What is (and isn’t) fascism?
Moving beyond political swear words (and grappling with very different life experiences).
Trying to define fascism is possibly a pointless exercise, as it has long since largely lost any specific meaning, becoming a political swearword used for denouncing those you disagree with and establishing how morally wonderful and heroic you are for being against such vile folk. It thus involves equal parts political slander and narcissistic self-promotion.
The more one is addicted to slandering those you oppose, and to narcissistic self-aggrandisement, the more freely one throws about the term fascist. In our time, given the dramatic lack of actual fascists (or Nazis), outside of the political fringe, constant use of the term fascist is an almost perfect indicator of self-serving political bad faith.
This is not remotely a new problem. George Orwell, in his 1944 essay, What is Fascism? set out the ludicrous prolixity with which the term had already been used. The problem has not got any better since.
A particularly useless contribution to the what is fascism? question is Umberto Eco’s Ur-Fascism essay, which does what so many participants do — take their preferred framing of politics and forces fascism into it. This is a common sin of political taxonomies. Robin Corey, for example, does it in his discussion of conservative thinkers. He comes from a political tradition centred around notions of equality. One opposed by conservatives. Who he therefore portrays them as motivated by concern for inequality.
This is an example of the ideologue’s syllogism:
People like me are for x.
Those people over there oppose people like me.
They are against x.
Which, of course does not remotely follow. It is much more likely they are for y more than they are for x. Indeed, they may simply rate y more highly than they do x. Rating y more highly than they do x does not make them against x. Indeed, they may be at least somewhat in favour of x. They are just less concerned about it, and much more concerned for something else, than are folk like you. Which may, indeed, lead them to oppose folk like you, if you rate x more highly than they do y.
For instance, conservatives typically focus on, and value, order and heritage. That leads them to rate those things more highly than equality and to significantly reduce what they are prepared to give up to achieve any specific form of equality. It does not mean they are against all forms of equality and certainly does not place questions of equality (and inequality) at the centre of their world view.
The ideologue’s syllogism also operates in reverse:
People like me are against x.
Those people over there oppose people like me.
They are for x.
Which also does not follow, but has become a mainstay of ostentatious anti-racism.
It is a great mistake, in trying to understand other world views or ideologies, to presume that they focus on the same issues you do, or that their framing of the world is some variation on, or derivation from, yours. Alas, folk regularly do precisely this. It means one can stay within emotionally comfortable territory, minimises the cognitive effort and so makes for easy and congenial rhetorical plays.
It is still a profoundly analytically deficient way to proceed.
The narrower the range of political opinion has become in academe, the more the ideologue’s syllogism has come to infect social science and scholarship generally. The more you deal with folk with similar viewpoints to oneself, the more alien people of different viewpoints are going to become and the more unopposed the use of the ideologue’s syllogism is going to be. If you literally never meet someone who speaks up for a particular viewpoint at conferences or in common rooms, then your understanding of such viewpoints is likely to be swallowed up by what is collectively congenial rather than what is true.
In contemporary society, this is aggravated by having a deeply Gesellschaft (dispersed networks based around formal structures) academe living quite different lives than do the far more Gemeinschaft (highly localised and personalised connections) working class.
Academics typically operate on the basic of transactional networks enmeshed within formal institutions run by folk like them that are not based on specific localities. They are David Goodhart’s Anywheres: happy to live anywhere with a congenial cafe culture, able to maintain and develop their networks irrespective of the specific locality they live in. They take this to be the natural and sensible way to live and presume all modern societies are basically formal-transactional, and so Gesellschaft.
This is simply false. Many folk live lives deeply based around their specific locality. A locality within which they have built a life-time investment in a dense network of local connections. Those connections form what anthropologists call their relational wealth, and economist call social capital (and then, alas, generally analyse in transactional terms, though Glenn Loury is a notable exception to this trend). Those connections provide a sense of place and identity, and a protective buffer against adversity. Such folk are Somewheres who live largely Gemeinschaft lives.
Anything that breaks up or otherwise degrades those local connections imposes major psychic and social costs on them. One that transaction analysis is unlikely to even notice, let alone attempt to quantify. In particular, fraying those local connections can profoundly degrade their capacity to have any control over their lives and the future of their local community.
When you can command little or no capital, social capital (or its lack) looms much larger in your life and prospects. It is, for instance, why social capital (aka relational wealth) looms so large in the lives of forager populations.
One way to undermine social capital is to set it against itself. The systematic failure to effectively police African-American urban communities means that the resulting low homicide-clearance rates (and so high rates of homicide) leads to folk, particularly young males, trying to generate the social capital of respect as a protective measure. This leads to patterns both predatory and protective (such as street gangs) that set the social capital of those communities against themselves, profoundly undermining the development possibilities within those communities.
Note, this is not a consequence of being “black” as African-Americans and Euro-Americans in rural areas have the same homicide death rates. The more urban the area, the higher the difference in homicide death rates, because the more the effective provision of policing can be racially coded and the more deleterious the effects of failing to provide sufficiently effective policing is.
The higher homicide death rates among African-Americans is, as it has always been, an artifice of American public policy. One has to understand, in Glenn Loury’s words, that relations precede transactions in order to fully grasp these dynamics and their (profound) knock-on effects.
Migration as test case
The failure to understand the importance of locality-based connections is a major reason why mainstream economic analysis of migration is almost ludicrously inadequate. It is a bunch of Gesellschaft academics and professionals applying transaction analysis in a way that pays no attention to, and so almost completely fails to value, local connections. Local connections that are most certainly degraded by mass migration.
This capacity to disrupt, degrade and replace local connections also means that mass migration is an excellent divide-and-dominate mechanism. This was true in colonial times in places such as Fiji, the West Indies, Sri Lanka and East Africa. It is no less true in London, Paris, Chicago and New York.
(NB: Despite their much higher levels of immigration than Europe, the UK or US, Australia and Canada are somewhat different cases. They have effective border control and their migrant intake is highly varied. This greatly increases the assimilative effect, because all the incoming groups are sufficiently small that absorbing the patterns of the majority becomes much more likely. Also, at least in Australia, the existing population was already unusually mobile. Even so, in Australia, opinion poll support for migration increased notably after stronger border control measures were implemented.)
Such pervasive failure to understand the realities and concerns of those living Gemeinschaft lives means that opposition to migration is therefore slotted into a congenial racism-and-xenophobia framing. That way, holders of capital, especially holders of human-and-cultural capital, get to self-righteously pursue their divide-and-dominate migration policies. Moreover, as holders of capital, they benefit from migration way more than providers of labour do. (Even if, under some highly debatable assumptions, there is a net economic gain to resident workers, it is dwarfed by the gains to the holders of capital, thereby further helping to entrench domination of politics by holders of various forms of capital.)
Self-righteous pursuit of self-serving class and status interests has generally become the defining feature of modern progressivism. With migration being the textbook example.
This why Gesellschaft academics, intellectuals and professionals are often so hopeless at understanding the national populist upsurge resulting from the political and cultural disenfranchisement of working class voters. The holders of human-and-cultural capital have essentially taken over centre-left political parties, turning mainstream party politics into a contest between various types of capital, a process well documented and analysed by French political economy Thomas Piketty. Hence, the working class has become increasingly political homeless. With, in voluntary voting jurisdictions, the falling voting participation to match.
This disenchantment is aggravated by workers’ quite rational angsts about mass migration, which is generally not in their interests (but generally is in the interests of holders of both commercial and human-and-cultural capital), being denied legitimate expression or outlet within “acceptable” mainstream politics. Especially as the massively expanded human-and-capital class has increasingly reached for the standard lever of social dominance of every such class in human history: control over the levers of public legitimacy.
Submit-or-be-stigmatised dominance plays
At the core of the contemporary reaching for social dominance through control of public-legitimacy is a submit-or-be-stigmatised choice. Either you submit to claims that are not true (e.g. “men have periods”) or you get set up for stigmatisation (“transphobe!”).
Trans-activism and trans-ideology is particularly useful for this social dominance strategy. It involves a set of phenomena with a great deal of complexity. It can be targeted at minors (adolescents, particularly adolescent girls, are a very suggestible group). It has a civil rights patina (and civil rights campaigns have acquired a strong presumption of moral correctness). It invokes claims about basic aspects of human existence that are nuts, but which dissent from gets treated as bigotry. (As you can be presented as opposing civil rights of an oppressed and marginalised group.)
The structure of misrepresentation and delusion starts with the term gender dysphoria, which is, as evolutionary biologist Heather Heying has noted, itself a mislabelling. Gender dysphoria is, for example, being a tomboy (you don’t conform to the expected behaviour patterns). What trans folk typically have is sex dysphoria (you are alienated from the physical sex of your body).
Trans and “gender identity” is just an example, a particularly useful-for-the-dominance-strategy example, of a much wider pattern. Various positions are set up as markers of moral correctness. The willingness to ignore contrary evidence (or contradictions between such positions) shows commitment to the collective status strategy; that you are sound, that you are “one of us”; one of the “good people”. A strategy that gains power through forcing others to submit or be stigmatised. It is a strategy of dominance through collective gaslighting.
A fading mainstream media feeds the strategy by seeking attention-holding narratives that give folk a righteous illusion of being informed while making it clear who you should despise. Information-economising righteousness as an attention-grabbing strategy. By what is, or is not reported, and how, media folk who embrace the status strategy provide information management services to support the strategy. Hence the pressure that is mounted on any outlet that fails to conform.
While trans issues has become the cutting edge of the strategy of domineering gaslighting, migration has long since been established as central to the strategy. You don’t like the way mass migration is fracturing your local community? Racist! Xenophobe! You are worried about the well-documented cases of overwhelmingly Muslim gangs systematically preying on under-age girls? Islamophobe! Etc.
A profoundly dishonest public discourse is set up, generating expanding levels of anger and resentment that are not permitted to be treated as anything other than manifestations of bigotry. For so treating dissent not only feeds the strategy, it is required for it. If it is legitimate to dissent from a claim, then that claim is not a marker of moral righteousness.
The dynamics of elite over-supply
As those credentialed in human-and-cultural capital have become massively over-supplied by a bloated higher education sector, the use of the public legitimacy lever for prestige, dominance and career purposes has become ever more frenetic. In particular, a metastasising structure of linguistic taboos has become a vicious and expanding mechanism of social dominance, used to unseat older cohorts within their own class in favour of younger graduates well-trained in proficiency in such self-aggrandising status plays. Though they are often much less well-trained in historical understanding or analytical capacity that gets in the way of such.
The operative selection has been for status-efficiency, not genuine understanding of social dynamics. Being wrong about general patterns of social dynamics has much weaker feedback effects than does being well-versed in the various status-plays. Hence the latter is what is being selected for.
All this has left the working class increasingly politically and culturally disenfranchised. This is a world where, for instance, almost half of Britons do not believe that the BBC represents their values, only a third of Britons believe it does, with only 4 per cent believing it has recently come closer to their views.
This political and cultural disenfranchisement has been aggravated as the status-and-social-dominance strategy, focused on ever more complex linguistic taboos, cuts the blunt vulgarity of working class speech out of anything even remotely politically acceptable. Add in the costs and dislocations of globalisation, and working class voters have much to be disenchanted about.
And so national populism
A significant, politically disenfranchised, voting bloc is not going to remain so forever. Which is where national populism comes in. It is culturally oppositional to increasingly intolerant and self-aggrandising cultural politics coming from the “cultural commanding heights” of Western societies. National populism is also anti-immigration, because that is where there are votes to be had.
There is at least one similar political dynamic to the interwar politics that saw the rise of Italian Fascism and German Nazism. Neither Italian Fascism nor German Nazism would have become other than fringe political movements except for the rational fear of Leninism in the first case and of Stalinism in the second.
Similarly, national populism would never be able to get anywhere without the sneering, intolerant, self-righteous cultural politics that finds -ists and -phobes everywhere. That views itself as so wonderful because what it opposes is so vile. The product of an arrogant and self-aggrandising human-and-cultural capital class that avidly pushes the disenfranchising of (understandable and rational) opposition to mass migration.
The response to the rise of national populism has been to (1) denounce it as fascist and Nazi, (2) denounce it as racist and xenophobic, (3) denounce it as anti-democratic. In other words, to double down on we-are-so-wonderful-because-those-who-oppose-us-are-so-vile, sneering, self-righteous, self-aggrandising “we own morality” cultural politics that did so much to generate national populism in the first place.
Are the national populist movements generally illiberal and authoritarian? Yes. Does that make them anti-democratic? Not in itself no. In fact, as functionally the central point of democracy is to give the working class the vote, national populist movements are an expression of both demotic and democratic politics.
As citizenship is the only mechanism that has systematically provided the working class a serious say in politics — both in the sense of entitling them to a say and a vote and in the sense of being rooted in local connections — the systematic devaluing of citizenship by human-and-capital class politics is a more serious threat to democracy than national populism. Both because said devaluing has far more institutional and intellectual reach and because the sought control of public legitimacy explicitly degrades the right to have your say. The control-of-public-legitimacy weapon of finding speech “offensive” is a weapon against freedom of thought and speech, against democracy and against science because you cannot have any of these things (except as anodyne rituals) without offending people.
Increasingly, merely being a citizen does not give you any right to express yourself or be heard. On the contrary, acting against the burgeoning social taboos increasingly puts career, employment and livelihood at risk.
What is fascism?
If national populism is something different, that brings us to what is fascism? (And what is Nazism?)
Just as “woke progressivism” is not Leninism or Stalinism, even though there are some shared ideological roots and it increasingly does embrace a Jacobin model of politics (no restriction of the means of political action, no restriction on the ambit of political action), so national populism is not Fascism or Nazism reborn. That which national populism is opposing is different in crucial aspects from what Fascism and Nazism were opposing. This does much to make national populism different from either Fascism or Nazism in crucial aspects.
There are also two large historical reasons why national populism is so different. The first is because it is not operating in the two decades after the 1914–1918 Great War and so within a time with mass living experience of the mass death and mass war experience of the trenches. The second is because it is operating after the Second World War.
The first matters because the binding experience of fighting and surviving the trenches was crucial to the appeal of both Fascism and Nazism in general and of Mussolini and Hitler in particular. They were both war heroes and veterans of the trenches who played on, and to, that status.
We are so used to thinking of the horrors of trench warfare that we generally fail to grasp the bonding effect of surviving horror. We are such peaceful societies we often have difficulty understanding the binding exhilaration of combat. Yet that binding sense of shared agency is precisely what Fascism and Nazism focused on and appealed to. It is not remotely coincidental that both Fascism and Nazism had paramilitary forces, that Mussolini and Hitler both regularly wore uniforms, that both movements adopted military pageantry.
Fascism evoked that binding sense of shared agency in the name of the (Italian) nation, Nazism did so in the name of Aryan race. But they both evoked it, again and again and again. Not only in their rhetoric, but also in their organisational structures, and in their public pageantry and rituals. With the highly militarised nature of their politics — in organisation, pageantry, ritual and rhetoric — directly invoking the context in which so many had gained a sense of shared agency and which provided the model for the transformation of politics and society. Though the Nazi project of racial purification and imperial dominance required far more social transformation (and foreign aggrandisement) than did (the rather less coherent) Fascist project of national greatness.
Which brings us to very clear differences between national populism compared to Fascism and Nazism. No paramilitaries, no uniforms, no military pageantry and rituals, no fetishising of military action and organisation. Nor is there any systematic denunciation of democracy nor extolling of replacement of democracy. All of which means, of course, that national populism is neither Fascist nor Nazi.
Why the lack of such things? Because there is not a critical mass of veterans. Because its leaders are not war heroes. Because they are not responding to a waves of violent revolutions as occurred during and after the Great War. Because Fascism and Nazism were profoundly discredited by losing the Second World War and the crimes of Nazism.
Embracing Fascism and Nazism is now not a defence of heritage, but a denial of it.
The embracing of the military as an ideal of social action is not incidental to Fascism or Nazism. It is central to both. Without it, one does not have Fascism or Nazism. This is why essays such as Umberto Eco’s Ur Fascism fail. They impose their own ideological framings on movements that are orthogonal to them. Umberto Eco wants to take Fascism out of history and turn into a general category of authoritarian traditionalism, which both predated Fascism (e.g. Admiral Horthy’s regime in Hungary) and extends well beyond it.
Fascism: a movement that seeks to create a sense of binding agency centred on nation through pervasive military organisation, pageantry and ritual, embodied in an dictatorial leadership structure that replaces democratic politics.
Nazism: a movement that seeks to create a sense of binding agency via a socially purifying conception of race operating through pervasive military organisation, pageantry and ritual, embodied in an dictatorial leadership structure that replaces democratic politics, with the purpose of creating Lebensraum for that purified race.
So, Fascism and Nazism are movements that have some clear similarities with each other but are definitely not the same. As their very different trajectories in power demonstrated.
It is also clear that Nazism went way beyond mere racism. Hence the speciousness of using Auschwitz as the definitive icon of racism. (It is even more specious to use it as an icon of nationalism.)
By contrast, using the gulag as an icon of Marxism is rather more reasonable, as brutal labour camps have been a persistent feature of Communist regimes. As the People’s Republic of China and North Korea both continue to demonstrate.
That those who engage in waving the icon of Auschwitz about are often much less interested in the lessons of the gulag says a lot about them, rather less about Auschwitz. Even more as so much that made Nazism so horrific was enabled by institutional structures and rhetorical absolutism that were adapted from, or otherwise similar to, Leninism and Stalinism. A similarity that manifested precisely because the Nazi project of transformation was on a similar scale to the Marxist one. Even today, the People’s Republic of China is institutionally far more like Nazi Germany than either is like any Western democracy.
Nazism and Fascism are manifestations of history. They are not archetypes of evil that continue to manifest across time and space. However much it may be rhetorically convenient for some to think so.
In a recent online discussion with evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein, academic, Muslim and person of colour Irshad Manji relayed a very revealing vignette. In 2009, she had gone on a book tour across the American heartland promoting her book calling for a reformed Islam. She kept hearing the question “why do they hate us?” Folk in the US heartland were not asking why Muslims hate them, they were asking why people (particularly highly educated people) on the East Coast of the US hated them.
If you want an example of the progressive cultural politics of hatred and contempt, The Stranger columnist Dan Savage’s 2004 essay “The Urban Archipelago” expresses it very clearly.
When Irshad Manji got back to New York, her NYU dean asked her how much Islamophobia had she had to ward off. Not whether she had experienced the same, that was simply presumed. In fact, she had experienced no Islamophobia or racism that she could discern. Her dean was operating on a malignant fantasy of heartland US, one that so much of academe and mainstream media is happy to create and relay.
That is, of course, precisely the cultural politics that generated the responses that saw Donald Trump win the Republican nomination and then the Electoral College, and so the US Presidency. Cultural politics that has continued to be double-downed on.
Trump was always likely to prove to be what he turned out to be: an unreliable champion too chaotic in his political management to be a successful President. He was also, very clearly, whatever his (many, many) flaws neither a fascist nor a nazi.
Trump was far more symptom than cause. And the cultural politics that produced him as a counter response is getting worse, rather than better. Playing the fascist! fascist! Hitler reborn! game is specious and toxic and shows how so many contemporary progressives are like the Bourbons of old: they forget nothing and they learn nothing. The pleasures of self-righteous contempt for masses of one’s fellow citizens are too great, and the demands of a toxic, but industrial-strength, status-and-dominance strategy too powerful.
They dominate the cultural commanding heights of Western societies but nothing unfortunate that happens in the culture is ever their fault. They have no wisdom, but apparently endless amounts of self-righteous narcissism. Things are going to get worse before they get better.