“And those who expected lightning and thunder, are disappointed. And those who expected signs and archangel’s trumps do not believe it is happening now. As long as the sun and the moon are above, as long as the bumblebee visits a rose, as long as rosy infants are born, no one believes it is happening now…”
– from A Song at the End of the World, Czesalw Milosz, Warsaw 1944
By all accounts, it was a raucous and tumultuous summer few will forget: from a pandemic that, despite massive denial, is still raging, especially in the Global South, to Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, which stands poised to descend into a nuclear nightmare no one can even begin to fathom and is causing major disruptions in fuel and food, to biblical floods that have inundated a third of the entire country of Pakistan, to the unprecedented drying up of several major rivers around the world. The unfolding catastrophes around us have made me think often of the Christian myth of the apocalypse.
When the Christian writer, known as John, scribbled his dreams down in a cave on the island of Patmos centuries ago, after likely being banished there by Roman authorities, he could not have known how the world around him would change over the years, nor how it might end. But his visions, coherent or not, would become a cultural touchstone for many people, believers and non alike.
There are many interpretations of these dreams, but the most common one identifies the first horseman on a white horse as bringing about plague. The second, on a red horse, brought war. The third on a black horse brought famine and the last, riding a pale horse, was the harbinger of death. It isn’t difficult to understand how this imagery resonates with many people today. But I’ve been thinking that there appears to be a fifth horseman on the horizon, and he is far more terrifying than all other four put together.
With the convergence of all these ecological and geopolitical catastrophes, the window on the viability of democratic institutions is rapidly closing. How can democracy survive a constant deluge of biosphere-wide disasters? If we are to go with the allegory penned by John of Patmos, then I think this “fifth horseman” is fascism. And his resurgence is growing more apparent by the day.
Viktor Orbán has proven that fascism is an international movement. The Hungarian dictator, who has been vicious in his campaign against women’s rights, immigrants, Muslims and the LGBTQ+ community and who recently condemned the “race mixing of Europeans with non-Europeans,” was celebrated in August at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas, Texas, as the opening speaker. In fact, he is looked at as a model leader by proto-fascists and their sycophants worldwide. Tucker Carlson, the white supremacist pundit from Fox News, even broadcast a week’s worth of episodes of his daily show in Budapest, featuring a fawning interview of his beloved despot.
The international nature of fascism’s rise can be seen in their alliances. Orbán is praised by Trump’s henchman Steve Bannon, who was himself instrumental in the resurgence of fascism in Italy. Giorgia Meloni, a woman who has unabashedly praised the historic genocidaire Mussolini, just become Italy’s first female prime minister. She, too, has espoused similar racist and paranoid ideas, such as the “Great Displacement Theory.” All her political ideals are rooted in xenophobia, misogyny and homophobia, and seeming to stem from a conspiratorial mindset that appears endemic to fascism. Unsurprisingly, her historic win in Italy has been praised by Le Pen in France, as well as QAnon lunatics who hold office in the US, such as Majorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert.
The international far right has made no real effort to obscure its renewed love affair with fascist authoritarianism. Its proponents in the US, Italy, the UK, Sweden, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Turkey, Israel, India, Russia and beyond are using the same textbook examples for its implementation. We can only expect more fear mongering and violence against foreigners, who will be painted as “infiltrators” or “illegal aliens”. Against women who demand reproductive freedom, LGBTQ+ people who demand equal rights, those who challenge patriarchal norms, and anyone who defies or dissents from their authoritarian narrative.
This fifth horseman’s ascent didn’t come to us in a vacuum. We arrived at this perilous point in our times thanks to the convergence of both catastrophe and complacency. The catastrophes we are now witnessing have been written on the walls for decades. And scientists and environmental activists have been screeching at the top of their lungs that we are headed toward the edge of a cliff. Toward ecological annihilation. And that there would likely be no recovery after we reached a certain tipping point of no return. Now, we are at that point.
For all its bluster and self-importance, the wealthiest and most powerful governments and economic entities have no real plan to stop the free fall we are headed for, or even cushion our landing. In fact, most of them are pushing ahead at full speed for the sake of profit. Except for Vanuatu and some other small, besieged states, no government is doing what is needed to address our very real and very existential predicament. In this milieu, it is understandable why fascism would ascend to fill the void of leadership and inspire such fervor in different nations.
Fascism thrives on fear. And there is a cadre of ghouls who have become experts at exploiting that fear in the masses. They understand that there will be an endless supply of otherized “monsters” for them to cast their shadows upon. Endless others to blame. Ecological devastation, economic hardship, social upheaval, everything will be conveniently blamed on those in society who are easiest to marginalize, silence and disappear. Instead of galvanizing the public to radically upend the power arrangement that is killing us and the biosphere on which everything relies, these snake oil salesmen will peddle baseless conspiracies that demonize segments of society. And they will continue to court the acceleration of our collective quietus through distraction, romanticism of a fictitious past and magical thinking, all while giving a green light to the most destructive industries on the planet, including the military sector.
As the Polish American poet Czesalw Milosz warned, most of them will not see the signs of impending disaster. If we do not oppose the madness beginning to engulf so much of the world, its end will not arrive with an announcement of archangels or supernatural men on horseback. It will come by the invitation of a boisterous crowd praising a despot, waving national flags, singing anthems, cheering on war and the round up of all those they deem responsible for whatever they think is wrong in the world. It is this fifth horseman, therefore, that presents the greatest threat of all.