‘All life is a service’: The Contested Erotics of Fascism from Foucault to Frost  

Written by Georgia Smith

‘All life is a service. He knows that. To live in the fullest sense of the word is not to exist or subsist merely, but to make oneself over, to give oneself: to some high purpose, to others, to some social end, to life itself beyond the shell of ego. But he, lacking superiors, must devote himself to abstractions, never knowing when he has succeeded, when he has failed, or even if he has the abstractions right, whereas she, needing no others, has him.’ 

Robert Coover, Spanking the Maid  

‘I made a model of you, 
A man in black with a Meinkampf look’  

   Sylvia Plath, Daddy  

Our thoughts on fascism are moralistic, anxious and obsessive. The political philosophy which developed in the classical Italian and Nazi German political traditions in the 1920s and mutated into their genocidal forms in the following two decades is a persistent and permanent preoccupation of both political and historical thought. Beyond a more sterile academic study, it is perhaps true to say that our obsession with fascism originates from our disgust with it, a sense of repulsion which draws us close, a morbid curiosity with the way in which it confronts the natural intersections of life, meaning and violence, love and death.  

Then what does it mean to pick up and paw at such symbols of disgust? Both the internal quality of traditional fascism and its lingering in the Western imagination have produced debates on the erotics of fascism – flirting with the seductive quality of fascist symbols as symbols of sex, eroticism and domination. As such, combining two of our most culturally contentious obsessions: sex and death. In Georges Bataille’s words ‘eroticism, it may be said, is assenting to life up to the point of death’. Fascism has a marked fixation upon fear, violence, youth, the body and acts of the body, intimacy and chaos – a set of semantics one may more appropriately use to describe sex. As Umberto Eco notes in his seminal Ur-Fascism, fascism is equally concerned with machismo (the cult of aggressive masculinity) as it is with irrationalism, the rejection of modernism or conspiratorial xenophobia. Fascism is then an emotive or bodily experience as much as a political and ideological one. Foucault, Frost and others debate this erotic quality of both fascism proper and the appropriation of its images across the twentieth century – producing Fascism as Sadism, substitution and theatrics.  

To preface, a necessary note on the ethics of discourses on fascism. Any analysis existing within the rich and often overbearing literature on fascism must bear the weight of death and destruction produced across fascist regimes, paying particular attention to the genocidal fact of Nazism in the 1940s. To note fascism as related to or reflected in intimate life does not in any manner lessen the severity of the very real implications of its political ideology (this is too interesting as it infers comment on the salience of emotion and intimacy in thought, or the idea of ideologies as erotics). While fascism is not a toy, it can be toyed with. The very fact of fascism’s non-trivial nature is what makes it so potent as a sexual symbol. One has a sense they are holding a metaphoric and visual hot iron with an inherent potential to brand. It is also the case that ‘most people who are turned on by SS uniforms are not signifying approval of what the Nazis did, if indeed they have more than the sketchiest idea of what that might be’. As Sontag goes on to suggest ‘the message of fascism has been neutralized by an aesthetic view of life…now there is a master scenario available to everyone. The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.’ To echo Frost’s statement of intent ‘antifascist, democratic culture has a substantial unacknowledged libidinal investment in fascism that needs to be explained.’ 

There is no manner in which one can divorce the discourses on fascism from narratives on de Sade and Sadism – a philosophy of libertine sexuality based upon the infliction of pain. To read de Sade’s philosophy as a political philosophy, at least in my view, is to posit it as wildly opposed to the fascist project. De Sade is possibility in its infinity, the ultimate commitment to unrestraint, an ‘open fantasy’ as Foucault suggests. Fascism is its opposite, the ultimate commitment to restriction, a manifestation of its traditionalist character. As Sontag notes, fascist aesthetics include a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behaviour and ‘the constraint of vital forces.’ Beyond the necessary moral objections, one must possess against de Sade (incest, rape and murder) it is evident that our truest objection to him appears as a contradiction. We object to his freedom. De Sade is without definition. It is the lack of boundaries which a Sadian political world possesses which produces our discomfort. This same tendency is what Foucault images to motivate our permanent diversion to fascism in erotic discourse: 

‘is it our incapacity to live out this great enchantment of the disorganized body that we project onto a meticulous, disciplinary, anatomical sadism? Is the only vocabulary that we possess for transcribing the grand pleasure of the body in explosion this sad fable of a recent political apocalypse?’ 

Discussions of de Sade are fruitful as they allow distinctions to be made between different forms of violence. The perceptions of what Sadism is, what it actually is, and how it is practiced in sadomasochism are wildly disparate. A perhaps incorrect conflation between pain and fascist violence is made and cannot be undone, animating much discourse on the erotics of fascism.  

As Foucault proposes in Sade: Sergeant of Sex, fascism is not erotic it its own right; instead, it is a form of substitution for an unlived erotic life – in fascism proper ‘eros is absent’. The clarity of Foucault’s statement that ‘Nazism was not invented by the great erotic madmen of the twentieth century but by the most sinister, boring, and disgusting petit-bourgeois imaginable’, appears to contradict traditional images of boot lace and leather fascism as deeply erotic, an ‘eroticism of the disciplinary type’. A ritual of domination and subordination which constitutes political and private life, Sontag’s master scenario in its total completeness. Foucault does not deny that local or accidental instances of fascist erotics may occur through the proximity of ‘bodily confrontation’, but it is not central to the idea or experience of fascism itself. A particular semantics then appears in discourses on fascism – to imagine, to play at or to seem, never to be. This mirrors suggestions that fascism is constituted almost entirely by its existence as a reactionary ideology, not by any sufficiency in its politics. Fascism gains sympathy, or meaning, as an obligation or duty to be held or as a game to be played, a performance to be staged. As Sontag defines it, the perception or imagination of what fascism is produces ‘powerful and growing currents of sexual feeling…which make playing at Nazis seem erotic’. It is this idea of seeming that preoccupies the literature on the erotics of fascism.  

Laura Frost’s Sex Drives: Fantasies of Fascism in Literary Modernism notes the ‘libidinal’ phenomenon apparent in the discursive realm surrounding fascism. Her argument hinges upon the idea of imagination. ‘Fascism was, from its earliest appearance, imagined-in propagandistic, psychoanalytic, historical, and literary discourses as a political regime with a particularly sexual dynamic.’ Playing on the traditional idea that every woman likes a man in uniform, Frost asks us to question what such uniforms indicate. Respect, authority, domination? To Sontag they are community, order and identity, alluding again to the realm of meaning. Noting the pleasure inherent to the tension of asymmetry, Frost acknowledges that ‘fantasy and politics are often not in alignment’, adding to the suggestion that eroticising fascism is about play above all else, trying on a radically different identity, a theatric experience. Building upon Sontag’s notions in Fascinating Fascism of fascism as that which is sexually ‘far-out’, Frost sees the sexual symbolism of fascism as a form of othering – not too dissimilar from Foucault’s substitution. While they may initially appear disharmonious, Foucault and Frost’s theses are similar in the way they rely upon the idea of usage. Fascism is only erotic as far as it can be manipulated, borrowed and appropriated, molded into something of one’s own or used as a political strategy. A modernist’s invocation of fascist typology (see Genet’s Funeral Rites or Vercor’s Silence of the Sea) does not necessarily produce a contention within their politics – they are not sympathetic to fascist thought but simply furthering the assault upon bourgeoise normativity. 

For Sontag ‘the solemn eroticizing of fascism must be distinguished from a sophisticated playing with cultural horror.’ When instances of eroticising, or vaguely ripping off the idea of erotic fascism, occur across high and low culture where does one draw the line between playing with cultural horror and a cheap invocation of sexualised fascism for shock value? Lilian Cavini’s The Night Porter is undeniably the most famous artifact pertaining to eroticised fascism. The 1975 film follows the relationship between an SS officer and a concentration camp inmate as they engage in a ritualistic form of sadomasochism, it being described by Primo Levi as ‘beautiful and false’. Yet more nonchalant invocations occur across popular culture. Take Sloane Crosley’s recently published Cult Classic, which offers an extremely brief mediation on the same form of relationship, is this productive or a banal normalisation of a certain idea of fascism and eroticism.  

Robert Coover’s Spanking the Maid is utter perfection as a work of literary sadism. Coover’s perpetual denial of his audience’s satisfaction, his repeated edging and teasing, the maid’s act of entering ‘deliberately, gravely, without affection…advancing sedately, discreetly’ exemplifies Foucault’s form of sadism as ‘the meticulous, the ritual, the rigorous ceremonial form that all scenes of Sade assume’. Not only does Coover offer an exemplary Sadism, he too underlines the seductivity of servitude, of order, both in its physical and ideological forms. ‘To live in the fullest sense of the word is not to exist or subsist merely, but to make oneself over, to give oneself: to some high purpose, to others, to some social end, to life itself beyond the shell of ego.’ One can use Coover to understand the appeal of Sadism, Fascism and the eroticisation of the images of fascism as flirtations with meaning and being. As Bataille affirms: 

‘we find the state of affairs that binds us to our random and ephemeral individuality hard to bear. Along with our tormenting desire that this evanescent thing should last, there stands our obsession with a primal continuity linking us to everything that is.’

While Bataille may view eroticism as inherently linked to our existence as discontinuous beings, positing religious experience as a kind of eroticism, it is equally true that one could view fascism as erotic in this way. Not for its innate sexual quality but for the way it provides or contests meaning across cultural life. To perform is also to belong. When one appropriates fascist iconography, especially sexually, one is giving oneself to the images or perceptions it generates. In this case, what weight should we give to ideas of images and aesthetics beyond something we consider, consume and create. To return finally to Foucault, ideas and aesthetics are ‘a kind of stimulation that comes only from images but (are) no less potent than reality – although of another kind.’  


Bataille, G., 2012. Eroticism. London: Penguin Classics. 

Coover, R., 2011. Briar Rose & Spanking the Maid. London: Penguin Classics, pp. 99.  

Crosley, S., 2022. Cult Classic. London: Bloomsbury Circus.  

Eco, U., 2020. Ur-Fascism. In: How to Spot a Fascist. London: Harvill Secker. 

Foucault, M., 2020. Sade: Sergeant of Sex. In: Aesthetics: Essential Works 1954-1984. London: Penguin Books, pp. 223-227. 

Frost, L., 2018. Sex Drives: Fantasies of Fascism in Literary Modernism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 

Gilbey, R., 2020. The Night Porter: Nazi porn or daring arthouse eroticism?. [Online]  
Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/nov/26/night-porter-nazi-porn-eroticism-dirk-bogarde-charlotte-rampling-liliana-cavani 

Plath, S., 1960. Daddy. [Online]  
Available at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48999/daddy-56d22aafa45b2 

Sade, T. M. d., 1995. Philosophy in the Boudoir. London: Creation Books. 

Sontag, S., 2009. Fascinating Fascism. In: Under the Sign of Saturn: Essays. London: Penguin Classics. 

Featured image credit: The Night Porter (1975). Accessed via: https://www.highonfilms.com/the-night-porter-1975-a-biblical-story/. Used under fair use policy.

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