america and the problem with defining fascism

Fascism is like pornography in one respect; we (usually) recognize it when see it, but damned if we can actually define it. Reading the entry on fascism at Wikipedia is an exercise in mental contortionism, and the opening sentence that attempts to encapsulate fascism as a “radical authoritarian nationalist political ideology” is hardly descriptive. Part of the problem, of course, is that fascism has taken on many idiosyncratic forms in the various countries that practiced it. Yet it strikes me as an admission of defeat when, despite its variations, an essential core ideological character can’t be identified. For example, consider the website Who Makes the Nazis?, whose efforts are oriented towards identifying fascist elements within “various 'transgressive' (by their own estimation) musical subcultures.” In describing their mission, they write (emphasis in bold is mine):
To demonstrate the fascist nature of the ideas it is necessary to consider many aspects of fascism - it's history, it's different branches, and it's ideology and development, for example. It is necessary to show that there is no 'fascist minimum' (a succinct definition of fascism that would make it easy to define ideologically), and to dispel some key misconceptions about fascism that are used to provide cover ("X cannot be a fascist because they are gay / have a Jewish partner / are not a member of an openly fascist grouping").
That’s a remarkable statement, begging the question as to how you can plausibly identify fascist infiltrations in society, whether in musical subcultures or other social groupings, when you can’t decisively distinguish a fascist ideologue from a non-fascist. This is especially problematic when, as WMTN argues, fascist elements operate cryptically, that is, there is a “deliberate effort on the part of a number of pro-fascist thinkers to work surreptitiously in the area of culture with the aim of 'normalising' some of the cultural, social and aesthetic views of fascism, thus creating a periphery out of which a future fascist political movement might recruit.”

And so, America, and the question as to whether or not the country is sliding into fascism. Sara Robinson, in a piece originally published at CommonDreams.org, offers her belief that yes, America has degraded into fascism. In making her argument, she draws on definitions of fascism offered by historian Robert Paxton:
Fascism is a system of political authority and social order intended to reinforce the unity, energy, and purity of communities in which liberal democracy stands accused of producing division and decline.
...a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
Far be it for me to challenge an expert in the field of fascism and history, but nevertheless, I don’t find these wordy, imprecise definitions particularly helpful. More helpful is the definition from the source of fascist ideology: Italy. Drawing from the Wikipedia entry, the original Italian fascism was characterized by the following:

  • A strong, imperial, militaristic nationalism.
  • Belief in political and military violence as necessary towards achieving human progress, social solidarity, and national unity.
  • The division of peoples into superior masters, who deserve to rule, and weak inferiors who deserve to be conquered.
  • Corporatist economics “whereby employer and employee syndicates are linked together in a corporative associations to collectively represent the nation's economic producers and work alongside the state to set national economic policy.”

Using Italian fascism as the foundation for a definition of fascism that is inclusive of its non-Italian forms, it’s possible to achieve a workable definition. Before offering it, however, it’s worth noting what such a definition should accomplish:

  1. Distinguish fascism from other political ideologies.
  2. Distinguish fascism’s method and rationale from other methods and rationales for totalitarian rule, such as communist/socialist and theocratic models. 
  3. Provide criteria that enable us to consistently identify fascism outside of its historical context in Italy, Germany, Spain, and other countries that have, at one time or another, empowered fascist regimes.

To this end, I propose the following definition:

Fascism is a military-capitalist complex whose power is realized in an authoritarian state maintained by conventional methods of political control (e.g. secret police, military-enforced martial law, etc.) as well as social control in the form of transcendental collectivist/corporatist politics of identity in which elite group identification is created and reinforced by the marginalization and oppression of non-elite identities in an atmosphere of politically-correct psychological and physical violence.

From this, we can identity sibling categories:

  • The state immediately preceding a fascist state, a proto-fascist state is one in which individual elements of a fascist state are present, but not coherently joined. An example would be Germany, early in Hitler’s ascension to power.
  • A crypto-fascist state is a fascist state in practice but not in appearance. By implication, the concealment of a state’s fascist characters is intentionally hidden to foster acceptance and legitimacy in an era of international law and human rights.
  • A pseudo-fascist state is a state that is fascist in appearance but not necessarily in practice. This is an admittedly strange and perhaps less-than-useful classification, since surely there must be some substance that gives rise to the appearance of fascism. A possible example might be Western Democracies that deploy the functions of a police state. While the governance might be democratic, law enforcement and national security might align more closely to fascist methods. The conclusion is that a pseudo-fascist state also pose a substantial risk to free societies, although the risk might be harder to identify amidst those social elements that are not fascist. It might be reasonable, then, to view a pseudo-fascist state as an incomplete fascist state.

What are we to make of the United States? Is Sara Robinson correct? Do share your thoughts below. I'll revisit the question at a later time.


Catherine said...

Excellent and succinct definition. I hope you don't mind if I borrow it.

Frederik Sisa said...

Thanks, Catherine. I appreciate that. And please feel free to borrow as you see it. It's an honour to be borrowed from! :)