‘The Legend Of Korra’ Book Four: Kuvira And The Rise Of Fascism
In his 1998 essay, “The Five Stages of Fascism,” political scientist Robert Paxton defines the titular phenomenon as, broadly speaking, progressing through five stages of development and escalation. They are:
- “The initial creation of fascist movements,” wherein discussion of national decline and the failure of the existing order manifest.
- “Their rooting as parties in a political system,” wherein the fascist movement gains power and prominence.
- “The acquisition of power,” wherein the ruling elites, threatened by fascist momentum, invite the movement to share power.
- “The exercise of power,” wherein the fascist movement controls the state, in varying degrees of cooperation with traditional powers.
- “Radicalization or entropy,” wherein the fascist movement settles into authoritarianism or, as happened in Nazi Germany, veers into extremism.
The premiere episode of The Legend of Korra’s fourth and final season finds the Earth Kingdom navigating the choppy waters of the second stage. In the three years since season 3’s finale, Kuvira has gone from the seemingly content captain of Su Yin’s guard to the “Great Uniter” of a fractured world. She has 90% of the Earth Kingdom under her thumb and, as we learn over the course of the episode, has accomplished this through a campaign of forced labor, manipulation of resources, and a burgeoning cult of personality.
We watch as the governor of Yi, initially committed to independence, is brought to heel by the lawless reality of his state and the temptations of Kuvira’s “generous proposal” of takeover. Idealists like Bolin and Baatar Jr. have joined her cause, as have opportunists like Varrick. Figures of murkily extrajudicial power, like Kai and Opal, urge caution in the face of her might, but by the end of the episode, that’s all they can do—urge caution.
Kuvira, in contrast, can feed the hungry, roust the bandits, and bring order to forsaken states. Children scramble merrily over her mecha-tanks, mothers return to their homes with boxes full of fruit and grain, and Bolin smiles blissfully at the difference he has made. All is well. All is Kuvira’s.
The Legend of Korra’s antagonists have all seen themselves as addressing the problems of a broken world — problems that, they posit, the established elite ignore. Amon spoke for the nonbenders, denied full personhood in a world built without them in mind. Unalaq planned to rectify a grave foundational mistake of the universe. Zaheer and the Red Lotus sought a freer, more compassionate world in the destruction of ossified order. Each, however goodhearted, tended to violence and extremism, and so Korra put them away.
But the initial assertion they all agreed upon — that this is a broken world in need of fixing — remains un-addressed. The good guys have kept the bad at bay, but they have offered nothing in their place, no “solution,” as Amon deemed himself. With the exception of the Earth Queen, all the bad old powers are still in place and the powerless reality of the common people — many of whom supported Amon and Zaheer — has only gotten worse, where it has changed at all.
We started in Republic City and were dazzled by its multi-ethnic populace, its technological achievements, its council politics. But in exploring the world beyond it over the course of the past two seasons, Korra has revealed that this progress has not extended to the rest of the world. Ba Sing Se is the totalitarian nightmare it has always been; the rural Earth Kingdom is an ungovernable mess of looting; and the altruism of the new Air Nomads, however earnest, is largely ineffectual.
Republic City’s success is actually sort of alarming, in light of this understanding — a hive of hedonism without even the infrastructure to care for orphans like Mako and Bolin, and absolutely no regard for the hardscrabble truth of life beyond its borders.
To the common man of Korra’s world, the last four years must have seemed a strange ballet of policymakers and pundits that never bothered to recognize his personhood, let alone his opinions. The Avatar quashed two movements that attempted to address his concerns. The Avatar united the physical and the spiritual worlds, then ran off as spirit vines burst through people’s living rooms. The Avatar is friends with the cops, famous pro-benders, and the richest girl in the city. The Avatar went on to disappear for three years as chaos unfurled across the Earth Kingdom.
In a parallel dance of ignorance, President Raiko, the Earth royalty, and Tenzin have been going about the important business of… building new train stations, readying a foppish brat for the throne, and sending flying teenagers to address an entire kingdom’s destabilization. When action has taken place for the common man, it has been in a form that he does not understand and had no say in. He is at the mercy of bandits when he isn't at the mercy of a paranoid monarchy, and neither of these forces care that his family is starving. He needs someone to care, and he needs somebody to do something about it.
In his essay, Paxton examines the second, “rooting” stage of the triumphs of Italian and German fascism in rural communities. It was here, he argues, that these movements, “first succeeded in becoming the representatives of an important social and economic interest.”
This is what Kuvira is accomplishing in this episode. She’s getting stuff done for the man most without means, establishing the core myth of palingenetic ultranationalism, identified by theorist Roger Griffin as the “fascist minimum.” Palingenetic, here, refers to rebirth — the rebirth of the nation.
Fascism, as Kuvira wields it, and as ever it has been wielded, portrays itself as the vigorous, pure-hearted answer to weak-minded, decadent lawlessness. It recognizes and excoriates the degeneracy of the present, the ignorance of the powerful, the gridlocked failure of liberal democracy, and it promises boldness, action, law and order. It promises food, and an army to protect you and the nation, and above all it promises a glorious unification of what once was scattered and smoldering. It valorizes the decisive leader, ascribing traits of courage and caring to him. It romanticizes his willingness to trespass the rule of law as necessary bravery.
Fascism, to the common man of Korra’s world, and to common men throughout the last 200 years, has been the answer to a long, lonely period of disorder and violence. Fascism, to him, is freedom — freedom from the tyranny of lawlessness.
Obviously, fascism is bad. But taking these processes into account, it isn't hard to understand Kuvira’s success. In my review of the Book Three finale, I theorized that this season would deconstruct all that Avatar: The Last Airbender built. I stand by this, and in fact I wish to extend my predictions. Book Four will challenge the role of the Avatar, Korra’s personality, the future of the Air Nomads, but also the power balance and governmental structure of the Avatar world as a whole.
The main and supporting cast is scattered across socioeconomic lines here, at the beginning of what promises to be thirteen episodes of upheaval. Characters of privilege, like Asami and Tenzin, hold positions of commercial, spiritual, and governmental authority. Characters from disenfranchised backgrounds, like Kai, Mako, and Bolin, are aligned with an international peacekeeping force, an ailing monarchy, and the fascist movement respectively. Wild cards like Su Yin, Chief Bei Fong, Jinora, Katara and — as the trailer revealed — Toph, are caught between familial, economic, and governmental tensions.
And there is Korra. Lost, anonymous Korra, losing to no-name brawlers in an underground fight club somewhere in the Earth Kingdom. We are posed to watch the status quo explode, and we will do so from every possible vantage point.
Bolin grins as he relieves the suffering of Yi villagers. Mako sighs as Prince Wu poses for the public’s cameras. Asami secures her place in the future of international commerce. Korra loses herself in violence. And Kuvira’s train barrels across the Earth Kingdom, bearing the hopes and fears of a public with no one else to turn to. Book Four is titled “Balance” — but here, at its beginning, it is nowhere to be found.