[A slightly shorter version of the full paper will appear in French and English from France in January]
In a recent lecture, the French philosopher Alain Badiou (2016) suggested that ‘in some sense, this new political figure—Trump, but many others today—are near the fascists of the 30s. There is something similar.’ Badiou does admit that the current near-fascists are without ‘their strong enemies of the 30s, which were the communist parties.’ As we saw, the real prospect of a communist take-over, in the face of near-total collapse of bourgeois democracy and economy, was a critical condition for the rise of fascism in Germany. Badiou recognizes that the condition is totally absent in the American scene because the US continues to be the biggest superpower with near-absolute military control over much of the planet; also, the specter of communism has essentially disappeared from the planet, especially in the countries that concern Badiou. The military-industrial complex that dictates the terms of political arrangement, say in US, will not allow any significant changes in the character of power that has made the world-domination possible. These facts alone are enough to reject any meaningful ascription of fascism to the political authority in the US and the West. I return to this later in the essay.
Nonetheless, the lure of a grand philosophical category leads Badiou to invent a new political concept: ‘democratic fascism,’ which he calls a ‘paradoxical determination.’ So, how is democratic fascism both a fascism and different from the original one? What are its distinctive features? Badiou’s response is that it ‘plays something different,’ a ‘different music’ perhaps. Having thus secured an artful—almost musical—category, Badiou begins to play on its tonal possibilities. After dispensing with critical economic and historical features of classical fascism, he now portrays the character of democratic fascism with dark features of individual psychology such as racist, machiste [macho], and violent.
He also stresses the ‘fascist characteristic’ of thought and speech that operate ‘without any consideration for logic or rationality.’ He is able to stress it because he takes it for granted that ‘democratic fascism’ is characterized by ‘dislocation of language,’ such that ‘the language is not the language of explanation, but an affective language which creates a false but practical unity.’ I hope the feature of dislocated language is one of the ‘differences’ from the original case. Otherwise, it will mean that the holocaust was partly caused by linguistic misunderstanding.
Once the idea of fascism is thus detached from its historico-economic context and attached to menacing foul-mouthed faces, many more details come into view. For example, Badiou is now able to enlarge the list of characteristics of democratic fascism to include: vulgarity, a sort of pathological relationship to women, and the possibility to say and to do, publicly, some things which are unacceptable for the big part of human beings today. On this count, fortunately, female democratic fascists are ruled out by definition since the criterion of women having ‘pathological relationship’ to other women is rarely met, if at all. So, Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Maggie Thatcher, and lesser figures like Maya Kodnani escape Badiou’s philosophical grip.
Clearly by now, Badiou’s vision of fascism is almost totally covered by Donald Trump. So the list of male democratic fascists expands rapidly because Trump is no exception. Thus beginning with Hitler and Trump, Badiou takes on other men ‘progressively,’ as he says: Berlusconi in Italy, Orbán in Hungary, Sarkozy in France, and the shady characters in India, Philippines, Poland and Turkey. Basically, the idea is that if you are a male leader who has won elections, your chance of being a democratic fascist sharply increases if you are also violent, machiste, vulgar, pathologically related to women, and you say whatever you like without attention to consistency. Once you satisfy these conditions, you become a ‘paradoxical determination,’ a figure who is ‘inside the democratic constitution but who is in some sense also outside: inside and outside.’
The trouble with this artistic portrayal of fascism is that Benito Mussolini, the suave gentleman, doesn’t fit. Instead of being a raging psychopath frothing in his mouth, Mussolini was actually something of a scholar and a novelist, a thoughtful atheist who also despised racism. He translated excerpts from Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Kant, and wrote poetry and published a novel, L'amante del Cardinale (The Cardinal's Mistress).
Further, Badiou’s ‘determination’ fails to explain how his sketch of a pathological monster like Donald Trump—with his violence, vulgarity, irrationality, and ‘dislocation of language’—was able to painstakingly build a global, multibillion dollar real estate empire almost single-handedly, and then ran a skillful presidential campaign against Hilary Clinton, the favoured candidate of the military-industrial complex. Similar remarks apply to Badiou’s characterization of Silvio Berlusconi as a democratic fascist.
In the other direction, Badiou’s method of characterizing fascism seems to apply to the revolutionary general Vo Nguyen Giap, one of the most respected leaders of Vietnamese communist movement. In fact, in a prominent, seemingly respectable pro-US monograph on the Vietnam war published by the Oxford University Press (Davidson 1988/1998, 12), it was categorically stated that ‘Vo Nguyen Giap was definitely not your “Mr. Nice Guy.”’ The learned author disclosed that ‘reports in the hands of the US intelligence agencies depict Giap as somehow combining the worst personality traits of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.’ Incidentally, according to The New York Times Review of Books, Davidson’s book ‘is widely regarded as one of the most comprehensive accounts of the Indochina wars’ (Mirsky 1991).
Now Giap was depicted as a combination of Hitler and Mussolini because one of the reporters covering the Vietnam war characterized Giap as ‘a peasant, a surly boor.’ ‘Like Der Fuhrer,’ Davidson added, Giap ‘is impulsive and sometimes irrational,’ and ‘like Mussolini, he is vain and self-indulgent.’ For example, Giap ‘wore button shoes,’ ‘sported tailored Western suits’ and flaunted his young second wife, Davidson reported with disdain. My point is that, if the intelligence reports on General Giap’s personality hold, Alain Badiou has no means of denying that Giap was a fascist, and not even a ‘democratic’ one since the structure of political consent in Vietnam doesn’t exactly mimic Westminster. It is of some interest whether Badiou’s conception of fascism matches that of the CIA’s for much of the non-Western political leaders, especially the communist ones with Joseph Stalin, Mao ze Dong and General Pol Pot leading the pack.
In the cited lecture, as uploaded in the internet, Badiou does not mention the sources of his creative inspiration. Net-addicts might form the irreverent impression that Badiou’s political philosophy is constructed under the influence of Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator, and the dozens of lists of fascism-features that inundate the internet these days. For example, one of the more popular lists with thousands of approvals includes the following items among others: Hitler had not got married, Hitler had come to power campaigning that he would end all problems in a jiffy, Hitler used to love getting photographed, Hitler used to call his rivals anti-nationals/traitors, Hitler used to love dressing up and look good.
(To be continued)