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What is Fascism?

Updated: Oct 7, 2022

Fascism is one of those slippery terms that recall Justice Potter Stewart’s famous quip about pornography: “I don’t know what it is but I know it when I see it.” In the case of fascism, it seems to be more a vague but persistent sense of deep unease: we know it when we feel it.

Technically, of course, fascism is the political movement founded in 1919 in Italy by Benito Mussolini which took its name from the Latin fasces, a group of rods bound around an ax head which served as an ancient Roman symbol of authority. Mussolini headed and refined this governmental system from 1922 until 1943, but it was (and still is) seen imitated in other countries by similar nationalistic movements seeking to gain and keep power through violence and ruthlessness. The Nazis under Adolf Hitler are perhaps the preeminent example but there are plenty of others: Spain under Franco, Chile under Pinochet, North Korea under the Kims, various and sundry African governments throughout the 20th century.

The system carefully refined my Mussolini and Hitler included the absolute centralization of authority via dictatorship, stringent socioeconomic controls, violent suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship, belligerent nationalism and racism, the aggressive and over-riding militarization of all aspects of society.

So what spawns fascism? Generally, massive economic discontent and upheaval, that of Germany pre-Hitler has been well documented. Often, however, the economic dislocations create mass movements seeking more equitable economic systems, and the fascism itself is a fierce reaction by the elites to a threat to the status quo. Consequently, the nuts and bolts constructing the fascist machine are very innate emotional triggers. They have to be. Why? Because they are asking people to put aside legitimate economic needs and yearning to embrace an overarching, very emotionally driven, narrative about what’s wrong. ‘Everything is going to hell in a hand basket.’ We need a strong, visionary hero to make it right! All the old traditions are being upended – we need to return to the values and mores that made us great! Our whole way of life is threatened - only a strong military can save us! Nothing is safe from all these outsiders – our dominant group needs to circle the wagons and oust the other! Desperate times call for desperate solutions – it’s too bad about the violence but the end always justifies the means, right?! Fascism further always enlists the help and support of whatever is the dominant religious dogma. This is its major play to create legitimacy (besides it heavy reliance on old cultural traditions), and it becomes increasingly important as the absolutism and ruthlessness of its tactics begin to elicit queasy responses in more and more people.

It’s not too hard to see elements of fascism in our present American political moment, but in reality these tendencies are always lurking just beneath the surface in human societies precisely because they are innately human. All they really wait for to spew forth, volcano-like, are the right mix of economic dislocations and the right leader to stir and stake their salpheric cauldron.

Fascist memes readily apparent in our present American political moment are the cult of tradition and concomitant rejection of modernity, the overt rejection of analytical criticism and emphasis on emotional responses aimed at a frustrated working class, and preoccupation with dark plots and conspiracies designed to undermine our ‘birthright’. There is a palpable feeling of disenfranchisement, in our case, among mostly white working class voters. They feel humiliated by an enemy often embodied in the ultimate other, immigrants or racial minorities. Their refuge is the social strutting of machismo and militarization. Their very real fears stoke a long simmering wellspring of aggrievements that makes violence seem a legitimate response.

It is always frightening – terrifying actually – to see ostensibly rational human beings behaving in ways that are anything but rational. But our present anti-rationalism recalls Franklin Roosevelt’s long ago statement on November 4, 1938, that: “I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.”

It is certainly no accident that older working class Americans have gravitated toward fascism and younger voters express a preference for socialism vis-à-vis capitalism. And it is hardly coincidental that these trends have arisen after a 40-year period of working class wage stagnation, debilitating debt loads for students and others, and soaring, crippling health care costs. Much, much more is at stake in the coming election than the appropriateness of the two candidates, consequential as that indeed is. The real question is whether our democratic systems can rise to the economic challenges posed by millions of our voters. Because the status quo is not going to cut it. The land of opportunity needs to get the opportunity side of its act together.

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