Review- Finchelstein, “From Fascism to Populism in History”

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Federico Finchelstein, “From Fascism to Populism in History” (2017) – My former professor Federico Finchelstein (from back when I was a mere stripling grad student at the New School) does some pretty good global history in a book that makes the bold move of trying to resolve some of the historiographical questions about fascism by throwing in an examination of another knotty topic- populism. Fascism goes part of the way toward explaining our moment, Finchelstein argues, but primarily because of the imprimatur it has made on populism, which he says essentially picked up fascism’s mantle- though with crucial modifications.

On top of all the other complications of making an argument in the already knotty fields of the history of fascism and populism, there’s a terminological aspect here that’s probably tricky for most Americans. When discussing populism, Finchelstein is more talking about Juan Peron than William Jennings Bryan or the People’s Party in the US, which he refers to as “proto-populist.” He breaks down populism to include right-wing variants (like Geert Wilders), left-wing variants (like Hugo Chavez), neoliberal variants (like Fujimori and Berlusconi), and the patient zero, Peronism, which has been tried in all three registers at various points since Peron took power in 1944.

In Finchelstein’s view, a few morphological similarities tie these populisms into a single taxon. Populism posits “the people” of a given nation against a designated other within the country- an “antipeople.” The antipeople aren’t just seen as people with other ideas, or with wrong ideas- they’re the enemy, full stop. Populism does not suspend democratic practices or engage in the sort of widespread, lethal violence that fascism does. But it is, essentially, authoritarian democracy- enshrining the union of people, nation, and leader (that’s one thing the agrarian Populists in the US lacked- no single charismatic leader figure) over and above the legal, institutional framework as the true expression of democracy. Populism does not generally break the state and create a new one in the same way fascism does, even if populists claim that’s their goal (and even if their incompetence severely damages the state). There’s a certain extent where to which the performative aspect of populism becomes its own point, where fascism’s performativity always worked towards the goal of a new man and a new society. People still vote; a populist can even lose power that way, and have done so, though Finchelstein doesn’t really go into what happens to his category the day a populist leader decides, say, the antipeople Deep State rigged his reelection campaign to prevent him from Making (Wherever) Great Again. Alberto Fujimori pulled a presidential coup in Peru, after all (but was run out of office more-or-less peacefully years later, fwiw).

Probably the greatest strength in Finchelstein’s work is the global extent of his analysis. “Global history” is the hot (not so) new thing these days, but while the archival breadth some historians manage is impressive, it’s often at the expense of analytical depth. This isn’t the case in this book- Finchelstein genuinely manages to decenter Europe in a book about fascism in an analytically useful way, a really impressive feat. His attention to African, Asian, and especially Latin American fascisms and populisms provide a chain of evidence for his assertion that populism picked up where fascism left off- as a way for ambitious movement politicians to conceptualize a mass, anti-liberal, anti-communist politics, after fascism proved to be something of a bust for those purposes. Many of the same leaders who dabbled with fascism came to define the populist style — many of the techniques fascists develop to mobilize people on an anti-socialist/liberal platform, without the direct assault on democracy or the massive, open violence — especially in Latin America and most notably in Argentina.

There’s subtleties in this argument which can make it hard to swallow. Finchelstein, an Argentine, is not notably sympathetic with populism, but grants that in many of its forms, it has actually fought dictatorships (including in actual guerrilla action, as the Montoneros did in Argentina) and expanded political participation, as we saw in Venezuela. It’s jarring to read in one book about how a political movement is both the inheritor of fascism and an expander of democracy. Having worked with Finchelstein, I know he is not sympathetic to the totalitarianism school, which lumps much of (sometimes all) popular movement politics, left and right, onto the totalitarian spectrum. He distinguishes populism, in hard and fast lines, from socialism and communism- as do most socialists and communists. But it’s still odd to see the lumping in of left-populists, from left-Peronists like the Kirchners to Syriza and Podemos, as inheritors of fascism, even in a strictly morphological sense. Among other things, it seems like the key watershed for left-populism in our moment isn’t the fall of Berlin in 1945 but the fall of Communism in 1989. If right-populists were faced with the question of how to do mass hierarchical politics after Stalingrad, and that effected this epochal change, surely the 1989 moment was just as much of a watershed for the left? As it happens, I’ve emailed Federico about exactly this question. I’ll keep you readers updated on his response!

Finchelstein places Trump squarely in the right-populist camp. I agree with this assessement, but have less of an issue also calling him a fascist (which I mostly reserve for rallies- no need to be academic at a rally) than Finchelstein does. Even with the modifier “right-” and even being skeptical of populism versus socialism, “populist” is still too decent a term for Trump and his true believers. Finchelstein uses most of the book to very carefully lay out his cases, citing chapter and verse, on both fascism and populism (which, I reiterate, are both fields heavily weighed down with internal disputes- he’s right to be cautious). He does not get much into the differences in how to fight a right-populist versus in dealing with an out-and-out Mussolini/Hitler-style fascist. If anything, a lot of the distinguishing factors he lays out — the way populists work more through mass media and culture (especially gender ideology) than through specific, fight-able policies — almost seem harder to fight than open fascism, given the state of play politically and culturally. But uhh… I guess it’s good to get an exciting new historicization of the precise lineaments of how fucked things are down? For the record? *****

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Review- Finchelstein, “From Fascism to Populism in History”

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