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Old Idea of The Capital + Immortal Poem by Alexander von Pfeffel

Writing by Will Staveley. Photography by Will Staveley.

I am going to spend most of this essay resisting the urge to refer to our current government as fascist. Not necessarily because it isn’t - the tendencies it shares with some of the 20th century’s worst regimes are important and worth identifying. I choose to refrain from using that label because ‘the word itself is a specious totalization’ [1]; it is easy to use as an accusation, equally easy to abuse, and difficult to communicate effectively. Perhaps it would be easier for all of us if we stopped seeing it as a blackshirt-clad identity - one which few throughout history have been willing to wear - and more as a set of characteristics and tendencies which anyone is capable of displaying. It would also help to dispel the unhelpful myth that fascism comes through near-omnipotence (something which it is clear to everyone but Mr Johnson that he and his party lack). Historically, while ‘the reach of the new state’ through fascism was theoretically unlimited’, in practice its grasp was often smoke and mirrors [1]. Stanley Payne argues effectively that fascist "totalitarianism" never extended "to total— or in most cases even approximate— day-by-day institutional control’ [1]. So I am not trying to conjure up images of a totalitarian regime - because the fact is that this is an impression of fascism in power, and an often mistaken one. In the last three months alone, two crises (on Afghanistan and energy) have been marred by the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister (!!) deciding that they’d better have their holibobs. No, the problem is not that the Conservatives are all-powerful, but that they and the structures they preserve have power, and they have no idea what to use it for, save to cling ever harder and more harmfully to it.

Instead, what characteristics might emerge in a tentative definition of fascism? One is that it consistently emerges through negation: an opposition both to liberal capitalism, but also to Marxism, the most widespread alternative. Of course this government opposes Marxism - as far as any of the cabinet has the brain cells to try and work out what they think it is - but we might expect it to be allied to the cause of individualist laissez-faire economics. Certainly Cameron’s government set out in that direction, but ours is now a government based almost single-handedly on an opposition to everything Dave and Georgie stood for. But it is equally certain that this government has absolutely nothing to positively contribute in terms of direction. What is the mantra of ‘levelling up’ but an admission that we wish things were better, but haven’t the foggiest idea of how to do it?

One emphasis which the post-Brexit governments have claimed is that of giving a voice to the people; the idea that a ‘silent majority’ has risen and spoken up against the wishes of an oppressive metropolitan elite. We might question whether such a populist movement even does represent ‘the people’, whatever such a thing might be, or rather a ‘pseudocommunity’ [1] which lacks any semblance of direction. After more than 5 years since the Brexit vote it is difficult to determine whether we have entered a regulation-free Thatcherite utopia, a Great British Commonwealth Trading Bloc, or a protectionist Lexit neo-Scandinavia. Have we achieved anything at all? Or has this and other such movements of the populist right embodied Slavoj Žižek’s conception of fascism: ‘an attempt to change something so that nothing really changes’? [1]

This idea of a thwarted revolution is crucial to perhaps the most famous definition of fascsim, Roger Griffin’s ‘palingenetic ultranationalism’[2]. The latter word, aside from sounding quite cool, is simple enough. But what is meant by palingenesis is the idea of rebirth - a revolution which returns to a lost Arcadia, rather than creating a new Utopia. For Italians this lay in Ancient Rome, for Germans the two Reichs. British fascism’s obsession with the iconography of empire is about as garish and visible as the horrendous Union Jack-laden press rooms we nearly ushered fascism in with (if you haven’t seen a picture, count yourself lucky - thankfully the idea was scrapped, although not until a tidy £2.6m was spent acquiring the building) [3]. The problem with public palingenesis, as with personal nostalgia, is its total reliance on mythical representation; the Britain being sought has never existed. And if anyone disputes this, why the triumphalism? Why the ‘we have got our country back’? Unless we have a great deal of property and wealth, I think whoever that ‘we’ refers to never had the country in the first place.

No one can deny that the power grabs of fascism in Italy and Germany were historic; some would say revolutionary. Whatever revolution or change occurs in fascism, however, occurs on the cultural, not the economic, level. ‘Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves’ [1] - here Benjamin identifies a change in property relations entirely, but even a little bit less poverty would be great, thanks. Think of clapping for carers: an aesthetic little plaster on a deeply, painfully economic wound. National Socialism did little for worker’s rights;real wages declined under both Mussolini and Hitler; profits increased’ [4]. Here and now we are in ‘the worst recession of the G7’ [5], with housing support going to landlords not tenants, loans instead of grants for struggling businesses; in a word, an economy designed to maintain property relations. I could go on; cronyist lobbying at the pinnacle of government contracting, more children in poverty or going to foodbanks, the sheer sense of lost time from half a decade of local council meetings derailed by Brexit, culture war debates which pit generations against each other...

But at least we can express ourselves; at least we can be a little bit more edgy on Facebook groups now. At least we can collectively experience the incompetence of our government and share in the depression and poverty together. It is laughable that we have somehow entrusted the task of ‘building back better’ to the same party and people who smashed the buildings down in the first place, if austerity hadn’t shut their doors already.

How does early 20th century poetry fit into all this? You might guess tangentially, and you’d be right, but since I’m interested in it you have to be too. Ezra Pound’s collection Cathay consists of translations of ancient Chinese poems, quietly beautiful and immediately transportive. For many, they were a first glimpse of a society on the other side of the world (as well as millenia apart). And yet the problems of this society (war, freedom and the hyperconcentration of power) were strikingly relevant, and in many senses shaped the 20th century. I’m fascinated by this, and that Pound seemingly saw it too, but there’s a catch. Some years after Cathay, and after many much weirder poetic excursions still, Pound found himself broadcasting on Italian radio, meeting Mussolini, and by all intents and purposes, a fascist. This has been problematic for me, since I count his work as among some of the best out there, but also because ‘Pound's fascism and anti-Semitism have their origins in a profound and potentially revolutionary dissatisfaction with the liberal settlement; the anticapitalist, antibourgeois fervor that motivates both need not have assumed the reactionary form it did.’ [1] In this light, and in the shadow of everything else I’ve talked about, I’ve attempted a re-translation of Cathay, taking Pound’s translations as the original. The Imperial Palace becomes the Houses of Parliament, the wanderings of generals become the abstracted flows of capital, and the war-torn desert becomes the Amnesiac Capital, London, with its anonymous towers unchanged by the suffering of the people below.

Immortal Poem by Alexander von Pfeffel

The red and blue hedgehogs

Clash between the cradles and the grave.

One fox gashes its claim on another.

Black panes pang through the high canopy

They simulate a screen for the city sky,

Where a lone marionettist sits with open-ended words

And purrs, pulls the strings forcing open the eyes.

He vomits his heart into the billowing smog

He gnashes at the pistil of peace

And oozes waste down the stream of time.

The golden dawn god looks at him and wonders.

On a wild-goose upon the purple smoke,

He holds fascism by the sleeve

He stamps his brand on the backs of the river’s myth.

You who have the right and may not do again:

Consider how easily the tortoiseshell breaks.

Old Idea of the Capital

That’s what London is, an outpost.

Ian Sinclair


The narrow streets bleed the wide highway of the Mall

Dark Ubers, their white riders,

Dragging perfume through the seven gates.

The imperial car proceeds tacitly

in a dazzle of golden painted light

beyond the royal house.

The palace is protected by hats and guns.

The canopy embroidered with flags and colour

Absorbs and spits out all-faltering sun.

Evening’s phoenix ashes in a post-world

Where birds are fungible,

night has a price

And their cheap songs tossed to the flattening mist.


Dreams of butterflies, and of birds

Fewer and farther between

Float in the spaces over the gates.

Trees that glitter like jade,

Terraces tinged with silver.

The product of a limitless thing:

A network of journeys and passages

Where once there was a place.

Twin towers, birds with guns

Push back the borders of our network of ways.

A marketplace;

The transformation of things.

The palace’s sickness blots the sky

— monochrome zahir —

As money was made gold to capture all desire.

And engulfing it, yearning like me for blue grass,

Another skyscraper that I do not know:

How shall we know all the enemies we must make

When they meet us in numbers, through blackened glass?

References for Article:

[1] Paul Morrison, The Poetics of Fascism. pp.4-9

[2] On Griffin’s ‘Palingenetic Ultranationalism’ from A. Campi (Ed.), Che cos’è il fascismo? Interpretazioni e prospecttive di richerche (pp. 97-122)

[3] ‘Downing Street scraps plans for White House-style press briefings’.

[4] Alan S. Milward, "Fascism and the Economy," in Fascism: A Reader's Guide, ed. Walter Laqueur (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), pp. 379-412.

[5] Tom Hoctor, ‘The economic response to COVID-19 and the Conservative Party’s failure to depart from Thatcherite orthodoxy’.

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