Theater of Cruelty

Cool, crazy fascism

New fascism has cast aside the seriousness of old fascism – it is loose and relaxed, it is fun. 


One of the striking features of the various reactionary and post-fascist phenomena – Brexit, Trump, Alternative für Deutschland, Pegida, Le Pen, Wilders and the Danish People's Party – is the extent to which they are more cultural than they are in a narrow sense. Post-fascism is very much a cultural phenomenon, and contemporary conflicts play out less as regular class struggle than as different forms of cultural struggle.

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Of course, it makes good sense to regard these cultural struggles as a kind of deputy wars where underlying economic developments remain hidden – but they are more than that, and, following Fredric Jameson's analysis of postmodernism, they should also be seen as symptoms of a more general culturalization of economic struggles and society in general.

At Jameson, postmodernism was a description of this evolution, in which basis and superstructure, culture and economy merge in a completely different way than before, and where culture takes the form of a whole social structure. There is a form of symbolic appropriation in which society represents itself in a far more comprehensive way than before, and does not refer to anything other than itself. Postmodernism was for Jameson this self-representation – what Guy Debord described before him as the spectacular or behold game society, where everyday life is subject to a constant burst of slogans, jingles, brands, logos, false promises and virtual realities.

translation Art

The political-economic background of post-fascism is important: an economic crisis of more than 30 years. But the new fascism is precisely characterized by offering identification and identity beyond socio-economic categories. In this way, contemporary fascism is postmodern in the sense of Jameson: Unemployment, secession and the slow erosion of the welfare state translate into Islamophobia and xenophobia.

More than parties with programs, goals and principles, politics has become one atmosphere.

"We are building a wall that can keep immigrants out," Trump thundered in the United States. In Europe, Islam is the problem: "Muslims are flooding Europe, destroying our culture and exploiting our welfare system," raged Wilders, Le Pen and Søren Espersen. The success of post-fascism has a lot to do with its ability to translate social injustice into reactionary identity politics, where structural economic laws are reduced to fear politics and easily identifiable enemy images are repeated over and over again. Stereotyping and repetition are basic tools for the new reactionary, post-fascist culture warriors.

Paralyzed left

Post-fascism is a culturalization of an underlying economic development, and that is why the new fascism is in many ways more superstructure than basis. But – and this is important – we must not just analyze post-fascism by returning to basics: the superstructure does not reflect one-to-one basics. If this were the case, we could all the time just return any racist statement to socio-economic conditions, and stop the analysis there: When someone spits on refugees from Syria from a motorway bridge on Lolland, they are in fact just worried about their economy; the ideology of the white workers is just a reflection of realities they have not seen through.

Culturalization has a meaning, and it is necessary to explain why post-fascist racist «translation» of the socio-economic decline works better than a Marxist analysis of the «real conditions»; analyze why post-fascism works and why left-wing politics as we know it from the 20th century – from Leninism to Social Democracy – no longer manages to appeal to quite a few voters.

Absurd theater

In the current situation, the connection between class and political representation is difficult to map. Trump is the obvious example. There is no doubt that Trump represents certain sections of the American capitalist class – partly the factions that have lost out on globalization, partly the military-industrial complex, including surveillance and prisons. But large sections of the American business community clearly preferred Clinton. And Trump's economic policies will in no way help the white workers who voted for him – yet they voted for him.

We get the seductive and disgusting world of entertainment, the fan culture of the sport, the idolatry of music, the ambiguity of the comics and the TV series binging at once.

The political has become independent and transformed into a kind of absurd theater, where Trump, like another Ubu Roi, is fooling around in a staggered parallel reality. Now, provocations and criticism are not just something the late capitalist society really wants (and feeds on); now the state itself has become subversive and scandalous. Rude sublimation is now the official form of government in the United States (and common opposition politics in Europe). Lawrence Grossberg calls it "baroque chaos" and writes that Trump's fight against the mass media, the use of alternative facts and the ability to constantly surprise creates «a kind of baroque mix whose immediate effect is an overwhelming sense of chaos».

relieved - and tricked

In a way, Trump is an almost tragicomic confirmation of August Thalheimer's old dictum that fascism saves the bourgeoisie (economically) but rapes it (politically). Trump is supposed to protect capitalist property and profits and thus secure capital, but he is not a mere agent of American capital. Rather, politics and economics have been partially separated, and Trump is running a political show that, if not economically, then at least in terms of entertainment must cater to the lower middle class who voted for him. Although both Bannon and Kuchner have slipped into the background, Trump still balances between the white racist middle class – of which the alt-right movement is merely the most hysterical example – and the plutocratic interests Kuchner represents. With Walter Benjamin's formulation, Trump lets the lower middle class "express itself" – and gives such large tax breaks to business.

The masses are thus expressed – now it's fun to be racist, and politics turns into pop. Or to a crazy adventure where anything can happen. We get the best from the seductive and disgusting world of entertainment, the fan culture of the sport, the idolatry of music, the clarity of comics and the TV series. Bingemoderation.


With Trump, the political has become independent and has become an all-encompassing and all-consuming reality show: Week after week, the Trump show surpasses itself with more and more spectacular effects and insane scenarios that draw more on figures and narratives from popular culture than on traditional politics. . More than parties with programs, goals and principles, politics has become one atmosphere. As German cultural critic George Seeßlen writes, Trump can be understood as the political realization of American pop culture in which Trump is the self-made man who fights against the system, defeats it and becomes the hero of the people, liberates the people and restores a natural order.

Now it's cool to be racist, and politics has become pop.

Fascism has entered the expanding entertainment society of the 21st century – its nationalist myth is no longer told as a large-scale stage party in Nuremberg, but as a constant bombardment of tweets and breaking newscover story. Trump's tweets fit perfectly with the impoverished and infantilized public of late capitalism, which has nothing to do with communicative rationality or universality, but is instead characterized by religious superstition and scientific illiteracy.

The cessation of social

It is this world that has created Trump, and that Trump himself is creating. It is the acting community where the social has become so thinly worn that it is only barely held together by idiotic mothers, panicked fear and stupid images. It's the community like simulation curve, where sentimental re-enchantment is the thin varnish that still holds a shattered capitalist class society together.

Trump's ethnonationalism speaks to individuals whose subjectivities have been transformed into small, salable dependencies. Post-fascism has thus set aside the seriousness of "old" fascism in favor of light entertainment – it is therefore much more loose and relaxed, it is . It does not long for ancient Rome and does not want to create a millennial kingdom – it is rather the post-war Fordist mass society that is the utopia.

Mikkel Bolt
Mikkel Bolt
Professor of political aesthetics at the University of Copenhagen.

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