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With the Blow of a Paintbrush: Contemporary Fascism and the Limits of Historical Analogy

Is there such thing as contemporary fascism? Our major difficulty in trying to answer this question is that we rely almost exclusively on historical analogy. We are like dogmatic philosophical descriptivists who believe that the meaning of the word “fascism” was defined long ago by a certain set of descriptive features, and we now meticulously explore reality in search of similar ones. While these days reality, for its part, offers ever more socioeconomic, political, and cultural points of resemblance to historical fascism, they never fully converge. As a result we must constantly abstain from naming the condition under which we live “fascist.”

Take the right-wing regimes flourishing in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, in countries like Poland, Hungary, Croatia, and Serbia. These regimes legitimate their rule with the most extreme nationalist rhetoric, purge their countries of minorities, wage racism-fueled wars with their neighbors, follow the logic of Blut und Boden (blood and soil) in their cultural policies, actively erase the memory of anti-fascist struggles, rename their streets and squares after notorious fascists and Nazi collaborators from the Second World War, rewrite their school textbooks from a pro-fascist angle … and yet, all this somehow fails to justify calling these societies fascist. The people living in these countries enjoy many liberal freedoms and democratic rights. They get their information from various independent media sources, vote in democratic elections, and freely choose their parliamentary representatives and governments. These nations are even admitted into the European Union. So our talk of “fascism” in these places remains limited to a vague historical analogy. In light of this, is there any reason to still use the word “fascism” today?

In fact, this kind of comparison can productively enhance our understanding of social reality, but only if we refuse to be led astray by naive optimism, in both the historical and conceptual senses.

When it comes to history, this naive optimism consists in the belief that the worst is behind us. But there is a distinct possibility that what happened less then a century ago in Europe was no more than a fascist proof-of-concept, and that a much worse form of that evil could lie ahead. This rarely occurs to us, which tremendously restricts the value of the analogy. We understand fascism only retrospectively, making us blind to the fascism to come.

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