Creeping Fascism Under a Fog of Morality
United States President Barack Obama is a notable exception in human history and memory for taking a Nobel Peace Prize so that he could then wage wars. One remembers the euphoria that his victory generated; his election was celebrated as a triumph of liberal democracy and capitalism. Beyond rhetorical speeches, however, Mr. Obama was incapable of much of anything. He will be remembered as the Achilles’ heel of an empire whose time had come. Under Obama the US commits mass murder, albeit with a perfect alibi: the philosophy of the free market. At home, he is dignity personified, but given his murderous past, history will renounce him. Mr. Obama is the prefect President for an era that is controlled, disciplined, trained, and informed through television.
Obama’s ascendency raises some puzzling questions about the nature and function of liberal democracy. Let us recall that it was war that helped both Bush and Blair, and Obama himself, to win their second terms. How does one explain this? Surely it is not a mere symptom of the current global configuration of power. Saddam Hussein was publicly hanged. After killing Osama Bin Laden, Americans suddenly discovered that “he had porn DVDs” in his home. This sinister circulation of facts should worry us. In India, an admixture of crony capitalism and liberal democracy has given us a rare kind of fascism. Mamta Banerjee and her likes are considered to be “people who are good at heart though they may appear tough.” This is how power masks itself. People must seriously reconsider their optimism about and support for liberal democracies. Each has its own Kashmir: a veritable mental asylum. The Indian army quite frequently “honors” poor women by raping them. The liberal state behaves as if it is conspiring against the very people whom it claims to represent.
In this context, note the contradictions between who Obama is and how he is represented. Obama invokes the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr to perpetuate wars abroad and sanction indiscriminate killing even of US citizens. In India, it is Mohandas K. Gandhi whose image is used by the bourgeoisie to mask its day-to-day violence. Gandhi has too long been tamed and fused into the social order against which he fought tooth and nail all his life. India’s misfortune lies in the fact that Gandhi has become a mere symbol of cultural consumption. The bourgeoisie either hates him or admires him, but it never contemplates him. He is part of the necessary diet; and he is presented in way that fits in well with the dominant narrative of the state apparatus. Thus an anti-state man is celebrated by the state. Power tends to co-opt. The state, by ensuring that there is too much of Gandhi, has successfully killed him once again. Thus what remains is Gandhi as a mere image, without any specific meaning.
Our televised age goes far beyond this; it even enacts its own revolutions on television, thereby domesticating them for public consumption. “Change” is a mere empty slogan that is meant to “make people optimist and happy.” Mass media that could have genuinely promoted an alternative world view is now serving fascism, liberalism and all forms of totalitarianism. In India, newspapers have served to incite communal riots, just as in Western societies the press is the most convenient medium in which to fabricate lies about foreign countries so that “we could help them to improve their lot.” This zeal to improve the lot of natives has been well documented by Bartolomé de las Casas in his notable Devastation of Indians: A Brief Account (1542).
The book records the deeds of the Spanish Conquistadors after their arrival on the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), which he calls a “beehive of people.” De las Casas writes: “And sometimes it happened on those islands (here he refers to the sovereign native-American kingdoms of Panuco and Jaliso, which were overtaken in 1525) that eighty Indians, rational souls, would be traded for a mare.” The book notes painfully and guiltily the deaths of 15 million South American natives during the initial 40 years of imperial conquest, and warns: “For in truth I believe that in the great deal that I have set down here I have not revealed the thousandth part of the suffering endured by the Indians.” The close affinity of liberal philosophy with genocide has a long history.
The paradox of the free artist in bourgeois society lies in the fact that “each of his utterances must be polished and poetic, never gruesome and offensive.” That the public must be always be “informed” in ways to generate “specific reactions to a historical moment” is a trick, a mask with which to hide the ugly reality. Some years ago, when Obama addressed the Indian Parliament, he invoked Gandhi, MLK and Rabindranath Tagore. He even quoted, in the best of traditions, Tagore’s famous poem “Where the mind is without fear,” in his address to the India state Parliament. Note the discrepancy between Obama’s imperialist agenda and his invocations to the calls of freedom and dignity. Such hypocrisy passes without a murmur from the corporate media. In India and in the US in the past few years, government hatred for dissenting intellectuals has grown.
In New-Delhi, I have seen journalists cheer Subramaniam Swamy, a well-known fascist leader; there he was “the hero of the masses,” although a few months before, he had made rude remarks about Muslims in India. How can we explain the media’s silence about the ongoing aggression in Syria that violates international law? Syria appears in the news as a mere item. Nothing serious is happening out there, or it is none of our business: these seem to be the meaning of the news emanating from the media at the moment. Instead of presenting the public opinion against hunger and poverty, the media commodifies each of them, stamps it with a seal of approval and then showers it over the very mass it is supposed to depict.
Modern cities around the world resemble each other in the haunting solitude that is enforced upon those who live in them. Somehow modern men, despite their training, never transcend their solitude. Modern cities live in bad faith. They mask poverty with billboards. A modern man who kills without conscience is the bourgeois philosophy of dominance taken to its logical conclusion. Our souls are writ with the motto “dominance and still more dominance.” Obama, whatever his democratic credentials, is behaving like a fascist. The rise of fascism is the presentiment of a death wish fulfilled.
Editor’s Note: Imtiaz Akhtar is the author of Kafka Sutra, a collection of short stories. Photograph one by Michael Fleshman; photograph two by D.MV and photographs three, four, six, seven and eight by Zooey.