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 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.

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 “our nation is strong and great and virtuous in its essence, our people are unique and distinct from all others in being good and fundamentally united, so in the inexorable violent contest between peoples of the world our nation is destined to prevail ... but corrupting influences have come and created weakness and division that will destroy the nation, a corruption which must be destroyed through violence at the direction of a noble leader of profound insight ... so our movement will produce a rebirth into greatness and unity and power, an escape from the 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 those liberal democratic institutions. (Here “liberal” means not “neither conservative nor leftist”, but rather “rights and rule of law”.) To yell “fire” in a crowded theater to destroy the commitment to free speech. To 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. To 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.

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