18 October 2020

Fascism, authoritarianism, totalitarianism

We must take care with the word “fascism” and use it precisely.

The term “authoritarianism” means something more broad than “fascism”, describing a range of conditions in which the powerful have their power unchecked by limiting institutions, tests of legitimacy, or whatever. Fascism is an authoritarianism but not all authoritarianisms are fascist. The USSR, Gaddafi’s Libya, and contemporary Singapore are all authoritarian states with a distinctly different politics from fascism.

We must also add the word “totalitarianism”. Not all authoritarian societies qualify as totalitarian. In a totalitarian society, not only is power unchecked, it pursues limitless exercise of power. East Germany was totalitarian, trying to put literally every single citizen under active surveillance by the secret police, torturing people for deviance from government wishes in the minutiae of their private lives. The concept of totalitarianism helps us think about how Stalin’s USSR, late Nazi Germany, and ISIL have striking similarities despite very different ideologies and policy programs.

Fascism differs from other authoritarian ideologies. Though it tends toward totalitarianism when it holds power, this does not define it. It need neither exercise totalitarian power nor make totalitarian claims to count as fascism. We can recognize movements as fascist in their thinking even when they hold no power at all and claim to reject authoritarian governance.

Fascist ideology confuses us in part because while it is a political ideology it is not a policy ideology. This differs from political ideologies like communism which also incline toward authoritarianism but are defined by their policy program. Consider how communism has a clear policy aim: the development of an international political order of, by, and for workers who collectively control the means of production and distribute the wealth equitably. Communist movements famously have policy positions on every little question, derived (at least theoretically) from core principles. Authoritarian communism emerges from the challenges of implementing that policy.

Fascism, on the other hand, has a radical distinterest in policy. Fascist movements will shift policy positions whenever convenient to seize more power. They often propose absurd policies, creating an environment which rejects policy discussions in general as absurd.

Instead of a policy ideology, fascism has a myth and a method.

Fascism’s myth says:

  • the essence of our nation is strong and great and virtuous
  • the essence of our people is good, united, unique, and distinct from all others
  • in the inexorable violent contest between peoples of the world our nation is destined to prevail
  • but alien, corrupting influences have created weakness and division which will destroy the nation;
  • this corruption must be destroyed through violence at the direction of a noble leader of profound insight
  • our movement will produce a rebirth into greatness and unity and power, an escape from our national strife of petty politics

Scholar David Griffin, who studies historical fascisms, sums this up as “palingenetic ultranationalism”: a dream of violent national rebirth.

Fascism’s method acts in bad faith to use the instruments of liberal democracy to destroy liberal democratic institutions. Here “liberal” means not “neither conservative nor leftist”, but rather “rights and rule of law”. Thus fascism will ...

  • yell “fire” in a crowded theater to discredit commitment to free speech
  • lie brazenly and to claim that the press are motivated solely by politics so that citizens stop trying to figure out what the truth is
  • sow violence in society so that limits on the use of force by the state seem pointless

The fascist myth and method produce authoritarianism and brutality.

This was the logic of the Confederacy. This was the logic of the Klan in the Reconstruction era ... and again in its 20th century revivals. This was the logic of the John Birch society. This was the logic of Timothy McVeigh.

It has been with us for a long time.

For a long time, I referred to DJT and Team Trump as “para-fascist”: the differences from historical fascism were sufficient to make me hesitant, but the resemblances were too strong to ignore.

Partly this reflects how American fascism is complicated by our deep rhetorical commitment to liberal democracy. (Again, not “liberal” as in “not conservative”, rather “liberal” as in “universal rights and rule of law”.) All of our politics references “freedom” and “rights” and so forth, which means American fascism needs to be more oblique in expressing its authoritarian rejection of libdem principle than other fascisms do.

Partly this reflects how Trump himself is barely interested in politics qua politics, rather being driven by his personal narcissism. Fascism reflects his fundamental urges rather than his considered philosophy, and emerges from the team around him rather than directly from him personally.

But as more and more pieces have fallen into place, it has become unmistakable in the last year. “Trumpism” is a form of fascism. The Republican Party is fascist. American conservatism has turned to fascism.

After writing this post I came to rely on it heavily, so I have a few follow-ups to append:

  • I have made a number of little edits in original post in service of clarity. I think I have done so without changing the substance of the post.
  • That has meant leaving the paragraph which references several movements from American history, which in retrospect I worry invites a bad inference. My point was that the sensibilties of contemporary American fascism draws on deep roots, but one may read me as saying incorrectly that all of those movements were fascist, which is incorrect. McVeigh did reflect white nationalist fascism. And the Klan of the revival of the 1910-20s was arguably the first proper fascist movement. But while Klan revivals (and fascist movements in other countries) inherit key sensibilities from the original Klan and the Confederacy, it would be misleading to call either the original Klan or the Confederacy fascist, as they differ in a fraught relationship with the Westphalian nation-state and other ways. And while Bircher-ism is at least fascism-adjacent with its weird anti-internationalism and dread of a corrupting, alien Bolshevisim, I hesitate to offer fascism as the best lens with which to understand it.
  • I have come to refer more to our contemporary American fascism as “MAGA” more often than “Trumpism” because I think it has clearly become a movement which extends beyond DJT and will outlive him. And it is difficult to imagine a better slogan for the fascist myth per Griffin’s palingenetic ultranationalism than “Make America Great Again”. Not everyone who finds MAGA rhetoric appealing can be understood as a fascist and not all of American fascism identifies itself as or aligns itself with MAGA, but it is as good a locus as any for naming the fascist movement which we have to face.
  • It is important to not simply equate fascism with the entire far right. I usefar right” to mean any movement opposed to democracy (right) which holds that nothing less than revolutionary change is worthwhile (far). Fascism is a particular far right movement; for an example of a not-fascist-but-still-horrifying far right movement in the US, consider neoreaction.
  • I reject the argument of some leftist observers that fascism can be understood as the instrument which capitalism or liberalism or neoliberalism creates to crush the left. My comrades are right to dread how capitalists and anti-left-liberals enthuiastically make that faustian bargain, but to imagine fascism as their creation misses how fascism emerges from social impulses prior to elite manipulation. I hope to someday find time to make that argument in greater detail.
  • It is important to register the Republican Party as having undergone a dramatic but not-yet-complete transition to fascism. Movement conservatism, the style of conservatism which consumed the Party and US politics in the wake of Reagan and Fox News sold itself to many voters with oblique dogwhistles which nourished fascist sensibilities. But MAGA is a transition away from movement conservatism, reflecting those voters’ dissatisfaction with movement conservatism’s failure to deliver the goods.


Proper non-violence understands that violence is justified but believes that it is unwise. Non-violence means facing violence without returning it; retreating from confrontation is not non-violent action, it is passivity.

Too many people think that nonviolence means a white liberal quietism which drapes itself in a vague and false moral claim to reflect the logic of the Civil Rights Movement. Claiming nonviolence as an absolute value rather than as a considered tactic reflects a combination of ignorance and moral laziness.

Non-violence is vitally important because violence is not a way of getting where you want to go, only more quickly; is existence changes your destination.

There are a lot of ways that things could go in which we will need a lot of white bodies on the street facing guns. We need bourgeois white people like me standing at the front, braving the bullets.

2017 doesn’t make me confident that enough of us will step up, but it does give me hope.

Case #1 for nonviolence: it is working for BLM

The re-acceleration of street protest and reporting on it which emerged after the street execution of George Floyd has produced dynamics similar to protests of the Civil Rights Movement.

That the movement has been primarily and overwhelmingly nonviolent only underlines how the few outbreaks of vandalism (most notably the capture and burning of the Minneapolis Third Precinct police station) demonstrates that there is a huge capacity for popular violence which has been held in check.

That police in cities across the country have demonstrated repeatedly that they will engage in increasingly frantic brutality in response to nonviolent street protest has conclusively proved what anti-police advocates have been saying all along.

And the result has been that now clear majorities now favor vigorous reform in a way which was politically inconceivable just a year ago, and even more incredibly police abolition is on the table as something which popularly credible people are advocating and which opponents need to actively argue against. This is a huge victory, and the contrast of nonviolence was integral in demonstrating the reality of police culture and conduct.

White liberals’ clarity here is not what it should be, but it is improving every day; a turn toward broader violence in response to police violence would reverse that trend.

Case #2 for nonviolence: it is working against far right street demonstrators

In 2017, far right street actions tried to provoke street violence in order to feed their story about their strength and the ordinary conservatives to support them against the violent leftist hordes. Instead, overwhelmingly nonviolent counterprotest got bigger and bigger while those far right gangs fell apart over their inability to deliver sufficient thrills and glory to their members. The mess at the “Unite The Right” rally did not unite the right; massive popular turnout in nonviolent counterprotest against them which followed at San Francisco, then even moreso in Boston, embarrassed them and made them look silly and weak, breaking the far right street movements’ momentum until their resurgence this year.

These kinds of confrontations are happening again this year, but again the mass of nonviolent counterprotest has made far right would-be brownshirts look silly and weak. Instead of looking like brave badasses facing down the scary antifa thugs of their authoritarian fantasies, their exemplar is scrawny, panicked Kyle Rittenhouse flailing around wildly.

We have too many fascist true believers who accept their story but they have not been able to swell their numbers or persuade the inattentive white middle as they had imagined.

There are always going to be liberals who are King’s White Moderates who will find that any shadow of evidence of “violence” (which is usually only vandalism) allows them to rationalize their rejection of any action at all. One object of non-violence is to limit their ranks by keeping the facts off their side.

Case #3 for non-violence: what if things get very bad?

The hard test is the moment to come in the wake of the election. There are a lot of people on the right who are hungry for a shooting civil war against a “violent takeover by the radical left”.

Anti-left liberals will be tempted to side with the right against the left if they can be persuaded that we are violent. And yeah, some of them are going to be suckered no matter what we do.

But the longer the interval in which it is clear that the far right are bringing guns and blood while the left are not, the more it will erode the credibility of the far right. We don’t just need it to be true that they are the ones who shoot first; we need it to last long enough that it is clear even to people who are not paying attention that they shot first. If we can hold that line, the far right will lack popular support ... which translates into an unwillingness for the US military to fire on US civilians.

It is our best chance for avoiding an authoritarian death spiral.

And if that fails — either through a failure to step up, or us getting stepped on — the calculus changes.

Up to that point, the ideal response would be a massive and entirely nonviolent movement. There is no getting that ideal, but it is useful to aspire to it. An overwhelmingly nonviolent movement is more plausible and still very good.

But after that point, if we move from the fascist ascendancy we have now to the fascist control we fear, then the only way to dislodge fascist power is through violent action.

That said, even in that eventuality, while we would need violence to win that war, the more active nonviolence there is in the resistance the better the peace we can hope for when we win. Nonviolence will always need recruits.

Update: A commentary on the kind of people who we are talking about:

I’m getting really tired of the wise serene pacifist trope in fiction. Every committed pacifist, prison abolitionist, antiwar activist, etc I’ve ever met in real life has been vibrating with compressed rage at all times. Do you know what it’s like to believe deeply in your heart that doing harm to others is wrong and the goal of society should be to alleviate suffering for all people and live in the United States of America? IT’S NOT FUN. Show Us The Pissed-Off Pacifists.

Dude there might be a word for the emotion that is forged when someone’s deep abiding love and compassion for all people and living things welds itself into decades of built-up foaming fury at how those people been treated their whole life by those in power to create a sort of alloyed super-commitment to a set of ethical principles but i promise you “tranquility” is not that fucking word

I will pile up some resources here: