Fascism has never been obsolete. It is omnipresent.[1] The specters of the 1930s have now been reawakened on multiple levels. Mindful of its revenant, Enzo Traverso in The New Faces of Fascism has persuasively made the case that we are now in a post-fascist era. He is careful to make the distinction between ‘post-fascism’ and ‘neo-fascism’.[2] The latter emerges out of the former.

If a full-fledged neo-fascism has not shown its face in the West, at least not yet, the reactionary ruling theocracy in Iran, having the total monopoly on violence, exhibits all the aspects of neo-fascism. Its face is obscenely unique: a bearded male garbed in white and black turbans. The dominant color in this neo-fascism is not brown. Just recently it showed its ugly face on September 16, 2022, in the brutal killing of a young woman aged 22 named Mahsa Amini who had just arrived in Tehran for a visit from the city of Saqqez, located in the Kurdistan province of Iran. She was arrested and condemned for her ‘improper’ hijab (veiling). The brutal act triggered a wave of widespread demonstrations and strikes across Iran. Led mainly by brave women, this movement has forced the world to take notice.

This date will be remembered in the annals of the early twenty-first century as the day that became a cause, with which women all over the world identified themselves and rose in sympathy with the plight of Iranian women. The singular dictum of the ensuing historical moment has been ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’. However, this is a superstructural expression at the political, social and cultural levels, whose base is a corrupt economic inequality that is plunging the nation’s working and middle classes into abject poverty.

Why is it important, even urgent, to bring forward the case of theocracy of Iran and call it neo-fascist? If it is correct that this neo-fascist theocracy presents a special case in the pervasive post-fascism with which our ear is politically identified, then it must be moved center stage in the radical Left discourse, preempting a mild critique by bourgeois liberal democracy that is showing signs of its exhaustion. What is conspicuously absent in the discourse of liberal and left-liberal intellectuals, who are all too eager to draw our attention to the case they make for their political analyses of ‘authoritarianism’, is the total absence of two words: ‘fascism’ and ‘capitalism’. As Max Horkheimer once said, “whoever is not prepared to talk about capitalism should also remain silent about fascism”.[3] These intellectuals are unable to address the return of fascism, let alone analyze it as a manifestation of the contemporary crisis of capitalism.

Enzo Traverso is among those critical thinkers who have awakened us from our dogmatic slumber, warning us of the danger of fascism today, a danger which has been always lingering in the era of liberal democracy. The political sources of this danger do not go back only to the inter-war years in Europe, but further to the nineteenth-century Bonapartism of the Second Empire in France. And Kojin Karatani is the one who has informed us that, in fact, fascism has its root in Bonapartism—‘qua the prototype of fascism’. In this relation, it is noteworthy to bear in mind the point Karatani makes, namely that we have failed to read closely Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, which precisely revealed the mechanism of Bonapartism and the so-called ‘representative’ democracy, which is always prone to fascism.[4] Karatani further points out that “the crux of fascist movement, as opposed to its stereotype image, lies in offering alienated workers a surplus of life by recovering the authenticity [Eigentrichkeit] of the natural environment’, alluding to a certain ‘fascist ecology’ in our time, adding that ‘It is not the case that fascism always takes the form of jingoism; it is not always involved in the militaristic state. So it is that fascism is not obsolete. It is omnipresent”.[5] In this regard it is instructive to remember the words Theodor Adorno wrote in 1959: “the survival of national socialism within democracy” was more dangerous than “the survival of fascist tendencies against democracy”.[6] We will come back to this relation between ‘democracy’ and ‘fascism’ below.

Here we must mention another failure: not paying enough attention to what Walter Benjamin, who, facing the fascist counter-revolutionary movement of the 1930s, presciently wrote the followings in the epilogue of The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility:

“The proletarianization of modern man and increasing formation of masses are two sides of the same process. Fascism attempts to organize the newly proletarianized masses while leaving intact the property relation which they strive to abolish. It sees its salvation in granting expression to the masses—but on no account granting them the rights. The masses have a right to changed property relations; fascism seeks to give them expression in keeping these relations unchanged.”[7]

If what Benjamin said applies to property relations in the capitalist center in the West, the reactionary neo-fascism exemplified by the theocracy in Iran demonstrates an inability of even denying the masses this same ‘expression’. It brutally represses any ‘right’ to expression aimed at changing the dominant oppressive property relations. This is the crux of the matter. Not only the Western radical intellectuals, but also the Iranian intellectuals, must be mindful of the fact that the struggle against fascism must be accompanied by the struggle for changing the property relations as the defining crisis in current global capitalism. Short of this, radical intellectuals will not be able to address the problem confronting us in our contemporary political predicament. The current oppositional movement against the neo-fascist theocracy in Iran, once it is organized on a national political level with a clear leadership, has every chance of aiming at the highest social target, that is, putting an end to obscene inequality at the economic base. This oppressive economic base is firmly held in place by the regime bolstered and abetted through its ‘Ideological State Apparatus’, to invoke Althusser’s term, wrapped in rabid religious and backward cultural edicts to ruthlessly exercise its rule in the absence of any genuine political representation and any possible mechanism that might allow political and social mobilization to change the dominant oppressive property relations.

Before reflecting further on the character of neo-fascist fundamentalist theocracy in Iran as a special case, let us briefly examine the general trend of post-fascism with a look at the twentieth-century classical fascism of the 1930s, which, it must be noted, had both religious and masculine characters, the reactionary Catholic males, especially in the case of Spain under Franco. This examination is warranted as fascism can no longer be in the ‘realm of historical scholarship’. In 1920–1925 in Italy and 1930–1933 in Germany, the elite industrial classes shifted their allegiances from liberalism to fascism in a desperate attempt to defend their interests against the rising working class and communist movements. At present, it must be noted that the same elite has allied itself with neoliberalism waging a war against the poor. Their political representatives are well known. The process of fascicization in the twenty-first century has engulfed nations in both the global North and South with the rise of far-right authoritarian figures, reviving the ‘State of Exception’ and the figure of the ‘Sovereign’. As a reminder, the notion of ‘state of exception’ goes back to Carl Schmitt (the German intellectual in Nazi Germany, whose influential critique of liberalism has recently got the attention of the progressive Left), who corresponded with Benjamin, as discussed by Giorgio Agamben in his State of Exception.[8] As Schmitt said, “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception”.[9] On the other hand, the political theory of ‘sovereignty’ has its sources in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan that Schmitt discussed in his The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes.[10] These two notions and their sources are indispensable for our understanding of not only contemporary post-fascism but also the ‘political theology’ that underlies the ideology of the neo-fascist theocracy in Iran.[11]

Now, going back to the case of post-fascism in the last decade, we are aware of the multiple figures from the far-right who have appeared on stage, from Trump in America to Bolsonaro in Brazil, Le Pen in France, Modi in India, Erdogan in Turkey, and now Giorgia Meloni in Italy. At the center of these stands Vladimir Putin in Russia. Alain Badiou has a damning label for these authoritarian figures. In his short book entitled Trump and published in 2019, Badiou used the term ‘democratic fascism’. An apt but, as he says, a ‘paradoxical’ designation. He explains that “after all, the Berlusconis, the Sarkozys, the Le Pens, the Trumps, are operating inside the democratic apparatus, with its election, its oppositions, its scandals, etc.”[12] This term might not be quite applicable to Putin who has imperialistic ambitions with his brutal occupation of Ukraine underlined by his hegemonic reactionary ideology.[13]

Along the line of Badiou’s contention, Mikkle Bolt Rasmussen, in an incisive passage in his Late Capitalist Fascism, writes:

“The new fascist parties are not anti-democratic; they function perfectly within the framework of national democracy addressing the ‘real’ population, maintaining a hollowed-out political system by hitting out at people not deemed to belong to the national community. This is not fascist aberration; this is merely fascist parties highlighting a contradiction immanent in national democracies. Contemporary fascism wishes to return to a simpler time, most often the post-war era, and it does not have the swagger of inter-war fascism; it is less about colonial expansion than about returning to an imagined previous order.”[14]

Rasmussen further points out that today we are confronted with ‘an updated fascism’, ‘a functional equivalent’, which is not an ‘exact repetition’ of the inter-war fascism. Now, we must note that this is not the case with the Iranian regime. The essence of the latter is precisely what we can call as ‘undemocratic fascism’, notwithstanding the fact that, according to Karatani, the “parliamentary system is not intrinsic to democracy, but rather to liberalism.” “Democracy requires,” he adds, “first homogeneity and second—if the need arises—elimination or eradication of heterogeneity.” Consequently, “Bolshevism and Fascism, as with all totalitarian forms, are anti-liberal, however it does not necessarily follow that they are anti-democratic’.[15] The clerical rule and its state functionaries in Iran, operating from within the various unelected institutions, are not obliged to obey even a semblance of ‘democratic’ rule. They do not operate within any ‘democratic apparatus’, notwithstanding the fact that they project an image of fake ‘democracy’, imitating the Western parliamentary system by organizing elections, manipulated and rigged under the various supervisions of ‘Councils’ and ‘Assemblies’ run by the unelected clergy, and managed through a process that keeps sending the so-called ‘representatives’ of the people to the majlis, the so-called ‘Parliament’.

None of the figures named above—Trump, Le Pen, Bolsonaro, Modi, Erdogan, Putin—can be the embodiment of ‘pastoral power’ to cite the term employed by Traverso. Compared with the known dictators of classical fascism in the 1930s, namely Mussolini, Hitler and Franco, these authoritarian figures might look incompetent and incapable of being a ‘good shepherd’. In Traverso’s words: “In the 1930s, Mussolini, Hitler and Franco promised a future and appeared as an effective answer to the economic depression, against exhausted liberal democracies which embodied the vestiges of a collapsed political order. Of course, this was a dangerous illusion—struggling against unemployment by rearming and waging war led to catastrophe—but their propaganda worked pretty well until the Second World War.”[16] If the project of ‘regeneration’ was at the core of classical fascism, the emerging far-right authoritarian figures are its incompetent inheritors. Traverso writes that “the premises for the emergence of this neofascist wave lie in the crisis of hegemony of the global elites whose ruling tools inherited from the old nation-states appear obsolete and increasingly ineffective.”[17] He further notes: “As Gramsci explained revisiting Machiavelli, domination is a combination of repressive apparatuses and cultural hegemony that allows a political regime to appear as legitimate and beneficial rather than tyrannical and oppressive’, and from a historical perspective, classical fascism was not only a form of ‘radical nationalism’ promoting the racist idea of nation, but it was also “a practice of political violence, a militant anticommunism, and a complete destruction of democracy. All the same, we must be reminded, anti-communism remains a persistent feature of the current post-fascism, which is on the way to destroying democracy, the ever-exhausted ‘liberal democracy’”.[18]

In regard to the notion of ‘state of exception’ noted above, far-right movements may be good candidates to lead the authoritarian turn towards this state of exception, but they are not capable of managing the biopolitical turn. Borrowing this notion from Foucault, we must note that the neo-fascist theocracy in Iran is a prominent example of this ‘biopolitical’ power. It has exercised for forty years a raw power over women’s bodies, ‘disciplining’ them by forcing on it a veil, the hijab. It has imprisoned and killed with impunity any woman who dared to not abide by it.

The term ‘post-fascism’ might attain a more proper meaning if analyzed according to Karatani’s triadic notion of Capital–State–Nation—a Borromean Knot in Lacanian term. The origin of this triad goes back to Hegel, and later Marx’s critique of it. This term requires that post-fascism be analyzed within the theory of State and Civil Society, which Hegel was the first to bring out in his Philosophy of Right. This means that the analysis of contemporary fascism must be conducted within the critique of capitalism and liberal democracy. In this respect, Rasmussen renders a Marxist reading of fascism by stressing the “relationship between fascism and capitalist accumulation, a crisis-ridden capitalist accumulation” and emphasizes that “late capitalist fascism is national-liberal rather than national-socialist—“law and order” combined with market economy”.[19] In this precise sense, the foundation of Iranian neofascist theocracy and the sources of its crisis of State must be sought in the economics of late capitalism. After forty years of neoliberal capitalism, Rasmussen notes, “the market and individual initiative rules supreme but, confronted with escalating conflicts and never-ending crisis’ that must repress the racial elements of ‘dangerous classes”.[20] At the political, social and cultural levels, this applies equally to some forty years of the rule of the Islamic Republic in Iran with a persistent crisis of legitimacy failing in its project of a total ‘Islamization’ of the Iranian society.[21]

Over forty long years the theocratic regime of Iran has managed to destroy civil society through an organized and at time disguised political violence. No matter the majestic and courageous resistance shown today on the streets of Iran, where brave women are taking their hijab off and thus putting their lives in danger, this spontaneous movement in all probability would not be enough to put an end to the regime. But, as Slavoj Žižek, in solidarity with the courageous Iranian women, has recently said, the West must take note of this and must learn from it. At this point, we should ask this question: What is it that gives a specific historical significance to the collective agency of Iranian women armed with the mantra ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’? It amounts to this: The total disavowal of servitude. September 16, 2022 marks a moment that the Iranian women began to project a selfconsciousness, or self-awareness, of freedom. They are acting as if they know very well what the master-slave dialectic in the Hegelian sense is about. Let us take a moment and underline briefly the meaning of this dialectic.

Hegel wrote about the ‘relationship of master [Herrschaft] and servitude [Knechtschaft]’ in his Phenomenology of Spirit and in Encyclopedia.[22] First of all, the German word Herr means ‘lord’, ‘God’, and also any male. In Hegel’s time, as we are told, Herr was reserved for “wealthy landowners, sometime nobility,” but also for the “average man.” [23] One would have expected that “servants of count and countess to refer to their employers as die Herrschaft.”  Herrschaft would be translated as ‘lordship’, ‘supreme rule’, ‘reign’, but also ‘government’, ‘servitude’. Knechtschaft, which apparently has no exact equivalent in English, can be translated as ‘servant, serf, or slave’.  So Knechtschaft means a “state of living in material dependence on another person, often without the ability to leave, and working for them under austere circumstances”.[24] Knechtschaft can also have a symbolic connotation at the political level. It can refer to “someone who lives in a country that offers no freedom of speech and no human rights”,[25] that is someone who lives in a state of absolute servitude. What is important to notice is the distinction between the two terms in Knechtschaft itself.

While Knecht refers to singular person, Schaft suggests “the relational involvement of several people”, or in other words, the institutional character of this state of servitude in a country.[26] This country is Iran. Its theocracy in the last forty years has ruled Iran under the reactionary religious dictum of vellayet-e-faghih (‘The Rule of Jurists’), by establishing certain repressive institutions to deny people the freedom of speech and their human rights, and above all, by brutally imposing the hijab on women and keeping them in a state of servitude. That is, until now. In psychoanalytical sense, the Iranian women have reached the point of self-consciousness, or self-knowledge of their owns unconscious. To put it in Hegelian terms, they are coming to their spiritual self-realization to achieve “self-liberating freedom.” This moment of self-knowledge, or self-realization, is irreversible. For the sake of the whole of humanity, the world must support the struggle of the Iranians against neo-fascist theocracy. This regime must come to an end.



[1] See Kojin Karatani, Transcritique: on Kant and Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[2] See Enzo Traverso, The New Faces of Fascism, Populism and the Far Right (London and New York: Verso, 2019), see especially chapter 1 ‘From Fascism to postfascism’.  Also see Enzo Traverso, ‘Twenty-First Century Fascism: Where We Are’, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/5257-twenty-first-century-fascism-where-we-are, 3 February 2022.

[3] Quoted in Slavoj Žižek, Less Than Nothing, Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (London and New York: Verso, 2012), 818.

[4] See Kojin Karatani’s ‘Introduction: On The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, in History and Repetition, ed. Seiji M. Lippit (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012). Also see his Transcritique: on Kant and Marx.

[5] See Kojin Karatani, Transcritique: On Kant and Marx, n.19, 344.

[6] Quoted in Enzo Traverso, The New Faces of Fascism, Populism and the Far Right, also see Theodore W. Adorno, ‘The meaning of working Through the Past’, in Critical Models: Intervention and Catchwords, ed. Lydia Goher (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005),  90.

[7] See Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility’, Third Version, in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writing, 1938-1940 , trans. Edmund Jephcott and Others, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003), 269.

[8] See Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005).

[9] Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, 1.

[10] See Carl Schmitt, The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes, Meaning and Failure of A Political Symbol, trans. George Schwab and Erna Hilfstein, intro. George Schwab, with new forward by Tracy B. Strong (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2008).

[11] I am specifically referring to Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology, Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. and intro. George Schwab with new Forward by Tracy B. Strong (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005).

[12]  See Alain Badiou, Trump (Cambridge: Polity, 2019), 13. Badiou prefaces his remarks by pointing out that ‘It is often said that these new political figures—Trump, to be sure, but many others in the word today—resemble the fascists of the 1930s. There is indeed a certain resemblance. But, alas, there is also a major difference: today’s new political figures do not have to confront the powerful and intractable enemies who were the Soviet Union and the communist parties’, 12–13.

[13] I owe this point to my communication with Todd McGowan who brought it to my attention.

[14] See Mikkle Bolt Rasmussen, Late Capitalist Fascism (Cambridge: Polity, 2022), 7.

[15] See Kojin Karatani’s seminal Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy, trans. Joseph A. Murphy (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2017) 16.  In this regards Karatani importantly explicates that ‘Modern democracy is a composite of liberalism plus democracy, that is to say liberal democracy. It attempts to combine, therefore, two conflicting things, freedom and equality. If one aims for freedom, inequalities arise. If one aims for equality, freedom is compromised. Liberal democracy cannot transcend this dilemma. It can only swing back and forth like a pendulum between the poles of libertarianism  (neoliberalism) and social democracy (the welfare state), 16.

[16] Enzo Traverso, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/5257-twenty-first-century-fascism-where-we-are, no pagination.

[17] Enzo Traverso, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/5257-twenty-first-century-fascism-where-we-are, no pagination.

[18] Enzo Traverso, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/5257-twenty-first-century-fascism-where-we-are, no pagination.

[19] Mikkle Bolt Rasmussen, Late Capitalist Fascism, 6, 11.

[20] Mikkle Bolt Rasmussen, Late Capitalist Fascism, 6.

[21] In this respect see the excellent argument by Reza Afshari in his Human Rights in Iran, The Abuse of Cultural Relativism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), see the ‘Afterward’, especially the section ‘Islamization and Its Failure’.

[22] See Jon Mills, The Unconscious Abyss, Hegel’s Anticipation of Psychoanalysis (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), 136.

[23] Jon Mills, The Unconscious Abyss, 136.

[24] Jon Mills, The Unconscious Abyss,136.

[25] Jon Mills, The Unconscious Abyss, 136.

[26] Jon Mills, The Unconscious Abyss, 136.