Friday, January 4, 2008

What is Fascism?

This is the first in a series of essays attempting to explore the possibility of a fascist America. It is in part a response to a number of recent books which have argued that the US is sliding towards fascism (Joe Conason, Naomi Wolf, John Dean) and less directly to challenge the politicized, ahistorical, and often inaccurate use of the word “fascism” to describe any belief system that one opposes.

In 1944, George Orwell posed the question “What is fascism?” His true, but incomplete answer is that “fascism” is the ideology that I despise, “fascist” is the nation I hate, “fascism” is a behavior of which I disapprove—in other words “fascism” is simply a meaningless epithet. This is as true today as when Orwell wrote it when Trotskyists, Communists, Socialists, Conservatives, Pacifists, and Catholics were labeled “fascists.” Today we have Islamo-fascism, Bush is a fascist, and Hillary is a fascist.

So what is fascism? Of course, historically, fascism is derived from the Latin word fasces, meaning "bundle" implying "strength through unity" and is often associated with militarism. It was used by Mussolini to describe his political movement in the 1920s and subsequently has become associated with similar movements including Nazism. Although the term today is an all purpose epithet, it is often used to describe any form of dictatorship or authoritarian regime. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it confuses characteristics of a particular state or the mechanisms of dictatorship, which are often determined by the socio-historical moment, rather than by the social forces and political aims which have brought that state into existence. For example, although there were similarities between slavery and indentured servitude (physical abuse, long work hours) the two systems were qualitatively different. Similarly, the means of England’s Puritan Dictatorship were not dramatically different from the means of any other feudal government of the period, however, the popular base, political goals, and social and religious practices were substantively different.

Although Fascism is dictatorial, it is not just a form of dictatorship; it is a social movement of a specific type with particular characteristics. So, what are those characteristics? Using Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and other similar movements, we have the following:

  1. Nationalism—Fascism requires fanatical allegiance to a nation-state. This exact form can vary and typically overlaps with ethnicity or race—but it is typically something inherited and collective in some manner (I realize that these are often social constructs and in some ways manners of choice, but fascism builds upon the conventional understanding that these categories are natural).
  2. Hierarchy—Although fascism is collectivist, it makes no pretense of creating social equality. It seeks to create and naturalize a social hierarchy—but in a new manner. The basis of the hierarchy is the power bloc (nation)—which must be elevated to its naturally just position above other similarly defined groups (Aryan over Jewish or Slavic, White over Black, Italian over Ethiopian, etc). Within the power bloc, leaders emerge, who are justly revered above the mass, because of their ability to serve the cause. They are the “best of their race/nation/people.” That the hierarchy is “new” is often one of the most attractive components of fascism because is gives people who are at the bottom of society, but who are part of the in-group hope for upward mobility.
  3. Leadership -- Although fascism is based on collectivism, there is room from individual initiative, so long as that initiative is for the group. This is the “leadership principle”—individuals within the power bloc who have “special” qualities and represent the best traits of the group will emerge as “leaders” whose authority is unquestioned because of their natural abilities, their power of will, etc. This creates a hierarchy within the favored group, but a hierarchy not based on social class or heredity (as all within in the group share a hereditary privilege). Leaders are often privileged with “decadence” not generally approved or available.
  4. Victimhood--Popular support for fascism is based on some perceived wrong or the status of “victim” for the group. The wrong is often dubious or irrational, although in some ways based on reality. This is often the result of some recent social or systemic crises that the society has gone through (losing a war, economic depression, internal strife) and the movement’s raison d’ĂȘtre is to right the wrong.
  5. Recreating a past Golden Age--Connected to the issue of victimhood is the desire to recreate some mythical past glory or Golden Age which has been destroyed. This often has a mystical/redemptive aspect. Although fascism seeks to recreate some past Golden Age, it isn’t anachronistic, in that it seeks to recreate the “glory” of the age, not the material conditions of the age itself—it is modern, not primitivist.
  6. Mobilization against an internal or external Enemy--Fascism is aggressive, either internally, externally, or both. It is animated by some enemy “other”—which is usually the culprit for destroying the Golden Age, responsible for the past crisis, etc. The enemy is sufficiently nefarious as to require full social mobilization.
  7. Militarization--Fascism seeks to militarize society and measures all social and economic activities by their utility to the defense of the group. Popular organizations are “coordinated” along military lines. It typically has its own para-military organization distinct from the conventional army--"brown/black/red/white shirts."
  8. Strict sexual division of labor--This extends to the family where gender roles are primarily defined by their function in defending the group. Women produce children, who will be soldiers, workers, and mothers. Fathers provide for and defend their family and the nation.Homosexuality, Feminism, and other beliefs and practices that challenge these roles are forbidden because they serve no obvious familial function.
  9. Opposition to universalist ideologies—Fascism is characterized by a profound opposition to any universalist ideology or political practice that suggests human equality in any manner whether it is liberalism, democracy, communism, or socialism. This also extends to any form of religion which emphasizes the “equality of souls,” international solidarity, or, because of its beliefs, rejects the authority of the state.
  10. State managed capitalism—Fascism utilizes highly planned capitalism--"war capitalism" if you will. Fascist social movements often employ anti-capitalist rhetoric, but rather than seeking to overturn the system, it seeks to drive out the “bad capitalists” (due to their out-group status) and regulate the “good capitalists,” compelling them to serve the “national interest.” Capitalists continue to own, but lose much of their control over their own operations to the state in exchange for retaining their class privileges.

These ten traits obviously overlap and, in different historical contexts, there are different degrees of emphasis. Fascist dictatorships incorporate the above as ways of securing a critical mass of support (even dictatorships need some popular support) and offering a rationale for their existence. Of course, fascist dictatorships share many characteristics of other dictatorships. Typically, there is some form of party, which serves as a recruiting and disciplining mechanism for society and those who aspire to power; the government exercises a high degree of centralized authority and arbitrary power; and a personality cult surrounding the leader of the party. It is these latter traits which often lead to a conflation between fascism and state socialism or even war-time capitalism. As I have argued, these are more reflections of the historical moment than they are of the aims of the respective systems.

Fascism is a synthetic ideology that prides itself on “efficiency” and will happily mimic or borrow from other ideologies or other systems. For example, economic planning can be quite effective and therefore fascism adopts “socialistic” means to achieve anti-socialist ends. Although Fascism is right-wing in the classical sense, but it isn’t “elitist” in the classical conservative sense. Whereas classical conservative belief seek to preserve the privileges of the existing elites, whether it be aristocrats or plutocrats, fascism seeks to create a new and broader ruling class based on a new form of merit. This does not mean that it liquidates the previous ruling class, only that it intends to hold them to a new standard and to create opportunity for newcomers to emerge. Fascism’s relationship to religion is equally complex. Although fascism movements often utilize religious beliefs, it either emphasizes their national character (Lutheranism in Germany, Roman Catholicism in Italy) or seeks to transform them into a new, uniquely national religion. The latter tendency often creates tensions between fascism and religion. It is fascism's synthetic quality that generates so much of its appeal—it can be different things to different people.

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