18 October 2020

Fascism, authoritarianism, totalitarianism

We must take care with the word “fascism” and use it, and related terms, 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, et cetera.

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.


The term “totalitarianism” refers to a distinct form of authoritarianism which overlaps with fascism but is not simply the same. Not all authoritarian societies qualify as totalitarian.

In a totalitarian society, not only is power unchecked, it pursues limitless exercise of power over every aspect of life. 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.


Scholars famously have a hard time tidily defining fascism because of how it adapts to particular conditions; each fascist movement has its idiosyncratic national and historical characteristics. I recommend spending time with Wikipedia’s suprisingly good index of definitions of fascism.

It can be useful to start by dismissing some ways we tend to misunderstand fascism.

Common confusions

Fascism is an authoritiarianism, but often does not understand itself that way, offering instead a kind of anti-politics which implies a rejection of the authoritarian power it seeks. Its logics drive it toward totalitarianism once it holds power, but this does not define it.

Fascism is a far right ideology — it holds that nothing less than revolutionary change is worthwhile (far) and opposes equality (right) — but fascism has sufficiently particular characteristics that not all far right movements are fascist. Consider neoreaction for an example of a far right movement in the US distinct from fascism.

Fascism confuses us in part because of blurring between political ideologies with a vision of society & governance (like liberal democracy, monarchism, or theocracy) versus ideologies with a policy program (like neoliberalism, socialism, or Islamism). Leninism has both a vision of the social & governance order and a policy program of socialist economics; it turns to authoritarianism in pursuit of those aims. Fascism is very different, defined entirely by its vision of society & governance, with a radical distinterest in policy: fascist movements shift policy positions whenever convenient to seize more power, often embracing absurd policy positions which drive focus away from policy.

Fascist disinterest in policy is part of why I reject how many leftists describe fascism as an instrument which capitalism or liberalism or neoliberalism creates to crush the left. Sometimes this invokes a canard about Mussolini describing fascism as “corporatism”. We must dread how capitalists and anti-left-liberals enthuiastically make a faustian bargain with fascists, but to imagine fascism as their creation misses how fascism emerges from impulses prior to elite manipulation.

Recognizing fascism

I think scholar David Griffin provides the best single thesis, summarizing fascism as “palingenetic ultranationalism”: a dream of violent national rebirth. He finds many other characteristics common among fascist movements, but with all the variation between them, he says that reflects its core.

I have my own distillation of that and other theories of fascism which I find useful in recognizing and understanding it even in cases where it does not hold the authoritarian power it craves. Fascism combines a myth and a method which together drive it toward totalitarianism and mass violence when it holds power.

Fascism’s myth

  • 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 strong 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

My later post The Conspiracy Theory addresses how that pattern relates to the fascist fantasy of responding to a corrupting force destroying the nation.

The Conspiracy Theory offers a paradoxically comforting nightmare. Someone is in control of All This. The world can be made right simply by eliminating Them. [⋯] Since Nazis put The Jews at the top of the list of Those Who Corrupt, drawing on the Protocols and its decendants, it is tempting to imagine that antisemitism is part of the definition of fascism. But neither fascism nor The Conspiracy Theory are always or simply antisemitic.

Fascism’s method

Fascism considers it a virtue to act in bad faith, because this destroys the libdem institutions & sensibilities they hate by abusing them. (Here “liberal” means not “neither conservative nor leftist”, but rather “rights and rule of law”.) Thus fascism will do things like …

  • 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

Fascism in the US

The fascist sensibility has deep taproots in American political culture. We can see precursors to it in the logic of the Confederacy and the Klan in the Reconstruction era. We see echoes and rhymes with the fascist sensibility in the John Birch society and the “Patriot” movement.

And we have long had proper fascism. The 20th century revival of the Klan is arguably the first true fascist movement. We do not remember Timothy McVeigh as a fascist, but we should.

Our inability to see American fascism partly reflects how our deep rhetorical commitment to liberal democracy complicates our distinctive national fascist voice. (Again, not “liberal” as in “not conservative” or “not leftist”, but 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.


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 reflected 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 ideology. It emerges at least as much from the team & movement around him as it does from him personally.

But as more and more pieces have fallen into place, it has become unmistakable one cannot understand “Trumpism” without reading it as a form of fascism. The movement’s key slogan “Make America Great Again” could not be a more perfect encapsulation of Roger Griffin’s “palingenetic ultranationalism” thesis. Not everyone who finds MAGA rhetoric appealing can be understood as a fascist, nor does all of American fascism identify or align itself with MAGA, but it is as good a locus as any for naming the fascist movement which we have to face.

Looking again at The Conspiracy Theory, we should recognize how American fascism has adapted to the pseudo-philo-semitism of Christian nationalism.

Many contemporary fascists cast trans people as Them, a frightening and frighteningly effective innovation, since in amplifying fascism’s anxieties about masculinity, in being a small-yet-pervasive population, in and many other ways trans people fulfill the function of Them in fascism and The Conspiracy Theory even better than Jews do.

Though MAGA fascism now dominates US conservatism and the Republican Party, we should recognize this as unstable in a time of transition. 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 was not itself fascist. MAGA is a move away from movement conservatism, reflecting voters’ dissatisfaction with movement conservatism’s failure to deliver the goods. The breakdown of movement conservatism has put the US into a major political reälignment; it is impossible to predict who will have a chair when the music stops.

After originally writing this post I came to rely on it heavily, and have thus made a number of edits since. In particular, the initial version implied that the Confederacy and original Klan were simply fascist, which was misleading — they differ in a fraught relationship with the Westphalian nation-state and other ways. In refining the phrasing on that point and many other things, I have tried to bring greater clarity without destroying the sense.


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: