‘Fascist’ is a term I used to think that I used too often. Now I am not sure. I fear that fascism may be in the air again.
Jason Stanley is a professor of philosophy at Yale. He has written a book called How Fascism Works, The Politics of Us and Them (Random House, 2018). At first I wondered if this was just another product of North American academe that gorges itself on –isms and other abstractions. But I find that the author has the sense and discipline to make his point and move on. That is the calling card of an advocate.
Professor Stanley’s catalogue of the hallmarks of fascism is very unsettling because so many appear of them to be surfacing now all around us. Before I list those hallmarks, and in his order, I may set out a definition of the word that I wrote elsewhere some years ago now. (Curiously, I am not sure that this book may not offer a definition of ‘fascism’ – that might be said to be the purpose of the whole book.)
What do I mean by ‘fascism’? I mean a commitment to the strongest kind of government of a people along overtly militarist and nationalist lines; a government that puts itself above the interests of any or indeed all of its members; a commitment that is driven by faith rather than logic; with an aversion to or hatred of equality, minorities, strangers, women and other deviants; a contempt for liberalism or even mercy; and a government that is prone to symbolism in weapons, uniforms, or its own charms or runes, and to a belief in a charismatic leader.
The word came originally from the Latin word fasces, the bundle of rods and axe carried before Roman consuls as emblems of authority, and was first applied to the followers of the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, Il Duce, and then to the followers of Il Caudillo, Generalissimo Franco, and the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler. Fascists are thick-skinned, thick-headed, and brutal. They despise intellectuals – who are after all deviants – but they may have an untutored and irrational rat cunning.
As Professor Simon Blackburn of Cambridge University tersely remarks: ‘The whole cocktail is animated by a belief in regeneration through energy and struggle’ (kampf). To an outsider, it looks like pure moonshine that is the first refuge of a ratbag and a bully, a brilliant and seductive toy for the intellectually and morally deprived, and an eternal warning of the danger of patriotism to people of good sense and good will. But while that ‘cocktail’ may look la bit much for Plato, it looks fair for Sparta.
Now, here are the headings of Professor Stanley.
The mythic past
We know this well – the intentionally mythical past. The nostalgia harnesses emotion to the main tenets of the fascist creed – authoritarianism, hierarchy, purity and struggle. ‘The strategic aim of these hierarchal constructions of history is to displace truth, and the invention of a glorious past includes the erasure of inconvenient realities.’ And sorry, boys, but the leader is like the father in the old patriarchal family. That comes with the package when you go backwards. And nations make odd laws to protect the myth – like the ban on ‘insulting Turkishness’ in Turkey or royalty in Thailand. And then there is America’s fetish about its bloody flag. Who wants to die for a bit of cloth?
‘Fascist movements have been ‘draining swamps’ for generations’. The propaganda puts up a balloon of purity that can only be sullied by outsiders – like migrants, Muslims, or queers.
To many white Americans, President Obama must have been corrupt, because his very occupation of the White House was a kind of corruption of the traditional order. When women attain positions of political power usually reserved for men – or when Muslims, blacks, Jews, homosexuals, or ‘cosmopolitans’ profit or even share the public goods of democracy, such as healthcare – that is perceived as corruption.
That is in my view fundamental.
Anti – intellectual
Education, expertise and language are devalued to make intelligent debate impossible. At the same time, they say that culture and truth are to be found only in the West. Rejecting expertise makes sophisticated debate impossible. Indeed, ‘sophistication’ like ‘restraint’ or ‘moderation’ is the opposite of fascism. It is as if they were born in fear of what Keats called ‘negative capability’ – the capacity to discern and assess conflicting ideas without getting snaky.
In fascist politics, universities are debased in public discourse, and academics are undermined as legitimate sources of knowledge and expertise, represented as radical ‘Marxists’ or ‘feminists’ spreading a leftish ideological agenda under the guise of research. By debasing institutions of higher learning and impoverishing our joint vocabulary, fascist politics reduces debate to ideological conflict.
You can get as much of all that as you want in The Spectator and other like publications in Australia.
Reality is replaced by the pronouncements of one man. (It is I think always a bloke.) ‘A fascist leader can replace truth with power, ultimately lying without consequence.’ And you get a nauseating deluge of conspiracy theories that are designed to abolish reality. ‘The function of conspiracy theories is to impugn and malign their targets, but not necessarily convincing their audience that they are true.’ These theories, if that is the term, set aside reality and the basis of sensible discussion. People look for tribal identification and entertainment. ‘When news becomes sports, the strongman achieves a certain measure of popularity.’
The author here looks at inequality – ‘dramatic inequality poses a mortal danger to the shared reality required for a healthy liberal democracy.’ This is important. Inequality undermines an implied basis of fairness or reasonableness in our community. ‘Those who benefit from large inequalities are inclined to believe that they have earned their privilege, a delusion that prevents them from seeing reality as it is.’ And: ‘Equality, according to the fascist, is the Trojan horse of liberalism.’
People who feel inadequate need others to grade their place on the ladder. They need to ‘belong.’ Like boy scouts, girl guides, or the inmates of our prisons –or members of parliament or the judiciary. The risk is that you do not just get class – you get the curse of caste. People in the American South espoused the ‘great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.’
The notion of ‘original sin’ is in my view abhorrent, and an insult to our humanity. But If I had to nominate our original sin, it would be caste. And on a bleak winter day, I might see it starting in Genesis rather more clearly than I can see Eve take the apple. At least we know that that could not have happened.
Fascism clearly thrives on perceived threats of loss of status or reduction of felt worth. Like most of these markers, it is a balm for insecurity – or one who felt as rejected unfairly as Adolf Hitler. You just need to look at how the scum, like Marat, came to the surface during the French revolution. They still seek in vain for a hero.
Science teaches us that increased representation of minorities is seen by those in the dominant majority as threatening. (During the French revolution, those at the bottom were the most lethal – because they felt the most threatened.) According to the professor, 45% of supporters of Trump believe that whites are discriminated against and 54% believe that Christians are the most persecuted religion – in America. And as our author remarks: ‘Rectifying unjust inequalities will always bring pain to those who benefited from such injustices. The pain will inevitably be experienced by some as oppression.’ That is very astute. We saw precisely that here after Mabo. Our squatters felt as jilted as the French nobles did after 1789.
Nationalism is at the core of fascism. The fascist leader enjoys a sense of collective victimhood to create a sense of group identity that is by its nature opposed to the cosmopolitan ethos and individualism of liberal democracy.
And yet our front lines in the culture wars don’t know how close to home is their bogey of ‘identity politics.’
Law and order
Well, this has been around at least since Pisistratus seized power in Athens about 2,500 years ago on the footing that the state was in danger. Nixon, for one, made an art form of it. It is now getting another airing there.
When traditional male roles are threatened by economics or migration, a kind of sexual anxiety may arise. If you subscribe to the role of the traditional patriarchal family, then you might panic when threatened by people of a different sexuality. Some of the conspiracy theories are sickeningly mad. Hitler thought that Jews were behind a conspiracy to use black soldiers to rape pure Aryan women as a means to destroy ‘the white race.’ A fear of rape by blacks underlay many lynchings. If Freud had not been born, we would have had to invent him.
It is not hard to see how men can feel threatened. ‘When equality is granted to women, the role of men as sole providers for their families is threatened.’
Sodom and Gomorrah
Part of the myth of the past is the celebration of country over town. Hitler loathed Vienna because it had rejected him, and he was disgusted by its cosmopolitanism – its mixture of different racial and cultural groups. Tolerance of diversity – tolerance itself – is alien to fascism. And the city is the home of the loathed ‘elites’, financial or otherwise. People who glorify this rural idyll have not often been blasted by bush fire or mortally threatened by drought. But these people rest on illusion, or delusion, rather than reality.
Arbeit macht frei
That is a label from hell, but fascism espies laziness in its enemies – such as Jews or people of colour.
Why do Americans resist what the rest of the western world embraces as the basic requirements of the welfare state? It is as well to remember that when Churchill and Lloyd George started Britain on that path with the People’s Budget, they were doing so in part in response to the huge reforms that Bismarck put in place in Germany more than twenty years before. Yet in the year 2020, a People’s Budget is still anathema in the United States.
Most often American opposition to welfare is represented as a manifestation of a commitment to individualism….And yet a dominant theme emerging from research on white Americans’ attitude is that the single largest predictor of white Americans’ attitude toward programs described as ‘welfare’ is their attitude toward the judgment that black people are lazy.
If that is right, the lagging of the United States behind Germany in 1890 is another by product of the Original Sin of slavery. The curse that Lincoln descried in his second inaugural still blights the Union.
Here the author quotes Hannah Arendt: ‘It was always a too little noted hallmark of fascist propaganda that it was not satisfied with lying, but deliberately proposed to transform its lies into reality.’ Or, as Professor Stanley remarks: ‘The ‘hard work’ versus ‘laziness’ dichotomy is, like the ‘law-abiding’ versus ‘criminal’, at the heart of the fascist division between ‘us’ and ‘them’.’ And an influx of refugees might represent the ultimate threat.
And labour unions are also evil.
Labor unions create mutual bonds along lines of class rather than those of race and religion. That is the fundamental reason why labor unions are such a target in fascist ideology.
It is curious how much all kinds of regimes have been scared by associations, expressions of community. The French moved against such associations when celebrating all that they had undone during their revolution. Generosity so quickly turns to selfishness.
The disabled were of course seen as lacking in value – because value for fascists lies in a person’s contribution to society through work. And in my view, we are seeing a very ugly echo of that thought in this pandemic, when some hard heads suggest, some more openly than others, that the welfare of the old and useless is expendable in aligning the economy to supply work to those who can work. Is that not just eugenics by another name? (Disclosure: My disabilities are such that I would be discarded in the first batch. ‘Straight to the morgue, Driver. Forget the hospital.’)
Well, there is Professor Stanley’s list of ten indicia of fascism. On the last page, he concludes his book this way:
In the direct targets of fascist politics – refugees, feminism, labor unions, racial, religious, and sexual minorities – we can see the methods used to divide us. But we must never forget that the chief target of fascist politics is its intended audience, those it seeks to ensnare in its illusory grip, to enrol in a state where everyone deemed ‘worthy’ of human status is increasingly subjugated by mass delusion. Those not included in that audience and status wait in the camps of the world, straw men and women ready to be cast into the roles of rapists, murderers, terrorists. By refusing to be bewitched by fascist myths, we remain free to engage one another, all of us flawed, all of us partial in our thinking, experience, and understanding, but none of us demons.
At times I wondered whether this book was just another excursus on labels, but I think not. Let us put to one side the word ‘fascist’. One sort of person now threatens our peace and wellbeing. That is the person who thrives on our division and conflict, and who cares not for tolerance or restraint. In my view Professor Stanley has done us a very good turn by arming us to see and meet our enemy. This is a very important book, even if it says nothing new. Placement is all.
Finally, to illustrate his theme, throughout the book Professor Stanley refers us to regimes that we least admire – like Hungary, Poland, Myanmar, Turkey and Russia. Does anyone else come to mind? Someone who might, perhaps, score a perfect ten on every dive?