The Political Ecology of Fascism
From the Series: Europe in the Balance
In twenty-five or thirty years historians will be able to determine that coalescing around us now is in fact “fascism.”1 For the moment, the ethnographer needs tools to grapple with the present, to engage analytically the entangled fears and aspirations unfolding in our midst, to link these disparate elements, and to discern their political trajectories and our complicities.
In May of 1991 in Strasbourg, I sought out a master architect of cultural politics. I interviewed Jean-Marie Le Pen, the French nationalist who founded and led the right-wing National Front from 1972 to 2011. I had the impression during our encounter that he was trying out a new “European” persona, and that I was a test audience. At the time, Le Pen was developing a narrative about Europe premised on an unsettling formulation of cultural hygiene. He and his associates embraced “culture” as an instrument of radical critique, an idiom of solidarity, and the crucible of an exclusionary “social justice.” He asserted that emerging forms of alienation and estrangement signaled the retreat of the bourgeois public sphere, enabling him to engage various segments of an illiberal public.
By linking nationalism to the emergence of a multicultural and multiracial Europe, Le Pen and his associates defined the terms that have come to have relevance across Europe. Their inventory of imperatives—notably on immigration—has moved from the margins to the center of political struggle in Western Europe (Le Pen 1989).2
In the exchanges below I reveal how Le Pen understood the derelictions of the French technocratic project. He knew its failures lurked in decaying urban centers. His vision followed the course of a faltering “science of solidarity” through the deterioration in public services, the persistence of high levels of unemployment, and the proliferation of extravagant forms of corruption by public officials.
What follows are exerpts of our conversation in 1991.
Le Pen: If power at all levels is no longer fed by moral codes, even lay or Marxist morals, it becomes a power without any faith. It then amounts to a corruption which opens the way for tyranny.
Le Pen shows his conviction in the failure of the modernist ideal of progressivism as he recognizes the emergence of new domains of alienation inaccessible to technocratic interventions. In Le Pen’s view, Durkheim’s vision of organic solidarity as the basis of modern society is compromised, since the “rebirth” of France and Europe is only possible through the mysteries of mechanical solidarity: blood, earth, devotion, hierarchy, rootedness. Le Pen accordingly portrays himself as a visionary who can see the true contours of reality. He discerns looming global struggles in which demographic forces determine the fate of humankind.
Le Pen: For several decades I have been aware of the importance of demographic transformations converging at the end of the 20th century. Unfortunately, I may be one of the few politicians who is aware of this phenomenon. There is a contradictory evolution of demographic forces between the North and the South: the North is becoming poorer and older, the evolution of the South explodes with a young population. Without a radical reversal of this evolution the nations of the North will disappear within 50 years. Demographic colonization is much closer to war than economic or cultural colonization as we knew it in past centuries.
Le Pen touts a theory of globalization that recapitulates the racialized anxieties of social Darwinism and broaches what Emily Martin (1994) calls post-Darwinism, where “culture can also operate as nature” (Balibar 1991, 22). The non-European immigrant is the embodiment of this unfolding conflagration. The cultural traditions of Europe, which he refers to as “natural structures,” provide refuge.
Le Pen: We believe human beings can and must find their self-realization in natural structures such as the family, the workplace, the city, the nation. It is these entities which are the real safeguards of human freedom and prosperity.
For Le Pen, order and harmony can only be achieved through the "rootedness" of family, religion, custom, language, and nation. He devises an epistemology, drawn from the authority of experience, that repudiates faith in progress.
Le Pen: The left, or leftist intellectuals believe and claimed that scientific knowledge and technological advances would necessarily bring about human happiness. But that is not universally true! Progress may or may not bring human betterment. When this faith in progress was undermined, their dogma collapsed. Progress was the very foundation on which socialism, communism and the left in general, based its beliefs and convictions. There is now the profound realization that progress can kill humanity.
Le Pen extends this astringent commentary to what he sees as the fictions propagated by the media. He scorns intellectualized discourse in favor of the perceived authenticity and seductions of instinct.
Le Pen: If you are aware of the power of mass media and the demagogic challenge it poses to political power, you must also see how powerful it is in breaking up the foundations of society. . . .
You must know that in real life these things [immigration, crime, and corruption] create a lot of suffering for citizens, especially the underprivileged. The problems of housing, family life, education and unemployment are felt very harshly by people. They feel real anxiety for the future. Thus, these people believe our views to be right because they accurately reflect the dilemmas of real life. . . .
Men perceive reality in two ways: either directly through lived experience of unemployment, poor housing, etc. or indirectly, thanks to the media. But, when the lived facts become overwhelming, far beyond what is told in the media, you don't need the media any more.
Accusations of racism and fascism, Le Pen insists, are “devices” to silence him. He postures as if to say: “Look at me, I am just like you, I believe what you believe, I feel what you feel. These things do not make you a racist, how can they make me one?”
The interplay between the “inner” subjectivities of culture and the “external” abstractions of society punctuate the core of Le Pen’s metaphysics: he seeks resolution by devising a national socialism. The figure necessary to mediate it is the stranger, the outsider. Historically it was the Jew, more recently the immigrant, who is cast as anathema to a society predicated on shared moral precepts, sublime cultural distinctions, and dark historical fears and aspirations (Mosse 1978).
What Le Pen and his associates have shrewdly discerned is that national socialism is inlaid within the fabric of the modern European nation-state. It resides in the restrictive policies and practices of welfarism. The provisioning by the state of housing, education, health, and social security has always been restricted by status. The intent of exclusionary immigration policies, as institutionalized particularly in wealthier Northern Europe, has been to protect the fiscal integrity of the welfare state. By establishing “national preference” at the center of his insurgency, Le Pen can cast the immigrant as the agent, the embodiment of this occult neoliberalism that threatens France and Europe.
At the end of the beginning fascism is our problem in ways we never imagined. Its architecture draws on concepts, terminologies, and analytics that we—anthropologists—know all too well. The challenge for us is to determine why and how fascist sensibilities have become enthralling once again, capable of recruiting young activists intent on recasting the future of Europe.
Balibar, Étienne. 1991. “La Communauté europée vue du dessous: Du Racisme archaique a l'état de bib-droit.” Le Monde Diplomatique, February 22–23.
Holmes, Douglas R. 2000. Integral Europe: Fast-Capitalism, Multiculturalism, Neofascism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
———. 2019. “Fascism at Eye Level: The Anthropological Conundrum.” Focaal 84: 62–90.
Le Pen, Jean-Marie. 1989. Europe: Discours et interventions 1984–1989. Paris: Groupes des droits européennes.
Martin, Emily. 1994. Flexible Bodies: Tracking Immunity in American Culture from the Days of Polio to the Age of Aids. Boston: Beacon.
Mosse, George L. 1980. “Toward a General Theory of Fascism.” In Masses and the Man: Nationalist and Fascist Perceptions of Reality, edited by George L. Mosse, 194–96. New York: Howard Fertig.
Noiriel, Gérard. 1996. The French Melting Pot: Immigration, Citizenship, and National Identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.