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Fascism has been on Canadians’ lips lately after swastikas and white nationalists were spotted at the ongoing Freedom Convoy on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Many are struggling to understand what this convoy, and the nationalist presence that resembles the Jan. 6 insurrection attempt in the United States, could mean for our democracy.

To some, the neo-fascist presence should be excluded from the general plight of truckers and their supporters fighting against vaccine mandates. To others that are more suspicious, the fascist presence seems like a natural extension of the protest’s overarching aim to rebel against democratic state power, making the fascistic gestures that have appeared on the margins of the protest a revelation of the bad conscience that’s hiding behind the appearance of frustration over vaccine mandates, masks, and the like. I think the latter is true, but we have to be careful to not assign complete bad faith to those who genuinely feel they are rebelling against mandates.

A large part of Frankfurt School thinker Theodor Adorno’s legacy is found in his attempt to conceptualize fascism in its dialectical relationship to modern liberal democracies. Coming from a Jewish family, Adorno fled Nazi-occupied Germany and wrote critical texts on topics such as fascism and the entertainment industry in the United States thereafter. 

An important idea in Adorno’s attempt to pin down how fascism can seemingly still arise in democracies after the events of the second world war is that viewing fascism as being without liberal democracy is to make a mistake. Rather, we need to look at fascism as being within liberal democracies, lurking in the very antagonisms that allow liberalism to function, if we are to diagnose it with care and a genuine aim to dampen its effectiveness,

“Liberal democracy contained in itself a drive toward standardization, powered by the commodity form, that reduced objects as well as human subjects to items for exchange. Stripped of their differences, individuals dwindled into an unreflective mass that loathed the very thought of resistance and was primed for submission. Fascism could never be addressed or defeated if it was seen merely as liberalism’s other, an exotic pathogen that had come from the outside. It was composed not of rare elements but of the base metals that are the building materials of our common world,” wrote Peter E. Gordon, professor of philosophy and social theory at Harvard, in describing Adorno’s views on fascism’s survival after 1945

With this in mind, if we take a zoomed-out, socio-economic view towards the rise of fascism in early 20th century Germany, the amalgam of reasons that folks have for being at the convoy begin to take a unary shape not unlike that of Germany. Ultimately, the convoy amounts to a last-ditch effort to project frustrations of not being able to pretend COVID-19 doesn’t exist anymore onto artificial issues such as the necessary measures needed to slow the spread of COVID-19 (vaccines, masks, lockdowns). Hence the far-right capitalizing on these frustrations and giving protestors a suitable narrative: something analogous to “the liberal government is secretly authoritarian and in cahoots with big pharma to prolong this pandemic forever and take away your freedom.”

Isn’t big pharma’s response to COVID-19 and its variants just a product of our most basic mode of production, that being supply and demand? Of course, when labs in the Global South were ready to engineer the vaccines early on, it was Bill Gates who came forward and said that the patents could not be made public. Gates took back his word only after facing serious backlash, claiming later that a “narrow waiver” could be made when it comes to releasing the intellectual property of vaccines. 

In the Weimar era of Germany, and with the economic constraints found in the Treaty of Versailles, German citizens facing the chaos of poverty and ruin had no one to blame for their situation. The Nazi movement that swept the region gave them a common enemy, that being the Jewish community. Jewish people were ambivalent figures in Nazi Germany, they were considered dirty, ugly, poor, and subhuman as well as being considered charming, rich, and cunning. Ambivalent personifications like those of Jewish people are a surefire way to spot a conspiracy theory crystallizing in a populace, and this is increasingly what the rhetoric surrounding Justin Trudeau’s government (and Joe Biden’s as well) is starting to look like on the moderate and far right when it comes to COVID-19 measures.

In these individuals’ minds, Trudeau’s government is somehow both an authoritarian force, scheming in the background for control over our “freedoms,” (you can still go eat at restaurants maskless, mind you) but also impotent and spineless when it comes to keeping Canada a strong nation that isn’t afraid of COVID-19 and its purportedly minor mortality rate. A mortality rate which, according to Stats Canada, was ranked the third highest leading cause of death in the country in 2020; with malignant neoplasm (cancer) ranked first and heart disease second, both of which don’t have nearly as effective deterrents as the COVID-19 vaccines and boosters.

The inconsistencies in the reasons Canadians have gone to the convoy then come, rightly, to appear paranoid. 

The proponents of centrist liberalism will insist that fascism be expunged so that democracy can carry on just as before. But for Adorno, democracy is not a full-fledged reality that fascism has damaged; it is an ideal that is yet to be realized and that, as long as it betrays its promise, will continue to spawn movements of resentment and paranoid rebellion,” wrote Gordon. 

So, returning again to neoliberalism’s inflammation of societal issues when it comes to COVID-19, which can be seen clearly in other phenomena such as the empty condos in Toronto, the convoy’s range of regular people to openly admitted fascists becomes entirely predictable. It’s not that those who are mingling with actual fascists are themselves fascists by association; it’s that their confusion and anger is born out of liberalism’s vice-grip on what’s politically possible, nationally and globally, which creates an opening for reactionary, populist rhetoric to point the finger at democracy per se. 

Widespread feelings of resentment, then, can only be filtered through a paradoxical plea to our government to both take action in order to allow us to pretend COVID-19 isn’t an issue anymore as well as to step-down and stop imposing restrictions on Canadians’ lives through “abuses of power.” If abuses of power, in this case means the wearing of masks, getting vaccinated, and staying home when there’s a new variant in order to protect others, then this could just as easily be an argument against following traffic laws.

To those who claim that we should ignore the swastikas and displays of bigotry, treating them as unrelated to the convoy’s aim itself, the appropriate response should be one that could just as easily apply to those who claim that the whole of the convoy is a fully-realized fascist movement. This response is to reject this false dichotomy and to get more nuanced, and perhaps uncomfortable, in our diagnosis of what the convoy represents. It’s not too late for those who have been slightly swayed by the uprising in Ottawa to be self-reflective about why that is. As Peter E. Gordon writes: 

“Fascism, too, casts a long shadow and cannot be consigned to the past, especially when it rears its head once again. Well after Adorno’s death in 1969, conservative historians in Germany voiced the complaint that the left would not cease reminding contemporaries of the nation’s crimes. In the words of the historian Ernst Nolte, Nazism was ‘the past that will not pass away.’ The philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who had been Adorno’s student, intervened in this historians’ controversy, insisting that continuity and comparison must serve as instruments of criticism, not apologetics.”