The 'F Word': On Madeleine Albright's "Fascism: A Warning"

The 'F Word': On Madeleine Albright's "Fascism: A Warning"

Madeleine Albright | Fascism: A Warning | HarperCollins | April 10, 2018 | 304 Pages


In 1945, following the implosion of the fascist regimes in Europe, the German philosopher Theodor Adorno reflected upon the paradoxical and almost unique ability of fascists to not simply lie, but also to speak a kind of truth about their contemporary liberal age while lying. For Adorno, Hitler, "the executioner of liberal society", had recognized "the untruth in liberalism as did no other bourgeois". What Hitler offered in response to the apparent legitimation crisis and political bankruptcy of early 20th century liberalism was of course nothing but deceit and apocalyptic barbarism, but his rise was, in Adorno's eyes, an instance of the "absolute lie" of fascism having the "freedom to speak the truth" about the contradictions, failures or even lies of the liberal order. For Adorno, the potency of fascist demagoguery was therefore rooted in its ability to identify real discontent and insufficiencies within an existing system, but lie about the sources of that system's failures.

Any discussion of fascism, particularly during a moment of its apparent rise, is at the same time an opportunity to discuss the crisis of a prevailing order. And any serious effort to analyze, or even combat the threat of fascism must at the same time ask, and perhaps gesture towards answering, the important questions of why and how an appeal towards this distinct form of authoritarianism has legs at a particular juncture in history. This is no easy task, if for no other reason than the fact that "fascism" almost defies categorization as a political belief system. Indeed, it is questionable whether or not it is a belief system or ideology at all. Nevertheless, the catastrophes of previous self-described fascist experiments and the necessity that we not repeat them requires that commentators at least make efforts towards granting us conceptual tools that clarify what fascism looks like, describe why it has appeal, and, importantly, illuminate the crisis conditions out of which it emerges.

From the outset, it seems questionable whether or not Madeleine Albright could execute this kind of task. As one of the once major faces of American power and the American-led order, she might seem more inclined to apologize for the status quo rather than to helpfully and thoroughly critique it, or at least identify the cracks that would make space for a revived fascist politics. Instead of outlining systemic weaknesses of our current liberal politics, it might seem more likely that she would double-down on it and blindly affirm its supposed virtues. In other words, she would seem unsuited to make the same insight Adorno made, an insight that is desperately needed today.

However, in Fascism: A Warning the problem of Albright's subject position, which is visible in each chapter in the book, seems a less glaring issue than the significant conceptual imprecision upon which the book itself is built. The problem here is to an extent definitional. Though she acknowledges the slipperiness in defining fascism, which is elaborated upon during an account of her graduate students' trouble in defining the term, Albright settles on a definition that is so vague that it fails to give us any understanding about the threat we are being warned against. She notes:

"To my mind, a Fascist is someone who identifies strongly with and claims to speak for a whole nation or group, is unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use whatever means are necessary – including violence – to achieve his or her goals."

Here, fascism isn't an ideology, but simply a means for "seizing and holding power."

What’s striking here is Albright’s sole emphasis on means and no mention of the specific political character of fascism or the "goals" that fascist movements seek to achieve. This means that there is nothing in Albright's definition that separates fascism from pre-modern, or even ancient political movements. On this definition, what exactly makes a figure like Benito Mussolini and Italian fascists different from certain contemporary terrorist groups, or even particular demagogues of the ancient world? Once we cede that fascism is not tethered to any specific set of organizing principles, or not distinct as an eminently modern movement, or not even a phenomenon of the far right, we lose the analytical clarity that enables us to identify fascism when it emerges.

Though hallmarks of fascist movements are addressed in flashes, (e.g. the constant "state of mobilization", a "common language of violence", a lack of strong ideology, the importance of theatrics, etc.) the flawed working definition that Albright stakes out sets the stage for the structure of rest of the book, which is conceptually muddled. As the book moves from a standard, if not too leader-centric, summary of the rise of the fascism of the 1920s and 1930s, Albright later tells us where she sees the remnants of fascist politics in the supposedly post-ideological age of the 21st century. Though Trump's presidency in particular is something akin to "ripping off the bandage and picking at the scab" of the historical fascist "wound…that had almost healed", in this moment of right-wing populist resurgence Trump is surely not the only leader who exhibits fascist tendencies. Along with Trump, Albright sees traces of fascist politics in the likes of Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the late Hugo Chavez, Viktor Orbán, Jarosław Kaczyński, and the entire leadership of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea from Kim-Il Sung to Kim-Jong Un. Interestingly, of this group Albright regards Kim, a supposed "communist", as the only "true fascist", while the others only seem to exhibit partial tendencies such as excessive demagoguery or a streak of violence in their rule.

Only under Albright's vague definition could these leaders conceivably be brought together under a political heading as distinct as fascism. Right-wing European populist movements, Middle Eastern dictators, post-Soviet authoritarians, and the Trumpist movement in the US, though they may exhibit similar characteristics here and there, are separated by what the historian of fascism Robert Paxton might call "motivating passions", and their own very specific respective goals that bear little resemblance to one another. Indeed, it is here where Paxton's work proves a useful antidote to that of Albright. As a phenomenon of the gut, rather than the brain, Paxton elaborates on the central affective motivations for a distinctly fascist politics. Briefly, they include "a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions", "the primacy of the group", and the subordination of the individual to it, an excessive emphasis on victimhood that "justifies any action" without limit, "dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism", the importance of purity within an in-group, "the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will", among others. As Paxton elaborates further in The Anatomy of Fascism, "Fascism may defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants….abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion."

This more narrow conception, and one that has a much more substantial historical basis, situates fascism as a more complex political phenomenon. Additionally, it simply undercuts the expansive claims that Albright makes while giving us more analytical clarity. Fascism is simply too distinct a category to fit in both Hugo Chavez, and Donald Trump. Their goals, politics and motivations are too dissimilar and the passion they aroused is of a different character. However, this is not at all to say that Donald Trump on his own, for example, could not fit the fascist label. Rather, the point is to maintain a textured picture of fascism that tends to defy being used in such a way that it becomes a potential catchall, or so vague that it could encompass vastly disparate movements and organizations.

There is, though, a degree of circularity that comes from dwelling too deeply on definitions. At a moment when there is a real rise in authoritarian politics across the globe, there seem to be more urgent matters at hand, like better understanding the causes for the degradation of global democracy and outlining potential prescriptions to reclaim it. Whether or not we choose to use the "F word" to describe some of it may be beside the point. It is in this context that Fascism: A Warning seems to have the most potential, yet still falls short.

Albright is surely not blind to some of the contemporary ills that have destabilized democracies across the globe. For example, she writes of the tendency for "innovation" to be "the primary generator of employment, but also the number one destroyer", resulting in "depressed salaries" and robbing "millions of the dignity that comes from regular employment." More broadly, she notes:

"Globally, more than a third of the workforce lacks a full-time job. In Europe, youth unemployment is above 25 percent, and the level is even higher for immigrants. In the United States, one out of every six young people is both out of school and out of a job. Wages, in real terms, have been stagnant since the 1970s."

In each case study, from the Russian Federation, to Turkey to the United States, Albright briefly discusses the ability of authoritarians to exploit discontent like this. However, unlike the authoritarians across the globe, Albright provides almost no bold prescriptions for how these problems could be combated. Instead, she appears to direct criticism towards those who demand more from their government, labeling parts of the American citizenry in particular as "spoiled", "lazy" and guilty of complaining "bitterly" when "we do not get all we want". Additionally, to those who want to contest the terms on which globalization has taken place, Albright simply says that "globalization" is "not an ideological choice but a fact of life", something we have to accept without recognizing that the contours of contemporary globalization are indeed determined by interested political actors, and can and need to be challenged. Albright seems to forget that democratic politics, that which she purports to want to save, is at its core characterized by contestation.

Considering the deeply hollow set of suggestions that Albright puts forth (e.g. reclaiming "the vital center" in politics, rediscovering ideals that unite us, calling for "responsible leaders from both parties to address national needs together", etc.), authoritarians actually seem like the only game in town for solving pressing political problems. Though Donald Trump, for example, may have reprehensible or incoherent ideas about trade, immigration, and other attendant issues related to globalization, his appeal in part stems from the fact that he recognizes discontent and actually challenges the terms on which supposedly uncontestable institutions are founded. Trump's message and platform is anti-democratic through and through, but one can't help but think that Albright is also trafficking in a kind of anti-democratic discourse as well. By labeling certain things as outside of public debate and seemingly affirming a technocratic, elite conception of politics, she constricts democratic politics rather than broadens it.

Yet, we are still confronted with the problem of why, Albright laments, "citizens profess a lack of faith in every public institution and the official data they produce." In the United States, this problem surely did not begin with Donald Trump. Rather, over decades, and during Albright’s tenure in government, the responsiveness of supposedly liberal-democratic political institutions to public demand has been almost non-existent. This has been confirmed by American political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, who in 2014 determined that over several decades in the U.S., "economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence." While countless citizens across the country intuitively know this, it validates a poorly-kept secret about American "democracy", which is that the will of the majority of Americans factors very little into decision-making in major power centers like Washington and New York. This is coupled with almost two decades of growth in an unaccountable security apparatus, the passing of a colossal financial crisis, rising inequality, and unending, unwinnable military operations overseas.  There’s simply no reason for the general public to have faith in institutions that don’t serve them. Why not elect someone who will undermine them and promise something new?

To return to Adorno’s observation, we see an authoritarian like Trump lying the truth by saying that the current American liberal order doesn’t serve "the people". The reasons he sets forth to explain this failure of representation are absurd, but Trump does seem to be capturing a core facet of the American experience that other political figures have simply ignored. American governments at the federal, state and local level, for systematic reasons, have failed in their ability to actually address the problems that are faced by most Americans, instead catering to a set of elite economic interests.

The crisis of the liberal state stems from the perception that it either lacks the resources or will to solve public problems. And for Robert Paxton, this is a major "precondition" for the explosion of fascist politics. He notes: "Fascisms grew from back rooms to the public arena most easily where the existing government functioned badly, or not at all. One of the commonplaces of discussions of fascism is that it thrived upon the crisis of liberalism." And though the "crisis of liberalism" of today is of a different character than that of the 1920s and 1930s, a general point can be made here about the failure of the liberal state to absorb the shocks of economic crisis, respond to the social needs of its population, keep political and economic inequality in check, and engage in political representation. When the liberal state can't, or is unwilling to serve its population in these respects, an authoritarian alternative becomes deeply appealing.

As noted, an analysis of the rise of fascism and much of contemporary authoritarianism more broadly is at the same time, necessarily, an analysis of the insufficiencies and failures of liberal institutions. We need not go as far as Adorno, or Marx for that matter, in claiming that liberal democracy itself is an inherently unstable and contradictory political arrangement, but what does need to be acknowledged is that there cannot be fascism without a sclerotic, unresponsive order that serves as a fascist’s object of defiance.

Quite simply, Albright does not level the systemic critique required to get us out of our current predicament. Oddly enough, she seems almost nostalgic for past American presidencies, including that of George W. Bush, whose "easygoing optimism and his personal decency" colored his admirable "nonmilitary" response to 9/11. Bush’s unwillingness to "spread lies" about American Muslims or blame the entire Muslim faith for the actions of the 19 hijackers was in Albright’s mind worth remembering as an example of real presidential leadership. Bush's actual politics, and the effect they may have had in bringing us Donald Trump, go unexamined. Be that as it may, it is staggering that Albright seems incapable of drawing direct connections and lines of causation between the actions of our past presidents and those of our current one, who she considers the "first anti-democratic president in modern U.S. history." In reality, there is no Donald Trump without George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton and Barack Obama for that matter. Each of these presidencies, in their own way, made the rise of Donald Trump more likely.

Albright’s book is intended as a warning. Yet, she is warning us about things that are already here. Donald Trump has already been elected, and global autocrats have already proceeded to dismantle their own respective democracies. What’s needed is a global call to action, and one that gives us perspective on how we ended up here. How and why have our institutions failed us so profoundly? How can we build something new out of an old and failing system, rather than attempting to prop up the system that gave us these autocrats in the first place? Moreover, what can we do now to fight global authoritarianism? Albright has no answers for these questions, but these are the only questions that need answering.

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