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SEHR, volume 5, Supplement: Cultural and Technological Incubations of Fascism
Updated December 17, 1996


Marcel Lieberman

To speak of "incubations" of fascism seems to assume from the outset a metaphysics in which fascism is not so much a label we attach to the convergence of various historical events in the first half of this century, but an identifiable entity which develops and grows in different places, at different times, and under different conditions. To speak of "incubations" seems to invoke a framework which allows us to isolate definite precursors of fascism, whether causal or symptomatic, and hence makes it possible for us to speak of neo-fascism, and even proto-fascism. The attitude that this notion of "incubations" requires of us is therefore one of vigilance towards fascisms-in-the-making.

And yet, we may question whether such a metaphysics is tenable, and if this kind of framework is fully justified. Perhaps fascism was nothing more than an episode, tragic and destructive though it was, marking the intersection of different movements in culture, politics, science, and technology; and to speak in terms of "incubations" is to confuse historical antecedents for generative causes. This historicist stance toward fascism typically gives way to an attidude of complacency.

The point of this epilogue is to provide a general framework and suggest a direction in which one can think about fascisms-in-the-making in contemporary terms. In keeping with the general mission of the Stanford Humanities Review, we seek to raise more questions than we answer, to stimulate thought, and provide a context for discussion, rather than articulate a final position.

Giving in somewhat to the Hegelian temptations the authors in this volume artfully avoid, we could, borrowing a term from Stanley G. Payne, think of fascism not in terms of incubations for, but of inoculations against it, thereby mediating the two opposing attitudes listed above.[1] While noting the elements associated with and preceding fascism discussed in these articles, and without taking a final stand on whether these were necessary or sufficient conditions for the rise of fascist regimes, we can seek the ways in which contemporary conditions and movements mirror those of the inter-war period, and ask why we seemingly became inoculated against fascism. This will, we think, help redirect our attention and energy to those sources which do in fact threaten the liberal democracies of our times. While neither overly vigilant nor unduly complacent toward fascisms-in-the-making, this attitude is perhaps best described as a critical awareness of those factors that protect or threaten the liberal democratic principles which motivate present-day concerns with fascism.

As Gumbrecht and Schnapp indicate, and as the articles highlight, there are a number of recurrent themes associated with fascism, for example: the organization and analysis of human behavior towards more efficient productivity; the interest in rhythms, drills, and habits as a way of molding subjectivity through the manipulation of the body; the use of coded figures in film and literature; the concern for authenticity in the form of a genuine national identity; the application of new technologies to ever more personal domains of life; the prominence of genetic theories of identity; the dominance of epistemological paradigms involving the notions of 'origin' and 'projection'; and the identification of hygiene with morally acceptable living. In each of these cases we may ask whether there are contemporary instantiations of similar phenomena, and if so, whether they are indicative in any sense of emerging fascisms. Despite all the smoke, we may ask whether in fact there is a fire.

Indeed, in many of the examples just listed, they are less cause for alarm for their presence than cause for surprise at their potential absence. Shelves of bookstores are lined with New Age advice on how to achieve health through right-living. Despite years of public education programs, AIDS is still often seen as a form of moral contagion as much as a viral one. We have become accustomed to think in terms of the genetic sources of human identity. Investigations into the 'causes' of homosexuality, depression, attention deficit disorder, personality, intelligence, and criminal behavior, are premised on the expectation that the answer to these 'problems' is at least in part associated with a person's genetic inheritance. Our culture is oriented and driven by the demands of increased efficiency and productivity. We expect technology to move forward, to take the next step, and see it more often as a welcomed and familiar presence, than as an alien intruder.

Narrowing the focus, consider one of the incubations discussed by two of the authors with respect to film and aesthetics; namely, the manipulation of film audiences into thinking they themselves were creating images projected from origins that were becoming less and less visible. Now move forward to the era of virtual reality. Although the viewer has the sensation that she is the agent manipulating the images and scenarios unfolding before her, she does so only within the confines of a well-defined program. This raises a question already brought up in the papers regarding the agency of the spectator, in this case whether the 'virtual' agent exhibits agency, or is rather the hapless victim of a more sophisticated manipulation. Moreover, the origin of the virtual world has no unique location - unlike the cinema of the twenties and thirties, no matter where we turn, the source of projection is still just behind us. As virtual reality further insinuates itself into our forms of discourse and modes of representation, and given its similarity to the aesthetic and epistemological incubators of the fascist and pre-fascist periods, we must ask ourselves whether this, too, is an incubation of fascism. If not, why not? What has inoculated us against its emergence, and turned the recurring epistemological-aesthetic paradigm into an increasingly unremarkable part of our culture rather than an alarming trend in technology?

Consider also the incubational discourses of authenticity, continuity with a tradition, genuine national character, and its attendant xenophobia and heightened nationalism. Few would argue against the fact that in the closing years of this decade we have seen an increase in nationalist activity world-wide, from France, to Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Russia, as well as the United States. Xenophobic tendencies, too, are on the rise in all these liberal democratic countries. We see increased legislative attempts to restrict entry into the US, deny social, health and educational services to illegal immigrants, and to stipulate an American essence in terms of an "official" language. Yet there certainly remains considerable space between the current state of America and fascism. Once again, what has inoculated us against the fascist incubations?

By looking more closely at this example, we get a better idea of how effective the notion of 'inoculation' can be. The debate over 'authenticity,' 'continuity with a tradition,' etc. very often takes place within the context of communitarian political theories and their critique of liberalism. They attack the latter's atomizing effects and its emphasis on the individual to the exclusion of the community, and stress the importance of a continuous tradition, and the embeddedness of the individual within her culture. Many communitarians read in liberalism's stress on the individual a misguided quest for authenticity that cannot be fulfilled outside of a community, state, nation, or tradition. Their criticism is directed at the putative mutation that the search for authenticity has undergone; that is, a mutation from what it is to be an authentic member of a certain community - American, Jewish, Inuit, or French-Canadian - to what it is to be an authentic individual tout court. If this is the case, and if the liberal democracies which heretofore have been premised on the primacy of the individual over the larger collective have so far been able to resist resurgent fascism, despite the increase in xenophobia and nationalism, we are inclined to ask whether this mutation is in fact responsible for the inoculation against fascism's incubators. We could take it one step further and ask, for example, whether the communitarian alliance with multi-culturalism is itself a fascism-in-the-making, contrary to the apparent conflict between multi-culturalism's celebration of diversity and fascism's crushing intolerance of dissent. For they share, at least structurally, the subordination of the individual to the allegedly more pressing demands of the group, whether it be ethnic, cultural, or political. Indeed, we can see communitarian rhetoric being subverted to argue for the need to protect, for example, an American identity, a German heritage, or a French way of life.

The subordinate role of the individual in relation to the state is also a mark of one other dimension of incubational fascism, viz.,economics. The fascist regimes of the period under discussion were all characterized by a highly centralized state apparatus which directed and controlled economic output and productivity. Returning (perhaps nostalgically) to a kind of 17th century mercantilism, and rejecting the laissez faire capitalism that took root in the 18th century and developed rapidly over the next 100 years, the basic economic unit reverted from the individual back to the state, whose new principal economic goal was self-sufficiency. The call for an independent and unadulterated economy went hand in hand with the demand for a new, unadulterated citizenry. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that we currently see nationalist sentiments expressed by the most ardent protectionists.

Indeed, we find ourselves in the midst of a debate over protectionist trade policies in the United States. One could trace this new incubational period to the oil crises of 1973 and 1979 which brought out in sharp relief the lack of economic self-sufficiency on the part of western nations. In the wake of the recessionary periods of the 1980s and early 1990s in both the US and Europe, conjoined with a growing foreign trade deficit, there was an increased demand, particularly in this country, for greater barriers to trade, to bring home 'native' jobs, and to become a stronger, more independent, and self-sufficient nation. Yet it is hardly an overstatement to say that we've staved off fascism, despite what seems at times like pandemic nationalism. The question we must ask is, How?

This is surely a complex issue, but it might be possible to suggest an answer. Despite resurgent nationalism, there has been a steady move in most countries discussed in this volume toward greater free trade. First with the European Economic Community and now the European Union, there has been a trend toward regionalist economic policies in which local and municipal governments, as opposed to national governments, can negotiate directly with the EU, thereby further eroding (intentionally or not) a national identity anchored to a centralized economic policy. And in the US, there are clear signs of a movement towards a less centralized government and less restrictive trade policies, as seen in the case of NAFTA.

Does this mean that unrestrained capitalism combined with extreme individualism is the most effective inoculation to fascism's incubations? Probably not, especially given the fact that fascist regimes were hardly hostile to capitalism's most basic tenet of private property.

The essays in this volume add complexity and depth to the question of what conditions prefigure fascism, and at the same time provide a lens through which we can observe more astutely contemporary trends. Not content to rest with easy formulations regarding fascism's necessary and sufficient preconditions, the dialectic we outlined between incubation and inoculation allows us to mediate a path between the 'metaphysical' vigilance and historical complacency characteristic of the two standard attitudes towards fascism's nature. It allows us to raise important questions in new areas, and moves us off the well-worn path of historical generalizations and alarmist projections.

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[1] Stanley G. Payne, A History of Fascism: 1914-1945 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996).