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Democracy Beyond the Liberal Order

The Civic Foundations of Fascism in Europe: Italy, Spain, and Romania, 1870-1945

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, © 1936.
A demonstration in Salamanca, Spain, celebrating the Francoist occupation of Gijón.

Verso’s re-release of Dylan Riley’s 2010 book, The Civic Foundations of Fascism in Europe: Italy, Spain, and Romania, features a new introduction in which Riley succinctly takes on the question of whether President Trump’s authoritarian leanings qualify him as a fascist. His answer might surprise. Riley argues that Trump’s leadership style is not fascistic but patrimonial. He has expanded on this argument elsewhere, noting the strangeness of a pre-modern leadership style at the helm of an advanced capitalist state. The strangeness not withstanding, Civic Foundations offers the reader a substantive history and technical guide that underpins this conclusion and offers a poignant insight about our understanding of democracy. Setting aside Riley’s assessment of Trump’s ideology, Civic Foundations tackles a much older and contested question – “What is fascism?”

Riley defines fascism as a form of “authoritarian democracy.” This definition proved controversial among scholars upon the book’s initial publication because fascism has been traditionally understood as an anti-democratic ideology. Riley contends that this critique assumes democracy is “a procedure for selecting political elites through universal suffrage.” Rather than settling for a technical definition which ignores civil society, Riley defines democracy as a “principle of legitimacy or sovereignty,” rendering it more akin to a political formula “that can be combined with a variety of institutional forms” (4). His definition is consistent with the concept of hegemony as theorized by the Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci, through whose work he interprets the complex structure of civil society in the modern state. It is within this complex structure that often unseen contestations for leadership take place alongside, but outside, the democratic process.

Riley’s research encompasses primary sources documenting the local details of civic life in Italy, Spain, and Romania that illustrate the historical applicability of the Gramscian model. The analysis is balanced, well-paced, thoroughly historicized, and makes a strong case against mass society theorists –especially the early work of Hannah Arendt–who argue that totalitarianism is the result of an absence or weakness of civic associations. Fascism functions for theorists like Arendt as a subtype of the totalitarian order. Whereas for Riley, fascism is one possible outcome of competing contestations that happen inside civil society, and which can exist alongside democratic structures. His counter-history, instead, empirically examines how 19th century political philosophy on civil associations err in both the radical and conservative traditions.

The radical tradition comes out of contradictory interpretations of Karl Marx’s historical and philosophical writings on the French revolutions of 1848. One account attributes the development of fascism to an underdeveloped industrial class. The other attributes it to an overdeveloped capitalist class in need of further “markets and resources to shore up sagging rates of profit” (xvi). Riley concedes that the contradiction is not to be glossed over. He works his way around it by emphasizing how the role of major owners of property and the extension of capitalist interests are necessary to any explanation of fascism. He cites Robert Paxton–who is far from a Marxist historian–to validate his argument on how orthodox this interpretation is among scholars. His analysis on this point is thorough and technical but will strike more critical readers as reductive–a flaw that may belong as much to Marx’s original writings as to Riley’s.

The conservative tradition owes its lineage to Alexis de Tocqueville. He theorized that the voluntary organizations constituting civil society draw citizens away from the spheres of the family and the economy. This provides a sense of community that balances the atomizing tendencies of modernity. Tocqueville believed that allowing modern citizens to become “more and more occupied with projects for which public tranquility is essential, discourage[d] thoughts of revolution” (8). Tocqueville assumes that civil society holds a causal relation to the development of political formations. A body of literature has since revised Tocqueville to suggest that not all associations are equally good for democracy. This theoretical maneuver allows for the interpretation that fascism arises from corrupt and pathological forms of civil associations. Good civil associations are democratic, while bad civil associations are anti-democratic and don’t rightfully belong to a legitimate understanding of civil society. By this logic, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is not a legitimate form of civil association. Riley cites Harvard University sociologist Theda Skocpol’s work on American civic engagement because she includes the KKK as an association rightfully, if uncomfortably, belonging to this history.

Riley contends that this binary reading is grounded on our misunderstanding of how civil society functions as well as what fascism is as a political ideology. Fascists did, in fact, dismantle parliaments, elections, and civil rights. Their reasons for doing so are not accounted for by the totalitarian impulses attributed to fascist governments based on the typology of mass society theorists. What fascists saw in the modern state was a more fundamental crisis of politics. The minutia of the cases examined suggest that the path that led to the rise of fascist states did not come about from weak civil societies made up of corrupt anti-democratic forms of civic associations. Not only were these associations not anti-democratic, they emerged in states with developed civil societies. For Riley, these explanations also fail to account for the fascist understanding of how civil associations could be utilized tactically. Fascists saw the procedural mechanisms of democratic states as incapable of representing the “general will” of the people. Their dismantling of democratic processes, along with the validity of their respective institutions and norms, were not anti-democratic in the totalitarian sense, as they were a rejection of politics as such.

This distinction is key to understanding Riley’s thesis. Fascists did not see themselves as leftists or rightist but transcending politics. In this perverse sense, they saw themselves, and functioned accordingly, as fulfilling an alternative democratic order that was explicitly authoritarian, but which was more accurately representative of the people. This interpretation demonstrates how fascism is not contradictory to democracy as it is to liberalism. This conclusion is the most important and radical implication of Riley’s argument.

The fascist attacks on liberalism derived precisely from fascism’s democratic character. The reason this appears contradictory to our contemporary understanding is because we conflate democracy with liberalism. If we disassociate democracy from liberalism, we can historically situate fascism more accurately but no less critically as a political ideology. Perhaps more importantly, this analysis compels us to consider what other possible formations of democracy we could imagine, were it not for our erroneous assumption that democracy is a procedural form exclusive, or best articulated, by liberal ideology.

Civic Foundations contextualizes well the complex history leading to the ascendancy of Trump’s presidency and the contemporary emergence of populist right wing parties and movements from Hungary to Brazil. It also establishes persuasively how 20th century Fascism emerged out of a crisis of the political. Even if we accept Riley’s thesis that Trump does not fit the classical definition of a fascist leader, the current global right-wing resurgence should be understood as emerging from a historically unique but comparable crisis in our times. Those who believe in political alternatives that reject rightist extremes and the liberal status quo should recognize that the prospect of severing democracy from liberalism may be a seminal and necessary act of political praxis.


Ronmel Navas

Ronmel is trained as a literary critic. His specializations are in modernist literature and Western cultural history. He is invested in historicizing the politics and aesthetics of representation under late modernity. He lives in Washington, DC.
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