Visual Essay, 2020
What can composting teach us about fighting fascism? What forms of toxic masculinity should be discarded and composted until something better emerges? This visual essay for the Hungarian magazine Phoenix explores composting and anti-fascism.
The phoenix is a powerful image. A proverbial fire that burns down institutions, abolishes prisons, lays parliaments in ruins. The dream of a new society built on the ashes of the old has always intrigued the ranks of revolutionary ideas. The idea of a clean slate, a fresh start certainly sound promising. If this were to actually happen, ashes will have to be cleaned up and structures rebuilt, usually by the same toiling wretched who had grudgingly built the previous world. Because whatever the new world will be, the wealthy won’t be building it. Inspired by Donna Haraway, I propose a strategy of composting instead of burning down. Composting reuses existing organic matter, to grow new life. A radically different idea than the ‘clean slate’ modernist politics that has wiped out too much life already.
‘Fascism is a technologically equipped primitivism’ wrote Guy Debord in 1968. What makes fascism ‘primitive’ is that it appeals to an emotional rather than rational state; your unhappiness is the fault of the other, instead of; global complex processes that exploit your labour and are the reason you cannot afford a home. Inequality and climate change are reduced to cultural differences, which are easier to communicate. Trump has been expertly employing the ‘It’s true because I feel it’ tactic. Another way in which fascists are primitive is that they construct a false mythical past to ground their identity politics. The US that was ‘once great’ (before or after the genocide of its inhabitants?), and a Europe that was ‘once white and Christian’ (Europeans came from India), claims that are purposefully vague to serve as emotional arguments. The inconsistency is most obvious by its technology, as Debord points out. A kind of abstract primitivism and regionalism is invoked by fascism, but one that still depends on technology, a global capitalist economy, and slave labour in the Global South.
It would be wonderful if a great fire would rid the world of fascists, but the soil of fear and anger from which they were grown would still exists. It is not like our history books didn’t warn us. Perhaps something went wrong with the composting. Politics of fear and thoughtlessness are powerful because they appeal to a gut feeling. Maybe this is why rational arguments from the left rarely work to persuade them, even though many fascists vote against their own interests.
Fascist primitivism is a false primitivism, as that it is not based on historic facts. Ironically many fascists, like the Dutch Thierry Baudet are obsessed with history, but openly support and promote conspiracy theories. Fascism is exactly that: a politics of thoughtlessness based only on fear, but supported by industrialists because they are the ones profiting from destruction. It’s like you are saying: I want to build a border around my country, and go back to the 1920s, but please let’s keep the free flow of capital, cheap consumer goods and high technology weaponry. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.
That Feeling When No Girlfriend
Fascists are grown in the online, bare soil of sexual frustration. ‘Involuntary celibates’ (incels), are a fringe internet subculture of frustrated young men who are unable to have sexual relations with women. On fringe websites they meet likeminded peers, in TFW NO GF, or ‘that feeling when no girlfriend’. Incels have difficulty accepting that women are equal, find refuge in Nazi ideologies and white supremacy to compensate for their male insecurities. These online subcultures are by no means a flock of harmless pimpled virgins, but have now formed armed militia in the US and are actively seeking violent confrontations.
Authoritarian leaders today are known for their sexism and misogyny under the pretense of ‘family values’. ‘Viktor Orbán is afraid of women. He can’t speak to women normally. He has a complex around women’, said a Hungarian female politician. Trump repeatedly makes inappropriate comments about his ‘hot’ daughter and he reduces the women he meets to their looks. His three marriages and his public sexual harassment stand opposite to Christian family values, only paying lip service to his white Christian voters. Putins power is built on conservative orthodox family values while at the same time divorcing his wife for a thirty year younger woman. So, while the white nuclear family is the cornerstone of fascism, apparently even its leaders are unwilling to subject themselves to its rules. Looking closer at what fascists mean by a return to ‘family values’ or conservative gender roles from a claimed ‘Christian origin’, reveal in fact a deep sexual frustration.
Freuds early psychoanalysis theory brought forward ‘castration anxiety’, as the fear of men to lose their masculinity by means of (metaphorical) castration. The fear of not being masculine enough becomes a drive for power. Psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich saw a libidinal power in the rhythmic parades and fascinations with fascist uniforms. He believed sexual repression was a key factor of fascism. Reich saw the ‘authoritarian family’ as the main structure of fascist society, where sexuality is confined to the duty of ‘breeding’ new white subjects — a sexual biopolitics that leaves little room for sex as enjoyment or expression of love. Whether or not the libidinal underpinnings of fascism are accurate (Reich is controversial to say the least), it is clear that neofascist tendencies in the 2010s are strongly rooted in misogyny and male sexual frustration, like gamergate and the Westgate shooting.
Love Compost, Hate Fascism
Composting is a way to recycle organic matter, usually from garden and kitchen waste, to create nutrient soil conditioner or natural fertilizer. Composting takes time and effort, it is the natural process of sifting through the material, making sure every part of organic matter serves an afterlife. It is easy to burn things, but what is truly difficult is to keep something alive. To treasure all things, living and decomposing, is because everything can be useful in its own way. Soil then becomes an inclusive phenomenon made of all living matter, not merely a nativist or nationalist fantasy.
Haraway describes the difference between building nuclear families for bio-political means, and composting communities. The nuclear family is a capitalist construction where people are encouraged to form heteronormative couples for the production of offspring, so that the economy and the social order stays intact. Composting is a multispecies community where each newborn life is valued, and ‘kin making’ can happen without the necessity of having human children. She emphasizes that this actually means reproductive freedom instead of the coerced heteronormative reproduction in the fascist authoritarian family that Reich describes. A recurring problem in building societies is that many ‘planned’ societies, are imagined by a few at the top, which are to be implemented rigorously.
Contrary to fascist propaganda, vermin aren’t evil. Vermicomposting is worm-powered composting. Red worms are your multispecies partners in creating fertile soil from which life can grow. Modernist societies have intentionally ignored the value of millions of years of life, within existing culture, flora, and soil, for the purposes of simplicity and control, as James C. Scott shows in Seeing like a State (1998). A (com)post capitalist society means to work towards a world of freedom, equality, and without hierarchy, where all living entities, human and non-human are valued for now and for generations to come.
Debord, Guy, Society of the Spectacle, 1967.
Haraway, Donna J., Staying with the trouble, Duke University Press, 2016.
Reich, Wilhelm, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 1980.
Scott, James C., Seeing Like a State, Yale University Press, 1998.
Zerzan, John, Future Primitive and other essays, Autonomedia 1994.
Written for Phoenix magazine, Hungary, 2021.