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The Rise of Digi-Fascism

By Thomas Klikauer-Meg Young *
Counterpunch
April 11, 2022

The neo-fascist culture war of right-wing extremists and adjacent Neo-Nazis seeks to change the present climate of a democratic society. One way of achieving this goal is through digital fascism. Just like Italian fascism of the 1920s and German Nazism of the 1930s, digi-fascism wants the downfall of democracy. Its mythical calling seeks to make fascist thinking a normality. Henry Giroux calls this, the mainstreaming of fascism.

Despite its horrific past – or perhaps “because of its past” – today’s version of fascism is doing rather well. In fact, in some quarters it has even become something of a life-style idea exemplified by those who invaded Capitol Hill on 6th January 2021; right-wing extremists camouflaging themselves as Canadian truckers; some sections of the anti-vaxxers during the Coronavirus pandemic; politicians who claim that the Charlottesville Neo-Nazis are very fine people – this list goes on.

In short, the world of real fascism (1920s to 1940s), today’s reality of offline neo-fascism, and its latest mutation of online digi-fascism remains a simple world defined by good-vs.-evil emotions. It still is just as Nazism’s Aryan master ideologue – Carl Schmitt – once claimed, those who are identified as evil and as the enemy must be destroyed.

In its eternal white-power struggle for cultural and political hegemony, the so-called New Right – which all too often is neither “new” (as it tends to regurgitate old themes) nor “right” but is rather neo-fascist in the extreme – has been taking advantage of plenty of new opportunities offered by social media to distribute its propaganda – on both sides of the Atlantic and even beyond.

Online and offline, digi-fascism thrives from designing an illusionary world of individual experiences and spaces in which the supposedly oppressed and insecure can feel at ease. Now they are protected from an accelerated and ever increasing complexity of modernity.

Right-wing extremist’s propaganda constructs this idyllic and pre- or better: anti-modern world as a place in which an imagined white majority no longer needs to fear the loss of its social privileges. Ideologically speaking, digi-fascism follows an old but proven playbook.

During the 1920s and 1930s, many Europeans, including its rising middle-class, experienced many of capitalism’s inherent pathologies. It was fascism’s task to re-direct these capitalism-endangering forces towards two newly invented enemies: a rebellious working class in case of Italy, and a powerful working class and Jews in the case of Germany.

Today’s digi-fascism also re-directs more recent threats – many of which are caused by forty years of neoliberalism – towards an invented enemy. Again, the biting pathologies of neoliberalism are redirected away from capitalism.

Once more, the task falls onto fascism – now called neo-fascism. Just as during the 1920s and 1930s, the task at hand is to obscure the ever present pathologies of capitalism. Both – traditional fascism and today’s digi-fascism – conjures up negative feelings towards an enemy. It follows fascism’s classical playbook of: no enemy – no fascism.

In that, digi-fascism focuses on a wide range of feelings. Yet, there still is one core and most suitable feeling used as a common denominator of emotions that right-wing extremists’ use when seeking to unite people. At its core is a looming sense of danger, threat, and most of all: fear. Neo-fascism’s Politics of Fear has invented the oppressed who are subjugated by some dark but always illusive force: the deep state, the elite, refugees, etc. All of these have become very handy tools for right-wing conspiracy fantasies.

However, and this is central, these feelings are invoked in groups that are also made to feel to be neglected and sidelined. Even though the exact opposite is the case. In general, many of them aren’t marginalized but privileged. Digi-fascism targets the insecure, the white man, sections of the middle and even working class, the conservative, the xenophobic, the racists, the Aryan German, the White Power American, and so on.

Yet, digi-fascism is somewhat of a big word. When we hear fascism we tend to think of drilled men in black uniforms, raising their arm to the fascist salute wearing polished boots. Mussolini’s Fasci Italiani di Combattimento was one of them. It was a fascist organization following the Germany’s Führer principle. National Socialism parroted and perfected Italo-fascism’s hierarchy.

Today’s digi-fascism relate to this – somewhat. Yet, one might also like to emphasize the crucial differences between traditional fascism and digi-fascism. Fascism is generally understood as a radical right-wing extremist’s top-down movement. It had ideologically-driven leaders – Mussolini, Hitler, Horthy, Tojo, Antonescu, Yaroslava Bandera (Ukraine) etc. – at the top. These men (all of them were men!) conjured up what the German philosopher Adorno calls as the authoritarian character among their followers.

Le Bon’s crowd is to worship these leaders and to blindly follow them. Yet and unlike traditional fascism, in the Age of Digi-Fascism, the classical relationships of fascist authority no longer works. This is the key difference between traditional fascism and digi-fascism. Today, virtually anyone can create a right-wing tale of evil refugees, a dark elite, an overbearing state, the threat of migration, etc. on the Internet.

Via social media, spreading fascist ideologies by all kinds of people and into all kinds of places is no longer an impossibility. As a consequence, digi-fascism no longer has a Mussolini and a Hitler. Despite the fact that some minor figures tried this, inevitably, they ended up as Mini-Me Hitlers. And, digi-fascism has no need for them.

Today’s fascistic movements form from the bottom up. This remains one of the most decisive difference to the fascism of the 1920s. And, digi-fascism is forced to take this into account. It is largely because of advances in individualism and strangely, even in democracy, i.e. Hirschman’s voice. Via the Internet, participants in right-wing online engagements demand voice using online platforms.

Most importantly, a no-leader digi-fascism came about because of the conditions of social media. As a consequence, there is less blind-following of and no longer an obeying of a glorified leader. Instead, one participates in right-wing extremists’ narratives, conspiracy fantasies, semi-explanatory and even partly plausible tales of right-wing vindications.

Despite these changes, some elements of fascism have not changed. Ideologically, traditional fascism just as today’s digi-fascism continues to propagate white supremacy with the goal of a racist world order. Yet today, this comes more often from users on Facebook, YouTube, Telegram, WhatsApp, Instagram, etc. than by a propaganda ministry.

Digi-fascism’s participators no longer fancy obeying a leader. Instead, they communicate, invent conspiracy fantasies, and produce right-wing and fascist stories and, worst of all, are sharing these with each other. Even more troubling, this sharing can reach thousands, if not millions.

Under digi-fascism, fascism’s traditional principle of command and obedience no longer applies. There is no longer a blind obedience – not even when storming Capitol Hill to eradicate democracy. America’s right-wing extremist mob did not march behind its glorious leader. It was not a reply to Mussolini’s march in Rome.

Digi-fascism is different and one of the most important element is its communication strategy which is online and is highly visual: short videos, emotional photos, fear inducing pictures, simple cartoons, etc. Yet, many of these visual elements depict digi-fascism’s ideology.

One election image of Germany’s Neo-Nazi party The AfD, for example, showed a pregnant “white”(!) woman lying in an idyllic meadow with her exposed belly at the center. The slogan read, We make new Germans ourselves … AfD!

These new Germans are supposed to be white Germans. It is somewhat of a continuation of the reproductive ideology of Germany’s Nazis. Making Aryan children is framed as white resistance against an alienated world in which un-German hordes of Untermenscheninvade the Aryan habitat destroying a racially purified future.

This is linked to neo-fascism’s ideology of the so-called great replacement, as well as the conspiracy fantasy of a great reset. According to the common right-wing extremist’s hallucination of a great replacement, white people are gradually being displaced in white majority societies such as the USA, Germany, Orban’s Hungary, Brexit-UK, etc.

The prophets of neo-fascism insinuate that white people are being alienated. On the other hand, the ideology of a great replacementrefers to a recent demographic changes that actually exist. In the ideology of digi-fascism, these changes are associated with a right-wing doom-&-gloom scenario. Neo-fascism presents it as a loss of a supposedly ancestral white culture, the oppression of white people by an ever illusive and never defined elite, and as an anti-Semitic tale claiming that this replacement is part of a secret Jewish plot.

Digi-fascism believes that a coordinated struggle is waged against white majority societies seeking to turn those into – the much-hated – multi-cultural societies. It claims that very soon whites will be in a minority. They will be an endangered group. With rafts of migration figures and birth statistics, such fears are triggered and seemingly supported. This meets a diffused discomfort and white disempowerment.

This is the fruitful field of many key actors of digi-fascism that ploughs on the Internet. It is spiced up with neo-fascist messages like these, “your great-grandmother had twelve children, your grandmother had six children. Your mother had two children. You have an abortion and a dog. Whites have gone doggy!”

For neo-fascists, the decision to get a dog or an abortion is a betrayal of the people. Such images are right-wing extremists’ tales of a great replacement that has taken hold signified by a decline in white birth rates. Of course, there is no mention of the fact that those women were not allowed to vote, couldn’t earn money, had no access to contraceptives, and were forbidden to have an abortion.

In these tales, feminism particularly, when linked to reproductive self-determination becomes one of neo-fascism’s prime targets. Neo-fascism claims that feminism seeks to ensure that there is no more white procreation. This is a fascistic tale of decline, the extinction of whites, the feminization of men, perversion of the family, the end of the Volksgemeinschaft.

In digi-fascism, many private decisions are politicized and artificially linked to an imagined community. The hated female body becomes the battlefield of culture war. More recently, digi-fascism has linked much of this to the Coronavirus pandemic seeking to convert anti-vaxxers into the realm of neo-fascism. In that, digi-fascism uses online slogans against vaccination such as, “my body is mine!” This is implicitly linked to Feminism’s “my body – my choice” and “my body belongs to me.”

These are the hallmarks of digi-fascism’s online communication strategies. The radical right has been practicing this for a long time. Today, it adopts individualistic, feminist, and even emancipatory rhetoric. From the standpoint of digi-fascism, it is about the emancipation of an oppressed whites and a freedom struggle of the allegedly downtrodden and oppressed white men.

Not surprisingly, there are right-wing and neo-fascist demagogues seeking to exploit any occasion that comes up such as, for example, refugees, the Coronavirus pandemic, war in the Ukraine, etc. Since 2020, the Coronavirus pandemic has created the right conditions in which fear, feelings of threats, and sentiments of oppression can be joined up with neo-fascism’s ideological project. Many government demands caused by the pandemic have been common to all of us. Most have answered them by showing consideration and support.

Yet, digi-fascism has a rather different pattern of reacting to the Coronavirus pandemic. Their tale is spiked with its key ideology, “we – the whites, the healthy people, workers and so on are currently suppressed and replaced.”

Beyond that, digi-fascism also relies on the fact that many people feel threatened by Coronavirus, political correctness, cancel culture, migration, feminism, gender studies, changes in language, and gender-free language.

The ideological tales of imminent cultural decay can easily be carried over into neo-fascism denouncing social science as supposedly ideological science. For digi-fascism, all this is about much more than just language. When gender researchers describe gender roles and gender patterns in a variety of ways, male- dominated neo-fascism is threatened. Gender research formulates questions that have something to do with all people in all societies. And, Neo-fascism hates this.

Under digi-fascism, anti-gender sentiments are cranked up by what might be called right-wing emotionalism. Often rather unspecified emotions can be used by digi-fascism to move people into the orbit of neo-fascism. Yet, the endgame is clear. In neo-fascism’s totalitarian system, people will be deprived of their freedoms. This includes the freedom to be a completely normal person and a completely normal citizen.

Yet, in its right-wing populism, it advocates the so-called normal Germany. The ideological of so-called normal Germans or ordinary Germans plays on right-wing populism’s idea of setting ordinary people against the elite. Slogans like these turn the position of normal people into a seemingly threatened position. Now normal people are endangered by the elite, the migrant, the refugee, the feminist, the liberal, etc. Of course, under digi-fascism, normal continue to mean white and heterosexual.

Digi-fascism’s normal people always conveys the feeling that the radical right wants to trigger. For them, these supposedly normal people have somehow been marginalized. For neo-fascism, the idea of normality that is conjured up, suggests a state of life that takes place outside social conditions, outside of class, outside of capitalism, and outside of politics.

Instead, it invokes idyllic images of something like a “relaxation room of life.” This is linked to the Uber-romantic ‘good old days’. Yet, it is also something many people liked to imagine. However, the days of a quasi-natural order of life remains a deeply fascistic idea.

The Uber-romantic past of neo-fascism remains a time when women preferred to be at home and men go to work. These are dreamy feelings of an apolitical life that needs to be defended. Digi-fascism mixes a longing for such an imaginary relaxation room of life with the fear of a loss of the usual and normal life whatever this was and is. Digi-fascism also links this to a fear of the loss of privileges. This is what neo-fascism calls right feelings.

Everyone is certainly afraid of losses and many people have already lost a lot under neoliberalism’s reign during the past decades. To obscure these real losses – good union jobs, job security, decent incomes, the ability to buy a house, etc. – digi-fascism offers a tale that pretends to cater for the ordinary German. In this, the white, conservative, native men is in acute danger. He is forced to live in an alien culture determined by the left, feminists, and the state.

Digi-fascism’s culture war wants to change the political atmosphere of society. Digi-fascism calls this meta-politics, i.e. the ideologization of everyday life. Digi-fascism wants terms, words, and ultimately the language with which people communicate in society to change.

At times there are rather banal emotional points – climate change, Covid-19, refugees, etc. – at which digi-fascism begins to be agitated. It is exactly at this point where digi-fascism – via Facebook, Telegram, Instagram, YouTube, etc. – provides easy-to-grasp answers and semi-plausible formulas. Together with conspiracy fantasies, these are presented as having the ability to explain the world.

The next step for digi-fascism is to assure that its ideology and it online conversations maneuver successfully out of radical right Internet forums and into the mainstream. As a consequence, there has been digi-fascism’s media campaign strategy seeking to conquer the journalistic mainstream and ultimately to enter as deep as possible into the breadth of democratic societies. Yet, these are only intermittent steps. Once digi-fascism has progressed far enough, the willingness, acceptance, and actual violence follows.

* Thomas Klikauer has over 750 publications. His latest book is on Media Capitalism. Meg Young is a Sydney Financial Accountant who likes good literature and proofreading, and in her spare time works on her MBA at WSU.