January 12, 2010
Us vs. Them: On the Meaning of Fascism, by Roger Tucker
"We have met the enemy and they are us." - Pogo
Pretty much everyone nowadays rejects fascism, but nobody seems to know quite what it is. The words "fascist" and "fascism" are frequently flung about, but they seem to be applied to all sorts of different and unrelated people and things. The dictionaries and Wikipedia are no help because they all assume that the word refers to a political phenomenon that arose in Europe in the 20th Century. That is indeed when the word "fascism" was coined (in the form of "fascismo," an Italian word for the ideology of Benito Mussolini's political party). Here's an excellent contemporary example: "The definition of “fascism” has some academic variance, but is essentially collusion among corporatocracy, authoritarian government, and controlled media and education. This “leadership” is only possible with a nationalistic public accepting policies of war, empire, and limited civil and political rights." (1) However, it is rather easy to demonstrate that fascism, in terms of usage (what people mean when they employ the term) dates back to the dawn of history. In order to do that we have to look at what goes into the process of properly defining a word. There are two things that need to be taken into consideration; the historical, linguistic roots (the etymology of the word) and contemporary usage. The Oxford English Dictionary is usually helpful with the former but not in this case, as it too (following the OED rule that looks at the first instance in print) refers only to the recent manifestations in Italy and Germany. In order to determine usage we need to pay close attention to how and when people nowadays commonly employ the terms "fascist" and "fascism."
The word "fascism" has as its root the Latin term "fascis." Here Wikipedia is helpful: "[Fasces:] from the Latin word fascis, meaning "bundle," symbolize summary power and jurisdiction...The traditional Roman fasces consisted of a bundle of white birch rods, tied together with a red leather ribbon into a cylinder, and often including a bronze axe (or sometimes two) amongst the rods, with the blade(s) on the side, projecting from the bundle. It was used as a symbol of the Roman Republic in many circumstances, including being carried in processions, much the way a flag might be carried today...Believed to date from Etruscan times, the symbolism of the fasces at one level suggested strength through unity. The bundle of rods bound together symbolizes the strength which a single rod lacks. The axe symbolized the state's power and authority." Another word with the same root is "fascia," which Wikipedia defines as follows: "(from Latin: a band) is the soft tissue component of the connective tissue system that permeates the human body...It is responsible for maintaining structural integrity..." Again there is a sense of the binding factor, suggestive of the social glue or cultural bond that defines and holds a community together and gives it strength and endurance.
The Etruscan origin is probably correct and some have theorized that the original symbol depicted a bound sheaf of wheat. Whether factual or not, this hypothesis is very suggestive and goes to the heart of the matter. The bound sheaf of wheat, or bundle of sticks tied together, are clearly symbolic of the basic family, clan or tribal group that lives and works the land together cooperatively. That is what most of the names of indigenous tribes or peoples all over the world mean in their own language, "us," "the people," bound together by blood, language and place.
In its primary and positive sense the fasces symbolizes how we are bound to the earth and how, by working harmoniously with it, we sustain ourselves. It evokes primal feelings of oneness with nature and with one another and is suggestive of nurturing and fertility. It invokes the feminine, or mother principle, and it is no wonder that the early agricultural communities worshiped an earth goddess. Its not so benign meaning emerges with the addition of the axe blades, symbolizing the masculine principles of power, authority and the monopoly of force wielded by those who sit atop the hierarchy that naturally develops in human groups. In that sense, the original holders of the fasces were the mother and father of the primitive family and through the evolution of culture has become invested at the highest level in the leaders of nation-states and those who represent them.
In the simplest and most basic sense we are talking about group ego. The term "ego" is generally understood as the sense of self, all of the disparate physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual elements that we think of as an "I," an ongoing, solid and independent actor. All wisdom traditions point out the danger of solidifying this concept. They teach us that we are inextricably connected, existing only in relation to one another and to everything else. Whether perceived as pacific and cooperative or aggressive and warlike, all group identities court the same danger, the reification of the concept of "Us." Fascism is neither masculine nor feminine, neither rightist or leftist, but a combination of both. Nor does it have anything to do with a particular political or economic setup. Let's take a look at what the Italian fascisti, the ones who coined the term, had in mind. The following is in Wikipedia's translation of the Fascist Manifesto:
The Manifesto (published in "Il Popolo d'Italia" on June 6, 1919) is divided into four sections, describing Fascist objectives in political, social, military and financial fields. Politically, the Manifesto calls for:
In labour and social policy, the Manifesto calls for:
In military affairs, the Manifesto advocates:
The Manifesto thus combined elements of contemporary democratic and progressive thought (franchise reform, labour reform, limited nationalisation, taxes on wealth and war profits) with corporatist emphasis on class collaboration (the idea of social classes existing side by side and collaborating for the sake of national interests; the opposite of the Marxist notion of class struggle).
This sounds remarkably like a program that most liberals and progressives could salute, doesn't it? Of course, fascismo changed markedly after Mussolini assumed control and turned it into a right-wing dictatorship, but what we're concerned with here is the evolution of the term fascism from its linguistic origins in pre-Roman Italy to the present. However, we must guard against the notion that there is anything particularly Italian (or German for that matter) about fascism. The symbolism of the fasces is widely used and displayed in government sponsored designs in the U.S., France and a number of other Western democracies. Similar symbols are native to most cultures; it is well nigh universal.
In order for fascism to come to dominate an identity group, it must have a compelling narrative. Whether group identity is based on nationality, ethnicity, religion, class, caste, gender or whatever, there is sure to be a story that glorifies the "tribe" and sets it above all others. Typically, it reaches far back into history and has elements both of exaltation and humiliation, triumph over its adversaries and victimization. And it will come replete with slogans and symbols, and nowadays, more than likely, bumper stickers.
To sum up, the linguistic root of the term fascism and its visual representation clearly refer to identification with a particular group of people, originally based on family, clan and tribe, including place and language, evolving eventually into what we would nowadays call nationalism, or internationalism when it is based on a politico-economic ideology like capitalism or communism. As will be discussed further, the essential principle applies to any kind of identity politics that distinguishes between "Us" and a "Them" and asserts "Our" interests as primary. At what point, then, does this basic pattern, which is neither good nor bad in itself, become malevolent and get properly labeled as "fascist"? One could say that it turns ugly when sports fans, for example, start physically assaulting one another rather than just rooting for the home team. At the scale of international relations, when nationalism becomes aggressive and predatory, then we can clearly identify the pattern as fascistic. The simplest manifestation is that of the schoolyard bully, usually consisting of a leader and his loyal followers. Writ large, it supplies the tacit or explicit rationale for all wars.
It must be stressed that there is nothing inherently wrong with group identification. On the contrary, without it we would be alienated and lost. Indeed, there appears to be a biological basis to this familiar phenomenon - see The Dark Side of Oxytocin, the Hormone of Love - Ethnocentrism - NYT. The turning point is when a healthy sense of group pride turns into belligerent arrogance and racism; when patriotism becomes an excuse for hating foreigners, when we start dehumanizing and vilifying others, when we go along with a party line that gives us the right to oppress and dispossess those outside the group boundary.
Many observers have remarked that people use the words "fascist" or "fascism" in a context that has only the vaguest reference, if any, to historical events that occurred in the previous century. However, there is a remarkable consistency to the usage that is commonly overlooked. First of all, it is always negative, something to be rejected and actively opposed. Second, it is always used to refer to something characteristic of a particular group of people unlike us, people with whom "we" don't identify, all of whom have in common this "fascistic" quality. And it always contains some explicit or implicit accusation of injustice, abuse of power and arbitrary use of force. At this point it should be becoming clear that fascism is a word that may have been coined in the context of 20th century European politics, but which has been adopted in popular speech to refer to something far more basic, universal and timeless, for which no handier term existed. I suspect that the peculiar potency of the word derives from the enormously successful wartime propaganda of the Allies that strove to identify "our enemies" du jour with evil incarnate, and kept alive through a myriad of films, books and the approved version of history taught to young people. It is no accident that fascists are always the "other," while "we" are always both the victims and the heroic warriors keeping "them" at bay.
Let's look at some circumstances in which a person or some group of people are typically labeled fascist. Children sometimes accuse their parents, or caretakers, of being fascists. What they mean is that their liberty to do as they please is being unfairly circumscribed. No, you can't stay up late playing video games. You can't sleep over with your friends, or whatever. They are fascists because they have used the authority vested in their position to control your behavior and activities. You must comply, because they have a monopoly on the use of force, the ability to withhold whatever you want or feel you need and are entitled to, and in the last resort, to inflict physical punishment if you do not obey. Another frequent use of the term occurs in the context of confrontations with the police. They represent authority, as signified by their uniforms and the fact that they are armed and have the government sanctioned option to use their weapons. Nowadays, in our generally disaffected mood, the Government is commonly perceived to be fascist. Here, the relationship to the Roman fasces is obvious - they are identified with the State and its power. A wonderful example of the notion of fascism as it is popularly understood is the character of Nurse Ratchett in Ken Kesey's classic "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." She represents the absolute and arbitrary power of established authority to control others' lives. One might accuse one's boss of being a fascist for exactly such reasons. They have the authority and the power and, as you see it, they abuse it.
In terms of politics, the term is generally employed in reference to parties whose ideology asserts a prerogative to rule based on ethnocentric supremacy. However, it has been applied to a variety of political views based on group identity if that identity is used as a rationale for domination over others. "We" could just as easily be "the working class" as are self-proclaimed representatives of national or religious identity. It is useful to remember that both the Italian Fascist party and the Nazis considered themselves to be socialist, while the Spanish and Japanese parties openly appealed to conservative, traditionalist sentiments. In terms of a useful definition of fascism, these distinctions are meaningless.
Let's try a thought experiment to test our own fascist propensities. Create a mental list of those characteristics that constitute your identify. I will provide an example by doing this for myself. I am male, Caucasian, an American, a Jew by birth and a Buddhist by inclination, a senior citizen and retiree, a veteran, a writer, a revolutionary, left-handed and blue-eyed with dark hair. And that's just a partial survey. To what extent do I identify with each of the groups just enumerated? The answer is all of them, to a greater or lesser extent. By identify I mean that there is some emotional attachment, some sense of tribal belonging, however vague and ill-defined that might be. But is that really who I am? Note that all of the above are accidents of birth, except for being a Buddhist and a writer, which are the result of choices that I made (I enlisted in the Army when I was young, confused and looking for a place to hang my hat, and almost immediately regretted it), Also note that, with the exceptions mentioned, all of these identity groups have a story associated with them, ranging from some simple positive affirmation to a long and complicated narrative. Let's look at them one by one in terms of fascist potential.
Male - Just ask a feminist (or vice-versa)
White - Just ask anyone who isn't
American - The Free (to dominate, monopolize, control and bomb) and the Brave (when backed up by overwhelming firepower)
Jewish - When I was young I thought Chosen People meant chosen to suffer. But things morph and change, and now it appears to mean to make others suffer (see the Old Testament).
Buddhist - Yes, there are Buddhists who claim exclusive possession of the Truth
Senior/Retiree - Ah, the Gray Panthers and AARP
Veteran - Ever been to a VFW gathering?
Writer - Those who really know about stuff, the intellectual elite
Revolutionary - the Vanguard of the People (the new ruling class in waiting)
Left-handedness - Well, you know, we are more intuitive and creative
And so on and so forth...
Fascism, as herein defined, is ubiquitous and has no particular origin. It might be useful, then, to talk only about the two varieties with which I'm most familiar, being both an American and a Jew. Coincidentally, these two identity groups also represent the greatest political challenges facing our world today.
American fascism, by definition, became possible once the inhabitants of the Colonies began to see themselves as other than ordinary Englishmen who happened to reside on the other side of the Atlantic. That self-perception solidified, at least among the disaffected, as soon as friction arose between the two populations, culminating in the War for Independence. Victory arrived with all of the fascist accoutrements, tribal symbols, a self-glorifying national narrative and, of course, a flag. However, those who had the responsibility of fashioning the new nation were an unusual assembly of highly educated, sophisticated people (mostly lawyers) who were well aware of the dangers the fledgling republic was facing - not external dangers, but internal ones. Much consideration went into creating obstacles to giving birth to what we are calling a fascist state. But the seeds had already been planted; America's development was dependent on the processes of genocide and slavery. If one overlooks American poaching in Canada and Florida and similar early adventures, one could say that it was pretty much a done deal once the Republic engaged in its first full-blown war of international aggression, which resulted in the acquisition of the northern half of Mexico. Not too much later, the United States proclaimed itself a full-blown Imperialist power in the European tradition with its conquest of the Spanish territories of the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico, while at the same time grabbing Hawaii from its indigenous population.
Something needs to be said at this point about two terms that are closely related to fascism, "racism" and "imperialism." Fascism necessarily includes racism. Just as in the case of individual egoism, group ego requires the solidification of the sense of separation and distinctness from the other. Furthermore, in order to start going down the road to full-blown fascism, group identity must become chauvinistic, that sense of overweening pride in ourselves and our superior characteristics. The expression of this sense of superiority over others is what is called racism, and America, as we know, is a profoundly racist country and always has been - although the "other," aside from the old standbys - the Blacks, the Indians and the Hispanics - kept changing depending on who the latest immigrants were. The next step, to full-blown imperialism, requires nationalistic aggression against other states. Whether to acquire loot in whatever form, or to expand control over an ever increasing territory, the drums of war are frequently heard around the land. All of this has become fully institutionalized in the U.S., to the extent that the prevailing national doctrine is now perpetual war (the current Pentagon term is "the long war"). Not that long ago President Calvin Coolidge could say that "the business of America is business." But times have changed; imperialist war - business by other means to paraphrase Clausewitz - has become our major occupation and economic activity - and, no doubt, will in due time be our undoing, as history so clearly tells us. This pattern of serial aggression, which requires creating enemies when they don't conveniently present themselves, is inherent in the dynamics of fascism. All empires have fallen when they have become fully overextended, militarily, financially, geographically and in every other respect. America now has clearly has opted for this destructive and self-defeating strategy.
Jewish fascism (aka Zionism)
Another clear, albeit bizarre, example is Israel, which would no doubt quickly implode without the requisite unifying principle of an external enemy with which the nation must always be at war, or preparing for war. I refer to it as Jewish fascism because it predates the Zionist project. When I was in Hebrew school in the early 50's, in preparation for my bar mitzvah, I thought I should read the Old Testament. What struck me was that much of it conformed to what we were being taught was the essence of fascism, though I didn't make much of it at the time. Although I haven't read it, it appears that the Talmud, the primary scripture of the Orthodox ashkenazim, is a veritable manual of Jewish fascism. (4)
Israel is exceptional in a number of ways:
Thus, Israel combines three convergent forms of fascism: ethnocentric (based on mytho-history much like the Nazi notion of an Aryan race); religious (nominally Jewish, although its founders were secular. Following the 1940's the place of Judaism as the sustaining religious identity was essentially replaced by the Holycause, complete with a Holy Inquisition.); and, of course, virulently nationalistic. Fortuitously for the Jewish fascists, or maybe not so coincidentally (3), an extremely powerful ally emerged from within the American religious world, the Christian Zionists. Although essentially a doomsday cult, it numbers, conservatively, 40-50 million Americans eager for Israel to build the Second Temple, thereby paving the way to Armageddon, at which point these lunatics expect be "raptured up" to heaven. American and Jewish fascism appear to have converged into an aggressive pathological force that, considering their nuclear arsenal, endangers humanity more than any such phenomenon in the past. Both Americans and Jews have made extraordinary positive contributions to world civilization, but a ruthless and predatory American imperialism and fascistic Zionism we can do without.
The inner fascist in all of us claims to be one of the "good" people, the "superior" people, the "strong" people, or the "smart" people, but whatever flavor it comes in, we are one of the "exceptional" people. The antidote to such delusions is the realization that we are just people, pretty much like everybody else, with as much right to be here as anyone else (and vice versa). This realization cuts through self-deception, protects us from buying into whatever snake-oil the zealots happen to be selling today and contains within it the possibility of a sane society, however far off and illusory that may seem. We all belong to one tribe, humanity, and if we take our cue from those whom history has deemed wise, we realize that caring for others and the environment that supports us is the key. When we attempt to separate ourselves, individually as egomaniacs or as part of some fascistic identity group, then we're only asking for trouble. We may think we are protecting ourselves by attempting to control and manipulate others, but in the end what goes around comes around, a pointless and painful cycle that reason and experience tell us to abandon. Fascism as we have been describing it is a social pathology and it can legitimately be considered humanity's most urgent public health problem. If enough people come to understand what the disease is and how to diagnose it, perhaps there will emerge a means to inoculate ourselves.
In the short term, it is imperative to dissolve the Jewish state of Israel. Such a state, which has no basis other than a fascistic narrative constructed out of paranoia and mythology, has no legitimacy in our world. It embodies all of the characteristics that humanity has resoundingly rejected in the last century - settler colonialism, racism, ethnic cleansing, apartheid and genocide. The dehumanization and destruction of a people, along with the dispossession of their land and property, is utterly intolerable. The only feasible alternative is its replacement by a pluralistic, democratic state that includes the Palestinians as equals. There is no other viable solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, a conflict that threatens to engulf the entire planet in nuclear devastation. In the long term, we must overcome the tendency to adopt belief systems that are based on blind faith, whether they take the form of political or religious dogmas. Only then can we grow up and have the opportunity to create a truly sane world.
1. American fascism: by political definition the US is now fascist, not a constitutional republic, by Carl Herman
3. Scofield Bible made uncompromising Zionists out of tens of millions of Americans, by Maidhc Ó Cathail
“Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.” - 'The True Believer' by Eric Hoffer
Publisher, One Democratic State