The Question of Fascism as Liberal Reform: Dylan Rodríguez on George Jackson, Angela Davis, and the Fascism Problematic

Settle your quarrels, come together, understand the reality of our situation, understand that fascism is already here, that people are already dying who could be saved, that generations more will die or live poor butchered half-lives if you fail to act. Do what must be done, discover your humanity and your love in revolution. Pass on the torch. Join us, give up your life for the people.

– George Jackson, Blood in My Eye​​​​​​​

We say that if you dare to struggle, then you dare to win. If you dare not to struggle you don’t deserve to win. We wouldn’t go into the ring with Muhammad Ali and not fight and wonder why we lost, would we? If you don’t fight, then you don’t deserve to win. If you don’t move on these fascists, then you’re crazy. We say it’s no longer a question of violence or non-violence. We say it’s a question of resistance to fascism or non-existence within fascism.

– Fred Hampton, “It’s a class struggle goddammit,” speech given at Northern Illinois University, November 1969

The term Fascism has been used both too narrowly (to describe the specific attributes to far-right, counter-revolultionary European governments in the interwar period) and too broadly (as a “pejorative” for any political regime which displays some sort of “totalitarian extremism”). Rodríguez, via Jackson, argues instead to use the term “Fascism” to describe the hegemonic, state-sanctioned violence necessary for the reproduction of liberal democracies and the reforms through which liberal democracies justify and sediment these infrastructures and institutions of violence. Rather then being an aberration from or breakdown of liberal democracy and law and order, fascism belongs essentially to the restructuring and restoration of the relations of freedom/unfreedom, life/death, subjectivity/dehumanization that are repeatedly forgotten and rewritten by bourgeoise and white-supremacist myths of “formal equality” and other master narratives. The justification of America’s “racialized and gendered productions of genocide, (mass-based) captivity, and other strategically deployed militarizations that generate multiple scales of bodily disintegration and subjective disarticulation, premised on black chattel/penal enslavement (social death) and indigenous genocide (biological and cultural death)” as a humanitarian project essential to social order, or in other words, the centrality of repression, racial violence, and white supremacy to bourgeois democracy, is the fascism necessary for liberalism and its violent reforms. 

What is fascism? Is it an ideological and governmental relic of the intervening years between world wars? A right-wing party organization and its reactionary, anti-democratic trajectory? Corporatism, a closed economy, the totalitarian state, and the total subordination of the individual to the state? Or is it merely an anti-movement, defined in a negative way as anti-Marxist, anti-communist, anti-proletarian, but also anti-liberal, anti-parliamentarian, anti-individualism, and anti-democratic authoritarianism and elitism?

We must not be reductive. Fascism is not a uniquely European phenomenon that is positioned as an obverse evil to the virtues of bourgeois democracy. Just as Nazism could not have occurred without the projects of industrialized killing, containment, and repression that were and still are thoroughly embedded in the reproduction of liberal democracies, it is useless (and objectively wrong) to view fascism as a symptom of crisis or the breakdown of “democracy” and “civil society.” Instead, if we follow the theories and praxes of radical political prisoners and Black revolutionaries, we will be lead to conceptualize fascism as a restoration of a liberal hegemony and a way out of crisis. 

Revolutionary Black liberation militant and abolitionist George Jackson disrupts and rejects these facile and static understandings of fascism, giving theoretical primacy to the “pure force” of the historical trajectories of America with a diagnosis of the United States of America at precisely the moment of its epochal reformation through a symbiosis of massive state violence, white-supremacist terror, and liberal political and economic “reform.”

“We will never have a complete definition of fascism, because it is in constant motion, showing a new face to fit any particular set of problems that arise to threaten the predominance of the traditionalist, capitalist ruling class. But if one were forced for the sake of clarity to define it in a word simple enough for all to understand, that word would be “reform.” We can make our definition more precise by adding the word “economic.” “Economic reform” comes very close to a working definition of fascist motive forces. 

Such a definition may serve to clarify things even though it leaves a great deal unexplained. Each economic reform that perpetuates ruling-class hegemony has to be disguised as a positive gain for the upthrusting masses. Disguise enters as a third stage of the emergence and development of the fascist state. The modern industrial fascist state has found it essential to disguise the opulence of its ruling-class leisure existence by providing the lower classes with a mass consumer’s flea market of its own. Reform (the closed economy) is only a new way for capitalism to protect and develop fascism!”

(George Jackson, Blood in My Eye, 118-119).

Dylan Rodríguez conceptualizes the theoretical departure of understanding fascism as liberalism that crystallizes in the works and revolutionary lives of Black radical prison intellectuals such as George Jackson, Angela Davis, and others in the following questions:

“How might our political understanding of the United States be altered or dismantled if we were to conceptualize fascism as the restoration of a liberal hegemony, a way out of crisis, rather than as the symptom of crisis or the breakdown of “democracy” and “civil society”? On the one hand, this question requires a departure from the essentialist privileging of European sites as the paradigmatic examples of “authentic” fascism, totalitarian police states, and authoritarian regimes. On the other hand, it opens a mode of inquiry that facilitates a radical antagonism to the very premises of state power and “neoliberal” hegemony. This antagonism crystallizes on several different levels.

As a theoretical gesture, this question fosters a cognitive rupture from the common sense of liberal democracy by suggesting the centrality of repression, of racial violence, and white supremacy to the restoration and reproduction of “social order,” or Goldwaterist “law and order.” The common sense of the late-capitalist, white-supremacist, nominally liberal-democratic American “Homeland,” sustained as it is by persistent declarations of formal equality under the law, persistently sheds the genocidal cloak of earlier eras of conquest and enslavement through convenient exercises in selective forgetting and the constant rewriting of patriotic master narratives. Here, the telos of progress necessitates sanitized portrayals of genocide that render the violence of such things as Indian killing, land conquest, enslavement, and imperial invasion the tragic excess of an otherwise progressive developmental national narrative (or bildungsroman). Contemporary “multicultural” literatures (including some “prison writing”) accomplish precisely this narrative form through liberal critiques of racism and historical unfairness that reach for resolution with the permanent, open-ended hope of the nation’s American Dream.

The question of fascism-as-liberalism ruptures this narrative by centering genocide as the condition of possibility for the nation’s formation as well as its ongoing social reproduction. Ward Churchill’s critique of genocide discourse provides a more precise definition for this frequently abused term: “[G]enocide means the destruction, entirely or in part, of any racial, ethnic, national, religious, cultural, linguistic, political, economic, gender or other human group, however such groups may be defined by the perpetrator.” Churchill explains that the three primary forms of genocide involve physical killing, direct or indirect prevention of births, and cultural destruction. Recall, in this context, that George Jackson’s polemic in Blood in My Eye was premised less on an indictment of historical (past) genocides than it was on a fundamental critique of liberal (economic) reform as a restructuring of relations of unmediated violence between the plutocratic ruling classes and the “upthrusting masses.” Angela Davis’s identification of inchoate revolt with mundane black and brown disobedience to the law speaks similarly to the structural embeddedness of socialized killing within a white-supremacist capitalist formation. Such theoretical maneuvers drastically undermine hegemonic nationalist narratives: mass killing, slavery, human containment, and other forms of coercion become dynamic objects of analysis and intervention as they are understood to be the components necessary to the (past) making and (current) remaking of nationhood and civil society.

This problematic cannot recognize a narrative of “America,” nor can it imagine a “national” future, apart from the reproduction and “reform” of the United States’ fundamental technologies of existence: namely, its racialized and gendered productions of genocide, (mass-based) captivity, and other strategically deployed militarizations that generate multiple scales of bodily disintegration and subjective disarticulation, premised on black chattel/penal enslavement (social death) and indigenous genocide (biological and cultural death). This theoretical departure radically renarrates the United States’ conditions of existence as it draws sustenance from the fatal dialectics of life/death, freedom/unfreedom, subjectivity/dehumanization that inspire and structure (rather than inhibit or derail) social reproduction and national formation.

As a symbolic political intervention, this problematic also compels a rearticulation of the very notion of a radical praxis that is specific to the historical moment: what, in other words, is “radical” within the historical circumstances of this moment? How does one distinguish between liberalism, progressivism, and radicalism at a moment when remnants of older ideologies and strategies have become elemental to the symbolic universe and institutional reproduction of hegemonic or dominant political structures and discourses (take, for example, the veritable institutionalization of popular college and university courses on the “civil rights movement” and progressive “social movements”)? The reintroduction of a conception of massive state and state-sanctioned violence as a productive (as opposed to merely repressive or punitive) factor within the equation of a nominal liberal-democratic hegemony suggests the necessity for new forms of praxis that strategically dramatize, subvert, or stretch thin the logic and capacities of a Jackson’s durable and flexible “liberal” American fascism.

Finally, by rendering “fascism” as the primary operative theoretical term, this problematic refocuses attention on the regimes of state and state-sanctioned terror and violence that inhabit different spaces, afflict different communities and bodies, and condition social relations within allegedly liberal-democratic societies. This retheorized conception of fascism illuminates and elaborates a complex of forces that do not necessarily find static, permanent, or even altogether coherent institutional centers in state “institutions” such as police, legislature, prison, or school. Instead, massive state and state-sanctioned violence—as a fundamental expression of a social rule that is hegemonic or dominant—becomes a constantly produced and reproduced practice of relationality between different social, state, and cultural regimes, which themselves constitute multiple “centers of gravity” for the articulation and expansion of fascism as a broadly operative technology of domination.

In this sense, specific civic, political, and institutional sites—for example, the “neighborhood,” “classroom,” “military base,” or “prison”— may temporarily cohere as strategic or tactical locations for the production and exercise of coercive state force: to simply identify the sites wherein state violence inscribes, defines, and produces itself is not especially difficult, especially in the midst of proliferating forms of state violence and domestic militarization/warfare. The central challenge of the reconceived fascism problematic, however, is to elaborate and analyze, with historical specificity, how different social, political, and institutional sites of hegemonic or dominant power such as the university, legislature, police station, and corporate boardroom—hegemony’s multiple centers of gravity—exert a force on those sites, such as the prison, at which state violence is repeatedly and ritualistically performed. In short, how does the production of civil society’s structure of “common sense” and “consent” (the theoretical bulwark of the Gramscian conception of hegemony) affect, transform, and enhance the proliferation of domestic war, in dialogue with Fanon’s “language of pure force”? Finally, how does the ideological glue of popular/national consensus create and reproduce strategic relations of direct state and state-sanctioned domination and subjection—mediated through regimes of mass-based immobilization and bodily disintegration—which in turn perform on targeted bodies, communities, and borders that are both momentarily (as in the Japanese-American internment of World War II) and permanently (as in the categorical subjection of black subjectivity under both enslavement and post-Emancipation racial regimes) constructed as outside the domain of Gramscian “consent”? The dynamic, strategic relations of violence condensing within the American social formation at different times and in different places are neither accidental nor excessive, and the challenge of this reconceptualized fascism problematic is to comprehend the socially reproductive capacities of coercive technologies and (proto)genocidal practice within the current order.”

(Dylan Rodríguez, “Radical Lineages, George Jackson, Angela Davis, and the Fascism Problematic,” Forced Passages: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the US Prison Regime, 137-141).

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