Based closely on Margaret Atwood’s haunting 1985 novel, this TV series is compulsive viewing and, given the recent political climate in the USA, should be compulsory viewing for all citizens east and west. Fascism can take many forms; religious cult, national fantasy, international utopia, but in all its varied forms it represents at base, capitalism in crisis. This has been largely misunderstood even by the most well-meaning critics of brutal authoritarian regimes. Mankind has created many such regimes in its ten-thousand-year history of civilisation but these should not all be carelessly confused with fascism.
Fascism is a particular and precise form of capitalism but capitalism it still is. Feudal or slave-owning dictatorships were always and everywhere brutal in the extreme but they were not fascist dictatorships. They could not be because fascism is a product of capital in crisis and capital is a relatively modern historical economic phenomenon. This may seem to some as a particularly pedantic point of definition but without it the cause of fascism cannot be understood let alone combatted.
In the US, fascism could likely take a form closely resembling the Puritan religious barbarisms of earlier centuries. Atwood draws heavily on this rich seam of religious authoritarianism. In Britain, a fascist regime is more likely to front itself behind a willing monarchy. It very nearly happened in the 1930’s. In the Islamic world, an extreme version of Islam is the obvious contender. There are many today who dream of an Islamo-fascist global caliphate. In countries of the former Socialist bloc, there are no end of convenient national-socialist forms of fascist dictatorship in the making. We are already seeing some of these tendencies transform themselves into government in Eastern European countries. But whatever the form of fascist dictatorship and its accompanying ideology, fascism is capital’s authoritarian response to real or imminent economic collapse. The Handmaid’s tale, brilliant as it is, deals principally with the form of fascism rather than its economic roots. In that sense Atwood’s work, like George Orwell’s work before her, is not so much flawed as historically limited.
To date, all fascist regimes have relied heavily on a deep-rooted misogyny deriving from a deeply ingrained patriarchy. Atwood’s work invokes this historical trend with frightening clarity. But patriarchy is not an essential ingredient any more than anti-semitism is an essential ingredient to fascist rule. It may be useful but not essential. Any scape-goat will do. The essential requirement for fascist rule is special bodies of armed personnel who can crush all political dissent and all democratic institutions. Divide and rule has always been the favoured strategy of all authoritarian regimes. Pitting men against women becomes the perfect strategy.
But fascism above all else demands that the owners of capital be totally free to protect their self- proclaimed ownership of the means of production, and that those that are in a position to challenge that ownership; organised workers, intellectuals, students, civil rights activists, must be mercilessly crushed and humiliated. Atwood’s work perfectly describes that crushing humiliation but fails to mention at all who the owners of capital are and why they have become so reliant on fascist force. In fact, Atwell inadvertently lets the owners of capital off the hook by conjuring up the infertility storyline at the expense of economic crisis.
In the case of Trump’s dysfunctional and quasi-fascist presidency, critics have inevitably focused on his racism, misogyny and homophobia but in the process, have somewhat taken their eye off the audacious attempt to further shift the tax burden away from the wealthy elite and onto those who can least afford it. US capital, confronted as it is by globalisation and the rise of Asian capital, is desperate to regroup. Faced with this challenge to its hegemony, it is not surprising to see the early signs of fascist government. White supremacists are in the White House. Islamic scape-goats are being conjured up. Civil liberties are being steamrolled. And most ominous of all, retired generals and corporate CEO’s are being recruited into the service of the Trump presidency. All of this reeks of one thing and one thing only US Capitalism, once the undisputed king, is now under serious threat. A full fascist response may soon be required.
The televised version of the Handmaid’s Tale, timely as it is, has rather blinded itself to the dire economic realities bubbling up in the US and global economy. Mountains of debt; sovereign debt, corporate debt and personal debt have not gone away since the economic meltdown of 2008. If and when the next collapse happens, expect fascism, with or without the religious misogyny brilliantly portrayed by Atwood, to be very much on the agenda.