On fascism: a final article from a (formerly) cynical student

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When it gets dark, I often feel this dread set over me about pretty much everything, and it both fortunately and unfortunately impacts the way I view things. I am prefacing the article with this to better illustrate how I felt when I decided to pay attention to the results of the French election. Marine Le Pen and the far-right French National Front were able to secure 41.5 percent of the vote, which didn’t win them the election but showed that Le Pen is poised to be a major political figure in coming years. The National Front, without mincing words, are modern fascists. They are adept at targeted and deliberate messaging that only fans the flames of identity politics in a way that creates hysteria and normalizes an environment hostile towards out groups. France has been on this trajectory over the last decade, similarly to many other developing and successful fascist movements that have appeared in many other countries.

Originally, I planned to delve into French history in this piece to gain more understanding of why a fascist political party has become such a force in a country that was once decimated by fascists. But, truthfully, we all know why. We all get so shocked by our modern sensibilities concerning fascism, but deep down, we know how easy it is to take advantage of people. So many of us take advantage of others in our daily lives, so naturally it becomes amplified when it is someone seeking wealth and power who takes advantage of an entire body politic. For those who read history, it becomes even more daunting when you see historical patterns and cycles manifest themselves in our modern state of affairs. For example, the expansion of today’s multinational corporations capable of overpowering some of the most powerful world governments is not so dissimilar to how the British East India Company was entrenched in parliament and single-handedly enforced colonial rule (and were responsible for the deaths of millions) in the Indian subcontinent prior to the establishment of the British Raj in 1857. Similarly, the reemergence of these far-right groups during major systemic shocks in our economic and political system is not dissimilar to the rise of fascist movements coinciding with the economic destitution of the 1920s and 1930s.

All this contributes to that feeling of dread I mentioned at the beginning. People often say, “Sujay why are you so angry about this?” They’re right to ask. One of my greatest flaws is feeling this need to care. It’s not for myself or to show others that I care. It’s more because none of us consented to the inheritance of the frankly awful world we live in and it is so clear how it is affecting us. So many of the issues we have now have been building up over so many different interactions that it becomes hard to manage or even conceptualize. The further removed we get from an event, the less connected we are to its impact. This is why learning history is so important. We have to understand what shaped the world so that we move forward in a way where we don’t repeat those mistakes. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done, and in many cases, those who champion progress and reform are elites themselves or become corrupted in the process of bringing about reform. Then we gaslight ourselves into believing that everything we have created is fine even when it isn’t because some people told us to think that way is the right way to live.

All this can lead to hopelessness and to embracing an incredibly cynical, nihilistic, and angry worldview where it feels like nothing can be done. I am this person, and I have often justified it as, “I’m not cynical because the world is broken. I am cynical because we can fix it if we try hard enough but we choose not to.” I realize that this is wrong, and inherently contradictory. If there is no hope, then why do I believe that things are fixable? That’s when it occurred to me that giving into hopelessness is one of the worst things we can do. If there is no hope, then nothing gets done because nothing matters and things get worse, which makes us worse. It begs the question: If nothing matters, why does it make us feel worse?

The sins of our ancestors are not our fault. But what is our fault is continuing to perpetuate and exacerbate those sins. The greatest mistake anyone can make is refusing to accept when a mistake is made, especially when it involves having to change your behavior to accommodate someone else. Many of our most contentious modern ethnic, religious, and political conflicts originated because the various parties involved gradually became less accommodating and more distrustful of each other, particularly the sides who hold more power, and over time, their distrust turned violent. It happened with the partition of India, the civil wars of the Balkans, the Rwandan genocide, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and so many others. Wherever there is strife or even hints of it, there is opportunity. The European powers understood this very well in their quest to conquer all seven continents — which they did — and the elites and leaders of the colonized who sided with and enforced the decree of their conquerors are just as responsible for the situations of these modern conflicts as the Europeans who conquered and extracted those lands.

This is why I find it difficult nowadays to use terms like “white privilege.” It’s not what white privilege isn’t real, because it is. Rather, I find it difficult to use a blanket term or statement like that because the historical trends and conditions that have led to the modern status quo are much more complicated and have to be understood within the contexts and decisions of the individuals of the time. The concept is also very centered around Western politics, but the idea of a majority group suppressing a minority group is not just limited to white people and the West. A significant majority of the people who supposedly have white privilege are economically and politically disenfranchised themselves, which is what makes them so susceptible to targeted propaganda from fascists who are able to so effectively flip the script of progressive identity politics. Many of the supporters of the French National Front and other fascist groups aren’t the elites. A lot of them are just ordinary lower and middle class people who aren’t making ends meet; they’re people who are also targeted by a predatory financial and economic system that sells them the taste of fortune disguised as exploitation. In the days of the old European empires, this was even worse, as the vast majority of the citizens in the mainland didn’t see the profits of colonization or the benefits of industrialization and innovation. This is true for non-European empires as well, like the Mughal Empire, the Ottomans, and the Chinese dynasties.

We have to do better; not only because we should, but because we have to for our own survival. I once wrote an article during my first semester at The Tartan where I had said “We need democracy but we don’t deserve it.” But, this is also inaccurate. Democracy and human rights have only been mainstream in our recent history, and even then, it was designed by elites when it was more acceptable to exclude entire demographics from political participation. Our modern sensibilities have to contend with the fact that we have to change the way we approach our systemic problems and remove the incentives and structures that continue to cause those problems. This will involve a reckoning for majority groups, and we are seeing the consequences of that now with what looks like a global democratic backsliding. Things likely will get worse before they get better, or they may never get better at all for some places. We won’t know until we try to do better and break out of the cycles that inhibit our progress.

I believe in humanity, and I believe in our ability to hold compassion for even those we hate while still maintaining our sense of self and calling out and correcting whatever is problematic. We will have to confront fascists, but we must do so in a way that forces them to reckon with themselves and change the narrative to encompass the majority — who are suffering regardless of their demographic or political affiliation. You can call this newfound optimism naïve, but abject nihilism and relentless optimism can exist simultaneously. We can’t give into fascism, and becoming desensitized to it all means that they win and the world will get worse. It’s okay to feel down and cynical about things. We’re all in a dark tunnel with burnt-out torches and limited sources to rekindle the flame. But, at least we are in the darkness together, and only together can we find the light. If a divine being put us all here with some purpose, we only have each other to help figure it out.