How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley

Jason Stanley is a philosophy professor at Yale. He previously published a book called How Propaganda Works. His new book is a guidebook to fascism. He doesn’t spend much time on its history. His purpose is to explain how fascism and similar approaches to politics work.

The mechanisms of fascist politics all build on and support one another. They weave a myth of a distinction between “us” and “them”, based on a romanticized fictional past featuring “us” and no “them”, and supported by a corrupt liberal elite, who take our hard-earned money and threaten our traditions. “They” are lazy criminals on whom freedom would be wasted (and who don’t deserve it, in any case). “They” mask their destructive goals with the language of liberalism or “social justice”, and are out to destroy our culture … and make “us” weak. “We” are industrious and law-abiding … “they” are lazy, perverse, corrupt and decadent [188].

Among the mechanisms Stanley cites are: the idea that some kinds of people are inherently better than others; the creation of a mythic past; the widespread use of propaganda; the promotion of conspiracy theories; the use of contradictory statements to demonstrate power and obscure reality; anti-intellectualism; encouraging feelings of victimhood among the majority population; the celebration of law and order and military might; and respect for “traditional family values”.

Stanley doesn’t spend much time on the economic aspects of fascism, except for fascism’s general opposition to labor unions. Perhaps it’s enough to say that fascist leaders are authoritarians and wield extraordinary power over economic affairs. One possible problem with the book is that his use of contemporary examples may suggest that there is no significant difference between fascism and contemporary conservatism (or whatever we should call the reactionary politics of today’s Republican Party). His point, however, is that contemporary “conservatives”, in particular the current occupant of the White House, exhibit behavior that matches many of the distinctive behaviors of history’s best-known fascists.

Finally, one aspect of fascism that sets it apart is what Stanley calls the “Führer Principle”:

The father, in fascist ideology, is the leader of the family; the CEO is the leader of the business; the authoritarian leader is the father or CEO of the state. When voters in a democratic society yearn for a CEO as president, they are responding to their own implicit fascist impulses.

The pull of fascist politics is powerful. It simplifies human existence, gives us an object, a “them” whose supposed [defects highlight] our own virtue and discipline, encourages us t oidentify with a forceful leader who helps usmakese sense of the world, whose bluntness regarding the “undeserving” people in the world is refreshing…. If the CEO is tough-talking and cares little for democratic institutions, even denigrates them, so much the better. Fascist politics preys on the human frailty that makes our own suffering seem bearable if we know that those we look down upon are being made to suffer more [183].

To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism by Rob Riemen

The author is a Dutch writer and “cultural philosopher”. The dust jacket says To Fight Against This Age was an international best seller. The book has two parts: “The Eternal Return of Fascism” and “The Return of Europa”.

The first part argues convincingly that fascism is a recurring tendency in Western civilization. The second argues that a united Europe could be much more than it has turned out to be, which is “nothing other than an Economic Union, where the terms soul, culture, philosophy, and live in truth are as impossible as a palm tree on the moon” [167].

The situation in the United States being more urgent, I found the discussion of fascism more engaging. We hesitate to apply the word “fascist” to the right-wing extremists who have gained ground in America (and in some parts of Europe),  mainly because they haven’t taken total control of society and spread bloodshed in the manner of Hitler and Mussolini. Rieman, however, says we should use the term to make clear how extreme these movements are and also make it easier to stop them:

… the fascist bacillus will always remain virulent in the body of mass democracy. Denying this fact or calling it something else will not make us resistant to it…. If we want to put up a good fight, we first have to admit that it has become active in our social body again and call it by its name: “fascism” [34].

In the twenty-first century, no fascist would willingly be called a “fascist”. Fascists aren’t that stupid, and it fits with their mastery of the skill of lying. Contemporary fascists are recognizable partly through what they say, but just as important is how they operate…. Fascist techniques are identical everywhere: the presence of a charismatic leader; the use of populism to motivate the masses; the designation of the base group as victims (of crises, or elites, or of foreigners); and the direction of all resentment toward an “enemy”. Fascism has no need for a [small “d”] democratic party with members who are individually responsible; it needs an inspiring and authoritative leader who is believed to have superior instincts (making decisions that don’t require supporting arguments), a faction leader who can be obeyed and followed by the masses [83-84].

Sound familiar?

Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg

Family Lexicon is an autobiographical novel, first published in 1963, by the Italian author Natalia Ginzburg. I read an article about it recently and since our local library had a copy, I brought it home. I almost stopped reading it two or three times but kept going.

It’s a strange book. It tells the story of the author’s family in the 1930s and ’40s. The author doesn’t say much about herself. For example, she only mentions in passing that she’s gotten married the two times it happens. Instead, she describes the personalities, activities and especially the conversations of her parents and four siblings. The rise of fascism and the war play a relatively small role (people are arrested by the fascists, or taken away by the Germans, but not much is said about it). Ginzburg concentrates instead on the day to day lives of her family and their friends. The book is often amusing, but you have to put up with a lot of numbing detail (my mother said this, my father said that, we took a walk, the maid got upset, the new apartment was nice).

Her father is a biology professor who tells most everyone around him that they are “jackasses” and “nitwits”. Her mother is an easy-going sort who tries to see the good in everyone and everything. Her sister and three brothers are less interesting and get less attention. It’s the distinctive way the characters, especially her father and mother, talk to each other that’s the most interesting thing about the book.

Family Lexicon has gotten renewed attention because of last year’s new translation. If you’re interested, you can read positive thoughts about it here, here, here, here and here.

The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton

Even though everyone agrees that fascism in its most significant form began in Mussolini’s Italy and reached its peak in Hitler’s Germany, it’s hard to say exactly what fascism is. In The Anatomy of Fascism, historian and political scientist Robert Paxton probably does as well as anyone could.

After a wide-ranging, sometimes repetitious discussion of fascism’s historical roots, its small-scale presence in many countries, and its brief success in Italy and Germany, Paxton offers a definition in the final pages of his book:

The moment has come to give fascism a usable short handle, even though we know that it encompasses its subject no better than a snapshot encompasses a person.

Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence, and without ethical or legal restraints, goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

Paxton offers this definition almost against his will, since he believes that the best way to understand fascism is to study its history and compare it with other political systems, especially other authoritarian (or “totalitarian”) systems. He argues that “the ideas that underlie fascist actions are best deduced” not from what fascists say but from what they do. Nevertheless, he lists some “visceral feelings” or “mobilizing passions” that animate fascism, including (in his words):

  • A sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions;
  • The primacy of the group … and the subordination of the individual to it;
  • The belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external;
  • The need for authority by natural chiefs … culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny;
  • The superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason;
  • The beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success;
  • The right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint … right being decided by the sole criterion of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle.

Paxton repeatedly emphasizes that fascism has always arisen in response to the perceived failure of democratic systems to deal with some crisis or other, and that its ascension to power has always required the support of existing right-wing elites who see fascism as a counterweight to socialism or communism. Given this historical record, it’s natural to wonder whether America might one day adopt fascism:

Today a “politics of resentment” rooted in authentic American piety and nativism sometimes leads to violence against some of the very same “internal enemies” once targeted by the Nazis, such as homosexuals and defenders of abortion rights. (But) the United States would have to suffer catastrophic setbacks and polarization for these fringe groups to find powerful allies and enter the mainstream….No swastikas in an American fascism, but Stars and Stripes (or Stars and Bars) and Christian crosses. No fascist salute, but mass recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance….An American fascism would transform them into obligatory litmus tests for detecting the internal enemy…. Its targets would be the First Amendment, separation of Church and State, … controls on gun ownership, desecrations of the flag, unassimilated minorities, artistic license, dissident and unusual behavior of all sorts that could be labeled antinational or decadent.

We can find … (the most) ominous warning signals in situations of political deadlock in the face of crisis, threatened conservatives looking for tougher allies, ready to give up due process and the rule of law, seeking mass support by nationalist and racialist demagoguery.

Americans tend to be individualists, which conflicts with being good fascists. But given a sufficiently serious crisis and a sufficiently charismatic demagogue, it could happen anywhere.