‘Fascist’ is a term that is widely abused. But current events suggest that it might come back into vogue – and I am not speaking of Croatian supporters at a soccer match giving the Nazi salute.
In a book of history, I sought to define ‘fascism’ as follows.
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 Fϋhrer, 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 a bit much for Plato, it looks fair for Sparta.
We can I think test the meaning of the term by comparing the attributes of the fascist regimes of last century with the behaviour of one large current regime that poses a threat to the peace of the world.
- The nation has a history that is at best beset – indifferent, incoherent, or merely recent – but which its people wish to glorify, so that they feel better. And they do so, even though the nation has rarely if ever been decently governed – compared to those in Europe and the U S – what is called the western world.
- The regime has a leader who has no obvious qualification or character, except a capacity to work the system to help his people justify themselves and the nation.
- The leader has got where he is by foul means, but he becomes a cult figure. He does so by combining bread and circuses, and fancy uniforms and even fancier fables about the past, with brute force. People are either charmed, or beaten into submission. Dissent is stifled, and its proponents are eliminated – if necessary, with extreme prejudice.
- It is an essential part of this process that the better people of the nation, or those who should know better, are bought off. The leader does this by persuading them that the price of getting their hands dirty, or just looking away, is worth paying. He is able to do this because the nation has not built up a reserve of character that is capable of arresting this decline. The nation just does not have enough in its history to resist. And the people are deluded into thinking that they retain the power to stop and get rid of their leader.
- And all of the time, the position of the people is weakening because they have been complicit in the working of the bad side of the regime and cannot banish their shame. They know, without acknowledging it, that they must bear the stains of their state. They are prisoners of their own default.
- The leader encourages a mystical view of a glorious past that is almost wholly imaginary. He knows that his core support comes from people who fear uncertainty or doubt and who want simple answers. He knows these people are credulous – and is prone to boast about his power over them.
- Since the history of the nation is recently invented, it is not hard to say that any troubles that the nation faces come from forces of darkness that it is the imperative duty of the leader to eliminate – or, if you prefer, liquidate. And each regime has a long and bad history in condemning scapegoats.
- These forces of darkness that are the enemies of the state are easy to identify, and the nation has been let down, if not betrayed, by previous regimes who failed to deal with them adequately. This was very bad because those failed office holders are now seen as inferior as the people that they allowed to infect the nation.
- The leader preaches that the wrongs done to their nation in the past give him and his people imperative moral rights to seek living space elsewhere (one to its right and one to its left – for which it has very bad form).
- There is no rational basis for dissent or even debate on these questions since they fall to be resolved by the inexorable logic of those who have the answer. Those who cannot see the truth are not just wrong – they are deprived, or deficient.
- Because the nation has little or no settled history of responsible government, or the rule of law, and is led by someone beyond the power of the people to contain, and that person is in power for himself, the regime is a nightmare that moves from one conflict and crisis to the next – until it finally explodes with hideous consequences. Each such regime must end in its own collapse, for the same reason that Ponzi schemes must eventually implode.
- Against all that, it is not surprising that the regime commits crimes against humanity. At bottom, it relies on brute force and it is a police state. That is, the state is run by the leader and his police, who are not subject to any legal restraint.
- These crimes are committed not just against people in the lands it invades, but against its own people. It is fundamental to these regimes that the individual has to give way to the state and may be called on to suffer for the state. (That is their version of original sin.)
- The most notorious regime last century experienced a collapse made more hideous by the treacherous dementia of its leader. It was left a shattered shell, morally and physically. It is now a prime source of stability and decency in the world. This in large part because it had a prior record of contributing to western civilisation that is almost unmatched.
- That is not so with the current regime. It has never been decently governed. The epithet ‘civilised’ has only ever been applied to it because of the remarkable output of a few artists of genius – who could survive despite the regime. That nation is now so far apart in time and space that it is hard to see a decent future for it.
- Each regime has come to terms with religious leaders – which reflect ill on their faith. The church in the current regime is notorious for collaborating with despots. Art is alien, and each regime, following the example of Sparta, is viciously corrupt. Each regime is a soulless wasteland.
- Each leader is in truth a viscerally nasty little runt.
The discussion shows the need to be careful about which nations we may be content to describe as ‘civilised.’ In the same book I referred to above, I said:
In my view a nation or people cannot call itself civilised unless each of the following five criteria is met.
- It has a moral code that respects the person and the dignity and the right to property of each person in the group.
- It has a mature and stable form of democratic government that is willing and reasonably able enforce that respect and those rights, and to preserve its own democratic structure. (I have opted for democracy because it seems to be the fairest mode of government and to be the best able to deliver the other objectives.)
- It observes the rule of law …and it seeks to protect the legal rights of its members.
- Its working is not clogged or threatened by corruption.
- It seeks to allow its members to be able to subsist and, after providing for their subsistence, to have sufficient leisure to pursue happiness or improvement in such ways as they may choose, provided that they do not harm others.
Put differently, a group of people may be said to be ‘civilised’ to the extent that its members are ‘civil’ to others.
In that light, each regime referred to above was or is in a nation that in its present state was or is not civilised. That is not surprising. What may be of concern is the extent to which we can see any of the above symptoms in France under Napoleon, England under Boris Johnson, or the United States under Trump.
The categories of political failure are not closed.
Fascism – Hitler and Putin – Trump – rule of law – civilisation.