The Death of Democracy. How Democracies Die. Bookstores are awash in books on the ‘demise of democracy’. Insert whatever adjective /phrase you wish in front of that clause. ‘Looming’? ‘Pending’? ‘Overly sensationalized’? ‘Will never happen’?
Madeleine Albright‘s Fascism: A Warning takes exactly the position stated in the title. For the former US Secretary of State, most of the world’s less praiseworthy regimes haven’t precisely fallen into fascism (with the obvious exception of North Korea), but there’s a strong danger they could if steps aren’t taken to pull them back from the brink. That includes, of course, the United States itself.
That much we know. What we don’t know is how to fix things. Unfortunately like most warnings, Albright’s Fascism: A Warning is full of reflections but short on concrete answers.
Albright’s narrative assumes the perspective of a world-weary observer of global events. The topic of fascism bookends her political life: from a childhood refugee in the United Kingdom after her native Czechoslovakia fell to the Nazis, to an elder statesperson in her adopted homeland of the US, fighting against the resurgence of fascism abroad. In some respects, this situates her as an authority on the topic who can draw from a wealth of personal experience. Yet at the same time, it conditions her vantage point as one rooted in the specificities of Cold War politics, and like other politicians whose worldview was shaped by that era, this leads to an inflexibility that hampers their ability to fully comprehend the innovative forms fascism assumes today, the root causes of its renewed grip on public politics, and the innovative solutions which will be required to preserve our democratic way of life.
What Fascism: A Warning does well is present a colourful and entertaining overview of key people and places in the history of 20th century fascism, stretching from the rise of Benito Mussolini’s Blackshirts in Italy through Slobodan Milosevic’s reign over genocide in the former Yugoslavia, right up to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s repression in Turkey and Viktor Orban’s hijacking of Hungary toward a dismal state that is rapidly turning equal parts neo-Stalinist and neo-Nazi. And plenty of others.
Indeed, the snapshot portraits of 20th century fascist leaders are fascinating, and to be frank that’s one of the book’s biggest problems. The book risks sabotaging its own early warning system: the flashy, flamboyant depiction of fascist leaders as outside-the-box risk-takers and innovators risks inspiring readers in precisely the wrong way. They come across as men of daring and action who often struggled from poverty and against tremendous odds. Is there not a danger that such depictions of these men is likely to glorify them in the public eye? Albright is unenthused by their extremism and flamboyance, but in this she may be a minority, writing for an imaginary audience that she presumes all think in the same dull and staid terms that she does.
The other problem with Albright’s Fascism: A Warning is that it offers a dismal alternate vision. At times it’s not even clear what inspires Albright about democracy. The system she seems to champion is a Cold War artifact; one in which the rich are rich, the poor are poor, a handful or even just a couple of nearly indistinguishable political parties take turns with each other in office, and everyone more or less accepts their lot in life. If you think that sounds less than inspiring, you wouldn’t be the only one.
Yes, democracy is a wonderful, beautiful thing. But the problem is its champions don’t seem to understand how to inspire with the vision of what it can and should be. Far too many of those writing appeals or even eulogies for democracy are people of privilege who appear more worried about losing their privileged perch than about building a truly democratic community that will actually inspire those who might otherwise turn toward fascism. There s a reason fascism appeals today, and while fascism is not the answer (for decent, freedom-loving people) to the all-too-real problems of global inequality and social and political exclusion, it’s clear that neither can mainstream society continue along the same troubled path that’s brought it to this precipice.
That’s the problem with Albright, and with so many of fascism’s eager opponents: it’s obvious what they’re opposed to, but what’s unclear is what they want to fight for. It’s all well and true that democracy needs defending in the United States, but the country is in a state of crisis: its riven by violence, there are dramatically widening gaps between rich and poor, its infrastructure is crumbling, there are overt and systemic displays of racism, and it suffers from corruption at various institutional levels. Democracy’s defenders need to do more than defend democracy: they need to show how democracy can establish a better system than the one Americans (and others around the globe) are currently suffering through.
The implication, present in Albright’s book as in so many others, that a ‘reasonable’, centrist approach to governance and economics, rooted in preserving the status quo, is the prime virtue of democracy, is precisely the clarion call that’s most likely to drive its would-be supporters away. The status quo of the past 30 years facilitated a massive transfer in wealth and public resources away from the average American and into the hands of a wealthy minority; a radical coup if ever there was one. Yet it was achieved democratically. If democracy is to survive the present era, it requires radical reform. Yet, by denouncing radicalism as antithetical to democracy, Albright and democracy’s other privileged advocates are undermining the best hope of preserving democracy. Democracy must learn how to incorporate radical change, not by coopting and diluting it, but by achieving a balance between universally acknowledged principles and radical systemic change. If democracy does not learn how to become radical, and how to channel radicalism in democratic ways, then it is doomed.
How, then, to do that? Political theorist Chantal Mouffe, for one, argues in her recent book For a Left Populism (review forthcoming) in favour of radicalizing democracy as the only way to deepen and preserve it. Mouffe and Albright both explore in their respective studies the thorny question of how populism differs from democracy. They reach the same broad conclusion — populism is not inherently fascist, and in fact can be a vital aspect of democracy. Yet their difference lies in one of degree and attitude. Mouffe embraces populism and urges progressive society to pursue populist reforms to make democracy deeper and kinder, as a counterweight to the neo-fascist populism of the right. Albright, on the other hand, accepts populism only grudgingly, tepidly, quickly and awkwardly closing her consideration of the topic with a vague sense of distaste.
Albright’s problem is that she confuses cause with effect. She laments the lack of a centrist politics in today’s world – “the vital center, which in the past has saved the country from divisions over a host of contentious issues, has become a lonely place” she writes — all the while asserting that globalization and other elements of neoliberal hegemony are a fixed inevitability that world leaders and citizens ought to get used to. Globalization, she writes, “is not an ideological choice but a fact of life”.
Some might argue that it is precisely these sorts of sentiments that have led to the rise of populism and even fascism. The ascension of a neoliberal capitalist elite who operated as though in a post-political age contributed mightily to the dissatisfaction of a public who were increasingly told that their political choices were in fact no longer political choices “but a fact of life”. Political parties which acquiesced to this hegemonic vision of post-politics became inevitably parties of the centre, who relinquished democratic decisionmaking to technocratic bureaucrats and unelected think-tanks, and whose acts while in office drifted further and further from the principles on which their parties were founded and the campaign promises they’d made to the electorate. As Mouffe writes in caustic indictment of this state of affairs: “Politics therefore has become a mere issue of managing the established order, a domain reserved for experts, and popular sovereignty has been declared obsolete.”
Little wonder, then, that an increasingly disenfranchised public has turned to the parties on the fringe. Excluded from the feast, rejected by the technocrats, the parties on the margin remained the only parties that were unafraid to challenge the neoliberal consensus which, in a vague and inchoate way, the voting public has increasingly come to see as the source of its disenfranchisement.
This is the point, broadly, that Albright makes, but in an awkward and roundabout way, without directly identifying the neoliberal hegemony as being culpable in this process. But by yearning for a return to the happy old days of centrist hegemony, she’s yearning for a return to the very state of affairs that has precipitated the radical populist moment in the first place.
It’s in faults like these that her rigid Cold War thinking cuts short the sort of rigorous intellectual analysis a book like this needs. Albright’s chapter on Turkey’s Erdogan — responsible for the most jailed journalists in the world, and the firing and blacklisting of tens of thousands of teachers and other regime opponents from jobs and public institutions — offers the weakest finger-wagging imaginable, full of utterly unnecessary excuses. “In fairness, Turkey faces real terrorist threats,” she writes. “It has also borne the brunt of the continent’s refugee crisis. The country is right to demand the West’s respect, because, as a NATO ally for more than seven decades and currently the possessor of the alliance’s second-largest army, it has earned it.”
Really? That’s all that’s necessary to earn the respect of democratic nations? A big army? But there’s more good news for Erdogan-apologists: “The positive news is that, through all the political turbulence, Erdogan’s economic plan has not turned inward; the country remains intent on prospering in the global marketplace.”
Here again, the tight confines of Albright’s Cold War intellectual straitjacket is felt. A country might be led by a self-aggrandizing tyrant that flouts the rule of law, but so long as it remains a military ally with a big army, and doesn’t try to socialize its economy, things aren’t really that bad.
There’s a telling moment at the end of the book, in the Acknowledgements section, which would cause any ardent defender of democracy to do a sudden double-take. Here, Albright thanks her friends and colleagues in the international community, specifically the former foreign ministers with whom she worked as Secretary of State. She fondly calls this club “Madeleine and her Exes”, and they include the likes of Canada’s Lloyd Axworthy; Germany’s Joschka Fischer; the UK’s David Miliband; Greece’s George Andreas Papandreou, and more. These are the very men who helped orchestrate neoliberal capitalism and austerity politics in their respective countries, as well as actively reduced civil liberties and militarized their respective police forces. A prestigious group to be sure — many of them are today powerful bankers or magnates in international financial empires — but hardly one to inspire the confidence of today’s democratic youth. Many of these people are reviled in their home countries for their role in exacerbating inequality and generating the state of political, social and economic turmoil which has precipitated the present democratic crisis. With friends like these, goes the saying, who needs enemies?
It’s good to see elder, prestigious statespersons like Albright add their voice to the chorus singing out in defense of democracy, and Fascism: A Warning offers some interesting insights and anecdotes from her long career in international politics. But in many ways, the most useful thing about the book is its bold cover with those three stark words burning a reminder at all those who pass it by in the bookshop windows. For democracy’s defenders to seize the public imagination in the way they want, they must avoid glamourizing their enemy and must start thinking about how to truly radicalize, and inspire, with their vision of what democracy can be.