“You… you… FASCIST!”
There are very few words in our political vocabularies that are more emotionally loaded, while at the same time more saddled with multiple, not-quite-identical meanings. When a Google search on “Bush fascist” yields 5.2 million hits, and a search on “Obama fascist” yields 5.9 million, you have to wonder: just what this word is supposed to mean, anyway?
We could start by looking at the symbol from which the word derives. Take an axe, surround it with a bundle of rods, and lash the whole thing together as tightly as you can – and there you have what the ancient Romans called the “fasces.” It was this symbol of unified power that Benito Mussolini and his Fascist movement latched onto in the early years of the 20th Century. (It’s found in many other places, of course – including the iconography of the United States of America.)
To Mussolini and his followers, Fascism represented, among other things, a unification of the power of the State and the power of the Market. He is quoted as saying, “Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power.” (It may be worth noting at this point that such a merger can happen in two ways – either by the State expropriating and nationalizing the means of production, or by the Market influencing and ultimately corrupting the State.)
In the intervening years, the meaning has broadened; perhaps the best way to think of fascism is as the enforced unification of all aspects and institutions of a society – not just the Market and the State, but also the workforce, the church, the media, the arts, the schools, the family… everything. (It should be obvious, by the way, that this unification might be done in the name of almost any ideology, across the political spectrum, or in the name of almost any religion, or atheism for that matter.)
This notion can become very attractive to everyday people in certain uncomfortable situations – in times of external or internal threats, economic uncertainty, social upheaval, or cultural transformation. (Do you begin to see why I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately?) It can also become very attractive to the folks at the top of a society, when they begin to suspect that the peasantry are getting restless.
In the fascist state, after all, there are no such things as “competing interests” – unlike the messy chaos of democracy, where there are so many competing interests that no one of them can claim dominance. There is no dissent tolerated, no discussion necessary – except perhaps to decide on questions of methodology and efficiency.
Of course, people being people, such a unified state is deeply unnatural – so it must be imposed. Here is where many of the negative qualities we associate with Fascist societies emerge. To unify the populace, Fascist governments frequently identify scapegoat minorities, on whom is placed the blame for all the ills of society. Militarism, the virtues of force, and strict discipline are emphasized. Repression becomes rampant, imagination is squelched, and justice becomes arbitrary and capricious. Fear and intimidation, torture and disappearances become societally accepted methods of control. These qualities make fascist societies seem strong, almost invincible in their early days – but actually contain the seeds of their inevitable downfall.
But could it happen here? During the Bush Regime, many commentators and columnists looked around America and identified numerous signs that they interpreted as symptoms of incipient fascism. (Search on “Britt fascism” or “Naomi Wolf fascist America” to find a couple of those analyses.) Their fears were not entirely realized – but neither have they been entirely dispelled.
Fortunately, there’s another way to think about fascism, how to respond to it, and how to make sure that “it can’t happen here” – but more about that next month.