Sunday, September 26, 2004

The Rise of Pseudo Fascism

[Part 1: The Morphing of the Conservative Movement]

Part 2: The Architecture of Fascism

The conservative movement's transformation into pseudo-fascism isn't immediately discernible because there's nothing recognizably exceptional about any single aspect of it. Indeed, most of it seems all too familiar.

Part of the problem, of course, is that we've come to think of fascism as primarily a European phenomenon. That's partly because fascism reflects the respective national identity of the nations where it arises; Nazism, for instance, was full of Germanic symbolism, and Italian fascism likewise suggested its national heritage. Its appearance in America, as such, will have little immediate resemblance to those earlier permutations.

Another reason it's unlikely to be recognized is that part of the mythology that has sprung up around fascism is that it is dead -- that it died in that Berlin bunker in 1945. But as reader Dante M writes:
Classical fascism is dead, and has been for a long time, despite the fevered wishes of skinheads and American Nazi Party members. But *fascism* as an ideology remains: it's the Devil of the 20th Century, and its best trick was fooling people into thinking it doesn't exist anymore, or that it was defeated in 1945, or that they'd know it when they see it (propaganda is another boogeyman that people are confident that they recognize on sight, even though the best propaganda never gets seen for what it is). Maybe fascism is a natural human reaction to hard times -- a push for the certainty that is so missing from modern (and postmodern) life: People. Nation. Leader.

The idea has evolved to fit the times, which is something that most people don't recognize -- you say "Fascist" and they will conjure up recognizable images (Hitler, mass rallies, WW II, etc.). Or else it's a slur without much thought behind it. No serious, practicing neo-fascist would ever use that word to describe themselves -- only the most diehard Hitler worshippers would proudly tag themselves as "fascists." I'd even wager that the most actually fascist of reactionaries would be offended if you called them that. They'd say they were patriots, and then call you a traitor.

Even the Nazis and the Fascists of Italy used a lot of tactics before assuming power, which is why fascism presents such a protean, serpentine aspect -- that's key to understanding them. The goal of the fascist is the assumption of absolute power -- the one-party police state. That's what they've always been about. Everything else is secondary to that objective. …

Fascism is a poisonous ideology that grows and adapts to its circumstances -- Eurofascism reflected European vices; American fascism is similarly home-brewed. Therein lies the challenge in identifying it and combating it. Fascism always wraps itself in the flag, always seeks absolute power, always brands opponents as traitors, always relies heavily on propaganda for dissemination of its ideas, always invokes subversive enemies (at home and abroad), always embraces militarism and permanent war, always favors politicizing of police functions (and expanding them and the surveillance state), always scorns intellectuals, artists, and bourgeois democratic values, always is hostile to leftist and labor movements, and is obsessed with idealized images of a mythic "better time" of the past (while at the same time destroying that past, and the nation as a whole).

Fascism continues to live on because it derives from the meeting of human traits as ancient as Cain and the relatively recent rise of mass politics. It is, moreover, a phenomenon specifically associated with crises of democracy; so as long as there are democratic states -- and the possibility of their failure -- then the potential for fascism remains with us.

The most serious problem with recognizing fascism's presence, however, comes from the widespread abuse of the term. As I explained previously, in "Rush, Newspeak and Fascism":
"Fascism" has come to be a nearly useless term in the past 30 years or so. In many respects, leftists are most responsible for this degradation; it became so common to lob the word at just about anyone conservative or corporatist in the 1960s and 1970s that its original meaning -- describing a very distinct political style, if not quite philosophy -- became utterly muddled, at least in the public lexicon.

… It is clear that liberals are every bit as prone to confusing fascism with totalitarianism as are conservatives. The difference, perhaps, is that the latter often do so deliberately, as a way of obscuring the genuine fascism that sits at their elbows.

As "fascism" has been bandied about freely, it has come loosely to represent the broader concept of totalitarianism, which of course encompasses communism as well. Right-wing propagandists like [Rush] Limbaugh clearly hope to leap into that breach of popular understanding to exploit his claim that those on the left, like Dick Gephardt or "feminazis," are "fascists." It's also clear as he denounces antiwar liberals as "anti-American" that he is depicting them as enemy sympathizers with the forces of "Islamofascism."

Most Americans have a perfectly clear idea of the basic tenets of communism (though in many cases it is fairly distorted), largely because it is an ideology based on a body of texts and revolving around specific ideas. In contrast, hardly anyone can explain what it is that makes fascism, mainly because all we really know about it is the regimes that arose under its banner. There are no extant texts, only a litany of dictatorships and atrocities. When we think of fascism, we think of Hitler and perhaps Mussolini, without even understanding what forces they rode to power.

Carefully examining the history of fascism begins to give us perhaps a better understanding:
In a historical sense, fascism is maybe best understood as an extreme reaction against socialism and communism; in its early years it was essentially defined as "extremist anti-communism." There were very few attempts to systematize the ideology of fascism, though some existed (see, e.g. Giovanni Gentile's 1932 text, The Philosophical Basis of Fascism). But its spirit was better expressed in an inchoate rant like Mein Kampf.

It was explicitly anti-democratic, anti-liberal, and corporatist, and it endorsed violence as a chief means to its ends. It was also, obviously, authoritarian, but claiming that it was oriented toward "socialism" is just crudely ahistorical, if not outrageously revisionist. Socialists, let's not forget, were among the first people imprisoned and "liquidated" by the Nazi regime.

Robert O. Paxton, in his landmark study The Anatomy of Fascism, neatly sums up the place of fascism in the history of politics as the emergence of a "dictatorship against the Left amidst popular enthusiasm." But what are its guiding principles?

In reality, there really are none. Fascism in the end is the manifestation, in the context of modern mass politics, of the raw will to power, the drive to achieve totalitarian control over others through any means necessary or possible.

But fascism is more than just a reaction or untrammeled will. It is a political force with a distinct set of characteristics.

Over the years, there have been many attempts to define and describe fascism. Chip Berlet, the researcher from the Cambridge, Mass., think tank Political Research Associates, describes it thus:
Fascism demands racial, ethnic, or cultural unity and the collective rebirth of a nation while seeking to purge demonized enemies that are often scapegoated as subversive and parasitic. Fascism is a form of authoritarian ultra-nationalism that glorifies action, violence, and a militarized culture. Fascism can exist as an ideology, a mass movement, or a form of state government. Fascism attacks both liberal democratic pluralism and left-wing revolutionary movements while proposing a totalitarian version of populist mass politics. Fascism parasitizes other ideologies, juggles many internal tensions and contradictions, and produces chameleon-like adaptations based on the specific historic symbols, icons, slogans, traditions, myths, and heroes of the society it wishes to mobilize.

Probably the most concise definition comes from Oxford political-science professor Roger Griffin, who calls it "palingenetic ultranationalistic populism". In one key essay, Griffin offers the following 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.

Fascism, according to some who have studied it, is a kind of "political religion" -- that is, it coalesces around a "sacralisation of politics" that acts as a substitute faith for its followers. According to Italian political theorist Emilio Gentile, who studied the totalitarian movements of interwar Europe, this sacralisation takes place when:
... more or less elaborately and dogmatically, a political movement confers a sacred status on an earthly entity (the nation, the country, the state, humanity, society, race, proletariat, history, liberty, or revolution) and renders it an absolute principle of collective existence, considers it the main source of values for individual and mass behaviour, and exalts it as the supreme ethical precept of public life.

This imparts to fascism a particular trait that Paxton describes as one of the real telltale signs of its presence:
... [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.

What really sets fascism apart from nearly all other kinds of politics, however, is that, at its core, it is not about thought. It's all a matter of the gut.
Milton Mayer describes this in They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-1945 (p. 111):
Because the mass movement of Nazism was nonintellectual in the beginning, when it was only practice, it had to be anti-intellectual before it could be theoretical. What Mussolini's official philosopher, Giovanni Gentile, said of Fascism could have been better said of Nazi theory: "We think with our blood."

In his remarkable essay on "Ur-Fascism," Umberto Eco suggests the extent of this attribute of fascism by its reappearance in most of the traits by which he describes fascism, including "action for action's sake," "the rejection of modernism" "fear of difference," and the notion that "life is permanent warfare." Swedish political scientist Harald Ofstad likewise has zeroed in on "the contempt for weakness" as the essence of the norm in a fascist society.

However, it is Paxton's study that draws out this point in the greatest detail. Indeed, he describes the centricity of emotion -- and not any intellectual forebears -- as forming the basic architecture on which the fascist argument rests (pp. 40-41):
To focus only on the educated carriers of intellect and culture in the search for fascist roots, furthermore, is to miss the most important register: subterranean passions and emotions. A nebula of attitudes was taking shape, and no one thinker ever put together a total philosophical system to support fascism. Even scholars who specialize in the quest for fascism's intellectual and cultural origins, such as George Mosse, declare that the establishment of a "mood" is more important than "the search for some individual precursors." In that sense, too, fascism is more plausibly linked to a set of "mobilizing passions" that shape fascist action than to a consistent and fully articulated philosophy. At bottom is a passionate nationalism. Allied to it is a conspiratorial and Manichean view of history as a battle between the good and evil camps, between the pure and the corrupt, in which one's own chosen community or nation has been the victim. In this Darwinian narrative, the chosen people have been weakened by political parties, social classes, unassimilable minorities, spoiled renters, and rationalist thinkers who lack the necessary sense of community.

These "mobilizing passions," mostly taken for granted and not always overtly argued as intellectual propositions, form the emotional lava that set fascism's foundations:

-- a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions;

-- the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether universal or individual, and the subordination of the individual to it;

-- the belief that one's group is a victim, a sentiment which justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against the group's enemies, both internal and external;

-- dread of the group's decline under the corrosive effect of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences;

-- the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary;

-- the need for authority by natural leaders (always male), culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group's destiny;

-- the superiority of the leader's instincts over abstract and universal reason;

-- the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group's success;

-- the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group's prowess in a Darwinian struggle.

If these "mobilizing passions" seem familiar, they should: They have been adopted, as I described in Part 1, by the American conservative movement -- embodied by the Republican Party -- as the very architecture of its agenda since the advent of the invasion of Iraq, and particularly as the core of its 2004 campaign for the presidency.

This is not a mere coincidence, and the danger it represents -- obviously -- is profound.

Next: Pseudo-fascism and the GOP

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