For reasons that barely need explaining, the concept of “fascism” has been the object of much discussion in recent years. In the background of these debates, the irresolvable question is always that of how much or how little the concept should abstract from the only two historical cases to which it is universally agreed to apply: the movements led by Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler in Italy and Germany in the 1930s. Is fascism a strictly European phenomenon (something that someone like Federico Finchelstein would contest)? Is it exclusive to the conditions of crisis and imperial competition of the interwar period? Does it necessarily entail statism and nationalism, or could it be compatible with a neoliberal, pro-international capital agenda? What constitutes the specificity that distinguishes it from other forms of authoritarian capitalism? The difficulty in reaching consensus around these definitional problems has led to tentative solutions such as “late fascism” (Alberto Toscano) and “post-fascism” (Enzo Traverso).
Among the strongest candidates for traits that are essential to fascism is the backing of a strong, highly disciplined mass movement, normally organized along paramilitary lines. This is one of the most common reasons contemporary commentators give as to why figures like Donald Trump in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil should not be included in that category. Yet a definition of fascism that relies on a paramilitary mass movement would seem to include India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Alone among its contemporaries, perhaps, the BJP would deserve this title by virtue of its intimate relationship with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) movement, on whose capillary structure it relies for on-the-ground political work and base-building.
My goal here is not to make that case, nor is it to judge whether using the term “fascist” to describe today’s far right is correct. Rather, I wish to put forward three interrelated points. First, our expectations regarding the organizational form that fascism should assume ought to be revised in light of how the world has changed since the 1930s. Second, among the new forms that far-right political organization can take, there is one that follows at least partially a model of political and spiritual entrepreneurship set by certain strains of evangelicalism. Thirdly and finally, we should not conceive the political and organizing power of evangelical churches or the RSS as deriving exclusively from their doctrinal influence; religion is not the only, and perhaps not even the most important, service they provide.
Let us start with the first point. I doubt anyone would want to deny that our societies are substantially different in their organization from those in which historical fascism came to life. To pick just a few major tendencies, we could point to the waning of Fordist discipline in favor of flexible regimes of exploitation, the growing atomization of working and social life, and the spread of consumer culture as well as mass and social media. Now, it seems reasonable to assume that political organization exists in some degree of continuity in relation to social organization, in the sense that dominant patterns of the latter usually function as a path of least resistance for the expression of political opinions and objectives. If that is so, should it really surprise us that the ways in which people organize politically have also changed, and the far right should be no exception? We can find examples of this transformation in the way that large mass mobilizations nowadays often bypass mass organizations, or in the decline of the twentieth mass party in favor of forms that Paolo Gerbaudo has described as the “television” and, more recently, the “digital” party.
While many authors––Hardt and Negri, Jessop, Revelli, and Gerbaudo himself, among others––have established a parallel between the mass party and the Fordist factory, both of which enjoyed their heydays during the same period, perhaps the best comparison for the form would be another kind of enterprise that also saw its apogee around the same time: the vertically integrated company. What both have in common is the principle (and horizon) of bringing all operations “in house.” So much so, in fact, that in some conceptions of the party––not least the one embraced by historical fascism––it was ultimately supposed to absorb the state, the whole of political life, and, at least tendentially, society itself. What would the equivalent political form be for a time of outsourcing and heterogenous supply chains? While many left-wing activists have recently started to speak of themselves as belonging to an ecology within which functions that would have once belonged to a single organization are dispersed among several actors, this has arguably been the organizational model that the right––and maybe the religious right in particular––has been successfully employing in the United States since the 1970s. Events like the recent reversal of Wade v. Roe are only understandable in light of long-running processes that involve the coordinated and uncoordinated cooperation of agents active in different fields and scales rather than the work of any single organization. Party structures, funders, think tanks, legal firms, campaign and lobby groups, and, of course, churches are but some of the nodes that compose these networks.
Thus, while it is true that we will not find something like Mussolini’s camicie nere or the RSS behind Trump and Bolsonaro, we can interpret this absence as meaning that they have a movement that is differently organized rather than no movement at all. Instead of riding to power on the back of a single top-down structure, both have relied extensively on mobilizing, recruiting, and ideologizing done by others who existed independently but eventually came to perceive them as vehicles for their own ends, or simply saw in their rise an opportunity that was too good to miss. In fact, not even the paramilitary function is really absent from the ecology that surrounds these leaders. It has merely been outsourced to militias that operate independently and according to their own purposes––primarily economic, in the case of Brazil––but nonetheless understand themselves as part of a broader strategic game.
This takes us to the second point. What is most unique (in the sense of being most contemporary) about how the Trump and Bolsonaro ecologies came to be is their dependance on the affordances provided by our current mediascape. It is not just that both leaders were relative outsiders catapulted center stage by a clever use of digital platforms and the “clickbait” economy of attention. They were also lifted by a swarm of other media agents––podcasters, pundits, influencers, washed-up celebrities, YouTube channels etc.––for whom their presidential campaigns were attractive not only from a political but equally from a commercial point of view. In Bolsonaro’s case, even his avowed guru, the recently deceased Olavo de Carvalho, was a former astrologist who made a living from selling online courses and requested donations from his followers to pay medical bills. (True to his principles, he lived in Richmond, Virginia, instead of Brazil, where he would have access to free public healthcare.)
As I have argued elsewhere, we should see the far right as not only discursively pro-entrepreneur but as an entrepreneurial movement in its own right. What characterizes this new brand of political entrepreneur is both their use of media and how they tie the accumulation of political and economic capital intrinsically to one another: whereas taking increasingly “radical” and “polemical” stances is a way of enhancing one’s visibility and reach, building a robust and engaged follower base is, conversely, a means to increase one’s political access and clout. This phenomenon is evidently inseparable from platforms like Instagram and Twitter and the influencer culture they have spawned. I would argue, however, that an original model for this marriage of commerce and a higher mission––spiritual, worldly, or both––can be found in Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal pastors from at least the 1970s onwards. In adopting a more explicitly free enterprise approach to church-building, they did not just bring apostolic zeal and business together in their practice (and often also their preaching). They became increasingly involved in politics, at once leading their congregations towards certain secular goals, trading their power over them for political influence and then using that influence to further the economic interests of their churches and themselves. In doing so, they left a repertoire of discourses and practical moves that today’s political entrepreneurs can use to their advantage. It is hardly surprising, then, that there should be a considerable overlap, both political and operational, between evangelical leaders and the agitators of the far right. But this should also be a reminder that such processes are often less about religion as such (in the sense of, say, doctrinal content) than about the uses it can be put to.
At the same time, this convergence allows us to notice an important difference between the role that organizations such as churches or the RSS play in structuring the broader movement ecologies we are discussing here and the one played by influencers and media celebrities––which was the third point outlined above. As political entrepreneurs, all of them can be seen as providing one or more services, and some elements of these services no doubt remain relatively constant. Thus, they all purport to offer some kind of political representation, amplifying the voice of their followers and perhaps even acting as self-appointed negotiators on their behalf. They also deliver a number of psychological rewards: a cognitive and moral compass in times of disorientation, validation for certain feelings and prejudices, a sense of belonging and community, the elevated prospect of a higher mission to be accomplished, and the empowerment to do so. Yet it would be wrong to see the political power of evangelical groups and the RSS as arising primarily from the strength of the Christian faith or Hindutva, for the service they provide extends far beyond. Being a constant presence in their communities allows evangelical groups and the RSS to have a direct impact on the well-being of their base that an absent, underfunded state apparatus often cannot match. To join a church in the peripheries of Brazil and elsewhere is to find not only religion but often also support to deal with child care or addictions, training and help finding a job, literacy programs, networks of mutual aid, a social life. This lends the political messages that eventually run through these circuits at once greater credibility and a high degree of redundancy, since it ensures that the same ideas and slogans will be coming at the faithful via friends, family, radio shows, WhatsApp groups, and the pulpit.
Thus, even in those cases where far-right ecologies appear more decentralized than their historical forerunners, such as Brazil and the United States, we will still find that many of the functions that were once the monopoly of large mass organizations continue to be fulfilled, more often than not by religious groups; it is just that these functions themselves have become more decentralized. This grants the right a local, on-the-ground authority to which few left organizations nowadays can measure up. In fact, right-wing evangelicalism in Brazil has massively benefited from the vacuum left by the dismantling of Liberation Theology in the 1980s and 1990s. When the grassroots work of Ecclesial Base Communities was abandoned, there was plenty of space for something that performed some of its functions but took them in a very different direction.
A finer understanding of how the far right organizes is essential to avoiding inadequate comparisons to past experiences and devising effective strategies to stop its advance today. It is also crucial if we are not to play into the hands of the far right by inadvertently confirming what it says about its opponents––that they are cosmopolitan secular elites with nothing but disdain for the values of common folk––by making misguided generalizations about religiousness and religious groups because we lack a nuanced appreciation of the precise organizational roles that religion plays in such ecologies. I hope the three points outlined here can contribute to sharpening somewhat the focus of our analysis and, in doing so, help us see more clearly where we can intervene and how.