Fascism

#conceptNo mention

“Fascism“ can refer to a historical political movement and to a political Ideology.

Political Movement

As a political movement, fascism is a Complex System, i.e. an emergent phenomenon that cannot be captured by a definition, but has to be described and understood historically (which goes beyond the scope of this note).For recent accounts see e.g. Paxton (2004) and Mason (2021).

The overarching pattern in any such understanding is that “far-right movements arise when the established order starts to crack”.Sandifer (2016)

.

This has been theorised in several different ways: Some interpret fascism as a byproduct of capitalism and thus a violent stage in societal modernisationThis is the canonical marxist interpretation.

, some as a violent response to modernisationSee e.g. Nolte (1966).

, either led by threatened elites or by a fearful lower middle class. Yet others think fascism reacts to a “situation of spiritual and social homelessness”Arendt (1951), 352

, offering “the individual’s total immersion in the community”Paxton (2004), 148

. But in light of the complexity of fascism’s emergence and its different realisations, “there is no prospect in view of any Theory of fascism which might win universal approval.”Kershaw (1985)

We can probably get closest to an adequate theory of historical fascism using a neo-Gramscian approach. It ties together several of these strands, matches the complexity of the subject matter, and emphasises the role of ideology, i.e. 

the conditions of political crisis, arising when the state can no longer organize the political unity of the dominant class and has lost popular legitimacy, and which make fascism attractive as a radical populist solution to the problem of restoring the dominant class’s ‘hegemony’.ibid.

Ideology

Within such a framework, the ideology of fascism can be understood as a Memeplex that exhibits a tension between its modernist (competition and mass society) and reactionary (corporatism and myth) elements.

In a necessarily simplifying manner, these elements can be described as follows:

  1. Militarism: Violence as strength, life as struggle. This is based on a (sometimes implicitly) Social Darwinist understanding of society.
  2. Ethnic nationalism: The nation, ethnically defined, as the relevant unit of this struggle. This expresses a mythical-essentialist conception of history.
  3. The enemy: The success of the nation in its historical struggle is threatened by a clearly identifiable group that is corroding and undermining the nation. Different ideological traditions offers candidates for this group:
    1. Non-whites (racism)
    2. Jews (anti-Semitism)
    3. Marxists (anti-Marxism)
    4. Bourgeoisie (anti-Liberalism). Liberal democracy is seen as an enemy because it is incapable of fending off the other enemies and itself a corrosive force.
  4. Totalitarianism: Only an all-encompassing, apodictic belief can enable the readiness to fight needed to defy the enemies. This amounts to a pervasive ideologisation of society.
  5. Authoritarianism: Only a government that can enforce its dogmas can effectively support such a belief. This necessitates a police and surveillance state.
  6. Führer principle: Only a charismatic leader with absolute Power is persuasive enough to enable totalitarianism and secure authoritarianism. Such a cult of personality has clear connections to the Social Darwinist emphasis on individual prowess, which brings us full circle.

The crucial question for interpreting this ideology is: Which sequence, i.e. way of connecting these elements, represents the “logic of fascism”, the System Dynamics of the memeplex?

Different perspectives on fascism yield different answers to this question:

For proponents of fascism themselves, e.g. Hitler and Mussolini, 1. and 2. are unquestioned assumptions, playing the role of axioms in their belief systems. They differ on whom to include in 3.: While Hitler was as clear-cut a racist and anti-Semite as you can imagine, Mussolini for the most part rejected such views and agreed to them opportunistically at best. Both agree on 3.3. and 3.4. being the historical trigger for fascism, though. 4., 5. and 6. are argued for as necessary conditions for an appropriate response to 3.

Conventional theories of fascism largely mirror this structure: They see 1., 2., 3.3. and 3.4. as primary, interpret the fascists’ respective positions on 3.1. and 3.2. as historically contingent, and examine 4., 5. and 6. as consequences of these views which have been implemented successfully to various degrees in historical fascisms.

A special case is the late work of German historian Ernst Nolte: Diverging from his earlier position, which was largely aligned with conventional theories of fascism in interpreting its ideology, he argued that only 3.3. should be seen as the primary motivation of fascism. This made it largely a reaction to Soviet Bolshevism and the revolution of 1917, which he saw as the root cause of mass violence in the 20th century.

This re-interpretation caused a huge uproar and the so-called “Historikerstreit” (historians’ dispute) about the causes and uniqueness of the Holocaust. A key ingredient of his position is an essentialist conception of history, which is not dissimilar to 2. (and marks a move by Nolte to the political right as well as a point of contact with fascist thinking itself).

Opposed to theories of fascism is Hannah Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism: She sees 4. (and, as a consequence 5. and 6.) as primary and as a reaction to an atomised society (which is not dissimilar to 1.). 2. and 3. are interpreted as historically contingent and in fact manifested completely differently in Soviet Bolshevism, her other example of 20th century totalitarianism.

More fruitful than these traditional interpretations is to view fascism primarily as a psychopathic strategy: Departing from ideas of French thinkers Gustave Le Bon and Georges Sorel, we can view establishing 5. and 6. and thus power as the “real”, ultimate goal. 4. is a condition for achieving this. 1.–3. then become positions taken up for purely strategic reasons: to enable effective mobilisation and coordination for realising 4. In addition, 1. can be seen as a psychopath’s “natural” view of society: absent any empathy, survival of the strongest becomes its organising principle. Thus fascism appears as a psychopath’s natural political strategy.The opening pages of the second part of Hitler’s Mein Kampf suggest that such a reading is not far removed from how Hitler himself developed his flavour of fascism as a political strategy (Hitler 1925/27).

In some regards, this interpretation is equivalent to the neo-Gramscian and cultural evolutionary perspective on fascism – just replace “psychopath” with “elite”.

Abstracting from the historical realisations of 1., 2. and 3. also helps us gauge in how far current political phenomena can legitimately be described as fascist:

Trumpism and the MAGA movement are strongly connected to a pessimistic version of 1., contain modified or modernised versions of 2. and 3., and (more or less) moderated versions of 4., 5. and 6. Since these are all matters of degree, this movement can be seen as a modern-day version of fascism.

The same goes for QAnon: 2. and 4. have been functionally replaced by “modern” equivalents, an international community of conspiracy myth believers and the conspiracy myth itself. While part of the movement’s espoused ideology is a strong opposition to a “big state”, its actual politics strongly resemble 5. and 6.

Last but not least the so-called neo-reactionary movement, which explicitly rejects any identification with (neo-)fascism, appears as clearly fascist when seen through this lens:

In neo-reactionary thinking, 1. is very explicit in an updated form of Social Darwinism that includes extending the normative understanding of natural Selection beyond the human sphere to AI, a coming superintelligence and the so-called Singularity.

This quasi-religious idea is joined by Rationalism to take the place of 4., which obviates the need for 2. and 3. – apart from where it doesn’t: So-called Human Biodiversity is quite popular in Rationalist circles, and in fact is scientific racism by another name. And the role of the “Herrenrasse”, re-interpreted in individualistic terms, is taken up by the nerds – complete with a vision of their ascendence during the Singularity.

And finally, 5. and 6. are very obviously core components of its political theory – self-legitimising and absolute power is at the core of its vision of society.

What all this means is: teaming up with, enabling or minimising the Neo-reaction and its ally Rationalism is nothing less then furthering fascism.

References

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