Politics of polarisation

Print edition : May 24, 2019
This book explains the conditions that facilitate fascist politics and the multiple strategies that its advocates employ.

Ever since the coming to power of Narendra Modi in India in 2014 and Donald Trump in the United States in 2016, there has been a growing concern among scholars about the shortcomings of liberal democracy and its dangerous potential to elect political leaders who could pose a threat to democracy itself. Despite its limitations, democracy is a cherished political practice in many parts of the modern world. But the conditions under which it can be hijacked and destroyed by an authoritarian alternative or fascist substitute is a question that many scholars are currently engaged with. In How Fascism Works, Jason Stanley, Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, attempts to explain the various conditions that facilitate fascist politics and the multiple strategies that its advocates employ by reflecting on the contemporary political conditions of the U.S. and other countries.

At the outset, the author makes it clear that the book is about fascist politics and not fascism as such. Scholarship on fascism is a genre by itself, and there are plenty of monographs on the subject. The German philosopher Hannah Arendt’s works stand out among others, and there is a renewed interest in her scholarship in order to make sense of the dark side of state power. This book also alludes to Hannah Arendt’s work.

All fascist politics, claims Stanley, do not lead to a fascist state, which is where fascism finds its fullest expression. But the attempt to practise fascist politics in itself contributes to the de-democratisation of a society and perpetuates the politics of hate and prejudices in the name of religion, ethnicity or race. More specifically, the author is interested in exploring fascist tactics as a mechanism to achieve power. This fascist politics is practised within the framework of liberal democracy and employs particular strategies such as the mythic past, propaganda, anti-intellectualism, hierarchy, victimhood, law and order and sexual anxiety in pursuit of its agenda. It builds up different types of narratives around these themes in order to indoctrinate its followers and advocate a world view so that they see their interpretations as the only viable facts. Stanley examines and elaborates particular themes that he considers are used as strategies by practitioners of fascist politics. Thus, we have informative and richly textured content under the various themes mentioned above.

The author further recognises that fascism today is not what it was in Hitler’s Germany or any part of Europe in the early 20th century and that it will acquire different shapes and forms depending on its leader and the group it aims to target. What is perhaps similar are the tactics fascist politics employs and its ultimate objective of creating a pure state with a repressive apparatus and a majoritarian ideology that dehumanises fractions of its own population. He writes: “Following the horrors of World War II, which sent masses of refugees fleeing fascist regimes, the 1948 Universal Declaration Of Human Rights affirmed the dignity of every human being.… Fascism today may not look exactly the same as it did in the 1930s, but refugees are once again on the road everywhere. In multiple countries, their flight reinforces the fascist propaganda that the nation is under siege, that aliens are a threat and danger both within and outside their borders. The sufferings of strangers can solidify the structures of fascism. But it can also trigger empathy once another lens is clicked into place.” In other words, fascist tactics or politics generate almost identical outcomes each time even though they may appear different in form

One prominent tactic that the advocates of fascist politics employ is to show a distinction between “us” and “them”. Fascism as an ideology and fascist politics as a strategy do not recognise common humanity. Fascism presupposes that one set of human beings is the greatest threat to another set of human beings, and thus one of the most definitive symptoms of fascist politics is division. By appealing to ethnic, religious or racial distinctions, these forces try to shape the ideology and ultimately the policy of the state they capture to govern. They understand the strengths of a democratic society and work within its framework until they are completely in charge, and also learn to control structures of power in order to purge every bit of democratic ethos that forms the system.

In India, for instance, religious identity—Hindu and Muslim—is considered useful for the “us” and “them” division that the Hindu Right seeks to perpetuate. Hindu and Muslim identity is the basis on which the Bharatiya Janata Party and Modi and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh have practised a politics of polarisation as part of their electoral and political campaign.


At the core of the fascism is the issue of nationalism. The author explores in detail the relationship between fascist politics and nationalism, drawing examples from American and European history and connecting them with contemporary developments. The chapters on the mythic past and victimhood present fascinating insights into the strategies that fascist forces employ in the context of the larger discourse on nationalism. As part of the strategy, a sense of collective victimhood to create a sense of group identity that is adversarial to the ethos of liberal democracy is generated at multiple levels. However, we need to learn that all nationalisms are not the same. Stanley clarifies that the difference between the nationalism motivated by oppression with an unambiguous objective for domination and the nationalism that is inclusive and stands for human dignity is their respective relationship to equality. In other words, nationalism could lead to fascism, but there are possibilities for exploring nationalism as inclusive and driven by ideals of social justice and equality. But for average citizens, both types appear the same and the sanctity of nationalism fascinates them.

The major strength of this research is the comparative insights gleaned from its narrative. Group identity could be variously based—on skin colour, religion, tradition or ethnic origin. This is often contrasted with the invented “other”. Fascist nationalism creates a dangerous “them” with the objective of restoring group identity. According to the author, dehumanising and demeaning various sections of the population on one pretext or another is one of the major strategies that these forces follow. The idea is to exclude and marginalise and create conditions of dehumanisation as part of the normal process, often viewing it as a necessary condition for “historical justice”. This is apparent in the Indian case revealed in public discussions with regard to Aurangzeb or ghar wapsi, and so on, or even the controversial Babri Masjid-Ram temple issue that has been at the centre of the raging debate over secularism and the Hindu Rashtra.

The author analyses the use of history as part of fascist politics. Fascist politicians justify their ideas by breaking down a common sense of history to create a mythic past to support the vision for the present. Anti-intellectualism seems to be the main driving force. There is a fascinating discussion on this theme in the book. There is a great deal of resonance of this narrative of anti-intellectualism in the Indian context—particularly what has been witnessed since 2014 with regard to the various assaults unleashed on institutions such as Jawaharlal Nehru University or Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi or incidents such as the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a research scholar at the University of Hyderabad.

Clearly, the Modi government’s purpose is to advance the ideological agenda and create universities that would be hospitable to its agenda but not as a space of scientific temperament and debate. Indeed, there is a role for universities in fascist politics, but the idea of the university is very different, according to Stanley. In fascist ideology, there is only one legitimate viewpoint, that of a dominant nation, according to the author. But the challenge is how to retain the university as a place for resistance to growing fascist politics. This is a challenge when fascist forces occupy the state, and the universities depend on the state for funding, which makes them vulnerable to the state’s demands.

One of the most fascinating chapters in this book is entitled “Sexual anxiety”. It is also typical of fascist politics because issues of gender equity destabilise and threaten patriarchal hierarchy. Discussions on love jehad in India in recent years corroborate the claims that the author makes here.

Arbeit macht frei” (Work sets you free) was an infamous slogan of the Nazi regime. The author devotes a chapter to this theme and explains why and how this forms the moral core of a fascist narrative: “In fascist ideology, in times of crisis and need, the state reserves support for members of the chosen nation, for ‘us’ and not for ‘them’. The justification is invariably because ‘they’ are lazy, lack a work ethic, and cannot be trusted with state funds and because they are criminal and seek only to live off state largesse. In fascist politics, they can be cured of laziness by hard labour.”

This book is a classic piece of research that should appeal to anyone who cares for democracy and human dignity. Scholars and citizens of India would particularly profit by reading this book to make sense of the danger they are already in.

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman is the editor of Rise of Saffron Power: Reflections on Indian Politics (Routledge, 2018) and teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

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