Why there is so much nonsense spouted about fascism

By Lorenzo

If you are going to invoke the interwar period, particularly the 1930s, please do so intelligently.

By which I mean, non-propagandistically. And by interwar period I mean the phenomenon of fascism and neo-fascism.

Despite self-serving (look at me, I am opposing fascism!) shrieking, there is not a lot of fascism or neo-fascism in contemporary Western politics. Fascists and neo-fascists do, of course, exist but mostly as sad and nasty fringe groups–Golden Dawn in Greece is the most locally successful of the breed, as was the MSI in its early days in Italy (where it got much of its support as an anti-Mafia vote), though nowadays it is post-fascist as a necessary element in mainstreaming itself.

What has become conspicuous is a lot of shrieking-and-pointing about alleged fascists and neo-fascism. (E.g. treating Pauline Hanson, for example here, and Geert Wilders as neofascism and Marine Le Pen‘s National Front in France as fascism.) This has mostly been a result of intellectually impoverished frameworks interacting with moral grandstanding; in particular, the moralised cognitive tribalism that is such a feature of postmodern identity progressivists (PIPs) and their fellow cognitive tribalists.

Militarisation of politics

The reason there is not much fascism or neo-fascism in contemporary Western politics is because there is remarkably little militarisation of politics. By militarisation of politics, I do not mean being pro-military spending, extolling the worth of military service or supporting military intervention. Hillary Clinton and other folk supporting various military interventions are not examples of the militarisation of politics.

Actual Fascists, doing fascist politics.
Mussolini marching on Rome, 1922.

By militarisation of politics, I mean something much more domestic and much more pervasive: seeing politics operationally and rhetorically in military terms; taking military virtues to be the central virtues all society should be directed to creating; seeing military service as the apotheosis that all true men should seek; glorifying military conflict itself.

The appeal of Italian Fascism and German Nazism was deeply pervaded with appeal to the heroic virtues of military service and conflict. It is no accident that both movements had their own paramilitary wings. Mass display of uniformed militarised masculinity was a key part of their political aesthetic, their operational methods, their motivating ideology, of their political branding. It was also no accident that both Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany were aggressive powers: it was something their entire mode of politics was inherently directed towards. (It is also a sign of Franco not being a fascist, rather a traditionalist authoritarian who used some fascist rhetoric and props, that he made the achievement and maintenance of peace a key justifying prop of his regime.)

As peacetime systems of rule, neither Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany were remotely as murderous or systematically oppressive as various Leninist regimes. But peacetime was not their time. It was particularly not in the case of Nazi Germany; lebensraum was Hitler’s political aim, the object the policy of his Reich was directed towards. It was in the removal of normal constraints that war entails which let loose the true megacidal horrors of Nazism.

Nazi politics, 1928.

Indeed, as systems of domestic politics, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany were relatively unremarkable tyrannies. Nazism was terrible because it exported its viciousness into war and then used war as a cover to let its full megacidal ambitions loose. Italian Fascism was less so in every sense, but engaged in its own, smaller, imperial military adventures and then made itself a co-conspirator in the grander horror.

There do most certainly exist in the modern world analogues of Fascism and Nazism; movements glorifying violent conflict and heroic virtues in grandiose imperial ambitions–the jihadis. Within Western politics, however, not so much.

Militating against

Nor is there any surprise in the lack of such militarisation of politics within the contemporary West. First, is the association of war with horror and vast risks (particularly as a result of the war that Nazi politics let loose), a factor reinforced by low fertility rates (the prospect of war looks very different to a society of families of 5-10 children than a society of families of 1-2 children). Second, it represents a grotesquely failed model of politics even in its own terms. Third, having paramilitary wings is an easy legislative target and a promise of the threat of disorder which is precisely the opposite effect you want to have to get mass political support in the contemporary West. Fourth, there is no issue in contemporary politics with mass appeal that such militarisation represents any sort of even vaguely plausible response to.

Thus, it is no accident that both the National Front in France and the MSI in Italy moved away from their neo-fascist roots in their drive to become more electorally successful: a form of the taming of the extremist fringe which is supposed to be part of the virtue of electoral politics.

Threat levels, then …

Which leads to the other way such contemporary pointing-and-shrieking comprehensively fails to grapple with past and present political reality–in refusing to consider how much the appeal of Italian Fascism and German Nazism rested on the threat of Leninism and Stalinism. In other words, refusing to consider the dynamic nature of politics, its action-and-response nature.

That Fascism was a response to Leninism was both explicit in Mussolini’s thinking and in how his movement was able to generate such high levels of support–the prospect of a Leninist revolution in the Kingdom of Italy in the immediate aftermath of the Great War seemed very real to many. With 20-20 hindsight, whatever risk there had been was in sharp decline before Mussolini’s March on Rome, but that was not how it appeared to many at the time. Without Leninism as a model of total politics (which Mussolini adopted and re-directed) and Leninism as a multi-dimensional threat to social order (which Mussolini posed as the true defender against), Fascism’s militarisation of politics would have seemed grotesque and threatening to the very support base it relied upon. With such a violent revolutionary threat, however, invoking the role of uniformed protectors had much more resonance.

Nazi-Communist street fighting, Berlin, 1930s.

The same points apply to the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s. In the prosperous 1920s, the NSDAP was a fringe Party precisely because its (para)militarised politics was disruptive and threatening. When the insane Bank of France, aided and abetted by a feckless US Federal Reserve, turned the interwar gold standard into a system of economic devastation such that the proudly Stalinist KPD began to electorally overtake the SDP, threatening to bring to Germany the confiscations, totalitarian tyranny, mass starvations and killings of Stalinism, and ordinary politics seemed incapable or unwilling to do anything effective, then the Nazis could point to a problem to which their militarisation of politics could be presented as an answer. Without Stalinism as a model of total politics (which Hitler followed and surpassed Mussolini in adopting and re-directing) and Stalinism as a multi-dimensional threat to social order (which Hitler posed as the true defender against) the NSDAP’s militarisation of politics would have remained a grotesque and threatening folly to the very support base it needed for electoral success.

… and now

The nationalist populisms of our time (notably, One Nation, National Front, Sweden Democrats, Party for Freedom, Flemish Interest, Alternative for Germany, etc) are not Fascist or Nazi, or even neo-Fascist or neo-Nazi, in any useful sense. They are responses to the way globalisation is dividing Western societies into anywheres and somewheres (David Goodhart), into cosmopolitans and parochials (Katharine Betts), with increasingly distinct experiences, perspectives and interests; to contemporary progressivist politics, and to failures of the mainstream centre-right, but they are much less feral responses than Fascism or Nazism because they are not responding to things anywhere near as violently threatening as Leninism in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, and its variouscopy-catrisings, or Stalinism in the context of widespread, intense, and apparently entrenched economic misery.

The contemporary version:
Hezbollah swearing-in ceremony.

For the 1930s Depression was not enough in itself to generate such politics. Fascist politics remained fringe throughout the Anglosphere, despite the depths of the Depression in the US and Australia particularly. Without mass Leninist or Stalinist Parties, plus rural votes profoundly alienated from the centre-left, there was nothing anywhere near directly threatening enough to create any breakthrough into mass voter support for the militarisation of politics.

There still isn’t in the contemporary West. (Unless relations with the growing Muslim communities in Western Europe continue to spiral downwards.)

What there is, are remarkably arrogant and insular globalist elites who use their sense of moral superiority as a socio-cultural club against any concerns they deem beneath their moral consideration. Folk who display a massive sense of moral entitlement in demanding absolute respect for their moral concerns while habitually displaying complete contempt for the moral concerns of other citizens. Sheer exasperation with their condescending self-involvement is driving working class voters in particular to embrace various forms of populist nationalism. (Or, in Spain and Greece, various form of populist socialism.)

Such populists are pushing nationalism (ethnicity politics) instead of patriotism (polity loyalty), and nationalist politics have all the nasty implications that identity politics do. But if the language of cultural placement and affirmation is not only abandoned by mainstream politics, but actively excoriated, then it creates a massive opportunity for nationalists. Just as if support for migration become a marker of membership of the oh-so-moral cognitive elite, so that any discussion of the downsides and costs of migration (and both exist) is deemed illegitimate, that creates a political opportunity too.

Politics as dynamic interaction

One cannot understand the rise of populist nationalists without understanding the dynamic nature of politics. But that would require the PIPish cosmopolitans to look critically in the mirror, and their entire mode of political, intellectual and cultural operation has become all about signalling their tribal membership and their multidimensional cognitive and moral superiority. So, no mirrors for them.

On the contrary, one signals one’s cognitive tribal membership by blaming folk who display their intellectual and moral culpability by dissenting from progressivist signalling pieties. Which leaves us back to pointing-and-shrieking about fascism and neo-fascism. It’s self-serving nonsense. (Consider, just for a moment, the vast gulf in methods, operations, ambitions and policies between the jihadis and the populist nationalists.) But it is very revealing self-serving nonsense. Unfortunately, the longer PIPish cosmopolitans remain trapped in their self-serving blindness, the greater the number of exasperated and infuriated voters is likely to become. (Because, of course, constantly shouting racist!, xenophobe! is such an excellent way to be persuasive and is not at all about displaying one’s moral superiority.)

The AntiFa idea of being the opposite of fascists:
organised violence with improvised uniforms
to block other people’s peaceful assembly and free speech.

It is also a very old pattern, whereby a socio-cultural elite agrees furiously amongst itself how horrible the rustics/plebs/peasants/proles are. (As is pretty explicit in this post.) Made all the more blindly self-righteous in the contemporary West by the pose of being “subversive” and their addiction to explaining social outcomes as being the result of the malice of their fellow citizens (i.e. as being caused by racism, misogny, [fill in the blank]phobia …) who, because they are the malicious, cannot be debated with, only shrieked at.

For the problem with turning moral beliefs into markers of status and tribal membership is that they become too precious to (re)consider, leading to an increasing hostility to reality and inability to deal with difference. The PIPish cosmopolitans are relentlessly, often viciously, tribal (which makes this post hilarious in its self-blindness). The pointing-and-shrieking fascist! fascist! is a symptom of the cognitive xenophobia, the inability to cope with difference in concerns and perspectives, among those holding the cultural and intellectual “commanding heights” in Western societies that is doing a great deal to make Western politics much more dysfunctional.

So, the fascism! pointing-and-shrieking is not only bad history, it is part of a wider, destructive, self-serving, pattern which is new in details but is otherwise tediously oh-so-been-here-before.

ADDENDA Also worth noting is that both Nazism and Fascism were very explicit in their anti-democratic rhetoric (which, of course, is a another way they parallel the jihadis). Fuhrerprinzip in particular followed logically from the idealisation of the heroic virtues–which come together in a hierarchy of heroic leaders which reached its pinnacle in the Fuhrer himself.

7 Comments

  1. Posted April 25, 2017 at 5:33 am | Permalink

    Excellent piece, Lorenzo, and well-timed, too.

  2. Steve Ruble
    Posted April 25, 2017 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    A while back you wrote a post (http://skepticlawyer.com.au/2016/05/08/what-starts-in-palestine-does-not-stay-in-israel/) which I really appreciated. It opened my eyes a bit to the way a lot of the media I consume downplays the more unpalatable aspects of Middle Eastern conflicts. Having been made aware of the pattern, I’ve seen similar things in media coverage of other progressive pet topics. I want to sincerly thank you for giving me that perspective.

    So I’ve been disappointed to see in your recent posts a tendency to fall into the same trap with respect to conflicts between “PIPish cosmopolitans” and the working class voters/rural/nationalist/populist volk you see coalescing in opposition to them. You repeatedly call out progressives for failing to understand or express tolerance for other points of view or value systems, but man, have you heard of Brietbart? Or Rush Limbaugh? Or the Daily Mail? Or any number of other right-wing outlets who appear to start with the assumption that progressives want to destroy everything good, then go downhill from there? Have you listened to the sermons at megachurches and broadcast on TV which assure the faithful that they are the holy saved people and progressives are actually demonic? Sure, some progressives act “holier than thou” when it comes to various moral niceties, but vast swaths of the other side literally say they are “holier than thou”, and mean it. I think there’s an asymmetry here that you are neglecting.

  3. Posted April 25, 2017 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Thank you Don.

  4. Posted April 25, 2017 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    Steve Ruble @2

    Thanks for the kind comment. I think you misunderstand my point. I am not in favour of sympathy for the volkish political entrepreneurs (or tabloid indulgences), I am in favour of more sympathy for why people end up voting for them or reading them.

    There are so many good grounds for criticising the volkish political entrepreneurs and the shrieking tabloids which don’t involve writing off their voters and readers.

  5. Posted April 25, 2017 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Gee, for someone who’s pushing back against inflated political language, you’re not shy about labelling those you disagree with – “intellectually impoverished”, “moral grandstanding”, “cognitive tribalists”, “self-serving nonsense”. Does it never occur to you that your opponents are honestly trying to understand the world and just reaching different conclusions about it to you?

    I don’t use the word “fascist” to “posture” or “signal” anything: I use it as a serious descriptive term, to try to help people understand (mostly European) party politics. In the same way I use “conservative”, “liberal”, “social democrat” and others.

    A fascist party is one that shares a family resemblance with other parties to form a recognisable category. They share ideas (ethnocentrism, hostility to trade, support for traditional gender roles, etc.), tactics (demonisation of “others”, promotion of nationalist myths, anti-establishment rhetoric), historical and organisational links with one another and with the canonical fascist parties of the 1930s. No single component is necessary and sufficient to earning the label, but they cluster in a fairly readily identifiable way.

    France’s National Front, Germany’s NPD, Hungary’s Jobbik, Bulgaria’s Attak, Slovakia’s People’s Party – these and others fit the bill pretty closely. Another group, of which Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom is probably the leading example, comes from a somewhat different intellectual tradition, but has converged with the first group in terms of policies and political role. I think “neo-fascist” is an appropriate label for them; it needs to be used with care (and, to be sure, often isn’t), but so do lots of terms in politics.

    What’s the argument against using it? That fascism necessarily involves “militarisation of politics”? No doubt, fascists are big on militarisation: violence, aggressive nationalism, idolisation of the armed forces. But western Europe doesn’t do private paramilitaries any more. Why should that contingent historical fact deprive us of a useful analytical term? It’s a bit like saying that because the Tories of the seventeenth century carried swords and wore funny clothes, you can’t now have a genuine Tory party because they don’t have those things. It’s mistaking the incidental for the essential.

    Similar points apply to your claim about fascism arising from fear of Bolshevism. Assuming your account of that is correct, so what? The etiology of an idea isn’t part of its content; the fact that a particular set of historical causes is what first led people to embrace fascism doesn’t imply that you can’t now have fascism without those causes. And certainly today’s fascists still focus heavily on an “enemy within”, but with the Muslims now largely taking the place of the Bolsheviks and the Jews.

    I’m aware that there’s a respectable academic usage of “fascist” that applies it more narrowly, basically just to Mussolini’s original and its close imitators. That’s not “wrong” – it’s just a word, people can use it however they want – but I think it’s less useful. If your analysis leads to the conclusion that, for example, General Franco wasn’t a fascist, then I think you’ve given up much of the utility of the term.

    And then there’s Hitler. (There’s always Hitler.) No, of course Le Pen and Wilders and Farage are not “another Hitler”; not even close. But the rise of Hitler is the most well-known and well-studied example of the destruction of democracy from within by authoritarian forces, so it’s not unreasonable to look to that period for lessons. And I think there are useful lessons there, about the crucial importance of collaboration from established right-wing parties and about the destructiveness of sectarianism on the extreme left.

    Ultimately, the terminology isn’t that important. The enemy is at the gates; it’s more important to fight them than to agree on what to call them. There are people whose objectives are to damage or destroy the institutions that have been painstakingly built up to promote peace, international co-operation, tolerance, free trade and democracy. I think it’s important to resist them. If you want to just insert “right-wing populist nationalism” wherever I say “fascism”, then fine – but I think you’ll be making it clumsier without really adding precision.

  6. David J. H.
    Posted May 1, 2017 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Because there are subtle trends toward fascism.

  7. David J. H.
    Posted May 1, 2017 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    .. or, name it as you will … oligarchy et al.

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