Political Concepts: Fascism

Q1.  What does fascism mean?

fascessotuobamaa. Historical context.  The fasces were a symbol of the power of the Senate and People of Rome. They were revived as a symbol of republicanism at least as early as the French and American Revolutions, and subsequently became the symbol of the (non-republican) Fascisti in Italy, from whence fascist was extended to analogous parties, movements, policies, and tactics elsewhere.

b. Corporatism.  In particular, Mussolini’s fascism gave large national concerns (industries, unions) direct input into public policy.  When the growing power of large organizations erodes individual independence, this is called fascist.

3720130019_37af842655c.  Political orientation. Bolshevism’s class-based analysis of politics did not have a clear role for populist anti-Bolshevik movements.  Marxist political analysis tried to fill this gap by identifying movements like the Fascisti with Marx’s account of Napoléon III.  Marx had claimed the state took on an independent role in class struggle as a deciding voice when the existing classes were arrayed against one another evenly, as they were in France in 1848.  So in a precise application of this theory, fascist political factions that represent the power of the military, the police, the security forces, the civil service, and other baronies in the permanent national bureaucracy.  

d. Pejorative term.  However, Bolsheviks do not always apply their theories with precision.  After inventing the theoretical category fascist as a catch-all for anti-Bolshevik populists, the Bolsheviks continued to insist all of their opponents belonged in this category (including the moderate Marxist labor parties of Western Europe, the so-called “social fascists”), gradually reducing the term to a derogatory label for all their opponents.  By diffusion it began to be used as generic pejorative for objectionable or highly-objectionable political positions. 

e. Political procedure.  By extension from -d-, any deviations from “democracy” can be called fascist.  What counts as a deviation from democracy responds flexibly to the observer’s political principles.  In capitalist societies, fascist naturally came to mean deviations from the ideal model of classical liberal elections as the pejorative spread from Communists through the left and eventually into mainstream use.  Thus in a minor historical irony, the aggressive election-disruption tactics pioneered by labor movements in the late nineteenth century and perfected by Bolsheviks came to be associated most strongly with the Bolsheviks’ bitter rivals.

This process of semantic drift was complete by 1944, when George Orwell wrote

It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.

(See his “Politics and the English Language” for a similar remark on the approbative use of “democracy”.)  But let’s take the perspective of someone under the naive impression that fascism only carries connotation -1e-, i.e. of deviations from the classical liberal ideal of peaceful, non-coercive elections.  Assuming fascist means “someone willing to take power in a democratic system by electoral violence”…

Q2. Who decides what counts as electoral violence?

There is a continuum between full-on fascists and those who absolutely reject ignoble means.  The absolutists say (a) no one should ever commit violence on their account, that any violence whatsoever will only come from evil people.dogbertbutter

A slightly less pacific position: (b) the voter himself will never defend himself from violence with violence, and would not want any of his co-partisans to use violence, but (b1) he would be willing to have the state send neutral security forces who will be violent on his behalf; (b2) perhaps he will even consider official protection desirable, and desire a real show of force from the “neutral” police force on his behalf.

At a further step down, (c) the pure-hearted democrat who refuses to defend himself from violence will nonetheless be perfectly happy to have his comrades in the party use violence on his behalf, should the need arise.

When we reach democrats who have no problem at all defending themselves when provoked, but (d) still consider it unacceptable to throw the first punch, we have left non-violence behind us; from here we move to (e) the democrats who anticipate violence and want to prepare for it, organizing their party for self-defense, (f) the voters who believe in tit-for-tat reciprocity and who will not only use the minimum of violence necessary to defend themselves, but will retaliate in kind to deter further violence, (g) the voters who, despite their desire to win a free-and-fair election, will not allow their opponents to get an advantage by attacking their own party’s activities without retaliating against the opposing party, (h) those who hold the mindset “don’t expect them to let us win peacefully,” and thus prepare pre-emptive strikes, and finally (j) the absolute fascist, who simply has no plan or desire to win a free and fair election.

— This continuum applies to multiple aspects of politics.  Will like-minded people be able to gather and rally without violence?  Will people holding certain views be able to express themselves publicly (or at all) without violence?  Will politicians be able to lead their parties or take a role in government? Will voters be able to show up at the polls and vote their minds?  In each of these cases the question “What counts as without violence?” lends itself to the step-by-step escalation from free-and-fair to violence.  For example, when a fascist group forms a human chain around a rally to prevent people from attending a rally, is that violent? Perhaps, because they are attempting to physically control the bodies of others, it is already violence; perhaps it is only violence if they intend respond violently when physically separated, or if their allies intended to retaliate violently against the separation.  From the point of view of the quasi-fascist’s political opponents, there are all sorts of uncertainties and entanglements inherent in this question.  A quasi-fascist may, in good faith, consider himself only entitled to control the physical location of his opponent, and not to break his opponent’s jaw.  But the opponent he intends to detain but does not intend to hospitalize has no way to know this, nor any way to know that the quasi-fascist does not have more violent allies.

If you wanted to understand why fascism is a complicated concept, you could start with Moldbug:

Violence, then, is anything that breaks the rule, or replaces it with a different rule.  If the rule is clear and everyone follows it, there is no violence.  In other words, violence equals conflict plus uncertainty… Violence of any size makes no sense without uncertainty.

Obviously if I own 44th Street and you own 45th and 43rd, the possibility of a complex relationship between us becomes non-trivial.  And complexity is next to ambiguity, which is next to uncertainty…

Fascism, even when limited to an abstract sense of “willingness to engage in electoral violence”, remains complex because “willingness to engage in electoral violence” refers to a set of situations generated by complexity.  Wherever there is a labyrinth of possible strategic interactions between political rivals, the labyrinth include many decisions which are steps towards the escalation of political violence, or which might be consistent with an intention to escalate political violence, or which could be used as symbols (signals) of a certain attitude towards violent escalation.  Many things are possible in politics.  (Ostensibly.)

(Thanks for reading. If you would like to humor my curiosity about how many visitors read the entire post, please click on these tiny fasces.)


7 thoughts on “Political Concepts: Fascism

  1. I always get upset at Conservative talk-show hosts that talk of “Islamo-Fascism”. I envision in my mind Arabs poring over the works of Giovanni Gentile and Benito Mussolini. More precise terms would be “Sunni Radicals” or Salafists or whatever. I hate a lack of precision in political terminology.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Islamo-fascists” offends against my aesthetic sensibilities. But then again, calling anyone to the right of Mitt Romney a “fascist” also offends against my aesthetic sensibilities. I don’t like talk-show babble period, so I have to assume they know what they’re doing.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s