‘Fascist’ as a pejorative epithet is the currency of current Loktantrick political discourse, surprisingly not among the communists as in the past but among the liberal democrats. When a media organ of the Maoist prime minister’s party labels prominent civil society activists as “chief enemies of the people”, implying the inciting of its robotic cadres to physical action against them, it is not surprising that many would have flashbacks to the horrifying events seven decades ago in Hitler’s Germany. As the Loktantrick demigods show themselves to have feet of clay, as their parties get exposed as criminal syndicates, as the November 2005 Delhi-cobbled Loktantrick architecture’s fraudulent foundations get exposed, and as dark uncertainty looms over the political firmament, it is not surprising that thinking political animals have nightmares. Even then, does political economic analysis justify the fears that the country is heading towards a fascist finale?
A decade ago, I once ran into a prominent (and rather extreme) left commentator rummaging through my office library. Intrigued, I asked him what he was looking for, and he told me he was looking for anything on fascism in the past issues of the left-leaning Economic and Political Weekly out of Bombay that we subscribed to. Knowing how he used to rant against the ‘fascist Girija government’, I assumed he was writing his usual polemical column along these lines and told he would be better off studying Karl Polanyi’s seminal 1930s essay Essence of Fascism. He did not tell me then, but as chair of the regional advisory panel of New York’s Social Science Research Council I later learned that he was writing a piece on fascism for SSRC-sponsored effort to produce a social science dictionary in Nepali. His essay never made it through the peer review process. He was incapable of going beyond communist catechisms and leftist slogans to examine the political economy that lay behind the rise of fascism in 1919 Italy and its collapse by 1944 in World War II. (The SSRC effort was eventually rescued from extreme leftism by the Social Science Baha in its 2004 volume Nepalko Sandarbhama Samaaj Shashtriya Chintan.)
The last two decades of Nepali history have been bracketed between two Nepali Kangress acolytes representing two generations and two very different trajectories: Girija Koirala at the start of 1990 post-Panchayat multi-party experiments, and Baburam Bhattarai as the current Maoist prime minister under Loktantra. (Yes, it seems both he and his current deputy Narayan Kazi Shrestha were part of the Kangress student wings, but both fell out with the Kangress leadership for reasons of personal animosity and sought solace – and stridently radical identity – in an ideology at the diametrically opposite end of the political spectrum.) But neither of these two personalities nor their tendencies can be properly labeled ‘fascist’.
Girija Koirala, as the supremo of the democratic socialist Nepali Kangress, was neither a democrat nor a socialist at heart: like Hitler and many such despots he was deeply authoritarian, expecting unquestioning loyalty and obedience from his followers, intolerant of dissenting views from his peers, but, as we now know, bereft of any nation-building vision. Indeed, as we shall see below, a wee bit of ‘fascism’, i.e. the reification of nationhood that characterizes it, might just have rescued him and the Nepali Kangress he led from crass nepotism and national irrelevance it has descended into.
The Maoists under Baburam and Prachanda are undoubtedly totalitarian, but not fascist. Like the National Socialist Nazis, they focus on capturing state power through direct and indirect violence or, if counter-violence seems too overwhelming, by other strategic means. They believe the state should regulate every realm of social life, have said they do not believe in pluralism (and won’t allow incorporating it into the constitution), and would crush all autonomous institutions that stood in the way. However, the ecumenism of Marxian thinking that their party and cadres are beholden to – the one that says ‘proletariats of the world, unite!’ – would ultimately defeat any ‘national socialism’ they could concoct and will prevent their totalitarianism from becoming fascist. Given that they have been instrumental in chipping away at the ‘flower garden nationalism’ of Prithvi Narayan Shah that this nation was founded on to unleash an unworkable ethnic fragmentation, which is the direct opposite of ‘class consciousness’ that their party must promote, they will instead wither away like the former Soviet Union unless they quickly reach totalitarian rapture.
What would Polanyi’s political economy make of all this? His analysis showed that foisting an autonomous market system onto society, thus subordinating the latter exclusively to the profit motive, would lead to an unstable social order. If economy was no longer embedded in society but above it, all other forms of social organization that humans could identify with and owe allegiance to would be obliterated. In its relentless march, the autonomous market would eventually colonize and strip humans their social assets to create labour useful to its ‘satanic mill’, much as living trees would be stripped of their bark and branches to become saleable lumber. A social system that puts everything on the competitive auction block and does not value cooperation is a sick society that would soon face a reaction.
The crash of the self-regulating market in 1929 brought forth three such major reactions: the American New Deal, Stalinist communism and Hitler’s fascism. The first gave the US an organic wholesomeness (which Barak Obama is trying to replicate in its current phase of crisis), while the other two led to untold global misery. The New Deal combined socialism with democracy following the Aristotelian dictum of ‘production for use’ and not just ‘production for gain’. Stalinists subjected the economic to the political but destroyed capitalism by limiting democracy. Fascists, on the other hand, subjected the political to the economic, but revived the economy by de-humanizing the individual and destroyed democracy to preserve capitalism. To quote Gregory Baum,
“Polanyi recognized that the fascist movement was a violent reaction not only against unemployment and material poverty, but also against social disintegration and loss of identity produced by the free market system. … In fascism, people willingly defined their collectivity in terms that suppressed their own personal freedom and repudiated the human dignity of outsiders.”
Nepali society’s reaction to its encounter with the market system can be seen in three phases: the first was retreat and isolation under the Ranas, the second was the Panchayat’s controlled market osmosis, and the third is still awaited as the country finds its balance between the Washington Consensus opening of the market in the 1990s and the Maoist reaction. Only this time it is going to be more difficult: Nepali youth have been ‘proletariatized’ as never before in the Gulf leading to unprecedented rural social breakdown, the Leninists have ingrained the politics of envy (against the entrepreneurs) and hate (of all ethnicities against others), and traditional forces championing nationalism and cultural values have been pushed to the margins. These portend a fertile soil for fascism but not for the totalitarian communists: rather they point to the authoritarians who opposed the communist-dominated CA’s declaring a three-pillar economic development for Nepal, giving space to communities and cooperatives as alternatives to the unbridled market. It is here that danger lurks as the majority socialists and moderate communists fail to create a New Nepal.