Sintesi Fascista (1935) by Alessandro Bruschetti. Photo courtesy the Wolfsonian-Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr Collection
The glamour, bullying and violence of the libertarian alt-Right has a direct political ancestor, and it’s not Nazi Germany
Fascism begins as something in the air. Stealthy as smoke in the darkness, easier to smell than to see. Fascism sets out an ethos, not a set of policies; appeals to emotion, not fact. It begins as a pose, often a deceptive one. It likes propaganda, dislikes truth, and invests heavily in performance. Untroubled by its own incoherence, it is anti-intellectual and yet contemptuous of the populace even as it exploits the crowd mentality. Fascism is accented differently in different countries, and uses the materials – and the media – of the times.
Facism is hostile to egalitarianism and loathes liberalism. It champions ‘might is right’, a Darwinian survival of the nastiest, and detests vulnerability: the sight of weakness brings out the jackboot in the fascist mind, which then blames the victim for encouraging the kick. Fascism not only promotes violence but relishes it, viscerally so. It cherishes audacity, bravado and superbia, promotes charismatic leaders, demagogues and ‘strong men’, and seeks to flood or control the media. Even as it pretends to speak for the people, it creates the rule of the elite, a cult of violent chauvinism and a nationalism that serves racism.
The fascism of Thomas Mair (who killed the British Labour MP Jo Cox) or the now proscribed neo-Nazi National Action youth movement in the UK is so obvious; you can see it coming a mile away. The more insidious kind is the type being nourished across today’s libertarian movement. Its precursors are in Italy, not Germany, in the Italian Futurism that bolstered Benito Mussolini, in the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, and in the mythic Roman figure of Deus Sol Invictus.
In the Futurist manifesto of 1909, Filippo Marinetti, the movement’s poster-boy, articulated the emotional fascism from which political fascism stems: ‘[O]ur hearts are not in the least tired. For they are nourished by fire, hatred and speed!’ Steel was the archetypal material for Futurist sculpture, but there are materials of the mind, too: the steel of cruelty, the gunmetal of hatred: ‘We want to exalt aggressive action, the racing foot, the fatal leap, the smack and the punch.’
In contemporary libertarianism, there is a similar love of hatred, from the alt-Right libertarian news site Breitbart proudly publishing the UK libertarian writer James Delingpole’s paean ‘In Praise of “Hate Speech”’, to Sean Gabb who, as director of the Libertarian Alliance in 2006, said: ‘[W]e believe in the right to promote hatred by any means that do not fall within the Common Law definition of assault.’ (Gabb said this as he stepped forward to defend David Irving’s expression of Holocaust denialism.) When Breitbart’s CEO Steve Bannon moved to become Trump’s chief strategist, his appointment was cheered by the former head of the Ku Klux Klan, and approved by the American Nazi party.
The character traits applauded by today’s libertarians – ambition, superbia, speed, drive, spin, success and spikiness – are the qualities the Futurists valued. There is fire here but never warmth; appetite but never food. If conviviality has an opposite, it is this: anti-vivial, anti-genial and, in its treatment of the future, anti-generative. UK libertarians call their online magazine Spiked, recalling both date-rape drugs and weaponry (as well as poor journalism that deserves to be spiked rather than published.)
Libertarians’ bullyboy mentality detests the sensibility of liberalism, and torments those they call ‘SJWs’ (social justice warriors). There should be no regulations to protect the weak, they say, and they loathe the vulnerable: the British journalist Milo Yiannopoulos, Breitbart’s star writer, having encouraged the racist and sexist abuse of the American actress Leslie Jones on Twitter, then mocked her, saying: ‘If at first you don’t succeed … play the victim.’ This attitude is proto-fascistic, to despise the victim for being vulnerable, using that weakness as a reason to treat them with contempt. The UK libertarian writer Claire Fox, though supportive of an open-border policy on migration, scorns individual or cultural sensitivity by promulgating the term ‘Generation Snowflake’ to describe people who might ‘melt’ in the heat of hate-speech or who want ‘trigger alerts’ to be issued over material that might traumatise survivors of sexual abuse.
Like contemporary libertarians, the Italian Futurists saw themselves as anti-establishment – opposing political and artistic tradition – and driven, as the name suggests, forward to the future. As Marinetti wrote in the Futurist manifesto: ‘Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute.’ Libertarians, like the Futurists, loathe the past, which they associate with the natural world: the future is artificial, and they want to own it. Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist and Donald Trump backer, describes himself as ‘way libertarian’, and is heavily involved in the Singularity, a vision of transhumanism that promotes artificial super-intelligence to create the end of natural history.
The Futurist Luigi Russolo championed a materialist idea of music as pure noise: sound should be ‘bruitistic’, exemplified in the noise of technology and the city, as opposed to the music of history or the sound of nature. He sought to brutalise the ear with noise. Language was reduced to shout, the hate-scream that features so heavily in contemporary libertarian discourse. In design, libertarians go for the stark, crude smack of visual noise, not the sensitive subtlety of illustration…