Cathedrals of Erotic Misery

Alberto Toscano

“Cathedrals of Erotic Misery” is a selection from Late Fascism: Race, Capitalism and the Politics of Crisis (Verso 2023), a new study of far-right culture and its precursors by Italian social theorist Alberto Toscano. In what follows, Toscano takes up Michel Foucault’s call to detect and “render intolerable” the latent forms of fascism lurking beneath the threshold of recognition, by attending to the “vexed entanglements of fascism and eros.” By historicizing our unconscious investments in power, we arrive at new perspectives on the artificial battlegrounds that subsume our present. For example, could it be that the continuous invention of so-called sex and gender “crises” today is actually symptomatic of a collapse of the masses’ erotic attachment to power in contemporary society, which responds by a fledgling effort to re-eroticize our relation to power?   

Other languages: Deutsch

Some people say to us, what I do is no one’s business, it is my affair, my private life. No: anything relating to sexuality is not a private matter, but signifies the life or death of a people; world power or insignificance. —Heinrich Himmler, wedding speech2

The most urgent task of the man of steel is to pursue, to dam in and to subdue any force that threatens to transform him back into the horribly disorganized jumble of flesh, hair, skin, bones, intestines, and feelings that calls itself human. —Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, vol. 2

The erotics of power

At different junctures, I have made a plea for turning to the “new fascism” debates of the late 1960s and 1970s to illuminate our own political and theoretical predicament. This is perhaps even more vital in considering fascism’s sexual (after)lives, since the cultural revolutions and liberationist drives of the 1960s were not only negatively constitutive of the new fascisms and anti-fascisms of their time, but they remain a crucial component in the far right’s own master narratives — where “gender ideology” is to the Stonewall Riots what “critical race theory” is to Black Power, namely a mainstreamed, elite-supported global strategy to abolish the family, tradition, and the (white) West. A planetary moral panic around transness has joined racist narratives of migration as ethnic substitution in a wellspring of fascistic energies.3 As I argue in this chapter, theorizing the vexed entanglements of fascism and eros is important as such, but it is especially urgent today, when international networks of reaction cohere around the menace posed by gender-nonconformity, and when the counterfeiting of sex and gender crises allows the geopolitical and civilisational to be mapped onto the body at its most material but also its most symbolic.

Speaking at the Schizo-Culture conference held in New York City in 1975, Michel Foucault articulated the task of thinking fascism after the 1960s in the following terms:

I think that what has happened since 1960 is characterized by the appearance of new forms of fascism, new forms of fascist consciousness, new forms of description of fascism, and new forms of the fight against fascism. And the role of the intellectual, since the sixties, has been precisely to situate, in terms of his or her own experiences, competence, personal choices, desire — situate him or herself in such a way as to both make apparent forms of fascism which are unfortunately not recognized, or too easily tolerated, to describe them, to try to render them intolerable, and to define the specific form of struggle that can be undertaken against fascism.4

Like George Jackson, whose assassination had earlier been the focus of a pamphlet by the Group for Information on Prisons animated by Foucault, at the Schizo-Culture conference the French philosopher centered carceral and punitive society in his inquiries into the new forms of fascism.5 On the same panel, R. D. Laing spoke of the political use of tranquilizers as “drugs of conditionability,” while Weather Underground prison activist Judy Clark presented a detailed account of so-called “behavior modification,” namely the “physical and psychological terror against people who are organizing inside [prisons] and rebeling against the conditions inside.”6 Foucault himself elaborated upon the role of doctors in overseeing torture under the military dictatorship in Brazil.

But developing the organs to discern the unrecognized and tolerated variants of fascism, to make them both perceptible and intolerable, also meant contending with the spectacular and sexualized visibility of a certain fascism in ’70s culture. Cinema in particular had become the terrain for a phantasmatic return of fascism as a sexual phenomenon in much-discussed works, from Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, and from Tinto Brass’s Salon Kitty to the plethora of Nazisploitation films. It was in two interviews with French film journals in the mid-1970s that Foucault made some of his most suggestive and incisive comments on Nazism and fascism. His remarks open lines of inquiry that in many ways exceed the “biopolitical” frame that led him, in the first volume of the History of Sexuality, to trace the continuities between welfare and genocide as interlinked poles of a politics of populations — in terms that remain deeply influential on current theoretical debates.

Confronted with the phantasmagorical merger in popular culture of excessive sexuality and Nazism, Foucault’s first inclination is provocatively to de-eroticize fascism. As he tells his interviewer:

Nazism was not invented by the great erotic madmen of the twentieth century but by the most sinister, boring and disgusting petit-bourgeois imaginable. Himmler was a vaguely agricultural type, and married a nurse. We must understand that the concentration camps were born from the conjoined imagination of a hospital nurse and a chicken farmer. A hospital plus a chicken coop: that’s the phantasm behind the concentration camps. Millions of people were murdered there, so I don’t say it to diminish the blame of those responsible for it, but precisely to disabuse those who want to superimpose erotic values upon it. The Nazis were charwomen in the bad sense of the term. They worked with brooms and dusters, wanting to purge society of everything they considered unsanitary, dusty, filthy: syphilitics, homosexuals, Jews, those of impure blood, Blacks, the insane. It’s the foul petit-bourgeois dream of racial hygiene that underlies the Nazi dream. Eros is absent.7

The libidinal aestheticization of Nazism coursing through 1970s cinema and popular culture (recall David Bowie’s infamous 1976 Playboy interview with its comments on Hitler as a rock star “quite as good as Jagger,” or the swastikas flaunted by Siouxsie Sioux and Sid Vicious) is symptomatic for Foucault of an abiding if anachronistic attraction for an eroticism proper to the disciplinary society — “a regulated, anatomical, hierarchical society whose time is carefully distributed, its spaces partitioned, characterized by obedience and surveillance.” The name for that disciplinary eros is Sade — but, Foucault retorts: “He bores us. He’s a disciplinarian, a sergeant of sex, an accountant of the ass and its equivalents.”8

If, in the aftermath of 1968, the problem, as Foucault intimated in his preface to the English-language translation of Anti-Oedipus, was to outline the ethical protocols for a “non-fascist life,” then this also required forgetting Sade and the sordid fantasies of control his name had come to sanction. As Foucault enjoins: “We must invent with the body, with its elements, surfaces, volumes, and thicknesses, a non-disciplinary eroticism: that of a body in a volatile and diffused state, with its chance encounters and unplanned pleasures.”9 Or, to quote Jordy Rosenberg’s recent invitation: “If the Nazi dances all night, then our resistance requires something other than logic; something other, too, than cultured tsking or frantic bursts of wheel-spinning panic. We need desire — that messy, sometimes un-gentle, self-shattering descent into the underside of reason.”10 The experimental invention of other, undisciplined pleasures is the obverse of the diagnosis of new, inapparent forms of fascism that eschew explicitly political or historically recognizable guises. Though ultimately preferring the register of an ethics of pleasures to that of a schizoanalysis of desires, Foucault was also preoccupied, as were Deleuze and Guattari, with what he termed “the fascism in us all, in our heads and everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits.”11 In the “new fascism” debates of the 1960s and 1970s, this everyday, unconscious, intimate fascism gained considerable prominence, not least, as Foucault’s preface and Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of left groupuscules suggest, as a (self-)critique of authoritarian relations within supposedly revolutionary collectives.12 That is how we also find it among Black feminists in the United States. Robin Kelley cites the following passage from a section on “The Revolt of Black Women” in the collectively authored 1973 book Lessons from the Damned: “Inside families and inside us we have found the seeds of fascism that the traditional left does not want to see. Fascism was no big, frightening issue for us. It was our daily life.”13

The new forms of fascism of which Foucault spoke, irreducible to the repetition of organizational models and symbols from the interwar period, required a microphysics of power. By contrast with the massiveness of their “totalitarian” forebears, these new strains of the Nazi “brown plague” were “microfascisms” which, in order to be properly diagnosed and deactivated, demanded an analysis of the new forms of capitalist accumulation and subjectivation. As Félix Guattari remarked:

Capitalism mobilizes everything to halt the proliferation and the actualization of unconscious potentialities. In other words, the antagonisms that Freud points out, between desire investments and superego investments, have nothing to do with a topic, nor a dynamic, but with politics and micropolitics. This is where the molecular revolution begins: you are a fascist or a revolutionary with yourself first, on the level of your superego, in relation to your body, your emotions, your husband, your wife, your children, your colleagues, in your relation to justice and the State. There is a continuum between these “prepersonal” domains and the infrastructures and strata that “exceed” the individual.14

Guattari’s formula resonates with Foucault’s entreaty, quoted above, to make detectable and intolerable those latent and tolerated forms of fascism that lurk beneath the social threshold of recognition. It also speaks to the objective of so many post-war inquiries into the psychic life of power under capitalism, from The Authoritarian Personality onward, namely to fashion a political prophylaxis that would preempt the crystallization of novel macro forms of fascism from their largely undetected existence in the social body. As Guattari declares: “The microfascist elements in all our relations with others must be found, because when we fight on the molecular level, we’ll have a much better chance of preventing a truly fascist, a macrofascist formation on the molar level.”15 Whence the proposal that the organized military and party-political forms of classical antifascism must be relayed by a “micropolitical antifascist struggle,” which requires new clinical and critical modalities of vigilance that move beyond only recognizing fascism when it parades about in its morbid regalia.16 As Guattari warns:

We must abandon, once and for all, the quick and easy formula: “Fascism will not make it again.” Fascism has already “made it,” and it continues to “make it.” It passes through the tightest mesh; it is in constant evolution, to the extent that it shares in a micropolitical economy of desire itself inseparable from the evolution of the productive forces. Fascism seems to come from the outside, but it finds its energy right at the heart of everyone’s desire.17

In the context of his influential dialogue with Foucault on “Intellectuals and Power,” Deleuze had forcefully reiterated the methodological principle that a materialist study of power, and particularly of its fascist assemblages, cannot remain confined to the dimension of interests — into which it is corralled by everyone from rational-choice theorists to traditional Marxists — but must attend to “investments of desire that function in a more profound and diffuse manner than our interests dictate.” A libidinal political materialism has to target the articulation of desires and interests, since, as Deleuze observes:

We never desire against our interests, because interest always follows and finds itself where desire has placed it. We cannot shut out the scream of Wilhelm Reich: the masses were not deceived; at a particular time, they actually wanted a fascist regime! There are investments of desire that mold and distribute power, that make it the property of the policeman as much as of the prime minister; in this context, there is no qualitative difference between the power wielded by the policeman and the prime minister. The nature of these investments of desire in a social group explains why political parties or unions, which might have or should have revolutionary investments in the name of class interests, are so often reform oriented or absolutely reactionary on the level of desire.18

Deleuze’s remarks about the libidinal investments that underlie police and political power are worth keeping in mind in thinking through how Foucault approached the link between power and Eros in his observations on sex and Nazism on screen.

If Foucault’s first move is to deflate the prurient conceit of a sexually transgressive, Sadean fascism, he also takes these sexualised forgeries of memory and meaning as the occasion to sketch out an account of power’s “erotic charge.” The sheer unlikelihood of a Nazi eroticism is a historical and political quandary that demands our attention:

How is it that Nazism — which was represented by shabby, pathetic puritanical characters, laughably Victorian old maids, or at best, smutty individuals — how has it now managed to become, in France, in Germany, in the United States, in all pornographic literature throughout the world, the ultimate symbol of eroticism? Every shoddy erotic fantasy is now attributed to Nazism. Which raises a fundamentally serious problem: how do you love power? [...] What leads to power being desirable, and to actually being desired? It’s easy to see the process by which this eroticizing is transmitted, reinforced, etc. But for the eroticizing to work, it’s necessary that the attachment to power, the acceptance of power by those over whom it is exerted, is already erotic.19

The Nazi sexploitation film appears then as a symptom of a contemporaneous collapse in the erotic attachment to power (“Nobody loves power any more...obviously you can’t be in love with Brezhnev, Pompidou or Nixon”) and of fledgling efforts to re-eroticize power, ranging from “porn-shops with Nazi insignia” to then-French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing’s penchant for stylish lounge suits.

But Foucault also excavates the sources of power’s erotic charge in the political organization of fascist violence, in a manner that arguably moves beyond the dialectic of desire and interest and sheds light on [...] “fascist freedom.” Here, the polemic against Marxists’ treatment of fascism pivots on the claim (true of Georgi Dimitrov and his epigones, not so of Guérin or Bloch) that their figuration of fascist rule as the exacerbation of bourgeois dictatorship neglects crucial elements of its composition and functioning. In particular, Foucault contends:

It leaves out the fact that Nazism and fascism were only possible insofar as there could exist within the masses a relatively large section which took on the responsibility for a number of state functions of repression, control, policing, etc. This, I believe, is a crucial characteristic of Nazism; that is, its deep penetration inside the masses and the fact that a part of the power was actually delegated to a specific fringe of the masses. This is where the word “dictatorship” becomes true in general, and relatively false. When you think of the power an individual could possess under a Nazi regime as soon as he was simply S.S. or signed up in the Party! You could actually kill your neighbor, steal his wife, his house!20

As in Johann Chapoutot’s account of Nazi management theories as paeans to the autonomy of performance and initiative, what we encounter in Foucault’s observations is a powerful challenge to the commonplace that fascism is fundamentally defined by a centralization and concentration of power. For Foucault, to the extent that there is an eroticization of power under Nazism, it is conditioned by a logic of delegation, deputizing and decentralization of what remains in form and content a vertical, exclusionary and murderous kind of power. Fascism is not just the apotheosis of the leader above the sheeplike masses of his followers; it is also, in a less spectacular but perhaps more consequential manner, the reinvention of the settler logic of petty sovereignty, a highly conditional but very real “liberalizing” and “privatizing” of the monopoly of violence. As Foucault tells his interviewer:

You have to bear in mind the way power was delegated, distributed within the very heart of the population; you have to bear in mind this vast transfer of power that Nazism carried out in a society like Germany. It’s wrong to say that Nazism was the power of the great industrialists carried on under a different form. It wasn’t simply the intensified central power of the military — it was that, but only on one particular level […] Nazism never gave people any material advantages, it never handed out anything but power [...] The fact is that contrary to what is usually understood by dictatorship — the power of a single person — you could say that in this kind of regime the most repulsive (but in a sense the most intoxicating) part of power was given to a considerable number of people. The SS was that which was given the power to kill, to rape.21

Foucault’s insight into the “erotics” of a power based on the deputizing of violence is a more fecund frame, I would argue, for the analysis of both classical and late fascisms than Guattari’s hyperbolic claim that “the masses invested a fantastic collective death instinct in...the fascist machine” — which misses out on the materiality of that “transfer of power” to a “specific fringe of the masses” that Foucault diagnosed as critical to fascism’s desirability.22

The gendering of the fascist libido is largely neglected or implicitly presupposed in the arguments by Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari we’ve just considered. Answering their theoretical challenge while largely jettisoning their attention to the political economy and power structures of fascism, in his Male Fantasies Klaus Theweleit centers the palingenetic misogyny and paranoid body politics of fascism — the “Red Woman” as a psychosomatic menace of dissolution warranting murderous rage, a damming of the flood — to grasp how desiring production could morph into death production.23 In the context of today’s noxious commingling of fascization with new bands of brothers (Männerbunde), physical or virtual, Theweleit has inspired the exploration of contemporary microfascism as a “war of restoration” that seeks to revive an archaic fantasy of patriarchal power by enacting violent practices of “autogenetic sovereignty” — the reproduction of male power without and against women.24 As Jack Z. Bratich argues: “The palingenetic project of masculine rebirth seeks a future without bio-reproduction. It populates the world with martyrs and myths, the ghostly squads of past and future. It is a replication without reproduction.”25 And yet, because

the autogenetic sovereign is always an impossible project, it needs continuous renewal, and it recommences world-making via policing, punishment, and control...we are faced with a double move by the autogenetic sovereign: a flight from dependence while returning to depend on women.26

This impossibility could also be approached in terms of the discontinuity between the sources of fascism in male groups bonded by practices and/or fantasies of violence, on the one hand, and on the other, fascism as a project for reconfiguring state and society, which must perforce incorporate and interpellate women after its own fashion.

Emancipation from emancipation: women and fascism

The Parisian theoretical debate of the 1970s on the new forms of fascism did not simply bypass the question of women, fascism and desire. The Italian journalist, academic, and Communist parliamentarian Maria Antonietta Macciocchi organized a seminar at Paris VIII University in Vincennes with an impressive range of speakers who brought post-’68 politics and high theory to bear on the history and future of fascism (among them Nicos Poulantzas on the popular impact of fascism, Jean Toussaint Desanti on Giovanni Gentile and fascism’s philosophical origins and Jean-Pierre Faye on fascism and language).27 The seminar also featured screenings of fascist and anti-fascist films, from Veit Harlan’s anti-Semitic production Jud Süss to Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione, from Nico Naldini’s Fascista to Roberto Rossellini’s La Nave Bianca. It was also the occasion for ideological clashes with and physical disruptions by Maoist activists from the Groupe Foudre, led by Natacha Michel, who saw Macciocchi as the purveyor of a reactionary theory of sexo-fascism, which obscured class and capital for the sake of an anti-Marxist libidinal framework.28 Macciocchi made a number of contributions to the seminar, most significant of which was a long essay on women and fascism, which would later be published in Italian and part of which appeared in English translation as “Female Sexuality in Fascist Ideology.”29

For Macciocchi, the nexus of women and fascism — women’s interpellation by, participation in and even desire for fascism — had become a kind feminist taboo, the blind spot of a feminist movement that tended to treat women just like a gauchiste ultra-left treated the proletariat: hagiographically, as a kind of fetish beyond reproach.30 While anchoring her analysis in a plenteous archive of textual materials from the fascist ventennio, Macciocchi also made ample use of Wilhelm Reich’s theories on the libidinal infrastructure of fascist power. Sex in general, and women’s sexuality in particular, was subjected by fascism to a concerted strategy of expropriation. As Macciocchi declared: “In fascism sexuality, like wealth, belongs to a powerful oligarchy. The masses are dispossessed of both.”31 Fascist mass dictatorship, following Reich, was seen as grounded in “a huge sexual repression which is tightly linked to death,” while in the Italian case, building on Catholic tradition, it invented a particularly potent cocktail of reproductive normativity and what we encounter in Furio Jesi as a religio mortis, a religion of death.32 “The characteristic of fascist and Nazi genius,” writes Macciocchi, “is their challenge to women on their own ground: they make women both the reproducers of life and the guardians of death, without the two terms being contradictory.”33 The nationalization of both family and sex makes possible a biopolitics of reproduction that is also a necropolitics (Viva la muerte!). Not just breeding sons for the front — or daughters who in turn will make more sons for future fronts — the fascist woman is also enlisted in a libidinized religion of death that glorifies the national martyr, fallen in the act of killing. Conversely, the reterritorialization of sex onto the nationalized family, both materially and symbolically, plays a crucial ideological role. As Macciocchi affirms: “The ‘emotional’ plague of fascism is spread through an epidemic of familialism.”34

In brief, “You can’t talk about fascism unless you are also prepared to discuss patriarchy.”35 In her introduction to the publication of Macciocchi’s article in the first issue of Feminist Review, the historian Jane Caplan helpfully summarized the theory of ideology that lay at the core of its theses:

Fascism enlists the support of women by addressing them in an ideological-sexual language with which they are already familiar through the “discourses” of bourgeois Christian ideology. In abstract terms, this is to say that the system of signs and unconscious representations which constitute the “law” of patriarchy is invoked in fascist ideology in such a way that women are drawn into a particular supportive relation with fascist regimes: indeed, Macciocchi even seems to suggest that this “availability” of women is also constitutive of fascism, and is not just a passive reservoir ... so long as women continue to allow themselves to be addressed in the patriarchal language of sexual alienation, they will remain a potential audience for the persuasions of fascism.36

But Caplan also voiced some astute criticisms about this framing of the problem of women under fascism. Macciocchi sometimes fell prey to the eclectic fallacy: because fascism is a scavenger ideology cobbling together available ideological elements, there is a temptation to treat each of those elements (rather than the specificity of each element’s incorporation and articulation into a broader ensemble) as itself fascist or proto-fascist. Caplan also queried the opposition [...] between (irrational) desires and (rational) interests, while casting doubt on suggestions that there existed a sui generis feminine enthusiasm for fascism. Hers is also a plea for a materialist and historical analysis by contrast with an unchecked use of psychoanalytic categories:

The sphere of ideology/the unconscious risks becoming a country in which everything is said to be possible, a kind of comprehensive and privileged residual category with boundaries that fade into indistinct horizons. This seems to court the danger of ascribing to fascism an ultimate and exclusive capacity to dominate an otherwise impregnable terrain; of proposing the unconscious as the proper and peculiar domain of fascism, without suggesting, beyond a handful of arcane allusions, how this is to be recaptured.37

To Caplan’s caveats we could add that viewing fascism through the prism of the sexually repressive family can have distorting effects. While avoiding the prurient image of fascism as sexual perversion, the diametrically opposed notion that “the body of fascist discourse is rigorously chaste, pure, virginal” and that its “central aim is the death of sexuality” is contradicted by the historical record of fascist sex policies.38

As the historian Dagmar Herzog demonstrated in her brilliant study Sex After Fascism, the identification of fascism with sexual repression was in part a by-product of a sixties reaction against a complicit post-war establishment (the parents’ generation), which had itself imposed sexual and moral conservatism as a bulwark against fascism’s subversions of the traditional family (and to disavow its own earlier participation in the regime). Sexualized interpretations of Nazism had their own history and periodization, conditioned by the moral and political conflicts in their own moment. As Herzog notes, in early 1950s Germany,

commentators still emphasized Nazism’s anti-bourgeois component and explicitly linked Nazi encouragements to nonmarital sexuality with Nazism’s crimes [while] the Auschwitz trial of 1963-5 in Frankfurt am Main marked the emergence of the theory of the petty bourgeois and sexually repressed Holocaust perpetrator that was to become so important to the new Left movement.39

Neither great erotic madmen nor petty bourgeois charwomen, the Nazis advanced a politics of sex that cannot be reduced to prior models of sexual regulation (bourgeois or petty bourgeois, liberal or conservative), or to a generic patriarchy; following Herzog, we can see it as a mobile synthesis between, on the one hand, a pragmatic moral conservatism and, on the other, the acceleration of modernizing sexual trends in a racist and nationalist guise. Pace Theweleit, “the core of all fascist propaganda” is not “a battle against everything that constitutes enjoyment and pleasure.”40 As Herzog argues:

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they frequently presented themselves to the public as restorers of traditional sexual morality (although this stance was also contested within the party leadership quite early on). And yet, as the Third Reich unfolded, a wholly new and highly racialized sexual politics emerged. While sexually conservative appeals continued to be promoted to the very end, it became clear that under Nazism many (though certainly not all) preexisting liberalizing trends would be deliberately intensified, even as, simultaneously, sexual freedom and happiness were redefined as solely the prerogatives of “healthy” “Aryan'' heterosexuals.41

With its grounding in a sub-Nietzschean critique of the Christian repression of the body, its sources in the myriad naturisms, nudisms, and body cults that traversed early twentieth-century Germany, and its obsession with the martial aestheticization of the body in ancient Greece and Rome (reinterpreted as Mediterranean outposts of the Nordic race), Nazism cannot therefore be reduced to petty bourgeois repression.42 Its “familialism” should also not be merely chalked up to the hunger for young cannon-fodder or white-supremacist phantasmagorias; it was also, as the historian Tim Mason detailed in a bravura essay on women under National Socialism, a function of German fascism’s encounter with the cultural and material contradictions of capitalism. The family could appear as a kind of fix, but also as a site of psychological and material compromise between an anxious population and a regime devoid of any “middle ground between dramatic and brutal improvisation on the one hand and the pursuit of visionary final goals on the other.”43 As Mason concluded, the Nazis’

propaganda and their policies magnified the much more fundamental reconciliatory function of family life, and people were responsive to this because [it] spoke to long-established and almost universal mechanisms of self-protection against the alienated rigors of life outside the home ... The nightmare world of dictatorial government, huge industrial combines, all-encompassing administration and organized inhumanity was parasitic upon its ideological antithesis, the minute community of parents and children.44

Yet in spite of its tendentious and eclectic overemphasis on certain dimensions of the sexual life of fascism, Macciocchi’s work remains important for its contention that the problem of fascism and women (and fascism and gender more broadly) cannot be evaded. As she admonishes:

If the past (and present?) relationship between women and fascist ideology is not analyzed, if we do not analyze how and why fascism has fooled women, then feminism itself (and likewise the entire political vanguard) will remain deprived of an understanding of its historical context. Without this dialectical analysis feminism is mutilated; it is suspended without a past, like a timeless hot-air balloon, and can understand neither what is at stake today nor the direction of any future alliance between feminist and revolutionary struggle.45

Among the dialectical objects of such an analysis is the consolidation under fascism of a “female antifeminism,” the product of what Macciocchi perceptively terms the “antipolitical politicization of women by fascist and Nazi regimes.46 As Robyn Marasco has argued, in an insightful critical recovery of Macciocchi’s work alongside Andrea Dworkin’s writings on ultra-right women activists in the United States, notwithstanding its limitations, this work can trouble aseptic, disembodied analyses of fascism as a “purely” political phenomenon and attune us to the role of gender, sexuality and sex in contemporary processes of fascization. As Marasco, rhetorically, asks:

On an even more basic level, can we speak of the fascization without speaking of sex? Will we be in any position to understand the fascism of our present and how it relates to fascisms past? Will we understand how online misogyny becomes [a] gateway drug to [the] Far Right, how the world of men’s rights activists, pick-up artists, MGTOW trolls, and “involuntary celibates” overlaps with that of white supremacists, militia men, and proud boys, or even how a relatively minor episode like #gamergate could be plausibly described one of the inaugural events of the Trump era? Will we recognise in the “Great Replacement” myth a bid for control of women’s sexuality, as well as racist and culturalist panic? Even more to my point here, without seeing sex as an instrument of fascisation, can we make sense of the anti-vaxxers, yoga moms, and wellness gurus who are part of the new Right resurgence, how the Q-anon conspiracy mobilizes women’s fears for their children?47

But while the response may be an emphatic yes, this does not mean that the sexed and gendered patterns of fascization will take familiar forms. Indeed, anchoring her reflections in the case of Ashli Babbitt, “martyr” of the January 6 “insurrection,” Marasco enjoins us to think to the regressive forms of empowerment and the transgressive pleasures that may be afforded certain women in contemporary far-right movements. What fascistic right-wing scenes offer may not primarily be patriarchal security (though its pastiche is on offer for “tradwives” and their kind). Rather, it may be 

something more immediately transgressive, more responsive to destructive impulses and antisocial forces, and more proximate to the equality that it rejects and the freedom it renounces. It offers white women an account of their unhappiness and an affective arena to express their rage ... It is not simply a question of protecting one’s interests (as white women, petit-bourgeois women, women with American citizenship), or even desiring one’s own domination, but of gaining access to the pleasures of “masculine” affect and agency. It is a privilege reserved only for some women, which is part of the point. And it is a form of “female antifeminism” that mirrors the neoliberal feminism it opposes, another degraded version of having it all, where instead of the corporate career and the heterosexual reproductive family, women can have combat training, AR 15s, polyamorous sexuality, conspiracism, and, above all, a semblance of power that substitutes for the real thing.48

This recomposition of female antifeminism can also shade into a “fascist feminism,” which seeks to violently secure and affirm a normative, if not necessarily heteropatriarchal, figure of woman, and which invests desire and libido in its narratives about the imminent threat of the erasure of women and even feminism by “gender ideology” and transness.49

Sex in crisis

Fascism advertises itself as the solution, the fix, to a comprehensive crisis of order. Not just social order, but order across all its semantic and material registers: economic, geopolitical, spiritual, aesthetic, corporeal, racial. And sexual. From the fascist vantage, organic crisis is always a crisis of the organic, a deregulation of the senses, a disorder in our organs. But unlike reactionary conservatisms, which it ably manipulates, fascism is never merely reducible to a desire for restoration, putting bodies back in their proper place.50 Aware, if not always avowing, that the path to a lost harmony is irreparably blocked, fascism’s forward-flight into the past is inevitably accompanied by all kinds of recombinant inventions, conservative revolutions that affect reproduction and sexuality, desire and pleasure, the intimate and the collective. In this domain too, if fascism repeats, it does so with a difference. We are not done with the politically engineered panics around (Jewish) racial defilement, the “crisis-woman” and homosexuality that shaped interwar European fascisms, or the gendering of racial fascism’s terror-laden regulation of Blackness and colonial subalternity which both preceded and outlived the Rome-Berlin Axis.51 But we also have to contend with new forms of fascism (including everyday fascisms and microfascisms) emerging from the transformations in the realms of sex, gender and sexuality, and from the mutable articulations between the libidinal, the economic and the natural.

As scholars of the far right’s recompositions in the context of climate emergency have observed, reactionary sexual and gender norms don’t just map onto a domestic or intimate sphere but are also antagonistic mediations of the social totality, responsive to imaginaries of the social (and natural) whole. As Cara Daggett suggests, the aggressive nostalgia for an obsolescent assemblage of maleness, motoring and manufacture — which transcends the historical heartlands of Fordism — can be grasped as the consolidation of a petro-masculinity, alerting us

to the possibility that climate change can catalyze fascist desires to secure a lebensraum, a living space, a household that is barricaded from the specter of threatening others, whether pollutants or immigrants or gender deviants. Taking petro-masculinity seriously means paying attention to the thwarted desires of privileged patriarchies as they lose their fossil fantasies.52

This embattled loss of fantasy (and fantasy of loss) by “an increasingly fragile Western hypermasculinity” can also be figured as a theft of enjoyment — which, if we keep in mind the exploitative and extractive history of those colonial, racial and patriarchal histories, is perhaps more accurately described as the theft of the enjoyment of theft (and of the order emerging from and reproduced by plunder). The thieves of enjoyment may take multiple, varying, incoherent forms (predatory Jewish plutocrats, Prius-driving metropolitan liberal elites, Black welfare mothers, trans women), but for the fascist imaginary, without their removal or repression, no “institutionalized rebirth,” no restorative revolution, is possible.53

As feminist and queer anti-fascists have long argued, fascisms are not just racial regimes but also sexual and gender regimes.54 The antipolitical politicization of sex and gender plays a critical role in the formation and circulation of fascism. It invests the experience of crisis at its most intimate and visceral, where social and economic disorders seemingly too abstract to be mapped make themselves felt in domestic, libidinal and bodily registers. Late fascism is both a libidinal proposition — a claim staked on collective desires — and a sex panic, or better, a gender panic. Right-wing culture today is the culture of uncivil wars that frontstage the regulation, targeting and stigmatization of sexed and sexual bodies. It is also a disturbingly transnational, “viral” culture, in which the repair and reinvention of a martial masculinity and the anxious nostalgia for the heteronormative family as the cell-form of the demos and ethnos are the foci around which an entire institutional and ideological infrastructure is cohering, with “gender ideology” and transness as nemeses. If “gender-critical activism functions ... as a large-scale translation process through which particular counter-theories and concepts are formulated and released into [global] circulation,” it is not only because of its capacity to create novel articulations between conservative and feminist formations, but because it presents gender trouble as global crisis, both spawn and vector of a bad, globalist capitalism, directed by deracinated elites colluding with deviant and subaltern subjects to further dispossess already precarious “ordinary citizens” — creating what Serena Bassi and Greta LaFleur have provocatively dubbed “a postfascist feminism of the 99 percent.”55

Fascism’s antipolitics of sex is a strategy, as Himmler’s wedding speech grimly reminds us, for tying the geopolitical to the genital (as well as the genomic or the hormonal). It is, in a sense, not surprising, though no less grotesque, that late fascism frequently coheres and circulates around the moral panic about transness and “gender ideology.” There is a kind of sexual and gender “scalarity” at work here: not only does the thematizing of sex-gender disorder allow a projection of “macro” troubles to “micro” scales — the imminent end of Western civilization is inscribed on unruly bodies — but the consolidation of a new “Fascist international,” and its capacity to capture and hegemonize older conservatisms, takes place largely through the lens of a planetary crisis in gender and sex norms.56 

This has served to cement political infrastructures and solidarities among disparate political subjects, all committed to the idea that we are in the midst of a cultural world war in which queerness and transness are the harbingers of a civilizational collapse that must be thwarted at all costs.57 Where the migrant of color is the avatar of the Great Replacement, the eventual extinction of whiteness and its component nations, transness is the emblem and emissary of a Great Disorder, the scrambling of sexual difference and the destruction of the family. If the fascisms born out of the killing fields of the First World War tried to project the logic of the front onto social and sexual crises — fighting Red, female and Jewish masses as vectors of dissolution of the body’s very boundaries — today’s late fascisms, largely unmoored from “war as inner experience” but ardently nostalgic for martial masculinities, fixate on gender nonconformity as both metaphor and metonymy, cause and symptom of a disorder at scales both personal and planetary.58 For them, the decline of the West is gender trouble, and the contagious desire for a better life beyond hierarchies of racial identity and sexual normality is an illness, a social pathology, the deviant dystopia against which to erect the regressive image of a life of incessant struggle and the desperate desire for a tradition to come.59

Late Fascism: Race, Capitalism and the Politics of Crisis is out now with Verso Books.

Images: Kourtney Roy


1. “One section, now lost, in [avant-garde artist Kurt Schwitters’s] Hanover Merzbau was called “The Cathedral of Erotic Misery,” a rickety monument that contained, secreted in its various “grottos,” little mementos solicited or stolen from friends such as Hannah Höch, as well as “a small round bottle with my urine” and pictures of public figures including Hindenburg and Mussolini.” Hal Foster, “Anyone can do collage,” London Review of Books, March 10 2022.

2. Quoted in Chapoutot, The Law of Blood, Trans. Miranda Mouillot, Belnap Press, 2018, 230.

3. See Judith Butler, “Why is the idea of ‘gender’ provoking backlash the world over?,” The Guardian, 23 October 2021.

4. Michel Foucault, “Schizo-Culture: On Prisons and Psychiatry,” in Foucault Live: Collected Interviews, 1961-1984, ed. Sylvère Lotringer, trans. Lysa Hochroth and John Johnston, Semiotext(e), 1996, 179. In a different context, Foucault also reflected on how in the absence of the “gigantic shadows of fascism and Stalinism” and the “political anxiety” they induce regarding contemporary societies, his own investigations into the interstices of power would not have assumed the “direction and intensity” they took on. See Foucault, “The End of the Monarchy of Sex,” in Foucault Live, 221.

5. See Alberto Toscano, “The Intolerable-Inquiry: The Documents of the Groupe d’information sur les prisons,” Viewpoint Magazine, September 25 2013.

6. Toscano, “The Intolerable-Inquiry,” 169, 174.

7. Foucault, “Sade: Sergeant of Sex,” in Foucault Live, 188. Foucault’s dismissal of an erotic framing of Nazism largely resonates with Primo Levi’s observations about Nazisploitation cinema in a 1977 newspaper article. See Primo Levi, “Movies and Swastikas,” in The Complete Works of Primo Levi, ed. Ann Goldstein, Liverlight, 2015.

8. Foucault, Foucault Live, 189.

9. Foucault, Foucault Live, 189.

10. Jordy Rosenberg, “The Daddy Dialectic,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 11 March 2018.

11. Foucault, “Preface,” in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley et al., Viking, 1977, xiii.

12. Though emerging out of the same ideological conjuncture, this effort reflexively to explore an everyday or microfascism should be distinguished from the discourse of “left fascism” (Linksfaschismus) voiced by the likes of Jürgen Habermas in response to radical and armed movements of the 1970s. 

13. Quoted in Robin D. G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams, Beacon Press, 2022, 147.

14. Félix Guattari, “I Am an Idea Thief,” in Soft Subversions: Texts and Interviews, 1977–1985, ed. Sylvère Lotringer, trans. Chet Wiener and Emily Wittman, Semiotext(e), 2009, 31. For an earlier version of this same argument, see Guattari, “Desire is Power, Power is Desire: Answers to the Schizo-Culture Conference,” in Chaosophy: Texts and Interviews, 1972–1977, ed. Sylvère Lotringer, trans. David L. Sweet, Jarred Becker, and Taylor Adkins, Semiotext(e), 2009, 287. Guattari saw this micropolitical perspective on fascism anticipated by Daniel Guérin’s observation that German and Italian interwar capitalism did not wish to “deprive itself of this incomparable, irreplaceable means of penetrating into all the cells of society, the organization of the fascist masses.” Quoted in Guattari, “Everybody Wants to be a Fascist,” in Chaosophy, 165.

15. Guattari, “A Liberation of Desire,” in Soft Subversions, 152.

16. Guattari, “Everybody Wants to be a Fascist,” in Chaosophy, 164.

17. Guattari, “Everybody Wants to be a Fascist,” 171. “A micropolitics of desire means that henceforth we will refuse to allow any fascist formula to slip by, on whatever scale it may manifest itself, including within the scale of the family or even within the scale of our own personal economy” (166).

18. Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault, “Intellectuals and Power,” in Foucault Live, 80.

19. Foucault, “Film and Popular Memory,” in Foucault Live, 127, 129. Foucault’s observations can be usefully contrasted with the position taken on the sexualisation of Nazism by Susan Sontag’s roughly contemporaneous “Fascinating Fascism,” New York Review of Books, February 6 1975.

20. Foucault, “Film and Popular Memory,” 128.

21. Foucault, “Film and Popular Memory,” 128–9.

22. Guattari, “Everybody Wants to be a Fascist,” 168. Guattari also maps the “mutation of a new desiring machinism in the masses” onto the specifics of its investment in Hitler’s “style,” which combine plebeian and war-veteran elements, with a “shopkeeper’s flexibility” in negotiating with big business and a “racist delirium” capable of capturing “the collective death instinct released from the charnel houses of the First World War” (165–6).

23. See the incisive commentary on Theweleit’s project in Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Foreword” to Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, vol. 1 — Women Floods Bodies History, trans. Stephen Conway with Erica Carter and Chris Turner, University of Minnesota Press, 1987, ix–xvii. For a striking effort to employ Theweleit’s method, see Jonathan Littell’s archival essay on the Belgian fascist Léon Degrelle, Le sec et l’humide. Une brève incursion en territoire fasciste, Gallimard, 2008. Littell perceptively notes, following Theweleit, that for the fascist, metaphor (like the feminized communist “flood”) “is never only a metaphor (whence the incredible efficacy of fascist metaphors)” (29).

24. For a brilliant early exploration of the German genealogy of male associations and their role in the germination of Völkisch and Nazi politics, see Hans Mayer, “The Rituals of Political Association in Germany of the Romantic Period,” in The College of Sociology (1937–1939), ed. Denis Hollier, trans. Betsy Wing, University of Minnesota Press, 1988, 262–78. On the Bund-form in the pre-Nazi German nationalist right, see also George L. Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich, Grosset & Dunlap, 1964, 204–17. It is at the level of the nexus between libido and the organization of political groups, rather than at a purely psychoanalytic one, that the vexed question of fascism’s attraction for certain homosexual intellectuals and elites — notwithstanding its violent homophobia — is best addressed. See for example, George L. Mosse, “On Homosexuality and French Fascism,” in The Fascist Revolution: Toward a General Theory of Fascism, University of Wisconsin Press, 2022, 139–44. On the limited capacity of critical theories of fascism to contend with homosexuality and queerness, see Bruce Baum, “Queering Critical Theory: Re-Visiting the Early Frankfurt School on Homosexuality and Critique,” Berlin Journal of Critical Theory 5: 2, 2021, 5–67.

25. Bratich, On Microfascism, 52. See also Anson Rabinbach and Jessica Benjamin, “Foreword,” Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, vol. 2 — Male Bodies: Psychoanalyzing the White Terror, trans. Erica Carter and Chris Turner with Stephen Conway, University of Minnesota Press, 1989 xvii. As Rabinbach and Benjamin note: “Theweleit is not interested in “ideology” as a representation of reality, but in the symbolic construction of the other as a mechanism of self-cohesion” (xxii).

26. Bratich, On Microfascism, 30.

27. The proceedings of the seminar are collected in two volumes as Eléments pour une analyse du fascisme. Séminaire de Maria-A. Macciocchi: Paris VIII — Vincennes 1975/1975, Paris: UGE, 1976.

28. Macciocchi recounts this clash at great length in the postface to vol. 2 of Eléments. Natacha Michael published a polemical pamphlet against Macciocchi a couple of years later: Contre M.A. Macciocchi : contribution à la critique d’une nouvelle branche de la science, la raciologie politique, Ed. Potémkine, 1978. The Groupe foudre was an offshoot of the UCFML, the Maoist group co-founded by Michel, Sylvain Lazarus and Alain Badiou.

29. Maria Antonietta Macciocchi, “Les femmes et la traversée du fascisme,” in Eléments pour une analyse du fascism, vol. 1, 128–278; Macciocchi, La donna ‘nera’; Macciocchi, “Female Sexuality in Fascist Ideology,” Feminist Review 1: 1, 1979: 67–82. For a perceptive overview of the debate on women and fascism, which touches on Macciocchi, as well as 1970s feminist anti-fascism in the UK (the Women and Fascism Study Group, Big Flame, Rock Against Sexism), see David Renton, “Women and Fascism: A Critique,” Socialist History 20, 2001, 72–83.

30. Macciocchi, La donna ‘nera,’ 19.

31. Macciocchi, “Female Sexuality in Fascist Ideology,” 80.

32. Macciocchi, “Female Sexuality in Fascist Ideology,” 69. As Macciocchi observes: “fascism comes to the relief of the church guards. It is able to do this because of the submissiveness of women, whose instincts it can channel into a sort of new religious fervor” (68).

33. Macciocchi, “Female Sexuality in Fascist Ideology,” 70. On the nexus between a feminized necrophilia and the sexualised adulation of Mussolini see also Carlo Emilio Gadda, Eros e Priapo. Versione originale, eds Paola Italia and Giorgio Pinotti, Adelphi, 2016, 93, 108, 237.

34. Macciocchi, “Female Sexuality in Fascist Ideology,” 73.

35. Jane Caplan, “Introduction to Female Sexuality in Fascist Ideology,” Feminist Review 1.1 (1979), 62. Mussolini and Hitler both followed Gustave Le Bon’s crowd-psychology in constantly figuring the mass as “female” (irrational, hysterical, emotional, desiring subordination, etc.), when they weren’t thinking of it as a passive material for the Leader-as-Artist to sculpt.

36. Caplan, “Introduction,” 61–2.

37. Caplan, “Introduction,” 65.

38. Macciocchi, “Female Sexuality in Fascist Ideology,” 75.

39. Dagmar Herzog, Sex after Fascism: Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany, Princeton University Press, 2005. I am grateful for Quinn Slobodian for directing me to Herzog’s work. See also, for a compelling critical overview of the literature on this question, Ishay Landa, “The Wandering Womb: Fascism and Gender,” in Fascism and the Masses: The Revolt Against the Last Humans, 1848–1945, Routledge, 2018, 320–53.

40. Theweleit, Male Fantasies, vol. 2, 7.

41. Theweleit, Male Fantasies, vol. 2, 259.

42. As the blood and soil ideologue and Nazi Minister of Food and Agriculture Richard Walther Darré declared: “The Nordic race has always found any negation of the body to be foreign. It was only when the immense shadow of an asceticism hostile to beauty arose in the East that it provoked the eclipse of culture in antiquity.” Quoted in Johann Chapoutot, Greeks, Romans, Germans: How the Nazis Usurped Europe’s Classical Past, University of California Press, 2016, 181.

43. Tim Mason, “Women in Germany, 1925–1940,” in Nazism, Fascism and the Working Class, ed. Jane Caplan, Cambridge University Press, 1995, 192.

44. Mason, “Women in Germany,” 206. One might add that the most chilling image of the sex lives of fascism is not to be looked for in Ilse, She-Wolf of the SS and its ilk, but in the private snapshots of serene and contented family life in the officers’ quarters of the extermination camps.

45. Macciocchi, “Female Sexuality in Fascist Ideology,” 67.

46. Macciocchi, “Female Sexuality in Fascist Ideology,” 81; Macciocchi, La donna ‘nera,’ 21.

47. Robyn Marasco, “Reconsidering the Sexual Politics of Fascism,” Historical Materialism (blog), June 25 2021. Online here.

48. Marasco, “Reconsidering.” This female antifeminism should be linked to the neofascist capture of the implosion of the nuclear family limned by Rosenberg in “The Daddy Dialectic”: “The family, simply speaking, splinters under the weight of what it has to make up for in the retraction of state resources under austerity. Contemporary neofascism harvests this splintering — this familial decomposition, which, like a collapsing star, emits a chaos of energy as it is vacuumed into oblivion. Note that, here, neofascism isn’t about claiming the moral high ground for itself. Rather, it exults in performing its perversity.

49. Lewis and Seresin suggest that there is “a kind of Eros running through the archive of the far-right wing of women’s rights: it appears palpable to us in the pleasures people take in exercising maternalist authoritarianism, in the euphoria of the womanhood-as-suffering worldview, in the wounded attachment undergirding same-sex cis separatism ... There is an excited, sacrificial kind of doom that attends the condition of being so-called women-born women, in the eyes of participants in eugenic feminism.’ Sophie Lewis and Asa Seresin, “Fascist Feminism: A Dialogue,” Transgender Studies Quarterly 9: 3, 2022, 464, 469–70.

50. As the artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz quipped in the 1980s about the efforts by the US Republican Senator Jesse Helms to block federal funding for any programme mentioning homosexuality: “Fascists wearing conservative drag have mounted Helms and ridden him through the foundations of the Constitution.” Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, Serpent’s Tail, 1992, 129.

51. Natasha Chang, The Crisis-Woman: Body Politics and the Modern Woman in Fascist Italy, University of Toronto Press, 2015. Discussed in Serena Bassi and Greta LaFleur, “Introduction: TERFS, Gender-Critical Movements, and Postfascist Feminisms,” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 9: 3, 2022, 315.

52. Cara Daggett, “Petro-masculinity: Fossil Fuels and Authoritarian Desire,” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 47: 1, 2018, 44. On the psychological wages of fossil authoritarianism, see also Malm and Zetkin Collective, White Skin, Black Fuel.

53. Klaus Theweleit, “Postface,” in Littell, Le sec et l’humide, 124. Among the institutions mentioned by Theweleit, via Rigoberta Menchù, is the Latin American death squad, which manifests one of the universal features of the corporeal fascism analyzed by Theweleit, namely ‘an authorized transgression towards crime, which exhibits itself at the same time as it is carried out’ (124).

54. On queer anti-fascism, see Rosa Hamilton, “The Very Quintessence of Persecution: Queer Anti-fascism in 1970s Europe,” Radical History Review 138, 2020, 60–81.

55. Bassi and LaFleur, “Introduction: TERFS, Gender-Critical Movements, and Postfascist Feminisms,” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 9: 3, 318. See also the effort to excavate a capitalist logic of abstraction behind fascist transmisogyny and anti-Semitism, personified in the figure of the Jew as inventor of transgenderism, in Joni Alizah Cohen, “The Eradication of “Talmudic Abstractions”: Anti-Semitism, Transmisogyny and the National Socialist Project,” Verso blog, December 19 2018.

56. I am inspired here by Dorian Bell’s incisive discussion of “racial scalarity” in Bell, Globalizing Race.

57. Consider, for instance, institutions like the World Congress of Families and the plea for the heteronormative family made by the post-fascist Italian PM Giorgia Meloni at its 2019 meeting in Verona. Meloni is a frequent purveyor of the Great Replacement narrative.

58. See Theweleit, Male Fantasies, vol. 2, as well as Rabinbach and Benjamin’s foreword to the volume.

59. Theweleit quotes the “Nazi dream” of one of its chief ideologues, Alfred Rosenberg: “Some intangible impulse within the masses has long wished to rid itself of the wretched belief that life is intended for pleasure — a contagious belief which is truly Jewish in nature. Today, the idyll of ‘heaven on earth’ has lost much of its attraction.” Theweleit comments: “This quotation from Rosenberg is a highly explicit formulation of the Nazi program for the masses: a combating of any hope for a real ‘heaven-on-earth,’ a real life in pleasure; a naming of the desire for a better life as an illness, of human pleasures as a contagious disease whose prime carrier is the ‘Jewish element,’ with its perpetual drive toward miscegenation.” Theweleit, Male Fantasies, vol. 2, 9. As Alexandra Minna Stern writes, referencing Jason Stanley, for the US far right, “obliterating the possibility of gender fluidity is integral to the restoration of patriarchal white America.” Stern, Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate, 134.