What is fascism and where does it lurk?
I am not sure you’ll find a more perfect (and hilarious) definition of fascism than the one provided by the Online Etymology Dictionary:
It begs the question: if everyone is being called a fascist, then who are the real fascists?
I am no political scientist, so I knew that answering this question would require a bit of research into the history and philosophy of fascism to determine which contemporary ideology is the closest match. The obvious place to start was with the origin of fascism in 1920s Italy, but first let’s trace the philosophy back to its roots.
According to Britannica, fascism originated out of a reaction to the socialist, progressive revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. The fundamental tension between the fascist thinkers of the time and the revolutionaries is expounded here:
Racial Darwinists such as Vogt, Haeckel, Treitschke, Langbehn, Lagarde, and Chamberlain glorified the survival of the fittest, scolded humanitarians for attempting to protect the racially unfit, and rejected the idea of social equality (“Equality is death, hierarchy is life,” wrote Langbehn). Chamberlain saw no reason to give inferior races equal rights. Treitschke raged against democracy, socialism, and feminism (all of which he attributed to Jews), insisted that might made right, and praised warrior imperialism (“Brave peoples expand, cowardly peoples perish”). Lagarde said of the Slavs that “the sooner they perish the better it will be for us and them,” and he called for the extermination of the Jews—a sentiment that was shared by his contemporary Langbehn. As John Weiss remarked of Lagarde and Langbehn, “The two most influential and popular intellectuals of late nineteenth century Germany were indistinguishable from Nazi ideologists.” Weiss also noted that “the press and popular magazines of Germany and Central Europe had fed a steady diet of racial nationalism to the public since the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and anti-Semitic stereotypes were nothing if not commonplace in German mass culture.”
The way racism is baked into fascism becomes clear in this framing — fascists believe that some individuals are made to be leaders while others are made to be ruled, and this distinction follows racial distinctions. In contrast, the revolutionaries of the time believed all men were created equal, and pushed for fundamental individual rights. Regardless of where fascism cropped up, it was always associated with the scapegoating of an identifiable group for economic woes, which subsequently led to growing support for fascist leaders. The cycle goes something like this: monarchy → Socialist revolution → economic downturn → scapegoating → fascism.
Britannica explains this in the context of neofascism which is basically the watered down version of fascism that has persisted since the fall of the Third Reich:
For example, whereas fascists assigned much of the blame for their countries’ economic problems to the machinations of bolsheviks, liberals, and Jews, neofascists tended to focus on non-European immigrants—such as Turks, Pakistanis, and Algerians—who arrived in increasing numbers beginning in the 1970s.
We’ll come back to this idea of a scapegoat. For now, let’s explore what fascism is.
I. The origin of fascism in Italy
Benito Mussolini is often the one credited with popularizing fascism and implementing it at scale, in 1920s Italy. It is important to understand that Mussolini was first and foremost an anti-communist, and it was out of a fear of communism that fascism was adopted. To understand what his fascistic ideology was, one should read his 1932 essay titled The Doctrine of Fascism. I will save you the effort and distill the highlights.
First of all, outside the context of a national political party, fascism sounds a bit culty:
Fascism sees in the world not only those superficial, material aspects in which man appears as an individual, standing by himself, self-centered, subject to natural law, which instinctively urges him toward a life of selfish momentary pleasure; it sees not only the individual but the nation and the country; individuals and generations bound together by a moral law, with common traditions and a mission which suppressing the instinct for life closed in a brief circle of pleasure, builds up a higher life, founded on duty, a life free from the limitations of time and space, in which the individual, by self-sacrifice, the renunciation of self-interest, by death itself, can achieve that purely spiritual existence in which his value as a man consists.
The message here is quite simple: forego your individuality for the good of the collective (in this case a state). When people say that fascism is fundamentally a nationalistic ideology, this is what they mean.
At times it is easy to see how fascism is often viewed as an extension of right-wing conservatism:
Hence also the essential value of work, by which man subjugates nature and creates the human world (economic, political, ethical, and intellectual). […] Therefore life, as conceived of by the Fascist, is serious, austere, and religious; all its manifestations are poised in a world sustained by moral forces and subject to spiritual responsibilities. The Fascist disdains an “easy” life.
At times fascism can’t seem to make up its mind on whether it opposes communism:
Fascism is therefore opposed to all individualistic abstractions based on eighteenth century materialism; and it is opposed to all Jacobinistic utopias and innovations. It does not believe in the possibility of “happiness” on earth as conceived by the economistic literature of the 18th century, and it therefore rejects the theological notion that at some future time the human family will secure a final settlement of all its difficulties.
or fundamentally agrees with it:
Fascism reasserts the rights of the State as expressing the real essence of the individual.
Horseshoe theory anyone? Not so fast.
Mussolini clears this up by clarifying that communism is about flattening differences between man, whereas fascism is ultimately about acknowledging the class distinction inherent to mankind:
Fascism is therefore opposed to Socialism to which unity within the State (which amalgamates classes into a single economic and ethical reality) is unknown, and which sees in history nothing but the class struggle.
His essay goes on to expound on the distinction of fascism from communism (this longer excerpt is very much worth reading carefully):
Fascism believes now and always in sanctity and heroism, that is to say in acts in which no economic motive — remote or immediate — is at work. Having denied historic materialism, which sees in men mere puppets on the surface of history, appearing and disappearing on the crest of the waves while in the depths the real directing forces move and work, Fascism also denies the immutable and irreparable character of the class struggle which is the natural outcome of this economic conception of history; above all it denies that the class struggle is the preponderating agent in social transformations. Having thus struck a blow at socialism in the two main points of its doctrine, all that remains of it is the sentimental aspiration-old as humanity itself-toward social relations in which the sufferings and sorrows of the humbler folk will be alleviated. But here again Fascism rejects the economic interpretation of felicity as something to be secured socialistically, almost automatically, at a given stage of economic evolution when all will be assured a maximum of material comfort. Fascism denies the materialistic conception of happiness as a possibility, and abandons it to the economists of the mid-eighteenth century.
In summary, fascism believes in a fundamental nature of man that is in conflict with his fellow man; a conflict which cannot be ameliorated by material gain or economic stability, but is innate. What is more, the class struggle that communism sought to alleviate is not an economic struggle, but a fundamental struggle of the “sanctity and heroism” of man. Mussolini sought not to eliminate this struggle, but to unify it by directing it at other nation states, rather than placate it through economic equalization as Marx envisioned. In other words, Mussolini thought men would always be unequal, but a populous could be made intrinsically stable by unifying it in conflict with another populous.
One final excerpt to hammer home the point that fascists really like the idea of the nation state:
Therefore the State is not only Authority which governs and confers legal form and spiritual value on individual wills, but it is also Power which makes its will felt and respected beyond its own frontiers, thus affording practical proof of the universal character of the decisions necessary to ensure its development. This implies organization and expansion, potential if not actual. Thus the State equates itself to the will of man, whose development cannot he checked by obstacles and which, by achieving self-expression, demonstrates its infinity.
II. Neofascism and the modern age
Following WW2, fascism fell out of favour very quickly. Fascism has since been synonymized with Nazism, and Nazism gave the world powers so much grief that they would not tolerate anything that smelled anything like it ever again. However, the ideas of fascism did not die out, and in fact fascism need not look anything like Nazism. There is a growing sense that fascism is making a resurgence in some form or another. To understand where fascism might be lurking today, it is important to clarify a few common misconceptions about what fascism isn’t that emerged out of the false equivalency between fascism and Nazism:
Anti-Semitic. The Nazi form of fascism was anti-Semitic, because every fascistic regime needs a scapegoat, and the Nazis viewed the Jews as the cause of economic strife and suffering, and scapegoated them to ostensibly restore economic prosperity in Germany. However, a novel form of fascism could easily emerge with a different scapegoat. A fascist regime will always scapegoat a readily identifiable (usually minority) population as the cause of economic despair — so watch out for that.
Nationalistic. Traditionally, nationalism and fascism go hand-in-hand, but there is no reason these need to be tied together. Particularly in the modern world of technological interconnectedness, it is not inconceivable to imagine a form of fascism emerge that is not associated with a nation. Some other loosely defined, even decentralized organization, could theoretically pursue the very same fascistic ideals that were once only made possible by a nation state.
Racist. This is similar to point (1) but is an extension of it. Most people correctly identify fascism as a historically racist ideology, but it need not be. Historic views on race perceived some races as less suited for governing or leading, and those as the people who needed to be dominated by a ruling class — but this very same dynamic could be mapped onto something other than race. As long as the groups are identifiable, the fascistic ideology can be applied.
With these misconceptions in mind, what criteria would a modern form of fascism likely have? Here is a list I have come up with, that is by no means comprehensive, but should help establish where to look:
Subversion of the individual for the sake of the collective
Opposition to the doctrines of liberalism — freedom of speech, tolerance of others, individual civil rights, openness to new ideas
A promise of rectifying economic injustice
Scapegoating a readily identifiable group as responsible for economic strife
Entitlement to land, resources, wealth, or power at the expense of others
Belief in the use of violence to enforce will on others; rejection of pacifism
The pursuit of power through corporations and the market
Totalitarian — imposes costs of rejecting its ideology on everyone, especially those who are apolitical
All of these criteria are consistent with the tenants of fascism as they were established by Mussolini, Hitler, and the political authors before them. If we, as a society, are to be wary of fascism, then we should be wary of any ideology that possesses these traits. A truly anti-fascist society would be one that supports the individual, fosters liberalism, pursues economic prosperity not equality, foments accountability not scapegoating, is not entitled, is not pro-violence, does not coerce market forces or corporations to adhere to its ideology, and is not totalizing — it leaves others alone. I am afraid that we are far afield from that vision in the west today.
III. Where does fascism lurk?
Technically speaking, fascism is back.
The woke ideology is a fascist movement under the guise of Black Lives Matter, anti-racism, pro-LGBTQ, and even anti-fascism (clever, innit?). Consider how the woke ideology satisfies every criteria:
The identity politics of the woke movement is all about ignoring the principles and traits of individuals with those of the ideology: race and gender identity are used to subvert individualism to foster adherence to the collective ideology (see here, here, here).
The entire woke playbook is predicated on pursuing economic equity — equalizing economic disparities resulting from historic injustice. This is what Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives are all about (examples here, here, here)
This goes hand-in-hand with #3, but it is generally the white people (especially the straight males) who are scapegoated as the cause of the inequality felt by those in the movement (here, here, here).
Again, the entitlement goes hand in hand with items #3 and #4, but it is worth pointing out that it exists. Affirmative action and reparations are both ways to grant something fungible to those who claim to be entitled to it (here, here, here, here).
The violence of ‘Antifa’ and others associated with this movement more broadly has been well documented, despite the mainstream denial of it (examples of both the violence and denial here, here, here, here, here).
This goes hand in hand with item #2, but people who voice even the slightest disagreement with the woke ideology are met with hostility and a relentless attempt to impose costs to deter future dissent (here, here, here, here, here, here).
The truth is, I could have spend much longer looking up and linking examples for each of the 8 criteria listed above, but it is just so easy to do. Not only is this woke movement fascistic in nature, it is obviously so. The woke use a façade and a distraction technique to shroud the movement in ostensible moralistic objectives, such as defeating racism or bigotry towards sexual minorities. In truth, one need not be a bigot to oppose the movement. In fact, one need only be skeptic of fascism to recognize the hazard of the woke ideology.
Whether or not the movement also satisfies many of the criteria of Communism is besides the point and a bit of a non-sequitur. Given the plethora of similarities between the two political ideologies, the question is really about whether a movement that presents itself as anti-fascist can actually be trusted as such. And the answer is a resounding “No!”. The woke ideology shares many traits—too many—with fascism to be regarded as a panopticon of progress, and should instead be regarded as a hazard that portend to repeat the most costly mistakes of the 20th century.
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