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Artillery Row

The F-word

A serious accusation should be treated with appropriate seriousness

The “F-word” is a political atom bomb — or at least it should be. In countries which practise liberal democracy, being a fascist should be inherently delegitimizing. Fascism cannot co-exist with the hard won rights, toleration of difference, and openness in politics that characterise, or should characterise, the dominant governmental structure in the West. 

Thus correctly identifying what fascism is, and which people are fascists, should be an important task. Incorrectly identifying an enemy leads to the targeting of legitimate actors, while those who seek to destroy our institutions run free. 

Yet I fear we are not treating it with the seriousness it deserves. There are increasing arguments that growing numbers of politicians are functioning under a “fascist framework” or that we are on our way to a fascist state. Indeed, there is a whole cottage industry of books commentating on the dying days of liberal democracy and the arrival of the great black beast of fascism. But if we have so many potential fascists in our political wings, why aren’t we clear on what it is we’re talking about? 

Fascism, like any political idea, is hard to pin down. Simply turning to the etymology of the word will be insufficient — as John Stuart Mill argues in Utilitarianism, etymology can only guide us towards what the word began as and not what the word is now. Instead, we must look to the modern world, as well as the past, if we want to try and figure out what fascism is and how this most potent of words is potentially being misused. 

Conflating ideas we don’t like with a specific form of rulership called “fascism” is an increasing error made by those on the left and even centre of politics. Columnists, such as Peter Oborne, frequently conflate conservative policies on immigration with outright conspiratorial racism. The intellectual dishonesty in making this comparison is no different than if a conservative warned radical Marxism was on the horizon because of a modest increase in taxation. 

Reducing fascism to conventional, moderate policies not only helps fascists seem no different from regular parties but undermines genuine attempts to highlight fascism when it appears. If everything is called fascism then nothing looks like it. Differentiating regular right-wing policies from irregular fascism is of vital importance when defining political extremism. 

Part of this problem is exemplified by scholars such as Corey Robin. Robin, in The Reactionary Mind mixes together Winston Churchill, Edmund Burke and Carl Schmitt as part of the same intellectual movement. To those familiar with the careers of Winston Churchill and Carl Schmitt, this approach should provoke incredulity Churchill, the man who put his life on the line to defeat the Nazis is not the same man as Carl Schmitt, who in a move of dastardly careerism, joined the Nazis and promoted their doctrine until his ignominious exit in 1936.

The blending of laudable conservatives and contemptible fascists is precisely the problem we often see today by many who see themselves as analysts and scholars. Conservatism, like most ideologies, is full of different flavours.  Jason Stanley’s broad approach conflating rhetoric, tactics, and identification with a political movement is a classic example of this error of thinking. 

As Jonathan Chait wrote in the New York Magazine in 2011: Stanley provides his readers no tools to make this distinction. Instead he simply lumps all right-wing politics into the same bin.” This leads to the more alarming conclusion that 

The idea that conservatives can’t pursue their policy goals democratically is dangerous. Treating all conservative politics as undemocratic is paradoxically to reinforce that poisonous belief.

We must now ask the question what can fascism be distinguished as. John Ganz, the acerbic Substacker, begins with various identifiers such as paramilitarism, the hope of fostering a unified people and goal via a notion of superiority, a break with political constitutionalism and a wholesale reconstruction of the political elite. Yet his notion that fascist regimes were pluralistic by balancing different interest groups mistakes form for substance. Fascism’s pluralism asserts itself because the kind of tight bonded notion of the leader, regime and nation cannot be realised. 

The desire for extreme homogeneity in fascism makes heterogeneity and instability an inherent part of the story of fascist regimes

The inner workings of Nazism, as detailed by Ian Kershaw and Richard J Evans, leading scholars of Nazism, were not coherent and homogenous but a hodgepodge of inner manoeuvrings where the support of the leader was sought above other factors. The Fuhrer principle convinces many that this is a rigid and cohesive form of regime. But not unlike a spring coiled too tightly it will eventually break its stranglehold and pop back up. This was precisely what happened with Nazism. The desire for extreme homogeneity in fascism makes heterogeneity and instability an inherent part of the story of fascist regimes. 

This story is heavily indebted to both Italian fascism and Nazism, where leaders presided over paradoxically unstable and powerful regimes. Some schools of thought believe that a reliance on European fascism is a mistake and blinds us to the evolution that fascism has undertaken since. Umberto Eco, for instance, recognises that fascism will not re-emerge in the same form it once took itself under Hitler and Mussolini. But the same author also recognises the philosophical limitations of fascism as a method of thought — it was more an emotional driver and pulling system as opposed to anything on firmer ground. 

The contradictory picture I describe was not the result of tolerance but of political and ideological discombobulation. But it was a rigid discombobulation, a structured confusion. Fascism was philosophically out of joint, but emotionally it was firmly fastened to some archetypal foundations.

Eco does name some consistent features of more “modern” forms of fascism such an obsession with tradition, homogeneity, nationalism, anti-pluralism, and antagonism forming the emotional base of fascistic movements. However, unlike Umberto Eco, I do not believe emotional drivers make for a strong foundation in defining political conceptions. Indeed, the historical notions of fascism for some make it difficult, if not impossible to pin down as an ideology in action today. 

Roger Griffiths argues that most scholars now accept the definition of fascism as a “rebirth” of the nation via the populist creation of an ultra-national form of politics. The fuzziness embedded within this definition makes it susceptible to the types of misdiagnosis discussed earlier. But once you add to this definition the notion of homogeneity, a belief in the “leader”, common in populist movements, and a desire for total control of the population, i.e., totalitarianism, this definition becomes weightier. 

Far from looking to America and Europe for fascist politics, as is common, the best examples of this definition of fascism today are in North Korea and Syria. The Syrian regime has gained support from the far right around the world, with both Golden Dawn and the BNP showing support for Assad. The Assad regime purports to be the only one which can bind the nation together under the “homogenous” leadership of Assad. Indeed, Baathism, the official ideology of the Syrian regime is seen by those on the far right as the closest modern incarnation to National Socialism. Given the regime’s cult of personality around the leader, one party state, open acceptance of violence, open sectarianism and mythology of the “nation” it is easy to see why so many associate the system with fascism. 

Similarly, North Korea, despite its traditional communist roots, is in reality a modern incarnation of fascism. Its focus on the supposed ethnic purity of the Korean people, and the nationalist myths used by the regime to help prop up autocratic rule, demonstrate this. The militarism aided by the regime shifting significant assets to its nuclear weapons programme makes it unlikely to be invaded and helps it to see itself as powerful and significant on the world stage. 

These two regimes should remind us of the true terror of fascism. The damage it does and the fear it rightly inspires should make us careful about using such a word. Liberal democracies need to defend themselves against threats while being careful to understand the nature of the threats they face.

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