Techno-fascism in the 21st century

What is happening in India at present finds unfortunate echoes in other parts of the world.

Published : Mar 02, 2016 12:30 IST

The social media section at the BJP's office at Pant Marg in New Delhi.

The social media section at the BJP's office at Pant Marg in New Delhi.

To say the happenings in India, including a national university in the nation’s capital and the courts, reflect the rise of fascism is to state the obvious. Some will argue that similar tendencies have been evident in different parts of the country for some time now, as state-sponsored mob violence has been unleashed on those who dissent from state actions with the intention of terrorising them into submission. But the much higher levels of aggression displayed by the instigators and perpetrators of violence and the apparent impunity they enjoy suggest that we are now at a qualitatively different stage.

Certainly, recent events in other regions confirm this. Consider Bastar in Chhattisgarh, where the remarkably brave activist Soni Sori, who has been incarcerated and tortured in prison for fighting for tribal rights, was attacked by goons. They threw chemicals on her face, but she was not allowed by the police to register a case. Or Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh, where a professor addressing a peaceful gathering was shot at. The gathering was attacked by activists of a group affiliated to the ruling party, and copies of the Constitution written by B.R. Ambedkar, the subject of the meeting, were burnt.

What is happening in India at present finds unfortunate echoes in other parts of the world, in countries as apparently different as Turkey, Thailand or Egypt. In all these countries, there are moves towards authoritarian control and the stifling of opposition and dissent through both fair and foul means, using the instruments of formal legal processes as well as less formal intimidation through associated goons when deemed necessary.

In these countries, as in India, the narrative through which such authoritarian control is sought to be established is that of “nationalism”, with anyone who disagrees even slightly with the positions of the government being branded as “anti-national”. Wars, both external and internal, are useful mechanisms for whipping up the nationalist sentiment. They have the added advantage of distracting popular attention from the real social and economic issues that plague the people with even greater intensity.

All these features are not particularly new; indeed, they have many historical precedents. However, 21st century fascism does have some new features, which are also common to at least some of the countries that are currently experiencing it. They are largely related to the possibilities generated by new technologies, especially communication and surveillance technologies, which are increasingly being used by governments with fascist inclinations.

Three such features have been particularly evident in what is unfolding at present in India.

Misuse of technology The first is the widespread use of “enhancement”, or more correctly, doctoring and distorting videographic material. This is now extraordinarily easy, yet the widespread public fallacy is that what is shown on a television screen is always the truth, and indeed the full truth. The misuse and abuse of this technological capacity to present a false or at best partial representation of reality is now sharply evident. In the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) case, videos, apparently taken on mobile phones, were edited and doctored and superimposed with audio recordings from elsewhere to distort the slogans shouted by students at an event so as to make them sound “anti-national”. These were then used to create a “nationalist” hysteria to slap charges of sedition on students and browbeat them.

It is frightening to see the directions that this can take. If it is so easy to morph or change pictures that appear to give the impression of verisimilitude, then those who can do this can create anything they want, however fictional, fanciful or downright dangerous.

The speed with which such images are circulated today and the sheer volume of images that proliferate in people’s consciousness mean that by the time the falsities are discovered, the damage may have been done. In any case, there is little or no accountability or punishment for such deception even when it is clearly done with mischievous intent. So, potentially fascist forces can generate confusion and panic among people against those whom they have decided are their enemies. When they are supported in such actions by organs or agents of the state, the dangers are obviously magnified.

Use of social media The second feature of the new techno-fascism is the reliance on varied media to disseminate certain messages and decry “the enemies” or bring them into disrepute. The use of “rumour” to create riots in India has long historical provenance, but new technologies have dramatically increased their potential for harm. Rumours and lies or distortions that are multiplied and rapidly disseminated by television channels and social media can spread divisive and destructive messages like wildfire, whip up sentiments on completely false premises, and insidiously incite and celebrate violence. The same media can then be used to propagate a particular, highly partisan and incomplete version or interpretation of reality that fits in with the requirements of the fascist forces.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre understands this only too well. BJP 2.0 and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have ratcheted up the use of some media (not just publicly owned government-sponsored media but even more significantly, sections of private media) for their own specific ends. They are also past masters in the use of social media. In 2015, the Prime Minister had around 12.5 million Twitter followers and his media team apparently runs a YouTube channel, a Facebook page with more than 28 million “likes”, and other social media accounts, including LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram and Tumblr, as a recent article in Economic & Political Weekly elaborated.

While the Prime Minister’s articulations through his account may sound more moderate (and are often notable for their silence on the burning issues that are exercising the country at any given time), others in the Sangh Parivar do not exercise such restraint. So social media are aflame with the most incendiary, aggressive and often abusive attacks against those perceived to be the nation’s enemies, with all sorts of half-truths and downright lies abounding, and rapid “trolling” and fury directed at one who may differ, however mildly. Such hyperactive aggression serves two purposes: to instigate and mobilise the like-minded or the fence-sitters into supporting their positions and to intimidate and terrorise their opponents.

As the ongoing witch-hunt of innocent students of JNU shows, this can also lead to veiled and even direct incitement to violence, such as the appalling threats to the sexual security of the sister of a student who has been accused of sloganeering against India on the basis of falsified videos. The spread of malicious poison of this sort goes unchecked, and the most outrageous statements can be made without any consideration for consequences, or perhaps even intending bad consequences but without any fear of being brought to book. Typically, such impunity is heavily one-sided: opponents of those in power can be brought to book and punished for the most minor of offences, while those implicitly supported by ruling groups escape unscathed and are encouraged to do more. So mobs and other violent forces can be brought into the service of the rulers much more rapidly and with much greater geographical reach than in the past.

State surveillance The history of fascism in various parts of the world suggests that fascists establish and consolidate their power by first creating disorder and then presenting themselves as the only available agent for reinstating and maintaining order, an order, albeit, based on their own predilections. This latter part, too, is greatly enabled by the third feature of the new technologies: the fact that they facilitate state surveillance over the activities of any potential dissenters or even those who demand that the rights of citizens be respected. Simple phone tapping is now old hat. The new technologies, and the reliance of more and more citizens on them in various ways, enable almost complete surveillance of a person’s life, including her or his social interactions, professional dealings, geographical location, financial and commercial transactions, and so on. This significantly aids the process of suppressing any opposition and imposing authoritarian rule.

All this suggests that at one level, techno-fascism has the potential to be much more powerful than similar tendencies in the past. But there is an important sense in which it is fundamentally weaker in all of the countries in which it is sought to be imposed. This is in terms of the political economy conditions in which fascism can flourish and succeed. It is well known that fascist forces come up much more strongly in situations of high unemployment and economic instability. In the mid-20th century, fascist governments were able to come to power and survive for a time precisely because they offered some (at least temporary) solution to this through extensive militarisation and much greater state involvement in production and exchange.

However, today’s fascist governments are typically proponents of neoliberal economic thinking. So they espouse liberalised markets of goods, services and, most importantly, finance. Whether in Turkey or Egypt or India, such policies cannot be associated with significantly increased employment generation. Even the wars that they are engaged in (such as Turkey’s entry into the war in Syria) generate relatively little employment. The material conditions that create the initial disaffection with liberal political orders and the support for fascism are, therefore, unlikely to be reversed. So it is hard to see how broader political support for such tendencies can be maintained.

In the Indian context, the ability of such forces to attain hegemony is further complicated by the very complexity of Indian polity and society, the federal structure, and various other fissures that the centralising government seems unable to contain. The eruption of the Jat agitation in Haryana and the continued festering of the Patidar agitation in Gujarat (both States that also have the BJP in government) are indications of this. Most of all, ultimately, the democratic impulse still seems deeply rooted among the citizenry, against all odds. So, however, dark and depressing the current period may be, we should remember that this too shall pass.

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