At this time of rising fascism in the U.S., my thoughts turn to George Orwell’s chronicle of his involvement fighting fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Although largely a catalog of the lack of food, firewood and effective weapons, Orwell’s narrative seem achingly relevant to me for one reason: their failure. My favorite part of Homage to Catalonia is when the anarchists are shouting across an empty ravine to the fascists whom they can see but whose bullets would never reach. They said, “Buttered toast!… We’ve just sitting down to buttered toast over here!” Come join us, brothers, the anarchists would shout. We have hot buttered toast. I love this moment for its simplicity–because the anarchists are recognizing the fascist brothers kin to themselves and because, who doesn’t love hot buttered toast? But this moment is exactly the reason why I believe the anarchists cause failed and why so many radical politics are essentially unappealing to many people.
Anarchists in the Spanish Civil War focused on people’s daily needs—who doesn’t love hot, buttered toast? People in Spain were starving–they needed food. People–were homeless and needed homes; people were jobless and needed something to do; people were rejected from their communities needed to be included. Anarchists focused on these practical, attainable and above all human needs. And, these are the basic rights that should undergird all human social organizations. But, while it seems a compelling reason to me, and too many other people with radical politics, these simple and basic needs are not enough for most people. I struggled for a long time to try and understand why the meeting of peoples’ basic needs for daily existence were not appealing. I believe now, that a close look at Francisco Franco’s fascism offers a concise reason why. It is said that man cannot live on bread alone and fascism understands this profoundly.
Franco’s fascism promised people a filament of their destiny. Destiny. What is it? It is dreams beyond which they could even rationally or consciously comprehend them. The fulfillment of destiny offers the idea of a larger meaning and purpose to life. Why are we here? Is it just to eat buttered toast? Why do we struggle? Why are things always so bad? Surely the goal of all this loss and suffering isn’t just to survive… Franco promised people a future in which not only were their daily meat needs met but their full potential as human beings would be realized. It promised a community where people not only had their basic necessities but had a fulfillment and their purpose for living. It didn’t even have to deliver. If you promise people buttered toast and don’t give it to them, they will say you lied. If you promise people their dreams, they can always be deferred.
Fascism is dynamic and, like capitalism, fascism says that people only get what they deserve. Both fascism and capitalism label certain people as deserving of this kind of destiny. For Franco, it was people who are identified as Spanish. But not all fascism is based on ardent nationalism. Hitler, for example, had an idea of being deserving that was tied to a biological understanding of human being. Capitalism identifies only those who have achieved wealth or those who will work on endingly and sacrifice others in the pursuit of wealth as the deserving of this destiny. But essentially, destiny is the thing that most people want. They want it more than bread. And this search for destiny, by those who deserve it, has a dynamism. It is empowering. It says, if you try; if you belong; if you devote yourself to this, then you can get more than your daily bread. You can get more than the world can seem to possibly offer. You can become the ideal version of yourself. You can achieve your wildest dreams.
This promise, although a chimera, has so much vitality. It overwhelms any basic need that we may have. We learn to live with these daily needs anyway and they seem paltry in comparison to the realization of our dreams. Hunger pains or the lack of electricity in our house maybe something that we have experienced and don’t enjoy. It may depress us. It may make us feel less worthy. But, when the lights are on and it’s warm we may still feel a lack. Peoples’ greatest needs are our dreams. Our dreams manifest as jealousy when we look upon something we desire whether it be beauty or success, a happy family, comfort and stability, a career, public recognition of our worth or any number of other things. These things ultimately mean more to people than maintaining our basic needs.
This, I believe, is the reason why anarchism was not more successful in Spain. My husband disagrees with me. He cites the communist infiltration of the anarchists movement, the guns the Russians gave and their control over the anarchists’ organizing. He talks about how Franco mustered forces from all over Europe in pursuit of his cause and how, many people who fought for Franco we’re not ardent fascist but doing it for the money. I remain skeptical of these arguments and the reason why is because I fundamentally believe that if people embrace an idea, if people believe and work together, that we can make the world that we want to see. If a small group of people with money and guns can control all the rest of us then what future could we possibly have? We may as well give up now.
I’m also not convinced that I see this at work in my daily life. I encounter many people, all the time, that show me and tell me in many different, simple ways that they believe that something other than their basic necessities are the most important things in their life. I live in a rural area with many trailers and outside many of them, prior to the election, were Trump signs. These people want to feel Great. They want to have respect. They want to be seen as worthy. They want to be part of a collective effort that they can believe in. Money of course plays a role in this. But, if people were singularly focused on attaining money, I think that most people would have supported a candidate who promised to elevate the working classes living wages. That was not what happened. People wanted wealth, not a living wage. People supported someone who articulated their deepest dreams, not their daily concerns.
I also don’t believe that the threat of violence is what makes people support these kinds of politics. Violence and force is certainly used in order to coerce people to cooperate in our society and in every society. However, our society does not operate solely because of the threat of force. Many people are threatened by violence—but most of those people didn’t support Trump and don’t elect the politicians that continue to press the fascist agenda.
People want to believe that they can do and achieve what their deepest dreams are made of. They want to believe and so, they continue to buy into a system that promises them that if they try hard enough, if they belong, if they sacrifice enough, if they cooperate with the plan, then their deepest dreams will be realized. This is what fascism and capitalism promise and that is why no radical politics based solely upon the material and every day, quotidian and pedestrian needs that we all share is going to compel people to abandon their dreams. We need a radical politics that offers a dream that is compelling–that has vitality that asks for people’s energy. That gives them a reward that their heart can latch onto. It’s time for radical politics to offer people something beyond their daily needs it’s time for radical politics to imagine a dream beyond a world that we could even hope for. It’s time to give people an image of the future that is beyond their wildest hopes and desires. This kind of creation is dangerous but it’s also promising and we can no longer be afraid of the danger because the danger is already upon us instead we must embrace it.
Moira Marquis is a PdH candidate and senior teaching fellow at UNC Chapel Hill. She also teaches reading at Orange County Correctional and was a public school teacher for ten years.