Why the Struggle against Fascism and the Struggle for Decolonization are Linked
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By Today’s Totalitarianism Editorial Board members: Greg Feldman, Helena Zeweri, Narges Bajoghli, Lynda DeMatteo, Kalyani Menon, Cris Shore, and Raghu Trichur
Two global scourges of the twentieth century, with their seeds planted before then, were colonialism and totalitarianism, the latter a more robust form of fascism. Today, far from dealing with their vestiges, we still have to confront them at the roots level. This is not accidental as core features of both phenomena emerge out of broader historical processes that bequeathed us the modern world such as the ideas of discrete ethno-racial groups, limitless capital accumulation, survival of the fittest as a metaphor for human relations, and the inevitability of “progress”.
It is no wonder, then, that the mid-twentieth century’s leading critical intellectuals explicitly argued that totalitarianism (and fascism) in Europe and racism in the colonies were effectively two sides of the same coin. Albert Memmi wrote that “every colonial nation carries the seeds of fascist temptation in its bosom.” Fanon recognized the “totalitarian nature” of colonial exploitation. Aimé Césaire shrewdly remarked that Europeans “tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them.” Hannah Arendt made the case that racism justified colonialism because the colonizers “no longer cared to belong to the same human species” as the colonized before the colonizers elevated it to a murderous ideology in Europe. Therefore, pushing back against today’s fascist resurgence and pushing for decolonization is a shared struggle.
The development of western European nation-states, even those without colonial territories as such, depended upon the extraction of natural resources from overseas empires that their working classes converted into finished products back home, and their middle classes could sell globally to try to accelerate national economies. Through colonization, Europe came to control eighty-five percent of the earth’s landmass by 1914, allowing it to organize coerced labor, expropriate vast amounts of natural resources, and establish economic superiority on a global playing field created for itself. Contra Europe, countries like the US and Brazil possessed huge amounts of land and natural resources so they imported enslaved labor to convert them into capital. A global hierarchy crystallized to justify these extractive practices through racialized classificatory systems whose legacies persist into the present. The colonizers likewise established a standard for “progress” among peoples the world over that remains in their own global advantage.
"Aimé Césaire shrewdly remarked that Europeans 'tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them.'"
Totalitarianism worked as both a social movement and government based on ideological purity. It appealed strongly during the interwar period replete with global economic uncertainty, massive socio-economic changes in the Soviet Union, national humiliation in Germany in the wake of the Versaille Treaty, and the illegitimate electoral tactics of the Fascist part in Italty among other factors. (The words “totalitarian” and “fascism” originate in Italy as totalitarismo and fascismo, respectively.) The resulting anxiety provided a pretext for such regimes to surveil public and private spaces on the basis that certain groups were subversive to the superior race (per Hitler) or the working class (per Stalin).
Charismatic leaders blamed racialized minorities as the obstruction to the majority’s glory and progress (Jews, Roma). Further, they associated some of their own white citizens as potential enemies if associated with the artistic community, the bourgeoisie, rich peasants, and “sympathizers”, however defined. Totalitarianism kept an ambivalent relationship with the state. On the one hand, it required state bureaucracies to help organize, discipline, and mobilize the population in support of the leadership. On the other, it resented the state’s lethargy, impartiality, and legal oversight, all of which allegedly impeded the liberation of the “people”. To prove that the movement faced no boundaries, it needed to continuously act with disregard for the law and with great sensationalism. The law became the leader’s voice, even if that voice contradicted what it said the day before.
Totalitarianism and colonialism shared a common basis in arbitrary law and racism. Both regarded laws and norms as barriers to boundless growth and progress, an agenda so exalted that real human lives got trampled in their fulfillment. Achille Mbembe argued, accordingly, that champions of colonialism in Europe legitimized the project by regarding the colonized as outside the pale of sovereignty and so available to be degraded for Europe’s glory. He further notes that racism in the African colonies allowed Europeans to refuse to understand the colonized on their own terms, thus facilitating their subjugation for geopolitical and economic power. In turn, the colonial logic insisted that those inferior Others needed Europe to civilize them or that they were sufficiently “savage” that their subjugation carried no moral consequences. Through its colonial gaze, and against the counterarguments put forth by many anthropologists at the time, Europe developed a “Black reason”, as Mbembe explains, through which the African could be defined, described, and rendered manageable.
Yet, if Europeans insisted that the colonized were a separate and distinct “race”, then they necessarily had to insist that they themselves were also a pure race that should take all measures to keep it that way. Racial ideologies justifying the colonial project abroad returned home, so to speak, to drum up a purified nationalist sentiment. As the Indian psychologist Ashis Nandy explained nearly forty years ago “…much before the modern doctrines of progress came home to roost in the First and Second Worlds, the colonized societies had to bear their full brunt.” In brief, colonization transformed the entire society of the colonizing countries themselves. This concern with racial definition was compounded by declining birth rates in Europe since before the First World War.
The response was to create Health Ministries and promote family values leading to restrictions on abortion and contraception and to incentives for citizens to have more babies. The flip side of these measures, which found greater resistance in Britain than in the US and Europe, was increased sterilizations of those deemed mentally ill lest the national stock be degraded through their reproduction. Nazi Germany took matters to further extremes by targeting Roma, the “Rhineland Bastards” (children of German women and black French soldiers), the “morally feeble-minded”, “disorderly wanderers”, the “workshy”, and “asocials.” Indeed, The Nazis first practiced gas-induced euthanasia on mentally challenged German citizens before expanding the operation to Jews.
"Yet, if Europeans insisted that the colonized were a separate and distinct “race”, then they necessarily had to insist that they themselves were also a pure race that should take all measures to keep it that way."
The common baseline of colonization and fascism, along with arbitrary law, is the reduction of entire populations to an alleged essential type (usually couched in biological terms) with each particular individual serving as a representative specimen of a homogeneous species. Though such a biological interpretation fell out of official favor after the Nazi collapse, the same mythology continues in the form of culturally essentialist explanations of human behavior, as the anthropologist Verena Stolcke has written. Rather than blame genetics for other peoples’ differences, “we” blame their backward traditions, which “they” seem unable or unwilling to abandon. Concomitantly, right-wing movements around the world, including in formerly colonized countries such as India, are becoming increasingly ferocious with the claim that minorities threaten the existential existence of the cultural majority. The characteristics of these movements, as many commentators have already noted, strongly echo mid-twentieth century European fascism.
If colonization and fascism hold a common origin in population control based on racial stereotypes, then what unites the struggle against these ongoing scourges of the contemporary world? Briefly, the unifying feature is a desire for a politics based on people as particular persons. The fact of human plurality is the opposite of the myth of racial, national, or cultural homogeneity. In a variety of ways, each specific to local circumstance, political movements against either scourge focus on direct democracy and other forms of collective self-determination in which decisions are made by the participants themselves based on their particular circumstances. Rather than disparaging over how direct democracy “scales up” to fit societies numbering in the millions, it might serve us better to think about the political will needed to imagine creative solutions at smaller scales. Then, see what happens. Foremost, we should be prepared to think “out of the box”, which, in this case, means nothing more than recognizing the fact that everyone is different.
1 - Memmi, Albert. 1965 . The Colonizer and the Colonized. Boston: Beacon Press, p. 62.
2 - Fanon, Frantz. 2004 . The Wretched of the Earth. Richard Philcox, trans. New York: Grove Press, p. 6.
3 - Césaire, Aimé . 2000 . Discourse on Colonialism. Joan Pinkham, trans. New York: Monthly Review Press, p. 36.
4 - Arendt, Hannah. 1976. Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Inc, p. 185.
5 - Mbembe, Achille. 2017. Critique of Black Reason. Laurent Dubois, trans. Durham: Duke University Press. Pp. 25-31, 59-61.
6 - Nandy, Ashis. 2009 . The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.p. 40
7 - Mazower, Mark. 1998. Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century. New York: Vintage Books. Pp. 77-78, 96-100.
8 - Stolcke, Verena. 1995. “Talking Culture: New Boundaries, New Rhetorics of Exclusion” Current Anthropology 36(1): 1-24.
Greg Feldman, Helena Zeweri, Narges Bajoghli, Lynda DeMatteo, Kalyani Menon, Cris Shore, and Raghu Trichur are editorial board members at Today's Totalitarianism.