Is New Labour a Fascist Movement?
Posted by rantingkraut on March 20, 2006
Since New Labour came to power in 1997, it has drawn criticism from old adversaries and traditional Labour supporters alike. On a number of occasions, New Labour has been called fascist and Blair has been compared to Mussolini . In so far as fascist is merely seen as a political expletive this is unremarkable, but recent legislative efforts make the possibility of a fascist orientation appear more plausible. This rather long posting compares New Labour’s political agenda with that of classical fascism.
At first sight, the suggestion of a substantive ideological overlap between the current Labour government and historic fascist regimes seems preposterous. So where can substantive similarities be found?
An appropriate basis for such a comparison are the fundamental principles of classical fascism rather than its most extreme manifestations during World War II. Nobody in his right mind would suggest that New Labour’s record in government is comparable to that of Hitler, but the contrast with Mussolini or Franco is less pronounced. Furthermore, what is at issue is also the potential for worse things to come.
The central programmatic reference for Mussolini’s fascist ideology is his discourse on the Doctrine of Fascism . This can be compared with broader ideological statements from Tony Blair as well as with pivotal constitutional changes under New Labour.
Characteristics of Fascism
Mussolini presented fascism as an ideology that had transcended the old conflict between socialism and capitalist liberalism. He claimed that, by overcoming the old ideologies, fascism had developed as a progressive movement which resolved the social antagonisms of the old order within the organisation of the state. Fascism therefore was presented as a holistic movement which offered spiritual guidance to the people and resolved group conflicts as part of the state’s open ended organisational mission. These new qualities of the fascist order then were presented not only as resolving old problems but also as making traditional safeguards like democratic elections or guarantees of individual rights superfluous.
The above summary of the fascist paradigm may seem fundamentally distinct from New Labour’s political agenda, and yet the common points emerge quite clearly once the differing marketing strategies are ignored and substantive points of ideological orientation are considered on their own merit.
The theme of abandoning old ideological conflicts together with the traditional constraints on the political process has been raised by Blair more recently when presenting his respect agenda . In this context, Blair announces an extension of state powers as well as his intention to progressively erode due process guarantees. Traditional constraints on state power, according to Blair, were appropriate to XIXth century Britain but are out of place in a post-modern society. Blair phrases his argument more carefully than Mussolini, but the basic logic is very similar: a new state has emerged which resolves the old conflicts and therefore dispenses with the traditional safeguards and restrictions. This vision is closely related to another common point: the concept of a corporatist state.
Explicit references to corporatism are naturally avoided by New Labour’s leaders yet the common elements are easy to identify. In either case, the state is seen not as a guardian enforcing generally applicable rules of just conduct but as an arbiter with a role in allocating resources and privileges to designated interest groups. It is important to be aware of the full extent of this concept. We are not faced with a traditional interventionist state that engages in limited income re-distribution to provide a minimum set of opportunities for all or to guarantee a minimum standard of living.
The neo-corporatist state follows a dirigiste ideal which is not even in theory confined to economic interventionism. Mussolini explicitly defined the state as a superior entity, a higher being to which the individual had to defer and from which it derived its identity. The Blairite Labour party is less specific on this point but its policy record makes up for this. Increasingly, the government is prescribing how much respect citizens should have for selected religions, life-style choices and ethnic and cultural groups. It dictates what aspects of a diverse society they must celebrate, what risks they may take in their private lives and which ideology or religion they may criticise or encourage others to dislike.
This is the direction taken by various kinds of “hate speech” legislation: A form of selective legal protection, of religions in particular, which amounts to direct censorship of political discussion. Islamism is politicised Islam just like neo-conservatism is a form of politicised Christianity. When religions are legally protected against criticism at the same time as they are involved in political activism then censorship is used to protect some political opinions against others. Such an arrangement is incompatible with the principle of free debate which an open society should thrive on; it is inherently incompatible with a liberal social order.
The erosion of limitations on state power is not just an accidental by-product of supposed social progress, it is a necessary consequence of the state’s holistic mission. A state that accepts responsibility for all problems in all walks of live must sooner or later claim power over all aspects of private and public live. What fascism and neo-corporatism have in common is the notion of individual freedom as a residual product of policy, a concession which may be granted after the central authority’s planning requirements have been catered for, but which in no way limits what the government can do.
This similarity is most pronounced in recent reforms directed towards the removal of due process guarantees. Blair attempts to justify these through anticipated successes against organised crime. By virtue of these reforms the state will of course no longer be able to guarantee the individual rights of the innocent once they are suspected of a crime. With the burden of proof reversed, miscarriages of justice are almost guaranteed. In consequence, the state is bound to loose the moral properties which would be a necessary condition for its legitimate existence in a liberal society. Naturally, all of this is of no concern to New Labour: the justice system is seen as just another public service with the objective of meeting performance targets, such as a satisfactory number of convictions.
Both movements then share common ground in that they value order over justice and oppose the right to individual liberty as a matter of principle. Both also share the habit of being openly authoritarian in practice while seeking to re-define traditional concepts so as to rhetorically deny the authoritarian character of their policy agenda. Mussolini famously defined true liberty as “liberty of the state” while Blair re-defines liberty to encompass inclusion in government welfare programmes. By adding social policy to the definition of liberty, liberty looses its quality as a constraint on government power: any restriction of liberty in the classical sense of freedom from restraint can now be traded off against arbitrarily chosen changes in social policy.
Not surprisingly, another common element is the ostentatious denial of tyranny. Both Mussolini and Blair argue that their respective governments can not be tyrannical since they are representative of a loosely defined “general will” or the interests of “the ordinary citizen on the street”. Curiously, both also take care to deny that their government is establishing a police state.
Having established the common elements between Mussolini’s fascism and New Labour’s neo-corporatism it needs to be asked where the main differences lie and how important they are in comparison.
One of the most defining characteristics of fascism is its rejection of democracy. This is also one of the key differences with New Labour: so far, New Labour has not attempted to abolish competitive elections. However, this apparently clear dividing line is blurred somewhat by recent constitutional reform proposals of the third Blair government. The “Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill” seeks to enable the government to by-pass parliament in introducing new legislation in a manner reminiscent of a German enabling act. New Labour is not abolishing elections but it has launched an assault on the division of powers.
A second defining characteristic of fascism is the belief in a superior ethnic or national community which demonstrates its health through war and a process of national territorial expansion. New Labour clearly differs in this point: post-modern identity politics raise new problems of racist discrimination but these are clearly distinct from the presumptions of racial superiority which provide the ideological groundwork for genocide. Blair may well have gone to war for reasons of geo-political convenience rather than self defence, but this is more plausibly seen to be yet another instance of allowing pragmatism to dominate principle. There is simply no indication that New Labour values war as an end in itself in the way Mussolini did.
In those areas where traditional fascism has its extensive common ground with New Labour’s neo-corporatism one still should recognize that New Labour is—on the whole—less brutal than fascist rulers have traditionally been. At least this has been the case for now. The worrying thing is that this difference is entirely based on discretionary decision making and that there is no guarantee that future rulers will show a similar level of restraint. It comes down to this: trust in politicians is a poor substitute for guaranteed individual rights.
Is New Labour a post-modern variant of traditional fascism? My answer is no! The differences in the attitude to war, to the rejection of democracy and in terms of sheer brutality set the two movements apart. Having said this, New Labour and traditional fascism share a lot of common ground and they do so in areas incompatible with a liberal democratic order: both reject constraints on government power, both prioritise government planning objectives over individual rights and both consistently allow pragmatic concerns to trump constitutional principles. Likewise, in rejecting limitations on the role of government, both movements embody a totalitarian concept of the state.
New Labour is not a British re-launch of Italian fascism, but the two have far too much in common.
 See for example: David Aaronovitch, the Guardian July 1, 2003 “Why Tony Blair is not a Guitar- wielding fascist dictator.” http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,3604,988388,00.html or the discussion here: http://www.samizdata.net/blog/archives/008459.html.
 The references here follow the text of “The Doctrine of Fascism” as in pp. 1-42 of Benito Mussolini “Fascism, Doctrine and Institutions” Ardita Publishers, Rome 1935. (This text is available online at: http://www.worldfuturefund.org/wffmaster/Reading/Germany/mussolini.htm.)
 Cf. Tony Blair’s speech on the “Respect Action Plan” held on the 10 January 2006 (http://www.number10.gov.uk/output/Page8898.asp).
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