Sunday, December 11, 2016

Fascism: taking the gloves off

Fascism and fascist continue to be buzzwords in the world of political commentary. They appeared incessantly during the 2016 campaign season, usually in reference to Donald Trump but occasionally in reference to Hillary Clinton, and they're still being used. People are afraid of a Trump presidency because he's supposedly something of a fascist. But from what I've been reading and hearing, almost everyone using one or both terms in reference to current realities doesn't have a clue what fascism is, what the word means, and how it can be applied to real world situations and people.

A fasces
The root word of "fascism" is the Latin word fasces. A fasces referred to—in Ancient Rome—a bundle of sticks or rods, tied up to make them easier to carry. And in reality, the term's history actually predates Roman civilization; it extends back to the Etruscans. At some point, the imagine of a fasces (oftentimes including an ax sticking out from the middle of the bundle) became a symbol for the authority of leaders, who represented the combined will of the people, which was stronger when bound together. The symbolism isn't deep, it is easy to follow, and is powerful for this reason and because the history of it extends so deep into the past (the U.S. has used it, as well).

The Italian word "fascio" is derived from fasces; it carries the same meaning and the same symbolism. In the 19th century, it began to appear more frequently, as it was used by political parties and unions to promote the idea of strength through unity. More often than not, such groups were challenging the status quo. This continued into the 20th century, where one such fascio included in its membership a young Benito Mussolini. Eventually—as I'm sure most of us know—Mussolini would effectively take control of Italy as a fascist. His success spawned copycats, whose regimes would be self-described as fascist, as well.

This is one of the central issues when it comes to understanding fascism: historically, it was a self-descriptive label tied directly to the ancient symbolism of the fasces. People willing accepted the label, they were proud to do so, and this was because they saw fascism as a revival of sorts, a return to a kind of leadership that put the whole of the country first, above and beyond the interests of one sector or another.

In terms of actual governance, Mussolini's fascism was based on syndicalism, an actual systematic ideology wherein the economy is organized into syndicates of workers (according to industry). And syndicalism is rooted in corporatism, a term almost as misunderstood and misused as fascism. Corporatism, as an ideology, has nothing to do with modern corporations or corporate power; the terms simply share the same Latin root: corpus (meaning "body"). Corporatism is very easy to explain: it is based on the idea that society should be modeled on the human body, with various parts (industries or economic sectors) doing their assigned role in service to the whole. And obviously, such a structure needs a head to control it, which of course is the state.

That's all there really is to corporatism. It's a simplistic ideology, though it's institution becomes quite complicated, since the various corporations which serve the state are theoretically run by their membership as a whole. Yes, that's right: in corporatism and by extension in Mussolini's fascism, the workers control the means of production. And this is a critical point: historically, fascism arose as a reaction to communism. Yet fundamentally, both shared a collectivist approach to the economy and to governance. Both were populist movements. One of—and perhaps the most significant—differences between the two: fascism centered on the glorification of the nation-state, it was uber-nationalistic. In contrast, communism was—theoretically—unconcerned with the nation-state, it was about world-wide revolution and the destruction of the political, social, and economic order as a whole.

More often than not these days, people using the term "fascism" or "fascist" seem to think that as an ideology, fascism is somehow about modern corporations and the state working together to run things for their own benefit. That's not historical fascism at all. It just isn't. Of course, the clever reader might note something here: I have yet to actually define fascism. I've only described the roots of the term, then showed how Mussolini used the ideology of corporatism in service to the symbolism of the fasces (strength through unity). And that begs the questions: what is fascism as an ideology? Is corporatism a necessary component? What about actual political structures?

The arguments among political scientists, philosophers, and historians on defining fascism as an ideology could—and have—fill volumes. The internet is full of such definitions, all claiming to be authoritative, and emanating from well-respected sites, as well as from barely known sites. My blog, of course, falls into the latter category. Nonetheless, I'm going to offer a definition of fascism here that I will contend is the most correct one of any that are available. It is not my definition, it is that of Ernst Nolte, a German historian and philosopher (who incidentally passed away in August of this year, at the age of 93). It is from his most significant work, Fascism in its Epoch (also called Three Faces of Fascism), which was published in 1963.

When processing Nolte's point of view and analysis, it is important to understand the intellectual tradition from which Nolte springs: that of Hegel, Spengler, and Heidegger (not unlike Hannah Arendt). This tradition is one that sees History as a Thing in it's own right, and as a process through which societal change occurs from competing forces.  As such, his point of view—while metaphysical in some respects—is rooted in the reality of the times, it is based on understanding what has happened and why it has happened. Fascism in its Epoch traces three distinct movements: Action Francaise (in France at the beginning of the 20th century), the Italian fascism of Mussolini, and the National Socialism of Hitler. All of these movements have some commonalities, though each is also quite distinct from the others. But for Nolte, what binds them together is their reactionary nature and what all three were reacting to: the rise of Marxism/communism/socialism, along with the impact of modernity (including both liberalism and capitalism).

With that in mind, this is how Nolte "defines" fascism (in full context, from Fascism in its Epoch, pp.20-21) [my boldface]:
Neither antiparliamentarianism nor anti-Semitism is a suitable criterion for the concept of fascism. It would be equally imprecise to define fascism as anti-communism, but it would be obviously misleading to use a definition which did not adequately stress, or even entirely omitted, this basic criterion. Nevertheless, the identifying conception must also be taken into account. Hence the following suggests itself: 
Fascism is anti-Marxism, which seeks to destroy the enemy by the evolvement of a radically opposed and yet related ideology and by the use of almost identical and yet typically modified methods, always, however, within the unyielding framework of national self-assertion and autonomy. 
This definition implies that without Marxism, there is no fascism, that fascism is at the same time closer to and further from communism than is liberal anti-communism, that it necessarily shows at least an inclination towards a radical ideology, that fascism should never be said to exist in the absence of at least the rudiments of an organization and propaganda comparable to those of Marxism. 
I realize this definition seems somewhat unwieldy, but there's nothing to be done for that in my opinion, because fascism is only meaningful as a concept when it is placed in its correct historical context. Outside of that context, fascism reduces to a simple pejorative that signifies nothing, other than antipathy toward whatever is so labelled. Scour the 'net and see if this isn't the case. Or when someone says "so-and-so is a fascist," ask them what that means, what makes so-and-so a fascist. Chances are, you'll get a response somewhere between "well, they're a fascist because they're bad and fascists are bad" and "fuck off, you're trying to trick me."

Once in a great while, someone may actually try to justify their statement by listing one or more beliefs or attitudes so-and-so has that are consistent with historical fascist leaders and regimes. Nolte, in fact, warns of this in his book (and remember, he was writing in the 1960's), saying that we cannot not "infer fascism from isolated 'fascist' traits." As an example of this, he points to Roosevelt and the New Deal, where many historians and thinkers have "discovered" fascist tendencies. And there is truth here: Roosevelt and some of his policies are far more similar to Mussolini and some of his polices than many people realize, than many champions of the New Deal would care to admit.

But the point is, this doesn't make Roosevelt a fascist. Indeed, he was an avowed enemy of fascism. Again, the context is the key. New Deal policies that mirrored ones sought by the fascist regimes in Europe did not do so for the same reasons. Again, Nolte's description:
Fascism is anti-Marxism, which seeks to destroy the enemy by the evolvement of a radically opposed and yet related ideology and by the use of almost identical and yet typically modified methods, always, however, within the unyielding framework of national self-assertion and autonomy.
Fascism is first and foremost reactionary. It's not about solving problems, it's about pushing back against a perceived threat to an assumed "national character." As such, any "ism" can be perceived as in opposition to fascism, from liberalism to conservatism, from socialism to capitalism. All that matters is the ability to present these other viewpoints as destructive, not to the established order, but to the theoretical "way that things should be." This is where fascism draws its power, where it's locus of appeal exists: in the promise of setting things "right," of restoring a nation's greatness, which is presented as a function of its people as a whole.

Because whatever else it is, fascism has a necessary populist component; it must appeal to Everyman, or at least "Everyman of the Correct Sort." And here again, fascism breaks its own rules: it is a populist appeal, yet its targets can still include every imaginable group, from "the workers," to "the bourgeoisie," to "the proletariat," to "the industrialists."

All of that should make plain another facet of fascism: truth and consistency are foreign lands for the fascist leader.

But we must not lose sight of the principle driving force of fascism: it came about as a reaction to a radical, if not revolutionary movement: communism (or Marxism, in general, or even socialism). It existed within that context, alone, as a counter-radicalism that promised to preserve a reality that never actually existed (while of course communism promised a reality that never could actually exist). This, I think, is the only way to understand fascism. As a term to describe current events, policies, or people, it is practically useless. Despite the turmoil around the globe, despite populist-style movements taking hold in Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere, there is no fascism or true fascist in today's world.

The one caveat: Muslim nations may be experiencing fascism after a fashion, wherein the revolutionary/radical ideology that is producing a counter-radicalism is not communism, but rather liberalism. But this is a tough nut to crack in the moment, especially for someone like me who is no expert on the histories of these nations, nor on Islam. So I'll leave that discussion alone for now.

Getting back to the use of fascism in general, I guess it's only fair to point to the current President-elect of the United States—Donald Trump—and ask the question: is Trump a fascist? Because there are a lot of people—many of them very well educated—proclaiming that this is the case. After all, Trump is pushing an uber-nationalism, he is promoting the idea of "returning" America to greatness (an unspecified, unreal moment), his spiel is clearly a populist one, he's doing a lot of "othering," his election was clearly a reactionary event, and he's hardly consistent or always truthful in what he says.

One can—based on the guidelines I have provided—make a very convincing case that "Trumpism" is equal to fascism. But one could also make a very convincing case that Trumpism is simply about trying to tap into populist and nationalistic sentiment (along with some xenophobia) as a means to win an election.  The key is in the radical ideology for which Trumpism represents a counter-radicalism. Or rather, it's in the lack of one, unless one wants to disingenuously suppose that somehow Obamacare is a radical ideology. But I think that's so much of a stretch as to be quite silly.

No, Trump is not a fascist, anymore than Andy Jackson was a fascist, or anymore than FDR was a fascist. Or a host of other successful populist leaders.

Want to know what a fascist sounds like? Read this piece by Benito Mussolini. That's what a fascist sounds like, a lot of pseudo-intellectual bullshit designed to counteract the pseudo-intellectual bullshit that was being propagated by Marxists. For instance:
Anti-individualistic, the Fascist conception of life stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the State, which stands for the conscience and the universal, will of man as a historic entity. It is opposed to classical liberalism which arose as a reaction to absolutism and exhausted its historical function when the State became the expression of the conscience and will of the people. Liberalism denied the State in the name of the individual; Fascism reasserts the rights of the State as expressing the real essence of the individual.
Sorry, but this is not Donald Trump. This is not any current political leader of any significance. And that's because there is no one successfully pushing a different but equally radical totalitarian angle, albeit one that dismisses the State as a critical entity.

So the next time your hear someone saying so-and-so is a fascist, remember that they most likely don't actually know what they're talking about.