Sunday, April 18, 2004

What is Fascism, and where is it now?

"Fascism" is, at times, a popular label to throw around as a smearing technique in political stand-making. But, like I noted on the Conservatism page, the true meaning of the word "Fascism" has been lost in the process. Do you know what it means? I sure don't. I just know that Hitler's and Mussolini's regimes were said to be Fascist, but my High School History teacher didn't bother to tell me what it meant.

Let's first start with a Salon Book Review of "The Anatomy of Fascism" by Robert O. Paxton [April 19, 2004; Salon.COM; Laura Miller; http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2004/04/19/fascism/]. The book appears to be a scholarly study of Fascism, and the review attempts to be a short tutorial on what Fascism is drawing lessons from the book. At this moment I haven't read the book, only this review.

The review starts by noting that "even those who have devoted themselves to studying fascism can't quite agree on what it is", referring to the professional political scientists. So perhaps I should feel better about not knowing what Fascism is if even the professionals can't describe it very well. The book in question, "The Anatomy of Fascism", is Robert O. Paxton's attempt.

Another resource is Living Under Fascism by Davidson Loehr First UU Church of Austin (Unitarian Universalist).

The working definition of Fascism, quoted from "The Anatomy of Fascism":

"... a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion."

Note that the definition doesn't include the specific acts of Hitler or Mussolini (such as building concentration camps). And it's interesting to think of the Bush family, whom some label as Fascist, yet they are the very epitome of the traditional elites. This says to me that when Hitler was receiving funding from Prescott Bush, that this was likely an example of the "uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites", and that the powerful people whom Prescott Bush represented were aiming to achieve some goal through using Hitler.

The review describes how Paxton believes Fascism, as a political system, has very high hurdles to jump in order to become the dominant system in a country. Witness the Ku Klux Klan type activities in the South and how they failed to become dominant. What allowed it to become dominant in Europe in the 1910's-1920's was this combination of events:

Take one nation demoralized and economically devastated by a massive war. Add two political forces that have failed to offer a solution to this mess: conservatism and liberalism. (Paxton uses the classic definition of "liberalism," meaning an outlook favoring a free-market economy and a vision of citizenship based on individual rights with minimal state interference in most aspects of life.) Add to that the threat of revolution from the left. "It is essential to recall how real the possibility of communist revolution seemed in Italy in 1921 and German in 1932," Paxton writes. The mostly liberal parliamentary governments running Europe at the time seemed impotent in the face of the Red Menace, and the conservatives, believers in old-fashioned hierarchies, didn't have the constituency to fight back.

Into this situation introduce a white-hot political party that can mobilize lots of people from all classes and that fiercely opposes communism. Fill it with young, angry men more than willing to show up and bust a few heads if necessary. Conservatives didn't like a lot of things about the coarse, violent, riffraffish fascists, but if teaming up with Hitler or Mussolini was the only way to protect their property and station in life from the Bolsheviks, they were willing to cut a deal or two. Plus, they believed they could control their wild-eyed new friends, who had so little savoir faire and experience in the subtle arts of governance. This, to put it mildly, was a big mistake.

This still doesn't tell us much about what Fascism is, but instead the strategy for getting into power. But then, later in the review they point out that Fascists tend to discard the rhetoric they use to get into power, and once into power concentrate on using that power. In any case, what we see here is how the traditional elites were scared by the rise of Communism, and allied with the Fascists to drive off the "Red Menace". Which is instructive into why Prescott Bush was involved with funding Hitler, then.

The book review then gets into some uses by Paxton of his definition as a yardstick to measure whether certain leaders or political movements were, or were not, Fascist. Speaking for myself, in some of his examples I think he's being too rigid in the definition.

Slobodan Milosevic: Even though his rule was brutal, involved cleansing of undesirables, nationalistic fervor and expansion of boundaries, Milosevic was the sitting President. As the sitting President he could not be a Fascist, and instead "'adopted expansionist nationalism as a device to consolidate an already existing personal rule'".

Islamist militancy: We have been told by our government leaders that the rise of militant fundamentalist Islam, with their screwy interpretation of the Koran, is Fascist. For what it's worth, Dave Emory says the same thing, pointing to historical connections between Hitlers regime and the Islamic factions some of whom are still in power today. However these groups fail to meet Paxton's yardstick because Fascist governments only rise to power in failed democracies. This is one place where I disagree, and feel he's using the definition too rigidly.

George W. Bush and his regime: Nope, not fascists, because America today doesn't resemble Germany of the 1920's. Hmm? Say what? Paxton points out that Bush's regime is encroaching on civil liberties and the like, but that doesn't complete the requirements to truly be Fascist. Sure, that's a good point. But Paxton has an example of just two governments he can call Fascist, and from that small an example he's going to define the totality of what Fascism is or can be? Where I would agree with him is that George W completely is an example of the traditional elite, and that George W cannot be a Fascist because of that, however in the campaign that elected George W as president he appealed directly to the "angry white male" voter in a way that's evocative of this observation in the review:

The first modern campaigners, fascists realized that for the less educated and attentive classes, politics was a matter of feeling not ideas. So, as Paxton writes, "Fascism was an affair of the gut more than the brain."

What does the word mean?

One avenue to understanding is to look at the word and where it comes from (from Living Under Fascism):

The word comes from the Latin word “Fasces,” denoting a bundle of sticks tied together. The individual sticks represented citizens, and the bundle represented the state. The message of this metaphor was that it was the bundle that was significant, not the individual sticks. If it sounds un-American, it’s worth knowing that the Roman Fasces appear on the wall behind the Speaker’s podium in the chamber of the US House of Representatives.