Monday, May 15, 2006

Fascism as Buzzword

The use of certain words in conversation ought to immediately raise concern. Nazi or Hitler references ought to immediately raise a red flag (and not the kind with a Swastika on it). Not far behind these references is "fascism." It is a term bandied about because whatever it means, it is bad and should I be able to label my opponents with it, they will be perceived as bad and I will therefore win the argument. It is an ad hominem goldmine.

We hear charges of fascism from the left against the Bush administration for the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo, for arresting non-supporters who attend Presidential appearances, and any number of other actions designed to silence dissent or at least minimize its effects. We frequently hear the phrase "Islamo-fascism" from the right to characterize the jihadist movement. But rarely do we get any explanation of why these groups deserve the title "fascist." It simply carries a negative connotation that is rhetorically convenient.

One element that is frequently associated with fascism is authoritarian power by the central government. This is what is often behind the accusation. Whenever there is a perceived overstepping by a government, fascism is the claim.There is no doubt that fascist governments are authoritarian and authoritarianism is a bad thing, but that does not make all government over-reaching evidence of fascist motivation. There is more to fascism.

Fascism arose as a counter-point to Marxism. Marx argued that economics set up a situation where there would be class-driven conflict through a series of prescribed steps which leads, ultimately, to the dissolving of governments and the flourishing of people in a state of complete peace. Fascism denied all of this. In his 1932 piece "What is Fascism," Benito Mussolini, took issue with all of these points. Fascism begins with the axiom that war is the natural state of man.

Fascism, the more it considers and observes the future and the development of humanity quite apart from political considerations of the moment, believes neither in the possibility nor the utility of perpetual peace. It thus repudiates the doctrine of Pacifism -- born of a renunciation of the struggle and an act of cowardice in the face of sacrifice. War alone brings up to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have courage to meet it. All other trials are substitutes, which never really put men into the position where they have to make the great decision -- the alternative of life or death.
This is a crucial point. A state of war is a special thing. When one is in the state of war, the normality of life is suspended. War is a time of crisis and in a state of crisis, what is normally irrational if one wants to create a civil society may become rational. During wartime, a nation is so threatened that all possible projects within the nation depend upon successful prosecution of the war, and as such, all other projects are therefore less important than winning the war. Everything in life is subjugated to the government's efforts. The survival of the country and everyone in it is in question, so your little interests need to be put on hold. A state of martial law allows for complete governmental control because it is needed to protect each and all.

But normally, we think of these periods of war as occasional. We are willing to temporarily suspend basic rights if it means ultimately preserving those rights. But fascism, by arguing that war is the natural state, also contends that liberty is not to be liberally granted.
The Fascist State organizes the nation, but leaves a sufficient margin of liberty to the individual; the latter is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential; the deciding power in this question cannot be the individual, but the State alone.
By creating a permanent state of war, the bunker mentality requires the forfeiture of freedom, something we are accustomed to unquestioningly thinking of as good. Authoritarianism therefore flows from a metaphysical picture of what nature -- particularly, human nature -- is. And since in a time of war, the state must be the focus, an overwhelming nationalism must be the enforced attitude. Internationalist leanings or sympathy for the other is a strike against the nation's project of saving itself. The enemy must not be seen as human lest it lead to a softening of the national will and the downfall of the society as a whole.

So, is there any sense to the worries about heading down the slippery slope to fascism from either side of the political aisle? TJ Templeton at Project for the Old American Century argues that there is significant similarity between Mussolini's Italy and Bush's America during the War on Terror. The central idea being that the War on Terror is designed to be an open-ended war. as such, there will be no possible way to not be on a war footing and down the slope we go. On the other side, Ali Sina, at, argues that Islam, or at least certain strains of it, are inextricably political in a way that leads the state to be a militant arm of a culture that denies basic equality and freedoms taken as necessary for liberal democracy. Both are interesting pieces of work well worth a look-see. Are there fascists under your bed? Probably not. But are there things we ought to be worried about? Yeah. Is "fascism" a cheapshot used by lazy interlocutors who just want to tag their opponents? Usually, but then again, just because you are paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.