Rethinking Liberalism and Fascism

Liberalism thinks of fascism as the domination of extremist precision, the suppression of some creative vitality. The deliberative character of parliamentary democracy – the inconclusiveness of dialogue – is contrasted with the absolutist closure of fascism. What if we reversed the liberal value judgement regarding fascism? What if fascism consisted not of dogmatic fixity and sharp lines but of the mesh formed by a kind of democratic openness?

Francis Bacon, “Landscape with Pope/Dictator,” 1946

Francis Bacon’s “Landscape with Pope/Dictator” can be of help in such rethinking. The face of the pope/dictator is blurred – it is a smudged brown shape held together by the centrality of the mouth. The mouth is the intermediary of fascist demagogy. Parliamentary liberals foreground the mouth as the democratic source of “voice,” as the harmonious stream of sound that never stops contributing to the richness of the political fabric. Fascism also foregrounds the mouth, but no longer as the source of a creative voice but as the organ of commanding speech, so much so that the mouth comes to define the face itself. Bacon exaggerates the liberal logic of creative vocality by dissolving the stable face of democrats into a disfigured container for the mouth. The shape of the face – this is what allows liberalism to join together the discordant, divisive polyvocality of class struggle into the seamlessness of the parliament. Fascism merely extends the liberal logic by freeing the vitalism of the mouth from the bounds of the face. This shows that the creative openness of liberal democracy functions as a hegemonic project built through the forced integration of social fractals. The reality of class divisions is buried beneath the integrationism of the democratic voice, which demands peaceful dialogue instead of militant struggle. Fascism completes this agenda – any pretense of an actual dialogue among distinct persons is thrown away as the differentness of faces is submerged in the oceanic force of the mouth. Communism, on the other hand, stages the eruption of differences, namely the primary difference of classes. It shatters all images of faux wholeness in the intensity of hostile struggle.

The pope/dictator has hazy hands. In the present-day liberal-capitalist architecture, hands are the nodes unifying citizen-individuals. Oneness courses through the hands. The hand may not be used for throwing Molotov cocktails against the government. It is best preserved within the procedures of electoral legitimacy. Thus, hands merge, dissolving into the general will of the nation. The hazy hands of the fascist reveal the truth of liberal unity: the indisctinctness of hands reduces it to the flowness of the body, the body that is directed towards the metallic protuberance of the mic. The mic functions as a nucleus for the fascist spectacle: it sucks out and concentrates the fluid vitality of the fascist body into the amplified sound that pervades the ears of the audience. The liberal paradigm of individual freedom – the flexibility and openness of the individual – turns into its seeming opposite: the frozenness of the mic. However, there is no opposition here. Liberalism already contains the architecture of imaginary unity found in fascism. The mic of the fascist leader merely foregrounds the regressive foundation of liberal democracy: the bourgeois-democratic suppression of real antagonisms under the pretense of dialogue is bound to lead to the fascist behemoth whose certitude of absolute comprehensiveness unleashes violence against the Other.

Bacon paints flowers beneath the podium where the pope/dictator is speaking. Liberal political theory considers nature as the site of dynamism, as the domain in which force can be observed in its exuberant purity. Nature reflects back to human beings their living potentialities that they are born with. Flowers are a symbol of life’s beauty, the way in which a beneficial order emerges from the free exchange of natural elements. From seeds to flower – this is a journey of beauty that encapsulates the liberal insistence on the value of peaceful coexistence and dialogue. What, then, are flowers doing in a fascist landscape? Bacon’s flowers appear very congruous – their compact groupness resembles hands that are clapping at the dictator’s speech. This, again, brings to the fore the repressed presupposition of liberalism: the beauty of flowers is rooted in the commonality of the soil, the organicist interlinkage of elements with each other. The peaceful poise of the flowers, their growth from the ground of co-existence, positions them in front of the fascist, whose speech they are silently absorbing. When there is too much democratic talk, the end result is silence. The voice of democracy exists within the same frame as the enraptured silence of fascist storm troopers. When the beauty of flowers is all that is visible to the eye, the ugliness of fascism is not far. We have to imagine flowers not in the landscape of peaceful, co-existential synthesis but in the distortedness of their internal assemblage.

Georgia O’Keeffe, “Black Iris,” 1926

“Black Iris” by Georgia O’Keeffe stages this heterodox imaging of the flower. Here, the flower is shown not as part of a scenic landscape but as a magnified collection of different components. The folds and curves of the petals show the manufacturedness of the flower, the labor of undulating intersections that holds it together. When seen closely, the flower reveals itself not as a spontaneous, peaceful synthesis of elements but as the stitch that solders the petals so they don’t fall off. Petals are not just smooth surfaces but specifically shaped materials whose contingent stitch creates crevices, depth, and unevenness. This unevenness is what is needed for a revolutionary politics of class struggle.

Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India. Read other articles by Yanis.