Fascism for dummies

Brexit, the unchallenged pile of lies which enabled it, and now Trump. If you are not scared, you haven’t been paying attention. There are many visible reasons to be scared, but more worryingly, there are hidden reasons as well. I think that the hidden reasons need to be exposed, and will try to do so below. [Spoiler: I will need to start from the good side of fascism, because yes, it does have one.]

Anti-fascism of the wrong kind.

Image source (public domain)

Image source (public domain)

As a result of Brexit, it is well known and widely acknowledged that the British right wing media feels bold enough to openly promote fascistic ideas. Concurrently, the UK government is busy promoting policies that don’t smell much different, while making it very clear that they don’t find the media coverage alarming.

In this context, many are blowing the whistle, in fact, it is reassuring to see how many do. However, I fear that all the whistle-blowing is falling on deaf ears. My worry is that both the UK and the US have demonised fascism so thoroughly that they have effectively become unable to detect and repel it efficiently. The so-called elites can recognise it without difficulty, but their recognition seems to produce little or no effect. Why? Because fascism has been labelled as pure (supernaturally) evil for much too long. In fact, those who haven’t actively tried to understand what fascism is may easily recognise what is good in the current rhetoric and be consequently blinded to its fascistic stench. In particular, it seems that many are simply unable to believe that what they perceive as benevolent (maybe of the “tough love” sort) is in fact the devil personified. It can’t be. And guess what? It isn’t. Fascism solves problems (temporarily), in fact, it appears to solve lots of problems, that’s the sad and dangerous truth. It also generates its own problems, just like everything else. The reason why fascism is bad is “merely” that the problems it generates are incommensurably bigger and nastier than the ones it (temporarily) solves.

To see why, I’ll paint a brutally over-simplified historic picture (with apologies).

An historic fable.

It’s the beginning of 20th century (before and after WWI), Britain rules most of the planet, has vastly superior technology and an efficient internal organisation. This translates to superior military force and Britain is not particularly shy when it comes to using it. Immediate competitors have the real and present need of catching up. It’s important to note that at the time, imperialism was normal, actually, it was more than normal, it was what the European ruling classes unanimously recognised as desirable. If France, Germany, Spain and Italy wish to “do well” they need to establish or retain their own colonies, and to do so, they need to be powerful enough to fend off the British when needed. France has republican/democratic inheritance, so the allure of fascism finds less traction, but the others don’t.

A problem that Germany, Spain and Italy all face is industrialisation: the economy needs to be transformed, and transformed fast (for Spain and Italy, the problem is that the economy is solidly pre-industrial, for Germany, it is strangled by sanctions). For all three, the prospect of letting the economy grow towards full industrialisation (driven by vanilla capitalism), in the presence of strong protectionist measures, simply doesn’t work. Markets are primarily internal, market players can keep competing with one another, but their ability to invest is limited by the relative small size of the market, making it hard to find fast paths towards full-blown industrialisation. What can be done? Simple, an alliance between (some) big capitalists and the government can accelerate the economic wheels. The state can invest at levels that private citizens can’t; concerted action can alleviate internal competition, and thus free even more capital for private investment. For all this to happen, the state needs to be able to offer guarantees, the government will call the shots, ask for capital to be invested on concerted efforts, but investors will have adequate guarantees.

The system that emerged was able to provide such guarantees, and did so by ensuring the stability of the political scene. Fascism called for a nation-wide coming together: workers will enjoy better services and their basic needs will be met, with the help of the state whenever necessary. In exchange, political rights will be limited, allowing the government to act as and when required. The system needs to be stable and trustworthy for long years (an industrial revolution doesn’t happen overnight) so social conflict has to be sedated. At the same time, capitalists need to trust the government, and know that their investments will pay off, so once again, stability is required: big changes of policy based on a change of government are simply not an option. Otherwise, capitalists would simply hold on their capital and defend their turf as before. It is worth noting that in this context the judiciary needs to serve the government, it cannot be truly independent: once again, for the system to work, investors need to know in advance that the state will deliver what it promises, which may not happen if people can sue the government and, for example, block for years the proceeding of a new road or railway.

Enter propaganda: for all of the above to work, minds and hearts needed to be won. Thus, what was offered had to be pretty convincing. At its root, the offer of fascism was to use the power of the state to eliminate internal conflict. Working people would have better employment and better services in exchange of stopping their class war against capitalists. Capitalists will get more controllable workers, and central direction for investment, earning better return guarantees and a reduced need to compete with one another. The fascist state acts as a central hub, protecting the welfare of the people and allowing capitalists to make predictable money. The result was sold as the idea of a newly found national consciousness, where the whole nation coordinates the efforts towards the common good. Crucially, for this system to work, internal conflict needs to become irrelevant. For this aim, the rhetoric becomes “if you are not with us, you’re against us”.  Overall, the picture is convincing and it does also seem to work in practice: people bought into the idea because it made sense, a lot of sense. Instead of wasting time and effort in petty fights between small interests, whole nations managed transform big chunks of their economic fabric. At the same time, a sense of shared purpose was established and nurtured: people found purpose in the effort, and relief in living in a far less conflictual society. Collaboration was offered in lieu of conflict: since the economy is (very much!) not a zero-sum game, (almost) everyone got to live better in material terms, but (almost) everyone also got the crucial added benefit of sharing a common purpose, a sense of truly (visibly, demonstrably) working for the common good. What is not to like?

[Note: we now know very well why fascism shouldn’t be trusted, but at the time little or no historic precedents existed, so it was much easier to buy into it. Only the few blessed with the gift of clear-headed foresight managed to recognise the error, and frequently paid a terrible price for it.]

Herein lies my problem. The allure of fascism is strong, because it does work (for a while).

Let’s recap, and indulge once more in an exercise of over-simplification. What defines the fascist ideology?

  1. National identity is established by glorifying the will of the people, channelled via the state. Generalised consensus is a hard requirement, even if it may be merely perceived and not factual.
  2. Dissent is immoral, because it hinders progress towards the common good. Internal conflicts, all of them, are deemed wrong, repulsive.
  3. Since the focus is on efficient, concerted efforts, the government cannot be impeded in its decision-making. Thus, counterbalancing powers are depicted as conflictual and at best, morally irresponsible.

Aside: proper, historic fascism achieves the above while retaining notional markets, private property and private investments. Fascism of the (nominally) communist variant differs a little: private property, private investment and markets are removed, while the core elements of fascism (1-3) are retained.

Before summarily looking at what makes fascism a bankrupt ideology, I wish to fast forward to today and have a look at present-day Britain (I suspect many similarities can be drawn with the US as well, for obvious reasons).

What are Brexiteers shouting from every podium they can exploit? That the people have spoken, that “Brexit means Brexit” and that whoever quibbles is betraying the democratic mandate (the will of the people). That’s point 1 for you. 52% of who voted (37.47% of the whole electorate voted to leave) urgently need to be perceived as expressing the unique, unquestionable will of the people, and the government is its only legitimate interpreter.

Remainers are branded Remoaners, asked to stop complaining and start collaborating for the common good. Dissent is immoral and should be silenced. Whoever points out problems and inconsistencies is playing Britain down, constraining our ability to proceed towards the common aim. Point 2? Check!

What is really worrying, is that even the necessary democratic counterbalances are actively being demonised. For the Daily Mail (and the whole right-wing block of newspapers), the high court judges who dared to interpret “the rule of law” (their job) and conclude that parliament has the right and duty to hold the government to account are “enemies of the people”. That is point 3, without compromise. Shouted out without fear, guilt or shame.

Why is this even possible? Because the allure of fascism is powerful. People recognise that internal conflicts are costly: a less conflictual society, where we could all share a common sense of purpose is naturally (and understandably) perceived as a good thing. Therefore, all the people shouting “but that’s fascism” must be wrong: if something is recognisably good, it simply cannot be the apex of all evil. Well, the inference is correct: fascism has good sides, it is not exclusively bad, and that is why it is dangerous. What is wrong, and the reason why I’m writing this, is the depiction of fascism as entirely evil. It is indeed very bad, but that doesn’t mean 100% bad.

The conclusion is inescapable: Britain and, worryingly, the US as well, is experiencing a resurgence of fascist or at best proto-fascist ideas. It is happening, the evidence is on the first-page titles, it is not a matter of opinion.

Wait, fascism really is a bad idea.

We come to the easy part: considering all the upsides of fascism, and considering how much better our lives would be without so much conflict and competition, why is this resurgence a bad thing? Because a fascist state is always, inevitably oppressive (from the start) and destined to become dysfunctional. The combination is the most toxic that has been ever experienced, it never leads to good outcomes, ever.

Why Oppression? It should be obvious. If a whole nation is supposed to collaborate towards common goals, whoever disagrees with the aims needs to be marginalised. Their voice needs to be irrelevant, otherwise collaboration degenerates into inefficient debate and a battle of conflictual visions emerges instead. How dissent is made irrelevant may vary, but the oppressive drive is necessarily always present.

Dysfunctionality, is it inevitable? Let’s say that in the 21st century the powers of technological progress make it “magically” possible to have a form of benign fascism, in which dissent is made irrelevant without the need of hurting anyone (a best-case scenario, which is impossible, but illustrates my point). What happens when the all-powerful government decides to implement the wrong policies? It happens that whoever can spot the error and wishes to correct it may be labelled as a dissenter, as such, whoever understands a problem that has been overlooked will be immediately marginalised. Result: the error will not be corrected. Everyone makes mistakes and governments are made of fallible people. Therefore, a fascist society is able to keep orderly moving towards the wrong destination until the bitter end, it actually does so with ruthless efficiency. History provides countless examples of the degeneration of fascist regimes: if all goes well they crumble under their own dysfunctionality, if things go wrong, they drive whole nations into the abyss.

[Note: real-world fascism has always been extremely nasty to dissenters. This is enabled whenever opposition is successfully labelled as immoral (a pre-requisite): the morality claim calls for punishment. Therefore, all fascist systems carry at the very least the danger of becoming violently repressive. As far as we can tell, they either are oppressive from the very start or do become nasty quickly enough.]

Conclusion:

Present-day fascism promises to solve the problems created by liberal democracies, mainly by providing a more efficient (and gratifying) way to coordinate efforts. Unfortunately, it comes with the upfront cost of being oppressive (despite my example, I don’t think benign oppression will ever be possible). This should be enough to repel it. Who wants to live oppressed?
If that’s not enough, the secondary effect of silencing dissent is an inherent inability to detect and correct mistakes. As a result, fascism promises to solve some problems, but is only able to deliver this promise at its onset: sooner or later, inefficiency necessarily prevails. In other words, fascism merely appears to solve the problems in question, but in fact it postpones them without resolving them, allowing them to grow out of control. In short: fascism is a problem that you really don’t want to have.

Am I saying that Britain and the USA are inevitably sliding into fascism? No. I’m saying that the danger is real, and it is real because many people who sincerely believe that fascism is bad may be unable or unwilling to recognise the current trend. They are, because they have been told lies, (mostly well intentioned) lies about fascism, in this case. Therefore, I’m trying to follow my own advice and expose these lies as much as I can.
In the next post, I plan to discuss how much we should worry and what we should do about it.

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Politics
10 comments on “Fascism for dummies
  1. Allan Seago says:

    “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. ” H. L. Mencken.

  2. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Allan, indeed!
    Somehow I’m thinking that it’s also a hint about my verbosity… 😉

  3. Christopher Brewster says:

    The current counter-example to your analysis is China. If we take the period after Tiananmen Square, China has successfully grown its economy (and destroyed its environment) but crucially a. fulfils your three criteria, and b. has repeatedly changed course at least with regard to its technology and economy. Where or when do we observe the degeneration? All I am saying is that some oppressive regimes can last for a very long time.

  4. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Christopher,
    thanks for this! My first thought on reading it was “by His Noodly Appendages, Christopher is right!”. After a good night sleep, I still think your observation is very relevant, to the point that I’m genuinely disappointed that I didn’t spot the anomaly myself.

    I would be a fool if I didn’t ask myself: what justifies the apparent difference? What can we learn from it? But unfortunately, I know so little about Chinese culture that I can only propose some very speculative hypotheses.
    Starting from your conclusion: “some oppressive regimes can last for a very long time”, this is of course very true, and we do know that across history oppressive regimes have been the norm, not the exception.
    What we still don’t know is whether the change that started with the enlightenment is here to stay or just a temporary blip. My take and hope is that it represents a point of no return, sustained by the higher degree of change that is enabled by it. So far, oppressive regimes haven’t managed to keep up, with the very important exception of China, so the question becomes: what does allow China to quickly self-correct even if dissent is ostensibly condemned as immoral? Answer is: I don’t know!
    I only have two ideas to explore.
    First, China more or less invented the bureaucratic state; its administration culture and practices have remained in place, in a more or less uninterrupted line for (unlike the discontinuities seen in the West), shall we say: millennia (bias alert: I might be thinking this only because I do not know about discontinuities in Chinese traditions!)? This may be highly significant, it’s possible that their accumulated knowledge (which I don’t have!) contains what’s needed to avoid the trap that normally catches other oppressive regimes. Looking at their official narrative (if we don’t want to call it propaganda), it does seem that they do think that’s the case.
    Second: I am told that Far East cultures are collectivist to such depth and breath that it becomes impossible for an ordinary Western chap like myself to even gain a basic grasp of their outlook and its consequences. I can’t do much with this notion: if it’s true, I must be clueless by definition, if it isn’t, then it’s a matter of degrees. However, I can note a few things.
    Such a collective worldview, paired with highly structured, organised, hierarchical and oppressive social organisation was present also in Japan (I know a tiny bit more about Japan), and managed to last many centuries. It also managed to exploit the advantages I describe in the OP and successfully reached a fully industrial economy as a consequence. It did not avoid the trap, however. Thus, perhaps it’s only a matter of time/luck/contingency? After all, we don’t know if China will manage to find a way to control its internal changes without crumbling – let’s hope they are not heading for a catastrophic collapse.
    It remains true that China has been able to change course multiple times in the last few centuries, so perhaps they do have some special quality. I suspect it might indeed be found in its long bureaucratic tradition: perhaps they have found a way to orderly channel dissent and new ideas within their internal structures. The evidence I have does suggest that much.

    What we don’t know, as I’ve said already, is whether the westernised emphasis on the individual is indeed irreversible and will eventually corrode all collectivist ideologies.
    We don’t know, but for once, we can try to exploit the mechanisms behind self fulfilling prophecies: I say that yes, collectivist ideologies cannot withstand the pressure of more liberal outlooks, because the latter can channel human impulses and desires in more productive ways. If we’ll manage to repel the current internal threats, and find a way to keep the inner conflicts at bay, it’s possible that liberal democracies will survive and thrive (watch out for the next post, on this).
    The biggest challenge I see is climate change and depletion of the earth ecosystems in general: it seems the case that Western societies are completely unable to self-constrain as much as needed. In this context, I have little doubt that China can change their (currently suicidal) approach to resources consumption – if they will realise how much the change is needed. Whether the West can, I’m not so sure.

    Just a handful of very preliminary, hurried thoughts. Thanks so much for sending me exploring these directions: what I’ve written above is likely to be very wrong, but I do think it was important to get the ball rolling.

  5. Dakua Pesi says:

    “what does allow China to quickly self-correct even if dissent is ostensibly condemned as immoral? Answer is: I don’t know!”. You seem to be assuming that dissent always leads to self correction (and that it is therefore also correct, since it doesn’t self-incorrects). I am not sure about that. Common people can dissent too, and they are usually not the smartest of the (human)kind. Perhaps dissent (or are we talking only about the so called elites’ dissent? Be it, the perhaps still holds!) can also take a system to a random, wrong destination just like fascism, and is not exactly necessary to take it to “the right path”. This may or may not be related to “the Chinese secret”.

  6. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Dakua, thanks for stopping by.
    I can see why it looks like I’m making such an assumption: I’ve been omitting a great deal of other considerations for the sake of brevity.
    I’ll provide a few pointers, with a few additions to glue it all together, but please do note that it’s work in progress and that I won’t even try to cover all angles.
    In my own private thinking, I’ve come to realise that no single individual is able to identify and correct their own blind spots. Thus, constructive criticism is not merely useful, it is a requirement to make progress.

    When it comes to political institutions, arrangements that include mutually independent checks and balances gain from it in at least two ways: they help keep corruption (intended here as exploiting power for purely personal gain) at bay, and because they come into the arena from different perspective, they can complement each other’s blind spots.
    Moreover, proper democracies are designed to allow minority views to be disproportionately heard, this is a good thing, because otherwise any stable majority could pursue its own interests and never spot its own blinkers (with disastrous effects). It is also useful because it (theoretically!) allows everyone to feel invested in the process and thus accept its outcomes even when they don’t like them. (That is: it doesn’t require minority groups to revert to illegal methods to get themselves noticed).
    Thus, the ideal democracy becomes also a system to weigh and synthesise opposing views. Because many actors (ideally, every single citizen) will be individually evaluating such views, the ones that appear to make more sense will have an inherent advantage, thus allowing democracies to be self-correcting: if a course of action is clearly wrong, sooner or later you’d hope that someone will notice the mistake.

    By contrast, societies that value conformity above diversity will largely express one single, predictable view, and will struggle to keep up with an ever changing world.

    This is the theory, in practice, we can see that the system isn’t working too well. Lots of people feel disenfranchised, they also tend to be the ones who have less cultural background to help them decode what’s going on, and can thus become prey of those who offer simple and wrong solutions for personal gain.

    In summary, it should be possible to use dissent, and in general, a multitude of opinions, to help producing better policies, but alas, it’s also possible to hijack diffused (and fairly homogeneous) dissent, specifically to gain power. This is dangerous, and should be contrasted as much as possible. That’s why I’ve been trying to expose the lies that allow this second process to happen.

    So, no, I don’t assume that dissent always allows for self-correction (I was just cutting corners…), but I do think that self-correction is impossible if all criticism invariably falls on deaf ears. To have self correction, a multitude of views is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition.
    Does this help?

  7. Dakua Pesi says:

    Yes, I see. I understand better why you called yourself “a Western chap”. But as you know better than myself, it’s not just the blind spots, it’s your entire approach that is a little bit overly… theoretical for my taste. Here I read a very captivating idea but then usually also a subsequent disclaimer “but that’s theory, in practise of course it’s not always like this”. Well, it’s captivating anyways, but it may at best capture just the Western world as you correctly pointed out. Self correction, competition in some market of ideas etc, are all very Western concepts. As a sidenote, I come too from Europe and I spent the last ten years travelling around, gathering my own little information about the world, especially around Asia and somehow Pacific islands too. On the way I changed a bit, I became less and less interested in explanations about particular places, and more in some global understanding that would apply everywhere. And so unfortunately, less and less do I believe that such a global theory is possible. E.g. I am entirely not satisfied with the usual first line approach that the rest of the world hasn’t gone through Enlightenment (or, for that matter, any other contingent history that happened to the West), or is somehow delayed, but “wait, you will see”. I don’t want to wait, I don’t even have time to wait! 😀

  8. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Dakua,
    you tempted me to start a long digression on the place of theory, theories, how to develop, find, discard and select them, but I can’t find the time, so it turns out I won’t waste yours.
    Indeed, this blog is where I theoretically freewheel, and it seems you’ve picked up all the disclaimers that I do place to signal the limitation.
    It may suffice to clarify one thing: I think a grand theory of everything is a worthwhile aim, as long as we recognise it is unachievable. Even in the smaller domain of human life, a unified theory of human interactions or human nature can’t actually be realised, there are many obvious (cough) theoretical reasons to assert as much (I’m assuming we don’t need to go there).
    On the other hand, the foundation of memetics looks tautological to me: whatever ideas are better suited to stick around, will stick around. Thus, even if it certainly is a concept rooted in Western traditions, its basis looks as solid as it gets to me (blind-spots notwithstanding). We could (and should) ask whether it offers a useful lens for our current aim(s), but in this case, the implicit assumption is that it does, as the whole series of posts relies on metaphors such as the market of ideas. Is this the direction you’d like to explore?

    Sidenote: no I am not taking the “wait, you will see” stand, not intentionally at least! I am trying to actively promote the ideas I think are useful, precisely because we can’t afford to wait and see. What we’ll see might not be what we’re expecting and/or we might simply don’t have the time (as you perhaps suggest). I don’t even accept the “Enlightenment” as a saviour, it did not and will not deliver what its original thinkers thought, but more importantly, it generated its own inherent existential risks (i.e. resource depletion, the 2 cultures war, science hubris, the list is long).

  9. […] the last post, I’ve discussed the allure of fascism, and why it is something we should all keep in mind. Worryingly, we tend to dismiss fascism as […]

  10. […] does this matter? Because politics. It’s no mystery that Western societies are dangerously veering to the right. What is less visible is that right-wing propaganda is exceptionally good at […]

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

Follow me on Twitter

All original content published on this blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Creative Commons Licence
Please feel free to re-use and adapt. I would appreciate if you'll let me know about any reuse, you may do so via twitter or the comments section. Thanks!

%d bloggers like this: