March 15, 2024

A Conversation on Late Fascism

Alberto Toscano and Evan Calder Williams

Evan Calder Williams (left) and Alberto Toscano at e-flux, Brooklyn, December 12, 2023.

This is an edited version of the live event that took place on December 12, 2023 at e-flux in Brooklyn. Alberto Toscano’s Late Fascism: Race, Capitalism, and the Politics of Crisis is published by Verso.

Evan Calder Williams: Perhaps a good starting point is to talk about one of the explicit tendencies to which, and against which, the book is responding: the tendency to analogize fascism. More specifically, in the past decade and with regard to authoritarian and/or populist regimes like the Trump presidency, this has taken the form of debates about whether or not a certain tendency or moment should be understood through historical analogy to fascism. These debates often rely on a relatively rigid template of what fascism supposedly was. The way you diagnose and properly dismantle this is, I think, one of the book’s signature contributions, and it leads to another aspect I find especially generative: a methodological pluralism that refutes the image of fascism as a monolithic or static form. So, to start, can you sketch how the book grapples with this question of the analogies of fascism, and their political limits?

Alberto Toscano: I suppose like many intellectual projects and tendencies, this started with an irritation or frustration—in my case, an irritation concerning what seemed to be both a necessary, perhaps even inevitable, turn to these debates, and the extremely constricted and selective way this turn happened, the way theories of fascism, and even the terminology and histories of fascism, were drawn on.

There was a very quick polarization both in public discourse and academic interventions between two claims. One version was the weirdly repetitive claim that “we are once again in Weimar.” The other was that since none of the constitutive elements or key elements of fascism obtained, this was therefore a distracting term and should be dropped. This argument involved either the selection of a set of elements having to do with fascist regimes, movements, and ideologies from the interwar period, or a broader generic fascism of an ideal type, one that would establish a checklist of the essential elements of fascism, or a schedule of steps to fascism.

I found this, for a number of reasons, to be unsatisfying. Among those reasons, one of the key problems, as you intimate, is that it projected onto fascism a monolithic coherence that it not only lacked but explicitly repudiated.

ECW: I want to try to draw out what I see as the importance and stakes of moving beyond that lack and repudiation. In terms of what I was referring to as the book’s pluralism, that happens on two fronts. Part of it is your method, and how you critically expand the range of thinking about fascism beyond the narrow and familiar references of those debates. This happens most markedly in considering how the idea of fascism was formulated and reformulated within a Black radical context, but also in moving across the Frankfurt School, studies on the authoritarian personality, and accounts of both the libidinal and monetary economy of fascisms.

But part of it involves how you read fascism itself and the way you argue that we should understand fascism as this pluralistic recombinatory form, the strength of which lies in its capacity to yoke together, often in seemingly impossible or implausible ways, contradictory elements, archaic memories, and signifiers that have become decoupled from historical moments. Can you speak about the pluralism of fascism itself?

AT: I was really struck at some point in my rather unruly research by an essay from the 1920s that Mussolini writes in the newspaper that he’s editing, Il Popolo d’Italia, called “Fascism and Relativism.” It’s a pretty remarkable essay in which Mussolini says, “Fascism is the only modern political form.” This is a ludicrous argument on one level, but also a revealing one. According to him, it’s the only modern political form because it’s the only one to have fully accepted the form of modern science, which is relativism. He mentions Einstein of course.

How is fascism modern in this account? Because it is both aristocratic and anti-aristocratic, monarchist and anti-monarchist, proletarian and anti-proletarian, etc., and the only thing that defines it is the exercise of violent political will (or something along those lines). We can see a tendency, which is very evident and flaunted by Mussolini in the first years of fascism, where fascist programs pivot from pseudo-socialist to pseudo-liberal to more statist. So it is already plural.

This quality of plurality and the ability to pivot is also reflected in some of the more interesting theorists of fascism, from George Mosse writing about it as a scavenger ideology, to Nicos Poulantzas, who makes a much more complex—and I think very interesting argument—in an essay called “The Popular Impact of Fascism.” He says that one of the things that’s distinctive about fascism is its capacity to simultaneously produce different discourses for different fractions or aspects of its constituency. It’s not only an interclass movement, but an interclass movement that is explicitly and deliberately pluralist in its address. Even though it manifests a rhetoric of organicism and coherence and unification and so on, in fact it’s deeply cynical and strategic about giving a pseudo-socialist line to workers whilst presenting a very different narrative to industrialists.

I think this also reveals something else. One of the curious things to me is that in all these analogical discourses, especially in Anglo-American or Anglo-sphere discourse, fascism is weirdly identified with Nazism, which I find perplexing. This leads to the idea that because things nowadays are not grave enough or not extreme enough, because they don’t match the extremity and the enormity of Nazism, then these political processes can’t be talked about in the language of fascism. It’s interesting to think about how it was not at all obvious in the 1930s that Nazism was a form of fascism, even to the Nazis themselves and to the Italian fascists.

Opposed to this, the book talks about fascism in a much more capacious manner, which is something that in part I draw from Black radical anti-fascist thinkers, as well as from some of the more interesting strands within the Frankfurt School and from a lot of the debates in the 1970s that I’m concerned with.

ECW: This leads to one of the most important engagements of the book, to which I already alluded: the way it takes seriously the deployment of the category and term “fascism” by Black radical thinkers, especially Angela Davis and George Jackson, as well as the Panthers and Cedric Robinson. One of the crucial things this does is to engage with writing and thinking that far too often got and still gets framed as if the term “fascism” is just hyperbole or another word for “very terrible” or “repressive.”

But another of the key consequences of this turn in your book is how it shifts the center of where fascism is thought, moving towards the context of incarceration and abolitionary struggles and away from the centering of Nazism as a kind of litmus test or threshold. This also means moving away from the familiar focus on militarization and war between sovereign powers, on the war machine, the state, and the death cult aspect of various fascisms, Nazism especially. I think that’s quite significant. Thinking instead about the structures of carceral systems and the processes that continually support white supremacism fundamentally changes what’s thought to be the threshold of fascism. What is gained from making this shift away from a certain kind of interstate warfare towards putting more focus on ongoing regimes of racialization and incarceration? How does that change our understanding fascism?

AT: I would start by saying that it’s not prison or war. Rather, I think what’s at stake is a sensibility, a politically embodied and organized sensibility associated with modalities of warfare and domination that are, for a whole number of very explicit reasons, not manifest. A lot of people have talked about this at a great length, and in more illuminating ways probably than I do in the book. I’m thinking of Dylan Rodriguez’s Forced Passages. Or Bill Mullen and Christopher Vials’s The US Antifascism Reader, which advances the idea that there are raced and classed social sites—and obviously often sites of colonial violence—in which the liberal norm can appear as a regionally fascistic practice.

That’s also where you get this discourse—somewhat problematic at the rhetorical level—of what is being tested out, or what is being meted out on certain sectors of the population. It’s an intrastate version of fascism. It’s like a boomerang effect, but divided along color and other lines.

This is why I think the paradigm of warfare remains important. I’m in the middle of reading Orisanmi Burton’s book Tip of the Spear, on the long Attica revolt. It is extremely brilliant in presenting that prism and paradigm of war as experienced, but also thought about and theorized, by people engaging in prison uprisings and by revolutionaries in prison. That’s a key part of the context.

There is a tendency to see that thinking [by revolutionaries in prisons] as being within a very rigid discourse about fascism. If you look at what was on George Jackson’s shelves in his cell [when the books were not confiscated], there’s a lot of interesting things, and a huge range. Georgi Dimitrov. There’s a book by June Jordan and all sorts of other things. But there’s also a lot of what, from a purely theoretical standpoint, one might think are really rigid and limited Third International theories of fascism. However, they’re put to very different uses by Jackson. I think that’s another thing: one has to have a capacious understanding of how these theories function.

As you suggested, people inevitably say at some point, “Yes, but the worst moment for the theorization of fascism was in the 1970s. People were calling everybody a fascist. Whether it’s the Panthers or the Italian or French or Palestinian far left or whatever, this term was inflated, and we need a much more sober, scientific, historically grounded definition.”

My thinking, not least because of the moment we are in, has much more in common with what was being thought and said in the seventies. Many of the predicaments that we find ourselves in, including a certain conception of neoliberalism, find their source in that moment. Why not go back to that archive and that time and think through it?

ECW: One of the things you traverse with remarkable thoroughness are these very thorny debates around the psychodynamics of fascism. Here too there are versions that can be facile and reductionist, seeing fascism as a mere aberration or mass psychosis, the kind of arguments that Alfred Sohn-Rethel and others worked against. But you also try to take seriously not only specific thinkers but also histories of the complex ways in which certain temporal or historical imaginaries get mobilized—and often mobilized in ways that we can think of as variant forms of fascism’s swindles or exchanges.

This helps move us beyond a certain version of thinking about fascism as only a restorational kind of logic, even if we can see forms of that in something like the MAGA fantasy of a postwar “return” to racial health and the health of capital. You have this great line in which you refer to, I believe, the “remaindered modernity of a postwar compact,” which seems absolutely right here. So given that a key part of your approach comes from Ernst Bloch and other thinkers of non-synchronicity, I’d like to hear you say more about how you’re thinking about the question of non-synchronicity and of activations of the archaic or the mythic.

AT: I’ll start with your mention of Bloch, who was, again, one of the sparks or catalysts for trying to think against what I found dissatisfying in some of the contemporary debates. What’s really striking in Bloch’s book about Nazism, Heritage of Our Time, is his notion of non-contemporaneity, where he takes on board the centrality of unevenness, of uneven and combined capitalist development, and so on. Fascism serves as an ideology and synthesizing factor not only for belated imperialist powers, like Italy and Germany. It also serves this way for countries that are experiencing the simultaneity of a world transforming through modernization and industrialization, and the continuing presence of a mass peasant and land-owning base.

Bloch writes about this at the material but also the psychic level. He’s trying to tease out the presence of this archaic ideology, which he gives a class location to. Basically, the rough argument he makes is that there are synchronous and non-synchronous classes. In some sense, the factory worker and the factory owner are living in the present. But in different ways, everybody else is not. This might be disputable. But whether it’s the Junker or the déclassé office worker or the fallen aristocrat, they’re all living both in and not in the present. The strength of Nazism is its ability—and this goes back to the pluralism or relativism of fascism—to engage in this synthesis.

The first time I read this I thought, it’s like trying to write about fascism in 2017. There’s something very curious about our present. I think it is, in some ways, still the case that these resurgent neo-fascistic and authoritarian movements of various stripes, all with their local characteristics so to speak, have a very weird form of non-contemporaneity. The nostalgia for the past that is to be returned to is actually a relatively recent phenomenon and curiously post-fascist. It’s a nostalgia for synchronicity or the wish to be contemporaneous. Of course, our present has all sorts of different unevennesses, but I thought this was a striking feature.

I suppose that one of the changing functions of myth can be to affect variances of that temporal synthesis, to create a disjunctive synthesis that ties together these heterogeneous elements in compelling and mobilizing ways.

ECW: Let’s stay with myth for a moment. I think it’s crucial here to bring in Furio Jesi. His work is key to your book and, also, you’ve been so central in helping to bring him to an English-reading audience. Can you expand on Jesi’s work and on what his thought in particular brings to a reckoning with late fascism?

AT: For those of you who don’t know Furio Jesi—well, many people in his own country don’t know him. He’s a fascinating figure, an insanely prodigious one. He dropped out of school at the age of fourteen to become an Egyptologist, published at fifteen in major journals, and worked on archaeological digs. Eventually he ends up working for publishing houses, as most intellectuals did in Italy in the sixties and seventies, and he writes books as a Germanist and mythologist. He also wrote an amazing vampire novel as a political allegory of the present called The Last Night—it’s a project Evan and I should return to. Then he writes a book shortly before his accidental death due to a gas leak in 1980, a book on the Spartacist Revolution called Spartakus: Symbology of Revolt.

The Italian far right still hates this book to the core. That’s partly because it’s a very corrosive and abrasive book about the ways in which figures like Evola, but also Jünger and Eliade, created what he calls not just a right-wing culture but a right-wing culture that’s based, on the one hand, around what he calls religio mortis, or a religion of death, and on the other, around what he sees as forms of spiritual luxury that he undermines and criticizes. In particular, he attacks what he views as the commodification and trinketization of history, turning history, as he puts it, into “mush” that can be used and reused for whatever purpose. Jesi was dealing with a culture of neo- or post-fascism that has become strangely present in a lot of the contemporary far right, including in the United States, whether it’s Steve Bannon quoting Evola, or people republishing Spengler and all of this.

The liberal critique of fascism has its own version of the critique of myth, in which we have, on the one hand, a political rationality based on certain understandings of freedom, subjectivity, and so on, and on the other, fascism as this regressive form that tries to bring myth into modernity. Following Benjamin and Adorno, Jesi has a much more dialectical and nuanced understanding of how, of course, capitalism itself throws up these forms of mythification. They’re not really, in a sense, regressive at all. They’re invented for and in this moment.

This links to something I found really compelling in Adorno. In his essay “The Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” he says, “Contrary to what a lot of people think, fascist crowds don’t really believe their leaders.” This is a form of what he calls “phony fanaticism.” It already involves a large amount of reflexivity and cynicism and play-acting. And Adorno says, “That doesn’t make it less but even more violent in its response.”

One of the problems of how fascism is often theorized from a normative liberal standpoint, with all of its presuppositions, is that it views the fascist subject as a subject of delusion, as buying into a myth in a way that is fully identificatory and all-encompassing. I thought that Jesi, along with Adorno and others, were useful to think with in order to counter this idea.

ECW: I want to come back to this question of phoniness. But before leaving Jesi, one aspect that I find especially strong in his work and worth pulling out here is how he also thinks about the kinds of linguistic operations fascism relies on. In particular, I have in mind his notion of “ideas without words,” and how he describes a certain severing or breakdown in the relation to language and meaning. One form he identifies is the reliance on abstract capitalized words that mean nothing. Capital-L “Liberty,” capital-F “Freedom.” In recent decades, this seems to have taken the updated form of ridiculous compounds: Liberty Gas, Freedom Fries, etc.

AT: Indeed, and I will add that the term “ideas without words,” used by Jesi, is taken from an fascinating and unsettling book by the revolutionary conservative writer, and author of the very famous Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler. Spengler’s The Hour of Decision was actually at some point banned by the Nazis because he’s not a revolutionary conservative that they entirely like.

Jesi engages with his work. In fact, he edits and retranslates Decline of the West. One of the things about Spengler that Jesi finds really interesting, and the reason why he’s interested in other figures of the intellectual, spiritual, or cultist far right, is the philosophy of time.

This is not insignificant for our moment. Fascism is a pessimistic philosophy of history, very explicitly so, including the term “pessimism” being used by Mussolini at times. Of course, you have the whole death drive dimension of Nazism. This is something significant about the Nazi imaginary, its terminology of the thousand-year Reich—Albert Speer is planning, as an architect, to build Germania, the capital-to-be of Germany, in such a way that its ruins will look good to future races and peoples who are not Aryans or Germans.

That’s a detour to the fact that I think this pessimism is important and interesting. Jesi at least argues this. It’s linked to an ideology of sacrifice in the fascistic imaginary. Jesi quotes a famous line from a Phalangist general who walks into the halls of the University of Salamanca shouting, “Viva la muerte. Abajo la inteligencia.” Long live death, down with intelligence. It’s a very apt fascist slogan.

This pessimism has a distressing affinity with certain imaginaries of decline or collapse or degradation. I think it would be a mistake to misread the myths or the philosophy of fascism as being ones that really believe they will create this eternal Rome or some durable form of white supremacy. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. I think that’s why you also have the nihilistic dimension and the sacrificial dimension.

Spengler is interesting because he’s explicit about this pessimism, in his obsession with the passing of civilizations. In The Hour of Our Decision, the book Jesi quotes, there’s a passage where the key figure of subjectivity is the calcified bodies frozen by the lava of the eruption in Pompeii. So Spengler’s figure of subjectivity is the guard, the Roman guard, who even though he knew the volcano was erupting, did not leave his post, which is an insane version of what it means to be a subject or indeed a human being.

But that’s Spengler’s image: the catastrophe is coming, and this guard took it like a man. It’s a particular version of an extremely gendered temporality. If we just think, “Okay, fascism is the monolithic totalitarian state that wants to control everything we do,” then we don’t really grasp these other features of fascism.

ECW: Among other features, there are two I want to pick up on, both of which we’ve already mentioned: fascism’s phoniness and its “scavenger ideology,” or the way it involves ideological bricolage. Amongst the tendencies that feel especially potent within contemporary processes of late fascism, these have shown themselves to be of increasing importance, especially in the way they allow for a continual redeployment of dehistoricized tropes and signs that both refer to fascist ideologies and evacuate their seriousness, appearing often as shitty memes or jokes. I don’t think this is entirely new. In the Japanese context, for instance, the brilliant thinker Tosaka Jun, who insists on the deep bonds between fascism and liberalism, has an incredibly astute reading of the way processes of liberalization result in the decoupling of an ideology or imaginary of traditional life (and indeed Japanese ethnic and national identity) from actual social and economic conditions. He says that when liberal civil society faces a crisis, what he calls “Japanism”—his term for the particular Japanese iteration of fascism—can pick up and redeploy the signifiers and tropes of that tradition, which now float free of any actual historical continuity.

In other words, it becomes a sort of imperial cosplay. But this isn’t to reduce the lethal consequences of what follows. Quite the opposite. It’s to stress that hollowed-out meanings, drifting signifiers, and, indeed, a sort of phony, ridiculous, cynical, and self-disavowing kind of jokiness and theatricality serve a crucial function. It’s one that has become even more important in the last decade of fascist processes and white nationalisms, especially as it plays a big role in helping openly fascist ideologies drift in and out of more mainstream circulation, because they can be passed off as trolling, shitposting, etc. So I’d like to talk about this dimension of phoniness, cynicism, theatricality, and disavowal, as it pertains to late fascism.

AT: I suppose one response is that if one were to look for analogies, then early Italian fascism would probably be a lot more generative for contemporary discussions than German Nazism and a whole set of other movements. Early Italian fascism flaunted a desecratory, partially nihilistic, and also at times openly modernist logic, not least in its relationship to futurism. This also plays a strong role in cohering a particular personnel—of the dissatisfied, petit bourgeois, veteran, officer, artist, etc.

You could say that rather quickly this is jettisoned when fascism needs to build itself into these capacious state coalitions. Some of the turnabouts are comical in their own right. Whether it’s Marinetti’s early calls for the banning of pasta or Mussolini’s hatred of Rome. Initially, there’s a whole fascist contempt for Rome, which has been replicated now by groups like the Northern League. The whole eternal Rome cult is actually a pivot. But initially, it’s very desecratory, and not least, it’s a war culture. There’s a certain form of desecratory, violent virility that comes out of specific war experiences, and is crystallized in slogans like “Me ne frego,” I don’t give a shit.

As a political slogan, it’s intriguing in its own right. I talk about this a little in the book, partly because I was happily commissioned to write a preface for this amazing book by Leo Löwenthal and Norbert Guterman, Prophets of Deceit, which a lot of people saw as prophetic a few years ago because they went around and studied the speeches and techniques of fairly marginal, fascistic agitators, Christian fascists, demagogues of all sorts. From that they drew up a taxonomy of media and rhetorical techniques, at the heart of which was innuendo. Innuendo, the ways of communicating a shared, very often racial and gendered horizon without saying it. Obviously, a lot of people have pointed out the contemporary relevance of this.

One of the things that people have repeatedly pointed out about a lot of the forms of contemporary authoritarianism—sometimes labeled as fascist—is that they’re remarkably inconsequential at the level of the actual transformation of organizations, of the structures and institutions of the state. Often there’s a big gap between rhetoric and reality.

The consequence is that, in order to prove their bona fides as transformative movements, they promote the most horrific and also pettiest forms of violence against migrants, and border spectacles, and so on. But if you take Meloni and the European Union, one of the things that’s striking, on the level of policy, is that (a) the reason these movements appear in the first place is not because a particular fix is required, and (b) they’re not even really providing one.

That’s not true everywhere. Of course, these kind of movements are also doing very significant things: for instance, for particular factions of fossil capital and brutal plunder and extractivism in Brazil, or specific factions of the elites in India. I’m not discounting the rootedness in particular political economies.

I also think that many of the reasons we’re seeing this as a fairly planetary phenomenon, albeit very differently articulated, is not because of the logic of a temporality of crisis, like the crisis of 1929. Rather, it’s really much more a temporality of “the age of stagnation,” to use our friend Jason Smith’s formulation.

ECW: We could easily continue this discussion, as it’s such a rich book, but as a closing question for tonight, I want to turn to the last chapter—and perhaps back to Spengler’s fantasy of the petrified guard who stood his ground and took it like a man. That chapter grapples with the bonds between fascism and gender, and you frame it crucially in terms of contemporary transphobic legislation and violence and panic.

Because this is an argument that people may not be familiar with, I would love to hear you say a bit about how you’re thinking through the ongoing bonds of fascism and gender, especially because you explicitly signal the centrality to late fascism of forms of gender panic and different forms of attempted policing and denigration.

AT: A quick behind the scenes. A couple of weeks before handing in the manuscript, I sent the book to a friend, Jordi, who very kindly and all too generously blurbed it. Then he was like, “Yeah, I like it. It’s really nice.” And then added something like, “What about …” It was the mildest comment. And I thought, “Yeah, there is something really remiss and a pretty real dereliction.” I dealt with this a bit in the Jesi chapter, and I’d read a lot of things. But I hadn’t found an angle, partly because I didn’t want to entirely revisit the debates about sex and gender in fascism, and also because there’s been quite a lot of recent writing—very good writing—about the links between transphobia and the resurgent far right.

Then I thought of how I might start the chapter. I remembered reading interviews Michel Foucault did with Cahiers du Cinema and another film magazine, which are not at all well known. In the early to mid-seventies, there is a set of films made by avant-garde or auteur European filmmakers—Cavani, Pasolini, Visconti, and others—that link the emergence of Nazism and fascism to questions of sexuality and gender. This was often done in rather dubious, or as we say today, problematic ways, and it leads to a lot of debate, some really historically curious debates. For instance, Maria Antonietta Macciocchi is teaching at the experimental University of Paris-Vincennes—she had a very interesting correspondence with Althusser around the time of ’68, when he’s basically in a clinic, and she’s writing letters to him about trying to become an MP in Naples. She’s teaching at Vincennes, and gives this fascinating seminar on fascism, in 1975, 1976, with lots of people. Poulantzas writes that great piece about the popular impact of fascism. And they do all these film screenings, with films made by Pasolini and Cavani. Pasolini comes.

At the same time, French Maoists decide that one of the scourges of the time, aside from the French Communist Party and its terrible revisionism, is what they call “sexo-fascism.” Sexo-fascism is basically what they perceive as the completely terrible, petit bourgeois theory that it’s out of erotic problems that fascism emerges—Wilhelm Reich, etc.

The films are interrupted, ink is thrown. Of course, given the times, Macciocchi writes a 120-page essay about being canceled by Maoists, or however you want to put it. But I think it’s a really interesting moment for a whole set of reasons. And Foucault intervenes in this. Foucault is both quite funny and quite insightful in some of these interviews.

He says that the first problem with these films is that they make us believe—which is both false and in its own way dangerous—that there was an erotic charisma to Nazism. He counters by saying that, at the sexual level, Nazism is like a marriage between an agronomist and a charwoman. (I forget exactly, it was some terrible sentence like that.) His point is that it’s the least sexy thing in the world. That’s what these films don’t get at all, because they’re obsessed with the leather and the boots and all the fetishism.

ECW: Can I read a couple sentences from the interview? Because it’s inimitable and worth hearing: “Nazism was not invented by the great erotic madmen of the twentieth century, but by the most sinister, boring, and disgusting petit bourgeois imaginable. Himmler was a vaguely agricultural type and married a nurse.” (Slightly mean to nurses, I have to say.) “We must understand that the concentration camps were born from the conjoined imagination of a hospital nurse and a chicken farmer, a hospital plus a chicken coop. That’s the phantasm behind the camps.” It’s a pretty remarkable interview.

AT: Absolutely. But then he pivots to make an argument about the erotics of power. He links the erotics of power to a theme that I think is very important, which is the question of the deputization and the delegation of violence. He thinks what’s key is not the charismatic propaganda or the fetishistic trappings of power, the insignia and emblems and all that.

No. What is powerful is the license. Which, of course, affects different people in different ways. It’s the freedom, the ugly, twisted freedom that is given to have all of this initiative to wield violence. There’s a form of delegation, a deputization of the monopoly of violence along lines of racial kinship and so forth that is very significant.

Then at Quinn Slobodian’s suggestion, I read a very good book called Sex after Fascism by the historian Dagmar Herzog. It traces, in the German case in particular, how politics retroactively reimagined what the relationship between sex and fascism was. Herzog makes an argument about how the notions of both perverse fascism and repressive fascism are different inventions that take place vis-à-vis German political culture. In the fifties, a very conservative postwar German culture presents the Nazis as perverts and people who destroyed the family. Then, in the sixties, partly in response to their parents and the previous generation, Nazism is pictured as repressive and clerical.

The historical record proves quite different. As Herzog shows, Nazism is both radically heteronormative and, obviously, racially exclusive, but it’s also a regime of license and the denormalization of monogamy and the freeing of social ties. In short, it’s a much more complex figure.

One of the things that completely stunned me, and I think remains stunning, is the velocity with which the polemical trope of gender ideology and the trans threat to all normativity has been circulated. I think the straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back moment came when I saw a Bashar al-Assad speech where he’s going on about gender ideology. I thought, “How has this become a bizarre ideological fixation that’s circulating everywhere?”

Of course, we can say that this superstructural excess has a very effective diversionary effect. But I also think there’s a way in which the intimate corporeality of it serves to map onto the body a sense of systemic undoing or crisis. It’s not the first time this has happened. People have tried to map other gender and sex crises at different moments, including within classical fascism itself.

There’s another thing it has done. This is more at the organizational level of an internationalized far right that has international think tanks and conferences, many of them in Budapest, or the national conservatism conference that takes place in London and elsewhere. Transphobia has served as a grim token for linking together formations that otherwise, in terms of their religious identification, in terms even of their economic imaginaries, have little in common. This is the one thing that serves as a shared currency, a common obsession, together with some variant of the Great Replacement theory as well as these weird repetitions of anti-communism.

This is evident in Meloni’s speeches at the World Congress of Families, for instance. Empirically, the anti-gender ideology of transphobia now serves as a universal language of the far right. I’m not saying I have some grand theory about this, but I think it’s an important phenomenon. It has become their form of mapping onto the body a particular internationalized vision of crisis and redress, which I think is worth tackling or responding to.

Fascism, Interviews & Conversations

Alberto Toscano teaches at the School of Communications, Simon Fraser University, and codirects the Centre for Philosophy and Critical Theory at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of Late Fascism (Verso, 2023), Terms of Disorder: Keywords for an Interregnum (Seagull, 2023), and Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea (Verso, 2010; 2017, 2nd ed.), among other books. He is a member of the editorial board of the journal Historical Materialism: Research in Critical Marxist Theory and series editor of Seagull Essays and the Italian List for Seagull Books. He has also translated the work of Antonio Negri, Alain Badiou, Franco Fortini, and Furio Jesi.

Evan Calder Williams is an associate professor at the Center for Curatorial Studies for Bard College, where he also teaches in the Human Rights program. He is the author of the books Combined and Uneven Apocalypse; Roman Letters; Shard Cinema; and, forthcoming with Sternberg Press in 2024, Inhuman Resources. He is the translator, with David Fernbach, of Mario Mieli’s Towards a Gay Communism and is a Contributing Editor to e-flux journal, as well as a former member of the editorial collective of Viewpoint Magazine.


e-flux announcements are emailed press releases for art exhibitions from all over the world.

Agenda delivers news from galleries, art spaces, and publications, while Criticism publishes reviews of exhibitions and books.

Architecture announcements cover current architecture and design projects, symposia, exhibitions, and publications from all over the world.

Film announcements are newsletters about screenings, film festivals, and exhibitions of moving image.

Education announces academic employment opportunities, calls for applications, symposia, publications, exhibitions, and educational programs.

Sign up to receive information about events organized by e-flux at e-flux Screening Room, Bar Laika, or elsewhere.

I have read e-flux’s privacy policy and agree that e-flux may send me announcements to the email address entered above and that my data will be processed for this purpose in accordance with e-flux’s privacy policy*

Thank you for your interest in e-flux. Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.