News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Treatise on Fascism: Draft

Monday, January 30, 2006

Treatise on Fascism: Draft

Fascism is a term that has almost no meaning in today's world. The reality of this political, social, and economic system had its heyday before and after WWII. Its rawest and most evil products were the holocaust and the Spanish Civil War. Its most recent avatars include the various petty dictators and demagogues that arose in the ruins of the former Yugoslavia.

Overused and abused by leftists of all brands to denote any system that they oppose, disregarded by conservatives because the mirror image terrifies them, the term finally signifies nothing. Yet, it is useful to revisit words and concepts whose meaning, though sucked dry of meaning and pith, still evoke things, places, and events that otherwise you could not begin to comprehend.

Fascism is a needful term because, unlike other forms of authoritarian ideologies like capitalism or communism, it describes socio-cultural and economic realities that have proved hard to slough off. .Indeed, perhaps fascism is the ur-ideology. One could say that its proto-forms in ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, Judaism, and Rome prove it a perennial political structure that can adapt to diverse spatio-temporal contingencies.

As with many incidents in daily life, there are insoluble mysteries. These questions revolve around the meanings that give the answer to why I do or am what I am, what are the reasons I can’t get a girl, marry or why am I poor and that guy’s rich? Dealing with these questions brings to life many choices and reactions. What characterizes the fascist reaction is the resolution of the order of the world to a variation on control and violence.

From my own experience as a child of a father who always verged towards fascism, I can understand the strong appeal of those life answers. At the same time, I am appalled at the seamy and ugly way that these people see themselves and others. Reduced to nothing more than animals rutting in the barnyard—as my father most tellingly described sex to me one time—the world seen through fascist eyes is a struggle for existence that involves fighting for everything you have and only the strong deserve to have anything. If anyone else has something they do not, then that’s just one more reason to justify your own outrage and resentment.

My father is a self-described Nazi—I say self-described, because I have never known him to participate in any US Nazi Party activities. Then again, I don’t know that he hasn’t. From the earliest days, several things struck me about my father and they still stick out now. First, there was the overwhelming sense of fear I felt in his presence. Even when he was trying to be loving (something that always seemed strained and weird), I never felt much beyond the fear that he wanted to hurt me.

Second, he always tried to toughen me up. He always spoke about the need to be the strongest, to fight just to fight, the need to like to hurt. This was no doubt part of his bullying behavior towards me and my mother. True to his word, though, he always sought out bar fights.

Third, there was the racism. Whether it was directed at blacks or Jews, his hatred for other people was a constant during my early teenage years. At least those days that he spent at home and not at the bars.

Fourth, there was the resentment and envy of those who had more than he had. He always seemed conscious of what the other person had and hated them for it. Of course, as a blue collar worker, some of this class consciousness was just a matter of realism. But his emotions and thoughts ran to hating those who had more than he had.

Fifth, he always had a problem with being different. While a lone wolf type himself, he always went out of his way to impress on me the need to not seem “weird.” Given my propensity to books and endeavors of the imagination, he always thought it necessary to critique and make me understand that I was a sissy and odd—different from his own working-class milieu.

Sixth, the need for a story that puts it all together. Given the many crises in his life, he needed something to make sense of the tragedy of his marriage failing, the death of his youngest daughter, and personal setbacks. He needed a narrative that made sense of it all. This narrative would explain why these things happened. It is obviously simpler to blame something or someone onto whom he could project those real-life people who had crossed him. Marginalized groups or people who were different from him became easy targets for this hatred.
One of the things that I believe people are prone to is grotesquerie of evil and infamy. An example of this is the common belief that Hitler was insane—before, during, and after his rise to power. Pigeon-holing Hitler into the easily digestible and quickly dismissible category of insanity deprives the reality of who Hitler was, how he was able to come to power, and why people followed him.

I have written about this before in the way that children are often incapable of imagining evil. They expect monsters and ogres but evil often has the smiley face of a clown. Hannah Arendt focused on this phenomenon in what she called the banality of evil. That is, in the Nazi leaders she studied, she found that these were normal, every day folks with families, a dog, and a good work ethic.

There’s as much danger in dismissing fascism as a thing of the past as there is in over-intellectualizing the experience of fascism. What I think will be lost on those who do not spend their lives trying to reconstruct the past by studying history is the mind-set and emotional armature that fascism creates and thrives on.

If we can’t pin emotions and thoughts on to those we know and experience every day, then we won’t recognize it when it crops up again. And it has cropped up again recently and perhaps right now, close to home. In Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, the fascist life-form came to life.
As many historical studies show, German Nazis bullied and beat up opponents on their way to power. They intimidated through bullying anyone who might oppose them. In the US, of course, gangs are well-known. Yet, it is not just gang behavior that exhibits bullying tactics. For even within a child’s everyday school experience, there are various types of physical, emotional, and social bullying tactics.

Fascism is a way of life that sees violence as the only way to find the truth and establish justice. This can be seen in US cop shows. In most of these, you find the use of bodily threats or violence as the crisis point that brings out the truth that solves the crime. As these plots unfold, moments of crisis usually end up being resolved by a threat of force.

While you might expect this from the criminals in these shows, even the “good guys” more often than not resort to these threats. The implication here is that force for the good side is right. Yet, the moral ambivalence of many of these situations surely bypasses many who are ethically immature. All they see is: in instances of crisis resort to bullying.

From eavesdropping to other forms of hidden intrusion and spying on the secrets of others, the threat of fear that someone is looking over your shoulder or reading your emails grows every day. Fear is one of those phenomena that covers a vast amount of physiological, social, and psychological territory. For the fascist, fear is both something to overcome in oneself and something to inspire in others. Fear as a fact of life is something that is normal—in the struggle that is supposed to characterize everyday life, those who are fittest will overcome this fear and will be able to wield fear as a weapon efficiently and effectively.

Again, there are many forms of fear. One form of fear that a fascist dreads most is being different from others. Overcoming this fear means creating institutions and practices that celebrate sameness, thereby ensuring certainty and overcoming the anxiety that difference inspires. Conformism is an easy way to guarantee this sameness and certainty. From the first days that a child enters school, they are expected to conform to certain ways o acting. While this is normal for any society, the extreme of fascism entails all-encompassing conformism to the needs of the group or society.

For a fascist--like wolves--there is always an alpha male—a leader whose purity (recognized as the ability to act ruthlessly and mercilessly for goals that rise above simple personal goals) is widely acknowledged by all to be greater than all others. Given the general struggle for dominance in society, the natural-born leader will eventually show himself. Once he does, then he must be paid absolute allegiance since the overall goal is the solidarity of the group. All self-interest must be sacrificed to the group and its overall health and prolonged existence.

A proto-fascist is often an outsider looking in. They find themselves ostracized for experiencing and living in what they see as their normal, natural selves. The reasons for this ostracism can be multifarious, so reducing them to one variable is overly simplistic, if not dishonest. Possible reasons for why one might feel on society’s margins include economic, psychological, nationalistic, or religious. And so on.

Something of this feeling of being left out and ostracized can be seen in the way that many Christian evangelicals see the surrounding secular culture. For these people, they are not allowed to express their innermost feelings and experiences without encountering some form of sarcasm and perceived rejection.

In response, Christian evangelicals attack this secular mind-set as political correctness and counter it with a call to return to traditional values. They point to the overall alienation and social ills as reasons for why their ethical program should be accepted. Yet, should they succeed, their own version of correctness would enforce a ban on discussion that restricts all conversation to strictly limited terms.

Judith Shklar has recently suggested that all politics boil down to the propagation and use of fear to enforce control. The Enlightenment project hoped to overcome people’s fear through reason, as Kant argued forcefully. Since the beginning of the 20th century, however, and with the rise of regimes like Nazism, the effectiveness of the Enlightenment project came into question. From one perspective you can say that the Enlightenment products of scientific investigation themselves became tools for fascist control.

It has become more and more apparent that appeals to reason simply do not reach the existential depths of human anxiety and despair. While it is no doubt an oversimplification to characterize all religions as irrational, it does appear that religion itself can be used in the interests of a fascist-dominated ideology. Islamic, Jewish, Xtian, and Hindu extremisms exhibit exactly these features.

What seems to separate fascism from an authoritarian ideology like communism is the need to identify with a group that separates out those who are in and those who are out. Communism promised the same universality as Xtianity, Buddhism, and Islam—religions that did not simply appeal to ethnic, cultural or racial characteristics to identify believers.

Given the failure of communism, in the US this was seen as the validation of capitalism’s truth, as well as representative government. For the religious, atheist communism’s defeat was a sign that divine providence had worked its will. For politicians and others wishing to control in the US, the belief system of the religious right serves numerous purposes. It provides a mythology that easily codifies those inside and those outside.

Just as neatly, the Xtian belief system easily provides a way of instilling a fear in a centralized authority whose power emanates from a seemingly other-worldly source. Yet, this source has a worldly representative in a savior figure whose purity of purpose will cleanse the profane world and make right-living possible again.

People say it can’t happen here. We live in a democracy, it’s said. But we live in a democracy where the majority of the voters who are eligible to vote do not. Indeed, if you work out the numbers, the present President rose to power on the vote from only 28 percent of those eligible voters. How is that a democracy? Hitler himself rose to power with 36 percent of the vote. What this shows is that a highly motivated minority within a country can use democratic processes to forward its own policies.

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