Post-Digital Fascism and the Escape from Freedom

Critical Pedagogy and the Struggle for an Anti-Fascist Counterpublic Sphere

When Fox News and other news organisations on the US far right accuse public school teachers of ‘woke’ attempts at ‘grooming’ or ‘sexualising’ children by allegedly prompting them to consider changing their gender, or turning themselves into ‘furries’ and defecating in litter boxes provided by the school administration, or serving as surrogates for the LGBTQI+ community through school curricula bent on demonstrating the fluidity of gender identities, they are playing a dangerous game that they know is factually baseless but nevertheless possesses the potential to attract enraged audiences to their networks like flies to honey.

In our post-digital ‘circulationist’ universe of click-swarm tactics like trolling and doxing and the creation of platforms designed to foster self-organising structures of hate, fear and rage, the far-right has the advantage, although it has not yet won the day. Contemporary civil society is being re-defined by the normalisation of networked digital technologies in everyday life, many of them setting in motion a dizzying maelstrom of far-right positions, policies and manifestos on race, ethno-nationalism, anti-globalism and white supremacy. This increasingly demands that we take online actions more seriously if we are going to comprehend its consequences for our increasingly fragile democracy. Official and unofficial far-right groups have re-cast themselves as post-digital heroes, fighting ‘woke’ culture warriors on the left, and they are winning many of the online battles for the hearts and minds of our youth. Online hate has offline consequences, often with worldwide ramifications, fascism being one of them. The entwinement of far-right hate groups and network-oriented developments in technology can no longer be ignored.

In the words of Stephen Albrecht, Maik Fielitz and Nick Thurston, it is becoming alarmingly clear that

Our technical era is intermedia and digitally driven – one in which old and new interact – and our intermedia tools run software that allows multiple simultaneous user-tool and user-user interactions with ‘glocal scope.’ This connectivity makes the online and offline responsive to one another, and their growing augmentation makes them increasingly interdependent…. For those post-digital far-right actors leading the current resurgence, intermedia systems are not neutral communication tools. Rather, they are a catalyst for highly social processes and forums where political opinions are created, expressed and practised. These media are mediating politics. They connect larger audiences more quickly and widely, allow for autonomous spreading, circumvent regional and national restrictions, can host parallel channels that range from open access to the encrypted, and use overlapping frames, feeds and windows to keep politics, digital citizenship and users’ personal lives in constant contact.

A mixture of fear, sex-ridden narratives and cannily crafted rage can be manipulated into trustworthy algorithms of hate that networks can rely upon in order to attract viewers. And in the post-digital hands of far-right, techno-savvy political actors, these algorithms of hate can play havoc with their viewers’ insecurities, producing online ‘affective publics’ whose digital interactivity is guaranteed to create chaos in the open digital space of today’s ‘attention economy’ that controls how much time we are likely to focus on a particular issue or event. In a social universe of high information density, these online publics operating as an informal, do-it-yourself counterpublic sphere are now focusing on the demonisation of teachers and normalising hatred directed towards them by people like Mike Pompeo, who has recently described union leader Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, as ‘the most dangerous person in the world.’

Due to the socio-technical infrastructure of social media, the normalisation of previously unacceptable attitudes and utterances towards teachers can occur through the employment of strategies similar to those used to foster anti-immigrant bias on the Mexico-United States border, such as the creation of ambient forms of anti-teacher bias through the sheer pervasiveness of stories accrued and cross-referenced in the social media; creating in-group victimisation and out-group stereotypes, producing specific types of ‘affect’ through manipulation of emotions and forms of surplus enjoyment; through selective exclusion of information; the algorithmic clustering of social media content and groups; remediating, recontextualising and reframing mainstream news stories, often amending them with click-bait, sensationalist commentary that amplifies and mainstreams xenophobia; and through a reliance on the commercial architecture of social media for the production of imaginary others so loathsome that they can be viewed as legitimate targets of opprobrium and violence.

It will take some time to produce the most toxic forms of digital fascism, so we need to act quickly to find the means to counteract such a development, since the power of such scapegoating is what helped build the Nazi Party in 1930s Germany – and that singularly destructive power was created without the benefit of the social media affordances available today and their potential for devastating the lives of individuals, groups, and as World War II proved, the murder of six million Jews and the destruction of entire nations.

I am using the term ‘post-digital’ after Maik Fielitz (2019) to identify

the blurring line between digital and actual life. It is a technical condition that followed the so-called ‘digital revolution’ and is constituted by the naturalisation of pervasive and connected computing processes and outcomes in everyday life, such that digitality is now inextricable from the way we live while its forms, functions and effects are no longer necessarily perceptible. This ‘naturalisation’ has been accelerated by the growth in computing power, internet-enabled mobile devices, the low participation barriers to internet culture, as well as the push within that culture towards an emphasis on mass postproduction and compressed expression in the form of content (textual, audiovisual, etc.) that is made to circulate widely.

Post-digital fascism is a digitally born movement that has been rebranded by populist authoritarian leaders who are exceptionally adept at strategically permeating society with their toxic (racist, white supremacist, illiberal systems of intelligibility) and post-truth utterances that have replaced intersubjective understandings of truth with instrumental reasoning and a technocratic rationality via a wide spectrum of internet forums, communities and websites. Open societies operating in the existentially mediated currents of our digital condition (I am referring here to web 2.0 and social media websites that facilitate user-generated content, interoperability for internet users, and an interactive, participatory culture), with their revved up, often frighteningly hysterical, tongue-wagging networked masses most vulnerable to those digital hate cultures; their trending hashtags on Twitter that facilitate the message transfer between different platforms; their fake profiles, ‘fake accounts, automated bots and flawed algorithms,’ their algorithm-based curation of interaction and their wide dissemination of far-right tropes in online spaces leading to an exponential dispersal of hate – all of these factors are impacted by structural inequalities that underwrite their industry and prone to perceptual manipulation by far-right social actors trapped in the prison house of interactive social media, especially in the case of the ‘highly fluid and ambivalent variant of digital fascism’ illuminated so brilliantly by Maik Fielitz and Holger Marcks. These two perceptive and iconoclastic theorists paint a new picture of fascism drawn directly out of the social structures of our digital world, arguing that the networked masses of the world are not unlike Marx’s proletariats, only digitised, carrying with them the potential means to destroy the digital foundations of fascism in which they are imprisoned, observing that ‘the masses are the engine of their own manipulation.’ For instance, the white Christian nationalism we are witnessing today requires a digitised architecture of ‘organising without organisations,’ social media platforms that are able to dialectically relay racialised fear and create, modify and spread wild conspiracies on a continual basis that overwhelm attempts to challenge them by fact-based means and strategies.

Race as a form of technology has developed out of a platformed racism attentive to the internet’s attention economy, utilising image boards such as Reddit, 4chan, and 8kun and trading in intersectional identity markers such as blackness and poverty, blackness and hypersexuality. Here self-proclaimed ‘meme warriors’ belonging to opposing factions and using internet memes, battle against one another through a ‘backstage racism’ that incorporates the encoding of ‘digital blackface’ and ‘racialised animatedness,’ often subordinating Black bodies through humour and play, and perpetuating powerful racial hierarchies designed to satisfy the white gaze. Plain-sight activists incite trolls in neo-Nazi forums who amplify their messages of hate and violence.

Ideas now are traded in a marketplace of race, class, and gender dynamics through the synergy effects afforded by cross-sector mobilisations and the increased speed of transactional exchange that makes pre-digital transactions seem as ineffective as using Morse Code to debate existential philosophy. Suddenly Kayne West’s anti-Semitism enters the marketplace of ideas, drawing support from his vast network of followers who abandon data-driven logic for amplified feelings of loyalty to their ‘genius’ idol. Suddenly dinner conversations at family gatherings turn to the topic of George Soros and who controls Hollywood.

Under the impact of dramatic storytelling, gaslighting and metric manipulation, the masses are assaulted by a social media that ‘catalyses the amplification of fears, the diffusion of post-truth and the logic of numbers’ in an echo chamber of obfuscation and invective. The creation of new orders of perception manufactured by new species of post-digital outlawry is such that liberal perspectives are superseded and authoritarian perspectives are gifted by an advantageous digital climate (Turner). Fielitz and Marcks identify ‘palingenetic ultranationalism’ (Griffin) as a core principle of digital fascism, which relates to the perception of an endangered community that seeks rebirth ‘through extraordinary means’ and is in need of a strong leader whose authoritarian populist sentiments reach far into the brainpans of their unsuspecting followers. Secondly, Fielitz and Marcks examine those menacing fears that justify authoritarian or illiberal politics as they unfold in our digital universe. Agency and structure can be seen here as contrasting strategies that serve to create perceptions of imperilment (i.e., extinction narratives that warn against the replacement of white European citizens by immigrants). Here virtual networks are calibrated to canalise fears, resembling a ‘new tribalism’ and illustrating the emergent features of what Fielitz and Marcks describe as ‘post-organisational’ fascism. This new fascism is better understood as a cultural phenomenon that requires freedom of expression – a feature which, paradoxically, has traditionally been understood as a liberal principle. Basing their focus on perceptions of imperilment, Fielitz and Marcks examine the social impact of the internet as a frame of analysis about how today’s expressions of fascism are conditioned by a digitalised world. They also examine ground-breaking research on the identity-building characteristics of virtual hate communities and the ‘worldwide virtualisation of fascist thought’ that has come to be known as ‘cyber-fascism’ (Griffin) and ‘broadband terrorism.’ For Fielitz and Marcks, fascism is ‘not actor-centred but rather operates as a social phenomenon. In other words, fascism operates discursively as a certain political rationality that individuals and groups can express through cultural practices. Moreover, they ‘distinguish between fascism as an ideal-type and family-like phenomena, thus understanding it as a concept whose ideal-type is composed of certain features but can manifest in variations that have aberrant features,’ which prevents them from lumping together the entire far-right as fascist. They follow Acker’s argument that the new, digitised fascism is characterised by ‘the circumstance that the masses are manipulating themselves through social media and are less (mis-)guided by the propaganda techniques of hierarchical far-right organisations.’ This reveals that social media ‘is particularly beneficial for authoritarian and illiberal mass movements.’ It suggests, too, that ‘fascist developments today are less a result of far-right organisations’ strategic actions, but of new structures of communication that change society’s perception towards a fascist rationality.’

Fielitz and Marcks employ Robert Paxton’s description of fascism as a ‘political behaviour marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity.’ They find this insight compatible with Griffin’s notion of ‘palingenetic ultranationalism’: the myth of a nation that is fading away and has to enforce its rebirth through extraordinary efforts. The minimalist definition of fascism stipulated by Griffin has to do with the mobilisation of populist energies for renewal. They also take seriously Paxton’s notion of a radical pragmatism that feels unbound to ‘ethical or legal restraints’ to enforce the actors’ goals, especially when discursive shifts in culture can make justification for violence uncompromising, as both acceptable and necessary. Fascists then rewrite themselves as the endangered group whose enemies must be eradicated. Fielitz and Marcks write:

By creating trans-local identification with victims of local incidents, they spread the notion of a nation permanently under attack. Their messaging is particularly constructed to encourage people to identify with the characters in their stories. ‘It could happen to you’ is a central message when they, for instance, call on women to weaponise to defend themselves. Suggesting that nothing is safe anymore, actors call for vigilantism and exclusion while their online disciples produce deeply racist messages and memes, unleashing perceptions of imperilment and laying the ground for justification of extraordinary politics to save and strengthen their own communities. Storytelling has thus evolved to become the order of the day. Wrapping political messages in seemingly casual comments, video clips and memes has become central weapons of an ‘information war’ that aims at subverting liberal values.

In this way, social media puts people into a direct relationship with each other, offering a structural environment for mutual references and a hidden guidance through the algorithm-based curation of interaction. Fielitz and Marcks conclude that

With digital fascism, so one could say, fascism comes closer to its core. No longer exclusively dependent on a hierarchical party as the driver of fear-mongering and mobilising practices, fascism draws new dynamics directly out of emotions and cultural practices that are spawned by and in the structures of social media. Such a phenomenon cannot be grasped with actor- or ideology-centred approaches. More than ever before, fascism has to be analysed as an emergent phenomenon through the actions of its disciples. In the same vein, it has to be countered as such. And this means: In the absence of a tangible centre of political actors, it is primarily the structures that constitute its dynamics that have to be targeted.

Fox News’s post-digital architecture is designed to camouflage a fascist ontology calibrated to serve as an ideological defence for Trump’s contemporaneity with fascism which is not imaginary but unaccountably real. Trump has lifted the United States out of time by making himself non-temporal, celestial and eternal – the Chosen One – who follows a messianic path that leads down the same self-absorbed road as Putin and Viktor Orbán. Many of Trump’s followers admire Putin and Orbán, cheer Trump’s admiration for Putin and side with Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, a position facilitated by Fox News commentators such as Tucker Carlson, who explicitly and thematically advocates for fascism without naming it as such and reassimilates it through his ethno-nationalist cravings into an American dreamscape, implacably annulling democracy by fantasies of self -aggrandisement and a vicarious identification with Russia’s premeditated and unjustified war against Ukraine.

The causal efficacy of Fox’s propaganda machine, which showcases Carlson’s triumphalist bursts of American exceptionalism, moulded and modelled in the idea of America as a Christian nation, has turned Americans away from support for Ukraine in favour of the rabid warmongering of Patriarch Kirill and Putin’s disinformation gurus. Fox News has also failed to criticise the machinations of NATO and the role of US imperialism. The far left, too, has helped to support fascism by refusing to recognise Russia as a proto-fascist state and by directing its internet platforms towards positions taken by ‘campists’ and ‘tankies’ that herald Russia as the victims of NATO and US imperialist design while at the same time refusing to direct criticism towards Putin and his imperialist war. Their tergiversations have even provided tranquillising affirmations of Stalin as if they live in some atemporal and ahistorical universe untainted by Stalin’s bloody history of totalitarianism and blood-drenched gulags. In doing so, they preserve a hollow notion of the meaning of international solidarity, redacting the history of fascism by showing little indignation over the violation of the rights of the oppressed in Ukraine. It is possible to take a stand against NATO, US imperialism and Russian imperialism and still support Ukraine’s right to pursue its own destiny as a nation.

So how do we change the fascist ecosystem? How do we transform the internet that has given fascism a competitive edge over democracy? If we shut the fascists out, we are, in some major instances, going against our own liberal principles of free speech and free expression. We have to focus on structures of perception produced by the new post-digital fascism rather than on individual actors. But how do we target post-digital fascism if it is built into the very post-digital structures of our central nervous system via the internet cosmology? Do we assign responsibility to those who create the fundamental algorithms and provide the structures beneficial for fascist dynamics? Do we put providers of social media under the threat of hate crime? How do we restrict the opportunities for gaslighting and metric manipulation? How do we intervene in the structures that allow those synergy effects that amplify hate? Do we make providers of digital platforms responsible for the content shared via their infrastructure or user registration systems that enable fake accounts? All of these suggestions by Fielitz and Marcks are good ones, and we have to reckon with the fact that some may be ‘at odds with the prevailing norms of freedom on the internet and may undermine liberal principles itself.’ Are we willing to take this risk? I would argue that we have no other choice if we want to avoid the digital jackboots of terror that most assuredly will jump from the internet platforms on our computers onto the backwaters, the streets, and the institutions that run our cities and our government. And the frightening prospect in all of this is that despite our facility with deconstruction, disentanglement and disambiguation, and our ability to decipher meaning, and despite our acquired aptitude in understanding the symbology and iconography of far-right cultures and our ability to smash through far-right firewalls of obfuscation acquired from years of reading critical theorists, we might become so emotionally aligned with their digitally-weaponised gaslighting provocations that we welcome the comfort and cohesion of their anger and their rage.

Mike Pompeo, former US Secretary of State under Donald Trump and potential Republican presidential candidate, answered his own question in the most ominous manner possible by blaming teachers for posing the greatest threat to the United States when he remarked: ‘If you ask, ‘Who’s the most likely to take this republic down?’ It would be the teachers’ unions, and the filth that they’re teaching our kids, and the fact that they don’t know math and reading or writing.’ Kenny Stancil reports that

Pompeo’s attack on teachers’ unions and inclusive curriculum comes amid an ongoing right-wing censorship campaign and broader assault on public school students and employees. A recent analysis by PEN America detailed how 138 school districts across 32 states have prohibited more than 1,600 titles in classrooms and libraries since July 2021. The vast majority of banned books deal with LGBTQ+ themes, address racism, contain sexual content, or are related to activism. In addition, according to PEN America, Republican lawmakers in 42 states have introduced more than 190 bills since January 2021 that seek to limit the ability of educators and students to discuss gender, racial inequality, and other topics – including a growing number of proposals to establish so-called ‘tip lines’ that would empower parents to discipline teachers. Nearly two dozen educational gag orders have been enacted in more than a dozen states.

On the religious side of the digital divide, digitally based churches are appearing online at an increasing rate. There is a growing Christian subculture with digital ministries operating in asynchronous digital spaces. TikTok and virtual spaces are being used to curate church experiences for young Christians who have migrated onto the web with the help of Digital and Metaverse tools. Some are able to facilitate more effective intercultural online interactions while others fall prey to the fascist undercurrents of Christian nationalists. Christian related video content minted in the catacombs of the Fascist Technoverse has brought us frightening figures such as Jenna Ellis, one of the right-wing lawyers who represented former President Donald Trump in his failed attempts to overturn the 2020 election, who recently released a video to her loyal far-right netizens asserting that the five victims who were recently murdered in the massacre at Club Q in Colorado Springs, Colorado, are burning in Hell, since there is no indication that they accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. This is Christian fascism at its worst. It stems from weaponising the fundamentalist screeds of Christian nationalists who support theocracy by judicial decree.

Clearly, the forces of fascism are worming their way into our brainpans with help from the multiverse of digital fascisms that Fielitz and Marcks have warned us are now operating through the metaverse of the internet. We need a multi-pronged defence against its most hideous post-digital incarnations and hate-mongering instantiations that have firewalled us from our protagonistic selves able to make independent decisions. And we must defend the commons at the risk of undermining some of the most basic principles of freedom of speech and expression that define us as a liberal democracy. For those of us who are fighting for a socialist alternative to neoliberal democracy’s law of value, post-digital fascism poses an urgent threat to the survival of freedom itself in the ways that information technologies are being used by capital to create capital mobility across national boundaries that have culminated in the national security state of widespread societal surveillance, helping the United States achieve full spectrum dominance as a military power.

It means that we must strive to create a terrifyingly revolutionary anti-fascist project that attempts to change the world into one of unrestrained mutual assistance and inescapable selflessness, to create a social universe untouched by value production and monetised wealth, where we share in communion with others, where power is concentrated in the community, where social relations are humanised and differences respected, where we avoid totalitarianism in politics, authoritarianism in religion, paternalism in our social relations, patriarchy in our families, ecocide in our relationship with nature and epistemicide in our relationships with other groups, communities and countries, where we no longer die with weapons in our hands, where we can heal ourselves so that we can see others clearly and with compassion and where we are enwrapped in possibilities for a socialist future.

For those of us who worry about technology transformed into an ideological weapon of death, we need to build strategies to combat soft power fascism, a fascism that results in death by a thousand cuts across the digitalised brain, a mind-makeover that has given us death by digital lobotomy, by cleaving away our defences to our own unintentional fascist devices. For those who have witnessed technology in the service of high-tech imperialism and as a means to reshape the world geopolitically, we are required to do more than understand how the world’s informational supply chain is being hijacked by world superpowers, and how consumer technology has removed the imagination and replaced it with the artificial dreamscape of Google-run-trend analysis and heralded it as open democracy. We need to find ways to break out of the digital echo chamber that turns our lives into the search for more and more objects of hate through new forms of gaslighting and metric manipulation.

We need to get on with the challenge by developing an anti-fascist post-digital critical pedagogy. Petar Jandrić and others have been working in this area, and we must bring a sense of urgency to this task if we are to survive not only as critical educators, but as human beings. Because we are being fashioned in ways unbeknownst to our capacities for understanding. This will take the creation of new sensibilities and habits. Like Marx’s proletariats, who possess the means to become the gravediggers of capitalism, we can refuse to participate in digital fascism not by withdrawing into the hinterlands of a post-digital-less future but by creating a social universe where those who contribute to the production of fascism are not only identified but held accountable. If we are serious about democracy, we need to move on this now. We have no time to lose.

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Full Citation Information:
McLaren, P. (2022). Post-Digital Fascism and the Escape from Freedom: Critical Pedagogy and the Struggle for an Anti-Fascist Counterpublic Sphere. PESA Agora.

Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Emeritus Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. From 2013-2023 he served as Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.

Article Feature Image Acknowledgement: Mark Dixon, Flickr,