How Much Fascism?

Even a peaceful landscape, even a meadow in the harvest, with crows circling overhead and grass fires, even a road where cars and peasants and couples pass, even a resort village with a steeple and country fair, can lead to a concentration camp.

—Alain Resnais, Night and Fog

Confined in a gallery, a man in a suit chants repetitive, catchy choruses, apparently about the beauty of youth. The lyrics are, however, the opening words of two Italian fascist songs, _Giovinezza _[Youth] and _Vincere _[To Win]. He sings for a few hours until losing his voice. Gradually, the crowd gathers outside the window and joins in his lonely singing. A few young men even excitedly climb the window and show their neofascist insignia to the camera. The performance and video by Cesare Pietroiusti, titled _Pensiero unico _Uniform Thought touches on the uncertainty of historical memory and questions our complicity in the processes leading to the revival and formation of fascist constellations. It can serve as an effective metaphor for the ways in which fascistic discourse permeates society, as the attitude toward fascism moves from one of ignorance to permissiveness opening the door to encouragement and support.

The point of departure for the long-term project How Much Fascism?, which deals with contemporary manifestations of fascism, is Slovenian philosopher and political activist Rastko Mocnik’s 1995 collection of texts of the same name.[1] In the midst of the disintegration of Yugoslavia, Mocnik related the conflicts and the rise of fascist forces in geographies “from the Adriatic to Siberia” to the structural consequences of the introduction and reconstruction of peripheral capitalism. Simultaneously with the establishment of several new state entities based on nationalistic ideologies, Mocnik outlined the social conjunctures crucial to this process, commenting on their “anti-antifascism” and cultural policies with racist undertones. He detected fascistic social effects within but also outside peripheries, relating them to general processes in the restructuring of the public sphere in late capitalism, and pointed out that the “local new populism, new ‘fascism,’ new right-wing extremism, are the ways in which we participate in European, or even world history.”[2] His writing thus clearly opposed the discourse that at the time was upholding a false dichotomy between western tolerance and multiculturalism, and the extremist ethno-nationalism of the regressive periphery.

Since Mocnik’s texts were first written, many things have taken a turn for the worse, and a fundamental ideological shift has occurred—even declaratory proclamations of multiculturalism have been rejected, and calls for the “protection of the integrity of tradition and cultural values” have become almost obligatory rallying cries for western politicians. Mocnik’s basic postulate is that the question is not “fascism—yes or no?” but rather “how much fascism?” It is a starting point for looking into how specific developments—formerly associated with peripheral regions of Europe “in transition” to democracy—have shifted and moved to Europe’s core, what relationships these developments have to the “structural changes” that fall under the name of neoliberalism, and the consequent rise of certain manifestations of “fascism.”

The use of such a contested and ideologically charged term as fascism to address the troubles of current politics is bound to draw criticism, which is most often based on the argument that the present moment cannot be compared to the forces that historically gave rise to fascism. Even extreme-right political parties across Europe nominally distance themselves from fascism and try to situate this term solely in its historical origins. Obviously, the appearances and pathways to contemporary fascism differ from ones in the past, sometimes quite radically. But even if we are “not there yet,” many of the symptoms are: the recent controversial expulsion of Roma from France, which, for the fist time since WWII, saw people “relocated” from a western democracy based solely on their ethnicity; the unifying cause based on the identification of “foreigners” as enemies and scapegoats; the obsession with issues of security; the blind protection of corporate powers; the curtailing of labor movements; the suppression and/or media-manipulation of protests and dissent; restrictions on freedom of speech through the complex control of mass media; condescension for intellectuals and art; and the overall remilitarization of societies based on the instrumentalization of fear in the midst of massive economic crises.

Despite the lack of any definition of contemporary fascism, which was a criticism of Mocnik’s book at the time it was published, it is important to insist on this term. It must be possible to discuss the tendencies that could reveal outlines of the political and social compositions that justify the term fascism, not as repeating historical constellations, but as contemporary phenomena for which the past provides a crucial key to our understanding. Many writers, analysts, and theoreticians do not refrain from discussing and putting a name to contemporary fascism. Sociologist and historical social scientist Immanuel Wallerstein talks about the possibility of “democratic fascism,” drawing his conclusions from parallels between historical fascism as the response to the crisis of the capitalist system, and present attempts at systemic solutions to capitalist contradictions.[3] Philosopher and writer Umberto Eco discusses the “Ur-Fascism that can come back under the most innocent of disguises.”[4] The inconclusiveness of a definition of contemporary fascism should not stop us from soberly looking into the way it develops and fighting it, as waiting until the time we will be able to describe it properly and scientifically might prove too late for sustained and effective political action. The current moment calls for strong words and political mobilization.

In recent years inflammatory rhetoric of the new right-wing political constellations, developed gradually over the last few decades, has been spurred by the growing concentration of social and economic contradictions that are taking neoliberal capitalism to its breaking point. But the processes behind these alarming electoral successes have been with us for quite some time, as the poster and mural by the Danish collective SUPERFLEX, Foreigners, please don’t leave us alone with the Danes, first produced in 2002, reminds us. In the decade since its initial presentation, the discreetly humorous tone of SUPERFLEX’s request made to foreigners—turning the threat of expulsion into a plea for them to stay and self-ironically alluding to a multicultural if not international context in which contemporary art is produced and circulated—has taken on darker overtones. The political rhetoric focused on the threat allegedly posed by foreigners to the cohesion and norms of Danish society, and discourse involving open hatred of immigrants amid the institution of racist laws against immigrants, has in the meantime ceased to be endemic exclusively in Denmark.

At the conclusion of Night and Fog, Alain Resnais’ 1956 disheartening documentary account of the concentration camps, the narrator states: “We pretend it all happened only once, at a given time and place.” The attitude toward the fascist past in relation to our present continues to be one of denial. Examples of this denial, and acceptance, are numerous, from deportations and inhumane treatment of refugees and immigrants, to the already normalized methods of the “War on Terror” that shocked us when they were introduced a decade ago. But this “necessity” for secret military operations, prison torture, satellite surveillance, and the “black world” of the hidden military-industrial complex developed after 9/11 should not be accepted easily, as Trevor Paglen consistently keeps reminding us. By using photography and video to disclose hidden US military landscapes and agendas, Paglen approaches his subject as closely as possible to expose it and make it visible. But what actually emerges out of invisibility is not a selection of objects as such, but an idea of a society that normalizes extrajudicial and extraterritorial “anonymous” state violence as an effective model of political power.

Milica Tomic’s work One day, instead of one night, a burst of machine- gun fire will flash, if light cannot come otherwise (2009) documents actions she carried out between September and October 2009. Walking around the city carrying a plastic shopping bag in one hand, and a Kalashnikov in the other, the artist revisited forgotten sites in Belgrade where successful anti-fascist actions took place during WWII. Not once was she approached, or stopped, by the passersby. (Would it be different if the Kalashnikov were not carried by a tall blond woman, but by, let’s say, a bearded man with a dark complexion?) The passion and civic dedication of the protagonists of WWII actions, as expressed in the audio interviews playing in the background of the video documenting the artist walking, as much as they are denied and forgotten today form a striking contrast to the lethargy and void of the present.

Open manifestations of fascism are fairly easy to recognize (just as it is easy to see that more and more of them are appearing). But we need to turn our attention to the silent fascism that is becoming normalized through the systematic violence seeping into the laws and everyday administration practices of nation-states, and to assess the mechanisms of oppression and the various symptoms of contemporary fascism that are being presented as unavoidable, pragmatic necessities. We need to remember that for almost two decades before the eruption of WWII, historical fascism existed in Europe in parallel to, or more precisely, as a part of “normal life,” gaining momentum and supporters, and becoming internalized by the state, and that the so-called “normal life” continued in many places even throughout the war years. Thus the exhibition addresses the phenomena of contemporary fascism from the perspective of the flipsides of democracies.

The series of works_ Art, Property of Politics I–III (2011) by Jonas Staal examines relations between the field of art and art’s political use, offering insight into the social consequences of nation- and race-based politics and the way they threaten to distort the body politic in a specific context. Art, Property of Politics III: Closed Architecture_ (2011) showcases the architectural model of a prison designed by Fleur Agema, former spatial designer and prominent member of the Dutch Freedom Party. Based on Agema’s 2004 master’s thesis that proposed the possibilities of a “phased” prison that actively “designs” the inmates’ behavior, Staal produced a body of work (video animation, architectural model, prints, theater performance, etc.) that make Agema’s concepts tangible. While making a meticulous analysis of the complex and sinister system that attempts to influence prisoners’ behavior through the manipulation and integration of incentive and punishment into the architectural framework, Staal invites us to observe the model of a prison as a metaphor for reflecting the dynamics (not unique to the Dutch context) of society as a whole.

That capitalism itself does not need democracy, and that it equally, and even exceedingly, thrives within totalitarian regimes, has been a well-known fact since the extreme and enforced liberalizations of many national economies under army dictatorships throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Looking into ways in which the paradoxes of authoritarian democracy play out in Belarus, since 1994 under the repressive rule of President Alexander Lukashenko, is at the core of a work by Marina Naprushkina. In her wall drawing Self # governing (2011–2012) the artist is waving two flags: one is the current official Belarus flag designed by Lukashenko, and the other is that of the equally problematic oppositional extreme nationalist party. The work dissects the visual and linguistic structure of the authoritarian regime and identifies the limitations of multiple “democratic choices” as rhetoric that in reality transforms democracy into an illusion. In his work, Turkish artist Burak Delier appropriates neoliberal strategies of culture-industry production management and control, often in order to explore the way in which capitalism operates in relation to authoritarian and repressive political circumstances, or efforts at consolidation and protection of the sanctity of the nation and national identities. In 2007 he inaugurated the imaginary pseudo-company Tersyön _that created real products, such as a demonstration jacket, the _Parkalynch, which protects protesters on the streets from the police, and the Madimak ‘93 fire-resistant suit. Exploring the ways in which societies of control, via psychology and research into consumer focus groups, coerce us by exploiting our desires, Delier addresses the invisible “soft fascism” based not on violent repression but on numb consumerism.

Reflecting upon and critically examining the ways in which the language of the media brings about shifts in public opinion on what is acceptable and desirable for a certain society is crucial to understanding how manifestations of fascism multiply, and to what extent we are all implicated in their systemic growth. The series The Details (2003–2011) by filmmaker Avi Mograbi consists of short, concise extracts from his longer docu-fictional films problematizing political violence in Israel. Mograbi’s films bring our attention to the systematic violence of the state and the way it is manifested in contingencies of everyday life, asking questions about its personal and collective consequences and continually dissolving the idea of “direct cinema.” In her photographs, Lidwien van de Ven also reworks the potentials of a documentary approach and invests in the political capacity of the gaze as well as its scope, level of engagement, and even its complicity. The three photos presented in the exhibition document several recent political events in Europe: the electoral success of the far-right political party National Front in France; the Dutch Defence League’s support for Geert Wilders during his “hate speech” trial in the Netherlands; and Angela Merkel’s apology to the family and friends of the men murdered by neo-Nazis (the Döner murders) in Germany. Van de Ven’s images skirt that which remains unseen in media coverage of events, painstakingly revealing the media’s ideological background. Mladen Stilinovic often juxtaposes fragments of words and images to question the very foundation of language. Frequently in his works, including the series of collages_ Insulting Anarchy_ (2005–2012), he uses humor in dealing with issues that can be seen as ubiquitous factors and fertile soil for various populist ideologies, such as unemployment, deteriorated conditions of labor, corruption, pauperization, austerity, consumerism, and aggressive state policies—factors that permeate typical “transitional” societies such as Croatia, but increasingly also former strongholds of western liberal democracies. Etcétera… also uses humor and irony to challenge the social hierarchies of everyday life and mechanisms of repression. In 2004 they inaugurated “errorism,” a political and philosophical movement that affirms the idea of error as a human condition in the capitalist world that eschews mistakes and failures. In this exhibition they use the book Chile Ayer Hoy [Chile Yesterday Today], released in Chile in 1975 by state-supported publisher Editora Nacional Gabriela Mistral during the military regime of Augusto Pinochet, to look into the ideological use of images and symbols in building the logic and narrative of fascism and the way these elements operate within social structures.

The exhibition engages with disparate details and fragmented narratives, the “short-circuits between the particular and the universal” that Mocnik considers characteristic of contemporary forms of fascism, presenting a series of case studies whose “local” particularity is tested against broader social changes. At the same time, the works presented actively engage with the question of the role of art in times when democracy is increasingly being handed over to expert bodies wholly unaccountable to the electorate, and there is little doubt that the art world and its institutions are not where the decisions are being made. Still, without tending to redefine the notion of fascism or to function solely as statements and reports on fascistic discourses, the exhibition points to the potentials of artistic agency to change the way we perceive the world. As the choices between the fascism of the future and a more egalitarian society are still there, through its ability to acquire knowledge, fuel the imagination of political and social criticism, and contribute to a clearer understanding of social processes and their underlying facets, art has a responsibility that it cannot afford to miss out on.


[1] Rastko Mocnik, Extravagantia II: Koliko fašizma? (Ljubljana: Studia Humanitatis, 1995).

[2] Rastko Mocnik, “Extravagantia II: How much fascism?” _Red Thread 1 _(2009), online at:

[3] Immanuel Wallerstein, Historical Capitalism with Capitalist Civilization (New York: Verso, 2011), p. 162.

[4] Umberto Eco, “Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt,” online at: Also available in_ New York Review of Books_ (1995): pp. 12 – 15.

A text authored by What, How & Whom/WHW on the occasion of the group exhibition, How Much Fascism?, curated by What, How & for Whom/WHW. The exhibition took place at BAK between 29 September till 23 December 2012. For more information regarding How Much Fascism?, please see here.