the specters of the past and redirect our global trajectory from fascism and downfall to rebuilding our world in solidarity with all that lives.
3) Create Research Centers for Healing Collective Trauma
Stopping fascism, in the last consequence, means healing the collective trauma underlying the worldwide pattern of dominion and violence which is driving us over the edge of abyss.
We need research communities (“healing biotopes”) in which people come together to consciously create life conditions in which such collective healing can become possible. Those are conditions of profound trust in all relations – between lovers, between the generations, between humans and animals and nature. Under conditions of reliable trust, people stop blaming and begin to show themselves to one another in what they truly feel, think, need, desire and love. They will no longer judge, as they start to discover the light and shadow sides of humanity within and among each other. They see how generation after generation perpetuated pain by trying to protect themselves from it—the more they denied the trauma, the more they were driven by it. Yet they’re no longer inflicted with this story. The more they understand, the more they’re able to leave the cycles of fear and violence, of victims and perpetrators, and regain the lost power over their lives.
They see another reality beyond all separation and pain, the actual possibility of an original love among people and among all life. If we establish societal conditions which love—erotic love and soul love—can flourish, we have reached a turning point in the global transformation of our times. We will remember and respect the inherent sacredness of all that lives.
We will recognize that life itself is always directed towards healing, cooperation and trust. It’s mostly covered by collective trauma, but this inclination is still latently present in all beings and is activated in the moment it is addressed. The more we step out of trauma and consciously reconnect with the matrix of life, creating social and ecological systems aligned with it, the more we will help birth a new global culture. The matrix of life that is activated in a few places will resonate with the matrix of life awaiting to express itself within all.
One day, we will awaken from the nightmare of history and recognize each other, as one and the same. As the Native American author Sun Bear foresaw, we will greet one another, “Brother, sister, you have survived!”