Imagine a future world where democracy is a distant, disgraced memory, supplanted by totalitarianism, mass surveillance, perpetual conflict, demonisation of others, and constant public manipulation. Imagine a world where individual rights and freedoms, pluralism and mutual respect for difference have been violently reversed and superseded by an oppressive logic of power and self-preservation, of groups locked in a seemingly constant fight for survival and domination. In short, imagine a world where extremism has become mainstream.
Perhaps all this sounds familiar?
In the years between the two world wars a fledgling radical ideology that we today call ‘fascism’ grew from a tiny fringe motley crowd of devotees into a dominant international political force that challenged ‘mainstream’ values and violently reversed decades of progressive change - often with substantial elite complicity and indeed popular support. My talk will seek to illustrate how the popularity of interwar fascism was not so much the cause of, but the symptom of and catalyst for, the demise of the liberal mainstream in the 1930s.
But ‘fascism’ is back in the news as is the fear of yet another liberal ‘crisis’. Speaking of somber similarities with the 1930s may be objectionable to historians, who after all have been trained to value the specificities of context and circumstance. In my talk, I shall not claim that history is repeating, that some insidious form of fascism is on its way to power. But I will argue that we are witnessing a comparable crisis of the liberal mainstream and its gradual erosion by radical alternatives - alternatives that were only recently regarded as regressive or defeated. Contrary to what postwar and contemporary societies may have believed, there is no ‘end of history’, not even a liberal one! In fact, history contains no final, irreversible victories or defeats.