What Taylor Swift Taught me about Fascism

by | 6 Feb 2024

Reposted from Unemployed Negativity: Years ago I remember encountering Félix Guattari’s little essay, “Everybody Wants to be a Fascist.” At the time its title seemed more clever than prescient. (Although it is worth remembering how much fascism, and the encounter with fascism was integral to Deleuze and Guattari’s theorizingwell beyond the reference to Wilhelm Reich). Now that we are living in a different relation to fascism the problem posed by Guattari (and Deleuze) of desire seems all the more pertinent and pressing. 

One of the problems of using the word fascism today, especially in the US, is that it is hard to reconcile our image as a politics, a politics of state control of everything, and the current politics of outrage aimed at M&Ms, Barbie, and Taylor Swift. How can fascism be so trivial and so petty? This could be understood as the Trump problem, although it is ultimately not limited to Trump. There are a whole bunch of pundits and people getting incredibly angry about the casting of movies and how many times football games cut away to Taylor Swift celebrating in the expensive seats. The Fox News Expanded Universe is all about finding villains everywhere in every library or diverse band of superheroes. Trying to reconcile the petty concerns of the pundit class with the formation of an authoritarian state. I have argued before that understanding Trump, or Trumpism, means rethinking the relationship between the particular and universal, imaginary and realOr, as Angela Mitropoulis argues, the question of fascism now should be what does it look like in contemporary captitalism, one oriented less around the post-fordist assembly line than the franchise. Or as she puts it, “What would the combination of nationalist myth and the affective labour processes of the entertainment industry mean for the politics and techniques of fascism?”

It is for this reason (among others) that Alberto Toscano’s Late Fascism is such an important book. As he argues in that book fascism (as well as in an interview on Hotel Bar Sessions) fascism has to be understood as kind of license, a justification of violence and anger, and a pleasure in that justification. We have to give up the cartoon image of fascism as centralized and universal domination and see it as not only incomplete persecution, unevenly applied, but persecution of some coupled with the license to persecute for others. Fascism is liberation for the racist, sexist, and homophobe, who finally gets to say and act on their desires. As Toscano argues, “…what we need to dwell on to discern the fascist potentials in the anti-state state are those subjective investments in the naturalizations of violent mastery that go together with the promotion of possessive and racialized conceptions of freedom. Here we need to reflect not just on the fact neoliberalism operates through a racial state, or that, as commentators have begun to recognize and detail, it is shaped by a racist and civilizational imaginary that delimits who is capable of market freedoms (Toscano is not referring to Tosel, but that is an important part of Tosel’s work) We must also attend to the fact that the anti-state state could become an object of popular attachment or better, populist investment, only through the mediation of race.” 

Toscano’s emphasis is on race in this passage, but it could be argued to apply to sexism, homophobia, etc., to the enforcement and maintenance of any of the old hierarchies. As Toscano cites Maria Antonietta Macciochhi later in the book, “You can’t talk abut fascism unless you are also prepared to discuss patriarchy.” Possessive includes the family as the first and most vital possession. At this point fascism does not sound too different from classical conservatism, especially if you take the definition of the latter to be the following: “Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.” However, what Toscano emphasizes is the libidinal pleasure that comes with this, it is not just a matter of who is in and who is not, who is protected and who is not, but in the pleasure that one gets from such exclusion, a pleasure that is extended and almost deputized to the masses. While conservative hierarchies and asymmetries passed through the hallowed institutions of the state and the courts, the fascist deputies take to the streets and the virtual street fights of social media. As Toscano argues, pitting Foucault’s remarks about the sexual politics of fascism in the seventies against Guattari’s analysis,

For Foucault, to the extent that there is an eroticization of power under Nazism, it is conditioned by a logic of delegation, deputizing and decentralization of what remains in form and content a vertical, exclusionary, and murderous kind of power. Fascism is not just the apotheosis of the leader above the sheeplike masses of his followers; it is also, in a less spectacular but perhaps more consequential manner the reinvention of the settle logic of petty sovereignty, a highly conditional but very real ‘liberalising’ and ‘privatising’ of the monopoly of violence…Foucault’s insight into the ‘erotic’ of a power based on the deputizing of violence is a more fecund frame, I would argue, for the analysis of both classical and late fascisms than Guattari’s hyperbolic claim that “the masses invested a fantastic collective death instinct in…the fascist machine’ –which misses out on the materiality of that ‘transfer of power’ to a ‘specific fringe of the masses’ that Foucault diagnosed as critical to fascism’s desirability.

I think that Toscano’s analysis picks up an important thread that runs from discussions of fascism from Benjamin to Foucault (and beyond). As Benjamin writes in the Work of Art essay 

“The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of masses are two aspects of the same process. Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.”

Today we could say that the right of expression includes a deputization of power and the pleasure in exercising it. In a capitalist society in which the material conditions of existence must belong to the capitalist class, the only thing that can be extended to the masses, is the power and pleasure to dominate others. Real wages keep on declining, but fascism offers the wages of whiteness, maleness, cisness, and so on, extending not the material control over one’s existence but libidinal investment in the perks of one’s identity.

All of which brings me to Taylor Swift. I have watched with amusement and some horror as the fringes of the Fox News Expanded Universe have freaked out about Taylor Swift attending football games and, occasionally, being seen on television watching and enjoying the games. It is hard to spend even a moment thinking about something which has all of the subtlety of the “He-Man Woman Hater’s Club,” but I think that it is an interesting example of the kind of micro-fascism that sustains and makes possible the tendency towards macro-fascism. Three things are worth noting about this, first most of the conspiracy theories about Swift are not predicated on things that she has actually done, but what she might do, endorse Biden, campaign for Biden, etc., I think that this has to be seen as a mutation of conspiracy thinking from the actual effects of an action or event, Covid undermining Trump’s presidency, to an imagined possible effect. One of the asymmetries of contemporary power is treating the fantasies or paranoid fears of one group as more valid than the actual conditions and dominations of another group. Second, and to be a little more dialectical, the fear of Swift on the right recognizes to what extent politics have been entirely subsumed by the spectacle fan form. (Hotel Bar Sessions did a show about this too) Trump’s real opponent for hearts and minds, not to mention huge rallies, is not Biden but Swift. Lastly, and this really deserves its own post, some of the anger about Swift being at the game brings to mind Kate Manne’s theory of misogyny, which at its core is about keeping women in their place. I would imagine that many of the men who object to seeing Swift at their games do not object to the cutaway shots of cheerleaders during the same game. It is not seeing women during the game that draws ire, but seeing one out of her place–someone who is enjoying being there and not there for their enjoyment.

I used to be follow a fairly vulgar materialist line when it came to fascism. Give people, which is to say workers, actual control over their work, their lives, and their conditions and the appeal of the spectacle of fascist power would dissipate. It was a simple matter of real power versus its appearance. It increasingly seems that such an opposition overlooks the pleasures that today’s mass media fascism make possible and extend to so many. It is hard to imagine a politics that could counter this that would not be a politics of affect, of the imagination, and of desires. Libidinal economy and micro-politics of desire seem less like some relic from the days of high theory and more and more like necessary conditions for thinking through the intertwining webs of desire and resentment that make up the intersection of culture, media, and politics. I think one of the pressing issues of the moment is the recognizing that all of these junk politics of grievances of popular culture should be taken seriously as the affective antechamber of fascism while at the same time not accepting them on their terms; there is nothing really to be gained by rallying to defend corporations and billionaires. 

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