Thursday, December 18, 2008

Fascism reloading

One deduction from the TIMN framework is that fascism will continue making a comeback as globalization and marketization spread. Fascism may be even more likely if globalization and marketization now shrink back as reactions set in around the world.

People like being liberated from dictatorship, but not necessarily from fascism. What’s the difference? Fascism is no mere dictatorship. Yes, it imposes a centralized and organic — if not totalitarian — structure, enforced by a single party, secret police and paramilitary thugs. But that is not what keeps fascism in power and explains its appeal.

Fascism is a total system of existence that willingly engages a broad spectrum, even a majority, of elites and masses. At its core, fascism has a deeply mythic allure; it proposes a quest to overcome dystopian times and achieve a utopian rebirth of a nation’s supposed greatness. Thus fascism rules the mind as well as the body — and both mind and body come to idolize it.

In this quest, fascism is fiercely anti-liberal because it values order far more than freedom and brooks no boundaries between public and private, or state and society. Yet fascism is also anti-conservative; it aims to transform the status quo on behalf of all, not preserve it for the sake of a few.

And although fascism is normally secular in its ends and means, it has a messianic quality, for it promises national redemption and progress to break through to an exquisite new millennium. Indeed, fascism vows to create not only a new order but also a new man — one who has a radiant sense of identity and purpose, the better to ensure that the rebirth endures.

All this shines in the iconic fascisms of the mid-20th century: Benito Mussolini’s in Italy (the standard for many scholars), Adolf Hitler’s in Germany (the racist and totalitarian extreme) and the Falangist movement in Spain (which flowed later into the semi-fascist regime of Francisco Franco). Significant, though eclectic, tendencies also emerged outside Europe, notably in South Africa, Argentina and Japan. (Good sources: Payne, 1995; Paxton, 2004)

Where and why does fascism take hold? It cannot happen anywhere; some tendencies, perhaps, but not fascism as a system. First, it requires a modernizing nation that has a serious state, a significant private business sector and a complex civil society. The ultranationalism so characteristic of fascism resembles an extreme tribalism, but societies that turn fascist are too advanced to be considered tribal. Moreover, though studies of totalitarianism typically view communism and fascism as quite similar, they have a key difference that often gets overlooked: the presence of a private sector and a market system, however weak. Communism must be rid of them, but fascism aims to strengthen them, albeit in a suborned way.

Second, fascism requires that this modernizing society be suffering from deep disturbances and grievances. There should be a widespread sense of disaster, alarm and disarray stemming, say, from a lost war, a severe economic depression, pervasive corruption scandals or humiliating foreign interference. It’s a point that applies to the making of terrorists as well as fascists: Whatever the political, economic or social details, people feel that they and their nation are facing an “absolute disaster,” not just “relative deprivation” (to adapt a point from Barkun, 1974).

Under these conditions, longing can arise for national rebirth, not to mention a great charismatic leader to show the way. People at large are so fed up, furious, divided and fearful about the condition of their nation that, if fascism’s exponents manage to seize office through election or force, it is not that difficult to make people succumb to fascism’s promises to reunite them, overcome obstacles, organize a strong system, and purge society of all that is weak, divisive, and anomalous. A leadership cult and grandiose assertions of national solidarity, sovereignty and independence spread fascism’s mythic appeal as its media, intelligence and coercive apparatuses expand to ensure compliance.

Why be reminded of these basics? Because Americans are not used to thinking about fascism as a system anymore. And because fascism — unlike communism — is far from dead or obsolete. The spread of the market system, pro-democracy pressures, and other aspects of globalization are having ambivalent effects around the world. There are signs of progress in many societies. But not in all.

Some modernizing nations are having wrenching difficulties adapting to globalization and other pressures to build ever more open, competitive, complex systems. Some also face external and internal threats that can be hyped to arouse ultranationalism and distract citizens from domestic problems. Thus the conditions for fascism, which were centered in Europe many decades ago, are likely to recur in new places, as a natural attraction for societies that get in trouble at a particular stage of social evolution.

Already in this century we have had to wage two wars against fascistic regimes: Slobodan Milosevic’s in Serbia, and Saadam Hussein’s in Iraq. We also keep having to tussle with fascism-inspired regimes that have taken hold elsewhere — notably Hugo Chavez’s in Venezuela. These instances are more harbingers than holdovers from past trends.

Today, Chavez in particular keeps revealing that the kind of “socialism” he has in mind has a lot more in common with the bygone “national socialism” of Europe (esp. Mussolini) than the communist socialism of the old Soviet system. This makes for something of a contrast to Cuba's Fidel Castro.

In retrospect, Castro never really faced a choice between liberal democracy and communism; his choice was mainly between pursuing fascism or communism. And he preferred the latter partly because, from a TIMN perspective, he knew how to promote a nationalistic tribalism and hierarchical institutions, but not how to promote a reformed market system and private sector. Before long, however, fascism might turn out to be Cuba's next preferred model. This is one reason for U.S. strategists to be wary of speculations that lifting the embargo may lead to a democratic opening in Cuba.

It is easier to sound a warning about a new round of fascism in far-off places than to specify where or in what variety and numbers. But some future possibilities — Russia? a new Islamic caliphate? — would prove much riskier for the West than others.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, surges in tribal partisanship, efforts to strengthen government surveillance and monitoring, and disarrray in relations between state and market actors suggest, from a TIMN perspective, that some fascism tendencies have been mounting within the United States itself for some years now. I think that’s partly in reaction to the rise of the information-age network form, and the stresses and strains that is placing on the roles of the tribal, institutional, and market forms in our society — but I’ll leave that notion for another day.

[Updated version of text from 2003 draft and op-ed.]

UPDATE -- March 15, 2009: An essay by Benito Mussolini, “The Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism” (1933), made available at Marc Schulman’s blog American Future, makes for very interesting reading that substantiates a lot of what is summarized above about the nature of Fascism.

1 comment:

Jay Taber said...

Progress is a lethal concept concocted by colonial states to justify dominating indigenous peoples. Having allied themselves with conservatism long ago, progressives have no trouble rationalizing support of apartheid, as long as there are dividends. A progressive-fascist conceptual alliance in support of market theology has already emerged in the US; one sees it most often in expressions used to marginalize spiritually-motivated peace and green activists, especially those from indigenous societies.