Covid-19 and spectre of Fascism

By Gurnam Singh | OPINION |

I am sure most people’s immediate response to the image above, which is of slogans projected by ordinary citizens onto flats in São Paulo, is to say yes! Who in their right mind could disagree with ‘Bolsonaro Out’ and ‘Genocidal Fascist Ignorant Criminal’?

Whilst, as a life long anti-racist and socialist, I find myself instinctively agreeing with the general sentiments expressed in these slogans, I am not certain that labelling Brazilian president Jair Bolsorano a fascist, at least at this moment in time, is accurate. Though we are seeing the rise of a new authoritarian leadership in our largest nations, I don’t think we can call them fascists yet!

For sure Bolsorano, Modi, Trump and Johnson — what I term the ‘Gang of Four’ — are unpleasant egotistical leaders, but does that make them ‘fascists’? I think only time will tell, but at the moment one gets the sense is that each has become the leader due to a mixture of false pretenses, (social) media manipulation, populism, weakness/fragmentation of opposition parties and politics without any principles. To be fascists, in the truest sense, they would need to have significant popular support, both from the masses of ordinary working people from below and ruling elites from above. For a complex set of contradictory reasons, with some limited exceptions, neither of these constituencies favour them. Indeed, much of their ‘popular’ appeal is from precisely those who would suffer most from their policies.

But for sure, under the potentially explosive economic situation brought about by the novel coronavirus, and the real likelihood of mass unemployment and inevitable fallout that will follow, there is a fear that we might be heading towards fascism. By moving towards protectionism and nationalism, on the one hand, and by consolidating their power with majoritarian discontent on the other, there is a real danger of fascism taking hold in all these and other countries. History does have an uncanny knack of repeating itself and to stop fascism re-establishing itself we must both learn the lessons of history and develop an alternative progressive internationalist politics.

The term ‘fascism’ originated from the Italian term fascismo which is derived from fascio meaning ‘a bundle of sticks’. This clearly relates to the violent nature of fascism. Though fascists often exploit ‘democratic’ processes to achieve power, their is a deep mistrust of democracy which itself becomes presented as being an obstacle to national ‘renewell’

In the 1920s in Italy, Mussolini and his National Fascist Party (PNF) stepped into the breach, taking advantage of the failure or ineffectiveness of existing institutions, parties, and elites. Like our present day ‘Gang of Four’, he, too, offered a mixture of “national” and “social” policies designed to make ‘Italy great again’. As well as promising national renewal, the fascists also appealed to Italians’ desire for social security, solidarity, and protection from worst effects of the economic crises. In their endeavour to appear to those at the bottom and top, they promised to provide welfare, restore order and protect private property.

Similarly, in the 1930s in Germany, following the Great Depression, which caused the economy to collapse and immense human suffering, and the failure of the established parties of the left and right, a path was cleared for Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), more popularly know as the ‘Nazi Party. Their promise was to create a “people’s community” (Volksgemeinschaft) that would overcome the country’s divisions. However, most critically, Hitler’s reference to ‘people’ did not include minorities, most notably Jews, and other population groups that were termed “undesirables.” And it was this appeal to majoritarianism that led to the terrible crimes against humanity and the destruction of the country.

We have all seen how the Covid-19 tragedy is hitting the most vulnerable (older people, racialised minorities, refugees and migrant workers, non-unionised workers) the hardest. But most worrying is a sense that these are the very same populations that have been abandoned at this terrible moment in history.

In India, for example, following the invocation of the Disaster Management Act, which gave Prime Minister Modi extraordinary powers to issue sweeping orders even in areas that normally fall under state governments, his government has abdicated responsibility for the millions of stranded migrant labourers. This resulted in an unprecedented humanitarian crisis leaving millions of them having to walk, cycling, and dangerously hitchhike home, sometimes over distances of more than 1,000 km. Indeed, it seems their only saving grace has been a many 1000’s of civil society group, who have sought to provide some means of subsistence.

Perhaps the most spectacular example of this was the relief provided by the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC), who has been serving millions of meals to the needy since the lockdown. Currently, the DSGPC under an initiative called “Langar on Wheels” (community kitchen), is serving food for migrant labourers at around 10  locations in Delhi itself. And this model has been replicated by Sikh groups across not only India, but even in the so-called developed western nations.

And so, with some exceptions, most notably South Korea and New Zealand, if these desperate community led initiatives have exposed the weaknesses of the systems of governance, they also provide hope. That is by reminding us that that there are many more good people than those who would wish to see suffering or cause harm. So, the hope that we can avoid the terrible specter of fascism, which thrives on fear and falsehood. And this hope comes from a massive demonstration by ordinary people across the world that what matters most of all is humanitarian values, the values of caring, loving thy neighbour, for justice are equality.

But such sentiments themselves can be put under terrible strain when governments abdicate their responsibilities to protect all the citizens and to uphold universal human rights. Time will tell if history repeats itself or if humanity has indeed learnt from the failures of the past.

[Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK. He can be contacted at]

* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.



Time to flip some prevailing ideas (Asia Samachar, 24 April 2020)

Sohan Singh Bhakna: Founder of revolutionary Ghadr Party (Asia Samachar, 21 Jan 2019)

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