Or, How Liberalism Unwittingly Plays Right Into Fascism’s Hands
I suppose many people — maybe even you — thought I meant it as kind of a black joke. But I was lethally serious when I used to say: the rise of fascism would be the defining event of our lives so far. And here we are: if we look around the world today, neofascism is on an explosive rise — Trump, Erdogan, Orban. In just a handful of years, it’s overturned the liberal order.
That’s shocking enough. But what’s more curious is that fascism seems to make people lose their minds. Quite literally — we say they’re “mindless”, that they’re “out of their minds”, “they’ve gone nuts”, and so on. Yet what’s even more still is that many people seem to want to lose their minds.
Why? Don’t you think that’s odd? Striking? Dangerous? In this essay, I’m going to offer a very different narrative of fascism and liberalism than the ones we’re used to, which answers that question — so the first thing I’ll ask you to do is put your preconceptions aside. We’re not going to use economics much — but psychology.
Let’s start with the idea of rootedness. It’s the forgotten hinge of social order. Rootedness means what you intuitively think it does — a sense of really intrinsically belonging, to a social order, to a place, to a world. You can call it culture, heritage, customs, ways, if you like. “I belong to this. I am part of this.” But it also means now something will outlast you. And in that way, rootedness is vital, because it lets us master our death anxieties. “Yes, I will die. I can bear it a little better now. Part of me will go on living. My town, my beliefs, my customs, my ways. They will outlive me.” In other words, rootedness gives us a kind of symbolic immortality.
(It’s true that we mostly don’t consciously think the thoughts above. They’re usually unconscious thoughts. But for that reason, they’re all the more powerful. When you feel rooted, don’t you feel less anxious, more secure, safer? — though you can’t say precisely why? It’s because your death anxiety is now a little more bearable. There is a kind of immortality that you can have, after all — a symbolic one. To be part of a world, a place, an order, a way, which will outlive you.)
Now. Liberalism today means neoliberalism, and neoliberalism just means capitalism, and so now we have predatory capitalism in every last aspect of life — healthcare, childcare, elderly care, education, finance, housing. But capitalism uproots us, it doesn’t root us more firmly. It eviscerates community. It destroys belonging — even your own body doesn’t belong to you. Towns and cities, and the bonds in them, are abandoned. There’s no higher purpose to life, or to you — just profit. Everything is fractured, broken, split apart, empty, hollow.
So how can symbolic immortality be had? That feeling that some part of us will outlive us, whether it’s our works, our beliefs, our ideas, our heritage, our culture, our social bonds, or our towns? Capitalism gives us shiny disposable stuff, but in that very act, it also takes away symbolic immortality, which is probably why we’re always desperately chasing that stuff — we’re left with a gaping hole in the soul where real roots should be. I’m gonna die! I’d better buy a Porsche this year!
So under capitalism, life becomes a daily exercise in fending off death anxiety. But the death anxiety of capitalism isn’t symbolic. It’s very real. “What if get cancer?” “Who will pay for these bills?” “What if I lose this job?” “How will I feed my kids?” These are the very real everyday questions of millions of Americans living lives of predatory capitalism — they’re not science fiction. Life is lived perched right at the razor’s edge of constant, omnipresent ruin, and so, sadly, grimly, death anxiety composes the vast majority of a life now. But having to experience, anticipate, struggle with your own death, or those of people around you, is the very definition of trauma.
So. Predatory capitalism denies us the symbolic immortality we need, that a part of us will outlive us, and instead gives us lives dominated almost to the second by pure, constant, and terrible death anxiety. Would you agree with that much, even if reluctantly, examining your own fears and worries?
Now. Ask yourself this. Who wouldn’t want to go “out” of such a mind? Wouldn’t you seek relief wherever you could, if your mind was one giant, black, glittering ball of death anxiety? Hence, we see Americans, over the last few decades, have turned to all kinds of ever more extreme and weirder forms of escape from death anxiety. First there was the Rapture, the rise of fundamentalist religion. Then there was Ancient Aliens and MyAncestry and Bigfoot and the paranormal, a kind of bizarre, backwards search for meaning, purpose, and rootedness. Now there are bizarre, outlandish movements like QAnon. What do they suggest? Americans need to “go out of their minds”, because a minds traumatized by relentless, constant death anxiety, thanks to predatory capitalism, isn’t one anyone wants to be in for long.
Enter fascism. If you really want relief from death anxiety — human beings have invented nothing more powerful yet than fascism. People want to lose their minds today because capitalism’s crazy-making, unbearable, relentless, ever-present, death anxiety is something most of us are trying desperately to escape from in the first place. (Just, obviously, in different ways. I make disco.)
What does fascism promise fascists instead, instead of capitalism’s unbearable dread and fear of grim, constant, sudden, violent death? Something so seductive and tempting, it’s like the most powerful drug of all. Put yourself in the shoes of a Trumpist at a Trump rally. What’s really happening? “Make us Great Again!” Cheers, applause. A journalist, a minority. Taunts, screams, mockery, derision, insults. Do you see the link here? Let me spell out it very carefully, in stages.
The first thing that’s happening is a kind of ecstatic experience. The fascists is literally “out of his mind”, in ecstasy. “Lock Her Up!” “Animals!” These are ways to quite literally lose your mind, and experience the momentary ecstasy of having all the anxieties and problems and concerns and worries in it slip away — now projected onto a scapegoat. But this is just the beginning.
The second that’s happening, inside that ecstatic experience, is a rebirth. As all the death anxiety of capitalism slips away, the fascist is being psychologically reborn. Into a world that’s livable again. One which isn’t just a glittering black ball of ruin and despair. One in which he’s righteous, innocent, pure, and whole, something like a king, not a commodity, with no intrinsic worth — which is all he is under capitalism.
The fascist is earning symbolic immortality through psychological rebirth. He is being reborn into heaven right here on earth. That’s why fascism makes people (who need to go out of their minds) go out of their minds. “We’ll Be Great Again!” Maybe that doesn’t sound strong enough. “A Thousand Year Reich!” Now do you see it? An order, a place, a time, a way, that will live forever, and outlast you. A place without pain for the pure and righteous — but only torment for the impure and sinful. What are those places called? Heaven and hell.
Isn’t it funny, when you see it — how strange, simple, and childish it is? But for that very reason, fascism also incredibly dangerous, and shatteringly powerful. What could be more tempting that being being ecstatically reborn into heaven on earth — when you’re living a life haunted by death, every single day? What could be more powerful than believing, suddenly, now, that reborn part of you will outlive death — when no part of you can outlive anything at all in capitalism — because life is just the relentless, and very real, anxiety of constantly impending ruin?
(Maybe stop and think about it, because at this point, since we’re not used to thinking psychologically, in fact capitalism tells us not to, I’m sure your head’s spinning a little. I’m not speaking metaphorically or analogically. Every single word above I mean literally — and that is why fascism makes people “lose their minds”.)
What the demagogue is really giving the fascist is the symbolic immortality of heaven on earth. What could be more earth-shattering than that? Remember how under capitalism, death anxiety becomes life’s main experience? Relived, over and over again, most of the day, every day? What’s happened now is that the fascist finally has a way to “deal with” all that death anxiety. Sure, capitalism’s killing him. But fascism gives him an apocalyptic spiritual rebirth into heaven on earth, which is coming. The reborn part of him is now rooted in it. He’ll live on, even if he dies. The fascist is ecstatic because he is being reborn — heaven on earth belongs to him, and the reborn part of him he can live forever now.
But doesn’t he have to send someone to hell, to earn his place in heaven? If you are going to heaven, even if it’s here on earth, someone must be going to hell, because heaven belongs only to the pure. Who is that someone? It must be those who haven’t been pure enough to be ecstatically reborn, mustn’t it? (Examine it in detail. What’s really happening at the rally? He’s being reborn, isn’t he? That moment of ecstasy, of losing his mind, is also, more accurately, and much, much more powerfully and dangerously, is also the moment of rebirth. He is new again. Cleansed. Pure. Innocent. Of what? Of the death anxiety of capitalism — which carries with it a crippling sense of guilt, shame, fear, abandonment, and loss. Instead heaven is coming — but heaven can only be created if hell is, too.)
So in this experience of the rally, some truly powerful — and genuinely dangerous — things are happening, which we are overlooking. Death anxiety is being shed, ecstatically. In the moment of ecstasy, a transformative, epic kind of psychological rebirth is happening. A whole new identity, a new person, a new soul is being forged. One who is deserving of heaven on earth. But to be deserving, he must also be willing to send those undeserving into the fires of hell. And hell, like heaven, is also right here on earth.
Isn’t that strange mix of hostility and overweening arrogance precisely what we see in fascists? They often say: “we don’t really hate those people!” And yet they have absolutely no problem with “those people” being put in camps, or marched away by men in uniforms, or shouted at in the street. In fact, they seem to secretly delight in it. One way to think about is that “they’re lying to themselves.” Sure, they are. But that doesn’t get us very far. Truer to say that they’ve accepted violence and harm to the impure are not just the price — but maybe even the defining test — of spiritual rebirth. Because if you’re going to be reborn as deserving of heaven on earth, then how are you to prove it? Well, you smirk, when the impure are taken away, don’t you? They’re going to hell!
Now you are the primal father’s true child. You deserve a place in the heaven on earth you have been ecstatically reborn into, which will outlive you — but only because you are strong enough to condemn the weak to hell on earth, too.
Now. Maybe this all sounds like so much psychobabble to you. I wouldn’t blame you. Capitalism tells us never to think psychologically — because then, dangerously, we might understand how it victimizes us so easily, a little. But I think it goes a long way to explaining, at least for me, why fascism is growing so explosively — while liberalism imploding, seems to be playing right into its hands.
Capitalism — death anxiety. Fascism — heaven on earth, but only for the pure, and hell on earth, for the impure. Liberalism — people who, traumatized by death anxiety, want to go out of their minds. Fascism — the ecstatic experience of going out of your mind, so you can be reborn. Liberalism — a life of traumatizing precarity. Fascism — a part of you will always belong to the primal father, whose heaven on earth will outlive you. You’re symbolically immortal. Capitalism — LOL, you’re probably going to die, every day, forever.
Whether or not you think I overstate, one thing’s for sure. Neoliberalism — the Nates and Ezras and Matts of the world — offers no explanation for its own catastrophic failure. Not just why fascism’s exploding and liberalism’s imploding — but why liberalism seems to be feeding fascism in a weird and perverse way. In fact, it mostly offers excuses — “the economy’s doing great! Why, Ezra, I just don’t get it!!” But are excuses good enough at this point? I don’t think we will ever understand how to build a better future until we understand what went wrong with the present. And the first thing we must understand is ourselves. How we have done a poor job, so far, of understanding’s fascism’s explosive, seductive, addictive temptations.
Liberalism played right into fascism’s hands by creating the one who must master the terrible, constant, traumatic death anxiety unfettered capitalism produces. But that person is also the one who will be most tempted by heaven on earth. He is the one who will hunger most to be ecstatically reborn — and who will always send the impure to hell, so he earns his spot in heaven here on earth. Now he is immortal. But the price is that he has made the world an inferno.
Fascism promises people heaven on earth. How do you compete with that? Well, at least by understanding that much. Yet liberalism, it seems to me, with it’s preening, strutting masculine need to quantify and reduce everything, to make human beings an equation, which is a form of domination and control, not really of understanding, it seems to me, might just never get any of this. And in that way, maybe it’s obsolete, as a tool for expanding the frontiers of human possibility.