Defining fascism

While I am in no way an expert, back when I was at university I had a certain amount of space free to take electives, especially over the summer semesters when course selections were limited. One year I took a history paper on fascism, I think it might have been a second or third year paper.

Fascism is notoriously difficult to define if you ask a proper historian. It has a very specific context and was really confined to Europe (especially western Europe) in the first half of the twentieth century. However, in our notes we did get a few different lists of defining characteristics. I posted one on Twitter, and included it in my Storify account where I’m keeping threads on current events, but I’m going to post two here as well. The first is the one from Twitter which is a fairly easy to digest one focusing on obvious actions and themes, while the second is a lot more intellectually dense.

  1. Powerful themes of Nationalism and over the top displays of patriotism. Use of nationalistic symbols, deifying the flag, etc.
  2. Disdain for human rights. Recasting them as a luxury that can’t be afforded due to security-based “needs”.
  3. Identification of enemies as a unifying cause, especially internal enemies such as minority groups, communists, socialists, terrorists.
  4. Supremacy of the military. Glorification and disproportionate funding to the armed services.
  5. Rampant sexism. Traditional gender roles are made more rigid, the nuclear family is deified, divorce, abortion and homosexuality suppressed.
  6. Controlled mass media. Either directly or indirectly. Censorship is common particularly during war.
  7. Obsession with national security, using fear as a tool of control.
  8. Intertwining of religion and government. Religious rhetoric twisted for the elite’s purposes even when the actual values are the opposite.
  9. Protection of corporate power. Economic elite class is formed who support the political power base and are protected by them.
  10. Suppression of labour power – unions are either eliminated entirely or suppressed.
  11. Disdain for intellectuals and the arts. Hostility and distrust towards academics is fostered and free expression in art is attacked.
  12. Obsession with crime and punishment. “Hard on crime” stances, almost limitless powers for police to enforce law, abuses overlooked.
  13. Cronyism, nepotism and corruption. Theft of public resources by elites, a group of friends and allies keeping each other in power.
  14. Fraudulent elections. Either directly or often indirectly through voter suppression, gerrymandering, smear campaigns, media manipulation.

This first list was apparently partly derived from the second, which comes directly from Umberto Eco. You can see many of the points reflected in Eco’s list, though Eco notes that these points don’t always all appear, overlap with other types of despotism, and sometimes contradict each other.

  1. The cult of tradition. “One has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers. The Nazi gnosis was nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic, occult elements.”
  2. The rejection of modernism. “The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.”
  3. The cult of action for action’s sake. “Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.”
  4. Disagreement is treason. “The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge.”
  5. Fear of difference. “The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.”
  6. Appeal to social frustration. “One of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.”
  7. The obsession with a plot. “The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia.”
  8. The enemy is both strong and weak. “By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.”
  9. Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. “For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.”
  10. Contempt for the weak. “Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology.”
  11. Everybody is educated to become a hero. “In Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death.”
  12. Machismo and weaponry. “Machismo implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality.”
  13. Selective populism. “There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.”
  14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. “All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”

All 14 from the first list and many of the 14 from the second list can be seen in the USA right now. @GailSimone noted that the reading level of Fox op/ed pieces has dropped dramatically and noticeably. The Protestant work ethic (you are rewarded for your work = rich people are rich because they worked hard = poor people are poor because they didn’t) has long been enshrined in US culture. ISIS is both a looming terror that can be found in every, or at least any, Muslim immigrant, but also something that Trump declares he can beat easily. MRA subculture glorifies the actions of mass shooters standing up against political correctness, feminism, race activism, freedom of religion. There is a segment of MRAs called incels, short for “involuntary celibacy”, who assert that them not getting laid is some kind of breach of their human rights. Trump is reportedly infuriated by reports by the media of basic facts such as the size of the inauguration crowd and lies blatantly while characterising any fact checking as media attacks on him. Affordable Care Act repeal includes removing requirements for insurance plans to offer a slew of care options including anything related to mental health, cancer screening, cancer treatment – because “we” shouldn’t have to pay to support the expensive sick and weak. I’ve seen graphics breaking down health costs by population – 1% of patients cost 20% of health spending, or whatever it is. The second amendment comes across as the single most important amendment to the constitution (the first gives it a run for its money, though the free speech that people want to protect seems very slanted and limited). There’s a conspiracy theory that the proliferation of pink “pussy hats” among the Women’s Marchers was due to Soros buying and distributing them, rather than grassroots efforts of female supporters, and in fact that most protestors in any protest are being paid by Soros to disrupt the status quo.

I’m not sure if a properly qualified historian would define the US government as, strictly speaking, fascist. But I can definitely say that it shares a huge number of characteristics with fascism, and in general conversation I say that’s good enough.