Confronting Fascism in the Final Stage of the Life-Cycle of Industrial Civilisation
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Confronting Fascism in the Final Stage of the Life-Cycle of Industrial Civilisation

When we look at the rise of the global far-right through a systems lens, we can recognise that it as a symptom of crisis and collapse - as well as the potential for renewal. Today, humanity stands at a political inflection point in which the only viable path forward involves total transformation.

  • Nafeez M Ahmed
18 min read
Nafeez M Ahmed

2024 is going to be an inflection point for humanity. But it is also going to be a major test not just of liberal democracy as a political system, but for human civilisation as a whole.

Over 80 countries – more than half the world's population – are holding elections this year that could be pivotal for the future of democracy.

No clearer evidence of the hardening of polarised political lines can be found than in the United States, the world’s most powerful democracy. Here the electorate faces a choice between an incumbent president whose government continues to arm a far-right Israeli government engaged in a genocidal war, and the first criminally-convicted former US president whose far-right Republican backers envisage ruling America as a racist and sexist autocracy.

Project 2025, the comprehensive blueprint for Donald Trump’s first days in office prepared by former senior Trump administration officials at the Heritage Foundation, represents a lurch to the extreme-right and the risk of a new form of American theocratic fascism. Not only does it aim to reshape the American government and military into an unchallengeable arm of Trump, eliminating democratic checks and balances; it threatens ethnic, religious, sexual and gender minorities; and squarely aspires to turbocharge fossil fuel production while dismantling environmental protections.

Across the pond, the agenda of disparate far-right political parties has coalesced around a similar agenda. Nigel Farage’s Reform UK illustrates the continued radicalisation of the right. A politician with a long history of cavorting with far-right and neo-Nazi figures for political gain, Farage has specialised in whipping up bigotry toward migrants and Muslims to pursue an agenda of expanding fossil fuels and removing rules for corporate finance in the name of fortress Britain.

The twin advances of the Trump and Farage campaigns are no coincidence. Farage is a longtime friend of Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon, who had played an instrumental role in orchestrating Trump’s ascension into the White House. As I explain in my forthcoming book Alt Reich, from inception, Bannon envisaged his plot to tear down the American state as part of a trans-national movement that would cut across the UK and Europe.

Bannon played a key role in helping to channel funding from the billionaires Robert and Rebekah Mercer to organisations in the UK that would foster both Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage as mouthpieces for a new transatlantic Trumpocracy. This new populist movement fantasises about the nationalist break-up of Europe, the advancement of Russia and the white supremacist militarisation of the American homeland.

Yet behind the accelerating far-right radicalisation lies not just a confluence of different political actors, but a fundamental systemic reordering that has created a space for these actors to align around. However, the very same systemic reordering is creating new spaces by which to challenge these actors.

Planetary phase shift

To understand this moment, we need to take a step back in the context of what I’ve called the ‘global phase shift’, but perhaps should more accurately be characterised as a planetary phase shift.

A ‘phase-transition’ occurs when a system undergoes a fundamental change of state, due to a “sharp transition” in the degree of organisation within the system as a result of changing external conditions or pressures. The ‘phase’ of a system essentially describes its level and type of organisation. Which is why a ‘phase-transition’ entails a deep restructuring of order across that system.

As I showed in my last post, there is abundant empirical evidence that we are experiencing phase-transitions across almost all the core systems that define human civilisation and its relationship to the entire planet.

Like all living and ecological systems, human societies and civilisations evolve through a life-cycle that can be broadly understood as going through four key stages derived from the pioneering work of systems ecologist Crawford Holling.

This ‘adaptive cycle’ – which we see at all scales from cells, to forests, to economies – begins with rapid if not exponential ‘growth’ as the contours of the new system burst on the scene and take form. It then begins to stabilise in the second stage of ‘conservation’, which is when the structure and shape of the system becomes well-established. At this point, the system appears to be both strong and ubiquitous. But this simultaneously conceals its brittleness, as it is not necessarily adaptive to changing conditions. The third stage is when the system begins to weaken, lose control and break down, visible in an accelerating ‘release’ of energy and materials. This opens up a new space of chaotic uncertainty which, however, also creates new opportunities for radically new and different directions and therefore the potential for a new structure. That therefore gives way to the fourth and final stage of ‘reorganisation’ in which the basis of a new system, a new order, begins to appear.

These final stages, however, are radically uncertain. The fourth stage of reorganisation can either culminate in the system failing to reorganise appropriately and therefore collapsing, or successfully adapting to the conditions in which it finds itself leading to the birth of a new life-cycle.

This framework can be used quite powerfully to make sense of the dawn of global industrial civilisation several hundred years ago, its rapid growth and evolution culminating in the ‘golden age’ of neoliberal capitalism whose peak was around the 1980s to the early 2000s, but which since has entered a period of prolonged decline and breakdown.

I’ve argued that we are now experiencing the release stage of our civilisational life-cycle. The deeper we move into this stage, the more we can recognise its seemingly paradoxical symptoms.

On the one hand, chaos and destabilisation are accelerating as the old order loses control and coherence. On the other, emerging shoots of exponential change are driving new technological disruptions and cultural paradigms in often unexpected ways.

The rise of the far-right, in this context, appears as a systemic symptom of civilisational decline as we move into the final stages of the industrial life-cycle. But by the same token, it also represents its last laugh before unavoidable collapse as we stand before the stark choice between going down with a declining system or embracing a bold new life-cycle with counterintuitive dynamics and properties we can barely fathom when looking through the lens of the old paradigm.

To frame this analysis, then, we need to fully grasp how civilisations are not fundamentally different to life, but merely the most complex social-ecological extensions of life on a large-scale: today, on a planetary scale.

As renowned physicist Paul Davies has famously argued, life can be defined as a profound combination of ‘hardware’ and ‘software’: the biological structure of matter as well as the complex information which, encoded via DNA, codifies how that biological structure is organised and behaves.

In the same way, civilisations are comprised of two intertwined dimensions of being – material-technological and cultural-organisational. The material-technological infrastructure of civilisation encompasses how we produce the core things that enable civilisation to function; its cultural-organisational structure includes the ideas, governance, values, norms and rules that regulate social behaviour across civilisation.

While these will be to some extent regionally and locally differentiated, there are a common set of overarching structures across both dimensions of being which underpin and define today’s global civilisation as a whole.

So when we are looking at the life-cycle of a civilisation, these two intertwined dimensions are both moving through that life-cycle, growing and stabilising, before releasing and reorganising.

Using this framework, we are able to situate the rise of the far right in its proper systemic context. Rather than happening out of the blue, it represents a cultural-organisational phase-transition, which is intimately related to corresponding material-technological phase-transitions.

The global rise of the far-right

While many might assume that the rise and mainstreaming of the far-right is a fundamentally new phenomenon, associated particularly with the rise of Donald Trump in the US and Euroscepticism in the UK and EU following 2015, recent trends are actually part of a much longer process.

That process began around the 1960s, from when data on vote shares for centrist parties exhibits a consistent, gradual but accelerating decline that began to particularly take-off in the 2000s, accelerating further after 2010.

The below data from The Economist demonstrates specifically how the centre-left overall has seen its popularity wane increasingly in this time-frame, making more room (yet only marginally so) for far left and green parties.

Other data shows that overall, both the centre-left and centre-right across Europe have overall faced a prolonged but still unmistakeable decline in popularity from 1960 to 2010. This has accompanied a marked and steady rise in support for far-right political parties, which experienced a particularly sharp uptick in the 2000s.

Source: Agenda Publica Understanding right-wing populism and what to do about it (

There can be no doubt that this process has only intensified since 2000 until 2024, with data showing an acceleration in overall support for the far-right in that period.

It’s on the basis of this sort of data, along with other interrelated trends in energy, the environment and the economy, that in 2010 I predicted that the far-right was poised to dominate the heartlands of liberal democracy across the West over the ensuing decade, increasingly taking support away from mainstream parties on both the left and right. I argued that mainstream party politics was in danger of losing legitimacy to the far-right due to this trend.

Source: Cornelius Hirsch

What the shift to the far-right really means

Conventional commentators tend to view the rise of the far-right in isolation as a societal response to dissatisfaction with the status-quo. This is not wrong, but if focusing only on a case-by-case basis can lead to a fundamental failure to understand the rise of the far-right in a systemic context.

Behind the rise in support for the far-right is a deeper issue. It signals growing disillusionment with the status-quo, increasing scepticism of the existing political and economic system, and an accompanying decline in confidence for prevailing liberal norms, values and institutions. It’s not just about politics, in other words, but simultaneously represents a growing cultural shift.

That global cultural shift is reflected in the long but relentless decline in public trust for the US government since 1958 until 2015.

While there have been ups and downs, it’s worth noting again how that correlates with the peak of global EROI around the 1960s, followed by a marked slump, an uptick in the early 2000s, and then another slump. This actually somewhat correlates with fluctuating EROI of US oil and gas production (which unlike the global trend, experienced a temporary improvement around that time-frame).

That trend is continuing to play out in different ways, but along the same broad trajectory of surprisingly fast decline, across the world. The 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer finds that global trust in governments, the media, scientists and NGOs is at its highest levels over 24 years – and as a result is even undermining public support for innovations and social change that may well be required to adapt to rapidly shifting economic and environmental conditions.

The rising state of popular disillusionment is growing not simply because of ‘dissatisfaction’ with the status quo, but more profoundly because of the escalating crisis of civilisation that is afflicting our civilisation’s material-technological infrastructure whose symptoms mainstream politics is unable to address. Organised around a range of ideological and ethical norms – neoliberal capitalism, crude materialism, reductionism, positivism and mass consumerism, among others – this infrastructure is experiencing an escalating convergence of crises that are fundamentally interrelated.

The rise of the far-right inherently therefore transcends the political: it represents a deepening crisis of faith afflicting the cultural-organisational infrastructure of our civilisation. That is why it has accompanied a rise in mental health challenges, culture wars, social polarisation, and loneliness. The far-right is, at its core, the political extension of an ideological and psychological backlash which is desperately attempting to make sense of this convergence of crises by resorting to the familiar, often in terms of easily visible markers of physical identity.

None of which, of course, actually addresses the crisis. And that’s because the heart of this crisis is our relationship with the natural world, as mediated via our consumption of energy.

“Polycrisis”? No. This is one crisis, of civilisation itself

It’s become increasingly fashionable to use the term “polycrisis” to attempt to capture the fact that we are experiencing multiple crises at once, which are all interacting together.

Coined in the 1970s, the term was popularised by the brilliant economic historian Adam Tooze in the Financial Times in 2022. By the following year, the idea had become widely recognised as a way to make sense of the simultaneous escalation of seemingly distinct environmental, social, technological, and economic crises, and was even being discussed by the World Economic Forum. In 2024, a number of experts attempted to provide a more solid theoretical framework for the concept.

But while their framework was certainly a step forward in setting out how the “polycrisis” works as a symptom of a global system in stress, it did not really get to the heart of the issue.

And the heart of the issue is our broken relationship with the planet. No clearer sign of that is the energy-related inflection point our civilisation experienced shortly after the Second World War. Around the 1960s, when the comeback of the far-right first started to creep up, the world moved into a new era. The quantity of surplus energy available for the wider economy, which global industrial civilisation was able to extract from fossil fuels began to decline.

Scientists who have studied this phenomena, captured in the concept of “Energy Return On Investment” (EROI), have charted a consistent pattern. As I’ve written at length elsewhere, EROI is measured by looking at the amount of energy needed to extract useful energy for society. The more energy that we use up just trying to get the energy out in the first place, the less useful energy is available for society.

As one landmark study showed, the EROI of fossil fuels on a global scale appears to have reached an overall peak around the 1960s, following which it has experienced a steady decline. Although EROI studies can disagree on the exact chronology and scale of this process due to differing assumptions about how and where to measure energy inputs and outputs in various energy systems, they have offered an unmistakeable consensus that the EROI of fossil fuels has increasingly declined over the last few decades, and will continue to do so.

The accelerating decline in the EROI of fossil fuels therefore diminishes the overall amount of surplus energy that’s available for wider society and the economy.

As documented at length in my study Failing States, Collapsing Systems: BioPhysical Triggers of Political Violence (Springer, 2017), the global EROI decline of the fossil fuel production system is directly driving intensifying economic and ecological crises. It is linked to the long-term decline in the rate of economic growth over recent decades which culminated in the 2008 financial crash, after which the world has entered a new era of slow, declining and plateauing growth that is supposedly inexplicable.

Simultaneously, the chronic dependence of global civilisation’s material-technological infrastructure on fossil fuel energy sources – including how we produce food and transport – has driven an exponential increase in carbon dioxide emissions which is rapidly destabilising the global carbon cycle, leading to accelerating climate change and global heating.

As each of these seemingly disparate crises intensifies along an apparently discrete trajectory (energy, economics and ecology), their inherent systemic interconnections means that they are compounding each other in ways that are increasingly destabilising through amplifying feedback loops.

The crisis of perception

Trapped within our civilisation’s current cultural-organisational infrastructure, many of us find it very difficult to make sense of these escalating crisis – and the vast majority of us do not even realise they are happening. Yet each of these seemingly disparate crises is systemically interrelated with all other crises we are experiencing.

The ‘polycrisis’ framework is an outgrowth of this outmoded cultural-organisational paradigm. Rooted in a reductionist and fragmented approach to scientific inquiry that has tended to see these crises in separate silos and sectors, we are struggling to understand their interconnections. The idea of the ‘polycrisis’ yearns to apply some order to this chaos, but still struggles to recognise that what we are facing is not in reality a set of different interlinked crises, but one fundamental crisis with disparate manifestations. By treating these crises as if they are driven by discrete and distinct “stressors” which then interact, the ‘polycrisis’ framework is in danger of obscuring rather than illuminating what’s really happening.

From decline to renewal

But the crisis factors described here here are really only one crucial way of understanding what is happening to the material-technological infrastructure of our civilisation.

The other factors accelerating the decline of this infrastructure include the unmistakeable if not relentless emergence of new energy technologies which are now beginning to displace electricity generation across Europe in a way that few forecasters expected could happen so quickly.

The meteoric rise of solar, wind and batteries in particular, which are experiencing rapidly dropping costs even as they are undergoing exponential performance improvements, has resulted in Europe generating less than a quarter of its electricity from fossil fuels by April 2024.

Several studies discussed at AoT which have examined the rise of these new technologies converge on the conclusion that within the next decades, they are on track to become ubiquitous – largely due to the inexorable impact of economic forces which are making them increasingly competitive with incumbent fossil fuel industries.

This unfolding transformation of the energy sector will change everything across the production system. That’s because energy is the lifeblood of the material-technological infrastructure of a society. It will entail and require corresponding transformations across all other sectors of that infrastructure including how we produce food, transport, information and materials.

That’s without even mentioning that all those sectors are experiencing the rise of new industries and technologies which are similarly on track to disrupt each of these sectors and how they are structured (for example: precision fermentation and cellular agriculture in food; electric vehicles and transport as a service in transport; artificial intelligence in information; 3D printing and nanotechnology in materials).

As the industrial age material-technological infrastructure of civilisation enters into a spiral of accelerating decline, this very process is simultaneously giving way to the emergence of a new material-technological infrastructure defined by a suite of new technologies with fundamentally different dynamics to the prevailing fossil fuel dependent system. Compelling research – such as that recently published in Nature Climate Change by a team of international scientists – shows that this new emerging system will exhibit a significantly smaller material footprint than the fossil fuel system.

The EROI of the new energy technologies, unlike that of the incumbents, is exponentially improving rather than decreasing – offering new avenues for prosperity within planetary boundaries.

As we move deeper into the third release stage of the life-cycle of industrial civilisation, we are seeing both signals of collapse as the old system declines, and shoots of innovation and transformation as the seeds of a fourth stage of reorganisation are planted and begin to blossom. We are seeing, simultaneously, signs of both collapse and renewal.

That is why this period is a time of genuinely heightened uncertainty as the system is pulled between these forces. But although they appear to be opposing forces, the drivers of collapse and renewal are one and the same, related to the movement of our civilisation into the last stages of its life-cycle – which is creating the potential for a new life-cycle.

The choice

But here’s the problem. As this new material-technological infrastructure is emerging, it’s disrupting the old and rendering it obsolete. At the same time, then, the prevailing cultural-organisational paradigm of civilisation is becoming ineffective – incapable of managing this stark, complex global transformation.

The decline and obsolescence of our civilisation’s material-technological infrastructure simultaneously renders its cultural-organisational paradigm obsolete. That is because this paradigm has evolved precisely to sanitise, rationalise and, indeed, organise this infrastructure.

As the neoliberal order increasingly finds itself incapable of solving humanity’s biggest global challenges, popular trust in prevailing political and economic institutions is haemorrhaging.

In this emerging vacuum of disillusionment, far-right movements which hark back to a fabled past of ‘greatness’, promising stability, security and prosperity on the basis of a sense of the superiority of what went before, are becoming more attractive. They appeal to a simplistic explanation of our predicament which focuses on some of the strongest elements of the prevailing industrial paradigm, its nationalism and statism, the blaming of the ‘Other’, the scapegoating of change and people or technologies associated with it, while reminiscing about features of the system when it was at its strongest.

But the far-right does not have the faintest idea what is actually happening. They do not realise that there’s no going back, we cannot make the nation “great again” on the same terms as a fabled glorious past because that system which is being valorised and fantasised is in inexorable decline as it moves through the final stages of its life-cycle.

We are now standing at a fundamental bifurcation point – as the old system declines, we face possibilities of both breakdown and renewal. The challenge ahead then is to identify and empower the emerging shoots of renewal and reorganisation, to rapidly remake our cultural-organisational paradigm. Whether we like it or not, this means calling into question many of the things we have taken for granted (the metric of GDP growth as the defining parameter of economic health;  the shareholder structure of companies; the total desacralisation of life and crude reductionist materialism underpinning mass consumerism).

It also means unleashing our cultural imagination and exploring a vast new space of possibilities that is opening up amidst the vacuum of today’s slowly collapsing incumbencies. But not in a random, eclectic way – in a way that can discern the new shoots of reorganisation that are emerging, so that they can be strengthened and designed according to a new paradigm for the new life-cycle.

The global far-right – which I call the Alt Reich (and whose political nodes include the likes of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen and so on)  – represents the path of collapse: it cannot envisage what lies beyond the horizon; clings to the past, the comfortable and familiar. It is desperately doubling down on the old, but is therefore doomed.

But in many democracies, the ‘alternative’ represented by the centre left – exemplified in the Biden administration and the Labour Party – is not really an alternative. For the most part, the political options which are different to the far-right are still locked into the old paradigm.

Equally, the vast majority of left wing and green political groups and movements which believe themselves to be offering more in the way of an alternative are largely not operating from full spectrum whole systems perspectives. They tend instead to focus on reacting to crises as they emerge, often in a binary fashion. Stumbling from crisis to crisis, this reactionary approach often generates simplistic ‘opposite ideologies’ to the far-right vision (a reliance almost entirely on critiques of the system, rather than positive and coherent visions in their own right). Which means they are often still only seeing parts of the elephant that they specialise in and homing in on that as ‘the answer’ – creating what amounts to a fragmented and incoherent set of ideas, values and actions which is sometimes in danger of increasing widespread societal incoherence.

Yet the fate of the Conservatives in the UK, the decline of Modi’s power in India, demonstrate that sticking to the old paradigm cannot and will not work. That is because doubling down on the old will only accelerate societal decline by pushing forward the forces that are moving us through the release stage without ensuring our societies can ride the wave of reorganisation through the fourth and final stage of our civilisational life-cycle, and into a new life-cycle.

Any regime, whether of the left or right, will find that it loses momentum and eventually dies at the polls if it cannot meaningfully address the civilisational crises we now find ourselves in. In their place, however, we will be left to choose between either more of the same, or even more extreme and fascistic renditions of the old – the option that is currently not part of the political conversation is this: total transformation.

The pattern of political crisis and decline that we are seeing today across disparate regions of the world points to a consistent underlying reality: we have passed a political inflection point in the global system. In this new era, governments that cannot respond to the converging crises of civilisation will face revolt and decline.

Understanding this allows us to recognise that even if the pro-Trump Project 2025 comes to the fore in the US, it will not ultimately survive but will rapidly decline as its policies fail.

In other words, the inflection point is here, but whether we scale it into a new world is not.

What does total transformation look like? Commensurate to managing the new material-technological infrastructure that is emerging, we need to develop new cultural-organisation paradigms that require us to dispense with the obsolescence of the old. We also need to leverage that emerging new vision of the world and ethical framework to ensure that the current and coming material-technological phase shifts are structured and directed in ways that benefit people and planet as much as possible. That will mean recognising that the scale of transformation requires accepting the limitations and failures of liberal democracy in its current form, but instead of harking back to a mythical past, pushing forward to new and better ways of participatory politics which are capable of embracing our coming of age as a planetary species.  If we do not, then we face the real prospect of aborting the planetary phase shift to a new life-cycle.

We are standing at the dawn of the demise of the cultural-organisational paradigm of homo economicus, the reductionist, atomistic paradigm of human existence which has defined the driving centres of power in our civilisation today.

The Alt Reich is it’s last archetypal gasp as it enters its death throes.

The question before humanity is whether we want to go down with the Alt Reich, or build a new planetary paradigm that can take us into a new life-cycle for civilisation?

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