A simple definition of fascism

  • Posted on: 14 February 2017
  • By: benfell

One of the topics I avoided in my dissertation work is fascism. There are two main reasons for this. First, the term is so ill-defined that at times, especially in the run-up to the election last year, I've even gone so far as to suggest the term should not be used. Sara Robinson notes that "[t]he word has been bandied about by so many people so wrongly for so long that, as [Robert] Paxton points out, 'Everybody is somebody else's fascist.'"1 She relies on Paxton's definition, writing that she

always like[s] to start these conversations by revisiting Paxton's essential definition of the term:

"Fascism is a system of political authority and social order intended to reinforce the unity, energy, and purity of communities in which liberal democracy stands accused of producing division and decline."

Elsewhere, he refines this further 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."

Jonah Goldberg aside, that's a basic definition most legitimate scholars in the field can agree on, and the one I'll be referring to here.2

Second, the available scholarly definitions are cumbersome. One can almost wrap one's mind around Paxton's definition, but consider Laurence Britt's list of signs of fascism based on his analysis of "the following regimes: Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, Papadopoulos’s Greece, Pinochet’s Chile, and Suharto’s Indonesia"3:

  1. Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism.
  2. Disdain for the importance of human rights.
  3. Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause.
  4. The supremacy of the military/avid militarism.
  5. Rampant sexism.
  6. A controlled mass media.
  7. Obsession with national security.
  8. Religion and ruling elite tied together.
  9. Power of corporations protected.
  10. Power of labor suppressed or eliminated.
  11. Disdain and suppression of intellectuals and the arts.
  12. Obsession with crime and punishment.
  13. Rampant cronyism and corruption.
  14. Fraudulent elections.4

In her essay, Robinson continues with a list of five stages, also from Paxton, in the development of fascism, and concludes that "[w]e've arrived. We [the United States] are now parked on the exact spot where our best experts tell us full-blown fascism is born."5

In 2014 (Robinson wrote in 2009), I thought we were further along and concluded,

We cannot say that all of Britt’s criteri[a] are fully met. As a historian pointing to several fascist precedents (not just Italy and Germany), Britt himself does not say how many must be met for a system to be judged ‘fascist,’6 but we have seen interplay among the criteria that suggests a systemic effect, and I have been analyzing these criteria reductively, an approach which is of limited value where complexity theory applies. What emerges may be fascist or it may be something else, but it probably is fascist when we account for all the actors on the scene.7

It's been a few years. And with Donald Trump as president, talk on the Left of fascism that had died down during Barack Obama's presidency has returned and indeed it's hard to see how Trump's administration fails to meet any of Paxton's or Britt's tests. I'll leave it to Robinson to revisit her article (I'm pretty sure she's done this at least once since). What I want to do is break this horribly complex definition down to something simpler. Something that is actually useful:

Fascism is an ideology that seeks to institutionalize structural and physical violence against some or many subaltern groups on the grounds of bigotry and to increase its own public support through the exploitation of such violence and bigotry. This bigotry may take several forms including nationalism, scapegoating, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. To the extent that it succeeds, it acts as a self-reinforcing feedback as public support enables further and more extreme violence.

This definition is largely consistent with Paxton's, but invites a systems theory approach and emphasizes a broad understanding of violence that is in fact the reason to fear fascism and in turn relies on David Barash and Charles Webel's definition of structural violence, which I'll return to. Further, it more clearly allows for non-state (but aspiring state) actors to be fascists. I want first to defend this definition of fascism.

To be useful, a word's definition should not be excessively broad or too narrow. Too much breadth and you descend into hopeless imprecision and ambiguity. Not enough breadth and you might critically wonder what the definition is attempting to exclude, and why, and this is what catches my eye about Britt's 14-point list. Let's take Britt's points one by one. Notice how in nearly every case, my analysis involves a recurring theme of power or allegedly "legitimate" violence, especially in the United States. I don't know what Britt was excluding or why. But in the grand tradition of seeking a general law to explain a phenomenon, I believe we can drop a few of these exclusions.

  1. "Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism."8 I believe I will fairly cover "powerful and continuing expressions" when I return to the term structural violence. That leaves us with nationalism, most probably as a form of bigotry, but (to be) empowered by the "legitimate violence" (including structural violence) of the state.

  2. "Disdain for the importance of human rights."9 In an authoritarian system of social organization (such as has predominated since the Neolithic), human rights are essential to protect individuals and groups from a user of "legitimate force," whether that be the alleged majority-rule (I almost wrote 'majority-fool') of Western so-called democracies or an autocrat. I will return to this below in my discussion of structural violence.

  3. "Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause."10 This is what distinguishes prejudice from bigotry: Where one who is merely prejudiced has not even considered his assumptions about other groups, a bigot is aware of and may even be chauvinistic about his or her attitudes toward one or more other groups. S/he will offer justifications for those attitudes even if only to stammer out something like "that's just how it is," which bizarrely seems to assume that no improvement is possible (or, more likely, desirable) in the human condition. Britt's usage represents the next step, in which we no longer merely justify social inequality, but we blame stigmatized groups for our problems. See number 1, above. This is one of those "powerful and continuing expressions," again, yes, (to be) empowered by the "legitimate violence" (including structural violence) of the state.

  4. "The supremacy of the military/avid militarism."11 We might often think of the military as being to protect "us" from the "foreign" "them." But I need only think of the Kent State shootings, in which National Guard troops fired on unarmed college students, or of the Ferguson protests, where a population mourning and protesting a police slaying of it's youth faced off against a very, very heavily militarized police force, to realize that that "foreign" "them" might really include a very domestic most of us, or, perhaps more ominously, some of us. And with any of these interpretations, the notion of the state as the sole legitimate user of violence makes most of the rest of us that "them" and then it doesn't matter whether we are foreign or domestic, whether we are fighting for our own elites or we are on the other side or we are civilians (potential 'collateral damage') or we are retired (or discharged) from military life (more potential 'collateral damage'). Whether individually or in groups, our lives exist for the state. It may sacrifice us at will and at any time. It may even then praise and celebrate us for our 'heroism.'

  5. "Rampant sexism."12 At first blush, given the many axes of kyriarchy, I recoiled from singling out sex. But no, I think Britt is basically right. Gender cuts across nearly every one of those axes such that a small majority identify as female and are therefore subordinate in a topic so rich (let's start with wartime rapes, shall we?) I don't even want to begin to take this on here (but see number 8, below).

    There is one obvious quibble: How widespread or intense must an event (here, sexism) be to be 'rampant?' But I'm a qualitative researcher so you'll have to ask somebody else. Or you can sit there and watch my Cheshire Cat grin.

  6. "A controlled mass media."13 What? Really? So somebody here needs to start by reading J. Herbert Altschull, Agents of Power: The Media and Public Policy, 2nd ed. (White Plains, NY: Longman, 1995). (Though if you can get your hands on a first edition, it's very different, and I think in some—not all—ways better.) Altschull explains how mainstream journalists are always in some way complicit with elites, influenced in part through ideology including that great big huge part about what the proper relationship between the state and press should be and a great big huge unconscious part about social reproduction, in which system-supporting myths (such as about 'democracy' and capitalism) are promulgated; and in part through practical concerns about the potential for government retaliation in radio spectrum licensing, utility access, postage costs (and subsidies), and taxes and tax breaks. The bottom line is in the title of Altschull's book, that journalists are at least to some degree Agents of Power, wherever they are in whatever political system.14

    There is much more, including questions as elementary as which reporters can gain access to ask questions—will it be the ones who throw fast balls (difficult or embarassing questions) or the ones who lob softballs (easy, non-threatening questions)? Muckrakers or, to borrow Eric Boehlert's title, Lapdogs?15 My mother tells me that during her relatively brief time reporting in Washington, D.C., she learned (I do not know whether it was the "hard way") that a reporter who pisses off a politician might not even be able to get calendar information from that politician's office, making follow-up stories harder, but even on other issues, just making that reporter's life harder.

    I'm writing this one, "[a] controlled mass media,"16 off as tautological.

  7. "Obsession with national security."17 For me, this point overlaps number 4, above, "[t]the supremacy of the military/avid militarism."18 But while the so-often alleged as to become meaningless motivation, 'protecting the nation,' is always the same, the military evokes pride in uniform, valor, loyalty, and the list goes on. Here is ready-made patriotic propaganda.

    We just can't say that about "national security," which is invoked to rationalize bombing, invading, and raiding countries thousands of miles away that pose no conceivable threat to the United States; that carries connotations of spying—and therefore, really, disloyalty; and that brings us the theater of commercial airport security.19 Instead, it inspires fear and loathing. Some of that spying is domestic, invading the privacy of millions of people.20 And I remember,

    Going through security at O’Hare airport, I flashed on an image of Japanese-Americans waiting in line on the way to the internment camps during World War II. People with the belongings they could carry, waiting in long lines controlled by uniformed personnel. I was thinking of the uncertainty—the fear—in their faces as they comply with a power over which they have no influence. Of course, my circumstances are completely different. Japanese-Americans had been forced to essentially abandon their belongings to go to concentration camps.21 I am headed home following a conference I have distinctly mixed feelings about.22
  8. "Religion and ruling elite tied together."23 In the United States, separation between church and state is continually contested, with some conservative Christian factions even denying that the founders intended this bedrock principle and with many more asserting in various ways that others' freedom from or of religion infringes on their own religious practice. Battles over textbooks and the teaching of, for example, evolution—alleged blasphemy—reflect deeply-held views about information contradicting the Christian Bible.

    But as I discuss in my dissertation, history shows that both the emergence of the social conservative movement in modern form and a crackdown on abortion at least nearly coincides with 1) a massive wave of immigration that brought more darker-skinned, non-English speaking, Catholic southern and eastern Europeans and the passage of Reconstruction-era constitutional amendments, all threatening to dilute white (male) hegemony; and 2) an increase in the control middle- and upper-class white women began to exercise over their fertility that threatened to reduce a population already allegedly being 'diluted.' The words 'race suicide' appear in this context. In the modern day, the desires to ban sexuality education, contraception, and abortion are inescapably attempts to assert control over reproduction (claiming it for 'God'), and thus control over women's bodies.24 I can't say whether social conservatives are in fact racist, though some certainly are. I also can't say that the present-day campaigns against sex ed, contraception, and abortion are in fact rooted in racism. I can't show cause and effect. The circumstantial evidence, however, seems damning.

  9. "Power of corporations protected."25 If there is one thing that is particularly interesting about Britt's definition, it is that he transgresses the division between political and economic power. This makes sense. I have, on numerous occasions, pointed to Max Weber's explanation that any system of exchange (he said capitalism, but his logic holds more broadly) privileges whomever has the greater ability to say no, that is, to decline a potential deal. Further, the benefits and handicaps deriving from each transaction (or the failure to negotiate a transaction) are cumulative: The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, until, as Weber puts it, the poor are left with "nothing to offer but their labor or the resulting products, and who are compelled to get rid of these products in order to subsist at all.26

    There are numerous defenses of this state of affairs, which I will leave for another time. Our focus here lies in an effect which possibly cannot be appreciated unless one has been particularly vulnerable. In essence, imagine I am able to offer you a job. Rather than offer you a living wage, however—and this is still much, much more than many employers do—I offer you housing. What this offer means is that, if I fire you, you will have lost not only your job but your home. You become entirely dependent upon me, and like any good capitalist, I thrive on a desperate work force that won't challenge me for higher pay or better conditions.27 (I personally witnessed and, while I was never as vulnerable as many there, experienced this dynamic in my time at Lupin.28) Breaching the boundaries between economic and political power does something like this on a society-wide scale. The power in such a society, a neoliberal society, takes on a totalitarian cast because so much is consolidated into relatively few hands and this, in itself, has the effect of marginalizing even further the general population. This phenomenon accounts for much of the present political situation in the U.S.

  10. "Power of labor suppressed or eliminated."29 This amplifies the effects in the preceding point (see number 9, above).

  11. "Disdain and suppression of intellectuals and the arts."30 There is a difference between experiencing a trauma and being able to articulate and explain it. It is the latter that scholars, artists, musicians, and poets may specialize in and, as such, they may pose a threat to existing power relationships. This happened in the reliably anti-intellectual United States especially in the 1960s and 1970s, leading to a neoconservative backlash31 that arguably (and ironically32) facilitated Trump's rise.

  12. "Obsession with crime and punishment."33 This is imprecise because in truth, in the U.S., we are not so much obsessed with crime and punishment generally as we are with common crime and retribution for that crime in a profoundly flawed criminal injustice system. We largely exclude more pervasive and more destructive white collar crime, protecting our elites and corporate power (see number 9, above).34 We instead scapegoat the 'undeserving' poor as criminals to be feared, and direct the power of the state (structural violence) to retribution against the poor whether inside or outside the criminal justice system35 even as deprivation accounts for much so-called 'common' crime.36

  13. "Rampant cronyism and corruption."37 This is simply a sign of the breaching of the boundary between political and economic power that I touched on in number 9, above.

  14. "Fraudulent elections."38 even as deprivation accounts for much so-called 'common' crime.39 but perhaps most fundamentally, the power of an individual vote is so diluted in mass society that it can only offer the illusion, not the reality, of having an impact. So-called 'democracy' thus masks the preservation of elite positions.

In nearly every one of Britt's signs, we see the dynamic of effectively unchecked sovereign power with a right of 'legitimate' violence. This power is directed at the entire population and especially at stigmatized (scapegoated) groups. As with the poor,40 the differential treatment between a general population (sanctified as "us") and stigmatized groups serves to hold those groups ("them") out both as objects of fear and loathing and as examples of what 'good people' ("us" again) should strive not to be, and thus serves to encourage conformity. Everyone in the general population, but especially stigmatized groups, are subject to physical (via police power) or structural violence, which Barash and Webel describe:

Structural violence usually has the effect of denying people important rights, such as economic well-being; social, political, and sexual equality; a sense of personal fulfillment and self-worth; and so on. When people starve to death, or even go hungry, a kind of violence is taking place. Similarly, when humans suffer from diseases that are preventable, when they are denied decent education, affordable housing, opportunities to work, play, raise a family, and freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, a kind of violence is occurring, even if no bullets are shot or clubs wielded. A society commits violence against its members when it forcibly stunts their development and undermines their well-being, whether because of religion, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual preference, or some other social reason. Structural violence is a serious form of social oppression. And it is regrettably widespread and often unacknowledged.41

At first blush, we might be inclined to dismiss Barash and Webel's notion of rights as unduly expansive. But we should also note that the United States has failed to ratify several important human rights treaties42 and even with the parameters of the treaties it has ratified, its performance, as evaluated by the United Nations, can only be described as dismal.43 This situation is fully normalized within the United States and thus it is a common U.S. perspective on human rights that is blinkered rather than any scholarly perspective calling for a more expansive view.44 Further, we might observe that the ninth amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects unenumerated rights, which should give force to broader understandings. Instead, we hold such rights in disdain (see number 2, above).

So in doubting the definition I offer, one might need to show first, how it materially and erroneously differs from Paxton's; and, more importantly, second, why certain manifestations of what I accept as fascism should in fact be excluded. Given the previously ill-defined condition of the term, I think this will be difficult.

Finally, in this light, we can understand that the only way to exclude the U.S. from the definition of fascism is to attempt to argue in degrees, such as that perhaps Nazi Germany exterminated Jews more rapidly and systematically than European colonists exterminated American Indians. But fascism is an ideology and ideologies do not submit to quantitative evaluation. Ideologies are about ideas, accepted as true, and for which challenge is discouraged. So yes, the U.S. is fascist and has been so for the entirety of its existence.