Thursday, January 30, 2003

Rush, Newspeak and fascism: III

One of the problems with the easy bandying of the term "fascist" nowadays is that, by being loosely attached to figures who are only conservative -- including people like Rush Limbaugh and George W. Bush -- it obscures the actual mechanism by which genuine fascism manifests itself. It also lends itself to hysteria when what's really needed right now is cool-headedness and focus.

Let’s take a hard look today at the actual nature of fascism, by way of understanding not just who really fits the description in today's world, but how much danger to the nation in the post-9/11 environment they actually represent.

First, a definition -- which, as I mentioned, is much easier in the case of communism than it is for fascism. Indeed, as my friend John McKay points out, the work of defining fascism has spun its own cottage industry of competing models.

The first attempts to study fascism were mostly from a Marxist point of view, which predictably explained it primarily as a reaction against the “communist revolution.” In many ways, that’s what it was -- though of course, it was also a great deal more. Many of these early studies, not surprisingly, reduced fascism to an aggressive form of capitalism. In the years after World War II, when fascism had largely been eradicated as a form of governance, studies of it expanded the definition considerably and created a far more realistic, nuanced and accurate understanding of it.

The bulk of these studies essentially defined it descriptively -- that is, as a series of various traits that were found to be pervasive to fascist systems. (This was the approach Umberto Eco attempted in the essay I linked to earlier.) The best-known example of this approach is Stanley Payne’s work, which offers a “typological definition” of fascism:

A. The Fascist Negations:
-- Antiliberalism
-- Anticommunism
-- Anticonservatism (though with the understanding that fascist groups were willing to undertake temporary alliances with groups from any other sector, most commonly with the right)

B. Ideology and Goals:
-- Creation of a new nationalist authoritarian state based not merely on traditional principles or models
-- Organization of some new kind of regulated, multiclass, integrated national economic structure, whether called national corporatist, national socialist, or national syndicalist
-- The goal of empire or a radical change in the nation’s relationship with other powers
-- Specific espousal of an idealist, voluntarist creed, normally involving the attempt to realize a new form of modern, self-determined, secular culture

C. Style and Organization:
-- Emphasis on esthetic structure of meetings, symbols, and political choreography, stressing romantic and mystical aspects
-- Attempted mass mobilization with militarization of political relationships and style and with the goal of a mass party militia
-- Positive evaluation and use of, or willingness to use, violence
-- Extreme stress on the masculine principle and male dominance, while espousing the organic view of society
-- Exaltation of youth above other phases of life, emphasizing the conflict of generations, at least in effecting the initial political transformation
-- Specific tendency toward an authoritarian, charismatic, personal style of command, whether or not the command is to some degree initially elective

Payne’s approach is useful, in the same way that Eco’s is -- it contains important descriptive information that helps us get a sense of the multifaceted phenomenon that fascism in fact is. (Payne’s typology is also a good deal more systematic and logically coherent than Eco’s.) But these approaches share a similar flaw -- that is, a number of the traits described in these systems also can clearly describe not only communism, which is by its nature apposite to fascism, as well as other political ideologies. In that sense, it’s clear these traits tend to be endemic to totalitarianism broadly -- they’re going to be woven into what is fascist, but they won’t be unique to it.

Much wrangling has ensued (Payne’s Fascism: Comparison and Definition was published in 1980). The long and short of it is that the consensus (and debate) since the early 1990s has tended to revolve around the work of Oxford poli-sci professor Roger Griffin.

Griffin has essentially managed to boil fascism down to a basic core he calls palingenetic ultranationalist populism. (Palingenesis is the concept of mythic rebirth from the ashes, embodied by the Phoenix.) One of Griffin’s essays on fascism opens with this useful definition:

Fascism: modern political ideology that seeks to regenerate the social, economic, and cultural life of a country by basing it on a heightened sense of national belonging or ethnic identity. Fascism rejects liberal ideas such as freedom and individual rights, and often presses for the destruction of elections, legislatures, and other elements of democracy. Despite the idealistic goals of fascism, attempts to build fascist societies have led to wars and persecutions that caused millions of deaths. As a result, fascism is strongly associated with right-wing fanaticism, racism, totalitarianism, and violence.

In general, I’ve found all these studies, while often competing in nature, to be useful each unto themselves. (Another text I’ve obtained, an English translation of Harald Ofstad’s Our Contempt for Weakness: Nazi Norms and Values -- and Our Own, which is not generally available, has also proved very insightful and helpful, but it’s hard to recommend since few readers can get it.)

It’s clear that Griffin’s work gives the most concrete handle on fascism as a phenomenon, while the other systems offer useful descriptive traits that clearly complement Griffin’s central concept. Most of all, the tripartite components of Griffin’s core -- palingenesis, ultranationalism and populism -- are above all unique to fascism and appear mostly secondarily if at all in other forms of totalitarianism.

What is particularly useful about Griffin’s model is that it does not, like Payne’s and Eco’s, necessarily draw on the manifestation of a fully matured fascism for its examples. Thus, using these older analyses, we’re inclined to see fascism only as it replicates these older and mature forms. And as we already noted in this post, Pierre-AndrĂ© Taguieff makes an important point in this regard: “Neither ‘fascism’ nor ‘racism’ will do us the favour of returning in such a way that we can recognise them easily.”

Griffin recently assessed the potential for a resurgence of fascism in an article in the British antifascist magazine Searchlight:

Paper tiger or Cheshire cat? A spotter’s guide to fascism in the post-fascist era

As Griffin points out, if we look for fascism using the Payne or Marxist models, we’ll mostly be looking for it as a mature phenomenon:

Certainly any definition that stresses the style, policies or organisation of interwar fascist regimes -- the charismatic leader, the uniformed choreography of "aesthetic politics", the territorial expansionism or Kafkaesque agencies of ministerial propaganda and state terror -- makes contemporary fascism dwindle to practically microscopic insignificance.

But …

If fascism is defined in terms of a core ideology of ultra-nationalism that aspires to bring about the renewal of a nation's entire political culture, then the picture changes. The features so firmly associated with it in the popular historical imagination cease to be definitional. Instead they can be seen as external and time-bound manifestations of the central ideological driving force that is its only permanent feature: the war against the decadence of society and the struggle for national rebirth.

If we think of fascism in these terms, a much clearer picture of it emerges. For one thing, we can recognize its antecedents throughout history, while also perceiving how the forces of industrialization and modernization shapes these ancient impulses into the clearly modern phenomenon that it is. More to the point, we get a much clearer picture of the actual presence of latent fascist forces at work around the world.

For one thing, it tends to confirm the characterization of Islamic fundamentalists as “Islamofascists,” but makes clear that there is one important difference: while fascism has typically sought to achieve “national rebirth” by fusing a mythologized notion of “traditional values” with modernist idealism, Islamists are irrevocably antimodern in their worldview.

It also confirms that such forces are at work in the United States -- though not, importantly enough, in the form of such mainstream GOP figures as Rush Limbaugh and George W. Bush. We may hear such folks from time to time refer to the theme of national rebirth, but not frequently enough that it’s become a major theme yet; and their nationalistic and populist tendencies are well-known, but both are mitigated to some extent.

However, as noted in the first post of this series, there are enough similarities between these figures and the behavior of historical fascists to throw up a warning sign. And as we’ll see, they do indeed play an important role in the potential for a resurgence of genuine fascism in America.

Griffin argues that current day fascism is “groupuscular” in nature -- that is, comprised of smallish but virulent, potentially lethal and certainly problematic “organisms”:

After the war the dank conditions for revolutionary nationalism "dried out" to a point where it could no longer form into a single-minded slime mould. Since party-political space was largely closed to it, even in its diminutive versions, it moved increasingly into disparate niches within civic and uncivic space, often assuming a "metapolitical" mode in which it focussed on changing the "cultural hegemony" of the dominant liberal capitalist system. … Where revolutionary nationalism pursued violent tactics they were no longer institutionalised and movement-based, but of a sporadic, anarchic, and terroristic nature. To the uninitiated observer it seemed that where once planets great and small of ultra-nationalist energies had dominated the skies, there now circled an asteroid belt of fragments, mostly invisible to the naked eye.

Surveying the American scene, it is clear that just such a movement already exists. And in fact, it had already inspired, before 9/11, the most horrendous terrorist attack ever on American soil. It calls itself the “Patriot” movement.

You may have heard that this movement is dead. It isn’t. And its potential danger to the American way of life is still very much with us. That’s what we’ll talk about next.

[A tip o’ the Hatlo hat to Farmer for the heads-up on the Searchlight article.]

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