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Stop talking about American ‘fascism’ Democracy faces different threats today


October 26, 2022   5 mins

In the Forties, Dorothy Thompson posed the question “Who Goes Nazi?” Our version today, endlessly asked, is “Who Goes Fascist?” The unfortunate answer seems to be: everybody. Over the past few months, I’ve seen the “fascism” tag applied without a hint of irony to comic-book fans, health fanatics, and the claim that men and women tend on average to be different heights. Our vast media meat grinder has an irritating tendency to reduce once substantive political concepts into casual, meaningless buzzwords.

It’s why I’m sceptical about any discussions regarding the prospect of American fascism. The latest trigger was Italy’s general election, which swept the ambiguously populist Right-wing party Fratelli d’Italia into power. But this is only the most recent. Before that, President Biden himself singled out segments of the GOP as “semi-fascist”, and while he didn’t elaborate, a number of commentators doubled-down on it. Earlier still, scholars in highly-coveted positions, such as Jason Stanley and Timothy Snyder have created veritable cottage industries out of a moralised analysis of what they treat as a global surge in fascism.

The fascism discussion is increasingly taking on a meta dimension, in which half of the arguments now circle around the usage itself, and whether disputing its usage perhaps makes one, if not fascist, then insufficiently dedicated to the spirit of democracy (as well as pedantic, and so on).

But why do we keep returning to this subject, and why do we find it so difficult to even agree on the terms of the debate? The second question is the easier to answer. For, despite being one of the major forms of modern political organisation, fascism is probably the least well understood. The great Italian historian of fascism Renzo de Felice remarked that unlike liberalism or communism, fascism had no defining texts — no Second Treatise of Government, no Das Kapital. And while it attracted major thinkers such as Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, neither produced a work that served to systematically define it for future generations.

It is the least systematic of the major ideological tendencies of the 20th century, and generating an inductive understanding is complicated by the confounding factors in each country’s specific manifestation. In Italy — the original incarnation of fascism — you have inter alia the particular character of Mussolini, but also the unique role of the Vatican, the country’s geopolitical situation, the recent and still ongoing colonial ventures, and the rising importance of diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany. Meanwhile, other Right-wing regimes of the 20th century — Spain, Portugal, Greece, Argentina, Syria — all incorporated elements or factions of fascism without necessarily embracing fascism tout court. And over all this hangs the shadow of Nazism, which is of course a variant of fascism, but one whose most salient features — race worship and Jew-hatred — are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions of fascism.

All of which is to say that confusion surrounding the term is probably inevitable, though this has hardly limited its usage. On the contrary: it has by now become an almost obligatory grace note of disapproval, regardless of how far removed from the subject at hand (nor is this dynamic limited to the Left — cf. Jonah Goldberg’s lazy manifesto Liberal Fascism). Of course, this is demonology, not political analysis. As George Orwell put it: “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’.” It is in this sense, the domestic equivalent of bringing up the Munich Agreement in foreign policy debates.

But fascism is not just an empty ideological vessel; it describes a programmatic way of organising political society that differs from either liberalism or communism. Fascism is a totalising project — one that channels all subsidiary institutions from the family to business corporations to the nation toward the interests of the absolute state. And as Adam Tooze has pointed out, this almost always operates in concert with extraordinary military and economic mobilisation against perceived threats, both foreign and domestic.

If this doesn’t sound very much like any major political phenomenon today (and it doesn’t), why then do we obsess over it so? It is clear that the idea of fascism — however nebulous — continues to exert a unique, dark fascination for us (alas, poor communism, with its nearly 100 million dead, apparently lacks a certain je ne sais quoi). And perhaps this is nothing new. Almost 50 years ago, Susan Sontag noted how: “For those born after the early 1940s, bludgeoned by a lifetime’s palaver, pro and con, about communism, it is fascism — the great conversation piece of their parents’ generation — which represents the exotic, the unknown.”

But I think there’s something more at work in the collective quasi-obsession with identifying and rooting out fascism in our own society. Machiavelli has a great line where he notes how Roman writers would “praise Caesar but blame Catiline” as a coded way of talking about what were in effect Caesar’s crimes. Something similar seems to be at work with respect to how we discuss the defects of democracy — assigning those tendencies we least like to some external phenomenon that we call “fascism”. Overweening executive power? Militarised deep state? Consolidated corporate authority working hand-in-glove with centralised bureaucracies? Immigration restrictions? Political demagoguery? The truth is that all of the elements that we have seen fit to attribute to the external threat of fascism are perfectly compatible with democracy.

Some of this is simply a function of the phenomenon identified many decades ago by the philosopher Alexandre Kojùve: that diverse ideological tendencies are submerged under the overarching form of the modern state. But it is also the case that democracy itself — like Whitman — contains multitudes. And our insistence on associating all political virtue with democracy and vice with various opponents (authoritarianism, autocracy, fascism, etc.) has blinded us to this fact. Like it or not, our ongoing political disputes ultimately remain family disputes, and we will— not for the first time — have to work them out among ourselves.

By treating fascism as kind of eternally recurring political tendency, rather than a historically distinctive phenomenon, we have elevated it into an Aristotelian taxonomy of political life, but without anything like Aristotle’s philosophical rigour. The result is that our political understanding is reduced to a sliding scale with democracy in the middle, and communism and fascism at either end, serving as permanent tendencies against which we require constant warning from the great and good among us. This account is both too small and too big: on the one hand, this represents an impoverishment of our political imagination; but on the other, it needlessly introduces external ideological categories in lieu of a serious analysis of the political tendencies distinctive to democracies themselves.

In the end though, does any of this matter, beyond its importance to the egos of a handful of public intellectuals? I think it does. First, because — as the motto of Faber College has it — knowledge is good. The “everything is fascism” discourse presents an impoverished understanding of political possibilities, and leaves its audience less informed than when they started. But it also matters because, if you think as many do that our democracy is in a bad way, then a misdiagnosis is practically and not just intellectually dangerous. Getting it right is a concern for citizens, not just scholars or “Historian here!” types on social media. Meanwhile, the self-proclaimed doctors of democratic society, having diagnosed the disease as fascism, lambast anyone who disagrees with them as being a partisan of the disease itself, even as the patient grows sicker and sicker.


David Polansky is a research fellow with the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy. He also writes at strangefrequencies.co

@polanskydj

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Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
1 year ago

Yes, there are right-wing extremists, but the media is chock full of left-wing activists so it greatly exaggerates the problem.

David Sharples
David Sharples
1 year ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

In America, and I think most of the world, the danger is on the Left.
It is the Left that controls almost all the institutions, media outlets, government bureaucracies, universities.. and seeks to silence free speech.
The totalitarian Left always “projects”. Any voice, native or foreign, that speaks against the Left’s domination is immediately called “Fascist”.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
1 year ago
Reply to  David Sharples

Absolutely, the Democrats are bereft of ideas and good policy so they casually use words like ‘racist’, ‘fascism’, ‘semi-fascism’, etc. much like a military ‘shock’n’awe’ display. It’s momentarily stunning but the party’s fundamental lack of morality & vision is getting them nowhere in the long run. It’s been 50 years since the turbulence of the Civil Rights Movement, feminism etc and seemingly the Democrat Party is running out of outrage & steam.

George K
George K
1 year ago
Reply to  Cathy Carron

Nope. They got important bills through congress, something no Republican could do, or did do.

Matthew Kirk
Matthew Kirk
1 year ago
Reply to  George K

Republicans abolished slavery. I win.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

Left and right has always been irrelevant to the definition of fascism as illustrated by the Nazis being National Socialists with many socialist policies – but for some reason everyone forgets that fact.

“Fascism is a totalising project — one that channels all subsidiary institutions from the family to business corporations to the nation toward the interests of the absolute state.”
I think the supposedly ‘left wing’ ‘progressive’ trans ideology falls within the definition of fascism here as it seeks to harness the power of the whole state, institutions, academia, media, law, police and families to impose its views that men can be women.

Thankfully it’s starting to fail now. But it was a close run thing, and required a courageous few to engage in a ‘Battle of Britain’ to stop them winning.

George K
George K
1 year ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

Really? Look at this page.

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
1 year ago
Reply to  George K

Good one, George. Only serious wit-meister would suggest that a minor website (sorry, Unherd; lesser, perhaps) with a reasonable spread of conservative opinion cancels out the overwhelming preponderance of left-wing opinion in the wider media?

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
1 year ago

When was the last time you heard anyone say “far-left”? It doesn’t seem to be said. And yet, if a “far-right” exists, by corollary certainly a “far-left” must also exist. And yet, it doesn’t get referred to (or denounced).

ï»żI suggest this is because the people using the term “far-right” are themselves on the “far-left”, and therefore don’t see themselves as what they are. Only the distance from “far-left” to “far-right” makes “far-right” seem so. Obviously, to a “centrist”, someone on the “far-left” or “far-right” would seem to be only on the “right” or “left”, the distance being lesser from one to the other, you see.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 year ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

You could make an argument that the modern far left and far right are made up of individuals who wish to impose their collective political morals on everybody else. Perhaps Communism and Fascism are separated by the narcissism of small differences.
There’s a trajectory: The Best shall win prizes -> All shall win prizes -> All shall be grateful for the prizes I bestow on behalf of the State. The right wing Lady Bountiful and the left wing Union Convener are both striving to impose their morality on others.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Agreed. The irony is that the left always insists that they are on the “right” side of history.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

“ï»żI suggest this is because the people using the term “far-right” are themselves on the “far-left”
I suggest that it is because the MSM and our political classes are dominated by the left so they are hardly likely to shine a spotlight on themselves

David Yetter
David Yetter
1 year ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

Actually, I find the phrase “far-right” as used in Europe amusing. It appears, observed from the other side of the Pond, that noticing that every fiqh of Islamic sharia is deeply illiberal and concluding that mass immigration to Europe from the Muslim world is a bad idea is sufficient to be called “far-right”, without regard for one’s stance on any other issues.

David Yetter
David Yetter
1 year ago

The problem with the use of “fascism” in political discourse comes from its uses as essentially a meaningless pejorative applicable to whatever the current iteration of the Left dislikes. If one uses it only to describe political programs which are, in fact analogous to Mussolini’s, it remains a coherent concept.
Of course with the general agreement that socialism and Communism don’t actually work (Hayek and vonMises told us in theory why even as Lenin was having a go at trying. The collapse of the Soviet Union; the abandonment of central planning for a market economy, albeit with state interference, by the “Communist” Parties in places like China and Vietnam; the embrace of Thatcherism by New Labour, vindicate their views) any instantiation of a statist urge, whether it’s the CCP under Xi, Putinism, the Davos crowd’s “Global Reset”, or the American cabal of the Democrats, the media, tech firms and the security apparatus, is going to look a lot like Mussolini’s program. The original versions of fascism were stamped out, not proved unworkable. Fascism (in the coherently meaningful, rather than pejorative sense) represents, in my estimation, the only feasible opposition to liberal democratic capitalism, unless someone tries to revive Mussolini’s original idea of syndicalism, or the older anarcho-syndicalism.

Last edited 1 year ago by David Yetter
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  David Yetter

I have come to much the same conclusion

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 year ago
Reply to  David Yetter

Indeed. Fascism was defeated in war, not by its own failings. It has been successful by other names before and since (see modern China). Communism does its damage through its repeated and inevitable failures. Fascism does its damage through its success.

Aaron James
Aaron James
1 year ago

”The great Italian historian of fascism Renzo de Felice remarked that unlike liberalism or communism, fascism had no defining texts — no Second Treatise of Government, no Das Kapital.”

So Why the H*ll did not the writer just kick this wandering story off by giving a very good, easily understood, short, definition?

Couple examples to illustrate. Maybe say how it got the trains to run on time and was the Merger of Corporations and Government.

‘ Corporatocracy’ is close, the Corporations run all, but neglects the purely Government Dictator, and add both together, merge them, and it is Fascism is how I see it.

Sort of like now with Gates, Zuckerberg, Fink, Buffet and Biden, only they still keep a sort of rule of law. The FBI are not Stasi – yet. The Tyranny not begun really – but one catches a whiff of Fa*fism when Twitter bans the sitting President, and then allows NO Criticism of the Political Opponent. Where Gates and Biden walk hand in hand mandating vax and dissent is 100% suppressed by all Media, where Fink is given $80 Billion QE a month by Biden (Lets add the Fed in this cabal) to invest in China through weird Derivatives.

If Fa*cism exists in USA then – – Under the Biden Regime the Pharma, Military Industrial, Tech, social media, MSM, Brokerage Houses, all looked just like the Farmer and Pig – were becoming one….

”Orwell’s Animal Farm: “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron James

There is no very good, easily understood, short, definition, that’s the problem. All that happens is individuals define it to be what they don’t like, as, in fact, you are doing. The writer does point out a few commonalities, which could help identify a possible fascist movement, and that is probably the best that can be done.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago

Under Mussolini fascism was characterized by its seamless relationship between corporations and state. I think what Aaron is trying to say is that this does certainly seem to be the case in the US. Lately big tech corporations have been operating as propaganda arms of the Democrat party. Criticisms of the reigning party are removed while insults and threats to the opposition are tacitly condoned, encouraged even. Many people think propaganda is merely the repetition of lies. That’s definitely one aspect of it, but the deeper underlying message is that: “we’re constantly lying to you, and even though you know we’re lying, there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.” Propaganda’s ultimate effect is to demoralize opponents and drown out criticism.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron James

Presumably Renzo de Felice never read ‘ Mein Kampf’?

Thomas King
Thomas King
1 year ago

“For, despite being one of the major forms of modern political organisation, fascism is probably the least well understood. The great Italian historian of fascism Renzo de Felice remarked that unlike liberalism or communism, fascism had no defining texts — no Second Treatise of Government, no Das Kapital.”
What about ‘The Origins and Doctrines of Fascism‘ by Giovani Gentile? I myself haven’t read it, but I imagine that would be a good place to start. Plenty of fascists wrote long, detailed treatises on their political beliefs, they’re just not as well know as the likes of Das Kapital, which I suspect may have something to do with an obvious communist-friendly bias in academia. Can’t have the proles learning just how incestuously related the two ideologies are, right?

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 year ago

The author is wrong about one thing. We DO have a fairly good modern example of fascism, at least according to his own definition:
“a totalising project — one that channels all subsidiary institutions from the family to business corporations to the nation toward the interests of the absolute state” and further “operates in concert with extraordinary military and economic mobilisation against perceived threats, both foreign and domestic.”
If there is a more succinct and accurate summary of the government of modern China, please point me in that direction. Fascism is not, and never was, the opposite of Communism. It’s more like a halfway point between there and democratic capitalism. China now is more like Germany of the 1930s than it is like the Soviet Union at any point.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago

I think that this article is extremely important in the way it points out that we do not wish to address some inherent problems within democracy. I have long been of the opinion, for example, that democracy has within it the tendency to become a “dictatorship of the majority” as well as the, oft pointed out, possibility of “elite take-over”, which is why democracy itself needs to be checked, preferably by a non-democratic institution with some limited powers – the House of Lords, maybe. I realise that this is an unpopular view here, because there appears to be, on this site, a generally held view that if the majority want or say something then it must be right.

By the way, I think UnHerd should put trigger warnings on articles – mentions of “populist”, “extreme right”, for example, need to be pointed out, and they could put up something like “WARNING – this article contains some mild criticism of Mr Trump”; that way readers can avoid reading it and getting too upset.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
1 year ago

Is there such a thing as mild critisism of “The Donald?” In any case I thought that the denizens of this parish were expected to take it neat (or on the chin) without the slightest falter in their stride – snowflakes of any generation not allowed/catered for.

David Yetter
David Yetter
1 year ago
Reply to  Doug Pingel

You ask, “Is there such a thing as mild critisism of ‘The Donald?'” Yes, but you have to look in old journals of the American Right like National Review, Commentary and to a lesser extent the generally pro-Trump American Spectator to find it.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Doug Pingel

Well said!

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
1 year ago
Reply to  Doug Pingel

Unless someone mentions Climate Change, which is the signal for red faces and outrage all round.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 year ago

Our 17th amendment eliminated Our ultimate protection from tyrannies of the majority. It’s been downhill ever since.

David Sharples
David Sharples
1 year ago

“Fascist” is the new “Racist”.

Last edited 1 year ago by David Sharples
Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
1 year ago

Biden has spent his entire 50 year career blowing with the wind. No man has ever been as opportunistic, nor craven. Biden is not a principled, nor a well-educated man. That he calls the GOP / Republicans ‘semi-fascist’ is just a burp from a man whose mind is addled but not so much that he can still blow with the wind of his radical Progressive Party. Biden really doesn’t know what he said only that his party agrees. He is not leading the country at large.

Bob Smalser
Bob Smalser
1 year ago

Alinsky 101:
Brand others with what you, yourself are guilty of. Trump and conservatives tend to decentralize industry regulation and pandemic execution, the opposite of authoritarian.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Bob Smalser

Classic!
It’s just like labeling a bill, “The Inflation Reduction Act” or “The Affordable Care Act”. The opposite is always true.

Geoff Elliott
Geoff Elliott
1 year ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

An almost cast-iron law of marketing. Get your biggest flaw out of the way in the name. So in the 90’s as solid-state memory devices battled for domination, we had “Compact” Flash, which was the bulkiest, “Smart” Media, which had no control logic on the device itself and “Multimedia” Cards, which couldn’t get the data out quickly enough to support, well, multimedia!
If anyone declares themselves as anti-racist, well, draw your own conclusions


Mathieu Bernard
Mathieu Bernard
1 year ago

Karl Marx once described his mission as “the ruthless criticism of all that exists.” Thusly, contemporary far-left neo-Marxists carry on in the same manner, relentlessly bulldozing virtually every cultural artifact, concept and principle that upholds the existing society. Everything that isn’t socialist, Marxist or communist is de facto fascism, period. End of discussion. Fascism is merely the umbrella term for “not communism.” Besides, it’s the perfect epithet – the other F-word that spitefully spits at your opponent through teeth and tongue.

George K
George K
1 year ago

Mussolini defined the term Fascism, (after he stole the idea from another), as the melding of government and industry. Like Hitler and even Stalin did.

Mechan Barclay
Mechan Barclay
1 year ago

The trouble is our citizens lack any real clear idea of how we disseminate historical information. The glamour of WW2 ( who hasn’t been swayed) tends to roll over all other important historical moments that may provide better understanding to our present day dilemma’s. As an example I love to ask folks who get locked into the basic historical analogies what they think of Jacobites, Khmer Rouge and 1848 revolutions as a quick sense how much history they have critically thought over. Sadly blank stares permeate.
It seems that with limited exposure in learning the vastness of history, the majority of citizens tend to use language, historical ties and general ideas from WW2 and other close to present day events. So it is not surprising that we continue to use “fascism” or “communism” to describe events or ideas today because no one has much clue outside that grand Marvel movie event!