Of course, the beauty of blogging (as opposed to a traditional journal) is the remarkable level of input you get back, and the sort of democratic effect of it all. My readers have in many cases helped shape my own thinking, in no small part because I've been blessed with very high-quality correspondents who keep me on my toes. Certainly they've provided me with a wealth of fresh materials in this endeavor -- which is, ultimately, to assess the relevance of fascism to our current conditions.
Among these have been my friend John McKay, whose responding posts at his own blog, archy have been exemplary -- to the point that I mostly can only nod in complete agreement with nearly everything he says.
However, I'm not sure that we can discard the term "fascism", as he suggests, if we want to be accurate about the ongoing phenomenon. Certainly its widespread misuse and abuse has rendered it impotent to a degree; but if we start calling it, accurately, American Fascism, then I think that gets the point across simply and unmistakably.
The chief drawback to this approach is that this kind of catchphrase eventually is going to be flung by people who don't understand fascism. The people making the argument that a real wave of fascism may be about to hit us need to be rational and logical, but I don't think that's going to be possible. Liberals do love to browbeat their opponents with the Nazi label, and these arguments unfortunately may be used as just such a club.
Nonetheless, I think Robert O. Paxton has it right in his essay "The Five Stages of Fascism," which appeared in the March 1998 edition of The Journal of Modern History:
- We cannot give up in the face of these difficulties. A real phenomenon exists. Indeed, fascism is the most original political novelty of the twentieth century, no less. … If we cannot examine fascism synthetically, we risk being unable to understand this century, or the next. We must have a word, and for lack of a better one, we must employ the word that Mussolini borrowed from the vocabulary of the Italian Left in 1919, before his movement had assumed its mature form. Obliged to use the term fascism, we ought to use it well.
This essay by Paxton (who is Mellon Professor of Social Sciences Emeritus at Columbia University), you may recall, was brought to my attention by Christopher Skinner:
- Paxton's approach allows a certain degree of reconciliation among thinkers, particularly between those who see fascism as an ideology and those who see it as a mélange of uneasy alliances. Paxton admits that he was, until very recently, a firm believer in the notion that fascism was not an ideology. But by suggesting a dynamic model that "begins at the beginning," Paxton reminds us that fascism is not unlike an elementary particle to which we must apply Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. The more thoroughly we study a particular fascist movement at a given moment, the less likely we are to be able to judge the arc of its overall progress, and the more we study the ultimate impact of a movement, the less likely we are to examine its particulars. Many historians, for example, who study the "arc" of movements, have treated Nazi Germany as the touchstone for a "true" fascism. All other movements are seen as not fully "worked out," and therefore, not fully fascist.
Readers of the "Rush" series will recall that its exploration of the scholarly treatment of fascism more or less concludes with the views of Roger Griffin, whose insistence that fascism is an ideology is somewhat problematic in that it is a very static analysis, while fascism itself, as Mr. Skinner suggests, has behaved more like a mutagen, shifting shapes constantly while maintaining certain core animating impulses. Paxton's essay, however, comprises an important contribution to the literature, and offers a very useful model for moving beyond the swamp of merely defining fascism toward a practical understanding.
Paxton, as Christopher noted, offers a sort of middle pathway, identifying a central organizing principle -- "each national variant of fascism draws its legitimacy … not from some universal scripture but from what it considers the most authentic elements of its own community identity" -- that is closely akin to Griffin's "palingenetic populist ultranationalism", while at the same time constructing a five-step arc of motion for fascism that recognizes its essentially mutative nature.
Griffin, helpfully, does quote Pierre-André Taguieff: "Neither 'fascism' nor 'racism' will do us the favour of returning in such a way that we can recognise them easily." Paxton agrees:
- … [O]ne can not identify a fascist regime by its plumage. George Orwell understood at once that fascism is not defined by its clothing. If, some day, an authentic fascism were to succeed in England, Orwell wrote as early as 1936, it would be more soberly clad than in Germany. The exotic black shirts of Sir Oswald Mosley are one explanation for the failure of the principal fascist movement in England, the British Union of Fascists. What if they had worn bowler hats and carried well-furled umbrellas. The adolescent skinheads who flaunt the swastika today in parts of Europe seem so alien and marginal that they constitute a law-and-order problem (serious though that may be) rather than a recurrence of authentic mass-based fascism, astutely decked out in the patriotic emblems of their own countries. Focusing on external symbols, which are subject to superficial imitation, adds to confusion about what may legitimately be considered fascist.
…[E]ach national variant of fascism draws its legitimacy, as we shall see, not from some universal scripture but from what it considers the most authentic elements of its own community identity. Religion, for example, would certainly play a much larger role in an authentic fascism in the United States than in the first European fascisms, which were pagan for contingent historical reasons.
… The great "isms" of nineteenth-century Europe -- conservatism, liberalism, socialism -- were associated with notable rule, characterized by deference to educated leaders, learned debates, and (even in some forms of socialism) limited popular authority. Fascism is a political practice appropriate to the mass politics of the twentieth century. Moreover, it bears a different relationship to thought than do the nineteenth-century "isms." Unlike them, fascism does not rest on formal philosophical positions with claims to universal validity. There was no "Fascist Manifesto," no founding fascist thinker. Although one can deduce from fascist language implicit Social Darwinist assumptions about human nature, the need for community and authority in human society, and the destiny of nations in history, fascism does not base its claims to validity on their truth. Fascists despise thought and reason, abandon intellectual positions casually, and cast aside many intellectual fellow-travelers. They subordinate thought and reason not to faith, as did the traditional Right, but to the promptings of the blood and the historic destiny of the group. Their only moral yardstick is the prowess of the race, of the nation, of the community. They claim legitimacy by no universal standard except a Darwinian triumph of the strongest community.
These last two sentences ring a particular bell in the current environment. Nothing could better describe the Bush administration's approach to governance, particularly to waging war, than as one in which "thought and reason are subordinated to faith." And the Bush Doctrine, boiled down, ultimately bases its morality on a belief in the superiority of American values, and argues for waging war essentially as a "triumph of the strongest community."
This is not to argue that the Bush Doctrine is fascist per se -- but rather, that it has enough elements in it to appeal strongly to the right-wing extremists who are increasingly becoming part of the mainstream GOP fold. It plays out in such manifestations as its utter disregard -- indeed, clear contempt -- for the United Nations and multilateralism generally, a stance that resonates deeply with the John Bircher crowd.
Likewise, the Bush administration and its supporters, particularly those in the "transmitter" crowd -- Rush Limbaugh and talk radio, Fox News, the Free Republic -- have begun deploying the very same "mobilizing passions" in recent weeks in countering antiwar protesters that Paxton identifies as comprising the animating forces behind fascism. Again, these kinds of appeal clearly resonate with the proto-fascist Patriot element that have been increasingly finding common cause with the Bush regime.
- … Feelings propel fascism more than thought does. We might call them mobilizing passions, since they function in fascist movements to recruit followers in fascist movements to recruit followers and in fascist regimes to "weld" the fascist "tribe" to its leader. The following mobilizing passions are present in fascisms, though they may sometimes be articulated only implicitly:
- 1. The primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether universal or individual.
2. The belief that one's group is a victim, a sentiment which justifies any action against the group's enemies, internal as well as external.
3. Dread of the group's decadence under the corrosive effect of individualistic and cosmopolitan liberalism.
4. Closer integration of the community within a brotherhood (fascio) whose unity and purity are forged by common conviction, if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary.
5. An enhanced sense of identity and belonging, in which the grandeur of the group reinforces individual self-esteem.
6. Authority of natural leaders (always male) throughout society, culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group's destiny.
7. The beauty of violence and of will, when they are devoted to the group's success in a Darwinian struggle.
- 1. The primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether universal or individual.
Going through this list, it is fairly easy to identify these "passions" at play particularly in the debate over the Iraq war and the growing attacks on dissenters.
- 1. See, again, the Bush Doctrine. An extension of this sentiment is at play among those jingoes who argue that Americans may need to sacrifice some of their civil rights -- say, free speech -- during wartime.
2. This meme is clearly present in all the appeals to the victims of Sept. 11 as justifications for the war. It is present at nearly all levels of the debate: from the White House, from the media, even from the jingoist entertainment industry (see, e.g., the lyric of Darryl Worley's extraordinarily popular country-western hit, "Have You Forgotten?": "Some say this country's just out looking for a fight / Well after 9/11 man I'd have to say that's right.").
3. This meme has been stock in trade of the talk-radio crowd since at least 1994 -- at one time it focused primarily on the person of Bill Clinton -- and has reached ferocious levels during the runup to the war and after it, during which antiwar leftists have regularly and remorselessly been accused of treason.
4 and 5 are, of course, among the primary purposes of the campaign to demonize liberals -- to simultaneously build a cohesive brotherhood of like-minded "conservatives" who might not agree on the details but are united in their loathing of all things liberal. It plays out in such localized manifestations as the KVI Radio 570th On-Air Cavalry, which has made a habit of deliberately invading antiwar protests with the express purpose of disrupting them and breaking them up. Sometimes, as they did recently in Bellingham, this is done with caravans of big trucks blaring their horns; and they are also accompanied by threatening rhetoric and acts of physical intimidation. They haven't yet bonded in violence, but they are rapidly headed in that direction.
6. Needs hardly any further explanation, except to note that George W. Bush is actually surprisingly uncharismatic for someone who inspires as much rabid loyalty as he does. But then, that is part of the purpose of Bush's PR campaign stressing that he receives "divine guidance" -- it assures in his supporters' mind the notion that he is carrying out God's destiny for the nation, and for the conservative movement in particular.
7. One again needs only turn to the voluminous jingoes of Fox News or the jubilant warbloggers to find abundant examples of celebrations of the virtues -- many of them evidently aesthetic -- of the just-completed war.
Again, the purpose of the above exercise is not to demonstrate that mainstream conservatism is necessarily becoming fascist (though that is a possibility), but rather to demonstrate how it is becoming hospitable to fascist motifs, especially as it resorts to strong-arm tactics from its footsoldiers to intimidate the political opposition. This underscores the real danger, which is the increasing empowerment of the extremist bloc, particularly as it blends into the mainstream GOP. The increasing nastiness of the debate over Bush's war-making program seems to be fertile territory for this trend.
More than anything, though, I think the exercise underscores just to what extent fascism itself is comprised of things that are very familiar to us, and in themselves seem relatively innocuous, perhaps even benign. More to the point, this very familiarity is what makes it possible. When they coalesce in such a crucible as wartime or a civil crisis, they become something beyond that simple reckoning.
Can fascism still happen in America? Paxton leaves little doubt that the answer to this must be affirmative:
- … Fascism can appear wherever democracy is sufficiently implanted to have aroused disillusion. That suggests its spatial and temporal limits: no authentic fascism before the emergence of a massively enfranchised and politically active citizenry. In order to give birth to fascism, a society must have known political liberty -- for better or for worse.
Indeed, Paxton identifies perhaps the origins of fascism in America:
- … [I]t is further back in American history that one comes upon the earliest phenomenon that seems functionally related to fascism: the Ku Klux Klan. Just after the Civil War, some Confederate officers, fearing the vote given to African Americans by the Radical Reconstructionists in 1867, set up a militia to restore an overturned social order. The Klan constituted an alternate civic authority, parallel to the legal state, which, in its founders' eyes, no longer defended their community's legitimate interests. In its adoption of a uniform (white robe and hood), as well as its techniques of intimidation and its conviction that violence was justified in the cause of the group's destiny, the first version of the Klan in the defeated American South was a remarkable preview of the way fascist movements were to function in interwar Europe.
I agree strongly with this. Adolph Hitler reportedly was a great admirer of the Ku Klux Klan, particularly its post-1915 edition, which was obviously modeled on the original as well, in its treatment of the races and glorification of the white race. Indeed, Hitler would mock American critics of his program against the Jews by pointing to this nation's own history of lynching and Klan activities.
The latter Klan was even more pronouncedly fascist in its character than the original, particularly in its claim to represent the true national character: "100 percent Americanism" was the organization's chief catchphrase. Its origins -- its first members were the mob that lynched Leo Frank -- were openly violent. Though this manifestation of the Klan -- which spread to every state, counted membership of up to 4 million, and elected seven governors, three U.S. senators, half the 1924 Indiana state legislature, and at one point controlled the political levers in Oregon as well -- petered out by the early 1930s, its spirit remained alive in such clearly proto-fascist organizations of the 1930s as the Silver Shirts of William Dudley Pelley.
It is this lineage, in fact, that helps us identify the Patriot/militia movement as proto-fascist in nature. Much of the political agenda, as well as the legal/political theories, espoused by the Patriots actually originated with the far-right Posse Comitatus, whose own originators themselves were former participants in both the 1920s Klan and Pelley's Silver Shirts. (The definitive text on this is Daniel Levitas' excellent The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right.)
It is worth remembering that before World War II, there were in fact active fascists openly at work in America, and they were not all German-American Bund members. Indeed, what's striking about groups like the Silver Shirts is just how ordinary-American their character seemed. (The similarities to the Patriot movement of the 1990s is also striking.) Pelley himself was a bit of an eccentric and slightly loopy, but the rank and file of his followers were often the same "100 percent Americanists" who had filled the ranks of the Klan a decade previously.
But fascism has always previously failed in America, and Paxton's analysis points with some precision to exactly why. Much of this has to do with the fact that fascism is an essentially mutative impulse for the acquisition of power -- it abandons positions as fresh opportunities for power present themselves. This is particularly true as it moves from its ideological roots into the halls of government. In the end, the resulting political power is often, as Griffin puts it, a "travesty" of its original ideology. Paxton describes it thus:
- In power, what seems to count is less the faithful application of the party's initial ideology than the integrating function that espousing one official ideology performs, to the exclusion of any ideas deemed alien or divisive.
Paxton identifies five stages in fascism's arc of flight:
1. The initial creation of fascist movements
2. Their rooting as parties in a political system
3. The acquisition of power
4. The exercise of power
5. Radicalization or entropy
In the United States, as in France and elsewhere, fascism typically failed in the second stage, because it failed to become a cohesibve political entity, one capable of acquiring power (though as I just noted, there was even some danger of this in the 1920s as the Klan in fact obtained some short-lived political power):
- The second stage -- rooting, in which a fascist movement becomes a party capable of acting decisively on the political scene -- happens relatively rarely. At this stage, comparison becomes rewarding: one can contrast successes with failures. Success depends on certain relatively precise conditions: the weakness of the liberal state, whose inadequacies seem to condemn the nation to disorder, decline, or humiliation; and political deadlock because the Right, the heir to power but unable to continue to wield it alone, refuses to accept a growing Left as a legitimate governing partner. Some fascist leaders, in their turn, are willing to reposition their movements in alliances with these frightened conservatives, a step that pays handsomely in political power, at the cost of disaffection among some of the early antibourgeois militants.
In the 1930s, the ascendant liberalism of FDR effectively squeezed the life out of the nascent fascist elements in the U.S. This was particularly true because FDR openly shared power with the Right, appointing noted Republicans to his Cabinet and maintaining a firm coalition with arch-conservative Southern Democrats. The mainstream right thus had no incentive to form a power-sharing coalition with fascism. At the same time, liberalism gained a significant power base in rural America through the many programs of the New Deal aimed at bolstering the agricultural sector. This too may have been a critical factor in fascism's failure.
Significantly, Paxton points out that fascism in Europe took root in a neglected agricultural sector -- something that did not happen in the United States in the 1930s. Indeed, it gained its second-stage power in the crucible of organized thuggery against liberals:
- …[I]t was in the countryside that German Nazism and Italian Fascism first succeeded in becoming the representatives of an important social and economic interest. The comparison between the success of rural fascism in German and Italy and its relative failure in France seems to me a fruitful one.
… All three of these countries experience massive strikes of agricultural workers: east-Elbian Germany during the postwar crisis in 1919-23; the Po Valley and Apulia in Italy in 1920-21; and the big farms of northern France and the Paris Basin during the two summers of the Popular Front; in 1936 and 1937. The German strikes were broken by vigilantes, armed and abetted by the local army authorities, in cases in which the regular authorities were too conciliatory to suit the landowners. The Italian ones were broken by Mussolini's famous blackshirted squadristi, whose vigilantism filled the void left by the apparent inability of the liberal Italian state to enforce order. It was precisely in this direct action against farm-worker unions that second-stage fascism was born in Italy, and even launched on the path to power, to the dismay of the first Fascists, intellectual dissidents from national syndicalism.
Paxton compares this to France, where fascism likewise failed:
- … It was the gendarmerie, even with Leon Blum in power, who put down the agricultural strikes in France. The French landowners did not need the chemises vertes. The authority of the state and the power of the conservative farmers' organizations left hardly any space in the French countryside for the rooting of fascist power.
Fascism as a political force suffered from the same sort of bad timing in the United States when it arose in the 1920s -- conservatives were in power and had no need of an alliance with fascism, and there was no great social crisis. When one arose in the 1930s, the ascendance of power-sharing liberalism that was as popular in rural areas as in urban, again left fascism little breathing room.
And in the 1990s, when proto-fascism re-emerged as popular movement in the form of the Patriots, conservatives once again enjoyed a considerable power base, having control of the Congress, and little incentive to share power. Moreover, the economy was booming -- except in rural America.
Unsurprisingly, that is where the Patriots built their popular base. And importantly, much of that base-building revolved around a motif that created a significant area of common interest with mainstream conservatives: hatred of Bill Clinton.
To right-wing extremists, Clinton embodied the totalitarian threat of the New World Order, a slimy leader in the conspiracy to enslave all mankind. To conservatives, he was simply an unanswerable political threat for whom no level of invective could be too vicious. Moreover, he was the last barrier to their complete control of every branch of the federal government. These interests coalesced as the far right became an echo chamber for attacks on Clinton that would then migrate into the mainstream, ultimately reaching their apex in Clinton's impeachment.
Possibly this commingling had a moderating effect on the extremists. But it was mainstream conservatism that underwent the most dramatic change in this cauldron: It seemed to increasingly view the Left as an unacceptable governing partner. Following the hectoring lead of Rush Limbaugh, it has become increasingly common for conservatives to openly reject any hint of liberalism, and to demonize liberals as a caustic and ultimately unacceptable force in society.
When Bill Clinton's presidency ended, these attacks stepped up another notch. First there was the ludicrous caricaturization of Al Gore during the 2000 election. Importantly, it was in this election that large numbers of former Patriots -- many of them disillusioned with the movement after the failure of the "Y2K scare" to materialize, but still maintaining their attitudes about government, liberalism and conspiracies, and disenfranchised by Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign -- turned to the politics of the Bush team, which made all the right gestures to make them feel welcome.
Thus, even though the Patriot movement never even came close to achieving any kind of actual power -- outside of a handful of legislators in a smattering of Western states -- the absorption of its followers into mainstream conservatism successfully brought a wide range of extremists together under the banner of Republican politics, embodied in the defense of the agenda of President Bush and in the hatred of all forms of liberalism.
Then, after Sept. 11, the attacks on liberalism became enmeshed with a virulent strain of jingoism that at first blamed liberals for the attacks, then accused them of treasonous behavior for questioning Bush's war plans. Now we're seeing a broad-based campaign of hatred against liberals -- particularly antiwar dissenters -- that serves two purposes: it commingles mainstream pro-Bush forces in direct contact, and open alliance with, a number of people with extremist beliefs; and it gives the extremist element of Patriot footsoldiers who turned Republican in 2000 an increasingly important role in the mainstream party. Namely, they are increasingly starting to look like the "enforcers" of the Bush agenda, intimidating and silencing any opposition. In the process, this element gains power and influence far beyond what it could have had as a separate proto-fascist element.
In a sense, this turns the scheme of Paxton's second stage of fascism on its head. That is, the proto-fascists of the Patriot movement, rather than obtaining power by the ascension of their own political faction in an alliance with conservatives, obtain power through absorption, from within conservatism. Forming alliances first in hatred of Clinton and Gore, and then in defense of Bush's war, the conservative movement has, perhaps unthinkingly, allowed itself to be transformed from within.
It's difficult to say whether this absorption has mitigated the extremist impulses of the former Patriot footsoldiers, though it probably has. Certainly it has had the predictable effect of making a travesty of the Patriots' original ideology: those who once were rabid anti-government activists have become equally rabid defenders of the government of the Bush regime.
More important is the effect that the absorption has had on the larger Republican Party. Just as the Southern Strategy changed the very nature of the GOP from within, so has this more recent absorption of an extremist element transformed its basic nature. Now, positions that at one time would have been considered unthinkable for Republicans -- unilateralist foreign policy, contempt for the United Nations and international law, a willingness to use war as a first resort, a visceral hatred of even the hint of liberalism -- are positions it touts prominently.
Now its agenda aligns with the base impulses Paxton identifies as fascist, and which drove the Patriot movement: national identity uber alles; a claim of victimization; hatred of liberalism; reigniting a sense of national destiny and a closely bonded community; an appreciation of the value of violence; and of course, all of this uniting under the divinely inspired banner of George W. Bush, the Frat Boy of Destiny.
I've said it previously, and I'll say it again: These are dangerous times.
The more conservatives bond with their proto-fascist element; the more they attack liberals and escalate the violence against antiwar protesters; and the more that corporations like Clear Channel with ties to the Bush administration, and the White House itself, encourages this kind of activity, then the greater the danger becomes.
In reviewing the text I've written so far for "Rush," it's become clear that there are a couple of areas I still need to address in detail. Two of them are contained in the paragraph from Paxton I bold-faced above: the claim to representing the genuine community values that is becoming central to the Right's attacks on liberalism; and the central role of fundamentalist Christianity in any genuine American fascism. Third, I'm also planning to write a more detailed exegesis on Newspeak and its role in the ongoing scene.
These should appear sporadically over the next couple of weeks. Then, when they're done, I'll try to cobble all the text together into a cohesive whole, zip it into a PDF file, and then make it available for easy downloading.
In the meantime, blogging may continue to be sporadic at best. I'm taking a vacation later this week and will only have occasional Web access. But I'll do my best to keep my ear to the ground, and post important material as it comes along.
P.S. For handy reference, here are the links to the Rush series:
[Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 and Postscript.]