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Friday, April 17, 2009

Fascism: the Badly Understood Insult

I was perusing through William A. Jacobson's Legal Insurrection blog when I came across this post: "When Fascism Comes To America, It Will Look Like Tea Party Crashers." It's a good post about totalitarian governments and political movements violently stifling free speech. However, what struck me were the comments to his post and the casual and ignorant use of the word fascism. I suggest you read through the comments section to get a full idea of what I mean. I'm there, but my lengthy (lengthy? me?!) comment will be pretty much repeated in this post.

Fascism is a word that gets thrown around a great deal, generally being viewed as an amorphous extreme right-wing ideological stance-- sort of an opposite to the communist stance. It becomes a catch-all for anything viewed as too authoritarian that is not clearly Marxist or Socialist.

Generally ill-defined, it's carelessly employed common usage aggravates the situation. While people can argue almost endlessly about whether certain regimes or political views are fascist or not, the conclusion (if ever reached) is invariably based on group-think-- various like-minded individuals ignorantly nodding their heads in agreement-- rather than any logic or coherent thinking.

The main source of this difficulty seems to be that no one really knows an exact political definition of fascism. This is unfortunate since the word itself is imbued with such emotional power and elicits charged feelings not dissimilar to the label of racist. Mussolini, probably agreed upon as the founder of fascism, was neither a political theorist, nor philosopher, nor a particularly brilliant individual.

He was a politician, and unlike Marx or the Enlightenment thinkers, was concerned with the immediate and tangible results from his publications. Marx was supremely informed by Hegel, and the Enlightenment Thinkers influenced by Descartes' concept of a clockwork universe and a plethora of scientists and thinkers convinced of the existence of natural laws. Their work is crouched in historic academic traditions, allowing for easier analysis. Mussolini had no philosophical basis for his Fascist Manifesto. While some describe the work and inspiration of the Fascist movement as reactionary, it gives Mussolini's ideas far more credit than they deserve.

"The Fascist Manifesto," published in 1919, was in reality little more than a list of demands, a pale cry of political dissent not unlike such as those issued by pathetic, modern day student protesters (see their own real-life manifesto beginning with amnesty for their takeover of the food court). I've found it reasonably difficult to find the "Fascist Manifesto" in its entirety, it's usually summed up like this (from economicexpert.com), however Vox Day at World Net Daily claims to have translated his version from the original Italian. Since it seems reasonably congruent with the summations, I'll present Day's version here:

"Italians! Here is the program of a genuinely Italian movement. It is revolutionary because it is anti-dogmatic, strongly innovative and against prejudice.

"For the political problem: We demand:
a) Universal suffrage polled on a regional basis, with proportional representation and voting and electoral office eligibility for women.
b) A minimum age for the voting electorate of 18 years; that for the office holders at 25 years.
c) The abolition of the Senate.
d) The convocation of a National Assembly for a three-years duration, for which its primary responsibility will be to form a constitution of the State.
e) The formation of a National Council of experts for labor, for industry, for transportation, for the public health, for communications, etc. Selections to be made from the collective professionals or of tradesmen with legislative powers, and elected directly to a General Commission with ministerial powers.

"For the social problems: We demand:
a) The quick enactment of a law of the State that sanctions an eight-hour workday for all workers.
b) A minimum wage.
c) The participation of workers' representatives in the functions of industry commissions.
d) To show the same confidence in the labor unions (that prove to be technically and morally worthy) as is given to industry executives or public servants.
e) The rapid and complete systemization of the railways and of all the transport industries.
f) A necessary modification of the insurance laws to invalidate the minimum retirement age; we propose to lower it from 65 to 55 years of age.

"For the military problem: We demand:
a) The institution of a national militia with a short period of service for training and exclusively defensive responsibilities.
b) The nationalization of all the arms and explosives factories.
c) A national policy intended to peacefully further the Italian national culture in the world.

"For the financial problem: We demand:
a) A strong progressive tax on capital that will truly expropriate a portion of all wealth.
b) The seizure of all the possessions of the religious congregations and the abolition of all the bishoprics, which constitute an enormous liability on the Nation and on the privileges of the poor.
c) The revision of all military contracts and the seizure of 85 percent of the profits therein."

Noticeably lacking in the text is any form of political structure or philosophical base for these demands. Instead there's dreamy quick-fixes for complicated problems-- again like American student protest's demands-- based in what is believed to be popular. In other words, it's a shallow work of public relations, and not meant for either academia or political theorists.

What is evident is the nationalization of certain industries, the seizing of churches' properties and a "strong progressive tax" to "expropriate" wealth (hardly consistent with American Right ideologies). That suggests to me a reasonably Left-thinking model where a centralized state assumes a great deal of economic and social control.

Of course, what also missing is many of the modern characteristics we associate with fascism, its trademarks so to speak. This is because Fascism did not simply stand still following the manifesto's broad strokes (how could it?).

In 1932 "The Doctrine of Fascism" was published. Written by Giovanni Gentile though credited to Benito Mussolini, the relatively short but still rambling essay lays out in much greater detail the precepts and philosophical basis of Fascism. Unfortunately to do any sort of detailed analysis of this document here, while a tempting endeavor, would take up a great deal of space in an already long posting, so I will leave that for a future posting.

Suffice it to say that Gentile was greatly influenced by Hegel (like Marx) and thus the "The Doctrine of Fascism" exhibits a number of certain Hegelian tenets. Among such tenets is the devaluation of the individual and the uplifting of the state. Hegel saw the nation-state as being the true individual in his great sweeping view of history (while Marx saw social class as being the individual).

Gentile writes "Fascism sees in the world not only those superficial, material aspects in which man appears as an individual, standing by himself, self-centered, subject to natural law, which instinctively urges him toward a life of selfish momentary pleasure; it sees not only the individual but the nation and the country; individuals and generations bound together by a moral law, with common traditions and a mission which suppressing the instinct for life closed in a brief circle of pleasure, builds up a higher life, founded on duty, a life free from the limitations of time and space, in which the individual, by self-sacrifice, the renunciation of self-interest, by death itself, can achieve that purely spiritual existence in which his value as a man consists." The innately immoral individual (the common man) is thus supplanted in both morality and importance by the nation and the country.

Unlike the atheist Marx, Gentile is like Hegel in expressing a devotion to a form of theistic spirituality, a religion. Yet, while these spiritual beliefs set standards for ethical behavior they should not be confused with mainstream religious beliefs.

Gentile states, "The Fascist conception of life is a religious one, in which man is viewed in his immanent relation to a higher law, endowed with an objective will transcending the individual and raising him to conscious membership of a spiritual society. Those who perceive nothing beyond opportunistic considerations in the religious policy of the Fascist regime fail to realize that Fascism is not only a system of government but also and above all a system of thought.

"In the Fascist conception of history, man is man only by virtue of the spiritual process to which he contributes as a member of the family, the social group, the nation, and in function of history to which all nations bring their contribution. Hence the great value of tradition in records, in language, in customs, in the rules of social life. Outside history man is a nonentity."

Again we see the reduction of the individual per Hegelian thought. While open to "an objective will transcending the individual [a spiritual morality]" the individual itself only gains spiritual virtue by what "he contributes as a member of the family, the social group, the nation." Also we see history becoming a formative, functioning and in many ways moral process. Again this is taken from Hegel who conceived of history as being a manifestation of God's will-- not unlike the Divine Chain of Being which I have mentioned in previous posts. History was a process by which God's plan was enacted, thus morality (w/ God as its basis) could be discovered by seeing the sweep of history and understanding (hubris alert) God's intent. In this manner, states could be moral in how they align themselves according to God's will and individual morality would be, to some degree, determined by how great a part one plays or how actively one participates in this great process.

Once again, I fail to see how this necessarily equates to the American Right's espousal of individual liberty and organized, mainstream religion.

The modern definition of fascism seems to be based more upon the results or assigned results of Fascist leadership. While most people are completely oblivious to the basic tenets of Fascism, and are likewise unaware of the deep philosophical connection between Hegel, Marx and Gentile (again perhaps examined in more detail in a later post), there still exists a certain popular view of fascism. This view must therefore be based on actions and perceptions of the Fascist governments themselves.

Yet, we are still left with a distinct lack of a demonstrable theoretic framework, even though the word is so commonly used. While Umberto Eco is supposed to have analyzed and presented Fascism (among other places suggested within the comments of Jacobson's post), in reality Eco's work offers little. If this fourteen bullet point essay on "Ur-Fascism" by Eco is indeed the work that many people refer to, it is all but useless in a serious analysis of fascism.

Eco's own introduction disqualifies itself. Eco writes "In spite of some fuzziness regarding the difference between various historical forms of fascism, I think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it."

So really this "Ur-Fascism" is merely a laundry list of warning signs about repressive governments. It's really not even that, however as point #5 is "Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity." That's a bullet point?

I think Fascism is a misused term, coming from an ill-defined and largely dead-ended Hegelian political theory. Since the term refuses to go away, perhaps it is best to define vaguely what is meant by it now. To that I offer this list I compiled from various talks with political science professors (I am not claiming to have defined or made up any of these).

Fascism supposedly is a political system that has most of these characteristics:
1) Nationalism tinted with a sense of historic mandate
2) Aggressive militarism or militancy
3) Use of violence or threats of violence against opposition and to impose their views on others
4) Cult of personality centered around charismatic leadership
5) Centralized, top-down organizational structure
6) Dehumanization and scapegoating of outsiders, presenting them as enemies to society
7) Self-images as a superior form of social organization to capitalism, democracy, and socialism, presented as a heroic national endeavor
8) Promotion of strict moral values and social control, prioritizing security over civil liberties
9) Patriarchal attitudes toward women while advocating equal involvement from both sexes
10) Romantization of a mythic heritage

Now, as I said in the comment section of Legal Insurrection, I'm not saying this is what fascism is, I'm saying that this is what political theorists claim fascism appears to be. But again, there isn't a clear consensus. You will also notice these characteristics are based on the results of fascism and not on Gentile's Hegelian foundations.

Also notable is how fascism does not stand as a polar opposite to socialism nor Marxism. All are systems which hold that the state is morally superior to the individual and thus empowered to dictate social norms, economic directions, and political ideologies. They are not antithetical, and the far right-end of the political spectrum is not fascism.

Marx was nice enough to define communism and watered down socialism for us. Unfortunately, fascism isn't nearly so clear. I hope this at least presents a beginning to understanding this misused totalitarian label.


  1. This is very informative yukio; thanks for writing it! I learned something.

  2. One of my biggest pet peeves is people taking an ideology and morphing it to attack what they don't like. I just saw a post at Democratic Underground calling "totalitarian" Communism because right wing is obedience, while left wing is constant questioning.

    American right-wing, unlike European, is based in classical liberalism. I don't know how one could equate that with anything... but then again, with the internet, anyone can be a philosopher :p

  3. Have you read

    Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning by Jonah Goldberg?

    Its on my reading list but haven't gotten around to it. Sounds applicable to this topic though. Very interesting and informative piece. This issue has been one of my big pet peeves the last couple of years, I'm glad you addressed it.

  4. Yukio, you raise an important point, and thanks for pointing out why it is so difficult to define fascism. Personally, I distrust the definitions of political science professors because I distrust the pervasive leftist bent of academia. Of course (I argue) the academic (leftist political) definition of fascism will end up defining conservatives! For a long time, I have been trying to figure out which policies of the National Socialist German Worker's Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) were socialist and which were fascist. When I reach some kind of understanding of that (if ever), I will feel I have accomplished something.

  5. Jordan, it's unfortunate that a lot of people don't differentiate European liberalism from classical liberalism. I think it might have something to do with the collapse of Britain's Liberal Party and the rise of the Labour Party to replace it as opposition but not as equivalent ideology.

    No Commissioner, I haven't read Goldberg's book. I'm still reading Stephen Hicks' "Explaining Postmodernism"-- and I'm still not that far into it yet.

    Well Quite Rightly, you've got to trust someone to help define a term. Although a lot of media would have you believe differently, the jury's still out on the Nazis being Fascists. Hitler famously admired Mussolini's takeover of Italy, but much of the Nazi's ideology was quite different than Gentile's doctrine. One of the problems is that fascism (small f) is now being defined with the Nazis in mind-- which may not be very accurate.

  6. You reference Hegel ... in a blog. That makes you my favorite blogger of the day. And awesome.