Tuesday 15 October 2019

Sinn Fein sells 'fascism with a human face'

Comparisons with 1930s Germany may have been overstated before, but they feel terrifyingly real now, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams

Eilis O'Hanlon

Watching Sinn Fein and the hard left slug it out for control of the country right now is to be constantly reminded of the tag line for Alien Vs Predator: "Whoever wins, we all lose."

On the evidence of Wednesday's protest, SF is winning that battle. It was the SF President's name the crowd was chanting last week, as if the one-time IRA leader was a pop star. A 1970s-era pop star, but a superstar nonetheless. "Gerry… Gerry…"

The growing appeal of SF was copper fastened by the news that Sinead O'Connor had joined the party, a move which puzzled many republicans. Instantly suspicious, they wondered what she was playing at. Many opponents of SF were equally upset, asking how a woman who felt so deeply about child abuse could join a movement with such a shadow hanging over its head on that very issue.

No one needs to ask what O'Connor was thinking because she'd already told them. The singer openly traces her conversion to the ranks of SF back to a recent immersion in reading about 1916. It's a crucial detail, confirming the dangerous pull of the Rising as the centenary approaches, which SF is drawing on as a vampire feeds on blood.

References to Germany in the 1930s have probably been overplayed by SF's opponents in the past, but right now the comparisons have never been more chilling. A broken people, ground down by austerity and international nefariousness, turning to sinister, quasi-militaristic, semi-constitutional parties who offer quick, populist solutions. There has never been such an overtly fascistic atmosphere in the air.

The Left never thinks of itself this way, of course, but the great American critic Susan Sontag recognised that extreme socialism, of a sort which is making headway right now, is just another form of fascism. Indeed she thought that it was the most successful "variant" of the sickness. "Fascism with a human face," she called it, in the sense that it comes to power by claiming to care about the little people, the underdog, the poor.

Sontag was adapt at detecting these traces, not only in the explicitly malevolent public art of the Third Reich, but in subtler forms too. As other liberals rehabilitated film-maker Leni Riefenstahl and lauded her photographic studies of the Nuba in the Sudan, Sontag saw instead the same aesthetic sensibility as in Triumph of the Will. The emphasis on land, and race; emotion over intellect; purity over corruption; the collectivism of the tribe over the individualism of capitalism.

Some feminists at the time criticised Sontag for not making the connection between these values and those of masculinity or patriarchy more explicit; and whilst Sontag's refusal to shoehorn every issue into a feminist perspective was refreshing, they did have a point. Fascism is male to its core, and it is exactly these values which come to the fore again during times of recession and political instability.

A 2010 study actually found that men were reverting to more masculine ways of behaviour in response to the recession. The self-grooming metrosexuals were giving way to a more rough and ready aesthetic. Witness the contemporary renaissance of the beard. It's not simply a hipster thing. Recession threatens a masculine sense of self which is bound up intimately with the ability to provide, just as women's worth seems to be tied up, equally problematically, with their attractiveness.

This all plays out politically. It's no wonder that SF is more popular amongst male voters. In difficult times, people look to be led and they tend to think of this in masculine terms. SF are uber-macho in that way; in recent weeks, symbolically stamping on women to shut them up.

SF also draws deep on what historian Daniel Woodley calls the "romantic anti-capitalism" at the heart of fascism, the belief that disenchantment can be overcome by subsuming the people back into the body of the nation. The myth of 1916 feeds into that even more. It's not merely the great masculine narrative. The way it is now being exploited by SF also rests on a classic piece of fascistic storytelling.

Oxford historian Roger Griffin has attempted to define what unites fascist movements both on the left and right, and he puts it thus: "The core mobilising myth of fascism which conditions its ideology, propaganda, style of politics, and actions is the vision of the nation's imminent rebirth from decadence."

That encapsulates uncannily what SF is about right now. Adams couldn't have been clearer on Wednesday as he set about contrasting the "citizens" in the crowd with "the big bankers, the financiers, the corrupt people at the top".

"If this was a real republic," he began one sentence, before adding that, of course, it isn't. "This is a republic in name only." He then quoted James Connolly on the "reconquest of Ireland".

Republicans love this sort of pumped up language of war and vanquishment; it thrills the soul and stirs the blood, as well as providing a symbolic unbroken thread that connects the past to the present to the glorious future to come, not to mention imbuing the normal business of politics with a delicious hint of violence. It all comes together in the myth of the great leader, the one who will arise from the difficult times to lead the people towards a golden dawn ("Gerry… Gerry…"). A leader who is often depicted explicitly as the embodiment of some fantastical hero of old, reborn; a leader around whom a personality cult can grow, whose loyal followers will die in a ditch to protect.

It was no coincidence that An Phoblacht's video highlights of the protest cut immediately from Adams to footage of Damien Dempsey singing "Where oh where is our James Connolly?"

The wonder is that such crude propaganda works on so many, but then fascism always extolled passion over detachment; emotion over argument. The idea that one should take a step back from highly charged issues and think dispassionately about them comes to seem almost like a betrayal of the people.

It just needs the right seed bed in which to grow. Germany in the 1930s had the Great Depression and the simmering resentment at the financial punishments inflicted on the country by the victorious powers at Versailles. Ireland in the 2010s has austerity and an equally intense anger at the cruelty inflicted on the country by the EU. Anger in both cases was entirely justified. What Europe did to Ireland was unforgivable, and it should have been challenged by the new Government after 2011. Instead they kowtowed. Only now are those vultures coming home to roost.

Fascism is theatre, said Jean Genet, and SF has had no bigger stage on which to strut in recent times than the water protests. Add in the centenary of the Rising, and it's a toxic mix. They're already exploiting 1916 ruthlessly, taking ownership of the past like a squatter taking up residence in the family house. Romanticising history is always a dubious enterprise, but in older nations, with an established sense of what they are, this can all safely be filed away as something that happened back then, not right now.

Ireland doesn't have that luxury. The country's still a work in progress. As the crowds chanting Gerry Adams' name chillingly attest, our national myths still have the power to undo us.

Sunday Independent

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