The Mark of Fascism: Lebensraum for the Left (Essay)

By Maxximilian Seijo & Scott Ferguson

A thought that stands outside subjectivity, setting its limits as though from without, articulating its end, making its dispersion shine forth, taking in only its invincible absence; and that, at the same time, stands at the threshold of all positivity, not in order to grasp its foundation or justification but in order to regain the space of its unfolding, the void serving as its site, the distance in which it is constituted and into which its immediate certainties slip the moment they are glimpsed—a thought that, in relation to the interiority of our philosophical reflection and the positivity of our knowledge, constitutes what in a phrase we might call “the thought of the outside.”

Michel Foucault, Maurice Blanchot: The Thought from Outside

Anti-fascism has always been central to critical theory. Yet in resisting fascism, critical theorists have too readily taken fascist projects at their word. When fascism asserts itself within a polity, for instance, or imposes order on another community, it posits territorial rule over and against what is tacitly framed as an external and pre-political commons. Crucially, such a commons is imagined to exist beyond any particular territory, somehow belonging to no one and everyone at once. From this initial commons, fascism decides who is permitted to exist inside the ethno-nationalist state and who must be pushed out. The very act of exclusion, then, strategically defines the ethno-nationalist state at the same time as it shores up its legitimacy.

One finds critiques of this formulation in numerous works, including those by the likes of Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, Gilles Deleuze, and Giorgio Agamben, and others. All of these authors opt variously to counter fascist territorialization with a version of what Deleuze and Félix Guattari call a logic of “deterritorialization.” Deterritorialization seeks to undo fascism’s expulsive territoriality so as to carve out extra-territorial room for life. Such seemingly critical gestures are right to contest territorialization. We will argue, however, that they err by problematically repeating, even romanticizing, the appeal to a pre-political commons that drives fascist logics in the first instance. In this brief essay, we wish to not only challenge metaphysical appeals to a pre-political commons, but also set forth a far more capacious and anthropologically-grounded critique of fascist territoriality.

It is instructive to return to one of the relatively unknown architects of fascist theory, the Nazi linguist Jost Trier. An important influence on both Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, Trier argued that the origin of politics must be postulated through the question of terrain and the central problem of what he terms the “fence.” As he intones, “The fence marks the beginning. Deep and thoroughly defining, the fence, the border, nurtures [Hegung] the world formed by humans.” For Trier, the fence does more than establish a territory. It demarcates the political as such. And the political, on Trier’s reasoning, is nothing other than the function of an inherently exclusionary care.

Construed as a line of division inscribed on a blank slate, such logics borrow from Rene Descartes’ planar geometry, Thomas Hobbes’s state of nature, and John Locke’s extension of such logics to theorize the origins of the human psyche as a tabula rasa. Reducing the political to a foundational enclosure, Trier relies upon and gives voice to the metaphysical bedrock of modern Liberalism and its justifications for the private seizure of common forests, fields and waters in early modern England. Yet he also radicalizes Liberal metaphysics, carrying their suppositions to their implied logical and political ends. As a result, he reads the relationship between inside and outside through a univocal prism of absolute opposition.

In order to undo this violence, the critics we mention above respond to Liberalism and fascism alike by attempting to reclaim an original, external commons, which supposedly precedes and exceeds enclosure. Critics affirm “lines of flight,” to again borrow from Deleuze and Guattari, which would seem to defy and escape any sovereign interior. Against the univocal violence of enclosure, then, they picture a pre-political commonality or commons, where humanity and nature exist together in open and unbounded relations teeming with repressed social and ecological potential. In place of enclosure, modern critics construct a politics of exteriority and difference, which frequently appears to mirror, or simply invert, the absolutism of their fascist interlocutors. In the face of fascist efforts to secure a passive environment for a chosen people, these critics call upon a pre- and, in certain iterations, post-political commons to accomplish something disturbingly similar. As a consequence, such critics often naturalize the ontological core of fascistic violence and let Liberalism’s comparatively mild operations too easily off the hook. 

We in the Money on the Left Editorial Collective begin from wholly different premises. Rejecting the ontological exclusion of the fence, we regard the political and, with it, money as an originary multi-scale interdependence. In this way, we turn the entire edifice of Western political philosophy outside-in. Proceeding from heterogeneous institutions and forms of decision making that know no absolute exteriority, we refuse the figure of the fence as politically constitutive, as well as the illusory commons upon which it is based. Demarcations of course differentiate social and material relations in meaningful ways. But any demarcation, we contend, remains forever nested within and relative to broader domains of social and ecological mediation. Put another way, demarcation can never be said to intervene in an untrammeled or pre-political field free from integrated social coordinations and meanings. Eschewing an absolute commons or state of nature, we maintain that there is no legible or legitimate outside to the problem of mediating social and ecological dependence, no matter which side of demarcation one considers.

Crucially, such inclusivity is decidedly not spatialized, or at least not in any Cartesian sense that would imply linear partitions over an infinitely extended plane. Inclusion is instead a qualitative relation interior to infinitude, which relies on overlapping and vastly different proximities to particular centers of mediation and indicates no unaffected outside. Particulars necessarily participate in this ubiquitous inside which, despite their irregular differentiations, nevertheless manages to reach all. As such, the “externalities” and “marginalities” that so flummox neoclassical economists and delight continental philosophers endure always-already inside a broader human and ecological condition, even and especially when it comes to apparatuses of expulsion.

For this reason, Liberalism and ultimately, fascism fail in positing as origin the opposition between fence and commons. In contradistinction to Siegfried Kracauer’s self-conception as “extraterritorial,” what we have elsewhere called the inextricable “intraterritoriality” of existence undermines the modern metaphysics of expulsion. The failure of fascist demarcation to fully externalize those who it identifies as enemies does not, to be sure, make such regimes any less brutal. On our reading, it doubles their brutality, secreting away a clandestine ontological violence under cover of the manifest horrors of genocide. Fascism’s overt violence of course owes to its destructive practices, which perpetuate psychic and social terror in the name of an impossible, pure interiority. Yet what has hitherto been overlooked by fascism’s most trenchant critics is Western modernity’s violent externalization of naming, which surreptitiously legitimizes fascism’s spectacular failures. This violence does not derive, as critical theorists regularly argue, from the supposed imposition of nominalization on reality. It arises, instead, from the metaphysical delusion that nominalization penetrates Being from the outside.

Repudiating an absolute inside and outside, our claim is that designation and, specifically, designation through money always involves contestable analogies. Analogies are nothing but patterns of dynamic relation, entailing diverse spheres of obligation and need. On this view, analogies may partake of homology or likeness, but cannot be reduced to isomorphic sameness. Presuming a shared interiority, analogies forge difference within sameness, with sameness in this case understood as the heterogenous background of Being as such. Analogies at once disclose and shape not only power and its ongoing problematics, but also interdependence and the ongoing difficulties of care. They do so, not from some Archimedean point of mastery, but rather through partial and participatory articulations of nested relationality.

We draw regularly on chartalism and related traditions to show that the analogical conditions of moneyness represent a relative constant throughout much of human history, despite great variations in social and material life that comprise said moneyness. Diverse, multiple, and ubiquitously visible, such histories demonstrate that the conditions of moneyness are as generalizable as they are particular. They also harbor endless lessons for anti-fascist politics.

Take historian Robert Gates indispensable insights into Weimar-era struggle over the nature of money and its political capacities. While Germany’s Free Trade Unions supported a program of massive public works funded by direct public money creation, the Marxist leaders of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) such as Rudolf Hilferding rejected the program as unrealistic and “un-Marxist.” Preparing for a nationalization program projected into some indefinite future, SPD Marxists actively worsened the catastrophe by calling on the party to permit the ensuing economic crisis and joblessness to run its allegedly natural course. Although certainly not solely responsible for the subsequent nightmare, they nevertheless unwittingly assisted in hastening fascist scapegoating of Jews and other minorities along with the meteoric rise to power of a once-beleaguered Nazi party.

Unexplored by Gates, SPD’s disastrous incapacity to approach monetary mediation otherwise relies upon a tacit externalization of inscription. According to the SPD’s logic, the capitalist mode of production and its countless contradictions appeared to operate as a univocal imposition of private property onto unbounded nature. In the face of private property’s total imposition, the SPD could only concoct an antithetical, yet equally univocal project of nationalization that would socialize private industry as part of an eventual dialectical movement toward what the young Marx once referred to as “lower-stage communism.” Far from effectively combating fascism, however, the SPD reified the metaphysical exteriority upon which fascism thrives. The result not only deepened a political and economic calamity the Nazis could exploit, but also paved the way for fascism to wield state money as a weapon of exclusionary uplift and mass extermination. 

Hardly isomorphic to present conditions in and beyond The United States, the work of revealing such historical possibilities and blind spots nonetheless offer haunting analogies for the fallout of persistent neoliberal austerity and the resurgent ferocity of ethno-nationalist violence. And yet, there is still so much more work to be done.

We need historians across disciplines and fields to assist us in tracing the possibilities and limits of the many analogous human attempts to thematize our inalienable dependence on monetary mediation in myriad and unpredictable forms. Through this expressly analogical practice, historians can enable us to envision money’s previously untapped potentials, as well as expose reactionary logics and practices we wish to avoid and struggle against. In doing so, the critical historian must prioritize the vast and heterogenous interiority of monetary inscription, while jettisoning the fascist mirage of exteriority that the Nazis notoriously hailed as “living room,” or Lebensraum.

Long held at arms-length by leftists as a noxious fiction belonging to the far right, the lure of Lebensraum in actuality looms as a powerful temptation for critical theorists as well. Echoing Michel Foucault’s meditation on Maurice Blanchot’s “thought from outside” quoted above, contemporary art critic and media theorist Boris Groys, for example, recently published an avowedly leftist ode to Western philosophy’s dream of immanent exteriority in the journal e-flux. Groys aches for the philosopher’s historic “meta-position” in a non-locatable elsewhere, criticizing the “politics of inclusion” as a form of univocal domination that miserably abets “a comfortable life of consumption.”

“[A] politics of inclusion,” Groys explains, “which presupposes the improvement of the living conditions of the excluded, is precisely directed towards the elimination of the meta-position that is occupied by the excluded. The politics of total inclusion aims to get rid of the space outside of society, to eliminate any external, potentially critical position towards society as a whole. This politics calls for everybody to play by the same rules, to obey the same laws, to pursue the same goals, to be seen and treated like everybody else and to see and treat everybody else in the same way.” Later, he surmises, “The truth is always on the side of the excluded. To recognize the excluded means not to include the excluded, but precisely to recognize this truth—to accept the dignity of the slave by rejecting all property and working hard (Christianity), or to accept the dictatorship of the proletariat (communism). It would not make sense to give a saint or a revolutionary a regular income and a comfortable life of consumption.”

Although he would surely bridle at the accusation, Groys in this piece seems to pine for a kind of living space, or Lebensraum, for the left. Such a realm, to Groys’s mind, would align free-thinking philosophers with the dejected. It would also furnish philosophy with a critical vantage point from which to evaluate society in its existing totality.

As enticing and, perhaps, well-intended as these twisted judgements may be, in truth Groys’s conclusions only further entrench the mark of fascism in the guise of its apparent opposite. Equating inclusion with punishing sameness and transformation with capitalist expansion, such reasoning explicitly flattens the path to justice to an impoverished common denominator born of subjugation. Dignifying the externality of slavery, propertylessness, and a dictatorial party, Groys’s left utopia looks just as univocal as his characterization of capitalist dystopia. Implicitly, moreover, Groys belittles, if not outright forecloses, profound political movements that confront money and mediation head on. Abolitionism or the Black Freedom Struggle for full employment, from this contorted purview, are predestined to conformist complicity.

The allure of what we are calling a left Lebensraum is a fascist trap that critical praxis must abjure. There is no place external to interdependence. Politics are never univocal. And neither care nor critique are micro-level affairs. Only by circumventing the false appeals of “thought from outside” can we begin to radically reconstruct the world we actually inhabit.

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