(this is the first of a series of columns i wrote for street roots, a homeless-themed newspaper in portland. i began writing it while awaiting trial, and finished shortly after the bush family’s bloodless coup d’tat during the presidential election of 2000.)
Trying to find a definitive description of fascism is nearly impossible. Fascists have held an extraordinary array of thoughts, and tend to implement any program for the sake of strengthening the fascist party. In the briefest statement of what fascism is, it is more a process than a political philosophy – a process for seizing state power and maintaining political power through force.
This is not to say that fascism suddenly appeared out of nowhere in the chaos of post-WWII Europe. The infamous Machiavelli – cited by many as the first proponent of modern politics – wrote of his hope that a strong leader would emerge to put an end to the provincialism rampant throughout Italy in his day. It was Machiavelli’s dream that this strong leader would be ruthless in his fight against the corruption he saw in Italian politics. This leader would allow nothing to stand in his way – not democratic processes, reformers, nor political opponents, not legal institutions, nor conformists. These are common traits of all fascist movements. Machiavelli is also a tremendous influence to many American politicians, openly admired by presidents, from Nixon to Clinton.
However, the roots of fascistic lust for power run so deep in Western Society, the two are almost inseparable. From the outset, wherever a centralized authority has arisen in a society, it has done so as an attempt to impose legal codes upon the population. Theses attempts at creating “just” societies have almost universally resulted in establishing a ruling elite to impose and enforce their definition of law and order, but mostly just use this as an excuse to seize and maintain power, and control the flow of wealth in the direction of the ruling elite.
The rise of modern nation states was a horrific development for proponents of the concentration of power in one person. Philosophers like Johann Frichte and Friedrich Hegel envisioned the state as being of the highest rank. Frichte described a Utopian “closed” state that was anti-individualistic, highly authoritarian, and economically self-sufficient. Hegel, though, raised the state to god-like status. He proposed an all-powerful state which would pursue its own self-interest with no consideration given to the effects of its actions and policies upon the population, or to other states, which should battle for supremacy, with the weak giving way to the strong.
19th century proto-fascist philosophers blamed Christianity and liberalism for making Western societies weak, with their love of the meek, compassion, and humility. Even so, they hoped that a great leader would arise who could save civilization from this weakness. Like a messianic god, this leader was to be obeyed unquestioningly, and people would find meaning through his great achievements.
After the turn of the 20th century, the surviving semi-feudal societies of Spain, Germany, Russia, Italy, Japan, and in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Latin America faced economic and social turmoil. This pointed out – to the fascist-minded – the weaknesses of the bourgeois nation states’ ability to maintain order. The Soviet Union’s Hegelian-nightmare-come-to-life can be considered left-fascism, as the Bolsheviks constructed the almighty state – with a single, exalted leader – to perfection. This example was followed by many other communist parties, even to this day. The hereditary leadership of the North Korean state continues to be the most blatant example of left fascism, leading the world back into feudalism.
In other European countries there were political power vacuums, as governments floundered and economies collapsed following WWI. Wealthy elites, in a panic after the creation of the state/capitalist Soviet Union, began to demand dictatorships to re-establish order in their countries.
In Italy and Germany, the socialist parties adamantly refused to step forward and take political power, despite the people’s willingness to back them. In Spain, one government after another rose, only to be toppled by unrest, particularly from the anarchist labor unionist CNT.
Italy in particular was in danger of disintegrating. Into this political miasma stepped Benito Mussolini, the man who gave us the term “fascism.” Mussolini’s political program is best summed up by his party’s slogan: “To believe, to obey, to combat.” These are the basic precepts of fascism – to follow a supreme leader, then gain and maintain political power through a combination of political machinations and violence.
Early in his ascent to power, Mussolini was a great champion of free speech. This enabled his followers to identify and liquidate the opposition. It was this threat of violence and its seductive appeal to men in positions of influence that enabled him to seize power as the leader of a minority party in the Italian parliament.
Mussolini personified the Machiavellian ideal of the great leader, and inspired fascists all across Europe and in Latin America and Japan as well.
He established many of the definitive practices of fascism: using highly disciplined units of violent thugs to assault political opponents, disrupt public events, and intimidate the general population. Of course, all the while, the rabble’s leaders screamed hysterically about lawlessness in the streets and the need to establish order.
The use of violence to reach their objectives is very appealing to frustrated youth who see little evidence in their lives for economic opportunity, or for wealthy heirs-to-be worried about losing their privileges if a socialist party were to take power.
This is by design.
Most of the fascist parties worldwide developed philosophies which described liberal democracies as belonging to a generation gone senile and growing feeble, as opposed to the fascists, who claimed they represented vigorous youth.
Since socialist movements are infested with pacifists, this made them easy targets for the fascist bullies, who were able to recruit young men in droves with the excitement offered by beating up socialists – pacifists in particular. When the surviving socialists began to fight back – mostly the anarchists – fascist leaders and wealthy elites would scream for the police to maintain control – OR ELSE! This also enabled the fascists to work closely with the police and recruit them into their organizations.
This fit well with the Machiavellian notion of the strong dominating the weak. It also created a microcosm of their larger vision in regards to foreign policy: strong dominating nations under the guidance of virile men, destined to conquer their weaker neighbors. This actually worked against them, as when Italy and Germany overran countries with fascist parties and governments, they immediately set about liquidating the weaker nation’s fascist parties, rather than absorbing them. No rivals for state power were to be tolerated. When the Allied forces invaded, they were gladly welcomed by people in resistance to the blood-thirsty fascists.
As an economic system, fascism is a facade. They tightly regulate industry through the creation of a corporate state – often taking the form of a co-operative arrangement wherein the state-controlled labor unions and corporate management worked together to achieve the state’s goals, which usually includes making the leader of the party the wealthiest person in the country. Working conditions, wages, and hours were all set by the state. Dissent, or even opinions, by the workers were not allowed, a vast network of informers was maintained by the secret, political police, and executions were widespread.The secret police were vital in allowing fascists to maintain power. These party enforcers would operate special detention facilities to deal with troublemakers (non-believers), which we call concentration camps, or gulags.
Despite their apparent omnipotence, though, fascists are unable to totally pacify their fellow citizens. Most people educated or raised in Western societies firmly believe in their right to have some say in how they go about their day-to-day lives. Also, once fascists come to power, the wealthy elite can get in the fascists’ way and become rivals, whereas they were allies previously. (Add to this the pride of military leaders, many of whom may have lost family members or friends to fascist violence, and it’s plain to see that fascists create the conditions for their own downfall.)
They then try to implement mandatory youth indoctrination programs in an effort to overthrow any allegiance by youngsters to anyone but themselves, which is pretty unrealistic, considering the loyalty of many people to their families and communities.
Fascists are, however, masters of propaganda. They have to be so they can rationalize their harsh rule and convince people they are better off under fascism. Or, they can do as the PRI did in Mexico for so long, as well as the Peronistas in Argentina, and buy people’s loyalty through a patronage system, or wage increases.
Whereas the PRI came to power through Mexico’s revolution against Spain and ruled with an iron hand that was readily greased by land-hungry aristocrats and their bastard offspring, the Peronistas were Unionists who spouted working class rhetoric and siezed power through the ballet box. Peron’s party could mobilize huge numbers of violent enforcers and break up any attempt by Union rivals or the political opposition to challenge them. As a head of state, Peron himself was rather weak, with little support within the military, who have occasionally ousted him from power. Porfirio Diaz was the more corrupt of the two, but also had firm enough a grasp on power that his reign lasted 70 years, and was only ended by one of the bloodiest wars of independence in history.
So, to sum up, any dictatorship can be said to be fascist. It is a process to obtain and hold onto political power, and ideology exists only to further the ruling party’s power. Everything else is secondary.
The horrors of WWII – called the War Against Fascism in much of Europe – pointed out for all time the danger of allowing thugs and thieves to seize control of a modern, industrialized nation state. Fascists are clever buggers, though, and the true believers have a sort of religious fever about it. They can see what did and did not work and set about to slowly create a more perfect fascist state.
Two things stood in their way in the 20th century, though: the USSR and the USA. The US was seen as the greater danger. It would have to be undermined to serve the aims of European fascists. We Americans, to the European supremacists, are a mongrel race, a nation of half-breeds, scarcely different from monkeys. Russia, it was thought, would come around eventually, if the communist ideology could be discarded. Played against one another in the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union destroyed one another’s economies by forcing each other into ever-increasing production of war materials. While the Soviet Union imploded, the US still staggers on as the world’s dominant superpower in the world today. The Cold War did, however, create the conditions for a laboratory-like experiment on the perfection of 21st century fascism.