The world is struggling to make sense of the Brexit crisis and the rise of Donald Trump through the lens of economic populism, of a mass uprising against “the elites” and multinational corporations. Never mind that these supposed uprisings are being led by folks who are themselves millionaires (no matter how many pints Nigel Farage likes to down at his supposed favorite pub). For my part, however, the current crisis is best viewed through the contradictions inherent in the liberal project, and one of the best guides to those contradictions is Ishay Landa’s The Apprentice’s Sorcerer: Liberal Tradition and Fascism.
For Landa, the historical precondition for fascism is “the inherent tension between the political dimension of the liberal order and its economic one.” European bourgeoisie of the eighteenth century demanded representative governments in order to free the markets from feudal protectionism, but they were followed later by the lower classes who, in turn, demanded access to the franchise themselves in order to protect their own interests, pitting the original economic liberalism against emerging political liberalism. (Just read George Elliot’s Middlemarch, which takes place during the debates about the Reform Act of 1832, which would allow representation for those new cities that sprung up in the wake of industrialization. Political power? For actual people? Unthinkable!) Anyhow, if the institutionalized preference of economic power over political power sounds familiar, it’s because that is essentially what the European Union comprised—the free movement of money and people across borders without any concomitant political power invested in those people. After all, the EU primarily manages the economy inside Europe; it is up to member states to decide upon matters such as gay marriage (as Ireland did recently). While citizens of EU member states can vote for representatives in the EU Parliament, the actual executive body, the EU Commission, is a cabinet government comprised of members put forward by the Parliament and the Council of the European Union, perhaps not unlike how U.S. senators used to be elected by state legislatures.
Back to fascism. Now, fascism is one way of trying to resolve the contradictions inherent in the liberal project, which has always expressed an animus against too much democracy, be it from your laissez faire capitalists or from your self-appointed policy experts, your well-educated “best and brightest” who surely know what is best for the country and who mean so very well. Contrary to how it’s regularly represented, fascism does not constitute a tyranny of the majority; neither is it a strike against the individualism so central to the liberal project. As Landa notes, though fascism regularly employed the rhetoric of collectivism (nation, race, or society), it also fetishized individualism in the form of the “great man.” We can see this in Donald Trump, who is not selling policies so much as he is selling himself, the winner, the person who wins, and when he’s in charge of America, America is going to win because Donald Trump knows how to win.
But surely democracy is the problem? Don’t the rise of Trump and the Brexit prove that? On the contrary, it is when people lack the ability to participate in a full, democratic political process that they tend to lash out and promote policies aimed specifically at harming people. Lisa L. Miller, in her recent book, The Myth of Mob Rule: Violent Crime and Democratic Politics, takes aim at the notion that more democracy always means tougher approaches toward crime, concluding that a lack of real democratic participation produces a trend toward exclusively punitive policies. The American political system, with its federalist framework allowing states some veto power over national policies and minority parties significant clout in stymying legislation, “drives political attention to crime toward punitive policy solutions because they represent the lowest legislative common denominator,” rather than “broader reforms that could undermine class and race hierarchies,” even when voters support those reforms. In addition, the fractured political system, which puts primary responsibility for law enforcement at the state and local level, dissuades localities from expensive investment in alternatives to punishment, such as addressing actual criminogenic conditions. By contrast, the various European nations she also studies have a much lower rate of punitive policies, due in large part not to a lower crime rate but rather to a greater level of democratic participation.
Both the United States and the European Union are complicated, interlocking systems of national, supranational (in the EU case), regional, and local legislative bodies which can result in people feeling that their votes are for naught. And in the case of the U.S., such a feeling of helplessness is all the more pertinent following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which rather limited the political power of the non-billionaire class. It’s no surprise that fascism is showing up in both places right now. But, as history can show us, the most reliable means to combat the horrors we can see on the horizon is to deepen our respective democracies, to give citizens even more power over their own lives. You may not like or trust your fellow citizens, but you need them to feel in control, because people don’t always make the best decisions when they feel they are working from a position of weakness.