‘We have seen it at other times with Mussolini, Hitler, Franco’
Rob Riemen (Netherlands, 1962) is the founder of Nexus, which promotes cultural and philosophical debate and is this philosopher’s way of fighting fascism. Riemen says we live in a society that has everything in place for the authoritarian monster to rise again, as he recounts in his book, To Fight Against This Age.
How can we detect fascism, if it is always present with different faces?
The difference with other political currents is that fascism has no ideology. Unlike authoritarian tyranny, it emerges among the people. Hitler was elected politically and Trump, and Marine Le Pen? Who knows. This happens in societies that have lost their conscience and no longer keep the spirit of democracy alive. We live in a time when we avoid responsibility. We are part of the masses. You can be at the top, a university professor, and still be part of the masses because you are not interested in assuming your responsibilities or your freedom. It is an intellectual void where people just want to be happy. For fascism to grow, you just need a crisis, create an enemy and find a leader who solves all the problems.
What does this leader need to be?
The leader should be charismatic and tell us that we do not need to do anything, just follow. Slowly there will be no space for the critics, independent judges will be removed, freedom of the press ... Fascist culture is always kitsch. It is also about being able to tell a lot of lies. Trump is the best example and it is infecting the whole of western society.
What can we do?
We have seen it at other times, with Mussolini, Hitler, Franco. There is still time to stop it, but once it has started, it cannot be stopped. It is an extremely dangerous phenomenon and we know this because we lived through it. So I say: stop all the nonsense and call things by their name. We have to see it in a global and historical context and admit that it is going to infect us and so we need to create strategies to eliminate it now.
But we are very vulnerable. Our lifestyle is consumerism, there’s no time to think, constant stress...
As I say in the book, it is all part of a kitsch society. It is an escapist society, needing entertainment, where politics is reduced to elections and education, being trained to find a job. In the ’20s Paul Valéry said “There have never been so many toys and yet we continue in a state of panic.” The bright people at that time already had an idea what could happen and so now we have to say out loud what is happening. Can we change things now? Yes. We have to. As we know the result, we need to get to the causes. It is a cultural issue and we are all accomplices. The elites first, because not only do they have the solution but they are part of the problem. They are not interested in any cultural change because they are the essence of this culture. Why is this corrupt political class still where it is?
To alter this would require a radical change in the educational system, because it is not designed to keep the spirit of democracy alive. It is filled with cultural ignoramuses who do not want to be educated, or read classics because they are difficult or they do not have the time. They do not want to concentrate, develop artistic abilities, nor to enter the world of ideas. They want to be activists and want to change the world, but they do not want to do their homework and are unable to be self-critical. The world of education is very much affected, but so are the bookshop, the libraries... they were once essential environments for thinking prior to taking action. If we have Brexit it is because young people did not vote and it was the same thing with Trump.
Some people had chocolate parties against fascism.
I am sick of idealistic activism that has not been thought out, and this all consuming illiteracy. Students read underlined summaries which saves them having to read the entire book. We have many opportunities to stop the nonsense. Let’s get to the bookshop and start thinking.
I have the feeling they have won.
No, we can still fight. Win back the possibility of being brave and not worrying all the time about being part of the herd, conforming with no self-criticism. Confrontation is sometimes necessary. We need to accept this responsibility because we do not have a choice. We cannot go back. A liberal democracy is very demanding of its citizens.
Is there any hope?
Yes, sometimes I feel hopeful: the false happiness of a kitsch society pleases no one and, as a result of this vacuum, there is a resurgence in the search for spirituality. But that can take us in any direction. Spirituality is a kind of irrationality. It is true we are not only governed by reason, and so I’m critical of other thinkers who oppose our irrational side. The trouble is that spirituality can lead to drugs, idolatry, and all kinds of sects. But we need to take care when it comes to spirituality because fascism can also be included.
In what sense?
It is based on faith. The idea of a messianic figure, with its liturgy and its commandments. It is a copy of religious traditions. Trump has a tendency to arrive at his meetings by helicopter, almost heaven-sent.
All very simple.
Exactly. Avoid the complicated. If we are sad, take a pill; there is the idea that money, science and technology we will solve everything and Bill Gates became God.
So jellyfish survive just because they are simple.
The increase of ignorance and stupidity is frightening. I don’t mean uneducated people. The intellectual class has forgotten its primary responsibility for a thousand reasons and has neglected its role, as it did in the time leading up to Nazism and fascism. Nietzsche understood that this was the first step toward nihilism and he saw where it was leading. If a young person asked me today what to do with his or her life, I would say forget about university, stay home and read.
Is the new feminism helping?
That would be great, but let’s compare it to the civil rights movement in the United States. On the one hand, we had Luther King, who was killed and on the other Malcolm X, whose solution promoted violence. Fortunately, the peaceful approach won. Regarding the feminist movement relating to Me Too, it puts the spotlight on sexism and the way women are reduced to a body. But it has a dark side, as there is no difference between those who adopt inappropriate behaviour and those who make a joke.
Well, but something has shifted.
Yes, but what I still do not understand is how we increasingly accept that the rich get richer and the rest are slaves, robots. We need a press that can tell the truth, to demand quality media and not rely only on the haters in entertainment and sensationalism.
Riemen is very clear that Brussels will not become involved in the conflict between Catalonia and Spain. “Many Catalans now have a crisis with Europe. They knocked on the door and it didn’t open. First of all, I do not speak or read in Catalan, so my impression is secondhand, but I know political reality and that Europe will do nothing, as has happened in other extreme situations in the past, such as Hungary, Poland, Romania or the Balkans. It did not lift a finger for geopolitical reasons. Another reason is that European history is full of kingdoms, regions, and if it opens the door to the Catalans, then next will be Flanders, then Tuscany ... they just won’t. We can shout and scream, but they have their reasons.“