Lazy Luddite Log

30.9.18

Some Analysis Of Fascism

For several decades the term 'fascist' has been employed as an insult. Speakers use the word to condemn any government they oppose, particularly if that government is confident of its own political program and the power invested in it. As a student of party politics (as part of an honours degree in political history) I noticed that such 'fascists' were frequently anything but. As part of this tendency, the widely circulated Fourteen Defining Characteristics Of Fascism (based on an op-ed by Lawrence Britt and amended by others) panders to many of my own political biases. It pays to be wary of anything that tells you exactly what you want to be told and so, I recently decided to compose my own version of this much-modified Internet meme as a way of critiquing it.

Because of its overuse I now have a tendency to dismiss accusations of fascism. But what if I'm overcompensating and never allow for the possibility of fascism forming right in front of me? Since the time of its publication the work of Britt (et al) has been used in the US to attack past President Bush and even his successor President Obama. In both cases the application seems excessive but what of current US President Trump? Interestingly I think his politics is closer to fascism than that of any other US President (since the time in which fascism was articulated). This seems to be part of a wider trend among populist governments emerging across the world. However these populists move away from some of the characteristics described by Britt (et al) and so if one wants to make the meme relevant one has to edit its content. If such editing also results in a more accurate description of historical fascism then all the better.

Most would accept that fascism is fundamentally illiberal but there is a lot of self-serving argument over whether it is closer to socialism or conservatism. This is rarely more than an exercise in competitive name-calling and overlooks the way in which ideology overlaps. I personally think that fascism makes use of practices derived from socialism yet has more of a kinship with conservatism (while also noting that the affinity of conservatism for business interests is looser than we tend to think today). That description by itself is hardly the most terrifying thing one could imagine and fascism can be far worse. It takes on a distinct form which is intrinsically destructive to our very humanity.

Realistically classifying fascism can be challenging. How many and which past regimes does one study to formulate selection criteria? Britt refers to several disparate regimes but also admits that most of these are 'proto-fascist'. My own tendency is to focus on the more totalitarian of regimes and this I admit could result in overly strict criteria. I compensate for this however by phrasing my descriptions in terms that are universal. It would be a mistake for instance to look at the Nazi regime of Hitler and then say that fascists must necessarily follow a Nordic brand of racism. Any kind of prejudice will do as long as it is both intrinsic to the fascist ideology and severe in its application.

Texts which help readers to identify fascist trends deserve an even wider and more receptive audience and to do that it is important to clarify that ultimately everyone suffers under fascism. To suggest (for instance) that fascism is merely a more strident form of conservatism will only serve to make semi-educated conservatives think that fascism is okay (while allowing semi-educated progressives to feel heroically anti-fascist). It is better to demonstrate that fascism is anathema to values with which almost all of us identify.

Several of the changes I make to the content of Britt (et al) are worth discussing:

* Nationalism tends to have negative connotations these days and we forgot that it once had a positive connection to the development of liberal values. In many cases the liberation of whole nations resulted in the liberty of individuals too. And we can observe this even today in movements that are more 'regionalist' than 'nationalist'. Calls for provincial autonomy or the recognition of traditional custodians of a land reflect another form that nationalism can take. I therefore felt it was important to stress that what fascism does is to both magnify and distort nationalism for its own ends.

* Religion has widely different relations with fascism depending on circumstance. Many of the most targeted victims of fascism have been religious. Many of its greatest rivals have likewise been religious. It is galling then to suggest an intrinsic connection between fascism and religion. Hence I stress that the relation is a far more opportunist one on the part of fascists (whatever they themselves may believe).

* 'Corporatism' is a confusing term. One could think it refers to the power of profit-seeking business corporations. It is better to think of the familiar 'body corporate' comprising all the residents in a set of apartments. Corporatism is the representation of groups rather than individuals. It usually involves the delegates of distinct and even rival classes. It assumes ones only interests are economic. This differs from parliamentary democracy in which individuals decide how to identify. Some experts consider corporatism to be a key characteristic of fascist regimes but it is worth noting that non-fascist governments experiment with corporatist structures too.

* Enmity for fascists can come from any and all directions. As such they will behave as if they are the enemy of potentially anyone. I have stressed therefore that fascists can attack locals and foreigners, labour and capital, critics and cronies. This makes many of the past targets of the Britt (et al) meme less apt but makes many current populists far more fitting. Consider how Trump opposes both immigration and free trade and how quickly he will attack members of his own party.

* I pepper my text with more of the things that fascists destroy. We should remember what we stand for rather than just focus on everything we oppose. Hence I refer to hard-won values like separation-of-powers, respectful debate, privacy, presumption-of-innocence and compassion.

There are things I omitted from the final form of my text. Many academics refer to how the class most seduced by fascist ideology is the self-employed (as distinct from employers and employees). However, condemning any group as 'fascist' risks helping them identify as such, and part of my intent is to find a more receptive audience, cutting across various divides. One aspect of this topic that stayed in my text was reference to fascist attacks on banks. I recently read some of the works of Hannah Arendt (a German-Jewish philosopher and political historian) who clarified for me that banks have a similarly tense relationship with the self-employed that bosses have with workers. This is partly why they can be a popular target for theorists of international conspiracy.

It is worth saying that one can and should criticize banks for the detrimental impact they sometimes have on ordinary account holders. Likewise it may be okay to coincidentally advocate some of the things fascists happen to promise - things like capital works projects (I for instance am a big fan of the new Melbourne 'Sky Rail'). And finally one can oppose the actions of governments even if one acknowledges that they are non-fascist.

A problem with any list of potentially fascist characteristics is that some or even many of those can be exhibited by non-fascists. Most governments can look fascist at times of war. Likewise historic governments following the trends of past eras can look closer to fascism than we are accustomed to in the post-war era. Lawrence Britt himself says that his ‘basic characteristics are more prevalent and intense in some regimes than in others’ and that proviso can be extended to non-fascist governments.

However all the characteristics described should ring mental warning bells in those observing them. In preparing for this post I looked at a number of other online critiques of Britt (et al) and most made sense. However a few commentators made disturbed statements like 'but everyone has enemies that they should rally to oppose' and if you think that way then you will find it difficult to understand that others feel differently. Hate is a very small part of the emotional composition of well-adjusted humans but fascists keep the company of other fascists and it may well be that hate is the most defining characteristic of a fascist personality.

And just then I added another thing that could be part of a fascism check-list! I prefer the brevity of my description in the Political Objectives Test (and for further discussion click here and scroll down).

However Britt set the format that I decided to mirror and it has been frustrating to do so. The characteristics are repetitious and lacking in flow. I sorted some of that but could only go so far. It was tempting to re-arrange characteristics from most to least defining of fascism. Or possibly to order them from most to least concerning. Or possibly even to distinguish between characteristics of a fascist movement as distinct from those of a fascist regime. It is curious to note the decision to compose fourteen points and I wonder if that was inspired by the markedly better list by Umberto Eco (an Italian writer and critic).

It is important that behaviours associated with fascism are regarded with suspicion and caution even by governments that contemplate some of them to even a small degree. If leaders look on them as last resorts then those leaders can still be negotiated with. It is once they start to admire and celebrate such actions that accusations of fascism become most relevant.

But I think we are missing something in all this talk of potentially fascist regimes or movements. We need to also look at what characteristics of a political environment are conducive to fascist growth. I'm most familiar with the political landscape of the Weimar Republic and one thing that I feel was crucial then was a lack of unity among non-fascists. Parties with an allegiance to parliamentary democracy took it for granted and were overly focused on doctrinal variations and clannish interests.

If the dire circumstances of dictatorship force you to form a 'united front' with one-time political competitors then surely it would be wiser to form such links while you still live in a time of relative freedom. This post may have taken on an alarmist tone but what if depriving fascism of a platform involves all its potential victims recognizing a common ground? I venture that we need to become partisans for non-partisanship but this will be more challenging than simply yelling 'fascist' into the wind.

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