Fascism and Balkanization: A Concept and Case Study

On or about November 7, 2020, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., former vice president in the historic administration of Barack Obama, secured the requisite number of votes in the Electoral College (306-232) to comfortably claim victory over Donald Trump and to declare himself President-elect of the United States.

Biden’s defeat of Trump, rather than being a watershed moment for a rising and increasingly vocal and prominent progressive movement or a wider socio-cultural rebuke of Trumpism, whatever that might signify or mean, is bittersweet at best. For the conditions that gave rise to the grievances expressed by those supporters of President Trump who self-identify as the dispossessed, downtrodden, and forgotten, have not been erased by an election. Moreover, the profound and existential threats to our democracy posed by the MAGA machine will not disappear upon the conclusion of Joe Biden’s inaugural address and the seating of a new Congress and cabinet.

Confronting this issue head-on, Eric Kerl, author of the book White Bred: Hillbillies, White Trash, and Rednecks against White Supremacy and member of Rampant magazine’s editorial collective, argues persuasively that “regardless of who ultimately occupies the Oval Office, combatting the emerging movement of American fascism will remain an urgent task for the coming period.” In an insightful and penetrating piece titled “Four Theses on American Fascism,” Kerl articulates the necessity for an updated, amended, and advanced theoretical approach to the challenging and concerning political contingencies of our current historical moment. For as the author takes care to point out, the most recent administration has reminded us all that the seeds of authoritarianism did not vanish with the Allied victory in the Second World War or with the collapse of the Berlin Wall; rather, they forever and always linger and fester until when least expected, and perhaps when we are least prepared, they rear their ugly heads to remind us of the delicacy and fragility of what many in this county believe to the supremacy of so-called capitalist democracy.

In Kerl’s calculus, Thesis 3 reads as follows: Balkanization is a war of racism. He rightly observes that “today’s fascism is less concerned with securing colonies outside of its own natural borders. Instead, modern fascism’s project is the Balkanization (emphasis added) of regional, cultural, religious, racial, and ethnic identities within the existing nation-state.” Thus, it would seem at first glance as though Kerl’s formulation is merely an updated, if not loosely reconfigured, version of the concept or notion of “ghettoization.” Kerl’s use of the term “Balkanization” from the disciplinary lexicon of International Relations resonates with other contemporary philosophical and theoretical approaches to the problematic of population management and control and the oppressive and repressive mechanisms attendant thereof. Among these include the idea of so-called “zones of indifference” suggested by the work of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben or the “death-worlds” that exist as a function of the dominance of the paradigm of necropolitics discussed by South African political theorist AchillleMbembe. 

The idea of “balkanization” has a convoluted history, the meaning of which has changed over to course of many decades. Rubin Zemon, citing Maria Todorova, points out that “the term ‘balkanization’ was not coined in ‘the longest century of Empire’ when Balkan nations were gradually separating from the Ottoman Empire, but instead at the end of World War 1, when Albania was added to the map of Balkan nations that were created in the 19th century.” Zemon continues to summarize the history of the term as it changed throughout the 20th and into the 21st centuries, ably discussing the problematic employment of the term in discourses of identity and national belonging.

The utility of Kerl’s contemporary adaptation of the rubric of Balkanization as outlined in his Third Thesis is self-evident in any serious analysis of current inter- and intra-state conflicts being waged around the globe. Whether it is in considering the aftermath and consequences of American adventurism and interventionism in the badly botched and ill-advised campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, or in investigating the causes of conflict in South Sudan or Cameroon, Balkanization is obviously and clearly a phenomenon that demands attention.

Perhaps the case that most forcefully exemplifies or most clearly illustrates the phenomenon of Balkanization as discussed by Kerl is the current Ethiopian conflict. Ethiopia, a nation described by some observers as “Africa’s Yugoslavia,” is a nation defined by a precarious and delicate balance of power between and across ethnic and linguistic lines, loosely bound together by a shared proud historical heritage and popularly held notion of its national and imperial significance.

A key accelerant of the current crisis is the rise to prominence of the recently formed Prosperity Party, Prime Minister and Nobel laureate Ahmed Abiy’s vision for a new institutional apparatus to replace what had become the stale and increasingly non-responsive politics and policies of the former ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front. An added dimension to this development is the fall from grace of the TPLF, or Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front, a once disproportionately powerful member of the coalition of parties or movements that made up the EPRDF which overthrew the former communist government of dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.

The TPLF’s frustration with Abiy’s movies in Addis Ababa, as well as a running dispute with the central aurthorities surrounding an election held in the region in the midst of a global pandemic, resulted in tensions boiling over and ultimately led to the decision by the prime minister to send in federal troops to pacify what was perceived to be an act of defiant insurrection. This suppressive act triggered a mass exodus of refugees into South Sudan, a state hardly prepared for this contingency given its own issues and unique circumstances, as well as purportedly the involvement of Eritrean forces, a somewhat unforeseen, if not albeit ironic, intervention by a former adversary on behalf of Ethiopian forces.

While Ahmed claims that federal troops have occupied and are in full in full control of the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle, intense fighting nevertheless continues between government troops and TPLF irregulars. In short, the Prime Minister’s formation of a ruling governmental entity in the Prosperity Party, meant in part to outflank and sideline the TPLF, as well as his military campaign in the Tigray region are expressions of authoritarian power though a strategy of Balkanization that should not be overlooked.

The Ethiopian example discussed briefly above merely highlights a tendency referenced elsewhere in this article and that can be detected in instances around the globe in places as far-reaching as Nagorno-Karabakh, Myanmar, and even the United States. And the strategies of Balkanization are as varied and unique as the locations in which they are employed. For example, Robert Hamilton observed in an article for the Foreign Policy Research Institute as far back as 2018 that “strong institution and norms against nationalist and racist political rhetoric take generations to build and constant effort to maintain, but can be eroded in a fraction of that time. And foreign interference no longer need take the form of provision of weapons and equipment to separatists.”

The development of a coherent and progressive program to counter the menacing and seductive power of Balkanization is necessary in order to effectively combat this destructive and divisive force. As Kerl perceptively and pointedly observes in a later section of Four Theses: “An analysis of modern American fascism must look beyond the early waves in Europe during the interwar period. Back then, Marxists and other revolutionaries made indispensable contributions to our understandings of fascism’s roots, its class character, and its relationship to imperialism and capitalist decay. But theory was nothing without an effective strategy to smash the war machine of fascism.” Thus, in this troubling era that Anne Applebaum has referred to as the “twilight of democracy,” it is more urgent than at any time in recent memory to devise ways in which we might bring together ideas and action to counter the evils of Balkanization.

Ryan Michael Kehoe
Ryan Michael Kehoe
Ryan Michael Kehoe has a Master’s degree in English Language and Literature from Rice University. He has received awards for teaching and research from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the University of Maryland, and Rice.